Chapter 22 — In Her Image
“By tattoo, dye, silicone, or magic, the outer self is a canvas to be filled by your whims without limit. The inner soul is a demanding demon of desires forever beyond your control. Neither defines you. Your true identity lies somewhere in between.”
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
Wait… Wait… okay, it’s clear. Go.
Natalie hesitated, even while she screamed at her legs to move. The sun had already gone down and the city was dark again. Every shadow seemed to leer up at her. Every street was full of monsters waiting to leap out and devour her. Every person was watching her, following her, biding their time until they could steal her away and take her into the black vans where they’d do horrible experiments on her. All because she once read a piece of paper she found in the woods.
There’s no one. The street is totally empty. You have to go. You can’t just stay here.
She saw it in her head, as clear as day. Saw the little girl step out of the shadows and be set upon by faceless golems, or men in black suits, or even just the featureless mass of random people. They surrounded her and fell upon her in a huge mass, and she couldn’t fight back. She couldn’t escape.
You’re not that little girl anymore.
Natalie opened her eyes and looked down at her hands, clenched in two tight fists.
Define who you are.
A horn blared the moment her foot hit the pavement. Natalie twisted around in mid-leap, but her momentum was already carrying her into the street. A delivery truck bore down on her, barely visible through the harsh headlights flooding the street.
She reacted without thinking. A wall of force expanded outward from her outstretched palm. With a sickening crunch of metal, the car slammed into an invisible wall. Natalie kept running while an alarm blared behind her, filling up the street with noise. She twisted around slightly, trying to see if the driver was okay, but she couldn’t tell—and she couldn’t stop moving.
Get out of here. Go. Now.
It didn’t matter anymore if she was seen. They would all know who she was in only a few days. Natalie started tapping into the flame of magic flickering inside her chest, so close to her heart. She felt like it was the only thing keeping her warm. Each step became a leap forward as she bounded down the street, practically flying past the few people on the sidewalk. They turned as she leapt past, watching her flick by in a blur of motion, but all they could see was someone in a forest green army jacket, jeans and a thick hood. Nothing identifiable, or so she hoped.
You have to hide, and you can’t do that if anyone follows you there. Remember what Boris taught you.
Natalie felt like the voice keeping her company and reminding her what to do was someone else entirely. It was so much louder today. Maybe it was Gwen’s voice, somehow, projected across the forests and cities to keep her safe. Or maybe it was Rachel, giving her a plan and a mission to follow.
Or maybe it’s her. The huntress. Teaching me.
Natalie stopped to catch her breath at the corner of the next street, where she could sit beside a short staircase out of sight. That’s just silly. She’s not real. Elves aren’t real either. But… magic is real, and I bet they didn’t know that. So maybe she isn’t so imaginary after all.
Her hand moved to her bag, about to open it and fish out the card.
Natalie shook her head. No time. She got back up and started moving again. She couldn’t risk being found. There wasn’t any time to waste.
She pulled out her phone while she kept moving. To her dismay, there still wasn’t a single response from anyone on the website. Cinza and her people were totally silent. Hailey, too, but that didn’t surprise her anymore. Hailey seemed so preoccupied with her own stuff lately. Probably didn’t want to talk to a little kid anymore… Boris and Dan hadn’t been online since they were on TV, but she’d heard they were okay. She missed Hector, but he barely ever showed up on the website. He wasn’t the type to talk online.
Even worse, she hadn’t gotten anything new from her friends. Mitch, Tyler and Steven were presumably still keeping up the charade at Steven’s place. Kelsey had texted her back, but since she was still trapped in the back of Steven’s closet, she didn’t have anything new for her. Mostly just confused reactions to the news, intermixed with complaints about some game she was playing while she was waiting around bored.
The news… There’s gonna be a book about us. About everything that happened.
About me and my dad.
Natalie knew how it was going to go. She was the daughter of the traitor. She’d be infamous for that, especially since she’d fought back. They were on opposite sides of the story. Not for the first time, she wondered what might have happened if she’d just told him about magic. Rachel hadn’t outright told her not to, but she hadn’t seemed okay with it either.
Natalie hadn’t really wanted to tell him either. Sometimes, her dad was weirdly strict on things. Like when they’d first moved to Rallsburg and he hadn’t let her out of his sight, ever. She was a lot smaller back then, but it lasted for years. After he’d finally let her go do things on her own, she still had to check in constantly, and he wouldn’t let her talk to anyone. It was months before she finally got caught talking to Hector, and her dad grounded her for a month for it.
In the end, though, he’d relented and let her have the run of the town, and even the forest around it, just so long as she was home for meals and got all her homework done. So maybe he would have been okay with magic too. Maybe he wouldn’t have talked to Omega instead. Maybe he wouldn’t have… killed so many people.
