Lily took a deep breath. She faced the wooden door in front of her, wide open, with the rustic cabin beyond which Cinza had built for them, and she tried to take a step forward.
But she couldn’t.
What if it doesn’t work?
A tug at her heart, perfectly coincided with the cough from behind her. Kendra was straining to hold the portal open. Lily needed to walk through.
Thousands of miles in a single step. If we’re wrong… I could die. Or Kendra could die. Or both of us.
”We tested this,” said Kendra firmly.
”Over short distances,” she retorted. “I might have overlooked the sensation.”
”You stated there was no increase in our collective drain so long as the portal remained open.”
”I could have missed it,” said Lily. “It’s been a trying week.”
”Kenni, I swear,” she said wearily, “I have absolute faith in you. But it’s both our lives on the line here.”
”We will never know until we make an attempt.”
”You wanted to do this for Natalie,” said Kendra quietly. “To make up for the mistakes we made.”
Lily turned around. Kendra was seated in her easy chair, laptop on her legs, wearing simple clothes and with her hand in a bowl of mixed gemstones—amethyst and citrine, primarily. They were inside one of their dimensions, tied to their home back in London. Between the research done by Nikki and the unexpected assistance of Grey-eyes, the sisters had developed a method to open portals at any length of space. It required a significant amount of energy and required great concentration by either of them, but it was possible.
They’d blown open the boundaries between spaces, found where the universe curved and warped, and traveled outside those pathways. Lily never doubted the magnitude of their accomplishment… but now she needed to actually use it.
”The Summit was successful,” said Kendra. “…For our part, at least.”
”There’s a difference, and you’re well aware of it,” said Lily stubbornly. “I never left the pocket.”
”And now we’re simply reversing our positions,” said Kendra.
”With no anchor.”
”You’re the anchor, Lily.”
Lily shook her head. She turned back around, facing the doorway once more, and took a deep breath. “If this doesn’t work…”
”We won’t be around long enough to appreciate that eventuality,” said Kendra. “If the worst occurs, we’ve long since tended to our affairs.”
”What do you think will happen to me?” asked Lily.
”Who’s to know?” Kendra sighed. “Is this really the time for existential ponderance? We have an appointment to keep.”
”I suppose not.”
Without further ado, Lily took a step forward. Fresh air filled her lungs, as she moved out from the manufactured stillness of their dimension into the depths of the Olympic Forest. She breathed deep, taking in the smells and sounds of the forest just outside the little cabin, and smiled.
I’m not dead.
A minute or so later, Kendra followed, and the door disappeared. It was then they noticed the decorative frame around the space where they’d placed the door—an elaborate series of cursive lines and engravings in the handsome wood, inlaid with what appeared to be silver, though on closer inspection it merely gave the impression rather than truly consisting of the rare metal.
”Ruby’s, no doubt,” said Kendra.
Lily nodded. “Well…”
”No need to make a big to-do of it,” her sister replied. “I’ll be with Cinza. Join us whenever you’re done?”
They embraced. Kendra set off right away, but Lily took a moment to compose herself. In some ways, Kendra’s meeting that day was far more difficult—they needed to discuss what to do now that awakenings had ceased, Cinza’s role as leader, Kendra’s support in funding, plans for expansion, and new ways to communicate now that electronics were wiped out entirely in the Greywood and beyond.
Lily would much rather have gone to that meeting.
We’re perfectly identical from my birth… so why do I seem to be far more invested in Natalie and her fate than she does?
Of the two, Lily had always been more involved with looking after Natalie. Kendra did her part, but it was always reluctant, always with hesitation. Neither of them had any particular inclinations toward parenting, but when Natalie found herself suddenly without any family, Lily had taken it to heart. As soon as Rachel asked for a volunteer to watch the girl, she’d stepped up immediately.
Kendra hadn’t been happy about it, but given Natalie’s plight and her importance to the community, she’d accepted it without comment. By the time Rallsburg fell, Kendra was fully on board with the goal of educating and protecting Natalie.
Except… they’d failed. Lily had failed. She’d gotten distracted, she’d made mistakes, she’d doubled-down on those mistakes until it was far too late.
How much of that is me, and how much is because I am Kendra? She insists otherwise, but… perhaps despite my inclination, I simply don’t have the capacity to be a mother.
Whatever the reason, Lily wished to make it up to Natalie. For that reason, she’d wanted to come to the Greywood with Kendra, rather than stay inside the pocket and keep their retreat ready. They did not fear the Greycloaks, but… given their last visit, a healthy paranoia seemed a reasonable precaution.
Now all Lily needed to do was locate her.
”Nobody knows,” said Josh, as soon as Lily caught up with him, sitting just outside Nikki’s cabin with a blanket and a cup of steaming coffee.
She faltered. “Nobody?”
He shrugged. “Agent Ashe picked up her dad at her old tree fort and arrested him. Brian Hendricks will be taken to Olympia for trial, as soon as they can figure out how to transport him out of here. Natalie wasn’t there.” Josh glanced around. “Wish I did know where she was, so I could get her to turn this shit off.”
Lily glanced up. “Turn what off?”
”Remember Hector’s old no-electricity spell?” Josh sighed. “It’s covering the whole fucking Olympic Forest now. No idea how far. Hailey says it went out at least to Shelton. I haven’t had any word about Natalie yet, and it’s been days. Captain Hoskins and his crew finally got a humvee moving somehow, but we had to prioritize the wounded who still needed to be moved out and hadn’t been triaged for a helicopter. It hasn’t come back.”
