Chapter 12 — The Emerald City (Part II)
It took Natalie a full hour to find the park Cinza was talking about—assuming it was the right park. It was more than two blocks away, but Cinza hadn't known what store she was at, so Natalie had to hope it was the right one.
The park was much darker than the rest of the city, with the trees blocking out so much of the city and only the paths having any actual lights. Even those were forlorn, many flickering or broken altogether. Trash littered the area in every direction. As Natalie walked into the park, she noticed people left and right with tents or air mattresses, or even just laying on the dirt with ragged blankets.
The entire place made her feel uneasy.
She quickly made her way through the trees dotting the park to the west side. It couldn't be called a forest in any way. Though they'd grown fairly naturally, most of the trees had obviously been cut down. It was a pretender to the real thing. Natalie didn't draw any comfort from it, not when the hum of the city still surrounded them and ragged people stared at her from every direction.
She stood out too much. These people were wearing very practical clothes, in varying states of overuse and decay. Windbreakers, rain jackets, layers upon torn layers. Natalie, in sharp contrast, was still wearing the last dress she'd picked out from the store, a very soft and comfortable blue with swathes of patterns that faded in and out, reaching down to her knees. She had dark jeans and her new jacket on too, but she desperately wished she'd changed back to her t-shirt. The dress marked her to the crowd, too nice and too pretty.
Natalie tried to tuck it into her jeans as she walked, but it stubbornly fell back out again after only a few steps. Frustrated, she gave up and just zipped up her jacket tight, so that only the lower part of the dress was visible.
She kept walking, trying not to look around at the groups of people. Their eyes were sunken and glazed over, their faces gaunt and dead-looking. She'd seen dead people before, and these people reminded her of the same glassy-eyed, empty look. A few called out to her as she passed, but she ignored them and sped up a little, as fast as she could manage without actually running.
A nook set into one of the trees beckoned to her. There wasn't anyone within a few dozen feet, and she could sit against the trunk so that no one could sneak up on her, just like Cinza said. She sat down, brushed the dirt off of her clothes, and settled in to wait. She had no idea how long it would take to get from Rallsburg to Seattle.
Natalie didn't have any books, or any music, or anything to do at all. All she had left was magic, but there were so many people around. They kept giving her odd glances, too. There weren't any other kids around that she saw. Are they looking at me because I'm just a teenager? Is it the clothes?
...Or do they know what I am?
She was feeling pressure again, the relentless foe she'd avoided all day. She wanted to get rid of the dress, in the vague hope that they might stop looking at her, but she couldn't. She didn't have anything else to wear.
Cinza said to wait here. I don't have any way to get back to the house. I don't have my bus pass and I don't have the money to get another one. I have to wait.
She tried to calm herself down, taking deep breaths like Hailey always said. She wanted to close her eyes and retreat again, but she was too afraid to look away for even a moment. Her vision kept darting back and forth across the space in front of the tree, checking on each of the small groups visible from her little spot. They were preparing for bed, or having a last minute meal, or just talking in low, dull voices.
Again, there was a quick glance across the space to her little corner.
Is he just looking at me since I keep looking at him?
Cinza had told her no one there would hurt her. She'd also said they weren't friendly people. The two didn't seem to mesh, but Natalie trusted Cinza. She didn't like Cinza, but she trusted the strange girl. The difference between the two was something she'd learned over the last few months, and she really didn't like it.
Cinza had always struck Natalie as too weird to be anything good. She seemed fake in a lot of ways—like she were constantly pretending and lying to everyone. Natalie wondered how much of that opinion was her dad's, after the group had become public knowledge in the town, but she found herself agreeing with him even after everything that had happened. The Grey cult was just weird. They wore weird clothes, they all talked in weird ways in public, and they always seemed to be giving Rachel headaches. The few times Natalie had actually interacted with them, Cinza had been weirdly eager to talk to her, and it made her uncomfortable.
But Cinza and her people had helped stop Jackson, so maybe they weren't all bad. Just so long as Natalie didn't have to talk to them.
What's going on, Hailey? Where are you? Why can't you come help me?
"Hey." A gruff voice from her side. Natalie looked around, a spike of fear driving through her brain. A middle-aged guy, wearing two different coats and two shirts underneath. He had hard eyes, the kind that only scary people ever had. "You."
Natalie wasn't sure she should talk to any of these people. The less she interacted with anyone, the better, right? She should just stay totally still and wait. But the guy didn't seem to be leaving…
"What're you doin' out here?"
Natalie still didn't answer. She thought that answer should be obvious, anyway. Why wasn't this guy asking everyone that?
"You don't belong out here. Go back to your parents' place. Running away isn't gonna solve anything."
He's not gonna give up. "I can't."
