Six Years Ago.
“I said Black Forest!” The sound of the shout filled the living room of the small apartment, echoing throughout the tight confines just before a glass bottle punctuated the bellow by shattering noisily against the far wall, “Not this fucking Asp’s light shit! It’s the green god damn bottle! The green one! Are you so stupid you don’t even know what the hell the color green is, you retarded little fuckstain?”
Standing before her drunken, towering father, eleven-year-old Hannah Owens quivered a little, reflexively cowering from the man’s glare. “I… I… I…” She was too frightened to force the words out.
“I, I, I.” The man repeated mockingly before making a noise of disgust before his fist lashed out, striking the girl across the face with enough force to knock her to the floor. “Shut the fuck up, brat.”
Hannah had seen the blow coming. Her father was too drunk for anything even approaching subtlety. The young girl, whose dark hair was drawn into a simple ponytail held by a scavenged rubber band, wanted to pull away from the incoming punch. Being hit by Daddy hurt, even when he was too drunk to put much thought into his blows. But she knew through plenty of personal experience that avoiding one blow, tempting as it was, would just infuriate the man and spur him on to much worse things. It was better to take the single hit and drop to the floor than risk giving him any reason to follow up the attack. It hurt to get hit. It hurt worse when Daddy was mad enough to get creative.
So she made herself stand still, taking the back-handed blow that knocked her to the floor with a cry. She had to yelp, had to make the physical sound or her father would think that he hadn’t hit her hard enough. It was a tricky thing to judge. If she didn’t make enough noise, Daddy would think that his first strike hadn’t done the job and would follow it up. If she made too much noise, it would annoy him further and he’d make her shut up the only way he knew how. There was almost an art to making just enough of a scene that he would be satisfied that a single punch had gotten his point across sufficiently.
Luckily, in a manner of speaking, Hannah had plenty of practice at that sort of thing.
Reginald, Reggie to his friends at the bars and the bowling alley where he led the league in score, stood over the fallen girl. His face was twisted and ugly as he jabbed a finger down at her. “I told you to get me a fucking Black Forest out of the fridge, you waste of sperm. Not the Asp’s Light. One of em’s got the green bottle, the other’s that piss-stain yellow one. I always knew the only thing you’d ever be good for was an example of why going bareback on some dumb bitch ain’t worth the trouble, but I thought you at least knew the difference between green and yellow. Ain’t that what you go to school for?!”
He waited half a second before raising his voice back into a bellow, “Answer the fucking question, you retarded little condom-tear! Don’t you know the difference between green and yellow, huh?!”
“Y-y-yes, daddy,” Hannah stammered, her eyes wide as she stared up at the furious man. “I… I kn-know. B-but, but… we-we-w-we’re out of the green one. They’re all gone a-a-and I didn’t wanna give you no beer, a-a-and that one was still there f-from the other night when you had your p-poker night.”
“Out?!” If anything, Reggie was even angrier at that point. He reared back his foot and kicked the girl. “What the fuck do you mean, we’re out?! I had six left this morning! Six of ’em! I had one with lunch, one this afternoon, and three more this evening! One, one, three. That’s fucking five, you worthless little shit! Where the–” He brought back his foot once more, sending it forward to kick the child with enough force to knock her several feet away. “–hell is my last beer! Where the fuck is it?! You steal it, huh? Where’d you fucking put it, shitstain?! Where’d you hide it?! You tell me where it is right now!”
Curling into a ball, tears falling freely from her clenched shut eyes, Hannah finally managed to answer the man when he paused to take a breath. “You drank it! You drank it, you drank it, you drank it!”
Letting out a snarl of anger, Reggie leaned down and grabbed the girl by her hair. Yanking the eleven-year old back to her feet, he gave her a hard, open-palm slap across the face. “You’re a fucking liar, you know that? You’re a moron and you’re a liar. I just told you how many beers I had. Five, not six. You already killed your mommy when you were born, you stupid shit. Wasn’t that enough for you?”
It was one of Hannah’s father’s favorite topics. Her mother had died due to complications while giving birth to the girl. In the eyes of Reginald Owens, that meant that Hannah had killed his wife. He had never gotten over the loss, and had never forgiven the girl, not for one minute. On his best days, he tolerated her presence and gave gruff orders to stay out of his way. On the worst, he made sure she knew just how worthless, unloved, unwanted, and pathetic she was. He made absolutely certain that the girl never forgot that she was a murderer, that she had killed her own mother while being born.
“You killed your mommy, you evil shit, and now you steal my beer?” The man spat the words hatefully.
Blinded by the tears that continued soaking her small face, Hannah had to fight for breath so that she could stammer a response. “Y-y-you had… had… the other one last n-night. You had it last night.”
“Bullshit!” Reggie’s anger boiled over, and he drew back his hand to smack her once again. In mid-swing, however, a noise from outside the apartment drew the attention of both father and daughter. It was the sound of shouting, running footsteps, and heavy crashes as something repeatedly crashed into the walls with so much force that they shook heavily from each impact.
