antlers

Thursday afternoon:

We’ve spent all day on the phone. Well, okay, they spent all day on the phone.

Backup is coming — they’re flying in from all over the place.

I have nothing really to do because I don’t have any contacts, so I’m just… writing to pass the time I guess.

All of this is totally surreal. I have always felt that things like the law are up to other people — they’re made by other people, and they’re enforced by other people, and it’s a whole web of confusion and powerlessness.

In real life, fixing injustice feels like we’re all on a gigantic fucking steamer, and we’re trying to go somewhere, but no one can agree on how best to get there, and also, instead of an engine, we all have oars that we mostly use to paddle frantically in opposing directions. Or, you know, smack each other with.

This is different. These are rules that apply to what, like a few hundred people? And not all of them are here. We might be able to win.

They opted not to bust into Lana’s room this morning to make a scene.

“A shouting match won’t change anything,” Beverly said. “Lana already knows she’s been misleading us it’ll do no good to tell her we won’t be mislead. We’ll just show her.”

Now, I wanted the shouting match. I wanted a show down. I wanted to Lana to know that we saw what she’d left out of the story she was telling about Cara, and that we weren’t going to let it stand. But even Neal, who I can usually count on wanting to fight, was with Beverly.

“What you have to understand,” Neal explained to me between phone calls, “is that Lana’s first job is just to keep the peace. That’s her first priority. Not what’s right or wrong. Just preventing infighting. So if we show her that we’re going to fight, she’ll have to change tack.”

And I mean, as long as he’s right, we could really have a shot. We’ve got a hunters flying in from all over the place, as early as tonight.

Thursday Night

Lana called just the inner sanctum into her rooms just now. It was just us, Julian, Neal, Beverly, Jasper, and Lana and Lily. Everyone else she had go, even the Walthers, though I could tell by Silas’ face that he didn’t like that.

She’d had someone bring one of the dining room tables from downstairs so we were all sat around in a circle, King Arthur style.

There was a lot of palpable rage in the room.

“I know why you’re doing what you’re doing,” she said.

By what we’re doing she meant calling in calvary.

Louie is here, he had to hire someone to stay with the kids, but he’s here. He had a full shouting match with Lana earlier, and he’s not a big man, but he’s got a really big yell, and that French accent just adds a layer, you know?

He’s no the only one who immediately hopped on a plane either.

Valerie, the Kellihers, Knock, Daryl, and Rook (thank goodness) Mercy and Zinia are all here — and then some people I’ve never met, Molly and Sharp Becker, this amazing hunter wife duo, and a couple super tattooed guys that Rook told me are sorcerers. Even Beau Meinmarre is here to vouch for her for fucks sake, and stealing from Beau is what got her Scelerat insurance canceled.

If it came down to a fight we’d still lose. We just don’t have the numbers. But still, it’s not a group to scoff at.

“You lied to us,” Beverly said to Lana. “You let me think Cara sold fog to a cult leader no questions asked —”

Lana interrupted her, which didn’t seem like a good start to this conversation. “She shouldn’t have been selling fog at all. If it weren’t for Cara, that fog would have been contained at Fog Town. How can I go out there and argue that she was selling a very dangerous, very illegal substance to someone she knew, and therefore it’s okay?”

She took a deep breath to calm down, and I realized that Lana was fraying at the edges over this. She pressed her palms together and looked at her fingers as she said, “I hate this. I hate everything about this I feel sick to my stomach, and I hate making enemies of all of you. I can only imagine what Nolan would say.”

Neal’s hackles raised so palpably it was almost visible lmfao.

“But the truth is this: we’re outnumbered 3 to one. I have run this through in my head a thousand ways — can we give her a fair trial? Can I offer her asylum at Palefish? Is there some knowledge she has that we can tell everyone we need? But every loophole I try to wriggle us through, I always come back to this: we don’t have the votes to keep her here.”

“It’s not right,” Julian said. “Putting her through that rift isn’t right, and you know it.”

Lana looked up at him helpless. “How do we decide what right is? How do we agree on it?” And when no one answered, she added, “we don’t have the numbers to force this to stop. We don’t have to numbers to enforce laws they don’t believe in. They add more to their company every day.” She pressed her hands to her cheeks. “So if you have a better idea, let’s hear it.”

We all just sat there silently.