He grunted. "'Course you can. Just go back there. You walked here, di'int you? Don't see anything on ya."
"I don't have any money or bus passes."
He frowned. "What if I gave you one?"
Even if you did, I have no idea how to get home. And I can't tell you where it is. "I still can't."
She didn't answer. Cinza wouldn't want me to tell anyone about her. Not even that she's coming to get me. Don't reveal anything. Keep it all quiet.
The guy sighed. He crouched down next to her, but still a good half-dozen feet away. Even so, she felt like he was too close. She shifted away pointedly. He shook his head. "I'm not gonna do anything. But seriously, you don't belong here. It's obvious. Go home before something happens."
"What's gonna happen?"
He raised an eyebrow. "Something to ask your parents about."
"Hey Tom!" called another gruff voice from somewhere Natalie couldn't see. "Everythin' all right?"
"Yeah," he called back.
Another guy emerged around the tree, glancing down at her. "Oh hey, what've you got here?"
"Runaway, probably. Being rebellious and shit."
The other guy whistled. "Damn, she's young. Girl, what the hell you doin'? Go home already. Mommy's waitin'."
"No, she isn't," Natalie snapped.
Both of them looked surprised she'd finally spoken with actual force. Tom rubbed his stubbly, ill-kept beard. "Mom's out of the picture, huh? Sorry, kid."
"Big fuckin' deal, who doesn't have a dead mom?" sneered Tom's friend. "She probably went with a needle in her arm like the rest of the retards around here."
"Knock it off," said Tom.
"Girl needs to learn." The other guy crouched next to Natalie and reached out a hand to grab her arm. Natalie reacted, slapping his hand away with a bit more force than she meant to. He jumped back, wringing his hand in pain. "Jesus."
"Hurt like hell. That girl's got an arm."
"Serves you right, asshole." Tom shot him a dark look. "She's just a kid. Ten year olds don't need to hear that kind of talk."
"I'm thirteen," Natalie put in, unable to stop herself. She'd always hated how young most people assumed she was.
Tom looked surprised. His eyes slid over her again. "Sorry. Thirteen, not ten. Either way, you don't need to hear this idiot's stupid shit."
"Whatever, man." Tom's friend stood up. "Just get her to go home already. Shit, I'll even walk her there if it's not far. Might get a reward."
Natalie watched him carefully as he walked away. "He doesn't seem like a good friend," she commented.
"I wouldn't call him a friend at all." Tom sat down on the dirt against the other half of the tree, keeping a thick root between the two of them. "He's just someone you gotta live with, you know?"
Natalie thought about Quinn, and Kendra, and all the other people she had to live with. "Yeah."
Tom smiled. "You're way smarter than most kids your age, aren't you?"
Natalie shook her head. "I'm not. I screwed up. That's why I'm here."
"It happens." He sighed. "So you really can't go home, huh?"
"No." Even if I knew how, I can't go home without finding my bag. I need it.
"Well, if you're gonna stay the night, I'm stickin' around. Is that all right?"
Natalie hesitated. Better to have two people watching out than just one, right? Plus I'm pretty sure I could take him in a fight if I had to. "...Okay."
"Cool." He stood up. "I'm gonna go get a blanket. You want one? I've got a spare."
The chill really was starting to settle in. Her jacket wasn't really doing that much, and the blue dress was thin and light. Natalie gave him a quick nod. He smiled again.
"Be right back."
Natalie tried to make herself comfortable while she waited, but there was only so much she could do. The tree was a bit too stiff and straight to make for a good place to rest, but she didn't want to move and lose her spot. She wished she knew Cinza's trick for shaping trees with magic, but she'd never gotten to learn it. Not that I could do it with all these people around…
Luckily, Tom returned pretty quickly, with two reasonably intact and thick blankets. He started to hold one out for her, but paused. "You know, if you took your jacket off, you could use it as a pillow. The blanket'll do better at keepin' you warm anyway."
It made sense, so Natalie started to take it off. As she did, she noticed Tom's eyes drifting down to her shoulders. Her dress only had two very thin blue straps to hold it up, and she didn't have anything else. She didn't like how he was looking at her, but he was the only person to offer her any kind of help in this awful place. Natalie quickly grabbed the blanket out of his hand and wrapped herself up in it, leaning against the bundled jacket.
A headache she hadn't noticed began to fade, thanks to the cushion between the hard bark of the trunk and her head. Natalie finally allowed herself to relax a little, right up until Tom took the seat next to her. This time, he was sitting on her side of the root instead of staying separate. The blanket offered her a small buffer, but she could feel his presence nearby. Something indescribable, somewhere between a scent and a warmth. It was unpleasant, and she wished it would just go away.
