Chapter 44 — Ghosts of Rallsburg
The guns shouted death, a war cry echoing through the forest. Brian’s people were raining chaos through the camp of so-called “awakened”, but it wasn’t enough. He’d shown they weren’t wanted, how they brought terrible tragedy to good people, but still they insisted on their self-destructive ways. It was… disgusting.
Brian couldn’t focus on the many running scared, though he surely dreaded their escape. Like rats, they’d burrow into the crevices of the land, biding their time until they emerged once again lesson unlearned. His people, brave crusaders picked from his most dedicated followers, would stop as many as they could, but the forest truly was chaos that night.
Bodies. Bodies everywhere, dead and alive. In the shadowy moonlight, Brian could only see shapes. They were outlines of people, fleeing and tripping over detritus scattered through the huge clearing, yet it seemed fitting. These were not truly people, so why should they have such human things as faces? Some of his people were still reluctant to go for the kill on those who looked so outwardly normal—Brian was grateful that nature itself seemed to be aiding their cause that night.
Of all places, of course this clearing is where they made their camp of decadence.
Brian knew this place, far too well. The abandoned RVs still stood—some co-opted by vendors, others slowly reclaimed by nature—and toward the far end, the most fateful of all quietly lay. In that small, ruined home, Brian had first seen the truth. In there, Jackson had shown him the folly of magic, the inevitable fate for those who dabbled with powers far beyond their understanding.
In that place, Jenny Wilson had died, and with her, the town of Rallsburg.
It should have been destroyed.
”They’re getting away,” snapped one of Brian’s lieutenants.
Brian couldn’t respond right away. He’d been concentrating on his golems, commanding them to tear down structures and smash the RVs flat. These were once good people’s homes—he would not allow the awakened to steal them. He simply grunted in response, his mind sharp and focused on the monsters he controlled.
”We should just shoot ’em all,” added a man nearby, prone with his rifle propped on a tree root. “Either they’re goddamn witches or they’re helping the fuckers. All of ’em are guilty.”
”No,” said Brian firmly.
”If one innocent person dies, we’ve failed.” Brian held the golems in place for a moment, shooting a cold glare at the hapless man. “You will be sure of your target or you will not fire. Use a stone or see them use magic, but don’t kill anyone who might yet be saved. We’re not murderers.”
”You heard the man,” added the lieutenant, frustration gone from his voice. Brian’s commanders were well-chosen—they might be inexperienced in combat, but they understood his cause and they were beyond motivated. Brian himself had no professional experience, but he had waged a one-man war before, and he could do so again.
They will never have my home.
Brian’s control over the golems was suddenly broken. He snapped his attention back to the camp. The faceless monster wasn’t gone—it was frozen in place. Slowly, without Brian’s ordering, it turned around and faced him, its blank face accusing him as it had so many of the hated awakened. For a split-second, Brian thought it might have finally come for him, having used their power for so long at the cost of his own soul.
But they were not to judge him. No, he was using his power for the betterment of humanity. This golem had been corrupted by evil magic. As Brian turned to look, he saw a familiar face, a ghost from his past—Hector Peraza, holding the hand of the young red-headed grey cultist.
”Shoot them!” Brian shouted, pointing at the pair.
A rifle quickly turned—whose, Brian couldn’t tell, and didn’t care—and opened fire, but the shots went wide. His men were motivated and armed, but they were not professionals, and landing a shot in the dark chaotic forest was no easy feat. Worse, as Hector and the girl realized they’d been targeted, a second golem from Brian’s control was converted away and moved into place as a shield. Brian knew full well they could not be pierced by bullets. He needed another strategy.
How many can they withstand?
He diverted every other golem he had created. Some had chased the strange moving wooden barrier, a construction of torn-apart trees as a makeshift shield, but Brian pulled them all back in. If Hector and his little friend thought they could handle the monsters of Omega himself, then let them test their mettle.
The golems converged toward Hector and Ruby. Brian couldn’t see them any more, but he imagined their terrified faces. Once, Brian had been friends with the timid shopkeeper, but the man had chosen his side. Brian regretted his fate, but resigned himself to the task. He would end Hector’s life as swiftly and painlessly as he could.
But he could not get past Hector’s control.
Brian was a master of the golems. He’d controlled the monsters through dozens of conflicts, and each time, he found it easier. He could summon more, control them from further away, could send them on several tasks at once. Defeating two awakened should have been easy, particularly when they’d never shown any ability to summon or control golems themselves.
Yet this high school girl and a grocery store owner from Mexico were keeping Jackson’s monsters at bay.
He roared in frustration, startling his subordinates. One of Brian’s lieutenants looked back with concern, but Brian ignored him. He’d realized a trick, something they wouldn’t expect—Brian was still the source of the golem at its root, and he could simply cut it off.
The golem shielding the pair began to disintegrate.
”Get ready to shoot them,” Brian grunted through gritted teeth.
Movement behind the crumbling golem as they ran. A hail of bullets followed, but Brian saw no satisfying puff of blood, no indication they’d been taken down. He sighed, but it didn’t matter—the threat to his weapon was gone. He took a breath to steady himself, then began to summon his army once more. They burst from the ground, one by one like the undead, and Brian sent them out into the encampment once more to wreak havoc.
He turned his attention back to the wooden shield, which had just been tossed away. Behind it, a young man and a girl, fleeing for rocks piled at the end of the clearing. For a split-second, Brian panicked—he thought he’d seen his daughter in that girl, but it was all wrong. The proportions, the clothing, even the way she moved seemed nothing like Natalie. From a distance, Brian couldn’t be sure, and he dismissed it as a mirage.
When I am done, Natalie, I will find you, and I will apologize for leaving you every hour until I die.
Natalie reached the rocks and ducked for cover. Lani, a few steps behind, dove to the ground right beside her, while a couple bullets cracked off the rocks above them, chips flying off and nearly hitting her in the face.
”What the hell—” gasped the man hiding there, who they’d been sent to rescue.
”Are you Malich?” asked Natalie. Lani was breathing a little heavy from sprinting across the field, but she felt totally fine. I guess this whole body ritual thing was a good idea after all…
”…Yeah.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Guess you’re my backup, then?”
”I guess so.”
”What are we doing?” asked Lani. “Flanking harder or getting out?”
”Well, those fuckers don’t seem to be leaving,” grunted Malich, nodding toward the line of flashing guns where Natalie’s father was. “I’d feel bad if I left first.”
Lani grinned. “Jeremy said you were an asshole. Not seeing it, personally.”
Malich coughed out a laugh. “Ashe is the real asshole, but I deserved that. I learned a fuckton since then.” He glanced around. “You seen my man? I was out here looking for him.”
”I’m not su—”
”He’s dead…” said Natalie quietly. “I heard it happen.”
”You… heard it,” muttered Malich. “You sure?”
”He had one of your radios. Somebody cut his neck open.” She winced. “I’m sorry…”
Malich took a long, deep breath. “…Fuck…”
Lani patted him on the shoulder. “Nothing you could’ve done, man.”
”Yeah.” Malich didn’t look convinced at all, but he shook his head again and turned back to face toward the gunfire. “So what’s the plan?”
