Mini-Interlude 19 – Rudolph

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Rudolph and his new team (Roxa’s old team). 

The early light of the still-rising sun above the ocean illuminated the beach where six figures, five male and one female stood almost a quarter mile away from the edge of the Crossroads school grounds.

“See this here?” Jasmine Rhodes stood beside Rudolph Parsons, gesturing to the boy. “This is bullshit.”

Blanching a little, Rudolph glanced toward the tall, black girl with a weak shrug as he offered, “Sorry?”

Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy, put a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. His role as the peacemaker of the team was well established. “Aww, I’m sure Jazz didn’t mean it like that.”

Rolling her eyes, the girl shoved both hands back through her dual-colored purple and pink hair. “No, I don’t mean your very existence is bullshit. I mean you’re another dude. They think they can replace Roxa with a guy. Which means I’m all by myself. This team is a great big sausage fest.”

That, naturally, was the perfect opening for Isaac Acosta, the short Hispanic boy with black curly hair that fell to his shoulders. His face lit up and he grabbed his roommate by the arm. “You hear that, Gordo? She said we have great big sausages. Do you–”

Gordon Kuhn, his face as flat and humorless as ever, slipped free of his boisterous roommate’s grasp. His voice was dull. “I heard what she said, Isaac. It’s not funny.”

“Aww,” Isaac’s grin lit up the beach more than enough for both of them. “Don’t worry, big guy. Like I said before, we’ll find something that makes you laugh before the year’s out. That’s my new life’s goal. How do you feel about monkeys on little trampolines?”

“We’re getting a little off-subject here,” Paul pointed out. “We didn’t come out here to talk about Gordon’s sense of humor.” To Jazz, he added, “Or your lack of female companionship.” His hand went up almost immediately in Isaac’s direction to forestall the boy’s next words. “I know. I know. I heard it when I said it. Let’s just let that one go for now, kay?”

“My ‘lack of female companionship’ is a pretty big subject.” Jasmine insisted while folding her arms under her chest. “Who the hell am I supposed to talk to about girl stuff, Doug?”

In the back of the group, the short, skinny boy kept his eyes riveted to the Gameboy that his fingers were still dancing across. The lowered bill of his omnipresent New York Rangers cap hid the boy’s expression, though his voice was mild. “I choose to take that as a compliment.”

Jazz shook her head. “I’m serious. You three,” she gestured toward Paul, Douglas, and Rudolph, “get moved to a bigger room for you all to share. Meanwhile, I’m all by myself. It’s…” She shifted a little before sighing. “It’s lonely, okay?”

Feeling a pang of sympathy, Rudolph bit his lip before speaking up. “I can, umm, ask Headmistress Sinclaire if she can switch me with a girl. It’s okay, I don’t mind going to another team.”

Sighing, Jazz shook her head. “Nooo, it’s okay. That’ll just break up some other pair of girls and leave one of them by herself. I can deal. Besides,” she added pointedly, “I don’t want another girl. I want Roxa back. We had a good system. Err,” the girl waved vaguely toward Rudolph. “No offense. Nothing wrong with you. You’re just not Roxa.”

“That,” Paul seized on the opportunity to cut in, “is why we’re out here. Why we wanted to talk to ya away from the school.”

Rudolph blinked around at his five new teammates staring at him. Well, four. Douglas was still engrossed in his game, fingers flying over it so fast they were almost a blur. “You wanted to talk tome about Roxa? Uh, sorry, I really don’t know anything more than you do. Just what the teachers said. She went-”

“Yeah, yeah, we know the official line. Family emergency, had to stay home.” Isaac interrupted. “We don’t buy it. Something else is going on.”

Blinking again, Rudolph hesitated before asking slowly, “Something else? You think the… teachers are lying?”

Paul shook his head before considering. “No, we—okay, yeah. But we don’t think they’re being malicious or anything. We think they’re trying to—dunno, protect us or protect Roxa or something. Whatever, they’re not telling the whole truth.”

“What makes you think–” Rudolph started.

“Roxa doesn’t have any family,” Jazz interrupted. “Trust me, we talked about it. She was an orphan. She lived on the streets. So how does she suddenly have a family emergency?”

Before Rudolph could try to find an answer to that, Paul took over. “That kinda told us there was something else up. So we looked into it. Which brings us to you.”

“Me?” The pale boy blanched again, head shaking. “Listen, I really don’t know anything else. I just volunteered to come over here so Tristan could stay with his si–”

Gordon interrupted, his face somehow more serious than before. “It’s not about that. It’s about Flick Chambers.”

Now Rudolph was even more confused. “Flick? What about her? What does she have to do with Roxa?”

“We’re not sure, exactly.” Paul shook his head. “But—you’re tutoring her, right? With the whole bow thing.”

Rudolph nodded slowly at that, looking around at them. “Yeah? Why? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Like he said,” Jasmine put in, “we’re not sure exactly what Flick’s got to do with Roxa. It’s just… eh, you tell him, Doug.”

The short boy finally looked up from his game, thumb hitting the pause button as he focused. “It’s this power I got on that second hunt we went on. It sort of… gives directions.”

Rudolph’s head tilted uncertainly. “Gives directions?”

Douglas nodded. “Yeah, I mean, once a day I can ask a question and it gives me a hint about where I can find the answer. Sometimes it’s really vague, sometimes it’s really specific. Depends on the question. So I keep asking it how we can find out the truth about Roxa. And every single time, it just gives me one thing. Flick Chambers. That’s the only hint it’ll give me. Flick Chambers, over and over again.”

“Oh.” Rudolph straightened with realization. “That’s why you’ve been staring at her. I thought you had a crush.”

Doug coughed, flushing a little bit. “I was trying to make my power give me more information. But it won’t. It’s just Flick Chambers over and over again.”

“So you see,” Jazz put in then, “why we’re interested in your whole tutoring thing with her.”

Hesitating, Rudolph slowly nodded. “Sure, but I don’t know if she knows anything about her. Did Flick and Roxa ever even talk to each other?”

The other five exchanged glances before Paul spoke up. “We’re not sure. But we need to find out. Whatever the teachers are lying to us for, doesn’t matter. Roxa’s our teammate. We wanna help her if we can. And right now, the only clue we’ve got is Flick. So we’re hoping you could tell us everything you know about her.

“Cuz whatever happened to Roxa, that girl’s involved.”

 

Tis The Season 19-01

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“You’ve got story-face,” I informed my father a few days later (and just two days before Christmas) as the two of us walked together along the sidewalk a couple blocks from home. We both had hot chocolate, and I was also carrying a sack of TV dinners to throw into the oven when we got back home. Shiori and Asenath were off spending some time together, doing their own thing for a few hours. Hopefully not getting into any kind of trouble like what had happened back at Wonderland. Which, I still maintained, Calvin speaking up on my behalf was the absolute strangest part of the whole ordeal.

After taking a drink of his hot chocolate, Dad glanced sidelong toward me. “Story-face?” he echoed.

I nodded while taking a long sip of my own steaming cup. “You know, the face you get when you’re thinking really hard about a big story you’re investigating. Your eyes get that faraway, yet intense look. Anything juicy?” Inwardly, I was repeatedly telling myself that it couldn’t involve his investigation into Fossor. Asenath had promised me that they were sufficiently leading him away from that. So at least whatever had him thinking so hard now couldn’t be as dangerous as that would’ve been with Fossor.

Dad didn’t answer at first. When I looked that way, he was frowning at his cup. A second later, he seemed to shake it off. “Sorry, can’t really talk about it right now. Confidential stuff. Maybe later.” Reaching out, he ruffled my hair, like he used to do more when I was a kid. “You understand, right?”

Trying not to let him see the uncertainty I felt (what could he be working on?), I nodded and forced a smile. “Must be something pretty special if you won’t share with your poor, deprived only daughter.”

Snorting, Dad gave my head a push. “Nice try. You were better at Bambi eyes when you were eight.”

“So, does that mean you would’ve told eight-year-old me about the story you’re working on?” I asked with mock abhorrence. “Why, that sounds downright horrifying. No wonder I’m so desensitized.”

Dad rolled his eyes and took a long gulp of his drink. “You know me, can’t let movies and video games do the heavy lifting. You’re my kid, damn it. If I don’t get to traumatize you, what’s the point?”

“Some would say the point is the joy of raising a child, teaching them everything you know, and sending them into the world to contribute to a civilization that’s been building for millennia,” I offered.

His response was an elaborate shrug. “Ehhh.” Giving me a little push with his hand, Dad smiled faintly. “Pretty sure you already passed anything I could really teach you, kid. Now, if your mom was–” He seemed to have been talking without thinking, but as soon as those last words left his mouth, he froze. Stopping there in the middle of the sidewalk, Dad winced and tried to backtrack a little bit. “I mean…”

“Dad.” Reaching out, I put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, remember? I’m okay with talking about mom now.” Pausing, I added while trying not to feel too guilty. “I actually kind of… like talking about her.”

No. It was no good. I couldn’t stop feeling guilty. Dad deserved to know about Mom. He deserved to know the truth about what happened, but how could I possibly explain it to him? Any of the supernatural parts he’d just forget about, which was… pretty much all of it. I couldn’t even think of how to explain it in ways that didn’t involve anything supernatural that wouldn’t make him think I was crazy.

“Do you?” Dad asked, giving me a long, questioning look before he pushed on. “Why is that, exactly?”

I blinked at the unexpected question. “What do you mean? Why do I like talking about Mom now?”

Nodding, Dad put the cup to his mouth and paused for a few seconds before sipping carefully. His eyes never left me. “It just seems kind of sudden. I was wondering if something might’ve prompted it. You know, something that made you ask if she went to private school, back in September when you called.”

Shit. Of course, it was just my luck to have a dad that not only paid attention, but also remembered stuff like that. Trying to keep my face straight, I let it look like I was thinking. “Oh. Yeah, I just thought I remembered her talking about it. Something about the uniform made me think she mentioned it.”

Dad continued to look at me questioningly for a moment longer before nodding. “Well, like I said, your mom moved around a lot as a kid because of your grandfather’s military work. Not sure what he did, exactly, since they…” He paused then, trailing off the last words quietly. “… weren’t really talking then.”

After biting my lip, I nudged him. “What happened, did you remember something about Mom’s dad?”

“No.” Dad shook his head. “I was just thinking about how I never met your mother’s parents. Never even talked to them. It’s… too bad they were estranged. Your mom didn’t even really talk about why. Didn’t talk about them much at all, really. And it wasn’t like there was a sore point. She didn’t seem emotional about it or anything. Whenever I brought it up, she just said they weren’t on speaking terms. Just like that, normal, flat. I didn’t really focus on it because I didn’t want to bring up something that hurt her, but looking back on it, I don’t think it did hurt her. But your mom cared. Her emotions were… let’s just say, you know how some people wear their emotions and beliefs on their sleeve? Your mom went a step further than that. She turned her emotions into a giant mech suit and used it to smash the people that she thought deserved it. For her to not show any emotion about her parents if the situation was bad enough that they didn’t talk at all for the entire time that we knew her…” he trailed off slowly.

See? Reporter father. Bad idea as far as the whole ‘keeping secrets about Mom’s supernatural back-story’ thing went. With an inward wince, I shook my head. “Maybe it was one of those emotional wounds that kind of… scabbed over.” At the last second, I stopped myself from using Mom’s disappearance as an example. “Or maybe she just wasn’t really that close to her parents even before?”