And maybe I wouldn’t have killed anyone either. What does that make me?
Their faces were still in her head. The furious crowd of people in Rallsburg. The guys in the abandoned warehouse in Seattle.
I didn’t want to. They made me do it.
But she still did it. She killed them.
Natalie got up and kept running. She leapt straight over the entire street, flinging herself high into the air with magic as cars whipped by underneath. A few passerbys gawked at her. Landing was a bit harder, and she stumbled as she touched down, but she kept running. Her hood didn’t slip an inch from her head as she blitzed down the next street, and the one after that.
A siren kicked up in the distance. For a brief panicked moment, Natalie thought it was coming for her—but it was getting quieter. Nothing related to her. Just another loud, inescapable part of the city she hated so much.
She was alone again, but she wasn’t going to fall into the same trap as last time. She knew where she was, and she still had all her things. Nothing like that would ever happen to her again.
Don’t think about him. Don’t.
Natalie nearly plowed over an old man as she hurtled around a corner. He shouted something rude as she passed, and she mumbled an apology. She doubted he actually heard it, but it made her feel a bit better. But she was getting tired. She’d been running non-stop, and while magic was staving off exhaustion by helping her move at top speed, and she was in pretty good shape, Natalie hadn’t eaten anything since the package of cookies she’d won back at Steven’s place. She needed food.
A convenience store seemed to pop into existence right in front of her. Without thinking twice, Natalie made a beeline for it. Another loud horn and another car that nearly slammed into her, but she threw herself into the air and out of the way, landing on the sidewalk and falling to the ground.
A hoodie-clad teenager leaned against the wall next to the door. Something like a cigarette fell from his open mouth. He rubbed at his bloodshot eyes, blinking heavily. Natalie pulled her hood back on tight and hurried inside, before he could decide if she was real or not.
Something I wanna know myself, sometimes…
Natalie’s knees were feeling a bit knocked about. She’d landed pretty hard that time, although at least she hadn’t had to hit the car like before. If that other driver was hurt…
I can’t think about them right now. I didn’t mean to, but I gotta keep moving.
She picked up a few bags of chips, donuts, anything that looked appetizing. Remembering the looks she’d gotten last time, Natalie pulled out her cash and counted out the right amount out of sight of the counter. The guy from outside was standing by the counter as she came back, but he didn’t seem to be waiting for her or anything, just buying a bag of chips for himself. She waited until he was gone, then hurried up and dumped her entire haul on the countertop.
She still got an odd look from the cashier, and not just the usual unsettling glance at the scar. Is it because I’m young? Or because I’m buying so much stuff?
Or does he know who I am?
The moment he handed over the receipt, Natalie gathered everything up in her arms and fled. One precarious bag fell off as she left the store, but she caught it with a quick spell and floated it right back into her arms again. As soon as she was out of sight, she dumped most of the snacks into her bag, keeping a granola bar to chew through as she walked. Her legs were starting to get tired, and her sides were cramping from running.
It’s only two blocks away. You shouldn’t have stopped. Keep moving.
You’ll be safe there.
Natalie wasn’t so sure about that, but she really didn’t want to be on the street anymore, and it was the only place she could think of. Somewhere she knew was totally empty, that definitely wasn’t in any of the forbidden parts of the city, and with just enough familiarity for her to feel comfortable. Even if she’d never been there.
It was a single door in a row of identical condominiums, buried inside an enclosed city block on a raised section of pavement. Cars lined the place, and a few people were walking nearby to their own condo. Natalie wasn’t really sure what the difference between that and an apartment was, but it didn’t really matter much for the moment. She needed to figure out which one was his, and how to get in.
A nameplate adorned the side of each door.
Well, that was easy. She started down the row, avoiding the gaze of a passing couple heading out to dinner, hand-in-hand and standing close together. Natalie watched them walk away, all the way out to the car waiting for them down by the sidewalk. She imagined they were going out to a nice dinner, just the two of them, maybe with candles and silk tablecloths and a jazz band playing in the background.
She turned back to the wall of doors again, hurrying down the row. It wasn’t on any of the first floor of doors. She had to go up. On the second floor, a balcony with another row of doors identical to the first, she finally found the small bronze engraving she was looking for.
There was a front window, with curtains drawn so she couldn’t see anything inside. The door had a brass knocker right in the center, but it wouldn’t really do her any good since no one was inside to answer. Natalie looked under the mat and the little rabbit statue by the door for a key, but she wasn’t that lucky.
Never lucky, really… I’m sorry, Quinn.
