Kian had told her to take it an hour at a time, and Isabelle had, and she was struck by how that had taken her up to this moment. Somehow the hours had piled up into days, into weeks, months, years. And here she was, resting her head on Kian’s shoulder, curled around him and breathing him in, surrounded by family (yes, she thought, that still hurt).
Three years on. How was it three years? She’d gone back to school, got her grades even though she had no direction in life, fell into an easy routine with Kian and then gave up the pretence of sleeping in her own room. Three years! She was nineteen, she had an admin job for the town hall, and she was watching her silly, ridiculous brother toast to Cara’s pregnancy.
Her eyes burned with tears, even though she was smiling and raising her glass, Kian leaning away to clink his with Quinn’s. The same sadness was reflected in the faces around her, because who among them ever thought that they’d be sharing this news with graves?
Law and Chase were there, of course, hooking arms around Ayr and Cara to pull them in for jovial hugs. Isabelle had always loved her uncles, but they were so much closer after living together for three years. Even though they could move out, even though she and her siblings could have, no one had broached the subject. With a twinge in her heart she wondered if now the subject would be brought up.
“I wish Shanna was here,” Ayr said, perching on a seat and running a hand down Cara’s shoulder. Quinn and Isabelle shared his look and nodded in agreement. They’d seen her at Christmases and Easter, but they’d already passed much too soon. Ayr, as always, missed Shanna the day after she left; Isabelle had grown used to her absence.
In a bid to lighten the atmosphere, Kian cocked his head at them. “Any names?”
“Korra,” Ayr said, immediately, and beside him Cara made a face.
“What?” she laughed. “That’s far too close to my name.”
“Exactly! Calling her, if that’s what the stork is bringing-” (at this Kian blinked, face screwing up in confusion) “your name would make us seem pompous, but I like your name, so just change around some of the vowels and squish a K and an R in there. Perfect!”
“Is this anything to do with your long lasting cartoon crush?” Quinn asked.
“Hey, you showed me that programme, don’t pin this all on me. I’m a simple man – I see a badass lady, I fall head over heels.”
Cara dug her elbow into Ayr’s side. “We’re not calling our daughter Korra. Anyway, what if he’s a he?”
“Kor…ee! Kory. Cory.” Ayr grinned at the funny looks. “You couldn’t tell, but I was spelling it differently each time.”
With a sigh, Cara nudged him hard enough that Ayr fell off his chair and onto cold grass with a squawk. “No Korra, no Cory, nothing too close to my name!”
“Spoilsport,” was the muttered reply.
“It’s okay, you can take the hand to hand while I deal some sharp shooter damage,” Shanna smirked, watching Dustin’s back as he chucked his sweaty vest top in the laundry bin. The marks on his back had stopped making her gut drop after the first year, though sometimes at night she wondered what it would feel like. To be fair, she wondered about that a lot, and not just about his back. “Aw, is your male ego hurt that I got a perfect score?”
Dustin clicked his tongue and spun on his heel so he could watch her as he walked backwards. “Hand to hand is where the real action is. You’re just a coward.”
“Am not!” Shanna argued, falling into their usual pattern of bickering. “Besides, I’ll snipe all the enemies before they even get to you.”
“Unless you have a high calibre gun, some of those enemies will survive, and then we’ll see what these hands can do.”
Shanna shrugged and turned away so that he couldn’t see her blush. “They’ll be weakened from my bullets.”
“And they’ll be put down by these fists,” he smirked, dropping into a boxing stance and pumping his fists forward. “Bam, bam!”
Shanna was about to retaliate, but she broke off into a yawn and ended up scrubbing her eyes. “I need a shower, and a nap.”
“Did you have a bad dream again?”
Shanna gave a non-committal answer and tried to brush past him, but he caught her arm. The memory of it made her stomach twist, but she didn’t let herself think about it. Couldn’t.
“You alright?” Dustin studied her when Shanna ducked her head to let black hair fall as a curtain. “Q will be able to do something about it, right?”
