Chapter 43 — Ghosts of the Future
Natalie’s eyes were still closed. She knew it was Friday morning—the most important morning of her life, if the butterflies in her stomach were any sign—but she didn’t want to move. The blanket was thick and warm, and all along her arm, she could feel a weight. It shifted every couple seconds, as the owner’s chest rose and fell with each breath. Natalie could hear him so clearly. Every breath, every heartbeat, even the twitch of his limbs in his sleep.
And the darkness, the void which had consumed her whenever she got close to another human being, lurked on the edge of her mind, never far from her memory—but it had no place in this room. Not in her bed, not in her room, not with her boyfriend. Natalie refused to let it come near, and though it refused, though it protested and every minute was a struggle to keep it back, she had won the battle. The war would continue, and Natalie wasn’t sure if it would ever cease for her entire life, but for now? She was happy.
Quinn shifted slightly, and Natalie smiled. He’d leaned closer to her. She couldn’t bring herself to move toward him—that was too far, even now—but she felt more weight on her arm, a hint of his shoulder touching her own.
I wonder if I’m supposed to do something else now… I don’t know. I’m just happy like this. I don’t want to move today.
You cannot delay any further.
I can delay for a few minutes.
The voice didn’t answer. Natalie suppressed a giggle, not wanting to wake Quinn by accident. She felt like she’d just put it on a snooze button. Still, her eyes fluttered open, and found the expected semi-darkness of the early morning. The clock on the wall read six-twenty-seven. Natalie liked being able to see it even in the dark. She doubted Quinn or anybody else could read it in this light.
You will make good use of it in the forests of your home.
Can’t you just be asleep too? Natalie asked. She glanced over at the closet, where Percy was resting. Even Percy’s asleep. Everybody in the house is. You should be too. Let me be the only one here.
There is a long journey ahead of us, and it would be wise to get there before nightfall.
Well, yeah, but we can’t leave before Quinn’s parents do. Otherwise they’ll try to stop us.
There is no telling when Damian will leave. You may not have that option. Even Annette may not leave for work today.
You really think so?
Today is not like any other day. This is the beginning of your future.
Natalie shook her head slightly. Luckily, Quinn was on a different pillow, or she might have worried about waking him up. I’m still me either way. I’m going home, but I’m not a different person.
You are a different person every single day, Natalie.
Natalie didn’t answer. The voice tried to convince her a few more times, but Natalie’s eyes were drooping closed again. It grew softer and softer, little by little, and Natalie slipped back away into sleep once more, away from the quiet hum of the rest of the city waking up for the last day of the week, the last day of November… the last day Natalie Hendricks would spend in her boyfriend’s home.
Someone touched her shoulder.
Natalie jerked awake. Instantly, she pulled away, while a strengthened hand shot up and knocked away the attacker.
She scrambled backwards. The fire roared in her chest as magic surged into her arms and legs—ready to fight or flee at a moment’s notice. A squawk nearby told her Percy had noticed the danger and was ready to match her in kind, whatever she chose.
Quinn clambered to his feet on the other side of the bed, looking winded.
Natalie let out a deep breath. The adrenaline ebbed out of her. She released the spell on her body, and waved Percy down before he decided to swoop at Quinn.
”…Sorry,” said Quinn, rubbing his hand slightly.
Natalie shook her head. “It’s not your fault.”
”I really liked this,” said Natalie, while blood flowed free into her face, hot and tingly. “I just… got scared a little.”
Quinn nodded. “I was gonna ask if you were ready for breakfast,” he said sheepishly.
”Oh.” Natalie looked away at the wall, trying to hide her confused smile. “I’m gonna take a shower first. I’ll meet you out there?” She was still wearing her clothes from the day before, since she’d never changed into her pajamas, and she wanted to get in a hot shower while she still could. I mean, I can probably heat up water out there, and Cinza’s probably got theirs working by now, but still…
Quinn left. Natalie gave him a minute’s head start, stroking Percy as she did and calming him down. After she felt like she could actually run into someone without feeling embarrassed beyond all reason, she hurried out of the room and straight into the bathroom.
”Hey!” said Kelsey, right as Natalie barged in.
”Oh!” Natalie looked away. Kelsey had just climbed out of the shower… and she hadn’t locked the door for some reason. “I… uhh… sorry!”
”I guess you guys actually lock your doors…” Kelsey sounded just as embarrassed as Natalie felt. “Mom prefers we leave everything unlocked, just in case. Mama said something happened once with a shower and a locked door. I’m good now.”
Natalie glanced up. Kelsey had wrapped up in a towel and was just about to start brushing her teeth. “Sorry,” she repeated, still feeling a bit awkward.
”Hey, it’s cool. I was just surprised.” Kelsey smirked. “Unless you’re crushing on me now too.”
”…Nothing like that,” Natalie murmured, leaning down to grab a fresh towel out from under the sink.
”Probably a good thing,” said Kelsey between brushes. “I think Quinn’s probably the jealous type. And now that you two are sleeping together, I dunno how he’d feel about us making out behind his back.”
”What?” asked Natalie. She’d only been half-paying attention, and caught the words “sleeping together” and “us making out.”
Kelsey smirked even wider than before. “Natalie, someday, you and I gotta talk dating for real.”
”I don’t think I’m dating. I just have a boyfriend.”
”I dunno.” Natalie sat down against the wall. She put her hands to her forehead like she always saw Principal Talbot doing. It didn’t really help as much as she expected, but at least it covered up how confused she knew she must look. “I don’t have time to figure all that stuff out.”
”Oh… yeah.” Kelsey rinsed out her mouth in a rush. She set her toothbrush aside and sat down next to Natalie—a few feet away, as usual. “You still thinking today’s the day?”
Natalie nodded. “I kinda… always knew it was gonna be today.”
”I promised myself a long time ago. If… something didn’t happen, if a certain person never called me, then I’d go back by December. And… well…”
”Tomorrow’s December,” Kelsey filled in.
”I’m scared though.”
”Well, duh. Of course you are. We are too.”
”We’re still coming with you,” she added with a wink. “But who wouldn’t be scared? You’d be crazy not to be super scared.”
But I am crazy… That’s part of the problem.
”Look,” said Kelsey. “You’ve got magic. You’re going back to meet Gwen. We’re your backup. Simple as that, right?”
She shrugged. “Okay, yeah, probably not. But who cares?”
I don’t want any of you to get hurt.
As long as you are careful and certain of your actions, they will be fine.
I don’t understand. I thought you hated my friends. Why have you been telling me to take them along now?
You are stronger with them. Alone, you were uncertain and confused. You were lost. You nearly died. Then, you found me, and you found your friends. We are stronger together.
But I’m the only one with magic. I’m the strong one. I’m supposed to protect everyone all on my own?
You are more powerful than anyone in the world, Natalie.
Not her. Not Grey-eyes. Probably not Alpha either, wherever he is.
You cannot be certain of that. Perhaps you are. You have never tested your strength against theirs.
I wasn’t stronger than Jackson…
Natalie hesitated. Kelsey was brushing her hair, still talking about dating, and some girl she’d liked before she got a crush on the guy she was still hung up on now. Natalie wanted to just listen to her, but the voice had posed a question she couldn’t ignore.
What do you mean?
You fought Jackson only once. Who was the victor?
I… I fought him more times. Didn’t I?
Rachel kept you away from him after that. You beat golems, those summoned by both Jackson and your father, you put out fires, you held back the mob. But in that fight, who ran away?
And when you first got there, who held the advantage?
Jackson. He didn’t have a scratch. Lily tried to stop a golem, but she didn’t really do much. Gwen and Scrappy attacked, and he knocked them away. Scrappy got hurt and now his leg is still weird, and Gwen didn’t have time to get him again. But then he summoned a bunch of golems, and I could barely hold them back.
Yet you did. You held them back until you found the way to destroy them. Once you had it, you annihilated every last one. Jackson fled. You won the fight.
