Chapter 45 — Suolaa Maaperään
The forest didn’t flow right.
It was the best way Natalie could come up with to describe her feelings. As they walked, the trees weren’t in the places they should have been, the ferns and moss growing unnaturally. Wind tickled her cheeks, but it didn’t come from where it should have. The bird chirps weren’t echoing from the birds themselves, but bouncing away in a strange pattern. The whole region was still beautiful and familiar, reminding her more than ever of her home only a few miles away, but she could tell when it was wrong—and this whole arrangement was wrong.
Yet… when Natalie dipped into her magic and let her mind fly out into the trees, she felt raw energy thick in the air. A huge spell thrummed in the sky—a low murmur passed from trunk to trunk, held aloft by thousands upon thousands of branches into the cold night air. Magic itself permeated this land, twisting and shaping it into something new and exciting and unrecognizable.
Every step took them deeper into the tall dark woods, where the most pure expressions of magic dwelt.
”Do you feel that?” whispered Riley. Her face was pale and ghostly, eyes lifted to the heavens with fear.
”Huh?” asked Kelsey, glancing around.
Natalie could instantly tell from the looks on their faces—they had no idea what force now enveloped them. The policeman Malich similarly held a confused expression, but Lani wore one rapturous and full of wonder. While Riley might be afraid and Natalie excited, Lani was awestruck.
”Magic,” she replied quietly for her friends’ sakes. “There’s a lot of magic all around us. So much that we can feel it. Normally you gotta try to do that.”
”Whoah…” murmured Mitch. “What’s it doing?”
”It’s trying to keep us out,” said Riley.
Natalie nodded, answering the questioning looks of her friends. “Cinza’s place has tons of spells to keep it safe.”
”Can’t they tell you’re a friend though?” asked Tyler.
”I don’t think so.”
”It’s okay,” said Lani. “We used to live there before. We know the way in.”
They kept walking, their path lit by Lani’s little spirits. Natalie could have produced more light with some fire, but they didn’t want to be seen from too far away—and she felt like there had been too much fire in this forest already. The hazy blue light only added to the effect, sending excited chills down Natalie’s spine. A friendly owl hooted as she passed, like it were welcoming her home. She was finally back in the world of magic and nature she’d been longing for.
Why did I ever think living in the city could be good? This is where I belong.
You had never known the difference. Now you do.
So I couldn’t know it was better here ’til I saw how worse it was there?
Yes. Now, we are truly home.
Natalie leaned down on Gwen and closed her eyes, burying her face in the thick soft fur of Gwen’s back. The wolf practically purred as she did, loping along easily behind the group. The interplay of Gwen’s thick muscles made Natalie feel like she were moving over a set of rolling hills, but she didn’t mind. After such a long, intense, emotional day, she was ready for a break.
We did good today, right? We saved Malich, we probably saved a lot of people in the camp, and we didn’t get exposed or anything. Dad probably didn’t see us. None of my friends got hurt.
We did well. But the fight is not yet won. Do not let your guard down.
Yeah… I never will again.
She meant it, too—even though her face might be buried in Gwen’s back, grey fur pressed against every inch of her face, Natalie was still actively reaching out with her magic. In every direction, she could feel the way the forest was alive and buzzing. It wasn’t just the typical animals, either… something else, something tied to the magic, was at play.
…The trees are powering the spell, she realized.
The forest keeps them safe in more ways than one.
But how can trees cast a spell? They aren’t awakened, right? How does that work?
We must ask when we find Cinza. Something is at play we must understand.
Yeah… if this is some new kind of magic, we don’t want to get surprised by—
A sharp burst of energy coiled up directly in front of their group, like a viper coiling to strike. Natalie’s eyes flew open. She sat up straight and raised her voice as loud as she could.
Riley froze, Lani an instant later. Malich ran right into the pair of them, and Natalie’s friends tripped over each other in their haste to stop moving. Natalie rode past the whole group, inching forward into the trees little by little
”Linnethea?” asked Lani quietly.
Natalie hesitated, patting Gwen to stop moving. There was something just ahead of them, but what, she couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t about to risk Gwen or Percy to find out, and obviously none of her friends either.
But we can’t keep going forward…
”This is the way, right?” she asked over her shoulder.
Lani nodded. “I’m sure. Makoto was really thorough.”
We need a scout. But we can’t use any of us, not somewhere this dangerous.
What makes the best scouts when your resources are limited?
Disposable things, stuff we don’t care about losing. Like… summonable things.
”Lani, can you send a spirit forward in front of me?”
Lani looked confused, but he did as she asked. The little spirit floated forward, its blue veil drifting back as if caught in the wind. As its ghostly form crossed the threshold into the deeper forest, Natalie noticed a pale silver-grey mark on a line of trees it was approaching.
The spirit passed through them.
A gout of fire erupted between the trees, engulfing the little blue spirit in an inferno of whirling blue and white flames. Boulders launched themselves out of the darkness, striking the same spot with resounding thuds. Natalie’s bones quivered from the impacts on the forest floor. As the fire cleared, the forest looked exactly as it always had, and only the sudden appearance of a pile of rocks below the fearful little hovering spirit gave any indication something had happened.
”Jesus Christ,” murmured Malich, taking a step back.
”How did you know?” asked Riley.
”It felt different than everywhere else. The forest wanted us to turn back.” Natalie pointed at the grey marks on the trees, diamond shapes melded perfectly into the bark of the trunks. “It’s the Greywood for sure.”
”But we can’t get in this way,” said Lani.
”It’s my fault,” said Riley quietly.
Lani took her hand. “It’s okay.”
She shook her head, before looking back to Natalie, voice chilling once more. “They have changed their defenses and redoubled them. We will not be able to get in. Past the forest labyrinth is as far as we can take you.”
