Chapter 46 — Loyalty
When Natalie walked into the small clearing chosen as a staging area, she wasn’t surprised anymore by the shocked expressions on the soldiers’ faces. After all, they were about to go into the forest to hunt down armed men who’d just been killing innocent people—she was just a thirteen year old girl.
”You lost, kid?” asked one finally—the sergeant, if Natalie had figured it out. She’d been trying to keep up with how rank patches on everybody’s shoulders worked, and people with his symbol were always called ‘Sarge’ or some variation.
He’s probably in charge. Everybody else here has a different patch than his and none of them are the nice kind.
Respect him, but remember: you are the strongest, and they cannot do this without you.
”No,” said Natalie finally. “I’m here to… they should have called you,” she trailed off.
Despite the voice’s reassurances, these were intimidating men. They all had uniforms, rifles, the works, and they were strong. She knew she was stronger, even if she didn’t look like it, but it didn’t change how she felt.
”…You’re our secret weapon?” said one of the other men skeptically. Natalie tried to find ways to distinguish them in her head, but they all wore helmets, none of them had facial hair, and their voices all sounded pretty similar.
”…Yeah.” She shuffled anxiously in place. It was a lot different when she didn’t have Cinza and Josh to back her up. Now Natalie had to convince them herself she was worth having around. She could have just used magic, but she had no idea who might be watching. She didn’t sense anyone, and the animals nearby weren’t screaming any warnings, but she’d missed people before. “I’m here to help.”
”She is, and you’ll do whatever she asks you without question,” said Captain Hoskins, emerging into their little clearing. He’d finally caught up after getting delayed by other pressing matters. The men immediately snapped to upright, attentive positions as soon as the captain appeared. “Her name is Linnethea. She’s one of the awakened, and stronger than all of you put together, so listen up.”
I… I don’t know about that. Maybe… I wouldn’t want to try though.
You are, and with his authority, it will carry weight among them. Do not challenge it.
”At ease,” the captain added, and the men relaxed a little. “Hendricks’ forces have gone to ground throughout the forest. We’re doing regular chopper sweeps and we’ve got Oracle tasked to us all night, so you’ll have plenty of air support. Problem is, we believe the holes they’re snuggled into are concealed by magic.”
To Natalie’s surprise, nobody in the group of soldiers scoffed or made any sort of derisive noise. She was so used to normal people thinking magic was ridiculous or terrifying, this non-response confused her. The captain went on without acknowledging it, but to Natalie, it seemed like a big deal.
”Our mission is to capture, not kill. You’re authorized to engage only in self-defense. Bring anything and anyone you grab back to our temporary FOB in the pilgrim camp. Linnethea will be navigating you toward potential targets. Your assigned zone is grid 006-010. Second squad will be covering the zone’s north border, and third has the west. Questions?”
”Sir,” said the sergeant.
”Hendricks’ men have shown a complete willingness to engage, including on unarmed civilians. Are we to understand we are entering a hostile territory at red status?”
”Correct.” The captain raised a hand as brief looks of discontent crossed the faces of a few soldiers. “We have solid intel that they will not engage you either, except under similar rules. Unless any of you are awakened—which, I remind you, failure to report your status to your commander is in violation of the new regs—you will not be engaged.”
”But she will be, sir.”
”Well, you can protect one VIP, can’t you?” The captain glanced at Natalie. “If you get engaged, Linnethea will be a significant asset, not a liability. She is the only one capable of destroying Hendricks’ golems, according to all current reports.”
The sergeant still looked skeptical, but didn’t ask any further questions. The rest of the men had barely moved the whole time, perfectly still and staring straight ahead—not even at the captain, just into empty space. Natalie didn’t really know what to think about it. Wasn’t it rude not to look at the person talking?
This is a military briefing, not a conversation. Think about the television shows you’ve watched and the battles you’ve seen.
But… why would that matter?
The men are just parts of the whole. Their job is not to think, but to act.
That makes no sense… they should be thinking just as much as they’re acting. If they’re not thinking, they’ll get beaten by somebody who is thinking.
A battle is a dangerous place, and sometimes there is no time to think. You have seen this yourself.
So I make time. I use magic to make distractions until I can come up with the best option. It’s better than rushing into stuff and getting hurt… or… worse.
Every situation is different. Be prepared to use precisely what you need in the moment. We must be flexible and decisive if we are to reclaim this place.
Natalie looked up. Her eyes had fallen to the forest floor. The men were watching her, and the captain was already leaving the clearing. The next move was on Natalie. She needed to act, just like their job was to act, but she was stuck thinking. If someone had struck in that moment, she might not have noticed.
Maybe you’re right.
This is not the time, Natalie.
”Okay.” Natalie turned and started walking north, straight into the forest, toward the zone the captain had outlined on the map earlier. It was a region west of the town, on the opposite side from the Greywood, her castle, and the usual areas she used to roam with Gwen—but it was close to Robert Harrison’s old home. She knew this part of the woods well enough.
Natalie wondered if it still stood.
She kept her eyes straight ahead, not wanting the soldiers to think she was getting distracted again—several of them in the back were already grumbling about following a little kid through the woods in the middle of the night—but with her mind, Natalie cast out wide for Gwen. The wolf loped along in the darkness alongside their group, while Percy followed from high above.
Reassured by her allies close by, Natalie kept going, as the night got deeper and the moon began to sink. The forest, usually her friend, felt oppressive and ominous. In the shadows around every corner, anything could be lurking.
Dad’s out here somewhere. What if… what if I run into him?
You may have to fight. Be prepared.
I… I can’t fight dad! That’s crazy!
He may not give you the option.
What am I supposed to do? If we find him, they might kill him!
Natalie shivered again, her brief burst of confidence shattered. She considered calling Percy down to her shoulder, but decided against it. The soldiers already saw her as weak; she didn’t want to show them someone relying on animals friends to stay sane, no matter how much it felt true. They’d mutter even more, they’d question and doubt her.
They are on your side. If you show them your strength, they will respect you.
Stay strong, Natalie. Focus on the mission. If we find your father, we will ensure he survives, even if we must fight against the whole world. You can do that. You have that power.
Natalie nodded. She had to stay strong, she had to stay alert, and she needed them to watch her back. If they were caught off guard, even just for a moment, Natalie was dead.
The Greywood was still as impressive as ever.
Cinza smiled at the gasps of wonder from Natalie’s friends, but their group hurried straight to the main hall. Jeremy winced as he remembered the last time he’d been inside—reuniting with Lani, meeting Rook, and setting off on the path which brought him here, into a position of making a reckless and near-suicidal decision. Jackie was watching him with clear unease, but she hadn’t yet let slip his plan to anyone. Jeremy trusted her with his life and more; he knew she wouldn’t say a word.
As they crossed the bridge, Cinza made a subtle signal with her hand. In an instant, Yusuf intercepted Natalie’s friends, and they began a tour of the whole compound. Jeremy wondered how she’d set that up—had she called ahead somehow? He didn’t see any cell phones or radios. His own had been dead quiet, with Malich and Stebbins back at camp getting debriefed, while Jackie sat right next to him inside the hall.
”We should be attacking,” said Ruby, the moment the huge wooden doors swung closed.
Cinza shook her head. “It’s not the time.”
”But they’re on the run! We could strike real fear in their hearts! Let us show them we can’t just be kicked around like that.”
”Kicked around?” muttered Jackie. “That’s what you call the shitshow we just went through?”
”How bad?” asked Brittany Wilkins, now in a wheelchair decorated with symbols and gemstones. At first glance, it seemed gaudy, but as Jeremy continued to stare, it actually made an incredible sight with how the light subtly shifted every time she moved. The chair didn’t actually seem ostentatious at all, and if he understood gemstones right, it was also a powerful tool in a pinch.
”We don’t know yet,” snapped Ruby, before Cinza could answer. “But I saw dozens of people go down. Good people who were just trying to live their new lives.”
”My love…” Cinza started quietly.
”No,” said Ruby, turning to face Cinza.
They weren’t sharing their head chair for once—Ruby was still on her feet, while a tired-looking Cinza leaned back and rested. Ruby was practically radiating heat, matching the fire in her eyes and the red of her hair. Jeremy swore he saw actual flames spit from her mouth as she went on.
