Interlude VII — Call of Destiny
The first bus that pulled up had maybe an inch of open space. The harried bus driver waved him away as he stepped forward. Only one person got off at his stop, and the half-dozen people in front of him jostled to be the replacement. The driver, looking like a deflated balloon in his sheer exhaustion, closed the doors and drove away, headed south.
Headed to Olympia.
"Is it always this busy on a Friday?" asked a curious voice behind him.
Lani turned around, surprised at her apparent sincerity. "You don't know?"
As the sunlight shifted, Lani got a better look at her—and his mouth clamped shut.
She leaned up against the plastic bus stop, pale blue eyes locked on his own. Thin sunglasses hung on a chain around her neck, along with several other necklaces adorned with a compass, a feather, a camera, and a green metallic leaf. She wore a forest green camping vest, tight blue jeans, and a shirt with a beautiful flowery pattern. A brown ponytail snaked out from underneath her wide-brimmed hat, and a fair-sized rugged bag was roped over her shoulder crossways, along with an even larger luggage bag.
She was beautiful.
"Hello?" She waved in his face.
"Sorry!" Lani spluttered. "I…" He trailed off, totally forgetting what she'd asked.
She stared at him, the barest hint of a smile creasing her lips. "You were going to tell me what's weird about today."
"Oh. Yeah." He blinked a few times, trying to get his mind back in order. The smile was really distracting, especially since it was so nice. "There's a lot of people trying to get out to Olympia, and the Olympic Forest. Tons of tourists."
"Really?" She groaned. "That's gonna ruin my shot…"
She tapped the camera hanging off her neck. "Photo shoot. I got commissioned to go out and take new shots of the forests near Rallsburg. They want to chart the recovery since the fires, and I guess I got lucky and got the draw."
Lani raised an eyebrow. "I'm kind of surprised they even gave you clearance."
She looked at him oddly for a second. "Oh! Right, yeah, it's locked down by the FBI or something. Nah, they gave me a pass." She shrugged. "Guess I finally made it, if the government's recognizing my work."
"Well," Lani said, glancing at the crowd nearby, which was growing again. The next bus was already a few minutes late. "It's going to be crazy out here. Everyone wants to get out to Rallsburg right now. Because, you know…"
He gaped at her. "Don't you watch the news?"
She shrugged. "Not usually."
"But like… social media? Anything?"
Her laugh tickled his ears. "I pretty much stick to myself. Nothing better than a week out in the middle of the mountains, totally alone, just me and my camera."
She glanced around. "At this rate though… ugh. I hate taking the bus anyway." She pulled out her phone. "Know any good rental places around here that might have a jeep?"
Lani would have offered his car on the spot—except that it wasn't really good for off-road, and it was currently out of the country. Damn it, Jeremy, right when I meet the girl of my dreams…
Wait. What about the motor pool?
"I can get you one, if you want. Totally free," he offered, before he could stop himself.
"...You'd do that for someone you just met?" she asked, surprised.
Be confident. That's what Jeremy's secret is.
"Only if you take me with you."
She laughed. "I don't even know your name. You don't even know mine!"
"Well, that's what makes it an adventure, right?"
Another laugh, just as amazing as the first one. "You got me. All right, I'm game. You're on."
They waited at a coffee shop just around the block. She insisted on buying for him, and they got to talking. As an unspoken rule, neither of them brought up anything about current events, or identifying information, or even their names. It was exhilarating for Lani, who'd always felt a little awkward around mainlanders. It was way better than having to explain for the millionth time how boring Hawaii actually was, and why he had to get away when he got the chance.
"Totally black? You're crazy."
She grinned. "What, you can't handle a little bitter in your wake-me-up?"
Lani shook his head. "It sounds awful."
"Oh, you're missing out." Without warning, she handed her cup over. "Go on."
On any other day, with any other person, Lani would've politely declined, or quickly changed the subject. Today, without a moment's hesitation, he took a sip.
It didn't make the coffee taste any better.
"Ugh," he grimaced, swallowing it down painfully. "Nope. Nope nope nope."
"More for me, then," she winked, taking it back and drinking deep.
"So you take photos of nature?"
"Yup." She leaned back in her chair. "Mostly big landscape shots. Waterfalls and cliffs are my thing. I spent a year in Norway just finding every single fjord I could, and shooting them all day and night. There's nothing like a fjord under a full moon," she said dreamily, and for a second Lani could see it reflected in her eyes.
"It sounds incredible. I'd love to go someday."
"Not everyone gets that, you know?" she went on. "Lots of people think 'oh yeah, I can just look at the picture on the internet later'. But it's not the same at all. You gotta feel the air, the mist coming off the waterfalls. Not to mention even the best cameras aren't gonna pick up the same kind of view you get with your eyeballs standing there under the stars."
"You have to see it yourself, right?"
"Exactly!" She smiled. "I take photos for a living, but I'd be just as happy going out there without a camera. It's always worth it."
"It's an adventure."
"Mmhmm." She leaned over to the trash can near their table and tossed her empty cup. "Speaking of adventure, what are you doing going out to Rallsburg if it's so crazy?"
"I'm looking for something."
It's not public knowledge yet… But I want to tell her. She's not going to tell anyone else.
She waved her hands just as his mouth opened. "Hang on, hang on, if it's a big deal you keep it secret. Just like we said."
"Any idea where it is, though? I'd help you out if I can."
He shook his head. "Could be anywhere."
She laughed. "A real adventure then. Well, as long as it gets me some good shots, I'm in."
He nodded. "I've been out there before a couple times. You'll get some great stuff."
"Glad to hear it."
A car honked at the curb just outside. Lani glanced over. One of the office staff got out of the car, waving at him through the window. He came straight into the shop and handed the keys right to Lani.
"Need anything else?"
Lani shook his head. "Nah. Thanks, Ben."
"You got it, sir."
"Wow," she commented as Ben walked away and started down the street on foot. "That's some service. Nice jeep, too." It was one of the best in the pool—huge tires, convertible canvas top and built for serious off-road work. "You must be loaded."
He shook his head. "Not even a little. I bet you make more than me."
"Well, let's quit wasting daylight, huh?" She stood up, offering a hand to Lani.
He reached up to take it, but winced as a burst of pain rolled through his shoulder. His arm fell limp.
"...You okay?" she asked, voice softening.
"Yeah, I'm good." Lani got to his feet and took her hand, shaking it firmly. "But you should probably drive."
She grinned. "Oh man, I thought I was gonna have to fight you for it. Thanks."
Between her ponytail and Lani's braids, the wind made a stream of wildly fluttering dark brown hair as they picked up speed on the highway.
"You want it closed?" she shouted.
"I'm good!" he called back—though he did tuck his hair down behind the seat to reduce some of the strain.
"I've never been to Seattle!" She merged them into the fast lane and picked up speed. They were already over the speed limit, but she kept gunning it. Lani laughed aloud at the sheer speed. "I gotta say, it's way too crowded!"
"Yeah!" The rest of the highway was packed, but they were in an express carpool lane, passing hundreds of cars every minute. "It gets better as soon as you get off I-5."
"That's gonna be hard," she said as they slowed down. They'd finally caught up to the traffic in their own lane, and it wasn't moving that much faster than the rest of the highway. "Ugh."
"We got way further than I expected," he pointed out. "We're already in Tacoma."
"Really?" She glanced around. "I wasn't really looking at the signs."
"Yeah. Don't worry, we're staying on the highway all the way til Olympia."
