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Author's Chapter Notes:
I did it! I squeezed one more update in before the end of August~ Okay, so it's really down to the wire, but here it is!

Thank you to everyone who's reading for the first time and to everyone who's coming back again.
Nick stared at the door after Lene and gave a long sigh.

She really didn’t believe him about GŁnter or, at least, she didn’t want to believe him. And he didn’t know if he should keep trying to convince her or just drop it for now or what.

Nick stooped down to pick up the Care Bears backpack off the floor and proceeded to fill it with things from his ripped bag--matches, a coil of rope, a pocketknife, baby powder...? He wasn’t sure why that last item was in there, but distractedly he stuffed it into the new bag along with everything else.

...What to do about Lene? Nick wondered. If she refused to believe him even after he had shared his memories of their encounter in the woods with GŁnter, then there really wasn’t anything more he could do. Not for now, at least. Not until he had more proof for her.

And if the castle they were heading for was GŁnter’s, then that meant the truth must come out soon, right? Nightingale Hill. Somehow it was the way back to wherever he came from, but what was he going to find there? Was he going to have to fight GŁnter? Would Lene believe him then that GŁnter was a bad guy? And when the time came, whose side would she take?

Nick decided it would be better not to worry about that for now. The important thing was just getting to the castle, which appeared to be a few more days away at least.

He finished repacking their things and shrugged on the Care Bears backpack. It was meant for a much smaller person than Nick, so he had to adjust the straps to their longest point for the backpack to fit over his shoulders. Nick was sure that he must look ridiculous; hopefully it would break the ice when he found Lene. Maybe she would be too busy laughing at him to be mad about GŁnter.

Nick stepped out into the hallway and called her name. “Lene...! Hey, Lene, I think we should get going now…”

No answer.

Nick checked the other bedroom but there was no sign of her. He looked downstairs. Nope. She wasn’t in the kitchen either or the living room. Where could she be? Had she left without him? That was when Nick noticed the back door ajar. Peeking outside, he saw a grassy little backyard and a children’s swingset. Lene was there on the swing, her back to him as she faced the fence, idly rocking back and forth.

“Hey, Lene…” Nick called from the doorway. “We should get going.”

She didn’t hear him at first. Or maybe she was ignoring him. Nick took a step outside and called her name again. “Lene…” No response.

He came up right behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, bringing the swing to a stop. “Hey, kid. Let’s go.”

Lene tilted her head back to look up at him. She didn’t look angry anymore, but she had definitely been sulking. Nick could see tear stains running down her cheeks, and at that moment it was like she was nine-years-old again rather than a fully grown adult. Their argument had shaken her up. Although Nick knew that GŁnter was bad, it was obviously hard for Lene to come to terms with. He was going to have to be more careful from now on about maligning the man who raised her.

“I’m sorry that I upset you,” Nick said. “We don’t have to talk about you-know-who anymore if you don’t want to. Deal?”

She nodded her head. “Okay.”

“We’re still going to that castle, though, right?” He wondered for just a second if she would try to lead him astray, out of loyalty to GŁnter. “I have to get to Nightingale Hill. I’m not sure what’s going to happen when I get there, but I’d feel a lot better if we were together. Will you come with me?”

Lene nodded again and rose from the swing. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”

Nick was visibly relieved. “All right then, let’s go.”

The rest of the day was awkward. Even though they had agreed not to talk about GŁnter anymore, the topic hung in the air between them like a dark cloud. Nick and Lene walked for hours not saying much, leaving behind the small town where Lene had gone from nine to twenty years old, and followed the road along open fields and rolling hills.

At times, the road led them down into low valleys, which cut off their view of the castle in the distance. But even with Nightingale Hill out of sight, Nick trusted Lene’s navigation. She always seemed to know the way, as though there was something about the castle drawing her towards it. And sure enough, when they climbed the next rise, they saw the castle come into view again a little bit bigger than before. Nick wondered just how big this castle must be, that he was able to see it so clearly from far away.