But if she made him go away, she'd be noticed. She couldn't get him to leave without her real power, could she?
"Tom?" she asked quietly.
"I'm kinda used to sleeping alone."
He shook his head, and her heart sank. "Can't do that. It's not safe out here."
"I can take care of myself."
"So can I, but I still wouldn't want to sleep alone. Too many people around here are willin' to take advantage of ya." He yawned, and as he did, he crept incrementally closer to her. "Don't worry. Everyone here knows not to mess with me. You'll be okay."
Natalie wanted to bolt away, but she felt like that would provoke him. A woman walked by. One of the gaunt-faced walking dead Natalie had seen earlier. Her expression was so flat and empty. Natalie wondered if she could feel anything at all. When she looked over at Natalie and her unwanted companion, her eyes drooped slightly. She opened her mouth slightly, and Natalie felt a small burst of hope.
Then the woman's mouth closed, her arms dropped back to her sides, and she wandered away again.
A weight dropped on Natalie's shoulders. Tom had put an arm around her, as if giving her a side-hug. She felt a burst of panic. She felt trapped, so trapped, and there was nothing she could do about it. Every instinct she had started shouting over each other at once, telling her to run, to fight, to summon a massive burst of lightning and force Tom to get away from her.
But people were still looking at her, and Cinza had told her to wait. Natalie couldn't stop him physically, and she couldn't use magic in a place like this. There was nothing she could do.
"Everything's all right," Tom murmured. His hand had taken hold of her shoulder.
Natalie tensed up. If he moved an inch further, she was going to stop him, no matter what the consequences might be.
Tom's hand moved an inch down her arm, and she did nothing.
Why can't I do anything? she cried out in her head. Why am I just sitting here?
Why isn't anyone else doing anything about this?
"Stop," she said aloud.
"Stop what?" Tom asked, and his hand did stop, but only for an instant.
Natalie didn't know how to say it. She just repeated the word again. "Stop."
Tom didn't answer that time, but his hand kept moving regardless of her words. She finally, reluctantly acted. Her hand moved up to push his away.
His hand caught her own in a vice grip.
"Stop!" she said, louder.
"Shh." Tom nudged her closer to him with his grip. She felt surrounded, trapped, overwhelmed. "Everyone here's trying to sleep. No one wants to be woken up."
She didn't know what to do. His hands kept moving. Touching. She held as still as she could, but every muscle in her body screamed at her to run. To get away as fast as possible and not look back.
Why was he doing this? What had she done wrong? Why was this happening to her?
"Please stop," she whispered.
He didn't stop.
I'm sorry, Cinza.
Natalie finally let open the floodgates. She murmured a spell as fast as possible, and magic surged into her arms.
She shoved Tom aside. He tumbled away sputtering, rolling ten feet across the grass. Natalie grabbed up her jacket and fled. She ran, as fast as she could, away from the horrible park and back again into the city streets.
It was past midnight now, from a clock she spotted through a window. She was in a part of the city she didn't remember, with no fancy colorful stores or bright lights. Many of the streets had broken lamps, and the entire place reeked in a way that made her wish she couldn't smell at all.
Anything's better than what I just came from.
Natalie needed help. She called out, as loud as she could. <Come help me, please!>
Nothing. A housecat peeked out of a window, but it just gave her a cold glare and went back inside, probably to a meal it had been enjoying. Natalie's stomach rumbled at the thought. I need food. But she had no money, and the food she'd been saving was in her bag… wherever that was.
Natalie wandered the streets without a clear direction in mind. She thought about going into an overnight place and asking if they could spare her something, but she couldn't bear talking to anyone yet. Besides, if they rejected her, what else might they do? She couldn't risk it.
A vague smell of fresh bread wafted past her nose. Natalie couldn't help it—she followed it, as best she could tell by just walking where it seemed to get stronger. It lead her down another alley, to a fenced-off building with CONDEMNED signs all over the windows. They reminded her of the old library in Rallsburg, which had also been planned to be taken down someday. Her dad said they'd just forgotten about it, like the rest of the town.
That library was the only place to survive, in the end.
The scent of bread lead her to a heavy iron door set into a brick wall. Natalie grabbed at it, meaning to slide it to the side just a tiny bit and look in, but it was too heavy. She hesitated, then sent another burst of magic into her arms. This time, she felt the strain a little. She was too hungry to be able to exert herself properly.
Still, she managed to open the door. Too far, as it slid way further than she meant to.
The interior was a wide open space, with a concrete floor covered in scattered flyers and other random debris. A half-dozen young guys sat in folding chairs around a small fire. At the door's grinding, they looked up startled. The one nearest the door rushed her down before Natalie could react, grabbing her by the wrist.