Dad was clearly quietly thinking about that for a couple long, quiet seconds before looking at me with what I knew from many years of experience post-Mom disappearance was a forced smile. “Maybe that’s it. Now come on, kid. Let’s get home before those frozen dinners become lukewarm dinners.”

“Lukewarm?” I echoed. “Dad, in case you missed it, we’re kind of in Wyoming in the middle of winter. We could leave these things outside for two hours at lunchtime and they’d still be as hard as a rock.”

“See, see?” He pointed at me while teasing mercilessly. “I knew going to school up there in Washington was gonna turn you into a great big sissy. You never used to complain about the weather down here. You thought it was great. Now all of a sudden it’s ‘aww, woe is me, it’s a wee bit cold.’”

Yeah, as far as Dad was concerned, Crossroads was in Washington. They used that location to explain why some of the Bystander-kin students might mention stuff that had to do with a beach or the ocean when they went home for the holidays. Though I wasn’t sure if they had an actual campus or anything for parents to visit. Or what would happen if one of them asked to. Clearly something else to ask about.

And he did have a point. I was used to being on an island where either the weather was completely perfect, or hot when I was out on the beach away from the temperature shield. It’d been awhile since I spent much time around this kind of cold. But of course, I wasn’t just going to admit that he was right.

“If I have ever said the words ‘wee bit cold’ in that order, non-sarcastically,” I shot back while giving him a light kick, “I’ll eat the containers these dinners come in. And I wasn’t complaining. I was stating facts. I think the inside of our freezer is warmer than the air out here. If it gets much colder, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to breathe out, grab my frozen breath out of the air and throw it at you like a snowball.”

Dad smiled, but clearly couldn’t resist a last dig. “Like I said, that school is turning you into a wussy.”

“You’re not wrong about much,” I replied. “But that? That you couldn’t be more wrong about.”

******

Later that night, I was standing in the kitchen with Twister as the Pooka taught me how to do a few things in the kitchen that didn’t involve a microwave or the telephone and a restaurant delivery menu. Dad had gone down to the office for what he called a ‘last minute story check.’ Since it was dark, Asenath had followed him, just to make sure he didn’t get into any trouble. Because I was pretty sure it would be just like Fossor to do something nasty that close to Christmas. He’d probably find it hilarious.

“Big bad teacher babe’s coming tomorrow night, right?” Twister interrupted my thoughts, pulling my attention back to her as the dusky-skinned girl sat up on the counter, kicking her legs back and forth.

“She’s not bad,” I answered quickly and pointedly while peeling potatoes into the sink the way the girl had instructed. “Professor Dare’s nice. Though she did start out as an amarok-Heretic, so ‘big bad’ does sort of make sense for the wolf thing.” Shaking that off after thinking about it for a second, I nodded. “But anyway, yeah, she’s coming to talk to Asenath about Tiras. So you don’t have to worry about her seeing you or anything. They kind of already figured out that you guys are watching over my dad.”

“Nothing personal against Professor Cool,” Twister replied, “but I’m just not really in the mood to test that. So I’ll probably take off for a few hours while she’s around. Not like you need me to help protect your pops if she’s in the house anyway. If the necro-asshole’s gonna try something, it won’t be then.”

“Oh, yeah.” Nodding, I looked over at the other girl. “Sorry this whole ‘playing bodyguard for my dad’ thing has gone on this long. It’s probably not the most exciting or glamorous job you’ve ever had, huh?”

Her response was a dry, “I’ve had worse. And more boring. A lot more boring. This one isn’t bad. Especially since I’ve started sort-of remembering some… things ever since you brought up all that shit with your mom. Mostly from dreams, and a lot of it slips away when I wake up. But I’m pretty sure they’re actually memories. You know, memories that were suppressed by that god damn stupid spell.”

“Yeah, I remember Senny mentioned that you guys were having dreams like that.” Frowning, I asked, “But why would that happen? I don’t get it. Why would just talking to me about it make you start remembering stuff? I’m pretty sure the Mnemosyne spell isn’t supposed to work like that, like, at all.”

Her response was a shrug, and her ears (the cute fox ones) flicked. “Dunno. Heretic magic is weird and inconsistent. And a big pain in the ass. But speaking of things Senny mentioned, there’s something else I should really tell you about. She would’ve, but I made her promise to let me tell you myself.”

Blinking at that, I set down the potato peeler and looked at her. “Something you should tell me about?”

She nodded, slipping off the counter to stand up. Her beautiful fluffy tail shook back and forth a few times as she considered her words. “Yeah, see, uhh… well, remember how my lifespan thing works?”

My head bobbed up and down. “Sure, yeah. I mean, it still seems weird, but then, most of the stuff I’ve been hearing about is. You’re basically like a phoenix. Every time you die, you get reborn as a nine year old kid with all your memories. So you look like you’re eleven right now, because the last time you died was a couple years ago, but you’re actually over a hundred. See what I mean? Weird. But I get it.”

She scoffed a bit dismissively at that. “Hey, to me, your lifespans are the weird ones. Linear lifetime without going back and forth between childhood and being an adult? Freaks.” Winking, she held that for a second before pushing on. “Anyway, this is actually about the last time I died. Two years ago.”

“The last time you died?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly at her. “Uh, okay then. What happened?”

Twister paced back and forth over the kitchen. “It was weird. Someone was going around killing a bunch of Pooka. It was like they were looking for one in particular, but weren’t sure which one, so they were just killing all of them. All of us. Anyway, word got out, so I was laying low at Mardi Gras–”

I interrupted. “Laying low at Mardi Gras? How is going to something like that laying low, exactly?”

Her retort was pointed. “If I couldn’t go to Mardi Gras, I might as well have let the guy kill me. I mean hell, dying sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. Not for Pooka. Besides, I figured it’d be easier to blend into the crowd. Safety in numbers, that sort of thing.” Shaking her head, the girl looked away. “Long story short, it didn’t really work out that way. Bad things happened and I ended up dead. Then reborn, yadda yadda, I’m a little kid again instead of my sexy self. But that’s not the important part.”

My mouth opened and shut, and I stared at the girl. “You… dying isn’t the important part of the story?”

She shrugged. “Like I said, not really that big of a deal for Pooka. And even if it was, this would still be more important. Cuz while it wasn’t the end of the world, I really didn’t like dying. Especially when I didn’t know why it happened. Whatever the guy that killed me was looking for, I wasn’t the right one. So I looked into it. You know, cuz I was pissed off. I kind of hoped I could find the dick again and get some payback. Couldn’t find him. But I did find out why he was targeting Pooka, what he was after.”

Unsure of where this was all going, I shook my head slowly. “So, why was he going after you guys?”

Opening the fridge, Twister leaned inside and plucked out a yogurt. She opened it and held a hand out until I passed her a spoon from the drawer behind me. Then she dug in while answering. “Turns out, one of my uhh, let’s call him a cousin. He’s sort of a thief for hire that works through a middleman. You know, no contact with the actual client or anything. Anyway, he got hired to steal something really important. Then when he had it, he figured it was worth more than the client was paying. So he took off with it instead of delivering. Which is a shitty business practice, because it leads to stuff like… well, a pissed off client hunting down and killing every one of your species that he can find because all he knows about you is that you’re a Pooka and he really wants the stuff you stole. And bad Yelp reviews.”

“I feel like you said that in the wrong order,” I mused briefly. “But who was the crazy murder-client?”

She blew out a long breath. “I never saw a face or anything. All I knew was that they really wanted to find something that I didn’t know about, and they were ticked off when I couldn’t give it to them. So I had no idea who they were until you guys got back from Wonderland and Senny told me about what you found out. ”

“Wonderland?” I echoed, confused. “What did we find out at Wonderland that told you who killed you and all those other Pooka?”

Twister took another bit of yogurt, holding the silence for a moment before she answered. “I didn’t find out who the client was back when I looked into it. But I did find out what they were after, what my cousin stole for them and then took off without turning in. And I found out that the guy eventually got it from him, after… after a lot of really bad payback for running off with his merchandise.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, staring down at the yogurt with a sigh. “It was when Senny mentioned Denuvus. That’s when I knew.”

“Denuvus?” My head tilted. “You mean that legendary Alter guy, the one they think was used to turn Ammon into a Heretic? Wait, you think he’s the guy that killed you?”

Her head shook. “Nope. I mean that’s what was stolen, the thing that got the client so kill-happy. A vial of Denuvus’s blood that some collector had.”

“Denuvus’s blood…” My eyes widened. “Wait, you mean one of the other Pooka stole a vial of Denuvus’s blood and ran off with it two years ago, and someone went completely nuts and started killing all the Pooka he could find until he tracked down the right one?”

“That’s about the size of it,” she confirmed with forced casualness.

Slumping back against the counter, I whistled. “Fossor. It has to be Fossor. He had a Pooka steal the blood so he could turn Ammon into a Heretic, and then started going after you and all the other ones when the guy took off with it. Then he got it and… and used it…”

So now we knew pretty much for sure where Ammon’s power came from and how he got it. But how could we use that against him? And why had a vial of this legendary, mythical Denuvus’s blood just been sitting in someone’s vault or whatever, waiting to be stolen? And hell, if Denuvus existed, where was he now?

Most of all, why did it still seem like every time we answered one question, four more took its place?

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Interlude 18B – The Committee

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September 3rd, 2017 (The day before school began)

The room was a perfect circle, with a floor of glistening white marble, walls of polished emerald, and a vaulted ceiling that displayed the sky through a holographic representation. In the middle of the room, centered precisely, sat a circular table that was about half the size of the room itself. Twelve chairs were arranged around the table at equal distances from each other, none raised higher than any of the others.

At each of the four compass points in the room, there was a heavy, thick iron door. Softly glowing magical runes of privacy and protection were activated on those doors whenever, like now, the occupants carried on their often heated conversations and debates over the running of their society.

“We have been over this time and time again,” Gabriel Ruthers announced from his place at the circular table. A glass of amber liquid sat in front of him, and he took a smooth pull from it before continuing. “Whether or not the girl is a threat, it would be absurd for us to use our resources to turn her into one.”

Directly across from him, a man who would have looked at home in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as one of the titular pirates sat stroking his beard. His voice was like gravelly thunder that filled the room. “Where I’m from, we don’t go blaming the sins o’the parents on all the little ones. That way lies terrible things. Which of us could stand up to moral scrutiny over not just everything we’ve done, but everything all our ancestors did way back through history? At what point do we draw the line, eh?”

“At the point, Teach,” Ruthers addressed him, “that it risks allowing a girl into our society and among our children who may be an agent conditioned by her terrorist mother to destroy our civilization.”

“Edward raises a fair point, Gabriel.” Beside Ruthers to his left, a pale and pristinely beautiful auburn-haired woman spoke. “We have no evidence that Joselyn Atherby has had any contact with her daughter within the past decade. Conditioning a child like that takes far more than a secret visit now and then that we don’t even have any actual evidence of. And given the reports we’ve received about the girl’s attitude concerning her mother’s absence, I find it difficult to believe that they are secretly allied.”

Before Ruthers could speak, the woman on his other side spoke up. Her darker skin revealed her Native American ancestry, and she looked old. They were all old, but she looked it more so than the rest of them. Her face was lined with more wrinkles than belonged on a normal person. Yet despite that, every motion she made was filled with life and energy. At that moment, she was pointing at the pale woman.