”I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t realized how wide an area it covered,” said Lily. Experimentally, she reached out with magic to feel the area around her… but besides the expected auras from the various spells fueling the Greywood, she didn’t sense anything particularly new. “A ritual?”
”Yeah. Nobody’s powering it anymore. It’s permanent.” Josh shrugged. “And since Hector never told a single goddamn person how to do it… it’s gonna be tough to reverse this.”
”He told Natalie,” said Lily.
”…Right.” Josh glanced at the sky, where a heavy sheet of grey clouds drifted slowly across the wide expanse. “We don’t have a clue where he is either. Maybe they’re together.”
”What about her friends?”
”They’re all in Brittany’s cabin,” said Josh, jerking his head across the clearing. Lily started to turn away, but Josh spoke up again. “Hey… before you go.”
”This whole portal thing…” Josh started slowly, “how much does it take to use?”
”It is not trivial.”
He shifted in his chair uncomfortably. “Yeah… but—”
Lily caught on. “Is there somewhere you would like to go?”
Josh sighed. “…I shouldn’t. If I do, odds are I won’t come back, and I think things’ll go even more to shit if I’m not around.”
”…My parents in Norwalk.”
Lily nodded. “Call me when—”
Josh snorted. “How?”
”…Kendra will be working out a method today,” said Lily patiently. “I’m not certain how yet. But… if you ever need to visit them, we will make it happen.”
After a few moments, Josh smiled. He leaned back in his chair and sipped at his coffee. “Thanks.”
She nodded. “Was there anything else?”
”Nah.” Josh sighed and got to his feet. “I gotta get going anyway. Captain Hoskins is waiting on my update from Cinza, and I hope to fucking God he’s got a proper coffeemaker working again. This shit is awful. I really should’ve learned to brew it myself.”
”It was good to see you, Josh.”
”Take care of yourself, Lily.”
Lily crossed the Greywood, marveling once more at the flow of magic woven into every building. The trees themselves powered the faint sparkling aura coating the bridge, a mixture of natural material and polished wood rising over the merrily bubbling creek. Lily briefly wondered if they might be better served having the trees power a more useful spell, but she quickly reminded herself this was not her home, and it was not her place to decide how others chose to use their magic.
It seems such a waste, though… we might be able to multiply and manipulate energy, but entropy is still a concern. We ought not to be so frivolous with our power.
She shook it off. Lily was the last person to be judging anyone on their responsibility these days. She had plenty to make up for herself. As she approached the Wilkins’ cabin, she reminded herself of that again, and exactly why she’d come to the Greywood—because she’d promised Natalie.
”Brittany?” called Lily, knocking on the door.
Lily swung the door wide—and just inside, gathered around a roaring fire, were three middle-school children, with Brittany seated on her chair just behind. Lily closed the door to keep out the winter chill.
”Everyone, this is Kendra Laushire.”
”Hi,” said one of the children, an athletic young girl with long black hair up in a ponytail. The other two—a pale boy with wide-rimmed glasses and a stocky boy with thin black glasses—both waved, but didn’t speak up. They seemed to be letting the girl speak for them.
”Lily, actually,” she corrected patiently. “It’s good to see you again, Brittany. How are you?”
”Oh you know,” said Brittany airily, “the usual. Got pretty good at using magic to wheel myself around.”
”May I speak with the children alone, please?”
”Sure. I needed to go get something from the garden anyway.” Brittany’s chair began to roll through the cabin of its own accord, without so much as a hint of effort from the woman seated on it. The door swung open for her, and a few moments later, they heard her rolling away on the grass, shouting something at Joe McKinney across the way.
Lily took a seat near the fire, just above the three children sitting on the rug near it.
”Hello,” she started.
”You’re Lily?” blurted the stocky child suddenly. “Like, the Lily Natalie always talked about?”
”…I wasn’t aware she ever mentioned me,” said Lily, a little taken aback.
”Yeah,” said the girl, “she mentioned you a bunch. You’re her fake mom, right?”
”I suppose. I can’t say I did a great job as a mother.”
”Hey, leave her alone,” said the pale child indignantly. “She probably had good reasons. They’re all awakened.”
”That’s no excuse,” said Lily firmly. “What’s your name?”
”Tyler,” he replied, “and that’s Kelsey and Mitch.”
Lily nodded. “As I said, Tyler, that’s not an excuse. I wasn’t a good parent to Natalie. I’m trying to do better now, but… something else happened.”
”You mean the whole no-electricity thing?” said Mitch. “We kinda noticed.”
”Right. More importantly, your parents are worried sick.”
”My moms were being stupid anyway,” said Kelsey indignantly. “They went to one of her dad’s meetings.”
”Her father has been arrested, and his monsters are gone. His crusade is over, and a terrifying chapter of our lives closed.” Lily glanced around at the three of them. “However, the three of you are still here.”
”Of course we are!” said Mitch. “She’s our friend!”
”Except many now believe she kidnapped you.”
”What?” snapped Kelsey. “That’s ridiculous!”
”Yeah, she didn’t even know we were coming!” added Mitch.
”I admire all of you,” said Lily, “but you need to go home. You cannot stay out here.”