"Cool." She tapped the center console idly with one hand. "All right, pick some tunes. Whatever you want."
"My phone doesn't have any music on it," he said uncomfortably.
"What about streaming?"
"It's a work phone, they're really touchy about installing stuff on it." Aderholt would probably kill me if I tried to bypass it, too…
She laughed. "Well, here's where my career pays off again. I always keep my phone stacked up." She dug it out of her bag and unlocked it. "Pick anything you like."
Lani fiddled with the console until he got the phone connected. He scrolled through her music—and to his delight, she shared a lot of bands with his own collection. He picked out an indie band that seemed perfect for the occasion.
"Oh, shit, tell me you didn't just pick that at random."
Lani laughed. "Nope. I love this."
"I didn't think anyone had even heard of them!"
"They're actually from Seattle. I saw them play back in April."
She shot a playful glare at him. "No way."
"Yeah. The bar was packed tight. They're gonna get big, I can feel it."
They cruised like that for an hour, bobbing along to the music together. At one point, she started singing along. She didn't really have the voice for it, but she was plenty enthusiastic. After a couple songs, Lani couldn't help but join in.
She elbowed him as he got way too into one of the songs, laughing maniacally. "Okay, calm down Freddy." She leaned over to turn the music down.
Lani laughed. "I can't help it. It's just too perfect. A song about going into the woods on a crazy adventure with someone you just met, it's practically about us."
"Yeah, but she's supposed to be beautiful. And he's supposed to be a great singer," she added, smirking.
"Well, at least they got you right."
She hesitated. Her face got a little red, and she focused on the highway.
"I uhh…" Lani started. He'd felt so in the moment, the words had just tumbled out of his mouth.
She shook her head, her ponytail waving about as she did. "It's cool. I'm really not used to getting compliments. I mostly hang out with trees and birds, remember?" She laughed, and it eased the thick tension in the jeep down to an easy, lighthearted air again. "Thanks."
"Let's just hope we don't end up like the song," he joked.
"I dunno. I think it's super romantic."
"You want to die together jumping off a cliff?"
"As long as it's a good-looking cliff," she grinned. "Better that than dying in some smelly, crowded city, right?"
"Yeah." Lani reached over to turn the music back up a bit. His shoulder spiked with pain again, and she noticed it in the mirror.
"I'll be okay. I just can't use it much. Still healing."
"Mind if I ask what happened?"
"...I got shot."
She jerked the wheel so hard that they drifted into the shoulder for a second before she corrected. "You what?"
Crap. "Just an occupational hazard," he said, trying to play it off as a joke, but it didn't really come out right.
"...Okay." She nodded to herself. "I hear ya."
"If you need any help out there, you tell me right away, all right?" She glanced over at him, quite serious. "That forest isn't the easiest hike around, and I'm already in better shape than you are even without a bullet in my shoulder."
"They took it out," he pointed out.
"Either way. Don't try to play the hero. We're gonna have to switch up the roles in that song. I'll carry you if I have to."
He smiled. "That works for me. You aren't really a good singer either."
She elbowed him again, and they both laughed.
"Is this good?" she asked.
"Works for me. We're as far north as paved roads will take us, unless you want to drive straight into Rallsburg."
She shuddered. "No thanks. I'm still creeped out by that whole story."
"Me too." He shaded his eyes as they pulled off the road to a small turnaround bordering the forest. "Plus they're still cordoning the whole area. There's no way to get in."
"That's not what I heard," she smirked.
"Well, there aren't really any good places to take pictures there either. You're better off circling around north up the mountain."
"Been out here a lot?" she asked, as she started navigating the rough dirt roads.
"For work, yes."
"What kind of work is out here that gets you shot?" she wondered aloud rhetorically. "Whoah!"
"What?" Lani asked, looking up. He'd been glancing through his phone one last time before the signal vanished, getting the latest update from Jeremy. His partner was still up in Vancouver, working with his sister and a mystery partner on some huge project having to do with magic. Lani had considered going up to join them, but after hearing about the Diaries the night before… he knew he didn't have time to spare.
Jeremy would have to wait. This was way more important.
"I thought I saw someone…" She glanced around nervously. "Trick of the light, I guess."
"I mean, it's possible. There's a lot of people heading this way."
"Oh, right." She sighed. "Well, we haven't seen another car yet, so I'll call it a good sign."
They didn't either, all the way down the road. They took a split off from the route to Rallsburg, going the opposite route further north and east. The trees got thicker, and the road got steeper. They wound through ridges and hills, climbing higher.
"There!" she shouted, pointing out on the right side and nearly smacking Lani in the face. "You saw that, right?"
"I saw something," he agreed.
"Looked like a person, right?"
She leaned on the gas, picking up a little speed. "I don't know why I'm so jumpy. I've done this a thousand times."
Lani hesitated. "...Do you believe in ghosts?"
She shrugged. "I don't know enough to not believe in 'em. I've seen some spooky things before, camping alone on top of mountain ridges for a week." A glance his way, and relief washed over him. It wasn't the concerned skepticism of Maddie, or the exhausted dismissal of Jeremy. She seemed genuinely interested. "What about you?"
"I didn't for a long time. My family always talked about them though. You know, spirits and ghosts."
"Didn't stick, huh?" She nodded. "My family and I went separate ways in our beliefs too."
"Yeah. But after this year," Lani went on, "after everything I've seen, I don't think they were totally wrong."
"Tell me," she prompted softly, when Lani fell silent for a bit. They were bumping along a particularly rough part of ground, and she had to fight with the wheel to keep it steady.
"I've seen impossible things. People who were supposed to be dead, and people who could vanish into thin air. People who could make fire from nothing and knew things they shouldn't possibly know." Okay, so I didn't actually see the last bit. That's from Jeremy. But Jeremy isn't the type to make this stuff up. "I walked through Rallsburg not too long after the incident. I swear to you, I saw ghosts there. All the dead in that town, still rooted to the ground."
"Wow…" She nodded. "I wish I could've seen that."
"I wish I hadn't," he muttered.
"How'd you get in, anyway?"
"Part of my job."
"Ah." She didn't ask any further. After another thunk as they crossed a thick section of roots, she spoke up again. "You're still alive though, even after seeing all that. So I think you're pretty lucky."
"Yeah, I guess so."
"I'm gonna break the rule a little, okay?"
He hesitated. "What do you mean?"
She smiled. "I kiiiinda lied to you a bit. I'm not just out here to take photos of the forest." She glanced around, as if worried they might be overheard—despite riding in a loud, four-wheel open-top jeep through the forest. "I saw the news last night too, same as everybody else."
"So you're out here looking for it too?" he asked excitedly.
He was rewarded with another laugh. "Hell yeah I'm looking for magic. I'm just lucky enough to have a good excuse. It got me through the airport without too many questions."
Lani was about to ask another question, but they pulled out of the woods suddenly into open space. Totally open space.
"Look out!" he shouted, but she'd already hit the brakes hard.
"Holy shit, I forgot how close that was," she panted. "You good?"
His shoulder twinged again to disagree wholeheartedly, but he nodded. "Totally fine." He gazed out over the edge of the cliff, into the sea of gently sloping trees like waves of green in an ocean forest. "Wow."
"I know, right?" She pulled the jeep over to the side and parked it. "I gotta get some pictures of this."
Lani got out, and she was already heading to the edge of the cliff with her handheld camera. "Oh man, this is amazing!" The camera started clicking rapidly. "Hey, do me a favor," she called over her shoulder, since Lani was still leaning against the warm car to stave off the chill. "Get my tripod from the big bag. It should be right on top of the main pocket."
