A Strange Thanksgiving 13-08

Previous Chapter

“Flick, Flick, wait! Hold on!” Miranda was on her feet in front of me, stopping me from sprinting out of the room. Her eyes were wide as she held her hands up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

My mind was racing. After hearing that recording and realizing what had happened, it was all I could do not to shove the other girl out of the way to keep going. “They killed Professor Pericles,” I blurted. “Now, the person they meant to kill is right here. I helped bring Wyatt here, to Eden’s Garden.”

Miranda’s head shook back and forth. “Wyatt, that security guy? You’re not making sense. Flick, just slow down for a second. What happened? Are you saying he’s the guy that—he’s that Zedekiah guy?”

“I–” Taking a deep breath, I exhaled before nodding. “I can’t explain all of it. Like, literally can’t. I could try, but I’d be wasting my breath because there’s still that spell I told you about that stops you from remembering even if I do explain it. Trust me, it’s really freaking annoying. But the point is, his real name is Zedekiah. That’s his birth name, and he’s really damn good with security magic. So he’s gotta be the one they’re after. He’s the guy they were trying to get rid of when they killed Professor Pericles.”

Nodding once, Miranda continued to meet my gaze while patiently pointing out, “But they don’t know that.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “I know you’re freaked out right now, especially after everything that happened. But there’s no reason they should know who he is just because you do. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just Wyatt, remember? Besides,” she added then, “Being here isn’t necessarily any more dangerous for him than being back at Crossroads. I mean…” Trailing off, she looked at me silently.

Letting out a breath again, I lowered my head before nodding. “You’re right. He’d be in just as much danger there as here if they knew who he was. Maybe more, I don’t know. I–” Working my mouth, I looked at the other girl. “I really wanna explain this to you. I wish I could just tell you the whole story. But all I can say is that I can’t lose him. I can’t lose Wyatt, Randi. I can’t let anything happen to him.”

“I get it,” Randi assured me. “I mean, I don’t get all of it, but I understand what you mean. There’s no reason to think he’s in any more danger right now though. And if you go running off to find him, that’ll probably make things worse.” She hesitated then before offering, “I think your best move is to wait.”

“Wait,” I echoed with a nod, reluctant as it was. “You’re right. I just—kinda freaked out for a second there.” Smiling faintly in spite of myself, I put my hand over hers. “Thanks for talking me down.”

She returned my smile and shrugged. “Hey, what are friends for?”

Shaking myself, I abruptly blurted, “Okay, hold on. Before we do anything else, can you send that recording to my phone? Like, right now. Then e-mail it to me. Then upload it to some kind of storage site. And while you’re doing that, I’ll make another e-mail address and copy it over.”

“Wow,” Miranda laughed. “You really don’t wanna lose this recording, do you?”

“Let’s just say I’d rather avoid that particular problem,” I muttered before getting to work.

Once we had done that, Miranda nudged me with her fist. “Now why don’t we see how much you can tell me about the–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sound of a commotion just outside. There was a sudden crashing noise, followed by three different voices talking loudly at the same time. And one of those voices I immediately recognized.

“Oh shit,” I blurted out loud as my eyes widened. I grimaced a bit, spinning around before practically throwing myself toward the doorway. “Damn it, damn it, damn it, this is a different world, isn’t it?”

Miranda was right behind me. “Err, yeah? I mean, of course it is. Why? What’s going on out there?”

Instead of taking the time to explain it to her, I lunged for the exit. Yanking it open, I blurted before even taking the time to see what was going on, “Don’t hurt him! He’s not a spy, it’s my fault he’s here!”

Just as I’d expected, just as I’d known in that moment as soon as I recognized his voice, there was a single, blond figure facing off against Croc and the rest of the Unset who had been standing guard. Tristan. Of course. The boy was linked to me. I was his anchor, the thing keeping him on Earth. So when that magic registered that I wasn’t on Earth anymore, it yanked him toward where I was. Whoops.

He was also soaking wet and wearing little more than swim trunks, which immediately made me freeze as my brain briefly blue screened. It was obvious that the boy had been out in the ocean when he’d been pulled right into the middle of Eden’s Garden. Which was nice to see, but now was not the time, Flick.

The Unset had stopped moving as soon as I spoke, their reactions good enough that they stopped any hostile motion. But Tristan either hadn’t heard me or he was too focused on what he saw as a threat. The boy was already yanking the silver chain necklace (the only other thing he was wearing besides the swim trunks) off his neck and was throwing it toward the ground. In mid-fall, the silver chain transformed. It grew a hell of a lot bigger, expanding into a massive fifteen foot long mechanical snake. The thing was coiled partway around Tristan, and its eyes were like little glowing green emeralds.

Heaving itself up so that the top third of its body was off the ground, the snake-robot dropped itself onto Tristan’s waiting, outstretched arm. His arm disappeared up into the snake’s body, with the head sticking out a little bit past his hand. Then the snake’s mouth open wide, before a large barrel extended.

“Tristan!” I blurted out even louder that time, waving a hand. “Stop, stop! It’s okay, don’t start a fight!”

Stopping short, Tristan’s head tilted. At the same time, the head of his snake (cannon barrel included) did the same. Both looked curious. “Flick?” He was clearly confused. “What’s—uh what’s going on?”

“Yes,” Croc spoke from nearby, his hand on his pike-weapon. “What exactly is happening here?”

Biting my lip, I looked from Unset to Tristan and back again before starting. “Okay, it’s a long story… on both sides. But what you guys need to know is that someone bad put a curse on Tristan that made it so he couldn’t go back to Earth. Someone else fixed it by using different magic to anchor him to me so he could go to Earth and stay there. But since I came here, and this place is on a different world…”

“He was brought here as well,” Croc finished for me, straightening a little while stowing his weapon. He spoke a single word to the rest of his people, and they all relaxed somewhat as well. “I understand. But there are others who may not look very kindly on his unannounced arrival. You should go back inside the room until you’re called by Seller. You can explain things to the boy in there, out of sight.”

Nodding quickly, I gestured with my head. “Come on, Tristan. I’ll explain in a minute. But Croc’s right, we can’t just stand out here in the open. Someone’s gonna… see… you…” I trailed off toward the end as my head turned and I finally had a second to take in the sight around me. The view made my jaw drop.

Yes, Avalon had told me a little bit about Eden’s Garden. So had Miranda. But neither of their descriptions did the place justice. We were standing on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to several big trucks on next to each other. And this was just one, one branch of many. Most of those other branches had literal buildings built on them, along with little playgrounds, a few roads, and more stuff that shouldn’t have been able to be in a freaking tree. There was an entire city built in this tree, with people of all ages running back and forth, training, shopping, or just living.

There was also green pretty much everywhere. No matter where my eyes moved, I saw more lush vegetation. More giant trees (though this one was clearly the biggest) stretched out as far as my eyes could see, and below them, I could make out an unbelievable amount of other plants, including beautiful flowers of every conceivable color. No wonder they called this place Eden’s Garden.

Apparently I stood there and stared for awhile, because the next thing I knew, Miranda was tugging my arm. “I’ll show you around as soon as there’s a chance,” she promised. “But we need to move now.”

Shaking myself, I nodded. By that point, Tristan had already retracted his snake-cannon back into its necklace form and was wearing it again. He gave the Unset a curious look before jogging over to us.

After giving one last look at the incredible vista, I stepped back through the doorway with the other two. As soon as the door had shut, I pivoted toward the boy. “Tristan, I am so sorry. I didn’t even think about what it was going to do to you when I came here. I completely forgot about our anchor thing.”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry about it.” Rubbing his hand over one ear and then back through his wet hair, Tristan gave me a charming grin that made my heart flip over once more. Why, why did he have to be wearing so little when he was pulled along? “I guess that’s what Gaia was trying to tell me before.”

I blinked at that, glancing toward Miranda before asking, “Wait, Gaia was there? What happened?”

“One sec.” Holding up a finger, he focused on the other girl while giving her an easy, disarming smile. “Sorry, there wasn’t really a chance for introductions out there. I’m Tristan.” He held a hand out to her.

For her part, Miranda blinked at the offered hand before shaking it. “Miranda. Flick mentioned you. You’re that one who used to be a kid because you were turned into a statue for a few years, then you came back in time as the right age.” Pausing, she turned to look at me. “Your school is fucking weird.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before focusing. “Right, so, Randi, that’s Tristan. Tristan, that’s Randi. You guys know each other now. So, Gaia?” I pressed, looking at the boy.

“Yeah, I was out on the water with Roxa,” he explained. “She was teaching me how to windsurf.”

Hearing that, an unwanted flash of jealousy shot through me that I tried to quash. Shut up, stupid brain.

If Tristan’s smile was any indication, he noticed. But he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he just continued. “We were out there and I saw Gaia come out to the beach. She was doing that thing where she talks and you hear her just fine even if she’s nowhere near you. Which is really cool, for the record. Anyway, she was saying something about you, but I didn’t catch all of it before I was suddenly right in front of those scary guys in the armor. Guess she wasn’t fast enough to get the whole warning out.”

“Seller must’ve contacted her,” I murmured to myself. “Or maybe Professor Dare or one of the others. Either way, she came to tell you that you were about to be yanked along with us. Which, um, sorry.”

Tristan shrugged at that, still grinning. “You know, the day I complain about being teleported to a couple pretty girls is the day that you know I’ve been taken over by an evil mind-controlling Stranger.”

Coughing a little as my blush spread, I gave the boy a look. Which was a mistake, because it just made me blush even more. “Oookay, maybe we should find you a shirt or something to wear. Miranda?”

“Actually, I kinda like him the way he is.” Beside me, Miranda smirked while looking him up and down.

I was spared from having to respond to that by the door opening. Seller stepped inside and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the boy there. He took a second before speaking. “Croc said you had a friend show up. He neglected to mention that your friend wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

“Abigail,” I pressed while stepping that way. “Is she—did they agree to…” I couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in my throat, all of my thoughts jumbled up. And that time, it wasn’t because of Tristan.

In response, Seller nodded to me. “The Victors have agreed to give Abigail one of the apples. Wasn’t exactly easy, but when it comes down to it, I’ve got a few allotted to me that are mine to give out unless they can come up with a compelling reason against it. Some of them didn’t like it, but they couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to convince the others to overrule me. So, she got the apple.”

I sagged with relief at that. “So, she’s okay then? They gave her the apple and she’s gonna be all right?”

“Well,” Seller cautioned me gently, “it’s still going to take a little time. That Fomorian really messed her up. Whatever he did to her—we’ve got people fixing her, but she’s gonna have to stay under for a day or two while they do it. This isn’t normal damage, those guys are nasty. He threw in some kind of little biological traps while he was opening her up back there.” He shook his head, looking disgusted and even a little bit disturbed. “Like I said, they’ll fix her, but give it a couple days. They’re keeping her unconscious while they do their work. I asked, and they said you could see her in a few hours.”

“A few hours?” I echoed, trying to tell myself to calm down. It made sense. Abigail had been opened up with Koren’s hand literally on her heart, pumping it for her. The fact that they’d let me see her in a few hours and that she should be okay in a couple days was pretty amazing.

