Suspects 24-03

Previous Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

One thing that I obviously had to ask before we went anywhere else with this particular conversation was a simple, “How? How’d you guys get out of the house? How did you get away from the werewolves? They said–they said it looked like the wolves were killed by a bunch of Heretics, but I know it wasn’t–I mean, if it was some of Gabriel’s people, he would’ve said so.”

“Not a bunch of Heretics,” Dad corrected. “Just one, actually. A powerful one, I think. Not that I have a lot to compare it to, but from what I saw, she’s pretty damn powerful. Scary powerful. She’s the one who weakened that memory suppression thing so I’d have a chance to break through it. Pretty sure if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be clueless. Not to mention dead right now.”

“One Heretic?” My eyes widened as I echoed those words. “You mean a Heretic broke the Bystander Effect for you? Or helped you break it. But who–what–how? What do you-”

“She was part of the Committee,” my father interrupted with a statement that made me give a choked gasp. “The uh, Crossroads Committee? That’s the group that–the leaders, right?”

“Th-the Committee?” I managed through a strangled voice. “The Committee as in that Committee? But–but who–what? You said she. As in a woman. Who was–I mean which one-”

“She said her name was Calafia,” he answered quietly. “Does that… mean anything to you?”

Calafia. Wait. Calafia? As in the dark-skinned woman who had never really said that much? I tried to think back to the single interaction I’d had with the woman while meeting the Committee.

She hadn’t said that much, I remembered. She’d spoken up to say that Litonya hadn’t been accusing me of anything, and to tell me that anytime I needed to take a break, I could. Other than that I couldn’t really remember anything she’d done. Mostly, she stayed in the background.

“She said that she owed your mother,” Dad interrupted my tornado of rebounding thoughts and confusion. “She said she owed Joselyn more than she could ever repay, but that one thing she could do was make sure her husband learned the truth. I don’t know what that meant.”

It made sense. Gabriel had said that the person who helped break the Bystander Effect for my dad had wanted to help, and that they did so because they owed my mother. And if anyone was going to be powerful enough to make it so that a normal human could break through the Bystander Effect, it would be someone who was part of the Committee. Still, I was stunned.

I was going to have to talk to her. Somehow, someway, I had to find out more about Calafia and what she owed my mother. I had to talk to her about my mother, about everything. If she could help… I shook that off, along with all the accompanying paranoia. Or tried to, at the very least.

Finally, I took a breath. “I guess you kinda want to know how my year’s been going so far, huh?”

“That’d be nice,” Dad replied dryly. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and we’ll go from there?”

“From the beginning?” I echoed before nodding. “Alright, here goes…” So I started to tell him what had happened, from the beginning. Starting with right after I left our house that first day.

“So let me get this straight,” my father asked in a tone that betrayed some combination of curiosity and indignance. “You just woke up on that bus, alone and in the middle of nowhere?”

Coughing, I nodded to myself. It felt like so long ago. It had only been a few months, but somehow, it seemed like that had happened at least a couple years back. “Yeah, I guess they still hadn’t quite decided what to do with me right up until the very last second. The Committee ended up with an unbreakable tie, so they had to have Gaia–Headmistress Sinclaire come in and break it. That’s why I didn’t get the normal orientation that all the other Bystander-kin got.”  

Pausing briefly, Dad started slowly. “Bystander–oh, that’s what they call… what, like Mug–”

“Ordinary humans, yeah,” I interrupted while shaking my head. “Bystanders. People like me, the ones that were raised in ordinary families are called Bystander-kin. Or Silverstones. As in–”

“Alicia, Clueless,” Dad cut in before grunting. “Not exactly a ringing endorsement or praise.”

“You got that faster than I did,” I muttered before taking a breath. “But yeah, that’s the term they use. And you should see the school here, Dad. It’s on this tropical island, with this ocean and a jungle everywhere. A real jungle, with all these wild animals and everything. It’s really pretty, gorgeous I mean, which is totally purposeful  and–and you’ve gotta meet my sharks, and–”

“I’m sorry, what?” Dad interrupted while sounding completely incredulous. “Did you just say I have to meet your sharks? Wait a second, kid. I know I’ve been pretty cool about this whole secret society of monster hunters thing, but did you go and join a finger-snapping gang that spontaneously breaks out into song too? Because I honestly don’t know if I could handle that.”

Covering my mouth with one hand to hide the snicker, I took a moment before replying as flatly as I could, “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are, you know. No, they’re real sharks. They’re like, umm, my friends. It’s sort of a um, a power that I inherited, taming these sharks.”

“A power you inherited by…” Dad started before trailing off. His voice was quieter. “By killing.”

Flinching a little bit, I sat up in bed to put my back against the headboard. “Would it help if I said the shark guy was attacking at the time, and that it was self-defense? And defense of others.”

“Kid,” Dad replied low, his voice quiet, yet firm. “I know you. You may have all this training, may have fought monsters and seen more crazy shit in a few months than I’ve seen in my entire life. But l know you. Of course it was self-defense. I’d never question that. You’ve done what you had to do. I’m not gonna run in and try to take over, try to pretend that I know better than you. Yeah, I’m your dad. But right now I feel about as clueless as…” He sighed, voice going a bit darker. “I’m your dad, I’m supposed to protect you from this stuff. But I’m not gonna pretend I can now. I’m not gonna act like a stubborn ass and start screwing everything up. So just… tell me what happened, all right? Tell me all of it, because if I’m gonna help at all, I need to know.”

Biting my lip, I backed up a bit. I told my father about seeing the light from the Heretical Edge. I told him about my vision, about recognizing Gaia. I told him about meeting my team, playing with Herbie, how much of an ass Deveron acted like at first, and more. I told him about how the food was delivered, how the room keys automatically unlocked our rooms when we got close to them, about choosing my weapon, my first classes, everything I could think of that had been my initial impression of the school over that first day or two. I told him all of it, trying to set the stage.

Then I told him about Professor Pericles. I told him about the man’s death, about how he had been murdered. And I told him about the Peridles attacking Avalon and me in the locked room.

“Wait, wait,” Dad interrupted. “How do you spell that name? The Peridles.” After I told him, he asked how to spell Pericles, then coughed. “Isn’t that weird? They’re only off by one letter. Pericles and Peridles. It might sound different, but spelling-wise, it’s just one letter.”

He was right. There was a difference in sound, with Pericles sounding like ‘Pair-Uh-Klees’ while Peridles was ‘Pair-uh-dulls’. But the spelling was almost identical. “Uhh, yeah.” I blinked a couple times. “I dunno if that means anything or is just a coincidence, but… yeah, they are.”

I continued from there, telling my dad everything I could remember. Or at least summarizing it. Over the next hour, I kept talking until my throat felt hoarse. Through it all, my father interjected a few times, making his own observations and questioning where he needed to for clarification. But mostly, he listened. And there was a lot of listening to do. Hell, up until I’d actually had to explain as much of it as possible, I hadn’t really comprehended just how much was going on.

“Damn, kid,” Dad finally muttered by the end. “When do you ever eat and sleep? Let alone study. Wait, you do have normal classes up there, right? Not just the monster hunting ones.”

Yup, still my dad. Chuckling despite myself, I replied, “Yes, Dad. All sorts of normal classes. Geography, Trig, Chemistry, the lot. I promise, I’m still getting all that stuff. Maybe a little slower than I would’ve because, let’s face it, there’s only so many hours in the day. But I’m getting it.”

“Good, good. I…” Trailing off, Dad took a moment to search for what to say next, grasping for the right words. “You know, I just… I just want to tell you… I want to tell you to stop all this, Flick. I want to tell you to stop all of it and just come here, to run away from it and hide. I want to tell you to leave it alone. But I get the feeling that,” he swallowed audibly, “that wouldn’t work.”

Swallowing hard, I bit my lip before answering. “No, Dad. It wouldn’t. Fossor, he’s gonna come for me regardless, as soon as I’m eighteen. At least here I can get training. And I have friends, friends that I can’t just abandon. Not with everything that’s going on. I need them, and they need me. It’s scary, yeah. But it’s really important too. It’s important and I can’t just walk away from it.”  

“I know, kid.” Dad’s voice was soft and quiet, and I could almost feel his frustration and helplessness. “I know you can’t. And–and I wouldn’t want you to. Not really. You’re just–you’re my girl. You’re my kid, kid. The more I hear about all this stuff, all these people, the power they’ve got, I just… I can’t do anything about it. I can’t fucking do anything to help you, not now.”

“You’re wrong, Dad,” I objected. “Just talking to you about this stuff, it helps. I can… I can think about it a lot more clearly. It’s less… jumbled in my head just from talking about it. That helps.”

There was a brief pause then before he started slowly, “Your mom, when you… when she talked to you through the… the monkey-thing, are you sure she–I mean are you positive it was–”

“It was her,” I promised him. “It was Mom, I swear. She’s… she’s with that fucking psychopath, that piece of shit. But it was her. She was Mom. Dad, she.. She didn’t–I mean it wasn’t her…” My eyes were filling up despite myself, despite the fact that I’d thought I’d already cried myself out earlier while explaining all of this the first time. “She didn’t abandon us, Daddy.” My voice was weak, even to my own ears. It sounded cracked and frail. “She didn’t really abandon us.”

The emotion in Dad’s voice matched what I felt. I could hear the cracks in it, could practically feel his desire to grab onto me. “I know, kid. She didn’t. She was saving you. She–” There was a brief pause as he fought to get himself under control, at least enough to speak. “She did everything for you. She never stopped being her. She didn’t…” He paused again, and I could almost hear his shudder before he continued quietly, yet firmly. “She never stopped loving you.”

“And she didn’t stop loving you either, Dad,” I added, just as firmly. “She’s Mom. She’s… she’s amazing. She always was. Even when they tried to take that away. She became a sheriff, Dad. She never, never stopped trying to help people. And now she’s–that fucking son of a bitch. That–” I stopped talking, my eyes squeezed as tightly shut as I could manage. Yet even that wasn’t tight enough to stop the few tears from leaking out, sliding down my face. “That monster.”

There was a little more then between the two of us, not all of it very coherent. We talked both to and at each other. Some of what we said was just… noise, emotional noise that was somewhat comforting. A lot would’ve meant very little to any outside audience. We were telling stories about Mom, about what we remembered. Only they weren’t the entire story. They didn’t need to be. One of us would start to say a couple words, and the other would know what we meant. Three words of an entire story, and none of the rest needed to actually be said. And this time, for once in the past decade, the stories weren’t tainted by the idea that she had abandoned us.

From there, I shifted back into talking more about the school. Dad asked questions, some of which I’d already thought of and some I hadn’t. His questions even helped lead me to my own.

It was just like when things were still more normal, when life wasn’t so crazy and he’d help me talk through some story I was writing for the school paper. It helped clear my head, helped me notice little things that I hadn’t before. Maybe none of it would actually pay off, but it still helped.