Reluctantly, she felt out the door from the opposite side with her mind, trying to find the lock. She didn’t want to break in, but it was the only way. After a few tries, Natalie finally found something that felt about the right shape. She twisted it around, and heard a satisfying click as the lock snapped open.
The door swung wide. Natalie took a nervous step in, closing the door behind her carefully. She’d never been to his house before. The address was right there on his profile, since they were friends, and it was so close to the school that she could have walked there any day—but she’d always been a bit reluctant to. Especially now that they were… something else.
Don’t think about it. Focus on what’s going on now. The secret’s out. You need to stay hidden.
Except… she was hidden. No one would be in this house for days. She could finally, finally lay down and relax for the first time all day.
Kelsey: Jenny your scaring me
Jenny: im ok now
Kelsey: What happened??? D:
Jenny: couldnt get into my house
Kelsey: Is that it? o.o
Kelsey: So what did you do?
Jenny: well i uhh
Jenny: i kinda broke into quinns house
Kelsey: For real!?
Jenny: im sitting on his couch right now
Jenny: his place is nice
Kelsey: I bet it is 😛
Jenny: dont plz
Kelsey: Dont what?
Jenny: im really scared right now
Kelsey: Whats wrong? D:
Jenny: i think something bad is about to happen
Jenny: and i cant get anyone to ansswer me
Jenny: youre the only one whos texting me back
Kelsey: Not even Mitch/Tyler???
Jenny: well theyre stuck with mrs chau arent they?
Kelsey: No… they went home. I told you that remember?
Jenny: sorry i forgot
Kelsey: What about Quinn?
Jenny: hes probably with his family…
Jenny: i didnt want to bother him…
Kelsey: Jenny -_-
Kelsey: Hed totally wanna be bothered by you
Jenny: even all my old friends arent answering
Kelsey: Maybe theyre all busy?
Jenny: with whats going on i guess that makes sense
Jenny: but i need help
Kelsey: What do you mean whats going on? 😮
Kelsey: Come on, tell me!
Jenny: you saw the news right
Kelsey: Something about magic???
Kelsey: That’s about you! :O
Jenny: ya… and thats bad
Jenny: because people dont like it
Kelsey: I think its pretty cool
Jenny: thast because youre cool
Jenny: trust me
Kelsey: Maybe youll be wrong
Jenny: sorry, something is beeping
Kelsey: Something like what? 😮
Jenny: little box on the wall. quiet but its super annoying
Jenny: says “Delkiph Systems”
Kelsey: Oh shit D:
Kelsey: That’s a security thing
Kelsey: We have that here too
Kelsey: You gotta put in a code when you come in or the alarm goes off
Jenny: i dont know the code!
Kelsey: It should have gone off by now o.o
Kelsey: Maybe youre okay?
Kelsey: Jenny??? D:
Kelsey: Are you okay??
Natalie could feel her phone buzzing in her jacket pocket. Every time it lit up again, she stiffened up in fear. If they heard it…
Three men had shown up only moments after Kelsey’s text. They burst through the front door with tasers, something like the one her dad once had. They were going through the whole place, trying to find the intruder.
Trying to find me. What do I do?
She was under the couch, pressed up against the wall. She barely fit, but she managed to squeeze in just as the first shadow passed over the curtains before the door flew open. The men were talking to each other, clearing rooms with professional efficiency. It sounded a lot like someone else she once knew. The guy with the broken arm back in Rallsburg, the military guy. She couldn’t remember his name though. Some kind of animal, like a nickname or something.
If they look under here… Natalie didn’t want to hurt them. She was pretty confident she could stop the little taser cables before they got to her, and she could definitely take on just three guys… but then she’d have to run again.
Very slowly, Natalie inched her hand into her jacket pocket, fumbling for the volume buttons. She shifted just an inch too far. The phone thumped onto the floor.
She waited, frozen in place.
No response. None of the men were in the living room. Natalie let out the shallow breath she’d been holding in, and picked up her phone an instant before it buzzed again. She couldn’t read it, but she could guess that it was yet another panicked text from Kelsey. She clicked the volume all the way down to silent, and breathed a sigh of relief as the screen lit up again, but without a vibration this time.
Not two seconds later, heavy footsteps returned to the living room.
”Still gotta follow procedure. You know the rules.”
”Don’t worry. The office takes care of of the rest. All you gotta do is file your report.”
Three pairs of boots left, the same three pairs that came in. They tapped out a sequence on the quietly beeping alarm box, then the door clicked shut.
Natalie was alone once again, but finally, she felt a real sense of relief. They hadn’t found her.
She was safe.
The first thing she did to celebrate was eat. All her food was still intact, thanks to her bag. She wondered if it would keep things totally fresh too, and decided to leave a package of doughnuts inside just to test it out. The real problem was that she was starving, and she didn’t just want to have snacks for dinner.