“What… the….” Releasing his daughter, Reggie strode to the entrance of the apartment. Shoving the door open to step into the hall, he bellowed, “What the fuck is going on out here, you inconsiderate–”
His complaint was cut off as a larger man, pale and wild-eyed, slammed into Reggie and knocked him to the floor so hard the air was knocked out of him. The massive figure then continued to barrel into the newly revealed apartment, setting his eyes on Hannah herself, who was suddenly paralyzed with fear.
“Good.” The big man announced, drooling on himself as he staggered toward the girl. “Fresh meat.”
Hannah opened her mouth, a high-pitched scream barely escaping her before the enormous, ugly man was suddenly in front of her. He crossed the entire room so quickly she hadn’t even seen him move before he was abruptly right there. Her scream was cut off as his hand closed around her throat, and Hannah found herself being lifted up from the floor. He brought her right up to his face, and when he spoke, the stench of rotted meat on his breath nearly make the girl throw up. “Wish I had time to take this slow and really enjoy my meal,” he lamented with a sad shake of his head. “Especially when they look as tasty as you. But I need a recharge before those fucks catch up, and I think you’ll do just fine.”
He opened his mouth, revealing, to the girl’s horror, several rows of teeth that were more akin to that of a shark than a human being. Her renewed shriek joined the monster’s laugh as he began to lunge in.
An instant before those teeth would have torn into the child, a glowing red whip wrapped around the massive man’s thick neck from behind, halting the lunge of his head toward her tender flesh.
For a second, Hannah continued to stare into those hungry eyes. Then the man was yanked backward by the whip around his neck. The force of it forced him to drop her, and Hannah rolled out of the way, bumping against the television before her wild gaze found the terrible man with all the teeth once more.
He was standing over her father, who hadn’t managed to pick himself up yet. The monster’s eyes weren’t on the man that he’d casually knocked aside, but on the doorway of the apartment. When he spoke, the words were full of such vehemence that Hannah briefly thought it was her father’s voice.
“Baroness,” the monster spat the title like it was a curse. “To what do I owe this personal attention?”
In the doorway, holding onto the handle of the whip that had saved Hannah’s life, stood the most beautiful woman that the small brunette had ever seen. Tall, regal, with red hair that was cut short, she was stunning in a way that the child had never thought possible outside of movies. The glowing crimson whip that she had used to haul the man away from Hannah hung loosely from one hand.
When the woman spoke, it was with utter confidence and power. Real power, not Reginald’s tantrums. “You’re not killing anyone else, Fahsteth,” she announced flatly. “Not again.”
“Really?” The big man asked while lifting both hands as if to show that they were empty and that he was surrendering. “ Well, in that case, I suppose I’ll just have to–”
Reacting to some sign that Hannah hadn’t noticed, the so-called Baroness spun around suddenly, narrowly avoiding the lunge of the man that Fahsteth had been trying to distract her from.
A sword, the young girl realized belatedly while staring at what was happening in the doorway. The man who had attacked was swinging a sword around, taking chunks out of the wall. They struggled in a fight that was over so fast that the girl didn’t have time to follow anything that had happened. There was just a flurry of swings and the sound of that blade cutting into the wall, and then his sword was on the ground and the man himself was caught in the woman’s grip, her arms around his throat.
“Hey, Baroness!” the first man, Fahsteth, bellowed to get her attention. “You know that thing you said about me not killing anyone else?” His hands were still raised, but when he turned them the other way, there was a long-bladed knife in each of them that had appeared out of nowhere. “You might wanna think about throwing an asterisk onto that if you write this stuff down.”
With that, as the beautiful woman let out a cry of warning and tried to release the man that she had been struggling with, Fahsteth threw a single blade to each side. One struck struck Hannah’s father, who still hadn’t managed to pick himself up from the floor where he’d been knocked.
The other struck Hannah herself, embedding itself into the girl’s stomach with a suddenness that was almost as shocking as the utterly blinding pain that coursed through her.
“Got anymore predictions, Headmistress?” Fahsteth asked before spinning on his heel. With a shout of exuberance, he threw himself at the nearby window, crashing through the glass to escape.
In the next instant, the red-haired woman snapped the neck of the man that she had been struggling with, throwing the body aside before rushing forward. She dropped to one knee beside Hannah, freeing the blade from her stomach with a quick pull before pressing a hand over the wound. “No, no, no,” she murmured rapidly, head shaking. “Damn it! Listen to me, child, do not close your eyes. Look at me. Look at me, Hannah. Don’t close your eyes, okay? Keep them on me, keep looking at me.”
“How—how do you know my… my name?” The little girl asked, her voice thick with pain.