“She’d be safe at Palefish,” Julian said. “They have no power there.”

“Maybe,” Lana said. “Are you prepared to handle the lawlessness that would follow?” None of us spoke, so she went on. “Because if we make this exception, that’s it. Do you trust their judgment?”

No, obviously not.

“Let her go,” Neal said. “Just say she escaped.”

Lana gave him a look. “Where would their rage land if that happened, do you think?”

It would land on us.

“Can you handle that heat?”

It felt like someone had suddenly twisted a knob on the telescope and expanded our view. I’m genuinely not sure what would happen if all those hunters downstairs decided they were going to march us through the rift along with Cara. We have a little magic, but they all have like — a LOT of guns. Like SO many guns. We have a vampire and they have like 50 vampire hunters.

The only thing we have that they couldn’t handle, is Lana. And the thing is that these are people who face down bigger, stronger, scarier shit than Lana. From their perspective, Lana’s a solvable problem.

I don’t even remember the rest of that meeting.

My gut says she’s going through that rift tomorrow. I’m hiding in Rook’s room, I needed a break from Cara’s room.

Lol earlier he listened to my whole rage retelling of the meeting with Lana, and you know what he said? “We could just start poisoning people. Thin the herd. Can’t vote if they’re dead.”

Huge fan of this boy.

Late Thursday Night

When I came back to Cara’s room, the Hawthornes weren’t there, which was strange, as they’ve barely left her side since we got here.

I must have been visibly confused, but then I heard raised voices from our room next door. Jasper and Beverly weren’t quite meeting my eye.

“They’re fighting,” Cara said, just in time for Neal to shout, clearly audible through the door, “Because we can goddamn do something about this!”

I started towards the door, and Beverly said, “Shiloh, it’s gonna be ugly.”

“They need to have it out,” Jasper added.

Lol but see I suspected I already knew what they were fighting about, and I didn’t want to intervene, I wanted to join them.

They both stopped talking when I came in, whipped around, saw who it was, and relaxed.

“Hey,” Julian said, smiling a tired smile, like I was a kid who’d caught her parents fighting. “Sorry, we’ll be back in a minute.”

I shut the door behind me pointedly, crossed my arms and just glared at them.

Julian sighed heavily. “You too?” and when I didn’t explain myself he added, “You really want us to just swoop in and start making new rules? No matter what anyone else has to say? Just — our word is law?”

“No,” Neal snapped. “I just don’t want to send Cara through a fucking rift. For fucks sake we can turn her over to the police, anything but this.”

“No one will accept the police,” Julian said. “She’d be out in a week.”

“Not my point,” Neal said back.

Julian took a deep breath. “Even if everyone knew what we were capable of,” he paused to make clear that what he meant was that he’s capable of turning into a terrifying eldritch creature, “the only difference it would make is that they’d know who to kill first.”

“So we’ll call in Officer Do-Good and the lawyer! Bring in some back up, get the band together! No one would argue with that,” Neal cried, and when Julian didn’t reply he added, “Everyone thinks dog saints are supposed to lead people anyways. So we do it, just this once. Fuck it!”

“That’s not a cat we can put back in the bag, Neal. Jesus christ.”

“So we just let her die?”

Julian covered his face with his hands. “Alright, listen to me,” he said. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to tell the whole world about my condition, and I won’t pretend that that’s not a factor. But that’s the least of the reasons we shouldn’t force our way into this mess.” He gestured somewhat wildly. “What are we going to do, storm the place? Terrorize everyone with our terrible powers? Bend them to our will? What would that make us look like to them, Neal?”

“Who cares?” Neal shouted back. “So long as Cara stays on this side of the rift!”

Which I thought was a pretty fucking solid argument, but Julian just looked at us earnestly and said, “You know, we agreed that imposing ourselves like this is a terrible idea. What would Nolan say?”

I don’t know what Nolan would say, but evidently Neal did because he buckled. He turned, raised his hands over his head, covered his face with his hands.

“I can agree to wait, and to try everything else first,” he said. “But if every other effort fails, we call in Cooper and any of the others that’ll come, announce what we are officially, the whole nine. Body block the damn rift if we have to.” Julian hesitated, and Neal added, earnestly, “I couldn’t live with myself Jude.”

Julian hesitated for a moment. I could tell by his helpless expression that this was agony to him, but eventually he said, “yeah, okay.”

