A Dangerous Game
Chapter One: Welcome (Back) to Mistbrook Falls
It was a warm spring day in mid-June and the small Midwestern town of Mistbrook Falls, Michigan was as pleasant a little town as one could hope to find. The weather was just about perfect with not a cloud to be found in the skies above the town of around 4000 residents. People went to and from their jobs in the factories in Bridgewater, the working class subdivision near the river that cut through town. Across the river in Briarwood Heights, the wealthiest part of town, children played in their yards and rode their bikes down the street with their friends. It was a quiet little town, and its streets were peaceful. Along Tranquility Circle, a large house had one of its upstairs windows thrown open and it was from here that music filtered out into the street below.
Look around your world pretty baby
Is it everything you hoped it'd be
The wrong guy, the wrong situation
The right time to roll to me
Roll to me
Look into your heart pretty baby
Is it aching with some nameless need?
Is there something wrong
And you can't put your finger on it?
Right, then roll to me
Sixteen-year-old Snow Austin danced around her room to the music playing from her stereo, shoving clothes into an already packed to near capacity suitcase. It was summer and her family was leaving Mistbrook Falls and heading for the Caribbean. It was their annual summer vacation and Snow was quite looking forward to it. The deep snows and icy cold of winter had gripped the town and its residents for too long. Snow, despite her name, was looking forward to the warmest temperatures she could find.
And I don't think I have ever seen
A soul so in despair
So if you want to talk the night through
Guess who will be there?
So don't try to deny it pretty baby
You've been down so long you can hardly see
When the engine's stalled and it won't stop raining
It's the right time to roll to me
Roll to me
She was surprised that the trip was actually happening. After the events of the last seven months, she was amazed any of them had survived to make the trip. Months of mystery, murder, betrayal, and fear had plagued Snow and her three best friends; Clara Mackenzie, Mary Sheppard, and Nikki Sorrento. The four girls had been hunted, stalked, and blackmailed by someone calling themselves JTG. Months earlier JTG had revealed himself to be none other than Steven Williams, a close and trusted friend. Or so they thought. They had believed that JTG, Steven, had been killed in what was supposed to be his endgame. It was the night Snow and her friends were supposed to die. It hadn't happened and Steven had been killed instead.
It had been a horrific night, but in the end they had believed it was over. The deadly game that Steven had begun months before had ended. JTG was dead. Their joy had lasted less than half an hour. For in their moment of happiness, JTG had struck again. It turned out that Steven had not been working alone and instead had a partner who they knew nothing about. That partner had proven to be a far more dangerous and deadly adversary than even the venerable Steven. Still, seven months later, the game was over. JTG was finally gone at last and Snow and her friends were left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives that had been left behind. They had won, but it had come at a terrible price.
Across the room, Snow's phone began to ring. She paused her packing, turned down her music, and went over to answer it. She brushed her long, bright red hair out of her blue eyes and glanced at the caller ID.
"Hey, Mary," said Snow, holding the device up to her ear. "Are you finished packing?"
"Almost," Mary replied. "I can't decide what shoes to bring."
"Well, we'll be on the beach a lot so probably nothing taller than four inches," Snow put in helpfully. Snow could almost hear Mary's eyes rolling.
"You know nothing, Snow," said Mary dryly. "I don't have to wear heels every day of the week."
"A pair of heels for every occasion," said Snow, laying back across her bed and grinning.
"Actually, Snow, I called to ask… well, about Clara," Mary said, suddenly seeming uncomfortable. "How's she doing?"
"She's… better," said Snow quietly, the good mood she'd been in waning quickly. "Not great, but better. I've been trying to help her, but she's just been so down, I… I don't know what to do."
"That kind of wound takes a long time to heal," said Mary wisely. "We can't just expect her to bounce back. You know that better than anyone."
"Right," said Snow quietly. "I just wish… that the last year had never happened."
"I think we both know wishing won't get us anywhere," said Mary. "But maybe a little magic…"
"We're not using magic on Clara," Snow said sharply. "I mean it, Mary. She wouldn't want that and Michael would never agree to it."
"Speaking of Michael," Mary said slowly, her voice tight. "Have you… made a decision?"
"No… no, I haven't, I… I know I have to, but I… I just…" Snow trailed off aimlessly, causing Mary to click her tongue irritably.
"Snow, you know I'm always on your side, but don't forget that I'm the one he raped," Mary reminded her firmly. "I can't tell you what to do, but… God, Snow, think about what he saved me from. The things we've seen… what could have happened to me if he hadn't… If I had to pick, I'd repeat that night every day for the rest of my life if it meant I never had to…"
"I know," Snow said quietly. "Mary, I… I know, I just…"
"Do you still love him?" Mary asked bluntly. "Seriously, Snow. Do you still love him?"
"Does it matter?" Snow snapped brusquely. "He's just not the same man I fell in love with, he's… different, he's…"
"Head over heels in love with you," said Mary. She sighed heavily. "Look, it's time you made a decision."
"Mary, I'll call you back," said Snow abruptly. "There's something I have to do."
Several miles outside of town, Snow eased her powder blue Mustang along a winding dirt road. The road wound its way through a field of grass so tall she couldn't see over it. She knew he'd be here. He loved this place. He'd be there. After five minutes of driving, the grass fell away into a clearing with a large pond. Michael's pickup was parked nearby and his fishing gear was scattered around the bed of the truck. Michael himself sat in a folding chair at the edge of the pond, fishing pole in hand.
Snow parked her car and sat there, thinking. Michael had glanced up and seen her, but had since returned to his fishing. He was waiting for her to go to him. She knew she had to, but it was the last thing she wanted to do. Sighing and resigning herself to her fate, she shoved her phone into the pocket of her khaki shorts and opened the door. She got out of the car, pulling a denim jacket on over her cream knit tank top as she went.
Snow's five inch heels crunched across the gravel between the end of the dirt road and the grassy area next to the pond. Michael pulled a beer out of his cooler and popped it open as she approached. He took a long drink, placed the bottle on top of the cooler and laid his pole on the ground. He stood to his feet and turned to face her, causing her to come to an abrupt stop.
"What are you doing here, Snow?" Michael asked, arching his eyebrows.
"Michael," Snow said slowly, her voice breaking. Just say it, Snow… just tell him the truth. It's the right thing to do. He deserves to know. He probably already knows deep down, so just tell him. It's long past time. You've put his life on pause for long enough.
Seven Months Earlier
That late November morning dawned bright and icy cold. Snow lay in bed staring up at the ceiling, wondering if she should even bother getting up. It was Sunday and all she wanted to do was sleep for the rest of the day, but she knew she couldn't. She had so much to do. Before JTG had struck again, she had already known she would have to take her friends to Michael's and reintroduce them to Sara. They had to know the truth. Meanwhile, Mary already realized that Snow knew Michael had raped her. The two of them would discuss that too. She wouldn't force Mary to tell the others, however. That was Mary's choice, not hers.
She was just so tired. No, tired wasn't a strong enough word. She was completely exhausted. They had spent much of the night at the police station being questioned by the Mistbrook Falls Police Department, recounting the tale of how Steven had lured them to the mine and attacked them. It appeared, at least for the moment, that they had gotten away with it. Jackson was the one she was the most concerned about given that he was the one who shot Steven. However, it appeared her fears were for naught as Steven's parents stated they did not plan to press charges. Much to Snow and her friends surprise, they had learned that Steven had been in therapy for a number of mental and behavioral disorders for years. His doctors had placed him on a cocktail of medications to help him with his obsessive and at times violent tendencies. Apparently, Steven had stopped taking his medications and the rest, as they say, was history.
With a heavy sigh, Snow rolled off of her bed and padded into her bathroom. She went to the sink and spread toothpaste onto her toothbrush. As she was brushing, she gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Her fingers slid through her dark hair, twirling a strand around her finger. She briefly considered washing the dye out and going back to her natural red hair, but for the moment she decided against it.
Snow climbed into the shower and relished the relaxing hot water soothing her skin. Her body ached from what Steven had done to her and the heat comforted her greatly. She showered quickly, toweled herself dry, and went into her closet to find something to wear. Once she had dressed, she went downstairs to the kitchen where she immediately discovered the wondrous smell of breakfast cooking in the kitchen. She was about to push the door open when she heard her moms speaking in hushed voices.
"I'm not sure I ever want to let her out of the house again," Ariana was saying. "God, Kayla… our little girl. She almost… we almost lost her last night. We almost lost her again."
"I know, baby," Kayla replied soothingly. "But we didn't. She's home. She's safe. Steven's gone, honey. He's dead and he can't hurt her now."
"We never even saw it coming, Kay-Kay," Ariana replied. "We never suspected that Steven was so…"
"Demented? Insane? Royally fucked up?" Kayla wondered. "Babe, no one did. The girls didn't know and neither did Jackson. How were we supposed to? Anyway, it doesn't matter if we didn't see it. Snow managed to survive all on her own. She's a tough kid."