Lani turned to Natalie. She hesitated. Why do they keep thinking I’m in charge?
Because we are the most powerful, and you are a leader. They are not leaders. Take command, as we were meant to.
But I have no idea what I’m doing! I’ve never been in a fight like this.
…Can we really do this?
We can. We must. We will.
”Okay,” murmured Natalie.
”Lani, can you get him and my friends out of here?” asked Natalie. We can’t protect everyone at once, and it will be easier if my friends are safe with Lani and Riley. “I’m gonna keep going. If I can get close to them, I can take their guns.”
”You can do what now?” Malich looked at her like she was insane. “Girl, how old are you?”
Natalie ignored him. “Lani, if you go kinda that way,” she said, pointing roughly toward the town, though in a way that wouldn’t take them anywhere the guys with guns, “you’ll find a tree fort. Can you keep them safe there until I come back?”
”What about you?” asked Lani.
”I’ll be okay,” said Natalie, trying to force a smile on her face, but it didn’t quite make it. “I’ll meet you there.”
Lani nodded. “I’ll get them there, but we’re going to need cover getting out of this clearing. They’re still on the other side.”
”Yeah…” Natalie got on her knees and moved up to the rock, next to where Malich still lay. Golems were once again pushing into the town, flashes of gunfire popping out from both sides and the non-stop banging still pressing on her ears. “I can do that.”
”Just tell me when.”
Okay… how do I distract them? The only way I know how to beat golems is lightning… but if I use lightning, then everybody’s gonna know it was me. They’ll arrest me and take me away.
Ruby and Hector were able to take control of them… what if we can do that?
I gotta get Ruby to show me how to do it, so that doesn’t help right now. As long as I don’t show myself and take out the golems, I should be okay. So… I gotta make sure nobody sees me. But this means Lani’s gonna know… well, I think he’s a good guy.
We must act soon. Our side is losing.
The voice was right. Golems were pressing into the camp once more, and the gunfire from there had significantly decreased. Ruby and Hector seemed to be gone, and though Natalie saw a few more bursts of magic, she couldn’t tell if anyone was even fighting back anymore. Worse, people seemed to be running toward the guns now, so Natalie assumed someone must be attacking them from the other side now.
”I’m going up in the trees,” said Natalie. “You’ll know when it’s time to go.”
”Never stay in one spot too long,” said Lani as she stood up. “They’ll shoot you if you do. Keep moving.” She nodded, and he smiled weakly. “Good luck.”
Natalie jumped up into the nearest tree, a wide-eyed Malich watching her go. She leapt forward, branch by branch, using bursts of Movement magic on her flight to make sure she landed exactly where she meant to. Her balance was perfect after learning to modify that part of her brain. I’m like a monkey up here… this is amazing!
We have a fight to win. Be careful, Natalie.
I know. I’m just… this is really cool.
Natalie slowed and stopped, landing at a tree much closer to the battle, where she could see the golems clearly. Far into the camp, she saw people huddling behind cover, while more golems slowly pressed in from the opposite end. They were trapped, and the jaws were closing ever tighter.
Time to change that.
The fire in her heart roared to an inferno. Natalie gathered up her energy and sent it crackling into her arms. She threw out one hand, and from it, a massive burst of pink lightning snapped forward. It crackled and danced through the air… and jackknifed to the side, melting a steel pole and completely missing the golem she’d been trying to take out.
…I forgot about that…
Natalie rubbed at her eyes from the bright flash of light. She quickly jumped three trees down, remembering Lani’s advice, and found another golem—this time one not near anything metallic.
Another crackling pink bolt zig-zagged through the air. The upper half of the golem disintegrated, and a tiny fire kicked up in the grass behind it. Natalie could just barely reach it from her spot. She smothered it, then jumped away to her next tree.
The gunfire nearby had slowed. She heard shouting and confusion, and suppressed a strange urge to giggle. They were so confused—the lightning was coming from above them! Natalie settled into another tree and decided to try something new. She snapped both hands forward, fingers splayed out wide, and fired a new bolt, trying to shape it in mid-air.
Pink electricity arced over the entire camp, a thick and dangerous bolt of crackling energy that forked through the air and struck three golems on the far side. They vaporized, the remaining material breaking down and crumbling to dust where they stood.
People started running out the newly opened escape path. Nearer to her, with Brian’s men no longer firing, Lani and Malich were sprinting back to Riley’s position. Natalie smiled—her plan was working.
A helicopter blade beat the air, sending a burst of fear into her heart. Natalie looked up. The only time she’d ever heard a helicopter so close was the night of the riot, back in Rallsburg. She stayed hidden in the tree she’d leapt to after the forked lightning. More helicopters were emerging now, dark green things with men hanging out of them.
Are these dad’s guys too? It can’t be… Maybe they work for that Malton guy?
They have flags on their vehicles. These are soldiers.
So… these are the good guys?
The same who have blamed Rika for murders she did not commit and would arrest us if they found us.
Engines were rumbling in the distance. Boxy-looking trucks were rolling into the camp now, with more soldiers hopping out, and a tank trundled in behind them. Natalie watched from her little nook, while below, she could hear her dad’s men panicking. They were scared and running away. Natalie couldn’t blame them—she wanted to run away too.
Lani and her friends had gotten back to Malich’s rocks. To her relief, every one of them looked okay. They ran back into the forest. She turned and hopped out into the trees, calling Percy down to her from the sky. She’d meet them at her castle back home, returning to memories she’d left far behind, returning to where everything began.
Lightning crashed through the woods. The trees lit up, outlined in white. Somewhere, Natalie heard the rush of wind and a shout of anger, a voice she knew all too well by now.
”Why was it out here?”
She knew it was those two fighting again, though who they were, she had no idea. She just wanted to get to her fort, because Scrappy said something was wrong. He couldn’t tell her anything more specific—they couldn’t really talk, no matter what Natalie tried—but he’d seemed afraid, and that was more than enough to get Natalie moving.
The young man shouted something less intelligible, something about recklessness and irresponsibility which Natalie couldn’t understand.
Another lightning bolt. Something was crackling. Natalie felt heat rising all around her, even in the cool May air. She pulled her pink raincoat tighter, and stumbled over the tree roots as she tried to keep up with Scrappy. He kept stopping and looking back at her. She felt his distress as clearly as her own fear. Her skin crawled with the sense of discomfort, like something was horribly wrong.
Around the next tree, Natalie’s heart burst.
Her castle was on fire.
Immediately, she ran forward, throwing her magic into the inferno. She’d learned how to fight fire after accidentally setting one herself. Memories of the stern Sheriff Jackie flashed through her head. With nearly a year of magic now, she’d learned a lot, and fire was easy for her now. She didn’t like using it, but she wasn’t afraid of it anymore.
Piece by piece, Natalie smothered it down. The fire diminished, and to her relief, her little place was mostly intact. The place had black smudges everywhere now, and she might have to replace a couple of the smaller pieces of wood, plus the door was completely shattered, but her castle remained strong. She breathed a sigh of relief. In the distance, another lightning bolt echoed, much further away than before.
They were going away. She could relax.