Natalie’s spirits fell. Even if she felt overjoyed to be in her forest again, with Gwen and her friends, she couldn’t just leave them out here. As enthusiastic as they might be, Natalie knew they wouldn’t really stand camping out in the forest for so long, particularly Tyler and Mitch. They needed real places to stay, and the Greywood seemed a perfect compromise… and it still would be.
”We gotta go back,” said Natalie. <Gwen, we’re going back to the camp, where everybody was fighting. We need to find Cinza.>
Gwen turned and padded back past the confused group, with Lani and Riley in particular looking distinctly uncomfortable.
”Back to where everybody’s fighting?” asked Mitch, when nobody else spoke up. “Are you crazy, Jenny?”
”Na—Linnethea,” hissed Kelsey, barely correcting herself in time.
Natalie nodded. “We still gotta get to the Greywood. I saw Ruby back at the camp, and if Ruby’s there, Cinza’s probably there too. Plus we heard Jackie and Makoto on the radio. It’s the best option.”
”Lead the way,” said Riley, though she still looked uncertain, which left Natalie feeling a little unsure herself.
It is the best choice. Riley and Lani have something else they are concerned about. Keep it in mind, but do not let it dissuade us.
Yeah. Better than getting stuck out here where we might run into more of Dad’s guys or another trap like that one.
So they turned, and went back through the woods in the way they’d come. They passed Natalie’s castle once more, they passed the spot where Natalie had saved Malich, and soon enough, the camp came into view.
If anything, it looked even more chaotic and active than it had during the battle.
Soldiers swarmed through the area. Helicopters were still swinging by overhead, huge spotlights tracking through the woods. People, awakened or otherwise, were slowly returning, picking up the shattered remains of their makeshift homes and shops. A few surviving tents near a larger clearing had been taken over by the military’s medics, and the injured were hobbling in and out. As Natalie’s group began to approach, a few were rushed out on stretchers into a waiting helicopter.
As it lifted into the sky, obscuring the moon, Natalie’s mind flashed back to the night in May, where she’d watched Nikki and Morton Pollock board a similar helicopter bound for Olympia. She’d been riding Gwen just as she was now… and Morton hadn’t survived his flight. She wondered if these people would.
We did what we could.
I know. I just…
We did what we could.
Natalie thought better than to ride Gwen straight into camp. She remembered from Rallsburg how people tended to react to a huge wolf, and there were way too many people around with guns to risk it. Gwen would stick to the outskirts, patrolling wide and avoiding people until Natalie needed her. Percy likewise went with her, needing to find some food after a long day staying with Natalie without hunting.
Instead, Malich led the way, as someone known to the defenders and still in some kind of uniform. His special operations outfit was a bit ragged and muddy after the fights, but he still cut a pretty strong figure in front of what could pass for an odd camping family… kind of. I mean, not that any of us look even a little bit related. Mitch and Kelsey maybe, but even that’s a long stretch.
It does not matter. So long as we do not appear threatening, we can find who we need.
Despite her hopes, they got stopped just as soon as they reached the border of the camp. The soldiers were taking no chances with anyone, it seemed.
”Come on, man,” said Malich impatiently.
”I’m Alexander Malich, lieutenant, Tacoma P.D. I’m on Special Agent Jeremy Ashe’s personal team.”
”Uh-huh,” said the soldier, looking up and down Malich skeptically.
”Look, just call him or let us in, okay?”
”Don’t got his number.”
They want to be sure we are not with your father.
”Excuse me,” said Natalie, feeling nervous in front of so many men with guns. She stepped forward and held up her hand, summoning a little ball of flame. Seeing her example, Lani did the same, and Riley did as well after a few moments reluctance.
”…All right then,” said the soldier, taken aback.
The guards stepped aside. Malich looked a bit annoyed, but the rest of them walked past him. A military truck—a humvee, if Natalie remembered right from TV—rumbled past right in front of them, packed with more soldiers heading north. People sat in front of their tents in the dirt, shellshocked, scared. Natalie knew those looks, knew exactly how they were feeling.
It’s Rallsburg all over again…
A couple soldiers emerged from the next tent, carrying bodies on a wide stretcher. They walked right past Natalie’s little group. The stench nearly overwhelmed them. Mitch swore loudly. Kelsey made a painful, wounded sound. Tyler looked away, his face pinched up. Natalie felt for all of them, but she knew there was probably more to come.
”Come on,” she murmured. “Don’t look, just follow me.”
”But…” said Kelsey uncomfortably, still staring at the stretchers.
”Just keep moving.”
Riley nodded behind her. “There is nothing we can do for them. They have left this world.”
”Oh my god…” said Kelsey. She pulled her arms in close and tucked them inside her sleeves, hugging herself as she walked. “This is insane.”
They shouldn’t have come with me. What was I thinking?
You need them more than you know. Think about what you have done so far. You had the confidence to act and you recovered where before you might have broken. Your friends are the support you need.
But they’re in so much danger.
We will protect them.
Natalie looked around. It wasn’t one of her friends… well, not the one she expected, anyway. Alden Bensen had just walked out of the medical tent, a bandage on his arm. Natalie rushed forward.
”Did you get shot?” she asked breathlessly.
He shook his head. “Just a cut. I tripped and landed in some glass.”
”Hi again,” he added, glancing at Natalie’s friends… until he spotted Riley. He took several steps back. “…No.”
Riley didn’t move a muscle. Lani glanced at her, confused.
”Alden…” said Natalie slowly. “She’s been helping us.”
Alden shook his head. “I know what she’s been doing. I know what she’s done, too.”
”It was unforgivable,” said Riley shortly. “If you want me to leave, I will.”
