Chapter 50 — The Breaking Point
”Did anything happen?” asked Natalie. She’d just climbed the half-destroyed staircase in Boris’ shop. Riley still lay prone behind the window with her rifle, watching the library down the street.
”It’s been quiet,” said Riley. She seemed to have adopted a mix of Riley’s speech, but coupled with the old Rook voice Natalie knew better. It wasn’t quite Rook, but it wasn’t quite Riley either. “What happened in the Summit?”
Riley had turned down the invitation offered to Natalie, relayed to them over the radio by Makoto. Natalie went alone, while Riley stayed behind to keep an eye on everything—and, Natalie was pretty sure, to avoid seeing any of the people in that room. Natalie went alone, wearing the only clean clothes she had left: the dress she’d worn to Jenny’s funeral.
She feels guilty just like I do.
You are not responsible for what has happened in your life, Natalie.
I am though. I didn’t need to kill those people. I could’ve gotten away some other way.
They were trying to kill you. You had every right to protect yourself.
Natalie had held this argument with the voice before, and she didn’t think they’d ever agree.
”They… they want to kill him,” said Natalie.
Riley nodded, still not taking her eyes off the library. “We won’t let them.”
They didn’t talk for a while. Natalie sat in a relatively-intact chair near the window, watching the library, while Rook did the same. Percy came to perch on her shoulder after a few minutes, trying to comfort her. All of her friends knew she was worried and stressed out. She could feel it in them, and that stressed them out.
Why do we delay? They are still at the Summit. This may be our best opportunity to speak to him.
I… I’m afraid to.
He is your father.
That’s why I’m afraid… If I go out there and he sees me… if he finds out I’m awakened and he’s not okay with it… that’s it, isn’t it?
It may not be so simple.
It is though. If he does, then I’m really alone. All of this will be pointless. It’s not like I can not be awakened. And… even if I could, I wouldn’t go back. I’d lose Gwen, and Percy, and Scrappy, and I’d lose all of this. It’s made me happy. I just want to stay happy. I think he’d be okay with that…
You will never know until you talk to him.
She couldn’t stay still. Natalie got up and started pacing, going around in circles with the voice in her head even as her feet walked the same through the bedroom. Every time she voiced doubt, every time she hesitated, it pushed her to act—and the conflict was tearing at her mind. She needed to do something, but apart from protecting her father, Natalie had no clue what that was.
”Distract yourself,” said Riley, her quiet voice mixing with the birdsong of the morning forest around Rallsburg.
Natalie stopped walking and looked over at her. She still hadn’t budged an inch—how could someone be so still, in a place this crazy? Natalie wished she had that kind of patience and self-control. Anything that could keep her from going into a blind panic and ending up in an even worse situation than before would be a massive improvement.
”What do you mean?”
”You’re doing the same thing Stefen used to do. He was impatient too. When we were out in the field, he’d always need to have something to distract himself. He learned patience the hard way.” She hesitated, then spoke in a lower tone. “That’s how he lost the use of his arm.”
”…I forgot about that,” Natalie murmured. “His arm looked okay at the Summit.”
Riley actually looked over at Natalie now. “Stefen was there?”
She looked a little surprised—and a little upset. “And you said he looked all right?”
”Yeah,” said Natalie. She nodded, trying to emphasize it. “He said he was sorry, and that he was gonna help Rika and everything. So… I think he’s doing okay. It kinda surprised me.”
”That’s… that’s good.” A strange look crossed Riley’s face, and she turned back to watch out the window again.
”So…” said Natalie after a long pause. “How am I supposed to distract myself?”
”We talked,” said Riley. “Stefen would make up competitions. Throwing knives at tree stumps or rocks, playing cards, anything to pass the time while still maintaining our post. We didn’t have much else out in the desert.”
”Where were you?”
”Afghanistan.” She must have seen the blank look on Natalie’s face, because she went on. “It’s a country in Asia, and it is not all desert, but we often ended up in the driest parts of the country. We weren’t wanted there.”
”Why were you there?”
”That… is a very long and complicated story,” said Riley. “I didn’t want to be there, but I was sent there.” She shook her head slightly, though her eyes remained locked forward. “It’s not a story I like to revisit.”
”Okay,” said Natalie. She could definitely understand that feeling. Riley wasn’t exactly the best person for Natalie to talk to though… as nice as she had been, in stark contrast to the attitude everyone else seemed to have for her, Natalie needed someone who wasn’t tied up in everything around her. Talking to Riley didn’t take her mind off what was happening.
I need someone who makes me happy.
She pulled out her phone and went downstairs. To her surprise, she actually had a signal—a connection, faint but still intact, all the way from the Greywood. Natalie could even get to the internet. She hurriedly pulled up the news, desperate for any more information she could glean from the world outside Rallsburg.
It… wasn’t very reassuring.
EIGHTY-TWO DECEASED, FORTY-SEVEN INJURED IN GUNFIGHT SOUTH OF RALLSBURG
OVER A HUNDRED CASUALTIES AS AWAKENED WAR CONTINUES IN WASHINGTON
NATIONAL GUARD DEPLOYED TO KEEP THE PEACE IN OLYMPIC FOREST AS GUNFIRE ERUPTS FRIDAY NIGHT
The headlines kept coming, and Natalie didn’t miss the implication—everyone called it a fight. Nobody seemed to understand they’d been attacked. They’d only fought back once it started. Until Natalie ran across the police officer getting killed, the camp had been pretty lively and normal, but all the world seemed to think it was a two-way thing.
What are we supposed to do? Not fight back? Let them hurt us?
Cinza suggested this was wise. She is wrong.
She was just saying to let the National Guard lead, right? That we’d let the real soldiers do the fighting for us.
They were not there for the awakened when they were needed. They cannot be relied upon.
Most people can’t beat guns though. Even grabbing guns away isn’t easy for most people. It is for me, and for Hailey and Hector and Lily and Kendra, but… what are normal people people supposed to do?
Not everyone can fight. It is up to us to protect them.
So now they’re my own too?
Whomever you decide to include in your queendom is your own, Natalie.
I don’t have a queendom.
Natalie didn’t want to talk to the voice anymore either. It wanted her to fight, to move, to do something. She couldn’t though—if she left, something might happen to her dad. She needed to be around to protect him. She went back online, trying to distract herself again, only to find even worse headlines.
DAUGHTER OF “THE TRAITOR”: MISSING RALLSBURG GIRL A SECRET STUDENT IN SOUTH SEATTLE MIDDLE SCHOOL
NATALIE HENDRICKS: THE TERROR OF MILLFORD JENKINS MIDDLE SCHOOL
She scrolled through story after story, feeling her heart sink deeper with every paragraph. She saw the quotes from Blake Sinclair and Lydia Jenkins, the pictures, the threats. She saw the principal’s brave stance to protect her, but so much of the world still seemed to be against her. Nobody wanted Natalie at that school. She was too dangerous.