No! Don't touch me! Stop! she screamed out in her head, but she was too afraid to say anything aloud. She started to pull away, but his grip was too strong and she'd already released the spell on her arms.
"Who the fuck are you?" the guy asked, while one of the others dragged the door shut again.
"No one," Natalie said quickly. She wanted to enhance her arm again, but she worried what they might do if they saw her cast a spell right in front of them. She couldn't do it without saying something, like she could with the lightning, and reactions to her magic from normal people were always bad.
"She's like eleven years old. How a puny-ass girl like her move that?" called out one of the guys sitting around the fire.
"She ain't no eleven years old. She sixteen at least. A very fine sixteen, too."
"You're trippin', she ain't sixteen. Wearin' makeup and a pretty dress, but she just a kid."
"Check it out," said a much stronger voice. A seventh guy, slightly older than the rest, emerged from an adjoining room in the wall. He held a tray of steaming bread in oven-mitted hands, with an apron tied around his front. He might have looked totally out of place… if he didn't have a gleaming silver handgun in the front pocket of the apron.
Immediately, the door guy dragged it open again and went outside. The guy holding Natalie by the wrist lead her over to the campfire, sitting her down in the chair at the other end of the circle. "Stay there, okay?" he said, not unkindly. Natalie was just grateful he'd let go of her. Every moment she could feel him touching her was another she was reminded of… earlier.
It was a few minutes of tense silence, with the rest of the group watching her or the door. The leader calmly sliced up the loaves of bread with a long serrated knife, watching the heavy steel door with heavy, unblinking eyes.
"All good, boss," said the door guy as he returned. "No one out there."
"So how the hell did she open the door?" asked one of the others.
"Ask her, you moron."
"Hey little girl, how the hell you open that door?"
"I just did," she replied, very quietly. She didn't dare try to make something up in her current state. Her mind was starting to slow down from fatigue and hunger. She just wanted to eat the bread the boss was chopping up. It smelled so good. Her eyes kept drifting to it, before she snapped them away and back to the fire.
"You're hungry, aren't you?" The boss was too observant. He'd noticed. The firelight glinted off his blade as he finished cutting the bread. "Want some?"
"Yes, please," she whispered.
"Tell me how you got in here."
"I just opened it."
He frowned. "Go close it for me then."
Natalie didn't see any other way out of it. The guy was too serious, and she didn't want to make them mad. She couldn't take them all on, not right now. Reluctantly, she walked toward the door. There was a brief moment where the door-guy looked away, and she quickly muttered the spell in that second she had an opportunity.
With a gentle shove, she slid the door closed. The door-guy gaped at her from beneath his thick, heavy black bangs, but he didn't say anything. She wandered back to the fire, feeling a little pleased with herself. Even under the circumstances, it was still fun to show off a bit. "I did it."
The boss laughed. "Whatever. You earned your fuckin' bread." He kicked the nearest guy, who was starting to nod off. Apparently Natalie wasn't the only tired one in the group. "Get some plates out, asshole. Time to eat."
Natalie ate quietly and quickly, staring at the fire while the guys talked and joked. She just wanted to get out of there, as fast as possible, but they were still watching her. Especially the boss, who was making her feel uncomfortable. He was still way too curious about her. She was getting worried again.
She'd have to get away from this group, and Natalie wasn't sure yet if she could do that.
"So what, you a gutter surfer?"
"What?" Natalie looked up, realizing they were talking to her again.
"Street trash. Park ranger."
"Homeless," the boss added, kicking the other guy in the foot.
"Kinda," she answered.
"In a crew?"
"Fuck no she ain't in a crew," said a weasely-looking guy through a mouthful of bread. "You think anyone's gonna lose that? She looks well-raised and shit. Could snatch whatever the fuck she wants without breakin' a sweat."
"No kiddin'," agreed the door-guy. "And with muscles like that, no fuckin' card puncher's gonna stop that ass from makin' the street."
"You up for hirin', or running solo?" said Weasel-face.
"He wants you to work for us," said a guy with huge tattoo across half of his face. He was lounging back against the ragged couch they'd dragged in, with another guy fast asleep draped across his chest.
She shook her head. "I can't."
"What the fuck else you gonna do? If you steppin' our turf for goddamn grain sticks, you ain't doin' shit for yourself." He glanced over her, but with less of the uncomfortable leer and more of a bland inspection. Like she were just the chair, and not actually a person sitting in it. "I'm surprised no one tried pimpin' you yet. How long you been crawlin' corners?"
What does that even mean? "I don't."
He raised an eyebrow. "So what the hell you do before now?"
"I don't live in Seattle."
"Good for you, this place is shit," said Door-guy. "Where you from?"