"I know she is," said Ariana. "I'm just worried… I mean, the next time…"
"So, you mean the next time a psychopath tries to murder Snow and her friends?" Kayla asked. "Sweetheart, what are to odds that there's anyone else in town that wants to kill our daughter?" Despite the seriousness of the situation, Snow had to stifle a laugh. If only Kayla knew. Deciding she had eavesdropped on her parents long enough, Snow pushed the door open and entered the kitchen.
"Good morning," said Snow, sinking into a seat at the table across from her parents.
"Good morning, Dove," said Ariana in her gentlest voice. "How are you doing?"
"Well, I spent much of yesterday being beaten, stabbed, and electrocuted," Snow said sardonically. "I'm fine."
"Her sarcasm is in perfect working order," said Kayla as Ariana placed a steaming plate of bacon and eggs in front of her daughter. "Really, sweetheart, how are you feeling?"
"Physically, I'll be fine," Snow reassured them. "I'm in some pain, but it's not too bad. I'll be okay. Emotionally, I… I don't really know yet. I haven't really had a chance to process all of this. I mean, Steven, he… he was my friend. I thought he was. To find out he hated me, that he hated all of us, I… I don't know. It'll take some time for it all to make sense."
It wasn't a lie. Snow wouldn't be able to fully understand why Steven had done the things he'd done for a long time, but not for the simple reasons she told her parents. Instead, it was because JTG was still out there hunting them. She wouldn't know the full truth until their game, their dangerous, deadly game, was over.
Snow didn't spend long at the table with her parents. She had a lot to do and she wanted to get to her friends. For reasons she couldn't quite explain, she felt very alone when she was anywhere but with her friends. She supposed part of it must be because they were the ones that knew the truth… well, at least most of it.
Snow walked out to her car, her heels clicking along the driveway as she went. She climbed into her Mustang and set off to pick up her friends. She had texted the girls and told them she was coming to get them. They were going to Michael's house. They were going to Stonehaven. It was time they learned the whole truth.
Despite the fact that both Clara and Nikki lived much closer to Snow than Mary did, she went to pick up the latter first. Before the others joined them, she and Mary needed to talk privately. There were things they needed to settle before they went to Michael's.
Before she picked up her friends and started their incredibly awkward day, Snow needed a cup of coffee. With that thought in mind, she eased her car to a stop in front of the Mistbrook Barista. Simply called the Barista by most, the popular coffee shop was a frequent hangout for Snow and her friends.
Once inside the bustling coffee shop, Snow went up to the counter to place her order. She ordered coffees for each of her friends as well as for herself, and then she leaned against the counter to wait. She glanced around the shop, watching the various patrons as they enjoyed their Sunday morning. She noticed a few of the customers were staring at her while others held whispered conversations behind their hands. Word about the previous night was already spreading, not that she should be surprised. Mistbrook Falls was a small town where news traveled fast. There was no doubt that by the end of the day, the whole town would know what had happened at the mine. Snow dreaded going to school the following day.
As she waited for her coffees, her gaze was drawn toward a girl with black hair standing nearby. She was wearing worn jeans and leather boots. Her black leather vest was unbuttoned, revealing a white T-shirt with Tallahassee, Florida written on the front in bold, yellow lettering. The girl seemed to be watching her with curiosity through mismatched eyes. Her right was a chocolate brown while her left was inky black.
"I like your hair," the girl said suddenly, slightly startling Snow.
"Oh… thanks," said Snow, running her fingers through her curls. "I'm a natural redhead, but… well, I decided to change things up awhile back."
"Well, it's really pretty," said the girl. She held out her hand. "I'm Car… Camryn. My name is Camryn."
"Snow," Snow replied, shaking Camryn's hand. "I don't recognize you. Are you new in town?" Camryn laughed.
"Do you recognize everyone that lives here?"
"Pretty much," said Snow lightly. "In a small town like this, everyone knows everyone. That can be a problem sometimes. Everyone knows your business too."
"Well, you're right, I just got in last night," said Camryn.
"Then let me be one of the first to say welcome to Mistbrook Falls," said Snow, smiling warmly at Camryn. "It's a lovely little town… just keep your secrets to yourself."
"I've actually been here once before," said Camryn. Snow thought she sounded quite sad. "A long time ago."
"Well then, welcome back to Mistbrook Falls," said Snow as the girl behind the counter brought the coffees she ordered. "I guess I'll see you around town."
"Definitely," said Camryn, a thin smile forming on her lips. "There's no doubt about it."
Snow didn't give Camryn much thought as she walked out of the shop and across the street to her car. If she hadn't been in such a rush, she might have glanced back at the Barista and seen Camryn watching her with interest. She might have noticed her taking out her phone and sending a text. What she couldn't have seen was the content of the text.
I just met the short brunette one. Snow, she… seems nice. I'm going to need more time.
After Carmel pressed send, she leaned back in her seat to wait for a reply. She waited less than a minute before her phone chimed.
You can't understand our enemy in one five minute encounter. Patience is key, Carmel. I'm a very patient person. I can wait. I suggest you do too. Keep an eye on the news, Ms. Williams. Trust me –JTG
Meanwhile, Snow had gotten into her car and set off. She drove across the bridge than spanned Misty River, the river that gave the town its name. Snow had always wondered why the town was named Mistbrook Falls when it was a river, not a brook, which ran through the center of the town. She suspected it was because Mistriver Falls was a supremely stupid name. Not that Mistbrook Falls was much better. It sounded like the name of a town in a horror movie. Fitting, she felt, since according to Michael a demon lived deep beneath the town and it wanted to slaughter them all.
Once across the river in the Bridgewater subdivision, Snow eased her car to a stop in front of Mary's house. Mary's family was easily the poorest of the four of them and their home reflected the fact. It was a small, single story house in a state of mild disrepair on a street filled with similar houses in similar states. Compared to the vast estates in Briarwood Heights where Snow and her friends lived, the homes in Bridgewater didn't begin to compare.
Mary was already waiting outside in the yard when Snow pulled up. Snow wasn't at all surprised by this. Mary didn't get along with her parents at all. Her older sister Emily had always been their favored child, but Emily had left town months before. That left Mary alone in a house with emotionally distant parents that were never home and all but completely ignored her. Yet still, Mary endured. Of the four friends, the four most popular girls in town, Mary was neither the richest nor the prettiest of the group. She was popular only by association. Despite that, Snow knew without a doubt that Mary was the strongest of them. And contrary to the popular belief that she, Snow, was the smartest of the group, she couldn't deny that Mary could at times rival her intelligence.
"Morning, Snow," said Mary, settling herself into Snow's car.
"Good morning, Mary," Snow replied quietly. She didn't start driving, but instead looked tearfully across the center console at Mary, who brushed her shoulder length black hair out of her gray eyes.
"Mary, I… I could tell last night that you knew that I knew about Michael," Snow began, her voice tight. "I… I'm so sorry, Mary. If I had known I would have never…"
"I know, Snowy," said Mary gently. "It's fine, Snow. You couldn't have known. The only other people that knew were Emily, who left town, Michael, who didn't want you to find out, and Sara, who… well, she's not telling anyone anything."
That's what you think, Snow said to herself.
"I never wanted anyone to find out what Michael did to me," Mary went on. "When you and Michael first started dating I tried to keep you apart, but over time I came to realize that Michael really loved you. Then that day at the hospital when you… Michael apologized. He said he was sorry and he didn't want me to be afraid of him. I promised to keep his secret so long as he swore never to hurt you."
"Mary, I… I never wanted you to do that," said Snow. "That's not… I don't care if Michael really loves me or not. He raped you. That's unforgivable, it's…"
"Excuse me, but I'm the one who was raped," said Mary, the sharpness in her voice shocking Snow. Mary was usually so soft-spoken. "I know exactly what he did. I was there. It happened to me. I'm the one who gets to decide if it is forgivable or not and I've chosen to forgive him. That's my call, Snow, not yours."
"I wasn't trying to say that you couldn't forgive him, I just meant… I meant that it doesn't matter how he feels about me or if he's sorry. He can't just… I can't just let it go. I almost destroyed our friendship over Michael and he wasn't worth it. I hurt you, Mary. I can't apologize enough for that."
"You don't have anything to apologize for, Snow," Mary said sincerely. "You didn't know. You couldn't know. It's not fair for you to feel guilty about something you had no control over. Besides, I'm fine. I know you just found out, but I've had months. I've processed, I've… I've worked it out. I'm fine and Michael and I are on good terms."
"Are you going to tell the others?" Snow asked. She couldn't think of anything else to say. Despite Mary's insistence, she felt no less guilty. Mary was one of her closest friends. Why hadn't she felt something? She should have known.
"I think it's time," said Mary quietly. "Besides, they'll have questions about you and Michael. I think we have enough lies going around without adding more. I'll tell them."
Snow wasn't entirely sure how to process her feelings as she and Mary set off toward Nikki's house. Mary seemed perfectly at peace with what had happened, but Snow was far from being so. Perhaps one day she would find a way to reach that place, but right then she was… She was so many things. She was angry, heartbroken, confused, scared… the list went on and on.
They drove back across town to Briarwood Heights and stopped in front of Nikki's house. Nikki's family, the Sorrentos, was quite wealthy although not to the same caliber as the Austins. Nikki's home was a large, white two story ranch style built at the end of a cul-de-sac on Everdeen Lane a few blocks over from Tranquility Circle.