Quinn’s family had a well-stocked kitchen, but Natalie didn’t want to steal from them. She wasn’t supposed to be there, and while she felt like he’d probably be okay with it, she was too nervous to ask. Natalie wasn’t a thief, so she had to find another way to get a real meal.
What she did have was a phone, piled bundles of cash, and a stack of prepaid debit cards she’d bought for emergencies—and so she could pay in shops without getting as many weird looks as the cash did. After all, the cards didn’t show anyone how much she had on her. More importantly, they could be used online, and she was in the middle of Seattle. She could finally take advantage of something revolutionary, which hadn’t existed in her hometown and which she couldn’t ever use at the Laushire house.
Natalie could order delivery.
She made sure it was safe first. The guard had typed in the code from an angle she could see pretty well. Natalie opened the door a crack to test it, and the box began to beep. She typed in the code, as quick as she could, and it displayed a reassuring “Disarmed” message. Still, Natalie went back to hiding for a good half-hour again, just to be extra careful. When no one showed up, she felt reasonably assured she could go in and out without setting off another alarm.
Which meant only one thing: pizza time.
Natalie wasn’t about to risk another meeting with a total stranger. She put in her order with specific instructions on the site. While she waited, she texted back and forth with Kelsey, who had finally managed to escape Steven’s house and gone home for the night. Kelsey was still annoyingly curious about Natalie’s big secret, but she hadn’t seemed to make the connection yet to the breaking news.
Natalie wondered if she should just tell them—tell them she was from Rallsburg, who she was, everything. It would make her life so much simpler, and it wasn’t like they were keeping the big magic secret anymore. That ship had sailed.
Will you tell them everything? What he did? What you did?
She shivered. Quinn’s house was pretty cold. It was November. Did she dare try to figure out how to turn on the heat?
The door knocker interrupted her thoughts. She waited, watching the silhouette through the curtains as the delivery guy set down the pizza and walked away. As soon as he’d disappeared into the stairwell, Natalie opened the door and grabbed it, closing it just as quickly.
She did end up using the family’s dishes, whispering an apology under her breath as she did. She cleaned them afterward, and left them to dry in the little rack next to the sink. She hoped they wouldn’t mind—or even notice, if she could manage it. That was her goal. Stay as long as she had to, but be out before Sunday, when the Kincaids were supposed to come home from San Diego.
Her phone lit up again on the table, and Natalie got back into a texting back-and-forth with Kelsey, arguing about whether or not they should hang out in Quinn’s house since it was totally open for the weekend. Kelsey had practice Saturday morning, but she was free the rest of the day. Natalie wasn’t so sure, but she left the idea on the table.
More than anything, she just wanted to relax. Her heart was still racing after the mad dash through the city and the impromptu hide-and-seek with the security guys. Between the pizza and the bottle of soda that came with it, though, Natalie was finally returning to some semblance of calm.
Which, of course, made it all the more clear just how quiet and empty Quinn’s place felt.
Sure, it was obviously lived-in. She spent a long time just wandering through the main room, looking at pictures hanging on the walls of his family, his friends. There was a whole corner dedicated to photos of the rest of the Glasses Gang (almost invariably playing games of some kind, either Conquest, video games or something else). Other photos, of Quinn’s parents with other people. Family friends, she guessed.
Her dad hadn’t had any friends. Not really. She made friends with a whole bunch of people in Rallsburg, from Rachel to Hector and Jackie, or even some of the college kids every year when they came back to school. She wasn’t exactly close to most of them (and a lot of the college students never even learned her name), but she felt like she was a friendly person.
He wasn’t. The only person she ever saw her dad hang out with was Robert, the big lumberjack and hunter. Natalie didn’t like him, though a lot of the town did. He was always chasing her off his land, or grumbling and shouting about something. Robert was a complainer. She didn’t really get why her dad hung out with him, but she’d never asked. She didn’t get their friendship, but she was happy her dad had at least found someone to talk to in town.
Natalie wondered if it started before or after they’d decided to help Omega.
Robert. He wanted to kill me too, probably. That look he gave me in the woods after the riot… Him and Omega… If my dad knew, he would have stopped them. But Dad was too busy hurting other people…
She pulled a book out of her bag and returned to the couch, intending to dive into it and forget about everything for a while. From the last time she checked, nothing else was happening yet. No one was answering her except Kelsey, who had returned to her favorite pastime of needling Natalie about Quinn, so she was getting ignored for a while.
The book just didn’t work. Natalie put it back and sifted around for another one. Again, she just couldn’t bring herself to focus on the words. Even her favorite, a story about a lost girl who helped overthrow an evil kingdom, couldn’t keep her attention. Natalie was too restless. She felt like she needed to do something.