“You have a son in the school this year, Sophronia,” she chastised. “You should want to protect him.”

The other woman shifted in her chair, giving her colleague a hard look. “I do. And I’m the one who decides what Zeke needs protection from. At this point, from what I’ve seen and heard in those reports, being around someone like this Chambers girl may do him some good. Your argument only holds water if we believe that she’s a threat. I don’t happen to believe that, so you’ll have to try something else.”

Another man across the table, sitting beside Teach, cleared his throat. He was an exceedingly handsome black man with finely chiseled features and the smooth voice of an old jazz singer. “I’m sure Litonya wasn’t trying to question your parenting choices, Sophie. We’re all just very close to the situation. Which, if you think about it, is another point against the Chambers girl. If we can’t even agree on whether or not to allow her into the school, how will we agree on what to do if she doesn’t work out?

“Besides,” he added, “blood is blood, and she is her mother’s daughter. Her loyalty will be to her.”

Beside him, Teach twisted a little in his seat to squint at his neighbor with a clearly disbelieving look. “You of all people should know that family doesn’t always mean loyalty, Geta. How long did your brother let you share the throne with him after Septimius died? Less than a year? You really think this Chambers girl is some kind of secret plant by her mother after they haven’t even talked in a decade?”

Geta’s fist came down on the table. “That is immaterial,” he thundered back. “You know as well as I do that Caracalla was manipulated by one of the very same Strangers that we are charged with protecting our world from. His decisions were not his own, and I would not be at this table today if I hadn’t fought against the creature who took my brother’s sanity. Losing my brother was my first sign of the evil of Strangers. And I have seen far too many such signs over these centuries to risk allowing the same kind of dangerous treason to rise up in this society again after we worked so hard to remove it the first time. Do you really want to risk another war, just to allow one girl to enter our society? I have nothing directly against the Chambers child, but she is perfectly safe where she is. There is no reason to bring her into Crossroads. Maybe she is an agent of her mother and maybe she isn’t. But the benefit of her inclusion is far too small when compared to the risk that she either is a threat or may become one.”

Another woman, her Spanish ancestry apparent in her features, spoke from her place to the left of Sophronia. “That’s getting too close to straying from the point of today’s meeting. We aren’t here to discuss the nature of Strangers, only whether Felicity Chambers should be allowed into Crossroads.”

As Ruthers opened his mouth, the man who sat to Geta’s left interrupted. “Well, maybe we should discuss it, Elisabet.” His long blonde hair was tied into a ponytail, and the man wore a tee shirt advertising some modern Bystander musical group called the Ramones. “Because as some of us have tried to tell the rest of you for a long ass time now, there’s more to Strangers than we allow to be taught. And if we could just be open to entertaining some of what Atherby was teaching, we might be able to-”

“That is quite enough, Percival.” The disgust and annoyance in Elisabet’s voice was palpable. “This discussion isn’t an excuse to bring up that old lie. Strangers are incapable of living in harmony with humanity. They see us as prey, and any indication otherwise is a trick.” Her hand rose to point at him. “And don’t forget, we may have voted to allow such insane words to be spoken in this room, but if there is ever any indication that you or anyone else has been spreading them to the rest of our people…”

Teach grunted with annoyance of his own. “Sure, sure. Wouldn’t want the people to know that we can’t even agree on whether Miss Big Bad Terrorist Leader was right or not. It might confuse the poor dears.” His words were dripping with sarcasm, even as he grabbed the bottle of rum in front of him to take a long drink from before slamming it back down on the table. “Sure as hells wouldn’t want that.”

To Teach’s right side, a rotund, heavyset man who clearly hadn’t actively fought for many years scooted his chair a short distance away from his neighbor. “Do we need another vote to show you that you lack the numbers to enact any such change, Edward?” he asked while polishing his glasses on his shirt.

“A vote proves nothing, Oliver.” Teach snapped. “Not within this body of stubborn fools. If you want to see proof that there can be decent Strangers out there, you need to get out and interact with them, not sit in this room blowing smoke up each other’s arses. When was the last time any of you lot took the time to talk to something not-human before you shoved a sword in its gut? Never? That’s what I thought.”

Still cleaning his glasses, Oliver made a haughty sound before setting them back on his face. “Careful, old pirate. Keep talking like that and someone might think that you’re going back to your old ways.”

Teach just gave the man a dirty look. “Lucky for me,” he grunted, “as Elisabet already mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with bringing up the subject in this room. And you know full well why we made that rule. Cuz if we didn’t, you’d have a fight on your hands. And the Committee fighting looks bad.”

“It’s a fight you would lose, Edward.” The admonishment came from a young-looking Asian woman who sat to the left of Percival. Her features were more handsome than pretty, though her strikingly violet eyes definitely made her stand out. “The few of you who believe such complete nonsense do not have the numbers to even cause a tie within our ranks, let alone to affect actual change in policy. Which also means that, if we were to engage in combat, your side would certainly not survive for very long.”

Sophronia spoke up while Teach was still starting to react. “Is that a threat, Jue?” Her voice, while calm, was laced with warning as she lay both palms down on the table. “Because I believe you’ll find that, while there may be only a few of us who believe that peace with Strangers may eventually be a possibility, we are far from weak. If you wish to threaten us, you may come to regret such a decision.”

“Enough, enough.” Between Jue and Litonya, a man who looked like the stereotypical lumberjack with his thick beard which rivaled Teach’s, and dark red and black checkered shirt shook his head. “We’re not here to threaten each other. That’s the entire reason we voted to allow this kind of discussion, so that it wouldn’t keep falling to threats and violence. If the people outside this room understood how often we almost go at each other’s throats, they’d lose all confidence in us. So let’s try to stay civil.”

“Davis is right,” Oliver agreed, though his tone made it clear that he disliked the other man. “So we’ll settle this before it gets out of control again. Let’s see a show of hands. Who among us believes that there is any merit in Atherby’s old claims, that Strangers either are or can somehow be taught morality.”

Ruthers tried to stop it, but around the table, three hands were raised: Teach, Percival, and Sophronia.

“You’re all insane.” The words came from the left of Elisabet, where a man who could have stood in as a body double for the mythological Thor if his hair had been red rather than black sat. His fist hit the table hard. “I think the girl should be allowed into the school, because she hasn’t done anything wrong and her rebel mother hasn’t even talked to her for years. But the idea of good Strangers is just… it’s insane. We’ve all seen the depravity Strangers get up to when we aren’t there to hold them in check.”

Next to the big man, to his left, an almost astonishingly attractive black woman laid a hand on his arm gently to stop him from going on. “I don’t think now is the time for that kind of argument, Sigmund. Our emotions already run high because of the Felicity Chambers discussion. Let’s not get off track with insults and threats about a subject that we already know is not going to be settled any time soon.”

“The subject has been settled, Calafia” Ruthers pointed out a little testily. “Not everyone has to agree for a subject to be settled. This committee has long-since established that a majority vote binds all of us to it, since before almost any of us were actually a part of it. We may disagree in here, but out there, we present a united front. It’s the only way to lead our people. And the majority agree that Crossroads cannot afford another Atherby-like rebellion. It would destroy our civilization and allow Strangers to run rampant. To that end, I insist upon a vote. Do we allow Atherby’s daughter into our school? Do we take the risk of subjecting both our students and our entire society to another civil war so soon after the last one was finally put to rest? Like all of you, I hold no personal grudge against the child. But she is a potential threat. And further, there is no particular benefit to her recruitment. She brings nothing of importance to the table, and the potential downsides are far too numerous to explain here. So, let’s vote and get this over with.” As he finished speaking, Ruthers finished the last of the contents of his glass.

The lumberjack, Davis, nodded. “I agree. Let’s have a vote and see where we all stand on the subject.”

“Fair enough,” Litonya agreed. “Let’s say… if you believe that this Felicity Chambers should be allowed to enter Crossroads, despite the dangers related to her mother’s rebellion, raise a hand.”

The first hand to rise was that of Edward Teach, who scowled across the table at Ruthers rather pointedly. It was followed almost immediately by Sophronia’s hand, entirely unsurprisingly. After a couple more seconds of silence, two more hands were raised practically simultaneously as Percival and Calafia joined the other two. And for a moment, it seemed like that’s where the vote would fall, with only four of the twelve Committee members choosing to accept Felicity Chambers into Heretic society.

Then Davis lifted his own hand with a soft grunt and shrug, raising the vote in her favor to five. And a second after that, the count turned to six as the others were joined by Sigmund, the massive viking.

That was where they stood. There may have only been three members of the Committee who held any belief in Atherby’s claims of the potential for Strangers to be good: Edward Teach, Sophronia/Sophie Leven, and Percival. But the other three, Davis, Calafia, and Sigmund, believed that Felicity should be given a chance in the school even if they didn’t believe her mother’s claims.

Ten seconds passed then, as the Committee members looked at one another that way before Jue shook her head. “Is that where we stand now? A vote of six to six? Do we need to go over the facts with all of you again? Do we need to discuss the kind of damage that this Chambers girl could do to our society if she is working with her mother? Might I remind you all that some of your own friends and descendants were killed in the war that Joselyn Atherby started. Do you all want to live through such a thing again?”

Percival, still standing out in his ridiculously modern clothing, spoke up. “And do we need to remind you lot that Chambers didn’t do anything wrong, and hasn’t had contact with her mother for, again, a decade. What the hell kind of long-con game do you think she’s playing?”

That sparked another argument that lasted for a solid ten minutes before things settled enough to vote again. And again, they were tied. So they argued some more.

“It seems that we simply are not going to be able to come to an agreement,” Calafia remarked after their third such vote with absolutely no change in the result. “We are dead-locked, six to six. And from the sound of each other’s passionate arguments, none of us are going to be convinced to switch sides.”

“You know what that means,” Teach pointed out, unable or unwilling to hide his amused expression. “If we’re tied, it’s the leader of the school that gets to decide whether to accept the new student or not.”

“Gaia Sinclaire.” Litonya’s dislike of the woman was evident in her voice and pinched expression of annoyance. “And we all know how she’ll vote. She was too soft on Atherby in school and she’ll be too soft on her child. The woman is too soft in general. We can’t simply pass that kind of decision to her.”

“First of all,” Sophronia spoke up. “I would dearly love to see you call Gaia soft to her face, Litonya. I think the results would be… amusing. And Prosser knows, we could use a little amusement right now.” She smiled a little at the thought before continuing. “And second of all, you can’t simply refuse to follow the rules because you know they’ll go against you. We’ve voted five times now, and all five times they’ve come out to a tie. Therefore, the current head of the school is allowed to cast the tie-breaking vote. And the current head of the school is Gaia Sinclaire, which means she casts the vote, regardless of her established opinion.”

Geta straightened in his seat, letting out an audible sigh. “As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point. I disagree with how this vote will go, but I won’t stand against it. We’ve failed to come to a consensus ourselves, so it’s up to the Headmistress to decide, even if we know how that will end up going.”

“Indeed,” Elisabet confirmed with a look toward Ruthers. “And we all know who to thank for Sinclaire ending up where she is.”

Ruthers, for his part, stared around at the other members of the Committee. His bulldog expression hardened and twisted as he obviously fought to find the right argument. All he had to do was convince one of the others to turn. Teach, Sophie, and Percival were hard set against him, so it would have to be one of the other three. Yet even as his mind desperately sought the right words to change their minds, he knew it would be useless.