Natalie fell back against Gwen’s thick fur. She shuffled slightly and gave a low growl, and Natalie suddenly realized she hadn’t been awake. <Sorry, Gwen…>
Gwen brushed Natalie’s leg with her nose. Natalie sat down and pulled her legs up, and Gwen curled around her to keep her warm. Her tail landed right on Natalie’s feet. With the black dress and her coat, Natalie wasn’t in the best clothes for the chilly December forest, but she had magic, and she had her wolf, so she wasn’t too worried about getting sick or anything.
But… looking at all the stories about her… her blood was hot and rushing fast. She felt… angry.
I… I’m not like that. I didn’t…
They will never understand why. All they see is what they want to see, and they want to be afraid. They want their world to come back, when it is already long-gone.
They’re saying horrible things about me. And this isn’t just Blake being mean at school, this is… newspapers. They’re putting it in public. It’s all… it’s everywhere.
Could Natalie go anywhere now? Her face was all over the internet, both before and after the scar. Unless she did something drastic to change herself, even more than Hailey had when she was in disguise, Natalie would be recognized. With the number of new headlines cropping up, she felt like she was almost as well-known as Cinza now.
…Who would ever want to be famous? I hate this. I hate everything about this.
It does not matter. You are already home. Let them think whatever they want. You need not travel further. You are already in your queendom.
The voice was no help at all, repeating the same idea over and over—that Natalie was already where she needed to be, and didn’t need anyone in order to take control. Natalie wasn’t sure she wanted to take control, but letting her life lead wherever it ended up hadn’t worked out at all either. She needed something in the middle, somewhere she could be herself.
Her friends back at the Greywood were her best hope, but Natalie wasn’t sure if she could get in touch with them. After all, she couldn’t leave her spot, not without risking her father’s life—and the occupants of the Greywood were the very threat she defended against. She didn’t worry for Kelsey, Mitch or Tyler’s lives, but… what could they do?
Tyler would ask her what to do. Kelsey would say something about how stupid it was that everyone hated each other, and why was Natalie forced to make all these decisions, but it wouldn’t be very helpful in the end. Mitch would probably just get into some argument with Kelsey, even though he wholly sympathized with Natalie at the end of the day.
She knew them. She liked spending time with them, but… they’d never been in situations like hers. Worse, they didn’t even know the whole story—all the twists and turns of Natalie’s life, what she’d been forced to do, what had been done to her. Only one person really knew her anymore.
…I have a phone, and I have signal. I don’t have to go anywhere to talk to someone.
In the photos, Natalie had seen him. Her heart lurched in her chest. She wanted to talk to him. She needed to talk to him—someone outside of this insanity, someone who might be able to understand her. Natalie couldn’t blame him for wanting to stay away. It hadn’t been because of her. She knew that completely. It was the rest of the world that was insane.
If anything, he was smart for wanting to stay away. Natalie needed smart right now.
She tapped the contact, the only one still listed in the favorites on her phone.
He answered after just one ring.
Natalie took a deep breath before speaking. “…Hi, Quinn.”
When Alden stepped out of the portal, he found himself not back in the Greywood, but emerging behind the command tent back in the pilgrim camp. Lily or Kendra had seen fit to send him there, apparently. Alden wasn’t about to question it—he wanted to come here.
Meg, what are you doing out here?
Alden walked around the tent and nearly ran right into a soldier standing guard next to it.
”What the hell?”
He spun around, rifle at the ready. Alden threw up his hands in surrender.
”I got turned around,” said Alden quickly. “I’m just trying to find my sister.”
The guard’s rifle lowered by an inch. “…How’d you get behind me?”
Alden glanced over his shoulder, debating whether or not to tell the truth. He doubted anybody would be able to get back into the Laushire void, but… Jackson managed it once. Sure, he was one of the Gods and knew more about magic than almost anyone in the world, but still… there were a lot of people in there who probably didn’t want to risk any kind of exposure.
Had to put me back in the middle of the military part of the camp…
”Magic, I guess,” said Alden uncomfortably, knowing how lame an answer it was.
The guard, to his surprise, simply took this at face value. “Fuckin’ magic,” he grumbled, in a way reminiscent of Viper, whom Alden had just left behind. “Well, get out of here. Don’t end up near the tents again, got it?”
”And don’t call me sir,” added the soldier as Alden started away. “I ain’t no officer. I work for a living.”
Alden wandered back into the camp, wondering where on earth he should start looking for his sister. According to Hailey, Meg was here somewhere. He didn’t doubt her for a second, though he was curious how Hailey knew. Probably magic. Explains everything else weird lately.
He’d stopped asking questions like that, past an idle curiosity. After all, Alden had just stepped through a portal in the Greywood, ended up in a black void, exited through the same door to an entirely different place, and in the meantime, spoken with people who could fly, turn invisible, create fire from their bare hands, and do all other manner of impossible feats.
Somebody knowing something unusual? Barely even on his radar anymore.
The camp was beginning to pull itself back to normal again, bit by bit. With the constant presence of the National Guard troops, nobody seemed particularly afraid anymore. The place was still a mess, but people were picking up the pieces. From what Alden understood, they’d sent out instructions to families not to come to the site, fearing a rush of panicked family members and protestors. While a few did trickle in as they slipped by the Guard roadblocks, it remained mostly those who’d stuck around.
They were already back at it, too. As soon as a vendor put their tent or stall back together, it was business as usual. As Alden walked by, he already saw people buying and selling gemstones, paying for magic lessons, buying trinkets and jewelry—one enterprising soul had already produced a line of pendants modeled on the eight-pointed star, taken out of Cinza’s diary scans—or the other, more mundane purchases.
Even the Guard were in on it. A few of the food carts were packed with soldiers off-shift mixed in with the pilgrims, selling as fast as they could. Alden doubted they’d last through the day with the sudden influx of population. The Guard had brought their own rations and relief supplies, but they were plain and unappetizing compared to the food vendors.
People were getting killed here only twelve hours ago…
Alden marveled at the change. Signs of the massacre were everywhere—bullet holes in tents and structures, bloodstains, the continuing sounds of pain from those who hadn’t been borne away by helicopters yet—but people were carrying on like normal, practically in defiance of the attack.
They don’t want to let Brian win, I guess.
It took him nearly half an hour to scour the camp, but finally, Alden found her—or more accurately, heard her.
”So tell me where I can find one!”
”Nobody sells Scraps, kid. Too risky.”
