“I’ve never seen anyone look so afraid before,” Sylvia murmured softly as she, Elena and Axel headed away from the little girl’s house where she was now safely tucked into bed, her mother likely attached to her bedside until morning. The horrified look her mother had given them when they’d brought her home would haunt her forever.
Axel slid his arm around Sylvia’s shoulders. “She’s a mom. Having her daughter attacked by a Banshee has probably always been her biggest fear.”
Sylvia leaned her head on his shoulder and sighed. “I hope we never have to do it again.”
“Something tells me we’re going to be doing it a lot in the coming months.”
Both Witches looked over at the Warrior curiously. Despite Axel’s joking exterior, he could be all seriousness when he wanted to be. Sylvia had witnessed it many times. And when Axel got serious, she knew it was time to listen.
“Things are changing around here, guys,” he said, looking straight ahead. They hadn’t made a plan to go anywhere in particular, but they all instinctively headed back towards the scene of the crime. “The Banshees are getting stronger, more confident,” he went on. “Cocky even. It’s taken them over a century to get so secure with themselves. And now, they’re suddenly everywhere, every night. There’s got to be a reason for it
“And now…this new girl…” Axel trailed off, biting his lip.
Sylvia knew that look. Axel had suspicions but he wasn’t certain enough to voice them yet.
But she had suspicions of her own.
“She fights like a Witch, but her mentality is that of a Warrior. That attack with JP’s ax was all magic. But the strategy…” Sylvia shook her head. “That was something only a Warrior would think of. And the fact that it killed the Banshee changes everything.”
“What is she?” Ellie demanded. “Do you know?” She looked at Axel, but he was already shaking his head. With a groan, Ellie shoved her hands in her pockets, and kicked a rock, her agitation coming off in waves. “Well, then who is she?”
Sylvia’s heart went out to her friend. Though Ellie hadn’t said anything, Sylvia knew it had hurt that JP hadn’t come with them to drop off child. She had seen the poorly hidden pain on Ellie’s face when he had chosen to remain behind with the stranger in the middle of the night. Ellie could hide her tears, but Sylvia knew her aura better than anyone’s—even Axel’s. Sylvia knew Ellie wasn’t going to sleep that night. JP’s choice would haunt Ellie as much if not more than the despair on the child’s mother’s face.
“I’d rather know how JP knows her,” Axel said after a beat.
“What?” Ellie looked up.
Axel shrugged. “JP and I found the girl before that chick showed up. When she appeared, they seemed to have already met. And, I mean, you saw how they worked together. How they seemingly read one another’s minds. It was like he’d known what to expect from her. Like they knew exactly what the other was thinking.”
Sylvia winced inwardly. Axel hadn’t meant to but poor salt in an open wound, but he’d just made Ellie feel worse.
“That’s not possible, though. He would’ve told us,” she began.
But Axel shook his head. “JP’s been in a mood lately. Honestly, I’m not so sure anymore that he would have.”
The trio fell silent. Her partner had just opened up a dangerous can of worms. It surprised Sylvia. Usually, Axel was a lot more considerate about the things he said and who he said them in front of. But what happened tonight must’ve bothered him a lot; it didn’t seem to occur to him that what he was saying might be hurting Ellie.
“The thing is,” he went on, almost absently now. “JP’s been acting odd for the past couple weeks. He never seems happy anymore when we stop another Banshee; he just doesn’t seem to care, you know? Ever since these shields started cropping up, he just…” Axel broke off and licked his lips. “I don’t know. Like, you would think he’d be more jazzed when he defeats a Banshee; they’re getting stronger, but we’re still kicking butt. But instead…I don’t know,” he repeated. “It’s like his heart isn’t in it…like he’s just being a Warrior for Warrior’s sake, you know?”
“Then why does he bother anymore?” Ellie wondered softly.
Sylvia reached out and squeezed her arm gently, hearing the tears her friend was desperately trying to hold back.
He shrugged. “Well, for you. You’re his partner, aren’t you?” He sighed. “The problem is, that doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.”
Okay, now Sylvia had to do something. She jabbed him hard in the side, and when he yelped, gave him a hard look. He didn’t understand right away, but after a few moments, his eyes suddenly went wide and filled with guilt. Oh shit, he mouthed.
She nodded. Oh yeah.
He turned and looked over at Ellie, but Sylvia knew it was too late. There was nothing he could say to take the words back and, from the look in her eyes, Ellie had already figured out what he’d meant. Her fight against the tears finally failed.
She stopped walking and stood in front of Axel and Sylvia. Even if she had wanted to keep it together, Sylvia didn’t think she’d be able to. Her aura was a horrible shade of indigo.
“He’s done with me, isn’t he?” Her voice was like shattered glass. “He doesn’t want me anymore.”
