Chapter 49 — The Third Summit of the End of the World
She’d even put out a fresh-baked plate of chocolate chip cookies, like always. Without knowing any better, they could have traveled back in time, and this meeting could be taking place a year before… back before everyone’s lives fell apart.
Rachel sighed. “Will they come?”
”Of course they will, love,” said Lily from her chair in the corner. She leaned against the nearby wall with a tired expression. A yawn overtook her, and Lily quickly brought a handkerchief to her mouth to cover it. As she did, the room seemed to warp ever so slightly, but it quickly became stable once Lily opened her eyes again.
Rachel wasn’t quite sure why, but Lily seemed far more tired than usual. She still wasn’t sure how to differentiate Lily from her sister—even with a perfect memory, they seemed utterly identical to a ludicrous degree—but she was incredibly grateful for their help. This summit wouldn’t be possible without the Laushires, in more than a few ways. Kendra had responded almost immediately when Rachel reached out, and they’d been able to arrange this meeting—even rushed it after seeing the events of Friday night.
”How did you do it?” asked Rachel.
”The portal.” She hesitated, remembering how their world usually functioned. “Unless you don’t want to say…”
”Well, Kenni and I decided we needed a better way to cross the world than unexpected flights,” said Lily, blinking as though trying to get something out of her eyes. “It took some assistance, and the knowledge of a few people I won’t name, but… well, you’ve seen the results yourself.”
Indeed Rachel had. She stepped through the wooden door in her hotel room, just as she might have back in Rallsburg so long ago, and found herself inside Kendra’s void. It was exactly the same as she remembered.
”Were you always able to open the doors anywhere you wanted?”
”No.” Lily coughed slightly. “I’m sorry, love. It’s difficult enough to hold this together already. We’re both quite drained.”
”But…” said Rachel, confused. “She isn’t here. Are you both powering the spell somehow even though you’re not next to each other?”
Lily laughed, a quiet reserved sound Rachel hadn’t heard in a long time. “I’m so sorry, Rachel. I’ve forgotten to properly introduce myself.” She leaned forward and held out a hand. Rachel took it, and found Lily seemed far weaker physically than normal as well as magically. “I’m Kendra’s creation.”
So Lily explained, and Rachel was even more confused.
”How did I never notice?”
”Well, if you had, we’d have been doing our jobs poorly, wouldn’t we?” Lily sat back again and pulled a coat over her shoulders, tapping her foot impatiently on the floor. “Don’t fret, love. I’m the same person you’ve known all along, just… a little different now.”
”…Okay,” said Rachel. She glanced at the door. “Did you start bringing them in?”
”Kenni’s doing it right now,” said Lily. “I’m just holding this void open.”
”How can you tell?”
She clenched her teeth a little, and Rachel could hear the sudden strain in her voice. “I can always tell when Kenni’s doing something big,” she murmured.
Rachel tensed up. She’d tried to plan it all out, as fast as she could. They’d actually been planning a gathering for several days now. The world was getting crazier by the minute, and the awakened were scattered. They were broken up, confused, and stepping on each others’ toes. Nobody was cooperating. Rachel wanted to bring everyone together, try to get the community in order again.
She was incredibly nervous. It had been so long… would any of them even answer her call anymore? She’d left them, after all. The whole town was destroyed, and though Rachel stopped Jackson… she’d still broken. Will was crippled physically, and she mentally, and neither of them could keep going. So Rachel fled, went north with her parents into hiding. She spoke to no one, she interacted with no one. Jackie was her only company for so long.
But… Rachel still watched the news. She still visited the website every day. She saw the regular messages from Natalie, from Cinza, from Alden and Hailey and everyone else. Rachel heard their cries for help, their confusion, and her heart tugged back in that direction. Back south, where the rest of the world awaited.
Cinza was right. Rachel was a leader, through and through, and her people were lost.
The ritual had finally tipped her hand. When Will told Rachel he was helping direct another magnetic attack, this time on Brian Hendricks, Rachel was apprehensive, but she’d let them decide. But when Rachel heard that it had been deflected by a force even more powerful—by Natalie herself—she knew it was time.
I promised that little girl I’d come back. I didn’t keep that promise, and I abandoned everyone. Now they’re fighting each other and casting so much magic they might tear apart the whole forest. We can’t let that happen.
If another huge explosion of magic occurred in Rallsburg, if the world kept tipping toward fear and hatred of magic, then no amount of political maneuvering by Rachel in D.C. would save them.
The first person walked in the door. Rachel had chosen the order very carefully, and she knew she wanted him to be first. It wouldn’t be right without the two of them coordinating.
”Hi, Josh,” she said, rising from her chair at the council table.
Josh stopped in the doorway to the portable classroom, with a black void filling the whole space behind him. As soon as he spotted Rachel, he shook his head in dismay.
Rachel deflated a little. She’d been excited to see him, but all the casual, cool-headed attitude she’d wanted to balance her out was gone. Josh was anxious, venomous, harsh… and so much more focused than he used to be, back when they held council together.
”So what’s this about?” he asked. He pointedly took a seat against the wall, instead of up at the council table as she’d intended.
Rachel tried to deflect as quickly as she could, though disappointment was already pooling in her stomach like a heavy weight. “It’s about making sure we don’t get each other killed, and getting us back on track toward making the world a better place.”
”Uh-huh.” Josh crossed his legs, a dark look filling his eyes. “Hey, Lily. Glad you’re all right.”
”Thank you,” said Lily, her eyes still closed.
”Kenni doing better?”
”Much better. She is creating the portals.”
”Cool shit.” Josh leaned back as well and closed his eyes.
”…Are you okay?” asked Rachel nervously.
Josh shook his head, still not opening his eyes. “Hell no. I was just in a warzone, Rachel. I fucking walked back into it, too. Me and Natalie were hunting down her dad’s guys. Guess Jackson left all sorts of shit in the forest, and they’re using it to hide out. So yeah, I’m tired as fuck, and I’ve been shot at way too much in the last twenty-four hours.”
Rachel briefly thought about offering him a cookie, but realized how obtuse she’d seem. Josh didn’t want a cookie, he wanted a week of sleep.
”I checked your parents,” she said, trying to offer some good news. “They’re—”
”They’re fine, and they haven’t been fucked by the press yet,” said Josh, in the same even, exhausted tone, with his eyes still closed. “I check on them every day, Rachel. Every day.”
She winced, realizing what he really meant. “Did you ever reach out?”
”…I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
”Yeah, whatever.” Josh finally opened his eyes, glancing at the door. “Who all’s coming?”
”Only who needs to,” said Rachel. “We need to get everyone on the same page. Whether that’s killing Brian or not, I don’t know, but we can’t keep doing this.”
”Well, I’m with you there.” Josh shut his eyes again. “Wake me up when it’s time. I didn’t sleep at all last night.”
”…Okay,” said Rachel. She hesitated again, already feeling her whole plan slipping away again. “I missed you,” she murmured, too low for Josh to hear.
Lily seemed to realize it was time, because the next person arrived only a minute later—or rather, a pair of them.
”Still hate this damn place,” Jackie muttered as she walked in, Jeremy only a few steps behind. “Hey, Rachel.” She took a seat without much fanfare. Rachel wanted them next—both had seen her far more recently, after all, and Jackie was always on her side, even through her months in hiding.
”The fuck did you call this again?” asked Jeremy.
She shrugged. “Ask the Brit, I don’t know what to call this thing.”
”A pocket dimension,” said Lily from the corner. She opened her eyes. “Hello again, Agent Ashe.”
”Hi yourself,” said Jeremy. He took a seat with Jackie—pointedly ignoring Rachel entirely.
Why would he be… does he know I suggested to Maddie that we give up on Hailey? Did Cinza tell him? I know they were friends, but Jeremy ought to be… I’ve screwed up again.
Boris and Neffie Bowman arrived next. They greeted Rachel much more warmly, but there wasn’t time for small talk anymore. Rachel wanted to get as many in as possible before they actually opened conversation. If anyone left, they’d lose the sense of unity and community she needed to build if they were ever going to stick together.
