All the World’s a Stage
LIVE: BBC1: “AWAKENED” HAILEY WINSCOMBE ATTACKS MALTON ESTATE
LIVE: justagirlinlondon: HOLY SHIT MAGIC FLYING GIRL CAR CHASE – GROUND VIEW
LIVE: RebelJournalism: THE REVOLUTION STARTS HERE: Hailey Winscombe Takes Down Corrupt Billionaire
LIVE: MikeMasters: BBC RESTREAM: AWAKENED UNCHECKED – EXTREMELY DANGEROUS TO OUR DEMOCRACY
LIVE: JimThePirate: BBC RESTREAM: gaming on pause, this shit is crazy. get the popcorn
They watched the whole chase on a laptop in a safehouse, several streets away from the basement where Riley had taken Lily Laushire. Lani kept one hand on his holstered pistol at all times. He couldn’t let Riley out of his sight. He still couldn’t quite believe what he’d seen—or the woman she’d been hiding underneath all along. He still didn’t, really. Every movement, every tiny reaction didn’t match up with the “Rook” he’d met in that basement.
As Viper emerged from the car and tried to draw his gun, Riley leaned forward anxiously.
”Hailey won’t do anything,” said Lani confidently. He felt a need to reassure her, try to comfort her, despite everything he’d learned.
Riley shook her head. “She’ll defend herself if she has to.”
”She promised he’d be okay.” Lani frowned. “It might be hard to keep him anonymous after this, though.”
She nodded. “I’ll take care of that.”
Riley glanced over her shoulder, throwing him a wink. “I’ve got my ways.”
Lani’s eyes narrowed, and his grip on the gun tightened. “…Don’t.”
The half-playful tone vanished, chilled to ice in an instant. “I can handle it.”
Who is she? What is she? Lani got distracted a moment later, as Cinza emerged and gave her speech—declaring their independence. Their autonomy.
”She cannot succeed,” said Riley.
Lani frowned. “She’s got a lot on her side, you know. She could pull this off.”
”Form a new nation in the midst of America? After taking part in an assault on one of the wealthiest men in the world in broad daylight?”
”Being wealthy just helps her,” said Lani, leaning back in his chair, feeling like he’d just gone through the same windstorm that suddenly swept through the crowd as Hailey took off again, straight into the clouds and out of sight. “Everybody resents the rich these days. She’s set us up as the victims—which we are, you know.”
”You,” Riley reminded him. “I am not one of you.”
Malton was approaching the cameras now, though Viper continued to hang back in the shadows. The news crews didn’t quite let him out of their sight—and based on what Lani knew, he doubted Viper would leave without the big boss anyway. As soon as Malton reached the ragged line of press and police, a dozen microphones and cameras shoved into his face, each begging for his personal attention.
”I have been viciously attacked and slandered today. That—that girl and her associates came into my home unprovoked and accused me of a crime I did not commit.”
”Bullshit,” muttered Lani, channeling Jeremy a bit. A pang of guilt accompanied the feeling, remembering that he’d just ditched his partner in the field for the sake of a woman he couldn’t entirely trust. “We’ve got one of your guys in custody.”
”That man will never talk,” said Riley.
”With what he has hanging over his head?” asked Lani. “Homicide, domestic terrorism, and whatever else Aderholt wants to pin to his chest. He’s not ever coming back.”
Riley shrugged. “He knew what he signed up for. He understands loyalty.”
”And you?” Lani turned away from the screen, where Malton was simply repeating his claims of innocence until Viper finally dragged him away into the car. “You turned on your boss. Where’s your loyalty?”
”I never worked for Malton,” said Riley quietly. Her eyes flicked over to the screen. Viper bodily pushed a reporter away from the car before climbing into the driver’s seat once more. “He is unbridled ambition and cannot be trusted.”
”So… your partner.” Lani sighed.
Riley nodded. Her voice shifted back again—back to the woman he’d fallen in love with over the past two weeks. “Haven’t you ever had somebody like that, Lani? Somebody so important, that you’d do anything for them, no matter what? Without question, in perfect trust?”
”…Yeah,” said Lani. You, up until about six hours ago.
He knew he was falling right into the same trap he always did—something Jeremy had called him out on, in fact. He got too easily attached. Lani was young and inexperienced, and he knew it. First it was a girl back home in Hawaii, who’d flat-out rejected him. Next, Jeremy’s sister of all people—who’d done the world for his self-esteem by letting him down easy. Maddie was the reason he’d pulled himself back together, after all.
Except… Riley had turned on Malton. She obviously didn’t hold much love for the man. Even before Hailey had shown up, she’d already been trying to get away. Maybe she wasn’t lying.
Riley smiled. “Stefen’s that guy, you know? Not… not like that. He’s like my brother.”
Lani couldn’t help feeling a bit of relief at that word. “Even though he’s done some horrible things?”
”So have I,” she reminded him. “I didn’t enjoy it. I was helping him, because he’d helped me. It never really crossed my mind until much later what I was doing, and by then…” Riley shook her head.
How much of this is just her screwing with me? Trying to get on my good side? Lani’s hand still hadn’t ever left his gun, and he knew for certain Riley was unarmed. They were seated far enough apart that he could draw and fire in time. Yet… some part of him believed every word.
”You probably think I’m just fucking with you,” said Riley, coughing slightly.
Lani winced. “No, I—”
”Seriously,” said Riley. She turned away, posture shifting from the casual slump of Riley to the hard knife-edge of Rook. “I can switch it on and off whenever I want because I had to. That is how you survive. If you’re in the middle of a combat zone, that is how you stay sane. You make jokes and have fun one minute, and then you’ve gotta be a cold-blooded killer the next. Stay too long on either side and you’re dead.” She sighed. “I learned how to use it, and I abused it as much as I could. When I returned home, that skill came with me. I made a career out of it.”
”Riley,” said Lani firmly.
She glanced up at him. “My name’s not Riley, you know. Or Rook, or Tessa, or anything even Viper knows. I just pick whatever works at the time.”
Lani shook his head. “You’re Riley.”
Riley smiled. “You’re a nice guy, Lani. I know you probably won’t believe it, but I really did like you.”
”I love you.”
Riley rolled her eyes. “Lani, didn’t you just hear a word I said?”
He shook his head. “I don’t care.”
”So you used to be all those things. I used to be an FBI agent, and a crappy surfer, and a bad son.” Lani shrugged. “You know what this whole awakening thing means?”
”That the world’s probably going to end?”
Lani nodded. “That this world’s probably gonna end. I’m on the other side now though, and I get to be whatever I want to be over here.” He took his hand off his pistol and held it out between them. Riley stared at him, ice-blue eyes unreadable. Lani could never really tell what she was thinking, even before he’d understood who she really was underneath.
”You know what I’ve done, right?” she asked.
Lani shook his head. “As far as I’m concerned, that was some other person named Rook. All Riley’s done is spent a couple weeks in the Greywood, still deciding whether magic’s really for her or not.”
Riley looked back to the TV. They’d finally switched off the street coverage. Still photos of Malton and Viper across from Hailey and Cinza filled the screen. Riley shook her head. “I’ve made threats and I’ve hurt people. I can’t just walk away from that.”
”Don’t be naive, Lani,” said Riley, a hint of Rook biting through each word. “You heard Cinza. She’d kill me if she could.”
”Make it up to her,” he said abruptly, speaking as fast as the idea blossomed in his head. “Cinza’s a fair leader. She listens. I’ll vouch for you.”
”You’ll…” Riley shook her head. “You’ve been there as long as I have. Why would they listen to you?”
Lani grinned. “Because we’re going to give them Malton.”
”You’ll have to be Rook a little bit longer.” Lani got out his phone, tapping through his notes. “If you flip on the biggest target the Bureau’s ever had, they’ll leap at it. You’ll get an immunity deal in seconds. That clears you legally. As for Rallsburg… well, you never actually did anything there, did you?”