“Q’s not here-”
“Incorrect, I am always here, for I am your omnipresent God. Why are you partially undressed?” Q waited a beat. “No, I don’t want to know.”
“I’m sweaty,” Dustin explained.
“Definitely don’t want to know.” He narrowed his eyes. “If either of you need the birds and the bees talk, go to Danni.”
Shanna squealed in embarrassment and smacked her hands over her face. She’d already had one awkward conversation with Danni this year (the unwelcome onset of her insides suddenly bleeding) and that was her limit. Dustin made a confused noise in the back of his throat.
“The – the what?”
“The sex talk,” Shanna explained to him.
“Anyway,” Q said, loudly. “I’m back in this disgustingly damp country and we need to talk. So shower and I’ll put some tea on. Come back down when you’re ready.” Q nodded at them both and ducked back out the doorway, which he’d been hovering in and letting all the warm air out. Shanna shivered as her sweat turned clammy and cold.
“What – why is it called that?”
“Because they have babies?”
“Every species has babies!” Dustin argued, flinging his hands up. “They’re not even remotely close to humans in terms of – of – well, you know.”
Shanna snorted at his flustered state and made a mental note to never let him live it down. “Well, the cows and the whales doesn’t have the same ring.”
“They live in the water.”
“Yeah, and they breathe air.”
“That doesn’t make them a mammal!”
“No, but everything else about their biology does.”
David grumbled under his breath.
“What was that?” Shanna asked, cupping her hand to her ear and giving him a shit eating grin.
“Just my claim on the shower. Later, loser!” Dustin rushed off, leaving Shanna in his dust.
“Not fair!” she screamed after him, flailing her way up the stairs. “I said it first! UGH! You’re the worst!”
They sat at the old wooden table, its scarred surface like a map under Shanna’s wandering fingers, the steam of their teas floating in the air between them. Shanna had learned to tell when Q had received bad news, because the stretch of silence between his quips were longer.
Dustin stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankle, his lax stance a contrast to his alert eyes. Just like Shanna, he waited. And eventually, Q cleared his throat.
“They’ve figured that they’re not going to find you,” he said, looking at Shanna. “They can’t See you, at any rate, given that us Seers are blank spots for each other, but they’ve spent the last three years trying to track you down and failing.”
“So they’re going to lure me out, aren’t they?” Shanna folded her arms as Q said nothing, though the line of his mouth went tight. “My family.”
“Is this what your dream was about?” Dustin asked, open curiosity blazing a path through his face. He always looked like that when he had a chance to talk about Shanna’s ‘abilities’, and she always hated it.
“Wait – you’ve been having dreams?”
“That’s what we were talking about as you came in,” Shanna said sullenly.
“Okay.” Q thought for a moment. His gaze went narrow, and then returned to her. “Give me a summary now, and we’ll go in depth later.”
“They get taken. Isabelle and Quinn and Ayr. I’m not sure where – not far. A set of old farmhouses. I dream that I’m chasing them through it, trying to get to them before…” Her throat went tight. Her dreams hadn’t ended like that, but the implication had made her sob into her pillow for hours.
“How do we stop them?” Dustin asked, his voice barely above a growl.
“Sometimes it’s not about stopping them, but about moving the other pieces around them to keep our team safe, while fooling the Council that they’re in control.” Q shook his head. “They’ve got used to my tactics, but I can find the right path. I always do.”
Shanna and Dustin exchanged a look, but they said nothing about the exhaustion around Q’s eyes. “What do we need to do?”
“Get ready. They’ll want Shanna, so she’ll be there. I have a couple of others nearby who might be able to help. Law, too.”
“This will never end, will it?” Shanna’s tired words attracted their looks. “They’ll keep going until they win. You can’t keep us all safe.”
“There’s more at play than you think. We need it not to be worth their while ever trying again. There’s things coming in the future which will keep them busy, but that won’t guarantee anything. So, what do we do?” He looked at them expectantly, and Shanna knew they were back in the classroom. She leaned back and thought hard while Dustin sipped at his cup.