Natalie looked up. Kelsey was on her feet in front of the bathroom mirror, staring down at her. She looked concerned, and Natalie realized she hadn’t heard a word Kelsey said in minutes.
”You good?” asked Kelsey uneasily.
”I… I was just remembering something,” she answered honestly. Her mind was still lost on the dark streets of Rallsburg, on that night in May when she’d fought against one of the Gods… and she’d won.
The voice was right. In the only time she had actually fought Jackson, she had brought him to a standstill. Gwen hurt him, and she’d held back the golems long enough for Rachel to get the electricity scrap to her. If they’d fought again, Natalie probably could have won. So why didn’t Rachel want me to fight him again…?
Rachel fears you.
That’s… that’s not true.
She sent you away. You could have gone to Canada like the rest of them. There are schools there. You might have been safer there.
I wanted to come to Seattle though.
Kendra and Lily took you in, because they were the strongest among those that could. Hector is too weak, and Hailey is too unreliable. Jessica could not speak nor hear.
Don’t say that. She’s… she’s gone.
The voice didn’t say any more, but Natalie felt uncomfortable. It was saying things, and she couldn’t disagree with them. It didn’t feel right, but it seemed close enough to spread niggling doubts in her mind.
Kelsey left, looking a little worried. Natalie eagerly stepped into the shower. The hot water and steam filled her senses, driving away the doubts and fears currently swirling in her mind. She focused on the spray washing over her skin, and let herself fade out into the rush of crashing water.
Breakfast was a muted affair.
The Kincaids talked a little, but Annette was already hurrying to get to work, and Damian kept stealing glances at Natalie whenever he thought she wasn’t looking. Mitch and Kelsey were arguing as usual, but there was an undercurrent of excitement in the air they couldn’t suppress. Tyler was silent, but his eyes were bright and he smiled a lot at the sniping between the other two.
Quinn was silent too… but his was a lot more uncomfortable. He was staring at his cereal, only taking a bite every minute or so.
”Well, I’m off,” said Annette finally. She kissed Damian on the check, and Quinn right after. Mitch looked about to make fun of him, but Kelsey kicked him under the table, and he fell silent. “I know none of you plan to attend school today, but I expect you to get your homework done anyway, for the sake of your parents.”
”Have a good day, Annie,” said Damian as she headed out. As soon as she was gone, he glanced at Natalie. “Got a minute, Natalie?”
She nodded. She always ate fast, so her bowl was practically empty. While everyone else finished their breakfast, the two of them walked down into Quinn’s parents’ room and shut the door.
”I noticed you hadn’t sealed your door last night,” said Damian quietly.
Natalie winced. She had sealed her door every night since she got there—at first because she was afraid of them, and then because she was worried they’d realize why she was doing it in the first place.
Damian shook his head. “You’re not in trouble. I glanced in though, and I saw you two.”
”Natalie, am I wrong in thinking you can hear us from anywhere in the house?”
She hesitated, before giving a very small nod.
He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
”It’s okay,” Natalie whispered.
”It’s not. But—”
”I’m leaving today.”
Damian stopped short. His mouth opened and closed a few times, and Natalie knew he’d been about to say something like “you don’t have to” or “that’s not what I was going to say”… but it was. She knew it was, he knew it was. He was about to tell her to leave, because the fear had won out.
Natalie was no longer welcome in their home.
”Have you told Quinn?” he finally asked.
Natalie nodded again. She didn’t want to lie, but she knew he couldn’t possibly handle knowing that his son was going with her, so she settled on the half-truth.
”…I’ll be gone today,” said Damian finally. “I have errands to run, and I’ll stay out. You and your friends will have the place to yourself. Take as much time as you need, and text me when you’ve…” He looked like he might cry. Natalie wanted to cry too, but her tears didn’t come. She didn’t want him to see her cry. “I’m so sorry, Natalie.”
I’m sorry too. I put you in danger. I’m still putting you in danger just by standing here. I’ll stop that now.
It is his fault. They chose to reject you.
Natalie turned away and went back to her friends—to the one group of people she felt like she could trust in the whole world.
True to his word, Damian left not long after. As soon as he was gone, they set to preparing. Natalie and Quinn gathered up his things, as much as he felt like he’d need. They’d included a bunch of camping supplies, but Natalie expected them to stay in the Greywood. She might not, but they probably wouldn’t want to live in the forest. Kelsey might, but she couldn’t imagine Tyler or Mitch lasting out there very long. She hoped Quinn would, but she wasn’t going to fool herself into believing it yet.
Prepare for anything, and only rely on myself. Right?
Natalie nodded to herself.
They left a note on the table, explaining to Quinn’s parents. Natalie wrote it, seeing Quinn’s continuing reluctance. She wrote how she’d keep them safe, how they were going out to find answers and hopefully find a safe place for her to live. Natalie was uncomfortably aware how much they’d object—she was taking their son toward the danger they’d asked her to avoid.
The danger keeps coming back at me anyway. If I stay, it’ll be worse, since I won’t have any help here. Back home, I have Gwen, and Scrappy, and all the other awakened who stayed.
You do not need to justify yourself to me, Natalie.
It helps me think, okay?
Natalie led them down to the bus station. They boarded the first one heading toward Olympia, and settled into the back seats for the three-hour ride. Quinn and Natalie hugged the back corner, with Natalie’s head resting comfortably on his shoulder. Kelsey, Mitch, and Tyler took over the seats across and in front. The bus was packed, but her friends had arranged for them to sit together without anyone else nearby.
They do it and I didn’t even ask. You’re right, they’re really good companions. Am I doing the wrong thing letting them come along?
Everyone knows them at your school. They would have no peace there. With you, they will be safer.
Yeah… you’re right.
Natalie kept asking it the same questions over and over, and the voice reassured her every time. She was just nervous. She was making the right choice. They’d be better off. They wanted to come. She hadn’t asked, they chose. They were her friends, and she was finally moving again.
She was going home.
Natalie fell asleep again on Quinn’s shoulder, and missed most of the ride. When her eyes fluttered open, Kelsey was beaming at her again. Quinn was looking out the window, but Kelsey just grinned and gave her a thumbs up. Natalie rolled her eyes, but didn’t move an inch. On the other side of the aisle, Mitch and Tyler were playing a game on their phones. Natalie watched them for a while, able to make out everything even from so far away, but soon enough, they heard their stop announced over the tinny bus speakers.
”I can’t,” whispered Quinn.
Natalie’s blood froze. Suddenly, the shoulder she still lay on was a block of ice. The warmth was all gone.
Mitch and Tyler were already halfway down the aisle, eager to start moving as the rest of the bus flooded out. They hadn’t noticed a thing. Kelsey had just stood up, but stopped at Quinn’s voice. “Huh?”
”I can’t go with you,” he said, even quieter than before.
”What?” asked Kelsey, her voice rising.
Natalie quickly shook her head.
She’d been fooling herself this whole time, but she knew it was coming. It hurt so much more than she’d expected—but she had expected it.
Quinn was too afraid, too reluctant. He’d never left Seattle. His parents were everything to him, and unlike the rest of Natalie’s friends, they’d actually known this whole time. He knew exactly how they felt… and they weren’t okay with her.
She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Quinn couldn’t look at her. He stared out the window instead. Natalie got up and walked away, a dumbstruck Kelsey following her in a daze. Quinn stayed, in that seat all the way in the back of the bus, staring out the corner window. Natalie gave him one last look as she reached the front, and Quinn returned it.
He was crying.
”I’m sorry,” he mouthed.
Natalie slowly nodded. She tried to smile, but her mouth just wouldn’t quite make the shape. After a few awkward moments, she turned and got off the bus. The bus doors creaked closed. The engine spat and churned, drowning out the confused questions from Mitch and Tyler. Natalie ignored them, turning and setting off toward the forest ahead.
The bus had taken them close to the spot everyone wanted to go, but apparently all the drivers refused to go closer. The curves of the road, so familiar to Natalie from checking and re-checking maps for their trip, twisted and rolled up into the hills. Natalie would follow them all the way back to the town which lay at the end, another hour or two of walking.