”They attacked normal people. Not us, just regular people in the open. We don’t deserve it either, but this was totally unprovoked and awful. How can we call ourselves followers of the goddess when her people are gunned down in the forest without an answer?”
”There’s an answer,” said Makoto. “The military.”
Ruby shook her head. “‘Koto, I love you, but sometimes you’re just so naïve. The army’s not really on our side. They might have promised you guys a lot on the east coast, but back here, they’re saying our home isn’t ours anymore. The police said we weren’t getting attacked by golems. They never did a thing to track down Harold’s killers in Tacoma, or Jessica’s killers in Lakewood. Who have they gone after?”
She held up her hand, three fingers extended. “First they arrest Hailey for trying to avenge Jessica. Next they arrest Rika, even though she obviously didn’t do anything, and they do it by coming into our safe place and practically kidnapping her. Neither of them actually got charged with anything yet either, they’re just holding them in secret prisons in D.C.”
”Preach, sister,” said Julian.
Who’s the third in this biased fuckin’ rant? wondered Jeremy. He wanted to speak up, but his own mind was stuck on the mission he’d made for himself—one he’d need to coordinate with Cinza as soon as he could. He had no idea when Felix would call him back, but the journalist had said before the night was over.
”And now we find out that they kicked Natalie out of a public school, just because they think she might be one of us.” Ruby held up her phone, and Jeremy could just barely make out a headline about the ‘missing daughter of the traitor found in Seattle’. “They are not on our side. Don’t believe their false promises for a second.”
”Enough,” said Cinza.
Ruby faltered. She turned around, facing Cinza. “Cin, you can’t really trust them…” she said, halfway between pleading and angry. “After everything we’ve been through—”
”That’s why we need them.” Cinza shook her head. “I don’t need to trust an ally to work with them. Not a single soldier will ever enter the Greywood, nor any agent of the government whom I have not personally approved.”
Ruby shot a glance at Jeremy, who shrugged. Guess I passed her fuckin’ test. Makes sense, since I hate so much about the system myself.
”We’ve got enough here,” said Ruby. “The new awakened are ready, and the rest of us have fought before. We can protect ourselves, and with Hector and Natalie on our side, we can beat the golems. They’ve never come close to the Greywood. We can drive them out.”
”What about the rest of the world?” asked Alden, sitting up in his chair. “I mean, I like it here, but I’m not gonna live here. I need to go home. My family hasn’t seen me in over a month.”
”We’ll protect them too!” said Ruby forcefully, and once again, fire spat from her mouth. She’s gotta be doing that on purpose, right? That doesn’t just happen. “We have magic! Nikki can find them!”
Nikki, who’d been sitting in a corner chair with her legs curled up in front of her, looked up at her name. Suddenly, everyone was looking at her. She winced.
”I dunno,” she muttered. “Hard to find people I’ve never met.”
”You said you found a way around that,” said Ruby, with the hint of accusation laced through her syllables.
”…Kinda. I dunno,” Nikki replied with a vague nod, but it was so much less confident than Jeremy expected. He remembered Nikki as a somewhat loud-mouthed, forceful young woman who didn’t take crap from anyone. What happened? Had she been burned out by so many difficult spells, like Cinza? He glanced at Jackie for confirmation, and she looked just as concerned. Nikki, meanwhile, was withdrawing even further into her shell, wrapping up tight in a blanket near the fire and murmuring something to herself.
Still… if she can find Brian, maybe my plan doesn’t have to be so crazy after all. Gotta talk to her.
”Ruby,” said Cinza, and her voice was far more firm, echoing through the otherwise-still cabin hall. “An attack would hurt us. I do not disagree with your distrust of the government. If you had heard what was said this morning, you would be far more inflamed than you are now. Know that I share your sentiments, but this is not about the government. This is about the public.”
”…What do you mean?”
”We have been the victims of a massacre,” said Cinza, and a few around the room winced at the proclamation. “The public sympathy will be with us now. We have shown no aggression, and until now, Brian’s people could not be blamed for any direct actions against us, only tangential ones. Tonight, they’ve thrown that away. The government has no choice but to act, something you can see for yourself outside.”
As if to punctuate her words, a helicopter beat the air overhead as it flew north.
Cinza nodded, grimly satisfied. “If we attack now, this is no longer a massacre, an assault on innocents. It becomes another battle in a private war, where the bystanders are the victims instead of the awakened.”
”We were attacked!” said Ruby angrily. “Why can’t we fight back?”
”Because we engage in deception as a way of life,” said Cinza. “The public will assume we provoked it somehow, in some secret way they do not understand. We must allow the United States to intervene on our behalf, and remove ourselves from the equation.”
”Ruby, please!” said Cinza, and a burst of emotion filled her voice. “I can’t risk you,” she whispered.
Ruby faltered, her mouth still slightly open. The rest of the room was suddenly frozen. Jeremy felt a distinct tension filling the hall, a discomfort rising with the panic and fear on Cinza’s face. He’d never seen her so upset, and based on the reactions of her followers, they were all in the same boat.
”…Yusuf and Matthew will assist the National Guard teams with finding Brian’s hideouts,” said Cinza finally, while Ruby was still frozen in place. “Neither of them are publicly known.” She turned to the two men, coincidentally standing near each other. Yusuf had returned at some point without Jeremy noticing, too caught up in the argument. “Do not wear your cloaks, nor anything else identifiable. Stay with them and feel out for magic as I taught you.”
They nodded, though Matthew seemed nervous. Cinza seemed to recognize this as well, as her voice softened once again. The desperate emotion was still present, and her face had not yet calmed, so the mix was nowhere near as comforting as she intended.
”Natalie is already helping one group. Captain Hoskins is expecting more if we can spare any, and I wish to show our cooperation. Josh is waiting in the camp, and he can direct you further.”
Matthew glanced at his wife, seated next to him in her wheelchair. “I—”
”I’ll be fine,” said Brittany, squeezing her husband’s hand. “I’ve got to keep the defenses here strong. Go.”
They both left, the wooden doors swinging closed behind them. The rest of the impromptu war council dispersed, discussing the news of Natalie’s school, the massacre at the camp, and generally de-stressing as best they could. Only Jeremy, Cinza and Ruby remained, with Ruby still staring down at Cinza. Nikki still sat in the far corner, but she kept up the mumbling without noticing anything, well out of earshot.
”Agent Ashe,” said Cinza gently. “I believe I need a moment alone with my love, if you could…”
Jeremy shook his head. “Got somethin’ more important, and I think she’ll want to hear it too.”
Ruby finally turned, and Jeremy saw her face—no longer the fierce and eager fighter. She was pinched and scared, her young age showing more fully in her expression. The red hair framing her face was no longer a curtain of flames, instead the identity she’d chosen to erase her past. She was just a kid—fuck me, they’re all just kids. Ain’t a single fuckin’ one of the people in charge here over twenty six, unless Cinza is, and I sure as shit doubt that. How’d this happen? Where did we all fuck up so much they had to take charge?
His phone buzzed. Jeremy pulled it out, and there it was: the message he’d been waiting for.
UNKNOWN NUMBER: Call from in ten minutes to arrange pickup. Don’t bother trying to trace. About time you figured out the right side of the story.
Time for me to play my part, I guess.
”Go ahead,” Cinza prompted.
”I’m gonna get a call from Felix Wieczorek here soon.”
Cinza frowned. “I’m not familiar with this name.”
”Journalist who was part of the original story on your diaries, now works for Hendricks helpin’ him spread his message.”
”A monster, then,” said Ruby quietly. “Like all the others.”
”Yeah, somethin’ like that,” said Jeremy. “Point is, he thinks I’m still somebody they can recruit. I ain’t awakened, after all, and I’d be the most valuable fuckin’ spy they could get these days.”
”True enough.” Cinza’s expression was finally returning to normal—the calculating and confident leader Jeremy was used to. It bolstered his own confidence, seeing this young woman whom he’d come to appreciate return to herself again. “What are you proposing?”
”Well, they ain’t gonna let me see where they are,” said Jeremy, and Cinza nodded again. “But we’ve got an ace in the hole they can’t know about.”
”William Carbonell,” said Cinza with a satisfied smile. “You intend to lay a trap for them.”
”I don’t get it,” said Ruby slowly. “What’s Will got to do with this? I thought he just found out affinities and stuff like that.”
”Will can also track the use of magic to a pinpoint degree of accuracy,” said Cinza. “We can use this to locate Brian.”
