Chapter 111: Into the Fire
I was sitting at a bus stop in Seattle. Or…at least I thought it was Seattle. It was a bright, sunny day, but there were no people. No noise. Nothing except Lettie sitting next to me on the bench, humming at old song out of tune with a backpack at her feet.
"What happened?" I asked, looking at her.
"There was an explosion. I think the building collapsed." She answered without skipping a beat, looking over at me and frowning. "I think a lot of people died."
Are we dead? I wanted to ask. I couldn't quite make my mouth form the words though, so I skipped to the next subject on my mind immediately.
"Pandora's my mother." I said calmly.
"No, I don't think that's true." She replied serenely. "Esther was your mother."
"No, she told me…" I began to persist, leaning forward intensely.
"She told you what she thought would break you. It was the truth, to a point, but she didn't tell you it for any other reason than to cause you pain. What is it Zack would say?" She mused for a moment, before looking back over at me. "She's trying to swipe you off the chessboard."
"Why?" I asked, perplexed.
"The same reason she's been trying to for centuries, I imagine. She's half jealous and half scared of you." She answered.
"Jealous and scared?" I scoffed. Lettie smiled.
"That gift she gave you, it wasn't the explosion, although I believe it caused it. She gave you knowledge of what exactly you are, right?" Lettie asked. I swallowed hard.
"I'm a monster, Lettie." She inclined her head, listening intently. "I…I was one of the things in the box. I…"
"Do you feel like a monster?" Lettie interrupted. "You don't look very monstrous to me."
"Lettie…" I began.
"What Pandora did with you is something nobody had ever done before. Something that probably shouldn't have been done, so you might be an abomination…but I don't think you're a monster."
"I don't have a soul Lettie." I said, feeling strangely emotionless.
"Don't be ridiculous. If you didn't have a soul, how'd you be sitting here? I guarantee my body did not look this good last I saw of it. That monster wouldn't know anything about souls."
I was quiet for a few moments, absorbing that. Finally, she spoke again. "Do you want to know what I think?"
"What?" I asked dully.
"Monsters aren't evil on their own. When Pandora put you in the body of a child, made in her image of course, she had no choice but to erase everything in your mind. She wanted you to grow up, probably to spy on Jezebel. Leaving your memories, your thoughts, your knowledge intact would have given them no choice but to kill you immediately. So what is a monster without all those things? An infant. She gave them an infant…and infants are not inherently evil."
"You can't grow a soul, Lettie." I argued stubbornly.
"How do you know?" She challenged. "Maybe all that it takes to grow a soul is someone to love you, and Esther did. Nathan does. That boy, Tyler? Mad about you. There is magic in this world we take for granted. It's that kind of magic that let a little ghost girl named Sarah protect a boy from the darkness back in that town. It's that kind of magic that has saved Echo Black's life several times this year. It's the magic that let a thirteen year old girl light the sky on fire. It's the reason you're not dead, and I am." She stopped for a moment, choked up.
"I'm not dead?" I echoed back.
"No. You're lying in the rubble somewhere. Esther, your real mother, her spirit saved you. Sheltered you from all the debris. Ghosts can't interact with the physical world like that. I imagine, her using all her last strength and power to do it probably destroyed her. She's gone. Completely gone, forever." She took a deep breath. "I died, but I know that because I did, Belle will be safe tonight. That's worth it."
"Tonight, but what about tomorrow?" I asked, worried. Lettie smiled.
"See, that's your soul talking." She joked. "Oh, Ruby. Lighten up." She elbowed me in the side, smiling out at the distance. "My bus is coming."
There was a bus coming, so quietly I could barely hear it. She stood, gathering up her backpack. "Why aren't you worried?" I asked softly.
"Because she doesn't know it, but she just handed you the key to defeating her." She smiled brightly. "And she thought it would destroy you. She has no clue what you're made of, does she?"
The bus stopped, the doors opened. An older man with dark skin and bright, kind eyes was sitting at the steering wheel. She stopped, looking at me one last time. "Go home and read a book, Ruby. I don't think your bus is coming yet."
I was silent, she slowly climbed the stairs, smiling at the man driving the bus. "Oh, and Ruby." She looked over her shoulder. "Zack made me a promise a very long, long time ago. Make sure he remembers it. He'll know what you're talking about. I'm calling in every last favor he owed me."