”Welcome back,” said a familiar echoing voice.
Rachel turned to the door. Cinza, in full silvery-grey regalia, smiled up at her. She, too, looked exhausted, but nonetheless pleased to be there. Makoto and Ruby flanked her, Ruby seeming in awe of Rachel, and Hector followed them in with his usual nervous tics.
”Thank you,” said Rachel, though she saw Josh roll his eyes out of her peripheral vision.
She had her power base now. Everyone in the room so far were people she considered to be strong allies. Josh and Jeremy were a bit less warm than usual, but she could count on support from everyone else. Neffie had always looked up to her, while Boris had stayed loyal through international manhunts. Cinza and her followers admired her, and though Rachel didn’t like the idea of abusing their trust, she knew she could count on them through nearly anything.
It was time for the other, more volatile elements of the summit.
Rika walked in, wearing clothes clearly not meant for her. She winked at Rachel. “About damn time,” she snorted. She immediately walked over and gave Rachel a hug, sending shocks buzzing through her skin. Rachel was taken aback—she hadn’t expected affection from Rika of all people. “How’s Andrea?”
”…Good,” said Rachel, still winded recovering from the sudden burst of electricity through her whole body. “Mom misses you. She texts me every single time there’s an update about your case.”
”Huh.” Rika glanced over her shoulder, where Hailey was just walking in. “Well, thanks for getting us a day pass out of prison. Coulda gotten me some clothes too, you know.”
”I didn’t get her those,” said Rachel, a little confused herself.
”…Must be the damn superhero thing,” Rika muttered. “So what’s the plan?”
”Get everyone to stop being stupid,” Rachel said, quietly enough that no one would overhear. The rest of the room was talking now, albeit in low voices. Josh and Lily both seemed to be asleep, though Rachel knew she obviously wasn’t, or they’d have been crushed by the collapsing void.
”Uh-huh.” Rika grabbed up a few of her cookies and tossed one in her mouth whole. “I still make better cookies than you,” she added, licking her lips.
”So long as you don’t forget,” said Rika with a smirk. She walked over and took a seat next to Hailey. “Convict row here, eh?”
Hailey shook her head. “Neither of us are going to be convicted.”
”You might get off,” said Rika. “I’m not holding my breath.”
The room suddenly got very quiet. Rachel turned, though she already knew why—but even so, she couldn’t help but gasp at the sight.
Natalie walked in. Her face was scarred, eyes vivid purple, ears pointing through a curtain of dark hair, with Percy on her shoulder. She wore a simple, elegant black dress, which had been torn in several places. Rachel recognized it immediately. Lily let out a quiet gasp from the corner—it was the dress they’d given her, which she’d worn to Jenny’s memorial, and ended up wearing throughout the fall of Rallsburg. Natalie looked… intense.
She took a seat alone, right at the back of the room against the back wall, where she could see everyone easily. Percy glared at everyone with a hawk’s terrifying eye, making it very clear nobody should approach her.
She hadn’t said a word to Rachel, hadn’t even given her a second glance.
Neffie looked just as shocked, but no one else in the room seemed even surprised. This wasn’t a new development. How had Rachel not heard about her? She’d noticed Natalie stopped sending her messages, and heard she’d been in some trouble, but… this?
Rachel had to talk to her afterwards, if she could. Something was very wrong… but she didn’t have time. The next group was already arriving, as Maddie and Courtney Ashe came in. This caused a stir. After all, everyone else had been part of the last Summit. They’d all faced Jackson together, except for Jeremy, but he had been so integrated into every circle, he felt like part of their disjointed family.
His siblings… not so much.
Rachel needed someone from the wider political world though. The group needed perspective. Rachel had considered inviting Wesley Gatiss, maybe even the President himself, but the Ashe siblings seemed a reasonable compromise.
They introduced themselves nervously. Both seemed unsteady on their feet. Jeremy leapt up and hurried to help his sisters to seats, Jackie right behind him. The whole void wobbled as they did, sending another wave of panic through the two officers of the law.
Rachel glanced at Lily. She shook her head.
”It’s fine, love. Just a bit of strain. Kenni lost her support for a moment.”
”Her support?” asked Rachel. “Someone is helping her cast the portals?”
”…A certain someone who has other frequent duties.”
Beverly, Rachel concluded. She’s helping create the portals, and taught them the long-range casting technique. There’s no way Kendra could manage these, and definitely not on her own while also supporting Lily and this void.
…How strong are the Laushires?
Alden and Ryan came in next, and Rachel half-expected to see Beverly appear from nowhere to keep her brother away. She’d invited him as a good-luck charm, in a way. After all, he’d been the reason they’d stopped Jackson, in more ways than one. Without him, she’d never have managed it. Rachel hoped he’d still be on her side through anything, as he had been that day.
Worst case, she could still use him as blackmail.
Ryan, meanwhile, swaggered around like usual—but there was something more reserved to his movements. He seemed thrown off balance, like so many of the others. Something had changed in everyone… Rachel included.
She took a deep breath. It was time for the most risky invites.
”Hello everyone,” she said, rising to her feet and towering over the whole room. “Before we get started, there’s two more people coming. I want to ask you… please… to keep this a neutral place.”
”…The fuck does that mean?” asked Jeremy suspiciously.
”It means she’s invited somebody you’d probably want to kill,” said Rika. “So don’t fucking kill him.” Rika glanced at Rachel knowingly. “Viper, right?”
”Incredible,” murmured Cinza, though her companions didn’t seem nearly as excited. “The portals can cross oceans?”
”Why the fuck didn’t we use one?” asked Jeremy.
”I only invented them yesterday,” said Lily, finally opening her eyes again. “And this is not easy to maintain, so please, let’s remain civil.”
”I’ll remain civil,” snapped Ryan, suddenly on his feet and staring at the doorway. “After I fucking kill that bastard.”
The whole group turned as one. Viper stood in the doorway—with two good arms now, though still as rough and gravelly as he’d always been.
”We need him,” said Rachel.
”…Why?” asked Hailey incredulously, on her feet now as well. “You know… you know what he did, right?”
”A whole fuckton of stupid shit,” said Viper, before anyone else could answer. “And I done a whole fuckton before I met any of you. That ain’t why I took this invite.”
”So why are you here?” asked Neffie, jumping in before anyone could respond.
”‘Cause my boss fucked some of you over and I’m tryin’ to undo it.” Viper shrugged. “I’m probably goin’ to jail rest of my life, but if I can do some fuckin’ good before I get there, might as well try.”
Rachel scanned the room. Hailey seemed taken aback by his frank admission, but both Rika and Ryan practically radiated hostility. The rest of the room was either angry or completely confused—after all, the Ashe siblings hadn’t a clue who Viper was. Natalie, meanwhile, seemed oddly sympathetic, but who knew what the girl was thinking anymore?
No one was leaving yet. As long as they stayed, Rachel could deal with some open hostility for a while. The next, and final person, to walk in would be the hardest test. She had lined him up last to deflect from Viper, since he was more familiar, and hopefully more sympathetic.
As soon as Nate walked in, Rachel wondered if she had been too optimistic.
The door slammed open into the wall behind him. Cinza was on her feet, Ruby and Makoto a split-second behind.
”Leave now, or I will kill you,” said Cinza very calmly, her voice echoing through the frozen room. Fire erupted in Ruby’s hand, and even her eyes seemed aflame with sheer rage.
”She invited me,” said Nate, his voice very small. He pointed a shaking finger at Rachel. Cinza didn’t respond, eyes still locked on his every movement. “Isn’t she still the leader?”
”Good question,” muttered Josh from the side of the room.
”Didn’t you all elect her?” asked Courtney. “That’s how I understood it. She’s the last Councilor before the town fell.”
”The two of us, and her term’s over, Governor.” Josh sighed. “Good to meet you, by the way. I’m the only real member of the Council left.”
”The Council broke up,” said Ryan. “Far as I’m concerned, Rachel’s still up top.”
Thank you, Ryan. Could have been timed better, so it didn’t sound like you were arguing with Josh again, but… thanks.
”Did you invite him?” Cinza asked, turning to Rachel.