Nikki must have been watching for them because she was walking down the garden path toward Snow's car before Snow could even take out her phone to call her. She strolled toward them, pulling her elbow length reddish brown hair back into a pony tail as she walked. She got into the backseat of Snow's car, the smile on her lips not quite reaching her hazel eyes.
"Hey," she said, leaning back into her seat. "Anybody get any sleep last night?"
"Not much," said Snow solemnly. "I spent most of the time we weren't at the police station thinking about… everything."
"I didn't get a wink," said Mary. "I was too wired."
"I'm pretty sure we all were," said Nikki dryly. "You picked up Mary first? I figured you'd get Clara before all of us. She's closest."
"Change of pace," said Snow idly, setting off the direction of Clara's house. Nikki didn't question it further and in a few minutes they were pulling up at Clara's home.
Of the four friends, Clara's situation was perhaps the most unique. She lived with her mom, Noel, who had just recently earned a promotion to General Manager at Geller and Greene National Bank. They lived in a very nice two story house built in the Victorian style and while not as large as the Austin's or even the Sorrento's home, it was still plenty spacious and Snow had often wondered how Noel could afford it.
Clara's father had left them years before, and as far as Snow knew he had never returned or contacted Clara at all. Clara herself rarely spoke of him, not that Snow could blame her. Given how Snow felt about her own father, she could respect Clara's opinion of hers. Admittedly, Clara's father could be considered a wonderful man compared to Adrian Laine. Snow's own father had locked his young daughter Ariana in a small closet for almost fifteen years. He had raped and tortured her until one day Ariana had managed to end her torment and escaped her father. That very same day just so happened to be the day that Snow was conceived. Snow couldn't imagine anyone, no matter what they had done, being a worse father than that.
Snow was shaken from her thoughts by Clara hurrying out of her house. She walked down the driveway, sliding a pair of mirrored sunglasses over her green eyes. Her three inch heels clicked along the concrete as she walked. Snow smiled as the blonde girl climbed into the back seat. They were the same in a lot of ways. Clara loved her heels as much as Snow did.
"Morning, ladies," said Clara, glancing around at them all. "Has, um…. Have any of you heard anything else from you-know-who?"
"Not since last night at the police station," said Nikki, shaking her head. Snow remembered the text quite clearly. It had come just as they had met a new player in their deadly game. Now things are going to get interesting. Your move. Game on, bitches.
"I wonder what she meant," Mary said fretfully. "I mean, 'things are going to get interesting'? Aren't they interesting enough already?"
"I'm more interested in the part about it being our move," said Clara. "What does that mean? If the game's back on… how do we play?"
"She sent that text right after we met that new FBI agent, Daniel Morales," Snow reminded them, thinking back to the tall, intimidating man that had confronted them in the police station the previous night. "He's looking into Miranda's murder. Speaking of which, Steven told me who really killed Miranda."
"Who…really killed her?" Mary said uncertainly. "I was pretty sure Sara pushed her off the top of Lookout Point. Did I dream that?"
"No, but according to Steven Miranda survived her fall," said Snow. "Someone found her and finished her off. Three guesses who that was."
"Oh hell, is it Tony?" Nikki asked. Snow nodded.
"Right in one," she replied. "Steven said Tony was there that night with Rick. They were trying to see if there was any point in mining the area and… and Tony saw Miranda fall. He found her and suffocated her."
"Shit…" Nikki breathed. "That… that's… whoa."
"Have you told Rachel yet?" Mary wondered. Snow shook her head.
"I haven't told anyone anything yet," she replied. "She already suspected it was possible, so once she finds out its true… I don't know what she'll do."
"What are we supposed to do?" Clara asked nervously. "I mean, that Agent Morales said he's not stopping until he finds out what happened to Miranda. If he finds out about Sara and… and that we were there, then…"
"There's nothing we can do about the FBI," Snow said slowly. "We can't stop him, so I… I don't know. This isn't JTG… it's not Steven or someone else like him playing games, it's the federal government."
"Wonderful," Nikki said grimly. "Could this possibly get any worse?"
"It's about to get more interesting," said Snow pointedly, putting her car into drive and setting off down the street.
"So… where are we going, anyway?" Clara wondered as they drove. "You didn't say…"
"Michael's," said Snow quietly, earning a surprised look from Mary. She hesitated, dreading the questions that were sure to follow. "There's something you all need to see."
Indeed, Snow was bombarded with questions all the way out to Michael's estate. She refused to answer any of them. Even from a distance, Snow could see the central spire of Stonehaven rising into the early morning sky. She couldn't wait to go inside. She had to see it all. She had to know. Up until the previous afternoon, Snow had never believed in magic. She had believed in true, provable scientific fact. Michael had blown all of that into a million pieces. She had spent many a day at Michael's house, sitting feet away from the ancient Library of Alexandria and she had never known. Magic was real. Magic was true, provable scientific fact. She had seen it with her own eyes and so she had to know more.
Snow parked her car in Michael's driveway and got out. Her eyes were immediately drawn out to Stonehaven where the sunlight sparkled off of the Library's many stained glass windows. She glanced at Mary as she and the others got out of the car. Mary too was staring at Stonehaven, a small smile on her lips. Mary caught Snow's eye as they made their way up to Michael's front door, a simple acknowledgement that they both saw it. It was real.
"Seriously Snow, what are we doing here?" Clara asked, looking around bemusedly. "If you're going to show us Michael, we've already seen him."
"We're not here to see Michael," said Snow, ringing the doorbell. "Well, we are going to see him, but that's not why we're here." Before Clara could say anything else, the front door opened and a disheveled Michael appeared at the threshold. He sighed heavily when he saw them.
"I guess I should have expected this," he said in a resigned tone. "Come on in." He held the door open for them. Snow stalked past him and led the way down the hall to the living room, ignoring the questioning stares of Clara and Nikki. When they reached the living room, Snow paused in the doorway as her eyes fell on a dark haired girl sitting on the couch with her back to them.
"Hey," Michael called out to the girl. "You've got some visitors." The girl on the couch turned around to face them. Snow heard Clara, Nikki, and Mary all gasp in disbelief.
"Mary, Nikki, Clara," said Snow, a thin smile on her lips. "I'd like you to meet Sara Blake. Sara, you know the girls." Sara stood up uncertainly, glancing between Michael, Snow, and the girls several times before taking a cautious step forward.
"Hi," she said nervously. "I don't… umph!" Sara staggered backward as Clara, Nikki, and Mary all rushed forward and engulfed her in a passionate, many armed hug. Snow glanced at Michael, who was standing nearby. His face was utterly impassive.
"How?" Nikki asked when the four girls broke apart. "How?"
"You died, we all saw it," said Clara, tears shining in her eyes. "We saw you, we… we went to your funeral."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Mary demanded, rounding on Michael. "You told me everything else, but you didn't tell me about this?"
"'Everything else'?" Clara wondered, turning toward Michael. "What is she talking about?"
"A long story," said Snow before Michael could reply. "There's a lot you don't know. I only found out yesterday, but I haven't exactly had a great opportunity to tell you. Besides, I kind of wanted to show you this part." She gestured toward Sara. "I figured you all ought to have the same shock that I did."
"But… but how?" Nikki said again. "You died. We buried you, we… I mean, we did bury you… right?"
"Not exactly," Sara said rather nervously. "We… This is hard to explain, I… I don't… Well, I guess we'd better start from the beginning." She turned questioningly to Mary, whose nod was almost imperceptive.
"It's okay," said Mary, her tone even. "You can tell them." Sara sighed and nodded.
"Okay. Now, you'd all better sit down. Some of this is going to be hard for you to hear."
Snow paced idly behind the sofa as Michael and Sara told the girls the full story of what had happened. Having heard it all before, Snow tried to look at the whole thing with a bit more perspective now that she had taken some time to process it. That didn't make Michael's sins any more forgivable, nor Sara's betrayal any less painful. She found she was no less angry then than she had been the night before.
She kept a close eye on Nikki and Clara's expressions, watching the awe in their eyes as Michael demonstrated magic to them. She saw the looks of wonder and confusion as he told them all about the Dawnguard, magic, demons, and the efforts he went to in order to save Sara life. But all that changed by the end of the story. Upon learning about Mary, it seemed that Clara and Nikki were furious as well. Although they had kept their silence throughout the story, when Michael and Sara finished they looked as though there were about to explode. In fact, Snow felt that they looked positively murderous.
"So, let me get this straight," said Clara, her voice trembling with what Snow thought must be pure rage. "You raped Mary to protect her from a virgin killing demon that you and the Dawnguard are trying to destroy? And you, Sara, you… you used Snow as bait for someone you thought was a rapist?"
"It wasn't like that," said Sara somewhat defensively. "I was just trying to…"
"Who gives a shit what you were trying to do?" Nikki exclaimed. "You drugged your best friend and used her as bait for Michael the Molester over there!"