That thought made me straighten again. “Wait, Koren. Is she–”

“I’m okay,” the girl in question murmured as she stepped into the room. Despite her words, she didn’t exactly look that good. She was a little pale and shuddered a bit even standing there.

Turning his head a bit, Seller looked at something in his hand. “Excuse me a second, apparently your headmistress just sent another message.”

He stepped out of the room, and Koren watched him go before talking in a bit of a daze. “I was up with my mom, but they told me they needed space to work on her, so… h-here I am, I guess. I don’t… I don’t really know what to. Wyatt’s still there, he refused to leave and they said he could help them make sure none of the… the traps that the… the monster left in her body go off. He’s… he’s helping with… that…”

She trailed off then while still looking dazed and out of it, and I stepped that way to hug the girl. “Koren,” I managed a little weakly, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Her head shook at that. “Remember what he said? It wasn’t about you. It was about me. It was all about me. He didn’t even know about you. He was after me. That whole time, even back then, all those people he kidnapped to make it look like a real Stranger attack? Showing up in my house and scaring me? Even letting me get away. It was all part of his plan. All of it. And now he-he killed my… my…”

In mid-sentence, Koren turned away, falling to her knees as she threw up. I went down with her, trying my best to tug the girl’s hair away from her face while wincing. Through the next few moments, I rubbed her back and held her hair out of the way while she emptied her stomach.

Eventually, she sagged against me, so obviously exhausted that she was fighting to stay awake. “I… I have to tell you… Mom… she said something when she ate the apple. Her… her vision. She said something just before they knocked her out, something about what she saw.” Another pause then, before, “It was about your mom… and you.”

“Me?” I blinked in surprise. “What do you mean? What did she say?”

Still looking at the floor, Koren replied in a blank monotone. “She said… ‘she gave up for her. She let him take her to save her, to save Felicity. She saved Felicity. She went with him for Felicity.’”

It was my turn to settle roughly onto the floor, almost falling. Abigail’s vision had been of Mom. She’d seen Mom surrender herself to Fossor, trade herself for my life. She saw… oh god.

I had to talk to her. I had to… had to say something. What, I had no idea. But I had to be there when she woke up.

Tristan and Miranda, who had been silent the whole time up to that point, finally came closer. They sat down nearby, and the four of us were just sitting there quietly when the door opened again.

Seller entered, but he wasn’t alone. Croc was with him. The Unset man didn’t look that happy, and neither did Seller.

“Sard them! You know this is insanity. They can’t just write the girl off like that!” My ancestor ranted. “Damn your orders.”

“I may disagree with the orders,” Croc spoke quietly. “But I may not disobey them. That would bring our entire system down. The Victors have spoken.”

“What?” I blurted, my eyes wide. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to–”

“Abigail’s fine,” Seller assured me. “Well, as fine as can be expected. No, this isn’t about her. It’s about the girl he was with when he was dragged over here.” He looked toward Tristan.

Tristan, meanwhile, blinked. “Roxa? What about her?”

Seller muttered something angrily under his breath before answering. “Let me guess. You two were touching each other when you were dragged here.”
“Uhhh, yeah?” Tristan spoke slowly, uncertainly. “She was teaching me how to wind surf. We were sort of—you know, her hands were on me.”

Cursing again, Seller nodded. “Well, turns out, when you were teleported away, so was the girl.”

My eyes widened at that. “Oh god, is she okay? Wait—oh… oh shit, did she land on another branch or something?”

“If only,” Seller grumbled before looking at me. “No. Apparently she let go somewhere along the way. She didn’t make it all the way to the tree.”

Beside me, Miranda made a noise of shock. “Wh—what do you mean? You don’t mean—she couldn’t be…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed. “She’s out there…. somewhere” He pointed off into the wilds beyond the tree.

“They have to go find her!” Miranda insisted, practically leaping to her feet. “You don’t understand, Flick. That place is dangerous! There’s monsters all over the place, thousands of them. The ones beyond the barrier aren’t domesticated. She can’t survive out there by herself. They’ve gotta send a rescue party!”

“Yeah,” Seller’s voice was dark. “The Victors nipped that one right in the bud. They said with the pack movements out there and everything else going on, it’s too dangerous to send a rescue party out to save one Crossroads student.”

Well. Any desire I might’ve had to be an exchange student with this place completely fucking vanished in that instant. I was on my feet, staring at the man in disbelief. “What the fuck?! That’s ridiculous. That’s insane! That’s—that’s—bullshit! They can’t just leave her out there to die!”

“Believe me, I’ve tried to tell them that,” Seller assured me with an exasperated sigh. “I did. That’s what I’ve been doing out there. But they’re not listening. They’ve made up their minds.”

“Well then screw them,” Miranda said sharply, her hands squeezing into fists. “If they won’t do what’s right, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.”

Turning that way quickly, I stared at the girl. “You… you’ll go out there with me?”

“With us,” Tristan spoke up before shrugging at me with a little smile. “Can’t let a couple pretty girls run out into the nasty forest alone. Especially since the whole reason Roxa’s trapped out there is because she happened to be touching me.”

“You can’t possibly understand how dangerous it really is in that forest,” Seller started.

I turned that way, snapping, “No. You know what I can’t do? I can’t leave an innocent girl out there to die. It’s not who I am and it’s sure as hell not anyone I want to become. So either help as much as you can, or just tell us how to get down to the ground. Because we’re going to save Roxa.”

On the heels of that announcement, Tristan raised his hand. “Uh. Before we do that though, maybe I should put some pants on…”

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

Previous Chapter

Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

Next Chapter

 

 

 

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-06

Previous Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Ammon posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet and would like to, feel free to click the Previous Chapter button. 

“You know, I’d say that you’re fucking crazy,” I retorted after a few seconds of silence. “But I’m pretty sure all of this,” I gestured around the room a bit wildly, “pretty much made that a forgone conclusion.”

The grayish-green, sharp-edged face of the Fomorian simply smiled at me for a moment before speaking. “Why do you believe that, out of every species in this vast universe, humans are somehow able to form genetic bonds with what you call Strangers? A trillion creatures in this unending void, and, for some unexplained reason, only your species is capable of becoming one of these… Heretics. Truly?”

He made a dismissive gesture then before tapping the table in front of him. “Think about it. Try to comprehend the odds against such a thing. Humans, for no reason whatsoever, genetically bond with any other sapient creature simply by bathing in their blood sufficiently? Think of the manufactured Heretics such as yourselves. That’s simply taking the same premise to genetically bond an entire army of humans using the exact same creature, what you call the Hangman. A natural Heretic, whatever name they may go by, isn’t that different. They simply bond their genetics to a different creature.”

Deveron hadn’t lowered his weapon. His voice was dark. “Forgive me if I’m not falling all over myself to believe a word out of your mouth. Now, I believe I said to let the babies go.” His thumb pulled the hammer of the flintlock pistol back with a decisive click. “I rarely repeat myself once. Never twice.”

If the threat meant anything to the Fomorian, he didn’t show it. Instead, the creature simply looked to me. “The power and knowledge of our race is considerable. But we are relatively few in number, as far as that goes. We reproduce rarely, and many of those offspring don’t exactly survive to completion.”

Glancing toward Deveron and then back again, I swallowed hard before forcing myself to speak. Whatever it took to waste enough time that Seller, Professor Dare, and the others could make it here. We needed help. “So you’re saying that you created humans as, what, some kind of military project?”

That smile returned. “Indeed. Very good. We created your race to serve as our soldiers, our warriors so that we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with such… barbarism. Humanity was conceived as the ultimate weapon with the ability to bond yourselves with the genetics of any other sapient creature. No matter what race we found ourselves competing against, our new soldiers would be able to bond to them. Any advantages, abilities, or genetic gifts these other species possessed, you would be able to gain those very same gifts simply by taking a bit of their blood. You were our most glorious creation.”

Koren, arms still buried in her mother’s back to pump her heart, was in tears. “If you like us so much,” she demanded, “then why the hell are you doing this?! Help my mom! Or tell us what you want!”

Tutting her with a wagging finger, the Fomorian shook his head. “In due time, in due time.” He glanced briefly to Deveron, looking him up and down once more before continuing with a sigh of lamentation. “If all had gone as planned, humanity would’ve spread over the universe, serving as soldiers to expand our reach far beyond what we ourselves could possibly have maintained given our low population.”

Keep him talking and distracted, a voice in my head instructed. Deveron, obviously. Dare is already outside with reinforcements. They’ll be in here as soon as they can get that damn shield down.

Swallowing hard, I made myself stare at the Fomorian when all I really wanted to do was run to Koren and her mother… my sister. I forced my attention to stay on him. “But it didn’t go as planned, did it?”

His eyes, suddenly hard and dark, stared at me in a way that made me want to shrink backwards in spite of myself. The voice that came was much less calm than it had been. “No,” he spat. “A traitor to our cause, a traitor to our species, abandoned the project and took the only true samples with him. He came here, to this planet, and released them into the wild. They became your first ancestors. And we spent millennia searching for our stolen creations. Imagine our pure joy when we arrived on this world and found that, not only have you reproduced into the billions, but that some of you had already discovered your ability to bond the genetic abilities of other species to yourselves. Our creations were achieving our dreams. Given the proper direction and guidance, you would easily serve your original purpose.”

He tapped the table a few times, staring down at it before muttering. “Little did we realize that our worst enemies, the closest creatures our species has to contemporaries, had already found you and begun to influence your growth. Their leadership knew our creation, knew what you were capable of. They sought you the same as we had, and they found you sooner. So, to prevent you from becoming what you were meant to be, they first created a magical curse, an effect that would prevent your species from realizing that any other sapient race existed. They sought to ensure the failure of our project by stunting your growth. Their magic is what you refer to as the Bystander Effect.”

“The Seosten,” I realized, lifting my chin. “You’re talking about the Seosten. They’re your enemies.”

That dark, hate-filled look came back for a moment before the creature shook it off. He continued in a falsely sweet, calm voice that wasn’t fooling any of us. “Yes. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect to block our wonderful creations from fulfilling their purpose. Except, that wasn’t enough. You, our wonderful, perfect, most glorious experiments, could not be contained. Some of you managed to accidentally bond yourselves to other creatures anyway. And such bonding destroyed their curse, freeing you to become more than what you were. These, what some of you call ‘wild Heretics’, terrified the Seosten. And they were right to be frightened. Our creations cannot be hobbled that easily.”

From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Deveron’s attention was on Koren, and her eyes were shut while tears continued to fall freely down her cheeks. Her shoulders were shaking heavily. My best guess, my hope was that Deveron was trying to reassure her, promising her that there would be help for her mother soon. All she had to do was keep it together, keep pumping the heart until they got here.

Before the Fomorian could start paying attention to them, I made myself ask a question. Be a reporter, Flick, I told myself. Ask questions, make him keep talking. He obviously wants to, so play into that.

“So they tried something else, didn’t they?” I put in slowly. “After their Bystander Effect didn’t work.”

“They tried many things,” the Fomorian retorted sharply. “One of which was to guide you themselves. Who do you think was behind the creation of your Academy? They guide you the way they wish, subtly pointing you to their enemies.” His smile returned. “Even our greatest threat recognizes the glory of our creation. They loathe us, but they don’t hesitate to use humans to achieve their own goals.”