Natalie wondered if they’d ever stop fighting. She’d first heard them fight in July the previous year, when she’d first found the little page of magic in her castle, but she hadn’t known what it was at the time. This was the fourth time they’d fought now, the two young men, and every time, Natalie grew a little more fearful.
What if they burn the whole forest down? Jackie always said that was possible. I like the forest. It’s where Scrappy lives, and all my other friends. It’s where I found magic.
She hurried into her castle, Scrappy on her heels. Her heart sank.
The piece of paper, the most precious thing out here, had been burned to a cinder. Only a tiny blackened piece of ash remained. Natalie sat down next to it on her folding chair, miraculously untouched by the fire. She picked up the little crumbling paper, which broke apart in her palm, and began to cry. Scrappy pawed over and nudged his head against her shoulder, and Natalie collapsed onto him. He mewled and squirmed a little, but Natalie refused to move, and he gave up.
What if… what if I can’t learn any more magic? I wanted to keep reading it. Maybe there was something I missed. Now I’ll… I’ll never know.
<Scrappy, can you still understand me?> Natalie asked, coughing through tears.
Scrappy rubbed his head against her, as much an answer as she could want.
Natalie felt herself coming back together. She’d lost the piece of paper, and maybe the ability for Jenny or her dad to use magic, but she still had it. It wasn’t going anywhere. She’d still have Scrappy and her other friends.
She spun around, hands up and ready to throw fire. Scrappy growled. He dropped into a hunting stance, ready to pounce.
Someone was outside.
”Is someone in there?”
Who is that? I don’t recognize their voice. Maybe they’ll just go away if I stay quiet…
”Are you okay? I heard crying…”
”…I’m okay,” said Natalie finally, giving up. Scrappy still looked ready to fight, but Natalie lowered her hands.
”Can I come in?”
Someone walked in front of the half-demolished door. Natalie squinted and rubbed the leftover moisture out of her eyes, but it wasn’t just her. The young woman outside was too tall to be seen—her head was higher than the doorway. So that means it’s… uhh… Rachel.
Sure enough, Rachel’s face appeared a moment later, ducking into the fort. The inside was tall enough for Rachel, but the door had been made by Natalie’s dad to fit his daughter, not other people. Rachel looked around and took a seat on the spare chair in the corner, the one Natalie had always meant for Jenny someday.
”Hi… umm…” Rachel trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
”…Natalie,” she filled in, though she knew she’d told Rachel her name more than once before.
”Yeah.” Rachel winced. She glanced around, and seemed to suddenly notice the huge cat still glaring at her from Natalie’s side. “Natalie, that’s a mountain lion!”
”His name is Scrappy,” said Natalie indignantly. “He’s my friend.”
”They’re really dangerous. Are you sure he’s—”
”He’d never hurt anyone.”
”Oh.” Rachel looked at the burned up paper in Natalie’s hands. “Wait… did you… are you able to do magic?”
Natalie’s eyes widened. “You can too?”
Rachel nodded. She held up a hand, and a tiny candlelight flickered above her palm. “I found mine back in February. How about you?”
”…Last July,” said Natalie, feeling guilty for some reason. Something about Rachel having magic—the Rachel everybody made fun of, airhead Rachel, forgetful Rachel—seemed great to Natalie, like she’d finally be able to get them all to shut up. Maybe I should have let her read it too, after Jenny and Dad. Guess I don’t have to now. Not that I could anymore…
”And you can control animals now. That’s incredible.”
”I don’t control them!” said Natalie. “They’re my friends.”
”Oh. Okay.” Rachel nodded. “Sorry. I didn’t think that through. You’re right.”
”This is my castle,” Natalie added, looking at the stairs up to the second floor and the table nearby. “It’s where I practice.”
”I was out here practicing too,” said Rachel. “But then… those people started fighting. And now… well… I’m lost.”
”You’re lost?” asked Natalie, not surprised in the slightest. Rachel nodded, looking miserable. “I know the way back. I was gonna go home soon anyway.” Since my castle’s okay and the page is already destroyed… I wish I’d taken it home. I was so scared of anybody finding it, and now I can never share it. “Want me to show you the way?”
Rachel nodded again. Natalie gathered up her things and said goodbye to Scrappy. She was confident of the way, and she didn’t want Scrappy to get noticed, or for Rachel to ask more questions about him. Natalie led the way with Rachel close behind, still stumbling over tree roots and getting her dress caught on branches.
”You know, a dress isn’t very good for the forest,” Natalie pointed out. “You should wear jeans. They’re more comfortable anyway.”
”When I wear jeans, people act as if I’m a stupid girl from the country,” said Rachel with a hint of frustration. “I try to wear nicer clothes so they treat me with some respect.”
”Does that really work?”
”…No, not really,” she sighed.
”All the other college girls I’ve met wear jeans,” said Natalie doubtfully. “I don’t think it has to do with clothes.”
”You might be right.”
”I like your dress,” Natalie added truthfully. She felt like she was being mean, and she didn’t want to be mean to Rachel. “I think it’s really pretty.”
”Thanks, Natalie.” Rachel squinted forward, where the town was slowly coming into view. “You know, there’s actually a meeting coming up tomorrow for people who can do magic. We’re trying to figure out the best way to handle everything, and stop people from fighting over things. We started doing them in March, and this is our fifth one now. You should come.”
”I dunno…” said Natalie doubtfully. I kinda liked the idea of it being just me and my friends, plus Dad… but I guess that was never really gonna happen since those two guys keep fighting out here. “Is it all college kids?”
”Not all. There’s a few of us, like Josh and Rika, but there’s also… uhh…” Rachel screwed up her eyes, struggling to remember. “Mabel Walsh—”
”I don’t like her. She yelled at me when I took an apple from one of her trees.”
”And Hector. The grocery store owner.”
”Hector’s gonna be there?” Natalie asked, suddenly excited. Hector was one of her few close friends, along with Jenny and Scrappy. They’d formed a fast bond. His store was probably her second most frequent hangout after her castle. “Okay. I’ll go.”
”I bring cookies every week too,” Rachel added. “You can have first pick.”
Natalie smiled. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Return fire blasted from the camp, much more organized and dedicated than before. Above them, helicopters swooped with spotlights blazing, men hanging out and ready to engage. Brian’s men were increasingly outnumbered, and many were already fleeing.
”Time to go, sir,” said his lieutenant.
Brian nodded. They couldn’t fight the national guard. Beyond being obviously outmatched, these men weren’t awakened. They were following orders, and Brian couldn’t entirely fault them for it. The blame lay with the corrupt officials at the head of the government, with their Governor and their President who openly welcomed the awakened into their lives.
”Pull back everyone we can,” said Brian firmly. “Use the hideout map I gave you.”
”I’ve got somewhere else to go. Watch for messages and we’ll regroup soon. Go.”
Brian turned and left, with his oldest and most trusted men at his back. Further into the forest, Felix scrambled to his feet. He’d been taking pictures and recording as much footage as he could for later propaganda. Brian didn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise—they were making propaganda, using techniques from the most terrible regimes of human history, but their message was too important. He could stomach using the tools of evil to further his message of good, just as he did with the golem rod.