“Yeah?” Neal was relieved.

Julian nodded curtly. “Yeah.”

I want very much to feel relieved, but instead I sort of feel like things are unraveling around me, entirely out of control.

Friday Morning

Oh god oh GOD, we were just downstairs getting our breakfast, and the Allens were in line right ahead of us. And just in case you guys don’t remember, the last time we were all together, the Allens had brought some civilians fucking SPORT HUNTING for Hailu puppies and then Julian turned and almost killed us all, so it was tense.

And then Merl Allen said, as if we were in the middle of a conversation, “sometimes, justice just has to be served, is all.”

Neal froze, spoon in the hashbrowns.

“Sometimes,” Julian said, forcing an even tone. “Luckily for you, cruel and unusual are vague qualifiers.”

And Rudy said, “he wasn’t talking to you.” Spat it, more like, with so much unwarranted venom that I literally thought he was talking to someone else.

Julian froze, too.

“You two ought to just keep out of this,” Rudy growled. “Unless you want everyone to know the real reason Lana keeps you around.” He tapped his fork on his plate for emphasis. “You can gather as many friends as you want, but the law’s the law, and there’s a new order coming around in this place.”

I glanced around at the room. People were glancing at us, sidelong, bristling, leaning together to whisper and pretending they weren’t. The whole room was oddly hushed.

“Come on,” Julian said quietly. “Upstairs.”

I didn’t even finish dishing up, I just followed him upstairs with my plate of cantaloupe and a bowl of dry fruit loops.

I’m trying to remember what White Pyre was like, whether I felt this level of hostility. The Hawthornes are apparently unsurprised and unruffled by that encounter and have gone back into Cara’s room like nothing happened. It took me a little longer. Rook came and found me hiding in my room.

“Are you okay?” he asked. I was sitting on the floor at the end of my bed with a bottle of whiskey in my lap, eating dry fruit loops with my hands so he probably should have known the answer to that question.

“Are you and Cara Thistle… close?” he asked, cautiously.

And I don’t really know how to answer that question. The thing is that I fucking love her. She has been soft at these really key moments for me in this last year. She’s felt like an ace I have in my sleeve, like if something goes wrong I have Cara just a phone call away. And there’s not that much security in my life as an apprentice monster hunter hahahaha, knowing I can call Cara has meant a lot to me this year.

I can call Rook, now. I can call my mom. I’ll be okay. It’s more than that. I literally just love her. I think she’s cool. I want to be her, and also sort of have a crush on her. I like watching her verbally eviscerate Neal, and I like how he loves it.

Rook came and sat next to me.

“Please don’t try to comfort me,” I said.

He reached and took the whiskey out of my lap, took a quick swig. “Okay,” he said, and he didn’t. We just sat there on the floor together and waited to be able to get up.

Friday Afternoon

Nothing has changed. Cara’s supposed to go through the rift at dusk. We have maybe 4 hours.

We’ve been talking to people all afternoon, but none of these hunters will budge. We’re outnumbered. If we had a formal vote we’d lose. We even asked the Walthers specifically to make a statement, try to use some of their significant influence to change some minds but they refused.

“Listen, I want to,” Danny said. “I do, I’ve never wanted anything bad to happen to Cara. But these people look to us for leadership, and if I stand up and say that we should make exceptions for the people I happen to care about, what kind of message does that send?”

Everyone is at loose ends. No one has admitted it, but we’ve been going everywhere in groups so that no one is ever walking through this hotel alone, which says to me that everyone is afraid this is going to end in a fight.

I’m alone with Cara right now. Julian and Neal called a meeting with everyone else, but we didn’t want to leave Cara alone with her guard so I stayed with her.

“Cara,” Neal said from the doorway. “If you pull anything on Shiloh’s watch, I swear I will march you through that rift myself.”

She smiled and looped an arm around my shoulder.

“I promise that if I decide to wreak political havoc in the four hours before I’m sent into an alternate reality, it will be on your watch, not hers.”

But once everyone was gone, and it was just us, Cara was much more quiet. She put on a show of deciding to paint her toenails, because “I have to draw the line somewhere, and going into the unknown abyss with un-pedicured toes is it. That’s the line.”

To which I said, “They’re not going to let you go through that rift.”