”Yeah, that sounds like a start.”
”No,” said Natalie. She stepped between the two of them—both much taller than her, but still, Natalie threw herself in the middle. “I want her to stay.”
Alden hesitated. “…I don’t like it, but if you say so, she can stay.”
”What the heck is going on?” whispered Kelsey behind her. “What did she do?”
Natalie shook her head. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” And neither does what I did… Both of us just want a fresh start out here. Why can’t we have it? She took a breath before continuing. “We’re trying to find Ruby. I saw her with Hector earlier.”
”Yeah, Cinza’s here somewhere too,” said Alden. He glanced around. “I dunno where they went though. I was with— hey, Jackie!”
Natalie’s heart leapt. Sheriff Jackie had just walked out of a tent, accompanying her old friend Hector. She wanted to run to both of them, hug Hector like she always used to, steal Jackie’s hat, everything… but of course, she couldn’t anymore. All she offered was a little wave, a shadow of her old self.
Jackie’s jaw fell open.
”My God…” she muttered, too low for anyone but Natalie to catch.
They hurried over. Hector moved as if to hug her, but Natalie took a step back.
”It is you… right?” asked Hector uncomfortably. “What… what happened?”
”A lot.” Natalie winced as their eyes did the usual scan of her scar. She changed the subject before they could start asking questions she didn’t want to answer. “We’re trying to find Cinza. Do you know where she is?”
”…Yeah,” said Jackie, sounding a bit winded. She glanced around, as if trying to avoid looking at Natalie. “She and the guys went off to talk with the commander of the Guard here, plan out what to do next—Jesus Christ, is that Julian goddamn Black?”
Sure enough, Julian—covered in ash and sporting his own set of bandages—was stumbling toward their group, his trademark toothy grin slapped on his face. “Evenin’, all,” he said, with an attempt at cheerfulness.
”Where the hell have you been?”
”Runnin’ this here camp, of course.” He sighed. “Figures the moment I try to go legit, I get all kinds of hell on me.”
”You were supposed to be up in B.C.!”
”Yeah, well…” He shrugged. “Too cold for me.”
”It’s the same damn climate!”
”Let’s go,” murmured Hector to Natalie, as Jackie and Julian got into an argument. “I know where they went.”
The group trooped away. Natalie walked a bit ahead so she could talk to Hector in private, while her friends followed with Lani and Riley. Malich had wandered off to who-knew-where. They weaved through collapsed tents and bullet-ridden carts, past the temporary structures destroyed by golems and abandoned piles of goods waiting to be sold. Natalie saw a cache of gems she could certainly have used, but thought better of taking them.
I’m not a thief.
Hector seemed more jumpy than usual to Natalie. He’d always been a bit nervous and uncomfortable around most people, but this was a step way beyond the usual. After all, he used to run a grocery store, and interacted with most of the town on a regular basis. This was… something else. Natalie wondered if he’d been through something as awful as she had.
”When did you come back?” she asked.
Hector glanced down at her, looking a little bit sad. “Sunday. I was going to tell you, but… so much happened.”
”Yeah, and the site went down.”
”Where have you been, reinita? I heard you stopped living with the Laushires.”
”I…” Natalie hesitated, but she quickly thought better of it. This was Hector, probably the adult she trusted most after her own father… and maybe not even him anymore… “I was living with my boyfriend’s family. But then… they got scared of magic, and… and of me… and they told me I had to leave. So I decided to come home.”
”Oh, mi pobre niña…” Hector looked like he might cry. Natalie tentatively reached out and took his hand. She felt the same reluctance she had with everyone else, but still, the look of relief on his face was worth the strain and discomfort. “I’m so sorry.”
”It’s okay,” said Natalie, though she knew it really wasn’t. “I needed to come home.”
”I know how you feel…” Hector sighed. “I couldn’t find another home either. This is the only place I’ve ever felt like I belonged since my Leticia passed on.”
She wanted to ask what happened to him up north, but at the same time, Natalie knew she wouldn’t want to answer the same question herself. Instead, she just squeezed his hand, and he squeezed hers back. Together, they walked forward through the ravaged camp toward the dark green military tents ahead, where awaited the leaders of their home.
The soldiers wouldn’t let them in, of course. They weren’t even allowed near the tent, with more than a hundred feet cordoned off in a wide circle. After a brief argument between Lani and the guard, balking at the group of children accompanying their odd group, Natalie finally had enough.
<Percy!> she shouted into the sky.
The hawk dove, coming down in a sharp arc and fluttering onto her shoulder. Natalie quickly sent him into the tent, above the confused soldiers. He flew a short circle inside before gliding back out again to perch on her once again.
A familiar echoing, ethereal voice called from within the tent. “Send her in!”
The soldiers, dumbfounded, let Natalie by—but only Natalie. She was about to argue more, but none of her friends moved to follow, while Hector, Riley, and Lani seemed equally reluctant. Natalie went in with only Percy on her shoulder to accompany her, bag strapped tight to keep it from bouncing and her jacket pulled in close to ward off the chill. She recast her warmth spell once again before walking in.
The tent seemed even larger on the inside than it had looked, so much so that Natalie actually felt out with magic to make sure it wasn’t a pocket dimension or some other spell she wasn’t familiar with. A row of computers with a man on a headset was set against the far wall, and the center was dominated by an illuminated screen table showing a map of their area. Two important-looking men with lots of medals on their camouflage uniforms were there, standing across from the silver-grey robes of Cinza and Ruby. Between the two, Josh and the FBI agent—Ashe, if Natalie remembered right—both looked like they were exhausted and really didn’t want to be there.
Of course, the moment Natalie walked in, every single head snapped around to watch her.
