Interlude VI — Fame and Fortune
"Offices of Luther, Renalds and Portman, how may I direct your call?"
"...Hi. I… I'm not sure."
"Do you have a case number?"
"Have you employed our services in the past?"
"No, I… I don't think so. My parents had a different lawyer."
"Did someone from our firm give you a card?"
"No… I was told you guys were good at protecting people. Like whistleblowers."
"...One moment please."
"Hello. My name is Linda Milgram-Renalds. Let me be clear up front: I do not need your name or any identifying information at this stage. Your anonymity and your safety is our top priority. If at any time you feel a threat to your wellbeing, inform us immediately and we will take the appropriate steps. You may also terminate our relationship at any moment if you feel our services are inadequate. Do you understand these protections?"
"You should also know that whistleblowing is fully protected by federal law. It's my job to make sure you don't get tripped up along the way, but the law is on your side."
"...I'm not sure if I'm a whistleblower or not. This is all kinda new to me."
"Well, let's start at the beginning. What organization or company are we discussing?"
"Uhh… well it's not a company really. It's a town."
"A government entity?"
"Not… not really. Look, I'm sorry, maybe I called the wrong place."
"If it's not whistleblowing, are you still trying to expose some form of wrongdoing that the public should be aware of?"
"Yeah. That's right."
"Then I believe I can still be of service. Our firm is more than capable of helping you reach the right people and filing the appropriate suits, if necessary."
"I don't think there's anyone to sue anymore. They're… they're kinda all dead."
"...Sir, may I ask… What are we discussing exactly?"
"Rallsburg. I'm from Rallsburg."
"...You're a survivor?"
"...If I may, why didn't you come forward to the FBI?"
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid for my life. You saw the news, right? Jerry Hauserman."
"I knew him. He was an asshole, but he always brought my stuff on time and never dented it. Seeing him like that…"
"Are you saying that you know what happened to Rallsburg?"
"Yeah. I was there, the whole time. I saw everything."
"And revealing this information would put your life in danger?"
"My life's in danger already. But yeah, if I told anyone, it'd probably get worse. Way worse. I need protection."
"Protection from whom?"
"Well… everyone, really."
"Once I tell this story, the whole world's gonna want a part of it."
"...One moment please."
"Sir, we're prepared to offer you our full services at no cost up front. We can provide discreet transportation and armed security around the clock, as well as room and board under a false identity, while we work on preparing your case. I can offer this to you in writing when we meet, but this is provisional on some proof of your identity and your story."
"I need to know you are who you say you are, and that your story is true."
"Oh. Okay, I can do that."
"I can send a car to pick you up immediately."
"...Can you be in the car too?"
"If that makes you more comfortable."
"I'm really scared. I don't know who to trust anymore."
"Where am I picking you up?"
"I'm calling from Matlock. The post office. Do you know where that is?"
"I'll find it."
"It's south of Rallsburg."
"It might be a while. That's a long drive. Wait right there, and don't talk to anyone. We're on our way."
He hung up the phone, then walked outside and thanked the nice old man who'd let him use it. His own was long-lost and long-dead, and his wallet was nowhere to be found, so for the moment he felt totally stranded. Not that he had anywhere to go.
Two and a half hours later, they finally rolled up. He'd been hiding in the shade underneath the general store. Only a single car had driven by in that entire time, so the sudden squealing appearance of two dark SUVs startled him quite a bit. The man behind the mail counter and the man in the general store both leaned out, gazing dumbfounded at the sudden approach of what may as well have been an invasion.
He waited patiently in the shadows, not daring to show himself until he knew it was actually who he called. Still, this was a good first sign. They were already taking him seriously even when they had no actual proof yet. They lived up to their reputation.
A brown-haired woman in her thirties got out of the lead vehicle, phone in one hand and a briefcase in the other. She stepped out onto the dusty pavement, glancing around. "Hello?" she called, and he recognized her voice.
He emerged from around the side of the building, holding up his hands.
She glanced down at her phone, and her eyes widened in recognition. She beckoned him forward.
She nodded. "Milgram-Renalds, please, or my father will have a fit from beyond the grave."
"You know who I am?"
"Well, yours was one of the few pictures widely published. Particularly after they… err… declared you dead."
"They did what?"
"Well, unlike many of the unidentified dead, you didn't have any next-of-kin. With the sizeable fortune of assets still in your name, the government wanted to reclaim those assets, and well…" She shrugged. "It's something we can work on."
"Obviously not." Linda glanced around the place with a look of disdain, like she was getting ill just by standing there. "I'd rather not stay longer than absolutely necessary, if you don't mind. I just have a few quick papers for you to sign before we set off."
"This is a simple one. It states that you have entered our legal service and that I can act as your legal counsel, with all the protections implied. You understand attorney-client privilege?"
"I can say whatever I want and you can't tell anyone unless I say so?"
"More or less. Unless you tell me you intend to commit a crime."