”Why couldn’t we just have Nikki find Mr. Ashe?”
”‘Cause she can’t give you more than what’s around the fucker,” said Jeremy. “Unless I’m mistaken.”
Cinza shook her head. “Even if she had met Brian after her awakening to recognize his essence, Nikki could only describe everything around him to the tiniest details, not the location itself. In this forest, her spells will not amount to much.”
”And Will can give us the actual location?”
”Accordin’ to Rachel, yeah,” said Jeremy with a shrug.
Ruby gasped. “You’ve talked to her?”
”I was going to mention it later,” said Cinza quietly, smirking slightly.
”So here’s the plan,” said Jeremy, and he felt a huge weight settle onto his shoulders as he spoke. Am I insane? The fuck am I doin’? I’m gonna get myself killed. “I find Hendricks. He’s the one holdin’ this shit together. We take him out, all we’ve got are scattered crazies with rifles. No golems, no Omega-protected hideouts, no fuckin’ martyr syndome drivin’ sympathy.”
”How do we take him out?” asked Ruby, but Cinza had obviously already come to the same conclusion Jeremy had.
”You want me to go through that again,” she murmured. “After what I showed you today.”
”Exactly ’cause you showed it to me,” said Jeremy. “We’ve never been able to get close to Hendricks. They’ve got jammers and golems and shit, so I’m never gonna be able to call out to the military, and they ain’t gonna do what needs to be done even if I could.”
Here we go, Hailey. I’m doin’ what I told you I always wanted to do, what I told you not to. I’m gonna break this cog, they’re gonna replace me, but fuck if I ain’t doin’ somethin’ important on the way out.
”You would kill a man without due process?” asked Cinza, and Jeremy could feel her eyes judging him. “Ignore the justice system you have served for your whole career?”
”We ain’t got laws yet for the shit he’s done.” Jeremy shook his head. “Massacre by fuckin’ magic golems. I’ll give the fucker one last chance to surrender, and that’s it. He refuses, I signal Will, he passes the info to you, and we’re done.”
”…And you’re aware I may hit you as well?”
Jeremy hesitated. He took a long, deep breath, then nodded without another word.
Nothing more needed to be said.
Cinza turned to Ruby. “Please, my love, fetch Hector for us. We’ll need his strength.”
”There isn’t much time,” Cinza said gently. She stood up and reached around Ruby’s head, pulling her gently down for a kiss. “Please. Come back to me swiftly.”
Ruby ran out of the room. Cinza glanced at Jeremy, who looked down at the clock on his phone.
One minute left. It was just the two of them in the room now, except for the still mumbling Nikki in the far corner, well out of earshot.
”You should know,” said Jeremy quietly. “The FBI tip line got a call about you.”
”I’ve no doubt they’ve had many false calls.”
”From Maria Cabazanos, about a girl named Misty Hylätty she used to live with. Not that she had any fuckin’ clue how to pronounce that.”
Cinza hesitated. The fear returned once more, a deep terror borne out of her soul. Jeremy knew it too well, had seen it on too many faces to ever forget it. She finally forced her mouth open, voice quiet.
”What will they do?”
”Try to find her.” Jeremy shrugged. “Nothin’ I can do to deflect it, it’s already in the system. Just thought you should know.”
Cinza took a deep breath. She nodded in a robotic way. “Thank you, Jeremy.”
He gave a weak grin, about to try and say something witty, but his phone rang an instant later.
”This is Ashe.”
One of the soldiers tripped over a tree root. The nearest of his squad laughed. One arm quickly pulled him back to his feet. This was the fifth time somebody had stumbled now, and after the first few, the sergeant had stopped reminding them to stay quiet.
Natalie, a few steps ahead of the group, wished they would stay quiet. The forest was still full of danger—she could feel it around every corner. The animals were still quiet. They smelled the blood and violence in the air, same as her, and they knew the battle wasn’t really over. Natalie had to keep her focus, and this group of soldiers she led wasn’t making it easy.
Ignore them. They are not worth our time.
But… We need them. We can’t arrest people or anything like that. I’m just a kid.
In this forest, we are the queen. We have more authority than anyone.
So I should just ditch them?
We will use them as we must, but do not concern yourself with their opinions. Focus on your task.
Natalie nodded. She did another scan of the surrounding area—as always, she’d been blanketing the whole area with her magic, feeling every animal scurrying through the night in the deep forest. She’d been trying every minute or so, but while the animals were certainly unsettled by the combat in their normally peaceful home, nothing stood out yet.
”Yo, we lost?” asked a soldier, raising his voice.
”Keep it down, Deeks,” said the sergeant—Alparad.
”Cap’n sent us on a goddamn babysitting mission in the middle of a combat zone,” Deeks muttered, assuming Natalie couldn’t hear him. “Kid looks like retarded street trash. I got called up for this shit?”
His buddy snickered.
Natalie opened her mouth to respond, starting to get angry, but a flicker of energy caught her attention. It was so subtle and faint, she might have missed it were she not blanketing the area so thoroughly. Natalie immediately turned toward it, startling the soldiers.
”…The hell is she doin’…” Deeks muttered.
”Probably followin’ a squirrel or somethin’.”
She was certain now as she got closer—something was concealed ahead. The magic had a distinct feel to it, too. It wasn’t anything like the spells surrounding the Greywood, or Kendra and Lily’s own aura. Natalie had begun to notice some consistency in the sensation, something Nikki called a person’s essence. The magic she’d found felt like something… angrier.
Like the golems… We might be near something important. They gotta be quiet.
Natalie cast a spell on her voice, spreading it across the whole group while remaining at a whisper—the first words she’d spoken to them since meeting back at the camp.
”There’s something ahead.”
”…Jesus…” muttered one of the soldiers, tapping his ear in confusion.
Deeks slapped him on the back wordlessly. The men gripped their rifles tight while Natalie crept forward. She saw nothing ahead, not even a clearing or anything like it. The forest was still thick, the floor strewn with fallen leaves. An owl hooted nearby—a warning. Something’s definitely here. That owl is scared.
Natalie hurriedly directed the men to surround the large tree located right where she felt the magic most concentrated. To her relief, they did as she ordered, though some needed a stern look from the sergeant. Natalie leapt up into the nearest tree, crawling forward on the branch until she could see the space clearly.
The men had surrounded the old oak. Skeptical looks were stamped on the faces she could still see, but they were in position. All they needed was her instruction to move, but Natalie hadn’t shown them where to move yet. She needed to break down the protection first.
Natalie took a short breath, then hurled her mind forward, like a sharp spear of mental force against the barrier of magic.
Natalie frowned, then hurled herself forward again, to no avail. It was like a solid wall, completely unbreakable. She’d put a lot of effort into her two strikes, but Omega’s magic hadn’t budged an inch.
He’s dead. How can this still be so hard? What are we doing wrong?
Is he using the tree to supply the spell, as Cinza’s people have begun to do?
No, it doesn’t feel like that…
Natalie probed at the wall again, taking a more gentle approach than before. She pushed at it, pressed her mind against every inch little by little. Natalie didn’t really understand how permanent magic worked. The only spells she’d ever done in a persistent form were the alterations to her own body and mind, straightforward rituals modifying something which already existed.
So how does somebody create magic in mid-air and make it stay?
”How long ’til Sarge stops humorin’ the cap’n and gets us back on a real mission?”
”Is that girl even around anymore? Don’t see her anywhere.”
It has to be powered by something. I just gotta trace it back… connections! Rachel talked about connections. I saw them when I did my rituals. If I can just…
Natalie let her mind drift into that state again. Her eyes seemed to lose focus, even though everything stayed sharp. She was using a branch of magic she’d never touched before, but already she felt results. It felt different, but not exactly unfamiliar—like she were moving a limb she’d never known was there, buried deep inside her brain, but was suddenly as natural as her usual arms.
Mental magic. Huh. So this is Rachel’s affinity.
As her eyes shifted, hazy lines in the air appeared. Natalie saw the connections between the soldiers, camaraderie built up from the training and previous missions, little flowing rivers in the air forming a web of relationships. She saw a half-dozen lines from herself stretched off in every direction, and a thunderous stream which she could only conclude was her dad. It wasn’t clear where it was going, so she couldn’t get a direction from it—but she touched it with her mind nonetheless, hoping somehow her father would feel her presence and be comforted.