One of the military guys, a bald man with a really ugly mustache, spoke first. “…What the fuck is tha—”
”I would not finish your sentence, if I were you,” said Cinza coldly.
”…Hi,” said Natalie nervously. She took the empty side of the square table, standing alone across from Josh and Agent Ashe.
”Who are you?” asked the other man, clean-shaven and much nicer looking.
”Linnethea,” said Natalie quickly, before anyone else could answer. “I’m… uhh, I’m awakened.”
”She knows this forest better than anyone in the world,” added Cinza, immediately jumping to support her. “Her assistance will be invaluable.”
”What are you even doing here?” asked Josh, still shocked—though thankfully, not by her appearance. Neither was Agent Ashe nor Ruby, since she had seen them all back at the funeral.
”I’m here to fight,” said Natalie simply.
Nobody spoke for a full minute after her proclamation. Percy shuffled back and forth a little on her shoulder, his wings popping in and out to steady himself. Natalie reached up and stroked his head a few times to calm him down. Cinza looked oddly proud of her, while Ruby merely excited. Josh, on the other hand, seemed horrified, while Agent Ashe was mostly unreadable to her. The two guys from the military, though… simply looked skeptical.
”…You know we’re in the middle of a battlefield, right?” asked Clean-shaven guy finally. “Do you know what that means?”
”I’ve been in battles before,” said Natalie quietly, trying to force back the memories which came flooding in at the mere mention. “I’ve fought golems, too.”
”She is the only one who can destroy them,” said Cinza.
”Well, shit,” said Moustache-guy. “So that was you with the lightning, then? We saw it comin’ in.”
”Thought this magic shit still took real energy and effort. How’s a kid like you able to pull off something that strong?”
”If we could answer that, we wouldn’t ever need your help,” said Ruby, a little bit smug.
”Captain,” interjected Cinza, before either of them could respond, “with the assistance of Linnethea, I believe your plan might be more viable. She can track them back to their hideouts.”
”We’re more than capable of tracking a few men back to a hole in the woods,” said Moustache-guy.
”Like hell we can,” snorted Agent Ashe. “Couldn’t do it for the last six months. The fuck do you think we can do now? Girl’s got magic and a goddamn wolf, from what I hear. You two ain’t got shit.”
”She was speaking to me,” said Clean-shaven guy with a frustrated glance at his side, “and if what I hear is true, she may be right.”
”So we hit one of their hideouts, capture a few, hope to find shit on the rest of them, right?” asked Josh.
”Not just one,” said Cinza.
”If you only hit one,” said Natalie, “the rest can get away, ’cause they’ll all hear about it.” She looked down nervously, not sure if she was supposed to speak up.
”…That’s right,” said Clean-shaven guy, vaguely impressed. “We think we have a solid lock on two of them now, but we’d like to find more. If… Linnethea here has the capabilities you say, combined with our manpower, we can target a far greater number simultaneously.”
”We’d have to attack soon though,” said Moustache-guy. “Before these fuckers all find their way out of the forest entirely and back into civilization.”
”Why would that be a problem?” asked Ruby.
”Ain’t cleared to operate in civilian territory,” grunted Moustache-guy.
Clean-shaven guy nodded. “Our AO is the Olympic Forest, nothing more. Governor doesn’t want to cause a further panic by having firefights in the suburbs.”
”Yeah, we already did that once,” said Agent Ashe, rolling his eyes. “Wouldn’t want to upset the locals.”
”That shit was on your girl, Ashe,” said Moustache-guy.
Immediately, Agent Ashe was in the man’s face. “Say that again, asshole. I fuckin’ dare you.”
”Jeremy…” said Josh.
”Don’t even start. He takes that back or I’m puttin’ him on the ground, right now.”
”Try me, faggot.”
A dry thud filled the tent. Jeremy’s fist slammed into Moustache-guy’s face, so fast even Natalie only had a split-second to see it.
The man tumbled to the ground. He looked truly shocked. Cinza and Ruby both stepped forward, while Josh’s hand flew into his pockets, obviously grabbing for gemstones.
”I need two men in here, right now!” shouted Clean-shaven guy.
Moustache-guy was only just getting to his feet as a pair of soldiers hurried inside. He looked ready to fight more—and Jeremy certainly seemed eager to respond—but Clean-shaven guy did something none of them expected. He held out his hand, and spoke with a clear, firm voice.
”Lieutenant Arnold, your sidearm.”
”You provoked the agent and disrupted battlefield command. You are endangering this operation.” He raised his hand a little higher. “Give me your sidearm and leave with the MPs, before I have to make this official.”
”Do as the man says, asshole,” growled Jeremy.
Moustache-guy looked around, but he saw no support from the room. Everyone else seemed just as hostile, to Natalie’s vague confusion. She knew the man had said something horrible, but she didn’t understand what it meant—and wasn’t really sure she wanted to, either. With great reluctance, he took his pistol out of its holster and handed it to Clean-shaven guy, before being marched out of the tent by the two soldiers.
Clean-shaven guy set the pistol down on the desk behind him, next to the dumbstruck radio operator, before returning to the table with the rest of the group.
”My sincerest apologies for the conduct of my lieutenant.”
”Honestly?” said Jeremy, raising his eyebrows. He looked oddly impressed. “You’re the first boss I’ve ever seen actually do something. You deserve a goddamn medal for that.”
”I’ve gotten too many I didn’t deserve… but thank you.” Clean-shaven guy looked back at the map. “Let’s move on?”
”Yes,” said Cinza. “And by that, I mean I wish to move to my home.”
”…This operation should be carried out as soon as possible,” he said cautiously.
”It shall be. The Greywood is not far, and we have people we need to move there. In the meantime, Linnethea can help your men track down more locations to strike.”