“You know what the real question is?” I asked while looking straight at the creature. “Why are you telling us this? Why are you even here? It’s like Koren asked, what the hell do you even want? You set this whole thing up to, what, get us here and then monologue at us about your race for some reason?”

“Well, no,” the Fomorian replied. “Not exactly. You see, I actually did all of this,” he indicated the babies around us, “to ensure Koren’s cooperation. Your sudden arrival and ability to bypass the shield was unexpected, and I was forced to improvise with… that.” He waved a hand toward Koren and her mother. “True, I could have simply taken my prize and left. But I wished to see for myself why you were both capable of passing the blood shield. And now that I’ve looked you over, I understand. You and Koren here are both descended from the Atherby line. He,” the Fomorian nodded toward Deveron, “is not related to the Atherby’s. But he is related to Koren, and so he was able to pass the shield.”

Before I could say anything to that, he went on unprompted. “As for why I came here to begin with, well, that has to do with the destruction that the Baroness who currently runs your Seosten-crafted Academy brought against my people. We arrived here, finally locating our lost creations and sought to retrieve them. Sought to give you all purpose, to free you from this pitiful backwards existence. But, just as many children rebel against their parents out of ignorance, the Heretics fought us. Most likely directed by our Seosten enemies, of course. But either way, their resistance would not have succeeded.”

Not bothering to resist the urge to smirk at him, I nodded. “Until Gaia destroyed your portal so you couldn’t come here anymore.”

The Fomorian made a noise that was somehow simultaneously dismissive and annoyed. “I have just finished telling you that we created humanity and crossed the entire universe searching for that lost creation. Do you really believe that destroying a single portal would have been enough to block us?”

Well, when he put it that way… I frowned. “What do you mean? You could just make another one? If so, then where is it? Why haven’t all your people come back? Because you’ve obviously been alone for a long time. Otherwise you wouldn’t be such a Chatty Cathy right now. How long has it been since you had an actual conversation? Over a hundred years? That’s gotta get pretty boring, doesn’t it? If you guys could make another portal and come back any time you wanted, your people would’ve done it by now.”

He smiled thinly, a dangerous, evil look. “The Atherbys.”

“Mom’s family?” I frowned, shaking my head. “What do they have to do with any of this?”

“They,” the Fomorian answered, “were part of a group of Hunters. Wild Heretics, unaligned with any school. The patriarch of the clan was the close friend and protege of the one known as Gabriel Prosser.”

“Prosser,” I echoed, breathing the familiar name. “The ex-slave who fought the Hangman demon. He knew our mother’s family? They were… they were close?” I had long-since stopped wondering how this creature knew about my mom even after the spell that the Heretics had done. If Fossor had a way of protecting his own memory from such things, I wasn’t surprised that this Fomorian had one as well.

“The very same,” he confirmed with a sly smile. “Why do you think your mother was so easily able to find aid from his camp when she needed it? The one called Prosser remembers his allies. He came when she needed him, because her father was once one of his closest, dearest friends and confidants.”

Shrugging then, the Fomorian added, “Then Joshua Atherby allied himself with Gaia Sinclaire. Both sought to end my race’s ability to come to this world. She, your baroness, would destroy our physical portal. Meanwhile, Joshua Atherby and his wife would sacrifice themselves to empower a spell that would bar our entry into this world. Very, very few of us escaped that spell through the sheer luck of being in mid-transit upon this world when it was cast. Most of my people that were here were either eradicated or sent back through the portal upon its destruction. And with the empowered spell blocking the rest of them from ever creating another portal to this place, we were stranded and alone.

“And I have spent over what you call a century searching for the method to reverse that spell. Only to eventually find that I could not do it myself. Because that, of course, would be entirely too simple.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I straightened with realization. “An Atherby made the spell, so you needed an Atherby to undo it. You had to find one of Joshua Atherby’s descendants.”

Deveron finally spoke up then. “That couldn’t have been fun, especially after they erased Joselyn from all the records and hid her away. Believe me, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what that’s like.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” The Fomorian regarded him briefly before making a noise of annoyance. “Indeed. I finally located the correct family after many, many years of searching through every possible dead ends, only to find that, of all preposterous things, Joselyn Atherby’s daughter was not a Heretic.

I suppressed the urge to laugh in his face. “And you needed her to be a Heretic, because non-Heretics can’t use magic. You were stuck. You spent all that time looking for an Atherby to bring your people back, and you finally found one that you couldn’t even use. Must’ve sucked to be you right then.”

The Fomorian glared at me for a moment. At the same time, the babies that he was connected to began to squirm and whine a little. Obviously, their connection was close enough that they could feel his anger. I was going to have to watch out for that.

In the end, however, he gave a short nod. “Yes. It… sucked, as you say. I was forced to employ… alternative methods. I created a Stranger attack and involved Joselyn Atherby’s granddaughter. I hoped that such an event would prompt Crossroads Academy to take her on as a student. It required that I alter a human being sufficiently to provide the Heretic investigators with their supposed culprit, but my efforts were successful. The child was, eventually, taken into the school and turned into a full Heretic.

“After that, I simply had to wait for the child to come home. Unfortunately, I learned that the Heretics were planning on secretly moving this family, to protect them from some external threat. To avoid losing my opportunity, I simply disposed of the original father and took his place, changing their memories so that they would believe it had always been that way.”

I saw the way Koren froze up, her tears coming anew from the way the Fomorian so offhandedly mentioned ‘disposing of’ her father. It made me want to put my staff through his smug, stupid face. Oh god. Her dad. Koren’s dad. Was he really… was he… For a second I couldn’t find my voice.

It didn’t matter. The Fomorian went on anyway. “I replaced the human, changed their memories, and waited for the brand-new Heretic Atherby to come back to me. We were about to depart, so that Koren could begin learning what she needs to do to remove the spell that blocks my people from arriving, when you passed through the shield and my curiosity was piqued.”

“And now?” I pressed, hoping against hope that the shield would be down any second. Where the hell was Seller, anyway? He should’ve been able to pass through the shield too. So where was he?

“Now… I suppose I should offer you a choice,” the Fomorian mused. “I only require one Heretic Atherby. It could be either of you.” He looked back and forth between us. “Do I have a volunteer?” He smiled then. “You see? I can be reasonable. I only require one of you to fulfill my goal, and all of the others will be free to go. Even the tiny offspring.”

“They’re not going with you.”

The voice wasn’t Deveron. It was Seller. The man in the emerald suit was standing at the back of the room, close to the Fomorian and directly behind Koren and Abigail.

Whipping his head that way, the Fomorian made an appraising noise. “… an ancestor. Another relative of Atherby… but I should have felt you pass through the shield.”

“Yeah, sorry about taking so long,” Seller casually mentioned in my direction. “I had to make sure your friend here wouldn’t notice me going through the shield. Us old-school Heretics have lots of fun little tricks. And speaking of fun little tricks, if you’re gonna do it, Dare, do it now.”

It took me a second to process his last few words. By the time I had, Professor Dare was suddenly in the room, alongside Professor Kohaku, Professor Katarin, and Nevada.

“I’d tell you to let our students go,” Dare spoke to the creature in a dark voice. “But I think I’ll just make sure you never bother them again.”

The Fomorian somehow looked simultaneously astounded and furious. “That is impossible,” he spat. “It would take any human at least twice as long as that to bring down the blood shield, and I would have felt it beginning to weaken.”

“Well, we have something you don’t,” Deveron informed him.

Wyatt, I thought with a smile. We have a Wyatt. I didn’t know how he was as good as he was with magic, but I was beyond glad that he was. I owed him… everything.

“No matter,” the Fomorian decided, giving them a doubtful look. “I have researched you, Miss Dare. And the rest of you. None of you would risk the lives of so many innocent offspring of your species. Perhaps others in your camp, but not you.”

“You’re not wrong,” Dare conceded. “So you should ask yourself, why exactly would we come in here then?”

“Oh right,” Seller snapped his fingers. “That’s the other thing I was doing while you were babbling: protecting the babies from you.”

Before the Fomorian could respond to that, Dare yanked her sword from its place at her hip. Just like when I had seen her destroy all those peridles, she slammed the blade into a portal that appeared on the floor. More portals appeared around each of the umbilical cords that connected the Fomorian to the infants, and she cut through each of them at once.

Immediately after that, Seller flipped a coin out of his pocket. It flew through the air, catching the candlelight briefly before seeming to disappear.

And just like that, I was outside on the grass. A bunch of babies were lying in their incubators all around me, and Koren was nearby with her mother.

Professor Dare and Seller had worked together to sever the Fomorian’s connection to the babies without hurting them, and Seller had done something to send us all outside. Meanwhile, they were in there, fighting that… creature.

Wyatt was there too, lying unconscious on the grass with his hand outstretched. Apparently bringing the shield down that fast had taken a lot out of him.

“Flick!” Koren screamed, yanking my attention to her. She was still sobbing, and her arms were still in her mother. “Pl-please, help. Please help me, help me. I don’t know what to do. He said if I stopped, if I didn’t… she’d… she’ll… I—I c-can’t. Please, Flick. Please.” Her tears were falling freely, and she could clearly barely form the words. “Please, if m-my dad… I… I can’t lose her too. Please, Flick. Pl-please. Please… I can’t lose her too. Please. I’m sorry I was mean before. I’m sorry for everything I ever said. I don’t know… I don’t know. I can’t lose her too. Please, Flick. Please help me. Please. Please.”

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I stammered, staring at the hole in Abigail’s back. That wasn’t normal medicine. It wasn’t anything regular doctors could fix, and Heretic healing abilities didn’t work on Bystanders. Unless…

Seller!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “Seller, get out here, we need you! Seller! Se–”

“Easy, kid,” the man’s voice spoke tensely as he appeared there, hand on my shoulder. “I’m here. Though I should be in there, helping your teachers. A Fomorian is no joke, especially as annoyed as that one is. You–”

“Seller, damn it, look!” I pointed to Abigail. “In case you’ve been away from normal humans for too long, that’s not something they can fix.”

Paling a little even in the darkness, Seller took a step that way and knelt down. He put a hand on Koren’s arm, then another on Abigail. “How you doing, kid?”

“P-please, sir…” Koren whimpered the words weakly. “Please help her. If you can help her, please.”

He looked at me, raising an eyebrow. “You know what you’re saying. What you’re asking. What it’ll mean. The shit-storm it’ll provoke.”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged. “I’m pretty sure Ruthers will lose his fucking mind. I don’t care. She’s my sister, Seller. Your descendant. You wanted to start helping us, watching out for us? Then start now. Start with her. I know Crossroads won’t like it, but do it anyway. Take her. Save her life. You did it with Avalon, now do it with Abigail. Make her a Heretic.”

“Kid?” Seller asked, looking toward Koren.

Her head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Please. Whatever it takes, just save her. Save my mom.”

Breathing out, Seller finally nodded. “All right. Well, I’ll take her then. I’ll uh, have to take you too,” he informed Koren. “At least until we get this whole… thing sorted out.” He indicated where her arms were to demonstrate.

Go ahead, Deveron’s voice spoke in my head. We’ve got this. I’ll explain it to the others, somehow. Get Abigail the help she needs. Make sure she’s okay. I… I can’t go. Go for me. Please.

