Chapter 52 — A Place of Her Own
Thunder rolled in the distance, low and rumbling. Rain still pounded on the turret roof high above their heads, but inside the library, everything was quiet. They could barely hear shouting and the piercing crack of gunfire out in the town beyond, but for the moment, all Natalie could see, all she could hear, every sense in her body was focused on her father.
What do we say? How are we supposed to talk to him after… after all this?
We are here to protect him. Let nothing else distract us.
Another gunshot outside punctured the silence as a pointed reminder of what she’d left behind. Aulikki still fought to keep everyone else away. Natalie had no idea how many people Cinza may have brought with her, nor how long a single woman with a rifle could hold them off. She didn’t have time to waste.
”She’s…” murmured the rat-faced man in the back, but he trailed off again.
Natalie didn’t look at him, but her father did, for the briefest of moments. He broke their stare, and that, finally, pressed Natalie to act.
”Dad, we need to leave,” she said, as calmly as she could.
”…What?” he asked, dazed.
”There’s people outside who want to kill you. We gotta go.”
”No…” he murmured—and it tore at Natalie, but she held on. She told herself he just didn’t want to leave, which was plenty reasonable. There was gunfire outside, and an approaching thunderstorm. The library was solid and safe. Comfortable, even.
Do not delude yourself.
Leave me alone.
You saw the look in his eyes. You know what he thinks. This is not the time.
It’ll never be the time.
He cleared his throat, and for a moment, he didn’t look exhausted anymore. He looked… like her dad again. “Natalie,” he said, and hearing her name in his voice felt so comforting, so welcome after all her months alone. “I can’t go.”
”You have to.” Natalie looked away, finally, toward the outside wall, where another gunshot pierced the heavy rain. “They’re going to kill you, Dad.”
He winced. His hands shook, still gripping the spikey golem rod tight, but he simply shook his head. “They won’t. They don’t have the conviction.”
”The what?” I thought that word had to do with trials, like Hailey talking about getting convicted.
Her father smiled, in a strange and terribly sad way. “It means belief. They don’t believe in their actions. They have never tried to kill me before.”
Natalie shook her head. “You’re wrong. They already tried. It was last night.”
”I stopped them, Dad, but I dunno if I can keep doing that. They’re outside right now.” Another gunshot, and everyone in the room winced, though the previous gunfire hadn’t bothered them. “That’s my friend keeping them away.”
”…You have a friend with a rifle?”
Something about his tone… how normal, how it leapt out of her past and into this insane situation, nearly brought her to tears. He was still her father, still caring about who she hung out with, getting in her business. If it wasn’t such a horrible time… Natalie steeled herself, focusing on what really mattered—saving his life.
She nodded, though her patience was wearing very thin. “She’s… she’s a good person.”
”Who is this person?”
”Dad, stop!” she cried. “We don’t have time!”
Gwen growled, and that suddenly snapped her father out of his old tone. He was back to the cold, angry man, the one she’d heard shouting in the forests in Rallsburg seven months ago, and at the pilgrim camp only the night before.
”Why did you do this?” he asked, and his voice was wracked with suppressed rage and pain. “Why are you…”
”That doesn’t matter right now,” said Natalie, glancing nervously over her shoulder. Aulikki couldn’t hold them off forever, no matter how good she was. “Just come with me, okay?”
”Yes, you can,” she snapped. “I’m trying to save your life, Dad! Just listen to me for once!”
”He’s not going anywhere with you, witch,” snarled the one-armed woman nearby. She took a step forward.
Instantly, Scrappy tackled her. The huge bronze-colored cat pounced, and his weight was more than enough to take the woman down. She screamed and thrashed, but Scrappy’s claws were out, and she was unarmed. He’d win, if Natalie let it keep going.
<No!> Natalie shouted. <Don’t hurt them!>
Scrappy leapt off, licking a wound she’d managed to scratch in his own face. The woman stayed on the ground, panting, her face and arms covered in claw marks, but she’d be okay. Scrappy prowled around between her and Gwen, where Natalie still sat. The wolf growled, reinforcing the threat posed by Natalie’s friends.
”You can control them?” asked the rat-faced man.
”No,” said Natalie. “They’re my friends.”
”Because you force them to be.”
”No!” Natalie shook her head. She turned back to her dad. “Who are these people?”
”…Believers,” said her father. “Warriors.”
”Something like that,” added Rat-face.
”Quiet,” her dad snapped, and Natalie was grateful. Rat-face seemed like an awful person. She couldn’t figure out why her dad was with him… but then again, she couldn’t figure out why he was doing all of this in the first place.
”Summon a golem,” muttered the one-armed woman, painfully getting to her feet again. “Deal with her already.”
”She’s his daughter,” said the heavyset guy. “Give him a minute.”
We do not know that. Be on your guard.
Or just… disarm him.
Natalie reached out with her mind, grabbing for the golem rod—only to find it completely blocked. It felt like the same wall she’d run into with Omega’s hideouts in the forest, but this couldn’t be the same thing. There was no way it could be tied to a cache of gemstones, when her dad moved around so much.
Her dad’s eyes narrowed. “What are you doing?”
He noticed? But how? He’s not awakened.
Guard yourself. He may retaliate.
”Can you put that down?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I can’t, Natalie.”
Again, that burst of warmth and familiarity, but it was tied to so much pain now… both for him and for herself. “Dad, you don’t need it anymore. We’re leaving, okay?”
”Why did you—”
”We don’t have time,” said Natalie again, for the third time. She half-expected someone to burst in right as she did, because that was her luck and her life, but no one did.