”Uh-huh. As if. You just don’t want to sell me one ’cause you’re too afraid, asshole.”
Alden rounded the corner and saw her. Immediately, he raised his voice. “Don’t swear.”
Meg froze. Her head twisted around in a jerking motion, as if she were imitating an old-fashioned robot or a puppet. She spotted him, and her mouth twisted into a painful-looking smile. “…Shit,” she muttered.
Alden buried her in a hug before she could move.
”Okay, jeez, Alden,” said Meg, pushing him away. “Lay off.”
He didn’t bother to ask what she was doing here. It was obvious. “Come on,” he said. “This way.”
”Hang on, I think I can get this guy—hey!”
Alden had grabbed her by the arm and pulled her away. Meg protested, but went along willingly as Alden pulled her in between the rows of tents, somewhere with less people immediately nearby.
”It’s really not safe here,” he hissed.
”Duh,” she shot back. “So what are you doing here?”
”Something good, I guess,” said Alden with a shrug.
Meg rolled her eyes. “Okay, Mr. Hero.”
”I’m not safe anywhere though. I’m awakened, you aren’t.”
”Not for long, I’m not.”
”Meg!” said Alden, a little more urgently. “People just got killed over this last night!”
”And I’m not gonna let some stupid terrorists run by an old guy in the woods stop me from learning magic, Alden,” snapped Meg. “You’re not safe, I’m not safe. You’re the guy who lied to the FBI and got agents to come to our house over and over, you know. Plus, I mean, think about it, right?” She gestured around them. “There’s soldiers everywhere and they’re all protecting us. If there’s anywhere to be safe right now besides like, the Greywood or something, it’s here, right?”
Alden shook his head. “You should be back home.”
”So should you,” said Meg pointedly. “You know Mom and Dad are super worried now, right?”
”Dude, you were on the news!” said Meg. “They saw you here. They’ve been texting me all day, asking where I am and if I’m okay.”
”And where are you?”
She shrugged. “Kelly’s house, obviously.”
”…And where’s Kelly?”
”Kelly’s house,” said Meg without missing a beat. “She’s covering for me all weekend, and I’m covering for you. So text them and tell them you’re okay, seriously. Or, you know, call them. Mom would probably chill if she heard your voice.”
Alden nodded. He pulled out his phone and dialed right away, relieved he still had signal.
”Oh, honey!” His mother’s voice was tinny and breaking up, but it was still audible. “Are you all right?”
”Yeah, Mom, I’m fine.” Alden glanced at Meg, who rolled her eyes. “I didn’t get hurt.”
”What are you doing out there?”
”I’m…” Alden hesitated. Meg nodded, mouthing ‘tell them’. “I’m awakened. I’m out here to make sure my friends are all right.”
”You’re… you’re what?”
”I can do magic, Mom.”
”…You’re… oh… oh I don’t know about this,” said his mom, sounding very uncomfortable. “I… are you sure?”
”…Yes, Mom, I’m sure,” said Alden. Meg stifled a laugh, rolling her eyes again.
”I… well, are you all right?” she asked again, still audibly upset.
”I’m okay.” Alden sighed. “Look, Mom, I gotta go. I just wanted to… to hear your voice.” It was true, too, after Alden thought about it for a moment. He and his parents hadn’t had the strongest relationship, but they were his parents. “I’ll call you again soon.”
”…Okay. Be safe.”
”I will be.” Alden hung up.
Meg nodded. “So yeah, like I said. They’re going crazy.”
”And you want to make it even crazier by being out here too?” asked Alden, pocketing his phone.
She shrugged. “They don’t know, right?”
”I don’t think telling them just now was the best idea,” said Alden, suddenly regretting his impulsive decision. “Mom sounded really confused.”
”Nah, this is better,” said Meg sagely. “Gives ’em time to get used to it before you get home. Better they know before they see you. You know how Dad does stupid stuff when he’s surprised.”
”I still think you should go home,” said Alden.
”Nope.” Meg shook her head. “I’m here to protect you. That’s my job as your sister, remember?”
”…I’m the older one,” he pointed out.
”Like that’s ever mattered.” She rolled her eyes. “Hailey’s locked up, and so’s your girlfriend, so I’m the only one you got left. I’m here to be your guardian, bro.”
”…No,” said Alden, coming to a sudden decision. Not guardian. But… I don’t want to send her away, either.
”Partners,” said Alden.
Meg faltered, and the silence was filled with the vague buzz of conversation around them, while birds chirped from the trees in every direction. A cool wind blew through, ruffling her hair.
”We lost someone in our family,” said Alden. “We don’t have a clue who that is, but… I think it’s better we stick together now. I didn’t do so well on my own.”
”I remember,” said Meg, a lot more subdued than before.
”Running around alone always gets me into even worse trouble. I’m done doing that now. You and me, then,” said Alden. “I can teach you what I know, at least. It’s not much, but… it’s better than nothing, right?”
”And you’re not gonna say something stupid about how I shouldn’t awaken because it’s too dangerous?”
He shook his head. “You’d just do it anyway. I think I know better by now.”
”So I figure it’s smarter I stick around and help you out.”
”Hey, you are getting better, from what I saw,” said Meg, and it raised his spirits a bit. “When I can do magic, we’ll both get better real fast. It’s all about sharing, right?”
”Who’s gonna share magic better than us?” said Meg. “Nobody on earth has as weird a relationship as we do.”
Meg punched him in the arm. Alden winced, but laughed anyway.
”Come on,” he said, turning back toward the camp at large. “Let’s go find a Scrap.”
She hesitated just slightly. “…Does it hurt?” she asked.
Alden laughed aloud as the memory burst into his brain, right along with Rika’s mocking expression.
”That was exactly what I asked Rika,” he said as they walked back into the camp. “When she offered to awaken me.”
”…And what did she say?”
Alden smirked. “She said, ‘do you care?'”
Meg thought for a second, then grinned. “Nope.”
”Hi, Natalie,” said Quinn.
His voice was muffled, as if he were talking through something else before it actually got to the phone. The cold glass of the screen felt great against her cheek, still hot with all the stress and panic that refused to subside after what felt like hours of never-ending fear. But in one instant, hearing Quinn’s voice, Natalie felt it diminish.
It wasn’t gone, and she was still terrified and angry and confused and had no idea what to do next… but at least she had someone she could talk to. She relaxed against Gwen’s soft fur, watching Scrappy’s tail twitch left and right as he watched the front door, and tried to forget everything going on.
”How are you?” she asked, not sure what else to say.
”I’m… I’m okay. I’ve just been at home. Can’t really leave. After I…” He trailed off, obviously not wanting to say it. “I got back before my parents did. I tore off the part at the bottom of the note where you said I was…”
”…It’s okay,” said Natalie. “I understand.”