"Tacoma," she said, as the only other big town she knew anything about.
"Nevermind. Fuck that town."
"I should go," Natalie said, getting to her feet.
Instantly, Tattoo-face and the boss were also on their feet. Tattoo-face shook his head. "Sorry, shorty. You can't go."
"You seen where we holin' up. Can't have you snitchin'."
Natalie glanced around. There didn't seem to be much to care about. It had an actual kitchen, which she supposed was important, but other than that it wasn't a particularly impressive building. Another room had a few patchwork mattresses on the ground, and across the main hall she saw a bunch of small bags of what looked like… ice? It was white and looked kind of like crystal splinters.
From the way it was packed away, well out of sight of the door, Natalie figured that must be what they were so protective of. Drugs, she assumed, but she didn't know enough to know what kind of drugs they might be. She barely knew anything at all, but they'd come up in a special Health class at school once or twice. She knew they were dangerous.
Natalie intended to steer well clear of those bags, but that apparently wasn't enough for the guys.
"I just want to leave the city," she said, standing up again. The bread was reaching her stomach, and she felt better already. The nausea was going away, and her head didn't feel so light and empty. She felt a lot more confident than she did before, but still—she really didn't want to fight anyone. Especially when the boss still had that gleaming silver pistol, and who knew what other guns and weapons they might have?
"Wish I could believe you," said the boss. He glanced over at Tattoo-face, who shook his head slowly. "But you ain't leaving unless we know you ain't gonna tell anyone where our stash is. If you snitches, we get the stitches, you feel me?"
"They kill all of us," said Door-guy, surprisingly casually. "Bang bang, two to the head."
"Fuck no, they ain't gonna waste two bullets on your skinny ass," said Weasel-face.
"Sure they will, they won't want to see these pearls starin' back at 'em when they done." He opened his eyes wide and screwed them up, making a goofy face. "Give 'em fuckin' shit-their-pants nightmares."
"So what am I supposed to do?" asked Natalie. If it isn't too bad, maybe I can just get away quietly.
"What is she supposed to do?" asked the boss, looking at Tattoo-face.
He frowned. "Can't snitch if she can't even get an ear. Two ways I call it. 'nitiate her, mark her good and clean so they ain't let her within a mile."
Natalie looked around confused. What did that mean?
"You think she can run with us?" asked Weasel-face.
"He's a fuckin' captain, little bitch-face," said Tattoo-face's companion, not opening his eyes. Apparently not asleep after all. "You shits are just stash patrol."
"You want me to join you guys?" Natalie asked, trying to figure out what was going on before something happened beyond her control.
"You w-want an eleven year old g-girl workin' a stash house?" said the guy who hadn't spoken up yet, with a bit of a stutter. Natalie noticed he also had a gun, though, and everyone else fell silent the moment he spoke up. He was someone to be worried about.
"Bitch, I was blazin' when I was less than a dime, so shut yo ass and listen up," snapped Tattoo-face. "I didn't say she'd be workin'. I just said to initiate her."
Door-guy looked uneasy. "Kinda harsh."
"What's going on?" Natalie asked, fear of the unknown overcoming her fear of the guys.
"He wants to mark you as one of us," Door-guy explained. He pointed at a scar on his face she hadn't noticed before. Why is it always stupid scars? She looked around and noticed that they all had the same mark on their face. "You get cut up and that makes you one of us. Also means you take one step on someone else's turf and you ain't steppin' back, y'feel? They don't take no chances."
"What's the other option?" Natalie asked quickly, looking back to Tattoo-face.
He shrugged. "Cut'chyo tongue out so you can't talk any which way."
Natalie's blood became ice. She froze in her chair, staring at him. Her eyes could no longer blink. Her hand shook in place. He'd said it so casually. How could someone talk like that?
"Why not just kill her?" asked the boss.
"I ain't killin' a little girl. I got standards."
"Whatever the fuck that means," muttered Door-guy.
"Bitch want to mouth off again?"
"Shut the fuck up," the boss snapped at Door-guy. He deflated immediately.
Natalie stood up very suddenly. They all looked at her with interest. She shook her head. "No. Please, don't do this."
"Girl, you trespass on our house uninvited, the fuck you think was gonna go down?" Tattoo-face shrugged. "Only 'cause I like your voice, I'm gonna make this easy on you." He nodded. "Hold her down."
Natalie bolted for the door, but Weasel-face tripped her up. She tumbled to the ground. "Don't ruin your pretty dress now," he sneered.
That's it. Natalie wasn't taking any more of that. She rolled over again and got to her feet. Weasel-face was coming at her with hands outstretched. He was over a foot taller and a lot bigger than her, but he was underestimating her.
Her little fist sank into his stomach. He flew back a good twelve feet, landing on his back with a heavy thud.