”You’ll be helping her if you do,” she went on. “If you return home and explain what happened, we can clear Natalie of the charges. Her name is already laden with suspicion due to her father, and many are willing to believe the worst because of it. Go home and be there for Natalie until she decides to return.” Lily smiled faintly. “We all know she can take care of herself.”
”…We don’t even know where she is anyway,” said Kelsey finally, glancing at the other two. “We’re not really doing anything out here.”
”I don’t want to go back,” said Tyler. “What’s the point if she’s not coming with us?”
”We didn’t even get to awaken,” said Mitch.
”Is that all you care about?” asked Kelsey heatedly.
”No! I was here for Natalie too!”
”Tell her story,” said Lily, cutting in before they got into an argument. The three children fell silent, watching her above them with curious expressions. “Remind everyone she is a good person who deserves a place in this world. Do not let them spread lies about her. Make a place that will welcome her home, once she is ready to return.”
They sat in silence for a minute, with only the crackling of the fire filling the space. Lily waited for them to come to terms with leaving their friend behind, though of course, there was little point in staying.
”…My mom’s gonna be so mad I ditched without saying anything,” said Mitch.
”You didn’t say anything?” asked Tyler.
”I left a note!”
”I left a note too,” said Kelsey uneasily. “Figured if my moms knew, they wouldn’t let me go. They texted me a bunch, asking me to come back… I’m gonna be in so much trouble.”
”I’ve already spoken to each of your parents,” said Lily, “and they’re eager to see you again.” It was certainly an interesting phone call… Not many expect to get a call from Kendra Laushire out of the blue. “I can take you home today, if you like.”
Their eyes widened.
”How?” asked Kelsey.
”Magic,” said Lily simply.
Kenni’s mad at me for this too… I agree that we must keep our new ability limited to only the most important tasks and strictest security. It is too powerful to become widely known. But… this is important.
”Can you, like… teleport us or something?” asked Mitch.
”In a manner of speaking.” Lily glanced between each of them. “This is a one-way trip, though. A special occasion.”
”So… we can’t come back,” said Tyler, crestfallen.
”You might one day,” said Lily, and he perked up immediately. “But you need to go home now. This isn’t the place for you yet.”
A faint pulse of magic, and then a second one. Kendra was signalling her already—that was so much quicker than I expected…
”Will she be okay?” asked Kelsey.
Lily started to nod… but stopped. “I hope so,” she said quietly.
Kendra knocked on the door a moment later. The children gathered their things, and Kendra summoned a portal back into their pocket, and then again to their office in Seattle. A driver was waiting for them, and soon enough, the children were on their way back to their parents.
”Are you feeling better?” asked Kendra, not unkindly.
Lily shook her head. “Not yet.”
Kendra frowned. “I wonder…”
”If we truly are identical.”
Lily gazed down the street, watching the last car turn the corner and disappear. “I don’t know. You made me. Do you recall deciding anything should be different?”
”Why not?” asked Lily, turning to her sister—her creator. “Are we so vain as to believe nothing could be improved? Are we flawless, and the world is better off with two of us roaming about?”
”I’m tired, Kenni.” Lily walked back through the portal to their home. “Let’s just go, please.”
Kendra looked troubled, but didn’t reply. She followed, and soon enough, the sisters were back in London, back to their home and their bewildered parents, who still didn’t quite understand who Lily was—not that she even knew herself. All she knew was that she forever remained tethered, a life tangled up in another, and though she loved her sister dearly… sometimes, it hurt more than she could bear.
Lily took a deep breath and steeled herself. Those thoughts did no one any good. She could no more change the circumstances of her existence than alter the fundamental forces of the universe.
”…Do you want to go to school today?” asked Annette.
Quinn shook his head. “Not… not yet. It’s…” He trailed off.
His mother nodded. “Your father and I were thinking about taking a vacation. Getting out of this part of the world for a while… How does that sound?”
”But…” Quinn glanced out the window in his bedroom, which just happened to face southwest—toward Natalie, the girl he’d fallen completely in love with.
”You don’t have to decide right now,” said Annette. “Just think about it.”
”Have you…” His mother hesitated, and Quinn knew she was about to ask about Natalie in some way. She always got the same uncomfortable, pained look on her face when she did. It hurt just to see it. It made him angry.
She never did anything wrong… I did, her dad did, a whole lot of people did. Not Natalie though.
”Have you heard from her?” Annette finally managed, avoiding saying Natalie’s name, of course.
”Not since the blackout,” said Quinn. “I know she was trying to figure out if she wanted to go after her dad or not. I… I think she probably did.”
”Oh.” Annette frowned. “He got arrested that day, didn’t he?”
”Yeah. So… maybe she turned him in.” Quinn shrugged. “I’ll ask her.”
A huge roar of shouting and camera noises from outside told them both Damian had just gotten home. No doubt, he was dodging the press as best he could. Jefferson Baux had promised them some assistance keeping the hungry vultures and protestors at bay, but the police were already overworked simply handling the sheer amount of chaos created by the blackout near Olympia, and nobody had ever come to help them out.
Damian walked in, a bit of snow coating his face and a huge flat box in his hands. “Got some dinner,” he grinned. “Who’s up for pizza?”
”Dear, you didn’t need to do—”
”Pizza sounds great, Dad,” said Quinn. He wanted them to get back to normal. Normal meant something without all the insanity and danger and fear. Normal meant school and friends and a stable life again.