"Okay, stop," Mary said loudly, standing from the couch abruptly. She looked between Nikki and Clara who were still seated on the couch, to Sara who was sitting in the armchair across from the couch, and to Michael who stood off to Sara's right. "Guys… Sara's alive. She's here, she's right here. I know she did bad things, but she's here. She's—"
"Thank you, Mary," said Sara, standing to her feet and placing her hand gently on Mary's shoulder. "Thanks, but I can speak for myself. All I can say is that I'm sorry. I… I have a unique perspective on things now. Dying does that to you, I suppose. The thing is… I've seen what it looks like after you die. I've seen my friends move on, my family move on… and I've realized how wrong I was." Sara's gaze drifted across the room to Snow, who had stopped pacing and was watching the exchange with great interest.
"Snowy, I always wanted to be known. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be remembered—"
"That's immortality, my darlings," Snow interrupted, remembering something she had said at Sara's funeral. "You were popular in life and in death."
"Right," said Sara sadly. "Except, I wasn't. Sure, for a while people still talked about me. People went to my funeral and gossiped about who killed me, but then they moved on. Popularity doesn't last. I did a lot of terrible things in the name of popularity. I used that power to hurt people, use people… control people. I started to think I was unstoppable, but someone showed me I wasn't. If it weren't for Michael I would be dead, and most of this town wouldn't care. They think I am, and they don't care. They don't miss me. They don't wish it hadn't happened. They're just glad the hateful bitch is dead. I screwed up, Snow, I know it. I don't blame any of you if you hate me, but please… please give me a chance to earn your forgiveness. Please? Snowy?"
Every eye in the room turned to look at her. What was she supposed to say? She was still furious at both Michael and Sara, and yet at the same time she knew both of them had a point. She knew they weren't bad people. The things they had done weren't done out of hatred or viciousness, but instead out of concern and fear and desperation. They had both made mistakes, but were those mistakes truly unforgivable? Had not she, Snow, made mistakes herself? Perhaps nothing as horrific as what Michael and Sara had done, but she wasn't innocent.
She had covered up a fifteen-year-old girl's murder. Accident or not, Sara had pushed Miranda off of that cliff. It didn't matter that Tony had been the one that actually killed Miranda, as that was only possible because Sara created the situation in the first place. She and her friends had been complicit in what happened to Miranda. They were all just as guilty. She was just as guilty. She might as well have pushed Miranda herself and yet still Rachel had found it in her heart to forgive her. She had lost her only daughter and still she had forgiven her.
Even Mary had forgiven Michael for raping her. That was a crime so vile that Snow couldn't think of a punishment harsh enough for those that committed it, and yet still Mary had made peace with it and forgiven Michael. She had even defended him. If Rachel could let go of her anger and find forgiveness, and Mary could make peace with Michael… then why couldn't Snow do the same? Although it pained her greatly, she knew in her heart she had no choice.
"A chance," Snow said quietly, her gaze shifting from Sara to Michael and back again. "One chance, I… I can give you that. Just one and you're going to have to work for it, but… it's only fair, so…" She trailed off, unsure of what else to say. She would give them a chance, both of them, to win back her trust. She had no idea if she could ever truly forgive them, but she forced herself to promise to try. It really was fair and she would give it an honest effort so long as they did the same.
"Thank you, Snow," said Sara, positively beaming at her. Michael said nothing at all and in fact seemed to be trying to avoid her gaze altogether. "Nikki? Clara? Do you think…?"
"I guess if Snow can, we can," said Nikki, while Clara nodded her agreement. "But the same conditions apply. You're going to have to work for it."
"Understood," Sara said sincerely. "I know a lot has happened and none of this is… Look, I'm just so happy that you're all here. Can we talk about all of this later? I'd love to show you around Stonehaven. I mean, if you're interested?"
Snow tried really hard not to seem overly excited about the prospect of a tour of Stonehaven, but she knew her face had betrayed her. She was going to see so much history, and more magic as well. Less than a day before she hadn't believed in magic, and now she had seen it firsthand and perhaps even had magic inside herself. She wanted to know more. She wanted to see it all.
"I'd be happy to arrange a tour," said Michael. "The Dawnguard is in the midst of some… rather delicate preparations, but we can still show you around if you'd like. I imagine all of you have questions, and that would be the best way to answer them."
All of them were interested in a tour, so Michael led the group outside and off into the field behind the house. Off in the distance, Stonehaven rose sharply into the sky and Snow didn't think she had ever been more excited. Soon, she would be in the midst of all that history. She couldn't wait.
As they walked, Snow filled Michael and Sara in on what had happened with Steven and that another JTG had appeared. She also told them about FBI Agent Morales sudden appearance and his investigation in Miranda's murder. They were both, of course, shocked by the revelation that Steven had a partner and that the game wasn't over. Judging by the look on her face, Sara was quite disturbed by Agent Morales and his investigation but she said nothing as the group continued along the dirt path through the open field.
"So… where exactly are we going?" Nikki asked after five minutes of walking. "There's nothing out here."
"Nothing you can see," said Michael. "Well, yet. Sara, you want to give me a hand?" Michael walked over to Nikki and gently placed his hand to the side of her head. Sara did the same to Clara and after a moment both of them stepped away. Snow watched them, waiting for her friend's faces to morph into expressions of shock. A moment later, it happened and Snow couldn't help but grin. She knew they were seeing the vast structure towering over them in the distance.
"That, ladies, is Stonehaven," said Michael. "At its center is the Library of Alexandria, which serves as our operations center and storehouse for countless ancient relics that we protect… and contain."
"Contain?" Clara repeated, glancing dubiously around at her friends. "What does that mean?"
"It means that some of the artifacts here are very dangerous," Michael explained. "In the wrong hands, some of the items in the Library could be more devastating than a nuclear bomb or biochemical weapons."
"Well, if you ever find Pandora's Box just make sure you don't open it," said Clara, laughingly. Michael, however, glanced back at her with a very serious expression on his face.
"We already have Pandora's Box," he said firmly. "The last time it was opened, it started a world war. It took years for the Dawnguard to track it down and seal it again."
"Wait… what?" Clara asked, but Michael didn't answer. Instead, he pointed further down the path where it widened into a paved road. At the end stood a pair of towering gates, easily thirty feet high. They had an ancient design to them, like castles of old, only they were made from a shiny white material that Snow had never seen before. The walls that surrounded Stonehaven were made out of that same material but still with a medieval look to them, giving the fortress an ancient-but-modern design. Snow found it quite strange to look at, as though her mind couldn't quite comprehend what she was looking at.
"We're here," Michael announced as they approached the gates. "Welcome to Stonehaven." The gates opened with an echoing crack as the massive locks that held them closed disengaged. The gates swung inward much faster than something so large should be able to, in Snow's opinion. She wondered if they were somehow powered by magic. Could gates even be powered by magic? Should she think of magic as a power source? She would add these to the lengthy list of questions she planned to ask whenever she could get Michael to herself for an hour or ten.
Michael led them through the gates, passed the walls which were as thick as they were tall, and into the city proper. And a city it truly was. They walked along the High Street, a wide open avenue lined with buildings, shops, and homes. The buildings, like the walls, had a medieval feel to them, yet they were very clearly of a modern design. In fact, Snow quickly began to realize that modern didn't properly describe Stonehaven's technological level. Stonehaven was more than modern, it was futuristic. It reminded her of something out of science fiction.
Everything was sleek and shiny and although she never saw anything that she didn't know what it was, everything was clearly much more advanced than the world she knew. Even the cell phones, she assumed they were cell phones that she saw people using, were paper thin and crystal clear except for a small silver frame around the edges. People, hundreds of them, bustled in every direction going about their day. Snow's eyes were drawn in a million different directions as Michael led them down the avenue, toward the city center. From a distance, Snow had been able to tell that the city was built in the shape of a pentagon with the Library of Alexandria at the center. What she hadn't been able to see was that there were four other avenues like the one they had come down branching off from the city center and off toward the city's walls.
But at that moment, Snow didn't care much for the design of the city or the layout of its roads or the capability of its defensive walls. No, right then all she cared about was the towering spire in front of her. The Library of Alexandria was, there was no other word for it; beautiful. She had seen the spire before, but the base of the building was new. The architecture was quite clearly Greek in origin, but modernized much like the rest of Stonehaven. The entrance to the building sat atop a towering wide square dais that was easily the length of a standard city block. The dais had wide staircases on all four sides that rose up to a sprawling plaza. In the center of the plaza stood what looked to be a Greek temple similar in design to the Parthenon. The glittering circular tower that Snow had seen from a distance rose from the roof of the temple-like structure, rising what must have been three hundred feet into the clear sky.
"Is this… real?" Clara whispered from Snow's right. Snow turned and found her three friends gazing up at the Library with looks of disbelief on their faces.
"It's real," said Sara firmly. "This place… it takes some getting used to, trust me. But once you do, Stonehaven is an amazing place to be. You'll love it here, I promise. C'mon, let's—" She broke off as a loud reverberating thrumming sound echoed across the city and a shadow passed overhead.
In the sky above them, a vast airship drifted lazily over the city. The craft was long and sleek with a rounded bow and a wider center section that was covered in windows. The rear of the airship widened even more and eight short aerodynamic wings, four on each side, fanned out on either side of the side. The air beneath the craft rippled as though it were held aloft by some sort of antigravity technology. As the group stood watching the craft pass overhead, Snow caught sight of an insignia on the bow of the vessel.