You’re safe, but as soon as you go back out there, you’ll be in danger again.
Natalie dug out her blanket—not the thick dark outdoor one, but the warm and fuzzy pink indoor blanket. She curled up at the end of the couch, plugged in her headphones and closed her eyes, trying to bob along to some music. Anything to occupy her mind.
You need to prepare yourself. If you get caught like that again, you won’t get a second chance.
She wondered what music Quinn liked. They’d never really talked about music much. Natalie was pretty open to most stuff, except for the really heavy music. It gave her a headache just to listen to it. She loved the violin and the flute more than anything. A few times, she’d listened in on Cinza’s nightly ritual back home. She had never shown her face to them, but if she happened to be wandering through the woods nearby at the time with Gwen or Scrappy, she liked hearing Rufus play their songs on his flute.
You can’t rely on other people anymore. No one was there to save you. The world is changing.
You have to fight.
”Stop it,” she murmured, closing her eyes tighter.
Do you remember?
You can’t let that happen ever again.
”I could have stopped him.”
”You’re not real,” Natalie muttered. She picked up her phone and turned the music up, trying to drown it out.
You already talk to animals. Why not a voice in your head?
”Animals are real, and they don’t talk.”
They aren’t reliable. They won’t always be there for you. You have to help yourself.
”Stop it,” she repeated.
You know who I am.
”You’re a card from a game.”
I’m you, Natalie. And you can be me, if you want. You have that in you.
”…What’s that supposed to mean?”
You’ve seen Hailey change. More than once. You even copied some of it. What if you could do the same? Make yourself stronger, faster. Get rid of your scars. You could be me. Or just the parts of me you like.
Natalie shook her head. “This is crazy. I’m going crazy.”
So is the rest of the world.
You know how.
”But it’s dangerous. Jessica—”
You’re stronger than she is.
”I don’t think I am…” she said doubtfully.
Look at me.
Natalie hesitated, but she opened her eyes. She picked the card out of the bag and held it up, looking at the fierce, beautiful woman on the card. Pretending that it was her face there, and not the angular features of the character. Then, a step further, imagining that she was in that enchanted land—that Natalie was the Huntress who lived a solitary life wandering the tree-cities of her queendom, never staying in one place for too long, but always welcomed. Always home, no matter where she went in her forest.
I was like you once.
I grew up poor. I was alone. I had to fight—to kill. They found me. I survived, and I eventually took my place in the natural order, but the scars never went away.
”You don’t have any scars.”
Neither do you, if you wish it so.
”I don’t know how to do that.”
The scars only show if you believe them.
Natalie started to shake her head again, thinking it ridiculous—but then again she was talking to a playing card. She picked up her phone, switching the camera around to look at her face—at the twisting scar that circled her left cheek, a dark angry line that refused to fade. If anything, it had grown a little with the rest of her body. She closed her eyes for a moment, and tried to believe that they would just disappear.
When she opened her eyes, her face was smooth and clear.
You are more powerful than you know, just as I was.
”But I didn’t do anything.”
But you can. Take up your rightful place, like I did.
”Wait…” Natalie glanced back at the card. “You didn’t have a rightful place. You aren’t a queen or a noble or anything.” She looked around, and the entire room was a black, empty void. “That was a different story.”
Natalie’s eyes flew open. Her phone said it was past eleven. The pizza box was still sitting on the little table in front of the couch, quite cold. She hadn’t ever taken out her blanket, and she was curled up tight with a pillow as a makeshift cover.
The scars were still there.
”What a weird dream,” she muttered.
Despite the hour, Natalie was feeling restless again. The dream had been so vivid, and while that wasn’t really new for her, remembering the whole thing was unusual. She felt like it was trying to tell her something.
She had no idea how to get rid of the scars, of course. She’d tried once when cleaning under the bandage, trying to use the description she read online about how skin healed to seal up the area. After a few particularly sharp spikes of pain, she’d given up, fearing even worse consequences.
But there’s other things I could do… I need to be stronger, and not just on a whim. If I get surprised or knocked out like in the warehouse, I can’t do magic. What if…
Visions of Jessica danced through her head, along with the endless warnings from Rachel and Cinza about ritual magic.
They never expected anything like this, though…
Natalie knew how to do a ritual. Well, she was pretty sure. She’d seen the big one to take down Omega, of course, and she’d spied on a few in town when she could. She even had all the ingredients in her bag, including the chalk dust and plenty of gemstones of all sorts.
And it cleans itself up, too…
Natalie started going through the home, which wasn’t very large. In her head, she insisted she was just looking for a better place to sleep. After all, the couch was visible from the window, and it really wasn’t very comfortable for sleeping—the armrest was too hard, and her pillow didn’t fit on it very well.