”…Nothing that involved the Greycloaks,” said Riley, nodding.
Lani shook his head. “If we’re going to pull this off, you need to tell me everything. I’m bringing you in as a witness here, essentially.”
”You really think this will work?” she asked, a surprising amount of vulnerability in her voice. “You sure you don’t just want to run away somewhere? Me and you, a good view, nobody else around?”
Lani shook his head. “The world’s too small. There’s nowhere you can just run away to anymore.”
Riley sighed. “Not with magic in the game, I guess…” She grabbed Lani’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m done running. I never wanted to work for him anyway. As long as Stefen is unharmed, I’m in.”
”And I don’t really want to be an FBI agent anymore,” said Lani, grinning. “Let’s both start over.”
Riley leaned in and kissed him. “I think it’ll take a lot more convincing for everybody else… They never trusted me.”
”Well, yeah… You didn’t really help that much by…” Lani trailed off. “That’s it. That’s what you need to do.”
”Cross over. Show them you’ve changed.” Lani reached into his pocket, withdrawing the scrap of parchment he’d been carrying every single day since he found it. He’d never let it more than a few feet away. It seemed waterproof and practically indestructible, with not a single new bit of wear on it despite its appearance. Riley’s eyes widened as he withdrew it and held it up between them. “Start a new life.”
”But…” Riley shook her head. “Lani, I wasn’t lying about that.”
”I’m afraid of it.”
”You don’t,” she said firmly. “I don’t do afraid. I haven’t been afraid of anything since I was fourteen.”
”What happened when you were fourteen?”
Riley winced. She hesitated, seeming to struggle with every word. “…They took me away. Put me on a ship out of Helsinki. I never found out where. It’s not a good memory.”
”…I’m so sorry.”
She nodded, her expression hardening once more. “As you said. I am telling you everything.”
”Yeah.” Lani lowered the Scrap, meaning to withdraw it, but Riley held him by the wrist.
Her voice softened, back to the one Lani had fallen for. “You really think it’ll help?”
He nodded. “I think it shows you’re willing to try.”
Trembling slightly, Riley picked the Scrap off of Lani’s open palm. She started to unroll it, but paused, glancing back to him. “Even though you know I could still just be fucking with you? That I’m just doing this to save my own skin?”
”Are you?” Lani asked.
Riley shook her head. “No.”
”Then that’s all I need to hear.” Lani scooted his chair back, giving her a little space. “I trust you, Riley.”
She smiled. “You know, I actually really like the name Riley. I’m glad I picked that for my new life, wherever the hell we end up.”
Before Lani could say another word, Riley looked down at the Scrap and began to read. She didn’t need any instruction—after all, she must have seen more awakenings than Lani even knew about, between Viper, Malton’s men, and any she witnessed in Rallsburg. Lani was reminded just how much more Riley knew about the world he professed to be a member of, and she hadn’t even formally joined it until now.
As Riley fell backward off the chair, Lani moved to catch her. She struggled through the process in his arms. Grey-eyes appeared next to them, as she always did. Her eyes widened briefly in surprise, but she got to work. As Grey-eyes whispered the life-giving words in Riley’s ears, the woman slowly came back to the world. Her ice-blue eyes fluttered open as she gasped through her first breaths of her new life. Grey-eyes sat back, watching the two of them carefully.
Lani grinned down at Riley. “How was it?”
”Awful,” she spluttered—but she didn’t move her head from Lani’s lap. She still didn’t look exactly happy, but it was a start. Riley twisted over a little to look up at the girl sitting next to them. “That’s it, right?”
Grey-eyes nodded. “You’re awakened now. You don’t need me to tell you what that means.”
”No kidding.” Riley nodded. “So… what happens now?”
”You live your life.” Grey-eyes shrugged. “I can’t tell you what to do.”
Lani put a hand on Riley’s cheek. She clutched at it, holding it close like a lifeline. “Our new lives,” he amended.
She kissed his hand. “Our new lives,” she agreed.
Grey-eyes stared at the two of them for a moment before disappearing. Lani helped Riley to her feet. “So what do we do first?”
Riley glanced around nervously. “Well… I guess I should probably learn how to actually use magic, if I’m one of you now.”
”Well, yeah,” said Lani, “but I meant more big-picture. Should we go back to the Greywood? Get in touch with Stefen? Talk to the rest of the Bureau?”
”I’m not sure.” Riley shrugged. “I hadn’t planned further ahead than…” she winced.
”Than abducting Kendra Laushire,” she muttered. “That was such a reckless move,” she added, shaking her head.
”Yeah… that was pretty insane,” Lani agreed, grinning slightly. “How were you even going to get away with that?”
”I didn’t,” Riley pointed out. She grimaced. “…Should I apologize? Would that be too weird?”
”Weird? Yes. But you still should… when we can.” Lani shrugged. “Before we go any further, we need to get you some protection—something better than deadman switch blackmail,” he added, frowning.
Riley shook her head. “There never was any deadman switch. I was bluffing.”
”Oh.” Lani raised an eyebrow. “That was… pretty fast thinking.”
She nodded. “And without Malton, I have no protection. It’s just me.”
”So that’s our first step then. We’re going to the Bureau. My last case as an agent before I turn in my badge and gun.”
”You sure you want to do that?” asked Riley.
Lani nodded. “Like I said, I’m done with this job. I found something else to do that’s way more important.”
”Don’t say me, or I’ll slap you,” she smirked.
He laughed. “No. I’m going back to work for Cinza. She’s going to need all the help she can get after that. Everybody in the whole world’s going to want a piece of her now. She needs people like us.”
Riley frowned. “…Yeah, she does.” She glanced over at the wall, where her long bag sat—with her rifle, explosives, and so many other tools of her past life. “You know, she’s so much different than what Stefen told me. Do you think—”
Lani leaned down and kissed her before she could say another word. “Use them to protect somebody for once, right?”
She nodded. “Exactly.”
EXCLUSIVE PHOTO: Kendra Laushire private plane at LCY??? unconscious, accompanied by Cinza + A.Ashe + unknown. @SirThomasLaushire picked up daughter. Related to @CMGMalton attack?
— Shared: 1.6m
reply: Cinza just finished calling out Malton. Didn’t name Kendra as a victim. Maybe she’s been in a coma since Rallsburg?
reply: Speculation is useless until somebody gets an interview with her and her dad.
reply: If Cinza’s keeping it quiet, maybe it’s because they did it?
reply: you think her coma’s caused by magic?
reply: can’t rule anything out. she’s been off the radar for months. rumors and paparazzi photo from august were obviously fake.
reply: why do you say “obviously”???
reply: yeah, definitely fakes. she must have been in a coma since Rallsburg blew up. jeez.
reply: just another reason this shit can’t go on. need to get control of this. where’s our government when we need them?
reply: They announced a bunch of new initiatives a couple days ago. obviously the U.S. didn’t know shit about magic, and if they didn’t know in their own backyard, the rest of the world is gonna be playing catch-up.
reply: @SirThomasLaushire how about funding for investigating this shit? all these ‘awakened’? since your daughter just got PUT INTO A COMA BECAUSE OF THEM!!!
reply: dude, the guy thought his daughter was dead this whole time, don’t be a dick.
reply: lol, like a billionaire’s gonna notice this guy with ten followers.
reply: hope she gets well soon. she’s sexy af. #redheads
reply: great job being an asshole. she’s in a coma.
reply: holy shit that was dark.
The show was over, but her heart raced even faster. She’d been using the ongoing broadcast as an excuse not to get out of the car—to delay their meeting just a little bit longer. She sat in the roomy back surrounded by blacked-out windows, with a tinted shutter separating the driver from her. Not a soul could see or hear her, but that state could only last for so long.