“This is it. We’re done.” Ellie covered her face with her hands and sank to the ground. “He yelled at me to tell me we’re done. He’s breaking us up.”
There was nothing Sylvia could do as her friend collapsed into a fit of heart wrenching sobs. She looked at Axel and the regret on his face was evident, but it was too late. The damage was done.
“Elena, he still cares about you.” Axel left Sylvia and knelt by his friend. He placed a hand on her knee. “He didn’t want to hurt you. But he doesn’t think he’s good for you either.”
Now, that got both girls’ attention.
“Wait, what?” Sylvia said going over and joining them.
Axel fell back on his heels and shrugged as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “JP blames himself for what happened tonight. Before the other girl showed up. He thinks you could’ve cracked the shield if he hadn’t shouted at you.”
“But I couldn’t have—”
“You don’t know that, sweetie.” Axel ran his hand over Ellie’s hair. “And JP believes you might have. JP believes in you, Ellie. He just doesn’t know that the two of you work anymore.”
Ellie was silent for a moment before finally shaking her head. “I don’t believe that.”
“Why not?” Sylvia wanted to know.
The Witch raised her head, for the first time looking sure of herself. “Because if he believed in me, he would believe that we could work this out. He wouldn’t think his words could distract me—he’d think they would strengthen me.”
Sylvia and Axel fell silent. They exchanged a look, but neither knew what to say. Sylvia couldn’t deny it—what Ellie said made sense. If JP really had faith in her, wouldn’t he have faith that they could get over this bump? They’d been partners for two years; they knew each other inside and out. He must know that there was a way around this.
Unless, he didn’t genuinely believe Ellie was good for him either.
Sylvia fell on her bottom and wrapped her arms around Ellie, resting her head atop the other girl’s. Sylvia loved JP to death; he was one of her best friends. But right now, she couldn’t be more grateful to have Axel as her partner.
She looked up sharply. Axel was shaking his head, his brown eyes filled with the determination she usually only saw when they were poised for a fight.
“No,” he said again, vehemently. “I know JP. The four of us might be friends, and he and Elena might be partners, but I live with the guy. I know him. That’s not the kind of guy he is. If he says he believes in Elena, then he does. And if he’s leaving, it’s because he truly believes it’s for the best.” He looked at the two Witches sitting in front of him, one with eyes wide with shock; the other with tears streaming down her face.
But Axel was certain. “JP went through hell in his childhood. He wouldn’t risk screwing up our friendship unless he really thought it was for the best.”
Sylvia was caught off guard by Axel’s conviction. “Axel—”
“No.” He got to his feet. “You guys don’t give him enough credit. He loves you both; he’s just not good at showing it.”
Ellie pulled her legs up to her stomach and dropped her chin on her knees. She looked up at Axel. “But how can I believe that when he’s leaving?”
Axel’s face softened and he sighed. “You’ve trusted him for the past two years of your life.” His gaze swung to include Sylvia. “Why can’t you guys trust him now?”
Sylvia licked her lips. Axel certainly had a way of putting her in her place. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Axel’s right, Ellie. JP’s our friend. We’ve got to trust he knows what he’s doing.”
Ellie’s jaw dropped. “B-but he’s leaving.”
“He’ll still be around though.” She took her hand and squeezed gently. “Just…with a different partner.”
“I don’t want another partner, Sylvia. JP and I are perfect.”
Axel was shaking his head again. “I don’t think JP’s looking for another partner any time soon anyway.”
Sylvia raised a brow. “What?”
He just shrugged. “I’m not sure what exactly is going on inside that kid’s head, but I don’t think he’s looking. I don’t think it even crossed his mind.”
Even Ellie seemed surprised by that. “Then why the hell is he going away?”
“For your sake.” Axel ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t make you understand, Elena. I barely understand, honestly. But his mind’s made up. He’s not changing it.”
Ellie dropped her head back on Sylvia’s shoulder. Sylvia bit back another sigh. She wished they hadn’t gotten into this now. Ellie was so fragile at the moment, still shaken up because of the Banshee earlier in the evening. And she knew she was still confused about JP remaining behind with the newcomer. She didn’t need this right now. She’d hardly had a moment to breathe.
“It’s her, isn’t it?”
“Who?” Axel wanted to know.
Ellie pressed her lips together. “That girl. It’s because of her, isn’t it?”
Axel closed his eyes.
“Come on, Ellie.” Sylvia tucked her arm under her friend’s and pulled the other girl to her feet. “You’re overreacting. Let’s go back home. There’s nothing more we can do tonight.”
“But…JP’s still out there!”
“He’ll be okay.” Axel slid his arm around Ellie’s waist and helped Sylvia steer her in the direction of their apartment. “They seem to have an understanding. And besides, JP can take care of himself.”