The vote would stay tied, which meant that Gaia would make the final decision. And as they all knew, that decision would not be in his favor.

Felicity Chambers was coming to Crossroads.

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Interlude 18A – Namythiet

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“They shouldn’ta locked the door!” The pint-sized, purple-winged and blue-haired pixie teenager huffed the words with obvious annoyance and agitation. She hovered in front of Seth Dozeran’s face, hands on her hips as she ranted at her mentor. “I coulda helped with those bad dogs. I’d give ’em a poke in the eye with ol’ Cataclysm here.” Her hand moved to pat the tiny sword at her hip pointedly. “I’d poke the eye out and skewer it on my blade, like an olive on a toothpick! An olive on a toothpick!

The vampire arched an eyebrow for a silent moment as he seemed to consider her before replying smoothly. “I’m the one that used the code to lock the store, Shortstop.” It was a nickname that Namythiet had objected to until Seth explained that the shortstop was one of the most important defensive spot in baseball, since they had to field more hit balls than any other position.

Still, his words made her flutter up a bit higher as she blurted, “You? You locked me in here so I couldn’t get out? But why? I thought you trusted me to fight with you! Don’t you… think I could help?” Her wings beat a little slower as she sank a bit in the air, the equivalent of a human hanging their head.

For a moment, it looked like the man was going to say something dismissive. Then he heaved a sigh and muttered something about feelings. “Needed you to be around for back-up, kid, in case there were more of the bastards. You know how tricky wolves can be. They hit us again from behind, we would’ve needed you to play guerrilla tactics and take them by surprise. Better than just being out in plain sight.”

Hovering a little closer to him, Namythiet studied his gaze with the intensity of a teenager valiantly attempting to spot the loopholes in a parent’s unwanted instructions for a few long seconds. Finally, she bobbed up and down in the air a bit before nodding. “I woulda kicked their asses! Me and Clubber both.” Her hand pointed down to the emerald-furred saber-toothed tiger cub that sat studiously licking down his own shoulder until he went so far that he fell over onto his side with a squeak of surprise.

“Yes,” Seth replied dryly, “I’m sure they dodged a number of bullets by avoiding that fight. But look.” He raised his hand, palm up so that the pixie could land on it. “The other Septs need to ask you a favor. They’d be in here themselves to do it, probably Limnoreia or Fennicus, but they’re busy making sure those werecub parents don’t go running off on their own to get their stupid, panicky asses killed.

“So that leaves me to talk to you about the favor. But I want you to think about it before you say yes, you got it? This isn’t a normal favor. It’s important, and it’s dangerous. More dangerous than anything you’ve done before. So don’t just go agreeing just because you think it’ll make you look brave, got it?”

Feeling intensely curious (even more than usual) by that, Namythiet alighted onto his hand and cocked her head to the side. “The Septs wanna ask me for a favor? Really?” She had to stop herself from immediately blurting out an agreement to anything they asked for. “Um, well, what do they want?”

The man who had bypassed every other eligible and eager potential student that longed to be the Tie-Breaker’s protege to instead begin training her, a four and a half-inch tall pixie (a fact that most people in Wonderland insisted was supposed to be his idea of a joke), regarded Namythiet in silence for a moment as though considering how much to tell her. Finally, he sighed. “You know the Heretics that were here? Asenath says she brought them to see you before everything went down. And I can still smell ’em.” His gaze flicked around the small shop where the most of Namythiet’s pixie-kin were still cautiously poking their heads out of their hiding places, or fluttering outside picking up bits of debris.

Bobbing up and down in the air in short, excited hops with a single flap of her wings that brought her off the man’s palm repeatedly, the pixie chirped, “Sure, they visited. They brought a friend for Clubber to play with too, a Jekern! His name’s Choo. Is she really your sorta-sister? The girl I mean, not Choo.” She giggled at the unintentional insinuation, spinning in the air after her latest wing-assisted bounce.

“Shiori, yeah.” The vampire nodded. “More of a sort-of niece than a sort-of sister, I guess. Not really into the whole family thing anyway, so let’s not put a label on it. Besides, you say that too loud and Asenath’s bound to poke her head in and start ranting about how we’re not related, so keep it down.”

Shaking that off, he went on. “Point is, apparently the other one, the blonde, she knows some other werewolf pack that has a problem with the one that attacked us. So they’re gonna go look for the pricks, maybe try to find out where they took the kids they stole. But they’re not a big pack, not like the others. There’s just a few of them. So they’re gonna need a little more muscle when they do track ’em down.”

Perking up, Namythiet drew her sword and flew up off the man’s palm. “I’ll be the muscle!” Her sword swished through the air rapidly. “Cataclysm and me, we’ll teach those wolves the meaning of fear!” Gesturing belatedly downward with the end of the needle-like blade, she added, “Oh, and Clubber too. He’ll make the dumb little puppies pee their furry panties with one mighty roar. Won’t ya, buddy?”

The green saber-toothed tiger yawned so wide he fell over backwards, and then proceeded to spin around rapidly as though trying to figure out what had tipped him over. Settling on the fact that it must have been his own tail, he pounced and turned over in a somersault while letting out a squeaky yowl.

“Oh yeah.” Seth’s voice was as dry as kindling. “I’m sure he’ll strike the fear of God into the bastards.”

Before Namythiet could respond to that, the man’s hand lashed out to catch hold of her. He was clearly careful not to grab her wings, instead letting them flutter about uselessly as he held onto the rest of her body in his fist. It was tight enough to be uncomfortable (and no pixie enjoyed being held like that), but not quite painful. “You listen, got it?” He had his serious voice on, one he hardly ever used. But it combined with the way he was looking at her made the pixie stop squirming and stare with wide eyes. “This isn’t a game. Those wolves, they will kill you like a human swatting a fly. And then I’m gonna be every shade of pissed off, cuz that means I’ve gotta name one of these other losers my apprentice.”

Pulling his hand in with her still clasped tightly in it, he stared intently at her. “So don’t die, you got it?”

When she nodded quickly, he released her carefully so she could fly. It wasn’t the kind of point that he made often, but he did make it. As much as he was teaching her, Seth still took the time now and then to illustrate just how vulnerable she really was if he thought she was getting too big for her britches.

“If you agree to go,” he continued once she was hovering once more, “it’s as a scout, not a front-line soldier. You go with these guys, and if they find what they’re looking for, you send a message back so the rest of us can come run the attack. Understand? No charging in, no stupid heroics. You send the message and wait for us to show up. You run off on your own and you’ll never be my apprentice again.”

For once, Namythiet nodded seriously, meeting the man’s intense stare. “Send the ‘help’ message to you once we find the stupid, ugly bastards. You got it, boss!” She saluted him with the blade of her sword.

“Good.” He grunted the single word of approval and paused then before squinting at her. “That… thing you were working on earlier, before the Heretics showed up, is it ready for the road?”

If she had perked up at the thought of going out to help hunt down the Nocen wolves, that question made the pixie positively beam while blurting, “Ready? You mean they might actually use it?!”

“I asked if it was ready,” he reminded her. “Or can you get them ready in–” He checked his watch. “About two hours. That’s how long it’s gonna take this pack to get up here through the foldjumps.”

The foldjumps were areas where two points that were hundreds of miles apart could be briefly connected into a single location. They were created by Alters known as Abeonas, for which the Roman Goddess of Outward Journeys had been named. Basically, the Abeonas would designate one point in one location and then travel hundreds of miles before designating the other point to link the two together. From that point on (until the Abeonas dismissed the connection or died), if someone was in that exact location and gave the proper password (deliberately thinking the password was good enough, since many Alters couldn’t speak normally), the two areas would connect again. Which meant that if someone started in one place, connected the areas with the password and then moved forward before the connection stopped, they would be just past the point of the second area. Usually, Abeonas charged exorbitant rates to use their foldjumps, but Wonderland had a special arrangement with a few of them.

“Yup!” Namythiet nodded confidently. “It’s almost ready now, if I work the whole time, it’ll definitely be ready by the time the good werewolves get here. Do you really think they’ll use it?”

“Well,” Seth replied casually, “they probably won’t want to run around on all fours the whole time they’re wandering over the countryside hunting this pack o’nasties. So I’d say yeah, they’ll use it.”

While she was pumping her fist with excitement, he extended a finger to her. On the end of it was something that, to him was an incredibly tiny thread. To the pixie, it was a normal sized belt. “Take this. After you find the guys and send the message about where you are, snap it. It’ll summon Venice.”

He wasn’t giving the pixie the ability to conjure up an ancient Italian city known for canals and drop it on her enemies, unfortunately. Venice was the name of one of Wonderland’s allied Abeonas, as all of them were named after a city, usually one that was famous in some way. Wonderland’s were Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia (the latter insisted that his chosen city’s contribution of the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich qualified it as at least as important as the former two cities, perhaps even more so).

“Find the bad wolves, summon Venice, help you lay the smack down on the furry assholes. Got it!” Tying the belt around her waist, Namythiet gave him a thumbs up. “Good. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when we crash their party.” Despite her words, the little pixie’s voice shook with anger as she thought about what the wolves had done to her home, to her friends and the people she lived with.

“Just remember what I said,” Seth warned her flatly. “No stupid heroics. None. Do what you’re told.

“But yeah, maybe if this works out, we can give them a taste of their own medicine.”

******

“We cannot begin to express the extent of our appreciation and gratitude for your actions,” Limnoreia announced quietly a few hours later, as she stood in the middle of the mall parking lot. “This is far beyond the call of anything we could have expected from those who are not fully allied with us.”

Namythiet, perched on the Nereid’s shoulder, turned slightly to look at the group that the Sept was addressing. The pack of werewolves wasn’t that large, only six in number. They were still in their wolf-forms from their run up through the foldjumps. There was a big dark brown one that was almost a head taller than the others, full of muscle. Beside that one was a slightly lighter one that seemed to be the leader. Arrayed behind them were a tawny-furred female who wore a red choker with a green gem in it, a black female, a male with rustic red fur like a fox, and a caramel-colored female that kept pacing back and forth sniffing everything. The choker on the tawny wolf was the only decoration any wore.

The pack all exchanged glances with a few yips before five of them took a couple steps forward and began to shift, changing shape and growing into their human forms. Meanwhile, the tawny female about-faced and trotted over to one of the nearby parked cars, sliding under it and moving out of sight.

While Namythiet was trying to figure out what the sixth wolf was doing, the others finished changing. The lead-wolf was a thin Hispanic man who looked utterly unassuming and unimportant, the kind of man who would almost always be overlooked. Beside him, the enormous wolf had turned into an even more enormous man, a giant Samoan who looked massive even to the pixie’s distorted perspective.

The other three wolves had turned into a black woman with short purple hair, a pale, red-haired man that was even shorter than the lead-wolf, and a Hispanic woman with long dark hair tied into a ponytail.

All five were naked, though none seemed to care that much.

“Our greetings to you, Sept.” The leader started once he had finished the change. “Sorry we couldn’t be here sooner, but… well, even with the foldjumps, Colombia is still pretty far away from San Jose.”

That was where Wonderland was located: San Jose, California. With the foldjumps that Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia had created and continued to maintain, it was at least semi-connected to enough cities in North and South America that even a trip from as far away as the wolves had started only took a few hours for them to run. The vast majority of that time was spent running from one fold to another.