And she looked up from her toes at me, and her expression was so sad, so crushed, and something like fear seared through me.

“Shiloh, sweetheart,” she said. “I’m going through that rift.”

“No,” I said, in a rush, surprised they hadn’t already explained this to her. “Neal and Julian are going to tell everyone they’re dog saints and make an official bid to keep you here — they’re not going to let…” But I trailed off because of the look on her face.

“Oh angel,” she said. “Okay, listen to me.” She put down her nail polish and reached for my hands. “I love those boys, and I know they’re willing to do anything for me. And it means the world, truly, the whole world to me that after everything, they still want to fuck themselves over for my sake. But I can’t let them do that.”

I pulled my hands out of hers, furious. “Why not?”

She took a deep breath and looked out the window, massaging her temple with one hand.

“Do you believe in fate?”

It was so completely not what I was expecting from her that I didn’t even try to hide my disgust. “No.”

“No,” she agreed. “Neither do I. Neither do they. But they inherited that spell whether they like it or not, and whether they like it or not eventually they’re going to have to own that.” She looked at me, intently. “Do you know what holds our little world together right now?”

I shook my head.

“Lana,” she said. “And the Walthers, but mostly Lana. And she’s not perfect, far from it, but without her moderating, this world becomes the Wild West, and I know the kind of criminals that are out there, waiting for Lana to slip up. Just a moment of vulnerability, that’s all it would take. Do you remember the sorcerer Pernidia? He’s nothing compared to some of the people I’ve met. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

I nodded, silent.

“Someday we’re going to need dog saints. And we’re going to need them to be clean. Their first move can’t be to save the girl who almost ended the world for a few bucks.” She opened her hands, offering them to me and I reached to take them again. She smiled, wet eyes crinkling. “I’ll be okay. I always am.”

But there is absolutely no way for her to know that.

“How will you stop them?” I asked.

Cara laughed. “The Hawthornes? Oh please. They’re slick but they’re not that slick.”

And that’s all she had to say on the matter. She finished painting her toenails and then painted mine. She acted like it was just any afternoon and I let her because I didn’t know what else to do.

Everyone’s back now, all crowded back in her room. They’ve all got this grim air of purpose about them, all planning their big rebellion. She never told me not to tell them. I’m not sure what to do.

2 Hours to Dusk

Cara finally had enough.

She took a deep breath, and finally said, over all the chatter, called, “Everyone who isn’t a Hawthorne, Beverly or Jasper, thank you for being here, but I need a minute. Everyone out.” And then when I hesitated, she quickly added, “Shiloh, you can stay.”

When it was just us, Cara climbed onto the bed, sat cross legged in the middle and raised her voice slightly. “Are you done?”

No one knew how to respond.

“We only have a couple hours left,” she went on. “If you need to fight until the very last minute, that’s okay, I understand. But that’ll be it for our time.”

“Cara —”

“No arguments,” she said. “You’ll have plenty of time to go to war with the Walthers and the Allens, but for now it’s time to admit there’s nothing we can do.”

“It was an accident,” Neal said.

Cara smiled. “It was the lifetime of crime, I think actually that was the problem,” she said. “Very skilled crime, I would add, up to the end there.” And when no one smiled, she added, “there are like a hundred magicians who spend literally all their time just tracking down fog in Calfornia right now. We have a cure in humans, but animals are still breathing that shit in and making more of it. If it starts to spread again we don’t have enough jelly to make the number of cures we actually need. I’ve done the math. This fog is a disaster we don’t even have the scope to understand yet, and it’s my fault it wasn’t all contained at Fog Town. I appreciate that you all forgive me, but this is not the hill you need to die on.” She looked at Neal and Julian. “Especially not you two.”

The Hawthornes did NOT like that. Julian looked like he was about to start spitting.

Cara just smiled serenely. “The writing’s on the wall boys,” she said. “We can all feel it. You have powers. The world will need you to use them.” And when Julian puffed up to argue, Cara added, “for all we know, I’m the lucky one. I’m getting the hell outta dodge.”

“We’re not gonna let that happen,” Neal said, and Cara gave him a hard look.

“Yes,” she said. “You are. No arguments.”

“It’s wrong,” Jasper said. “They’re scapegoating you. This is Kelvin’s fault, not yours.”

Cara shrugged. “Maybe.”