She was almost home. The trees formed thick, dark shadows in every direction. Her friends shrunk away from them, scared, but Natalie eagerly pressed forward. This was her forest. She’d been here before, and not just on the last drive out. She knew exactly where she was, and not just thanks to the maps.
A car trundled by, packed with people who shot them concerned looks.
Natalie glanced back to her friends. “We should get off the street.”
”You think?” asked Mitch, eyeing the thick woods with an uneasy grimace.
”Come on, don’t be a wimp,” said Kelsey—but she didn’t look too pleased herself at the prospect.
Natalie was about to answer them, but something else had caught her attention. A tug, deep in her heart, stoking the fire. Something was coming.
Someone was coming.
Natalie hurried off the road, her panicked friends in pursuit. She ran forward. Her bag bounced merrily on her shoulder, and she practically danced over the tree roots and fallen branches that tried to bar her way. She could feel the rush of pounding feet in her mind, an emotion thrown across miles of forest.
A howl pierced the afternoon sky.
Natalie’s heart soared.
With a quiet thud, huge feet landed into the small clearing in front of her. A flash of grey fur blurred her eyes, and Natalie realized she was crying again. Gwen sat in front of her, fierce yellow eyes studying her. She stayed very still, letting Gwen get used to the new Natalie. Gwen would need to understand what she had done before she accepted Natalie as a leader once again.
”Natal—” started Tyler, before Kelsey slapped a hand over his mouth. Gwen’s eyes shot up toward them, but Natalie shook her head at Gwen.
<They’re part of my pack,> she said calmly.
Gwen’s gaze shot back to Natalie, still studying, still waiting for Natalie to make the first move.
Natalie took one step forward. <I’m home, Gwen.>
That was all it took. Gwen bounded forward. Kelsey let out a brief cry of alarm, but Gwen had only buried Natalie in her own equivalent to a hug. Natalie burst into laughter as Gwen’s warm, thick fur completely engulfed her. They rolled over on the ground. Gwen licked her face, and Natalie grinned.
<I missed you too.>
Percy, who’d been following them the whole time, finally swooped down and landed on a nearby branch. He squawked indignantly, as if annoyed he hadn’t been welcomed back too. Gwen glanced up at him with a dismissive air, and he squawked even louder.
Natalie only laughed.
”So… uhh…” started Kelsey. “Are we… okay?”
Natalie turned back to her friends as Gwen got back to her feet. The wolf issued a low, soft growl, distinctly welcoming and friendly—but of course, Natalie’s friends couldn’t know that. They all took an involuntary step back. Gwen looked up at Natalie.
She grinned. “Guys, this is Gwen. My best friend.”
Gwen’s not smaller… I’m just bigger.
Natalie was on top of Gwen and riding comfortably, but it wasn’t a huge ocean of grey fur like it used to seem. She’d offered to let one of her friends ride instead, but Gwen wouldn’t allow anyone else on her back. They all insisted she keep riding—Kelsey seemed offended that Natalie considered walking when this was an option—but Natalie still felt a little guilty nonetheless. It wasn’t a short walk up to Rallsburg, after all.
”Is that where we’re going, then?” asked Kelsey. “I thought you wanted to get to the Greywood.”
”Well…” Natalie hesitated. “I do, but I want to see home too. Plus… I’m not sure how to get there, exactly.”
”You don’t know where we’re going?” asked Mitch.
”I do!” said Natalie. “I’ve been out in these woods all the time. Rallsburg is that way—” she said, pointing it out, “—and the Greywood used to be that way.”
”Used to be?” said Tyler excitedly.
”I… I don’t think she can move it or anything, but Cinza told me at the funeral that they were adding more stuff to protect it. So I don’t think I can get in the same way I used to.”
”Oh.” He actually sounded disappointed. Maybe Kendra could move it though… there’s so many things you could do with those pocket dimensions…
”Can we find it in the dark?” asked Kelsey, glancing around.
The sun had long-since set, and the clock on Natalie’s phone said seven now. They’d already been walking for over an hour. Natalie was keeping their group lit with a constant spell—a warm fairy light that bobbed above them like a lantern on an invisible pole. It didn’t actually need to, but Natalie did it anyway. She really liked how it looked, how the shadows of the trees and branches danced around them, mingled with the strong fierce shadow cast by Gwen.
”Yeah. It’ll be really obvious.”
”Will we be there soon?” asked Tyler, shivering. He was bundled up in three layers. Natalie had been warming up their path as they walked, but she had to keep paying attention to it and keep the light going and watch out for anyone coming up on them and keep her balance on Gwen’s back and… well, Natalie was more than a little distracted, and she let the warmth slip every now and then.
She nodded. “Really soon.”
They went back to talking about a game. Natalie strained her ears, listening to the sounds of the forest—the wind, the crickets, the frogs, the owls. Animals in every direction, and the shuffle of footsteps in the distance.
Footsteps? We aren’t close enough to Rallsburg yet. And nobody’s supposed to be there anymore anyway, right? It was closed off or something. Quarantined.
Not everyone follows such rules.
Oh yeah… that one kid said his brother went there. But still… we aren’t there yet.
Be on guard, Natalie. There could be many others in this forest. You heard the Kincaids speak of people trying to find magic. They may be all around you.
Natalie called for a break. Her friends were getting hungry anyway, and Natalie wanted to figure out the source of the sound. She wasn’t really hungry yet—ever since she’d changed herself, her body didn’t seem to need as much food, though she still usually ate as much as anyone else to hide that fact—so Natalie lit a fire for them to warm up hot-dogs while she scouted the area nearby.
<Keep them safe, Gwen,> said Natalie. She nuzzled her wolf’s face briefly before setting off. Percy perched on her shoulder, talons gently digging into the thick material of her coat. Gwen padded back over to the group, taking a seat next to Kelsey, and Natalie quickly lost sight of them as she delved into the forest.
More footsteps nearby. Natalie tried to figure out where they were coming from. Branches and leaves were brushing in ways that weren’t normal. She knew what the normal sounds of the forest were, and with her new ears, she could hear all of them perfectly. This sound wasn’t one of them, but it was so quiet.
Somebody was out there who didn’t want to be found.
They’re not very far away.
They are no threat to us yet. Do not provoke an enemy we haven’t made. Let them pass unaware of our presence.
Natalie did, though it went against her instincts. If these were normal people, looking for magic or for something else, they wouldn’t be sneaking. This seemed like something else. Still, with the scent of cooking food wafting through the air and the fire crackling behind her, Natalie couldn’t stray too far. Her friends needed her more than whomever might be slipping through the trees.
”I’ve never been out here before,” said Tyler, looking around at the forest. To him, it was obviously foreboding, no matter how Natalie might feel. “Is it always this dark?”
Natalie shrugged. “Pretty much. It depends on the moon, and what time of year, but yeah.”
”It never gets this dark at home, even in the park.”
”That’s ’cause of the city,” said Mitch. “Light pollution or something.”
”We didn’t have that at home,” said Natalie.
”You didn’t have lights?”
”No, I mean, everybody turned off all the lights at night. It made everything darker, but it made it way easier to see the stars at night.” Natalie glanced up, and sure enough, the stars filled the sky once more in a huge curtain of dancing lights. She smiled. “I like this way more.”
”It’s really pretty,” Tyler agreed.
”There’s a light over there though,” said Kelsey, pointing.
Natalie looked up. She definitely hadn’t seen a light before, but Kelsey’s eyes were sharp too. There was a faint flicker of light, barely visible through the trees to the west—at least, Natalie was pretty sure it was west. She’d been trying to get better at knowing which direction was which at all times, since it seemed really useful. The light wasn’t anything distinct yet though—not fire, definitely artificial, but beyond that, Natalie couldn’t tell.
It was moving toward them.
Immediately, she smothered their fire with her mind. Light fled into the shadows, not to return.
”Wha—” said Mitch, before Kelsey kicked him. “Hey!”
”Shut up!” she hissed.