The rain continued to pound on the turret high above, another gunshot cracked in the town outside, and another roll of thunder—but still they waited. Three of her dad’s people, herself, her three friends, and… her father.
I just wanted to find him. I never…
”Does it matter?” her dad asked. “You said it yourself. They’re willing to kill me. Will running escape their evil magic?”
”…Evil?” she asked, her voice catching a little.
Her dad frowned. “Yes, Natalie. It’s evil.”
Natalie shook her head. “Don’t say that.”
”Look, kid—” started Rat-face, but both Natalie and her father shot him a look. He fell silent immediately, cowed.
”I can protect you.”
”How? Against the whole world?”
”If I have to,” she said, her voice rising a little. “I’m really strong, dad. Everybody thinks I’m the strongest besides Grey-eyes herself.” She said it with a touch of pride, hoping her dad would feel the same. Hoping he could take some measure of satisfaction that his daughter was doing well, that she could take care of herself.
If anything, it only horrified him. His eyes widened, and the rest of his face twisted into something ugly. Something painful. Something… afraid.
He’s afraid of me.
He will under—
My dad’s afraid of me.
”Dad… please,” she whispered.
Slowly, he shook his head, shaggy unkempt hair brushing against his eyes. Every movement was another painful blow to her heart. “I can’t go with you.”
”I miss you,” Natalie blurted out, caution thrown to the winds, her voice on the verge of tears with every passing word. “I looked for you every day after you disappeared. I had Gwen and Scrappy searching all over. Me and Lily too, we went all over the forest. I never gave up.”
”And then when we had to leave, I told Rachel I’d come back to find you. I waited for months. I went to school, I made friends, I lived in a bunch of places, I got hurt, I got in fights, but I made it,” she choked out. “I made it ’cause I knew I was gonna find you eventually. That we could go back home. You know, go back to—to normal.”
”You’re one of them,” said her dad, his own voice raspy and broken. Another burst of thunder, with a flash of light accompanying in the window high above. “You can do magic.”
”Yeah, Dad, I am. And that’s okay,” said Natalie, nearly on the verge of shouting. Her hands clutched Gwen’s fur so tight, she might have torn it out. The wolf pawed uncomfortably beneath her, but Natalie couldn’t let go. “It saved my life so many times… It saved your life, too.”
”It kills many more,” her dad shot back. “It destroyed our home. It killed your best friend!”
A dagger to Natalie’s heart, but she didn’t back down. She’d expected her dad to bring it up.
”It was an accident, Dad. Jenny could have died with or without magic. She was hanging out with college kids doing stupid things. I…” Her voice caught again, feeling awful for what she was saying about her best friend, but she’d gone over the words so many times in her head leading to this day. “I miss her too, but… she wouldn’t want this. What you’re doing is wrong.”
”No!” shouted her father, and Natalie recoiled.
Her dad never shouted at her, not when they were so close to each other. She’d never seen him so angry. Even when she broke the rules, like when she invited Jenny over, he was always so calm. This was… so much worse.
”You can’t be this. You can’t be one of them. Don’t do this.”
She felt like she could barely breathe. Natalie’s throat tightened up, raw and painful. She tried to open her mouth, mostly to breathe rather than anything else, but her dad took it as attempting to speak.
”I said no, Natalie!”
”You left me!” Natalie screamed, tears streaming down her face. “I was alone for days! You didn’t tell me why! If I hadn’t met Kendra and Lily ’cause of magic, I would have been all alone!”
”No, Dad!” she cried. “I haven’t seen you in seven months! I got beat up. I got attacked. People cut me, people hurt me, people shot at me. They did even worse things to me. None of them were awakened. What makes your world so much better?”
”Just stop, Dad,” said Natalie, trembling, tears dropping onto the black funeral dress, already soaked by the rainstorm she’d plunged through to get to him. Natalie would be freezing right now… except for magic. “Please, just stop. Just come with me. Nobody has to hurt us anymore. Not normal people, not awakened people, not Mom or Omega or Tom or Cinza or the rest of the world. I can protect us.”
She trembled again, as another huge roll of thunder rumbled into the library. Gwen was uncomfortable, and Scrappy still prowled around her, while Percy shifted and kept looking up at the bursts of lightning far above. Natalie couldn’t think about any of that though. She barely even remembered what was going on outside.
All Natalie could see was her father’s face… and that he was terrified of her.
”We gotta get in there,” said Jeremy, raising his voice to be heard over the thunder and rain. They were taking shelter under cover of a half-collapsed building at the edge of Rallsburg proper, still in sight of the library. A huge open space lay between them, and every time they tried to get closer, a rifle round slammed into the pavement, forcing them back.
”How?” asked Jackie. “That bitch ain’t gonna let us within a hundred yards. You think she’d give a single shit about putting one through our heads?”
”Fuck no, but we got our own backup.” He cued his radio. “Ashe, Stebbins.”
”This is Stebbins, send it.”
”Switch channel to the same net we used in Tacoma, over.”
”Copy, changing net, over.”
”…The hell are you doin’, Ashe?” asked Jackie, as Jeremy quickly swapped radio channels.
”Gimme your radio,” he said. She handed it over, and he quickly twisted her onto the right frequency. “Gotta get off that net. Lani knew it, and probably gave it to her, and now we gotta worry about Cinza and her fuckin’ people too.” He clicked the button. “Radio check.”
”Five by five, over.”
”We gotta get in there, Stebbins. Can you keep Rook off us while we rush it? Over.”
”…Think I got an idea of where she’s holed up, sir, but what about you? You’re goin’ up against golems, over.”
”The kid’s in there. She won’t let him kill anybody. Only chance we’re gonna get, over.”