“Why are they targetting the family?”
“Because of you two.” Dustin’s answer was immediate.
“Yeah, but I’ve already proved to them that – that I can make the hard choice.” Q resolutely didn’t look at Shanna, who stared into her cup.
“Do we need to fake my death?” Shanna asked dryly. “Seers can’t see me, right?”
“No, but…” Q fumbled for a moment. “There’s blank spaces where you’d be. Usually that doesn’t give us away, and searching for location that way is a dead end, but they’d know you were alive.”
“You take away what they want,” Dustin murmured, his eyes narrowing in that way they did when he was chasing a thought.
“Actually, he’s right. That was one of the first things I taught you, remember? Identify their goal and take it away from them. The council are vindictive, and if they have the manpower spare they’ll take it out on you, but they don’t.” Q linked his fingers together and grinned. “What was the second thing?”
“That your protection racket would cost us chocolate?” Dustin asked, raising an eyebrow. Q snorted at the memory but waved his hand in the air, and it was Shanna who perked up next.
“Make them think their goal is gone.” Then, she frowned. “We’re sort of back to faking my death.”
“As far as I know, there’s no way to stop or seal a Seer’s power in an unbreakable way. I have some warlock contacts and none of them have heard of it. I had to come at the problem from a different angle.” He waited.
Shanna rested her chin on her hand. How to make them think she no longer could See? Especially since they could hardly risk not testing her sudden lack of powers, which would still put her family at risk. She tried to think like her mentor and screwed up her eyes in concentration. How did they currently know she was a Seer?
Her eyes snapped open. “We make their Seer See me. In their visions. Then they’ll think I’m no longer like them. Is that possible?”
Q grinned like a shark. “And that’s exactly what I’ve been away finding out.”
Shanna’s mind spun with all the information that had been crammed into it in the past few days. Maps and instructions and timelines and she was seeing it all in her sleep. She felt like she knew her part perfectly, which was good, because Q had been very specific. There were ways in which this could go wrong, and he’d highlighted as many as possible for them.
The shadows under his eyes were dreadful. Shanna had always known there was a component of effort and energy that went into Seeing, but it never struck her to wonder how horrible it would be to see death over and over. At least in her nightmares she only got a sense of gone, permanently. That had been bad enough.
They were preparing a spell for her to finish in front of the vampires, which would suddenly allow them to See her and set them up to believe she had stripped herself of power. In that distraction, others would free her siblings. The vampires had no reason to go after them once they were out and safe, but to cover their exit Shanna had something else to do.
“Do you really trust me with a detonator?” she asked, turning the remote control around in her hands.
“I trust you with that more than I trust you with keeping your grubby hands off my food,” Q smirked. “You’ll know when everyone is out, and you’ll need it as a threat. Even they can’t survive an explosion.”
“Yeah, neither can we, genius.”
“But since it’s still better than letting you all fall into enemy hands, they’ll have to assume we mean to use it, and in fact I know you will if you have to, and so do they. Which means they won’t charge at you or make any sudden moves. It’ll give us the room to escape, too.”
“Will it really all go to plan?”
“Potentially, no,” Q admitted. “I have no control over people forgetting my instructions or just plain reacting in ways I’ve told them not to. I account for it as much as possible. They could also have things up their sleeve that I haven’t thought to look for. You’ve just got to deal with it. Anything that leads us down a dark path, I’ve told you about. You know the list of things you can’t do.”
Shanna rattled them off in her mind and nodded.
“It’s not without its risks,” Q went on, quietly. He let out a long breath. “But we have no choice. And Shanna?” He held something out for her. “As a last resort.” There was a terrible look in his eyes.
Shanna took the pill and nodded, breathing through the worry. “I understand,” she said, and she did.
The warning to the triplets had come from Q, via Law. Ayr had tasted the panic in the back of his throat for two days straight, his throat burning acid. Trust me, Q had said, but it wasn’t like they had a choice. They were going to be at risk no matter what, and Ayr had to hope this plan would stop them having to look over their shoulder every day.