"On it!" he called back, heading around to the trunk. He opened the main pocket, and sure enough, a tripod waited inside. He had to shift the bag around a bit to get it out, and as he did, he saw a long narrow wooden rifle underneath, alongside a box of ammo and a bag of equipment.
"You like to go hunting?" he asked, rejoining her at the cliff's edge with the tripod.
She shrugged. "Not really, but sometimes when you're out alone, it's necessary. Can't be too careful."
"I guess so." Lani shifted uncomfortably, his own sidearm holstered inside his jacket. Luckily, it was so cold he had no reason to take it off anytime soon, but he wondered what she'd think about him carrying a weapon. Well, if she's got one, mine's probably okay.
"Well, I think a good long exposure here should turn out amazing." She finished adjusting one of the larger cameras from her bag on top of the tripod. A few more taps through the settings and she stood up straight. "Want to head out? We still got plenty of time before sunset."
"What about your camera?" Lani asked, glancing around. "What if someone comes up and takes it?"
"It's chained up," she pointed out. He hadn't noticed, but she'd tied a security wire from the tripod to the front of the jeep. "Unless someone comes up here with a blowtorch, it should be good." She grinned, hurrying back to the jeep and grabbing up her long bag. "Come on, we've got a whole haunted forest to explore!"
She held out her hand from the steep climb, and Lani grabbed it with his good arm.
"There you go," she said, and with a grunt and sharp heave, she helped him up the next ridge. "Hoo, you're lighter than I expected."
She laughed. "Sorry, that came out weird, didn't it?"
"I think you're just really strong."
"Thanks," she smiled. "Come on, let's keep moving. I want to see this ridge you kept talking about."
It was only a few more minutes hike, after the couple hours they'd passed since leaving the jeep. She had a set of GPS tags she used to keep track of it, and a heavy-duty device that would lead her right back to their base camp if they got lost. They emerged through a thick wall of trees and suddenly, the whole town was laid out in front of them.
They were still miles and miles out, on one of the staggered hills north of the town. In front of them, they could see the twisted wreckage of the cell phone tower, completely lifted out of its foundation and curled in on itself. Past it, the main streets of Rallsburg formed a small grid twisting through the trees. Collapsed buildings lined the roads. They could already see nature beginning to encroach upon the outskirts, as grass and weeds sprouted up wherever they could push through the old pavement.
Only the huge library still stood, with its half-destroyed turrets and imposing stone walls—a gravestone for the town proper.
"I wonder why no one's cleaned it up yet," she wondered aloud, as she started taking pictures again. "It just looks so abandoned."
"Nobody can agree on who's supposed to, or even if they're allowed to," Lani answered, taking a seat on a nearby log while she kept shooting. He took a long drink from the water bottle she'd lent him before continuing. "Plus they aren't sure if it's still a crime scene, especially with new evidence showing up every couple weeks now. There were a few construction companies bidding on the land, but then they had to figure out if there were any Price family relatives that might inherit it, and then the Governor decided to reclaim it for the state, and so on."
"So it's bureaucracy as usual," she sighed. "And after what actually happened out here… I mean, it's magic, right? Real magic?"
"Real magic," Lani agreed. "And apparently anyone can use it. Somehow."
She shivered, and it wasn't from the cold. Setting her camera down, she took a seat next to Lani on the log and leaned forward, elbows on her knees. "All those people…"
"Yeah…" Lani's heart sped up slightly. He adjusted his seat slightly, very conscious of how close she was sitting.
"Why do you think they did it? You know…" She trailed off, not willing to say it.
"No idea," he murmured. Jeremy hadn't explained everything on the phone, just the basics about magic and how it was tied to Rallsburg. Lani could make some educated guesses, but it was drilled into him not to ever jump to conclusions aloud. Too many investigations got screwed over by loose-lipped agents without all the details.
"Well, if we run into some golems or whatever out here," she went on, "just so you know, I don't think my rifle's gonna help much."
"I don't think we will," Lani reassured her. "We went all over this place for a month, never saw a thing."
She turned to look at him with a funny expression. "What if magic did it to them, though? Like, all these people who supposedly have it. What if it makes them crazy?"
Lani shook his head. "No way. It's magic. It's gotta be better than that."
"You really think so?"
He nodded, smiling. "They gave it to us."
"The… well, the ghosts, I guess. The spirits of this place."
She nudged him. "Careful, you'll end up following in your family's footsteps."
"I think they were right," he went on, gazing over the town, a familiar eerie feeling creeping back into his skull. "I think that's probably what magic actually is. The spirits of every tree and every rock, every atom and particle in the world. People with magic just learned to talk to them directly, ask them to do things..."
"...That sounds really nice, actually," she murmured. Lani felt a weight on his good shoulder, as she leaned against him. Her eyes drooped slightly. "Better than people forcing the world to change because they made a deal with the devil or something."
Lani kept watching the town in silence while she fell asleep, listening to the faint chirping of birds. The trees were green even deep into November. The only real difference in the landscape from when they'd first trekked out in May was how far down snow covered the slopes of the mountain ridges.
For a brief moment, Lani felt connected to everything. Like he was just a tiny part of the massive forest, no different from any other tree sprouting out of the ground. He felt content and calm for the first time in ages. No more rushing around trying to solve cases, or getting shot at in the wilderness in Canada. Just a peaceful outcropping on a hill overlooking a sea of green, alone but for the brave, adventurous, exciting woman resting on his shoulder.
Which meant, of course, that about half an hour later, Lani had a desperate need to pee.
He resisted it as long as he could, but after another half-hour, he couldn't wait any longer. As loathe as he was to break the quiet, comfortable moment, he had to get up.
"Hey," he murmured.
She snapped awake instantly. "What?" she spluttered.
"Whoah. Nothing, I just—"
"Oh god, I'm sorry," she apologized, sitting up straight and looking embarrassed. "I didn't mean to—"
"It's okay," he said. "It was really nice."
"Really?" She looked confused. "I'm not used to this, I…"
Lani smiled. "Honestly, if I didn't have to pee, I'd have been fine staying there another couple hours."
She laughed. "Got it." She looked around. "Oh man, I almost missed sunset. Go do your thing, I got more shots to take." Sure enough, as Lani walked back into the woods, the clicks of the camera were in full rapid return.
He walked a fair distance away, feeling self-conscious, and found a good spot with a fair amount of privacy. He relieved himself, cleaned up—and then he saw it.
A ancient-looking piece of parchment paper, caught on a branch high in the tree above him.
"You okay?" she asked as Lani returned, letting her camera down again.
"You were just gone a long ti… oh, that's weird to ask, isn't it?" She gulped. "Sorry."
Lani shook his head. "I'm okay. Just got distracted by something."
He wasn't sure why he didn't tell her about the piece of parchment paper. It had taken him so long to figure out a way to climb up to it, he'd totally lost track of time. By the time he'd grabbed it and gotten back to the ground again, he'd started worrying she'd get worried. He stuffed it into his jacket pocket and hurried back to the ridge without even glancing at it.
"Well, it's going to be dark soon," she pointed out. "We should probably set up camp."
"Well, I dunno about you, but I'm staying out here tonight. The view's gonna be incredible," she said dreamily.
"I'm in," he agreed, grinning. "But aren't we gonna need, you know, a tent and such?"
She tapped her long bag. "Duh," she said, winking.