”Roger that, sir. What about the other gang? Over.”
”Soon as we’re in, you go back to cover. Hell, radio it to Rook if you want, keep everybody else the fuck away. Just give us time to bring him in. Over.”
”Copy that. Timeline? Over.”
”Right fuckin’ now. Out.”
Jeremy tensed, even though he wouldn’t be moving until Stebbins’ next call out. The marksman would be shifting position inside the town, trying to get an angle on Rook’s building—wherever the fuck she is. The storm and the buildings weren’t giving Jeremy any sense of where her shots were coming from, apart from a general sense of “further into the town”.
Jackie clapped him on the shoulder, trying to reassure him.
”We got this, Ashe.”
”Been hunting this motherfucker for a long damn time,” muttered Jeremy. “Ever since I saw those bodies in May, I needed two things: find you, and put him in jail for the rest of his fuckin’ life.”
”One down,” said Jackie grimly.
A faint whistling sound in the air, high above. Jeremy looked up, squinting through the pouring rain. A flash of lightning lit up the sky—and his eyes went wide. Someone—and it really could only be one person—was flying right out of the storm, bearing down on them all.
Where the fuck did she come from?
”Heads up!” he shouted into his radio.
A huge gust of wind slammed into the town, bending trees back in every direction. She slowed as she approached, but whatever she’d been doing made a huge entrance. Jeremy almost felt like grinning, if everything else didn’t feel so dire already.
Hailey turned in mid-air near the center of town, hovering near the top of a building. A gunshot cracked out, exploding a burst of concrete near her head. Hailey didn’t wince, but twisted around toward a building nearby. She threw out her hand, shouting as she did.
A huge burst of fire exploded outward, flooding toward one of the structures. Steam hissed off as the rain poured in. Hailey kept it going for a moment, then swooped out of sight.
”Moving while she’s distracted, over,” said Stebbins.
”We should do the fuckin’ same,” said Jeremy. He got to his feet and bolted across the street, Jackie only a few steps behind.
They only made it two doors down before another bit of asphalt blew out nearby. Rook’s rifle cracked again—and it was far closer than the previous shots.
Bitch is going for a kill now!
”Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Jeremy panted as he got into cover again. He leaned against the wall, panting. Jackie did the same, heaving. She was in far worse shape than him, thanks to the workout schedule he’d resumed after Lani got shot, but he wasn’t doing that much better. “Need to get in touch with Hailey.”
At that moment, they heard another shout, and another huge gout of hissing flames rolled down the street.
”Jesus,” muttered Jeremy as a wave of heat washed over them, completely at odds with the near-freezing temperature outside. Another huge crack of lightning, followed by a roll of thunder. The whole fuckin’ world’s blowin’ up right now…
A ringing noise.
”…the fuck is that?”
Jackie tapped him on the shoulder. “It’s your phone.”
Jeremy grabbed it up and answered, without even looking. “What?”
The other end of the line sounded like it was inside a wind tunnel. “I just saw you,” said Hailey. “If I can get you inside, what happens?”
”Me and Jackie arrest him. I ain’t gonna kill anyone. We bring him in.”
”…Okay.” Hailey paused, and Jeremy heard another hissing gout of fire crash through the town. “I still don’t know where those shots are coming from. I’m just firing at stuff at random here.”
”Stebbins is in there somewhere,” said Jeremy. “He was tryin’ to get to a spot where he could keep her head down.”
”So it’s Rook, then, right?”
”All right—oh crap!”
”Cinza,” said Hailey, and suddenly the phone cut off.
Jeremy ran for the end of the alleyway, peeking around and down the street. Far in the distance, he could see a group of greycloaks, Ruby’s fiery curls and Cinza’s silver-grey hair distinct even in the midst of the storm. They seemed to have had the same idea as him, and were moving closer to the town while Hailey distracted Rook.
Two gunshots rang out from separate places. Both Stebbins and Rook had fired at the group. A puff of mud exploded on either side. Cinza’s group dove for cover behind the nearest building.
”Figured you’d want them kept out of the loop too, sir. Over.”
”Thanks. Workin’ with Hailey to get you some cover. Over.” Jeremy glanced at Jackie. She was clutching her pistol, watching the rain pour in over her devastated town, breathing heavily. “You with me?”
She nodded. “Every damn step of the way, Ashe.”
Natalie slid off of Gwen’s back. Her father flinched as the wolf growled a little, but Gwen took no notice of him. Natalie took a few steps forward, toward her dad—and with every step, she could see him grow a little more afraid.
”Dad—” she started, but he spoke first.
”Just stop,” he murmured, echoing her own request from a minute earlier. “Please stop, Natalie. Go back.”
”…Go back to what?” she asked.
”To you. Go back to being you.”
”That’s…” Natalie shook her head, her voice still painful and raw. “That’s not how it works.”
”You really want to be… this?” he asked, with so much disgust in his voice, Natalie felt like throwing up. She hurt in more ways than she could imagine.
”I want to be me, Dad,” said Natalie.
”It’s not evil. Some…” and Natalie realized she was about to echo Cinza’s words, but even so, she agreed with the sentiment. It made sense, even if she hated Cinza for betraying her… like everyone else had. “Some people do evil things with it, but it’s not always bad. That’s how everything works.”
”You don’t understand, turtle,” said her dad, and Natalie felt a thousand times worse hearing her old nickname. She’d been desperate for it for so long, but now, in this moment, it couldn’t have pierced her more. “You haven’t had time to learn how the world really works yet.”
”I know how the world works,” said Natalie. “I hate it.”