The hideouts were another such tool—places established by Jackson in the forest, nearly impossible to find unless one knew where to look. They’d used those places many times, to hide from unwanted eyes while preparing to destroy the town, and now Brian would use them to further the crusade.
A few of his men would undoubtedly be caught. If they were, Brian had instructed them to surrender and cooperate peacefully. The national guard was not their enemy. Showing a measure of peace and reasonable cooperation would go a long way toward convincing the greater government of the truth to their mission.
They trooped through the woods, while helicopters continued to swoop past overhead. The spotlights crossed them a few times, but none stopped to track them. The forest was thick and dark, and Brian’s men were well-trained at avoiding being spotted. Felix, from a year embedded with an insurgency on the other side of the world, had learned many techniques to avoid the very same American forces they now fled, and he’d proved an invaluable asset once more. Brian thanked God every day for sending Felix to assist them.
”Did we do enough, though?” asked Felix as they hurried through the woods toward their own chosen hiding ground, one Brian had not shared with his lieutenants. “Did we disrupt enough for one night’s mission?”
”Every strike we survive is enough,” said Brian. “We keep fear in their minds and hope in the hearts of the rest of the world. We can’t hope to win yet. Our movement is not strong enough.”
”And this will make it grow?”
”The government played their hand, and now the military’s involved here. They’ll try to control magic. Cinza won’t accept it. She’s a revolutionary. They’ll build up their own conflict, and we’ll have the time we need to gather our strength and convince more people of the danger.”
Felix smiled. “You’re much more forward-thinking than I ever expected, my friend.”
Brian didn’t respond. Felix’s phrasing reminded him of another man, a spectre out of the dark pit of his memories. I wasn’t always, Felix… Once, I made an irrational, reckless decision about someone I considered a friend, and set in motion events far beyond my control. I regret that death every day.
As they ran, north to the wreckage of Rallsburg, where the guards who had been posted there were now missing—pulled away to help with the carnage in the encampment—Brian thought back to the clearing nearby, where he’d made a terrible mistake, and condemned an innocent man to death.
Natalie wasn’t home yet.
Brian paced back and forth in the kitchen. It was well past time for dinner. He’d told Natalie to go to the store while he prepared the sauce, buy the spaghetti and garlic, and come straight back home. The sauce was ready to go on the stove, but Natalie still wasn’t home, and he was getting worried.
Maybe she stopped by the apartments to grab my hat like I mentioned before, even though I didn’t ask her to. That would be just like her. He pulled out his phone and dialed his assistant. “Neffie?”
”Hi, Mr. Hendricks. What’s up?”
”Is my daughter there?”
”I sent her to get some food from Hector’s an hour ago and she still isn’t back.”
”Maybe she got distracted,” said Neffie with perfect patience. “I’m nearly done with the paperwork for tonight. Want me to go out and look?”
”No. I’ll do it.”
Brian hung up before Neffie could say another word. He hurried to grab his coat, since it was still exceptionally chilly for May. The sauce would keep for a while. Brian needed to find Natalie right away. He dialed her phone, but the signal was spotty, and her phone gave him an “out of service area” message and an offer to leave a voicemail.
”Hey, turtle. Just checking in. The sauce is all ready to go, but it needs some spaghetti or it’s going to get lonely. Call me back when you get this, okay?”
Brian pocketed his phone and started down the street. He waved to Robert with a touch of disappointment as he went by. Robert would have been his next phone call, but if his friend was home, he wouldn’t have seen Natalie anywhere either. Brian would have to find his daughter, one way or another.
He beelined through the town for Hector’s grocery, glancing in every direction as he went with an increasingly frantic air. Every step without spotting Natalie brought a slightly greater note of panic to his ears, like a gently rising wave pounding at his skull. When he reached the grocery, Brian’s fears doubled over.
It was closed.
Where is she…?
Brian dialed the sheriff, now truly worried. “Sheriff?”
”Mr. Hendricks? What can I help ya with?”
”My daughter’s missing.”
”Again?” Jackie couldn’t hide the note of skepticism in her voice. “Brian, I know you’re worried, but your girl seems to be missin’ every damn week or two now, and every time she turns up just fine. I can send out the search party if you want, but—”
”I sent her to Hector’s for some food, but the grocery is closed. She’s been gone an hour now.”
Jackie sighed. “So maybe she went to his house to get him. I swear, Natalie knows the town better than I do sometimes. I’ll keep an eye out and send her straight home if you like, but for now, I’m thinkin’ we just wait, okay?”
”…Fine,” said Brian. “Okay.”
”If I see her, I’ll tell her to call you.”
Brian hung up. He knew she was probably right, but he’d keep looking. He couldn’t stop worrying about her, no matter the reassurances he always got from the rest of the town. They all seemed to think it was totally okay for an eleven-year-old to have the run of the town. Everyone said she was an independent and self-reliant girl with plenty of common sense on her shoulders, but Brian couldn’t stop remembering the day she’d gotten past Lori for only an instant—the day she’d nearly died, the day Brian knew they needed to get far away from his dangerous, addled ex-wife.
Halfway home, a voice called out. “Ho, friend! What devil pursues you?”
He slowed to a halt. A tall man with strong arms to rival Robert’s and blazing red hair had shouted at Brian from across the road. The man smiled a friendly disarming smile, straightening up from the flowers he’d been weeding, and waved Brian closer.
”Come now, what alarms you? Speak quickly, that we might vanquish such a demon.”
”…Who are you?”
”Who am I?” asked the man, seeming genuinely upset. “I am the doctor Smith! Henry, they call me, and a terrible day indeed it is when one of my flock does not even know my name!” He laughed, a booming laugh which echoed down the street to the trees beyond.
Brian frowned. “I didn’t know we had a doctor.”
”And I didn’t know we had you!” Henry winked. “Let’s put that aside for now, though, friend. What has you so distressed?”
”My daughter is missing. I need to find her.”
”Your daughter…” Henry’s eyes lit up. “Pray tell, you wouldn’t be the man Hendricks I’ve heard so much about?”
Brian was taken aback. This man was nothing like what he expected, and certainly not someone he’d thought to meet in a town like Rallsburg. Henry seemed completely out of place, and maybe even out of time. “…Yes.”
”Well, I must say man, you’ve raised an incredible daughter. Natalie is one of the strongest and most independent young women I’ve ever had the honor to meet.”
”She’s met you?”
”Only in passing at Hector’s, once or twice,” said Henry. “Smart beyond her years, that one. She is a joy to our little community.” He frowned. “You say she’s missing?”
”I sent her to get some food from Hector’s for dinner, about an hour and a half ago now, and she didn’t come home. She’s not answering my phone calls either.”
”I see.” Henry put a hand on Brian’s shoulder. “Where might she go, between the grocery and your home?”
Brian took a moment to consider. “…Her best friend’s place is nearby. The Wilsons’ home. She could’ve gone there.”
”Then let us be off!” Henry turned and marched down the road toward the Wilson home. Brian hesitated, feeling windswept, before hurrying to catch up.
”You said I was part of your flock,” he asked as they walked. “Are you a preacher?”