Natalie focused back on the tree. There was a solid line of energy—many of them, in fact, webbed through the trunk. As Natalie sent her mind through the branches and into the trunk, she found the source. Omega had hidden dozens of gemstones within the tree, embedded inside and with the bark closed up again so it appeared totally natural. There was a deep well of power available inside, and it kept the concealing spell strong.
She took another deep breath, then shot her mind forward like a slicing blade.
The connections fell away.
Instantly, like a curtain torn from a window, a small cave appeared within the huge roots of the tree. A half-dozen people were crouched inside, huddled around a small portable heater with food… and with rifles.
They didn’t even notice their protection was gone.
”Son of a bitch,” murmured Deeks.
Natalie grinned to herself up in her tree out of sight, proud she’d beaten Omega’s trick. After a count of five, the sergeant and his men all emerged simultaneously from the underbrush. Their rifles each pointed at one of the suddenly-exposed group. It took a few seconds for anyone even to notice.
They froze. One dropped his bowl of soup. It spilled all over the forest floor.
”Hands in the air, motherfuckers,” growled the sergeant.
One of the men scrambled for his rifle. Natalie tore the whole stack of them away, sending them flying out to land next to Deeks in a neat pile. He jumped as the rifles lined themselves neatly right next to him.
”Son of a bitch!”
Deeks glanced up toward the trees, but of course, he had no idea where Natalie actually was. She sat back and watched while the men cuffed and organized the group, getting them ready to march back into the camp.
Behind the group, the sergeant was examining a wooden box with a confused expression. Reluctantly, Natalie dropped down out of her tree—not coincidentally landing next to Deeks.
”…Kid, you’re something else,” he muttered, clearly impressed.
Natalie ignored him, though she did feel another burst of pride. She hurried up to join the sergeant, looking down at the box they’d been guarding.
It was full of stones. Small, smooth stones, each with a little carving in the surface.
”You know what these are?” asked the sergeant, mystified.
She slowly shook her head.
”Why would they be protectin’ a bunch of damn rocks?”
Natalie hesitated, then reached out again. She felt at each rock, and there was magic embedded in them, but for what, she couldn’t be sure.
”We should take them back with us,” she said, as confidently as she could manage.
The sergeant nodded. “Yeah.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Deeks! Harris! Get over here!”
Deeks’ friend kept up his grumbling as they hurried back, but Deeks himself was still in vague awe of Natalie. She felt a little embarrassed, but her reluctance was cast aside an instant later. An owl hooted nearby—a cry of alarm.
They left an ambush!
Natalie didn’t hesitate. She threw up a huge wall of force blocking that direction, as strong as she could manage.
A rifle shot echoed through the forest, followed by a strange hollow thump.
The bullet slammed into her wall of force and flattened, falling to the dirt with a tiny plink. Natalie immediately pushed the wall around to surround herself.
A wolf howled. Gwen was moving fast. They heard a thump and a shriek.
Natalie sprinted forward, still keeping up the thick wall of force to protect herself, though she was already having difficulty breathing. The bullet took a lot out of her. She found Gwen and the young man pinned underneath. Natalie threw his rifle back to the pile with the sergeant.
”Holy shit,” breathed Deeks, who’d rushed after her. “Guy had you fuckin’ dead, Linny. How’d you do that?”
”Dumbass, it’s magic,” said Harris, a few steps behind. He took one hesitant step toward Gwen, who’d bared her fangs and growled. “Easy, wolfy.”
”Her name is Gwen,” said Natalie quietly. <Gwen, hold him down, but let them cuff him and take him away. We’re taking him back to the camp.>
Gwen backed up a little, still keeping her forepaws on the young man’s shoulders. He cursed and struggled some more, but Gwen weighed more than enough to keep him firmly pressed into the dirt. As soon as there was an opening, Deeks rushed forward and pinned the guy’s arms while Harris produced another wire cuff to restrain him.
”Did you call me Linny?” asked Natalie, while Harris roughly manhandled the guy back to the rest of the group.
”Uhh… yeah,” said Deeks, scratching his head. He looked embarrassed. Natalie suddenly realized he wasn’t that old, probably just college age like the other guys she used to know in Rallsburg. “Sorry.”
Natalie tried to ignore it. She just wanted to get out of there already. Gwen padded back off into the trees, ready to follow them again. “We gotta get moving before more of them show up.” The sergeant walked over to join them as she spoke, nodding his agreement.
”Wait.” Deeks was looking at her with some kind of awe. She really didn’t know how to feel about it. “How’d you know? That there was gonna be another guy in the woods?”
Natalie shrugged. “It makes sense.”
”To leave a guy outside the main group. If we come in, find them and show ourselves, then they can ambush us.” Natalie hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she should keep going.
They should know I’m not invincible. We’re allies, I don’t want them to rely on something I can’t do.
You should not reveal weaknesses to those you have only just met.
I don’t trust them, but I gotta work with them.
”I got lucky,” Natalie added, against the voice’s protests. “There was an owl nearby who warned me where he was. I couldn’t have kept the shield up much longer. It’s really hard to stop bullets.”
”…Holy shit…” He winced. “Sorry.”
Natalie shrugged. “You can cuss, it’s okay. I’m not that little.”
”Kay. I’m still sorry though. I was a jerk earlier.” Deeks smiled. “You need anything, you let me know.” He started off, but he threw one last glance over his shoulder. “Thanks for savin’ my life, Linn.”
In another part of the forest, Jeremy was about to be ambushed himself—and he knew it full well.
He’d gone to the spot the gruff voice on the phone asked him to. It wasn’t Felix. Somebody else answered his phone. In the background, Jeremy heard a serious commotion—and the distinct sound of Brian Hendricks’ voice. If I hadn’t, no way in hell I’d be out here right now all fuckin’ alone.
But he wasn’t alone, Jeremy reminded himself. There wasn’t anyone physically with him, since so few people even knew about his mission, but they did know, and they were ready to move on his signal. Cinza, Ruby, and Jackie back at the Greywood—give or take a Nikki, who Jeremy wasn’t sure was entirely there at the moment—and Will all the way up in Vancouver, ready to strike. Jackie tried to talk him out of it, but her attempts were half-hearted at best. She knew exactly how he felt. It was the reason they’d both given up on city police work.
He’d had the same conversation with Jackie a dozen times over the years. Every word he told Hailey was true—if he could just take out the kingpin breaking the whole system, he probably would. This moment, this time was his real chance. Jeremy could make a real difference. He wasn’t just chasing leads around the Northwest, playing number two to Rachel or Maddie or Cinza or whomever the fuck Aderholt decided to throw him at.
I’m not a goddamn chess piece. I’m the guy who flips the fuckin’ board. I was never supposed to be here anyway. Shouldn’t have been on this case, shouldn’t have stuck around, shouldn’t have thrown myself into the middle of all this shit. Hell, I shouldn’t even have joined the goddamn FBI. What was I thinking?
Yeah, this shit’s illegal, and it should be. Ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, even the ones where Jackie and I were tearin’ our fuckin’ hair out, nobody deserves this kind of street justice. But Brian Hendricks is a terrorist, not a drug dealer or a corrupt politician or even a serial killer. Even Malton wasn’t killin’ indiscriminately. He’s tryin’ to commit fuckin’ genocide. I can’t just stand by and hope the system handles this shit.
On and on, Jeremy stewed. Without Jackie to break him out of it, without Brian’s men arriving to take him away, all he could do was run things over and over in his mind. He remembered his own advice to Hailey about the system, about cogs in the machine, and tried to apply it to himself.
Am I doin’ the right thing? Or am I just really fuckin’ pissed, and Lani woke it up again, and now I’m doin’ somethin’ crazy and suicidal on the off-chance it might help? Ain’t they still gonna need me after Brian’s gone? There’s so much other shit happening. Awakened ain’t just gonna be accepted by the world ’cause the one ringleader gets popped.
”Might not be accepted, but at least they won’t be gettin’ gunned down in the streets and their goddamn homes…” Jeremy muttered aloud.
It’s worth it. He’s got too much power and too many followers.
What if I set off somethin’ worse though? One assassination attempt and he’s already got this many on his side, and a whole goddamn network of supplies to boot.