Limnoreia shook her head. “Please, call me Limnoreia. And there are no apologies necessary, pack-leader. As I said, you have already gone far above and beyond what we could possibly have expected. Your pack owes us no particular favors or effort, yet you have already gone quite far out of your way to assist us. That is…” She paused before shaking her head. “It is more than I can properly express my gratitude for. Though…” Turning her gaze slightly toward the car in the distance, she asked, “Is your pack-mate quite… all right?”

It was the Hispanic woman (still pacing back and forth the same as she had been doing in wolf form) who answered. “That’s just Roxa. She’s not used to being a wolf yet, so she’s still embarrassed by changing. Or, you know, the naked part after. And she’s not as fast at it. So she changes over there.”

“And Hasty’s only saying that because she knows Roxa can hear her and likes teasing her,” the leader announced, giving the woman a look before he turned back and extended a hand. “My name is Mateo, Limnoreia. As I said, that’s Hasty. The big man beside me prefers the name Fezzik. That’s Lesedi and Corson.” He gestured to the black woman and the red-haired man respectively. “And like she said, over there is Roxa. She’s still a little shy.” Shaking that off, he focused on the Sept once again. “Flick said you had a run-in with the pack we’ve been looking for. How’d they even get in here? I would’ve thought that this place would be… well, a pretty tough nut to crack.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment, Limnoreia spoke quietly. “In ordinary cases, yes. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of simply lowering our defenses rather than adding the Heretics into them. The thought was that if anything went wrong, the defenses could be immediately raised to expel them. But when the other pack invaded, the defenses failed to come back. After an inspection, we found that the second Heretic who arrived with the pack, the one that the Chambers girl called Doxer, used some skill he acquired somewhere to take control of the lowered defenses once he was through them. He prevented them from being raised. It was an… unfortunate combination of events. Our lowering the defenses allowed him access to them so that they could not be raised again.”

Mateo’s head shook. “Heretics working with Nocen. Isn’t that just our worst nightmare?” Giving a shudder, he pushed on. “Like I said, we were hoping to find the pack anyway. This is a decent lead. But if they’ve got the numbers we think they do, there’s no way we can take them on ourselves.”

“We never expected you to,” Limnoreia quickly confirmed. “That would be… completely absurd on our part. We’re just afraid that… sending our people out now, as emotional and unstable as they are, would create more problems than it would solve. If they did find the other pack, they would not wait for reinforcements or for any kind of plan. And more likely, they’d simply walk into some other threat in their rush to find their children and other loved ones. It is our hope that by keeping them here and allowing them to train and busy themselves in other ways, they will be ready when the time comes.

“That is what Namythiet here is for.” Lifting her hand, the woman indicated the pixie. “She will accompany you and send a message back that will summon our forces once you have located the pack. With the aid she’s been provided, they will be able to arrive almost immediately. And rest assured, should you require any other assistance at any time, we will provide anything we can.”

“Good.” Mateo nodded. “Going after this Nocen pack, it’ll be good to have some back-up. I can’t even–”

Before he could finish speaking, a blonde teenage girl emerged from behind the car that the tawny wolf had disappeared behind, dressed in shorts and a simple tee shirt. As soon as she saw the girl, Namythiet flew up off of Limnoreia’s shoulder, drawing her needle-sword.

“Heretic!” she blurted in a half-panicked voice. “Run, Sept, I’ll protect you!” Holding the sword in front of herself, she flicked back and forth through the air. “You want to take my Sept, Heretic, you’ll have to go through me and my little friend! Sic her, Clubber!”

The green tiger cub, who had been lounging nearby, lifted his head to look that way for a moment. Then he proceeded to pounce… at a passing butterfly… which he missed entirely.

A blue hand moved up under her feet to catch the pixie gently. “Easy,” Limnoreia softly counseled. “It’s all right, Namythiet. We already knew that one of their wolves used to be a Heretic.” To the girl herself, she added, “Though we had not heard that you possessed the ability to summon clothes for yourself. That must be quite useful.”

Flushing slightly, the Heretic-wolf (Roxa, apparently), shook her head. “It wasn’t me.” To demonstrate, she reached up to the choker that she still wore. As her hand approached the jewel, it literally disappeared from sight. A moment later, she began withdrawing handfuls of clothes, which she tossed to her packmates so that they could start to get dressed.

“My old headmistress sent this to me,” she explained. “It’s like the pocket dimensions that hold our weapons, only it can hold clothes and anything else we can’t carry in wolf form. Oh, and speaking of weapons…” Trailing off, she looked toward Mateo.

“Go ahead, Roxa,” the pack-leader replied with a nod. “Call her down here. It seems safe enough.”

The blonde gave a loud whistle then. A moment later, there was a rush of motion. Namythiet quickly looked up and flew a little higher in time to see some kind of metal hoverboard come flying down out of the air. As it approached, the board shifted and transformed, four legs extending out to catch itself while it finished changing into the shape of a mechanical cougar.

“We thought it’d be good to have some back-up,” Mateo explained while he and the others began to get dressed in the clothes that Roxa tossed them. “You know, just in case.”

Namythiet, however, didn’t hear anything the Sept said in return. She was too busy flying straight up to the robot cat with a squeal of joy. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! A real life Heretic animal-weapon! And it’s not gonna eat me! Wait, it’s not gonna eat me, is it?”

The blonde girl blinked, stepping over before laying a hand on the robot cougar’s head. “Gidget won’t eat you. You like robots, umm… Namythiet, was it?”

“That’s me!” the pixie chirped excitedly, unable to help herself. “And do I like robots? Do I like robots?!”

Limnoreia calmly explained, “Namythiet is a Hephaesetical pixie. They’re quite rare. Most pixies are connected or tied to nature in some way, be it to plants, water, the earth itself, or even particular animals. Hephaesetical pixies, however, are connected to technology and… well, artificial constructions.”

“She means I like to build stuff!” the young pixie summarized while inspecting the mechanical cougar. “I always wanted to see what the Heretics built. Can I look, huh, huh, can I? Please?” She gave the blonde her best wide-eyed innocent pleading stare.

“Why don’t you call the van over so they can see what they’re working with?” Limnoreia suggested. “I’m sure you’ll have a chance to ask anything you want later.”

“Van?” Hasty perked up, moving from her pacing to stand beside her pack leader. “What van? There’s a van?”

In response, Namythiet turned in the air and put her fingers to her mouth to give a piecing whistle that was quite loud considering her small size.

Immediately, a dark green van that was parked across the parking lot started up. Its headlights turned on, and the vehicle roared over the lot before skidding to a stop nearby, engine idling.

“We thought that, considering your search may take you anywhere, something more subtle than a pack of wolves would be better,” Limnoreia began. “And as Namythiet has been working on this for the past several weeks to indulge her Hephaesetical urges, it was already prepared.”

“You uhh, built a van?” Roxa asked, her tone curious.

“Not just a van,” Namythiet blurted excitedly. “The van!” Flying over to the side of it, she raised her arms and gestured the way she had seen human models do. “See, it’s got armor that’s hard enough to take most human gunfire without even scratching it. And it’s got stabilizers to keep it upright even if an Amarok or a Nemean crashes into it. It’s got all kinds of surveillance stuff in it, both human technology and magic. It can get up a hundred and thirty miles an hour. It can change colors or turn invisible, and it has these…”

Whistling a short, complicated song, she waited until two ballistae rose out of the top of the van. One faced forward, the other backward. Both could rotate all the way around, allowing a full three hundred and sixty degree firing arc.

“A couple of really big crossbows?” the black girl, Lesedi, asked curiously.

“Ballistae,” Namythiet corrected. “And they can fire three different things. EMP bolts to shut down electrical things like if you’re chasing a car, explosive bolts to do boom damage, and bolts that spray out this knock-out gas to put them to sleep. Pretty cool, huh?” She was beaming with pride.

Smiling, Mateo nodded. “Very… cool indeed. And you’re right, spending time in a van’ll be a lot better than running across the country on all fours. Even if it is a little cramped.”
“Cramped?” Namythiet echoed, her broad smile widening even more. “Wanna bet?”

With that, she flew around to the back and landed on the handle before giving one more whistle. In response, the handle dropped out from under her feet before the door opened, revealing the van interior.

The pack of werewolves stood there and stared. “Okay,” Corson started as the first to find his voice. “What the hell?”

Instead of looking like the ordinary back interior of a van, what they saw through the open door was more like an entire apartment. There was a living room ahead of them with a couch, recliners, and a television on plush blue carpet, an open doorway to the side with a visible bathroom, a connected kitchenette just off from the living area, and another couple doors further in.

“It’s like the Heretic pocket dimension stuff,” Roxa blurted while the rest stared. “Like the stuff for our, I mean their weapons, or the apartments that the teachers use that are bigger on the inside.”

“It’s a freaking TARDIS,” the big Samoan announced, sounding utterly overjoyed. “It’s a TARDIS!” Turning, he carefully took Namythiet in his massive hands and began to literally jump up and down with her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Giggling, the little pixie squirmed her way free eventually before turning on Roxa. “And it’s not Heretic pocket dimension stuff. They stole it from pixies. We made it first.”

The blonde flushed. “Oh, uh, sorry. I didn’t… umm… I didn’t know.”

Mateo stepped forward then, laying a hand on Roxa’s shoulder. “Are you sure you want us to take something this important….?”

“Finding the kids is important!” Namythiet insisted. “You need all the help you can get. And besides, like Sept Limnoreia said, Clubber and me are going with you!”

The Nereid herself gave a slight nod. “Indeed. As I said, you’ll have every bit of assistance we can provide. I know you’ll want to leave soon, but would you mind coming inside for a few minutes first? We’d like to introduce your pack to the parents of the children who were taken, so that they can see who will be leading the search. And we have supplies we’d like to give you.”

Glancing to his pack to make sure they were all right with it, Mateo nodded. “Sure. Yeah, let’s go in for a bit. But we’ll have to get on the road soon. Because I have a feeling, wherever Lemuel’s pack took those kids, we need to find them as soon as we can.

“Before it’s too late.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to give it a look with the Previous Chapter button. 

The aftermath of the werewolf attack made the mall that was Wonderland look like it had been hit by a tornado. Or even a bomb. There were holes in the walls, stands tipped over, glass from broken windows spread everywhere, and more debris than I could process. Worse, however, were the bodies lying on the floor. Some were being tended to by others, but far too many were lying still and empty with sightless gazes, their broken forms torn apart too much to even try to save. And… not all of them were adults.

I had heard of massacres before, had seen reports on the news about what happened in war or during terrorist attacks. I wasn’t that naive. I knew that innocent people died a lot, even children. I knew it, logically in my head. And finding out that not all Alters/Strangers were evil had made it clear that this kind of thing could happen even to them. Hell, hearing about what happened to the Meregan was heartbreaking. And yet… this… seeing it in person, seeing these innocent people who hadn’t done anything wrong lying there, broken or dead was… it made me want to throw up. Everywhere my eyes turned, another sight of blood, of ripped organs or exposed bone made my heart want to shrivel up and die. I saw a little girl, no older than five or so with a pair of small blue horns on her head sitting in a corner with her obviously dead mother’s head in her lap. The girl herself was covered in blood, and I couldn’t even tell if it was hers or not. She was just sitting there with dust and bodily fluids covering her, a shell-shocked look on her young face as she stared at nothing, stroking her dead mother’s face.