"No, definitely not."
"I didn't expect as much." She pointed out a couple lines further down. "This is only a temporary legal service that declares you have accepted our physical protection for the next twenty four hours in addition to our representation as a client. We'll extend it as long as necessary, but we want to have it in writing for the short-term here. At any time, you have the right to terminate this, as usual," she added, pointed at another line.
"Okay." He took her offered pen, which wrote perfectly in a nice, dark blue ink, and signed the line at the bottom.
She smiled, then took the page and slid it neatly back into the briefcase, snapping it shut with a satisfying click.
"Thank you for employing the services of Luther, Renalds and Portman, Mr. Price."
She held out her hand, and gingerly, Nate shook it.
"Now, let's get you somewhere more comfortable." She nodded toward the SUV, where a door popped open on command. A sharp-dressed man who barely seemed to fit in his suit was holding it open for him. Nate walked toward the car, feeling a bit more confident with every step.
Finally, he wasn't going to be stuck living in the wilderness and surviving off of scraps he could sneak away from Cinza and her people, or the deliveries Julian brought whenever he came back around. He wasn't going to sleep in a tent he'd stolen from one of Viper's old abandoned camps, or wrapped in a sleeping bag on the dirty ground. No, he was going back to the real life. The one he deserved.
The bundle of tight-bound handwritten journals tucked into his backpack were his ticket out of this hell.
"Mr. Price?" called a voice from the front door. It clicked shut a moment later.
"Here," he called halfheartedly.
She walked into the second half of the tiny two-room apartment, where Nate was slouched across the couch, controller in one hand with his face half-covered by a pillow. His hand barely moved as he played, while she set down the bags of groceries on the counter.
Linda cleared her throat. "Mr. Price."
Nate grunted a low-effort "hmm," in response, not taking his eyes off the screen. He didn't even care about the game anymore. It got boring somewhere around the halfway point. He kept playing just because he hated giving up. It was practically an obligation that he finish, even if every single moment was utter tedium.
"Mr. Price, I have good news. We were able to secure a publisher."
His ears perked up. That was different than the usual speech. He paused the game and dragged himself up to a sitting position, knocking aside an empty bag of chips he'd forgotten about. "What does that mean?"
Nate didn't miss the faint look of disgust that crossed Linda's face. She worked for him, not the other way around. He was going to make them all rich. He deserved a little more respect, didn't he?
She spoke with the practice, measured cadence of a professional. "We've partnered with publishing firms in the past for anonymous stor—"
"I don't want it to be anonymous," he interrupted.
"I'm ready. I want to go public. Do everything."
Linda paused. "Mr. Price, from what you've told me, it seems very likely that you will be attacked if you go public. As your attorney—"
"You guys can protect me, though, right?"
"Our speciality is keeping clients under the radar. This sort of move is… well, the exact opposite."
"So are you saying I need a new lawyer?"
"Not exactly. But you may want to hire additional security as soon as possible, once you have the funding."
"You guys can't do it?"
She shook her head. "The firm can only allocate so much funding to each client."
"Linda, come on. Remember who I am?" Nate said, sitting up straighter. "You can pay for more. We'll make it all back and then some."
"We do have other clientele, Mr. Price."
"No way they're as important as this."
"I'm not at liberty to disclose that information."
He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever."
Linda went on, ignoring him. "In addition to the obvious potential threats from the public, you'll also be dealing with a great deal more federal scrutiny. You should expect a lot of pressure from the FBI, for one."
"I thought you said I was totally fine there?"
"You can't be charged with obstruction, since you never actually spoke to anyone from the federal government. But the moment you enter the public eye, you'll receive a summons for questioning. We can't exactly ignore that."
"Sure we can," said Nate, frowning. "We'll have money. My dad always said, money can buy you out of anything."
"Your father sounds like he was a fascinating man. Regardless, this will be under the banner of national security. They will bring you in for questioning, unless you want to flee the country and seek asylum?"
"Good. I wouldn't advise it, either. Not a government on the planet will leave you alone. They'll all see you as a potential resource. Staying in the United States and in the public eye will afford you several advantages."
"I can't awaken anyone. I don't have anything."
Linda nodded. "As you've made quite clear."
"You still think I should leave that in the book?"
She nodded again. "Any alterations will cast doubt over the legitimacy of your story. There's only so much we can change in the original journal before even the most subtle edits become blatant." She sighed. "As much as I feel it'd be socially responsible to hide the process of acquiring magic, it's simply unavoidable. You will be questioned on it, and it will come out. It's better to head it off immediately."
"Socially responsible?" he smirked.
"As I said, Mr. Price, you aren't our only client."
"Whatever." He leaned back on the couch again and put his feet up, just because he knew it would annoy her. "So you said you found a publisher?"
"Well, if you want to go public, that changes things a little."
Linda shrugged. "There's no need to play coy. I can take this straight to the top of the Times Bestseller list, if you prefer, and get you right onto the talk shows."