”How many do we need, though?” asked Josh, rubbing his chin as he stared down at the table. The map only had two marked on the big screen, while little icons continued to sweep back and forth. Natalie guessed the fast ones were helicopters, and the slow ones were people on the ground. “To really hurt him.”
”As long as we hit multiple at once, it should intimidate his followers,” said Cinza. “If we find Brian, all the better, but his following grows too strong and too confident.”
”Capture them and show the world it’s a bad idea to join up,” said Clean-shaven guy, nodding.
”So no killing, right?” asked Natalie cautiously.
”…Right,” said Clean-shaven guy, looking at her oddly. “We’re just trying to arrest them, more or less, but we’re bringing enough firepower to make them think fighting back is useless.”
Thank god… if they found my dad…
We will find him first.
Jeremy walked out of the tent, feeling exhausted just from that single conversation. The girl Natalie—or Linnethea now, apparently—was still inside with Josh and Captain Hoskins, discussing how to start finding more of Brian’s hideouts. Cinza had the impression they might be magically concealed by more of Omega’s lingering magic, based on their previous inability to find him back in the Rallsburg days.
”Motherfucker just keeps screwin’ us over long after he’s dead, doesn’t he?” Jeremy grumbled to Cinza as they walked back into the camp proper. He was still working through the frustration he’d felt inside—no matter how many times it happened, it still hurt, every single time. Ruby was on her phone, texting everyone they’d brought down to meet up at the crumbling house in the center of town.
Cinza nodded. “A god, no matter his later cruelties.”
”Shit, every god I ever heard of was cruel in some way or another.”
She smiled. “True enough, Agent Ashe.”
”Ain’t we been through enough to be on first names by now?”
”I suppose I’m always on a first name basis with everyone, aren’t I?”
”…Was that a goddamn joke?”
Cinza sighed. “An attempt. It’s been a difficult day.”
”No shit.” Jeremy rolled his shoulders, trying to clear the aches from his joints. He was in far better shape than he had been back at the beginning of the investigation, but years of desk jobs in the Bureau had left him far less well-equipped for such an intense burst of field work.
”Would you prefer Jeremy?”
”Thought you were the one who hated titles and whatnot. Guy in the White House called you ‘ma’am’ and you shut him down hard.”
”There is a difference,” said Cinza. “Ma’am sounds as though they’re subservient to me in some way. I’m not above or below anyone. I’m just another human being making my way in the world. People happen to listen to me, but I do not control them.”
”But not me, huh?”
”You earned your title through hard, honest work. Forgive me if I’m mistaken, but it sounds like something you’re quite proud of.”
Jeremy nodded. “Big fuckin’ deal when I made Special Agent status, for sure.”
Cinza smiled. “So I use your earned title, because I respect you as a person. I didn’t do anything to earn ‘ma’am’ other than happening to have been born female.”
”And formin’ the largest magic organization in the world,” Jeremy pointed out.
She shrugged. “If we had formal titles, I’d ask you to use one. We don’t. My name is enough.”
”Call me what you like, then,” said Jeremy with another shrug. “Don’t matter to me.”
”As you wish, Agent Ashe.” Cinza stopped as they reached the door to the half-destroyed building. “Hm.”
”This was once the home of Julian Black.”
”No fuckin’ way.” Jeremy glanced across the half-wrecked little home. “Records said he lived in an R.V.”
”They must have been outdated. This whole area was formerly a park for recreational vehicles though,” she added, looking around. “We stopped briefly to gather some of his belongings when we left Rallsburg originally, though most of his home was destroyed by the ritual.” She hesitated, squinting at the doorknob. “There is a trap on the door.”
”One of Joe’s designs, actually. It’s not one of Makoto’s. I think, if I just…” Her eyes narrowed, and one of her hands seemed to be fiddling at invisible strings. A moment later, the lock clicked open. Jeremy reached forward, but Cinza put her arm in front of his. “Ahh… he changed it.”
Cinza flicked in midair. A jet of flame shot out of the doorknob, blisteringly hot, but it evaporated in seconds. She smiled.
”Clever. A trap within a trap.”
”Aww, shit,” grumbled a voice behind them. “You know how long that took to set up?”
They turned to see the man himself behind them. Julian stood at an odd angle, holding his bandage to his arm. He was accompanied by Hector Peraza, Jackie, Alden Bensen and a trio of middle-school kids.
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “Uhh…”
”Friends of Linnethea,” said Jackie with a shrug.
He sighed. “Right.”
”Is that everyone, Ruby?” asked Cinza.
”Makoto says he’s still looking for the two guys who came with Agent Ashe,” the crimson-haired girl reported, finally pocketing her phone.
”They’re in the medical tent,” said Alden. “I think they found one of their friends…”
”Shit…” muttered Jeremy. “West, right?”
”Tell Makoto to meet up with us on the usual route,” Cinza told Ruby. “We’ll be heading out momentarily.”
”Got it.” Ruby hesitated. A moment later, she lunged at Cinza, planting a huge kiss on her lips. She broke away again, a little red-faced. “You forgot to do that earlier.”
Cinza looked speechless. Ruby smirked at her. She hurried away, dialing up Makoto as she went. Jeremy wanted to laugh at the spectacle, but as he turned back around to the camp, he saw them.
Lani and Rook. Standing right in front of him. Rook had her rifle, Lani had his pistol, and neither looked particularly happy — serves them right.
”Ashe?” asked Jackie.
”That’s my old partner,” Jeremy grunted.
”…Shit.” Jackie turned to face them, matching his own hostility instantly — like a real damn partner would.