She found Quinn’s parents room first, followed by a bathroom and then what had to be Quinn’s room. Natalie closed the door quick as soon as she saw his computer and his bed. The last door was another bedroom, but Natalie assumed it was a guest room or something. It had almost no decoration, the closet was empty, and the bedside table just had a couple books and a lamp. Still, the bed looked nice. Natalie laid down on top of it, and—while it couldn’t live up to the beds in the Laushire house—in that moment, it was the softest bed she’d ever touched.
She decided to live out of that room for the next couple of days. It was the least offensive spot she could think of. But before any of that, she had an experiment to do.
Natalie wanted to be ready, just like she’d been told.
”That was a dream,” she muttered aloud, as she pushed the bed over to the side of the room. It stood on little felt pads, so it didn’t damage the wood floor—something Natalie checked in a panic when she realized she might be inadvertently ruining Quinn’s house.
And now I’m talking to myself too… It’s just because I’m lonely. That’s all.
From her purse she pulled out a sealed plastic bag of chalk dust, along with two little red agates. She sprinkled the chalk in a circle on the floor, then set the agates at opposite ends. Natalie wasn’t sure why she’d picked agates exactly, but it seemed right. They always seemed to work well whenever she did this type of spell normally.
I should really go learn all the different gemstones. Maybe there’s a guide online or something.
She laughed aloud. Of course there wasn’t a guide. Magic wasn’t supposed to exist.
”Which means there’s no one to tell me how to do this either…” she murmured aloud, losing her mirth. “Sorry if I ruin your guest room, Quinn.”
She couldn’t wait anymore though. She’d stalled long enough, heard all the warnings, seen the results when things didn’t go as planned. As best she could tell, most of the time it turned out okay. Natalie felt like she was ready. She wanted to do this.
At least they figured out you don’t actually have to take off your clothes. That was super awkward… Natalie took a nervous step into the circle of chalk, and then a second step. She’d watched the process before. Stepping into the circle was always the most dramatic moment, and she expected to feel something—but there wasn’t anything at all. The room might as well have been empty.
Frustrated, Natalie sat down. She stared at the agates, sitting atop the chalk dust. “Do something,” she muttered.
They didn’t move. Natalie reached out experimentally with magic, picking one up and setting it down again. Still nothing.
What if I… Natalie tried drawing energy from them. Normally, she had to actually be touching them to do it, just like when people shared magic with each other. But something about the circle seemed different. As soon as she tried to pull magic out of the agate, the room seemed to get a little darker. Or was it just that her eyelids drooped? She blinked, and the room returned to normal.
Except… there was a hazy line hanging in midair between her and the agate.
Natalie stared. It didn’t seem to go away. She tried drawing the energy from the agate again, and the line seemed to flow toward her. She could feel magic building up in her, waiting for direction, but it wasn’t like normal. She could feel a connection to the little stone, which was beginning to blacken from the strain she put on it.
Excited, Natalie began shifting the energy around. She tried flowing it straight into her arms, in much the same way she did only a few minutes earlier to move the bed across the room. To her delight, it seemed to build up her muscles just as her usual spells did, but without the constant drain of energy or the mental focus she usually had to apply.
To her horror, it also created a visible change. Her muscles were bulking up, her arms visibly thicker. Natalie slowed down the flow before she started to look like a freak—more than I already do. As she released the flow entirely, feeling satisfied, the agates evaporated along with the chalk dust. The room returned to its usual light level, and Natalie felt a wave of exhaustion roll through her. She fell back onto the wood floor, staring up at the pale white ceiling.
But she didn’t feel anything else. There wasn’t a constant drain of magic, except for the tiny trickle to her bag on the bedside table. No mounting exhaustion from buffing up her weak stick-arms—which weren’t so stick-like anymore. Not huge, but there was visible muscle, just the right amount, and there was still magic laced into each fold. She stood up, and with only a little effort managed to lift the whole corner of the bed, all the way up to her waist.
Natalie grinned. Piece of cake.
Natalie slept on top of the covers, after casually sliding the bed back to its proper place. Her pillow and blanket from her bag were more than enough to keep her warm, and she had a couple changes of clothes packed away too. When she woke up, she checked her phone—and finally she had responses from all the people she’d messaged the night before. Only now, in the daylight streaming through the bedroom window, Natalie didn’t really want to read any of them.
The only messages she did read (besides the endless stream from Kelsey that she skimmed over) were from Quinn. A few short sentences that Natalie read curled up on the couch, with a blanket held tight to her shoulders, her eyes flicking over the glowing lines of text over and over.
Quinn: Kelsey texted me.