Normal meant Natalie coming back.
Of course, the world wasn’t ever going back to normal, and Quinn knew it. Case in point, Damian promptly dropped the pizza as a sudden tapping sound came at their window.
The pizza froze in mid-air.
”Can I come in?” asked the girl, her voice muffled through the window pane. She wore a faux-leather jacket, thick scarf, and her golden-blonde hair spilled out of an aviator cap on her head, with a prominent streak of sky-blue fluttering in her face. Every moment or two, she moved up and down in mid-air, as if flapping invisible wings.
Quinn hurried to the window, ignoring the gaping mouths on his parents’ faces. He flung the window open, and Hailey swooped in. A faint gust fluttered the papers on his desk, but for the most part, she didn’t really disrupt anything as she landed. The window slid shut behind her, neatly latching itself.
”Hey, Quinn. I’m glad you remember me,” she said, grinning.
Quinn nodded. “Kinda hard to forget.”
”You’ve… you’ve met Hailey Winscombe?” asked Annette, raising her eyebrows.
He shrugged. “Yeah, once.”
”It was a weird day,” added Hailey. “You must be Damian and Annette, right?”
”Yes,” said Damian, breathless. He looked oddly star-struck, which surprised Quinn. His dad was usually pretty calm around anybody, no matter who they were. “Welcome. Would you—” He coughed, trying to catch his breath. “—like some pizza?”
”I wouldn’t want to impo—”
”It’s fine,” said Annette hurriedly. “We’ve got extra, and… well, it’s being paid for by your friend Kendra anyway.”
”It is?” asked Hailey, raising her eyebrows.
”Yes. She contacted us out of the blue yesterday, and told us we had an account set up to handle all our expenses. As… as thanks for taking care of Natalie.” Annette winced. “We weren’t going to use it, but… well, I’m sure you saw what’s going on outside.”
”Yeah…” Hailey sighed. “Being famous kinda sucks. I’m really sorry you guys got caught up in all this.”
”It’s worth it,” said Quinn firmly.
Hailey smiled at him, before hovering the pizza over to herself and grabbing a slice. “Thanks. It’s super annoying to get food right now.”
”We saw the news,” said Damian. “What’s it like being internationally wanted?”
”Well,” said Hailey, taking a huge bite, “it’s kinda how I always figured I’d end up, you know?” She laughed. “Most people I meet are pretty cool about it. But the cops gotta try to arrest me, and… I’m still trying to save the world here. I can’t go back until I do that.”
”You’re… I’m sorry, what?”
Hailey shrugged. “I can’t really explain. Sorry.”
”You don’t have to,” said Quinn. He wanted Hailey to be comfortable. His parents seemed confused by Hailey’s sudden appearance, but to Quinn, it was a relief—if anything, he was overjoyed to see her. It meant he was still a part of their world—her world.
”Forgive me if this sounds rude, but,” said Annette carefully, “why are you here?”
”Well,” said Hailey, finishing off her slice with gusto. “Natalie asked me to look out for you guys.” Hearing that alone, Quinn’s entire body seemed to light up with relief and joy. “I guess Kendra’s doing that too. Thank goodness, ’cause I’m broke and on the run. Still, given the whole angry mob outside… I figured I might be able to help.”
”Help how?” asked Damian.
”Not sure,” she added with a shrug. “Got anything to drink?”
The whole conversation moved to the kitchen table, Hailey sitting with the three Kincaids. Quinn felt happier with every word she spoke—Hailey just had that kind of personality. He could see why Natalie said she was the center of the town for a while. Hailey was magnetic. Everybody wanted to be closer to her.
”Well, scaring ’em off isn’t gonna do much,” said Hailey. “Trust me, they’ll come back every single day, and if I stick around to scare ’em again, we’ll have even more trouble.”
”So what do we do?” asked Annette.
”…I’m kinda trying to avoid telling people what to do,” she said quietly. Her voice was calm, but Quinn sensed a pain underneath, something very similar to what Natalie used to sound like. “I want to know what you guys want.”
”Well,” said Damian, “we were thinking about leaving for a while, but we weren’t sure how to get out of here without people following us.”
”Oh!” Hailey brightened up. “Yeah, I can help you with that.”
”Yeah, we can turn you invisible, or fly you out, or all sorts of things.” Hailey grinned. “Magic, you know?”
Damian nodded. “Magic.”
”The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems,” added Annette quietly.
”I thought that was beer,” said Hailey.
”Bit of an exaggeration, dear,” said Damian.
”Not for everyone,” said Quinn. He glanced at Hailey, trying to keep from sounding too eager in front of Natalie’s coolest friend. “Did you see her?”
Hailey shook her head sadly. “I couldn’t find her.”
”Nah, and trust me, I tried everything. Even magic, but she blocked it somehow. We know she’s in Rallsburg somewhere, and we see stuff she’s doing out there—”
”What’s she doing?” asked Quinn breathlessly. “Nobody on the news has reported anything yet.”
”Building something,” said Hailey. “I don’t know yet, but she’s taking all the burned up buildings and turning them into something else. It’s actually really cool, whenever I fly over it, but if I start to get close, something pushes me back. It’s like she’s keeping everybody out ’til she’s ready.”
”Ready for what?” murmured Annette.