Luckily for Lani, she knew how to set up a tent, because he'd never gone camping in his life. She just laughed and had him grab each piece in order while she set up the poles. It wasn't large, but it was big enough for them both to fit inside comfortably. It also had a zippered patch at the apex that opened to let them see out the top, set right into the pale green nylon exterior.
They finished just as the sunset hit the edge of the ridgeline, in a spectacular display of fire-tipped clouds.
"Wow…" she whispered, returning to her seat on the log next to Lani.
"It's incredible," he agreed.
"Doesn't it just… I don't know—" Lani turned, confused. Without warning, she leaned forward and planted a kiss on his lips.
"...Wow," he echoed as she pulled away, her face bright red.
"I'm sorry," she stammered. "I dunno what I was thinking—"
Lani returned it, placing a hand on her back, pressing his lips to hers, leaning into her.
"...Okay, nevermind," she smiled as they separated again. "Why on earth did I apologize for something like that?"
He grinned. "No idea."
She shook her head, still looking embarrassed. "I've never kissed someone whose name I didn't even know. I haven't even had a kiss since high school. What am I doing? This is crazy."
"Lani," he interrupted.
"That's my name. Lani."
She smiled, and the sunset reflected in her pale blue eyes in the most perfect balance of colors Lani had ever seen in his life. "Lani. I like it. What's it mean?"
He grinned, gesturing out towards the sunset. "It means the sky."
She laughed. "Perfect." She rested her head on his shoulder again, gazing out towards the sunset. "I'm Riley."
"What's that mean?" he prompted.
"Not a clue," she laughed.
Something cracked behind them. A branch, or maybe some twigs.
Lani whipped around, his hand diving into his jacket for his holster. Riley popped up too, and a knife appeared in her hand.
"Who's there?" Lani called out.
No answer, but they heard another pile of twigs snap and crackle.
"We can hear you moving around," said Riley, irritated. "Just come out. We won't hurt you."
Reluctantly, a pair of young guys emerged from behind one of the thicker trees near their campsite. Neither seemed particularly threatening—if anything, they looked worse off than Lani did, muddy and clearly lost. Lani already felt inept at camping, and seeing the pair of them reminded him how lucky he was to find someone experienced and competent.
And cool and beautiful and fun and funny and—
"You guys lost?" asked Riley, interrupting his thoughts. She lowered her knife, and he took his hand off his holster.
His friend slapped him on the arm. "Yes, we really are."
She nodded. "Where were you headed?"
"We had some friends we were meeting up with north of the town. Supposedly that's where…" he trailed off as his friend gave him a significant look.
"Where what?" Lani prompted.
"That's the best place to find one of them," said the first guy.
"All right, guys, are we playing twenty questions or what?" said Riley. "Find one of what?"
They both started talking over each other. "A wand—"
"Or maybe it's wizard robes—"
"—or I heard there's spellbooks—"
Lani shook his head. "Find what?"
They glanced at each other. "Magic. Duh."
The whole little clearing was silent for a minute or so. Lani could hear crickets and frogs in the distance. Night was really starting to set in now, and only the dim yellow glow of Riley's lantern lit up the area.
"So you guys have no clue what you're looking for," Riley concluded.
"...Nope," said the second guy. "We just know it's out here somewhere."
"It's gotta be," agreed the first guy.
"Why's that?" she asked.
"Well, where else would it be? This is the place. It's where they came from."
"Everyone in that book," added the second guy.
"We're just hoping we got out here fast enough. We drove up from Portland today. We wanna find it before everyone else does."
"Then we found a group that was already setting up a whole search pattern and thought that sounded pretty smart, so we joined them."
"Well, we tried to join them…"
Riley laughed. "The town's that way," she added, pointing out down the ridge where the library could still be seen in the fading sunlight. "Use that as your bearing. North's that way," she added, pointing in the opposite direction, "so you should run right into your friends just by walking that way. Better hurry though, or you won't be able to see the tower anymore. You don't want to get lost out here in the middle of the night."
She grinned. "Bears."
They gulped in unison. "...Uhh, thanks." They set off down the ridge, the second guy throwing worried glances in every direction as they went.
"Are they going to be okay?" Lani asked, watching them go.
She laughed. "Yeah, they'll be fine."
"But what about the bears?"
Riley shook her head. "Black bears around here are way more scared of people than vice versa. I warned them so they'd actually pay attention to where they're walking and not fall off a cliff or something."
She smiled. "Worst they might run into is a hungry mountain lion, but they're big enough. It probably wouldn't go for them." Halfway through the sentence, a yawn plowed through her words. "Well, that settles it."
As she unzipped the tent flap, Lani grabbed out the sleeping bag and blanket from her bag. He handed the bag to her, but hesitated before crossing the threshold.
"What?" she asked, surprised.
"I'll just sleep out—"
"Nuh-uh," she interrupted. "Do you know how cold it's gonna be out there tonight? You'll freeze. Come on."
Reluctantly, Lani stepped inside the tent. She took off her shoes and socks, and the camping vest, setting them atop her bag in the corner of the tent. The lantern hung from a little hook near the front, lighting the place up evenly. She laid out a few pillows at the end. "You want the bag or the blanket?" she asked.
"Well, I usually just sleep on top with just the blanket, so I guess that works." She laid out the sleeping bag, opening it for him while she grabbed the blanket for herself. "I'm setting an alarm for just before sunrise, so I can get some more shots. I hope you're a heavy sleeper."
"Not really. I want to see it though, so it's cool."
"Awesome," she smiled.
She was totally silent for a while under the blanket, laying right next to Lani atop his sleeping bag. Man, what if I hadn't found her? Would I have been out here all night alone and freezing? Nah, I probably would have just gone home and given up…
"Hey," he murmured.
"What's up?" She rolled over to look at him, blanket pulled in snug up to her neck.
"What do you think about all this?"
"You know. Magic."
She frowned. "They call it being 'awakened', right?"
"I dunno… I mean, sometimes that sounds incredible, right? Being 'awakened' to the magic in the world, able to feel it and use it. But I feel like there has to be catch. I've never just gotten something in my life, you know? There's always a cost. Even out here, in all this beauty, we had to work for it right? We had to hike up here, make sure we didn't miss the chance to see it. We saw something nobody else ever will, since the weather and the clouds and the light and trees will never be exactly the same as that moment."
"It really was beautiful, too," he added.
She smiled. "But that's nature. Magic isn't nature, right?"
"I dunno. I mean, it exists, and as far as we know, we didn't make it…"
"The spirits of the world," she echoed.
"Exactly…" Lani nodded. "I felt like they were pushing me to come out here, too. Like I'm supposed to be out here. They're telling me something and I have to figure out what it is."
"Well, I guess I have to thank them later…" she mumbled, as her eyes drifted.
"...Telling you to come out here…"
Riley's eyes fluttered one last time, and her breathing became light and even. Lani turned onto his back, gazing up at the stars through the window in the roof. There was no moon, so they shone bright and clear, thousands upon thousands. As he twisted to find a more comfortable position, he felt the paper in his pocket crinkle and fold. He'd forgotten it with everything else happening.
He plucked it out. The text was barely visible from the starlight through the tent, and he couldn't read it. Or… he could, but he didn't know what it meant. Or what the letters were.
He sat up slightly with a start. He had it. Right in his hands. This was how to awaken. He didn't really know how he knew that, but the parchment was unambiguous. If he read it aloud, he'd be able to use magic. He knew it for certain. She could too, if she read it aloud herself.