The image was of the early morning sun halfway cresting the horizon and tendrils of flame burst from the sun in all directions. In the center of the sun was a large triangular shield and the Latin words clypeus inter tenebras et lucem, which Snow knew translated to the shield between darkness and dawn. The phrase was emblazoned in a crescent shape beneath the symbol. Above the symbol in bold black lettering that shone prominently against the ship's shimmering white hull was the vessel's name: Andromeda.
Michael pulled out one of the strange cell phones Snow had seen other people around the city using and pressed a couple of symbols before holding the device to his ear.
"Phoebe, what the hell is going on?" He demanded. "I ordered Andromeda grounded until the Coven airships depart the area. Why the hell is my airship flying?" Snow couldn't hear the opposite end of the conversation, but Michael's expression darkened the longer he listened. "Alright, shit… fine, just don't antagonize them. Just keep them out of our airspace. I'll be up there in a few minutes."
"Does anyone want to fill us in on what's happening and what that giant spaceship is?" Nikki said loudly, pointing up at the craft which had begun to turn to the northwest and accelerate away with an even louder thrumming sound. "Also… why do you have a spaceship?!"
"Andromeda's not a spaceship," said Michael slowly. "She's an Interdimensional-class airship, one of the most powerful and advanced ships flying. Sadly, she's the only ship we've got. Let's not worry about that right now. We ought to get you all into the Library and get on with the tour. I have some business to attend to shortly, so we should get moving."
Snow felt as though she were falling into a science fiction novel. She wasn't sure what she had expected Stonehaven to be, but a futuristic city with giant airships was not it. She supposed she had been expecting castles and knights and blacksmiths, not… this.
"Michael, I… I don't understand," Snow said as Michael led the way up the nearest staircase up toward the Library. "All of this technology… airships, I… I thought we'd be seeing horses and knights and… and things like that, not all this. Where did all of this come from? It's so… advanced."
"Well, the Library of Alexandria was the repository of more knowledge and magic than anywhere else in the world," Michael explained. "The rest of the world lost access to all of that information, but the Dawnguard did not. While the rest of the world suffered vast setbacks in advancement after the loss of the Library, the Dawnguard continued to advance and develop into what you see today. I mean, imagine a world with access to magic and couple thousand years head start and this is what you end up with."
"Oh, well, I… I guess that makes sense," said Snow thoughtfully. It didn't really, but she supposed that compared to everything she had see and heard it wasn't so hard to believe. "So the Dawnguard have scientists and researchers too? You're not just demon hunters?"
"Oh no," said Michael firmly. "The Dawnguard have a number of different departments that pursue various interests beyond hunting down demons. Our research and development departments are top notch, not to mention our librarians and artifact researchers in the Library are constantly infusing our technology with magic, furthering our advancement.
"This is… this is… insane, but it's… amazing at the same time," said Snow. Michael grinned at her.
"You haven't seen anything yet," he said knowingly. They had reached the entrance to the Library by then and the golden doors swung open as they approached. Snow wasn't entirely sure how her friends reacted as they stepped inside. In fact, she barely remembered they were there. The room they found themselves in was vast, far larger than it appeared on the outside. Hundreds of rows of towering shelves stretched on for what Snow thought must be miles ahead of them, each one filled with various objects. Off to the right and left sides of the room were doors with labels over each of them. They were titled things like 'The Antiquities Wing', 'Dark Magic', 'Time Manipulation', and 'Dangerous Creatures'. A wide circular opening in the ceiling offered a view up to the very top floor of the circular tower that rose high above them.
"Is… is this the Library of Alexandria?" Snow asked, her voice trembling. Michael nodded.
"This is the Reliquary," said Michael. "This is where we store every magical artifact and object the Dawnguard has ever recovered. The objects in here are powerful and many are extremely dangerous."
"Oh my God," Snow gasped, her gaze drawn to a golden chest with two praying angels perched atop it. The chest was surrounded by ropes to keep people several feet away from it. "Is that the Ark of the Covenant?"
"It surely is," said Michael. "And I wouldn't advise touching it," he added as Clara and Nikki went over for a closer look. "Trust me, bad things happen."
"What happens, exactly?" Clara asked nervously, taking a cautious step away.
"Have you ever seen Raiders of the Lost Ark?" Michael asked her. Clara nodded. "Well, it's like that only… worse. A lot worse."
"I think I want to go home now," Nikki said weakly. "I mean, invisible cities, airships, magic…"
"It's okay, Nikki," Sara said reassuringly. "You're safe here. You're probably safer here than anywhere else in the world. Even JTG can't get to you here. No one can get through those gates out there unless we let them in."
Snow wasn't paying much attention to the conversations, but was instead slowly circling the Ark and carefully examining it from every direction. Michael broke away from the group to join her.
"People have been looking for this thing for a couple thousand years," Snow whispered, awe present in every syllable of her voice. She couldn't believe it. She was standing mere feet away from an artifact thought lost to history forever. "All over the world, people have searched for this and it's in Michigan, of all places."
"We've had it pretty much that entire time," said Michael. "The Dawnguard of the time of the Babylonian conquest of Israel managed to make off with the Ark and secure it safely. We've made sure to protect it ever since. It's much too dangerous to be allowed to fall into the wrong hands."
"This is amazing," Snow whispered. "Can we… oh, wow!" She had spotted a glittering golden sword placed on a display stand nearby and she rushed over to it. Michael followed her, grinning from ear to ear.
"That, Snow, is the sword Excalibur," he explained. "But then I get the feeling you already knew that."
"It had to be, didn't it?" Snow gazed longingly at the sword. "Can I touch it?"
"Go ahead," Michael told her. "Just don't be surprised if… you…" Snow reached out and gently took hold of Excalibur by its hilt. She raised it slowly, turning the blade slowly and admiring the flawless construction.
"It's beautiful," she commented, holding the hilt closer for examination. "So, King Arthur was real? I thought it was all a myth, but if this sword is real then… Michael, what's wrong?" She had just noticed that Michael was staring at her as though she had grown an extra head.
"Snow, that sword is the most powerful weapon ever crafted," Michael told her. "Whether King Arthur was a real man or not, I do not know. What I do know is that sword has a powerful enchantment placed upon it. Throughout history, that sword could only be lifted by a person the sword deems worthy of ruling the land of Albion. I can't hold Excalibur, Snow… I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who can pick up that sword. Luckily, two of them work for me. Otherwise it's a real pain in the ass when we need to dust that thing."
"You… you're joking," Snow said, a grin appearing on her lips. "Right, you're playing a joke. Here." She held out the sword to him, but he held up his hands.
"I can't," he insisted. "Put it back on the display and I'll show you." Snow did as she was told; still completely convinced Michael was screwing with her. Michael went over and seized the hilt of the sword. Though he pulled with all his might, Excalibur didn't move an inch.
"Um… so if you're not completely full of shit right now, what does this mean?" Snow asked, a jolt of fear coursing through her. She had tried to forget about the day before when Michael had told her that she was something different, something even he had never seen before. That alone had scared her and now an ancient magical sword was telling her she could rule a kingdom. She suddenly missed the days when she was just a normal teenager.
"Well, you don't have to worry about going on a quest to rule the land of Albion," Michael said slowly. "They call that land Great Britain now and they don't take kindly to people trying to conquer them. But we do need to get some answers, Snow. You have power you shouldn't have and we need to find out why. If you're willing, I'd like you to meet with my resident witch, Zoe Emison."
"Hold on, you know Zoe?" It was Mary. She had come over to join them and had heard Michael mention Zoe's name.
"The same Zoe from Zoe's Jewelry Store?" Snow asked. "The same store that Brad and Mary robbed? She's a witch?"
"The very same," said Michael, glancing nervously at Mary. "I, uh… I'm sorry, Mary, I… I should have told you, but given how things are at the moment… well, keeping Zoe's identity a secret is important. At least, as secret as we can. I doubt it matters much anymore, considering, but… Anyway, yes, she's the same Zoe. Also, Brad didn't rob the store. Brad works for me. He's a member of the Dawnguard and has been for some time. We faked the robbery so that Zoe could inconspicuously deliver a very important map to us."
"Hold on," said Mary tightly. "Brad knows about all this? He's part of this? And he never told me?"
"He's as sworn to secrecy as the rest of us are," said Michael gently. "We don't just go around telling everyone who we are and what we do. Especially right now. In fact, before you leave we're going to have to have a very lengthy discussion about a few things. For example, none of you are to breathe a word about what you've seen here to anyone. Lives are at stake, as are years of delicate planning."
"That's just great," Mary grumbled. "But… So Zoe already knew that I took the earrings? She never said anything, so I… I thought…"
"She knew all along," said Michael gently. "We paid Zoe for the earrings ahead of time. We had to pretend that the robbery was real to maintain security, so she reported the 'crime' to the police. You were never in any danger, Mary. We made sure of that."