The string tied around her heart went slack for a few seconds, then pulled taut once again.
Lily took a few deep breaths from the unexpected lack of oxygen. The gap in her life essence had stopped her breathing. Every time it happened, it was a stark, painful reminder of what she was—and what she could never truly be.
The gaps were rare. A steady river of energy flowed into her at all hours of the day, even while she slept. It kept her alive, but it was a tether. Lily was bound to that stream every waking instant of her life. She could never move too far away, lest the flow wither and parch her of her very existence. Lily took another deep breath, though she’d already cleared away the panic-filled breathless moment, and got out of the car, stepping out into the private garage of the Laushire mansion.
Lily wished she could hate the string that held her, but how could she? Could a puppet truly hate its master, if nonexistence was the only alternative? As much as Lily might wish otherwise, she only lived because Kendra had created her. In that terrifying moment, Lily had been born—a perfect copy in every single detail except one:
Lily Laushire couldn’t survive on her own.
With every step toward the house proper, Lily felt the river grow a little bit stronger, a little wider and steadier. In that way, she always knew roughly how far away her sister stood. They’d never been able to quantify it, despite many attempts, and it gave her no real sense of direction, but it still served as a makeshift tool to find one-another—if only it worked in both directions.
Kendra could never sense her. It only worked for Lily, for whatever reason. They’d theorized about it endlessly—but how useful could her input be, when she had the same brain and education as her original? Lily felt superfluous, since Kendra was the one who maintained her, and thus the one who had to trace back the origin of the flow.
No doubt, though, Lily’s sister likely felt the same resentment—that her clone possessed a power she lacked. Kendra had never said anything, but Lily knew.
The elder Collins McCreary stood by the door. As Lily emerged, his ever-professional façade cracked. His eyes widened, his mouth opened slightly.
Lily swept forward, unabashed. After all, this was her childhood home. No matter the arcane nature of her birth, she had every memory her sister did. “Good to see you again, Collins,” she said as she strode up the wide staircase. “I believe my father is expecting me.”
”…Y-yes, marm,” he spluttered. He quickly pulled open the door for her. “Welcome home, miss Kendra.”
Lily halted in the portal, glancing sidelong at the old man. “I presume you’re aware of the other?”
”I… I am, marm.”
She extended one gloved hand to Collins, who’d always been something of a co-conspirator to her as a child, and someone she trusted wholeheartedly. “My name is Lily.”
He knelt and kissed her hand, ever obsessed with protocol. “Miss Lily, it is an honor to meet you.” Collins frowned. “But… I don’t understand. How did I not know—”
Lily nudged her hand, prompting Collins back to his feet. She smiled. “In good time, Collins. We’ll catch up. My deepest condolences for your son. I wasn’t there, but I know that he fell helping others to escape certain death.” Largely by acting as an involuntary distraction, if Hailey is to be believed.
”Thank… Thank you, marm.”
”Please inform my father I’ve arrived. I’ll be in the guest sitting room.”
This was not part of the usual protocol, and both Lily and Collins were well aware. The old man raised an eyebrow, but knew better than to question an order from a Laushire in their own home. He hurried away. Lily proceeded into the sitting room, where another servant was quick to bring her favorite tea. Even after a good seven years exiled across the world, the house staff hadn’t forgotten her.
Not that Lily had ever actually been there, of course.
The steady pulse of life flowing into her heart told her that Kendra was in the building somewhere, and close enough that they could coexist with little conscious effort. After the sheer trauma they’d both experienced during the Atlantic crossing, feeling her sister so close was a welcome relief. Lily had never known such gradual, all-encompassing pain as she had when Malton’s plane took off—when she’d been pulled further away from Kendra than ever before.
She assumed that Kendra had lost consciousness. Lily hadn’t—she’d endured every agonizing second as she struggled to breathe, brain operating on nearly nothing, kept functioning only by the faint stream of life cast across the ocean itself by her sister.
Why did you keep me alive?
A rumble of footsteps. Fine shoes on polished wood floors. Lily sipped her tea nonchalantly as her parents burst into the room, legs crossed and an airy expression on her face. If Lily had to go through this confrontation, she was at least going to enjoy it a little.
Thomas stopped dead as he entered the room, eyes wide. Lily had never seen her father speechless in her life. Her mother wore a similar awestruck look, as if she’d seen a ghost.
”Hello mother, father,” said Lily, leaning back in the chair and setting aside her tea. She wished she’d at least had something else to wear than her dressing gown and a jacket from the plane, but her abductor hadn’t exactly given her time to dress appropriately. “It’s nice to finally meet.”
”…I don’t…” Mary started, trailing off yet again. She sat down in her usual armchair. The nearest servant—Halestrom, as Lily recalled—nervously provided another cup of tea, and one for Thomas.
”Thank you, Halestrom,” said Lily, and was rewarded with a flicker of recognition. She’d gotten the name right. “Please, give us the room?”
Halestrom nodded, retreating with Collins and closing the doors behind them. As soon as the room was sealed, Thomas was back on his feet again.
”What are you?” he snapped.
”Your daughter,” said Lily mildly, taking another sip of tea just to irritate him. “I daresay you’re familiar with the concept.”
”But Kenni’s upstairs…” Mary shook her head. “This can’t be happening.”
”Is this some magic thing?” asked Thomas.
Lily nodded. “In a manner of speaking. I assure you, I am real, and I am your daughter. For the sake of clarity, you may call me Lily.”
Mary glanced up at the ceiling, where Kendra was presumably sequestered away. “But… but—”
”Kenni created me,” said Lily shortly. “She and I are linked. I assume she was quite ill when she arrived?”
”Coma,” whispered Thomas, steadying himself on the back of the nearest armchair. “She hasn’t woken up.”
”Ah.” Lily nodded. “That would explain it.”
”Explain what?” he asked.
”Why she didn’t return my calls.” Lily got to her feet. “Take me to her.”
”Now wait just a minute,” said Mary, rising to match her daughter. “I still don’t know who you are, or what you’re doing here.”
Lily sighed. “Mother, I’m here to make sure your daughter doesn’t die today. What proof do you require that I am who I say I am? Honestly, the name alone ought be enough.”
Thomas gasped. “…Lily,” he murmured. “Her imaginary friend.”
”You’re not saying—” said Mary, frantically looking back to her pseudo-daughter.
Lily smiled. “Nostalgia crossed with an ironic joke, nothing more.” She glanced up in the vague direction she assumed Kendra must be. “If she’s here, you must have summoned Doctor Niabe?” she asked, referring to their family physician.
”Yes,” said Thomas, clearly past the trust barrier by now. “We were discussing whether to move her when you arrived.”
Lily nodded. “It would not have made a difference, but I appreciate the thought. Please, take me to her?” she added, more politely than before.
Thomas hurried to open the door. Mary still looked suspicious of her, but Lily could hardly fault caution given the events of the day. They walked as a family up the wide staircase and straight to Kendra’s old room. With every step, Lily felt her life grow a little bit stronger, her connection to magic more powerful, her sense of Kendra steadier. By the time they opened the doors to her old room, Lily felt like she’d been brought back to life from the brink, rejuvenated and renewed.
”Sir Laushire!” said Doctor Niabe, looking up from Kendra’s bed as the door swung wide. “I didn’t…” She trailed off as Lily swept into the room impatiently, moving to sit by her sister’s bed. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I think I might be hallucinating.”
”Indeed,” said Thomas weakly.
Lily took her sister’s hand, squeezing it. Kendra was still unconscious, despite the steady flow of energy between the two of them. “Kenni,” she murmured. “You’re giving me too much. You need to wake up.”
”…What?” asked Niabe.
Lily glanced up at her. “Doctor, you have my gratitude for your care, but there isn’t any more you can do here. Please excuse us.”