"On a video conference, of course. Or, if you'll allow, we'll bring the host to you. That sort of interview tends to go a lot smoother. More chemistry, less awkward pausing for the transmission delay."
"...Okay, yeah. That sounds good."
She gathered up the papers she'd brought in. "In that case, I'll get right to work. Unless there's anything else?"
"Uhh… yeah. Did you— was there any more news on Hailey?"
"No. Agent Ashe is now denying that video's legitimacy."
Nate felt a wave of disappointment. He always liked Hailey. He'd wanted to ask her out a few times, actually, but she'd always been so close with Weston, up until the last year where she seemed to just disappear from campus entirely. Nate didn't believe for a second she was dead, but he'd been hoping she might be just like him—itching to get back into the world for real. He didn't want to be alone, but he definitely wanted to be first.
Nobody would ever forget who was first.
"If you'll come right this way, please," Linda was saying. Nate waited impatiently in a windowless room, while the hired security quadruple-checked everyone coming in. No cameras, no hidden recording devices. Absolutely nothing that could be used to leak the story.
Even with the precautions, he was sweating. These were the first new people he'd speak to since Linda had taken him into hiding, months before. They'd spent so long debating, planning, preparing. Going over every inch of the journals, covering the story in detail, making sure everything held together. Everything fit. This was the real test, with publishers and reporters getting the first glimpse. Could they control the story the way they wanted to?
Linda had done her job well. Nate recognized several of the reporters sitting in the room, and he barely ever watched the news. He assumed all of the eight were either big names, or the journalists behind the big names.
"All right, Linda," said one irritated-looking man, who seemed to be acting as the voice of the group. "Cloak and dagger shit is done, you've gone full-TSA on us. What's this life-changing story?"
"Just one more minute," Linda replied smoothly, not intimidated even slightly by his imposing figure. "We're acting on behalf of the survivor, our client."
That piqued their interest. "The survivor?" Ted Winters gasped. "You mean… this is about—"
"Of course it's about Rallsburg," huffed the leader. "Why else would you be here, Ted? You're small potatoes."
"Lay off, Phil," cut in a bespectacled, messy-haired woman, laying a hand on his shoulder. Nate guessed she must be a print journalist, not a reporter or an anchor. "He broke the story. He gets a cut."
"He got lucky."
"He got lucky and he carried it through," added another man, leaning against the wall. His hand kept reaching for his pocket to grab his phone, only to find nothing there, like a nervous tic. "Ted put in some quality journalism in those follow-up pieces. Not ambulance-chasing crap either. He really put the screws to the FBI when they were coming up with squat. Give him some credit."
Phil seemed even more irritated, but Ted looked surprised. "Thanks, Felix."
"No sweat. I was impressed."
Linda exited the room while they continued to talk, complaining about the uncomfortable muggy room, the secrecy, the heavy embargo they'd all signed in exchange for exclusive access to interviews and advance excerpts of a book they knew nothing about. She walked down the hall to join Nate on the other side of the one-way mirror, where Nate sat in the shadows watching them all. "Are you ready, Mr. Price?"
He tried to swallow down the anxiety in his throat. "Just like we planned, right?"
"Exactly. Do you need anything? Water?"
He shook his head, even though his throat felt dry already. He just wanted to get it over with.
Linda clicked on an intercom button, and a faint hiss of speaker noise filled both rooms. She moved back to stand behind Nate slightly, holding a remote in her hand as she spoke. "Thank you all for your patience. My client is ready to speak with you now. I'd like to remind you all once again that all information from this conference is under full embargo. You are not to publish a single word on this story without our consent or you will lose your exclusive access."
There was a brief wave of nods through the eight in the room, some more nervous than others. Ted Winters in particular looked like he felt totally outclassed. He kept tugging at his collar, as if his shirt was choking him.
"Thank you." Without another moment of build-up, Linda clicked on the lights. Nate squinted as the harsh light bathed them before he adjusted. As his vision came back, he was greeted with seven blank stares.
"...Who's that supposed to be?" asked Phil.
"No idea," added the bespectacled woman.
Nate was fuming. He'd been feeling nervous until that moment, but it all suddenly washed away. "You don't know?" he asked. "How can you not know who I am?"
"Look, kid, it's a tiny-ass town," said Phil, "but I didn't memorize the whole damn population."
"She plays great on screen." He shrugged. "Sorry."
"That's… Nathaniel Price," said Ted Winters hesitantly. "The heir of the Price logging company."
"Finally!" said Nate. "Yeah, that's me. I'm the survivor."
No one looked particularly impressed. Ted at least looked interested, but even the bespectacled woman looked bored. She wasn't even looking at him. "Linda, a month ago this would have been huge. But other survivors have been found. There's still a manhunt for them in B.C."
"Dan and Boris aren't gonna talk to you though," Nate pointed out, before Linda could even speak. He was angry now. "I will. And I've got something they don't."