Natalie stood up. Gwen paced back and forth behind her, and a low growl echoed from her jaws.
<Who is it, Gwen?>
Gwen’s eyes narrowed. It was someone she knew, but Natalie couldn’t exactly get a name out of her wolf. She also couldn’t tell if this was a hostile reaction or not. Gwen was suspicious, but not exactly ready to attack. Natalie prepared herself anyway, readying a lightning bolt in her fingers. Tiny flecks of pink electricity buzzed around her fingers, not quite crackling, but ready to leap at an instant if she needed it.
<Percy, can you track them?>
Her hawk flew into the canopy. A brief screech echoed around them. Percy had spotted the sneaking pair. They were still moving toward her. Natalie waved at her friends, motioning for them to stay still and low. She bounded forward and leapt fifteen feet up into the nearest tree, silently climbing high in an instant thanks to another burst of magic.
There! But… who is that? Gwen seems to know them, but I don’t…
Be on your guard. Trust no one. Ruby said there were traitors in the Greywood.
Two people were approaching, a man and a woman. The man carried a small electric lantern and a huge backpack, the woman another large pack and a rifle slung over her shoulder. Beside them floated… something. What is that?
It is not natural, whatever it may be. They must be awakened. Do not let it near you.
I’m not just gonna attack them.
With any luck, they will pass by.
Natalie wished that were the case, but as she leaned forward to get a better look at the strange blue shape near them, her foot slipped. The branch below it snapped. A crack echoed through the whole area, and the branch tumbled to the ground.
The woman’s ice-blue eyes snapped onto Natalie’s tree.
Oh my god… I do know her. That’s… the sniper woman. The one who hung out with Viper. And Viper tried to kidnap Alden, so she’s probably no good either. But… who’s the guy?
”Lani,” she murmured, pointing Natalie’s way.
The man—Lani, I guess?—started walking forward, and the little blue shape followed him, floating nearby like a ghost. Actually… it kinda does look like a ghost. It has a face and everything. What does it do?
They are approaching us. We must choose a course of action.
Can your friends outrun a mercenary such as she? This is Viper’s companion. She is probably military.
So we stall them while my friends run.
Into the woods alone, and with many other potential threats nearby?
…What should we do?
Protect your own.
<Gwen, we’ve gotta scare them off,> said Natalie over her shoulder, before the pair was close enough to hear.
Gwen immediately tilted her head to the sky and howled again, loud and long. Natalie, in unison, summoned a huge wall of fire between herself and the pair—strong, hot and fierce, crackling and spitting out licks of flame. It wouldn’t actually catch any of the trees, she was controlling it too well to let that happen, but it stopped the pair in their tracks. In fact, they both stepped back at the sudden conflagration.
”What the hell?” said the woman, in a voice quite different than the woman Natalie was familiar with. “…Magic, right?”
”Yeah,” said Lani, “but… this is crazy. There’s so much.”
Above, Percy shrieked, a hunting cry right above their heads.
”I think we’re not wanted here…” said the woman, though her hand was tight to her rifle. If she took it off her back, Natalie was ready to rip it to shreds right in her grip. They were still pretty far away, but with the gemstones she’d gotten out of her bag, Natalie was pretty sure she could manage it. The wall of fire continued to burn, growing in intensity. She’d have to let go soon, or some lick of flame was bound to break free and start bringing the whole forest down.
”Let’s go,” said Lani, taking her hand. They turned and fled the other direction, slipping through the trees as quietly as they’d come.
Natalie extinguished the fire with a relieved sigh. She watched them go, and jealousy flared up in her stomach. They were close, holding hands, watching each other’s backs, trusting each other and sticking together. Meanwhile…
She shook her head, and slipped out of her own tree to rejoin her relieved friends. Gwen wrapped up around her as Natalie sat down and dug into the hot dogs and soda. She leaned back into her best friend’s fur and closed her eyes, a sense of loss trickling into her mind from the empty space next to her.
”Another light,” Kelsey reported.
Natalie had already seen it, but she was still grateful someone else was keeping an eye out. She couldn’t watch every direction at once. This light was much different, though—and as she peered closer, she realized it was many lights. There was a whole sea of them, quickly expanding as the group passed more trees and they came into view.
”It’s like a camp or something,” said Natalie. <Percy, go look for anybody we know.>
Percy lit off of Gwen’s back, swooping out into the trees without his usual squawk of protest. She’d finally managed to impress on him the need for stealth, and to her relief, he was keeping it up. Gwen, meanwhile, was used to the role of a silent hunter, and needed no reminders. If anything, her stern looks were keeping both Percy and the rest of Natalie’s friends in line.
”If it’s a camp, do you think they’ll have somewhere to lay down?” said Tyler, gasping a little. “I’m really tired.”
”We got tents and air mattresses in the bag,” Mitch reminded him.
”Or a bathroom,” Tyler went on, ignoring him.
”We can go look at it,” said Natalie. “If it looks okay, we’ll go there.”
This is an unnecessary risk. We need to reach the Greywood.
We don’t know how to get to the Greywood. Maybe we can find one of Cinza’s people here.
Natalie pressed Gwen forward, her friends close behind. Mitch helped Tyler keep going, while Kelsey continued to act as a second pair of eyes. Natalie was surprised they’d gone so long before anyone complained—she loved her friends, but she hadn’t expected them to last this long before realizing what they were in for. She was used to long treks alone in the woods, but they were all city kids.
And yet, they’d gone nearly all day without complaint. Natalie was helping, of course, keeping them warm and navigating them through the easier parts of the forest, but still.
The camp was growing in size in front of them, a wide swathe of tents, RVs, food carts, even a ramshackle cabin. To Natalie’s relief, it seemed nothing like the homeless camp she’d previously visited in Seattle, but it ebbed away a moment later as she realized where she actually was.
The RV park outside Rallsburg… the one where Jenny died.
He’s gone. They killed him. We don’t have to be afraid of him anymore.
Your friends will be safe with you.
More shuffling in the trees. Natalie flashed a red light at her friends, the new signal for them to fall silent and stay low. Someone had just started moving, very close to them. They weren’t trying to be stealthy, so Natalie wasn’t too afraid, but she caught something else.
A radio crackle. She focused, and tried to draw in every sound from that direction with a wave of magic. The sound of the radio, a tiny quiet thing, finally reached her ears.
”…but Malich ain’t sure. West and him are moving closer. Over.“
Natalie waited. The shuffling seemed to be moving away, but she wasn’t sure. Now she was hearing it from two directions. Was it her magic on the area, messing up the way the sound bounced around? She released the spell, and the faint radio chatter faded away, replaced with the general sounds of the forest once more.
It’s two people. Someone else is there.
”Natalie?” whispered Kelsey, crouching close to Gwen’s side. Natalie waved her off, still trying to listen for all the movement around them.
”Can we ask them for directions?” asked Tyler earnestly, thankfully in a whisper.
”You moron, what if they’re evil?” hissed Mitch.
”Shh,” hushed Natalie.
The shuffling had changed. The two sounds merged into one, and got more pronounced. A faint grunt, followed by a thump on the ground, and then… a sickening sound, one Natalie had only heard once before, but could never forget in a million years.
A blade slicing open flesh, and a choked gurgle as someone breathed their last breath.
The radio kept echoing, but the shuffling had stopped. Natalie hesitated. Do I go forward? Try to save whoever that was? I’m probably too late… oh god. What if… what if they come this way? Natalie quickly tuned back into the area, reviving her spell—just in time to catch a voice she certainly didn’t expect echoing out of the radio.
”Stebbins, Nossinger. Give me the last known location of West, over.”
Jackie’s on the radio? But the radio didn’t move, and the person who’s still alive is moving… which means they just killed one of Jackie’s friends. They’re not on my side.
That sound is not an approach. They are moving away.
They’re moving toward the camp, and they just killed somebody. What if… oh god, what if this is like Lakewood? They’re going to—
This is a choice, Natalie. Your friends are here, and a camp of awakened waits ahead. Between them lies an unknown enemy. What will we do?