Hailey shrugged again. “Your guess is as good as mine. Natalie’s my friend, but… to be honest, I haven’t even spent as much time with her as you guys in the last year.”
”Not what you’re doing though,” said Damian. “Saving the world, or whatever?”
She shook her head. “No.”
”Can you—” said Quinn, and before he could even finish speaking, Hailey nodded.
”As soon as I can talk to her, I’ll tell her to call you.” She smiled in an awkward, uncomfortable way. “We kinda need you, Quinn.”
She might as well have just told him he was a millionaire. Quinn didn’t know how to respond, but he felt elated, overwhelmed, excited, and just a little bit terrified by the sheer pressure she’d just put on him.
”You need Q?” asked Damian. “For what?”
”Natalie’s probably the second or third most powerful person in the world,” said Hailey. She glanced out the window at the end of the hall wistfully. “I’m still trying to get in touch with the other ones, but for now, Natalie’s definitely the most visible of that group. There’s no telling what she could pull off… and because of a really complicated long list of reasons, she hates a lot of us right now.”
”Us meaning the awakened,” said Quinn, at his parents’ confused looks.
”All I’m saying is that… if she ever reaches out, be ready, you know?”
He nodded. “I’ll be ready.”
”Cool,” said Hailey. She smiled again, and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen from her bag, scribbling something on it. “This is my number. Caller ID will probably say I’m Stephanie Johnson, though. Don’t worry about it. If you ever need anything, if you’re in trouble and it’s not normal-cops-can-handle-it trouble, or you decide you want to leave, call me. Doesn’t matter what time, okay?”
”Okay,” said Quinn.
”Should we be expecting trouble?” asked Annette cautiously.
”Well, beyond the obvious,” said Hailey with a jerk of her head toward the door, “probably not? But… better safe than sorry, you know?” She stood up. “I gotta go, and I have no idea where I’ll be, but if I’m in the area, I’ll stop by. When I can.”
”Thanks,” said Quinn.
Unexpectedly, Hailey reached out and hugged him. After a moment’s confusion, he hugged her back. His parents eyes went even wider, barely visible around the side of Hailey’s head.
”Take care of yourself, Quinn,” said Hailey.
”You too, Hailey.”
Hailey turned and walked briskly down to the end of the hall. The window popped open for her, and as she got closer, she broke into a run—and then a straight dive through the opening. Quinn ran after her, and just managed to catch a glimpse of her shooting off into the sky like a bullet.
He smiled. Hailey was a part of Natalie’s world—of the girl he’d met as Jenny, a nervous and reluctant friendship formed over the last few months until it grew and spread throughout his school. Quinn had made mistakes along the way, and in the end he’d broken, but Natalie forgave him. She still cared about him. She’d asked Hailey to come watch out for him and his family.
She’d called him, and they’d still been close. They’d be together again, sooner or later. Quinn could wait, if that’s what she needed.
I’ll meet her again. When she’s ready.
How did I end up in this fucking mess?
The thought crossed Josh’s mind more than once as he made the trek from the Greywood to the pilgrim camp. It wasn’t a particularly long journey, but it was a lot more tiresome without being able to listen to the news or his podcasts.
A year ago I was minding my own shit and wasting my business scholarship screwing around with Ryan. How I am a National Guard liaison now?
It had been three days since the blackout. They’d gotten a messenger going by now, which meant a guy riding his bike all the way out to the edge of the zone and back. Based on rough satellite guesses—thankfully, the zone didn’t extend that high above the forest, though it was high enough to affect aircraft passing overhead and the FAA was now routing everything around it just in case—the zone encompassed a twenty two point three two mile radius around the city of Rallsburg.
Why that number, anyway? Was it just random? Did Natalie pick it? It had to be Natalie, right?
Josh didn’t like not knowing what was going on. He prided himself on keeping up with everything. Listening to news and podcasts whenever he took walks or relaxed was just one way of staying on top of things. At his cabin, he maintained a half-dozen news feeds. Cinza loved looking like she had the whole world figured out, but in truth, Josh probably knew more than anybody else about what was really happening.
Until Saturday. Until Natalie decided to knock out everything in the Olympic Forest, because…
Because what? The hell does she got against the internet? She’s a kid, shouldn’t she love shit like that?
Josh laughed aloud. He barely considered himself an adult until the last couple months—until he’d suddenly taken on so much responsibility, so much work, throwing himself into warzones at the drop of a hat… fuck it. If I’m not an adult, nobody in the world is.
”What?” asked Joe McKinney.
Josh shrugged. “Remember when the biggest thing to us was whether you supported the Blazers or the Lakers?”
”Yeah, and you’re still wrong. The Blazers are gonna crush ’em this season.”
He’s so out of touch… “How do you do it?”
Josh shook his head. “Nevermind.”
”…Uhh,” said Joe, confused. Josh just kept moving—the pilgrim camp was in sight now, and he didn’t really feel like talking anyway. Joe was only with him because he didn’t feel safe on his own anymore. Otherwise, he always took these walks alone, enjoying the solitude.
Crazy how a phone was the only reason I did feel safe. Just because I had a dozen people I could call, both military and awakened, to come save me? The hell was that gonna do if I got ambushed?
”You want me to go back to being pissed off?” asked Joe. “Because I’m still pissed off at you.”
Josh sighed. “Dude, just… get over it.”