”And you want to let them have this kind of power?” he asked. “Where people are ripped apart by cruel magic they can’t control, where innocent bystanders are killed?”
”Jenny wasn’t the first,” said her dad. His voice was dark and full of rage. Natalie quivered—she’d never heard him talk like this before. His eyes were narrow, burning with some inner fire she didn’t recognize. “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen men who thought they could control magic, and it burned them. Tortured them from the inside out. So many have died, and it’ll keep spreading. It’ll get even worse.”
”We can control it—”
”Do you know why so many people follow me, turtle?” he asked. “It’s not just my story. It’s every other story that follows. Their children, their loved ones, their friends and family—they’re all victims. People are dying because of magic.”
Natalie shook her head. “It’s… it’s just another thing. People would die ’cause of guns, or knives, or drugs or whatever.”
”They would,” her dad agreed, confusing her for a moment. “But it would be less. Magic is too much. Every time we discover something new, some new way to kill people, more die. We’re at the beginning of another horrible new tool, and we can stop it.“
”We already did,” added Rat-face, unable to help himself.
”You’re wrong,” Natalie shot back, glaring at him. “She’ll come back.”
”Doesn’t matter. Nobody’s gonna awaken now that there’s a huge risk, and we got time to clean up the rest.”
”What about me?” asked Natalie, turning back to face her dad. “I’m one of them,” she added, with all the disgust she could muster. “What happens to me?”
Her dad didn’t answer. Natalie waited, watching him, all thought of the ongoing battle outside gone from her mind. She needed to know, now, what his choice was—what he really thought about his daughter.
Hailey swooped down the street past the alley where Jeremy and Jackie crouched. They leaned out again, and another crack and shatter of concrete as a gunshot slammed into the wall where Hailey had been only an instant earlier.
”She’s gonna get her head blown off,” muttered Jackie.
”So let’s not waste our fuckin’ shot,” said Jeremy.
He darted out of the alley. Hailey spotted him from the opposite end of the street. She threw out both of her hands, shouting once more.
A huge wave of fog erupted, the same as in the Tacoma bar months ago. The street was suddenly a white haze, so thick Jeremy could only make out a few steps in front of him. He grabbed Jackie’s hand and pulled her forward, out into the open, making for the library he could no longer see.
Why didn’t we think of that before? Shit. Nice one, Hailey.
Another gunshot crack, but it was obvious Rook was firing blind now. It didn’t land anywhere near them. Jeremy ran, Jackie only a few steps behind. The rain continued to pound them from above, soaking into their jackets. A flash of lightning lit up the fog bank, and a roll of thunder followed soon after.
Storm’s fuckin’ close…
”I lost you, sir!”
”We’re going in,” Jeremy called back, panting as he ran. “Soon as the damn fog clears, you keep every fucking thing with a pulse away from that building, got it? Over.”
”Copy that. Good luck. Out.”
Suddenly, the fog ended. Jeremy and Jackie were in the open, in the field between the library and the rest of the town, with the twisted and broken metal fences scattered everywhere around the huge stone structure. Jeremy slowed for a half-second, glancing over his shoulder—and it saved his life.
A huge wall of water burst out of the fog, flooding toward them. Jeremy grabbed Jackie and pulled her down to the ground, sloshing into the muddy grass. The water rushed overhead, slamming into the fence wall with enough force to break off more pieces.
”Holy shit,” he gasped.
Jackie was already back on her feet. She grabbed him and pulled him toward the fence. Together, they desperately clambered over, a wall which Natalie had cleared easily on her wolf. Hailey flew out of nowhere a moment later, landing next to the two of them.
”Sorry,” she gasped, almost completely out of breath. “‘koto tried… hit me… they’re not far.”
Jackie turned and crouched in cover. She faced back toward the street where they’d come, pistol in hand.
”Get in there. Ain’t gonna get a second chance,” she muttered.
”Cinza won’t touch me. She owes me. Can’t say the same for you.” She shook her head. “I got you covered, Ashe. You two get in there and arrest him.”
Hailey, breathless and panting, turned to him for confirmation. Jeremy nodded. It wasn’t time to argue. He bolted for the entrance, just as Jackie’s pistol opened fire—at what, he couldn’t be certain. He trusted her more than he did anyone else, even his own brain. No matter what, she had his back.
He ran toward the library, toward the man he’d been hunting for months—a pursuit that had him cross continents and nations, broke every relationship he had and put them back together again, and upended his entire world several times over.
Inside the library, they heard more sounds they couldn’t quite describe, as the battle raged around them—a battle none of them understood, nor could name the sides of, but feared nonetheless. Natalie wondered who was using so much magic outside. She could barely feel it at the edge of her senses, as if dulled by the library somehow, but there was definitely something huge going on.
We are out of time. Take him, and figure it out later.
But… we can’t just take him!
We are stronger than everyone here. Of course we can.
I don’t want to hurt him.
We may not have a choice.
”Dad, we have to go,” she said again, her voice barely above a whisper—desperate, pleading. “I just want to keep you safe.”
”It’ll never be safe around you.”
Natalie could feel every tear as it streaked down her face. She’d heard those words before. They echoed right out of her memory… from years and years ago.
He thought she was dangerous, just like her mother.
Her dad was afraid of her.
”I’m not—” she started, but then it was truly too late.
A man burst around the corner of the entrance, pistol raised. He stopped dead as every face turned to look at him—eight in all, including a hawk, a wolf, and a cougar. His gun-arm trembled slightly, but he soon found his target.
”Brian Hendricks,” said Jeremy Ashe, “you’re under arrest.”