Lani shifted around uncomfortably on his feet. He couldn’t look Jeremy in the eye, and if Jeremy was being honest, he wasn’t sure what he might do if their eyes did meet. He was still on-edge, hopped up on adrenaline. It had only just begun to subside when he punched the lieutenant in the face, where his blood surged right back up to full again. Rook, meanwhile, was staring at Cinza — unblinking, her hand tight on her rifle strap, cold as ever.
”I—” Lani started.
”Get the fuck out of here,” said Jeremy.
”What’s going on?” asked Hector nervously.
”We’re here to help.”
”Like hell you are.”
Cinza stepped forward to join Jeremy and Jackie. “If this place had not already been so desecrated by violence today, I would strike you down where you stand. Know that, and be gone.”
”She’s awakened!” Lani pleaded, a tear dropping from his eye. “She’s one of us!”
Jeremy snorted. “Another fuckin’ survival tactic. Open your eyes, Lani. She’s still playin’ you.”
”I watched her do it!”
”‘Cause if she didn’t, she’d be locked up right now!”
”Hey!” shouted one of the kids behind the pair, suddenly stepping up to the plate. She had to be one of Natalie’s friends, Jeremy assumed. “She saved our lives! What the heck did she do to you?”
”Betrayed all of us, kidnapped one of our own and nearly killed her sister, blackmailed your friend, and put us all at grave risk,” said Cinza grimly.
”Kidnapped me too,” added Alden, to Jeremy’s surprise, “for her boss to cut me open.” He stepped forward as well. “Hailey’s the only reason I’m not dead right now ’cause of her. I’m not buying it either. Linnethea vouched for you, but… well, you seem the same to me.”
”You heard me,” said Lani, finally looking at Jeremy. “On the radio. We saved Malich’s life. We’re just here to help… that’s all.”
”You want to help?” Jeremy growled. He pointed at Rook, stock-still with a sniper’s endless patience. “Arrest that bitch, take her to D.C., and get her to testify for Rika Nishimura. Tell everyone Rika was under duress for hackin’ Laushire, and that she wasn’t in town for the twenty-five.”
”They’ll put her away. You know they will.”
”No shit,” he snapped. “That’s the damn point, Lani.”
”You have two choices,” said Cinza firmly, also turned toward Rook. “Stay out of our lives forevermore, or help an innocent girl escape wrongful punishment for which you are partially guilty. Either way, you must leave. You are never again welcome in the Greywood.”
”The goddess saved her,” said Lani, and this gave Cinza pause. Lani looked briefly hopeful at the vague disruption of Cinza’s cold expression. “She’s awakened. You can tell, I know you can. You said anyone awakened had the right to sanctuary within your borders.”
Cinza shook her head, and an icy chill to match Rook’s had returned in full. “She defiled that right. For her, there is no sanctuary. Grey-eyes’ mercy is infinite, but mine is not. Leave now.”
”But—” Lani started, but Rook finally moved. Her hand took his sleeve, stopping him mid-sentence. Her eyes still hadn’t left Cinza for an instant through the whole conversation, though her mouth hadn’t opened once. Finally, she spoke, quietly and in a language none of them understood.
”Yksinääst ei auta Jumalakaan.”
Cinza’s eyes narrowed slightly, while everyone else looked on in utter confusion.
Rook sighed. “Niin makaa, kuin petaa.” She looked down at Natalie’s friends still surrounding her. Her accent seemed thicker than usual as she spoke a few more quick words. “Stay with them. It will be safer.”
Before anyone could say more, Rook turned and left, pulling Lani along with her. They hurried away, Lani still shooting glances back over his shoulder every few steps, but Rook’s steps were sure and quick. In seconds, they had vanished completely.
Cinza spat on the ground.
”What happened?” asked Ruby, finally returning with Makoto on her heels.
”Nothing worth mentioning,” she said simply. “I thought you were still on the north side.”
Makoto shook his head. “Nothing to see up there.”
”Nothin’ to see here anymore either,” said Jeremy roughly. “Let’s get the hell out of here already.”
”But what about Linnethea?” asked the girl indignantly. “First you kick out our new friends, and now we’re ditching our best friend?”
”She’s busy.” Jeremy realized it was pretty awful for him to speak like that to a kid, but at the same time, she’d been defending Rook. He wasn’t exactly feeling charitable.
”Kelsey,” said Alden quickly, before another argument started up, “she’s helping out the army with something right now. She’ll catch up to us.”
”She’s got Gwen.” He smiled. “We’re on foot. And hey, you get to see the Greywood. Not many people get to see it, especially when you’re not awakened.”
”…Fine,” said Kelsey.
Cinza nodded. “Rest assured, your friend is the most powerful person in the state, bar the goddess herself. She will be quite safe.” She glanced around. “Unless there’s anything else, we should get going.”
There wasn’t, and soon enough, the odd group was headed out of the camp—leaving behind friendships, relationships, heartbreak and ruin in their wake, lost among the bodies and wreckage of what had once been a thriving pilgrimage. It would rebuild, of course it would. Magic still existed, and Cinza’s resolve grew stronger with every step, if Jeremy was any judge.
”Well, they’re definitely terrorists now,” he murmured to Jackie as they walked through the thick woods, finally away from the stench and buzz of the camp.
She coughed, somewhere half between a laugh and a confused grunt. “They weren’t before?”
”Fuck no. Apparently, we couldn’t blame ’em for Lakewood, ’cause they were attacked. And everything else is just rumor and incident.” Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Let’s see the politicians deny this shitshow though.”
”You know they’ll come up with somethin’.”
”Yeah.” Jeremy sighed, but his voice caught. His arms trembled.
Jackie threw an arm around his shoulders. “You good?”
”No. Fuck no.” He rolled his head back again along his shoulders, still trying to get the aches out—but it wasn’t his body that was aching. “Jackie, I… dammit all…”
”I get it, Ashe,” said Jackie. She pulled him into a bear hug. “Trust me, I fuckin’ get it.”