The bus door clicked shut. I could see through the windows that Lettie collapsed in a seat, the same calm and peaceful smile on her face. As the bus drove away, I noticed that things were starting to lose definition. Objects were blurring, turning into indistinct shapes and colors. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, all I was aware of was pain and darkness. I reached for my head automatically, that seemed to be where all the pain was coming from. There was something wet, warm and sticky on my forehead. I could smell something metallic from my fingers, something like blood. My eyes were adjusting to the darkness, I was laying on a piece of what used to be the ballroom floor. The small pocket of space where I was lying was like someone or something had placed a hand over me, to keep the floors above from crushing me. I couldn't hear anything except the beating of my own heart, the blood rushing through my veins.
I sat up, although my ribs protested. I felt like they might have been cracked. My hair brushed against the roof of my little hole. It was like being in a coffin. Then, relief hit me like a solid wall, so much so I let out a sharp, hysterical laugh. I was alive against all odds. I could go home. Nathan would be there, and Tyler…
As soon as those thoughts hit, I immediately sobered up, taking a deep breath. Lettie wouldn't be going home tonight, or Esther, or god knows who else was dead. I looked up at the building above me…so many lives, innocent human lives, would have been lost too when this building collapsed. Children, families…
It had to end. I had to get out.
Lettie's body. Lettie's broken, bloody body on the snow in front of the house I'd spent so much time in as a kid. Monsters in my woods. Burgundy eyes staring hungrily at Echo, despite the fact that Christian had immediately moved to put himself between her and Coco. I was growling, my hands shaking.
I was terrified. Lettie had went back for Ruby. Lettie was dead, Ruby was…
Not dead. I thought quickly. Not dead, because I would know. I would feel the pain. Not dead, because if she took her last breath, it would be the last time I breathed too, right? I wanted to ask, but my mouth wasn't working except to pull back in a snarl. Besides, who here would know? Emily, maybe. She knew the most about this stuff. She was inside, safe.
Everyone was running toward us now, all except Isaac, who ducked behind us carrying Delilah into the house. There wouldn't be any one to light the sky on fire now, unless Echo had picked up on the trick. Wolves where phasing again, but I couldn't…
Soft pale skin against mine, her glassy nails smooth and cool against my hot skin, her pulling a brush through her long dark hair while sitting in front of her mirror and smiling at my reflection, as shaky and determined as a baby bird when she first put on ice skates.
Things materialized out of the darkness behind Pandora, all the monsters we'd found in the forest, they all pressed hungrily up against an invisible barrier. It was silent except for the horrible noises those things made.
"Give up." Pandora finally beseeched, stepping forward. Running her hands over the surface of the invisible bubble. Stella shivered.
"It's a darling idea. Tying this to your very life." Pandora inclined her head to Stella. "Clever, bold, but very risky. What happens when I break through it?"
Stella was quiet, but I saw her reach for Zack, they entwined their fingers. Nobody wavered.
"Where is she?" The words were a growl, quiet, but loud enough in the silence. Echo gripped my shoulder, her nails biting into my skin. Burgundy eyes turned to me and she smiled, an oddly familiar smile, but so cold I felt like it froze my skin.
"I buried her." She said, the same insane smile on her face.
I lost it, I absolutely fucking lost it. Luckily, Echo had the good sense not to try and hold on, even as she muttered my name. Fur exploded from my skin, I let out an agonized howl and started to run.
Tyler, STOP! Jacob's voice, layered with all the power of the alpha stopped me short, so that I almost tripped over myself and was only stopped by Seth's big body in front of me.
She's baiting you, man.
If she was really dead, you would know. You would know.
Don't let her mess with you.
We'll find her, Ty. Get through this, then we'll go find her.
A dozen voices all rushed to reassure me, coming together in a swell of encouragement and support. I felt movement to my left, when I looked I could see Nathan. His cheek was swollen from where something had gotten him, but his eyes were flashing very dangerously.
"If you hurt her, I swear, she'll be the last person you ever hurt." He said calmly.
I felt a swell of affection for this man, this man that Ruby had such esteem for, and I could almost forgive him for leaving her.