And then Beverly said, voice cracking, “I can’t. I’d miss you too much,” and Cara relaxed. She smiled broadly and got up on her knees to hug her.

“You are going to be fine,” she promised. “You’re going to keep running being the axel all these hunters turn around, and you’ll barely have time to miss me.” She turned to hug Jasper, too, then Julian who was a little bit wooden.

Cara laughed. “You’re gonna be mad at me for saying you have to use your powers? Right now?”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not.”

“You totally are!” Cara said, patting his cheek affectionately, and tucked his fly aways behind his ears. “Baby Julian,” she sighed. “I know you hate it when I say this, but don’t worry, you’ll never have to hear it again after this:”

“Cara can we not…” Julian sighed, but she spoke over him.

“Just listen to me, you oaf, it’s not like you have more opportunities,” she said. “Sometimes people deserve to be scared. Scare them.” She wasn’t smiling. I think I could always sense the ice under Cara’s skin, but here it was, for all of us to see. “Do you hear me?”

He finally met her eye and nodded, and then she turned to look at Neal. He wordlessly shook his head, jaw tight, already crying.

She smiled. “And I’ll miss you most of all scarecrow,” she said and he laughed helplessly as she reached to wipe his cheeks. “I’ll be alright,” she promised.

He laughed, wetly, humorlessly. “How can you possibly know that?”

Cara’s brow furrowed.

“Listen to me,” she said, and when he was still trying to avoid her gaze, she grabbed his chin and forced him to look at her. “LISTEN. When lost creatures come to this world, and they’re scared and alone, you find them. And you do everything you can to protect them.”

He was shaking his head, lips trembling.

“I have to believe there are people like that everywhere.” She smiled, and her eyes ran over, tears streaking her cheeks. “I’ll be alright. I always am.”

And things continued to get increasingly emotionally intense, but right now I’m hiding in the corner writing this down so I don’t have to emotionally engage in what’s actually happening around me, and we’re really getting into last chance territory now because if there’s one thing I believe it’s that Cara’s going to get her way.

2 Hours After Dusk

Well

I mean it’s done

See, at maybe an hour to sunset, Cara said she needed one more glass of champagne. A celebration drink, she said. She poured champagne into each of their glasses, one, two, three, four — and that was the end of the bottle. So she popped a second just for me and her.

Ours was just water. I looked at her over the rim of my champagne flute and she winked at me.

She drank the whole flute in one go, eyes glittering with fun, and we all followed her lead.

“Alright,” she said. “This is it. I don’t want any scene when we get out there, alright?”

They all exchanged a glance, because of course they were planning a scene when we get out there. They were planning A Big Scene in fact. I didn’t know the whole plan, because they finalized it when I was alone with Cara, but I knew they were bringing a god damn arsenal.

Jasper brought out an iPod classic, one of the old bricks. “It’s fully charged,” he said, and she beamed at him, stood up on her tiptoes to kiss him.

“Perfect,” Cara said. “I can’t stand this quiet!” And she put on music, threw her arms in the air crashed into Beverly.

I was thinking, yes this makes sense, this is exactly how I would want to spend my last minutes with my best friends too — loud and dancing — when Beverly suddenly swerved. Nothing too noticeable or anything, just a sudden loss of balance. The others didn’t seem to see it. They were swaying, singing a fucking pirate shanty.

Cara twirled into bed and the rest followed her, languid and cheerful, looped over and around each other like a pile of puppies. It was all perfectly natural, but I could tell that it wasn’t. I didn’t get in with them. I stood at the end of the bed, crestfallen, and none of them noticed.

When they all fell asleep, Cara rolled onto her back between them and lay there staring at the ceiling for a long moment, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes into her hair. Then she took a deep breath and sat up to face me.

“They’ll understand,” she promised. “Now, are you coming or would you like to stay? I can dose you, too if you want.”

But I said, “I’m coming,” and she smiled.

“Okay,” she said.

She extricated herself gently, and turned off the music. It was like the world stopped with the song.

Then she changed out of the silky, dramatic robe she’d been wearing and started shrugging into practical clothes. Sports bra, tank top, long sleeves, sweater, underwear, bike shorts, leggings, black cargo pants. She’d curled her hair earlier as if planning to put on a show, but she tugged a brush through that now, french braided her luxurious blond curls into two tight braids. Removed all her makeup. Sturdy black boots. She looked herself in the mirror for a long moment, leaning over the sink. I don’t know what she found there, but when she turned away, she was smiling her usual, mischievous smile as she pulled her black beanie over her hair.