The rest of the group stared at her with a mixture of confusion and awe. "Shit, girl," murmured Door-guy. "Do that again."
"The fuck you waiting for, motherfucker?" shouted the boss. "Grab her!"
Natalie glanced at the door, but the moment she looked back, Stutter had drawn his gun. He held his aim on the door. "D-Don't try anything st-tupid, okay?"
"Just let me go!" she shouted. "I won't tell anyone!"
"You know how much that fuckin' pile is worth?" said the boss. "Don't make this hard on us, kid."
Natalie took a step toward the door. Maybe Stutter wouldn't pull the trigger. That happened sometimes, right? People were too scared to actually shoot. She was a kid. People didn't shoot kids.
The moment her foot lifted for a second step, a gunshot pierced her ears. It was so much louder than the hunting rifles she was used to, like it was bouncing around the room and doubling over on itself. Her ears pounded like they were trying to cram themselves inside her skull.
"I said d-don't d-do it," Stutter shouted over the ringing in their ears, though he lowered the gun anyway.
"Fuckin' idiot," said Tattoo-face, decking him. He crumpled like a stack of cards. "This place ain't soundproof."
The boss took advantage of the confusion and Natalie's momentary hesitation to close the gap on her. She twisted around, but he'd already managed to grab her. Lifting her off her feet, he started to carry her back toward the fire. "It'll only take a few minutes. Stop trying to run."
"Don't touch me!" she screamed. Natalie tried to kick her way free, but he was too strong. She switched tactics, reaching for a different form of magic. The electricity was waiting for her.
She reached out and grabbed the boss by the neck, letting all the lightning coursing around her body travel into him. His entire head snapped to the side, and he instantly dropped her. She landed on her feet, and he dropped heavily behind her, gasping for breath.
"What the fuck…" said Tattoo-face. Weasel-face held up his hands, backing away a few steps. Stutter had retrieved the gun, uncertain but watching her closely.
"Let me go," Natalie repeated desperately.
"I'm changin' my mind," Tattoo-face said slowly. "Maybe I do want you blazin' for us." He got up from the couch, and started walking toward her. Natalie was breathing heavily. She'd put way too much into that last burst of electricity, and she was tired. Even with the little bit of bread she'd had, she was still too hungry to maintain a strong front. Her arms and legs were shaking.
She stood her ground. All bets were off. I'm sorry, Rachel. If these people were gonna try to touch her again, she'd take them all down. No matter what she had to reveal.
Tattoo-face made a motion with his hand, like a quick karate chop. Natalie tried to figure out what he meant. It took her a split-second, and that was more than enough.
Door-guy, who'd managed to get behind her while she was focused on the rest, whacked her in the side of the head. She lost all concentration, the magic she'd gathered up flooding back into her core again unused. As she fell sideways, her vision got blurry and dimmed a little. She could still see just long enough to watch Door-guy's apologetic eyes swim into view, as Tattoo-guy walked up to join him.
The next few minutes were hazy and hard to follow, but Natalie never actually lost consciousness. When they cut into the side of her cheek with a knife, marking a spiraling trail up towards her ear, she could feel it. She felt every moment of it, but she could barely do more than cry in pain and try to crawl away.
Her arms and legs didn't respond to her desperate pleas to move. They were trapped, held down by unseen force. Natalie felt like she'd been reduced to just a quivering voice inside her own skull. She could feel them doing something else to the scar, something to preserve it from the snatches of conversation she caught. She groaned and tried to get away, but they held her down easily.
What about magic? suggested a quiet voice, sifting up to the surface of her brain. Use your magic.
Natalie reached for it, boiling away somewhere in the core of her body. Even if her limbs couldn't do anything, so long as she could still speak she could bring forth that power. She murmured a spell, anything she could do to try and force them away.
A tiny zap was all she managed. Door-guy felt a quick shock as his hand touched her face. He recoiled, but he was back a moment later as if nothing had happened, stopping the flow of blood down her cheek.
The pain and the exhaustion and the haziness were too much. Natalie's eyes slid closed. She couldn't do anything else. Her body refused to respond, and she couldn't muster up the connection to magic she'd relied upon for so long. She was trapped.
Time passed and they seemed to leave her alone. Natalie opened her eyes, trying to figure out where she was. From the light and the color of the walls, she assumed they'd moved her onto one of the mattresses. Door-guy was sitting nearby, and once he noticed she was moving, he hurried to her side.
"Don't move around so much. You got bandages."
Natalie reached up to touch them, and groaned involuntarily at the sharp pain. She recoiled. Door-guy looked uncomfortable.
"Why?" she asked, trying not to cough. She knew a cough would only make her feel so much worse.