Pandora didn't respond, she just smiled. I felt a cold wind blow through Sam and Emily's front yard and suddenly, I couldn't see Pandora or the monsters. All I could see was a wall of darkness, pushing against the shield. Stella gasped, shivering.
"Mom!" Eva called, joining Zack and Stella.
"I'm okay." Stella said through gritted teeth.
"Stell…" Zack started, wrapping his arms tight around her.
We sat in silence, not sure what to do next, there was a sound like glass breaking. Stella hunched over, gripping onto Eva and Zack.
"Let it go, Stell." Cassie whispered softly. Stella shook her head.
"Mommy, please." Eva pleaded.
"Stella, Stella baby." Zack whispered. "Don't do this to me Stella."
Stella didn't move, but Zack kept pleading. "You promised I'd never lose you Stella. I can't. Baby, I can't. Every time I lost you before I died, I died because it hurt so bad. When we ran, after Cassie got out of the hospital, you promised we were done and this time we didn't have to worry about that. Don't let her take you from me. I can't sit here and watch that. I'll never come back from it. Stella…"
Stella let out a sob, her arm wrapping around Zack's neck. The last vestige of brightness in our circle went out as the darkness curled over us like a wave. But we had Cassie, Echo, and Blaze. Immediately, the three of them went up like human torches, a wall of flames spiraling up to meet the darkness, exploding like fireworks over our head.
That was only the first thing to worry about because monsters were pouring out from the darkness in front of us again, but this time we were ready, the pack moving as a unit, teeth sinking into the monsters, who dissolved like smoke. The only light was Echo, sometimes, or Cassie, and even the huge hulking Blaze who seemed to be in a rage and taking out several at a time.
Every thing we destroyed seemed to come back as two. We were being pushed back, toward the house.
Out of nowhere, I smelled roses. The scent went right to my head, instinctively causing me to lift my head and sniff at the air.
The ground trembled. I backed up automatically, but the creatures had stopped, confused. Lights were appearing behind the creatures, closer to the woods. One…two…three…four bursts of flame spiraling in the air, launching like bombs into the monsters. The ground cracked open in front of us. The creatures rushed forward to avoid the flames behind them, but I saw Echo throw her arms out, a wall of flames springing up in front of us.
The gap in between the fires grew larger as the creatures fell into the hole. The ground was still trembling, as the gap began to close. The flames died down on each side. We were staring across an empty expanse, a long scar in the ground. Illuminated just barely by the porch light was a group of thirteen people of all shapes and sizes, looking wary and on edge, dressed in finery like they'd been to a fancy party, and then got into a bar brawl. They were scraped up, their clothes ripped. Nobody looked worse off than the girl in the middle. Her white dress was covered almost entirely in blood, there was a cut on her forehead that looked like it was still bleeding, and she was holding an arm over her ribs, looking furious, beautiful, strong, and at the same time weary and vulnerable. Her eyes were glowing.
Nathan let out a whoop, running forward. He met them as they began to walk, lifting Ruby up and spinning her around. She winced.
"Nate, Nate…" she complained, but he kissed her cheek before sitting her down, smiling. "This is who I could find, who came back after…" she trailed off, her eyes fixed on a point behind us, Lettie's body.
I approached her, very gently placing my nose in her hand. She stroked it lightly, her muscles tense.
"Whoah, this is not over!" Echo yelled. "Did anyone see where that bitch went?"
"Gone? Maybe?" A witch next to Ruby said, her purple eyes were almost gray.
"Unlikely." Ruby answered, scanning the crowd.
The knife came out of nowhere. I heard it whistling through the air and growled. Sensing danger, Nathan pulled Ruby close to him, the knife missed its mark, where Ruby had been, right where her heart would have been, the knife sunk into Nathan's back instead.
"Nate!" she cried out as he fell into her.
There was a swift movement, both Nathan and Ruby were on the snow, a tall man standing over them. I knew him, of course I knew him, instinctive hatred rose up in me as I launched myself at him, my teeth closing on nothing.
In my head, I saw what the pack saw, not our own struggle as Ruby got up, but Pandora melting back out of the darkness, all lashing tentacles of darkness, knocking Echo and Eva down. Everyone was screaming, panicking again.
We're going to die. I thought.