Sylvia reached around and pinched Axel’s side. Luckily, he bit back the wince and looked at her behind Ellie’s back. Shh! she mouthed. Axel was a sweetheart, but in the end he was still a boy. For all the comfort he could give Ellie, he was still capable of saying one wrong thing and screwing things up again.
Sylvia winced against the shrillness in Ellie’s voice. Axel gave her a look. She bit her lip, but when she felt the Witch’s body start to shake with new tears, she knew he was right. Subtly, she nodded. Placing her palm gently against the back of Ellie’s neck, she silently chanted an incantation her grandmother had taught her, and a moment later, Ellie went limp in their arms. Axel sighed and swept the sleeping girl off her feet.
“We’d never have gotten her home otherwise, Sylvia,” he said, his voice matching the sorrow on her face.
Sylvia brushed back Ellie’s hair. “I know. I just…I hate using spells on her.”
“She was overreacting. Right now, she just needs a break. She hasn’t gotten one since before night fell. She was getting overwhelmed.”
“I know. I don’t understand why she’s so hard on herself all the time. Are you sure about JP’s reasoning?”
“Positive.” He nodded right away. “He has faith in Elena.”
“But none in himself?”
Axel didn’t answer right away. “It’s…JP didn’t really go into it explicitly. He just…he said that Elena could’ve broken the shield if he hadn’t shouted at her. He distracted her and offended her, and he knows that not how partners should act.”
“But…” Even the people in China could hear the “but” coming.
Axel smirked a little. “But I think there’s more to it than that.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. Honestly…I think whatever it is, it’s something that’s been bothering him for a while.”
“But you don’t know what it is?”
Axel sighed. “I wish I did. Just for this one’s sake.” He nodded to Ellie, sound asleep in his arms.
Sylvia slid her hand through one of his arms and laid her head against it. “I don’t want our group to break up, Axel.”
“Me neither. But I don’t think we can afford for it not to anymore.”
His words echoed in Sylvia’s mind for the rest of the walk back to the apartment. Even after they’d tucked Ellie into bed, and after he’d left and gone back to his own room, Sylvia just sat on the couch, nursing a cup of tea, listening to Axel’s voice replay over and over in her head.
We can’t afford for it not to anymore.
What was going on inside JP that would make breaking up the gang better all around? What was important enough that he’d risk it when the Banshees were at the height of their power?
And what the hell did this new stranger have to do with any of it?
Sylvia had a sinking feeling that they were soon going to find out.
Julie leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. For the first time all night, JP sat silent beside her. What was she going to do? He’d cornered her. He’d called her out, and managed force her to admit the one secret she wanted to hide. She could still deny it, but it wouldn’t matter anymore. JP knew and even if she ignored it, he’d always know. And she’d rather he get it right then convolute her history even more.
But could she trust him? Julie had seen the best and worst of people in her life—entrusting them with secrets, with innocent lives. Some had been loyal, brave. Others had been afraid and betrayed her. It hurt to remember the people she’d lost on account of those mistakes, but they had also taught her caution. The question was, was it better to be cautious with JP or upfront?
From what she’d witnessed tonight, he was fiercely devoted to his job. Being a Warrior was first and foremost in his mind, and he’d trusted her to stop the Banshee, at the risk of himself, his friend, and the little girl. He’d ensured the kid’s protection at risk of his own. If nothing else, she knew he was a Warrior, a guardian, through and through.
What she didn’t know was the kind of person he was. Some of the best Warriors had been bastards; some of the worst had been great friends. JP was one of the best, but did his personality follow? Could she truly trust him? Julie couldn’t afford any mistakes this time around.
“Look, I know you’re worried.”
Julie didn’t look up as his voice broke through her thoughts.
“I know your secrecy is important to you.”
“It’s all I have,” she murmured, clasping her hands in front of her. She raised her head and turned to him. “If word gets out, JP, you have no idea how bad it will be.”
"Why?” JP shook his head. “You’re a Wila. You’re the reason the Banshees are afraid, the reason they cower in the dark. What’s bad about the rest of the world finding out their biggest fear has returned?”
Julie sighed. “Is that what a Wila is to you, JP? The monster that hides under demons’ beds?”
“‘Cause you’re right. That’s exactly what the Wilas are.” She let her head knock back against the stone wall. “They’re primal and primitive, vicious and bloodthirsty. In battle, they’re merciless. They kill the demons that walk the earth, and haunt the bastards who refuse to die. They torture and imprison those who are left, and they murder the children to keep them from following in their parents’ footsteps.” Julie glanced over at JP, unfazed by the disbelief in his eyes.
“The Wilas are monsters, JP. Just as evil as the Banshees are. The only difference is they fear us. So we’ve become legends of power and strength and hope…when really, we don’t deserve it.”