”Don’t,” said Natalie quickly. I don’t want to hear that… Quinn hesitated, and she went on. “Don’t… don’t apologize. Just… talk to me, okay?”
”Okay.” Quinn seemed to be moving around now, whatever he was doing. She heard typing. He’s on his computer, doing something.
”What are you doing?”
”I’m reading all the stuff online about us,” said Quinn. “Guess we’re famous now…”
”Yeah…” She winced. He’s probably seeing all the awful stuff too… and he’s going back to school on Monday… Natalie tried to lighten the mood. “I saw one where they said you were a good-looking boyfriend.”
”Do you…” Quinn trailed off again. I miss the old Quinn… he was never so afraid to talk before… That was me. What happened?
Oh, right. I happened. I screwed up his life too, just by being around.
”I still really like you,” said Natalie firmly. “And… if someday, when all this is over…” She glanced at her signal bar. It looked strong enough… she hoped. “Hey, can I… can I call you on video?”
Natalie quickly tapped over to the video button. The sound of Quinn’s breathing vanished for a few moments, then came back—along with his face. He’d been crying recently. Natalie couldn’t blame him. Behind him, she saw his room, his bed, all the stuff she expected to see. He was talking through his computer, rather than his phone, so the camera was mounted up on top.
”I wish I were there right now,” said Natalie aloud, before she could stop herself.
Quinn blushed. “You do?”
”…Yeah.” She brushed her hair out of her face, trying to smile—trying to ignore everything for a while, just like Riley said. Natalie wasn’t in the middle of the forest after a huge battle and protecting her father from the whole world… she was just a kid on the phone with her boyfriend. “I really like your room. It’s nice.”
”Where are you?”
Natalie held the phone out as far as she could, and tilted it to the side to show Gwen’s face. Gwen peered into the screen and growled, though to Natalie’s ears, it sounded less like suspicion and more like a bemused indifference.
”Whoah…” said Quinn. “That’s… that’s her, isn’t it?”
”Yeah.” She smiled.
”She growled. She doesn’t like me, does she?”
”No, not that… she mostly just doesn’t get phones.” Natalie turned to Gwen. <This is Quinn. I told you about him, remember? Be nice to him.>
”I heard my name in there… what did you just say?”
”I told her to be nice,” said Natalie. A thought came to mind. <Percy’s not nice to him.>
Gwen growled. Percy, up in the corner of the room, squawked indignantly. Gwen turned up her nose at him and huffed disapprovingly, before turning back to look at the little screen with Quinn’s face. She bared her teeth just slightly, in what usually amounted to a smile for her.
”See, she likes you.” Natalie nodded. “If you were here, she’d probably give you a hug right now.”
”…How does a wolf give a hug?”
”Kinda like she’s doing for me right now,” said Natalie. Gwen’s tail was still wrapped up around her along with most of her body. Natalie did her best to show it all with the little phone camera. She didn’t want to move, with how comfortable and warm the whole setup was.
”She seems really cool,” said Quinn, smiling.
”She is.” Natalie settled back into her fur. She smiled back up at Quinn’s face as she held the phone way above her head. “You’ll meet her someday.”
”I’m glad you found her again.”
”Me too.” Natalie hesitated. She hadn’t wanted to ask earlier, but she felt a lot more comfortable now. “How are your parents doing?”
Quinn shook his head—but to her relief, there wasn’t any hesitation anymore. They were back to talking like normal, and Quinn was back to his fast-thinking self. Natalie loved hearing that voice again.
”They’re still really afraid, but since I didn’t leave, I thought they’d be mostly okay. They asked about you a couple times, but I didn’t say where you went.” He shrugged. “I got them to leave it alone at first, but now everybody else’s parents are calling them asking where they are. So between Mitch’s mom, Kelsey’s moms and Tyler’s parents, it’s kinda intense.”
”Yeah…” Natalie winced. “I dunno if they should have come with me.”
”I’m glad they did,” said Quinn. “Kelsey would have beaten herself up for weeks if she didn’t, you know.”
”And Mitch had to go if Kelsey went, and Tyler…” Quinn shrugged. “Well, I think he just really wants you to actually be Linnethea.”
”Oh!” Natalie laughed aloud. She’d nearly forgotten all about that detail. “I am Linnethea.”
”I was…” She giggled, realizing just how ridiculous it sounded that she’d been in charge of a military patrol at thirteen years old. “I was helping out the soldiers with something and we wanted to use a codename. So nobody would know who I was. I just ended up saying Linnethea.” She winced. “A couple of them called me Linny.”
”That sounds so dumb.”
”Yeah… I got him to shorten it to Linn. That was okay.” Natalie shrugged. “He was pretty cool actually.”
”So now you’re riding around the forest on a wolf and leading soldiers into battle?” Quinn grinned. “Guess you really are her.”
”Yeah…” The mood fell again, after she’d just been feeling good about herself. Natalie shook her head. “It was really scary.”
Quinn looked a bit crestfallen, realizing how he’d brought up something uncomfortable. Natalie wanted to change the subject, keep them talking before they lost the conversation entirely and she was back to feeling uncomfortable and alone, but something else happened. A loud thump echoed on Quinn’s side, followed by a muffled shout she couldn’t understand. He glanced up at the wall toward the front door.
”…What was that?” asked Natalie.
Quinn looked even more uncomfortable than before. He shifted in his chair, adjusting his glasses and obviously trying to delay saying something. “I didn’t… I didn’t want to tell you.”
Natalie hesitated. On the one hand, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. She had enough stressing her out already just in the forest around her. But… it was Quinn. There were only two people in the world Natalie cared more about than him, and both of them were already with her, even if she couldn’t decide whether or not to go talk to her dad yet.
She needed to know. “Tell me everything, please?” she said softly. “It’s okay.”
Quinn nodded. “…There’s people outside our house. A couple of news crews and some others. They… after it got out you’d been living with us, they came here.”
”…How do people know I was living with— Blake,” said Natalie suddenly, interrupting her own question.
He nodded again. “So everything my parents were afraid of came true anyway. Now I think they’re regretting asking you to leave.”
”Are you guys okay?” asked Natalie. Her mind raced with ideas—was there anything she could do to help them? She couldn’t leave Rallsburg, of course, but maybe one of her… do we even have friends anymore?
But we just told everybody we weren’t on their side anymore. I left the Summit.
They are not the only friends we still keep.
”I think so,” said Quinn, though Natalie was only half-paying attention at this point. “It’s kinda scary though… and Dad says he’s not going to work tonight. Saturday’s one of the best days for tips, so he’s worried about that too.”
It’s not like Kelsey and Mitch could do anything either…
Think harder, Natalie.