Immediately, Natalie took a step, and put herself between Jeremy and her father—facing away from him. Putting him at her back, because even with what he’d just said—even with how much her heart ached and her throat was raw and her eyes burned from crying—he was still her dad.
”No,” she said firmly, throwing her arms out wide.
Hailey emerged a moment later, coughing and panting. She too stopped at the gathering, but her eyes were locked on Natalie, while Jeremy continued to train his gun on her dad.
”Jesus Christ…” murmured Rat-face in the corner.
”Nobody hurts him,” Natalie repeated. “I told you.”
”Ain’t gonna hurt him,” said Jeremy. “Just gonna arrest him.”
”Put the gun away then.”
”Soon as he and his drop all their fuckin’ weapons.”
”I already took them away,” said Natalie impatiently. “Their guns are all broken now.”
”You know what that fucking thing does, right?” Jeremy asked, nodding slightly toward her dad, who still held the golem rod.
”…Yes,” said Natalie uncomfortably.
”You know how many people he’s killed, personally?” Jeremy went on. “Your dad’s a murderer. A dozen times over, probably way more.”
”So am I!” Natalie shot back, her voice rising. She didn’t care anymore. She just wanted everyone to leave.
Hailey gasped, her eyes wide.
Jeremy’s pistol lowered just slightly. His eyes dipped away from Brian, looking at her, at the little girl standing between him and his prey.
He’s a hunter too… he’s not gonna let go of this.
We can beat him. All he has are human weapons. We are stronger.
If we’re fast enough…
”What do you mean?” he asked cautiously.
”I’ve killed people…” said Natalie, her voice thick with pain. She hated the memories, hated everything rising to the surface of her brain, but if it got them to understand—if it meant they’d let her take her dad away from everything… it was worth it. “I killed a lot of people.”
”Natalie…” said Hailey, a hand pressed to her mouth. “What are you talking about?”
”Everything you guys said Rika did,” said Natalie. “It was me. In Rallsburg and in Seattle. I killed them.”
”No,” said Hailey, shaking her head, obviously stuck in disbelief. “That’s not… you couldn’t…”
”Nobody else knows lightning magic.” said Natalie. “Rachel and Cinza were there. Ask them. I did it.”
I’m a murderer… just like him. Is that why I’m the only one standing on this side of the room?
He did not kill in self-defense. It is not the same thing.
He’s scared of me though… just like everybody’s scared of him. It’s the same thing now…
Jeremy was staring at her, eyes wide himself. He seemed scared of her now too, which was just fitting in the end. Everybody should be scared of her. She deserved it, after all.
A crack of lightning flashed above. It struck the lightning rod atop the turret. Blinding light illuminated the room for a brief moment. Thunder roared around them, a huge rumble that threw dust into the air.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something. The ground was rising behind the one-armed woman in the corner, out of sight from everyone else. Only she and her dad could possibly see it.
He was trying to summon a golem.
”No!” Natalie shouted, and threw a hand out.
Another crack of lightning—pink as the old rain jacket she wore—and a huge flash through the room. The half-form golem disintegrated.
Everyone in the room flinched. Jeremy’s pistol was up again, quivering in midair, trained on her father. Hailey had shifted too, into a more aggressive posture, ready to leap forward.
”Nobody hurts my dad,” said Natalie again firmly, glaring at him. “He’s not evil. He’s just…”
”He is a monster,” said an echoing voice from nowhere.
Natalie felt out with magic, and there she was—a wall of Nature magic moving forward, keeping Cinza invisible. Natalie threw a burst of sheer energy at them, easily overpowering the pair.
Ruby gasped, as if Natalie had just punched her in the gut. The two of them appeared, just to the side of Jeremy. Cinza was staring at Natalie with a mix of sympathy and guilt. She spoke again, quietly, barely audible under the storm crashing against the walls of the library.
”He is a monster, and you are not,” said Cinza again… but to Natalie, it was all meaningless. The Greycloak leader had betrayed her, as so many others had before.
Every word they spoke was just… nothing.
When the golem disintegrated, Brian felt like he’d just been ripped apart. It wasn’t that he felt pain from the loss—the golems were tools, and if anything, the early destruction meant less of his own energy expended—but… seeing her do it was overwhelming.
It was her voice, and she spoke words he recognized… but it wasn’t Natalie. This person in front of him wasn’t his turtle. He didn’t recognize her anymore. She was… awakened.
She was one of them.
The words, even in his own head, scalded his soul. Brian had fought for so long, worked so hard, done terrible things all in the name of his crusade—but this was too far.
My own daughter…
How could it be possible? They’d checked her. His men had scanned her. He’d even done it himself, back in Rallsburg. She wasn’t awakened… and yet, with the way she talked, how she acted, the sheer power she held in her fingertips, it was inconceivable she’d taken the witch’s bargain recently.
My own daughter.
”He betrayed us,” said the cult leader, her tiny stature not diminishing her strength amongst all those who towered above. Brian’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. Why bother defending myself? They’ve decided my fate. History will prove them wrong in the end.
”Killed plenty of people who didn’t deserve it,” added Agent Ashe. Brian sighed inwardly. He’d hoped Jeremy would have finally seen the light, but they’d even convinced him, the man who had understood all the horrors Brian had seen.
”Nobody deserves it,” said Natalie.
”He won’t ever stop,” said Cinza, and for once, Brian agreed with her. I will never stop. While they yet live, we aren’t safe. They keep getting stronger, and the whole world is at risk. I have to stop this…
For my daughter?
Brian felt despair creeping into his soul. The world was getting darker with every passing second. His body was so incredibly exhausted, but he’d fought it off for months. He’d kept his word to Jackson. He’d pursued their crusade… but now, what was it all for?