Mostly I just… enjoyed talking to my dad. Clearing things up, telling stories about my friends, my teammates, about everything that had happened, both the funny things and the scary ones. Bringing up to date on everything would take awhile, longer than this phone call. But I made the very best attempt that I could. We kept switching between my stories and Dad’s reactions, his thoughts, his jokes, his… everything. He had his opinions, his ideas, his thoughts to share.

He also wanted to punch Ruthers in the face. Actually, Dad went on at length about just how much he wanted to knock the guy’s teeth out. In detail and with vivid descriptions. It was nice to listen to, even if it was pretty much a pipe dream. Still, the thought of my dad laying Ruthers out on his ass was a really nice one. I had to smile while holding that special image in my head.

And he asked about Deveron. Not only him, but also Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren. He wanted to know all about Mom’s family. He wanted to meet them. I could hear the slight hesitance in his voice about meeting Deveron. Honestly, I would’ve been hesitant too, in his situation. The thought of meeting his wife’s first husband, the man he had never known about, had to be intimidating. But he still wanted to. He wanted to talk to them, all of them. He wanted to be a part of things. And now that he could remember what was going on, now that the Bystander Effect no longer worked on him, I wanted that too. But it was going to wait. For a few days at least, those reps from the Committee were going to pay entirely too much attention for me to take off. They’d be watching for me to try to disappear, probably thinking I’d sneak off to meet Mom.

“But Dad,” I eventually put in, “you guys can’t just stay wherever you are. The Heretics are gonna be looking for you. The Heretics, the Seosten, the werewolves, they’ll all be looking for you. I mean, Twister and Asenath are good, but you guys need help. You need…” I paused, lifting my chin thoughtfully. “You need to go to the lake, the place where Gabriel’s camp is. The Atherby camp. They’ll take you in, I know they will. There’s no way anyone’ll find you there.”

“You think they’ll go for that?” Dad asked slowly. “I mean, I’d like to meet them, your mom’s… people, I guess. That… Gabriel guy, he’s really the same guy from the history books?”

I laughed a little. “Yeah, and like I said, Professor Virginia Dare really is that Virginia Dare.”

“And I met her.” Dad’s voice trailed off, the awe apparent before he shook it off. “I’ve got so many questions the next time she shows up. The–the colony, do you know what happened to-”  

Snickering despite myself, I nodded. “Yup. But I’ll let her tell you about it. I think she liked meeting you too, Dad. And she’ll like it more now that you know what’s really going on. Soon, the next time you meet. But right now, speaking of that other historical figure, yeah, I know Gabriel’ll take you guys in. The Atherby clan’ll love having you, Dad. Just give me a sec. I’ll call him up and make plans for it. Wait, where are you guys? I mean, where can you get to easily?”

He told me where they were, just a little bit outside of the absurdly small town of Dixon, Wyoming. But it didn’t matter how big the town was. Gabriel would be able to find them there.

Telling my dad I’d call him back in just a minute, I disconnected before quickly dialing one of the numbers that had been magically sealed into my memory with that spell. It rang three times before being picked up.

“Felicity,” Gabriel’s voice wasn’t at all surprised by my call, even this late. “I take it you’ve had a chance to speak with your father.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, nodding quickly. “And I was wondering if you’d… um, pick them up? They’ve got a lot of people after them right now. I trust Senny, but…”

“But there’s no need to push things,” he confirmed. “Of course. The rest of the clan has been asking why we haven’t gone after them already. But we… it was better to wait for the invitation.”

Quickly, I told him where they were, and he promised to go collect them before anyone else caught up. Then he assured me that Dad and the others would be safe at the lake, and that I could come see them as soon as I could get away

“Um, one more question,” I put in then. “Did you–I mean…” Biting my lip, I explained about what had happened to those other Heretics, about the woman with the golden aura that killed them to save the Alters.

“I didn’t hear about that,” he murmured softly. “Do you think it was–”

“I don’t know, but they think so.” I sighed. “So I can’t get away, not as long as those guys are paying so much attention. Just… take care of my dad, please.”

“You have my word,” Gabriel assured me. “I’ll go and bring them in right now. Tell your father to meet at the post office in town.”

I confirmed that before hanging up, then dialed my father back. Telling him where to go and what to look for, I promised him that we’d talk again soon. He made me swear that the second I could get away from the island, I’d come talk to him in person. Actually, he made me swear it three different times. So I did. And I made him promise to be careful and to stay at the camp.

Finally finished, at least for the moment, I disconnected the phone and set it beside me on the bed.

I meant to run through things in my head some more. I meant to write in my notebook, think everything through again, maybe even get a little studying in. I meant to do all of that. But in the end, after everything that I’d been through that day, after everything that had happened, my brain was just on its last legs.

I blinked, and the next thing I knew, it was morning, and the phone was ringing next to my head. Groggily, I fumbled for it, blinking a few times before managing to hit the button. “Yeah?”

“Hey, Chambers, you busy?” Roxa’s voice spoke.

“Because you’ve got that big stick, and we’re looking at a whole lotta werewolves that probably wanna do worse than play fetch right now.”

Mini-Interlude 33 – Columbus

Previous Chapter

The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus. It takes place a few nights before the current situation. 

Completely alone, yet without any privacy. Helplessly trapped, as he stood in the open sunlight, surrounded by friends and family. Cut off, broken and caged… while casually chatting with some of the people who meant the most in the world to him. Columbus Porter’s body held no visible chains or locks. Yet he was as much of prisoner now as any person in history had ever been.

Standing in the hallway just outside his own room in the middle of the night, Columbus’s eyes looked first one way, then the other down the corridor. As he took in the sight of the dark, empty hall, the boy strained to shout, tried to say something, anything. Making a noise, twitching a finger, blinking just once by his own volition. Just blink, that was it. That would convince him that there was at least the slightest chance, if he worked hard enough, that he could eventually communicate. Just blink. One single, solitary blink. Do it. Blink. Blink. Blink, damn it!

I’m getting the distinct impression that you don’t like me very much, boy.

The voice in his head was distinctly amused, before his eye blinked once, twice, three times. Yet Columbus wasn’t naive enough to think that he had finally succeeded. No, this was his jailer, the creature who had taken over his body, taunting him by showing how much she could make him blink, how much she could make him do anything she wanted. She was making a point, again.

You’re supposed to be an angel, right? He thought the words at her, at that inescapable presence in his mind that sorted through his every thought, his every memory and impulse. So why don’t you do me a favor and go to hell?

Another slight chuckle from his jailer, the one called Charmeine. You already know the ones that you call demons, boy. And this hell you speak of is their world, their home, their space.

Fomorians. The word came from Columbus without prompting. He knew. They’d had the conversation before. At least as much as the Seosten woman bothered having conversations with him. He had the distinct impression that she saw him more as a horse than a person. Except even that wasn’t right, because most people cared what happened to their horses.

Aww, don’t be like that. I care about what happens to you. The tone didn’t inspire confidence in that claim. It was too… dark, too amused by his feelings. After all, if you die, I have to find a new body. Maybe your roommate would work. Or… hmm, there’s always that team mentor. What do you think, roommate or mentor? Little Felicity’s step-daddy’s not immune to possession.

You know, Columbus thought, unable to help himself, if you put half as much effort into trying to figure out why Flick’s immune to you as you put into making snide remarks, you might’ve gotten somewhere by now.

Because it wasn’t just the Seosten possession that Flick had somehow been made immune to. Several attempts at using Seosten magic to influence or change her had failed as well. Charmeine had secretly entered the girls’ room and put some kind of spell on her pillow to put her into a coma in order to get her out of the way. Yet, somehow, it hadn’t worked. That, along with a couple other failed attempts to place an enchantment of some kind on the blonde girl had convinced Charmeine’s superiors to add Flick herself to the watch list. Charmeine wanted to just kill her and be done with it, like they had with Pericles, but the one called Manakel had vetoed that. Apparently it was too dangerous with the kind of attention Flick had on her, and their superiors wanted to know more about why the girl was apparently immune not only to their possession, but also much of their magic.

After all, the only option aside from her being immune to the spells that had been left for her was that she had somehow disabled them. But that would require more knowledge of magic than Flick had, and it would mean that she’d never actually brought it up with anyone as far as Columbus knew.

I think… All of the amusement had vanished from Charmeine’s tone. … that you need a reminder of your exact position in this relationship. As she finished speaking… thinking, whatever, Columbus found his body turning to walk down the hall and to the exit of the building.

It had been the wrong thing to say, wrong to say anything at all. Columbus had known that. Yet after everything that had happened, as helpless as he was, the chance to get even a little back at the creature who had imprisoned and enslaved him for so long was too hard to resist.

It had happened at the airport in Jackson, back during the Thanksgiving trip. While he had been waiting for Shiori, Flick, and her father to show up, Columbus had gone into the bathroom. While he was washing his hands, a dark-skinned woman with short white hair had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Before he could react, she had reached out to touch him. The next thing he knew, his body was no longer his own. He couldn’t speak, move, or control any part of himself. All of it was done by the creature who had so easily taken him prisoner through a simple touch.

From that moment on, throughout the holiday trip, throughout finding out about the Fomorian attacking Koren’s family, what had happened to Roxa, and all the rest of it, Columbus had been puppeted by this creature. It had been months by that point. Months since he could even twitch an eyebrow by his own volition. At this point, Columbus wasn’t sure he remembered what controlling his own body was even like.

And yet somehow, as his body walked out the door of the dorm building, he still felt like he’d made a mistake by provoking the creature that was infesting him. As bad as things were, there were always ways that it could get worse.

Even as Charmeine took him outside, she was moving his hand to his pocket. Tugging out a small medallion, she made his mouth speak a single word, the activation trigger for the spell that had been placed on it. A moment later, his hand (along with the rest of his body) turned translucent to his own gaze. From previous experience, the boy knew that he was now completely invisible to everyone else. Not even Gaia had been aware of his presence the last time his puppeteer had used the spell to spy on her.

Granted, even Charmeine wasn’t confident enough in the spell to risk actually doing anything or getting close to the headmistress. But still, the fact that she could put his body in the same room as the powerful Heretic without being noticed was terrifying.

It also meant that neither of the security guards who chose that moment to walk past on their patrol had a chance of knowing that Columbus was standing within a few feet of them. They chatted with one another about some baseball game they had been watching, pausing to look over the door that Columbus had just come out of before moving on.

Once they were gone, Charmeine directed his body across the grass and up toward the entrance of the girl’s dorm. The stealth spell affected even the golden statue of the woman with the bow and arrow who was meant to keep underage boys out of the dorm. It stood still and motionless even as his body opened the door and stepped through into the hallway.

To his surprise, rather than heading for the room that Flick and Avalon shared, Charmeine directed his body further down the hall. Eventually, he stopped in front of a different door, the one that led into the room that Shiori shared with Rebecca Jameson.