”In a manner of speaking. I dabble in medicine for the body and the soul,” said Henry. “I consider myself a man of God, but the church and I have something of a… complicated relationship.” He laughed. “This town accepted me with all my faults, as it has many others with nowhere else left to turn.”
”It accepted me,” said Brian quietly.
”Ah, a fellow outcast,” said Henry sagely. “Well, let us just say that the church did not like the way I preached, nor I the machinations and greed behind their supposed faith. I was expelled like the lepers, but more fool them, for the Lord knows that us outcasts were those who truly loved and followed Him above all.” He glanced at Brian. “Apologies, if you are not a man of faith. I do not mean to press you.”
”I am. I haven’t been to a church in a while—”
”The world is our church, friend!” Henry proclaimed. “They trap themselves inside their stuffy buildings, but we have the whole planet, given to us by our generous God to nurture, cultivate, and protect, just as it nourishes us in return.”
Brian smiled. “…Do you hold a service here? I think I’d attend.”
Henry grinned. “So my sales pitch worked. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t even know your name yet!”
”Well, Brian of the clan Hendricks, we’ve yet to find your lost little sheep. The flock can wait!” Henry marched up to the door of the Wilson house and rapped his knuckles on the strong wood. “Mr. Wilson! Open the door, an emergency is afoot!”
Something thumped to the ground inside the house. Panicked movements echoed through the whole structure. Brian winced—they didn’t need to cause quite that much of a ruckus.
”Coming!” called Paul Wilson. A few hurried steps later, the door flew inward. “What’s happened, Reverend?”
”Well, my friend Brian here seems to have lost his daugh—ah!”
Natalie had just emerged from behind Paul, holding a bag under her arm with a pack of spaghetti sticking out. “Dad?” she asked, thoroughly confused.
Brian rushed in, nearly knocking Paul out of the way as he ran to his daughter. Natalie’s eyes went wide, and she dropped the bag in her shock as he gathered her up into a tight hug.
”Are you okay?”
”…Yeah, dad. What’s going on?”
”I was worried!”
”Well, Hector had to close early, and I didn’t have the spaghetti, and I knew that Jenny’s mom made her some last night so I thought they might have some, and so I came here.” Natalie tapped him on the shoulder. “Dad, you’re hurting me.”
”Sorry!” He let her back down to the ground. She picked up her bag again, and turned to grab her pink coat from the rack near the stairs.
”Well, that looks like spaghetti to me,” said Henry with a laugh. “I’d say mission accomplished, young woman.”
Natalie smiled. “Thanks, Mr. Smith.”
”Please, child, it’s just Henry! Mr. Smith was my great uncle twice-removed!”
She giggled. Jenny emerged from the kitchen along with her mom, looking for the source of the commotion. Brian was still feeling the ecstasy of sheer relief at finding his daughter alive and well once again. No matter how many times it happened, he never felt any less panicked.
”Henry,” said Brian, turning to the man. “Come over for dinner.”
”Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that,” said Henry. “Trust me, I’m terrible dinner company.”
”Please. You must.”
”I got some garlic bread too, dad,” said Natalie. “They didn’t have any garlic, but I thought that would work, right?”
”Well…” Brian hesitated. Obviously, garlic bread wouldn’t exactly spice up the sauce like he’d intended, but he didn’t want Natalie to feel bad for not getting what they needed.
Henry jumped in to his rescue. “Absolutely! And as a matter of fact, garlic bread is my favorite food, so I suppose I simply must attend your dinner after all.” He winked at Brian over Natalie’s head. “Lead the way, child!”
Natalie waved goodbye to Jenny and bounded out into the street, ponytail bouncing merrily and her bag swinging under her shoulder with every skip. Brian and Henry followed, saying a quick goodbye to the bemused Wilson family.
”Not too fast, turtle!” Brian called after her, and Natalie thankfully slowed down a little to stay in sight.
”Turtles aren’t that fast, you know!” added Henry in his booming voice.
”They are if they’re in the water!” Natalie shot back. “They can swim up to thirty five miles an hour in the water!”
Brian smiled. Henry laughed even harder than before. Natalie turned back and kept skipping down the road, darting back and forth in a zig-zag so she could still go fast without losing sight of them.
”As I said, Mr. Hendricks, smart beyond her years.”
”Thank you, Henry.”
”Oh, I didn’t do anything,” said the reverend, or was it the doctor? Brian wasn’t sure which, and it didn’t matter anyway. Like the reverend said, he dealt in medicine for the body and the soul. Henry clapped a hand on Brian’s back. “You knew where she went, and I just gave you a little push to keep moving. Natalie got her strength from somewhere, after all.”
”From God,” said Brian, but Henry didn’t smile and nod like he’d expected.
”Certainly, but God only set His plan in motion. It’s our job to follow through. You did the rest of the work raising your daughter.” Henry grinned. “Give yourself some more credit, my friend. You’re stronger than you think. God has a plan for you too, but don’t forget, it’s up to you to actually carry it out.”
It’s our job to follow through.
Brian entered the little hideaway first, though he was certain it was safe. Among the many they used for hunting awakened through the vast forests, this was one of the most important, and thus one only Brian and his most trusted lieutenants were permitted to know. Inside lay equipment and supplies, boxes and boxes painstakingly transported in the dead of night. They had computers, antennas, communication equipment, food… and weapons.
A forward operating base, Felix called it.
”I’ll start editing right away,” said Felix, plugging his camera into one of the laptops. They were all powered by a generator which charged off discreetly placed solar panels every day, dumping into cutting-edge battery banks donated by some tech entrepreneur who’d come to believe in their cause, and who now provided the servers for their private communications. “We can probably get another four or five videos out of this at least. Maybe more, and the military footage at the end will really spice things up.”
Brian let Felix talk, not really paying attention to his rambling. Felix was a talker, he worked through his ideas out loud. If it helped him to believe Brian was actually listening, then he could talk. In the meantime, Brian was still recovering mentally from the battle—the strain of commanding the golems, the pain of hearing his men die, the frustration and anger boiling in his chest as he failed once again to catch all the awakened in his trap.
His other followers were also getting on laptops, except for the few assigned to guard the entrance. Brian sat in the corner and tilted his head back, closing his eyes. In any other room in the world, he’d feel vulnerable, but among these people, the most trusted men and women, those he knew were devoted without question to the cause of eradicating the awakened, Brian felt no shred of danger.
”The President’s declared a state of emergency now too,” said one woman with a hooked nose—a stone cold killer, but also a terrible shot. Her son had been a pilgrim, and died in the forest near Rallsburg—by what, they might never know. She was utterly dedicated now, even more than he was. She never left their little bases, never went home, and poured every last cent she had into their cause. I can’t blame her. If I lost Natalie…
”Does that really change anything?” asked another man, one who’d been with Brian nearly since the beginning. They’d met in the forests not long after the town burned. He was a conservationist investigating the cause of the fires, and when Brian had shown him the truth of the destruction, the man had become their first real financial backer, a lifetime of trading stocks turning into a windfall for the crusade. “They already sent the army at us.”
