Keita made her way down to the ground, landing with a thump in front of her pursuer. “Do you know what happens to people who chase me deep into the forest I live in?”
Her voice sounded hoarse to her. She’d meant it to sound intimidating, although the truth of the matter was that mostly she spooked them off or they got lost.
Solomon raised his eyebrows. “I imagine that you tend to discourage them. Keita, if it was within my power to leave you here, I would. It’s clear you’re happy here. More than that, it’s clear that, for the moment, at least, you’re safe here.”
“What do you mean, ‘for the moment?’” She glowered at him. “I survived winter. I survived creepy monsters screaming overhead. Whatever that was, the dragon apocalypse or something. I survived the freaking army making a base in my backyard.”
“It’s impressive. Am I correct in guessing you ran away before the, ah, ‘dragon apocalypse?’”
“What, do you have a better name? Dragons, monsters, things go weird, next thing I know the army’s stomping through.”
“Well.” He sat down on a nearby log as if he was in someone’s living room. “I hope you don’t mind if I sit down?”
“Free country.” She shrugged. “Just don’t expect me to bring you tea and crumpets or anything.”
He chuckled dryly. “I’m not British. And I’m intruding in your home, Keita; all I can hope is that you’ll listen to me. I don’t have the right to expect anything.”
She plopped herself down on another branch, well out of arm’s reach. “I don’t want to go anywhere with you.”
“I’m getting that impression. It’s unfortunate, but I think Addergoole could help you out.”
“Help me with what? Unless they were going to keep the occasional creep off her back or help her rig up something for warmth in the middle of winter, she didn’t need them. She had everything she needed in her forest.
“Well, hrrm. Did you see many of the creatures that were flying around during the ‘dragon apocalypse?’”
“Saw a bit. Some of ‘em looked a bit human; the rest looked like monsters. Why? Are they good eating?”
He shuddered. “They’re sentient beings, on part with humans, so I’m rather glad you don’t already know if they’re tasty or not.”
“I’m not stupid enough to try to take down a magical creature from another dimension.” She shook her head at him. “What do you think I am?”
He took a breath. “A magical creature from this dimension.”
Keita snorted. “Right. You’re crazier than the drugged-up idiots that wander through here sometimes thinking that they saw God.”
“They may have. A god, at least.” He looked far too serious. “Keita, what you call the ‘dragon apocalypse’ really was, for all intents and purposes, an apocalypse. The end of the world as we know it. Billions of people died, some at the hands of the military, some at the hands of the invaders – creatures that are, indeed, magical and from another dimension, or at least another world – and some of starvation and disease. It has been a hard couple years for the world, and I think it’s possible you may have had it easier than many, tucked away here in this forest.”
“And so, what, you want me to leave now?”
“It is my job to get you to come with me. That is a different matter than ‘want’.”
That sounded strange. She tilted her head and looked at him. “Someone sent you. But you don’t think it’s a good idea?”
“Someone sent me,” he confirmed. “Addergoole and its Director. And I think Addergoole could teach you a lot.” He looked around the forest. “It can teach you more about the plants and animals here so you know what you’re dealing with. It can teach you combat techniques so that, when someone does wander into your territory, you can fight them off. And, ahem, it will teach you magic, which can help in any number of ways.”
Magic. Magic. Well, it wasn’t like she could say magic didn’t exist. She’d seen the creatures flying across the sky. She’d seen the fireballs and the man walking through her forest, shooting lightning from his fingertips. Whatever the creatures had been, they’d come with some sort of magic.
But they were creatures, and she was a human kid. A forest-dwelling human kid who swung from trees like Tarzan, but still a human kid. Her parents, assholes that they were, were humans.
“Nice candy,” she answered, instead of telling him she thought he was nuts. “Where’s your van?”
“My… ah. I assure you, I’m not trying to drag you off for some nefarious purpose. And all of the signs point to you having the genes that allow you to do magic.” He coughed. “Your, ah, real parents certainly could.”
Keita glared at him. “My ‘real’ parents are assholes. I met them. I lived with them. They’re not magical at all.”
“You lived with your biological mother and a man she married while pregnant with you. Your mother had some small prowess with a few magical things, but not enough, it seems, to save herself when the dragons came.”
Keita swallowed. “They’re dead?” She didn’t want to care. She didn’t think she did care. But it meant there was no going home… not that she would have, anyway. She hadn’t even when the winter had been awful. She wasn’t going to now that she knew how to survive.
“I’m afraid they are, your mother and your step-father both.”
Keita leaned forward, holding on to those words. “Step-father.” The asshole of assholes. Wasn’t her father.
“Step-father,” Reid confirmed. “As of my most recent information, your biological father is still alive. We could track him down, if you wanted. If you come with me.”
It was tempting. It was far too tempting. Keita leaned back, scowling. “But if I go with you… this forest isn’t going to stay unclaimed until I come back.”
“Well, then.” She was surprised to see that he was smiling. “I suppose that gives us four years to find you a better forest, doesn’t it?”
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