"Like what?" asked Phil dryly.
It wasn't time yet, but Nate didn't care. He wanted them to know who he was. He'd been practicing magic every day since Rallsburg, even more-so since there wasn't much else to do in the safehouse. Even video games got old eventually.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ruby, half the size of his fist. With his palm up and the ruby right in the middle, he looked Phil, that annoying arrogant reporter, right in the eye.
"Mr. Price…" whispered Linda.
Nate ignored her.
In every corner of the room on their side, the ceiling burst outward. Jets of flame shot downward, rushing to the floor. The flames began to spread across the floor.
Ted Winters shrieked. The rest of them scrambled out of their chairs, huddled together as the circle of flames began to inch inward. Nate felt a rush of confused emotions. On the one hand, seeing the look on Phil's face was utterly satisfying—but the rest of them?
"Mr. Price," Linda repeated more firmly. She didn't sound scared in the slightest, merely annoyed.
With relief, Nate took that as an excuse to turn the flames around. They weren't in any real danger, and he didn't actually want to hurt anyone, but they looked terrified. He'd done what he wanted.
Nate picked an emerald out of his pocket and set it next to the quickly-darkening ruby. He choked out the flames, and—in a rough burst of magic that had him gasping for breath—replaced them with a new trick of his own.
Ice sculptures seemed to grow out of thin air, thin crystalline structures in the shape of the flames that had just dissipated. Nate changed the temperature of the room fast enough that the ice wouldn't melt, though it cost him the rest of the emerald, shattered into dust in his palm. To the eyes of the reporters, it looked like the fire itself froze.
It wasn't the fire, though. Nate had tried that, but all he'd ended up doing was choking out the flames again. Instead, he'd learned a way to flash-freeze water. Nate wanted to learn how to manipulate water directly, like Makoto, and this was a start. Using the water vapor in the room (which they'd deliberately prepared as far more humid than usual), Nate picked out the shapes he wanted froze them, forcing them to expand to visible sculptures.
The moment anyone so much as breathed on them, the incredibly thin, brittle ice would shatter into a million tiny pieces—but for a few moments the effect was stunning.
Nate grinned at the dumbfounded reporters.
They peppered him with questions. Nate fielded them easily. He could tell they were all intimidated now, respecting him and what he could do. The questions about magic, he mostly shut down. They didn't want to reveal too much yet, obviously. Not with a book to sell.
"What is this book, anyway? You got a title?" asked Phil, who hadn't quite dropped his prickly attitude, but still clearly deferred to Nate now.
"Not yet. It's not my writing."
That got their attention. "So whose is it?"
Linda stepped in. Nate didn't mind; they made a good partnership most of the time, and it gave him an opportunity to take a few gulps of water and catch his breath. The display of magic earlier had been exhausting, even with the two near-perfect gemstones Linda had purchased. He still felt a bit winded by the exercise, and their constant requests for other minor displays didn't help much either.
"The author was not one of the residents of the town. She was an outsider who kept detailed journals on the events."
"We have been unable to locate or contact her, or any of her relatives. She lived and wrote under a pseudonym. Her style and handwriting matched nothing on record to a satisfactory level of confidence."
"Come on, how hard could it be?"
Samantha adjusted her glasses slightly as she chimed in. "If Luther Renalds and Portman couldn't figure out who they are, no one can."
Linda smiled slightly at the praise. "Given that her presence was confirmed in Rallsburg until the incident, and all remaining unidentified persons are still presumed dead, we feel we have legal standing to publish her diaries."
"You're gonna get sued," said Phil. "She's still got copyright, dead or alive."
"We made a reasonable effort to locate her, and these are extraordinary circumstances. Her personal diaries give invaluable insight into a tragic event that still dominates the news cycle six months later."
"How personal are we talking?"
"Barring a few minor editorial choices, the wording is one hundred percent hers." Linda glanced over at the door, where one of the bodyguards was waiting. She nodded, and he quickly headed down the hall to the reporters, passing out white-paper excerpts.
"Some of this is downright poetic," Phil muttered.
"Is this her handwriting as well?" asked Samantha.
"Yes." Linda turned around and picked up the original journal, which had been sitting behind them on the desk the whole time. She turned it to the page they'd been given and held it up against the glass. The journal was leatherbound and with quality parchment paper, built to last. Nate mentally thanked Ruby for designing Cinza's later journals. Her older plain spiral notebooks were certainly well cared for, but they looked plain and unappealing compared to this weighty, beautiful tome. The parchment reminded him of the Scraps, too, though it was without the scratches of age.
"That's going to be difficult to read," said one of the publishers.
"Our plan is two copies of the book, one in a sans font and one in untouched script. The latter as a collector's item."
He nodded. "We can sell that."
"What's this blacked-out part?" asked Phil.
"It's a small town, how hard is it gonna be to figure out who that is?"
"Not everyone in the town was supposed to be there, and plenty who were left."