Should I wake her up?
She looked so peaceful, curled up slightly under her thick blanket. The chill was really settling in now, too. Lani shivered, since he'd exited the warmth of the sleeping bag.
What if she's right…? He thought about everything that happened in Rallsburg, and Riley's theory—how magic might have driven them all insane, caused them to commit such horrible acts. What if he ended up the same?
Jeremy said Hailey Winscombe seemed totally fine. And he found other people too, like that theater kid, or his new partner up in Vancouver. None of them went crazy.
Lani held it up. I'll just read a little bit. See what happens.
"Abrec," he whispered. The words felt strange on his jaw, like his mouth wasn't moving in a normal way. He kept going though, and the words were less difficult.
He coughed before he finished the second sentence, and lost track of the paper.
"...what?" muttered Riley, twisting over. "Lani?"
"Hi," he whispered. "Sorry."
"What's going on?" she mumbled, noticing his arms pointing straight up. "What's that?"
"It's…" He hesitated. "Just a piece of paper from home. Something personal."
"Huh." Her eyes slid closed again, and she was asleep again in under a minute.
As soon as I know it's safe, I'll tell her. Lani moved into the light and began to read it again. This time, he made it through the first few words, and then the full sentence and the next one. He could feel something, deep within him. A connection, just like she'd said.
There was real magic in the world, an energy that suffused every single tree, every branch, every person and animal throughout the world, but it wasn't any of them. Magic was within them, part of them, but it wasn't them.
Lani spoke faster, though his voice stayed below a whisper, barely vocalizing each syllable. His mind shifted, the web of energy fading away to be replaced by something else. There was another kind of energy, raw and shapeless, waiting to take form. If he only called to it, pressed it into being, it would become anything he wanted. Anything he desired.
He tried, his soul whispering to the endless pool, and it whispered back. It spoke to him just as he spoke to it, and he realized what it was.
These were the spirits, the ones he'd grown up hearing about but never seen. The ʻunihipili, spirits of the long-departed, and if he were back home, Lani was certain he would have witnessed his family's ʻaumākua greeting him for the first time. They gathered around him and filled him up, breathing life into him where he'd been an empty void all this time. He'd never realized how full of life every inch of the world was until his eyes were opened like this.
The words stopped at the tattered edge of the page. The spirits vanished, the world along with it. Lani was back in the void he'd been trapped in all his life. He was choking on nothing, a silent death while Riley quietly breathed life-giving air only inches away from him, totally unaware.
As his vision faded, a light appeared in the distance. A pair of silver-grey eyes, attached to the face of what Lani could only describe as an angel. Not beautiful, exactly, but full of incredible grace and humility, one whose whole purpose in life was to save people such as him. She spoke, urging him to repeat her words, and he felt life hurtle back into him like a rush of wind. The spirits returned, gathering around him and filling him up, and he could see it was she that they listened to most of all.
Lani finished the reading, and the spirits vanished back into the world—but this time, he knew they were waiting for him. He took a gulp of sweet oxygen, gasping and coughing. He looked over to Riley, not sure what to expect.
She was still fast asleep.
"I wasn't sure if you wanted her awake…" whispered the girl. "I made sure you wouldn't be heard."
Lani turned back to the girl—his savior, his goddess, the queen of the spirits and the world beyond. Suddenly, everything his mother taught him when he was young didn't seem ridiculous. Here was a girl who had spoken to the spirits right in front of him, and called on their aid to save his life. Her prayers drove away the puoho that had come to claim his life. She had incredible mana, a level of power he could only dream of.
If I'd paid attention, I might even know her name. Or at least, something proper to call her. What am I supposed to say to someone like this?
"Thank you," he whispered.
She nodded slightly. Something about her expression was painful, a melancholy that struck deep into Lani's soul. Before she could speak another word, he leaned forward and put his arms around her, hugging her.
The girl opened her mouth, but no sound came out. She opened and closed it a few times while Lani held her, until he let go a minute later, suddenly very uncertain.
"Thank you," he added again.
"I…" She glanced around the small tent. Lani wondered where she'd come from, but instantly regretted such a ridiculous thought. She was the goddess of all she surveyed—what was a simple tent to someone like her?
Suddenly, Lani remembered where he was. Who he was. He'd felt like a little kid again, listening to his mother's stories about the old world—but he wasn't that kid anymore. He was an agent of the National Security Bureau, a position he'd worked for since high school. He was Jeremy Ashe's partner. He was a close personal friend of Senator Madelaine Ashe.
And he was sitting inches away from a girl who had just teleported into his tent in the middle of the night and awakened him.
"Is everything okay?" he asked hesitantly.
She nodded, still looking flustered. "...Nobody's ever hugged me after."
Lani smiled. "I'm sorry. I just wanted to thank you."
"I… okay." She glanced at Riley, still asleep in the bag next to him. "Is she… does she want to awaken too?"
"I don't think so," he said, glancing over as well. "She doesn't know I have it. I was going to tell her tomorrow morning."
The girl frowned. "I… don't think you should show it to her. Not until you're absolutely sure."
Lani was surprised. He hadn't expected something like that. He didn't dare ask why, though—not her. "Can I ask your name?"
She smiled, but it was still laden with so much sadness that Lani felt no mirth in return. "Everybody just calls me Grey-eyes."
"That's… not very creative."
"I don't mind." She frowned. "You know what you've got there, right? What you just found?"
"I just awakened, right?" he asked.
She nodded. "Do you know the risks?"
Lani hesitated. "I saw what happened to the town down there."
Her finger twitched, and suddenly the lantern near them lit up. He could see her more clearly—her thick brown hair, her pale skin. A t-shirt bearing a logo he'd never heard of, a warm jacket and jeans. She looked for all purposes like a totally normal college student… except for her eyes. Not just the silvery color, but the emotional depth, the heavy lids and the exhaustion beyond anything he'd ever witnessed.
"You're his partner. Jeremy Ashe. You're Lani, right?"
"I'm so sorry," she added, her eyes welling up.
"I tried to stop it, but it was too fast. I couldn't catch it in time."
She wiped at her eyes, no tears actually falling. "The bullet. The guy that shot you up at Boris' place. I tried to block it, but it just swerved a bit. I wasn't ready, and I hadn't ever tried to stop a bullet before."
Lani smiled, finally placing the familiar voice from the clearing two months prior. "So you saved my life, then."
"That man was an experienced hunter. He shouldn't have missed. If you hadn't interfered, he probably would've got me in the chest. That kind of rifle, I'd probably be dead."
"...Oh." She looked surprised.
"You've saved my life twice now," he added, glancing down at the crumpled parchment in his hand. "I owe you everything."
"You don't," she murmured. "Nobody owes me anything."
"Everything," Lani repeated firmly. "If you need anything from me, ever, I'll do it. I swear upon every spirit listening to us now, I am your servant forever."
She looked a little confused, but she nodded.
A tiny gust of wind. Grey-eyes was gone, just as suddenly as she'd appeared. Lani looked around, but he knew it was futile. Smiling to himself, he laid back down again, staring up at the stars once more. He could feel it, his own mana, that power which his mother had always told him was there. Grey-eyes had awakened him, and now he embraced the mana as himself, his soul breaking free.
There's no way I'm gonna fall asleep anytime soon. So Lani thought, but as it turned out, the moment his eyes closed for even an instant, he was fast asleep and stayed that way until dawn.
A rustle and a buzzing sound jerked Lani awake.