“Yeah,” I confirmed out loud, addressing both Deveron and Seller at once. “And you’re taking me too. Koren and I are both going with you, to make sure Abigail’s all right.” When he started to object, I snapped, “Call it a diplomatic visit, because we’re related. Call it whatever the hell you want, but I’m not leaving until I know Abigail’s okay.”

The man cursed briefly. But before he could say anything else, another voice spoke up. “Me too.”

Wyatt. He was awake, straightening up weakly. “I… I’m going too.” Clearing his throat, obviously still exhausted, he nonetheless announced, “I’ll go as… as Felicity and Koren’s security escort. To make sure they’re safe.” His eyes were on Abigail, on his sister.

Seller hung his head for a second before straightening. “You’re all my descendants, so it could work. But it’ll be tricky. You don’t go anywhere without me, you don’t do anything unless I say to, got it? This isn’t gonna be a picnic. So just… damn it, stay close and don’t push your luck.”

I nodded along with the other two, most of my attention riveted to Abigail, who still looked completely out of it.

Seller sighed briefly. “Okay then. I guess you’re all coming to Eden’s Garden for a little visit.

“Gabriel help us.”

Next Chapter

 

 

Mini-Interlude 7 – Ammon

Previous Chapter

“Wheee!” The innocent-sounding, exuberant cry of a child filled the hospital hallway as a wheeled office chair spun and slid its way down the corridor. Its rider, mop of unruly blond hair flying wildly, gave another cheer of excitement that morphed to a groan as the chair inevitably slid to a stop.

The corridor was far from empty. Patients, doctors, nurses, and more were lined up along both walls. They stood rigid, and although it was incredibly late, past midnight even, none of them cautioned the boy to be quiet. They could no more reprimand him than they could move away from the positions that he had ordered each of them into. The boy had demanded silence, and so silence was what he received.

Once the chair had come to a complete stop, Ammon hopped off and spun back the way he had come. His eyes roved over the assortment of brand new friends that he’d gathered, while the boy chewed his lip thoughtfully. “New game, new game, new game… something fun…”

As he was trying to come up with a new way to pass the time while waiting for his newest little project to be finished, Ammon’s thoughts wandered back toward the subject had occupied them for so long.

Felicity. Flick. His sister. She was supposed to be nice to him. She was supposed to be a good person. So why was she so mean? Why was she so rude and obnoxious to him, him, her little brother? It was wrong. People were supposed to be nice to him. Especially his own family. Mother was nice to him. Father was… well, Father was Father. He was different. He was the disciplinarian.

Maybe Felicity had gone too long without someone like Father. Maybe she needed to be disciplined.

Because she was rude! And mean. She obviously cared more about a couple random girls than him. She liked those girls more than she liked her own brother! What kind of terrible, awful person was she?

And who were those girls anyway? Some rude bimbo that she shared a room with, who had threatened to do horrifying things to Ammon until he made her wash her own mouth out with soap. Right, the headmistress’s daughter. That witch was rude too, interrupting when he was trying to have a talk with his sister.

He should’ve taught her a lesson by making the bimbo cut herself open. Or cut her own eyes out. That would’ve been fun.

And that other girl, the one he tried to make drown herself to lure stupid rude Felicity away, the Asian one. Who was she? From the way his sister had reacted, she knew the girl. And knew her well enough to be upset.

Father had told him that people like Felicity would try to stop other people from dying. The idea had seemed… strange to him at the time, and he’d almost expected Father to be wrong for once. Even as he sent the girl running toward the ocean, some part of him had expected Felicity to abandon her and continue chasing him.

Honestly, he was kind of upset that she hadn’t. Wasn’t he, her own flesh and blood brother, more important than some stupid little girl? They weren’t even roommates. They weren’t even on the same team or anything. He knew who Felicity’s teammates were, and that Asian girl wasn’t one of them.

Maybe he’d ask the girl himself if he saw her again. And maybe he’d just find some other way of entertaining himself with her.

Entertaining… oh right, he was trying to think of a new game. Aloud, he muttered, “I need something fun. Something fun with the chair. That chair’s really fun. But I don’t know any other new… ooooh.” Turning back to look at the chair in question, Ammon smiled slowly.

Abruptly, he turned back the other way, pivoting on his heel before striding past all the people. He was looking for the right person, dancing his hand along as he went while calling in a sing-song voice, “Eenie, meenie, miney, no, nope, moooo, no, not you, not you, moe!” Stopping short, the boy kept his hand where it was, pointing toward a small boy. The boy was even younger than Ammon, and he wore a hospital gown with dancing monkeys on it.

“Hi!” Ammon stopped in front of the boy, giving him a wide smile. “What’s your name? How old are you? My name is Ammon, you should answer my questions.”

The little boy stood completely still, just as he had been ordered to. But his eyes betrayed his terror. “U-umm, m-my name is Evan. I’m s-six. Almost seven.”

“Neat!” Ammon announced before stepping back. “If you’re related to Evan right here, take one step forward, okay?”

Peering up and down the rows of people, at first he thought there was no response. Then he remembered, there were people behind him too! Laughing at himself, Ammon turned that way. Sure enough, a teenage girl, about the same age as Felicity, was standing out of line.

“Hi, what’s your name? You should answer my question.”

Tears were leaking from the girl’s eyes. “P-P-Paige. M-my name is Paige.”

“Hiya, Paige.” Ammon waved. “You’re related to Evan?” When the girl nodded, he clapped a couple times. “Okay! Evan, go stand by Paige. We need another contestant!”

Again, Ammon went down the line until he’d found another child. This one was a girl. According to her when he asked, she was five years old, and her name was Ricki. Annoyingly, he couldn’t find an older brother for the girl, which would’ve been perfect. Instead, he found the girl’s grandfather, an old man named Donald.

It would have to do.

“Okay, Ricki and Donald stand over there by Paige and Evan. Don’t move. Everybody wait here!” With that instruction, Ammon dashed off down the corridor to get the rest of what he needed for this game.

He was back a couple minutes later, wheeling a second chair down the hall ahead of him. On the seat, there was a couple thick rolls of duct tape that he’d snagged from the janitor’s closet. So helpful, duct tape.

“Mmmkay, Ricki, you sit right here on this one,” he ordered before pointing to the first chair. “And Evan, you sit right there on that one.” Once they were seated, he held up both rolls of duct tape. “Paige, you tape your brother to the chair. Donald, you get to tape your granddaughter. Both of you make sure it’s nice and tight so they can’t get out!”

While they were busy with that, Ammon whistled to himself off-key while strolling down the hall. Halfway there, he started to skip. Skipping was fun, and darn it, he was going to have fun!

At the end of the hall, he reached the elevator doors. Rather than push the button, Ammon braced his fingers inside the doors and began to pry them apart. It wasn’t that hard, and soon the doors were open. Leaning in, he looked up first, and found the bottom of elevator itself very close, only one floor away. Then he looked down, toward the bottom of the shaft a good six floors away. Giving a low, impressed whistle, the boy straightened up once more and returned to the spot down the hall where the two children had been tightly bound to their chairs.

“Hi, guys!” Waving a hand cheerfully, Ammon fondly ruffled both of their hair before stepping behind them. Positioning the chairs carefully, he grabbed the tape and walked about ten feet away before using it to make a line across the floor.

Satisfied, he popped to his feet and smiled happily. “Okay! Here’s the game. My name is Ammon. Paige, you hold the back of Evan’s chair. And Donald, you hold Ricki’s chair. On the count of three, both of you run forward and shove the chairs as hard as you can, right at the open elevator down there as soon as you reach the tape. You have to push them as hard as you can, and you have to try to be accurate. No fair trying to miss.

“So you push the chairs as hard as you can, and we’ll see who wins!”

Everyone involved was sobbing by that point, and even most of the people who weren’t involved. The latter part was pretty annoying. They were obviously drama queens. Why did they care what was going on? He’d asked if anyone else was related to the kids, and no one had spoken up. If they weren’t family, why were they crying?

Stupid.

Shaking that off, Ammon stepped out of the way. “Okay, on the count of three. One… two… three!”

Sobs, loud, annoying, distracting sobs, filled the air as grandfather and older sister raced forward before shoving their respective relatives down the corridor once they reached the taped off line. The children taped to the chairs shrieked as their chairs went rolling straight toward the open doors of the elevator shaft.

Both came up short. Evan’s chair rolled to a stop about three feet from the edge, while little Ricki’s was only about six inches from tipping over into the shaft.

“Oooh, so close! You almost won, Grandpa Donald!” Ammon gave an encouraging smile to the traumatized man. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get it this time.”

“Th-th-this time?” Paige stammered, eyes going even wider somehow. She looked like an owl, and Ammon giggled a little.

“Yup! You didn’t think I’d only give you one shot, did you? Here, let’s try it again.”

So, he wheeled the crying, pleading, sobbing children back to where they had been and had the two relatives try once more. He ordered them again to try as hard as they could to shove the chairs far enough to fall into the shaft, then stood out of the way to watch eagerly.

It was so close! Both chairs went right down the corridor, rolling perfectly right up to the very edge. Then they got too close and bumped into each other, rebounding in opposite directions to bump into the wall on either side of the open shaft.

“Darn!” Shaking his head lamentingly, the boy strolled that way. “Okay Paige, Grandpa Donald, both of you should come this way. I want you to see something.”

He walked right to the elevator shaft and waited for the girl and the old man to reach him. Then Ammon pointed down the shaft. “See? This is what you’re aiming for. Think about it, if the chairs reach here, they’ll bounce right off that wall right there and tumble aaaaaaaaaaaaall the way down to the bottom. Won’t that be fun?! Look. Look closer, darn it. It’ll be funny!”

Annoyed that neither of the two seemed to be having nearly as much fun as he was, Ammon opened his mouth to tell them to try again. But before he could, another voice spoke up.

“Ah, Mr. Ammon, sir?” A doctor stood there behind them, shifting from foot to foot nervously.

Pivoting that way, Ammon’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Doctor Sang! You finished it?”

The man stood stiffly, holding a computer print-out. “Yes, we have the results. We tested the hair you gave us against the blood sample that you had Nurse Kingston draw from you.”

“Aaaand?” Ammon prompted. “My name is Ammon. Tell me, tell me, tell me.” He was impatient. It had already taken longer than he’d expected, just to find out that Koren girl’s name (which he’d managed by ‘chatting’ with one of the Heretics that he’d found out on a mission), and then working out where her family lived (they’d moved recently, which made things even more complicated). Then he’d had to sneak into their new house while the parents were gone and searched for the boxes of the girl’s stuff until he found the bathroom supplies. But he’d managed to get a used brush that still had some hair left in it.

The uncomfortable man gave a short nod. “It’s all in the report. But yes, you were correct. The tests were conclusive. You are related to the person the hair sample was obtained from. Your DNA was twenty-five percent similar, which probably indicates a relationship of either half-siblings or uncle and niece, or aunt and nephew. Or possibly grandparent and grandchild. In this case, the connected relative would be your mother, because you share DNA on your X chromosome. If you shared no DNA on your X chromosome, the parent that you both shared DNA with would be your father.”