Snow couldn't be sure if Mary was comforted or disturbed by this revelation. For herself, Snow was certainly disturbed by much of what she was hearing. As excited as she was to be there, all of this was so far beyond her. She needed time to process it all, but she knew she wasn't likely to get it anytime soon. She was instantly proven right.
"Oh, there you are, Zoe," Michael called to a tall, dark skinned woman who was walking toward them. "I'd like you to meet… Oh hell, what's wrong now?"
"I've just received a message from the Triskelion," said Zoe in a brisk voice. "They've ordered me back and to cut all ties with the Dawnguard. I've been given an hour to report to the Triskelion in New York and resume my place on the Witches Council."
"So… what did you tell them?" Michael asked dryly.
"To well and truly fuck off," said Zoe hotly. "I've burned my bridges, Michael… not that the Grand Enchanter gave me much choice in the matter. I hope you're ready for what's coming next. The only reason they would pull me out is if—"
"I know," said Michael wearily. "The Coven airfleet that arrived just adjusted their course. They've been holding position twenty-five miles southeast of our position, but they just made a move to advance into our airspace. Phoebe took Andromeda to intercept, but she can't hold off a fleet of Coven ships on her own."
"Um… excuse me?" Snow called out uncertainly. "I don't have any idea what's going on here. The Coven? The Triskelion? I don't understand…"
"Right, I'm sorry," said Michael, shaking his head. "Today really isn't the best day for us to have guests. The Coven is what the witches call their government. It's their central governing body and the Triskelion is their headquarters. As for what's going on here, it's a very long story and we haven't got time for it right now. Zoe, I need you to come meet with Snow and myself privately. We have something important to show you."
Mary went back over to Sara, Clara, and Nikki as Snow was led away by Michael and Zoe. Snow noticed that Sara seemed to be pointing out the finer details of the Holy Grail to them as Michael ushered her into an elevator. The glass doors slid closed when Michael pressed a button for the 30th floor. The lift rose up, gliding soundlessly skyward. The lift took them up the circular tower, passing floor after floor of wondrous sights that Snow couldn't explain. Artifacts, magic, and heaven only knew what else was passing her by.
The doors opened on the top floor of the tower and Michael led the way out. They emerged on a floor similar to the ones they had passed, only unlike the others it was empty of other people. Snow walked over to the circular railing in the center of the room and looked down at all the identical floors below, all the way down to the Reliquary at the bottom.
"What is all this?" Snow asked, watching people examining different artifacts on one floor and someone who seemed to be tinkering with a strange white rifle on another. On the floor below them she watched a man studying what looked to be a massive dinosaur bone. On many of the floors were the things Snow most wanted to gain access to: books. In shelves covering every inch of the circular walls on floor after floor were thousands upon thousands, possibly even millions of books and scrolls. She could spend the rest of her life there reading and would almost certainly never read them all.
"This is just another part of the Library," said Michael, joining her at the railing. This is where we do research, study artifacts, build new weapons, discover new and exciting magic… the list goes on and on. This is just a fraction of the entire facility as well. I'm sure you noticed downstairs that the Reliquary is quite a bit bigger outside than it is inside. The entire building has a transdimensional expansion enchantment placed upon it. In essence, it's bigger on the inside than it is on the out. The Library expands according to our needs and requirements. You see those doors down there leading off of each floor? They look like they would open to the outside and if you stepped through, you'd fall to your death, right?" He turned around and pointed to another door behind him. "Kind of like this one."
Snow hadn't given it much thought, but he was right. Based upon the layout of the building, the door in front of them should open onto nothingness; just open air. When Michael reached out and opened the door, however, Snow found herself in what appeared to be a perfect replica of Michael's home far below them. The only difference she could see as she stepped through the door and into the living room was that instead of a flat wall on the far side of the room there was a wide window and a sliding glass door that opened onto a sprawling balcony.
"How… how are we back in your house?" Snow asked. "What is this?"
"This is my real home," said Michael. "The house down below is there to be used when I need to meet with people who aren't aware of my… other life. There are passageways between the house and Stonehaven so we can travel between both locations unseen."
"Wow," Snow said dryly, walking to the window and peering down at the ground far below. "I guess I didn't know much about you at all, did I? I've never even been to your real house before today."
"You know me, Snow," Michael assured her. "I just… I couldn't… I chose not to share a big part of my life with you. I should have, I know that now. It's my fault, but I… I was scared. I was scared that you wouldn't understand. I was scared that you would be scared… scared of me, of this world… all of it."
"I am scared," Snow replied, turning back to him with an expression of disbelief on her face. "I'm terrified, Michael. Put yourself in my place and think for a minute. After everything that's happened in the last twenty-four hours, how could I not be scared? And you're telling me I have some sort of power I shouldn't have and that a demon wants to kill me…"
"Sebastian doesn't want to kill you," said Zoe quietly, settling herself down on the couch. "He wants to impregnate you." Michael grimaced and flashed Zoe and dark glare, which she either ignored or didn't notice.
"Oh, thanks," Snow snapped. "That makes me feel loads better. That's just what I want to do; give birth to demon babies. My parents will be so proud."
"You likely wouldn't be aware of what was happening," said Zoe thoughtfully. "You're a human girl and your mind and body is completely unprepared for the… physical demands of a demonic pregnancy. Sebastian's spawn would drain you of life, putting you in a sort of comatose state long before you gave birth. You wouldn't even…" Zoe trailed off when she noticed Michael's harsh glare. "Right… I'm sorry. You wanted to show me something, Michael?"
"Yes," said Michael, shaking his head wearily. "You say Snow is just a human girl, but there's… something different about her. I already told you that she has the strongest attunement to magic of anyone I've ever seen. After what happened yesterday… it's much more than that. We'll show you." Michael turned to Snow and reached out for her hand. She reluctantly took it and he guided her behind the couch to an open area of the floor where they would have room to move.
"Okay, Snow," he said softly. "There's nothing to worry about, okay? We're just going to do exactly what we did before. I'm going to hand you an orb of Magelight. You just do what you did before. This time, just in case, I'm going to place you in a magical containment field. It's nothing to be afraid of and although it may look like it, you're not trapped in a cage. You can pass right through the barrier. It's only meant to block magic."
Snow nodded, having seemingly lost her voice. Michael raised his hands sharply and a rippling box of bluish energy roughly five feet across rose around her. She immediately felt claustrophobic, which Michael seemed to sense because he stepped through the barrier and placed his hands on her shoulders.
"You can leave this field at any time," Michael reminded her. "Now, let's give this a try." He formed the ball of light in his hand and passed it to her. She took it in her hands, noticing that Zoe was watching her intensely. Michael stepped back out of the box.
"Okay, Snow, just do what you did last time." Snow wasn't entirely sure what she had done except squeeze the light between her hands, so that's what she did. Much like the last time, instead of the light winking out like she would have expected, a bolt of lightning arced from her hands. It struck the magical barrier and shattered it into a fizzling, crackling mass of sparkling magical light and raced across the room directly toward Zoe.
Zoe threw up her hands at the last second and the lightning was absorbed into a glowing purple hued magical shield that had formed from her palms. Snow clapped her hands to her mouth in terror and rushed over to Zoe.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry!" Snow exclaimed. "I… I didn't mean to do that! I didn't…"
"Calm down, child," said Zoe kindly. "Of course you didn't mean to. You have no idea how to control your powers yet. I've been hit with worse in my life, trust me." Her expression darkened however, and she turned to Michael.
"You… you say she has no magic in her blood?"
"Of course not, she's a mortal," said Michael firmly. "I mean… we never actually tested her blood but up until yesterday I didn't think we needed to. She was just someone naturally attuned to magic like we've seen before. Now tell me you've ever seen a mortal, even strongly attuned to magic, do something like that."
"Michael, you gave her Magelight," said Zoe incredulously. "That spell was invented so people like us wouldn't have to worry about things like flashlights. She just amplified that spell with enough power to kill someone. Most fully trained witches couldn't do that." She turned back to Snow and fixed her with an intense stare that made Snow feel like she were being x-rayed. For all she knew, maybe she was.
"My God…" Zoe breathed after a few moments. "Michael, this… this isn't normal magic. This isn't Coven magic or Dawnguard magic… not even the Faery could do this. With no magic in her blood, she's… This is genetic magic."
"That's a myth," said Michael wearily. Zoe shook her head.
"It was," said Zoe, turning back to Snow. "Until today. Snow doesn't have magic in her blood… her blood is magic. It's in her DNA. She's made of it. She is magic. If you taught her how, I feel confident that she wouldn't need you to hand her magic. She could conjure it herself. Magic is so deeply ingrained within her, I… Snow, your parents… neither of them have magic?"
"No, I… well, I don't think so," said Snow, finding herself evermore confused. "My mom doesn't… she couldn't. I never met my dad, but I can't believe he could have."
"Okay, wait a second," said Michael loudly. "For this to be true, wouldn't her entire family have to be magical dating back centuries?"
"No, no, this couldn't have happened if either were magical," said Zoe thoughtfully. "If she came from a magical bloodline, then the magic in her blood would take precedence. It would overwrite anything else. No, this… Okay, the theory goes that natural attunement to magic builds up generation by generation. It's slow, almost imperceptive. But imagine if two family lines continued on for generations and generations, slowly but steadily building up a stronger attunement to magic. They would have no idea it was happening since they have no actual magic themselves. Now, imagine that two people from those families, having built up an incredibly strong attunement to magic, meet and have a baby."