Quinn: She was worried about you but wouldn’t say why.
Quinn: I saw the news. Is everything okay?
I saw the news… Quinn was too smart. He was telling her that he knew she was connected to the big story of the weekend. He was offering to help, like he always did, even though he was busy with his family a thousand mile and more away.
Jenny: talk monday?
Quinn: OK. Before or after school?
Jenny: before. meet you at the library?
Quinn: Sounds good.
Natalie put her phone away. She couldn’t bring herself to explain to Quinn from such a long distance what was about to happen. If the book came out on Tuesday, she’d at least have the whole day to tell Quinn all about who she really was.
Better you than the book. That way, if he doesn’t want to be friends anymore, you’ll know. You won’t get blindsided.
”He’d never do that,” Natalie murmured.
She got up and went into the kitchen, retrieving the doughnuts she’d bought the night before for breakfast. Reluctantly, she did end up pouring herself a glass of orange juice from the Kincaid’s fridge, but she promised herself that she’d buy them a new jug. She could afford it, after all.
The sunlight, combined with her suddenly healthy, strong and agile body, seemed to portend a good day ahead. She’d checked the news while she ate, and there didn’t seem to be any new developments. Nothing to panic about yet. Natalie wondered who was the person doing it—putting out a book like this—but she didn’t really have a good idea. It didn’t matter, anyway. If the story was accurate, she couldn’t ever show her face in public again. She had to get used to that idea fast.
Unless I don’t look like me anymore.
Her weird dream flickered back into her mind. She still had no clue how to get rid of the scars on her face, but there were plenty of other things she could do. After she’d made her arms stronger the night before, Natalie had moved on to other things. She boosted her legs to match, since it just seemed obvious, and now she could run and jump like an Olympian. And I’m from the Olympic Forest, she realized with a giggle.
After looking up some articles on human anatomy online, Natalie decided to experiment a little more, making her hearing a little better and her vision perfect, just by changing the shape of the muscles inside ever so slightly. It felt strange as it shifted around, but she felt the improvements almost instantly, and there didn’t seem to be any drawbacks. She was most proud of an an improvement that touched on her brain. It was the very last thing she’d tried, well past one in the morning, but Natalie had felt confident in her research. Despite the risks, she delved in with four amethyst crystals, eager to make exactly the sort of subtle enhancement that no one could see.
It was pretty scary, casting spells on her own brain—but Rachel had done it, and Natalie was pretty sure other people had too. If she was supposed to be one of the most powerful magic users out there, then she should to be able to pull this off too, right?
The ritual worked. Natalie had felt the effects almost immediately after the chalk vanished from the room. Suddenly, she felt perfectly balanced on her feet. She had a distinct awareness of exactly where her hands and feet ended, much moreso than she had only moments before. She picked up the nearest object (which happened to be her phone) and began tossing it around casually, without even looking.
A moment later, she was juggling four different things as though she’d been practicing for years.
For Saturday, though, Natalie felt like relaxing. While Kelsey pushed her again to have a small party at Quinn’s house before he came back, she just wanted to curl back up and read her book. Unlike the night before, she actually managed it.
It was a good book, but only for a few hours. She was feeling antsy again. Was she just hungry? Natalie ordered another delivery. Mexican food this time—one of her favorite meals that Hector always used to make. The quesadilla wasn’t nearly as good as the way he made it, but it still helped her feel a little better. Not better enough, though. She felt like she needed to be doing something else—something more.
There was a whole new world of possibility open now that she could do ritual magic. What was she doing sitting around reading a book?
Natalie hurried back into the guest room. She’d only done changes to her insides the night before, making herself stronger, faster, more coordinated. What if she changed how she looked too?
Thinking of a certain mysterious older girl she’d last seen on a stone bench next to Rachel, Natalie started with her eyes. She’d never really like her boring old brown eyes. After some more experiments and a few crumbled moonstones, her irises shimmered into a beautiful shade of bright purple. She’d actually been aiming for pink, but as she released the ritual and the rainbow moonstones dissolved, the color had shifted down to violet. For a moment she was disappointed, until she looked at it in a real mirror instead of her phone camera. Particularly when she moved into the sunlight, the color looked spectacular, as the violet lit up to a shade halfway between vivid purple and hot pink.
She thought about changing her hair too, just like she’d always wanted to when she found out she was going into hiding with Kendra and Lily—but if she was ever going to go back to school, Natalie didn’t want to look too different. The muscles and even the eye color wouldn’t be noticed (who really looked that close at other people’s eyes, anyway?), but a sudden and dramatic shift of hair color wasn’t really something people could miss.