Again, his hand dipped into a pocket and came out, this time with a small hand-held mirror. Holding the mirror up to the door, with the glass facing him, Columbus’s lips murmured another spell. The surface of the mirror changed from showing his reflection to reveal the interior of the room that it was pointed at. It was even lit up despite the fact that the room on the other side of the door was pitch dark.

Charmeine kept the mirror up long enough to confirm that both of the room’s inhabitants were accounted for and asleep before making his hand reach out to quietly open the door. It came easily, since she had long-since acquired a master key that unlocked every door in the school whenever needed.

Hey, wait. What are you doing? Columbus cut in even as his body inexorably stepped into the room and closed the door after himself. You can’t possess Shiori and Rebecca doesn’t know anything about what’s going on.

One thing you need to learn, the voice in his head informed him, is that I don’t need to possess people to make them useful.

With that, Columbus found himself flicking on the magical privacy screen that instantly surrounded his sister’s bed before walking over to the girl herself. She was laying there on her stomach, one leg sticking out of the covers and off the bed while snoring faintly. The same as she had when they were little and a bad dream had driven her into Columbus’s room.

His hand reached out, gently brushing a little bit of hair off of Shiori’s face even as he quickly thought, Hey, hey. Wait a minute, leave her alone. You said yourself if you possess her, it’ll kill you. She’s no use to you, right? So stop, just stop.

As I told you, she replied flatly, there is more than one way to make the girl useful. Perhaps she’ll serve as an adequate reminder of your place.

Reminder of my place? He was incredulous. I can’t do anything, remember? I can’t stop you, I can’t even make myself blink! What do you have to prove? You can’t possess her and she can’t do anything for you. So what–what are you…

He trailed off as his hand carefully removed a necklace from one of his pockets. Within a couple of seconds, he had hooked it around Shiori’s neck before giving her face a pat.

Now, the voice in his head announced, there’s no chance of her waking up until the necklace is removed. See?

In demonstration, his hand lashed out to smack Shiori hard against the face. Her head snapped a bit to the side, yet her snoring never wavered. And with the privacy field up, Rebecca didn’t hear anything either.

Stop it! Yet again, Columbus struggled to yank his hand away from his sister. Yet for all his effort, he accomplished nothing. Once more, he found himself smacking Shiori hard enough to bruise her cheek. A bruise that would disappear by the time she woke up, thanks to the girl’s regeneration.

You understand now? Charmeine taunted, moving his hand over his sister’s cheek and down to her shoulder to squeeze it. As long as the necklace stays on, she’s Sleeping Beauty. Nothing will wake her up. Maybe… maybe she won’t wake up at all.

At that thought, Columbus found his hand move slowly, yet inevitably to the other girl’s throat. His fingers closed around it, tightening enough that her snoring was cut off.

I’m sure you remember, his puppeteer announced conversationally, just how strong you are while I’m possessing you. You know how strong I can make you. Shall we see if it’s… His hand tightened even further, to the point that he could feel Shiori’s throat on the brink of collapsing. …. Strong enough?

No! No, no, no, no! Please, please! Leave her alone! Leave Shiori alone, please! She can’t help you, she can’t hurt you, she can’t do anything! She’s nothing to you, please!

Ah, but you see… it doesn’t matter what she is to me, Charmeine reminded him. What matters is what she is to you. And to you, she is… an adequate punishment for mouthing off.

I’m sorry! I’m sorry, please, please, I just–I’m sorry! Just leave her alone, please. You don’t need to do this! You don’t have to–

Her tone was as devoid of empathy as any he had ever heard. It’s not about what I have to do. It’s about what I want to do. You think I embodied the concept of revenge during our godly days by mistake? No one crosses me without paying for it a hundred-fold.

His hand left Shiori’s throat, allowing the girl to breathe. Rather than simply leaving, however, Columbus found himself stepping across the room to where Rebecca slept.

Still, perhaps a better punishment is in order, Charmeine mused. If this girl were to… die and all evidence pointed to the silly child there… that could draw in enough of an investigation to reveal her true nature.

The horror in Columbus’s own thoughts was almost palpable. Wh-what? What do you–

If this girl dies in a way that makes it appear as though your lovely sister is responsible, and during the course of that investigation, they find that she is a dhampyr… Now the amusement in Charmeine’s thought-voice was even more obvious. Well, that would be just perfect, wouldn’t it? She’ll be blamed for the death of an innocent girl and be put down as a monster, the very monster she’s been so terrified of being for so long.

She gets put out of the way so that there’s one less problem to deal with, the Heretics here find out that hybrids can become students and thus a new inquisition is launched to root them out so that all of Gaia’s machinations in that regard are brought out. She might even be stripped of her position in the process.

And, she finished darkly, you learn not to cross me. Win, win, win.

No, no, no! Please, please, please, I swear, I won’t say anything. God, god, no, please! Leave them alone. Please, you don’t–you can–please!

All of this, all of it, just because he’d made a single taunting remark, a single thought in rebellion against everything that was happening. One time, one single time he’d managed to insult her, managed to hit back. And this was how she reacted.

The worst part of this entire situation was that, as terrified, helpless and broken as Columbus felt in that moment, his mouth still smiled. He couldn’t cry, he couldn’t even make his own eyes close. He couldn’t look away from Rebecca’s sleeping form as his own hand moved out to touch her throat.

His helpless, pathetic pleading grew more desperate. Charmeine toyed with the small girl’s throat, not going far enough to actually do any damage. Not yet, anyway. Unlike Shiori, she wasn’t wearing a necklace that would have kept her asleep through it. Still, the Seosten made it clear that at any second, she could close her hand and cut off the girl’s air completely.

Of course, Charmeine eventually mused while taking his hand away from Rebecca, doing all that right now… well, it doesn’t leave you any time to stew on things, does it? And where’s the fun in that?

So I’ll tell you what. You think about it for awhile. Maybe I’ll take care of this tomorrow night. Or the next night. Or next week. Or even next month. Maybe I’ll just find other ways to hurt her, ways that can make this drag on for awhile instead of letting it all go out in one night. You can worry about it. Because, in some ways, that’s the most delicious part. Your fear, your worry, your begging. And please, do come up with more interesting ways to beg. The old ways just… they’re played out. They’re boring.

Making Columbus’s body step over to retrieve the necklace from Shiori, she then directed him to start out of the room, leaving both girls unharmed… for the moment.

And the last thing you want, boy, is for me to be bored.

Suspects 24-02

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The way things had been explained to me, the ‘time-stop’ ability that people like Professor Dare used didn’t actually freeze time throughout the entire universe. That would be a little absurd. Instead, it created a bubble of stopped time around the user, the size of which varied depending on how powerful they were. Anything that was in or later entered that bubble who wasn’t somehow immune to the effect would be completely frozen and have no idea that any time had passed once the bubble went down. Watches and other methods of keeping time would be wrong, of course. But most people who used that ability also had ways of surreptitiously correcting them if they were actually trying to hide the fact that a time-stop had been used.

Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone outside of the effect could point out the ‘lost time’ afterward if it went on for too long. It wasn’t a perfect system, by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that flashed through my mind as everything around me except for Professor Dare went completely still. The blonde woman herself took a few steps over to where I was. “Felicity,” she spoke quickly. “We can’t take long. Gaia’s making sure that we aren’t detected, but we only have a short window. Listen. You cannot react the way they want you to here, do you understand?”

“I… I…” My mouth opened and shut a few times before I managed a weak, “Mom. If Mom-”  

“We don’t know if it was her or not, we don’t know anything right now.” Professor Dare’s hand moved to my cheek, while her other one squeezed my shoulder. “You’re right, it might be her. If Fossor threatened her, or… or any number of things. We don’t know. But you can’t let them see how scared you are about that, okay? That’s what he’s looking for. He’s watching your reaction.”

I was still breathing hard, my thoughts spinning out of control. Mom would never kill a bunch of Heretics for no reason. Even when she was running the rebellion, she would’ve tried to recruit them. Unless she did try to recruit them and Patrick or whoever had been on the phone (obviously at least one of the Committee members) was lying about it. I… I didn’t know what–

My head shook firmly to clear it, at least as much as I could. Then I focused on Professor Dare, giving a little nod. “I–I understand. I–” Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath before letting it out, then I opened them again. “I’m ready. I’m okay. I… I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Part of me wanted to take more time, maybe even scream a little bit. But I knew that the longer the time-stop went on, the bigger chance of someone outside noticing what was happening. Even if Gaia was powerful enough to stop them from noticing for a brief time, this had to be a strain for her. I had to keep myself under control at least long enough to make it through this without losing it. I could freak out later, after these Committee representatives were gone.

Gently brushing her hand over my face, Professor Dare paused. There was something in her expression, something that made it clear that she had something to say. In the end, however, she just straightened while nodding as her hands fell away from me. “We’ll be right here,” she assured me before moving back to the spot she had been in. “You’re not alone, Felicity.”

That was the last thing the woman said before things went back to normal and time started up once more. My view changed subtly as my body was repositioned, either by Gaia or Professor Dare. Obviously they wanted to put me back exactly as I’d been when the time-stop started so that the two men in front of me (hopefully) wouldn’t notice that anything had happened.    

Even after the brief pause I’d had to collect myself, if it hadn’t been for the facial-shifting power that I had inherited, my reaction might still have been obvious. As it was, I managed to keep it under control, staring at Patrick for a second even as his own partner turned that way.

“What?” October’s voice was surprised. Either he’d had no idea what happened (which made sense, considering from all appearances, Patrick himself had only just heard about it), or he was a phenomenal actor. “What just happened?” he demanded of his partner. “Who was on the–”

Holding up a hand to stop the other man, Patrick kept his gaze on me. “What about it?” he asked flatly, clearly still reading my reaction. “Woman with a golden aura, powerful enough to kill a bunch of Heretics, steps in to stop them from killing a pack of monsters. Sound familiar?”

For a second, I wondered if he knew why he was asking. Was he part of the people who had retained their memory of what happened? It made sense, considering his connection to the Committee. Yeah, I was sure this Patrick guy, whoever he was, remembered my mother.

Shaking my head slowly, I worked my mouth a few times. “Golden aura–I… Gaia? Gaia has a golden aura like mine,” I pointed out. “And she probably could kill eleven Heretics if she really wanted to. But I don’t think you’d be accusing her right in front of her like that, so I’m not–”

Stopping, I made myself frown, trying to show uncertainty. “Wait, don’t family members tend to have the same color aura? Not always, I guess, but… I mean, maybe it’s…” I hesitated, making it look like I didn’t want to bring it up, which wasn’t hard. “My… umm, my mother, maybe?”

Yeah, I was bringing up Mom on my own. Ruthers would never believe it if she never occurred to me, not after the conversation that I’d had with the man. Better to bring it up myself than try to pretend that the thought of her never came to mind. That would obviously be denying too much.

“Your mother?” Patrick echoed simply, eyebrow raised with curiosity as he watched me closely.