I… I don’t…
Jackie and the others on the radio do not know of the threat. Only we do. We can track it. We can stop it.
We can’t leave my friends here though. They can’t take on one of those guys.
Keep them close, then.
”There’s something about to happen,” said Natalie. She slid off Gwen’s back and landed in the middle of her three friends. They gathered close, and she dropped to a whisper. “Someone just got attacked nearby, and they were on our side. Whoever attacked is going toward the camp now. I gotta stop them before they get there.”
”Is it one of… you know, your dad’s guys?” asked Mitch reluctantly.
Natalie hesitated. “…I don’t know.”
”What do we do?” asked Tyler.
”Stay close to me.” Natalie looked around, and to her relief, they still seemed to be totally alone. Kelsey looked confident, while both Mitch and Tyler were practically shaking. Natalie tried to send another wave of warmth at them, but it didn’t help in the slightest. “Gwen will probably have to split up with us, that’s how she works best, and I won’t make much light anymore. We gotta make sure we aren’t seen.”
”But we’ll be totally blind out here,” said Mitch.
”I can see in the dark.”
”Oh wow,” said Tyler, his eyes widening.
”Just stay near me, okay?”
Three nods. The shuffling had ended as well, but Natalie had a pretty good idea of the direction where they’d stopped moving—and she had Gwen to track the rest of the way. <Find him, Gwen.>
Gwen sniffed the air. Her huge head nuzzled Natalie’s hand, before she started off. Natalie waved to her friends, and they followed close behind. Natalie’s eyes let her see the whole forest like a faint outline, as if everything were just a little bit glow-in-the-dark. Her friends had to struggle over roots and branches, and Natalie wished she could make things easier for them, but she had to focus ahead.
A killer waited, only a few hundred feet away.
The forest loomed around her, but the forest was Natalie’s friend, not theirs. She reached out with her mind, opening as she had learned to do, and the animals were waiting for her. Slowly, she gained a sense of what they felt, what they saw. It wasn’t clear—she couldn’t see anything or feel anything through them—but the impression still made it through, and they permeated the entire forest nearby.
Everywhere… except for one hole, the one where Gwen was leading them.
Natalie grabbed up the gemstones again from her bag, a pair of rubies and topaz. She wouldn’t kill anyone, nor would she even hurt anyone if she could avoid it, but Natalie would be ready to fight. She knew how the world worked. She’d been up against people like this before.
A shift in the underbrush. Gwen tensed up. She started moving to the side. Natalie crept forward, fists raised, her friends a few steps behind. A pair of legs stuck out from underneath ferns, clad in heavy boots, watching the camp with a rifle on the ground nearby.
Natalie didn’t need to be told twice. She grabbed at the rifle and flung it backwards, high in the air above her friends. As it flew, Natalie twisted the barrel in half. It took a lot more strength than she expected, but she knew the rifle was useless now. Instantly, the woman—for it was a woman, as Natalie discovered—twisted around. Her dark eyes filled with fear and hatred.
Natalie summoned a wall of fire again, blinding the woman before they could be seen.
”Get out of here!” she shouted.
”Witch!” the woman screamed back.
A gunshot echoed in the distance. Natalie flinched. Her wall of fire dissipated, but to her relief, the woman held no gun. The shot had been far away—but the damage was done nonetheless. The woman could see her, and her friends crouching behind. The moonlight was dim, and the fire had completely ruined their night vision, but the woman’s eyes widened.
”You’re just a kid!”
Natalie shook her head. “I’m not anymore.”
Her eyes narrowed. Natalie hesitated, still hoping she’d just give up and leave.
”Your gun’s ruined, and you can’t fight me. Just go away. Leave us alone.”
To the side, hidden in the trees, Gwen growled—loud and harsh, one of her worst growls. The woman’s legs shook slightly, but she didn’t waver. There was a knife at her belt, and her hand inched toward it. Natalie shook her head.
The knife leapt out and flew away, just like the gun had. It landed right in Natalie’s hand. She dropped it as soon as she noticed it was still covered in blood.
”Now you don’t have anything,” said Natalie.
The woman smiled wickedly.
There was a gunshot! She’s not alone!
Natalie whipped around. Percy screeched and dove… behind Natalie’s friends. Gwen leapt at the woman, pinning her to the forest floor. Behind them in the forest, a man, small and full of rage, had gotten close—too close. He had a pistol. Natalie hadn’t had time to react. Her friends hadn’t even realized he was there. Kelsey, Tyler, and Mitch were still watching Natalie confront the woman who’d been setting up to attack the camp. The man had them all… easy targets.
He squeezed the trigger.
At the second gunshot, people weren’t shrugging it off anymore. The explosions in the nearby tent stopped. Someone screamed to the north—but the second gunshot had been from the southeast.
Where West disappeared. Shit.
”Let’s move,” snapped Jackie. Jeremy didn’t need to be told twice… but another gunshot from the north stopped them in their tracks, followed by another and another. Pistol and rifle rounds mixed together, if Jeremy heard right.
”Fuck,” he growled. “Stebbins, what do you got?”
”Multiple shooters,” said Stebbins. “At least two north. Possible contact southeast. No eyes. Over.“
”We’re in the southeast,” said Makoto, suddenly cutting into the traffic. “Go north.“
Gotta teach that kid radio ops… “Roger, moving north. Out.” Jeremy glanced at Jackie. “Here we go.”
She sighed. “Goddammit…” Jackie pulled her pistol and checked the rounds. “Hope you’ve got some tricks up your sleeve.”
”Sir, we’ve got golems north, over!” called Malich, who apparently had never made it over to West’s position. Jeremy couldn’t blame him though, with the shit blowing up around them. People were screaming in earnest now, and the camp was scattering in every direction—to his dismay. If these people would get together and form a defensive position, we could actually protect them. Fuck me.
”Brian’s to the north, then,” said Jeremy as they ran. He clicked his radio back on. “Makoto, I’m gonna need backup. We ain’t got shit against golems, over.”
”Got it. We’re sending someone. Over.“
Well, he picked up on something at least. “Hope he sends someone good…” muttered Jeremy.
They ran, dodging fleeing pilgrims, awakened and vendors alike. A tent overturned as someone tripped on the stake poles. Holes appeared in the side as a rifle burst fired off. Glasses exploded on the makeshift bar to his right. Someone with an excellent marksman’s eye was clearly showing off, but for what?
”Ashe, Stebbins. Ain’t seen nobody hit yet. The fuck is going on? Over.”
Jeremy agreed. Nobody seemed to have been hit yet, but he couldn’t imagine that would last long with the number of targets available. So long as they stick to their code of verifyin’ people, we’ve got a chance… but they’re gonna hit someone sooner or later. Are they just tryin’ to scare the camp and break it up? Herd us somewhere? The golems were just destroying tents and food carts at random, ignoring the people entirely.
”Find me some shooters, Stebbins. They’re terrorizing, not killing, and I want to stop ’em before we get that far. Over.”
”Roger, sir. I’ve got muzzle flashes out of two spots north, and they ain’t moving between shots. Could definitely flank them while I cover, sir. Over.“
”Copy that. I see the flash. Moving around east to fuck ’em from the side, over.”
Jeremy and his partner rushed through the camp, straight out the eastside to circle around the shooters, and hopefully link up with Malich. Brian may have found an excellent shooter, but whoever was behind the trigger didn’t know how to actually operate in the field. They’d stuck to the same spot after multiple shots instead of moving to new positions, and Stebbins sighted them easily.
”Stebbins, keep ’em locked. If they start killin’, take the shot. Over.”
”Welcome to my life now,” Jeremy muttered as they ran.
Jackie laughed bitterly. “Shit, Ashe, I was gonna say the same to you.”
”Well, fuck us both then.”
They’d reached the edge of the camp. A golem seemed to turn and spot them. Jeremy dove aside as it took a huge, slow swipe through the air, barely missing his arm.