I must have stopped walking, my gaze centered on that little girl with the body of her mother, because Shiori squeezed my hand to get my attention. “Flick,” she whispered under her breath, “are you okay?”

I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t. Because that little girl was just one of many sights that tore my heart out when I saw them. And I couldn’t just walk past. Releasing Shiori’s hand, I slowly moved that way, putting one foot in front of the other before I consciously realized what I was doing. In a moment, I was standing near the girl. My mouth opened to say something, but I had no idea what. I’m sorry? How stupid and trite was that? What could I possibly say that would make any of this even a little bit better?

In the end, I said nothing. No sound would come out of my mouth through the confusion in my brain and the lump in my throat. But I must have made some kind of sound, because the blankly staring girl turned her head. Her amber eyes found me, and I heard a squeak of wordless terror. Her arms went down, and I realized belatedly that the girl was covering her mother’s body as much as she could. All without ever taking her gaze off me, while big, thick tears of indescribable fear flooded her eyes.

Then Asenath was between us. Her hand found my shoulder and she gave me a brief sympathetic look before turning to the girl. “Ylena,” she whispered, kneeling for a moment to give the terrified, grieving girl a hug. Those terrified eyes stayed on me for another second before the girl let herself be embraced.

Turning away, I moved back to Shiori. “They know,” I murmured softly, my voice dull. “They know to be afraid of us. Even that girl, her mom was—and she was… even then, she was scared of us, of me.”

“They teach ’em young.” It was Seth, leaning against a nearby decorative pillar that had managed to remain standing. “Recognize the Heretics and run away. Hide. Run and hide, because the monsters are gonna get you.” Pausing, he took a cigarette out and stuck it between his lips before flicking open a lighter. Giving the lit cigarette a couple puffs, he finished with, “In this case, you’re the monsters.”

The words were harsh, but they were nothing I hadn’t already been thinking before he said anything. Heretics were the monsters to Alters. They had us and the actual evil Alters to worry about, the Nocen.

For a few moments, Shiori and I stood there in silence. Eventually, Asenath joined us once more. From the corner of my eye, I saw another adult Alter kneeling with the little girl, Ylena. Senny looked to me, her expression soft. “She didn’t mean it like that. She’s just—her aunt was the only family she had left.”

I winced, but it was Shiori who spoke. “Aunt?” she asked, her voice making it clear that she was afraid of the response even though she couldn’t stop herself from continuing. “I thought that was her mother.”

Shaking her head, Senny explained, “Her parents were killed about a year ago, by–” In the midst of her sentence, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes flicked over to us and I saw the truth in her brief hesitation.

“Heretics,” I finished for her. “Her parents were killed by Heretics.” I wanted to ask if it was Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretics, or even natural ones. But in the end, it didn’t really matter at all.

“Yes,” the vampire girl confirmed softly before letting out a low sigh. “That’s why this is important.”

“I know.” Swallowing hard, I forced myself to nod. “I get it. The war that my mom started, the rebellion, it was… it brought Heretics and Alters together. We can’t let that just be forgotten forever.”

With that clearly on all of our minds, we started back toward the Septs place once more. My eyes kept wandering, taking in even more of the destructive scene. I’d thought that the little girl, Ylena, with her dead aunt would be the worst thing that I saw. But that was just one of many examples that were all warring for the top position. Or, to be more accurate, the bottom position in this endless sea of tragedy.

Still, they all seemed to be pulling themselves together more quickly than I would have thought. Shiori clearly noticed that too, since she murmured, “It’s like they’re all…” She stopped talking for a second, and I saw realization dawn in her eyes even as the last few words escaped her weakly. “… used to it.”

Asenath hesitated before nodding. “They are. We are. This isn’t the first place Wonderland has been, and it won’t be the last. These people, they deal with potential attacks from Heretics and Nocen all the time. They grow up learning to watch out for Heretics, to keep their eyes open and avoid leading any of the hunters back to their homes. But it doesn’t always work. Attacks happen. They pick up the pieces and move on.” Her gaze found mine briefly. “Most of them have spent their whole lives like this.”

Their whole lives, spent dealing with one attack after another. The thought made me physically ill. That girl, Ylena, most of these Alters had grown up just like her. They’d lost parents, other family members, friends. All because of what they were born as, not anything they had actually done. The Heretics, we… we hunted them down and made their lives miserable, made them hide, because they weren’t human.

Of course, it was more complicated than that. There were a lot of bad Alters that did horrifying things to humans. Look at what happened to Koren’s father. And I knew that a lot of the Heretics, even the hardliner ones, genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. It wasn’t all black and white, and if I fell into the trap of assuming that all Alters were good and innocent and all Heretics were vicious killers, it would be no better than the hardliner Heretics who thought the opposite. There was nuance. Good Alters, bad Alters. Good Heretics, Bad Heretics. And somehow, Mom had been able to convince a large enough group of each of that fact to start a rebellion that had lasted more than half a century.

Walking back into the former Sears where the Septs were located, we found the group already waiting aside from the empty chair that Seth casually strolled over to and dropped himself in. None of the faces looked happy, though I couldn’t tell how much was directed at us and how much was at the situation.

Fennicus, the centaur, spoke first. “You’ll forgive us,” he began in a low voice, “if we hurry this along. We have things to do. People to take care of.” There was a brief pause before, “Loved ones to bury.”

Flinching, I nodded. “I’m sorry. We can come back another day if you… if you want. I just—I didn’t want to just walk away, not after…” Unable to find the right words, I finished with a weak, “I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them from killing anyone. I’m sorry that they were here, that they followed us to Wonderland. I tried to stop her. Pace. She’s a Heretic, but she’s also a werewolf, like the others. And she came to take me because… because she and her friends want to hurt my friend, someone I care about.”

“They fought another Heretic to save Alters,” the rock-man, Stav, pointed out. “That aids their claim.”

Unfortunately, the little gnome guy, Kimper, shook his head. “It does nothing of the sort. We already know the hybrid was of the ilk that call themselves Eden’s Garden, while these two are from their Crossroads. And those two groups fight and hate each other almost as much as they fight and hate us.”

Xi, the Rakshasa, inclined her head. “That is true. However, in any case I could think of, Heretics from both organizations will put aside their differences to focus on what they see as the much larger threat: us. They may hate each other quite a bit, but they hate us far more than that. Generally speaking.”

“I don’t hate any of you,” I interrupted in spite of myself. Then I hesitated before nodding toward Calvin. “Well, okay, I’m not his biggest fan. But to be fair, I didn’t like him back when I thought he was human, so that shouldn’t count. The point is, I know that Pace and her pack came here because of us, because of me. They were here for me, and I can’t—I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them from killing anyone.” It was repeating myself, I knew, but no other words would come to mind. I just felt… numb.

“How did they get past your security so easily?” Shiori put in. “I mean, shouldn’t it have been harder for them to get as far as they did? Or at least, shouldn’t there have been an alert sooner?”

Kimper nodded, arms folded over his tiny chest. “Yes. But we lowered a number of the security spells in order to allow your entrance.”

That hit me hard, and I paled. “So… it was our fault they were able to get in here.”

Limnoreia, the blue-skinned Nereid shook her head. “No, Heretic-child. It is not your fault. We had the choice of either lowering our defenses entirely, or adding both of you into their exceptions. We chose the former because we did not trust you enough to risk giving you specific access through those spells. The thought was that if you caused trouble, the defenses could easily be raised and they would target you immediately. It was our mistake. Unfortunately, it is not one that we have paid for.”

Cringing, I thought about Ylena’s dead aunt. “I know. The… the people who died, the ones who were hurt, I’m sorry there’s nothing we can… nothing we can do…”

To my surprise, it was Calvin who spoke. “Oh gods, would you just tell her the truth? She’s either not falling for your little test, or she didn’t have anything to do with it. Probably the latter. I don’t like the little self-righteous snoop, but she’s too much of a damn goody good to be into the whole abducting children thing.

Confused by that, I stared at the man before looking toward the others. “Wait, what’s he talking about?”

“Yes,” Senny agreed with a voice that sounded just as confused as I felt. “What is he talking about?”

The rest of the Septs looked at each other, but it was Seth who spoke after linking his arms behind his head. “Turns out, the fleabags weren’t just here for you after all. Well, maybe they came for that and just took advantage of the situation. Whatever it was, they didn’t end up taking off empty-handed.”

Limnoreia explained in a pained voice. “While we were distracted by the primary attack, several other wolves, accompanied by another Heretic, infiltrated the areas where our nursery and daycare are located. They took several of the children there before they could be stopped.”

More of Pace’s pack—Lemuel’s pack, I reminded myself. Twelve attacked directly. Three more had been keeping the back clear until Seth killed them. And others, apparently, had gone after the children.

A hard, heavy weight seemed to slam itself deep into the pit of my stomach at that. “W-wait,” I blurted, eyes wide. “What do you mean, they took several children? Why—why would they take… take kids?”

“Weres,” Asenath said quietly, sounding pained. “They took were-children, didn’t they?” When the group of Septs nodded, she cursed. “Damn it! Of course they did.” To Shiori and me, she explained, “That’s how a lot of Nocen were-packs expand their numbers. They either turn humans that they think have potential, which has its own risk of failure if the subject doesn’t survive the first change. Or they take the children of weres. Those have… a much higher survival rate because the change is natural.”

While I was reeling from that, something else struck me, and I looked back to the Septs. “Wait, you said there was another Heretic with them. Do you have a picture of them, or a description or anything?”

“He was tall,” Xi explained after exchanging looks with the rest of them. “And he was of the Moors.”

I started to ask what ‘of the Moors’ meant, but Asenath quietly murmured, “She means he was black.”

“Doxer,” I muttered aloud. “It had to be Doxer. Pace, she said something about him helping them find us—me, but I didn’t think he was actually here. Why would he help the pack abduct were-children?”

Senny shrugged a bit. “Maybe he was trying to impress Pace, or owed her. Whichever, the point is-”

“The point,” Fennicus interrupted with a heavy and obviously irritated stomp of his hoof against the floor, “is that we shouldn’t be sitting around in here. We should be working to find those children.”

Kimper was standing in his seat, head bobbing up and down. “We need to send teams out after them!”

“We do that,” Seth pointed out idly from his place, “and we leave Wonderland vulnerable. We already lost enough as it is. If we send enough to challenge this other pack and get the kids back, we leave the people that are left here vulnerable to another attack.” He glanced to me while flicking a switchblade open and shut. “And if we don’t send enough, we’re just handing the pack more victims to play with.”

“What would you have us do, then?” Fennicus demanded. “If we do nothing, the parents and guardians of the were-children will go off on their own. Some of them might do that anyway, regardless. They’ll spread out and get themselves killed, or taken. We must be seen to take action on this, immediately.”

That started a whole new round of arguments between them, some arguing for rescue teams while others continued to point out that lowering their numbers more was going to leave Wonderland weak.

In the midst of all of that, I interrupted. “Hey! Hey, I think we can help. Let us help find the kids.”

All of their eyes turned to me, and Stav spoke in a rumble. “I think you underestimate how long such as search will take. This is not a short or small endeavor, and from what you have said, there is more than enough on your… how do humans say… bowl already.” Beside him, Xi leaned closer to whisper, and the rock-man corrected himself. “Plate. Enough on your plate. How will you spend the time to search for the children, particularly without arousing the confusion and suspicion of your school teachers?”