Nick and Lene walked all day until the sun set behind them and the big round moon began to rise from the hills ahead. There was no sign of shelter for miles, so they pulled off the road by a small river, where the riverbank formed a little hollow in the grass that they could sleep in.

Nick pulled the red hooded sweatshirt that he was carrying out of his backpack and gave it to Lene. “Here, you should take this in case you get cold.” Her long white dress reached down almost to her ankles, but it was light and flowy. She would probably get cold during the night.

Lene pushed the sweatshirt back towards him. “No, I’m fine. You keep it.”

Nick sighed, knowing that she was only refusing because of the argument they’d had, but he decided that he didn’t want to fight with her over a sweatshirt. “All right, but if it gets cold, you can have it, okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she insisted and turned her back to him, curling up against the side of the grassy hollow.

Nick sighed again. “Okay. Good night.”

Are women always this difficult? he tried to remember as he lay down and closed his eyes.

The sound of splashing water woke Nick early the next morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the pale light of dawn was changing the sky from a deep purple to a soft blue. Nick shivered and turned over to reach for the covers but instead he got a handful of dewy wet grass. Remembering that he’d spent the night outside and not in a warm bed, Nick sat up and looked around. The grass beside him was flattened from where Lene had been sleeping, but she was gone.

Nick heard the sound of splashing again and this time one other sound: heavy, frantic breathing.

A low voice carried through the still morning air. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…”

“Lene?” Nick followed the sound downstream to a little bend in the river, where he found Lene crouched on the low bank, scrubbing her hands furiously in the icy cold water. Her hair hung in wild tangles, hiding her face from view. She was breathing so fast that Nick thought she might be hyperventilating.

“Lene?” he said again, but she couldn’t hear him calling her name. “Lene, are you okay?”

Nick reached out for her arm. At the contact of their skin, he was flooded with a vivid stream of memories.

***

"Happy birthday," the man said, handing Nick a long slim box tied with a silver ribbon.

Nick took the box in his hands and looked down at it. "A present, for me?" Nick was jarred to hear that the voice coming from his mouth wasn’t his own. The voice giggled and it sounded like tinkling bells. "Oh, you shouldn’t have."

"Yes, for you, silly child. Go on, open it."

Nick’s hands were small and slender and moved of their own accord. He realized that he had no control over them; in fact, he had no control over anything. It was as if Nick were sitting inside of his own brain, watching the events unfold. Except this wasn’t his own brain that he was sitting in. It was Lene’s.

Nick’s hands slipped the silver ribbon off of the box and lifted its lid. Inside, nestled in layers of tissue was a beautiful lacy black dress.

"Oh, this is too much!" Nick lifted the dress from the box. "First, taking me to Las Vegas for my twenty-first birthday and now this? GŁnter, I don’t know what to say!"

Nick looked up from the dress in his hands into the face of the much taller man who stood before him. The man’s silver white hair was tied back with a black ribbon, giving him a pirate-like appearance. Two pale flashing eyes looked down over a thin aquiline nose. The man was what some would describe as handsome, others--cruel. But there was no mistaking the face.

A thin smile spread across it.

"This isn’t even your real birthday present yet, Lene. Today’s a special occasion, so you need something special to wear. Now get dressed; we’re going out to a show."

***

A man in a tuxedo led a beautiful woman across the stage, her face plastered with a big red lipsticked smile. She gave the man a kiss on the cheek before stepping into a tall gilded box. The door was shut and the box spun around. When the man opened it again, the woman was gone. The audience gave a loud collective gasp.

"They say the Palms Resort has the best magicians..." GŁnter smirked. "People in this world don’t even know what real magic is."

The tuxedoed man on stage pointed into the audience and Nick turned around to look behind him. The beautiful woman was there, sitting a few rows back. She rose from her seat, smiling and waving as the audience broke into applause.

"How did he do that?" Nick wondered aloud, impressed.

"Don’t be stupid. It’s an illusion, poppet," chided GŁnter.