…He’s the only one who can use golems. He’s been runnin’ the show since long before that. Motherfucker’s as much responsible for Jessica’s death as Malton’s guys. Golem tore apart that car and would’ve killed us all if Hailey hadn’t held it off. His guy shot Lani up in B.C. when we met Boris and Dan.
If his guy didn’t shoot Lani. If Lani was still with me instead of at home. Maybe he never meets Rook, maybe Rook never gets into the Greywood, maybe Lily doesn’t get kidnapped and Hailey doesn’t trash London looking for Malton.
If he didn’t help Jackson, maybe the whole goddamn town of Rallsburg doesn’t blow up, and none of this ever happens.
”Face down on the ground,” grunted a voice just out of sight.
Jeremy didn’t bother trying to resist. He dropped as instructed. They stuffed a black bag over his head, tied his wrists, and muscled him away. Jeremy expected to be loaded into a car again, but they were smarter than that—nothing so loud that could be traced in the quiet nighttime forest. It seemed even more silent than usual after the pitched battle still echoing in his ears a couple hours later. The thick scent of blood seemed permanently fixed in his nostrils, never letting him get used to it.
They walked—for how long, Jeremy wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes. He stumbled over a few tree roots, but to his relief, the two men escorting him weren’t going out of their way to make things difficult. They helped him where they could, and they made good progress through the forest despite the restraints. He did his best to keep his sense of direction, but after a few more strange turns, he recognized they were running him in a circle, and he got lost not long after.
Finally, with his legs starting to really give out from the long day, Jeremy was pushed down so he could crouch into an enclosed space. From the dirt and moss above his head, he figured they were in a cave or something—and as the bag was lifted away, his expectations were confirmed. They’d set up a small camp under a huge tree, with wide-open spaces giving clear sightlines in every direction. Jeremy gaped at the clear flaw until he remembered Cinza’s guess.
”So y’all are protected by magic,” he muttered.
”Yes,” said Brian, emerging from deeper within the cave-like space. Felix was a few steps behind him, buried in his phone. “You told Felix you’re ready.” He hesitated, and Jeremy recognized the telltale sign of the man checking him once again with one of the stones.
That’s one use. Seven more to signal. Jeremy tried to inch his hand toward the stone in his pocket, but couldn’t quite reach that far, and didn’t want to try with so many eyes on him.
”My people say you were in the camp assisting the injured,” Brian went on. “The injured awakened,” he added with disgust. Jeremy never ceased to be amazed how much vitriol the man could put into a single word.
”Hey, I can’t know what they are. It’s my job to help people, and I saw people gettin’ shot.” Jeremy shrugged. “Then I saw them takin’ control of golems and shootin’ lightnin’ without any idea who it might hit. Their leader showed me a huge fuckin’ part of the forest where everything’s screwed up ’cause of what they did to Rallsburg. She confessed it was her that did Rallsburg in.”
”I’m glad you finally understand,” said Brian. “They are too dangerous to let live.”
”Took me a while, but yeah.”
”You understand why I can’t trust you yet, right?”
”Sure.” Jeremy nodded. “Take my gun and whatever else you got to. I’ve got one of your stones though, swiped it off one of y’all way back. You cool if I keep that?”
Brian nodded. “I hope you use it well.”
To Jeremy’s relief, Brian’s men only took his gun, his phone—which wasn’t his, but a burner Cinza had given him as a dummy—and his wallet. They left the stone, and even let him keep the hip flask half-full of Rika’s whiskey (which he’d refilled before setting out from the Greywood), though one of them checked it for a bug or a tracking device just in case. Jeremy rubbed his wrists to relieve the sores, before putting his hands back in his jacket pockets—and hesitated.
Holy shit… I’m about to die.
Felix hung up his phone and called to Brian. “You want to hear this.”
”They found her.”
Brian dropped the jerky he’d been eating. His face got pale. “Where?”
”In the camp. She was here during the battle. Someone recognized her photo. They’re absolutely sure.”
Brian fell back against the nearest chair. “She was… oh, God in heaven, please. Is she okay?”
”Yeah, they saw her after. One of our guys who stuck around in the camp and pretended to be a victim. She was with some of her friends and your old sheriff.” Felix smiled. “They checked her. She’s not awakened. None of ’em were. Rumors were bullshit.”
A huge sigh of relief. Brian visibly de-aged a dozen years right in front of Jeremy.
”Where is she now?”
”We aren’t sure. Probably still in the camp somewhere. He had to get out to call us.”
”She must…” Brian’s voice choked up. His eyes were glistening. Even from Jeremy’s distance, he could tell, the man was on the verge of tears. “She must be trying to find us. Going to places she thinks I’d be. Oh God… what will she think of me?”
”We’ll get to that when we get to it,” said Felix, trying to be as gentle as he could, but he didn’t really have the voice for it. “Hold it together, man.”
They kept talking for a while, eventually making it back to other battle plans. Jeremy stayed seated where he was, seemingly forgotten by Brian after the news. He had no idea why they would’ve gotten the info about Natalie wrong, but it could only be a good thing—after Brian was gone, his men wouldn’t go after her, so long as she laid low.
Start signalin’. It’s time. Suck it up and don’t fuck it up. Maddie will get it, sooner or later, once she pulls her head out of the shit and back into the real world. If not, Cinza and Jackie’ll explain it to her.
Jeremy worked up the courage. He pressed his finger to the stone, focused just as Cinza had demonstrated, and picked a random spot on the ground. Each signal took a couple minutes to complete. Will couldn’t sense them until the spell actually finished, so Jeremy had to do the full thing. The magic activated—the first, and probably the last, time Jeremy would ever use magic in his life.
Two… three… four… five—
His concentration broke. Jeremy looked up, against his better judgment… and was confronted with the absolute last person he wanted to see in that moment.
”Do you know who that is?” asked Felix, shocked.
”‘Course I do, or he’d be dead right now,” grunted the burly man filling the entryway. “He’s awakened.”
”…Fuck.” Felix took a step back. “You know they can still do shit while they’re bound and gagged, right?”
The man grinned. “Shot him with a tranquilizer. He’s completely out. Figure we can use a high-value hostage, eh?” He glanced around. “Well fuck me silly, looks like we got a matching set!”
He tossed his unconscious captive down on the floor. Jeremy tried to avoid looking, but sure enough, the dreadlocks were unmistakable.
Lani. Of all the fuckin’ people in the world, they picked up Lani. How the fuck did this happen? Where the hell is Rook?
”So what do we do with ‘im?” asked the burly guy.
”Kill him,” said Brian shortly, turning away. “He’s awakened.”
”Now hold up a sec,” said Felix quickly. “He’s not wrong, this is a valuable hostage. We could get a lot of mileage here. We gotta consider.” He glanced at the burly guy. “How long will the tranq last?”
He shrugged. “He’s pretty skinny. Could be hours at least, maybe longer. He moves a little, I’ve got more.”
They retreated further into the cave, deep in discussion—Jeremy somehow still forgotten. Guess the guy thought I was a captive. Brian and Felix are too caught up in their own shit to care. Looks like me not bein’ important is finally payin’ off.
All I gotta do is… signal.
Jeremy’s hand still held the stone. He’d been ready to die only minutes earlier.
He stabbed me in the fucking back. He betrayed me. Broke our partnership over a sociopathic killer who gave him a goddamn smile.
He gripped the stone so tight in his fist, he thought it might break. His fingers dug deep into the skin of his palm. Next to him, Lani’s face was completely passive—not peaceful in the slightest. Dead, even, except for the gentle rise and fall of his chest.
Just signal. Lani would get it too.
”We’re headin’ out,” Jeremy heard from somewhere deeper into the cave. The others nearby headed in. Jeremy glanced up and saw some kind of communication equipment back there.
”What’s goin’ on?”
”Someone found a way to break Jackson’s barriers,” said Brian. “We’re no longer safe. We must escape with as much as we can. Break down everything.”
Felix began dealing out direction assignments—nothing specific enough for Jeremy to use, but from the sound of it, they were definitely trying to get out of the forest entirely.
”What about you, boss?” asked the burly guy.
”My daughter is heading home. I’m going to meet her there.”
There was no way Jeremy had time to signal with how fast they were breaking everything down. The entire little cave was a flurry of activity—everywhere except for the entranceway, where Jeremy still sat mostly ignored.
He got to his feet experimentally, and still, no one noticed him. Jeremy took one step toward the cave opening… and stopped again.
He turned around.