Wincing at that, I admitted, “Not us, exactly. You’re right, we already have a lot to deal with. And it’s not like we can just wander all over the place searching the country for wherever the pack is holed up. But we do know others that can search. And they’d have sort of a… sort of personal stake in the matter.”

Clearly surprised, Shiori glanced to me. “Wait,” she blurted quickly. “You’re talking about asking–”

I nodded. “There’s another werewolf pack. A smaller one, but… capable. One of them was another Heretic until she was turned by Lemuel, the leader of the pack that attacked you. He didn’t do it to recruit her, he did it to make her die. But she survived, and she was taken in by this other pack. And they want to deal with Pace and the rest of them as much as you do. When they hear that Lemuel’s pack took were-children, I think they’ll want to be involved.”

“A pack of werewolves…” Limnoreia murmured thoughtfully. “Their senses would give them a better chance of tracking the abductors, assuming they could arrive soon enough…”

They conferred quietly for a moment before Xi spoke up for them. “Contact them, Miss Chambers. See what they can do. And for the time being, you may consider us… not quite allied. Not yet. That is something we will have to explore further, preferably without interruptions. But we are not enemies either. We shall see where this goes. Particularly if your contact is able to save the children.”

Taking a breath, I nodded and turned to take the phone from my pocket. Going through the contacts briefly, I hit one of them and brought the phone to my ear.

“Sean? Yeah. Um, listen… is Mateo there?

“I have a really, really big favor to ask.”

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Mini-Interlude 18 – Lincoln Chambers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Felicity’s father, Lincoln. 

Tugging the door to the newspaper office open, Lincoln Chambers stepped inside while holding his cell phone to his ear. “She’s getting a good education out there, Dad. Better than she could get here.”

Arthur Chambers’ voice came back a moment later. “Well, you know. I just don’t like the idea of Felicity being so damn far away from you, Linc. You already–” He stopped himself before continuing, though Lincoln knew that he had been about to bring up Joselyn. “A girl should be near her dad, especially for the last couple years of school. She’s about to go away to college, son. You should keep her as close as you can. Cherish the time you’ve got.”

Even being thousands of miles away from his father, Lincoln could picture exactly where the man was and what he was doing. He’d be standing in the middle of his garden, talking on his Bluetooth (he loved his tech toys about as much as he loved growing his vegetables) while puttering around in his greenhouse. Being able to garden year-round was one of the man’s favorite things about living in California.

Not that he looked like much of a farmer. Standing at a whopping six and a half feet tall and built like a truck even in his mid-sixties, people often joked that Arthur was well-named, since he looked like a cross between the mythological Thor and a pirate. Hence Arrrr-thor.

To Felicity, he was simply Popser, a hold-over from when she had been young and the man had teasingly told her she could call him Pops or Sir. The little girl had chosen to combine them into Pop-sir, which had gradually simply become Popser.

“I do, Dad. Believe me, I miss her every day.” Lincoln’s voice caught a little bit before he shook it off. “But I’m not going to take this opportunity away from her, just to make myself feel better. I won’t do that to her. This school is good for her, Dad. Better than being stuck in the public one back here. And after she’s done, they already have a college lined up. It’s direct admission.”

The response was a grunt as his father clearly worked out a stubborn weed to throw out before speaking again. “She jump on the newspaper up there?”

Lincoln sighed to himself, pausing briefly. “No,” he admitted. “At least, not that she’s mentioned.” And she would have mentioned it. Here, the newspaper had meant everything to Felicity. She’d practically run the thing herself through sheer willpower. But since she went up to the school, she didn’t mention it. Nor did the reporter subject come up much.

“But that’s okay,” he pushed on. “Dad, you know I’d love if Felicity went into reporting. She’s good at it. But if she was only doing it to be close to me…well, I’d rather she find out now that there are other things she’d rather do. I don’t want her doing something just for my benefit.”

“Hogwash,” Arthur retorted. “Even if you were a damn plumber, that kid’d be a reporter. She was writing stories in third grade, writing up that bit about the… what was it, the lunchroom thing.”

Swallowing a little, Lincoln answered, “Taco Tuesdays. They kept running out of tacos too soon and giving the kids sandwiches. Felicity figured out the lunch lady was taking a bunch of them home instead of giving them out. Took a whole letter about it to the principal, with pictures.”

“There, you see?” His father’s voice was firm. “That kid was meant to report thing, to investigate, find the truth. She’s got the head for it. And the stubbornness.”

Lincoln found himself nodding. Nonetheless, he insisted, “And if she wants to do that, she’ll come back to it. I can’t smother her, Dad. Not… I just can’t.”

Arthur’s voice softened. “I know, son. I… well, your mom’s yelling something about coming in for our shows. You tell that kid to call me when she gets back in from the trip with the vampire.”

Rolling his eyes, Lincoln chuckled. “She’s not a vampire, Dad. She’s just got a skin condition. Tell Mom we’re sorry we couldn’t make it down there for the holiday this year. We’ll make it another time. And we’ll call on Christmas morning.”

“You better,” Arthur warned. “Or neither of us will ever hear the end of it.” He paused then. “Love you, son.”

“Love you too, Dad.” Lincoln returned the sentiment before disconnecting the call. He took a moment then, standing in the hallway outside the newspaper office itself, collecting himself.

His father was right, he did miss his daughter. And she had definitely changed over the past few months. For one thing, the way she looked at that Shiori girl that came to visit, or even just the way she sounded when she talked about her… he had a feeling there was a discussion that Felicity was going to want to have with him at some point. But he wasn’t going to rush her to it. He’d be there for her when she was ready.

More seriously, not only had his daughter stopped bringing up anything to do with reporting or the newspaper, but she had also voluntarily brought up her mother more times than she had in several years.

He thought he knew why, but it was something that he didn’t know how to bring up with her. Nor was he going to tell his father about it and worry both of his parents about their granddaughter.

Not talking about any investigation she was doing when he knew for a fact she enjoyed it too much to just abandon it. Asking about her mother so often. Actually being okay with him calling her Felicity instead of Flick. All of it came together to mean one thing.

Felicity was trying to find her mother. She was trying to find out where Joselyn had disappeared to, and maybe why she had disappeared.

He’d been down that hole so many times, and had gotten nowhere. He wanted to tell Felicity that much, but he also didn’t want to discourage her. She had been so… down on her mother for so many years. If this investigation at least gave her enough closure to not… to not hate Joselyn, then he couldn’t take that away from her.

But how could he talk to her about it? What could he possibly say?

Stepping into the wide open bullpen full of desks and people shouting over each other on their phones or to one another, Lincoln’s thoughts were interrupted as his eyes found his own desk. Sitting on the corner of it was a manila envelope. His name was written on the front. Picking it up, he felt something slide around. But other than his name, there were no other markings. It had clearly been delivered in person.

Opening the envelope, he found a single object: an unlabeled CD. Frowning as he turned it over in his hands, the man finally shrugged and put the disc into the computer sitting beside his desk before sitting down. A single video file came up in the list of contents, and he double-clicked it.

For a moment, Lincoln watched the video. With each passing second, his eyes grew wider. Finally, his hand slapped the button on the keyboard to stop the video as the man went back to his feet. His head turned, eyes moving rapidly to look over the room full of people. All of them were familiar, people he knew. No one new. No one that would have left the envelope without saying anything else.

“Ada!” Turning, he focused on the woman at the desk nearest to his. When her eyes snapped up from her computer, he snatched the envelope off his desk and held it up. “Did you see who left this? Do you know who it was?”

Her eyes lingered on the envelope briefly before she nodded. “Oh sure, yeah. It was a big black guy. Maybe a couple inches over six feet. Real handsome too. Said his name was uh… umm… “ She snapped her fingers a few times trying to recall. “Guh something. Gary, no. Jerr—no, Gah… gah… Gab-Gabriel. That’s it. Said his name was Gabriel.”

“Did you get a last name?” Lincoln pressed. Receiving a shrug in return, he turned his attention back to the computer. Slowly, he reached down to hit the button once more to let it play.

The video on the screen was poor quality, and obviously very old. From the look of it, the video had been taken from a Super 8 home movie and copied onto the disc. There were dark lines running down it here and there, and the movie itself had no sound. Despite the poor quality of the video, however, it was still quite possible to make it out. It showed the inside of what looked like a hospital waiting room. There were a dozen people in the shot, all of them staring a television in the corner. A television that showed footage that Lincoln recognized. It was the news report announcing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And going from the looks on the people’s faces in the home video, it was also the first time they’d heard of it. Fresh news.

Lincoln’s attention wasn’t on the recorded news report, however. Nor was it on the vast majority of people who were reacting to it with tears and disbelief. No, his disbelieving gaze was focused on a single person on the screen, a single young woman standing in the middle of the shot with two infants in her arms. A woman who looked remarkably good considering she shouldn’t have been born for another decade.

“… Joselyn?”

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Winter Wonderland 18-07

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For once, Pace seemed to be stunned into silence. She hadn’t moved by the time Shiori reached the spot where I was still kneeling and put out a hand to pull me up to my feet. “Are you okay?” the Asian girl asked quickly, her tone and wide-eyed expression making it clear that she couldn’t decide whether to be worried or seriously impressed. Belatedly, she added in a cute little whisper, “That was really badass.

“I’m okay,” I promised while accepting the hand up. Despite my flippant remark while shoving my knife into the wolf, I was actually shaking. My mouth and throat felt dry, and I kept seeing the dead wolf at my feet from the corner of my eyes. Not wolf, I reminded myself. Werewolf. Dead werewolf.

Pace had apparently recovered by that point. Not only mentally, but she’d also physically recovered the weapon that I’d shot out of her hand. She was holding both, staring at the two of us like we were particularly interesting toys that had somehow managed to start moving and talking. “Well… well… well,” the girl muttered audibly in a tone that was more surprised and vaguely curious than it was outraged or grieving. Which, frankly, was a weird reaction to me killing one of her pack-mates. It made me wonder if she even actually cared about them at all, considering how she’d been acting. Hell, she’d even made a holiday joke about Valentine, the first of her supposed pack that I’d ended up killing.

Shiori turned slightly to face the girl, hands tightly clutching her discs. “Oh right, still one left.”

“One?” Pace echoed before giggling with obvious amusement. Which, again, seemed strange given what I had just done. Dancing from one foot to the other almost like a child that really needed to use the bathroom, she remarked with suspicious casualness, “Sooomeone should learn how to count.”

My mouth opened to ask what she meant by that, but before I could say anything, the slightest squeak of movement on the floor somewhere behind us caught my attention. Shiori had obviously heard it too, because she spun that way at the same time that I did, both of us with our weapons raised defensively.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t have mattered how many weapons we had. Because as I turned, my eyes took in the sight of six werewolves coming straight at us. Half were in full wolf form while the others were in that large half-wolf shape. And every last one of them were in a blind, frothing-at-the-mouth rage. They weren’t in any mood to capture us. No, going by the looks in those eyes and the bloodcurdling chorus of snarls and howls filling the air, they were going to quite literally rip us apart.

They were almost on top of us. Shiori was reacting already, but she was trying to grab me instead of taking care of herself. My hand snapped up to give her a hard shove out of the way. It wasn’t quite full strength, but it was enough to send her flying several feet and take her out of the wolves’ path. Which left me standing directly in front of the bloodthirsty, enraged beasts as they lunged, spittle flying.