”Like you got over Rika?”
He shrugged. “Okay, yeah, it took a while. But I’m not your best friend, and I didn’t go behind… fuck it, why am I bothering? It’s Nikki’s damn choice.”
”Whatever, dude. Just goes to show it’s true what they say.”
Okay, redneck asshole. Josh kept moving, not rising to the bait. Shouldn’t have slept with her. We’re too tight-knit. It’s causing social unrest, and since my stupid black ass decided I had to stick around and keep Cinza on track, I’ve gotta actually stay diplomatic here. But… damn is Nikki good in the sack. Fun out of the bed, too. Joe missed out there.
”Is she doing okay?” Joe asked suddenly, his voice much softer than before.
Josh was taken aback. He hadn’t expected honest concern from Joe here. He slowed down a little, turning to face his companion. “Yeah, why?”
”I dunno… last time I saw her with Cinza, she was all confused and shit, like she didn’t really know what was going on.”
He frowned. “When was that?”
”Couple days ago?”
”She’d just done some more big spells,” said Josh with a shrug. “Sometimes it throws her head out. She always comes back though.”
”What if… what if she doesn’t one day? Like… you know…” Joe winced.
”Like Jessica,” finished Josh.
Josh shrugged. “She knows what she’s doing.”
They had to stop talking then, as one of the soldiers was rushing over to meet them. Joe pulled his grey robes on tighter—no way does he actually believe what the rest of them do, he just got that to impress Nikki—warding off the cold. Josh raised a hand in greeting.
”Mr. Miller, sir. Captain Hoskins has requested you in the command tent at your earliest convenience.”
”Thanks, Davies,” said Josh, and the man looked slightly impressed by his recognition—his uniform carried no visible name from the front. Pays to be good at faces. Rachel’s not the only one with a good memory. “Joe, go do whatever.”
”Dude, you aren’t in char…”
Josh walked away before Joe finished his sentence, grinning slightly. Davies led him through the camp, which was recovering well from the attack on Friday night. People were still trying to organize an effective way to get home if they needed to, and the food carts were dwindling, but the MREs and other supplies were sustenance enough to get them through the winter if need be.
Fuck me if I’m spending the winter eating that shit though. At least the Greywood has fresh food and good cooking supplies.
Captain Hoskins emerged from his tent, crisp and clean as always. Josh was impressed—he had magic for an easy hot shower and staying clean. The captain was managing it all old-school. They shook hands.
”A long walk,” said Josh with a shrug. “Nothing new. Just keeping the lines of communication open.”
”We’re about to get the last run of wounded out today,” said Hoskins. “I hate to lose another humvee, but at least we know the first one made it out.”
”How’d you get it running?”
He shrugged. “We didn’t. It’s a downhill run.”
”…Damn,” said Josh, grinning. “Well, we confirmed it got out. Guess they started it as soon as they hit the border.”
Hoskins whistled. “If I’m understanding magic right, that’s a huge area to cover with a single spell.”
”Biggest we’ve ever heard of,” said Josh with a nod. “Whatever that girl did, she did it well.”
”If you find out, you tell me.”
”Why don’t we find out together?”
Josh raised an eyebrow. “Meaning what?”
Hoskins glanced up the hill to the north, where the treeline—which a few days ago had been lit up with rifles as far as the eye could see—loomed like a foreboding wall, denying them entry. “Rallsburg’s not that far away.”
”Sir,” spoke up a soldier nearby. They both looked around, surprised.
”Sir, requesting permission to accompany you to Rallsburg.”
”You were with Natalie’s squad, weren’t you?” asked Josh.
Deeks nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Josh resisted rolling his eyes—feels dumb as hell to have all the soldiers calling me ‘sir’, but whatever.
”We hadn’t even decided we were going yet, private,” said Hoskins.
”Nah,” said Josh. “We should. Better us than some half-cocked idiot stumbling in and setting off something worse, right?”
”So what does that make us?” asked Hoskins, smiling slightly.
”Full-cocked idiots,” said Josh. He grinned. “Let’s go.”
Deeks led the way, Josh and Hoskins only a short distance behind. They didn’t take anyone else—none of them wanted to scare Natalie with the appearance of an invading army. Hoskins left the camp with his best lieutenants in charge. The three of them trekked through the forest, approaching Rallsburg in a straight line, not trying to conceal themselves in the slightest.
As they emerged through the trees, Josh expected to see the burned, collapsed buildings. Instead, he found… open air. Even the foundations were gone, and grass already filled the space where they once stood. It was as if the buildings simply never existed.
”What the hell…” he murmured.
A gunshot rang out. Dirt exploded from the ground in front of them. A wolf growled from not-so-far away.
”Fuck,” Josh snapped. “Rook!” he called out to the forest around them. “Put the fucking gun down! We’re just here to talk!”
”None may enter.”
Gwen growled again, somewhere not so far away, but none of them could tell precisely where the wolf might be, or the sniper who seemed to be everywhere at once. Josh didn’t think it was magic, especially given what he’d heard about Rook, but still…
”Enter where?” called Hoskins. “What are the boundaries? All of Rallsburg?”
”Rallsburg is dead. There is no Rallsburg.”
”What the fuck…” muttered Josh.
”Hey,” called Deeks. “We’re just lookin’ to help the kid, all right?”