She nodded. “He’s here so we can talk about the lawsuit, and everything else he’s done.”
After a full minute, Cinza finally—with great reluctance and a death-glare locked on Nate—dropped into her seat. Makoto followed suit immediately, and Ruby after a few more seconds of radiating disgust so tangible Rachel felt a little ill. Nate reluctantly took the seat nearest the door.
”Is there anyone else?” asked Boris.
Rachel shook her head. She sat back down at the front table, smoothing out her dress, and took a deep breath. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one of the chairs move just slightly, and knew Beverly must be there as well. Rachel half-expected her waspy voice to whisper again, just as she had back in May.
”Let’s get started.”
”So is Hector gonna read the articles or something?” asked Ryan sarcastically, after nobody spoke for a few moments.
Rachel shook her head. “You were right, the Council is done. Those were rules given to us, not those we set ourselves. We modified them, but the Gods were always influencing us. We need to establish how our world works. The new world.”
”And who’s in your new fuckin’ world?” asked Jeremy. “Not Hailey, I guess.”
”…Huh?” asked Hailey, glancing around confused.
”Not the time, Jere-bear,” said Maddie, with an uncomfortable glance at her brother.
”Fuck that,” Jeremy muttered. He settled back again, but there was definitely a new level of hostility between him and Rachel.
”We’re all fighting over things we could work out together,” Rachel went on, a bit less confident than before. “No one is communicating anymore. The website is down—”
”Because a spy infiltrated our home and abducted Lily,” said Ruby hotly. She glared at Viper. “Who’s going to answer for that?“
”I am,” said Viper in a flat tone. “I’m gonna get Cornelius put away for the rest of his life, God fuckin’ forgive me.”
”Oh, I’m so sorry you’ve gotta put your billionaire friend behind bars for what you two did,” snarled Rika. “Why the fuck is he here, Rachel?”
”Because he’s gonna get you out of prison,” said Jeremy, “so back off a moment, all right?”
Rika deflated a little. Rachel leapt back in at the opportunity, the gap in the argument, to try and steer them back to a more productive topic.
”The trials for Rika and Hailey are all about perception. Right now, I have Courtney and Maddie’s pollsters running stats on public opinion of us, of the awakened in general, and of Brian’s following. We’re not in the positive yet.”
”What does that mean?” asked Neffie.
”Means people are fucking scared of us,” said Ryan.
”It means,” said Rachel, “we’re not in a comfortable position yet where Rika and Hailey would be cleared, or that we can fully rely on national support.”
”President Stafford seems pretty damn cozy with Cinza,” said Jackie. “Ain’t that a point in our corner?”
”Stafford respects me,” said Cinza. “That does not mean he is on our side.”
”She’s right,” said Maddie. “Stafford’s only with us so long as he thinks it’s politically valuable. The moment we’re no longer sympathetic, he’ll be against us.”
”As with any politician.”
”Jeez, let’s not be too nice to our government,” said Ryan.
”I’d remind you, Cinza,” said Courtney with admirable restraint, “that I am on your side.”
”Didn’t stop him from stealing our home,” said Ruby, glaring at Nate. A tiny gout of flame spat from her mouth at the emphasized word.
Nate winced. “It’s my home,” he shot back. “I was born there. You weren’t.”
”You weren’t born in the Greywood!”
”My grandparents owned all that!” Nate pointed at Courtney. “They took it from us illegally!”
”And if you step foot there, I promise you a swift death,” said Cinza.
”Who the fuck cares who owns what?” said Rika. “They’re living there, let them have it.”
”Spoken like a rich girl,” muttered Ryan.
”The fuck does that mean? I just said the money doesn’t matter.”
”It’s my home. I’m not giving it up,” said Nate.
”What if you just kept—” started Rachel, but Nate cut her off.
”Not one inch. It belongs to me.”
”And did my journals belong to you as well?” asked Cinza, her tone deadly.
Nate faltered. He raised a hand as if to ward her off, or maybe try to make another point. Regardless, he didn’t speak another word, as the whole room seemed either suddenly very hostile to him—or not paying him one bit of attention.
”Like it’s gonna matter anyway,” said Josh finally, “if we don’t stop getting killed out here.”
”How many died?” asked Rachel.
”Seventy nine, last I heard.” He took a deep breath, and finally seemed to be a bit more awake and alert, back to his usual self. “And I know for a fact at least five of those weren’t awakened. Probably more. They don’t have a fucking code at all.”
”Like we can prove that,” muttered Jeremy. “Do the stones even work on you if you’re dead?”
”Doubt it,” said Josh with a shrug.
”It doesn’t matter,” said Maddie. “Everybody knows that’s his rhetoric. A few bad apples aren’t gonna sway them, unless you can really put solid proof on it, or show Brian approved it somehow.”
”Nobody’s even seen him on TV yet,” Courtney pointed out. “He’s a legendary figure right now. If we can push him into the open, we could start discrediting him.”
”Or we could just fucking kill him,” said Rika. “Thought that was the plan, from what I heard.”
”…Are we really doing this again?” asked Neffie.
”Excuse me, where have you been for six months?”
”In hiding, same as you,” said Alden quietly from the seat next to her.
”…Right,” said Rika. She visibly deflated. “Sorry.”
Neffie looked taken aback, but the space was quickly filled by another, as Jeremy spoke up.
”I’m with her, and that was the fuckin’ plan.” He glanced around the room to Neffie. “Don’t know who you are, but trust me, Hendricks had gotta die. I’ve seen him up close. He’s insane.”
They must not be allowed to continue on this path.
What am I supposed to do? They’re the adults. I’m just a kid.
You have not been a kid for a long time, Natalie. We must act.
…I’m glad you’re back.
She took a breath and sat up in her chair.
”No,” she said, as clearly as she could.
The whole room froze. Jeremy had been about to say something else, but he turned back to look at her. Rachel, too, seemed shocked, but Natalie didn’t want to look at her. She didn’t really want to look at any of them. They’d all left her, betrayed her, or abandoned her in some way or another. Natalie didn’t hate them… but she didn’t trust any of them.
More importantly, she had no idea which of them were involved in the ritual beyond Cinza.
”Natalie…” said Rachel hesitantly.
She shook her head. “You won’t hurt him.”
”We want to arrest him, but he’s not gonna come clean,” said Jeremy. “It’s the only way.”
”Then I’ll stop you,” she said simply.
”Some people just gotta die, kid,” said Viper with a shrug. Hailey shot another glare at him, but he didn’t back down. “My old man was a son of a bitch, and everyone in the world’s better off with him not in it.”
”I don’t care.” I’m not gonna let anyone hurt him. Maybe he’s done bad things. I’ve done bad things too. I got put in terrible places and had to kill people, and I don’t think anybody here besides Cinza would understand. Maybe Dad has a good reason too. I can’t know until I talk to him.
We will protect him.
”So what do you think we should do?” asked Josh, looking at her directly.
Natalie hesitated. “…I don’t know. But nobody touches my dad.” She glanced at Cinza. “If I have to, I’ll stop you again.”
”…What?” asked Hailey, glancing between the two of them.
”Nothing,” said Josh.
”Like fuck it’s nothing,” snapped Rika. “What did you idiots do?”
”They did the magnet thing again,” said Natalie. “The ritual. They tried to kill dad.”
”We stopped,” said Cinza.
Only because we blocked it, Natalie pointed out, but she didn’t want to say it aloud. She wasn’t actually sure she could do it again—especially if they had more magic behind it—but if she acted like it wasn’t a big deal, they’d think it was easy.
Cinza already thinks I’m the most powerful…
Use this to our advantage.
Percy screeched on her shoulder as if in agreement, though of course, he couldn’t hear the voice. Still, Natalie nodded as if he’d said something useful, while everyone winced at the loud hawk call in a tiny enclosed space.
”It’s her dad…” said Hailey uncomfortably. “Can’t we…” She trailed off, and the silence that followed matched her own discomfort.
”Let’s go back to beating up Nate,” said Ryan. “That was more fun.”
”The law’s on my side,” said Nate pathetically.