Ammon considered that, head tilted thoughtfully. So. His guess was right. He had another sister. Or possibly a niece. Whichever. This… Koren was related to him as well. And this relative he hadn’t been ordered to stay away from. Mostly because he hadn’t actually told his father about her, hadn’t mentioned that there had been another person he couldn’t affect. Which… if he found out, Father would be furious about. But in the meantime, it meant that this one he could play with… any… time… he wanted.

Which meant… he needed to think. He had to leave this place and take his time on this. Couldn’t screw it up again.

“Sorry guys,” Ammon announced. “We don’t have time to finish our game.”

Both Paige and Grandpa Donald slumped a little, expressions of relief crossing their faces.

“Buuuut,” he put in then, a mischievous smile crossing his young face. “If we can’t finish the game, that means you aren’t winners. And you know what you are if you aren’t winners?”

Their mouths opened, but Ammon wasn’t interested in hearing their guesses. Reaching out, he planted one hand against each of their chests before giving a solid shove. Both the old man and the teen girl reeled backwards, cries escaping their mouths before they went plummeting down the elevator shaft.

“Losers,” Ammon finished. “It makes you losers.”

Peering out into the shaft itself, he tilted his head while looking at the still, broken figures below.

“See? I knew it’d be funny.”

Next Chapter

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-05

Previous Chapter

My phone was in my hand before Deveron had even finished talking. Of course, that simply led to me glaring down at it. “No bars. Naturally. When in the history of horror has a cell phone ever had service when it really needed to? I’m pretty sure cell signals are actually allergic to monsters and serial killers.”

“You’re not far off,” Deveron remarked. “Well, about the monster thing at least. You know the effect that Alters give off when they’re using their abilities that screws up cameras and stuff like that? Some of that goes for cell phones too. It has something to do with interfering with the waves in the air.”

“Luckily,” I replied while digging in my pocket, “Professor Dare knows my luck by now and planned ahead.” First, I took the little blue shirt button and ran my thumb over it a few times to activate the tracking beacon that she had mentioned before shoving it back in my pocket. Then I uncapped the marker and knelt down to write on the sidewalk in all capital letters, ‘AT KOREN’S NEW HOUSE. FOMORIAN SPELL AROUND HOUSE. BAD BAD BAD SUPER BAD DID I MENTION BAD.’

That done, I slipped the pack of strawberry chewing gum out, opening up a piece to pop in my mouth. As soon as I was chewing, I spoke up. “Deveron and I just got to Koren’s house, and there’s this magic barrier we just walked past, and now we can’t get out. He says it’s a Fomorian spell. Which, apparently, is really bad. We don’t know where Koren or her family are, so please come help right freaking now.”

By the time I finished speaking, the words on the pavement, the ones that I’d written in the marker, were already rearranging themselves. Now the message had been changed to read, ‘On the way.’

Seeing that, I let out a breath of relief. Not that everything was magically fixed, but honestly, after everything that had happened, I had pretty much expected the messages to fail to get through. Considering the luck I’d had with that sort of thing so far, it wouldn’t exactly have been surprising.

Through it all, Deveron didn’t question any of it. He just stood there, pistol in hand while carefully observing the surrounding area. He had positioned himself so that he was between me and the house. When I finished, he started to turn to say something. Before he could get a word out, however, a figure appeared out of the darkness, coming down the sidewalk toward us. I’d barely noticed it when Deveron caught me by the arm, yanking me back behind him while pointing the pistol that way. Again, shielding me with his body. He stood that way, watching the approaching figure for a moment until the identity became obvious. “Wyatt,” he abruptly announced, lifting a hand to stop the man. “Wait, there’s a–”

“Fomorian blood passage shield,” Wyatt interrupted, head bobbing rapidly as he came to a stop right on the edge of the shield. “I know. I checked. I always check for magic every time I go anywhere. Why don’t you? Why doesn’t everyone? You should never, ever walk into any new place without checking. You shouldn’t walk into any old place if you haven’t been there in more than a day. You shouldn’t–”

Raising a hand, I interrupted. “Um, blood shield? I don’t see any blood.”

Wyatt looked to me, and I saw the distress and urgency in his eyes. “Blood shield. It’s—it’s not made of blood, it only lets people of a certain blood through, only activates for people of a certain blood. Right now, this one is our blood. Our blood. Our family.” He nodded toward Deveron. “His, yours, mine, Koren’s, Abigail’s. Our mom’s blood. Both sides of the family. Our blood. They want our blood.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Deveron glanced to me and then back that way. “Listen, we don’t know where Koren, her father, or… or Abigail are.” Something in his voice dropped a bit, the emotion getting to him before he pushed on through it. “But if they’re in that house, that means they’re in there with a Fomorian. One that isn’t interested in hiding anymore. If it’s shown itself this much, that means–”

Wyatt’s eyes widened abruptly. “It’s taking them.” As soon as the words left his mouth, I saw all the hesitation, awkwardness, and general silliness leave the somehow simultaneously short and gawky man. He started to take a step closer, about to cross the magical line and trap himself in with us.

Deveron, however, quickly stepped that way while putting his hand up again. “Stop, wait. Don’t.” Putting a hand against the shield as close to Wyatt as he could, he spoke calmly but urgently. “You need to stay here. Flick just contacted the school, so they should be on their way. But they won’t be able to get through the spell immediately. They’ll have to knock it down first. Which means you need to stand right here with Flick and so you can both explain exactly what’s going on as soon as they get here.”

“Whoa, whoa,” I interrupted, spinning that way. “What do you mean, ‘stand right here with Flick’? Flick isn’t going to be standing right here, Flick is going inside to look for Koren and her family.”

“Listen to me, Flick,” Deveron spoke sharply. “No. This is not within your training. This is far beyond anything you’ve seen so far. You’re not going in there. You’re staying right here with Wyatt while I go inside and–” His expression dropped, and he clearly had to force himself to continue. “And find them.”

“If you were actually acting as our mentor the whole time like you should’ve been,” I pointed out, “you’d understand that these past few months haven’t exactly been a normal training schedule. But that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Koren and Abigail are in trouble. That’s what matters. I’m going in. I can either go in with you, or I can wait until you leave and then follow you. Your choice. But either way, I’m going. And the longer we stand here arguing about it, the worse things are in there.”

For a second, I thought Deveron was going to keep debating with me. Instead, he let out a long breath and looked toward Wyatt. “You’re good with magic, especially security magic. I know you are. So listen. You need to start working on bringing this shield down, okay? You need to bring it down so that Dare and the others can come right through as soon as they get here. Because we’ll need them.”

Wyatt looked nervous, shifting his weight while his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down noticeably. “I—I’ve never worked with Fomorian magic.” His nerves were clearly getting to him as he stammered, “I-I don’t know that much about it. Wh-what if I mess up? What if I set it off? What if I make it worse?”

I could tell that Deveron really wanted to move. But he stepped right up to the shield, pressing his hand against it. “Wyatt, calm down. Listen to me. Look.” He met the other man’s gaze. “I believe in you. You can do this, all right? This is what you do. You’ve got this. I am going to go in there with Flick and we are going to save your sister and your niece. But we need back-up. So, you are going to take down this shield so that when that back-up comes, they’ll be able to come in and help. You can do it. They thought the shield would stop any help from getting to us, but they didn’t count on you. They didn’t notice you. The shield is set to our blood, to your blood. Your family. And magic is your thing. So bring it down.”

There were still obvious tears in Wyatt’s eyes, but his head jerked up and down a few times before the poor guy gave a loud, awkward sniff. “B-be careful,” he insisted, putting his hand close to the shield.

With a short nod, Deveron turned back to me, face serious. “Stay right with me. If I tell you to do something, do it. No questions. Watch my back, and if you notice something, speak up. And whatever you do, don’t go running off on your own, no matter what you see or hear. Do you understand?”

No jokes or off-hand remarks came to mind. Not then. Not with this. I nodded. “I—yes. I understand.” After hesitating briefly, I added, “This is bad, right? Like, really bad. Call up all the help we can bad.”

“It is,” he nodded. “But Dare and the others are on their way. That’s the best we can do right now.”

“What…” I bit my lip, hesitating indecisively before pushing on. “What if it wasn’t? I—Seller, my ancestor—my mother’s ancestor, the one who works for Garden. He gave me a way to contact him in case of an emergency. If the shield’s linked to our blood, our family, he could go through it too.”

There was no hesitation. Deveron just spoke sharply. “Do it. Summon him, whatever you have to do.”

So I did. Straightening up a little while closing my eyes to remember the exact phrase that the man had given me, I carefully recited, “Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Recourse.”

As soon as the words were out, I looked toward Wyatt. “You know Seller, from Eden’s Garden? He’s our ancestor. I… I don’t know if you knew that already or—or what, but he is. And he’ll be coming here, coming to help. So when he shows up, um, tell him what’s going on, just like the others, okay?”

The wide-eyed man bobbed his head, hand moving up toward me, though it didn’t cross the shield. “Please—please be careful. I can’t—I never had a—I don’t know what—I can’t—please. Please.”

My own voice was quiet. “I know. It’s… just tell them, Wyatt. Tell them, and get the shield down. We’re counting on you, okay? Send Seller in and bring the shield down so the rest of them can come in.”

Then Deveron and I were walking, making our way across the grass of the well-maintained lawn. He took the lead, ordering me to stay right on his heels. With each step as we approached the house, I felt the sense of unease rise, covering me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t shake off. Every little night sound, every bare hint of movement, it all drew my attention like a hawk noticing a mouse in a field.

That was being generous. In this particular case, it was more akin to the mouse noticing the hawk.

A small garden gnome in the flowerbed drew my attention. Somehow, its eyes seemed to follow us, that unnerving, creepy smile that had been painted on its face somehow seeming to widen as we drew closer. The shadows played tricks with the thing, adding cruel dimensions to its frozen expression.

We took another step, and I snapped my hand out to catch Deveron’s arm. “Wait. W-wait a second.”

Immediately, he turned to me, eyes scanning everywhere. “What? Are you all right? What happened?”

“Th-the gnome,” I managed. “I think–” Cutting myself off, I shook my head. “I need to make sure.”

Before he could object or say anything, I took a step to the flower garden and went down to one knee. Hand tight on my staff, I raised the weapon up between us, just in case. Then I leaned close enough to peer at the thing, keeping the end of the staff at the ready while Deveron stood directly over me.

My gaze found… a cheap little gnome. Its body was clearly made of whatever ceramic or clay it was supposed to be, and some of the distinct features were chipping off. Despite my feeling, the thing was just an ordinary garden gnome. So, with a sigh, I glanced up to the thing’s face while starting to rise.

The eyes were real.

A strangled noise of shock escaped me as I jerked backward reflexively before covering my mouth with a hand. Deveron’s hand found my shoulder and yanked me up to my feet while he pointed the gun at the thing. Then, for a second, we both just stood there, staring in horror at the thing at our feet.

Yes, the entire body was a real garden gnome. It was just a cheap little lawn ornament. But where the painted-on eyes were supposed to be there were instead a couple of holes. And in those holes, there were real human eyes. They had been shoved inside the thing. But it got worse. Because somehow, those eyes were still alive, still working. They blinked, moved around in their improvised sockets, and clearly focused on us. It was watching us, staring at us in a way that made me want to whimper.