”Turn back,” called Rook again. “You will be not warned further.”
”Let’s get out of here,” said Josh urgently under his breath. Before I get shot doing something idiotic here. “We’re not getting anything from her.”
Hoskins nodded. “We’ll call this in,” he muttered. “As soon as we get back.”
The soldiers turned to leave, heading back to the camp again, but Josh hesitated. He squinted into the town, through the light fog hanging over the expanse, peering through the trees which vaguely outlined the roads that used to outline the town. In the distance, opposite the shrouded visage of the old library, he could barely make out a silhouette of something new.
”Josh!” hissed Hoskins. “Come on!”
Josh turned and walked away, his mind lost in wonder.
What the hell is Natalie doing?
”Are you ready?” asked Rachel.
Solveig tossed her dreadlocks out of her face, grinning. “I’m with you, boss.”
Rachel sighed. “I’d prefer you didn’t call me that.”
”Yeah, you said.” Solveig shrugged. “It’s fun to say, though.”
”You know where we’re about to go, yes?”
”And I know you’re scared shitless of something you still won’t tell me about,” said Solveig. “That’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
”Not really,” said Rachel. “You can’t protect me at all from that.”
”…So why am I here?”
”For everything else.”
Solveig shrugged. “Whatever you say, boss.”
Rachel sighed again. She stood up, and nearly bumped into the overhead bins. Solveig reached up and pulled out her bags, even though Rachel could probably reach them more easily. That’s what a bodyguard does, right? Everything they need. I’m doin’ my job right.
Solveig never really questioned how she’d ended up here—a nobody college kid from Canada following a willowy giant of a young woman through Reagan International Airport while men in black suits shadowed them from afar. Those are totally Secret Service agents, right? Of course they are. We’re in D.C. on our way to the White House.
”How’d you end up talking to the President, anyway?” asked Solveig.
”It’s a long story,” said Rachel in a tired voice. She always sounded exhausted these days.
”You know, I’m pretty sure only sleeping three hours a night is bad for you,” she commented aloud.
”I did a ritu—”
”Yeah, I know. You’re famous for it.” Solveig shrugged. “You still seem super tired to me.”
Rachel sighed. “I might have done it wrong. Kendra thought the same thing.”
”Well, if you fall asleep, I’m pretty sure I can carry you.”
”Thank you, Solveig.”
She grinned. “Not ‘Sol-vague’?” she jabbed, referencing Rachel’s original mangled pronunciation of her name.
”I’d never dream of calling you vague.”
Solveig laughed. “So what are we doing in D.C. anyway, besides showing off how you can talk to the President whenever you feel like it?”
”He invited me, I didn’t just pick a time.”
”We’re here to discuss the new Department of Thaumaturgical Affairs,” said Rachel, confidently strolling through the building without glancing at a single sign. Solveig trusted her completely to know where they were heading—no doubt Rachel had memorized every single map of the area and the building. “And the area of Rallsburg Natalie claimed for herself, awakenings, so on.”
”And to get your new shiny hat.”
Solveig snickered. “Didn’t they tell you when you get a cabinet position, you get a shiny hat?”
”It’s not a cabinet position,” said Rachel patiently. They were heading down to the street level now, where a car waited right on the curb in a cordoned area for them. Solveig never ceased to be amazed at how much privilege was afforded to important people in America. “If it were, I’d have to be nominated and confirmed by the Senate. I’m just an advisor.”
”So you don’t get paid?”
”Kendra has given me more money than I’ll ever need in my life.” Rachel got into the car, smoothing out her dress and straightening her clothes as best she could. Solveig took the seat next to her. Rachel glanced over her, disappointed. “Couldn’t you have dressed a little nicer?”
Solveig rolled her eyes. “Like they’re gonna care.”
”You don’t show up to meet the President in jeans and a hoodie.”
”You don’t. I do whatever the hell I want.”
Rachel shook her head. “You’ll come to a bad end that way.”
”Why do you even like having me around?” asked Solveig pointedly as the car rolled out from the airport. “You get annoyed by half of what I say. It’s not like Landon and Logan are bad at magic, and they’re way prettier arm-candy. I’m ugly as fuck and I know it.”
”Call it nostalgia,” said Rachel in a tired voice, watching the city pass by outside the window.
They crossed the Potomac in short order, despite the afternoon traffic. Solveig stayed quiet for a while, wondering what Rachel might mean by her statement. Rachel continued to stare out the window, briefly turning around to check her phone for messages or whatever other updates continually buzzed in on their silence.
Probably memorizing the whole damn city. The hell does that mean, nostalgia? Do I remind her of something? Whatever, fuck it. Doesn’t mean I can’t still do my job. She’s paying me a shit-ton of cash for this, and end of the day, this is something worth doing. Rachel’s important, and she’s not a money-grubbing asshole making the world a more corrupt and worthless place. She might actually save the world. That’s worth helping out.
”So what is your title gonna be?” asked Solveig finally.
”Senior Advisor to the President for the Awakened,” said Rachel.
She shook her head. “They’re making a distinction. I’m advising him on our group and the Northwest awakened in general, but I’m also there to help out with the DTA. I’m really both, but labels matter. Also, I think Cinza really leaned on them to use ‘awakened’ instead of ‘thaumaturgy’. She thinks it sounds too scientific.”
Solveig snorted. “The hell does that matter?”