They took a much wider route through the forest than Jeremy expected. He still remembered roughly where the Greywood should be, even with the trickery which prevented people from stumbling upon it accidentally, but they were giving a wide berth to something while reaching the Greywood’s real location. After another turn away, Jeremy finally moved up to the front to ask Cinza about it.
”We are being followed,” she said simply.
”The fuck?” He glanced around. “I don’t see anything.”
Jeremy did, and sure enough, a helicopter was far above, steadily tracing their path through the woods. “…Goddammit.”
”They watch everything, and they are desperate to gain an advantage over what they do not understand.” Cinza shrugged. “I almost pity them.”
”So what’s the plan?”
”Lead them somewhere they cannot follow.”
”Why don’t you just turn us invisible or whatever?”
Cinza shook her head. “I know they have not yet devised the ability to detect it, and I do not wish to give them more data, particularly when they are already watching us. In fact, I believe that’s what they expect, and exactly why they are following us so carefully.”
”So how do we get rid of ’em? Another spell?”
”In a manner of speaking.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes, but didn’t say anything. He knew Cinza wouldn’t do anything too stupid, and he still needed to keep watch. After all, Brian’s people might have been repelled, but they were still in the area. The Guard was watching every direction they could out of the southern forest, while more helicopters and troops were on their way to start from the north and begin a pincer movement. Every unit of the Washington National Guard had been engaged… except, of course, for their one helicopter still hovering far above Cinza’s group, flitting between the canopy of the treeline.
”Alden?” asked Hector, a few steps ahead of Jeremy and Jackie. “Do you… sorry, do you know anything about what happened to Natalie?”
”Hector,” said Cinza firmly, glancing back. “Remember, Brian’s people could be nearby. We must not use her name.”
”Oh… sorry. Uhh… Linnethea.”
Alden shook his head. “I don’t know what happened. She stopped talking to me, back in October. Right around… the bar thing in Tacoma.”
”That’s when she got hurt,” said Tyler.
”Something happened to her that night,” said Kelsey, slapping Tyler lightly on the back of the head. “But we’re not gonna tell you. It’s her secret.”
Cinza looked oddly pleased. “You are a loyal friend. I admire that.”
”I don’t admire you,” Kelsey shot back in a loud voice. “I think you’re crazy and mean. Riley didn’t deserve that at all.”
”Trust me kid, she deserved every damn word and more,” grunted Jeremy.
”It’s over, isn’t it?” asked Hector. “Can we just not talk about it?”
”It’s not over. Lani and Riley are out there all alone. What if they get killed? Just apologize to each other.”
”Listen—” started Jeremy, but Cinza suddenly stopped walking. The whole group halted to match her.
She spun around and strode right up to Kelsey. The younger girl was actually taller than her, but still, Cinza’s hard expression spoke volumes—far more intimidating than simple height or strength. Her voice, still echoing as always, was quiet and firm, with far more concern and sympathy than Jeremy expected.
”Kelsey, you are a strong person. I wish I had been as smart or brave as you when I was your age. Your willingness to give everyone a chance is an ideal I wish I’d kept in my life. There are relationships which I have damaged almost to the point of breaking more than once in my life, and I would love to repair them. Friendship is one of the most powerful and important forces in the world, but there comes a point where it cannot be regrown.” She pointed to the dirt below them. “Do you know what the phrase ‘to salt the earth’ means?”
”…No,” said Kelsey, visibly a little uncomfortable. Alden looked about to intervene, but Makoto held him back. Jeremy waited, curious to see where Cinza was going with this, while Ruby and the others continued to watch the perimeter.
”When armies of old would invade, they burned farms and villages. To prevent the locals from using the land, they would spread salt on the soil, believing it could prevent regrowth of crops and food.” Cinza nodded toward Jeremy. “Lani was his partner, and the woman Rook—whom you know as Riley—was someone who lived among us in Rallsburg and in the Greywood. We took them into our trust, into our homes, made friends with them. When someone that close to you betrays you, it is beyond repair. The earth has been salted. Nothing more will grow.”
Cinza pointed forward, ahead of the group. Jeremy squinted, and in the semi-darkness cast by the lights Ruby maintained around them, he could barely make out a strange patch of ground ahead—a perfect line cutting through the trees, clearly separating two parts of the vast forest.
”Ahead of us lies such ground. There is a region of this forest which has been salted by a ritual too powerful to contain, and I am responsible for it. This place is damaged beyond repair, and it was by my hand. I come here to remind myself of the permanence of such actions. Some things cannot be taken back.”
Kelsey squinted ahead as well, as did the whole group. Cinza strode forward, taking Ruby’s hand as she walked. They followed in silence, Cinza’s last words still echoing in their heads. The last few trees passed by on either side. Jeremy felt a tingle under his skin, like a faint pull. Something was in the air all around them, though what, he couldn’t tell.
The whole section of the forest was eerily quiet. There seemed to be far less wildlife around. The air got cooler, the crickets and frogs were further away, and even the wind seemed to flow in wrong directions. For a moment, Jeremy assumed they were in another maze like the one around the Greywood, but this place wasn’t misleading at all. If anything, it was too straightforward, too open.
”This,” said Cinza quietly, gesturing ahead.
She took a few more steps forward, and suddenly, they were looking out over a dark rolling carpet of trees. A valley lay before them, and even in the dim moonlight, Jeremy could see the perfect, wide circle outlined on the land. It wasn’t dead, exactly, but something was still wrong about it. He couldn’t make out more details, but his brain stubbornly insisted something was off, something about it was unnatural.