"That's all it would take?" Snow asked, her mind reeling. "If that's the case, why aren't there people like me all over the world?"
"Because natural attunement to magic in and of itself is rare," said Zoe. "It isn't something we see very often, and even then the rate of strengthening is usually so slow that it never becomes something like this. But despite that, those two people having a baby isn't enough by itself. Not by far. It's merely the first step. The mother would have had to come into contact with magic, a lot of magic… a lot of very powerful magic while she was pregnant. If that happened, if she was exposed to a lot of magic… or was exposed to the magic of a being as powerful as the Sisters of Fate and Destiny perhaps… well, someone like you could potentially be born. Tell me about your parents, Snow. Is there any reason your mother could have encountered magic? A witch, perhaps?"
"Well, my mom is… she's my mom, I don't know," said Snow, frustrated. "How am I supposed to know? If she ever went into your store she would have encountered a witch, so I don't—"
"Was she ever injured?" Zoe asked. "Was she gravely injured during her pregnancy? Or maybe she was put under the influence of a Faery's charm? Bitten by a vampire?"
"She… she was shot," Snow said, filing away the fact that vampires existed for a later conversation. "She was shot, but the doctors saved her… and me."
"Likely not without help," said Zoe knowingly. "Perhaps a witch working at the hospital, or maybe Fate or Destiny stepped in to save her. Without a close examination of your mother it would be impossible for me to say. Either way, given the evidence I feel it's fairly certain she was touched by magic. Now, if only I knew more about your father I could more accurately judge how attuned both of your parents were to magic."
A sudden thought occurred to Snow and she felt a chill run down her spine. "Wait, you said two people closely attuned to magic having a baby could cause this, right? Well, what if my father… was my mother's father too?" Zoe stared at Snow for a full ten seconds before swallowing thickly.
"I'm not going to ask how that might have happened," she said at last. "But if you're telling me that you and your mother share the same father, then… That would be enough. I mean, if they were both magically attuned to that extreme… and then to have a baby out of incest…"
"Does it really matter how it happened?" Michael interrupted suddenly. "Personally, I'm not buying this genetic magic crap, but even if it's true… what do we do about it?"
"There's nothing we can do, Michael," said Zoe plainly. "The only thing I can say is this; keep her safe from Sebastian. None of us wants to see a world in which he gets her in his grasp. For the moment, I'm going to do as much research as I can on the theory of genetic magic. I'd ask the Coven for help, but I doubt they'll be in the mood right now. Not to mention if they found out about Snow, they'd likely want to dissect her to find out how she works." She gave Snow a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, dear. You're safe with the Dawnguard and I'm going to do everything I can to learn more about… what you are. We'll figure this out, I promise." Without another word, Zoe turned and strode from the room. The instant the door swung closed, Snow burst into tears.
She sank to the floor, powerful sobs wracking her body. She was so confused and scared that she didn't know what to think or how to feel. She wanted to go to sleep and hope that when she woke everything would be back to normal. That none of this was real.
Michael went to his knees next to her and wrapped his arms around her. Despite her feelings about him, she clung to him in that moment. She didn't want to need him, but she did. There was no one else who could begin to understand what she was feeling.
"We'll keep you safe, Snowy," Michael promised her. "We'll figure this out. You'll be fine, baby. Don't worry; I won't let anything happen to you. We'll find out where your power comes from and…"
"And what?" Snow asked, drawing away from him and peering up into his eyes. "And then what? I'm… I'm some kind of magical, incestuous freak that no one can fully explain or understand. How are you supposed to help me?"
"Because I'm going to divert the entirety of my research and development department into figuring out exactly what you are," said Michael firmly. "As much as I didn't want you to be, you may be the key to everything we're fighting for. We'll find a way to take care of this. Maybe we can figure out a way to remove this, or… or something, I don't know yet. But I've got the best people in the world and they're going to be working on this. We'll figure it out."
"I don't want this," Snow wailed. "I never wanted any of this. I don't want to be… whatever it is I am. I just want to be normal, I… I want to… I don't know anymore."
"Listen, no one is going to make you learn magic," said Michael softly. "If you don't want to be part of this, I'm not going to make you. We do have to keep you safe from Sebastian until we can find a way to kill him, but you don't have to be involved. You don't have to be part of this world. I mean, I want you to be. I want to show you all of it. I want you to be part of it, but if you don't want to I would never force it on you."
"It scares me," Snow confessed, sniffling sadly. "Magic, demons, witches… It scares the hell out of me."
"Well, you'd be a braver person than me if it didn't," said Michael lightly. "Snow, I'm the Knight-Commander of the only organization standing between humanity and the forces of utter evil. I'm in charge of keeping the Dawnguard running and battling the darkness. If we fail, if the Dawnguard falls… mankind falls with it. I'm scared all of the time, Snow. There's no shame in being afraid. You just can't let it overpower you."
"Easier said than done," said Snow grimly. "I almost killed a woman today. I shot lightning at someone. I have this power inside of me and I don't have the slightest idea how to control it. Magic is dangerous, and I… I don't want to hurt anyone."
"Magic… isn't dangerous," said Michael. "Not if you know how to use it. It can be scary at first, but it's not dangerous. It can be, sure, but not always. And just like the Dawnguard, magic isn't all about fighting and killing. It can heal, it can help, and it can take us places beyond our own imagining." He held out his hand to her. "If you'll let me, I'd love to show you."
She hesitated, but only for a moment. Despite evidence that seemed to prove she shouldn't, she trusted Michael. Even if she didn't want to, she still trusted him. Slowly, she placed her hand in his and he helped her to her feet.
"I want you to think of the place in the world you'd like to be most," said Michael. "Anywhere in the world, if you could go right now, where would that be? A place you've been or haven't been, it doesn't matter."
"I don't know," said Snow slowly, thinking hard. "I… well, we went to Paris once. I was… three, I think. Four? I don't remember much about it, but we spent Christmas there. Our whole family, we… It was nice. I remember liking it. I haven't been back since."
"Okay," said Michael, squeezing her hand tightly in his. "Close your eyes." Snow obeyed and a moment later she felt a sudden swirling and she felt dizzy. Then a breeze rushed over her and she was certain they were outside.
"Okay, open," said Michael. Snow opened her eyes and gasped. All of Paris was spread out before her in the late afternoon sun. It took her a moment to realize that they were standing atop the Eiffel Tower, and yet she also realized that was impossible. Seconds before they had been in Mistbrook Falls, thousands of miles away from France.
"We… we're in France," Snow breathed, turning to Michael who was watching her closely and looking rather pleased with himself. "How… how did we… how did you… What happened?"
"We were transported here by magic," said Michael, leaning against the railing with Snow. "We call it 'blinking' because we can be anywhere we want on Earth…"
"In the blink of an eye," Snow finished his sentence for him. "Yeah, I guess so. Michael, I… I want to ask you something. I think I already know the answer, but I have to ask anyway. All this magic… the things you can do… Could you… is it possible for you to cure my mom's cancer?"
Snow knew the answer before he ever spoke. She saw the pain in his eyes and she knew. She had already known, of course. If it were possible, surely he would have already done it.
"Unfortunately, magic doesn't work like that," said Michael quietly. "There are certain laws, not like the speed limit but like the laws of physics, that control what magic is capable of doing. Healing injuries is one thing, but a disease… Diseases are different, they… they fall outside of what we're able to manipulate. They're a natural part of human life, and magic can't interfere. From cancer to the common cold, we can't do a damn thing. I asked Zoe about it and she promised to look into it, maybe see if there's some obscure spell that would help her but as of yet she hasn't found anything. I… I'm really sorry, Snow."
"I didn't really think you'd be able to," said Snow, shaking her head. She couldn't deny that she wasn't disappointed. Magic could do so much, but not the one thing she so desperately needed it to do. "I just… well, it couldn't hurt to ask." She stared off toward the setting sun, losing herself in her own thoughts. A sudden movement from Michael brought her back to reality. His arm slid slowly around her waist and she allowed herself to be drawn closer to him.
It felt good. She knew it shouldn't, but it did. In that moment, she couldn't help but remember how she felt when she was with him. She remembered how loved she felt when he held her, how easily and comfortably she fell asleep in his arms. She remembered how safe she felt when she was with him. She remembered how her knees would weaken when he kissed her, and the way he made her tremble when they made love. Being held by him then felt good. She should push him away. She knew she should push him away, but when he turned toward her and she had her chance, she didn't. Before she knew what was happening, they were kissing. Michael's hands were roaming, exploring her body with frantic ferocity.
Stop, part of her mind kept saying. You don't want this. You don't want him. He raped Mary. He lied to you. He's not the man you thought you knew. But the other part of her mind, the part of her mind that was desperate to lose herself in something, anything… to just feel something besides the endless pain and terror of her life refused to listen. The first part finally won out and she pressed her hand to Michael's chest. She drew away from him and he let her go. She shook her head and turned back to the view of Paris.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I just… I can't do this."