Niabe nodded. “Sure.” She retreated from the room, leaving the four Laushires alone.
As soon as she was gone, Lily grasped Kendra’s hand with both of her own, and began her work. She opened the stream of magic once again, creating a loop. As soon as Kendra’s magic reached her, Lily sent it right back out to her sister, letting it build up between them.
This has to work. She needs to wake up.
”…Lily,” asked Mary unsteadily, “what are you doing?”
”Kenni lost herself trying to keep me alive,” said Lily, gasping a little as she felt her life draining out of herself. Compared to Kendra or any of the other awakened, the effect of Lily’s magic on her own body was very direct and pronounced. As a being created by magic, she only survived by its constant input, so any drain was immediately—and painfully—felt.
Lily kept pushing, but it didn’t matter if Kendra never actually accepted what she offered. She squeezed Kendra’s hand tighter, trying to will her sister awake.
A pull on the energy pooling between them. Kendra’s eyelashes fluttered. Her mouth moved. Her other arm snaked up to brush fiery-red hair out of her eyes. Lily smiled as Kendra’s eyes refocused and found her.
”It’s about time,” Lily muttered.
Kendra coughed. “You might have mentioned your travel plans,” she murmured, barely above a whisper.
Lily smiled even wider. “I felt homesick.”
Kendra’s blue eyes flicked around the room, trying to figure out where she was—without the contacts she should have been wearing. Lily grabbed the spare glasses from the bedside table drawer, where they’d sat unused for nearly a decade. She helped Kendra put them on, bringing the room into proper focus.
”Home,” Kendra murmured. She finally spotted her parents over Lily’s shoulder, still standing by the doorway. “I see.”
”We’ve introduced ourselves,” said Lily.
”To what degree?”
”As your creation.”
Kendra nodded. She started to pull herself up to a sitting position, but coughing quickly overtook her. Lily forced her back down again, wrapping her in blankets and checking to make sure the IV drip was well-secured.
”I apologize for the inconvenience,” said Kendra. Lily wasn’t quite sure if she was speaking to her sister, or their parents.
Neither, apparently, was Thomas, who answered first. “Kenni, I’m sorry.”
”For everything. For what I said, for—”
”Please,” said Kendra. Lily smirked at her sister, since their parents couldn’t see her from their angle. Neither were particularly surprised by this turn of events—and both found it rather tedious. Ancient history, which neither felt a particular need to revisit. “We have more important business to attend to.”
”Such… such as?” asked Thomas, taken aback.
”I trust you know the identity I’ve been operating under the past four months?” asked Kendra mildly. Lily wondered if she could appear so confident and well-spoken mere minutes after waking from a coma. “You invited me here.”
”What is she talking about, dear?” asked Mary, glancing at her husband.
”…Wilmore. L Wilmore.” Laushire glanced at Lily. “You’re Wilmore?”
Lily glanced at her sister. “We both are.”
”Honestly, father, this will go much quicker if you simply presume us to be the same person, at least for the moment,” said Kendra. “Lily is me, and I her.”
”So… you’re not sisters?” asked Thomas, confused. “But, she—”
Lily sighed. “It’s difficult to explain.”
”Quite,” said Mary dryly.
”We both conduct business as Lily Wilmore,” said Kendra. “That is all which matters for our discussion today.”
”Which is?” asked Thomas.
”Well, you invited us,” said Lily. “I presume you had a particular agenda in mind.”
”That is—” Thomas spluttered. “I don’t— I didn’t expect you to be my daughter!“
”Daughters,” corrected Kendra mildly. “Nor did you plan the negotiations to take place inside our childhood bedroom, I’d imagine.”
”It’s nice to be home, though,” added Lily, glancing around. They haven’t moved a thing. Everything right as I left it… or as she left it, I suppose.
”I wish it were under better circumstances,” said Kendra, “but sadly, events conspired against us.”
”Having two unrelated attempts on one’s life in two days puts a damper on the mood,” said Lily.
”Two?” asked Kendra, glancing at her sister in surprise.
”I included the prowler from Mr. Hendricks,” said Lily with a shrug. “I’ve no doubt he would have killed us given the opportunity. If Mr. Ashe hadn’t been there…”
”Hendricks,” Mary cut in. “He’s the one that girl just named on telly—the man responsible for everything that happened in that awful town, yes?”
”It wasn’t awful,” said Lily.
Kendra nodded. “Awful things happened there, but the town was rather lovely, all things considered.”
”He wants to kill you?” asked Thomas, outraged.
Lily sighed. “Not personally, I believe. It’s more of a general homicidal intent.”
”Genocidal, really,” added Kendra.
”How can you… Kenni, please, how are you two so calm about this?” asked Mary weakly.
”Months living in hiding,” said Lily.
Mary gasped. “The Winscombe girl,” she said.
Kendra and Lily exchanged a surprised look. “…What about her?” asked Lily.
”She said daughters. Kendra and Lily,” Mary added, glancing between them. “She knew. You were in hiding with her all along.”
Lily nodded. “Not together, but yes, Hailey Winscombe is an associate of ours.”
”A troublesome one, I take it,” said Thomas.
”A valued friend,” Lily shot back. “She saved Kenni’s life, more than once.”
Thomas shook his head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend.” He frowned. “She was here yesterday. We made a deal with her.”
”What sort of deal?” asked Kendra, sitting up slightly. She was recovering, to Lily’s relief. Lily leaned back to help fluff her pillows into their favorite arrangement, making sure she was comfortable before continuing. “Hailey Winscombe is now an international fugitive.”
”Financial assistance,” said Thomas. “I promised to fund her upcoming legal battle with Cornelius Malton.”
”Ah,” said Kendra.
”A noble cause,” Lily agreed. “If it will assist the case at all, I am willing to testify on her behalf, as the abductee in Malton’s recent venture.”
”But…” said Thomas, glancing at her with obvious concerns.
Lily sighed. “My existence is bound to come to light sooner or later. The rumors have already begun to spread.”
”We’d appreciate your assistance in that regard,” added Kendra, adjusting her position on the bed again. Lily leaned in and helped her move to a more comfortable position. “Lily will soon be impossible to conceal, but her nature must remain private. I intended to discuss this very topic with you over our negotiations, before we were so rudely interrupted.”
”Cornelius never did understand proper etiquette,” said Mary with a faint smirk.
Thomas nodded. “She is our daughter.”
”Of course I am,” said Lily, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “But you’ll have to produce sufficient documentation to support that claim. I’d suggest some particular reason of concealing your twin daughters for so long—perhaps at our request, to mitigate the scandal somewhat.”
”The public already assumes I hated Kendra,” said Thomas.
”Nonsense,” snapped Kendra, sitting up straight against the headboard. “That was a family dispute. I’ve never felt anything amiss.”
”I haven’t thought about it in years,” said Kendra dismissively. She really hasn’t, mused Lily. Once we left England, we didn’t care at all about the family business anymore. “As soon as I’m ready to make public statements, we should put this gossip to rest. Agreed?”
Thomas looked like he might cry. Mary spoke up as he turned away. “Yes. We’ll talk more later. Your father and I have something to attend to, don’t we dear?”
”…Yes,” said Thomas. The two of them hurried from the room.
Lily shot a significant look at Kendra.
Her sister smirked. “What?”
”Laid on a little thick, didn’t you?”
”Hush,” said Kendra. “Besides, whatever happened to playing the part of the rebellious, outspoken twin?”
”Honestly, my heart just wasn’t in it,” said Lily with a sigh. “As fun as it was for a few months, it’s actually quite exhausting to carry on with.”
”You’re the expert,” said Kendra mildly, twisting around. “Where’s my laptop?”
”I don’t think anyone thought to bring it,” said Lily. “I could fetch it—”
Kendra took her hand, holding her tight. “Stay, please?”