”The Washington state national guard,” corrected Felix, looking up. “Under the command of the governor. They can’t send the Army, it’s not allowed to engage in police actions on United States soil. The President can federalize the National Guard from Oregon though, and throw more bodies at us. It’s not gonna matter though. More bodies doesn’t really beat an insurgency, not when you can’t damage the land and you don’t really know who you’re hunting.”
”An insurgency?” asked one of the guards, sounding offended. She was a career soldier, discharged honorably after losing an arm, but she was still a fighter at heart. Rejected from the police and every other form of serving the public she tried, the woman eventually ended up finding Brian in a bar west of the forest, and soon enough her rifle fired again for the public good. “Callin’ us fuckin’ terrorists?”
”They sure are,” snorted the other guard.
”Fuck that. I’m not a goddamn terrorist.”
”They’re just trying to paint us as the bad guys. That’s how this always goes.”
The two guards continued to argue while Brian closed his eyes again. He never learned their names. He didn’t want to, and if he were ever caught, he could never give them up. The only names he knew were by accident or due to fame, like Felix. They didn’t need to bond. They had a common cause. When it was over, they’d go their separate ways. Nobody needed to know each other… but there was one name everyone knew—his own.
Everyone knew Brian’s name.
His eyes flew open. The voice was one of those doing research, checking the fallout from their latest action. They monitored every news site, every analyst and political commentator from both sides. Felix would gather as much information as he could, analyze the general public’s opinion and reach out to his contacts, and plan their next move.
An exclamation like that meant they’d found something important. Normally, his team barely got excited anymore by the analysis process. It was usually grunt work, just writing up summaries to give to Felix later. This was different. Felix hurried over, and his eyes widened. A moment later, they shot up to meet Brian’s.
”…Brian…” he started, caution flooding into his voice.
Brian laboriously got to his feet, feeling the burden of his responsibility more than ever before. He shuffled over to the laptop and leaned in, while his followers stepped respectfully aside to let him read.
DAUGHTER OF “THE TRAITOR”: MISSING RALLSBURG GIRL A SECRET STUDENT IN SOUTH SEATTLE MIDDLE SCHOOL
Rumors fly in the recent upheaval surrounding Willford Jenkins Middle School, a public school located in south Seattle. Over the past forty-eight hours, parents have begun pulling their children out of school, fearing for their safety and claiming the administrators have allowed a dangerous pupil in their midst. More than a third of the 1100 students at Willford Jenkins missed school today, and officials expect that number to continue to rise. Their worries stem from a single child—Natalie Hendricks, daughter of Brian Hendricks, leader of the anti-Awakened movement and “Traitor of Rallsburg”, according to the Rallsburg Diaries.
”Her father’s a mass-murderer,” said Megan Sinclair, whose daughter was a classmate of Natalie. “She was at school under a fake name, hiding from the police and the FBI, and she terrorized my daughter. She’s just as bad as he is.”
In response to growing protests, principal Frieda Talbot has declared Natalie’s continued right to attend, citing the school board’s decision and laws protecting students’ rights. “Though she registered under a fake name, this was clearly an extenuating circumstance. Natalie has every right to attend school, and Willford Jenkins is fully prepared to defend her rights. She has been an exemplary student since the day she arrived.”
Natalie’s official record at the school, exclusively obtained for this report, reflects this sterling claim. However, other students dispute her reputation.
”Jenny’s crazy. There was a dodgeball fight and she broke Blake’s nose. She nearly broke a kid’s neck on her first day. And she’s so weird,” said Lydia Jennings, another classmate of Natalie’s, who was attending under the name Jenny Heshire.
Rumors also persist that Natalie is one of the awakened—those with the ability to use magic. Though many concerned parents cite this as the reason for removing their children from school, we could not confirm this claim, and it was not supported by any students contacted for this report. Whether or not she holds magical ability, Natalie Hendricks is certainly the cause of the chaos engulfing Willford Jenkins this week.
Felix was still watching Brian as he finally stood up straight again. “…Brian?”
”She’s still alive,” he breathed. Until that moment, he’d believed, but the fear always remained. He hadn’t received a single sign, not a single hint of his daughter until this story.
”Of course they’d say she’s awakened,” he said dismissively. “Of course they’d persecute her. It means nothing.”
”I found something else,” added a woman on the opposite side of his laptop, pointing at her screen. “You’ll want to see this.”
”What is it?” Brian asked, unsure what he was looking at on her screen. “This is a… blog?”
”Yeah, with an interview of another student. Blake Sinclair. Looks like they were friends.” She scrolled to a photo—and there she was. His daughter.
Natalie looked so much older than the last time he’d seen her. Her face hadn’t changed much, and her hair was just a bit longer than before… but it was in her eyes and her expression. Natalie looked guarded and afraid… hurt. She was surrounded by other girls, smiling into the camera, but Natalie clearly didn’t fit in with them… and she wasn’t smiling.
His heart ached. He wished he could jump through the screen to be with her.
”It goes on for a bit, and this girl claims she’s awakened too, but there’s no proof or anything. Kinda reads like she’s jealous of Natalie with a boy she liked,” she added, rolling her eyes. She scrolled down further, and another photo appeared.
Brian’s whole world stopped.
”Oh my God…” Felix gasped behind him.
It was Natalie again, and she looked even more withdrawn and damaged than before, but now… her face had changed to match. A scar spiraled around her cheek, starting at her ear and spinning out onto her face. Her hair was worn lower and thick to hide as much as she could, but it was obvious. Her eyes were purple—contacts, maybe? I don’t understand…—and she held herself in a defensive pose, as if she were about to be attacked, though she was just sitting in the back of a school bus.
A boy sat next to her, holding her hand. He looked nice enough, though his eyes were hidden behind glare off his glasses. Natalie didn’t seem particularly warm toward him, or toward anyone nearby. She just looked… broken.
Brian fell to his knees. Tears burst from his eyes. “…Natalie…” he murmured, over and over again. His people watched, all clearly aching for him, but what could they do? Who knew where she was, or what they could do to help her?
”If she’s got a boyfriend…” started Felix carefully.
Brian turned to him, frantic. “She might be living with him. If he isn’t, he’ll know where to find her. Figure out who he is and where they are. Do whatever you have to.”
Felix nodded. He glanced up at the police officer, one of Brian’s oldest lieutenants and veteran of more than one battle. Brian had sent him after Natalie before, but it was obvious now why he couldn’t find her—from this photo, she looked completely different now. It’s like she isn’t even my daughter anymore…
His people set everything in motion, while Brian remained stuck kneeling, gazing at the photo shining off the laptop in front of him. Natalie was frozen in time in that photo—his strong and brave daughter, damaged and broken, while he’d been away fighting against the whole world for her. I should have found her. I left her out there all alone, and look what happened. What was I—
”Don’t do that,” said the woman on the laptop, setting a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself. You’ve been through hell. We tried to find her. We tried everything.”
”It wasn’t enough,” whispered Brian. “It wasn’t enough.”
Natalie knocked her knees together impatiently, playing with a strand of her hair while the Council droned on about procedure and something else she didn’t understand. Rachel put a hand on her shoulder to try and calm her, but Natalie shrugged it off. She just wanted them to start talking about magic, not all this boring stuff about staying secret and being organized.