"That person was a little kid," Nate added. It wasn't dangerous information; they couldn't remove all details of Natalie without too much alteration to the book. He knew she must have survived though. There was no way she would have died in the fighting, as powerful as she was. Wherever she was, Natalie was obviously in hiding, and Nate wasn't about to out a little kid like that. "We erased it for their sake."
Phil nodded. "Fair enough."
"For the most part, I think you'll be happy with how little we've redacted," Linda continued. "And my client would like to note, to this group at the very least, that his own involvement is very minor."
"I'm not even in half of it," Nate added, smirking. He didn't mind. Just bringing the story into the world would be more than enough to catapult him to fame.
"What other edits can we expect?" asked Samantha.
"For publication, we moved a few sections to create a better flow, since events were recorded when the author had the opportunity rather than in any sort of planned sequence. I'm sure your own editors will want to take another look at it, and you are most welcome to give it another pass, pending our explicit approval on all changes."
"What's the narrative line?" asked Phil.
"What?" asked Linda.
"The centerpiece. What's the story about, besides just what happened?"
"Well, it is a diary."
"Yeah, but we gotta have a narrative to build this around. Even Anne Frank has got an arc."
"It's a love story," Nate cut in suddenly.
Phil stared at him. "...Uh huh."
"Trust me. Cinza had some bits where she remembered old things, like how she and Ruby met." Nate realized he was giving away too much already, but they needed something to latch on to. Linda seemed a bit lost, since she was used to dealing with corporate corruption. "You can put that at the beginning, and follow them all the way to the end. They're the focus." He nodded to himself as he kept talking, trying not to think about how he was kind-of betraying them. Well, they did it first… I'm just trying to get back what's mine. "They'll give you an arc."
"Cinza being the author?" asked Samantha.
"Cinza and Ruby. Grey and red." She smiled. "Smoke and fire."
Nate grinned. These people were pros, and they hadn't even read the book yet. "Perfect."
"And they were a couple, for sure?" asked Phil.
Nate rolled his eyes. "You might actually want to censor those parts a bit. Cinza got uhh… descriptive."
He laughed. "Are we talkin' PG-13 or porn?"
"PG-13, thank god. Maaaaybe R at a couple parts."
"I'm sure it'll be fine. We can sell it as authentic."
"The LGBT community will love it," added Samantha. "This couple as the face of the story?"
"Gonna get smeared."
"Oh, come on. It's twenty eighteen."
"Yeah, what country do you live in?"
"Pity they aren't around to interview," Samantha sighed.
"Yeah, all we got is this clown," added Phil, grinning.
"I'd make a great clown," Nate shot back.
"Sure, kid." He frowned. "Why are you doin' this, anyway?"
"The public good, obviously."
"This is off the record, remember?"
"...Money," Nate said, reluctantly.
"I thought your family was pretty well off? Richest in the town or some shit."
"It all burned up," said Ted. "And they were officially declared dead. Assets reclaimed by the state."
"Shit. Sorry, man."
"We're currently working on a petition to return those assets to their rightful owner," said Linda. "But even that will be a pittance. Most of the Price family's assets were tied to their land and holdings. Since their home was completely burned down, and the value of the entire region has plummeted significantly, Mr. Price has very little to his name."
"So this is your way back to the good life. I get it."
"I mean, I really am doing it for the public good too," Nate added. "I think this story's really gotta be told."
"Fair enough. Don't sweat it, kid. We'll make sure it gets told right."
A whirlwind week of interviews, questions, teases, excerpts. More editing questions, but now from the professionals instead of Linda's small team. They'd all been signed and sworn to secrecy, even from their own companies and superiors. All it took was one person to break contract, but they all knew the fortune they'd give up if they did, as well as the sheer loss of reputation. They'd never work in the field again.
More than that, they all felt the importance of what they were doing. Nate could feel it too. There was sensation building up, like they were on a roller coaster approaching the top of the hill. Any day now, everything was about to start rushing forward, but for the moment they kept working, kept preparing, anticipating that final, anxious moment of release.
He had power, too. More power than he'd expected. All the reporters completely deferred to him. After a day of consideration, Nate picked Ted Winters as the lead. Ted would be the one to conduct the interviews and present the story, while the rest began to prep auxiliary content. Interviews with relatives, additional research, background information. Nate picked Ted because he was the most familiar, and because Nate felt like he deserved some credit for the work he'd already done.
They talked about bringing in the perspective of "paranormal" experts, but Nate shot it down. After all, none of those crazy idiots had known what magic would really be like. They were all spouting nonsense or running scams, in his eyes. They did have a couple prominent scientists on call, in physics and biology, to start analyzing anything they could get their hands on. All of that would wait though. They didn't want to bring too many people in when the reveal was so close.