Not everyone at the Summit agreed with Cinza and Agent Ashe.
Hailey didn’t know about the ritual. She was surprised when they brought it up. She couldn’t be involved either, she was in jail way across the country.
She can protect Quinn’s family. Quinn already knows her as well.
But she’s in prison… How am I supposed to call her?
Lawyers are able to talk to people in prison.
I don’t know her lawyer.
You know a lawyer.
”Quinn,” said Natalie suddenly, interrupting him. She’d completely lost track of what he was saying, and it didn’t matter anyway. She needed to do this for him—for them.
”Is your mom home?”
”…Yeah. Why?” he asked, confused. Not suspicious, to her relief—Quinn trusted her without a doubt. He just hadn’t followed her train of thought of all. How could he?
”I need to talk to her… please?”
”…Okay.” Quinn got up from the computer and walked over to his bedroom door. Natalie felt a tingle up her spine as he called out and Annette answered. A minute later, she’d come into his room.
”What’s going on… oh.” Annette’s face fell at the sight of Natalie on the screen, or however else Quinn had been talking to her.
Natalie’s heart sank, but she forced herself to speak against the disappointment welling up in her throat. “Hi…”
”I need your help.”
Annette hesitated. She glanced at her son. Quinn was right behind her, practically pleading even though he remained dead silent—letting Natalie take control. Finally, Annette looked back at the screen again.
”You know what’s happening here, right?”
”Yes.” Natalie nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for… I shouldn’t have stayed there.”
”No,” said Annette firmly. “This isn’t your fault. It’s just…”
”…complicated,” finished Natalie, knowing that word all too well by now. Annette looked upset, but Natalie didn’t want to get trapped in another guilt competition. She had more important things to worry about. “I need to get in touch with a lawyer. I was hoping you could help.”
”Well… we don’t exactly all know each other, but I might be able to,” said Annette. She pulled out her phone. “Do you have their name?”
”…A firm, at least?”
Natalie shook her head. “It’s whoever’s… representing,” she finally landed on the right word, “Hailey Winscombe in Washington D.C.”
”Oh!” Annette nodded. “Jefferson Baux. I do know him, actually. Only in passing, but I know his firm. I can get a message to him.” She hesitated. “What’s the message?”
Natalie shook her head. “I need to talk to Hailey. Can you… can I get his number?”
”…All right.” Annette tapped a few buttons on her phone. A text message appeared on Natalie’s screen with Jefferson’s phone number. “There’s no guarantee he can get a phone call to Hailey, though. They sometimes confiscate our phones before letting us see the defendant.”
”I’ll figure something out,” said Natalie. She smiled. “Thanks.”
Annette tried to smile, but it just came out as uncomfortable. “…Be safe, Natalie,” she finally offered, before leaving the two of them alone again and shutting the door behind her.
”What was that about?” asked Quinn, sitting down again in front of the computer.
Natalie hesitated, but she had decided they shouldn’t lie to each other. It would be wrong for her to turn around and not explain to Quinn what she was planning to do, particularly when it involved him.
”I’m gonna get Hailey to come keep you guys safe.”
”…Oh wow,” said Quinn, his eyes widening. “Is that… are you sure?”
Natalie nodded. “She’s going to be cleared anyway, and she already knows you,” she reminded with a small grin. Quinn matched it. “Plus, I… I think it’ll be good. Hailey likes helping people, and she’s… she’s the only one I can trust right now.”
”They want to kill my dad,” Natalie said abruptly. “They already tried, and I stopped them. Now I gotta stay here and make sure they don’t do it.”
”Oh… oh man,” said Quinn. “That’s… that’s insane.”
”Yeah…” Natalie winced. “I haven’t talked to him yet. I don’t know if… if I can. But I gotta keep him safe.”
”Yeah.” Quinn shook his head. “That’s horrible.”
A sharp prickle on the side of her neck got her attention. Natalie glanced out the window. She thought she heard something, but Scrappy hadn’t reacted, nor had Riley called out anything from above. Still, it reminded Natalie she couldn’t just talk the whole day. The Summit would end sooner or later, and if they were planning to try again, she was sure they wouldn’t waste time.
”I gotta go…” she said quietly.
”Okay,” said Quinn.
”I want to call you again. Will you be—”
”I’ll be home all day, and tomorrow too,” said Quinn. “We’re not going to church either.” Before Natalie could start to feel guilty about that, Quinn shook his head. “I think we’re kinda happy about that though. We all wanted a weekend of doing nothing anyway. So now we’re getting that.”
”…Okay,” said Natalie. “Thank you, Quinn.”
”I’ll see you again soon,” he said, smiling.
Natalie nodded. “Bye.”
As soon as she hung up, Gwen flicked her tail into Natalie’s face.
<What?> asked Natalie, glancing at her.
Gwen seemed to roll her eyes, as if skeptical. Natalie wasn’t sure what she meant, but felt like it had something to do with Quinn.
<You still don’t like him?>
She shook her head just slightly, huge yellow eyes fixed on Natalie.
<…You do like him?>
<So what’s the problem?>
Gwen growled again, a low soft growl that almost sounded sad. Natalie finally understood—Gwen wanted her to be with Quinn, even if she didn’t quite approve of sharing her. Natalie rolled her eyes, but hugged up tight to Gwen anyway. She took a deep breath before pulling the phone out again and making her next call.
”…To whom am I speaking?”
”You don’t have one?” asked Meg as they skirted a muddy patch in the thoroughfare.
The camp was divided into a grid, almost, with clear throughways for traffic. There weren’t many cars to speak of—hardly any, in fact, besides some overgrown abandoned R.V.s, plus the humvees which were still around from the National Guard. It wasn’t easy to get a car over to this park, between the Jackson-caused landside and the roadblocks, so most of the pilgrims and vendors had trekked out on foot, parking on the road up into the hills.
”No?” said Alden with a shrug. “Rika awakened me off a copy of the first page.”
”Scraps can be copied?” asked Meg with a shock, startling a nearby Mexican food vendor. He grumbled something about teenagers as they wandered past. Alden wasn’t sure what he was looking for yet, but he figured he’d know when he saw it.
”Yeah?” Alden glanced around again, and spotted a tent teaching magic. It seemed as good a place to start as any. “So?”
”Kinda… I dunno, ruins it?”
”Well, they’re worse, I guess,” said Alden. “You don’t get anything from the copies like you do from actual Scraps, you just awaken.”
”And Scraps teach you whatever magic’s on ’em, right?”
”Right,” said Alden.
”What about all the people you and Hailey were running around finding?” asked Meg, a little too loud for comfort.
”Shh,” said Alden.