"Oh, sorry!" said Riley, glancing over. She was already wriggling out from under her blanket, pulling her jacket and vest back on. "I was hoping that the vibrate wouldn't get ya."
"I'm a light sleeper," he replied, blinking hard to try and clear away his groggy vision. He sat up, looking out at the dim pale light of dawn before the sunrise. "You sleep okay?"
"I'm a light sleeper too, actually, but that was the best sleep I've had in weeks," she replied. "I was in London up until yesterday. I missed the outdoors so much."
"I think I've still got some getting used to," Lani added, stretching out his sore shoulders.
"Oh, man." She winced "Yeah, the cold and the hard ground isn't gonna be great for that."
"It's okay." Absolutely nothing could have made the night any better for Lani, after all. He could still feel his mana, the primal power like a beacon of warm light within his soul. "How long til the sunrise?"
She grinned. "About ten minutes til it really starts to heat up. We're right on time."
They set up the chairs outside, and Riley got out another tripod and prepared a camera.
"How many of those do you have?" Lani asked, whistling. They looked pretty expensive.
"Enough," she winked. "If it makes you feel any better, I don't own them. They're from my employer."
While she set about fiddling with the camera, Lani decided to try a bit of magic. He decided moving something would probably be the easiest to start with. Tapping into the mana within his soul, Lani reached out for a brown leaf hanging above Riley's head. He poked and prodded it with his mind, and with a tiny snap it fell free. As it twirled, Lani kept poking it to keep it on course.
It fell right onto the top of the camera, perfectly on target.
"Hey," Riley murmured, picking it up. "Where'd you come from?"
Lani smiled. She tossed the leaf aside and went back to the camera.
It was easy, way easier than he'd expected. From the bits of the book he'd seen, plus the stories he'd heard from Jeremy, Lani expected magic to be a difficult task, even the basics taking weeks of practice. Am I just lucky? Or did she bless me somehow?
Are the spirits helping me?
The piece of parchment—a fragment of the book, he now realized—had taught him a particular kind of magic. Something to do with the spirits he'd felt surrounding him as he awakened, those infinite entities filling up the world around him. Lani closed his eyes and concentrated. He called to them with his mind, called to the spirits and asked them to come forth.
One in particular presented itself, a pale wisp of a thing. It wasn't what he expected—not tied to any part of the earth or sea, but a mystical presence given vague shape and form. Lani opened his eyes, and there it was.
A soft, translucent shape, pale blue as the sky. It had no face, no real identifying features at all. The spirit appeared as a blob, almost smokey in its appearance. Lani reached out slowly with his hand, inching his fingers toward the edge of its floating essence.
The moment they touched, it felt like plunging his hand into ice.
Lani refused to recoil, holding his hand in place. The spirit didn't move—didn't react in the slightest. He felt like it was waiting for him to tell it what to do. After all, he'd called it forth. It would be rude to keep it there without giving it instruction or dismissing it.
A click of the camera reminded him where he was. Lani told the spirit to disperse, without a word passing through his lips. He felt a response, almost like an acknowledgment, come back to his mind from the spirit.
It vanished, a faint puff of smoke spreading out from where it had disappeared into the void. The smoke dissipated as it spread, gone in only a few seconds.
"Incredible," said Riley.
"Yeah," he agreed, though he wasn't looking at the sunrise at all.
Riley stopped, looking around. "This seems wrong."
"What's up?" asked Lani, catching up.
"I could've sworn… but that can't be right." She checked her compass and her GPS, looking confused. "Hang on to this a sec, okay?"
She dropped her bag and handed the GPS device to Lani. With a sudden leap, she grabbed the nearest branch of a tall tree and hoisted herself up. Arm over arm, she pulled herself up into the canopy. "I'm just gonna take a quick look! Try to see the town!" she shouted down.
Lani looked around, and—with no one else in sight—set the bag aside. He concentrated, and again, the spirit appeared. This time though, he made a request when he called for it, and it responded. It was still the pale smokey blue, only partly visible against the backdrop of the thick forest, but it wasn't a featureless shape anymore. It wasn't a work of art, but it had a face and eyes at least. It could express itself.
Not that it did. It simply floated impassive, watching, waiting.
Riley was well out of sight. Lani considered what he should ask of it. What could such a spirit do?
What can you do? he tried to ask, but nothing came back. Lani didn't think they communicated in words, anyway. Certainly not a language invented by people. The spirits wouldn't be so forthcoming. It was up to him to determine.
He tried to ask it where he should go, but again, it didn't respond in the slightest. Lani asked it a few more questions, but he got the feeling it couldn't understand such abstract ideas. He had to be more concrete. Lani asked the spirit to show him which direction the town was in, praying it could understand such a concept. It didn't move.
Frustrated, Lani told it to move down to the ground, just to see if it would do anything. To his relief, it did so—sinking to the earth and stopping just above the layer of moss and leaves. He asked it to move other places, and it did, but he couldn't think how to get it to do more. On top of that, he could feel it draining him.
Every time it moved, every time the spirit did anything beyond just float there, Lani could feel it drawing upon his energy, his mana. It subsisted off his own power. Without him, the spirit couldn't manifest itself, and as soon as he released that flow of power, it would vanish back into the void it came from.
Curious, Lani let the first spirit sit there, and tried to call for another. It appeared, identical to the first. He tried a third, and a fourth. Both appeared, forming a small wall of pale blue smokey faces floating in front of him.
Well, this is getting weird…
Hearing a call above him, Lani dismissed the spirits. "What was that?" he shouted.
"I can see the town!" Riley shouted back. "But…"
A few thumps and Riley was swinging back down to the forest floor. "It's bizarre," she said. She took off her gloves, breathing heavily from the exertion. "I don't usually get lost, but the town isn't where it's supposed to be. Or… anything really. It's like we got totally turned around."
"We were following the compass though, weren't we?"
"Yeah…" Riley glanced around, looking uncomfortable. "You think… it's this place?"
"I'd believe it."
She reached out and took his hand. Hers were warm from the gloves she'd just been wearing, and they felt perfect slotted in between his fingers. Lani suddenly felt a wave of guilt over not telling her what he'd found.
"Hey," he started.
"Don't get me wrong," she interrupted quickly. "I mean, you're out here 'cause you want to find magic right? I'm not saying it's all bad. Just… well, I'd rather you have it than whatever did this weird forest," she finished, looking around nervously.
"...I have a confession to make," Lani said, shifting uncomfortably in place.
She looked up at him. "No…"
"Just last night!" he said quickly. "I just… you know, kinda stumbled across it."
With a slight smile, Lani called up a spirit again. It emerged from the smoke right in front of them, hovering a few feet away.
"...Wow…" Riley reached out a hand toward it. "Oh! That's… sheesh, does it gotta be so cold?"
Hey, maybe that'll work. Lani asked the spirit to be warm. He felt a sudden draw of energy from him as it agreed to his request. "Try again," he prompted.
She did. "...Okay, now it's like my hand's sitting in the sun… That's amazing."
"Sorry I didn't tell you," he said. He dismissed the spirit.
"Are you kidding?" Riley smiled. "This stuff's crazy, and with everything that's happened? I don't blame you. Besides, you didn't wait that long." Before Lani could speak, she leaned up and kissed him again. "Trust me now?"
"Definitely," he replied. He wrapped his good arm around her shoulders and hugged her, relieved.
"...So how'd you do it? How's it work?"
A twig snapped.