”Of course.” If I were her right now, I’d want someone to actually comfort me. It’s not undignified if it’s myself, in absolute privacy. Lily got into the bed, laying down next to her sister and hugging her. “Is this—”
”Yes,” said Kendra.
”You were out for nearly a day,” said Lily quietly. “Why didn’t you—”
”I told you,” said Kendra firmly. “It’s out of the question.”
”Kenni, if you’re going to die, I’ll die anyway,” said Lily irritably. “What does it matter then? Just let go of me.”
”We were lucky. If something like this happens again…”
”We’ll be smarter.” Kendra shook her head. “Did you close the Mettis deal?”
”You asked me that already,” said Lily. “With Agent Ashe.”
”Ah.” Kendra nodded. “Right.”
”Are you certain you’re well?” asked Lily, brushing her sister’s hair to get rid of the tangles from her hectic day. “You just woke up from a coma. That can’t be easy for a woman your age.”
”Watch it,” said Kendra.
Lily smirked just out of Kendra’s sight. “What do you think? We’re far outside Brian’s reach here. Should we stay in London for a while?” Kendra didn’t reply right away, so Lily kept thinking aloud. “It’ll be a little more difficult to coordinate our business in the Northwest, but with our father’s operation, we can start to work on other markets. His R&D division will be invaluable in exploring application of pocket dimensions.”
”Dangerous,” murmured Kendra.
”As all technology,” Lily reminded her, their usual justification. “Better that we put it to proper use and control its growth appropriately.”
”I’m tired…” said Kendra. She closed her eyes, but Lily could tell she wasn’t actually trying to go to sleep yet.
”Kenni, we should decide on this now, before I go back out there.”
”Remember when we decided to teach?” asked Kendra.
”Of course I do,” said Lily.
”Because it was more fulfilling. Because we could shape fresh new minds and help build a better world.”
”We failed, didn’t we?”
”Our prime student is world-famous,” Lily pointed out.
Kendra laughed as they both considered the paradox of Hailey Winscombe—the perfect student who’d practically vanished from their classes over the past year—now exploding onto the world stage. The reasons for Hailey’s current prominence sobered them. “I can’t help thinking we could have done more.”
”We planned to. Our goals were cut short by factors far beyond our control.” Lily sighed. “You must stop this cycle. Magic couldn’t be predicted. You can’t blame yourself for failing to keep everything in line.”
”He was one of our students too,” said Kendra. “He chose genocide. What does that say about us?”
”Jackson was before my time,” said Lily, taking the easy way out.
Kendra sighed. “We failed him, we failed Hailey, and we failed Natalie.”
Lily winced. “…I agree with you on the latter.”
”I’m sorry,” said Kendra.
”We were so distracted,” said Lily quietly. “Self-obsessed.”
”You saw her at the funeral,” said Kendra. “She’s as strong as she ever was, and she still has the money and the bag you made her.”
Lily didn’t say anything. She still felt bad that their surrogate daughter had vanished right under their noses, so to speak. If anything, it was Lily’s fault. On the night that the Diaries had been announced, Lily had panicked. After seeing one of the excerpts contained their name, she’d locked down the house.
At the same time, Kendra had enacted several spells to protect herself at the office, which they ended up maintaining. Between the two of them, they’d used so much magic in one burst that it left them drained and weak, barely able to move. Neither could answer Natalie’s fearful messages—or the far more surprising message from Rachel. By the time they’d recovered, Kendra had little time to set lawyers in motion to prevent the publication of the Diaries, which also necessitated swift verification that they were, in fact, still alive.
It was a hectic weekend, to say the least.
”We’ll do what we’re best at,” said Lily finally.
Kendra nodded. “We shall.”
Lily brushed her hair a few more times, before finally getting up. “Go to sleep, Kenni. I’ll get to work.”
”…Lily?” said Kendra, just as she was about to leave.
”I’m glad you’re here.”
Lily nodded. “Go to sleep, Kenni.”
Kendra’s eyes slid closed. Lily turned and left the room, closing the door and walking as swiftly as she could—so that Kendra wouldn’t hear her begin to cry. The realization had been settling in slowly over time, as Lily realized just how much Kendra valued her.
After all, their spells didn’t just stay up. Every dimensional rift, every pocket void had to be maintained. If both sisters were asleep, the voids collapsed. They constructed them in such a way that the interior could be rebuilt easily, but nothing was permanent. Even the bags they made had to be fed with energy constantly, but their latest innovation included a gold lining gave them a sort of battery which stored enough magic to stay intact through any typical night’s sleep, if the user was either too weak or unfocused to maintain it themselves, or simply unwilling to drain that much away each night.
Yet Kendra—every single night while she slept, and even through a coma that threatened her life—had kept Lily alive and breathing. Every single beat of her heart, every breath, every blood cell rushing through her veins was thanks to her sister’s unfaltering dedication.
Lily dabbed at her eyes with a cloth. She hurried to the nearest guest room and put on the clothes she’d retrieved. Finally, well-dressed and clean-faced, she emerged back into the house. For the rest of the day, she would be Kendra. She’d conduct their business and set in motion the plans the sisters had spent months preparing.
It’s time to come out now, Lily.
FRONTPAGE: BBC BROADCAST OF CINZA, HAILEY WINSCOMBE, CORNELIUS MALTON — 12,642 COMMENTS
reply: So, just to get a clear timeline here:
–Thur. Nov. 8th: An unknown third party attempts to publish Cinza’s private diaries (update: Cinza blames Nate Price of Rallsburg)
–Fri. Nov. 9th – morning: Hailey Winscombe appears in Redmond, WA, at the Luther, Renalds, and Portman law offices, tries to get the third party to reveal themselves. No dice. Hailey flies away ~20 minutes later.
–Fri. Nov. 9th – evening: Hailey gets announced as a surprise guest for Russell Wallace on Monday night, along with the third party. Since Hailey never announces who it is, I think we can assume she signed some kind of NDA or got threatened with something pretty big.
–Mon. Nov. 12th – morning: Hailey is sighted meeting with the FBI in Seattle. The FBI announces their ‘Thaumaturgy Task Force’ that afternoon.
–Mon Nov. 12th – evening: Hailey goes on the Evening Show, gets roasted by Wallace. Broadcast is shut down by legal injunction that also blocks the publication of the Diaries by PPP. Later revealed to be Kendra Laushire, who is suddenly alive?
–Tue. Nov 13th–Thur. Nov 16th: fuck-all happens?? Still sightings of vigilantism in Seattle though, so maybe Hailey went back to doing her thing in the quiet.
–Fri. Nov 16th-evening pt. 1: Hailey flies down to Portland with A.Ashe, meets up with one of the Rallsburg families (Nelson—son was the ‘bisection victim’), comes out in tears.
–Fri. Nov 16th-evening pt. 2: Hailey flies back up to Seattle in TWELVE MINUTES (720 MPH!) to stop/join in a high speed armed chase on I-405-S involving two still-unknown parties, one awakened (fireballs/lightning bolts from the chasing vehicle) (This is who Cinza claims worked for Malton? Or Brian Hendricks? unclear)
–Fri. Nov 16th-evening pt. 3: More shaky footage in Lakewood of the ‘golems’ last seen in Tacoma (see thread here from Oct. 26th). Helicopter has to break off due to incoming gunfire, camera feed lost. Picks back up with Hailey carrying injured/dead out of collapsed buildings in Lakewood. Hailey, A.Ashe and unknown companions get into an ambulance and aren’t seen again.
–Sat. Nov 17th–Wed. Nov 22nd: even more fuck-all happens. None of the major players are seen. I swear something had to happen in here though after what comes next.
–Thur. Nov 22rd: Hailey solo-flies across America + Atlantic Ocean.
–Fri. Nov 23rd – London: Building in downtown London collapses for unknown reasons. Hailey is first on the scene but doesn’t appear to be the cause. No apparent victims. I’m not sure how this fits in but it seems like it must be related.