Deveron raised his pistol to focus on the thing, clearly about to shoot it before he thought better and shook his head. “Don’t know whose eyes those are,” he pointed out. “We might… might be able to fix it.” There was doubt, as well as disgust in his voice. But he lowered the pistol and gestured. “They probably already knew we were here as soon as we crossed the barrier. And even if they didn’t, they definitely do now. So, let’s go in and see what the hell they want.”

With a glance back toward the horrible gnome, I followed him to the front door. Not bothering with anything subtle, Deveron simply pointed that flintlock pistol of his and pulled the trigger. A thin red beam shot from the barrel. As it hit the door, the entire thing glowed briefly before vanishing entirely.

Noticing my look, Deveron muttered under his breath, “Two modes. First it absorbs inanimate objects. After that, it can either shoot projectiles made of the same material, or expel the absorbed object.”

I nodded. “So, absorb a door and shoot wooden bullets. Or shoot the entire door itself.”

“Pretty much,” he confirmed before stepping through the now-exposed doorway. “Stay close.”

Together, the two of us stepped into the dimly lit foyer. There were no lights on. The place was lit only by a few candles that had been placed here and there. Ahead, I could see an archway leading into what looked like a dining room that was lit by more candles. To the right there was a stairway leading up, along with a few pictures of Koren and her parents. And to the left, there was an open space that led to a nearly pitch-black living room where I could make out only a few shapes of furniture.

Turning his head slightly, Deveron listened intently. After a few seconds of that, I saw him pale noticeably, even in the candle-light. Without a word to me, he went straight for the archway that led to the dining room. I followed, hand tight enough on my own staff that it almost hurt.

We emerged into a genuine horror show. The sight in front of us was almost enough to make me lose my dinner. Bile rose in my throat even as a strangled, horrified noise made its way out of me.

The long table had been set as if for a Thanksgiving feast. There were places for about sixteen people, complete with plates, silverware, napkins, and glasses. Throughout the rest of the table were platters of various delicious looking food. That much, at least, looked normal.

What was decidedly not normal, was what happened to be sitting at most of the place settings down either side of the long table. Incubators. An incubator sat atop each chair. And in each incubator, there was an infant, a baby. They didn’t look like they could be more than a few days or weeks old at the most.

All of the babies was asleep. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Each one had what looked like an actual umbilical cord leading from the baby’s stomach, out of the incubator, and leading along the table to the far end. The fleshy cords all linked up together into a single one, which led up and into the stomach of the figure who sat there, smiling at us.

My first guess was that the man was a horrible burn victim. His skin appeared to be literally peeling off in various places. He was almost like a half-melted candle. At one point, he had clearly been handsome and tall, with obviously athletic features. Now… well now it looked like there was another face entirely hidden beneath the half-melted one.

Beside the terrifying figure, in another chair, sat Koren’s mom. Abigail. My sister. The woman looked like she was barely conscious. Her head kept drifting from one side to the other, and her eyes were half-closed. She was mumbling something, but I couldn’t make it out.

And behind her stood Koren. At first I thought her hands were braced against her mother’s back. But a second later, to my horror, I realized that her arms were actually buried partway inside the other woman. Koren’s hands were inside her own mother, through some kind of hole in her back.

As soon as we stepped in, Koren’s eyes snapped up and she blurted, “F-Flick!”

The half-melted man who stood there simply raised a hand to stop her. “Whoa, easy there,” he cautioned without looking away from us. “Remember what I said? Stop pumping your mother’s heart and well, it stops. Keep going,” he gestured with the hand. “Pump, pump, pump. There you go, squeeze, release, squeeze, release, that’s right.”

Focusing on Deveron and me, the figure gave the smile of an indulgent father. “I’m sorry, you know how teenagers can be. She was getting a bit… unruly. So I gave her something to do.” He waggled his fingers at us. “Idle hands and all that.”

Head tilting then, he focused on Deveron. “Now, you’re a bit of a surprise. Either you found a way past the shield already, or… hmmm. Interesting. Very, very interesting.”

Making a noise of anger, Deveron raised his pistol. Before he could do anything, however, the figure tutted his finger back and forth. “I wouldn’t,” he cautioned before gesturing to the sleeping babies and the umbilical cord that led to him. “Anything happens to me, and well… there’ll be a lot of very unhappy parents, I’ll tell you that much.”

“Fomorian,” Deveron snapped then, the hate and fury in his voice filling the room. “Let them go. Now.”

For a moment, the figure seemed to consider that. He tapped a finger against his chin. “Hmm. You know,” he spoke carefully while starting to peel some of that melting skin off his own face. The flesh came off easily, revealing an entirely different, more angular and grayish-green face beneath. “I don’t think I will.”

Smiling entirely pointed teeth at us, the Fomorian popped the balled up bit of flesh into his mouth, chewing it up before swallowing. He was literally eating his own disguise, picking a bit out of his teeth with a sharp fingernail before peeling more of it off to snack on.

Choking back the urge to throw up once more, I spoke up, demanding, “Well, obviously you want us here for a reason. Or wanted me here for a reason. So what is it? You’re looking for my mother? You’re working for Fossor? You want something. What? What do you want?”

Peeling the last of the skin that covered his face off, the Fomorian rose to his feet. As he stood, there were several cracking and popping sounds as his bones rearranged themselves. “Oh, I’m most certainly not working for Fossor. My people don’t ally themselves with such… creatures. No, certainly not. And as for what I am here for, does a Maker truly need a reason to visit their creation?”

“What then?” I demanded, fear, confusion, and anger all warring inside me as I glanced from the monster to Koren and her mother, then back again. “What creation are you talking about? Our family, my mother’s rebellion, Crossroads itself, what?!”

In response, the Fomorian cracked his neck from one side to the other while regarding me. Moving two fingers to pluck off the last bit of loose, hanging skin from his neck, he popped it into his mouth. He started to speak while chewing thoughtfully. “Well, you see, we may claim any and all of those, given the right… point of view. Some with more pride than others. But,” he held up a finger, “none would count as our greatest creation. That would be the thing we have sacrificed so much to reunite ourselves with. Our most important, wonderful, and irreplaceable experiment. Our shining triumph. The most powerful weapon in our entire biological arsenal.

“Homo Sapiens.”

Next Chapter

 

 

 

 

 

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-04

Previous Chapter

Please note, there was a special commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Sean posted yesterday. If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to click that Previous Chapter link first.  

“You know, I was iffy on the whole ‘Thanksgiving at a restaurant’ thing,” Columbus announced later that evening as we all emerged from the buffet. “It just sounded wrong. But you know what? Eating like that and coming out of there without any dishes to clean up? Yeah, I think I’m on board now.”

“See? Dad and I know where it’s at.” I nudged my father. “All of the muss, none of the fuss. Or maybe the other way around… Anyway, how many pieces of their pecan pie did you put away this year?”

Dad’s response was a slight groan while his head shook. “Too many. Entirely too many. Why do you let me do that?” he lamented while looking at me with a wounded puppy look, like I’d betrayed him.”You know I don’t have any self-control when it comes to pecan pie. A good daughter would’ve stopped me.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “But your daughter thinks it’s funny to watch you groan after you finish inhaling it.”

Asenath, who was walking at the back of our little group next to her sister as we crossed the parking lot, spoke up then.“Don’t worry, Mr. Chambers. Thanksgiving is a time to indulge, after all.”

Chuckling, Dad gave an easy nod before focusing on me. “What time is your friend picking you up?”

“Not until nine-thirty,” I explained. “Their Thanksgiving party starts at ten. Apparently it’s this whole big production. From what Koren said, they don’t exactly uh, do small and intimate gatherings.”

Dad raised an eyebrow at that. “Sounds interesting. You’ll have to let me know how that goes. In the meantime, you wanna work off some of that snarky energy by walking home? You could use the time to give your friends a little tour of our fair village.”

“Ooh, call it a village, good plan,” I commended, giving him a bright smile and a thumbs up. “That way they think of it as small and aren’t afraid of the idea of walking. Very smooth.”

Tapping the side of his head, Dad nodded while announcing in a dull voice, “I be good for wording. Big brain, follow many talking things.” Pounding a fist against his chest like Tarzan, he added, “Ooga.”

Shaking my head with a snicker, I turned on a heel to face the others. “What do you think, guys? You wanna ride home, or take a walk and let me show you around a little bit instead? I can’t promise tons of entertainment either way, but hey, at least if we walk you’ll end up getting plenty of fresh air.”

The general consensus was that no one minded walking. So, Dad headed home. Even as he pulled away, Asenath was working her fingers over her phone. It buzzed a few seconds later, and she nodded. “Twister’ll watch over him at the house until we get back.” Looking up toward me, the vampire-girl added, “Don’t worry, I promised to pay her with all the ice cream she can eat for the overtime.”

Swallowing, I nodded. “Thanks. I don’t think Ammon would try anything, not right now. But…”

“Better safe than sorry,” Senny finished for me before smiling reassuringly. “Don’t worry. He’s okay.”

“You know,” Columbus pointed out mildly while digging his goggles out of his pocket. “It occurs to me that, when you were explaining all this stuff back at the school after your birthday, you kind of forgot to mention that you left a couple Strang—errr, sorry, Alters here to play bodyguard for your father. Nor did it manage to come up when we all met Asenath on that Meregan world, or any time after that.” He looked at me pointedly while strapping his goggles on once more and adjusting them.

Coughing, I felt a blush cross my face. “Yeah, well, I thought it’d be better to ease you guys into it. Especially Sands. Telling her a vampire saved my dad’s life was one thing. Telling her I left that vampire and another Alter to watch over him by themselves? That seemed like a longer conversation.”

“You should probably tell her all of it,” he advised. “Better than her finding out some other way. She’s really trying with… you know, all of this. But if she starts to think that you’re keeping secrets about it…”

I’m keeping secrets,” Shiori pointed out. “So are you.” She did a little double-take then, her face suddenly looking worried. “Aren’t you? I mean, Sean guessed what I am, but the others…”

“Wait, wait,” I interrupted, blinking in surprise at the girl’s words. “You mean Sean knows about you?”

“He guessed,” Columbus answered. “Something about noticing how much better Shiori’s been doing ever since she was abducted alongside Miss Strangers Aren’t All Evil, and met Asenath. Oh, and there was that bit where Asenath, Shiori, and I stayed behind a bit when we were all leaving that place.”

To Shiori, he added, “And no, I didn’t tell anyone. The others still don’t know anything about it.”

The other girl bobbed her head, looking relieved as she fidgeted with her fingers. “Good, good.” She glanced up at him, biting her lip. “I know you think it’s silly, because it’s just this cool thing to you. But I… I’m not ready for them to know yet. I don’t want a bunch of people to know about me. I just… don’t.”

Columbus shook his head firmly. “It’s not silly. I get it. It’s dangerous. That—you have to be careful, Shy. I know. I understand. It’s just that the idea of anyone looking at you and thinking you’re some kind of monster, it just…” Trailing off, he sighed long and low. “I guess that was the point of the rebellion.”

Wincing at that, I nodded. “Among other points. But yeah, pretty sure that was a big one. And I should probably talk to Sands anyway.” I thought about that for a few more seconds before shaking it off. Adopting the tone of a tour guide, I gestured grandly. “Anyway, if you all look to your left, you’ll see Flick’s old elementary school, including the playground. Which, for the record, is clearly the most important part of any school. Quite frankly, I think high school in general would be a lot less tense if we all had a couple of fifteen minute breaks to go play on the swings or hang from the monkey bars.