My own daughter!
What was she? Natalie was lost to him forever. There was no turning back. She’d chosen this. Brian loved her with all his heart… but what could he do?
I will always love you, Natalie. But you cannot be this. I’ve lost you forever.
Jeremy and Cinza were listing off every horrible crime he’d committed in his pursuit of justice. Brian took a deep breath, and he knew it was time. His crusade was at an end. Others would carry on the torch, and he’d gotten the message out. His people had scattered to the winds. They’d know what to do. Felix had left instructions, and if all went according to plan, the journalist would be out soon enough.
Awakenings have stopped. We already won. It’s over.
Brian threw the golem rod down at Natalie’s feet.
He turned to Jeremy.
Nobody moved. Hailey had already tried a half-dozen times to grab the golem rod, but she’d found it somehow impossible to affect. Even on the ground, divorced from Brian’s grasp, she couldn’t touch it.
None of them knew what to do.
”Dad—” said Natalie, but her voice choked up, and it cut at Hailey’s heart. She wanted so badly to help the girl, but she had no idea how to do it. Letting her leave with her dad seemed like a horrible idea, and killing him was obviously worse… but was arresting him really the right choice? Depriving Natalie again of her parents, when every other family had already failed her?
Jeremy took a step forward, but Natalie lifted a hand. Gwen growled, her yellow eyes glaring at the three of them. Hailey was pretty sure she could take on a wolf if she had to, but fighting it on top of the cougar, the hawk, and Natalie herself? No way.
”I surrender,” said Brian again, and took a step forward himself. Natalie whipped around, and a wall of air pushed him against the wall, holding him back.
Jeremy took another step forward, but Gwen growled again. Percy screeched a warning. Jeremy fell back, uncertain. Cinza hadn’t spoken in a while either, but her eyes were locked on Brian, full of more hatred than Hailey had ever seen in her life. She knew that feeling, and knew Cinza would never get past it—not here, not in this room. If something wasn’t done soon, someone in the library was bound to die.
”Hey, Natalie,” said Hailey, still feeling a little out of breath.
Natalie turned to her. She looked so upset, Hailey wanted to cry herself. There were tear streaks all down Natalie’s face, and her eyes were puffy and red. Her voice sounded hoarse and pained, every syllable a struggle to voice. “Hi, Hailey.”
”For everything,” said Hailey. “For all the people who ditched you. For everything you’ve had to go through. For not seeing your messages and not knowing you were hurting. I screwed up.”
”That’s… that’s not…” Natalie seemed confused, and that was something. Hailey meant every word, of course, but she was trying to de-escalate the room as much as she could. Jeremy still had a gun in his hands, and Cinza certainly looked ready to kill someone herself. There was still the occasional gunshot outside too, reminding them all how hard it was just to get here.
Hailey shook her head. “We all screwed up. You shouldn’t have had to take all of this on yourself.”
”I did it though,” said Natalie. “I survived.”
To Hailey’s relief, Cinza and Ruby were silent, letting her take the lead. Hailey wasn’t sure exactly where she was going, but she knew she had to keep Natalie talking—anything to bring her back to them.
”Yeah. But now we gotta go back, okay? We gotta take him in.” Hailey nodded, trying to smile, though her heart ached for Natalie and what she had to go through. “Just like me, right? I’ve gotta go to jail for all the stuff I did.”
”But…” said Natalie slowly. “I came all this way. I found him. I can’t just…”
”I know,” said Hailey. “You’ll still see him again.”
”No,” said Brian, and the whole room turned to ice. Natalie froze, as though someone had just struck her very hard. Hailey’s eyes widened, shocked.
What? Did he just… what did he just say?
”Arrest me,” said Brian, and held up his hands for Jeremy. “Take me as far as you can from this place. Do not let that person near me ever again.”
Natalie trembled, silent. Her eyes were full of tears—but still she held her place between them.
”…the fuck…” muttered Jeremy.
”You…” said Hailey, stammering. “You… you asshole!”
”I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” snapped Brian. “You’re all… like her.”
”She’s your daughter!” Hailey shouted. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
”She’s something else now. Something evil.”
”I will kill you for that alone,” snarled Cinza. She took a step forward—and Natalie reacted.
She screamed. Natalie had never made such a sound in her life, and doubted she ever could again. It was a heartrending, horrible sound born in her throat and tearing at her lungs. She threw out her arms along with a massive push of magic, shoving the air itself in every direction. In one motion, she’d slammed everyone in the room against the nearest wall.
Only Hailey still stood, facing Natalie and her three friends, with her dad collapsed on the ground behind her. Natalie grabbed him, and he felt so light with her strengthened arms. She pulled him on top of Gwen. The wolf barely held at the weight, but she didn’t protest.
Thank you, Gwen.
The rest of the room was struggling back to their feet. Natalie hit them again, and they fell to the ground. She could feel an attempt at a spell by Cinza, and she threw magic at it, a terrible spear just like the one Cinza had once thrown at her father.
Cinza’s magic shattered. The girl let out a huge gasp, coughing as if Natalie had just kicked her in the stomach.
”Natalie,” said Hailey, breathing hard. She’d stood against Natalie’s onslaught, but only barely. Natalie knew she could beat Hailey if she needed to… but she didn’t want to. “This won’t end well.”
”Please,” she whispered. “Just let us go.”
”…I’m so sorry,” said Hailey—and she stepped aside.
Natalie didn’t hesitate. Jeremy was already getting back up again, and he still had a gun.
<Run, Gwen!> she shouted.