My head nodded a little once more. “I–yeah, maybe? I mean, if she’s…” Pausing like I didn’t know if it was worth continuing, I bit my lip. “Um, I sort of had a conversation about her with Counselor Ruthers. I don’t know if he said anything or if it’s stupid or… I dunno. But when I talked to him, I said that I thought maybe my mom’s a Heretic. I mean,” I started talking faster, babbling a little bit purposefully. “She left when I was a kid, so I already knew she was a bitch.”

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia admonished from where she stood. “Please watch your language.”

“Sorry, Headmistress,” I quietly apologized before continuing. “What I mean is, she left me and my dad, abandoned us. So when that… um, when that kid, Ammon showed up and said he was my brother, I told Counselor Ruthers that maybe the kid’s right. Maybe he is my brother, and after Mom abandoned us, she hooked up with some other Heretic group. Or they recruited her. I dunno. The point is, she took off, so screw her. Sorry, Headmistress. She’s gone. But she’s my mother, and if she’s a Heretic now, she might have a golden aura. Plus, if she’d abandon me and my dad, then sure, yeah, maybe she’d kill some other Heretics. Dunno if she’s powerful enough, but…” Trailing off, I shrugged, meeting the dark-skinned man’s unwavering gaze while earnestly asking, “Is that why Counselor Ruthers told you to ask me about what happened?”

I wasn’t sure if they bought what I was selling, but Patrick did pause before giving a little shrug. “Maybe,” he said simply before continuing. “You really think your mom could kill them like that?”

Making myself shrug, I replied, “I dunno. But like I said, she abandoned us, so maybe. If she’d stuck around, maybe I could tell you what kind of person she is, but I can’t.” It wasn’t hard to inject the emotion in my voice at those words. I had a decade of experience at feeling resentment toward my mother. Even if I knew better now, I could still summon those emotions.

The man paused then, watching me for another moment as though he wasn’t sure how to continue after what I’d said. Finally, he exhaled and straightened up a bit. “It’s possible.”

Figuring how I would have acted if I was really clueless about the truth, I jumped on that. “I mean, that’s why you asked me about it, right? You guys think–what, she’s the one who showed up and rescued my dad, her and whoever she disappeared with? Why would she show up after ten years to save him when she’s the one who abandoned us to begin with? And why kill a bunch of Heretics like that? Unless you think she’s, I dunno, sending a message or something? Wait, is she your enemy?” As I spoke, I extended the handkerchief back to Patrick.

The two of them glanced to one another before October spoke up. “We don’t know, exactly.”

Patrick, for his part, waved off my attempt to return the cloth to him. “Keep it,” he muttered before adding, “And if your mother happens to try to contact you–”

“Pretty sure she won’t,” I replied flatly. “If she gave a shit about me, she wouldn’t’ve taken off. But yeah, no problem. If she tries to call or whatever, I’ll let you guys know. Believe me, if she’s the one who took my dad, I want you guys to find her before she convinces him to forgive her or something stupid like that.” As hard as it was for me to actually say something that awful, I forced the words out while silently and fervently apologizing to my mother in my head for all of it.

Pushing right on, the way I thought I would if I’d been serious about not caring about my mother, I asked, “So umm, are you guys planning on talking to Koren Fellows about this stuff too?”   

Well, that got their attention. Both men gave me a look, Patrick being the first to catch himself. Probably because he’d been the one playing bad cop to begin with. “Why would we talk to her?”

I shrugged a little. “I mean, you were talking to me because the woman had a golden aura, and that goes through families. I don’t remember what color Koren’s is, but she and I sort of… figured that we might be related somehow. You know, like… second cousins or whatever.”

Patrick’s voice was flat. “And why would you think that you’re related to Koren Fellows?”

Biting my lip, I made my voice as clueless as possible. “I umm, well, you know. When I was choosing my weapon back at the start of the year, I thought the Hunga Munga were… you know, really close. I almost took them because they felt kinda… familiar? Then Koren took them instead. And that wouldn’t mean anything, except there was that vision thing when we saw the Edge, so I think Heretics like… pass memories on or something? Plus, when we were working on this one project for Professor Dare a couple months ago, Vanessa–I mean Vanessa Moon– found a journal with the name Atherby on it. Lyell Atherby. That’s my mom’s maiden name, and it seemed like Koren had heard the name before. So I talked to her and she said her Edge vision had to do with some guy back in like… medieval times that called himself part of the Atherby clan. So we figured we’re probably related somehow. Like I said, cousins or something.”

Shrugging, I finished with an offhand, “That’s why I went to visit her house for Thanksgiving. We were gonna try to figure out how far back we’re related, but I guess you know how that went.”

Yeah, this was a risk. But the way I figured it, they had to have been wondering why the whole Thanksgiving thing had happened when Koren and I weren’t on the same team and, as far as they knew, we had no other reason to interact enough to be on ‘holiday visits’ terms. This way, I was giving them some information rather than pretending I didn’t know anything at all. And I was giving it in a way that made it look like I didn’t know how important the information actually was.

Basically, instead of acting like I didn’t know anything, I was acting like I knew the wrong things. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, but by that point, I figured that the Committee would be more suspicious if I hadn’t figured out anything than if I’d worked out a couple things such as being related to Koren, but then went the wrong direction with it. Hopefully, it would throw them off.

“It would not be the first time that Bystander students found that they were related somewhere back along their Heretic ancestors,” Gaia pointed out mildly from where she was standing.

Giving her a brief look, Patrick finally shrugged. “Maybe. But right now, we don’t even know if there’s a connection. It was just… you were here so we thought we’d ask. Someone who could do all that to twelve Heretics…” He trailed off, frowning before looking back at me. “If your mother, or anyone else connected to her contacts you, let us know immediately. Understand?”

“Of course,” I replied while bobbing my head. “And–and my dad…” I trailed off, hesitating a bit.

“We won’t stop looking for him,” October promised. “Whether or not your mother, or any old relatives have anything to do with his disappearance. We can’t let people get away with kidnapping the relatives of our students. It makes us look bad.” That was said with a little smile before he added, “The fact that they killed the shaggies before taking him with them is a good sign, Miss Chambers. He’s probably okay. Why they haven’t had him contact you… we don’t know. But we’ll find him, all right? And if he does reach out to you at any point, tell us, okay?”

Again, I nodded. “Uh huh. Believe me, if he’s been taken by some crazy old Heretic or something, I want you guys to find him. He’s gotta be… I mean, he can’t remember anything that they tell him, or he’ll just think they’re crazy or… I dunno how it works exactly. But he’s gotta be–” I stopped, swallowing hard. “Just–just please find my dad.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound terrified about the possibilities of what might be happening to him. “Please find him.”

There was a little more discussion after that, more questions about what I’d heard from my dad before he disappeared, if he’d mentioned any new acquaintances or contacts, if he was working on any kind of story that might’ve been connected to Stranger things, and so on. Finally, they said they’d gotten all they needed from me ‘for the moment’, and promised again to let me know if and when they found out anything about what had happened. With, of course, the repeated and emphasized caveat that I had to keep them informed about anything I found out too.

“So,” I started once they were done, “I guess I should get your number or something, huh? Unless you just want me to go through Headmistress Sinclaire with anything that happens?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Patrick replied. “We’ll be around, any time you want to talk.”

I was confused by that for a second, until Gaia spoke up. “The Committee has elected to assign Misters Dinast and Atrean,” she nodded to Patrick and October respectively, “to the school on a temporarily full-time basis. They’ll be here in case anything else untoward happens, an added layer of security and protection for our students.” To her credit, the headmistress managed to keep any annoyance she felt at that fact completely out of her voice with the announcement.

Oh. They weren’t leaving. Well, that could maybe possibly end up complicating things. It was a good thing I had that facial shifting power, because I was pretty sure I would’ve been scowling by that point if I hadn’t set the power to make my face as impassive as possible. “Oh, well, uh,” I coughed, looking back to the two men. “I guess that’ll make it easier to come to you then, yeah.”

“If you’re finished for the moment,” Professor Dare abruptly put in, “Miss Chambers may have inherited the Amarok’s stamina, but she still requires some sleep. And it’s been a long night.”

Patrick gave a little nod, the well-dressed man giving me a brief look before answering, “Of course. It’s just too bad that the things you killed tonight were zombies and not anything that would’ve given you an upgrade. It would have been nice to see you demonstrate any new ability.”

Yeah, that was exactly why we’d chosen to say that it was zombies we had killed. And I was pretty sure the men at least suspected that much, especially with those words. But at least all they had were suspicions, at that point. “Yeah,” I replied flatly, “Trust me, killing a bunch of gross zombies and not getting anything out of it isn’t my idea of fun either.”

Professor Dare led me out of the room then, with October promising once more that they would let me know the moment they found out anything about my dad. As we left the room and got about halfway down the hall, I held up a hand for Dare to stop. Without speaking, I plucked the fancy handkerchief that Patrick had given me out of my pocket and turned to drop it in the nearby trash can.

Yeah, I didn’t know that it was somehow magically bugged or something, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance either.   

Nodding in satisfaction at the sight of that, Dare led me down the hall a bit more before speaking. “Are you alright, Flick?”

I swallowed a little. “If that… if that was my mom, it means… it means that Fossor’s threatened her somehow. Either with me, or with one of the others. I dunno. But she wouldn’t just kill all those people like that without trying to recruit them, right?”

Dare nodded, leading me down the stairs and out of the building. “Of course. We don’t know anything about it other than what they said. I’m going to look into it, Flick. I’ll see what I can find out about what happened. And if it’s anything connected to your mother, I’ll let you know. I won’t hide it from you, okay?”

I nodded before biting my lip. “If they’re staying here, I guess that means… we can’t…”

“I’m sorry,” she confirmed. “At this point, they’re paying too much attention to what goes on and off the island. There’s no way to take you to your dad right now. We’ll try later, I promise.”

Sighing, I dropped my head for a moment. It made sense. Plus, I was honestly exhausted by that point. After everything that had happened, I needed at least an hour of sleep to recharge.

Seeming to realize that (which made sense, considering she had originally been an Amarok-Heretic and knew just how far I could go), Dare remained silent while leading me to my room. She gestured once we were at the door. “I assume you’re going to call him. But try to rest as well.”

I promised to do so before stepping into the room and closing the door after myself. Avalon was already asleep, laying on her side with the blanket tangled up by her feet.

Watching the other girl for a second, I stepped over and carefully tugged the blanket out so that I could gently drape it over her. She murmured a little bit as the blanket covered her, but settled after I stroked her hair for a moment.

Once she was settled, I moved over and flicked the switch to cover my side of the room with the privacy screen that would stop any sound or light from escaping. Just in case, I also activated one of my privacy coins. Then I flopped onto my bed, took out the secret phone, and dialed Asenath’s number. There was no answer at first, so I left a message for them to call me back and set the phone beside me.

To pass the time while waiting, I took my notebook out and began to scribble in it once more. Reading over what I had already written, I scratched a little bit out and wrote better words above them and in the margins before adding more to the bottom. I wrote for about ten minutes before the phone beside me rang.