She glanced around the sitting room in Mabel Walsh’s huge house. Natalie was curious who else could do magic—was awakened, she reminded herself. Apparently, that’s what they were supposed to call it. Rachel said it like it was a bad word, but everybody else seemed okay with it.
Hector sat in the corner, fiddling with his phone and barely paying attention. Natalie had considered sitting next to him, but she’d ended up following Rachel to sit by the empty fireplace near her friend Rika, the loud angry girl with the blue hair who nobody else seemed to like. Josh Miller sat on the other side of Rika, occasionally leaning on her. Natalie knew they were dating, but most of the town didn’t yet. She’d heard it during one of the college capture the flag games.
Apparently it wasn’t a secret here in the little group of awakened. Natalie felt a little excited by that. This was a secret club. She loved the idea of secret clubs. She and Jenny had one too.
Maybe I can invite Jenny to this one day too. That would be so cool.
On the other side of the room sat one of the professors from the college, the one with the bright red hair. Natalie couldn’t remember her name, but she had a funny accent and always let Natalie hang out near her mansion, even though her groundskeeper Collins tried to shoo her away. Next was Ryan Walker, one of the college guys who always wanted her on his team, and he was super handsome. She had a huge secret crush on him. Finally, there were two whose names Natalie didn’t know—the delivery guy who brought her stuff she ordered online, and a quiet, pale girl with brown hair and a strange accent.
The really interesting people were up front though: Mabel Walsh and Alex Nelson, two of the three Councilors—Hector was the third, apparently, though he didn’t seem like one to Natalie—along with the three “gods”, by far the most powerful of them all. Alpha, who always looked like an outline of light instead of a person and spoke with a deep commanding voice, sat on the left, while Omega say on the right.
Beverly huddled up in the middle, wrapped up in a scarf and a hooded sweatshirt. She rarely spoke, but everyone shut up whenever she opened her mouth. Natalie wasn’t really sure why, but it was her first meeting, so maybe there was something special about Beverly she just didn’t know yet. She’d have to ask Rachel later.
Natalie stayed quiet and patiently listened, just like her dad always asked whenever they had to go to the doctor or something else important in the city.
”It’s time to start expanding,” said Alpha, his deep voice rolling over the small group. “There’s only ten awakened part of the Council, but we know there must be more. The Scraps are spreading.”
Omega made a derisive noise. Beverly looked at him, and he seemed to back down. After a moment’s hesitation, Alex spoke up from the council seats.
”What does expanding mean?”
”Two things. We use what we have to find anyone who’s awakened and invite them to join us—”
”Gonna need a bigger room,” joked the deliveryman, glancing around. Mabel glared at him, but the professor spoke up before any argument could begin.
”I believe I can supply one of the college classrooms after hours. It should be sufficient for up to sixty if necessary, and more if we squeeze in. Once we reach those numbers, we will undoubtedly be at a point where we might approach the mayor and transition into the town hall.”
Alpha nodded. “Thanks, Kendra.”
”And the second part?” asked Alex.
”We begin a sponsorship program—”
”No,” interrupted Omega.
Beverly sighed and seemed to withdraw into her chair, closing her grey eyes. Alpha’s head swiveled around—a curious motion, since Natalie couldn’t really make out his neck or his eyes, but the outline of his nose in profile showed where he now faced, eyeing Omega from across their table.
”It’s safer than letting people awaken at random.”
”I’m trying to stop that, you know.”
”And we appreciate your efforts tracking down the lost pieces of the book—which you destroyed, in case you forgo—”
Beverely made a noise, somewhere halfway between a click of her tongue and an exasperated sigh. Alpha faltered mid-sentence.
”We haven’t seen any of these lost pieces,” said Mabel carefully from the front.
”Because he’s burning them,” said Rika. “He doesn’t want anyone to awaken, remember? Thinks this shit is too dangerous.”
”That wasn’t the deal,” said Alex. “We wanted to collect them so we could learn how to use it properly. If you’re destroying them—”
”There is no ‘properly’,” said Omega. “It should have been destroyed completely. Instead, we now have children getting involved in our council. Are you saying we should awaken her?”
Natalie got to her feet, annoyed. “What’s wrong with that?” she asked indignantly. “I’m good at magic!”
Beverly’s eyes snapped open and found Natalie’s. She had a strange, confused look on her face, but it was quickly forgotten as the rest of the group reacted in shock.
”You’re awakened?” asked Mabel in a concerned voice.
Natalie shrunk a little, feeling like she’d done something wrong. She looked over to Rachel, but the tall girl seemed nervous herself, and the sudden glare from Alex up at the Council table didn’t help much either.
”Rachel, did you—” he asked.
She shook her head. “I ran into her in the woods. She was already awakened.”
”Yeah, I read from the book and all that,” said Natalie. “And I can do cool things. I know it’s dangerous, but I can control it, so it’s okay.”
”How are we supposed to keep this a secret?” asked Mabel. “A child—”
”I’m eleven,” Natalie interrupted, “and I know how to keep a secret. I’ve been awakened for months and months and my dad doesn’t know. Nobody did until Rachel yesterday.”
Nobody answered her. Mabel seemed taken aback, as did Alpha and Omega. Everyone was acting uncomfortable. Beverly still watched Natalie with a cautious expression she didn’t understand. Natalie fidgeted in place, not sure what else to say.
Suddenly, Rika burst out laughing.
”Well, shit, Natalie’s better at keeping secrets than we are. The fuck are we complaining about?”
”No need to be rude,” murmured Kendra.
”Rachel awakened me and we’re still fine. Josh awakened Ryan—”
”Biggest mistake of my life,” said Josh with a laugh. Ryan grinned at him.
”—and I’m sure Julian’s awakened one of his guys by now.”
Julian looked offended. “Hey, I don’t break the rules of this place. Don’t go puttin’ that on me.”
”Okay, whatever, so maybe he didn’t.” Rika shrugged. “Point is, it’s gone okay. Hell, you’re gonna get way better new members than me and Ryan if you start expanding. Only thing I hate is this sponsorship shit. Who put us in charge?”
”They did,” said Josh, nodding at the three gods.
Rika snorted. “Mr. Light and Mr. Dark, plus Beverly who wants nothing to do with us, eh?”
”That’s not true…” said Beverly quietly—and as always, everyone stopped when she spoke, even Rika. She leaned forward a little. “I’ll awaken anyone who ever reads part of the Grimoire. Whether or not you give them out is up to you guys. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to help, I just don’t think I should be in charge.”
”Thanks, Beverly,” said Alex, giving her a smile. “I think that’s enough for one meeting. We’ve been here for two hours already, and we got a lot done earlier. Who can host next week?”
”My house will suffice, I suppose,” said Kendra. “I’ll send Collins on an errand in Olympia.”
”Great.” Alex glanced at the two gods, who were still bristling at each other across the table. “Are we good?”
”Yeah,” said Omega. “We’re good.”
Alpha nodded in response, and the room seemed to relax a little. The council broke, and one by one, they exited out various doors from Mabel’s home. Rachel and Natalie went out one of the sides, back into the forest for a while until they eventually looped back into the street. Natalie turned to head back into the woods, but Rachel stopped her.