”Some people don’t like mixing magic and science,” said Rachel. “Cinza wants to preserve the mysticism because it gives her power, not because of prejudice, but some people really are hostile to the idea that magic isn’t… you know, magical.”
Rachel shrugged. “Some like the consistency and reliability of science, others hate the idea that there isn’t more to the world.”
”And the rest of us don’t give a shit and just pay attention to whatever’s in front of us.” Solveig shook her head. “You think too much.”
”Probably.” Rachel glanced out the window again. The White House was coming into view now. “You’ll try to be more civil when we’re meeting with the President, right?”
”Something like that,” said Solveig wickedly.
”I’ll keep my mouth shut, sheesh.” Solveig gave an exaggerated sigh, mimicking Rachel’s from earlier. “You’re way too serious, boss. We can do magic.“
”We still have to worry about the rest of the world beyond just magic,” said Rachel quietly.
”Just don’t forget what’s out there.”
”I’m heading out!”
She looked up from the kitchen counter, where she’d been spreading peanut-butter as evenly as she could. “Have a good day at work!”
Her fiancé shut the door. She went back to finishing lunch, carefully spreading, making sure it was even on every single edge.
Can’t miss a single one. It has to be perfect.
Once she’d made sure it was as even as possible, she got out the jelly—grape, the best jelly. She wouldn’t ever accept anything else on a sandwich, and she knew for sure her son wouldn’t either.
”The latest news from the Northwest,” blared the TV. She started to pick up the remote to change it—her fiancé had left it on the news, but she didn’t enjoy watching the news anymore. It was all fearmongering and alarmist nonsense, and it set her off like nothing else.
Except this time, she couldn’t turn it off. Something had caught her eye.
”Today, officials finally received word that Brian Hendricks, the notorious leader behind the anti-magic movement, has been arrested. Hendricks is currently being held inside the blackout zone at the National Guard forward operating base, and will be transferred out to Olympia for trial at the earliest opportunity. We aren’t able to show a photo yet due to difficulties getting reporters on the scene, but witnesses describe him as a man in his late thirties. One described him as ‘terrifying’, and the sentiment seems common around the camp.”
She shook her head. It was all rotten.
The boy rushed out of his room, backpack already on, struggling to put on his socks.
”It’s almost ready, Nick,” she said as patiently as she could.
”But I’m gonna be laaate!”
”Just a few more minutes.”
A knock at their apartment door. She nearly dropped the knife, but caught it at just the last moment. “Just a minute!”
”Moooom!” Nicholas tugged on her pant sleeve. She felt the emotions rushing up to her, and she couldn’t hold them back—there was just too much, it overwhelmed her.
”Nick!” she snapped. She turned, knife in hand, to stare down at him. “You will be patient.”
Her son was suddenly very quiet. She glared at him for a few more seconds, before finally turning back to her work. Two final even swipes and the jelly was perfectly spread as well. She took the two slices of bread and placed them together, and as she squeezed down, it merged into one perfect sandwich.
She put it in the lunchbox, zipped it up, and finally handed it to Nick.
”Where’s your coat?”
”…I forgot it,” said Nick quietly. “It’s at school.”
She sighed. “All right. Make sure you keep warm all the way there, okay?”
Another knock at the door.
”Coming!” She hurried over and swung the door open wide. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.”
”It’s all right, Mrs. Alderson,” said the kind young woman standing there, a gaggle of elementary-school kids around her. “We were playing a game. Hi, Nick!”
”Hi, Kimmy!” said Nick.
”You know her?” she asked her son, surprised. Kimmy wasn’t the normal person to walk their apartment block’s kids to school, but she had the badge and everything. To hear her son recognize the girl was a bit of a relief.
”Yeah! She comes to our class sometimes.” Nick rushed past the kids. “Come on!”
The whole group hurried off to the next door, leaving Kimmy in the dust. She laughed as they ran off. Neither of them were concerned—the kids were just chasing each other up and down the walkway. They all knew better than to leave Kimmy behind once they actually set off for school.
”It’s nice to meet you, Kimmy.”
”I’m pretty new to the walking program, Mrs. Alderson,” added Kimmy. “I’m so sorry we haven’t met before. It’s just been a little hectic lately.”
”That’s all right. And it’s Miss Alderson, actually.”
”Oh, I thought—”
”I haven’t remarried yet,” she said.
”Okay. No worries.” Kimmy winced as one of the kids tripped on the ground, but they were up and running again in no time. “I’d better get going. See you tomorrow, Miss Alderson!”
She smiled as the kids set off for school, before turning and walking back inside. The news was still playing, still droning on and on about Brian Hendricks—until something else happened.
”And what about this so-called ‘blackout zone’?”
”Created by his daughter, apparently.”
Her fingers tightened on the edges of the kitchen table. She stared at the TV, not daring to believe.
She gasped. The story played on as she stood transfixed, struck dumb, utterly unable to move a muscle.
”Lori?” called a voice from the front door. It was her fiancé. She hadn’t heard the door open, and still, she couldn’t turn to look at him. “I had to come back for my… are you all right?”
Lori Alderson couldn’t answer him. She couldn’t say anything at all, because once upon a time, Lori Alderson had been Lori Hendricks, and there on the television screen was her long-lost daughter, one who she’d believed forever taken from her. She gripped the table even tighter, as though she might break it into pieces.