They both turned, and Lani saw her hand go to the knife on her belt again. Standing a few dozen feet away was a young Japanese man wearing a silvery-grey robe. His hands were raised in surrender.
"Excuse me," he called out.
"...Hi," Lani called back.
"Hi there," said Riley. "Are you…" She glanced at Lani. "One of the… you know."
"Yes," he replied. He beckoned them forward. As they approached, it became clear just how intricate the edges of his robes had been sewn, and the sheer strength of the material.
"Not really the best forest color," she pointed out.
He smiled. An instant later, the robe shifted through the spectrum, landing on a perfect modern jungle camouflage pattern. He held it there for a few seconds, before it returned to the silver hue.
"Alright, I'm convinced," said Riley, grinning.
He bowed. "I'm here to guide you."
"To where?" asked Lani. "Out of the forest? Back to our jeep?"
"Wherever," he replied.
Lani smiled. He glanced at Riley, who nodded. She spoke first. "Can you take us to the Greywood?"
Riley fell a little behind, looking at the forest all around them. By all appearances, they seemed to be walking through perfectly normal trees, but even Lani could tell they weren't walking in the same direction as the trees were moving. Something was completely off.
"This is why we were lost, right?" he asked the young man excitedly. "Magic?"
He nodded. He was really the quiet type, Lani noticed, even down to the way he walked. Despite all the branches, leaves, twigs and other flora littering the forest, he didn't make a sound.
"...So you were watching us for a while," Lani realized aloud. "There's no way you couldn't sneak up on us."
He smiled. "I was waiting."
"To see if you would tell her."
He fell silent as they approached the edge of a clearing ahead. Riley caught up, still looking a bit windswept. They walked through a set of trees, pushing through the needles to emerge into a wide open clearing. Lani gasped aloud, and Riley echoed him a second later.
A stone archway stood before them, with vines crawling up each side and twirling together to form a thick connection at the top where the capstone was missing. Through the arch, a path of stones set into the grass lead to a small, perfect wooden bridge that looked like it had grown out of the ground of its own accord, handrails and all. The bridge arced gracefully over the clattering stream, passing by a small garden on the opposite side that was bursting with life. The path split, curling away to several wooden cabins on the opposite side of the clearing.
Their guide lead them through the arch, and instead of crossing the bridge, he took them to a larger structure on the near side of the stream. Lani and Riley looked around like tourists. Riley lifted her camera, about to take a picture, but their guide materialized next to her and put a hand on her arm.
"Please," he stated simply.
She nodded. "Sorry… Force of habit."
They approached the entrance, a huge winged set of wooden paneled doors with intricate relief carvings filling a grid of eight squares top to bottom. They swung wide before Lani could get a good look. Their guide ushered them inside.
The place was cozy, but clearly meant for meetings of some kind. Two fireplaces sat on opposite ends, both lit with crackling fires that seemed to burn without touching the wood underneath. Elegant wooden tables and chairs lined the main section, and at the far end, she sat waiting for them. Her chair was specially designed with a higher seat to keep her at an even level with the rest, and had a wide space for another to sit alongside.
She wore the same robes as their guide, even more elaborate and embroidered. Around her neck was a necklace with an eight-pointed star, set with many gemstones. A tattoo of the same symbol adorned the side of her neck, barely visible from the front underneath her silvery hair, while more gemstones and charms dangled from her wrists. She was short, but not so short that she would be considered a dwarf—and none would ever mistake her hard, fierce expression or aged eyes for that of a child.
Lani knew instantly who she must be.
"Welcome," she called, and her voice echoed like an ethereal spirit, an otherworldly presence behind her words.
A girl and an old man flanked her on either side. The girl was probably the same age, though much taller, and with brown hair instead of Cinza's silver-gray. The man had short, thick black hair and an even thicker beard that threatened to swallow his face. He smiled genially, but she was nothing but stern, untrusting glares.
"Hi," said Lani. Riley echoed him a second later. They took seats opposite the trio, while their guide leaned in and whispered something in Cinza's ear.
"Thank you, Makoto," she replied, and he bowed again before retreating from the room. "Give Ruby my love."
"Oh my god, you're her, aren't you?" said Riley breathlessly. "You're… you know. Her."
Cinza smiled, clearly amused. "Well put."
"And who are you two?" asked the girl brusquely.
"Nikki, they're our guests," said Cinza, putting a hand on her arm.
Nikki leaned back in her chair, frowning. "After what we just went through the last two days?"
"Makoto trusts 'em, so I do too," the old man chimed in.
"My name is Lani Makaio," said Lani suddenly, drawing their attention—and Riley's. "I'm an agent for the FBI's National Security Bureau, and partner to Jeremy Ashe, the special agent who was tasked with figuring out what happened to Rallsburg. Jeremy and I both found about magic a couple weeks ago when he fought alongside Hailey Winscombe in Tacoma. And today… today I was awakened too."
He called a spirit to appear in front of them. The old man stood up in shock. Nikki sneezed. Cinza suddenly looked very interested.
"That's quite a story," she commented, while Nikki sniffled. She sneezed again, hard, and Cinza plucked a tissue from her bag. "Please, release your spell. I'm afraid Nikki is allergic to such magic."
Lani dismissed the spirit. "That's a thing?" asked Riley, raising her eyebrows. "Magical allergies?"
"Indeed," said Cinza.
"It's the worst," added Nikki, blowing her nose.
"You were sayin'?" prompted the old man, nodding at Lani.
"I met her," said Lani.
"Who?" asked Riley, but Lani knew that Cinza and her companions wouldn't need any more explanation. It was obvious now, between their robes and her hair, what their real unifying force was. They weren't followers of Cinza, not in the slightest, no matter what the world had concluded so far.
They, like Lani, were together to follow her.
Cinza nodded, and a genuine smile warmed her face. "Miraculous, wasn't it?"
"Twice over," he added excitedly. "She actually saved my life once before. When we went up to Vancouver to find Mr. Morozov and Mr. Rhodes."
Cinza raised her eyebrows. "Really? How so?"
Lani recounted the story, and all four of them hung onto every word—Riley with a bit more confusion than the rest.
"You've been truly blessed," said Cinza as he concluded. "We're honored to have you among us."
"I feel honored," he said, looking around. "This place is… is…"
"Magical?" supplied Riley, grinning.
Lani laughed. "Yes."
"And what about you?" asked Cinza, turning to her. "I must ask, how did you arrive here?"
"Well, I thought I was leading him around," she said, nudging Lani. "But apparently he was on the real adventure and I was just along for the ride."
"I couldn't have done it without you," he replied.
"Aww," she shot back, rolling her eyes—but she smiled anyway, which made him feel warmer than either of the fireplaces could do.
"Are you awakened?" asked Nikki, interrupting them.
"...Nope," she replied. "I'm still not really sure what that means, or how to do it or whatever."
Cinza looked at Lani curiously, but he didn't say anything. Grey-eyes' words still echoed in his head, and he couldn't exactly reply there on the spot. She turned back to Riley. "Would you like to be?"
Pressure flooded into the room. Lani had assumed it would be a quick, easy answer. After all, he'd shown it wasn't dangerous, right? She'd just say yes. But… Riley was silent, gazing back at Cinza thoughtfully.
"I… I'm not sure."
Cinza nodded. "There's no pressure. It's always a choice. We'd never force anyone to awaken."
"I appreciate that," said Riley, sounding relieved.
"Might I ask why? Just out of curiosity, nothing more."