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Natey, you missed the last summit, so I’ll let you in on a little secret: we don’t give a fuck about the rule of law in here.”
”Some of us do,” said Courtney pointedly.
”Convenient for the one writing the damn laws.”
”That’s the legislature. I carry them out.”
”Thanks for the civics lesson,” said Josh, “but we still need to figure out what we’re going to do.” He turned to Natalie, and she felt a sinking in her stomach. She’d always liked Josh, but… she knew he was going to ask, and she shook her head before he could even get the words out.
”…Natalie,” he started anyway. “He’s killing all of us. When he finds out you’re awakened, there’s no guarantee he won’t kill you too.”
She shook her head. “He won’t.”
”You don’t know that.”
”I don’t think this is the best course of action,” said Boris, and for the briefest moment, Natalie thought someone was really on her side—until he went on. “Killing Mr. Hendricks will only create a martyr. A movement is more than one person, and he has created a true wave of insurrection. It will take much more than a simple swipe at the head.”
Even Boris thinks dad should die… he just doesn’t think it’ll help.
Natalie stood up, and the whole room fell silent again.
”Nobody hurts my dad,” she repeated.
No one answered, but Natalie didn’t need an answer. She was going right back to the wreckage of Boris’ shop in Rallsburg, where Riley was still watching the library. If anything, magical or mundane, approached the structure before she was ready, Natalie would stop it.
Even if I have to kill them… I don’t want to, but…
We will do what we must.
Nobody spoke as Natalie left—but when she stepped back down onto the cobblestone path, she heard the door swing open and closed behind her. She assumed it was Rachel at first, and didn’t want to look back. Instead, she was surprised to hear the clipped, precise tones of Lily Laushire.
”Where do you want to go?” she asked quietly.
Natalie stopped. She didn’t turn around yet, but she was sorely tempted. Lily had been a friend… until that night, until the Laushires became busy with their own lives and Natalie was left by the wayside. Until Natalie was cut off.
Until yet another person abandoned her.
”I want to go home,” said Natalie.
”I don’t know.”
Natalie turned back to face Lily. She looked upset—Natalie couldn’t remember the last time she saw either of the Laushires upset. Suddenly, Natalie felt uncomfortable. Seeing an adult crying or emotional was always weird for her. They were supposed to be the stable ones. Except… Natalie had seen too many paranoid or emotional or simply distracted adults in the last few months. There were the rare exceptions, but Natalie didn’t trust them anymore.
I don’t trust anyone anymore.
It is for the best. All we can trust is ourselves.
”I’m sorry,” said Lily.
Natalie didn’t answer. Talking to Lily felt like more weakness now, and Natalie couldn’t afford any weakness. Lily was one of the last people Natalie had ever relied on, after Rachel and her dad and so many others. When she’d been cut loose, she’d never been able to fully trust someone again. Even Quinn, whom she’d grown closer to than anyone else, she’d never been able to completely open up to.
When Quinn left her, Natalie hadn’t broken. Maybe she owed Lily for that ability, in some strange way. One betrayal allowed her to survive another.
”My friends are in the Greywood,” said Natalie quietly. “Can you make sure they’re all right?”
Lily hesitated. Natalie hated seeing her upset, but… they’d abandoned her too. Just like everyone else had.
”…I’ll make sure,” she said finally.
”How do I go back?”
A door swung open, three exits away from where Natalie currently stood. With only a few reassuring words to Percy, who still didn’t like going through the Laushire portals, Natalie walked back out again. She emerged right into the back room of Boris’ little shop.
Gwen gave her a look, as full of compassion as a wolf’s face could get. Natalie fell right into her fur, burying her face. Above, she heard Riley ask for their password, and hurriedly called a response. But Natalie didn’t move. She had a few minutes where she knew no one would be going after her dad… and all she wanted to do was run to him.
Except they were right. He might kill her. Natalie wasn’t even sure of that herself.
She pressed in tight to Gwen’s warm fur, wanting nothing more than to stay there, but knowing she didn’t have long.
We’ll find out. We’ll go to him, and if he tries, we stop him, but we’re not going to let anyone else hurt him.
When Natalie left the room, Hailey noticed a significant shift in attitude throughout the rest of the summit. People took sides almost instantly, and totally non-verbally. Alden and Hector in particular looked upset, Neffie shocked, and Jeremy’s sisters weren’t happy either. The rest of the group still seemed on board with killing Brian, leaving Hailey as the sole undecided vote in the room.
”Is she gone?” asked Rachel, as Lily returned to the room.
Lily nodded. “I won’t say where.”
”We just want to help her,” said Josh, though he didn’t sound confident.
”I betrayed her once,” said Lily. “I will not do it again.”
”This is life and death,” said Viper roughly. “The fuck are you gonna do? Girl’s just as insane as her father.”
”You would be wise to hold your tongue,” said Cinza.
Hailey felt the same. She was holding herself back, trying to keep her rage suppressed and stay calm, but every single syllable, every breath by Viper was another needle stabbed into her heart. This was the man who ordered Ryan and Alden’s abductions, who sent men into Seattle to hunt magic for a billionaire… the man responsible for Jessica’s death.
No more bloodshed. I’m just here to listen and stay in the loop, but I’m not fighting anymore.
”She’s always been weird,” added Nate, finding himself allied with the other fringe member of the impromptu council. “This isn’t new. She’s just way more dangerous now.”
”Weird isn’t dangerous, asshole,” snapped Rika. “She did magic nobody else could do and had some weird views of the world, but so what?”
”No mom, no school, dad ran across the country to get her away from something, and she can talk to animals,” said Nate. “She’s weird. And if her dad’s insane, who’s to say she’s not too? What if she goes nuts? How many people could die, as powerful as she is?”
…He’s not wrong, thought Hailey, and felt disgusted with herself doing so. Nate was simply echoing her own fears though—about herself, but still. When someone with power like they had got unstable, far more people were at risk. She knew that firsthand.
And Natalie’s been through as much as me. Probably more. How’s she still holding it together?
”They’re already dying,” said Josh. “We don’t really have time to waste on a hypothetical future. We need to handle the here and now.”
”If we don’t do this right, we’ll be worrying about nothing but the future,” said Courtney. “I can’t get our legislative agenda passed without public support.”
”Everybody keeps saying we gotta do this right,” said Ryan. “The fuck is right, anyway?”
”We don’t kill people just because they’re committing crimes,” said Neffie. “That’s how America is supposed to work, right?”
”Speak for yourself,” muttered Josh.
”We capture him,” said Rachel suddenly. She turned to Lily. “How many portals can you open at once?”
”…I’m not certain,” said Lily slowly. “Kendra and I would have to test it.”
”You’re not Kendra?” asked Courtney, raising an eyebrow.
Lily glanced at Jeremy, and Courtney quickly followed. He shrugged, rolling his eyes. “Forgot to mention it. Sorry.”
”My name is Lily,” said Lily politely. “I am Kenni’s twin sister.”
”Kendra Laushire’s got a sister?” asked Courtney, turning back to her with shock.
”I wasn’t aware you kept track of me.”
”I like to know all the major players in my state. When you moved to Rallsburg, it crossed my desk.”
”For future campaign contributions,” muttered Maddie.
”You were all gung-ho on killing Omega,” said Ryan—and half of the room winced. Nobody told him we don’t use that name anymore… “What’s with the flip-flop on Natalie’s dad?”
”Because he’s not awakened,” said Rachel simply.
”…I want to say that’s a double-standard, but fuck me if it isn’t a weirdly positive one right now,” said Jeremy.
Hailey nodded, speaking up before anyone else could. “She’s right. Jackson couldn’t be held down. He was more powerful than most of us combined. Brian isn’t. He can be arrested just like any other normal person.”
”Or you, apparently,” said Josh.
She shrugged. “Just because I can break out whenever I want doesn’t mean I’m going to. D’you think Jackson would’ve followed the rules like that?”
”Nice to hear you’re back to following the rules like us ‘humans’,” said Neffie snidely.
Hailey winced—both from the memory, and from the source of the comment. Neffie wasn’t usually the type to snipe, but… she’d deserved that, and so much more.