"...told you why," he said, looking away.
"I just wanted to go home."
"Couldn't risk you tellin' no one."
Natalie's senses were returning. Door-guy handed her some more of the bread from earlier, which she nibbled her way through. She didn't think for a second that he was a friend though. He was the reason she'd been blindsided.
He's first. You know what to do.
"I could've won," she murmured.
"Nothing." Natalie's strength was already coming back, but she felt impatient. She felt strange. Weirdly calm, in spite of the pain and the hunger. She started wolfing down the bread heedless of how she felt. She needed energy, and food was energy… in a way. More importantly, she remembered she still had a gemstone in her pocket, in addition to the emerald on the pendant around her neck. They hadn't bothered to take it from her.
She picked up the pendant with one hand, holding onto it tight and feeling out for the energy inside. It had enough. More than enough.
"That's real pretty." He leaned away and grabbed her jacket, handing it over to her. "Sorry."
She shook her head. He winced, but the bandages didn't move. They were strong enough. Natalie pulled the jacket on, warding herself away from the night chill. "I can go now, right?"
"Yeah, but if you want to stay 'til that scabs over, I gotchu. They ain't gonna bust you so hard now that they know you can't go snitch."
Couldn't anyone just go spy on you if they make their own mark, then? This doesn't make sense. None of this place makes any sense. I hate it. Still, Natalie wasn't about to say that out loud. If she pointed out the flawed logic, they might change their mind about letting her go.
"If I go back out the door, what way should I go?"
"Walk the coast and follow that back all the way to downtown. You're tryin' to get back to Tacoma, right?"
She shrugged. South in general was good enough.
"We own the coast, so no one's gonna fuck with you down there." He handed her a glass of water, which she downed gratefully. He hesitated. "So… They're gonna ask you if you want to work for us. Actual enforcement shit."
She didn't respond, biting into another piece of bread with a blank expression.
"Look, it's way better than trickin', and that's where most girls like you end up. I think you could be a warrior. You seem like you could handle it, and no one expects a kid to pull the shit you can pull." He was trying to sound nice. "I mean, blazin' ain't bad work. You get paid, you get girls—or guys, or both, if that's your deal," he added quickly. "Wait, you ain't even old enough to get that, are you? I'm an idiot. You'll love it someday though. Shit, you even get some of the product if you use. So long as you can keep it clean on a run, you do whatever the fuck you want. You get to be a king."
"Queen," she murmured.
"Queen, sure, whatever the fuck you want. British fuckers got a queen right?"
She nodded. She got to her feet, finding it much easier than she expected. The pain on the side of her face didn't subside, but she didn't really want it to. It was a constant reminder for her, keeping her awake. Alert.
You're in control now. They don't know it yet, but you do. Do it.
Natalie walked to the door of the room, Door-guy right behind her. She emerged back into the main floor. The fire had barely dipped at all, so very little time had passed. The group was still seated around the fire, though they looked up as she walked forward to the edge of the circle.
Tattoo-face was back on his couch with his companion. His expression was still just as casual and blank as before. "Little bitch tell you what's on offer?"
She nodded. For some reason, she didn't really feel afraid of them anymore. Maybe it was because she'd decided not to hold back, or maybe it was because they'd already shown what they were willing to do. Either way, all the ambiguity was gone. In its place was the beginning of a cascade, like a drum solo that was slowly building up to a fierce crescendo. Natalie had listened to her father play so many of those solos. One day, she'd manage to play along with him. She'd been learning the piano just for that reason.
She'd probably never get the chance now.
"Your call, girl. I don't want a fighter who ain't gonn' show when the time comes. No one can be forced into this shit. Butchu ain't gonna get another offer anywhere else. That mark's permanent. You one of us whether you wanna be or not."
Natalie glanced around. They were all still seated. None of them were prepared. Stutter had lost his gun. The boss still had his, tucked into the apron he still hadn't taken off, but his hand wasn't anywhere near it. Weasel-face was watching her resentfully, and Tattoo-face's companion wasn't paying any attention at all.
"Do you want me to fight?" Natalie asked carefully, feigning being slow from her injuries. She just needed a few more seconds. Just to make sure. Memories of Rachel floated through her mind, shouting at her to defend herself in a street full of fear and rage.
I didn't want to do this. They made me. I didn't have a choice.
"Shit, how hard did you fuckin' hit her?" Tattoo-face asked Door-guy.
They were going to kill you. These guys are going to kill you. If you want to live, you have to fight back.
"It wasn't that hard!"
I don't want to die.
"I'm okay," Natalie said. "I'm thirteen though."
You have to kill.
"I'm not eleven years old. I'm thirteen."