Riley nodded. Under the table, her hand found Lani's, entwining with his fingers and gripping it tight. "My parents were… well, pretty superstitious. They already believed in stuff like this long before we found out it was real. They also… both of them went crazy. Really crazy…" She trailed off. "I'm sorry, it's not something I talk about much."
Cinza held up a hand. "Please. You need not say more if you're uncomfortable. Anyone here is allowed a fresh start if they want it."
"Thank you," said Riley, smiling gratefully.
"But," Cinza went on, "and I'm sorry, but we can't let you stay with us if you aren't awakened."
The warmth in the room vanished. Lani had to look over at one of the fireplaces to make sure the flames hadn't suddenly gone out. Riley's hand squeezed his tight as she spoke, voice trembling. "But… why?"
Cinza sighed. "Because the world has decided we aren't allowed to exist. Not yet, at least." She held up her hand, palm open and flat to the ceiling. An intricate design of stars appeared in midair above it, shining and twirling through each other in a mad dance. "Even something as simple as this has driven men and women to mad slaughter. Look at how they leap over themselves today. Half beg to be awakened themselves, not understanding what that means, and the other half would wish us gone."
She shook her head. "I don't wish to assume that you mean us ill will, but we've been betrayed once already this week. Trust doesn't come easily to me, or to many of my companions. With the opponent we face, I cannot rightly allow anyone into our home that isn't one of us in body. You need not believe as we do, but I must insist at least on the former."
Lani decided to interject while Riley sat dumbfounded. "Come on. What if I vouch for her?"
"You just met her today, didn't you?" Cinza pointed out. "I don't mean to dismiss your powers of judgment, but I can't rely on them."
"It's okay," said Riley, standing up. She hadn't let go of Lani's hand though, and it followed her to her feet. "I can… I can go. I'm sorry."
"Wait!" Lani cried, leaping to his feet. Everyone stared at him, waiting. "Let her stay. Just for a little bit. While she makes up her mind. If she still chooses no, she can leave after that. Okay?"
Cinza paused, watching the two of them carefully. Nikki leaned in to whisper something in her ear, and she nodded. As Nikki got up and walked away, vanishing into one of the curtained-off rooms at the other end of the cabin Cinza spoke again, her voice echoing through the hall. "That… would be acceptable."
Lani felt the warmth flood back into the room, just as Riley squeezed his hand again. "Thank you," she said, and Lani saw a tear fall from her eye. "Thank you so much."
"Is there anything you two need? Did you leave anything in the forest?"
"Well, there's a jeep," said Lani. "It's up by the cliffs near the ridge, north of the cell tower."
"If you'd like, Makoto can bring it back here for you." Cinza nodded at the door, where Makoto had materialized from of nowhere. Riley dug the keys out of her pocket and tossed them towards him. It was a bad throw, but the keys shifted direction in midair and landed neatly in his hand anyway.
"Cool," she breathed. As he turned to leave, she hurriedly added, "There's a camera and tripod chained to the front. You can just put them in the trunk."
He nodded and vanished.
"I'm afraid our guest cabin isn't quite done," said Cinza apologetically. "We only just started preparing for larger groups a couple weeks back, and we've been rather… preoccupied since then."
"We do have a tent," said Riley, patting her long bag.
"If you like. You're also welcome to sleep in here. The fires will burn forever so long as you can feed them a little magic, so it stays quite warm."
Nikki came back into the room, looking worried. She whispered something in Cinza's ear. Cinza nodded, and as Nikki disappeared again, she turned to the old man. "The show's about to start, and it doesn't look good."
"Well, can't be missin' that," he replied, not looking excited in the least.
"What show?" asked Lani, surprised.
"Hailey Winscombe just flew out to meet with the FBI. Very publicly," she added, irritated. "Today's not going to be a good day." Cinza got to her feet, looking a bit ill. "Rufus can show you two around, if you like. You're welcome to visit anywhere in the Greywood you like. Nothing's off-limits, but most of the other cabins are personal residences, so please give them their privacy." Her expression and tone got darker. "Don't enter the woods without an escort, under any circumstances."
"Uhh… what?" asked Lani, surprised.
"Rem'ber that bit where we don' play nice with strang'rs?" said Rufus. "We go' pre'y good at defendin' our home sins May."
Before she walked away, Cinza turned back to them and bowed slightly. Her charms and jewelry jangled as she did, and her eyes sparkled with light. "Welcome to the Greywood."
As they laid out the sleeping bag near the fire that night, Riley watched it crackle with fascinated eyes. "So you can just… feel it?" she asked.
"Yeah." Rufus had taught him how to find the fire's enchanted logs and feed them more magic to keep them burning. They already had a strong supply, and he fed them a bit more to keep them alive until morning. The effort took a lot out of him, but he was already planning to go to sleep anyway, so he didn't mind.
"I'm… I'm still thinking about it," she answered, to his unspoken question.
"I get it, really," he said. He laid down on one side of the sleeping bag, grateful for the nicer pillows that Matthew brought him. "If you have to go, I understand."
"But you're staying here, right?" she asked.
"...Yes. This is…" He trailed off.
"It sounds too cheesy," said Lani, embarrassed.
"I love some good cheese."
"It feels like this is my destiny."
She didn't laugh, to his relief. Instead, she sat down—and instead of getting in the bag as he expected, she laid on top right next to him and pulled the blanket over them both. Her long bag sat next to them, just a few feet away.
"It doesn't sound cheesy," she said softly.
"I mean, I don't really believe in destiny or anything like that," she went on, "but what do I know, right? Magic turned out to be real, so who knows what else might be?"
"She saved my life, then she saved it again when I awakened. It doesn't feel like coincidence," he explained. "Meeting you, too. It can't be."
"So now I'm your destiny too?" she asked.
Lani's face lit up red. "I mean—"
Riley laughed gently. "It's okay. I don't mind. I didn't really think anyone would ever say something like that about me." She hesitated. "I kinda like it."
Lani smiled. She leaned forward and kissed him, and he returned it, with the fire crackling nearby and the sound of the stream rattling along outside.
"All right, let's get some sleep," she said, finally breaking it. "Even if I end up only staying here a few days, I want to make the most of it."
Lani nodded. He grinned, since he hadn't told her about the second trick with the fires. He sent the command like Rufus had taught him, and suddenly all the light went out. The whole cabin was plunged into darkness.
"Whoah," she murmured. "But… it's still warm."
"Yeah," he agreed.
"Magic, huh?" She laughed. A few minutes later, she was asleep. As Lani started to drift off, he felt her moving in her sleep—and slowly, she came to rest next to him, pressing up close for warmth.
He wondered what Jeremy would think, knowing how Lani had come so far in only a day when he'd been investigating for months without any kind of progress like this. Thoughts of Jeremy were driven away by the magic he'd found, including his ability to summon spirits which was almost totally unlike anything Cinza's people had shown him. His thoughts of magic were driven out yet again by memories of Grey-eyes—her awakening him in the tent, their conversation, and how she had saved him from near-certain death up in Canada.
Thoughts of Grey-eyes were replaced, finally, by the long, exciting couple of days he'd spent with the exciting, adventurous young woman, still gently clutching his hand while she slept next to him. Lani's eyes slid closed and his mind faded away with that warm thought. He finally felt content. He wasn't searching for answers anymore, or for a reason, or anything else so existential and philosophical. He didn't need to keep moving, after having migrated across oceans in search of a place to stay. The spirits filling the world around him had shown him the way.
Lani was home.