"It's not your fault," Michael said gently, although Snow could hear the heartbreak in his voice. "None of this is your fault. I'm the one who should be sorry. I didn't bring you here to… I just wanted to show you…"
"I know," said Snow. "I know. I didn't think you brought me here for anything else, I just… I can't right now."
"At least I can assume you don't completely hate me," said Michael. Snow looked back at him over her shoulder.
"I don't hate you, Michael," she told him. "I never said I hated you. You're just… you're not the same person I thought you were. I didn't know anything about you… I didn't even know your real last name. What was it? Ravenswood? What's that about, anyway?"
"Right… that," said Michael dryly. "That one wasn't entirely my fault. See, my family founded the Dawnguard. We had a different name then, but still Ravenswood is an old name… a name well known to our friends as well as our enemies. Magic runs deep within our blood. Powerful magic, Snow… Old magic. I told you before that the Dawnguard had lost many of its members as the days of battling demons fell further into the past. Sebastian is the last real demonic threat left in the world and with him imprisoned beneath the falls, people felt the days of glory were over. So, when Sebastian began to regain strength we… came up with a plan. Currently, we don't have a way to kill him permanently. We're working on it, but we're not quite there yet. As such, my team and I decided it would be best to... devise a bit of a deception."
"What kind of deception?" Snow wondered. "Some sort of magic, or…?"
"Not exactly," said Michael. "We decided to envision a future based on the trends the Dawnguard was following when Sebastian was imprisoned. A future where the Dawnguard has fallen into obscurity, abandoned by its members for decades seemed likely at one point. We worked hard to ensure that as far as Sebastian or any of his thralls were aware there were only two knights manning Stonehaven; me and Brad. I changed my last name because the name Ravenswood invokes a sense of power and leadership. We couldn't let Sebastian know that a Ravenswood still lived, much less was leading the Dawnguard."
"So this demon… this Sebastian, he thinks you're weak, undermanned, while in reality..."
"In reality, I've spent most of the last decade strengthening the Dawnguard," said Michael. "We have a dedicated army of warriors, the best scientists and researchers in the world, and bases and outposts in every corner of the world. When Sebastian attacks, and he will attack, he'll believe he's facing quite literally an army of two. Instead, he'll be up against a highly skilled and heavily armed Dawnguard that is fully prepared to do whatever is necessary to end him. Of course, that's all assuming the Coven leave us alone. If they keep meddling, it's likely Sebastian will uncover the truth. If that happens we could be in some trouble. Hopefully, the Coven will maintain the peace, but if not…" As if to put emphasis on Michael's point, his clear cell phone device made a soft chirping sound in his pocket. He took it out and pressed a symbol on the screen. Moments later, Snow realized he was turning it on speaker.
"Yes?" Michael asked.
"Sir, we've just gotten word from Andromeda," said a female voice. "The Coven airships attempted to cross into our airspace. Andromeda tried to warn them off, but they ignored her hails. Two of the ships forced Andromeda into a skirmish and drew her off. The remaining three are on their way here. Andromeda looks to have beaten the other ships and forced them to retreat, but she's taken heavy damage. Her engines and Blink Drive are offline and her weapons are down."
"Go to Tactical Alert. Get the barriers up and charge the pulse cannons," said Michael grimly. "I'll be right there."
"What's happening?" Snow asked worriedly. It sounded like something bad was about to happen at Stonehaven and her friends were there, directly in harm's way.
"The Coven has kept meddling," said Michael dryly. "We need to get back there. Hold on to me." She took his arm, clinging tightly as Michael blinked them back to Stonehaven. They arrived in the Reliquary, right where they had first entered. Klaxons were blaring overhead and people were running this way and that, appearing to be preparing for a battle. Snow noticed many of them carried the very same white rifle that Michael had used when he had rescued her and Jackson from Tony Sinclair.
"Sara will have taken your friends to Ops," said Michael, practically reading Snow's mind. She had just been wondering where her friends had gone. "That's where I need to go anyway. Come on!"
Michael led her across the Reliquary and to a door on the right side of the room. It was marked 'Operations'. They hurried along a stark white corridor toward a set of reinforced doors. Michael held up his hand as they approached and the doors slid open. The room beyond the doors was unlike anything Snow had ever seen. The closest thing she could compare it to was the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
Holographic displays of various systems were scattered around the room and there were screens hanging from the ceiling everywhere she looked showing information she didn't understand. Snow began to look around for any sign of her friends, but her attention was drawn to an Asian woman who appeared to be around Michael's age marching toward them.
"I'm glad you're back, Knight-Commander," she said briskly, brushing her black hair out of her deep brown eyes. Snow recognized her voice as belonging to the same person who had called Michael in Paris. "We've got… oh, is this another of our guests?"
"Yes, this is Snow," said Michael. "Snow, this is Akiko Sato, my second in command. Most people around here just call her Kiki."
"It's nice to meet you, Snow, but we'll have time for proper introductions later… at least I hope so," said Kiki nervously. "Sir, the remaining Coven airships are on an intercept course, but they're approaching cautiously. They'll be here in ten minutes. Based on their formation, I believe they intend to attack."
"Very well," said Michael gravely. "Are the barriers up?"
"Yes, and the pulse cannons are charged," Kiki pursed her lips. "Michael, you know we can't hold off three airships in our current situation. The magical barriers can't stand up to a barrage like that. I hate to say it, but… I'm not sure we can win this."
"I want to get Snow and her friends out of here," said Michael briskly. "This isn't where they need to be. Where are the others?"
"With Sara up by the World Map, but…" Kiki trailed off when Michael stalked passed her, Snow hurrying along at his heels.
"Mike, what is going on?" Snow gasped, rushing to keep up with him. "I don't…"
"Understand, I know," said Michael quickly. "I know and I'm sure you don't. You don't need to. Right now, I just need to get you girls out of here."
They found Sara standing with Clara, Nikki, and Mary in the center of the room near a large holographic map of the world that was being emitted from a large square computer terminal. Sara seemed to be explaining what was happening and trying to keep the girls calm.
"Mike, there you are," said Sara, sounding highly relieved. "What's the plan? I thought you said they wouldn't attack us!"
"Technically, they haven't attacked us yet," said Michael firmly. "Sara, I want to get your friends out of her in case this goes badly. I need a couple of Knights to escort them back to the house. We can't blink them out with the barriers active, so they'll have to walk."
"I'll find someone to take them, but Mike…"
"Sara, just find someone to take them back to the house," Michael snapped. "I've got to talk to Kiki. Just go." Michael quickly returned to Kiki and the two began a hurried conversation together. Snow couldn't help but notice how scared Michael looked.
"Sara…?" Mary asked uncertainly. "What's happening?"
"The beginning of the end of the world, perhaps," said Sara quietly. She shook her head wearily. "Just wait right here. I'll find someone to take you back to the house. Once you get there, get in your car and drive as far away as you can. You're not going to want to be around here much longer." She rushed away before any of them could say anything further.
"I… I'm not even sure what to say… what to think," Clara whispered, looking around at the other three. "What happened? What… what is all this?"
"I mean, magic?" Nikki questioned nervously. "I never believed… And all this technology they have… If I didn't know I was awake, I'd swear I was dreaming."
"You're not dreaming," said Snow. "I can't believe this either, but it's real. It's really real and honestly it scares me more than JTG does."
"Same," said Mary weakly. "At least JTG can't do… all this. And Sara's alive too? She's been alive all this time, just hiding in Michael's basement and we never knew."
"She seems… different," said Clara thoughtfully. "Sara, I mean. I don't know… just talking to her today, she seems like she's almost a different person. It's still her, still Sara, but… not. She's changed."
"That sounds like a good thing to me," said Nikki sagely. "I haven't exactly missed the old Sara. I mean… well, I did, but…"
"We know what you meant, Nik," said Snow reassuringly. "I don't know if this new Sara is a good thing or not, but… I don't even know where I was going with that. My brain is quite literally overloaded."
"I think all of ours are," said Mary. "I thought last night was crazy, but all of this is just insane. By the way, what did Michael and Zoe talk to you about?"
Snow was just about to answer, although she had no idea what she was going to say, when she heard someone shout. A Middle-Eastern man rushed forward from the far end of the room and raced toward Michael and Kiki, shouting to them as he ran.
"Knight-Commander! Knight-Commander, we've just picked up a new group of inbound signals," he exclaimed, waving them over to the World Map
"Mr. Moghadam, calm down," said Kiki swiftly. "What's happening?"
"You said new signals, Aram?" Michael asked. "Where? How many?" Aram tapped in a command on the World Map's computer terminal and the image narrowed down to an overhead view of Stonehaven. Snow wasn't completely sure what she was looking at, but she assumed that the three ovals that were moving toward Stonehaven must be the Coven airships. A moment later another oval appeared closely followed by another, then another two, then twelve more.
"Sixteen," Aram said weakly. "And two troop transports… fully loaded." Kiki gasped while Michael closed his eyes and shook his head, a look of grim defeat on his face.
"What?" Nikki asked, looking back and forth between them. "What is it?"
"This isn't an attack," said Kiki quietly. "Michael… this is a purge."