The interview sessions with Ted were grueling. The guy was nice enough, but with the heavy spotlights and all the prep work, Nate just wanted them to be done already. All the time spent in makeup before-hand, on top of the effort to put up and take down the set, was exhausting—especially since they were working with an absolute skeleton crew. Plus, he didn't exactly like reliving the events of Rallsburg.
"It says that you were aware of the Awakened long before you became one yourself. How did you find out, exactly?"
"By accident. I saw someone casting spells on a security camera outside the grounds of our house. After I went and talked to them, they put me in touch with Rachel."
"Who is this someone?"
"The redacted minor from the book."
"Ah." Ted scribbled a note, even though the cameras were recording everything anyway. "And 'Rachel' is Rachel DuValle?"
"DuValle, like 'tall'."
"She was the elected leader of the Council?"
And on and on they went, confirming every little bit of the story, expanding on details where Cinza's journals fell short. She only wrote events that she personally witnessed, in order, and while the attention to detail was astonishing (and the style almost lyrical in its prose, as one of the editors put it), events beyond her knowledge were relegated to brief paragraphs between each entry, if they were even mentioned at all. It was up to Nate to fill in the gaps.
"The so-called 'ritual killings' in the center of town, the twenty-five people struck by lightning—"
"Not a ritual. Nothing to do with magic."
"But they were certainly killed by magic, right?"
"Yeah. I mean, I didn't see it, and neither did Cinza, but… well, there's only one person who could use lightning magic, right? So it had to be her."
"Why do you think that happened?"
"I mean, I dunno. But those last couple days were insane. Like, actual angry mobs. I think… Rika wouldn't go out of her way to kill people, but if they went after her…"
There was also the most dangerous question, the one Nate could have held ransom for billions if he played it right. But after a lot of debate, he'd agreed with Linda: it was too dangerous. It was the difference between capitalizing on his fame, or getting hunted down by every major government on the planet. They'd left in the description of awakening, in full. He wasn't holding it back for later.
"What was awakening like for you?"
"...Terrifying. But… really, really exciting, right? Like, I knew it was something special, and I'd seen it before. Mine took way longer than most. It's all in the book, 'cause Cinza was there. She sponsored me. I wouldn't have gotten to awaken if it wasn't for her."
"You were a member of her family. Her 'Greycloaks'."
"...Yeah." Nate nodded, playing up the drama of the moment. "I was the last one to join before it all… happened."
"Would you go back to them, if you could?"
"It's hard to say, you know? They treated me all right, but…"
"Do you think they would accept you back?"
"...No. Not after this."
"After publishing her journals, you mean?"
To Nate's relief, Ted quickly changed the subject. This was an interview, not an interrogation. "Tell me about Grey-eyes. Cinza describes her in great detail, but I'd like to hear a more… frank impression, if you could."
"She's not a normal girl. I mean, she can do crazy impossible things, but I dunno. Something about her just seems off. She's always wearing the same old t-shirt for some band nobody's ever heard of, she always looks kinda sad and lonely. It seems like she's not real. I know she is, and I've seen her before that, but something's just not right there."
Other questions went much more smoothly. When they were talking about Rallsburg the town, or his own family, or even just the general antics of the awakened in town, Nate could relax and be much more himself. Telling stories of Ryan and Seth first trying to do Movement spells and smacking themselves in the face with rocks, or the story of Joe going colorblind. Pranks they pulled, like when he and Natalie snuck the deer away right under Robert's nose.
Ted and the team were most interested in the big events, though, not the antics of Nate and the other college guys on the sidelines. "The first major confrontation with the town took place at the town hall on… May 12th," Ted said, checking his notes. "Were you at that meeting?"
"Yeah. I didn't do much, but I was there."
"You and Robert Harrison already had an adversarial relationship. Did you realize what he was planning at the time?"
"No. I mean, if I knew he was already working with Omega, I would've told everyone. Obviously."
"But what about his friend Julian Black? The one Cinza noted as helping him sew chaos through the meeting."
Nate shook his head. "Julian was one of us. He thought he was making a move on the Council. Robert played him, just like he played the rest of us."
"This also marks the first mention of Hailey Winscombe in Cinza's narrative, who later becomes a pivotal figure and one of the 'empowered eight', to use Cinza's term."
"What, you didn't like the 'Ogdoad'?" Nate asked, grinning.
"She certainly spent a lot of time considering different terms to use."
"I bet that was more Ruby's thinking actually. She's the one who always wanted to come up with fancy names for everything."
"But getting back to Hailey, what was your relationship with her?"
Nate rolled his eyes. "We went to the same school. She was the popular girl. That's it."
"Let's talk about them though. These 'empowered eight'."
He shrugged. "No idea what makes them special."
"You think they gained their power at random?"
"Do you see anything tying them all together?" Nate held up his fingers as he counted them off. "The three Gods. A little kid. A hispanic grocery store owner. The rich, popular blonde girl from the big city. Her best friend and total opposite. And the econ professor, who's also apparently the daughter of some megacorporation or something?" He shook his head. "The only thing that makes sense is that it's eight people, because of course it's eight people. 'Cause of the star."