Answering quickly, I found myself talking to Dad, and apologized for not being able to get to him yet. Then I took a breath, and told him why they were paying so much attention all of a sudden. And from there, I went into explaining more of it.

Laying there on my bed, phone clasped tightly in one hand, I finally… finally, after all these months… really, truly talked with my father.

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 32 – Miranda

Previous Chapter                                               Next Chapter

The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda as a character outside of and apart from Flick. 

About Six Months Ago

“Duck, duck, throw your duck! Come on, Randi, just try it. Right over here. I got you. I got you. I’m right on you. Just try it.”

Pacing sideways quickly, following the circular line that had been drawn over the grass a short distance from the base of the giant tree that she had called home for several years, Miranda eyed the boy who was taunting her. His name was Duane, and he was standing in the middle of the sixty-foot wide circle, right next to a wooden stump that was about two feet tall. In the middle of the stump, a softball-sized stone had been set.

Miranda held a similarly-sized rock in her left hand, as did the nine other people who were all pacing around the outside of the circle as well. The ten of them had spread out along the circle, watching for an opening even as the boy in the middle continually turned, pivoting to keep an eye on as many of them as possible. Every once in awhile, he’d call out a taunt, trying to goad one of them into making the first move.

From what Miranda had heard over the years since she’d come to this place, the game they were playing, ‘Duck On A Rock’, had been the initial inspiration for what had eventually become the game of basketball. Not that there were that many similarities when it came down to it. The rocks she and the others were carrying were called ducks, as was the rock that was sitting on the stump in the middle of the circle. That one was the titular ‘duck on a rock’, though in this case, the duck part was a rock and the rock part was a tree stump. Sports were weird sometimes.

It was originally a medieval children’s game, though here they played with enough variations to make it interesting even for the older teens, such as making it a full circle surrounding the stump instead of the single throwing line from the original game, as well as some other changes.

One of the other boys, seeing Duane’s distraction, took three quick steps sideways to put himself more into the boy’s blindspot before rearing back to hurl his own stone. The rock arced in toward the rock that was sitting on the stump, coming oh-so-close to colliding with its target before Duane spun around to catch the incoming rock out of the air with one hand.

Along the sidelines, several of the people who were just watching the game rather than playing began to count out loud, “One! Two! Three!” They continued that way, each number growing louder as more people joined in the count.

Meanwhile, the boy whose stone had been caught ran straight at Duane. If he didn’t manage to get his own stone (or duck) away from the guard before the audience’s count reached thirty, he would be considered ‘turned’, and would become another guard alongside Duane.

Essentially, the goal of the people outside the circle was to throw their own rock/duck in order to knock the one that was sitting on the stump off and to the ground. If you missed and your stone hit the ground, you had to retrieve it. But any time that you were inside the circle, the guard (or guards) could try to take you to the ground (originally it was simply tagging, but they played with rougher rules). If they took you down, the guard who managed it earned two points, while every other guard earned one point. If you made it to your rock, you could put your foot on it as a safety zone. As long as your foot was on your stone, you couldn’t be attacked by a guard. But neither could you do anything else. You had to wait for the right opportunity, while the guards were distracted by those outside of the circle, and use that time to pick up your rock and run back outside the circle. If you managed to retrieve your rock and make it out, that was worth two points. If you got taken to the ground, the guards got a point and you were expelled from the circle without earning any.

If the rock on the stump was knocked off its perch, the person who threw it earned an immediate three points. The guards couldn’t chase or tag anyone until one of them returned to the stump to put their rock back where it belonged. Additionally, for every non-guard in the circle when the guard’s duck was knocked off the stump that managed to escape because of that period of safety, the thrower earned another point. So, assuming the person who knocked the guard’s duck off the stump managed to retrieve their own rock and escape, that was five points for them and an additional point for every other person who managed to escape the circle because of it.

However, if, as in this case, your rock was caught by one of the guards before it touched the ground, you had that thirty second countdown before you became one of the guards yourself. There was strategy involved there. Some people did better as guards than as attackers, and so they would deliberately let themselves be turned.

They had turned what began as a very simple children’s game into an intense, often-brutal affair as rocks were thrown from all sides, the ratio of attackers to guards gradually changed, and some encounters in the middle of the circle turned into small-scale fistfights. After all, the rules were ‘taken to the ground’; it didn’t say how, exactly.

It was a fun game, and one that Miranda had gotten very good at over the years. Her accuracy with the thrown rocks was almost legendary among the group that they played with, so most guards tended to focus at least part of their attention on her so that she couldn’t get a good shot at the stump.

In this case, however, Miranda saw an opening while Duane was dealing with the other boy trying to get his rock back. Taking aim at the one on the stump, she was about to let fly when something else caught her attention. Far beyond the circle, deeper in the forest, there were several more boys. Not that that was anything newsworthy. She wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that a few of the boys were clearly throwing something back and forth between them to keep it away from the other one, who kept trying to get it back. Whatever it was, the boys were playing keepaway with it rather effectively while heading deeper into the forest. And from the look of things, it wasn’t exactly a game.

Bullies. For as long as Miranda could remember, she had hated bullies. People who used their own strength or power to push others around. Be they adult or child, she had always loathed them. Her very first memory, the earliest that she could remember, was of being in preschool and dumping a cup that was full of water that had been dirtied and stained by watercolors over the head of a girl who had stolen an Oreo from one of the other students.

It was a proclivity that had followed the girl throughout her life, right up to (and definitely including) the present day. So instead of throwing her rock, she paused before dropping it at her feet. Muttering something to the others about being right back, Miranda jogged around the circle to follow the other group further into the woods. If it turned out to be nothing, she’d come right back. No harm, no foul. But if it was what it had looked like… well, she didn’t put up with bullies.

About ten minutes later, the girl found herself crouched behind a tree. She was there, hidden just out of sight, as the group of what turned out to be five other students gathered around a moss-covered boulder about twenty feet away. Four of the students were standing a bit apart from the fifth, a boy whose dark hair was tied back with a green bandana. He was the one who had been trying to get something back from the others as they had led him deeper into the forest.  

He was also actually somewhat bigger than any of the people who were tormenting him. Which might have looked strange among Bystanders, but Miranda had long since found that size didn’t exactly always equal power among people who could gain superpowers and who were trained to fight and kill their entire lives. In a world with enhanced supernatural strength, a five foot nothing girl could easily be strong enough to pin a six foot six overly-muscled bodybuilder to the floor with a pinkie.

“Come on, guys, give it back,” the boy was pleading. “It’s my grandma’s ring, okay? Seriously, just give it back. It’s not funny anymore.” At those words, he gave a little lunge toward the nearest other boy, who was holding something tiny between two fingers. Obviously the ring.

Unfortunately, the boy’s lunge carried him straight through his target, who had turned intangible. Laughing, the second boy gestured while stepping back. “Hey, hey, hey, no need to get all handsy. You really want the ring back, Ankh?” He rolled the thing between his fingers. “You know what you’ve gotta do. We all did it, you really wanna be left out?”

“This is stupid,” the boy (Ankh, apparently) blurted. “It’s a dumb ritual, someone’s gonna get hurt.”

One of the other boys started snickering while calling Ankh a chickenshit, while another sneeringly told him to grow a pair. Meanwhile, the first boy reached down to touch something on the boulder, and a glowing, light green, circular portal appeared beside it.

Miranda had seen things like that before. Over the years since Eden’s Garden had been founded, students and grown-Heretics alike had hidden portal accesses all over the place, ways to the regular world and back again without going through the tree. They were especially popular among older students.

“Javier,” Ankh started, “come on man. I told you, I don’t wanna do it. It’s stupid.”

“Yeah?” Javier retorted. “Well I guess you better start acting a little dumb if you want Grandma’s ring back, huh?” Turning, he made as though to throw the ring through the portal.

“Stop!” Miranda couldn’t take it anymore. Moving from behind the tree, she put herself in plain sight. “Give him the ring back, idiot. Come on, how stupid do you have to be? Where does that portal even go?”

“Aww,” Javier snickered, running the ring between a couple fingers. “Look Ankh, looks like you’ve got a little girlfriend.”

That, of course, led to more teasing and taunting from the other boys about Ankh having a girlfriend that was at least a year younger than he was. Which was quite possibly the most idiotic thing to taunt someone about that Miranda had ever heard.

Smirking at the rise that had gotten out of his friends, Javier eyed the two. “So, you gonna propose to your little princess, Ankh? If you are, I guess you’ll need to… get this back.” With that, he turned slightly before chucking the thing through the portal.

“No!” Ankh shouted. Clearly not thinking, he dove for the portal as well, going after the ring,.

Javier was in the middle of laughing when Miranda hit him hard from the side. Her hands slammed into the boy’s chest, knocking him onto his back as she snarled, “Jackass.”

Rather than follow that up, however, she went after Ankh. Thinking just as little as he had been, the headstrong girl dove through the portal.

She landed on the other side in what looked like an old, rundown library. Most of the books were gone, shelves were broken and falling apart, and there was a distinct smell of mildew and worse in the air.

“Where are we?” she asked Ankh, who was a few feet away.

He spun around, jerking in surprise. “The fuck–what’re you doing here?!”

“Helping you,” she replied easily. “So where are we?”

Staring at her, the boy worked his mouth. “You… stupid… Damn it, fine, we’re at a place in South Carolina. It’s a–” He sighed. “It’s a stupid game the guys play. You know the enchantments the adults use to lure Stranger pests? The little mindless ones.” When Miranda nodded, he continued. “There’s one of those in here. It lures some dumb little Stranger in, one of the minor ones. Then it shuts off and traps the thing in here. Every once in awhile, the guys send someone in to kill whatever showed up. Like I said, it’s a stupid game.”

“Stupid–that’s the dumbest–that’s… that’s…” Miranda started to rant, too stunned to even think straight. “What if it attracts something worse than–what if–that’s–that’s–”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ankh demanded. “Why do you think I didn’t wanna do this? But I’ve gotta find Grandma’s ring. So help m– wait. Did you hear something?”

The two of them looked up, scanning the room before Miranda pointed. “There.”

It sat in the middle of the corridor, directly ahead of them. At first glance, the thing looked like a particularly mangy German Shepherd. But there were particularly differences. First, it had four eyes instead of two. Its tongue was forked like a snake, and it had two tails.

Most disturbingly, there were two human-like arms with attached hands sticking out of the thing’s chest, partially-hidden by its front dog legs.

“What–” Miranda started, before the boy cursed.

“Damn it! Get the fuck back. Go, go back to the portal.” He waved her away while pulling a heavy-looking machette-like blade from his belt.

“What is–” Miranda was already turning to move back, taking his advice. Unfortunately, the path back to the portal was blocked by another of the creatures. “Uhhh….” A particular shake of her arm made her own weapon appear: a round metal shield that was black with bright green emeralds decorating it.

“Fuck!” Seeing the one there, Ankh snarled. “It’s already started duplicating.