In six quick steps across the cave, Jeremy had grabbed his things. Someone looked up, surprised, but Jeremy was already moving again. In one swift motion, he hoisted Lani up onto his shoulders. Thank God you’re so light, and that I’ve been workin’ out ever since you got shot.
Jeremy thought he might have heard a shout of alarm, but he didn’t care at this point. He was sprinting away, hoping desperately their code of honor still held—that they would not shoot someone unawakened.
No gunfire pursued him, nor any thumps of chasing footsteps through the carpet of leaves. He didn’t glance back, but if he had to guess, he believed they were more concerned with their equipment and supplies. The place was burned anyway. Jeremy hadn’t really learned anything valuable. Most likely, they’d assume he was there to save his partner—more fool them, assholes. Can’t trick ’em again, but I know where he’s goin’, and who he’s… fuck. Who he’s meetin’.
Jeremy grabbed the phone out of his pocket, desperately holding onto Lani with one hand as he stumbled through the forest in the vague direction of the pilgrim camp. He dialed the number he’d memorized just before leaving, just in case. Jackie had insisted, though Jeremy fully intended not to use it.
Well, thanks, Jackie. Saved my ass once again.
The phone picked up, but no one spoke on the other end, only a faint hiss of noise.
”It’s Jeremy. I couldn’t do it. Somethin’ happened.”
”Explain,” said Cinza, not unkindly.
”It doesn’t matter. I know where he’s goin’.”
”Where?” asked Will, who was dialed in on the same line.
”Rallsburg. He’s goin’ back home to look for his daughter.”
One of their new captives tried to escape.
A soldier tripped over a tree root, and the woman he’d been escorting made a break for it. She managed to get ten steps out of sight before shrieking with fear. Deeks and the sergeant were there in an instant, rifles raised—but they needn’t have bothered. Gwen was calmly seated atop the struggling woman, looking thoroughly pleased with herself.
”So uhh…” said Deeks, taking a cautious step forward. Gwen eyed him like he was a rat she hadn’t quite decided if she was going to chase off yet.
Natalie smiled. <Gwen, let them have her, okay?>
Gwen sighed, if wolves could sigh, and went through the same routine she had before. The woman was soon back in captivity. Deeks hurried up to Natalie’s side, since he wasn’t escorting a prisoner (or carrying the box of stones).
”So… how do you do all this magic stuff?”
Natalie shrugged. “I just kinda learned it.”
”You’re incredible, you know.” Deeks rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I got a little sister like you. She’s about eleven though. How old are you?”
”…Thirteen,” said Natalie.
”And you’re out here doin’ this?” He shook his head. “Kid like you oughta be in school.”
”I was…” Natalie hesitated, not sure how much she should reveal. She had no idea how far the news might have spread about her, but she really wanted to vent, and Deeks seemed like an ally. Plus, he wasn’t connected to anyone she knew. “They kicked me out. For… you know, being like this.”
”…That’s just wrong,” Deeks muttered. “What does it matter who or what you are? Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get an education.”
Natalie winced, but didn’t say anything.
”Just wrong. That’s not what I’m fighting for out here.” Deeks shook his head again. “Tell you what, Linny. After we’re all done here, you call me.” He fished a card out of his pocket and scrawled a phone number on it. “I’ll personally come by in full uniform and make sure they let you in the building, Ruby Bridges style.”
”Another brave girl who just wanted to go to school.”
”Watch it, Linn,” said Harris, lugging the box of stones a little ways behind them. “Don’t let him get into his social justice shit again. Deeks never shuts the hell up about it.”
”Ignore him,” said Deeks. “He’s an asshole who doesn’t get what’s important.”
”Yeah, yeah. Says the asshole.”
Deeks rolled his eyes. “So Linn, what do you like to do?”
”I dunno. Just makin’ conversation. My little sister loves horses. We got a few on our farm. She rides around all the time.”
Natalie hesitated, then raised her voice. <Gwen, come over here, please?>
”…I was gonna ask before, what language is that?”
”I dunno,” Natalie shrugged. “But Gwen understands it.”
A split-second later, Gwen burst out of the woods on their left, landing in front of Natalie and scattering leaves everywhere. Deeks jumped back in shock, while Harris dropped the box on his foot and swore. The rest of the group behind them started cursing, having to change their routes to keep security tight.
Natalie rolled her eyes. <You didn’t have to be so loud.>
Gwen simply walked up next to her and brushed against her side pointedly. Natalie smiled, and in one quick motion, pulled herself up onto Gwen’s back. Gwen immediately started walking forward at an easy pace, and Deeks hurried to match them. Natalie found herself looking down at him now from Gwen’s back, another reminder of how she was still growing.
”All right, that beats a horse,” he said, grinning.
Natalie smiled, but her mirth was cut short as they reached the edge of the treeline—and the wide expanse of the camp opened in front of them. She halted Gwen, confusing Deeks and the rest of the squad.
”You guys go ahead,” she said. “I’m staying out here.”
”Don’t like going in public, huh?” said Deeks knowingly. He stuck around while the rest of them marched forward, escorting their prisoners and poor Harris with the heavy box. Natalie took another look at Deeks, and realized the guy was actually pretty handsome. Not movie-star handsome or anything, but he was a step above the rest of the soldiers for sure. “So what are you gonna do now? Thought we were goin’ on more patrols with you.”
Natalie hesitated. “I need to figure out where my friends are first.”
Deeks nodded. “Well, you got my number. Good hunting. See you ’round, Linny.” He started away, and Natalie felt a confusing sense of abandonment. I found someone actually kinda cool out here… in the middle of all this craziness.
Deeks may be a good ally to us in the future. We would do well to keep his number handy.
Yeah… I don’t know if we’re ever going back to school, but we might need help with other things. I don’t really like ‘Linny’ though.
Tell him not to call you that.
I’m not going to worry about it right now. I gotta figure out where Kelsey, Mitch and Tyler are.
Natalie pulled out her phone and dialed Josh, as she promised she would when they were all done with the first patrol.
”I just saw the squad come back,” he said, as soon as he picked up. “You figured out something then?”
”Yeah…” Natalie quickly explained the gemstone trees and how the hideouts were concealed. “It actually wasn’t hard to break the spell. You just gotta know where to look or it seems super impossible.”
”Gotcha. I’ll pass it on.” Josh paused. “You okay to go out with another group? They could use your help, and like you said, we can’t just hit one.”
”I guess I could…” said Natalie, stifling a yawn—but Josh heard it anyway.
”Damn, I forgot. You’ve been going hard all day. Forget that, I’ll pass it on to Captain Hoskins and we’ll get volunteers from everyone still here. I’ll even go on one myself if I have to. You should go to the Greywood, meet up with your friends and get some sleep.”
Natalie had been holding it off for the longest time, but after the huge burst in the woods to stop the bullet, she really was getting tired. Gwen was practically holding her up at this point. I should’ve used some gemstones to power that… instead of burning all my energy. What if I got caught off guard again?
We will do better. You have a cache in your bag, but none were ready at the time. We should take after Cinza and prepare jewelry with gemstone inserts.
Yeah. I gotta have them ready.
”How do I get there?”
It wasn’t as hard as she expected. The labyrinth was navigated in the same way as Lani had shown her—following the telltale magic traces and ignoring her own sense of direction, though Lani hadn’t realized the path had reversed since they’d left. Natalie simply went the opposite direction whenever her magic seemed to indicate one turn, and soon enough, she found another set of trees with silver-grey marks on it. Natalie felt forward hesitantly, and to her relief, she found a sort of key-hole, just as Josh described.
With the lock turned, the corridor of trees was safe. Gwen took her down the route, with branches and leaves curving overhead to form a dark green tunnel leading them inward. The lock slid back into place behind her, once again protecting the Greywood from intruders.
When Natalie emerged into the clearing at large, she stopped, dumbfounded.
It’s so much bigger… and there’s so much of it. How is this possible? It wasn’t this big before.
Cinza and her people have built themselves a magnificent home. We must learn how, so we can build our own someday.
They’ve got so many cabins, and the bridge over the creek is so pretty… and the flowers and butterflies everywhere. It’s December. There’s snow, but… how is this all in one place at the same time? I want to know so much right now.
Natalie suddenly felt awake, more than she had all day. She felt out with her magic, and the whole Greywood teemed with life and energy. It was incredible and fulfilling, a place she felt like she truly belonged.