They had been snatched from various places in the town, no words spoken to them from the vampires. Ayr tried to keep up with all the complicated things in Q’s world – the vampires seemed to know that they knew they were being taken, so at least the accosting had been more polite than Ayr had expected.
Still his heart thundered in his chest. He could see the same look on Iz’s face, though Quinn only looked at the floor with his eyes narrowed. They settled down in an airy, cold barn to wait, smelling of old hay and straining their ears for any sound of rescue.
Shanna was approaching the farmhouse on foot as soon as she’d got the word from Q. Her hand was clenched around the remote detonator, finger poised over the trigger, and sweat dribbled down her back at the prospect of tripping and setting everything off. She had no idea how Q had laced the place with explosives, especially since the council knew that was part of his plan, but since she hadn’t been snatched by the council yet she had to assume it worked. Unbidden, the maps of the area she’d memorised rose to mind. There were mines underneath her feet – had he used them? His resourcefulness knew no bounds.
She stopped in what could loosely be called a courtyard, surrounded as it was by farm buildings and a steep rocky hill face. The roots of a tree at the very top had long since broken out of the side and curled its way back in, and as she watched a loose stone skittered down the side. She shivered and wondered what she wasn’t seeing.
An open, shoddily erected pre-fabricated build stood in front of her, tin roof already rusting at the edges. She took a deep breath and walked forward, not needing Dustin’s hand at her back as a reminder to push on.
In her other hand was an intricate design on a ball of paper, pressed into her bleeding palm. The paper was sodden. She knew the vampires would be able to smell the blood long before they realised what it was for.
“I want you to know something,” Shanna said, tilting her head back so her voice would carry. It was an unnecessary effort, as even at this time the vampires would have good enough hearing to catch whatever she said.
“And what is that, little mouse?”
Shanna didn’t let herself jump, as conscious as she was of the detonator in her hand, but she looked up quickly to meet the eyes of a vampire. Q had said that the woman was in charge, and not to look away from her no matter what. Bright eyes met hers, an old amusement playing in their depths.
“That with the completion of a Blood Warlock’s spell, I’m no longer a Seer.” She held up the bloodied ball of paper and crunched it in her hand, compressing the carefully woven spirals. Blood splattered onto the ground. Shanna felt no different, but the brief frown on the vampire’s face gave her hope. They hadn’t planned for this.
The woman’s eyes flicked over to another vampire, somewhere in the corner of the room, for confirmation. Shanna almost let her head turn, but at the last second locked her muscles into place. Dustin would have her back.
Torturous minutes passed as they waited for their Seer to send a message back. Shanna could feel the heat radiating off her in waves. Standing stock still was almost too much effort.
But finally, the woman’s eyes narrowed. “Typical Quinn.”
“If you do anything to my siblings, I’ll let this entire building explode.” Keep in control, Q had said. Don’t let them put you on the back foot.
“Well, we have a surprise of our own, mouse,” the vampire smirked. Too late.
A rumble from outside made Shanna start in surprise, but if she had thought that was loud, the next was ear splitting. Thunderous cracks of tumbling rocks echoed through the valley. Shanna flinched at the ringing noise, breaking Q’s first warning.
Don’t look away from her.
Instinct and muscle memory made Shanna dive back. Even during the daylight, the vampire had moved so fast that Shanna had barely seen the attack. The woman’s hand swiped through thin air, where Shanna’s neck would have been.
“Whatever you’ve done to yourself, we’ll find a way to undo it.”
Shanna let the ball of paper tumble from her hand, reaching around her back to snatch out a blade that had been hidden beneath her clothes. “Blood magic is unbreakable. You know that.”
The woman hissed but Dustin was there, smoothly intercepting the next attack. Shanna felt the hard plastic bite into her hand and took a deep breath. Tremors still echoed through the ground at the force of the landslide and dust was beginning to fill their small arena.