“The Allens tend to think I’m so successful because I’m pretty and a good liar,” she said. “Which I am. But they love to forget that the Walthers trained me, just like they trained the rest of those idiots.” Her eyes softened when she turned to look at them, all sound asleep, snuggling. Then she took a deep breath and turned away. “Lets go show them I’m one of them, shall we?”

There was a soft knock on the door, and Cara opened it. It was Lana, flanked by Lily, Chase, and Endymion.

“Are you ready?” Lana asked. Her eyes roved over Cara’s shoulder to where everyone was asleep.

Cara pricked an eyebrow, smirked slightly and held out a hand. Lana lifted the big backpack into her hand and Cara hoisted it onto her back easily. Cara said she was proving to the hunters that she was a tough ass bitch, and she was going to make it, but she was proving it to me, too, I think.

The whole world is a stage for Cara Thistle. She was a different person already.

A low murmur went up when they saw us come out without the Hawthornes. Louie’s brow creased and the Kellihers exchanged an extremely unsubtle look. But no one said anything. Obviously, they weren’t going to let on that they were essentially planning a coup.

The rift was only a short way out. We loaded into vans but only had to drive a few minutes before we pulled over and unloaded again.

We were a grim procession walking across the twilight field. I noticed as we walked that our allies pressed in close, surrounding her. Rook fell in beside me, slipped a quiet hand into mine.

“The Hawthornes?” he asked.

“She made them stay at the hotel,” I said, which is true, though I admit my phrasing definitely made it sound like she’d told them not to come instead of spiking their drinks hahaha.

I understood more and more why she did it as we walked though. Friendly faces made a ring around us — Louie, Rook and Daryl, Mercy and Zinia, the Kellihers, and some I didn’t know, like Molly and Sharp Becker. Lana and her people led the way, but there were only five of them, and beyond our small cushion of friends, there was a whole crowd of hostility. So many people, trudging along, their mission clear: they were going to put Cara through that rift whatever happened.

My heart was beating so fast. How are there so many of these people? How can they all believe that throwing a person through a rift into an unknown, potentially dangerous world, is a good idea? I mean for fucks sake, it could be mars over there. She could be the only living creature on that planet. When her supplies run out, she might just die.

Or if there ARE other living creatures there she could die a whole lot sooner.

This was just a death sentence with extra steps. I could basically smell the blood lust like a cloud over our little procession.

And there is a significant, cowardly part of me that is glad Cara took matters into her own hands. If there’d been a fight, it would have been so ugly.

The rift was inside what turned out to be a little hunting cabin at the edge of the woods. Three people I didn’t know were guarding it, but by their demeanors I could tell they were the Walther’s people.

It was messy inside, dusty, old bones and supplies scattered across the floor, but on the wall at the far end of the cabin, two enormous, strange antlers were mounted on the wall, and in the space between them where there should have been wall…

Just ferns, I think. Ferns and fireflies stretching back into shadow.

I reached instinctively for Cara, panicking.

“Hey,” she said, smiling, turning to face me, petting my hair. “It’s okay, I’m gonna be fine.”

“I’ve seen this one shoot a fly out of the air,” Daryl said, in his deep, warm voice. “She’s a survivor.” He was comforting me, but he was talking to Cara, too. She looked up at him and smiled, and they hugged. Then she hugged the Kellihers, and Mercy and Zinia, and finally, for a long time, Louie. They spoke in French for a while, and that’s when Cara cried.

And then finally it was just me.

“Come here,” she said and pulled me into a hug. Right into my ear, she said, “When you find out what that mysterious power of yours is — you use it, do you hear me? Don’t be scared. You use every power you have and don’t be sorry.”

I held on so tight. She felt small and disconcertingly fragile.

“And you take care of those boys,” she added. “You need each other.”

I was an absolute wreck obviously, so I just held on.

“Cara,” Silas Walther said and I felt a kick of panic.

“You just can’t wait to be rid of me, huh Si,” Cara said, and let me go. She kissed my forehead. “Okay.”

And then in a rush, she hoisted her backpack.