"You mentioned the economics professor. That's Kendra Thomas Laushire, daughter of Thomas Laushire of Laushire Enterprises?"
"Thomas Laushire quite famously only had a single child with his wife before she fell ill and became barren."
Nate shrugged. "I heard he was a sexist asshole."
"...One way to put it. It was never public, but a few memos have leaked over the last few months regarding his relationship with his daughter."
"Didn't he say that no woman could ever run a major company?" Nate rolled his eyes. "Can't blame her for ditching. Her dad's a dick."
"I bring this up because Cinza makes it quite clear that there was a second Laushire in Rallsburg. An identical twin, no less."
"...Yeah, I guess so."
"But you never met her."
"Not that I know of," Nate replied with a smirk.
Ted laughed, and they continued onto other subjects. He was questioned in detail about the rest of the eight, and did the best he could to answer. He'd never met Alpha or Omega in person, and the rest of the group weren't exactly his friends. The closest of the two were Natalie, whom he'd already decided he was trying to protect and wouldn't say a single word about, and Hector.
"Not to be too blunt, but Hector seems like he doesn't really belong in your town."
Nate tried not to feel too smug at the phrase 'your town'. "Hector Peraza was the nicest guy you ever met. Everyone liked him. But wherever he came from, I think it was down in California but I dunno—he really hated it there. You could tell. He was running away. He showed up in Rallsburg ten years back, and for a while he just worked with the loggers. Then old man Rawls died and the grocery store didn't have anyone to run it. Hector took it up." He shifted in his chair again. "Hector really didn't deserve any of this. I feel really bad for the guy."
"Do you have any idea what happened to him, in the end?"
"Well, I don't think for a second he died. I mean, he's crazy powerful. You had to see it to believe it. He made it out okay, wherever he is."
"The diaries stop right after the final battle at Cinza's home, when Rachel shoots Omega. Can you fill in what happened after that?"
"I wasn't there, but I'd guess they all decided to go into hiding. I bet some of them are still there, but you can't find Cinza's place without magic. The forest tricks you and the magnetics are all screwed up. Compasses are useless, GPS is useless, maps are useless and you can't see where you're actually going. It's impossible unless they let you in."
"And some like Hailey apparently decided to go into public service."
"You mean pretending she's a superhero, right?"
"You don't think she's doing good?"
Nate shrugged. "I think she probably thinks that."
"What do you think?"
"She's the one with all the power. But I dunno. Vigilantes are usually bad things. She's got it in her head that she knows what's best all the time."
Inevitably, though, with each line of questioning, Nate brought the conversation back to the topic he really wanted to discuss: how his home and his family had been taken away. His house was burned down by an angry mob of loggers taking out their rage on old foes. His parents died in the catastrophic ritual attempt to kill Omega. He was abandoned in the forest by his supposed family, by Cinza's words (though she claimed he ran away). He'd survived on nothing but scraps and his own wits in the forest, hiding from the government, the greycloaks and the golems all on his own.
Or mostly on his own. He had no intention of revealing that Julian had helped him survive, when Julian obviously wanted to keep his return to the area a secret.
Nate Price had suffered for months, but he'd survived, and he was bringing the truth to the world. He'd give them all the answers they'd been begging for. Then, finally, he'd be back on top where he belonged.
"We've got it," Linda said as she came in the room. Ted and Nate had just finished up their last couple interviews earlier that day, though there was always the option for more down the line. Another circuit of live interviews was planned, where Nate would demonstrate on live TV his magical abilities. Under any other circumstances, people might claim it was faked, but with the pedigree of the law firm and the journalists backing them up, there wouldn't be any doubt.
Linda had just returned with one final piece of the puzzle.
"Got what?" asked Nate.
"Gordon Merrill's recording." Linda held up her phone and tapped a button. Voices emitted from the small tinny speaker—voices of the long-dead and missing. Rowan Rhistler, Robert Harrison, Julian Black. Rachel DuValle. Other, less important voices.
The town hall meeting. The "Emergence".
"It only contains up until the moment that Rachel tells Hector to kill the electronics, but it provides hard evidence of your story," Linda went on. "We were able to get it from Merrill's cloud account with a court order."
"Doesn't that show up somewhere?" Nate asked nervously.
"It's a fairly trivial request, but yes, sooner or later someone will come asking about it. But we don't need to worry about that. I think we're ready."
Nate got to his feet, as if he was about to run out the door right then. "Finally! When do we start?"
"Not quite yet, Mr. Price. We start with the tease. Drum up the mystery a bit, reveal there's a survivor and hint at the truth. Give them a weekend for it to really sink in and to let speculation run wild. You won't go on camera until next week."
"So when are we—"
"Thursday. It all starts on Thursday."
Nate nodded. As Linda turned around, he felt a pang of remorse. "Hey, Linda?"