“Duplicating?” Miranda echoed. “What’re you–” Then the single dog-thing in front of the portal was abruptly joined by three others. At the same time, the one on the other side of them became four as well, resulting in eight dog-things.

A second later, the eight became thirty, spread out over both sides of them.

“Only attracts pests, huh?” Miranda had to say.

“Like I said,” the boy retorted, “it’s a stupid, stupid game. They’re gonna keep duplicating until we find the source, the leader.”  

By that point, the man-armed dog-things were already growling. They had duplicated again, leaving dogs spread back as far as Miranda could see through the room.

“Uhhh, you take that side, I’ll cover this side?” she asked a bit weakly.

The boy nodded once. “Right. Good luck. And for the record, those guys are idiots. I totally wouldn’t mind dating someone like you.”

Miranda would have responded, but the first dog-thing was already lunging.

*******

“And somehow,” Vigile Hisao announced some time later as he stood in front of the chair that Miranda was planted in somewhere in one of the Garden interrogation rooms. “You didn’t just survive that attack. You also managed to protect Ankh after he was knocked unconscious. And you killed the leader of the Ksani in the process.”

“The dog-things?” Miranda shifted nervously in her seat. “I guess so, Vigile Hisao. I… um, I just got lucky.”

“Sure you did,” the man replied. “But it was a combination of luck and skill, and I’ll take that any day.”

“Sir?” Miranda blinked up at that. “What–I thought you were supposed to tell me how I was being punished. You know, for going through that portal.”

Vigile Hisao gave a short nod. “You’re right. And your punishment is… three years.”

“I’m sorry?” Miranda looked at him, confused. “Three… three years of what?”

“Of being my apprentice,” he replied. “I need a new one, and the school year’s about to start. You’re seventeen now, which means you need a fresh mentor. Unless you’ve got one in mind?”

“But I–I didn’t… I was… I thought…” Miranda stammered.

Hisao’s eyes softened. “I don’t throw away potential, kid. And you’ve got a lot of it. So unless you want to submit a complaint to the Victors and ask to be taken away from my custody…”

“No, no, no.” Miranda quickly blurted, straightening. “I mean, I just, I didn’t expect…”

The man smiled just a little, gesturing. “I do want one thing in exchange. Lemme see it, what you got.”

Knowing what he meant, the girl paused to focus on the power that she had inherited from the original Ksani. A moment later, another her stood beside the chair, blinking as she came into existence.

“That,” Vigile Hisao announced with a broad smile, “is going to be incredibly useful for you. And, well, it’ll make punishing you with extra chores a little tricky. But I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.

“For now, let’s go for a walk… apprentice.”  

Previous Chapter                                               Next Chapter

 

Suspects 24-01

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 31 – Calafia and Ruthers

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on a conversation between Calafia and Ruthers shortly after Joselyn’s disappearance. Please enjoy. 

About Ten Years Ago

“Do you ever stop and look at what they’ve built?”

As she spoke, the woman known as Calafia dipped her hand into the cone-shaped paper bag, coming out with several kernels of popcorn. She popped the buttery, salted treat into her mouth without ever looking behind her toward the man who had just walked across the grassy park to meet her. She kept her gaze on the ducks steadily swimming across the pond.

Gabriel Ruthers, the bulldog masquerading as a man, stepped beside her. He had no popcorn. Instead, he held a newspaper under one arm. His voice was a grunt. “I assume you’re not talking about the ducks.”

Taking another small handful of the popcorn that she had purchased from the vendor at the edge of the park, Calafia nodded slightly. “Humanity, Gabriel. They’ve advanced so far, so quickly. Look at their buildings, their cities compared to just a few hundred years ago.”

“Compared to when we began nudging them, you mean?” the man replied simply. “I wasn’t in on your conversations then. But I heard enough. And I recall hearing that you objected to it.”

Her head bowed slightly. “I did,” she confirmed. “I thought that we should allow humans to develop naturally, rather than providing our little… hints to guide them.”

Ruthers watched the pond for a moment, his brow knitted in a frown before he replied, “We owed it to ‘em. After what happened with the necromancer…” He squinted, fist tightening at his side before continuing. “They deserved a little help. If we hadn’t… if I hadn’t… if…” Pausing, the man shook his head, setting on a flat, “Things could’ve been different. We owed them a little help. Taking a little bit of the technology we scavenged from some of those Strangers and using it to help give humanity a little push is the least we could’ve done. It helped give them a fighting chance.”

For a few seconds, neither of the two said anything. They continued to watch the simple, swimming ducks in silence. Eventually, however, it was Ruthers who spoke. “It’s official,” he declared, passing the newspaper to her without looking away from the water.

Calafia didn’t need to look at the paper to know what it said. After all, she’d already read the article herself. But there was no sense in telling him that. No sense in giving the man any idea that she paid any more attention to the situation than was absolutely necessary. If the time came that he ever had cause to think back over their interactions, looking for hints that she knew too much or was too involved, she wanted to give the man as little as possible.

To that end, the woman carefully took the paper in one hand and glanced at the headline. “Local Sheriff Still Missing,” she read aloud. “I take it they haven’t found a body then.”

Because of course, the subject was Joselyn Atherby. The subject was almost always Joselyn Atherby when it came to Ruthers. The woman hadn’t even been a Heretic for over a decade, and yet she was still the first thing on his mind. He was as obsessed as… well, usually when she gave examples of someone being obsessed with something, ‘Ruthers and Atherby’ was her go-to. It was more difficult from the other end of it.

And now that Joselyn had disappeared, he had begun talking to every Committee member separately. She’d already heard about what he wanted to ask. But again, Calafia remained silent about it, letting him bring it up.  

“Of course not,” Ruthers snapped. “You know they won’t. Not unless she decides to manufacture one to give the husband some kind of closure.”

Counting silently to five in her head, Calafia used the time to eat another handful of popcorn before responding. “The husband, you say,” she observed. “Not the daughter as well?”

He was quiet for a moment then before clearing his throat. “Yes, well, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”

There was no sense in appearing to be completely obtuse. Even if she hadn’t already been aware of what the man wanted, Calafia would have been able to put it together. “You want to take the girl.”

“Take her?” Ruthers echoed, glancing away from the pond and to her. She felt his eyes study her for a moment before he spoke again. “What I want–” He stopped, taking a breath before letting it out. Then he started again, softer that time. “What I want is for that girl to have a chance.”

Pausing at that, Calafia quietly asked, “What do you mean by that?”

His response was soft. “What I mean is… we can argue all day about whether Atherby regained her memories and took off, or if someone else found her. You know what I think. But this isn’t about that argument. We can save it for another day. This is about the girl, the child. And here’s the thing, whatever happened to Atherby, her daughter is going to have a rough time.”

She thought about that briefly before looking back to the ducks. “Because if Atherby went back to her old ways, she’ll come back for her daughter.”

“And pull her into… that,” Ruthers confirmed. “She’ll have that girl mixing up with Strangers and–” He cut himself off, clearly avoiding going down that line of thought. “She’ll get her daughter involved in her war. And if she was taken by someone else, that person must be strong enough to avoid the mnemosyne spell, which means–”

“They’re powerful, and dangerous.” Calafia sighed then. “And you think they’ll come back for the girl.”

“One way or another,” he replied, “she’s in danger. That girl is either going to be recruited by her mother, or abducted by the same being who was powerful enough to ignore our memory spells and take Atherby. Right now, at this moment, it doesn’t matter who’s right. I’ll set that aside. What matters is the girl. If we don’t take her in, she’ll be in danger.”

That was… he had a point. Not that she thought for a moment that the woman would actually have abandoned her family in the first place, but that second option, that whoever had taken her would come back for the child… Calafia frowned a little bit to herself, watching the pond for a moment as she collected her thoughts. “It would involve taking her away from her father.” She glanced that way. “One would think that you would be against that sort of thing. After all, the man already lost his wife.”

His response was a sigh. “You’re right, most of the time, taking a Bystander child away from her Bystander father would make me sick. But this? Either Atherby is going to drag her daughter into this and the man will lose his kid anyway, or this mystery force that took her is going to take her and kill him in the process.

“That’s what it comes down to. No matter who’s right, the kid and the dad are both in danger if she stays. I mean–” Ruthers sighed once more. “I know that I’m the bad guy here when it comes to this sort of thing, all right? I understand that. It’s okay. Most of the time, I don’t give a shit, as long as we can all do our jobs and keep this fucking world spinning. But this time, it’s not about that. It’s about that girl and her dad. And yeah, separating them’s gonna hurt in the short term. But if it’s between hurting them now so they both survive, or leaving them alone and letting them die just so we don’t have to feel like the bad guys… shit, I’ll go ahead and be the asshole. I’ll be the monster. Yeah, I think we should take her in. I think it’s the best way to keep the kid and her dad safe.”

Decades ago (a drop in the bucket of her life), Calafia had made the choice to allow Joselyn Atherby to take her son away from her, to hide him so that neither she, nor any of her fellow Counselors, would know where he was. Not that Ruthers knew that. As far as he and all of the others were concerned, Calafia’s son had been killed. That was the way it had to be. Since he had been turned by that weretiger, everyone would have known the truth. And they would have killed him, would have killed her son if she didn’t send him away and cut herself off from him.

So she did have some experience when it came to deciding that it was better to separate the parent from the child. When it came down to it, what mattered more, Felicity Chambers’s immediate happiness and that of her father… or their lives? Ruthers did have a point. Sometimes what appeared to be the callous, unfeeling solution was best in the long run.

And yet… losing contact with her own child, that had been her choice. She knew that wherever he was, Joselyn had ensured that he had a chance. She had given Calafia her word that they would keep him safe.

What was the right answer here? Was she betraying Joselyn by entertaining the idea of taking her child away from her husband? Or would it be more of a betrayal to leave the girl where she was, as a target for whatever had taken her to begin with?

Damn it, why couldn’t Gabriel Prosser have given the woman her memory back so that she could find a way to actually disappear, with her husband and child?

Thinking about it for a few more long seconds, Calafia finally came to a decision, shaking her head. “The best I can offer you is a compromise as part of the vote. We maintain the surveillance, maybe even establish a stricter set. If we see anything that indicates that the girl’s either in danger, or being contacted by her mother or any of her people… then we take her in.

“I’m sorry, Gabriel, I can’t agree to taking a girl away from her only remaining parent. Not like this. Not… yet. When–if there’s any sign of any of that, then yes. You’ll have my vote. But until then… higher security, continued surveillance, monitoring the girl… it’s the best I can do.”

For a moment, the man said nothing. She thought he was gearing himself up for an argument. But in the end, he put a hand on her shoulder. His voice was gruff.  “I’m sorry about your son. Losing him, it was… That–this must…” For once, the man seemed to realize that he shouldn’t say anything else. And he also chose not to argue any further, saying only, “I won’t give up trying to change your mind.”

“You wouldn’t be you if you did, Gabriel,” she replied quietly.