“And right down this way, we have what used to be a place to rent movies. Dad and I used to come here all the time. I remember this one time…”

******

It wasn’t all sight-seeing. We also took the opportunity to bring Columbus up to speed on what we had found out about Dad’s not-so-little mission for the truth that was bound to attract Fossor’s attention.

We were approaching the house while Senny assured me again that she and Twister had a plan to make sure my father’s investigation didn’t lead him anywhere near anything dangerous. Especially any evil, vicious necromancers. Just as we passed the side of the house to head for the front door, a dark-furred squirrel leapt off the roof before landing in front of us. Before I could say anything to warn the others, the tiny animal grew and shifted its form until the dusky-skinned ‘young’ girl stood there, smirking.

Before the poor boy beside me could react badly, I caught his arm. “It’s okay,” I assured him. “This is Twister, Senny’s partner. Twister, this is Columbus. You know, the guy you just gave a heart attack?”

“Coast is clear, mon capitan,” Twister announced while saluting in Asenath’s general direction. Her attention, however, was mainly focused on Columbus with a rather intense look that was clearly making him uncomfortable. “But where have you people been hiding this scrumptious piece?”

Flushing noticeably, Columbus shifted on his feet while clearing his throat. “Ah, uh, you’re the ah, Pooka then? The shapeshifter. That’s—ahh,” he coughed again, blush deepening. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Mmhmm,” Twister murmured an agreement absently, clearly not paying attention. “Gotta tell you though,” she added with a coy smirk, “the only shape I’m really interested now is right in front of me.”

Okay, that look on Columbus’s face made me snicker. I couldn’t help it. “If it makes you feel any better,” I put in completely unhelpfully, “Twister is simultaneously two, eleven, and a hundred and seven.” Grinning, I gestured vaguely that way. “So if you average them, she’s about forty years old.”

From the boy’s continued expression, that had helped about as much as I thought it would. His gaze moved from the girl to me, and he made a confused noise that almost made me pity him. “Huh?”

“Pooka,” Senny explained. “When they die, they get reborn as a child around age nine with their old memories. She was originally born over a hundred years ago, and she last died two years ago. Get it?”

“Two… eleven… over a hundred,” Columbus murmured slowly before nodding. “Yup, I guess I…” He noticed Twister continued to stare at him like he was a particularly delicious slab of beef and blanched. “Nope. Nooope. Still creepy. Stiiiiiiiillll creepy.”

Shiori was clearly working to suppress her giggles as she put in, “One thing’s for sure.” She held that for a moment until we were all looking at her, shoulders shaking from her own snickers. Then she looked between Asenath and Twister before happily finishing, “This is a very Strange Thanksgiving.”

******

Honestly, after hearing about what my father was up to, I was sorely tempted to just cancel the trip to Koren’s house and spend the entire break there watching over his shoulder. But not only did I really want to meet my sister, I also knew that if I did let myself give in to that much paranoia, I’d come up with more excuses to not leave home at all, even after the break. As terrified as I was about anything happening to him, I was going to have to trust Asenath and Twister to do their thing. Because, call me crazy, but I highly doubted Crossroads would let me get into any kind of homeschooling situation.

So, after promising my father that I’d be polite and thank my hosts, I left the others and set out to walk down the street. As far as Dad knew, I was just getting picked up by my friend and driving to the next town over. That was easier than telling him that I was about to have a second Thanksgiving in Florida.

There was a figure waiting for me at the end of the street. I slowed until I recognized him. “Deveron.”

Pushing off the tree that he had been leaning against, Deveron raised a hand in greeting. “How was dinner?” he asked before adding, “And your dad. How’s he doing?”

In spite of myself, I asked a little defensively, “Do you really care how he’s doing?” Even before he could respond to it, I flinched. “Sorry. No, don’t… I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. I just…” Exhaling, I admitted, “He’s investigating Ammon’s game. You know, the ‘terrorist attack’? Which is leading him toward Fossor. He’s got a bad surveillance picture, a license plate, some kind of records and receipts…”

Deveron winced at that. “And if he gets anywhere near that psychopath, he’ll–” Cutting himself off, the boy straightened. “Okay, listen, there might be something I can do to help lead him off the trail.”

Shaking my head, I replied, “Asenath’s on it. She has a plan to make sure he goes the wrong way.”

He nodded a little, and we started walking until we reached a small wooded area where Deveron took out his cell phone and made a call. “Jake? Yeah, we’re here. How long is the wait? Fifteen? Got it, put it up when you’re ready.” Hanging up, he looked my way. “Fifteen minutes before the Pathmaker can send us through to Florida. They’re pretty busy today, but Jake owed me some favors so he squeezed us in.”

I nodded, and we were quiet for a few long seconds. Deveron watched me briefly before taking a breath. “And yes, Feli—Flick, I do care about what happens to your father. I love Jos, and she obviously loves him. It’s…” He paused, glancing away before pushing on with a tiny smile. “It may seem pretty odd to you, but I liked all of Jos’s romantic partners. She has good taste. She always did. I definitely wouldn’t want anything to happen to them.”

I started to reflexively nod, like that made any sense at all, before catching myself. “Wait, what?” My gaze snapped back to him, and I shook my head in total confusion. “What do you mean, ‘all of her romantic partners’? Was there some kind of an ex-boyfriends of Joselyn Atherby club or something?”

He chuckled at that, shaking his head. “I wasn’t your mother’s only romantic pairing, Flick. I mean, sure, we were probably the closest. But she had a couple other boyfriends at the same time.” Shrugging, Deveron added, “That’s how a lot of Heretics work. I mean, we live a really long time and we’re away from each other on missions a lot. Having more than one partner is—well, it’s not any kind of rule or anything, and plenty do stay monogamous. But it’s definitely not weird for Heretics to have multiple partners.” Pausing then, he sobered noticeably. “Besides, our lifespans differ so much. We could live hundreds of years, or die early on. Between each person getting different powers and the… dangers out there, two people that get married could die three hundred years apart, or even more.”

His hand settled on my shoulder. “So, you might have two boyfriends that you split time between. It doesn’t mean that you love one any less than the other. It just means… everyone needs companionship.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I whined, “I’m still trying to come to terms with the idea that Mom was involved with you before my dad, and now you’re saying there were even more?”

Laughing lightly, Deveron squeezed my shoulder. “Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’m pretty sure that every kid’s worst nightmare is realizing that their parents had romantic lives before they existed.”

While I was still trying to wrap my head around that idea, he went on gently. “I’m not trying to blow your mind or anything. What I’m saying is that, I don’t think that the relationship that Jos has with your father is any less important than the one she has with me. He’s your dad. I wouldn’t try to dismiss that or pretend that it wasn’t real. It is. And your father is a good man. Jos wouldn’t love him if he wasn’t.”

Before too much longer after that, the phone in Deveron’s hand buzzed. He glanced at it, then nodded and gestured to the space between a couple trees. “Here we go.”

Sure enough, a door not that dissimilar from the one that had led me from that empty field to Crossroads a few months earlier appeared out of nowhere. It just popped into existence, and Deveron stepped over to open it. Through the doorway, I saw what looked like an old dirty alleyway.

“After you,” Deveron invited me. So, after taking a breath, I stepped through the doorway, instantly traveling from the middle of Wyoming, all the way down to Florida.

Popping out the other side, I found myself, sure enough, standing in a dirty alley. Right behind me there was a neon sign for an adult bookstore, and straight ahead a chain-link fence surrounded an old motel lot.

Oh, and it was humid. God, was it ever humid. It was like being back on the island without the magical weather shield. The difference was especially noticeable going straight from Wyoming to here.

Deveron came through behind me while I was still making a face at that. “Kinda wet, huh?” he teased before pointing. “If we’re in the right spot, the place we want should be about a half-mile that way. Ready to walk?”

“Sure, maybe I’ll be hungry enough to eat something at this party by the time we get there.” I replied. Starting to walk then, I added, “Hey, where’s Wyatt, anyway?”

Setting off beside me, Deveron answered, “He said he’ll meet us there.” Glancing sidelong to me, he added, “His name wasn’t always Wyatt, you know.”

Blinking that way, I hesitated before nodding. “I kinda figured. Like Abigail used to be Koren. So um, what was Wyatt’s name before?”

That time, it took the guy a few seconds to answer. “… Zedekiah.”

The name made me do a brief double-take. “You mean Zedekiah as in Professor Pericles? The… him?”

Nodding, Deveron remained quiet for another moment. “Yeah, he… he was your mother’s favorite teacher. They were really close. So when we had a son, she… she named him after Zedekiah. If she–” He winced, looking away, but I saw that his eyes were wet. “When she finds out what happened, it’s going to… she’ll be devastated. She loved that man like a grandfather.”

Swallowing hard, I tried to find something to say to that. “We’re trying to find out who killed him,” I finally put in a little lamely.

He looked over at me then, but before Deveron could say anything, I pointed up ahead. “Hey, isn’t that Koren’s family’s new place?”

Glancing that way, toward the dark and seemingly empty house, he nodded slowly. “Yeah… except I was expecting a few more people. Or any, really. Where is everyone?”

I shook my head while continuing. “Maybe they went for a drive, or we’ve got the wrong address. Or maybe–” As I stepped up onto the sidewalk, my ears abruptly popped pretty severely. “Ahhh, ow. Okay, I think the whole elevation difference thing just kicked in.” I tapped a hand against my ear. “Gah.”

But Deveron caught my arm, pulling me behind him as he suddenly stepped in front of me. His voice was hard. “That wasn’t an elevation difference,” he informed me. “It was a spell.”

Eyes widening, I stared at him. “A spell? What do you mean, a sp–” I stopped talking as he took my wrist pulled it up and around. My hand hit some kind of invisible wall directly behind us, right on the edge of the sidewalk that we had just stepped up onto.

“Can’t go back that way,” he muttered before looking at his phone. “And there’s no service.”

“Uh, why is there an invisible wall surrounding Koren’s family’s new house?” I asked, already tugging my staff free of its spot on my belt.

Deveron shook his head, admitting, “I’m not sure. But it gets worse.” Gesturing for me to follow suit, he crouched and indicated what looked like a mark engraved in the edge of the sidewalk. It looked like someone had dragged their finger through the cement while it was wet. The design was of two circles joined together at the mid-point, like links in a chain. Both were inside of a larger square, with some runic, indecipherable lettering in the spaces in the square but outside of the circles.

Frowning, I stared at the mark, not wanting to risk touching it. “Is that part of the spell? Can you undo it?”

“It is, but no,” he answered quietly, “I can’t. I’ve heard of it, learned enough to recognize it when I see it, but I can’t do anything with it. Because it’s not Heretic magic.”

“What?” I blinked that way. “If it’s not Heretic magic, then what kind of magic is it?”

His response came immediately. “Fomorian. It’s Fomorian magic.”

That made me twist around, staring at him. “You mean the Strangers that Gaia destroyed an entire state to get rid of? Those Fomorians?”