My brain shut off, and I simply reacted. The nearest wolf was basically on top of me as I gave a quick lunge forward while ducking my head away from his jaws as they snapped shut where my throat would have been an instant earlier. Directly past him, one of the wolf-men was swiping down with his massive claws. But at the last second, I pivoted abruptly on my left foot. It was just enough to make him miss tearing a big chunk out of my side. Then the second full wolf was there, trying to grab for my leg to tear me to the ground. Just before its powerful jaws would’ve closed around my throat, I pushed off into a flip that carried me over him. Which brought me directly in front of the second wolf-man.

He was slamming both of his arms together to catch hold of me in a bear hug (wolf hug?) that probably would’ve crushed my ribs into powder if he’d managed to actually get hold of me with it. But even as I landed, my body was dropping into a sudden roll that took me between his legs. Which took me right to the third full wolf, whose blinding rage looked briefly overtaken by surprise at my sudden appearance before he lunged for me, clearly thinking that my position rolling on the floor had left me vulnerable.

He was wrong. Even as the wolf leapt with his mouth open and teeth bared, I managed to somehow get a foot underneath myself. Kicking off with it, I did this side-flip off the floor, barely clearing the wolf.

That side-flip took me directly in front of the last wolf-man, who was just starting to react to the fact that I was there. His claws came for me as I landed, but I twisted first one way, then the other. My body dipped, evading both of his rapid swipes before I dove into a low somersault under his third, even more enraged attempt. There was no skill or thought to his attack, just like there hadn’t been for any of the others. They were attacking blindly, without planning anything they were doing. All they cared about was murdering me as quickly (and preferably painfully) as possible in revenge for their pack-mate.

Even enraged, however, they should have been able to utterly destroy me. Honestly, six of them versus one of me, even in a blind rage they should’ve torn me apart in about two seconds. And yet somehow… somehow I had just basically danced my way through all six of them without even being touched once.

As I rolled to my knees and spun back, only one thought came to mind. How the hell had I done that?

“How the hell did you do that?!” Shiori blurted my own thoughts as she skidded to a stop next to me.

“I… I… I…” My mouth worked a few times while I crouched there before admitting, “I don’t know.”

The wolf I’d killed. That had to be it. Instead of improving the enhanced strength that I’d already gotten from killing Valentine, apparently this one had given me… what, super-enhanced reflexes and agility?

By that point, the half dozen wolves that I had worked my way through had managed to collect themselves and recover. They spun back to us, and I could tell that while they were still furious, their initial uncontrollable rage was ebbing a bit. Which wasn’t good, since it meant that they wouldn’t be blindly attacking next time. And six werewolves plus Pace versus Shiori and me would be a massacre.

“Oh boy, oh boy.” Speaking of Pace, the crazy girl had already worked her way to the front of the pack of furious werewolves. “You really ticked them off there, Present.” Her tone turned to a stage-whisper as she leaned forward, cupping a hand to the side of her mouth. “I think you’re off their Christmas list.”

Somehow, through all of that, Shiori had managed to grab my staff. She passed it back to me while keeping her eyes on the wolves, who were starting to spread out a little bit. “I think we’ll survive.”

“Don’t be so sure.” That was from one of the wolves, rather than Pace. He had shifted back into his human shape, looking remarkably like a mild-mannered accountant. Well, except for the whole naked thing. He wasn’t that tall, and his figure was pale with heavily freckled skin and light brown hair. And he was also glaring at me with a hatred that actually made me shiver. “No,” he added darkly. “I don’t think you’ll survive at all. Which still works. Kill one of us, maybe we let the Heretics play with you. Kill two of us…” His face started to shift back a little as he began to resume his man-wolf form.

“We should really be going,” Pace put in idly, looking like she didn’t particularly care much either way.

The man-wolf’s voice was a rough, gravely growl. “Not yet. It won’t take long to kill these bitches. Monty and the other two are still holding the back door, so we’ve got time. Just enough to finish this.”

Other two? There were three more wolves besides the ones that we had already seen? Three more who were apparently holding the back door. Fantastic, so these guys weren’t even in a rush to leave yet.

Beside me, I felt Shiori set herself with her weapons drawn and ready. Swallowing, I did the same. In front of us, the six wolves had finished spreading out to cover the width of the mall corridor. They weren’t blinded by rage anymore. They were going to work together as a pack to take us down.

The tension was rising. The air was thick with it. Any second, they’d lunge. I just didn’t know which one would make the first move. Whoever it was, Shiori and I had to stay together. We had to watch each other’s backs and just try to last as long as we could. Maybe Asenath or Buddy would show up.

And then, just as I saw one of the wolves bracing himself to spring toward us, something came sailing in from the side. My eyes spotted it, widening at the sight of the mangled, broken form of another werewolf in full wolf form. Its head was twisted around the wrong way, it was bleeding from half a dozen wounds, and most importantly: its chest had been ripped open and its heart was missing. Along with what looked like several other very important organs. The thing had basically been butchered.

Every eye turned that way, only to see a single figure walk out of one of the mall’s staff-only corridors. Seth. The vampire that Asenath knew, the one who was one of the Septs. He was strolling casually into view. And he was dragging two more very dead wolves along the floor with him, one in each hand.

Three werewolves. Three combat prepared and trained werewolves on the attack, working together to guard a single point. And Seth had just—he’d killed all of them. With what seemed to have been ease. Hell, he didn’t seem to have a scratch on him. Which, to be fair, could be the vampire healing. But still.

“I wouldn’t really, ahhh…” the vampire drawled while giving both of the wolves a simple toss that put them in the middle of the floor next to the third one, “… count on that ‘watch the back door’ thing.”

Stopping nearby, he cracked his neck to the side and I heard an audible pop. “Hey, kids. You all right?”

Tiebreaker,” the wolf-man who had been talking before snarled, even as all of them took a step back. When they saw me kill one of them, they’d flown into a blind rage and rushed me. But when they saw the vampire kill three of them, they were intimidated into taking a step back. And then another one.

For his part, Seth just smiled almost sleepily while replying, “And bones… and necks… and don’t forget about the occasional heart here and there. But yeah, I break ties too. You know, when I feel like it.”

Instead of rushing us, or making another threat, the wolf-man turned toward Pace. “Exit,” he ordered.

At first I thought he was just telling her to leave. But Pace flipped her kusarigama up, catching them by the handles. Then she hit something, and the weapons shifted in her grip. Some kind of protective sheathe covered the blades, allowing the girl to slip her hands down to use them as grips. At the same time, the very end of what had already been the handles dropped open, revealing a gun barrel hidden inside each. Pointing the weapons over at the nearby wall, Pace pulled a trigger that had appeared on one, then the other. From the first, a white blast emerged, freezing part of the wall. The red blast from the second weapon blew a hole into the exact spot that the first one had weakened by freezing.

Right, not only could Pace freeze (and apparently burn) things with the chains of her weapons, but they could also turn into guns that did the same. Because that’s what she needed: to be more dangerous.

The wolves and Pace retreated through the new hole, all of them keeping wary eyes on us. Well, okay, that was flattering Shiori and me. Ninety percent of their attention was clearly centered solely on Seth.

Once they were gone, I slumped. Shiori did the same, panting as she looked at the vampire. “You… you…” Her mouth was working, eyes flicking down at the three dead werewolves and then back to him.

Before the other girl could finish whatever she had been trying to say, there was a blur of motion. Asenath came skidding to a stop, blood drenching her front. She was carrying two knives that looked somewhat similar to the one I still had in one hand. “Reathma,” she blurted, looking first to her sister, then to me. “You’re… You’re okay.” Dropping her weapons, she moved to embrace Shiori tightly.

Shiori returned the hug while blushing a little. Her voice was hesitant. “You—you’re okay too? Everything else, the wolves, they’re all gone?”

Smiling a little, Asenath nodded. “Dealt with or gone. The survivors took off. And I’m fine. Wrestled tougher wolves than those before.” Exhaling, she paused before glancing to the dead werewolves. Then she looked to Seth, voice neutral. “Those yours?”

“Eh,” the man shrugged with what was by now patented casualness. “A few. Your Heretic there killed one of them.” He nodded toward me, eyebrows raised. “Pretty impressive for a trainee, by the way.”

My mouth opened, but before I could respond, another thought struck me. “Oh!” Shoving the knife away, my hands fumbled into my pocket until I found my phone. “I’ve gotta call Wyatt before he sends in the entire National Guard.” Quickly hitting the speed dial button, I held the phone up, muttering to myself about what would happen if my half-brother finished rounding up a posse and came charging in right then.

“Wyatt,” I blurted as soon as he answered. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. We’re fine. We’re good…ish.”

Surprisingly, he answered far more calmly than I thought he’d be, “I know. We’re watching you.”

I blinked at that, then blinked again. “Who—what?” I asked dully. “What do you mean you’re–” My head moved up and I looked to a security camera in the corner, my eyes wide. “You’re watching us?”

“I came to Gaia,” Wyatt explained. “She did something to make the ceiling in her office show the security footage from where you are. So we watched, just in case you needed help. But you didn’t.”

No wonder he was actually calm. If anyone could make Wyatt slow down and breathe, it was Gaia. And if she’d actually taken over the security cameras (probably similar to the way she had taken over the portal machine on the Meregan ship) to let him see what was going on, it obviously helped. Though I wasn’t really sure how the other Septs would feel about that if they found out about it.

A glance toward the other three confirmed that they had most likely heard all of that. Swallowing, I hesitated before murmuring, “Tell Gaia I’ll call and explain everything as soon as we’re done here.”

As I disconnected, Asenath stepped over to embrace me as well. “Sorry I wasn’t here earlier. Wolf might not have been the strongest one I’ve dealt with, but he was tenacious. Glad you’re okay.”

“Me too,” I agreed, before looking at Seth. “But we wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t shown up.”

The two vampires looked at each other in silence for a moment before Senny quietly spoke. “Thank you.”

In response, Seth just gave a shrug of one shoulder. “Eh, it’s like I said. We’re practically family.”

“How–” My voice caught, and I had to swallow hard before pushing on. “How many did they kill? What—what’s going on back there?” I was afraid to look back to see just how many bodies there were and how much damage had been done.

Sobering, Senny straightened. “I haven’t seen everything,” she admitted quietly. “If… if you want to leave before they blame you for what happened, I understand.”

My head shook at that. “No. If we’re going to make an alliance work, we can’t just run away because it gets hard. We need to show them that we’ll be there, that we’ll stick around even when things go bad. It’s the only way to convince them to trust us.”

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed. “They might be mad now, because the wolves attacked while we were here. But if we leave without talking to them, they’ll never listen to us again. They might not even listen to you anymore.”

After looking back and forth between us for a couple seconds, Senny finally nodded, a small smile touching her face. “Okay.” Turning, she started back the other way.

For a second, I hesitated. Despite my words, I was afraid to go back and see everything that the wolves had done. Not only because of how the Septs and the other Alters might react to seeing us after what happened, but also because… well, because I didn’t really relish seeing the kind of damage that a bunch of werewolves could do to innocent civilians.

Then I felt a touch. Glancing down, I saw Shiori slip her hand into mine before squeezing it. When I looked up, she gave me a slight smile. “It’ll be okay, Flick.”

And somehow… I believed her.

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