Shanna took a second to remember the plan. Her siblings were almost out, at this point, and Q would have sent Law towards her. She could have pressed the detonator, but if she waited another minute, her siblings would live.
She scrambled up and ducked beneath the swing of the second vampire to slide her blade through ribs. He made a surprised sound and dribbled blood as she yanked it out, the anti-viral properties of the silver weakening his vampiric powers further than just the daylight.
The dust was beginning to cover her vision, but she saw Law sprint past and throw himself into Dustin’s fight, yelling at them to go.
Do what Law says, Q had told them. Especially if things go wrong.
Shanna grabbed Dustin’s arm and pulled him away, sprinting out of the building’s threshold and relying on well honed reactions to keep her from tripping over jutting rocks. It was Dustin who pulled her to the left, aiming for the rising ground which would take them up and away from the farmhouse, giving them an ability to look down into the dust and see better. Shanna had stashed her gun in that direction, though she didn’t think the visibility would be good enough to use it.
They broke out from the collection of buildings and she remembered Q’s last order. No matter what, she had to press the trigger as soon as they were out.
Shanna sucked in a breath, sent a prayer to Gods she didn’t believe in, and pressed hard.
The explosion came from an empty silo, fire streaming both up through the column and out through the crippled metal sides. The building she had been in was closest and suffered the brunt of the damage, its own thin metal shrieking and yielding to the force, and then the heat caused the remaining two buildings to burst into flame. The initial shockwave had cleared most of the dust, giving Shanna a glimpse into just how bad the avalanche of rock had been, but quickly smoke and debris hid the rest from view.
They scrambled up the hill as heat blistered skin. Finally, she could grab the gun from her cache in a bush. With shaking hands she screwed the scope on and looked down, searching through the black smog for some sign of life.
“What if I’ve hurt them?” she said, instead of, what if I’ve killed them?
“Trust Q,” Dustin said, firmly. “Let’s get to the rendezvous. You can’t give cover.”
It was true, though Shanna hated to admit it. In her lens she saw nothing but smoke. It was hard to take her gun apart and store it, but she managed. The action allowed her to calm down and take stock of her body. Her palm stung, but worse was the burning skin on the back of her neck. Her hair was frizzy, the ends split from the heat, and taking a deep breath was impossible.
They set off at a jog through the countryside, thinking of nothing except putting one foot in front of the other. The car was parked by the side of the road almost a mile and a half up the valley, and by the time they reached it Shanna’s legs burned in a whole different way. She bent over and hacked black phloem onto the tarmac, then forced herself into the passenger side while Dustin tore away, his driving smooth for a fifteen year old.
They said nothing as they pulled up at the rendezvous half an hour later. Shanna didn’t get out of the car; she just waited.
“Something’s gone wrong,” Dustin murmured.
“No shit,” Shanna snapped. In her mind, a screaming repetition of you’ve killed them. She didn’t realise she said it out loud until Dustin was shaking his head.
“You followed Q’s instructions.”
“I didn’t.” The confession tasted like ash – or maybe that was just her mouth. “I looked away from her after the landslide. Q never knew about it. His plans have gone up in smoke. Just like that.” She pushed her head against the headrest, hoping it would ground her. Guilt coursed through her veins, ice cold.
“We have to go,” Dustin said, putting the car into gear. Shanna squeezed her eyes shut. Q had drilled into them to always follow protocol. They would go to ground. They would wait to hear from him. But what if they didn’t?
Shanna buried her face in her hands. “Oh God,” she moaned.
Just to show him otherwise, she shoved open the door and vomited onto the road.
Dustin was silent as he pulled away from the rendezvous and drove aimlessly down roads until they ran out of fuel.
I’m amazed I had this chapter up at all today. I had taken but not edited the pictures before I left for my holiday, and I thought it was going to take way more effort to make the pictures good for that last bit. In the end I have come to realise that I can’t make fantastical sets and there’s only so much editing can do, so I’m going to rely on my writing to make up the difference 😛
p.s. it’s not just Louise and Jowita who can do a mean cliffhanger 😉