”So if we’re gonna arrest him…” said Alden uncomfortably, “how are we supposed to do that? The only person who can really beat the golems is the one protecting him.”
”…Natalie’s the one who threw that lightnin’?” asked Jeremy, raising an eyebrow.
”…Hang on,” said Rika, rounding on Rachel. “Natalie can use electricity magic?”
”Fuck me,” she groaned, falling back in her chair. Hailey wondered what Rika was suddenly upset about, but Cinza spoke up before she could spend much time thinking about it.
”We must blindside him.”
”Already tried that,” Jeremy pointed out.
”He’s in Rallsburg right now, isn’t he?” asked Ruby, glancing at Cinza next to her. “Why don’t we just surround the place? We can hold back the golems long enough for somebody to get close and grab the thing.”
”Tried that too,” said Josh. “Hector tried to grab it, but it’s immune to magic or something, I don’t know. Jackson did something to it. That’s why I sent him to you.”
”Lure him in,” said Viper. Hailey once again suppressed a wave of hatred, avoiding the man’s eyes. “Gotta get him to come to you, drop him in a pit or somethin’. Golems or no, you lay a good trap, he’s not climbin’ out.”
”…Might work,” said Jeremy grudgingly. “Could just make a golem to give him enough height.”
”Doesn’t need to literally be a pit.” Viper shrugged. “Any kind of trap. If he’s alone right now, this is the best time.”
”There’s only one thing that could lure him,” said Josh grimly.
The room fell utterly silent. No one moved, no one spoke.
”…Don’t you dare,” snapped Neffie.
Josh turned to her, and he really did look uncomfortable, but he didn’t back down. “She won’t even know she’s doing it.”
”I can’t do this,” said Hector suddenly, standing up. “I’m… I’m done.”
”Hector,” said Cinza, rising as well, but he waved her off.
”I already hate myself for helping you the first time. Do… do what you all need to do, but I can’t be a part of it. I’m… I’m going back.”
He started for the door. Jackie held out a hand. Hector briefly stopped to take it, offering her a sad smile, but he looked too anxious and afraid to stick around. After a few moments, he hurried out, and the door closed behind him. To Hailey’s surprise, Lily didn’t follow him out as she did Natalie. Guess she doesn’t need to be there to actually get people ho— oh. Right.
She followed Natalie out because they abandoned her too.
Hailey genuinely wanted to support them. She still liked Rachel, even with how everyone else seemed to be against her now. Hailey wasn’t sure why—Rachel just wanted to have a quiet life. Who could blame her, after everything they’d been through? After what she’d been through?
Will is still crippled, from what I heard… Rachel’s been dealing with that, and keeping her parents safe and in hiding for so long…
Except… Rachel had done something to upset Hailey too. She’d invited Viper and Nate. Hailey couldn’t see any reason they should be in the room right now.
Cinza seemed to arrive at the same conclusion. “Nathaniel,” she started, somehow with a hard edge on every echoing, ethereal syllable, “you will leave, and you will never come near the town of Rallsburg or the Greywood. I granted you a home, I brought you into our family, I helped bring you into our world and meet the Goddess herself. You spurned us.”
Nate got to his feet, whiney voice sounding pitiful against Cinza’s sheer power. “But—”
Cinza talked right over him. “You committed personal crimes against me. For those, I might kill you myself, but I grant you this reprieve, on one condition. Leave now. If I see you in the world, I shall ignore you, so long as you do not encroach upon my land. And—” she glared at him with such fury Hailey expected Nate to simply melt on the spot, “—you shall return every single one of my diaries.”
He looked around the room, pleading, but not a single sympathetic eye came back. Nate Price had burned every bridge he once built in the awakened community. Even the few with little reason to hate him, like Neffie or Boris, refused to give him an inch.
No one was on his side.
”If you’re gonna get mad at me for stabbing people in the back,” said Nate, “at least make it equal!” To Hailey’s surprise, Neffie Bowman practically jumped in her chair, and cast an odd glance at Rachel—but Nate whirled around to Cinza. “She’s a traitor too!” he cried, desperate.
”Uh-huh,” said Jeremy, crossing his arms. “That’s a losin’ argument if ever I heard one, kid.”
”Leave now, Nate,” said Cinza, in the same even tone. “This is your last warning.”
”She turned Rika in! Told them where to find her! I heard all about it!”
”…The fuck?” asked Rika, but her words were lost in a sudden burst of action, as Jackie suddenly got to her feet and backed Nate up against the door without so much as lifting a finger. Nate cowered in front of her.
Jackie still has authority over him. He’s Rallsburg, born and raised, and she’s the sheriff.
”Time to go, Nate,” she said calmly. “You pick how it is. Cuffs or not.”
Just like how she broke up my parties… gave us the option to leave quietly so nobody got arrested.
Nate nodded. He turned and hurried out the door. Jackie watched him, all the way to his exit, before closing the classroom off again and returning to her seat next to Jeremy.
I’m glad he finally found her… At least somebody got what they were looking for.
Rika still seemed confused by something. Hailey was to about to ask what, but Rachel spoke first, obviously trying to get the meeting back onto whatever agenda she’d started with.
”Brian isn’t the only thing we need to focus on here,” said Rachel, with an admirable attempt at calm. “He’s the most immediate, yes, but we’re still a chaotic mess here. New awakened are everywhere, and nobody’s trying to coordinate them. Washington State and the United States government are being pulled in ten different directions, and international attention is growing fast. If we don’t stand united, we won’t get the sort of protections we need.”
”Could’ve used you months ago,” said Josh bitterly.
”…I know,” said Rachel uncomfortably.
”She’s here now,” said Hailey. “Can we just leave it at that?”
”…Yeah,” said Josh finally. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and opened them again. “All right, Rachel. What’s the plan?”
”…How the fuck did they know where I was?” asked Rika suddenly, interrupting Rachel with her harsh, piercing voice. She looked at Josh, then at Cinza. “I was in the middle of fucking nowhere, and nobody there knew who I was. Shit, there wasn’t even a wanted notice out on me. Unless you’re suggesting Alzack gave me up?”
”Rika—” Cinza started, but Josh cut her off.
”Yeah, I told the marshals where to find you,” he snapped. “So what?”
”So what?” said Rika incredulously. “I might go to jail for the rest of my fucking life, so what! They’re accusing me of like fifty fucking homicides, you asshole!”
”Thirty-one,” Jeremy murmured to Jackie, but nobody else heard him.
”It’s about time,” said Josh.
Rika snarled. “Don’t you dare fucking say this is about me cheating on you. Aren’t we past this shit by now?”
”I sure am,” muttered Ryan.
”So what if it was?”
”It wasn’t,” said Cinza, just as Rika started to move toward Josh. She stopped halfway there. “I made the call, Rika. If you must hate someone, hate me, but know this is for the good of us all.”
”For the good of us all,” murmured Ruby beside her. Hailey winced—it really wasn’t the best time for their favorite slogan.
”Uh-huh,” said Rika. “‘Cause I’m big bad fucking Rika, can’t keep it in her pants Rika. Gotta keep me off the streets. After all, I’ve killed… oh yeah, zero people. I’m such a monster.” She snorted. “Pretty sure I’ve got a lower bodycount than half this fucking room.”
Hailey winced… but she was pretty sure Rika was right. Jeremy and Jackie from their career, Viper from the military, Rachel killed Jackson, Cinza and Ruby killed Paul Wilson, Boris probably had to kill some people in his line of work…
”Rika,” said Rachel quietly.
Rika whipped around to face her. “I swear to god, Rachel, if you were—”
”I wasn’t,” said Rachel. To Hailey’s surprise, Rika seemed to believe her without question. “I think this was a terrible thing, but it’s too late to change it now. You still have to go through with it.”
”…Don’t fuck me over here,” said Rika quietly. “You’re like a sister to me, and you’ve already done it once. You’re the only one who gets a second chance.”
”I think she’s right,” said Alden. Rika turned to him, even more surprised. “You gotta finish it. They aren’t gonna convict you. They can’t really prove it’s you, since you weren’t there. We’ve got actual witnesses now,” he added, nodding at Viper.