Natalie spent the day messing around with it anyway, just because she could. She went through a whole pile of hair colors, at one point just browsing through a color palette on her phone and rapidly shifting her hair through each color while muttering the spells under her breath. At the end of the day, while munching through her leftover pizza, Natalie decided she actually liked her hair as it was, plain old straight brown. She’d left it as golden blonde for the moment, the last color she’d tried out, but she fully intended to shift it back to her natural brown later. Probably after dinner.
Colors and muscles were one thing, though. Even her brain was technically just a big, complicated muscle, if she understood the articles she’d read online. Natalie wanted to see if she could actually change her appearance in a more complex way. It was a step toward figuring out how to get rid of her scar completely.
Natalie sat down again in the center of the guest room, drawing out the ritual circle for the umpteenth time. She set out a combination of agate and moonstone crystals, as well as a pair of obsidian stones. She wasn’t sure why obsidian exactly, but something about the dark earthy rock seemed right for trying to move and stretch skin and cartilage around.
Something simple to start, she reminded herself. Just in case.
After a great deal of thinking, Natalie finally decided on morphing her ears a little. The upper tip made the most sense. It was something she could hide under her hair if she really had to, and it wasn’t anything more sensitive which she’d regret if she couldn’t reverse it.
Natalie set to work. As soon as she’d activated the obsidian stones, the skin seemed to morph into a jelly substance that she could squish around. With the addition of the agate, the underlying cartilage bent too, and she could move it however she liked.
Thanks to her new sense of coordination, Natalie split her focus so that she could move both ears in unison, making sure each movement was identical. She didn’t want to look weird and imbalanced. As the structure of her ear shifted around, Natalie giggled aloud. It felt so strange, but it wasn’t exactly uncomfortable. She was in total control, so it didn’t bother her too much. It was like her hands were doing the shaping, even though they lay perfectly still in her lap.
Finally, she let go, satisfied that she could really change the shape in a permanent way. After performing so much magic, and so many rituals, Natalie was utterly exhausted. The sun was starting to go down anyway, and even though it was pretty early, all Natalie wanted to do was sleep.
She collapsed onto the guest bed, not even bothering to change clothes. She pulled her jacket over her, then her blanket. It felt good, finally. She felt peaceful. Not at home, exactly—she was all too aware this was not her home, even if she still had it all to herself for a little while longer. She doubted she’d ever feel at home again until she went back to Rallsburg.
That’s where it’ll be, she decided. When all this is done in the winter. I’ll go back home and open a store there. Like a tourist thing. There’s gonna be lots of tourists, so it should be easy. And no food. Maybe Hector will want to help.
That’d be nice.
With that pleasant thought, Natalie drifted off, grateful for a dreamless sleep for once after all the nightmares and bizarre lucid visions.
Natalie rolled over, shoving her hands underneath the pillow for warmth. She kept her eyes shut tight, wanting just a few more minutes of sleep.
”…said no one was inside and nothing was taken.”
Just go away. Please. I’m trying to sleep…
”…okay, Mom. It’s probably just broken.”
Why’s Quinn here…?
Natalie’s eyes snapped open. She sat up straight, grabbing desperately for the edges of the blanket, as footsteps approached. A curious hand pushed open the door, and a ray of light from the hallway blinded her.
”Why’s the guest room door op…”
Quinn stopped dead, staring at her. His nice brown eyes opened as wide as they could go. Natalie sat up straight, blanket pulled up close to her face. Fear wracked every muscle in her body, but she couldn’t move.
”What was that?” called Quinn’s mother from down the hall.
”Linnethea?” asked Quinn breathlessly. He took a step into the room.
”What?” Natalie whispered, confused.
He looked closer. “…Natalie?“
A strand of golden hair at the edge of her vision reminded her everything she’d done earlier. She reached up slowly, and felt along the top of one ear. It was still pointed and sharp.
Natalie nodded. In a burst of movement, she grabbed up her blanket and stuffed it into her bag, along with her pillow. He rushed to her side, helping her pack everything back into her bag, but still making sure he always stayed a short distance away.
”What are you doing here?” Quinn hissed.
”It’s a long story,” she whispered back. “I thought you weren’t gonna be home til Sunday.”
”It is Sunday. It’s one in the morning, but…”
”Oh no,” Natalie murmured. “I gotta go.”
”Yeah, you really do.” Quinn glanced over his shoulder. “I’ll try to sta—”
”Hey Q, who are you talk…ing to…”
A man who could only be Quinn’s father appeared on the threshold. Natalie looked up against her better judgment, meeting his dark brown eyes. He didn’t look unfriendly, particularly with the warm smile lighting up his dark face—but it faded the moment he saw Natalie sitting on the bed, frantically packing up a bag with his son’s help.
Her heart sank. I’m so sorry, Quinn.
Please don’t hate me.