”Hailey’s in prison, remember? And I was ‘never’ around her,” said Alden pointedly.
”Oh… right,” said Meg. She sighed. “That’s so stupid. When’s she gonna get out anyway?”
”No idea,” said Alden glumly. “They gotta make an example of it, and show she’s being treated fairly. No special privileges so nobody can complain.”
”Ugh. She doesn’t deserve that.”
They’d reached the tent now. A huge sign on top read AMATEUR MAGIC LESSONS in crude black paint on a bedsheet, stretched between two wooden poles embedded in the earth. There was a bullet hole through the top, but otherwise, the place looked pretty intact. Underneath the title, a second line read AWAKENED ONLY, PLEASE.
It was the “please” which really drew Alden in. Every other tent was practically screaming at them to come buy their wares, but this one was different. He liked the polite air about it. Problem was… as soon as they walked in, it was obvious they weren’t going to find what they wanted.
”Can’t do it,” said the vendor in a bored voice. He rolled his eyes. “Look, kids, you saw the sign. I don’t got anything. Nobody does. I can’t help you.”
”But—” said Alden, but Meg cut him off.
”Like hell you don’t,” she growled. “I watched people walk in here totally normal and came out chuckin’ fireballs like they were born doing it only minutes later.”
”Because I’m a good teacher, so what?”
”So nobody gets that good, that fast,” said Meg. “Trust me, I’ve studied this crap all day every day since before the rest of the world even found out. So you’re tellin’ me you don’t got a Scrap that teaches you exactly how to do Elemental fire magic like riding a bike?”
”Well, look who it is,” said a voice behind them. The tent flap drifted open, and another figure stepped inside. As soon as the bright light dimmed away, Alden recognized the toothy grin of Julian Black, even through the cheap disguise. “Ease up, Randy. They’re friends.”
”Really,” said Randy, raising an eyebrow. “These two kids?”
”That there’s a veteran of this damn town, so show some respect,” said Julian sharply. Alden winced, but there wasn’t anyone else in the tent, and Julian had spoken low enough that nobody outside would hear. “So whatever he and his girlfriend want, show ’em the stock, got it?”
”Sister,” Alden mumbled, while Meg’s mouth fell open.
”…Oh, shit,” said Julian, wincing. “Y’all don’t look anything like each other, you know that?”
He shrugged, trying to move past it. Meg was torn between laughter and indignation. To Alden’s relief, she didn’t land on either. Instead, she spun back to the vendor, obviously just trying to get past the moment and back to their real goal.
”So what d’you got, Mr. Randy?” she asked pointedly.
Randy sighed, and pulled out a small metal box. He wiggled his fingers above it, his eyes closed while he worked. Alden briefly reached out with his own magic and could feel a complex spell on top of the box, layers all linked to a power source inside. A moment later, it popped open.
Inside was a pile of gemstones, weighing down four different Scraps. Randy pointed at them one by one as he spoke.
”Elemental fire, telekinesis, hydrogen creation, and… hell if I know what to call it. It makes stuff dry.”
”It makes stuff dry?” asked Alden dubiously. “Like… an area, or what?”
He shrugged. “Basically, yeah. Sucks moisture out of the air. So uhh…”
”A dehumidifier?” Meg smirked.
”Sure, whatever.” Randy rolled his eyes. “They aren’t interesting, but who the hell cares? You’re still getting awakened. Anybody can use pretty much any magic, and it doesn’t affect your affinity, so don’t think about it too much.”
”Okay, cool,” said Meg. She reached forward, and Randy immediately slammed the box shut.
”Uh-uh.” He shook his head. “Payment first.”
”And keepin’ in mind,” added Julian from behind them, “special discounts and all that.”
Randy nodded. “For a second-gen copy… six hundred.”
”Six hundred dollars?” asked Meg, raising an eyebrow.
”Hey, I gotta make a damn living here, you know.” He shrugged. “Take it or leave it, that’s way less than most people pay around here.”
”Done,” said Meg. She dug into her purse and pulled out a stack of bills.
Alden raised an eyebrow. “Where’d you get all that?”
”Saved up for years, bro,” said Meg. She counted out the price in loose bills and passed it over. “Gimme the fire one, I want to be way better at it than you.”
He rolled his eyes. “That won’t just make you better.”
”Watch and learn.” Meg paused as Randy started digging through another box, almost like a file folder. “What d’you mean by second-gen copy?”
”One of Kyle’s… err,” Randy trailed off as Julian made a coughing sound. “It’s a copy of the Scrap, only works once.”
”Only once?” said Meg, obviously disappointed.
”What, you had a friend you wanna awaken or somethin’?”
”…Maybe,” said Meg. Alden wondered… did she mean Kelly? He wasn’t sure that was a good idea yet. Meg, sure—he trusted her, and she’d become a way different person over the last couple years, but with how much the two of them fought… he definitely wasn’t sure about that.
”Here,” said Randy. He handed it over—a perfect copy of the Scrap in shape and size, but washed out and modern, as though it were printed on a modern sheet of paper rather than the ancient parchment Alden remembered. “Do me a favor and don’t read it here, all right? Unsettles the customers.”
”Can do,” said Meg. She slipped it into her purse. “Come on, bro. Let’s get out of here.”
To Alden’s surprise, Julian followed them out of the tent and back into the crowds. The morning had started in earnest now, and the market was definitely thriving again. People were back in droves, despite the events of the night before. In a way, Alden was comforted by it—even with all that insanity, people were still willing to come here for a chance to awaken.
”Capitalism, ain’t it somethin’,” said Julian. “Got you a great deal, young woman.”
”No shit,” said Meg, smirking. “Six hundred for magic? How much do these usually go for?”
”Hell, if you used to be at my old casino, they ran for a thousand minimum. Now, though?” Julian grinned. “It’s not unheard of to get fifteen or twenty thousand, if you can call the high rollers out.”
”Don’t swear,” said Alden again, but Meg just rolled her eyes.
”So you’re ’bout to meet miss Grey herself,” said Julian, walking up alongside Meg as they started wandering the camp. “How’re you feelin’?”
”What’s she like?” asked Meg. “Alden never talked about her.”
Julian glanced at him curiously. Alden shrugged. Didn’t really seem like she wanted to be talked about…
”Well,” said Julian, “honestly, you ain’t gonna learn much about her. She pops in, does her thing, asks if you’re okay. Apparently if you’re all alone, she says a couple other things too, like what you just went through, and tells you to be careful.” He scratched his head. “She added that last bit after… well, you know what happened, right?”
”Yeah, he told me everything,” said Meg, nodding.
Not everything, mused Alden, but I don’t think I understand everything myself.