Viper shrugged. “I can confirm I pulled you out. Gonna be tied up in the fuckin’ courts anyway. Might as well get a free trip home while I’m at it. I’m from Maryland in the first place.”
”And for the second half, you were too busy straddling me in Redmond to kill anybody,” added Ryan.
”Thanks for that image,” muttered Neffie. Ryan grinned.
”So we’ve got two actual alibis, plus your punch cards to show you definitely couldn’t have been there in October for the gang killings,” added Alden.
”And my father’s company will be dropping the Computer Misuse charges soon,” said Lily. “There’s shareholders to talk off the ledge, but your court date should not be affected.”
”See?” said Alden. “You’re gonna be fine.”
Rika sighed. “Fuck all of this.”
”Yeah,” said Alden. “But once it’s over, you’re free and clear, and you go back to using your real name. No more hiding.”
”Thank god.” She smiled at Alden. “Okay. We’re good. I’ll live the prison life a bit longer until you guys get me off.”
”Do you have to turn everything into an innuendo?” asked Neffie.
”Hey, that was an accident, I swear.”
”As I was saying…” said Rachel, but Rika spun around to face Cinza and Josh again, and Rachel trailed off.
”I am still not okay with you two assholes,” she growled. “And if I gotta go back to prison, that means I’m out of the fight anyway. Do whatever you gotta do, take the motherfucker out, but when I’m free?” She matched Cinza’s glare from earlier with equal intensity. “I’ve got business with my dad, and I’m not taking shit from anyone anymore. Stay the fuck out of my way.”
Rika left, before anyone could say another word.
Hailey considered following her. After all, she needed to go back to prison too, for many of the same reasons—but with legitimate fault on her own shoulders. More importantly, she too wasn’t in this fight. She couldn’t be. If Hailey went back… she’d be falling right into the trap Jefferson warned her about.
I’d be a fugitive forever. Unlike Rika, I’m supposed to be in prison. People wouldn’t blame her for breaking out if she could. She’d be escaping injustice, I’d be fleeing actual justice.
”Speaking of people who should be in prison,” said Josh, “where the hell is Rook?”
Viper looked up. “I wanted to know that myself. Last I heard, she was in this neck of the woods.” He scratched his head, glancing at the ceiling. “Actually, where the fuck are we? Is this place in Rallsburg or London?”
He glanced at Lily, who shrugged. “It’s nowhere.”
Viper rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say.”
”She’s off screwing somebody else over,” said Jeremy. “Ditched Lani in the fucking forest for Brian’s men to pick up.”
”No shit?” asked Josh.
”Like hell she did,” snapped Viper. “She actually awakened for that clown.”
”Watch how you talk about him, asshole,” Jeremy shot back.
”Anyone want to talk about how this guy tried to kidnap me?” murmured Ryan. “I mean, just saying.”
”…Yeah,” muttered Viper. “I did. I fuckin’ regret it too.”
Ryan looked surprised, even weirdly sympathetic. Viper sounded sincere.
It was too much for Hailey. He doesn’t deserve to feel forgiven.
She leapt to her feet, and before anyone could stop her, she’d plowed right into Viper. In an instant, he was up against the wall, a foot off the ground in Hailey’s strong grip.
”And Jessica?” she snarled. “What about her?”
Viper didn’t answer, just looked at Hailey with empty eyes—those which had seen too much death over decades of war and fighting. He was old school. A single death didn’t mean that much to him, not anymore.
”Hailey,” started Rachel.
Hailey shook her head. “I wasn’t exactly on board with everything here, Rachel, but I was gonna hear you out. Not on this.”
She pushed Viper even higher up the wall. Images of Jess flashed through her brain, one after another—half of her on the ground in the streets of Lakewood, the other a pleading version of her as she once was, begging Hailey to stay calm, to stay grounded.
I was never meant to be grounded though, Jess. I was born to fly. You taught me to fly. You gave me these wings.
On cue, her wings flexed out wide, sending a huge gust through the room. Jackie’s hat blew off her head.
”I would never have given that order,” said Viper. “Didn’t do us any good. We wanted you alive, not dead.”
”So you could torture her at home?” asked Hailey incredulously.
She threw him to the ground, utterly disgusted. He crashed against one of the chairs and stayed down. She didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy. That was supposed to be an apology?
Hailey turned back to Rachel. “I’m out, Rachel.”
”Hales—” said Josh, but Hailey shook her head.
”I’m still going back to prison. I’ll go through the trial and everything. That’s what I deserve. But screw this. He doesn’t deserve a second of your time.” Hailey glanced around the room, at some of the people she hadn’t seen in a long time, and tried to give them a significant look. “Don’t take this too far.”
Hailey turned and left. As soon as she exited that small room, she felt refreshed. It still hurt, and she wished she could have done more to him, but… she’d done what she needed to. Hailey had said what she needed to say, and she hadn’t hurt anyone. She’d stayed in control.
She wondered which door she was supposed to take to get back to her cell. They were all identical to her eyes, and she had no clue which one had been hers—if it even mattered. To her relief, one popped open at the far end.
Hailey hesitated. Alden had just left the room and was jogging out to meet her.
”I can’t go back in there, Alden,” she murmured.
”I don’t think you should.”
”…You know,” said Hailey, turning around to face him, “you’re really good at throwing me completely off.”
Alden shrugged. “I’ve had a crazy life.”
You don’t know the half of it… “What do you mean, though?”
”I think nothing’s gonna get done in there anyway.” He shook his head. “Rachel invited Viper and Nate, which was already insane—”
”She never did pick up my party planning skills,” said Hailey with a half-hearted attempt at a smile. Alden grinned.
”—she thought she could persuade Natalie to go against her own dad, she didn’t have a clear plan for what to do about Brian anyway… She’s too out of touch. That whole meeting was going to be a mess from the start.”
”So why’d you agree to come?” Hailey asked. “I did ’cause I was stuck in a jail cell anyway. Any fresh air was nice. Plus, you know—”
She launched into the air without warning, blowing Alden’s hair around wildly as she did. Hailey did a circuit of the void before coming back to land next to Alden, feeling incredibly refreshed even by that brief spin through the windless dimension.
”—can’t do that in prison,” she finished with a smile, hovering in the air in front of him with gentle wing flaps and a bit of magic.
”You’d better get out soon,” said Alden. “I miss flying.”
”You do?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. Most people didn’t enjoy flying with her. It even took Jess a long time to get used to it, and Alden had never seemed totally on board.
Hailey smiled even wider. “I’m glad you’re doing okay.”
”I mean… why wouldn’t I be?” He shrugged.
”You just…” Hailey hesitated. “You were just in a huge battle, and I hear you got attacked on the way there too. I thought…”
”Oh.” Alden nodded slowly. “Yeah… I guess… I dunno. I just don’t feel that scared anymore.” He tilted his head to the side a little. “When he put a gun in my face, I froze up, just like last time. But… nothing happened. I got away. I got away from his guys in Seattle, I got away from him in Tacoma, I didn’t even get a graze in the pilgrim camp. I’m either stupidly lucky, or…”
”Or it’s fate,” he finished, shrugging again.
Or it’s a protective older sister with the power of a goddess… Beverly, just tell him already!
Hailey nearly did tell Alden right then. She wanted to tell him he couldn’t be reckless. He was only surviving so long as Beverly kept a constant eye on him, in between every awakening. Alden was going to be in danger all the time anyway—the risk of telling him, no matter what relationship magic Beverly might be afraid of, was surely outweighed by the benefits of knowing he wasn’t invincible.
It’s not my place. That’s old, reckless Hailey. I don’t know what the consequences of that would be. I can’t tell him. I can’t say anything at all.
Instead, Hailey landed and buried Alden in a hug.
”I’m glad you’re okay.”
”…Thanks,” said Alden. He returned the hug. “What about you? Are you okay?”
She pulled back, brushing hair out of her face. She hadn’t pinned it in place for her flight, and now it had blown everywhere. “Yeah. Just, you know… getting myself mentally prepped to go back into a tight cell again.”
”Yeah…” Alden winced. “I’ll come visit when I can, okay?”