“Cara Thistle,” Lana said, formally. “You have been found guilty of selling magical objects which resulted in the deaths of 41 civilians, and in their names, you are sentenced to banishment by rifting.”

“Can’t resist a ceremony,” Cara said, and hopped up onto the stepping stool that was waiting to boost her into another world. “Come on Lana let’s skip the pomp and circumstance, shall we?”

“Yeah, let’s,” growled Merl Allen, as Cara shoved her huge backpack through the rift ahead of her. I gasped — by some trick of perspective I had thought the ferns were normal sized sword ferns, but once the backpack was in the picture, it became clear that they were huge, enormous, which meant who knows what for the size of what I had thought were fireflies.

Cara reached her forearms through the rift and I broke away from Rook.

“Cara!”

She hesitated and looked back at me, half in our world, half in the next. She smiled.

“Shiloh,” she said, taking a long moment to have a look at me. I held my breath, waiting for her to say something. I could see her struggling to formulate it, but then she gave up. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled. “Moisturize,” she said, instead of goodbye. “And wear sunscreen or you’ll age like a raisin.” And then she hoisted herself right out of our world and into another.

One moment she was right there, someone I could reach out and touch, and the next she was so far away. I watched her sling her pack over her shoulder, and walk away under the ferns. She didn’t look back.

I can’t even explain the atmosphere in that cabin. No one said a word, we just stared. Lana looked like she’d been punched in the gut.

It was Lodge Kelliher that finally spoke into the quiet. “We shouldn’t have done that.” And when that didn’t express the gravity of the horror we were all feeling: “we should not have fucking allowed that to happen.”

“So go get her!” I said, already climbing onto the damn chair, and then Merl fucking Allen grabbed me from behind and dragged me back, which I took as permission to start kicking hahaha. Rook was right there with me, literally before anyone could even react, he’d already elbowed Rudy Allen in the nose so he couldn’t help Merl, and when Rook was in the game, Knock and Daryl were ready to square up, too and the whole thing could have spiraled.

“Enough!” Lana said, loudly and Merl let me go. “Enough. It’s done, we sentenced someone, and we passed that sentence. That’s how it’s done.” But it sounded like she was convincing herself.

And I felt the tension shift, literally watched it happen in the room: everyone turned on Lana. Even the Walthers seemed uncomfortable.

“Set a guard,” Lana said to Endymion. “No one comes or out.”

The Allens burst out of the cabin, inexplicably pissed. By all reason they should have been fucking thrilled, should have been going out to join their friends in celebration — they’d gotten rid of their villain, but apparently they found the open opposition they were getting from their fellow hunters annoying.

The rest of us followed them, dazed, shepherded out by the Walthers.

I turned to take one last look at that strange scenery, fixed it in my memory. Then I turned and walked back out into the darkness. I didn’t speak to anyone, not even Rook, who didn’t say anything either. He was fuming, too, a silent, furious storm beside me in the van on our way back to the hotel.

It wasn’t until I was up in the hotel room that my fury finally broke.

I opened the door and slipped inside, half expecting them all to still be out. But the moment the door opened, Neal sat up.

“Shiloh?”

I gestured helplessly and melted into tears.

Neal caught me first, but Julian was only a moment later, and then Jasper and Beverly.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed. I frantically tried to explain that this was what she wanted, feeling like an absolute betrayer, until finally Julian said, “we knew, Shiloh, it’s okay. We knew.”

“You think any of us is fool enough to fall for spiked champagne?” Jasper said. “Please. Never take a drink from Cara Thistle unless you want to wake up, hours later, having broken at least a dozen laws. That’s like, the first rule.”

“I told you, Shiloh,” Neal said more gently. “Cara never says goodbye.”

“But,” Beverly added. “She always has the last word.”

But I still feel wretched. I’m so angry. I haven’t felt angry like this since last year. I forgot what real anger felt like. I am so sick of losing people through fucking portals.

None of us have left the room, because when we do, that’ll be it. It’ll be the world but Cara won’t be in it.

I think Rook is the most perfect person on earth. He keeps checking in on me, but he’s not lingering around, and he doesn’t need anything. I know he’s waiting for me, but I also know that he understands why I’m here with Neal and Julian right now.

I think I need to go see him. I’m so tired.

I will never forgive Lana or the Walthers for this.

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