–Sat. Nov 24th – Seattle/Tacoma area: Reports of a helicopter chase in the early morning. Nobody reported on this, but immediately after, two different high-speed jets were on flight radar—one out of B.C., one out of SeaTac. Both went straight to London. One was registered to Laushire Enterprises, the other unknown.
–Sat. Nov 24th – London – evening: Everything that just happened.
So here’s my question: what the fuck is going on? Who the hell is Jessica Silverdale, why did a whole bunch of shit just go down in London on the opposite end of the world from magic ground zero, and where the fuck did Cinza come from?
reply: Good summary, thanks. Jessica Silverdale was a resident of Rallsburg, presumed dead. I wonder if this means Malton was involved in the initial Rallsburg incident, if her death is on him re: Cinza?
reply–reply: no, Cinza said Malton’s men ‘shot her dead in Lakewood’. She was alive until the 16th.
reply: Automatic Conversion Bot: 720mph == 1158.73 km/h
reply: Any ideas who the third party was? The person who was going to leak Cinza’s diaries in the first place
reply–reply: Cinza said it herself. Nathaniel Price. Another presumed-dead from Rallsburg. What a little bitch.
Nate scrolled through the threads—comment by comment, page by page. He bounced between streams, each carrying Cinza and Hailey in screaming headlines. They were worldwide, even moreso than Hailey’s last few appearances. Every single time she went on screen, she drew a bigger crowd. Viewers flocked to her, and though there were some rumblings of discontent among the commentariat, most were more than happy to see her as a representative for the new age of magic—at least until Cinza opened her mouth and gave an eloquent speech in her echoey, ethereal voice.
”That was supposed to be me,” he said aloud.
”Well, she said your name at least,” Linda sighed. “You’ll undoubtedly receive a call from the FBI soon enough.” She was really tired of hearing Nate Price complain, and even more exhausted by the little apartment he’d been sequestered in for months. “If it means anything, Mr. Price, we’re making good progress on reclaiming your family’s assets. The state still has cards left to play, but I’m confident we’ll have it back in full.”
”I don’t care about that,” snapped Nate. He spun in his chair to look at her—a chair far nicer than he deserved. The firm had spent far too much money on him in exchange for the promised return on investment, and of course, Nate couldn’t deliver. “I was supposed to be the magic guy. The one at the top.”
”You’re well aware why this happened,” Linda pointed out, leaning back against the cabinet. Nate wasn’t the worst client she’d ever had, but he definitely ranked high on the list for ‘most frustrating’. “It was beyond our control.”
”Bullshit.” Nate spun back to the computer.
”Mr. Price, you chose not to speak to the press.”
”I wanted to do it in front of her,” said Nate. “That was the whole point!”
”I thought the point was to become famous?” asked Linda, furrowing her brow. “You don’t need Hailey Winscombe for that.”
”Your way wasn’t working!”
Linda sighed. “Those interviews were the only ones we still could air after the injunction from Miss Laushire. No one wanted puff pieces about Rallsburg. Magic is the real story.”
”Why not?” Nate struck a ridiculous pose. Linda had long since mastered the art of ignoring the antics of her clients, or she would have delivered some choice withering sarcasm. “I’m a survivor, right? I can do magic too. Stuff about the book is off limits, but I’m not.”
”To be frank, Mr. Price?”
”Just spit it out, Linda.”
One thing which never ceased to irritate her was Nate’s lack of professionalism. She was working for him for free, on the promise of an eventual payout that seemed likely never to deliver at this juncture. If he wasn’t going to treat her with respect, she wouldn’t offer hers any longer. “You’re a nobody. Hailey Winscombe was a far more sympathetic and relatable person for the public to latch on to. You saw yourself how many profiles they ran for her.”
”They ran some of me too!”
”Only in relation to the town’s history,” Linda pointed out. “Meanwhile, she got every part of her life examined. The media loved her, and when she finally showed herself? She delivered.” You didn’t, she added mentally, and Nate—to his credit—picked up on the unspoken addition.
”I was forced not to,” he protested.
”Hailey jumps off buildings and flies around the world. She saves lives and acts out superhero fantasies in Seattle—though, of course, nobody can ever prove that. The media loves drama and intrigue, and she’s now wrapped up in a half-dozen conspiracies and tragedies. They could talk about her all day and night, and people will eat it up.”
”A former spoiled rich kid who threw away his shot,” Linda snapped, surprising herself. Nate hesitated. His face fell. He looked suitably ashamed. She took a breath. “My apologies, Mr. Price.”
”…No, you’re right,” said Nate. He shook his head. “I missed my shot.”
Linda sighed. “Mr. Wallace is as much to blame. We should have gotten airtime before the injunction was handed down. I’m still looking into our options on damages there.”
Her phone buzzed. Another client was waiting for her call-back, from which Nate had sidetracked her. “…Was there anything else, Mr. Price?” she asked.
”Nah.” Nate turned back to the computer. “I’ll figure this out. New plan.”
She suppressed another tired sigh. Working with Nate was an endless cycle of his ‘plans’ and subsequent failures—or failures to launch, really, as they rarely got off the ground in the first place. It seemed as good a dismissal as any, so Linda left before he could come up with another topic to complain about. She had other clients to work with—not many, but each were preferable to more time spent with Nate Price.
Linda had worked pro bono cases before. It was right there in the job description for someone who worked with whistleblowers and asylum-seekers. She had the company fund to fall back on—plus her usual salary and her own savings—but Nate’s case was proving to be an ongoing drain for the firm that couldn’t be ignored forever. They’d invested a lot of time and money into the interviews, secrecy agreements, publication process, and media blitz, only to have their sales cut short before they began. Retailers were already asking for refunds on their advances, with the book’s release in perpetual limbo.
Kendra’s legal team was good. Very good. They’d tied up the publication in so much red tape and terrifying legal threats that not a single copy could even be retrieved. The advances they should have received were completely blacked out. No one dared touch the sealed cases across the country for fear of swift and brutal retribution.
As Linda left the unassuming little condo where Nate lived and got into her car, she checked the number of the last caller. To her surprise, it was a client she hadn’t heard from in months—a girl who’d hired their services back in September, on the very same day as Nate Price no less. Far more intriguing, they shared one important characteristic: they were both survivors of Rallsburg.
She hadn’t contacted Linda once since that day in September. Two days after Jerry Hauserman died, and the world realized that there were survivors of the Rallsburg incident, Linda had been tasked with protecting the secrets of both. She wracked her brain to remember the girl’s name—it had been so long, and she only spoke with her once, yet she’d given the girl her personal number.
Linda gave up and called back. It’d come to her. “Linda speaking.”
”Hi.” She sounded very on-edge. Every word felt like she were tiptoeing across a floor full of glass, risking a cut with every careful step. “I’m sorry to call your personal line, but I needed to be certain of something.”
”…Rachel, right?” Linda guessed.
”I only give out this line to particularly important clients who require a special degree of privacy,” said Linda. “Your personal safety is my top priority.”
”I… I appreciate that, thank you.”
Linda smiled. It was a huge relief to have a client who actually seemed to care. It didn’t affect how she treated them, of course—she was a professional, after all—but it was far more satisfying to help those who seemed like genuinely good people. “What can I help you with?”
”The insurance I placed in your protection,” said Rachel cautiously. “I need to know it’s still prepared to release, in the event of any of the conditions I set.”
Linda pulled out her other phone—a dummy device with no networking, which she used solely to take notes and keep records too sensitive to ever be connected to the internet. Her eyes widened as she read through the conditions again. At the time, they’d been meaningless to her, but after everything she’d read in Cinza’s diaries and learned from Nate…
”If I may, miss,” said Linda slowly.
”Call me Rachel, please,” said Rachel uncomfortably.