The beautiful woman returned to the stage and joined hands with the man in the tuxedo. They took a deep bow and then waved goodbye and exited behind a curtain. The people around Nick and GŁnter rose from their seats as the show came to an end, laughing and chatting animatedly.

Nick turned to GŁnter. "If you think it’s so stupid, why did you take me to a magic show anyway?"

"No need to pout, Lene. There’s a very good reason for us to be here. The main act is yet to come..."

The room was slowly emptying of people and ushers began to walk through the aisles clearing out the stragglers. GŁnter waved his hand lightly and shrouded the two of them from view.

Nick could feel the air around them shiver as they were blanketed in GŁnter’s spell. Is this how Lene sees magic? he wondered.

An usher in a bow tie and red vest walked by their seats and didn’t notice them in the slightest.

"As I was saying..." GŁnter continued, "we’re here for a reason. Yes, yes, it’s your twenty-first birthday and very important. You’re blossoming into a young woman and all that, but our purpose here is twofold. There’s work to be done."

GŁnter reached into the inner breast pocket of his suit jacket, pulled out a small envelope, and handed it to Nick.

"Lene, I’m sure you’re well aware of the work I do. From our first encounter you saw that I am a... hunter of a certain type of person. A bad type of person, of course. It’s a dangerous and difficult job that requires strong powers. Powers that I have. Powers that you have, as well... If you look into that envelope, you’ll find the work of our next target."

Nick hesitated.

"Go on," GŁnter said. "Take a look."

Slowly, Nick opened the envelope and slid out three polaroids. The first was a snapshot of a picture frame containing a family photo--a smiling couple with their young son and daughter, along with an older woman who must be their grandmother. They looked like a normal, happy family. Nervously, Nick looked at the next polaroid.

The photo was taken at a crime scene sectioned off behind yellow police tape. There was blood everywhere. Lying on the floor were the bodies of the elderly woman and the young boy, both of them slashed repeatedly. The last photo showed the little girl in her bed, her head violently smashed in.

Nick dropped the polaroids and hunched over, clutching his stomach. "I think I’m going to be sick..."

"Breathe, Lene..." GŁnter scooped up the photos from the floor and forced Nick into an upright position. He shoved the polaroids back into Nick’s hands. "Don’t look away. There are monsters out there who need to be stopped, people who can’t be caught by the police because of their powers. This is what I do. This is what *we* do. You’re old enough now, strong enough to join me. That’s why we’re here in Las Vegas. It’s time for you to help me rid the world of these monsters."

GŁnter raised his hand and pointed across the rows of seats up at the stage, where a work crew was setting up for a concert. At center stage a young man with a clipboard was talking to one of the crew members. He was a much older, scruffy looking man in overalls carrying cables and some lighting equipment. The man was unshaven and his overalls looked worn and dirty.

"That man, there.” GŁnter pointed “Those photos you’re holding are the work of that man on stage. You see, *this* is my real birthday present to you, Lene. Your first kill.”

***

Later that night, Nick’s hands were shaking as he slipped backstage and climbed up a ladder that led to the catwalk. The platform was very narrow and rigged with stage lighting and audio equipment. Nick didn’t want to be up there, but there wasn’t anything he could do to stop Lene. Still, he had the strong feeling that she didn’t want to be up there either. He crept his way across the narrow rig and hid in a corner where GŁnter had told him to wait.

Looking down below, Nick could see people excitedly filing into the theater. There was going to be a big concert tonight. Once the show began, GŁnter would pursue their target across the catwalk, using the chaos of the music and the audience noise to cover their tracks. He would then chase the man towards Nick, who was supposed to block their target’s escape and finish the job.

The lights went down and the crowd began to scream with excitement. As the opening act began, Nick thought that he was going to be sick again. He couldn’t believe that GŁnter had talked Lene into doing this. Of course, the pictures he’d seen were horrible, but was the solution for them to turn into crazy vigilantes? The old guy at least deserved a trial or something. Was there such a thing as a court for magical crimes? And why did Lene have to be the executioner?