For a few minutes, they stood on the edge of the pond like that, watching the ducks. Eventually, his hand slipped from her shoulder, and the man stepped back. “I have more people to talk to, but if you need–”

“I’m quite all right, Gabriel,” Calafia informed him. “I’m going to stay here and watch the ducks for a while though.” A pause then, before she added, “Thank you.”

He grunted in response, watching her for a moment before turning on his heel to walk away. The man was clearly disappointed by her answer, but tactful enough at least to avoid pushing the issue.

Many different thoughts swam through Calafia’s mind then, much like the ducks in the pond ahead of her. Like them, there was far more going on beneath the surface than her still and stoic demeanor betrayed. But one thing above all else, above the thought of what Ruthers would do next, or who had taken Joselyn, or what would happen to her daughter, one thought was louder than all of that.

She missed her son.

Previous Chapter                                         Next Chapter

 

Interlude 23 – Bastet

Previous Chapter                                            Next Chapter

There were twelve of them. Two six person teams. Each of them a fully-trained Heretic, of the Crossroads variety. The youngest of their number had graduated from that school thirty years earlier, the eldest, a hundred and fifty years earlier. Between them, they possessed over eight hundred years worth of experience in hunting and killing the creatures they called Strangers.

And they were using that experience to terrify children. Which likely seemed fair to them, since they had already used it to kill those children’s parents or caretakers only minutes earlier.

The place was an apartment building in Brooklyn. It was a haven for Alters of many kinds. Not as large or well-known as Wonderland or certain others, but respectable enough. Before the last few minutes of horror, it had held about thirty families. Some were as small as a single adult with no one else to care for, while others were as large as both parents (or three parents in the case of one tri-gendered species) with entire litters of children. They were a small, yet devoted community. They never bothered others, kept to their own group, educated their young amongst themselves, and generally avoided much contact with the outside world. It was the safest way.

Or it had been, before one of their number had been spotted picking up groceries by a Heretic. The Heretic had avoided direct confrontation, following his quarry until he found the apartments and realized how many other Alters were living there. After he had reported back, this combined, two team taskforce had been assigned to ensure none of the ‘infestation’ escaped.

It was amazing, how easy it became to kill people when you thought of them in terms of pests.

They had moved quickly and efficiently. Some of the Alters had managed to put up a pretty decent fight. The apartment building itself was heavily damaged. But in the end, with the doors barred by a couple of the Heretics, and other methods of transportation out of the apartment building blocked due to a combination of powers and magic, it was a foregone conclusion. The Alters were wiped out. All, that was, except for the children. Forty-one of them, from a variety of parents. All had been ushered into the building’s basement where their classes were usually held when the fighting began. They huddled in the corner, listening with growing terror to what was occurring directly above their heads. The screams of their parents, the helplessness they felt as their loved ones, their families, were cut down by those who saw them as monsters, was impossible for some of them to even comprehend. Their lives were destroyed in those moments.

And those same lives would be erased soon, if the Heretics had anything to say about it. Because seeing entire species as evil, soulless abominations didn’t allow one to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, or between children and adults. Seeing another living being as inherently evil from birth didn’t allow for the concept of negotiation or mercy. Generations worth of military leaders had attempted the same sort of disconnect between the people of their own nation and those of others, and that was simply among other humans.

As the door into the basement was blasted open, three of the Heretics, half of one team, descended quickly. They soon found themselves facing the collection of Alter youth, senses clearly alerting them to the true nature of even the most human-looking among them.

“You were right,” a Heretic announced as he drew his weapon, a spear with fire dancing around it. “It’s a nest. Another year or two and they would’ve spread out into the neighborhood.”

It was as far as he got before the eldest of the Alter children, a boy who looked to be about the equivalent of a human fourteen-year-old with dark red skin and scales, charged the Heretics with a scream of mixed rage, terror, and grief. He snatched up one of the nearby metal chairs, flinging it at the Heretic’s head in a desperate bid to at least gain their attention, their notice before they dispassionately snuffed out the life of him and his friends. .

The chair halted in mid-air, before melting into a pool of liquid metal that split apart into four separate floating bubbles which flew straight to each of the boy’s four limbs. The liquid metal bubbles formed themselves into shackles that wrapped around his wrists and ankles, yanking him to the floor where he fell. His bellow of rage and grief morphed to a cry of pain as he landed hard on his back, held there by the metal shackles that somehow fused solid with the cement floor at a casual gesture from the man he had been recklessly charging toward.

The remaining children tried to scatter or run to the aid of the first, but at a gesture from one man, all were caught by an inescapable, directed force of gravity that yanked them inexorably to the ground. They struggled futilely against the pull, unable to break free of the directed gravity.

“Deal with the rest,” the man with the spear ordered his two companions while flipping his weapon around. The fire built up around it before he drove the spear down at the boy’s throat.

An inch from its target, the spear halted in mid-air. Twin wispy tendrils of black smoke had snaked in to wrap around the shaft, holding still against the Heretic’s considerable strength.

“One of the brood!” the Heretic blurted, jerking at his staff with enough force to tear a car door free. It was a futile effort, as the tendrils easily held it still.  “We’ve got an umbrakinetic.” Which was odd, considering none of the Strangers they’d observed should have had any such power.

The other two Heretics picked up the pace, striding toward the children with their own weapons drawn. Before they had even crossed half the distance, however, the first man’s spear was torn out of his grasp by the wispy-looking tendrils. The weapon was flung across the room, passing the two rushing Heretics before a hand reached up to catch it by the shaft, easily snatching the spear out of midair. The hand, and the person it was attached to, stood between the Heretics and their prey, in a spot where they were all quite certain no one had stood an instant earlier.

Her form was shrouded, both in the dark hooded cloak that she wore as well as shadows themselves that seemed to instinctively draw closer to the figure. Twin glowing azure eyes remained her only visible distinctive feature as her black-gloved hand held the stolen spear.

The three men froze briefly, staring at the figure who failed to set off the sense that would tell them she was one of the vile Strangers. And yet, neither did she seem to be one of them.

“Your… intrusion is unnecessary, Gardener,” the man whose spear had been taken from him snapped after giving a quick check to ensure that the Stranger at his feet was still held. “We’re handling this infestation. Unless you want to cause an incident between our people, I suggest–”

“You are a fool.” The voice came sharply from the figure as she turned her head to him, shadows continuing to play over the front of her hooded face to hide it. “And I am no Heretic, Garden or otherwise. In all of my very long life, I have not suffered as many traumatic concussions as it would take to leave my mind damaged enough to believe the nonsense you cling to. The nonsense you use in order to hide from the truth, that you are the true monsters.”

Even as she finished speaking, the woman’s hood seemed to fall back of its own volition, the shadows removing themselves to reveal a face that far paler than should have been natural, almost bone-white. Her hair as blue as her eyes, fell free and loose once out of the confines of the hood. A sense of power, almost like the gathering energy of an impending lightning strike, swirled around the strange woman as her gaze remained locked on the trio of Heretics.

One of the men, his rifle raised and pointing, gave a confused, uncertain, “Stranger?”
The man whose spear she held shook his head. “Impossible. Nothing non-human could hold a Heretic weapon for that long. The pain would leave them broken and screaming on the floor. She’s one of the Natural Heretics. Maybe one of Prosser’s brood.” To the figure, he snapped, “We aren’t here to play games with your kind. You don’t want to be part of our society, fine. Leave. Let us finish cleaning this place out before they find a way to escape.”

The pale, blue-haired woman straightened a little, her chin slowly rising. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear.” She brought the spear around to grasp with both hands while raising her foot. “The only chance you have of harming these children–” Her foot pressed against the spear for a moment before the weapon literally snapped in half and the pieces were tossed aside. “–is if any happen to be allergic to your blood or the dust of your bones as it fills this room.”

The Heretics’ surprise that the intruder would dare to interrupt and speak to them that way had found its match in their shock at her ability to simply snap one of their weapons as if it was nothing more than a particularly thick stick. For a moment, they simply stood there, as though frozen. Then the three moved, their actions coordinated and honed through decades of practice. Communicating with one another through their shared telepathic link, the three abandoned their attack on the helpless children to focus entirely on the intruder who had interrupted them while also alerting the other nine Heretics that they had arrived at the building with, those still spread throughout. Within seconds, all twelve were aware of the blue-haired woman’s presence.

Good. She wanted them to know. She wanted all of them to be aware of her. For once, it would be their turn to be afraid, to feel the terror of being hunted down and systematically eliminated.

She owed these children that much, for failing to arrive in time to spare their parents the fate that these Heretics had visited upon them. She owed them the certainty that the people who had murdered their families would never harm anyone else. Justice, she owed them justice.

The Heretic with the rifle took a shot at her. His weapon was essentially a fully-automatic machine gun with next-to-no kickback. There were two triggers for the weapon. One fired a single tracer with each shot. The tracer was a small, disc-like object about the size of a pinhead that automatically attached itself to whatever it struck. The tracers served two purposes. First, they sent a detailed scan of any target, biological or otherwise, that they were near back to the gun itself. A readout on the gun would provide a list of everything the scan determined.

The tracers’ other use had to do with the second trigger. When that trigger was pulled, the gun would begin to spray approximately eight hundred bullets per minute, with the Heretic love of magically putting large spaces into small objects allowing the gun to carry enough ammunition to fire for a full ten minutes straight without the need to restock or reload. And those bullets would follow the easiest unobstructed path toward the tracer itself, no matter what kind of cover the person it was attached to tried to hide themselves behind. They would simply go around anything in their way, to the best of their ability, bending around corners, dropping to avoid shields, and so on. It was all-but impossible to hide from the bullets once they had a lock on a tracer that had attached itself to you.

The intruder, however, had no desire to hide. As the tracer shot its way to her, she allowed it to strike home without moving a muscle. However, the instant that the regular bullets began to tear their way out of the gun’s barrel at the staggering rate of around thirteen per second, a simple thought instantly transported the tracer from herself to the pocket of the second Heretic. The man had already drawn his mace and was readying himself to back up his partner after the initial volley. He never saw the shots coming. And as good as the rifle-toting Heretic’s reflexes were, he still held the trigger down for a solid three seconds before realizing something was wrong. Three seconds of thirteen bullets meant that his partner was struck by nearly forty bullets almost directly in the back, when he’d had no idea there was even a threat there.

Tough as the man was, and he had been a Heretic for long enough to be very tough indeed, he couldn’t simply ignore something like that. The bullets punched through his back and out his front, leaving gaping holes in his dark suit while blood and more leaked through. His expression of shocked pain as he collapsed to the floor brought a slight smirk to the pale woman’s face.  

The man with the rifle was screaming at the sight. He vanished from where he had been, appearing in a kneeling position at his partner’s side while hurriedly working to stabilize him.

Meanwhile, the one whose spear she had taken threw himself fully into the offensive. Snatching a knife from his belt, he came at her with the blinding speed of a vampire. In the span of less than a second, he had crossed the room and performed six separate slashes with his blade.