”I’ve been privy to some information recently,” she went on, fully aware just how close she was to toeing the line on attorney-client privilege, “about a certain entity known as Grey-eyes and your relationship with her.”
Rachel didn’t reply right away. Linda could hear her steady breathing from the other end of the line. “…I’m guessing you didn’t get that from my insurance,” she said quietly.
”No. As you requested, the documents you entrusted to our care are still sealed. As long as you continue to check in regularly via the method you specified, they’ll stay that way.” Linda took a pause to drive home her point. “I think I’ve deduced their purpose to some degree, though. Not the contents, to be absolutely clear, but I thought you should know as my client that I’m aware.”
”Okay.” Rachel hesitated again. “Will this change what I hired you to do?”
”That depends,” said Linda.
”I don’t intend to commit any crimes, the information has no direct financial value or any relation to existing criminal activity, has not been named in any court orders, and does not involve any other parties other than the aforementioned,” said Rachel. “None of the conditions under the Rules of Professional Conduct paragraph B apply. You have no obligation to disclose the information.”
Linda was taken aback, She’d been about to cite that very same paragraph to Rachel, and as far as she was aware, the girl had no background whatsoever in a legal profession. “Yes,” she said finally. “Your insurance still stands to be released if any of the conditions you set are fulfilled. I just wanted to confirm whom you believe holds a threat against your life.”
”…More or less,” said Rachel quietly. “Thank you.”
Linda smiled to herself. “I suppose there’s no point in going to the authorities, given her nature.” Unlike Nate Price, who should have turned himself in months ago…
”None at all.”
”Miss Du—Rachel,” Linda quickly corrected herself. “Since we’re moving well beyond legal precedent here, I think I should ask: is there anything we should do if she comes after us?”
”I don’t think she will,” said Rachel. “She’s not a violent person, and I think she’d understand you’re just doing your job.”
”But the same doesn’t apply to you.”
Rachel laughed bitterly. “No, I’m pretty sure she hates me.”
”Well… I wish you the best of luck, then. Was there anything else?”
”No. Thank you.”
”…Any time,” said Linda.
MEMO LOG: FBI—NSB EXTERNAL COMMUNICATIONS DESK: 2018-11-24
tip line call: summary: report of magical activity in tacoma area. claimed explosions set off in somebody’s yard.
— CROSS-REFERENCE TAC. PD CASE XX-2990661: gunfire at the same timestamp, within 1 mile.
tip line call: summary: sudden rainstorm in olympia-west. ‘came out of nowhere’.
— CROSS REFERENCE SAT. DATA – OLYMPIC REGION: no rain forecast, satellite data does not show clouds in the area. rain supernatural?
official complaint from wash. gov. office re: federal oversight of magical affairs taking place within washington state. requests jurisdiction, bureau to deliver all pertinent files and stand down. state matter, not federal.
— FORWARD TO DIRECTOR
tip line call: summary: two persons self-identified as ‘Beth/Malcolm Silverdale’, parents of ‘Jessica Silverdale’. requesting witness protection. offering ‘full disclosure’.
— NO EVIDENCE OF IDENTITIES GIVEN
tip line call: summary: ‘evil warlock’ performing supernatural feats. fire from nothing, moving objects with mind, etc. claims subj. is an awakened and needs to be arrested for public safety. subj. is known awakened ‘Jonathan Hudson’, 18 y/o in Tacoma area.
— MAGIC IS NOT ILLEGAL
— HUDSON LOGGED BY NSB_ASHE, POST-RALLSBURG AWAKENED
press release: white house comm. director: “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: ‘GREYCLOAK’ LEADER, ‘DIARIES’ AUTHOR CINZA TO VISIT WHITE HOUSE, SPEAK WITH PRESIDENT STAFFORD”
- agt. ashe accompanying subj. ‘cinza’
— FORWARD TO DIRECTOR
Ruby stood on the front porch of her cabin, shielding her eyes from the evening sunset. She scratched behind Scrappy’s ears for a moment, before the big cat slinked away to the warm interior. The morning snow was long-since melted, leaving the Greywood green and vibrant once more. Yusuf, Matthew, and Joe were outside working the field. Inside, the news was still on a loop on their TV, and every few minutes, her face popped onto the screen. Every single time, Ruby felt such a mixture of emotions she couldn’t begin to process it properly.
Her beloved was on TV in front of the whole world, and she was excited. Cinza was about to visit the President and start the first steps toward global recognition; Ruby was thrilled for her! It was exactly what they wanted, if Cinza’s ideas held true. Sure, they always talked about how they didn’t need anyone to tell them they could live as they wished, but living would be a lot easier if they didn’t need to sneak around all the time.
Yet… Ruby couldn’t help but feel trepidation. Anxiety pulled a tight knot in her chest, in her throat. She’d watched the speech a dozen times, rewinding the stream over and over. Cinza spoke so well, so strong—Ruby doubted anybody else could see just how exhausted she was, how hard she struggled to stay upright after everything else she’d done that day. Cinza was still recovering, no matter how she might act.
And she’d just announced the Greycloaks to the whole world.
”Ruby?” asked Yusuf, setting down the small harvest he’d been carrying.
She shook her head, brushing long crimson hair out of her eyes. “Sorry, Yusuf. Was it my turn?”
”No, it is no trouble. I am the harvest for today,” said Yusuf. “I wondered why you seemed upset.”
”You saw the news, right?” she asked, biting her lip nervously. She had no idea how the rest of the group felt about the big speech, or that their leader just been thrust into the forefront of the world stage.
Yusuf smiled. “I thought she did very well. You should be proud. I am.”
Ruby shook her head. “It’s not that… I dunno.”
”Are you afraid?” Yusuf sat down on the porch and patted the spot next to him. Ruby took it, leaning against him. As soon as she did, she felt warmth wrap them up to stave off the December chill. He was always so good at temperature spells, even better than Ruby was, despite it being under her affinity. “Tell me, if you want.”
Ruby shook her head. “I’m okay. I don’t need to talk about it.”
”It is your father, yes?”
She leaned away to look at him directly, frowning. “Just said I didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t I?”
Yusuf shook his head. “I apologize, Ruby. I did not meant to intrude.”
”No…” Ruby felt bad. He was just trying to help. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” He put an arm around her and hugged her. She smiled. “You’re a better dad than he ever was, you know.”
Yusuf laughed. “That is very kind of you.”
”I just need to talk to her,” said Ruby. “I didn’t…” She trailed off, not wanting to voice it aloud. I wish she’d told me she was going to do this.
He nodded. “I am sure she will call soon.”
The rumble of an engine startled them both. Yusuf looked up, curious, but Ruby sprang into action. Adrenaline surged through her. This couldn’t be a coincidence—unexpected guests after everything else that happened? “We didn’t have anybody coming through today, right?” she asked, on her feet, her hand outstretched. The array of rubies and sapphire rings on every finger glittered in the sunset.
”Not that I know,” said Yusuf slowly.
Ruby nodded. “Go.”
Yusuf rushed across the clearing toward the guest cabins. Ruby sent a small flare of light into the Wilkins cabin to notify Brittany. In an instant, she replied. Brittany’s traps were ready to go, able to loose at any moment with just another signal.
Matthew and Joe left the harvest field, ducking behind the bridge to face the oncoming noise. Across the clearing, Ryan and Rika emerged, confused. Ryan looked like he might be having a panic attack, while lightning was already sparking off of Rika’s fingertips as she scanned for the apparent threat.
That’s everybody, right? No… Rufus is still out, plus there’s Nikki and—
To her relief, Nikki and Josh walked out from Nikki’s cabin the very next instant, in various states of undress. Ruby would have laughed if everything weren’t so tense—she never would have called those two, but apparently being cooped up together for so many months had just given way to the inevitable. Josh awkwardly pulled on his belt as they sprinted across the field to join Ruby—her cabin was far more defensible, since Nikki’s was built to block outside noise entirely, while Cinza had included reinforced barriers around their entire porch as cover, in addition to caches of gemstones at strategic intervals to use for defensive spells.