Gwen bolted, with her dazed father only barely clinging to her back. Natalie followed her out. Ruby tried to reach for her, but she leapt past. Percy flew like a dart to her shoulder, easily clinging on as they sprinted away. As they left, Natalie pulled at the wooden boards surrounding the exit door. She walled it off, trapping them all in together.
Hailey can still open it.
I know… but it gives us a bit of time, and Hailey wanted me to leave. She won’t let them follow.
They were in the main hall of the library now. Rain poured through holes in the shattered roof. Her father slid off of Gwen’s back and tried to stand upright, though his legs shook. He opened his mouth to say something.
”I’m sorry,” said Natalie, and she threw another burst of magic. He crumpled again, the wind completely knocked out of him. Natalie dragged him into Gwen’s back again. She tied him on with a rope from her bag, then went back to searching frantically for another exit.
Did this place ever have another exit? I never went in here… why didn’t I ever come in here?
We may need to leave by the front.
But that’s where everybody else came from. There’s no way they were alone… and there’s still people shooting.
They are only guns. We can defeat guns.
Yeah… we can.
Natalie turned to her friends. <You need to keep him safe and keep him moving. I’ll be protecting us from the guns. We’re going to…> She frowned. Where do I go?
My home burned down though.
We have another.
<My castle,> said Natalie, nodding. <I’ll keep up. Now go, Gwen!>
Gwen roared and took off, Brian bouncing on her back. Natalie’s knots held firm. She sprinted after the wolf, back to the entrance of the library, back out into the storm.
The lightning flashed as they emerged, and thunder shook every building left in Rallsburg. Natalie squinted through the curtains of rain and the huge cloud of fog that filled the town, obviously created by magic. In front of her, Sheriff Jackie was crouched by the fence, holding a pistol and aiming back down the street.
For a split-second, Natalie wanted to go to her. The sheriff had always been kind to her… but she’d also come here with a gun, with everybody else. Natalie couldn’t trust her anymore. She couldn’t trust anyone anymore, except for the three friends at her side.
Not even my dad… He said…
Do not think about it.
He called me…
Do not think about it.
Gwen took off toward the other side of the fence boundary, heading east out of the library. Jackie never turned around. She never saw Natalie and her friends, with her dad in tow, fleeing from the storm gathering upon the broken town of Rallsburg.
Natalie didn’t stop running until she saw the castle. She didn’t want to stop then either, but she was getting tired, and Gwen even moreso. The wolf really wasn’t strong enough to carry a full-grown man on her back for such a long distance, but she put up with it for Natalie.
<Thank you, Gwen…> said Natalie quietly.
”Let me go,” said her father. “Please.”
Natalie didn’t answer. She walked toward the castle, Gwen at her side. Percy fluttered forward, seeking shelter from the neverending storm. Scrappy did likewise, and soon it was just the three of them—Natalie, her father, and her wolf.
”We built this,” said Natalie quietly.
She stopped at the moat, which had formed from all the storm water flooding down into the forest. Beyond, the castle stood strong—burnt several times over, once from a forest fire, once from a fight between Alpha and Omega—and resolute, without a single piece out of place even with the lightning and thunder all around them.
”Dad, don’t you remember?” asked Natalie, her voice high-pitched and trembling. “Me and you. We spent all summer on it. It was my birthday present.”
”Just let me go.”
”I just wanted to find you,” she went on, heedless of his words, while the tears started to drop from her eyes once more. “That’s all I wanted. I’ve barely thought about anything else.”
Her dad didn’t say anything. Natalie took a short leap over the moat, landing on the harder stone they’d laid outside the front door to keep water from flowing inside. Gwen followed.
”I went to school,” said Natalie. “A girl made me her nemesis. I still don’t really get why. I made friends. I learned how to play a really fun game, and I met someone really great. I’ve got a boyfriend, dad.”
She untied her dad and helped him down off Gwen’s back. He didn’t run, to her relief, but he didn’t seem to want to talk either. He took the chair near the staircase and sat down.
”You know, I found it right here,” Natalie went on, glancing at the ceiling, up at the second floor where a cat had once drawn her attention to a yellowish piece of parchment paper. “I found a page, and I learned magic all on my own.”
She sat down next to her father, on the ground, wrapped up tight in the pink raincoat he’d gotten her while they worked on the castle. The pink strand on his bracelet matched it in color perfectly. She was cold, and she felt him shivering too, so she started to cast the spell to warm them up.
”No…” said her dad, obviously terrified.
Natalie stopped right away. “…It’s not going to hurt you,” she said. “I just wanted to make it warmer.”
”Please, just let me go,” he said again.
I just want you to be my dad again! cried Natalie in her head. I miss you so much!
”My boyfriend’s name is Quinn,” she said, trying to stave off the tears by talking.
She didn’t want her dad to see her crying anymore—Natalie wanted to be confident and brave, wanted him to see who she could be. See how her life had gotten better, even though it hadn’t. Even though she’d been abandoned, beaten, broken, torn apart… and now, at the end of it all, she’d lost the person most important to her in the whole world.
”He’s super nice, and really smart. His parents’ names are Annette and Damian. His mom’s a public defender. I didn’t even know they had those. She’s so cool.” Natalie glanced at her dad. He was crying now, and that hurt her even more, but she forced herself to keep talking. The thunder rolled through again, rumbling her little castle, shaking the foundations. “His dad’s a bartender, and he’s the coolest guy ever.”
Her dad was trembling in his seat now. A tear fell on top of Natalie’s head, soaking into her hair. The rain continued to pour outside. Percy was perched on the little table across the room, and Scrappy curled up beneath next to Gwen. All three watched the door, knowing Natalie didn’t need anyone watching her right now.