”You should probably go home, Natalie.”
”It’s late, and your dad’s gonna be worried.”
Natalie shook her head. “It’s okay. I’m just going back to my castle.”
”Everyone knows how worried he gets. If he starts looking for you when you’re in a council meeting with us, it could turn out really badly.”
Natalie hesitated. She’d wanted to go back out into the woods and find Scrappy, maybe try to find some other friends while she was out there. Every time she used her magic, she could feel the whole forest around her, and all the animals within it. If she could find such a perfect companion as her mountain lion, who knew what else might be out there for her?
But… Rachel was right. Her dad would always get worried, no matter how many times she showed him she was totally fine. He always got worried, ever since Chicago, ever since the time she got hurt. She should go home, for his sake.
”Okay,” she said finally.
”Want me to walk you there?”
Do you even know the way…? “Nah, I got it.” Natalie glanced up at her. “It’s the same time next week at Kendra’s house, right?”
”Yes. I’ll see you then, Natalie.”
Rachel started away, back to the college. She had to pull out her phone to check which way to go after only one block. Natalie considered going after her, but didn’t after a moment’s hesitation. Her dad would be worried.
Natalie hurried down the street to her home, with the moon lighting her every step and skip home. Despite how boring most of it was, Natalie felt giddy—she was part of the secret club now, the special group of people who could do magic. This was better than anything she’d imagined, and best of all, she’d been able to speak up and hold her own. Rika didn’t treat her like a little kid, and she was sure the others wouldn’t either for long.
”I’m home!” she called as she walked in, kicking her shoes off. She leapt onto the sofa, where her dad was reading the paper, and snuggled in close under the blanket she’d left there that morning.
”Hey, turtle,” he said, surprisingly calm for how late she’d been out. “Had a good day?”
”Me too,” he said, brushing her hair while he went back to reading.
Natalie pulled out her phone and relaxed, diving back into her book. Everything seemed great to her now. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to tell her dad or Jenny for a while, because of the council rules, but she could wait. In the meantime, she had a whole bunch of new friends to make, she had Scrappy and her other friends in the woods, and she had magic.
Her dad was happy, she was happy, and the world looked a little bit brighter than the day before.
”Lani?” Natalie called out nervously.
She stood on an upper branch across the clearing from her castle, but she couldn’t see anyone inside, or nearby. The castle door was pressed closed, surrounded by scorch marks from the fires long-past. Her reading chair with the folded umbrella still sat on top of the second floor, and every wall seemed strong and intact. Everything looked exactly how she’d left it, on the night she’d spotted her dad, and ran to tell Lily and Kendra.
I should’ve just gone after him that night. Maybe I could have—
Jackson might have killed you. You did not have Gwen or Scrappy with you, and you had not yet learned electricity magic. Be grateful you stayed away.
Maybe he wouldn’t have. He knew me, and my dad was there. What if—
You did not know it was Jackson. You couldn’t see him clearly. Wondering what might have been will lead you nowhere. You must focus on the present.
…I know. I just wish… I wish I could talk to him again.
We will. Someday. Perhaps soon.
”Lani?” Natalie called, a little louder than before.
”We are here,” said Riley. Her head appeared at the edge of the stairs, barely peeking above the threshold. “Is it clear?”
”Yeah.” Natalie leapt down and landed neatly on the ground. She brushed the dirt and tree sap off her hands with a spell and hurried into the castle, before she was seen. “The military came in and everybody ran. I didn’t really see where.”
”The military?” asked Lani. “Are you sure?”
”The national guard, probably,” said Riley. Her voice was warming up, far different than the ice-cold killer Natalie remembered from Rallsburg. “The army’s not allowed to operate on U.S. soil, so it’d have to be the state militia.” She glanced at Natalie. “You got out okay?”
”I’m fine.” Natalie glanced around, and to her relief, everyone was still there, even the police officer Malich they’d picked up.
”That was crazy!” said Kelsey, clearly torn halfway between excitement and terror. Mitch half-nodded, but he looked far less certain than before.
Tyler, to her surprise, looked strangely calm. “What do we do now, Linnethea?”
”I…” Natalie frowned. “I guess we go to the Greywood, right?”
”Sounds like a good plan to me,” said Riley. “That’s where everyone will probably regroup, since it’s the safest, and it avoids the government forces.”
”I dunno how to get there though,” she added uncomfortably. “I was hoping to find somebody in the camp.”
”We do,” said Lani nervously, glancing at Riley, “but they probably wouldn’t let either of us in again.”
”Long story,” said Riley. “We don’t have time for it now. We’ll get you there, Linnethea. Past that, you’re on your own, but we’ll be around.”
While the others broke out some food from the bag and began to eat, Riley took Natalie up to the roof where they could be alone for a moment. She sat down at the edge, polishing something on her rifle, and looked up at Natalie with cautious warmth. It reminded her of when she’d first met Gwen, and the wolf wasn’t quite sure yet of their new bond.
”Repeat this for me,” said Riley suddenly. “Auta minua.“
”It means ‘help me’,” she explained patiently. “Try it.”
Natalie repeated it a couple times until she felt right on the pronunciation. After that, they did a few more: turvallinen, for when things were safe, and vaara for danger or caution. Riley explained when to use those words: if she was in danger and either Lani or Riley were around, she could speak in Finnish without enemies understanding her, but they would know. Riley offered to teach her more one day, when they had time.
”…Thanks,” said Natalie, after she was sure she’d memorized them.
”Are you okay?” Riley asked, her ice-blue eyes still hard even if her voice was soft now.
Natalie hesitated. Memories of her father were still tumbling through her head, each one chilling her and warming her equally in a confusing and mixed morass of emotions. She’d been able to focus on the battle, but now that it was over, the sight of her dad commanding troops in the woods—shouting at them to kill—was stuck in her mind. It hurt, especially when it melded into memories from not so long ago, when he’d seemed to finally come out of his shell.
”What’s the word for turtle?” she asked quietly.
”Turtle. Like the animal.”
”…Kilpikonna,” said Riley, still obviously confused. “Why do you ask?”
”Nothing,” said Natalie. “We should probably get going, right?”
Riley caught her by the arm before Natalie could get downstairs. Pain and fear flared through her like an exploding firework. Instantly, Natalie shoved her away—nearly off the edge of the castle. She stepped back, hands crossed tight to her chest, and shook her head.
”Don’t touch me,” she whispered.
Riley got up from where she’d fallen, picking her rifle up and slinging it back over her shoulder. She nodded, with more understanding than anyone Natalie had ever known. She didn’t approach Natalie, but something in the older woman’s expression spoke volumes. It wasn’t just sympathy; Riley seemed to know exactly what Natalie was feeling. Natalie suddenly wanted to talk, to spill everything about her past to this woman, but she knew it was neither the time nor the place. Below them, her friends waited, and only a few miles away, the remnants of a battle still smoldered.
They had somewhere to be, and Natalie might need to fight again. She nodded, pulling her bag tight to her shoulder and summoning Percy down to join her. Gwen bounded forward out of the forest, returning from her patrol around the edges. Natalie stroked Percy’s head before looking back to Riley, determined to be brave.
”Let’s get going.”