”What’s going on?” asked Josh, passing Nikki’s shirt back to her.
”Engine,” whispered Ruby. She handed a small set of gems to Josh. Nikki already had hers, plus her amethyst necklace she never took off. Ruby thought it looked tacky, but she couldn’t blame the other girl wanting to have her particular talent available at all times. “Nobody’s supposed to be coming in today.”
”Is it Cinza coming home, maybe?” whispered Nikki.
Ruby shook her head. “No way she’s back from London yet, even if Hailey flew her out.”
”What about Rufus?”
”Rufus in a car?” asked Ruby sarcastically.
Nikki shrugged. “Yeah, no, nevermind.”
The engine was getting louder, approaching the Greywood directly. Whoever it was knew where they were going. “How are they driving here?” asked Ruby. “I thought nobody could find us.”
Josh frowned. “We tested it, but it’s still fuckin’ magic, Ruby.”
”But what if—”
”Wait,” said Nikki. She closed her eyes tight, clutching at her necklace with one hand. As Ruby watched, one amethyst on the chain got a little darker, clouding over. Her light hazel eyes snapped open an instant later. “Call it off,” she said frantically.
”What?” asked Josh.
”Ruby, seriously, call it off. It’s Rufus.”
”In a car?” Ruby asked again skeptically.
”Trust me,” said Nikki, smiling. She got up and ran out into the open, heedless of the potential danger. Ruby, against her instincts, sent the all-clear signal to the other cabins. She felt the faint flicker of magic in the air as Brittany released the waiting traps, letting them sit back on taut mystical strings once more.
Nikki waved off the others as she ran out into the open, just as the rugged jeep burst through the trees—the same jeep Makoto and the others had left at the airport after their insane chase the day before. In the front seat, Rufus waved and grinned his toothy grin. Next to him…
”Jackie?” called Ruby, standing up straight. “Hector?”
Jackie Nossinger waved as the engine shut off, climbing out, Rufus and Hector along with her. Josh stood up too, cover abandoned, and together they hurried to join the gathering group in the center of the Greywood. Even Brittany came out to join them, taking one of the nearby benches.
”Holy shit,” said Josh. “Where the fuck have you been?”
”Interestin’ place you got here,” said Jackie, looking around curiously. “I like it.”
He grinned. “It’s about time you showed up.”
”Well, I got the call, figured you’d appreciate the backup,” said Jackie. “And Canada’s cold as hell.”
Nikki looked about to say something, but Ruby talked over her before she could sidetrack them too hard. “It’s good you came home, sheriff. Welcome to the Greywood.”
Jackie raised an eyebrow. “You’re in charge, eh?”
Ruby nodded. “Until Cinza returns from London. I’m guessing you’ve seen the news?”
”Yeah, no shit,” muttered Jackie. “‘s the reason we came in today. Was gonna come back a couple weeks ago, but then all that shit with the Diaries, and Hailey… welp, got our wires crossed, I guess.”
”We were afraid,” murmured Hector.
”I don’t blame you,” said Josh. “We’re like a fucking army military here. You gotta call ahead next time Jackie. We just about blew your car to pieces.”
”You can do that?” asked Jackie, surprised.
Ruby nodded. “I’m glad we didn’t. Nikki was able to sense Rufus in time.” She turned to Rufus. “And why didn’t you call ahead?”
Rufus grinned. “M’ phone died, miss. Sorry.”
Rika snorted, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, Ruby, you guys are drilled like a fucking army.”
Ruby whirled on her, raising her voice. “I don’t see you doing much to help, you freeloading—”
”We have all had a trying day,” said Yusuf, placing a hand on Ruby’s shoulder. She calmed herself down. He nodded politely to Jackie. “I am glad to see you again, sheriff.”
”I ain’t the sheriff anymore, you know,” said Jackie uneasily. “Can’t be sheriff of a town that don’t exist.”
”Speaking of which,” said Josh, “where’s the rest of you? Dan and Boris, and the Bowmans?”
”Boris doesn’t want to get involved,” said Jackie, “and Dan decided he was happier with ‘im than riskin’ life and limb again down in this muck. Preston and Neffie got themselves a nice little cabin on a lake.” She shrugged. “I’m sure they don’t mean nothin’ by it. They just didn’t sign up for this, you know?”
”Neither did you,” Brittany pointed out.
Jackie nodded. “Yeah, this is way beyond town sheriff, but hell, I don’t duck out of a fight in the second round. I’m here if you want me.”
”Great,” muttered Rika, “we can all die together.”
”Nobody’s dyin’ out here,” said Jackie firmly.
”I don’t know if you missed it,” Rika snapped, “but I came really close to dying a few times last week, and that was with guys who had strict orders not to hurt me.” She slapped Ryan on the back, who winced. “This fucker got his ass handed to him, and let’s not forget—Jessica got murdered. So let’s not talk about who is or isn’t dying. We’re up against guys with way more training than we got. Oh, and they’ve got guns and more fucking golems, too. We’re all on the goddamn chopping block.”
Josh wheeled on Rika, enraged. “Would you stop being such a bitch for on—”
Ruby made a loud snapping noise with a spell, and Josh fell silent. Wow, I didn’t think that’d work. “I agree with her.”
”You do?” asked Josh.
”You do?” asked Rika, just as surprised.
Ruby nodded. She cleared her throat, stepping forward into the center of the impromptu circle and raising her voice a little. Cin, you should be the one doing this speech… “We’re at war. Cinza just declared it. She never wanted violence, but she still trained us to protect each other. We developed spells and rituals to defend ourselves, and now we’re going to have to use them.”
She glared around the circle, drawing on every old war movie her dad used to watch, as much as she loathed the memories of being forced to watch along with him.
”Every single day, we’re going to drill. We’re going to learn how to fight. Not just defense. We’ve got Jackie to teach us tactics, and we’ve got Rika to teach us to fight dirty.” Rika shot her a dark look, but Ruby pressed on. “We can’t just sit back anymore. The Greywood can’t protect us forever. We must defend it with our souls, our very essence, and drive back the invaders.”
”Ruby—” said Josh slowly, but Ruby kept speaking.
”Cinza and I feared this day would come. Nobody’s dealt with Brian yet, and now we’ve got even more enemies than before—but we can beat them. We beat Jackson. Brian’s nothing compared to him, and who’s afraid of some dumb billionaire on the other side of the world? We’ve got magic. Who cares about money compared to all of this?”
She pointed at her heart, bringing as much emphasis as she could into the moment. “She gave this to us. The goddess saved all our lives. She allowed us the gift of magic, of awakening to the real world around us. We wear these robes to remember her gifts, and we created this home in her honor. They’re gonna try to take it from us, but we have the goddess at our backs. They’ve got nothing.“
Ruby closed her eyes a moment, taking another deep breath. She opened them again, playing up the dramatic effect as much as she could. “It’s time for us to become her soldiers. They’ve gathered their forces, and we’ll gather ours. We’ll be an army for the goddess. They’ve tried to kill us off before. We’re not going to let them try it again. With Cinza to lead us, with the blessing of the goddess, with the power of magic itself, we’ll be invincible. For the good of us all.”
She brushed her hair back over her ears, and a flicker of fire erupted from her mouth to replace the pale cloudy breath in the chilly air. Ruby hadn’t planned the effect, but added it on the fly. Instinct told her to play up the theatricality. Ruby needed to lead them into the fight, since Cinza had become too weak. Ruby would have to take the frontlines, while her beloved played the general.
Ruby would become her soldier, her warrior—her dragon.
”We’re going to war.”