Each and every one missed, whiffing through air while she barely seemed to move. Through little to no exertion on her part, the woman avoided each strike simply by twitching the appropriate part of herself the precise millimeters required to avoid being cut. No more, no less.

He threw more of himself into the attack, producing a second blade before going at her in a violent, half-crazed flurry of slashes and jabs that passed too quickly for the human eye to follow.  Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen separate attacks. And each was avoided with as little effort as possible. She turned and twisted, anticipating not just the next attack, but the next five, positioning herself perfectly with each motion. The man was bellowing and lashing out wildly. The woman… barely seemed to be paying attention.

Eventually, the Heretic conjured a forcefield around her, instantly filling it with a miniature tornado with winds of nearly three hundred miles per hour. The intention was to literally paste the walls of the forcefield with her blood as she was violently blown around within it, rebounding off the walls several times per second from winds powerful enough to pick up a car and hurl it.

She simply teleported outside of the forcefield, appearing directly behind the man. Extending both hands, she summoned the pieces of his broken spear to her before taking a knee in order to drive the broken ends of each spear piece behind herself and through the back of both of the man’s knees.

Releasing the spear pieces as the man screamed and collapsed, she rose in time to see the man with the rifle coming at her. He had turned his entire body into a substance that was harder than steel. Between that, his strength, and the fact that he was moving at near mach speed, the punch that he bringing to bear as his arm came swinging around was powerful enough to blow through the side of an armored warship as if it was made of particularly thin paper.

His armored fist came to an abrupt halt roughly a foot from the woman’s face. Two of her fingers, index and middle, were pressed against his hand. She had caught his most powerful blow on two fingers. And now she stood there, smiling faintly at his disbelieving stare for a half-second before releasing the kinetic charge she had just absorbed into a blast that sent him flying end over end backwards to slam into the far wall like an insect smacking off the windshield of a car.

By that point, the man whose spear had been broken in half and driven through his knees had yanked the pieces out and was back on his feet. His healing was good enough to bring him up and around, arm morphing into fire that would have been hot enough to melt steel as he drove it at the woman’s back.

A thought allowed her to switch places with the man whose body had been torn apart by bullets. Between his own healing and the help from his companion, he would have survived. Would have. Except that as the woman switched places with him, the fire-engulfed fist of his other companion punched straight through his back and out the front. The empowered, supernaturally heated flames had turned most of the man’s body to ash by the time the first Heretic realized what he had done, a scream of horror passing his lips even as his aura flared up to announce the other man’s death.

She used the rush of unwanted pleasure that the man felt then as his body absorbed the powers from his companion in order to rise to her feet once more from the position she had ended in when she had switched places with the other Heretic. A flick of her hand summoned the two bloody halves of the man’s broken spear before a thought separated them further into a dozen smaller pieces that hovered there in the air between them for a second before the woman simply turned away from him. A dispassionate wave of her hand as she began to walk away sent the shards flying that way. Even as he came out of the pleasure brought on by the death of his friend, the man was pierced up and down his body by a dozen small shards of his own spear. Each only penetrated less than an inch into his body, nothing he couldn’t survive.

And then each of the empowered shards exploded, the collective energy blowing the man apart into chunks that painted the walls with his blood and the dust of his bones. Just as she had promised before the fight (such as it was) began.

Ignoring the rush of being filled with the man’s power and memories, as the golden glow of her own aura rose up, she focused on the surviving Heretic of the trio, the one with the gun who had been hurled back against the far wall. He had just managed to drag himself back to his feet. “H-how, how?” he demanded, his face a mixture of pain and confusion. “Gun… gun won’t… won’t shoot at another Heretic even with tracer. Safeguards.”

Lifting her chin, the pale woman smiled faintly. “Oh, the safeguards that prevent your rifle from shooting at one of your companions, no matter where the tracer ends up? I disabled them before you even saw me. A simple spell… there.” She nodded toward the butt of the rifle.

Despite himself, he looked. Right there, at the very back end of the gun, a small rune had been drawn. Somehow, the woman had walked right up to him and put the spell on his rifle that had allowed her to disable the safety measures that should have protected his companion.

Wait, that wasn’t the only spell that had been drawn on the butt of the–

“Jiwe,” the woman announced flatly, speaking the word that would empower the second spell she had drawn on the rifle. There was a brief flash of light, and when it faded, the man holding the weapon had been turned to stone. His petrified form stood there, encased in rock.

By that time, the remaining Heretics, all of whom had been cut out of their companions’ mental link since the moment the now-dead men had graciously informed them of her presence, had arrived. They came from the stairs, turned to smoke and poured down through the vents, or simply teleported into the room. Before long, all nine stood in a loose circle around the woman, the expressions on their faces showing the horror they felt at what they saw.

Beast!” one of the men bellowed, ripping his sword free of its place. “You’ll pay with yo–”

The woman was standing on the opposite side of the man from where she had been. The man’s own sword was in her hand, dripping blood. The same blood leaked from the man’s neck for a second before his head slid away and dropped to the floor, the rest of his body shortly following.

As her golden aura rose up briefly, there was a collective shout from the rest of the gathered force, all eight of them. One blurted, “Heretic!”

“Oh,” she replied in a low, dangerous voice. “I am as far from a Heretic as you are from humanity. I am Bastet. Come. Show me your vengeance and I will show you mine. We will compare their worth and see who is found wanting.”

Each of the remaining Heretics glanced to one another, readied their weapons and their power… and came at her.

The point had been made, and even together, the Heretics were no threat to her. And yet, Bastet allowed them to last almost twice as long as the three who had come before them. Allowed it so that the children they had so terrorized would at least see the deaths of their families murderers. She let it be dragged out longer than it had to be solely to provide those children with some measure of satisfaction.

But in the end, the outcome was inevitable. Each of the Heretics lay dead on the floor, or broken into too many pieces to rightfully be called a corpse. They were gone, all of them.

Finished, Bastet gave a simple flick of her hand, removing two protective forcefields she had placed over both the larger group of children and the boy who had been separated from the others at the start. Forcefields that had kept them from being harmed in the midst of that battle.

The tears of both gratitude and fear, the pleas for the status of their parents and families, and more had already begun. They were a cacophony that she could do almost nothing for. Nothing that she hadn’t already done. Comforting, encouraging, grieving, the half-Reaper known as Bastet could provide none of it.

But she did know where they could get it. Her hand rose, tossing a small red stone toward the nearest, oldest boy. “Gather the rest around, everyone touching. Hold the rock and say Ile. You’ll be taken somewhere safe. Somewhere away from here. There will be other Heretics coming. Leave.”

With that warning, the woman transported herself away. She didn’t go far, only to the roof of the apartment building. Beside her, the stone statue of the gun-toting Heretic had been brought along. And with a touch, Bastet returned him to normal.

He fell to his knees, collapsing with a cry of both terror and pain. Slowly, he breathed, lifting his head. “Not… not…”

“Dead?” she finished for him. “No. You’re no use to me dead.”

With that, she gestured, and the man was thrown onto his back. A thought made him sink almost fully into the roof as though it was made of water before only his head remained loose.

Before he could recover, she reached down, scrawling a rune on the man’s forehead with a red felt pen. The symbol  seemed to catch fire an instant later before burning itself into his skin as the man gave a scream of agony.

For twenty-four hours, he would be incapable of using any of his powers. Her magic had sealed them away from him. It meant that he would remain trapped where she put him long enough for his rescuers to arrive. Long enough for her point to be made.

Her eyes seemed to burn blue fire into the imprisoned man’s own gaze, his body trapped by the bricks of the roof. He was as bereft of thought as he was of words, staring wide-eyed that way.

She left him there without another word, left him to tell the story to the other Heretics when they came to find him. A single living witness, to tell the story, to inform the others that they were not the only hunters out there.

One survivor, to ensure that they knew that this had been done by a single woman. And that she was out there, watching them.

When she returned to the basement, the children were gone. They had used the transportation stone, fleeing to the safety she had promised them.

And yet, the basement wasn’t empty. A single, gray-green figure crouched there, examining some of the blood. Upon Bastet’s arrival, the Fomorian rose to his full height. “Were you… in time?”

“In time to save the children, Grandfather,” Bastet replied. “The rest…” She turned away, gaze dropping. “I felt them die. I can still taste it. But I got here too late.”

Together, the two shared a moment of silence for the dead. Then he stepped closer, his hand finding her shoulder. “You sent the children to him?”

She gave a slight nod. “They’ll be safer there than anywhere else. He’ll know how to care for them, and how to… teach them to cope with their loss. He’s better with… that.”

Grandfather began to respond, before abruptly bending to snatch up a rat that had come from the wall to investigate the scent of death. Holding the squeaking, squirming thing in one hand, the Fomorian examined it with delight. “Ooooh, hello, young man. I believe I knew your ancestor. Does your family hail from Italy, by chance?”

Turning slightly, he smiled absently at his companion. “Dear girl, have I ever told you why the animals of this planet so closely resemble living beings of other worlds? Why the Satyrs resemble goats, why the Rakshasa appear to be anthropomorphic cats, or why the delightful Jekern look quite similar to warthogs?”

“Only seventeen thousand times, Grandfather,” Bastet informed him dryly. But he was already launching into the lecture. A lecture she could recite along with him.

“My people were working on cloning beings of every world. Enormous tanks full of the DNA of every known creature. All the better to study them. Their DNA was broken, of course. They didn’t want to create real, sapient clones. They wanted test subjects, target practice.”

“And when you stole the first humans,” Bastet continued for him, “You took the test-DNA vats as well.”

His head was bobbing quickly, eagerly. “Couldn’t let my humans be lonely. Brought the test vats and fixed them myself, spread them over the world here and there. Let a few out at a time. Let them wander while finishing work on humans. Allowed them to mingle with the creatures that lived here already. Intermarried. Spread the genetics. Now indistinguishable from what was here before and what wasn’t.”

That was why so many Alter species resembled animals that were found on Earth, because the Earth animals themselves were descended from test-tube creatures that had originally been intended to look like those Alters. And the reason that humans gained no benefit from the mixing of their own blood and that of ordinary animals was that aforementioned ‘broken’ DNA. The test-creatures were never meant to be actual clones of the Alters they resembled. They were artificial, and so the human power to latch itself onto the DNA of other species would never manifest.

“Come, come,” Grandfather instructed while striding toward the stairs while tucking the rat into one of his pockets. “We’ll get ice cream and I’ll tell you the truth of where what the humans call were-creatures come from.”

“Oh, goodie,” Bastet muttered, trailing after him. “You’ve only told me that one nine thousand times.”

Of course, the elderly Fomorian wasn’t listening, and had already begun to excitedly repeat the story. And with barely a sigh as she settled her mind in to hear it all once more, Bastet followed. There were, after all, worse ways to spend her time.

And he had promised ice cream.

Previous Chapter                                            Next Chapter