”Please don’t,” said Hailey quickly. “It’s all the way across the country. They need you home.”
”What do they need me for?” asked Alden, raising an eyebrow.
They need Beverly to not split her attention so much… and on that note…
”Your sister’s in the camp,” said Hailey.
”Meg’s in the pilgrim camp.” Hailey shook her head. “I don’t know why, don’t ask me that. It’s probably obvious though.”
”She wants to awaken,” said Alden with a sigh. “I should’ve known this was gonna happen as soon as she heard about it.”
”You gotta find her.”
Alden nodded. To Hailey’s relief, he didn’t ask how she knew. There’s a perk of magic—a lot less questions on how people know things. In all fairness, I do know Nikki’s scrying spell now. I totally could find her… not much point though, when Beverly already told me exactly where she is.
Hailey hugged him again. “I’ll be fine. Go make sure everybody else is.”
”I still owe you a drink,” she added as she started away toward her open door, where she could already see the plain empty walls of her cell. “Don’t forget!”
”I’ll be waiting!” Alden shouted back.
Hailey grinned, then hurried back to her cell. It was still covered in an illusion, as Beverly promised. Hailey changed back into her prison clothes, stored her outfit in her bag, and levitated it across the hall back where it belonged. Finally, as the wooden door disappeared, Hailey felt around with magic and found the source of the illusion—a spell Beverly attached to a gemstone she’d left under Hailey’s bed.
She broke the connection. Her vision shifted just slightly, as if the light level had suddenly changed.
Hailey laid back on her hard metal bed and let out a deep breath.
People are dying… A lot of people. I could be helping them, but… if I stay here, am I helping them more? Everything we talked about, making sure the awakened aren’t scary, that we aren’t given special treatment, all that… isn’t it better I stay?
She genuinely wasn’t sure anymore. She’d been sure, but now… everything seemed to be happening at home. She could have done so much to help. If she’d been there, she could have summoned a huge wind to help deflect bullets. Or maybe she could have flown over the canopy and simply grabbed their guns away.
Hailey could have fought back golems, she could have hunted down Brian’s men in their hideouts. She could have protected people, helped get them to safety. Hailey was powerful, but her power was all locked away right now in her little jail cell.
Or I could’ve just gotten everybody killed.
Hailey closed her eyes again. She waited for the guard to come by with breakfast, and through the rest of the morning in her cell all alone… still without an answer.
”She ain’t wrong,” growled Jeremy, glaring at Viper. The man glanced at a nearby chair, but it was clear by now he had no friends in this room. “Motherfucker owes us some lives.”
Viper shrugged. He got to his feet. “Do whatever the hell you want. I’m out. I’ll testify. Promised Nishimura I wasn’t gonna fuck with her, and it’s my fault she got fucked with anyway, so I owe her. I owe Rook too. Past that, if y’all need my help, you know how to find me.”
He glanced around the room—not at the people, but at the walls, incredulous, and at Lily in the corner.
”Fuckin’ hell…” he muttered. “Portals.”
About damn time. Jeremy shook his head. “Asshole,” he muttered. “That guy used to be on your council?”
”We didn’t exclude anyone,” said Rachel.
”Maybe you damn well should have.”
”Excluded me,” added Jackie. “Kinda wish I’d been in on this shit a lot sooner.”
”You told me you were happy ignoring it as long as we weren’t a problem,” said Rachel quietly. “Right before we went to the RV park.”
”Changed my damn mind.” Jackie sighed. “I’m still in your corner, girl. I’m just sayin’… wish I would’ve known.”
”You and me both,” said Jeremy.
”What’s next?” asked Josh.
”Anyone else want to let us know how they stabbed somebody here in the back?” said Ryan, rolling his eyes. “I figure we’ve got at least two more to go through, right?”
”Why are you here?” asked Courtney, eyeing him with frustration.
Ryan shrugged. “‘Cause Rachel thinks I’m hilarious,” he replied, dead-serious.
”He’s here,” said Rachel, shooting him a frustrated look, “because he’s actually very smart and good in a fight, when he’s not trying to be the biggest asshole in the room.”
”Uh oh. Rachel’s swearing, guys,” Ryan whispered. “We’re in real trouble now.”
”We ought to discuss the next movements for the National Guard,” said Courtney, a touch of irritation still coloring her voice. “They’re awaiting my next command right now.”
”They are?” asked Ryan, raising an eyebrow. “Who are you?”
”The Governor of Washington,” said Josh irritably. “Keep up, man.”
”Thought you said he was smart,” muttered Jeremy.
”Hey,” said Ryan, and his voice was suddenly dead-serious again. “I’ve been busy getting nearly killed by every fucking thing out there. I just wanted to keep my head down. But what do you know, I decide to finally poke my head out again, go to the market, and what the fuck should happen but a goddamn firing squad massacre?”
Ryan got to his feet, jacket over his shoulder. For a brief moment, Jeremy could see the preppy college kid he’d always expected to find. He headed to the door, but stopped for just a moment to turn back to Rachel.
”I’m out too. Rachel, kill him, and let me know when it’s done. I’ll be in the Greywood curled up in a tiny ball and praying to every god I can think of to protect me.”
…Well that’s a fuckin’ exit… Jeremy glanced at his siblings. Courtney seemed taken aback by Ryan’s sudden candor. Maddie looked uncomfortable, and ended up being the next voice in the increasingly-empty room.
”So what are we going to do?” she asked quietly.
”Kill him,” said Ruby. “Ryan said it best.”
”I can’t agree to that.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “You and every other elected official.”
”We’re the ones protecting you right now,” Maddie shot back. “You know they’re trying to take you away, right?”
Cinza shook her head. “You will not shock us with news of the government’s foul accusations. Ruby knows, and both of us find it despicable. She is never leaving my side, nor I hers.”
”You know,” said Maddie, “shit like that is exactly why people are worried about you.”
”Let them worry.” Cinza turned back to Rachel. “Brian must die. You understood this with Jackson, and you should understand it now. The justification is the same.”
”It isn’t,” Jackie shot back. “We ain’t trapped, and Brian ain’t awakened. He can be arrested. We already agreed to that.”
”It is not a risk we should take.” Cinza frowned. “I know you care for Natalie—”
”It’s not just her, and you know it,” said the sheriff.
”Killing him is too risky,” said Boris suddenly. “It will only provoke more hate. He will be a martyr.”
”I thought we already agreed killing him was a bad idea,” said Neffie uncomfortably. “When did it become okay again?”
When everybody remembered he’s a fucking mass-murdering genocidal maniac, Jeremy fumed, but he didn’t know the woman well enough to feel comfortable leaping on her like that.
”She’s right,” said Rachel. “We should lure him into a trap, as Viper suggested.”
”And then what?” asked Cinza. “Throw him to the authorities, to deal with?”
”Didn’t have a problem with that in London,” said Neffie.
”I was there for Hailey, and to find Rook. I had no feud with Cornelius Malton, scum that he is.” Cinza shook her head. “Brian betrayed us. His own town. He is the reason you’re homeless.”
”That was Omega.”
”I assure you, without Brian’s help, Jackson would never have accomplished what he did.” Cinza paused, and a dark look crossed her face before she went on. “If he hadn’t… Morton might be alive. Brittany might still have both of her legs. Aaron might be alive. These are crimes I can never forgive.”
Again, Neffie shot a brief glance at Rachel. Jeremy had noticed it the first time, and now again the second, but he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Cinza got up, and her trio matched her movement. “If you manage to capture him, I applaud you. For now, I’ll wait until Natalie makes a move. If there’s an opportunity, I will kill Brian Hendricks.”
She glanced at Josh. He shook his head, and Cinza didn’t react in the slightest. She walked out of the room, Makoto and Ruby right on her heels. The door clicked closed behind them.
”Don’t let him die, Rachel,” said Neffie, glaring at her. “Don’t you dare put that on Natalie too.”
Neffie got up and left too. Boris followed her silently, but handed a small piece of paper to Rachel as he passed by. Jeremy doubted anybody else had noticed, but he sat at the perfect angle, and his eyes only barely caught the quick slip. Boris was very good.