”Natalie!” shouted Kelsey, sprinting across the bridge to meet her. She was beaming wider than she ever had. “This place is amazing!“
Natalie nodded, still overwhelmed herself. Tyler and Mitch followed, and in the distance, Natalie saw Scrappy, lounging by the heat spilling out from a fireplace. She almost called out to him, but he was asleep, and she didn’t want to wake him up. Besides… she needed to find Cinza.
We gotta talk about… about Rika.
Her friends were chattering around her like little birds as Natalie rode slowly through the Greywood. She nodded and smiled, barely paying any attention, while her own fears and worries resurfaced one by one. Natalie could barely name them all, as so many complicated emotions bubbled and swirled in her stomach, in her heart, in her head. Her whole body felt unsettled and disjointed. Between exhaustion and her ever-mounting stress, Natalie felt like she might throw up.
”I gotta go talk to Cinza,” she said finally, cutting off Kelsey and Mitch. They’d begun arguing about which affinity would be the best one to have—Kelsey was firmly attached to Elemental, while Mitch, to nobody’s surprise, favored Self. Natalie, of course, was anxious about any of them awakening. She didn’t necessarily hate the idea… but at the same time, she didn’t think her friends really felt the weight of what it would mean.
They don’t really get how the rest of the world’s gonna treat them. I’ve gotten used to it, and they’ve seen a bit of it, but it’s so much different when you’re the one everyone’s staring at… when it’s people like you they’re all obsessed with.
”Can we come?” asked Kelsey excitedly.
”Cinza freaks me out,” said Mitch.
Kelsey slapped him on the back of the head. “Dude, she basically owns this whole place. Don’t be a jerk.”
”Would you stop hitting me?”
”I think I’d want Nature,” said Tyler finally, in his usual way of adding to an old topic long after the conversation had shifted. “Yours is Nature, right?” he added, glancing at Natalie.
”…Yeah,” said Natalie. “And… no, I don’t think Cinza would be okay with that. I’m sorry.”
”Aww…” Kelsey sighed, but she didn’t actually look surprised or upset. “Makes sense. They won’t give us any Scraps either. We’re just guests or whatever.”
”That’s a good thing,” said Mitch. “You getting awakened sounds crazy to me.”
”Uh huh, and you’re the sane one, huh?”
They wandered away. Tyler smiled at Natalie again before hurrying off to follow them. Natalie hesitated, watching them go, wishing more than anything she could follow and forget about everything else going on. She slid off Gwen and let the wolf pad away too. Gwen, of course, went immediately over to join Scrappy near the fire. Percy fluttered down out of the sky, landing on Natalie’s shoulder. He’d recognized her stress and come to comfort her, in his own way. Natalie stroked his head a few times before finally turning around to Cinza’s door.
Ruby had long-since finished the eight affinity carvings. Natalie traced over the Nature square with her fingers—a wide oak tree, intricately detailed, with the eight-pointed star carved into its trunk. Curled up at the base, quite unmistakably, lay a wolf. Natalie smiled, but inside, she felt a little mixed. The Greycloaks seemed to hold her as some sort of paragon for the affinity. Cinza had written in her diary that she believed Natalie to be the strongest awakened in the world.
So does that make me one of the Gods too? Or is it just ’cause that’s what they called themselves?
Is it so bad to be thought of as the absolute best in your affinity?
Natalie went over the other carvings. None of the others seemed to have such a clear tie to a single person. She wondered who they might even pick if they were to choose someone.
Movement… well, Viper and Alden were probably the strongest at it. Everybody knew Viper better though. Yusuf was also pretty good at it, and they like him more, so maybe…? I don’t know.
Is this important?
Maybe. It might be useful someday. Elemental would definitely be Hailey or Rika. Probably Hailey. Nature is me, I guess, but I feel like Cinza comes up with way more interesting and useful spells than me, and Kendra’s also part Nature. So why’d they pick me?
You’re stalling, Natalie.
Creation would definitely be Kendra, that’s probably why they wouldn’t pick her for Nature. I don’t think they even know she’s got Nature affinity, everybody just assumes she’s Creation. She’s one of those special dual affinities. I didn’t even know that was a thing, but apparently it is. I wonder if I have another one I don’t know about.
Delaying will not keep us from having to confront this choice.
Mental is Rachel, of course, since nobody else ever really uses it anyway. Self magic is… uhh… Ryan, I guess? Ryan and Mr. McGregor used it the most. But… Mr. McGregor got killed by golems in the Greywood apparently… when Rachel wouldn’t let me come help. She got him, so I guess she was right, but… he probably died right over there. If he dies, does that make Ryan the best by default?
The best is the best.
So if I died, this carving wouldn’t make much sense anymore. ‘Cause I wouldn’t be the best. I’d… I’d be dead.
We will not let that happen.
You can’t just promise me I’m not gonna die. We’re fighting, and people are killing each other, and there’s guns and magic and everybody’s angry and scared. I could have died a couple hours ago when that guy tried to shoot me. I got lucky.
You stopped him. No one else, no luck, just you.
Natalie shook her head. She went back to the carvings, still stubbornly finishing the list. At the bottom, the two rarest affinities lay, side by side. On the left, an open book with a single candle flame above it, set into a backdrop of stars. Knowledge… Who decides what’s best there? Nikki’s one, Jessica… Jessica was one. Rachel’s boyfriend is one.
She is aware, at all times, who is awakening and where. She knows every spell being cast. This must be Knowledge magic.
Oh… Yeah, I guess…
Natalie looked at the last panel. Nobody knew the final affinity. They’d never known anyone to have it—or if that person was even aware they had it. Everyone guessed there must be eight, based on the star, but nobody had much more besides vague speculation—except for Rika.
Rika knows what it is. She and Omega could use it. Nobody else. That’s why Rachel needed her to try and kill him. Except…
Except Rika was not there when Omega died.
So… so someone else could use it. Rika must have taught it to Rachel.
Except that Rachel is too weak to cast a spell strong enough to hold Omega, even for a second.
…Alden was there. Alden helped her. Rachel sent me away because he knew. Because they were going to the Greywood to trap him.
Alden knows the eighth magic.
The revelation hit Natalie like a thunderbolt—fitting, as the final panel held a carving of a wide-forking bolt of lighting out of a cloudy sky, striking two points along a vague blurry road. It was easily the least detailed and beautiful of Ruby’s carvings. She’d done it so it could be covered up and changed one day without damaging the rest of the door.
The door swung inward as Natalie finally straightened up, and she found herself face-to-face with Ruby. The girl was clad in her grey cloak, thick and elaborate as always, and her messy red hair was everywhere. Ruby’s eyes widened as Natalie took a reluctant half-step back.
”…Sorry,” she muttered, all resolve flying from her at the sight of Ruby. She couldn’t talk to Cinza, not now, maybe not ever. If she walked away, maybe it would never come up.
”No, please!” Ruby reached forward, and Natalie shrunk away even more. Of course, Ruby was the type to hug, and Natalie couldn’t do that anymore.
”My love, give her space,” said Cinza, walking forward through the curtain from the depths of their cabin. “She’s just been through a great deal, as have we all.”
”Oh… yeah.” Ruby shook her head. “I’m so sorry. I heard about what happened at your school.”
Natalie nodded. “I… I need to talk to Cinza, okay?”
Ruby turned and kissed Cinza on the cheek. “I’ll be with Nikki,” she murmured. “Call me when it’s done, okay?”
She hurried away. Cinza beckoned Natalie inside, and the door swung closed behind them. Cinza’s cabin, bisected as always by the huge starry curtain, was warm and inviting. Natalie saw the rumpled blankets on the bed and felt even more embarrassed.
”…Were you guys—”
Cinza shook her head. “No. Ruby was just… well, holding me.”
She sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. Natalie, after a few reluctant moments, took a seat next to her—a couple feet away, but still. Cinza took a deep breath before continuing.
”Someone took a terrible mission upon themselves tonight, and I’m afraid of what I may have set in motion. I still think I chose right, but I feel haunted. Ruby is my anchor, and when the hurricane blows, I hold tight to her to keep myself from being swept away.”
Cinza shook her head. “You don’t need to bear this burden. You have so many already.”
Natalie hesitated. She didn’t know where to start.