She stopped. "Yes, Mr. Price?"
"Everything. The last couple months. You've been amazing."
"It's my job."
"Yeah but… thanks."
Linda nodded. "Was there anything else?"
"Why didn't you ever ask about awakening? You're the only one I told about all the Scraps that are probably still floating around. You could go find one yourself, if you wanted."
She shook her head. "It's not for me."
"But… it's magic. Don't you want to be able to do magic?"
She sounded so sincere and calm. Nate couldn't understand it. "Do you think it's bad? Like everyone else did?"
"So why not?"
She hesitated, considering her words. "I'm sure it's a miraculous thing, and it might do the world a lot of good. But I'm content with my life. I don't need it."
"...It's not about needing magic. There's just so much you can do. It's… there's so many possibilities. And no downsides! Why wouldn't anyone want something like that?"
Linda shrugged. "It's not for me," she repeated.
Nate gave up. "There's gonna be a lot of questions coming your way like that, I'd bet."
"Starting Thursday, it's your show, Mr. Price. I won't be in the picture."
"...Wait, you're leaving?"
"My job is done. I have other clients to attend to. You'll be taken care of, don't worry. Our firm has a different branch that specializes in high profile clientele."
"But this is where the big story is! We're gonna be famous. I thought you wanted to be there."
"Heavens no. I don't like the spotlight."
"But… what about the money?" Nate was grasping at straws by now, and he knew it.
Linda smiled. "Don't forget, Mr. Price. You're still penniless. I'll get my share of the profits from our work."
Nate shook his head. "You don't know what you're missing."
"As you say." She put her hand on the doorknob. "You have my number if you need anything else. Good luck."
She left, and Nate was alone in the apartment. It felt strangely empty, even though he'd been alone for most of the time he'd spent in the building. Only in the last couple weeks with the flurry of activity, the reporters, the research, the interviews had there been a single person besides himself and Linda. Now they were all gone, and Nate had a couple days to himself before the big debut.
He turned on the TV and the game console, out of habit, but after scrolling through the list of games he couldn't pick a single one to play. He switched to TV, but not a single show caught his interest. He started a couple old favorites, but inevitably turned each one off after only a couple minutes.
There was just too much anxiety. Too much anticipation. It was only two days away.
Nate had her phone number. He'd never bothered to try it again after the first couple days. With the cell tower destroyed, he'd never had a signal, and his phone died not too long after that. But they probably had one now.
Despite all appearances, Cinza was actually the biggest techie in the whole town. Nate had always assumed he had the nicest computer, the best hardware, right on the cutting edge—but when he first visited their home? Cinza's rig put him to shame. Not only that, she actually knew every piece in and out. She'd obviously built it herself. Nate had just paid someone to do his.
He was jealous.
He was jealous of her knowledge, her following, her way of commanding attention from a crowd. He'd joined her group not out of any devotion, but because he wanted to know how she did it. Oh, he actually had a good time while he was there. Makoto was the coolest, and Nikki was fun to hang out with, and Ruby was so sexy he could die. But he'd always had his eye on Cinza, trying to figure her out.
He could tell she'd never liked him. He basically forced his way into the group, paying his way in when they needed money and sticking around long past his welcome. He'd never quite gelled with the group, and it showed. It wasn't for lack of trying. He'd done all the rituals with them, he'd camped out in the cold forest under the stars more than a few times. He'd even worn the stupid robes.
But he was never one of them. And when they were attacked in the forest, and he got separated from them, no one came looking for him. Helicopters went by overhead, ferrying away Cinza's favorites, but Nate Price? He was just that one rich kid no one wanted around. They were probably relieved he hadn't shown up.
He finally found his way back to the camp days later, and saw them. They were hurt, they were recovering, sure—but still nobody was looking for him. His house was burned to the ground, the entire town was destroyed. "Where's Nate?" asked no one at all.
So Nate stole, and he hid. He couldn't go back to civilization, not on his own. He'd seen Brian stalking the woods, summoning golems at the slightest noise, and only barely gotten away. Besides, even when he got there, Nate had no idea what to do. Was he supposed to just call the police? What if they took him away?
Where was his supposed leader?
Seeing Jerry's body in the forest finally drove him to act. When Nate saw the journals on Cinza's shelf, while she was out in the fields, he didn't hesitate. He grabbed the ones he thought were most important, and he ran. He ran until he finally saw civilization again, and he made a phone call.
Nate stared at the phone in his hand, with half of Cinza's number already dialed. He could warn her it was coming, at least. Did he owe her that much?
Or did she deserve to be blindsided?
Nate turned off his phone. He sat back down on the couch, picked up a controller, and started a game. Ten minutes later, he'd forgotten all about Cinza, or what was coming on Thursday, or anything about Rallsburg. All he could think about was finally, finally being able to live in a real house again, with real food and new clothes and a shower that didn't take five minutes to warm up.
Nate Price was headed for stardom, exactly where he belonged.