”So yeah, ever since then, she started tellin’ people to be more careful. Makes sense.” He shrugged. “After that, she’s gone. Never says another word, not once—and believe me, I’ve seen a ton of ‘wakenins. It’s always the same. Grey-eyes doesn’t talk to anybody. Most I ever heard out of her was the meetin’ we had in the library after it was all over, but that was a special case. ‘Sides, she only spoke one damn sentence, so… yeah.”
”Crazy,” said Meg, obviously in awe.
She… she talked to me though. With Meg’s awakening so near, Alden was remembering his own, back in Rika’s apartment in May. Grey-eyes appeared, and she was… confused? He wasn’t sure how to describe it. But she’d talked to him. She’d asked him if he was okay, just like Julian said, but… there was so much more.
Grey-eyes talked to Rachel too, plenty of times. I heard her. So maybe Julian just never saw it.
”So what do you think?” asked Alden, though his mind was still processing this new bit of information. Raindrops were starting to land on them, one by one, as thicker clouds rolled in far above. “Should we go back to the Greyw— Meg!”
His sister had already pulled the Scrap out of her purse, and without warning, she’d put it in front of her eyes. Apparently, she couldn’t wait any longer. Alden panicked, but their guide was already there.
Julian caught her gracefully enough before she landed in the mud. With Alden’s help, they managed to get her over to a nearby blanket. People were staring, watching her mutter the words over and over on the page. To Alden’s surprise, she hadn’t failed on the first sentence like everybody else—she’d barreled right through without blinking an eye.
Meg was reading the Scrap, and in moments, she’d be awakened—one of them.
Jefferson promised to get the message to Hailey. All Natalie could do now was… go back to what she’d been doing before.
Her dad was still only just down the street. If Natalie shouted loud enough, he might even be able to hear her. She could certainly do it with magic, if she wanted to—but she couldn’t bring herself to risk it.
He’s killed people. I know that. I saw him do it, back in Rallsburg. He killed someone just for being awakened. They weren’t doing anything to him… Is this a bad idea?
You are more powerful than him. He won’t be able to hurt you.
I can’t hurt him either! I could never hurt Dad…
Natalie went back upstairs, before she could get trapped in another circle with the voice. As she carefully walked up the stairs, Riley shifted again ever so slightly.
”Did you hear me?” asked Natalie, suddenly uncomfortable.
”I’ve been listening to this,” said Riley, pointing at the radio in her ear. “The National Guard is conducting another sweep through the forest. They want to find any caches they might have missed during the night. Amateurs,” she added with a tiny flick of her head.
”Oh… okay.” Natalie hesitated, then decided—she might as well ask Riley. If nothing else, it was a different conversation than the one she couldn’t escape in her own head. “Do you think I should go talk to him?”
Riley didn’t answer for a few seconds. Natalie was about to change her mind, say something else to get off the topic again, but she did finally speak up—and her voice wasn’t Rook, nor was it Riley. There was more of an accent than she’d ever heard from Riley before, and more emotion. All of a sudden, she was a completely different person yet again, one Natalie had never met.
Who is she…?
”I don’t know,” she said. She didn’t turn, keeping her eyes focused straight ahead, but Natalie could tell something was suddenly off about the sniper laying on the bed, still watching the library down the sight of her rifle. “I’ve been avoiding the only member of my family for twenty-one years.”
”But… I thought—”
She shook her head slightly. “Stefen isn’t my family. I… I have a daughter.”
Natalie’s eyes widened. “You do?”
She nodded. “I have not seen her since one week after she was born, twenty-one years ago. I… left her. My Esteri. She will be twenty-two soon. Just three weeks from now…” She shook her head again, and Natalie spotted an actual tear slipping down her cheek. “I’ve never told anyone this before. Not even Stefen.”
Natalie didn’t know what to say. She took one step across the room, and then another, but suddenly, the woman’s head turned to look straight at her.
”I can’t answer your question, Natalie. I’ve been avoiding my daughter because I’m terrified by what she’ll think of me. Every year, I pray for her, and I hope that I will finally break and run to her.”
”…Where is she?” asked Natalie.
She shook her head again. “I know where she began, and I know the trail to follow, but I was too afraid to walk it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be brave enough. How could she love someone like… like this?”
Natalie shook her head. “I don’t think you’re a bad person.” She glanced away, since the woman had started to cry, though she did it so silently Natalie probably wouldn’t have noticed without her enhanced eyes. “What’s Esteri mean?”
”Star,” said the woman quietly. “She is the star, bright and shining, forever out of my grasp and watching every move I make from afar. Judging me.”
”I don’t know what else you’ve done,” said Natalie, “but… I think she might understand. If she’s a smart person, she’d get it. Sometimes… sometimes life makes you do bad things.”
The woman smiled. “I hope she would be like you, Natalie.”
Natalie blushed. “…Thanks, I guess.”
”Aulikki,” she said suddenly.
”My name,” said the woman, and she finally turned back to watch forward once again. “Aulikki Häyhä. No one has known that name in many years. I had nearly lost it in my time with the military. I want you to know it.”
Natalie didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything at all. A raindrop fell onto the half-shattered window, and then another. The clouds were rolling in. Aulikki cleared her throat, and her voice returned to the old Riley who Natalie was more familiar with, but… she wouldn’t ever forget.
”Whatever you want to do, Natalie,” said Aulikki. “I’m with you.”
”…Thanks.” Natalie nodded, and suddenly, she felt a new wave of confidence. “I… I want to see him.”
Aulikki nodded. “Then we will find a way.” She pointed at the radio on her ear. “The other marksman is still in Rallsburg. Stebbins. We’ll have to deal with him first.”
”Deal with him?” asked Natalie nervously.
She shook her head. “We don’t need to hurt him. But we do need to make sure he’s not going to shoot your father, or you.”
”So how do we do that?”
”I can think of several ways.” Aulikki glanced at Natalie again briefly, before turning back to watch the library. The rain was starting to come down harder now, but enough of Boris’ roof remained that they were both reasonably covered. So long as the wind didn’t shift, they weren’t getting wet. “We can ask him, of course, but that will also tip our hand on what we’re doing. They might exploit his distraction to kill him while you speak.”
They would do that? That’s… that’s horrible!
It is exactly as we strategized. Distract your foe so they do not see the real threat lurking just out of sight. You would be the unwitting version, but the result would be quite the same.
”That might not go well…” said Natalie aloud.
Aulikki nodded. “I could also draw him away, threaten his zone and force him to retreat. He would not be harmed, but I would lose sight of the library. You’d have to protect your father from any other threats.”
”…Okay. What else?”
”You simply go in and trust Stebbins not to fire, and not risk leaving his own post for fear of my bullet.” Aulikki retained a little of her arrogance as she went on. “I’m certain he has no idea where we’ve made our nest. I can still cover you, but you’ll be on your own inside, and I don’t believe your father went there alone.”