”We haven’t seen each other since the morning in Seattle,” said Cinza gently. Natalie realized that she’d dropped her voice enchantment—something she never did, except, it seemed, around Natalie. “I received your messages, and I’m grateful for every single one.”
”I’m sorry I didn’t send more…”
Cinza smiled. “You had your own life to live. Something you’ll learn as you grow older is that we rarely get time to spend with our friends as we age. Our responsibilities take over.”
”Like… all this?”
”Exactly.” Cinza fell back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She picked up a pillow and held it to her chest. It was so… normal. Natalie laid back too, grabbing one of her own. Above them, another tapestry hung—the night sky in all its beauty. “I’m only twenty-one years old, and I’m in charge of everything now. Some days, I just want to lay down and talk to Ruby all day, or spend time with my family, or just take a walk in the forest. I can’t anymore. Every day brings new work and new challenges. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t even have time to eat!”
”Me too,” mumbled Natalie.
Cinza turned over on her side, looking at Natalie from across the bed. Natalie mirrored her. This feels like sleepovers I had with Jenny. Except we’re not talking about silly things like bands or TV shows or games. Also… I’ve got magic. To really drive her point home to herself, Natalie grabbed the nearest blanket with her mind and drifted it up to tuck herself in tight.
”Very nice,” said Cinza with a small smile. “I noticed you did end up telling your friends.”
Natalie nodded, her hair brushing against the bed. She pulled it out of the way so she could lay more comfortably. “Yeah. They’re really cool friends.”
”Incredibly loyal, too.” Cinza’s eyes shone with pride. “I wish I’d had friends like that at your age.”
”But not Quinn,” she added with a clear note of sympathy.
Natalie’s eyes instantly welled up. Cinza sighed. She held out a hand, letting it sit halfway between them on the bed. After a moment, Natalie took it—and to her relief, it didn’t cause her pain or discomfort. She didn’t get any closer, but that connection, with the only person in the world who truly knew what she’d gone through, gave her some real comfort.
”I’m so sorry, Natalie,” Cinza murmured.
She cried. Cinza held her hand throughout, even summoning a box of tissues so Natalie didn’t need to feel guilty about getting tears all through their amazing blankets.
”Honestly, it’s not the first time they’ve been covered in tears,” said Cinza. “Don’t worry about it.”
Natalie laughed weakly, and it helped her come back to normal. She didn’t let go of Cinza’s hand, but she did manage to stop crying.
”I can’t go back to school,” Natalie went on.
”I heard…” Cinza’s face darkened. “The school board and the city will be hearing from me, rest assured.”
”You don’t need to—”
”I do,” said Cinza. “For one, you deserve to go to that school. Beyond what you deserve, though, this is a precedent. If they are allowed to run you out of school, others will feel like they can do the same. No child in your position will ever feel safe in a school again. They will be forced to hide who they are, suppress their goddess-granted gifts.”
”Are there…” Natalie trailed off. “Are there other kids like me?” She’d never actually heard of anyone else awakening so young. It made her even more nervous for her friends, since she was the only example—and as she’d learned in the years since, she had not awakened in the typical way.
”There will never be another kid like you,” said Cinza, smiling again. “But no, there aren’t any other awakened children. Ruby remains the youngest besides yourself. I believe the youngest past her—that we know of, obviously—is Jonathan Hudson, the magician.”
”He’s a magician?”
”He uses real magic to pretend he’s doing fake magic.” Cinza rolled her eyes.
Natalie giggled. “Why would he do that?”
”Because people are more afraid of the real thing. They always have been.” Cinza sighed. “Which is why you’re here, I imagine… because of Rika.”
Natalie tensed up. Her hand didn’t leave Cinza’s, but she found herself gripping more tightly. Cinza held firm.
”I gave her to them,” said Cinza abruptly.
”…What?” said Natalie, more confused than ever. Her hand snapped back to her side. Cinza winced, and Natalie instantly felt bad. “Sorry… I was just… I don’t understand.”
Cinza withdrew her hand before Natalie could take it again. She looked troubled, and her voice wasn’t as confident as it usually was. Between that and the lack of echo, Natalie felt like she was almost a different person, like she had been in the streets of Seattle. She was clearly talking to herself as much as to Natalie.
”Rika is a survivor. I don’t think she actually killed anyone, even the first set in Rallsburg I didn’t know about. If she did, it clearly had to be self-defense. They’ll drag her name through the mud, but she can take it. You can’t, and I can’t. We’re already fighting against so many other prejudices, between my history and your father. Rika is wealthy, from a wealthy family, and without the responsibilities we hold.”
”So…” said Natalie, interrupting her flow cautiously. “You think we should let Rika be blamed for what we did.”
Do I tell her it was me? Both of them?
Cinza has already made her choice. Telling her would not change anything.
”I think that the world cannot ever find justice for those deaths. They were committed by a genocidal god bent on destroying us and a man caught up in his insanity.” Cinza looked into Natalie’s eyes. “Your father was in the battle tonight, Natalie.”
”I… I saw him.”
She nodded. “We don’t know what happened to him. He might have gotten away, or he might not.” Natalie didn’t answer, so she went on. “I don’t want him to be hurt, but we have to defend ourselves. You know that, right?”
”He’s hurting us,” said Natalie slowly. “Dad has to be stopped before he makes things worse.”
”Yes.” Cinza summoned a plate of cookies from somewhere. They landed on the bed between the two of them. “Please. Eat as many as you like. I’m sure you’re as hungry as I am.”
Natalie still felt too upset to enjoy anything, but her stomach was complaining after the small dinner they’d had back at their castle. She’d expended so much energy since then, she needed to eat something. So she started downing cookies, one after another. They tasted incredible—Brittany’s, she was sure. Brittany always used to have them whenever she visited the Greywood with Scrappy, and they’d only gotten better since.
Cinza sat up. Her phone was buzzing.
”I’ll be back later, Natalie. Stay as long as you need to. You are always welcome in my home.”
She hurried out of the room while Natalie ate. A few minutes went by while Cinza made some calls—mostly getting updates on people still back at the camp, like Josh, or elsewhere in the world. The cookies were wonderful as always, and Natalie finally started to feel a bit calmer and back to normal again. As she settled, she realized how filthy her clothes were—so much jumping between trees, crawling in the dirt, and the fighting had caked her in mud, sweat, and… blood.
Natalie started digging through her bag, taking outfit after outfit and laying them out. She wasn’t sure what to wear—who knew what she’d be doing next?—but anything was better than what she had on. Still, she couldn’t decide, and for the moment, she didn’t much care. She just wanted nothing more than to just stay in Cinza’s huge comfortable bed and stop moving for hours… but she couldn’t help overhearing. She could always hear, no matter how quiet people tried to speak.
”It’s Jeremy. I couldn’t do it. Somethin’ happened.”
”Explain,” said Cinza, as quietly as she could.
”It doesn’t matter. I know where he’s goin’.”
”Where?” asked Will, a voice which sent Natalie’s head spinning. What’s Will doing talking to Cinza and the FBI guy?
”Rallsburg. He’s goin’ back home to look for his daughter.”
”We have to… try again.”
”I’ll get Ruby and Hector,” murmured Cinza.
”I’m on my way. No fuckin’ around this time. I’ll get eyes on and call it in. The moment I call, be ready to kill him.”
The phone clicked off.
Natalie sat up straight in the bed. The cookies fell away, scattering across her clothes. Cinza was still outside, behind the thick and intricately carved wooden door. There was nobody in the room, no one but Natalie, but still it felt too small. The walls were closing in tight around her, and suddenly there weren’t enough blankets in the whole world to keep her warm.
Her blood was frozen. Every part of her felt impossibly cold. Sound filled her ears, a rushing wind louder than any hurricane. Very slowly, very carefully, Natalie stood up from the bed.
We do not have time. We must act. Now.
Natalie didn’t argue. Without a moment to spare, Natalie flung open the rear window to Cinza’s cabin. She hurled herself out into the forest and sprinted down the tree corridor out of the Greywood. Scrappy and Gwen were already rushing to join her, feeling her distress. Percy dove off the roof of Cinza’s home to follow her. As soon as Gwen caught up, Natalie leapt onto her back.
The trees became a blur as they rode out of the Greywood. Natalie only barely had time to turn the lock before they barreled out into the forest proper, closing behind her as they went. They ran straight out of the labyrinth, heading west.
Heading to Rallsburg.