Nodding slowly, Deveron looked up before rising. “Yeah. Those Fomorians. I’ve heard of a few sticking around, getting cut off from their homeworld. There’s not very many of them, and mostly they hide out, conducting their sick experiments on unsuspecting people. Something about finding the proper potential or something. I don’t know, they’re pretty rare. I’ve never seen one. And they’re really good at hiding, because they can manipulate memories, play them like a fiddle. That’s one of the reasons they were so dangerous, why the Heretics had to cut them off at the source. Because they are nasty, evil sons of bitches.

“And right now, they’re in my daughter’s house.”

Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 6 – Sean

Previous Chapter

“I guess if you wanna get yourself lost where no one can find you, it’s probably pretty hard to do better than a city in South America with eight million people in it,” Sean Gerardo muttered aloud to himself.

He was standing on the roof of his Uncle Sebastian’s apartment building, overlooking the massive city of Bogotá. Or at least, the tiny part of it he could actually see from there, since the apartment wasn’t that tall. The narrow, cobblestone roads below were busy with the afternoon traffic, and he could hear music coming from the Usaquen Market that was just down the street. Which reminded him that he should probably work his way through the tourists to pick up a few things for Columbus and the girls.

“Did you say something, sobrino?” The voice came from the doorway onto the roof, where Uncle Sebastian himself was just emerging carrying two glasses.

Sebastian Gerardo was a fit man, though not a very tall one. At his full height, he was only about five foot seven. His hairline was receding, but he still looked like he could run a marathon without too much trouble. His arms were thick with corded muscle, and his gray-blue eyes looked like stormy clouds moving through a clear sky.

The man joined Sean at the edge of the roof, and Sebastian handed him one of the glasses. Taking it, the boy enjoyed a sip of the Avena Colombiana, which was essentially a creamy milk drink with sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and oatmeal in it. He’d tried describing the drink to his roommate before, but Columbus had gotten stuck on how ‘gross’ oatmeal in a drink sounded. Which was his loss, really.

“Yeah,” he answered his uncle after enjoying another delicious sip. “I said that moving to a place like this is a good way to make sure no one can find you.” Using the glass to gesture out over the other buildings, the boy added, “Especially if the person looking for you doesn’t live around here.” Glancing back to his uncle, he met the man’s gaze. “Tourists stand out.”

Sebastian had stooped to scratch at Vulcan’s head as the mechanical dog sat near the edge of the roof. Vulcan made a happy noise before picking up his metal ball with a hopeful look. Sebastian took the ball and threw it to the other end of the roof, prompting the robot-canine to go chasing after it, barking happily.

“Yeah, they do,” the man finally responded to Sean. Looking back to the boy, he added, “So you’re probably wondering where Mateo is, since he wasn’t here to meet you like he usually is.”

Instead of answering right away, Sean took another drink, longer this time as he turned to look back to the city. When he spoke, he tried to keep his voice as light as possible. “I figured he was probably trying to stay out of my line of sight until you had a chance to talk to me about why he’d set off my Stranger sense.”

Looking back that way to find his uncle’s surprised stare, he added, “At least it better be that. Because if it’s because you’re worried about me finding out you two are an item, I’m gonna have to kick your ass, Tío Seb. Being a Stranger is one thing, but if you think I’d give a shit that you’re gay, then you don’t know me at all.”

For a few seconds, Sebastian said nothing. His expression was unreadable as he stared at the boy before finally lifting his head as a look of realization passed over him. “Your Edge vision.”

Nodding, Sean turned away from the roof to face his uncle. “Yup. Kinda hard to uhh, mistake a guy you’ve known pretty much your whole life turn into a werewolf.”

Taking a visible breath, Sebastian glanced toward Vulcan before speaking again. “Okay. Well, obviously you haven’t said anything to anyone yet. So… thank you. I guess you’ve got a lot of questions. I know it might be hard to understand, but–”

“He’s not evil,” Sean interrupted before the man could go on. “Yeah, well, him saving my life from those gangbangers that broke in kind of spoiled the surprise on that one.”

Straightening, he continued to meet his uncle’s gaze. “It’s okay, Tío Seb. We should probably talk about this stuff all together, shouldn’t we? I mean, if he’s somewhere close by?”

Remaining silent for a few seconds, Sebastian eventually nodded. “Yeah. You sure?”

Sean didn’t look away. “He saved my life. Even if there wasn’t more, even if there wasn’t… all this shit I need to tell you about, that’d be enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. Neither of you have to prove anything to me.. You think I’d take some teacher’s words over yours? You think I’d kill Mateo just because of some paranoid tradition? He’s family. You’re family. Like I said, you don’t have to prove a damn thing. You already spent my whole life proving it.”

Head tilting a little as a tiny, obviously relieved smile touched his face, Sebastian asked, “Something happened up there?”

“Yeah, a lot of things,” Sean replied. “But it’s probably better to talk about it in person. Together. You know, with family. So you gonna tell your boyfriend it’s okay to come up here?”

Coughing, Sebastian nodded quickly. “Sí, well, I ahh, already did.” He tapped the side of his head demonstrably.

No sooner had he finished saying that, than the door onto the roof opened once more and Mateo emerged, carrying a glass of his own as well as a tray of pandebono, a sort of cheese bread. Like Sebastian, Mateo wasn’t a very tall man, standing only an inch higher than his companion. Unlike the other man, Mateo also wasn’t large in any other way. Rather than having muscles layered on top of muscles, the man was almost rail thin.

“Hey, Sean,” he greeted the boy, extending the tray to him. “Heard you’ve got a bit of a story to tell.”

Smiling faintly, Sean took one of the pandebono. “Yeah, well, you know how it is. Go up to school to learn how to fight monsters and find out not all of them are evil. Especially the kind that save your life.” Pausing then, he added, “Thank you, Mateo. You uhh, I know what you risked. I know what you’ve probably been going through ever since I went up to Crossroads, what you had to be afraid of. So… thanks. Thanks for what you did, what you risked.”

Clearly swallowing hard past a lump in his throat, it took Mateo a few seconds to find his voice. “Hey, kid, you… couldn’t let anything happen to you, huh? You’re practically family, after all.”

Sean shook his head firmly. “No. There’s no practically about it. You’re family, Tío Mateo.”

“Family,” Mateo’s voice was gruff, his voice clearly thick with suppressed emotion as he carefully set down his tray and drink before offering a hand to the boy. “Thank you.”

Looking at the offered hand briefly, Sean took it and squeezed. Then he pulled the other man into a tight, firm embrace. “You saved my life, even though it could’ve cost you everything. Thank you.”

Stiff with surprise at first, Mateo quickly relaxed into the hug, tightening his own grip around the boy. “It wasn’t that much of risk. Losing you would’ve cost everything, Sean.”

Eventually pulling back, Sean found a smile. “Though you’re running out of excuses not to make each other honest men.” Teasing them with a wink, the boy’s grin grew at their expressions. “One of you needs to propose to the other and get this over with.”

Nudging his shoulder with a fist, Sebastian cleared his throat. “You said there was something about what’s been going on up there, eh?”

“Sure, sure, change the subject,” Sean shook his head. “But just so you know, if I don’t get to be the best man for one of you, I will be deeply disappointed.” Head tilting then, he amended, “Though I would settle for flower girl. That looks fun too.”

Sobering, the boy took a breath. “Anyway, as for what’s happening… I can’t tell you all of it. I mean, I want to, but it involves magic secrecy spells, so… anyway, it starts with this girl named Flick. Flick Chambers, her mom….”

******

“And that’s pretty much all I can tell you,” Sean finished up awhile later before taking the last bite of the last pandebono. “Actually, your whole thing… here, made me wonder if you guys were part of that rebellion.”

The two men looked at one another, frowning slightly. Sebastian finally spoke. “If that’s true, then… we wouldn’t remember if we were.”

“Makes sense though,” Mateo offered with a thoughtful look. “If there was something like that going on, I would’ve been all over it.”

Nodding slowly, Sebastian made a face. “Until they erased…” A noise of anger escaped him then. “I’ll kill that carechimba, I swear to–”

“Easy, Tío,” Sean cautioned, putting a hand on his uncle’s arm. “Take it easy. We’ve gotta play this cool for now.”

“This necromancer,” Mateo put in then. “You said his name was Fossor. I’ve heard of him. He’s not one to mess around with. He’s one of the bad ones, probably one of the worst Nocen. If he’s got your friend’s madre… you guys are gonna need all the help you can get.”

“You volunteering?” Sean asked with a little smile at the man.

“You need us,” Sebastian put in as both men nodded, “and we’re there. No hesitation. Like you said, sobrino, we’re family.”

“I have some packmates I run with that’ve had dealings with necromancers,” Mateo added, “Mostly bad ones. Werewolves don’t really like that kind of stuff. But I’ll see if they know anything more about this Fossor and any woman that he keeps around him. If we can dig anything up, I’ll let you know.”

Smiling faintly, Sean nodded. “Thanks. I uhh, I’m sure Flick’ll appreciate anything you can find out. We’re kind of flying pretty blind here.”

“You will be careful,” Sebastian ordered. “You find out anything, anything substantial, you let us know. You got it?”

Sean agreed, and after a little more back and forth, Mateo raised an eyebrow. “You like this Flick girl, hmm?”

“Sure,” Sean replied with a shrug. “But not like that. I mean, sure, she’s cute and smart and all that. But she’s got this thing for her roommate. Or possibly this other girl, the one with the vampire sister I told you about.” He had put together Shiori’s connection with Asenath shortly after their trip to the Meregan world, and eventually talked to his roommate and Shiori herself about it.

“Anyway,  I’m not sure what’s happening there. Either way, I’m not really in the running.”

After observing him for another few seconds, Sebastian smiled slowly. “Maybe not her, but there is another one, eh?”

It was Sean’s turn to flush a little bit. “Ehhh, well, you know. She’s not exactly on my team or anything. But there is this girl. Roxa. Roxanne. She’s this cute little Silverstone blonde surfer chick. She uhh, she’s got this mechanical cougar, like Vulcan there. Except hers turns into this hoverboard, it’s…”

Catching himself as his own little partner stared at him reproachfully, Sean crouched to scratch behind Vulcan’s ears. “It’s not nearly as cool as this guy. But still, she’s pretty awesome. And did I mention cute? Because I can get more descriptive.”

Laughing, Sebastian shook his head. “I think I can picture this girl pretty well. So have you said anything to her?”

“Been a little busy so far,” Sean pointed out. “Besides, how do I start? ‘Hey, you wanna go out on a date and talk a little Crossroads treason?’”

“Maybe ease into that a bit later,” Mateo cautioned with a chuckle. “But you never know how someone will react to things until you get to take the time to get to know them.”

Nodding slowly, Sean quipped, “So ask her out on a few dates before getting into the whole ‘everything you’ve been taught this year about monsters is a total lie’?”

“Now you’re getting it,” Sebastian grinned. “Plus, maybe you should have Mateo cook for her. That’d make her warm up to the whole ‘not all Strangers are bad’ thing pretty quick.”

Still smiling, Sean looked back and forth between his uncles. “You know,” he started thoughtfully. “I might just take you up on that someday.

“But right now,” he added with an easy smile, “it’s Thanksgiving. So let’s talk about the most important thing.

“Food.”

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