”Agent Ashe!” came a shout in the distance. Jeremy scrambled to his feet, and sure enough, Brian Hendricks stood in the distance, flanked by two more golems. Five total, then. Jesus. How does this guy handle so much?
”Mr. Hendricks!” Jackie shouted back. “Stand down!”
”Sheriff, I always respected you, but you chose the wrong side,” Brian called out. “Abandon these people! You don’t have to join my cause, but you must not aid theirs!”
”Brian, you know what?” said Jackie. She raised a hand, middle finger lifted high. “Fuck you!”
He snarled something unintelligible, and the golem started moving toward them again. Jackie raised her sidearm and opened fire, but Brian was already behind the impenetrable wall of stone and moss. Her bullets plinked harmlessly off the golem’s hard shell, ricocheting into the darkness. Jackie cursed and sprinted after Jeremy.
”Makoto!” Jeremy called into his radio. “The motherfucker’s over here! Get us some backup, over!”
”On it, Agent Ashe. Hector and Ruby are on their way.“
”…the hell are those two gonna do?” gasped Jeremy as they kept running, golems pursuing them to the edge of the camp. More gunfire echoed far away, along with shattering glass and continued screams. A man in a bright blue jacket sprinted past them, throwing fire over his shoulder as he went.
”Don’t show them you’re awakened!” Jeremy shouted at him, but it was too late.
Instantly, as soon as the man had cast a spell, gunshots echoed towards them. Puffs in the dirt raked across the field between the treeline and the camp, tracing the way up to the man. He dove, and that only made him an easier target—they were downhill, south from Rallsburg, and Brian’s men had come from the north. Death poured out of the dead town, and the unfortunate soul in front of Jeremy was the next to fall.
The man bled out behind them, riddled with holes. Jeremy cursed and kept running, hoping desperately that Brian’s men were still instructed not to harm them. In the meantime, he had his phone out, dialing the emergency line for the National Guard.
”This is Agent Ashe. I’m in the pilgrim camp south of Rallsburg. Brian Hendricks is here with multiple gunmen. They’re killing people. Send the motherfucking cavalry.”
Natalie closed her eyes and tried with all her might to grab the pistol… but he never got the shot off.
An ear splitting crack echoed through the forest. The man’s head snapped to the side. His pistol fell unfired from his hand. He tumbled to the ground, painfully still.
Kelsey screamed and dropped to the ground, expecting gunfire all around them—but there wasn’t any more nearby. Instead, shots started echoing to the north, across the camp from where they currently sat.
”Turvallinen,” called the harsh voice of Viper’s companion.
The woman behind Natalie screamed and struggled, but Gwen held her tightly in place. Natalie looked around again, but saw nothing—until the little blue ghost floated into the space in front of her.
”We’re on your side,” Lani called out.
Natalie summoned up twin balls of fire in her hands, pulsing hot flames ready to launch in an instant. She tried to figure out where their voices had come from, but they echoed strangely in a way not unlike Cinza’s. The woman behind them struggled and grunted in pain, but Gwen kept her firmly pinned.
”Come out!” Natalie called.
Immediately, Lani walked into the clearing, hands up and open. Natalie still didn’t release her flames, but she did relax a little. He had a kind face. She wasn’t about to trust him, but she didn’t feel threatened either. Besides… she had enough enemies to worry about right now already.
”Natalie?” whispered Kelsey behind her.
”It’s okay,” said Natalie, slowly lowering her hands. “We’re on the same side, I think.”
Lani nodded. “I think you’ve got one of Brian’s men under your wolf there.”
Natalie nodded. “They… they killed somebody. The people on the radio were looking for him.”
”People on the radio?” asked Lani. He glanced over his shoulder into the forest. “Riley, can you try to find their signal?”
”I will try,” she replied, still in the same ice-cold tone.
”They said… they said other people were north,” said Natalie. “And that’s where all the gunshots are coming from.”
”We’re trying to stop them,” said Lani, nodding. “But… what are you doing out here?”
”I was… trying to find the Greywood,” said Natalie, making a split-second decision to trust them again.
This is not a man you know, and he travels with a woman you know you should not trust. We’re taking a dangerous course here.
We gotta trust someone, and there’s people with guns everywhere. If my dad’s here too, we might see golems. He seems okay to me.
More gunshots echoed from the north, and this time accompanied by something rapid and loud. Natalie winced, and her friends instinctively ducked to the ground. Lani watched them all with a wary eye. The woman under Gwen finally struggled free, as Gwen got distracted by the gunshots, and sprinted for the deeper forest. Natalie was about to send Gwen after her, but another shot rang out… and she collapsed.
Natalie winced again. I didn’t want to hurt them…
Lani noticed. His voice softened. “Maybe you should get out of here.”
Natalie shook her head. “If there’s golems, you’re gonna need me. You can’t beat them.”
She nodded reluctantly. “I’ve done it before.”
Lani raised an eyebrow. “…Who are you?”
”Linnethea,” said Natalie.
Wait… why did I say that?
You don’t trust him, and you know that your father’s men are nearby. Your name may not be safe, and Jenny is also known to him. If you must be called something, it cannot be a name your father is familiar with.
So we’re using your name?
”What about your friends?” asked Lani, glancing at the rest of the group.
”We stay with her,” said Kelsey bravely, but it was plain on her face—seeing a man shot only feet away had rattled her. I’m so sorry… I didn’t think we’d end up here. Like this.
”I will watch them,” said Riley, suddenly emerging from the forest. Her rifle was back over her shoulder, and she wore thick forest camouflage. Compared to the rest of them, she might as well have been invisible. “Lani, you go ahead. I will cover you and keep them safe.”
”Okay.” Lani kissed her, to Natalie’s surprise. “I’m going ahead first. Riley, tune me in on their radio as soon as you’ve got it?”
Lani led the way north, and Natalie’s friends huddled together in the middle with Gwen at their side. Riley and Natalie held up the rear, where they could watch everyone and react to any threat. Natalie was actually the one to suggest it—she wanted the two strongest people at the front and rear, and Lani certainly seemed the next-strongest after herself. They deferred to her, again to her surprise.
You are sharper than you think. We have fought before.
Yeah, but… she’s military.
She is one who takes orders, not one who issues them.
”I do not know why you gave him a false name,” said Riley quietly, startling Natalie, “but I will not reveal you. I know you must think things of me from our days in Rallsburg. I am a different person now. I hope you can forgive me.”
”…Okay,” said Natalie uncomfortably. “You didn’t really do anything to me.”
Riley shook her head. “I did, but you may not be aware. Please know I deeply regret it.”
”It’s okay. Whatever it was… I’m sure you had a reason.”
She looked oddly at Natalie. “You are not as I remember.”
”I’m a different person now, too.”
Riley didn’t say anything more. Natalie turned back forward, sending Percy up high again to watch for anyone ahead. Riley was fiddling with a black box on her belt. It looked like a super-fancy walkie talkie to Natalie—a military radio, if she had to guess. After a couple minutes of fiddling while they walked, pausing at every nearby sound or faraway gunshot to take a perimeter check, Riley finally clicked into something.
”…Ashe. Hector and Ruby are on their way.”
Lani jerked his head around. “You heard that?” he asked.
Natalie nodded, before realizing he’d actually asked Riley.
”Your partner is here,” Riley replied.
”…All right,” said Lani, turning back again. He seemed even more tense than before, to Natalie’s eyes. She didn’t ask, but Riley had turned to her again.
”Your hearing is strong. You heard every word of my receiver.”
Natalie nodded. She brushed back the hair around her ears, revealing the sharp points. “I changed how my ears work.”
Riley looked distinctly uncomfortable, but didn’t comment. Instead, her eyes locked to the side, somewhere just past Natalie.
”Down!” she shouted.
Lani fell to the ground, Natalie a split-second later. Natalie’s friends hesitated, huddled together in fear. Gwen circled around in front of them, shielding them with her body against the threat Riley had spotted.
Two men with rifles, both crouched behind an overturned log and aimed right at their group. Neither had fired yet… what are they waiting for?