”When our ritual failed, I pushed it away. You cannot imagine how much power flowed through my body. This was the combined magical energy from four of the empowered eight. I wielded it as best I could, but in that final moment, I had to act.”
”I thought you said it wasn’t permanent,” said Alden slowly.
Cinza shook her head. “I hoped it wasn’t. The effects on the outskirts certainly weren’t. But the center…”
”Holy shit…” muttered Jeremy. “Rallsburg’s nowhere near here. The thing was that big?”
”Power you can’t imagine,” Cinza echoed, her voice shaking a little. She took Ruby’s hand more firmly. “Do you feel it?”
”So I’m not imagining that…” murmured Jackie. “Thought I recognized it…”
”The very same.” Cinza looked back out over the wide expanse of trees. “What you feel is the same magic which killed Rallsburg, and which nearly killed me. The land here, and the sky above it, is permanently marred by our conflict. Look,” she added, pointing at the helicopter, which wobbled a little as it flew forward. After a moment’s hesitation, it turned aside, taking another path around the wide expanse.
”…No fuckin’ way…” gasped Jeremy. “But, we searched this area. I know we did.”
”Would you have noticed?” Cinza shrugged. “The effect is quite subtle at such heights. Your helicopter likely assumed it was a choppy patch of wind. As for anyone on the ground… well, who can say? None of my people knew this existed, and we travel the forest regularly. Only Ruby and Makoto ever accompanied me here.”
”There’s so much in the air,” murmured Alden, lifting a hand as if feeling for raindrops. “It’s incredible.”
A faint smile creased Cinza’s lips. “Admirable, that you might find a positive here.”
”So…” Kelsey started, her voice far more subdued than before. The other two kids in Natalie’s little group were huddled together, like a herd protecting itself from predators. “What they did to you guys is… like, as bad as this, but ten times over?”
”To me? Yes,” said Cinza. “Trust is the strongest, most valuable thing in the world. I trusted them and brought them into my home, and they betrayed it.” She glanced back over their shoulders, toward the long-departed camp far behind them. “Think of your friend Linnethea. You trust her, and she you, with your lives and so much more. If she were to suddenly break that trust, to put your lives in harm’s way while she ran to save herself, could you ever bring her into your life again?”
”She’d never,” said Tyler fiercely. Mitch nodded.
”I agree,” said Cinza. “And Jeremy felt the same way about Lani. Yet… here we stand, in the salted earth.”
Fuck me… Jeremy shook his head. This whole damn metaphor has gone way too far. Lani stabbed me in the back for a girl, simple as that. Yet, Jeremy’s eyes had welled up nonetheless. Cinza had spoken the words he wanted to, except he wasn’t as eloquent as she could be, nor did he have the same dramatic imagery to pull out of nowhere. You’re right, Cinza, and fuck you, Lani, for makin’ me feel this way.
Jackie noticed him shaking, and put an arm around him again. Kelsey stared out into the huge forest, shivering. Alden pulled off his coat and laid it on her shoulders, to which she clung gratefully.
Kelsey’s voice shook as she spoke. “She’d never,” she repeated, just as firmly as her friends, but in her eyes shone new understanding. Kelsey had finally gotten the weight of such a betrayal through her mind, and how it might never be repaid.
”Hold tight to that friendship,” said Cinza. “We’ll see her again soon.”
She turned, and steadily, with Ruby supporting her steps down the slope, made her way back to the east—finally turning toward the Greywood once more. The rest of the group followed, immersed in the tingling magic filling the air. It may have permanently damaged a huge swathe of forest, but the land wasn’t truly gone as Cinza described. There was still life, reduced and altered though it might be. It continued, in a different form, but never totally gone.
Maybe she’s wrong. Maybe I can forgive him someday. Lani’s a kid compared to the rest of us. Fuck, Rook’s like ten years older than him if I got the right record out of the Marines. Assumin’ she didn’t lie about her age, anyway…
Fuck. No. They burned those bridges. Fuck them.
”You’re stewin’,” murmured Jackie, still walking close to him.
”Remember when the most excitin’ fuckin’ thing in our lives was the day Maddie was stupid enough to walk into a hostage negotiation?” Jeremy sighed. “What the fuck are we doin’ here, Jackie?”
”Our goddamn jobs,” she replied.
Jeremy nodded. “Fuck it. Right. We’re doin’ our goddamn jobs.”
”And fuck the rest,” added Jackie. She pulled out her hip flask and handed it over. Jeremy drained the rest of the whiskey in one go. “So what now?”
He cleared his throat. “Now I get back to what I was supposed to be doin’.”
Jeremy lowered his voice. They were already at the rear of the group, but still, he didn’t want the word leaking back to anyone else yet—particularly not a certain thirteen-year-old with godlike powers. “Trackin’ down the man himself.”
Jackie lowered her voice to match his own. “How the hell are you gonna pull that off?”
”Well, two things, and I thought of the second half just now.” Felix told me to give ’em a call when I was ready. I’m ready. Jeremy pulled out his phone and found the right contact. “Will?”
”I’ve got a crazy fuckin’ idea, and I need your help to pull it off.”
”…What do you… need me to do?”
”I’m gonna get Brian Hendricks to invite me back to his camp. When I do, I’ll use one of the stones exactly eight times in a row, and you’ll know exactly where the motherfucker is.”
”Ashe, the hell are you doing…” muttered Jackie, looking shocked. Jeremy barreled on, feeling reckless, crazed, desperate to act.
”You call it in to Cinza, she nukes the whole fuckin’ place.” Fuck the rest, Jackie. They just killed dozens, again. He’s only gettin’ stronger. He’s a goddamn terrorist, they’re all goddamn terrorists, and I’m fuckin’ done here.
”You got it?”
”…I got it.”