Silence fell between them again. JP stared at her, speechless. She got to her feet, pacing again. Explaining what she was has always been the hardest part of her life. It had taken her so long to understand what she was, to really comprehend the gravity of her abilities, that for a long time, she had been afraid of herself. Afraid of the depth of the magic inside of her; afraid that she really was just another demon, but one with a savior complex. It had taken years for her to understand that she is not the Wila; she is not the monsters’ nightmare. She is Julie.
She merely houses, carries, and protects the Wila.
JP rose as well then, and crossed the distance between them. His movements were deliberate, not quite cautious but definitely careful. He was wondering what he had gotten himself into.
“How did you survive?”
The question caught Julie off guard.
“What?” she said before she could stop herself.
JP swallowed. “The Wilas died out, Julie. At least…that’s what we’ve always been told. How…how are you still alive?”
She hesitated. Was it really worth keeping it from him? After all this, all they’d been through, all they had already confessed…was it worth it to keep this from him too?
She sighed and shook her head.
It wasn’t worth it.
“I didn’t,” she said, her voice quiet. She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly very, very cold. “I was born nineteen years ago, JP. To two very loving parents who died too young.” She met his eyes finally, found them gentle, watching her with care and understanding, even though her story wasn’t over yet.
“When I was nine, she came. The last of the Wilas, across space and time, gods only know how, came and made a home inside me. And it took me a very long time to understand who she was and who I am are both different and eternally linked.
“I’m not a Witch,” Julie said again, her voice soft, finally calm. “I’m a host for the last of the Wilas. I’ve learned how to control her magic without her mind, but sometimes, like you saw earlier tonight, even I get can’t control her.”
Julie took a deep breath and let it out slowly. There was only one other person who had heard this story before, and it was the only person left alive in the world who loved her unconditionally: her big brother. JP… At some point, she must have decided she could trust him, because now he was the second.
What felt like an eternity passed between them as JP absorbed her words. She looked away, breaking eye contact, because she didn’t want him to see the discomfort on her face. She was the strongest being in the world when she was the Wila; but right now, she had never felt more vulnerable.
After a beat, JP reached forward and slid his knuckle under her chin, forcing her eyes back to his. The touch startled her. “So basically,” he said, his voice gentle for the first time all night, “you risked becoming a ‘monster’ to protect a town full of strangers. I’d say regardless of who the Wila is, that makes you, Julie Evans¸ a solid force of good.”
Julie had no words. For the first time in her life, she was speechless.
For the past ten years of her life, she had heard a thousand different justifications for what she was and what she did. From her brother and herself, trying to comfort her and calm her when the Wila finally released control and she realized what she had done. Destroying Banshees was all well and good if more people who saved as a result. But how she killed the Banshees, how the Wila chose their fates…the reality of that had nearly sent her suicide more than once in her young life.
As she had gotten older, the pain of her actions changed. From suicide to wondering how she could ever do such wretched things, and still be her. Still be Julie Evans, the girl who loved playing the piano and painting, who loved her brother and one day hoped to be loved by another. How, she had asked herself, could be be loveable if the things the Wila made her do were so horrible.
Her brother tried to help her, but he could only do so much. He had no magical abilities, and lived a mortal life. She wanted that for him—she wanted him to be normal because he was able to. She didn’t want him to see the monster she had to become sometimes to fight the monsters that were. So he’d taken a different tune, reminding her he loved her at every turn, rather than trying to help rationalize what she was. His unconditional support had kept her going at the worst times, and she thought of him now, as she shared her secret with JP, because she’d never thought another person in the world would accept her for what she was, with no strings attached.
But JP had already, somehow, done more. JP was the first one who understood—truly understood—what she risked every time she let the Wila out. Every time she had control over her actions, and had to choose to let the Wila loose for the greater good, every time she let herself disappear into the Wila’s hold, she risked never coming back out again. She risked staying the monster inside of her, a monster she sometimes feared; she risked her deepest fears realized every time she let the Wila out.
No one had ever understood that was the position she put herself in—the position she risked putting herself in by choosing to use the Wila’s magic as Julie, for the good of the world. And if they had realized it, certainly no one had told her they understood her choices.
Julie gazed at JP, his finger still under her chin, and couldn’t believe how easy it was for him to realize just exactly who she was.
But what could she say?
She reached up and took his hand in hers, grasping it in front of them.
“I’m here for a while, JP, and if what you say is true, and the Banshee infestation is getting worse, then I’m going to need some help. I can do it alone, but it’ll be damn hard.”
When JP grinned, Julie knew instinctively she had made the right decision. Not only to tell him her story, but to trust him with her life.
He covered their hands with his other one, and somehow, his grin widened. “I’m in, Jules. I’m so freaking in.”