Tattoo-face looked confused, as did the rest of them. It didn't matter anymore though. Natalie had more than enough time to finish what she'd started.
She dropped down to one knee. She'd gathered up energy for minutes, everything she could muster, along with the energy in the gemstone she'd pulled out of her jacket pocket. The stone wasn't the right kind for the spell she was about to use, but it was still energy. It disintegrated into dust between her fingers.
She flung out her palm, fingers pointing forward, and shouted the last part in the spell. It tore at her lungs and throat as it came out, leaving her mouth raw, louder than she'd ever shouted before. Her entire body felt it leave in a rush of blood and energy.
A massive lightning blast crackled out, arcing around the room like a snake. It snapped out at the first thing it could latch onto—the metal gun in the boss' apron. The gun was utterly disintegrated. The lightning kept going, rolling through him and arcing around to the next guy.
It leapt around the circle. The boss was flung backward over his chair, skidding across the concrete. Weasel-face took the brunt of the next jump, and collapsed as though he were a puppet with its strings cut. Tattoo-guy's companion was next in line, and fared no better. The couch began to smoke as the lightning arced across it, catching fire an instant later.
Tattoo-guy fell to the ground twitching. Stutter collapsed too, finally, as the lightning burned through the rest of the energy Natalie had given it.
It was enough.
She twisted around, with another quick spell on her lips, and shoved Door-guy away before he could do anything. He flew backward, ten feet head-over-heels, and landed on the mattress in the room they'd just left.
Panting, Natalie started for the heavy steel door in the wall. A bullet slammed out with another earsplitting pop from the gun, embedding into the wall only a few feet in front of her.
"Hey bitch. I ain't done with you."
Tattoo-face was still awake. How? She'd put so much into that lightning blast. It felt just like the ones she'd done back in Rallsburg. Were there just too many people in the way this time? Or was it more than that? Did she have a better energy source back then? Something else to make her lightning so strong?
She didn't have time to figure it out. Tattoo-face must have grabbed the other gun, which hadn't gotten annihilated by the lightning. She slowly turned around to face him, and found herself facing a loaded gun once again. He growled through gritted teeth. "Don't move, don't say a word. Whatever the fuck you just did, you're gonna tell me how."
How can I do that if I can't say a word? Natalie wondered, but she didn't dare move regardless. No matter how shaky his aim might be, it was still close enough that she didn't want to risk it. She was staring down the barrel of the pistol, and it was one of the most terrifying things she'd ever seen. Even more than the golems, or the mob of angry men in Rallsburg.
This was a real gun, something that could kill her in an instant if his finger twitched just slightly. Her dad had taught her about guns, and instilled a healthy fear. A gun didn't feel anything. It didn't know anything. It just killed.
"Check 'em," he shouted at Door-guy, who was finally recovering from the punch Natalie had thrown. He limped around the circle, checking for a pulse on each of them.
"Dead. Every fuckin' one."
"All of 'em?" Tattoo-face asked, surprised. Natalie was too. She was pretty sure Stutter had still been alive. Apparently not. And soon I won't be either. It's over.
"All of 'em. Straight dead or choked dead, I dunno shit. I'm not a doctor. But none of 'em got a pulse."
Don't give up. Fight.
Tattoo-face whistled slightly. "Damn."
Natalie didn't know what to say, so she said nothing at all. She just kept watching the gun barrel, too afraid to let it out of her gaze. I'm going to die here. He's going to kill me. I tried everything I could and none of it worked. I had to hurt people again and it was for nothing.
I'm going to die.
Tattoo-face shook his head slightly. "You're a cold-ass brat, ain't you? Kill four guys and not a fuckin' word."
"I just wanted to go home. I didn't want to hurt anyone," Natalie said, feeling despair flowing through her brain like an empty wave. "You guys wouldn't let me."
"How'd you do it?"
Natalie didn't have to answer. Out of nowhere, a gray-robed figure appeared behind Tattoo-face, standing on a chair.
A knife flashed straight to his throat, slicing him wide open. As he fell, the gun flew from his hand on its own and landed in the figure's palm. In an instant, before Natalie could react, the figure twisted around and fired two clean shots into Door-guy's chest.
They both collapsed. The gunshots rang in her ears. Natalie slowly lifted her eyes, after looking away from the sudden gunshots, and there—finally—stood Cinza. Brown-haired and with a streak of blood on her hand, but still… she'd come for Natalie.
A moment later, Cinza's legs buckled. She nearly fell off the chair, only barely catching herself.
Natalie ran to her, putting out the slowly growing fire on the couch as she did, before it started to spread to the whole building. Cinza dropped the gun to the ground, panting heavily.
"Hello," she gasped in her echoing voice. "I'm… sorry… I took so long."