”Quinn and I never really went on a real date though. I didn’t… didn’t really have time. But we’ve been boyfriend and girlfriend a whole month now.” Natalie glanced up at her dad. “I think you’d like him. He knows what to take seriously, and he really cares about me.”
Still, he said nothing.
”I also have a bunch of new friends,” Natalie went on, forcing her voice steady, though it kept threatening to break into a horrible mess of sobbing. “There’s Kelsey, who’s a… she’d call herself a badass,” she added with a wince, but also hoping it would get a reaction out of him, get anything from him.
”She loves sports,” said Natalie. “But she also loves video games, ’cause she says there’s no reason people can’t love both. Then there’s Mitch, her archenemy. Except I think they totally have a secret crush on each other. They’re always fighting about everything, but they spend so much time together, they play all the same games now, and they made secret plans to help me.”
Natalie picked up the neck of her dress and dabbed her eyes with it, lacking anything better. The tears were coming again, as much as she’d tried to fight them off.
”I had a really bad time, Dad,” Natalie murmured, giving up on her plan.
Her dad wasn’t reacting at all to the positives, so she had to try something else. Anything else. He’d withdrawn inside himself. She’d give anything for him to be mad at her, to be frantic, to do anything like he used to whenever she upset him.
”They tried to kick me out of school. People told horrible stories about me online… and all the stories about magic too…” Natalie trailed off.
She knew she wasn’t going to get to him with stories about magic… even if they were awful. It just made everything so much worse… All the rumors, people being scared of us because we could do magic, all the videos and headlines. It made everything so much worse.
”I got hurt… I went downtown on my own, because… well, because of stupid reasons now.”
If I’d just told Quinn in the first place… instead of trying to hide it and running because I was terrified of him finding out…
”People still tried to help me, but… I ended up in places I shouldn’t have been. I met… I met people dad, and they…” She took a deep breath. “There was a guy… and he… He grabbed me and…”
Her dad took a sudden breath, a gasp. She looked up, and his eyes were wide, panicked.
Natalie nodded. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.”
”Natalie—” he said, and his voice got stuck in his throat.
”I…” Natalie trailed off, her own caught as well. More tears dropped from her eyes, so much that she was getting lightheaded. Dehydrated. I need water. She dug into her bag for a bottle and drank deep.
Her dad twitched, as if to move forward. His arms lifted just slightly. He rose out of his chair just a little. For a moment, Natalie thought he might finally do something, might hug her, might say something, might show that he still cared, that he still loved her.
Then, his eyes spotted the wolf at the other end of the room.
He fell back into the chair again, and he didn’t move.
Natalie broke down. She fell against the stairs leading up to the second floor, and she sobbed openly.
Dad, please! I’m still your daughter! Your turtle! Say something!
He didn’t say anything.
Natalie got up and ran outside. She couldn’t be in that room anymore. Gwen would watch him. Natalie plunged back into the rain, into the storm, into the horrible world that she’d been forced into, that her father had abandoned her to.
She’d lost the person most important to her in the whole world, and at that point, what good was the world anymore?
”Natalie?” asked a voice.
She turned, and she saw… Hector. Hector Peraza, one of her oldest friends, the grocery store owner… or at least, the former grocery store owner. He had a huge overcoat on, which protected him far better from the storm than her simple coat and dress, but even so… he looked as miserable as she felt.
In any other situation, she’d have been overjoyed to see him—but not today.
”Hi,” she finally managed, barely forcing a word between the sobs.
”I didn’t want to be around them anymore,” said Hector. “Everyone…” he trailed off.
Natalie nodded, too overcome to speak. Hector walked forward and took one of her hands, and his hands were soft and warm. He stood over her, sheltering her from the rain a little.
Everybody wants something we can’t do for them.
”So you came here?” she choked out.
”Nowhere left for me to go…”
Me too… we can’t go anywhere anymore. This is all we have left.
”I don’t know what to do now,” said Hector.
Make it ours.
Natalie glanced back at her castle. “I asked Dad to build this for me ’cause of you. Did you know?”
Hector can help us protect it from the world.
”No, reinita.” Hector sounded confused.
”It was after you told me you owned your store,” she went on. Natalie put a hand on the solid wooden beam, slick with rain. “I wanted a place for myself.”
”Oh…” Hector nodded. “It’s a good place. But we can’t live here. It’s not enough. You’d need more than that.”
The world is the problem. We don’t need it anymore.
”It’s not enough,” agreed Natalie. She looked back to Hector. “I don’t ever want to go back.”
”To the city?”
”Anywhere,” she said. “I want to live here.”
Hector has the answer.
”We’ll make it bigger,” said Natalie. She held out a hand to Hector. “We’ll make our own place.”
”Natalie, I don’t know if—”
”Help me? Please?”
Hector looked around in the pouring rain. There was nobody in sight, and given the storm, she doubted anyone would show up. All she knew was that she wanted to leave the world behind forever. Hector’s magic—a spell he’d invented and then perfected—was the key.
Create it as it should be. As we wish it to be.
In her memory, Natalie saw Rallsburg at night, as it was in her dreams—peaceful, quiet, sky full of stars and not a single thing in sight. She wandered the streets and the woods with Gwen and Scrappy, under a blanket of moonlight, never worrying about anything.
Natalie Hendricks would create a home, away from the roaring cities and angry people. Away from the hate which spread like a virus, infecting her father, infecting her school and everyone around her. She’d be free with her friends at her side. She could build it, a home flowing with magic just like Cinza had—and better, because Natalie Hendricks was one of the most powerful people in the world.