Do not give them the chance to fire.
”Who are you—” started Lani, but Natalie had already moved.
Her mind hurled out two lines like fishing rods, snagging the guns. One of the men managed to pull the trigger as she snatched it away, but the shot went high into the air, missing all of them. The guns flew back to their group, where Natalie once again twisted them into useless bits of metal and plastic.
”Fucking monsters!” one of them shouted, drawing a pistol—which Natalie immediately snatched away as well, before he even had a chance to fire.
She reached out to the trees and branches nearby, using a technique Cinza had posted online, and called them to wrap up the two men in roots and branches. Wood shifted and groaned as it erupted around the two, binding them tight. They were effectively trapped.
”Leave those kids alone!” called the other, struggling against his sudden bonds.
Huh… I guess they don’t know it’s me.
Riley had her rifle up and ready, but she hadn’t taken a shot yet. “Linnethea,” she murmured. “You don’t want to kill.”
”No,” said Natalie.
”This is a battle. People will die. They have attacked us. You may not have that choice.”
”They’re unarmed though, right? I broke their guns. They can’t hurt anyone.”
”There are far more ways to hurt someone than guns. These people are willing to kill innocents. If we let them go, they may rejoin the battle.”
Natalie hesitated. Lani didn’t say a word, his own gun drawn while he scanned the other direction.
”What’s going on?” asked Kelsey, finally looking up at Natalie. “Why is all of this happening?”
”They’re attacking us because we have magic,” said Natalie grimly. “And if I let these people go, they might come back and hurt more of us. Maybe kill us.” As if to punctuate her, another rattle of gunfire echoed through the trees from the north.
”I leave it to you,” said Riley quietly. “I do not think we should let them live, but I will not kill ones you have spared.”
These are my dad’s people… they’re crazy though. They want to kill us. My dad sent them out to kill us.
Riley is correct. We must kill them. It’s the only safe action.
No. It only makes things worse. People get killed and everyone gets more angry. Then more people want to kill us. Just like in Rallsburg. It was only some of the town, and then somebody killed the Reverend, and then the mob started. Then Cinza killed Mr. Wilson, and suddenly the whole town was trying to kill me and Rachel.
You are leaving out a lot of important details, Natalie.
It’s still true.
”They’re trapped,” she said aloud. “We can come back for them when it’s over. They can’t fight anymore.”
”Someone may free them,” Riley pointed out.
”Well, then… they get free,” said Natalie, frustrated. “But no more killing unless we have to.”
Riley nodded. She glanced back ahead to the north, their intended path. “We should keep moving.”
Move, they did. Lani set a faster pace, hurrying toward the sound of gunfire against Natalie’s screaming instincts. Her mind won out though, with the support of the voice. She knew they couldn’t just abandon all the people in the camp, and they couldn’t know where more of her dad’s people might be waiting in ambush in the forest. The gunfire might be scary, but it was also easy to find, and the most likely to have allies willing to fight nearby.
”Go ahead, Malich.”
”They’re shooting at me now, sir. Stopped thinking I was on their side. I’m pinned down northeast of town, need backup. Over.”
”Cavalry’s on the way, Malich, but I can’t get to you. Surrounded by fuckin’ golems here. Hold out as long as you can, national guard’s on their way. Over.”
”Copy all, Malich out.”
Lani glanced back over his shoulder. “National guard… what would they have?”
”As much as they need,” said Riley. “They will be far better equipped than Brian’s men, and they will arrive in helicopters. As soon as they arrive, this is over.”
Natalie winced at her father’s name, and Lani noticed. He frowned, but didn’t say anything. They kept going. With the call out for help and a pinned man on the radio, Lani seemed desperate to get in a position to help. Natalie was more than willing, of course, but she knew it would once again put her friends in terrible danger.
They reached a wide expanse of open ground. Across the field, gunfire echoed out, little flashes popping in the darkness accompanied by whizzing bullets flying into the encampment.
”Riley,” said Natalie, right as they reached the edge of the thick trees. “Stay here with my friends. You can uhh… cover us from here, right?”
Riley nodded. “How will you cross?”
Natalie glanced around and found a log big enough. She reached for it and lifted it up, ripping it out of the ground. Dirt and dust sprayed everywhere, filling her lungs and making her cough. She shook her head, hair flying wildly, and cleared her throat. As she did, the log flew over in front of them. Natalie went back to Cinza’s shaping spell, shifting the log into a wide, round shield that would cover them from three sides.
”Incredible,” said Lani, a faint note of awe in his voice.
Riley frowned. Without warning, she pulled a pistol from her belt and fired a single shot straight into the wood. They all ducked instinctively, but with the continuing gunfire across the field, it was lost in the general cacophony. Still, Natalie’s ears rang at the gunshot so close by.
The bullet had embedded into the wood, still visible and not deep at all. Riley nodded with satisfaction.
”That will work.”
Natalie glanced at Lani. “Call the guy and ask where he is?”
Lani hesitated. He had lifted his hand slightly, but something held him back.
Riley looked at him. “This is not the time,” she said firmly.
He nodded and grabbed the cord trailing from his ear. “Malich, Makaio. We’re near your position. What do you need? Over.”
”…Who? Fuck. I’m in some rocks at the east end of a huge clearing, just north of the town. Rocks look like a tiny version of the shit from the Lion King. Over.”
Natalie had a sudden urge to giggle, completely at odds with the situation around her. She peered out into the field to the east and quickly spotted the rock formation—and it did, in fact, have the familiar raised pillar with a single long flat rock jutting forward. She couldn’t see a person there, but plenty of little dust clouds were popping all around it as gunfire flew in.
”Copy that, spotted the rocks, Mufasa. We’re on our way. Over,” said Lani.
”Malich, asshole. Out.”
”Riley, you’ve got the shooters across the way?” Lani asked.
Riley crouched down and found a high root perfect to balance her rifle on. She leaned in and looked down the sight. “Yes.”
”Okay then. You ready, Linnethea?”
Natalie nodded. She quickly hugged Kelsey—which didn’t set her off at all, to her surprise—and followed Lani out into the clearing, rushing east as fast as they could. Gwen stayed behind, protecting her friends. Natalie kept the wooden shield up around them, surrounding them from every direction. A few bullets flew their way, plinking into the wood and knocking Natalie a little off balance, but for the most part, they seemed to be ignored.
Until they weren’t.
A golem erupted from the ground, straight into the front of their shield. Natalie lost her grip as it burst out of the grass floor, covered in moss and dirt. She fell backward, and lightning flared in her hands. Lani was shouting something, but the golem didn’t hear anything of course.
Its hand swung forward, right for Lani’s head—and stopped.
The golem froze in place. Natalie had been about to blast it into pieces. She held back. Something was happening… something she’d seen before, back when Lily had tried to hold one in place in front of Boris’ shop, months ago in Rallsburg.
Natalie glanced back at the camp, and there he was—her old friend Hector, holding Ruby’s hand while she controlled the golems. A golem of her own protected them from gunfire. The one above Natalie had just moved, shifting to block the gunfire now peppering them. A third golem was crossing the field, moving toward the shooters—and a familiar figure back within the trees, holding a spiked black rod and shouting with such an air of pure, deep hatred as could kill people where they stood.
Natalie was only a hundred feet away from him. He looked the same as he always did. A little more of a beard, but he was in good shape, and he was wearing one of his favorite coats. On his wrist, a little blue-pink woven band… a bracelet she’d made him for his birthday, years ago.
Natalie choked up. Lani grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet. She struggled to run, her eyes still locked on him in the distance. In the clearing ahead of him, golems were now fighting each other. Gunfire suddenly rang out from Natalie’s side, as both the camp and Riley started firing on the far line, and her dad’s people had to duck for cover. He didn’t duck though. He stood tall and resolute, his eyes never wavering from the battle, shouting orders and commanding his golems forward.
Her dad was right there.
She could hear his voice.
Her heart tugged at her chest, begging her to go to him.