None of these sound good…
”And another one?”
”We lure your father out ourselves,” said Aulikki with a shrug. “You’d have to stop every bullet from striking him as he approaches us. I don’t like this approach, but if you think you can manage it, it may work.”
Natalie shook her head. “I barely stopped just one of yours,” she said, wincing simply from the memory of that painful experience.
”So going to him is our best option,” Aulikki concluded. The rain was now a downpour. Sheets of water dropped from the sky and drenching the whole town of Rallsburg. Natalie ducked back a little as some of the rain shifted and fell their way, but Aulikki was under enough cover to avoid it. “I think if we…”
She trailed off. Something was coming through on the radio. Natalie focused, and she could barely make out the sound with how low Aulikki kept the volume.
”…Civilian casualties, requesting emergency airlift from FOB Pilgrim. I repeat, emergency medical airlift…”
Aulikki’s eyes snapped up to meet Natalie’s. Her heart seemed to sink into her stomach.
They could both feel it in the air. The rain seemed to be a perfect reflection of the sudden mood permeating their entire world. A wall of water, with fog beginning to roll in beneath, turned the town and forest surrounding into a cold, foreboding landscape—but it was all just a sign.
Something terrible had just happened.
Meg was covered up under a tent awning. To Alden’s relief, it wasn’t really raining—just a few drops for now. The clouds certainly looked ominous, but he figured they’d be done before a real storm kicked up. There were onlookers everywhere, as soldiers and passersby alike stopped to watch the girl awaken.
Everyone wanted a glimpse of Grey-eyes. Everybody wanted to see the goddess. Alden could hear them whispering, waiting, anticipating. If he was being honest, he was excited to see her again too. She’d saved his life more than once, and he wanted the chance to thank her.
The Scrap in Meg’s hand disintegrated completely. She choked up. Her eyes fluttered open in panic.
Alden took her hand and squeezed tight. “Not long now,” he murmured.
Julian nodded, bored. Alden figured he’d seen so many awakenings by now, this was just another on the pile. Alden had watched a couple himself, but… this was his little sister. No matter what, he was still going to feel nervous. The process wasn’t pleasant, especially when she took longer to show up.
Meg made an awful gasping sound, and then Grey-eyes appeared, right next to them, exactly as Alden expected. She seemed incredibly tired, her eyes practically closed, hair messier than usual, clothes unkempt, but she still started to move as soon as she arrived… until she saw who had read the Scrap.
She stumbled backward.
”No…” she gasped.
”What?” asked Alden, utterly confused. Julian dropped the flask he’d just taken out. It fell into the mud with a soft slap of sound, completely incongruous with everything happening in front of them. The crowd nearby froze. Everything was suddenly silent. Only the sound of raindrops as they picked up speed, the gasping of Meg on the ground, and Grey-eyes’ confused voice.
”No,” said Grey-eyes again. “No, no, no.” She shook her head, thick brown hair flying wildly. “Please, no.”
Meg’s hand tightened on Alden’s arm. He dove for Grey-eyes and grabbed her hand.
”Help her!” he cried.
”I didn’t want this!” said Grey-eyes, wrenching free of his grasp. “I didn’t want any of this!”
”What the fuck…” murmured Julian, taking a step back, squelching through the mud as the rain picked up.
”What are you talking about?” asked Alden. Meg was getting worse by the second, and the only person who could save her was… backing away.
Grey-eyes didn’t answer. She just kept repeating the same word, over and over under her breath, tears filling her eyes.
”Somebody help!” Alden cried, his voice wrenched from his throat involuntarily.
A man in uniform with a medic bag burst through the crowd and rushed to Meg’s side, but she was still choking and gasping. He dropped to the ground and started performing CPR, and that finally seemed to snap Grey-eyes out of her stupor.
”No!” she cried, rushing forward. “That won’t do anything!”
The medic tried to push her away, obviously not understanding who she was. Rage flashed in her eyes, and they turned bright red. She took a single step forward, and one arm slammed outward.
Grey-eyes shoved him—hard.
People in the crowd scattered as the medic flew fifteen feet into the air and over the top of the next tent over. Grey-eyes ignored the sudden commotion. She fell to Meg’s side and began murmuring as fast as she could, but something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
Meg’s mouth murmured the words, just as Alden expected, but her eyes never opened. Grey-eyes seemed to be repeating phrases, if he could hear it correctly. It should have been over by now, but it wasn’t, and her voice was getting more panicked with every passing second.
”…Meg?” said Grey-eyes finally, her voice thick with emotion.
”Meg?” repeated Alden, choking up.
”No, no, no…“
Alden turned around, looking for the medic. He’d made it back, muddy by unharmed, and rushed to Meg’s side again. In an instant, he was on his radio, as the rain began to pour down in earnest now.
”This is Stevens. Prep medical for asphyxiation. We’re coming in right now.” He grabbed the edges of the sheet Meg lay on. “Grab the other half, right now.”
Julian did, when both Alden and Grey-eyes seemed stock-still and unable to move. Together, Julian and the medic rushed Meg across the camp to the medical tents, where a team was already waiting with oxygen masks. Alden followed, and at his side, he could feel a rushing movement, and saw footprints appearing in the mud as they ran—Grey-eyes was there, invisible, following their every movement.
Off in the distance, while Alden and Grey-eyes watched Meg strapped in and the medics working to restore oxygen to her brain, another person had just started to read from their own copy of a Scrap—another piece of the Grimoire which had just nearly claimed the life of Margaret Bensen.
”Somebody just called it in,” said Felix, setting down his phone. “They’re dying.”
”Huh?” asked the one-armed woman, glancing up from her rifle, a burst of dust accompanying the movement. The library was full of dust, caked in it, smothered by it.
”People trying to awaken. They read from whatever piece of that damned book they’ve got and they just die. Grey-eyes isn’t coming to save them anymore.”
”When did that happen?” asked the other guard in their small group of four.
Felix shrugged. “Within the last thirty minutes. We’ve already heard about three—two in the camp and one way out in Portland.” He glanced across the room to their leader, who was seated on a wooden bench and gazing up at the rain through the upper turret windows. “You hear that?”
Brian nodded. “I heard.”
”What do you think?”
He didn’t answer. In his mind, the only thing that mattered was Natalie. She was out there somewhere, in the rain-swept forest, coming back to meet him. He could feel it. She’d know exactly where to go. She’d come to find him, and they could share in the victory together. Grey-eyes had given up on them, and so magic would stop spreading. All that remained was to clean up the rest.
For the first time in a very, very long time… Brian smiled.