Huh. Former spook. Guess he’s still got it.
Jeremy glanced around, and realized that—with the lone exception of Josh Miller—the room had shrunk just to the people he actually knew, not anyone connected to the Greywood. His sisters still sat next to him, of course, and Rachel remained alone at the head of the room. Lily still sat in the corner, eyes closed and taking the occasional deep breath. The only remaining link between the groups sat on his other side—and she wasn’t happy.
Jackie didn’t say anything, but Jeremy could feel it. He’d known her too long ever to miss the telltale signs. She was seriously upset.
He got to his feet—and coincidentally, both Maddie and Courtney had stood at the same time.
”You’re leaving too?” Rachel asked, and Jeremy noted the faint trace of desperation in her tone.
”Gotta get back to D.C.,” said Maddie uneasily. “Got the President, Secretary Gatiss, and my whole staff waiting on me.”
”The National Guard needs my next orders,” said Courtney. “I’ll have them start coordinating search and rescue efforts for anyone who fled the massacre and may be stranded in the forest. Beyond that…” Courtney shook her head. “I’ve got to start tallying the dead and contacting their next-of-kin,” she murmured.
Rachel nodded. “Well… good luck.”
”We’re headin’ back too,” added Jeremy, including Jackie though she hadn’t stood up yet. She took the cue, to his relief, and hurriedly joined him. “Gotta keep an eye on Hendricks. We can’t touch him while Natalie’s guardin’ him, sure, but we can make sure he doesn’t go anywhere else.”
”Okay.” Rachel forced a smile. “Thank you both.”
”Stay safe,” said Jackie.
As soon as all four of them left the room, Maddie practically leapt on Jeremy, burying him in a hug. “You stay safe, you idiot,” she growled into his shoulder.
”Yeah, yeah,” said Jeremy. “I’ll be fine. Get goin’. Isn’t it past lunch in D.C.?”
”Yeah.” Maddie turned to her sister. “Get those reports to me as soon as you can? We’ll want them.”
Courtney nodded. “I’ll be in touch.”
She smirked. “Never thought I’d be happy to hear that.”
Courtney rolled her eyes. Jeremy grinned.
Maddie glanced around the empty black void again, her eyes wide. “Where the fuck are we…” she muttered.
Jeremy shrugged. “I stopped botherin’ to ask questions like that, Maddie.”
”Same,” murmured Jackie. “This crap never stops bein’ weird.”
Jeremy’s sisters left after one last brief hug, heading out different doors, different directions, leaving Jeremy and Jackie alone.
”…I think I’ve lost it, Ashe,” Jackie muttered as they reached their door—and the Rallsburg ruins beyond.
”Agreein’ to killin’ people without due process, twice. Agreein’ to kill Natalie’s father before she can ever talk to him again.” Jackie shook her head. “Ain’t right.”
Jeremy nodded. “None of it’s right. Whole system’s fucked. Hendricks is the block in the damn machine.”
”Don’t go on about the stupid machine again,” said Jackie. “I wish I’d never agreed to kill him.”
”Both of ’em,” she sighed. “Not sayin’ it wasn’t necessarily for the best, but…” She looked away, back into the street beyond the door. “I just don’t know anymore.”
He’s gotta die… except now Jeremy was having his own doubts. Jackie was his partner, no matter the situation. He trusted her more than he did himself. If she had misgivings, he did too.
”I agree with you,” Jeremy said finally.
Jackie visibly sagged with relief. “Thank god.”
”It’s not a good idea, like Rachel said, and Boris and whoever the fuck else.”
”Right.” Jeremy scratched his head. “I don’t remember a Neffie in Rallsburg.”
”Her legal name’s Nefertiti,” said Jackie. “After some pretty Egyptian queen.”
”Huh.” Jeremy shrugged. “We’ll just go back to where we were.”
”So that meeting was useless as hell,” said Jackie, grinning slightly.
Jeremy laughed. “Yup. Exactly like every other fuckin’ meeting we ever went to.”
”Glad to have you back, Ashe.”
”Glad to be back.”
Back in the classroom, Rachel felt very differently about how useless the summit had been. Only Josh and Lily remained with her—the same three she’d always made decisions with, since long before Rallsburg fell apart. Only now… none of them were really in positions to make any decisions. Everything was up to other people with more power, more influence, more authority.
They were just… the leftovers.
”Don’t beat yourself up, love,” said Lily, seemingly reading her mind. She opened her eyes again. “It wasn’t your fault.”
”Really wasn’t,” added Josh, pulling a chair up to join the two of them at the front. He didn’t sit next to Rachel like he used to, but it was still much closer than he’d been all morning. It was something. “You couldn’t know the powder kegs waiting to blow there.”
”I should have,” said Rachel bitterly. “I mean, Nate was always going to be risky. And Viper?”
”Hell, I didn’t know Viper was actually the one who kidnapped Ryan,” said Josh with a shrug. “I figured it was Malton’s guys and he wasn’t involved. Nobody ever mentioned him.”
”He never seemed so underhanded in Rallsburg,” added Lily.
”So I’m dying to know,” said Josh, turning to her. “How often was it you in our meetings like this?”
”Very rarely,” said Lily. “Kenni and I split our lives by tasks. She would handle the Council business, as there was less risk I might be discovered by probing spells, while I tended to handle the teaching and university affairs. We only switched under special circumstances.”
”Ah.” He nodded. “Makes sense.”
”I adored your cooking,” added Lily with a small smile. “Kenni brought home so many excellent leftover meals.”
Josh chuckled. “I was wondering why the hell she took such huge portions and never ate half of it.”
”It outdid our personal chef in Westminster.”
”Okay, now you’re just messing with me.” Josh turned to Rachel, missing Lily’s shake of the head. “So what now?”
Rachel shrugged. “You tell me. You’re the one who stayed in power.”
”Ironic,” added Lily. Rachel smiled.
”What, ’cause I hated this job and kept getting elected anyway without even trying?” Josh rolled his eyes. “Still hate it, you know.”
”I gave up my power,” said Rachel. “Guess it stayed there.”
”Don’t underestimate yourself,” said Josh. “You think anybody else in the whole goddamn world could have gotten this group together? Especially on a morning like this. Hell, even Natalie showed up. She walked away from protecting her dad for you.”
”They still listen to you,” agreed Lily. “There is less unity than ever before, and perhaps you have lost some influence, but you have power. Wield it well.”
Rachel nodded. “Thank you. I don’t know what I can do with this, but I’ll try.”
”Well… we all gotta try a bit more,” said Josh with a shrug. “We’re going downhill and we have been ever since magic went public.”
”It could have been handled better,” said Rachel.
Josh shook his head. “Can’t help Nate being an idiot of gargantuan proportions. You got the ear of the governor in no time. We’re in the White House now, aren’t we?”
”More or less.”
”So start saving the world. Get out those plans you used to lecture me about,” said Josh. “You had one for this, didn’t you?”
”I didn’t think you were listening,” said Rachel, taken aback.
”I’m always listening,” said Josh with a shrug. “I just don’t care most of the time.”
Rachel glanced around the empty room—one she’d been in so many times, and now one of the very few surviving places of their past lives. “Was this meeting worth it?”
Josh nodded. “It feels like we got nothing done, but trust me, this did a lot. Everybody saw everybody else.”
”They understand what is at stake now,” added Lily. “Their consequences were laid bare.”
”So now we… what, we wait?” asked Rachel uncomfortably.
”Hell no,” said Josh. “We triage. Pick the most urgent problem, address that first, and start working down the list. Just like the old days.”
”…So that’s Natalie, then,” said Rachel.
None of them spoke for a full minute, each considering the plight of the girl from Rallsburg—someone each of them felt they had failed.
”What do we do, Rachel?” asked Josh, and Lily matched his questioning expression.
Rachel opened her mouth to answer… but nothing came out. Every plan she’d made, every contingency and new law and new world order she’d tried to account for… none of them considered the possibility of fighting Natalie in order to stop her father from killing them all.
Rachel couldn’t come up with an answer. She didn’t have one.