When the headliner finally appeared on stage, the audience’s roar increased to a deafening level. Any minute now, GŁnter and their target would be coming Nick’s way. He was just waiting for the signal.

At that moment, though, something on stage caught Nick attention. Looking through Lene’s eyes, Nick saw the performers below standing before the screaming crowd. There were four of them altogether and one of the men, a tall blond, was talking to the audience.

“How you doing, Las Vegas!” he called out. The man flashed a brilliant smile, which caused the crowd to dissolve into hysterical shrieks. But it wasn’t his smile that had caught Nick’s attention, it was the magic rolling off of the man, raw and unmasked.

Nick realized then that he was staring at his own face below. The man he was looking at, that *Lene* was looking at, was Nick himself.

I’m a... pop star? he thought bewilderedly. Staring at the vision of himself on stage, Nick nearly missed the body hurtling by him.

“Lene!” GŁnter’s voice barked from the darkness.

Startled, Nick jumped and turned as someone ran past. The platform shook wildly and for a split second, the man’s face came illuminated in a flicker of stage light. It was stricken with terror.

Lene, don’t! Nick shouted from inside her mind. But this was just a memory and she couldn’t hear him.

Nick raised his hand and with a bright flash the man crumpled lifelessly onto the catwalk. Nick stared at the body for a few moments, breathing heavily, and then his legs gave out and he dropped to his knees. He could feel the panic that filled every inch of Lene’s being. Although Nick couldn’t hear her thoughts, he knew that at that moment she was thinking, “What have I done?”

GŁnter appeared from the darkness like a shadow. He stood over the body and watched as wisps of magical energy began to bloom forth. Then GŁnter closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, breathing the magic in. Nick watched in horror as wisps of energy flowed from the dead man into GŁnter.

When he was finished, GŁnter’s eyes opened and locked with Nick’s. Slowly, he walked across the catwalk and lifted Nick to his feet, supporting him around the waist because Nick was still too shocked to stand. And then GŁnter’s head dipped down and his lips met Lene’s. Nick could feel GŁnter’s mouth open and the magic flowing between them: GŁnter was transferring the magical energy from the dead man into Lene.

Finally, when he was done, GŁnter lifted his head and looked down at Nick, his pale eyes glowing in the darkness. “Happy birthday, Lene.”

A sudden yell from the stage caught both their attention.

“Are you ready, Vegas? Put your hands up!”

They turned to look down below where Nick--the performer on stage, Nick--was firing up the crowd. The magical energy flowing off of him was even stronger than the magic that had just passed between GŁnter and Lene.

Nick turned to look back at GŁnter, whose eyebrow was arched as he watched the other Nick below.

“Well, that’s interesting…” GŁnter said.

With a jolt the memory ended and Nick was back in the present moment, his hand still on Lene’s arm as she hunched over the riverbank. She was hyperventilating from panic and now Nick was, as well.

“Lene…” he choked out with a gasp, trying to catch his breath. “Lene, stop, it’s okay. Lene!” Nick grabbed her by both of her shoulders and shook her roughly until she snapped out of it. For a second, Lene stared at him blankly and then she blinked and was back again.

“I killed him!” she shrieked. She looked absolutely horrified with what she had done.

“Lene, it’s okay. You’re not there anymore. You’re here with me, it’s all right!” Nick tried to reassure her. He grabbed her hands, which were icy cold from the river, and held them tightly.

“I killed him…!” she cried again. “I killed him…” Lene’s face scrunched into a look of pure misery and she sank against Nick. “What have I done…?”

“Shh…” he soothed, stroking her hair. “You’re not there anymore, you’re here with me,” he chanted like a mantra. “Everything is going to be okay.”

“He told me we were stopping the bad people,” Lene sobbed. “If what we do is right, Nick, then why do my hands feel so dirty?”
Chapter End Notes:
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I can't be the only one going, "Holy crap!" right now, right?

Hope you enjoyed and hope to have another update for you soon!