She wanted more than anything to run to his side.
An army of golems and guns stood between them, a constant battle only increasing in scale and terror, and one hundred feet may as well have been a million miles.
and we’re back! Natalie and Jeremy haven’t shared a perspective chapter since the funeral… and there’s definitely a lot more death happening here…
This is one of those chapters where I feel I might be going too fast. There’s a lot of major events here, between Quinn’s departure, the reunion with Gwen, the closest thing we’ve ever had to Natalie and Brian sharing the same space in the whole series, Jeremy and Jackie coordinating the defense, the whole fight, etc. I hope it’s coming through well. We’re heading into the final stretch of Book 2 here, and things are going to pick up as we keep going.
as a shameless plug, for more in-depth insights and stuff, do check out my Patreon blog! I’ll be posting an example blog post in the comments on the next chapter for an idea of what you’re getting out of your $1/week, so watch this space 😊
and remember: i love you 💙
I love you too :P
Kind of sad Nat shouldn’t reunite with Brian right now, but he’s quite hot-headed right now too, and I bet he wouldn’t be able to cool quickly enough to not do any harm to her (and regret it after). So maybe that’s good? What would golems do if his control wavers?..
Just got caught up. I found your serial through topwebfiction, and I am very surprised this didn’t have more votes. The quality of this fiction is far beyond most current serials. It’s well edited-it feels like you have a team of beta readers for it to be this polished. You write characters very well, which is incredibly difficult. Male and female view points are presented equally, and you seem to be able to switch between character mindsets and ages incredibly well.
My critism, according to personal taste: Jessica’s death was unnecessarily heart rending. The chapter itself was incredible and brought me to tears, however at the end, when she gets rid of her personal shield-it just felt like it was meant to hurt the reader. My suggestion? Make the pain worth it. I originally felt that perhaps something would be done with that ending-yeah, Jessica’s death was tragic, but now we know shields can be done away with. Would’ve been a great way to introduce healing and its difficulties-but Jessica never shared that information before she died. So why is it in the story if not just to unnecessarily hurt the reader? There is no payoff. Life doesn’t often work out that way, but we read stories to escape life…
My next criticism is Natalie’s scar. I feel like her recieving the scar was pointless-aside from making difficulties for her it had no place in the story. Her scene with the gang could’ve been done just as well without them cutting her. The threat of it would’ve been enough for a 13 year old girl to end the chapter the way it did without mutilating a minor. To your readers, your characters are real, and I had the first desire to drop the series after she was mutilated. What happened to Jenny was similar, but different in that it wasn’t described to us. If a minor needs to be harmed for the purpose of your story, please tread lightly and make the pain necessary.
Please keep writing, you’ve got a big fan in me and I’ve already got three different people to promise to give this fiction a chance!
A fan from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Thanks for the kind words! It really means a lot to me :) I don’t get a whole lot of comments — probably because as you said, I don’t have a whole lot of votes — so I really appreciate you coming in and dropping feedback off 💙
I’m sorry I didn’t respond sooner, I’ve had a bit of a crazy week here. Anyway:
Nope, just me! I do have a few patrons who read ahead, but they rarely comment, so… yeah, it’s just me. I write one chapter a week and spend the rest of the week editing in short bursts, either at work during downtime or just before I sleep. It seems to be working pretty well, so I haven’t changed that schedule since!
Now, for the criticisms:
The story’s not over, but… I definitely understand your frustration here. I wrote that not because I want to hurt the reader — I never want to hurt any of you, I love you all ;-; — but because without some kind of hope, Jessica would never have finally overcome her refusal to reverse the damage done by her original ritual. After all, Jessica always had the ability to reverse it — she chose not to, because living with it was easier for her.
The ultimate tale of Jessica is of tragedy, and yes, this creates a certain element of pain which might come across as excessive. As you point out, there’s a Chekov’s gun which goes unfired; the magic shield has not since been brought up or realized by any other character. Jessica was always going to be the first to discover it, since her affinity and her previous discoveries pointed the way, but for her to find it at such a time is certainly a twist of the knife.
I hope it doesn’t come across as too harsh a twist, but at the same time, I do stand by it. Unless Jessica saw a real hope to heal herself, she would not have fulfilled the final part of her tragedy, and I think the greater arc would be lost. Introducing a new element of magic to achieve this may not have been the best choice, but I think it works in the greater context of the chapter and of Jessica’s arc as a whole.
Your final sentence is very interesting to me, though: “we read stories to escape life”. I can definitely appreciate this point of view, but personally, I write stories to help myself understand real life better. I found myself in writing, and learned to relate to people in ways I haven’t before. This fuels my focus on realistic characters and growth in my writing, and I think it’s a large part of the character writing you’ve fallen in love with.
I hope I’m not assuming too much there, of course, but when I see such strong reactions to characters being hurt, I like to think you’ve fallen in love just as I have :)
Anyway, let’s go on to the other character I’ve tortured:
Trust me when I say this: my characters are just as real to me as they are to you. When I wrote Jessica’s interlude, I cried for an hour. I could barely type the last few paragraphs because I couldn’t see the screen. I basically broke. For Natalie, I honestly worry about her every day, because to me, she’s like a daughter, and I feel an honest guilt for what I’ve done to her. I legitimately feel like a terrible mother some days. So believe me, I don’t hurt them because I find any joy in it.
Instead, what I’m trying to explore is how someone becomes a particular thing, how they manage to reach a height — or depth — and what chain of events, what people and places and choices caused them to reach that place. In that way, I have Natalie experience things which I feel to be true, and which I know genuinely occur in the world. TLS is a series which takes place in the real world, with all its ugly darkness, and I can’t shy away from the shadows simply because they make me uncomfortable.
Natalie’s scar does serve more purpose than simply causing her difficulties. There’s a common theme of scars throughout TLS, in fact, with people assigning various levels of importance and meaning to them. I’ll break down a few here:
In Awakening 3, Rachel mentions the scar on her leg she got from her ritual being interrupted, which she barely takes notice of. To Rachel, scars are largely meaningless; after all, she has a perfect memory, she has no need of visual reminders.
In Awakening 8, Cinza’s scars on her chest are revealed, as with Ruby’s. Ruby is also a minor, as you’ll recall, and hers are clearly from attempted suicide — though the reason will not be revealed until Interlude III. Cinza will explain her own to Rachel in Chapter 15, stating they came from a “man of conviction” who beat her when she was young. Cinza and Ruby both remember their history in those scars, where they came from, past lives they’ve escaped.
In Interlude II, Jackson reveals the scars he’s gotten from all his fights with Alpha. He shows them to Beverly, stating that he doesn’t want to get rid of them, because they remind him what Alpha did and how he can never forgive his other half.
In Convergence 4, more scars are brought up, battle wounds from the riot shared amongst Yusuf, Brittany, and more.
In Convergence 7, Quinn mentions he might get a scar thanks to Natalie shoving him into the bookcase, and thinks it’ll be cool looking, and that he’ll have a good story to tell. This also holds the foreshadowing of lines such as this:
When I decided that Natalie should receive a scar, I was following a longstanding theme of the story, in that history is sometimes forced irreversibly onto one’s skin, and sometimes against one’s will. Natalie was scarred not to traumatize her — though of course it did, as did the sexual assault by Tom earlier in the chapter — but because it created an irrevocable record on her face.
In a similar fashion, this amplifies every other storyline surrounding her. Sure, without a visible scar, Lily and Kendra are obviously neglecting Natalie — but with it, they show themselves as totally self-absorbed. You can see similar effects throughout every storyline in Natalie’s arcs. Furthermore, the scar marks her as a member of the gang (which is a real thing some gangs do, as nonsensical as it seems to me), which has various ramifications that would simply not exist otherwise.
Anyway, I do want to say I appreciate your fear, and I definitely don’t ever want to seem like I’m writing misery for the sake of torturing readers and characters alike, so I really appreciate your comment and I’m glad you’ve joined me here. Stick around, there’s a lot more to come :)