“I know a lot of things about you, Hannah,” the woman informed her. “In fact, I was just on my way to talk to you today when that… creature chose to make an appearance. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I thought we’d have more time. I thought I could make your father stop, take you somewhere that people would care about you, and you could have a chance to be a little girl for a bit longer.”
“I—I… d-don’t… d-don’t… wanna… d-die…” The little girl’s tears flowed freely, almost blinding her as she stared up at the woman, terrified of what she was saying. “Please, please, I’ll be good, I promise.” Her sobs had taken on a ragged, pained quality as each word grew harder to speak. “Please…”
“Hannah, listen to me. Listen.” The woman tilted her chin up with a finger. “You are not going to die, do you understand me? My name is Gaia Sinclaire, and I promise you that you will not die today. We just… have to do things a little different. I’m not sad because you might die, Hannah. I’m sad because I was looking forward to getting to know you, and now I’m not going to get that chance.”
“But… but you said–” Hannah tried to protest, though the effort to speak even that much cost her.
“Shh,” Gaia’s head shook. “I said you weren’t going to die, and you’re not. Of that, you have my word.”
From her pocket, the woman produced what looked like a small chicken bone. Taking it in both hands, she snapped the bone and tossed it aside while continuing to smile at the girl. “It’s okay. It’s all right.”
No more than twenty seconds after the bone had been broken, another figure stepped through the doorway. This one was a man, tall and handsome, dressed in an emerald suit. The shirt beneath the suit jacket was black, and the sunglasses he wore were tinted so dark that they appeared opaque.
“You broke the bone,” the newcomer announced, sounding vaguely surprised. “On purpose? I was half-expecting to find it discarded in a dumpster, with you back at your school laughing at the image of me rooting through the trash, trying to figure out what you wanted.”
Turning on him, Gaia interrupted before the man could continue. “Shut up and pay attention, Seller. The girl’s been poisoned. It was one of Fahsteth’s blades.”
Wincing noticeably, Seller’s head shook. “Fuck, so why’d you call me in? I know some of those hardliners you run with think this is the sort of thing we Gardeners enjoy, but you fucking know better than that, Sinclaire. I don’t wanna see this. Fahsteth’s blade? You know we can’t fix a Bystander that’s been hit by one of those. It’s impossible.”
“She’s a potential,” Gaia informed him in a low voice. “One of our biggest, actually. If she was a Heretic, we could fix her in a second. This poison would mean nothing. But…”
Seller’s voice was caustic. “But those stick in the ass old timers wouldn’t stand for it. Can’t break tradition, not even for a sick little girl that didn’t do anything wrong.”
The Baroness shook her head. “They believe that using the Edge on someone who is too young creates more problems.”
“I know exactly what they think!” Seller’s voice was raised. “That’s the whole reason the Garden exists! Because those fucks can’t get over themselves and their ‘tradition.’ And god forbid anyone fight against that. We all saw what happened to…” Pursing his lips then, clearly forcing himself to stop talking rather than launch into a much longer argument, the man finally finished with, “And what do you think?”
“I think I want you to take this girl,” Gaia Sinclaire replied softly, “and save her life. Make her a Heretic. Give her the power she needs.”
“You know if we take her,” Seller’s voice was equally quiet. “We don’t give them back. She’ll be one of us. You said she was one of your favorite potentials?”
“I would rather she go with you and live, than die.” Gaia’s voice was hard. “Take care of the girl, Seller. Heal her, keep her safe. Teach her how to fight. Teach her how to take care of herself. Teach her how to survive… and how to win.”
Slowly, Seller reached up to push his sunglasses down so that his pale eyes could look into Hannah’s weak, pain-filled gaze. “What about you, kid? What do you want?”
“I….” Hannah started. “… want… to… live.”
“Good enough for me.” The man crouched, pushing his hands under Hannah before lifting her off of the floor. “I’ll take the kid back to the Garden, Baroness. We’ll fix her up.”
He started for the doorway, the small, weak figure clutched in his arms. Before he reached it, however, another voice spoke up. “Heeeeey. What about me?”
It was Hannah’s father, Reggie. He was still lying in a pool of his blood, hand waving back and forth. “I ain’t… I ain’t dead either, you stupid fucks. What about me?”
Pushing herself up, Gaia Sinclaire stood over the man. “What about you? Well, as it happens, I was on my way here to tell you what I think of how you’ve treated your daughter, Mr. Owens, when that creature so rudely interrupted. And now? With that particular wound and the poison in the blade, you’ll be dead within the hour.” Taking the handle of the knife with one hand, she tore it from his body while straightening up. “Give or take.”
“You shit!” The man blurted. “You can’t just… can’t just leave me here!”
Standing there regally, the Baroness gazed down at Reggie. “There are several things that I am capable of, Mr. Owens. I am capable of understanding what you’ve done to your daughter. I am capable of understanding that you are never likely to change. And, perhaps most importantly for you in this second, I am, in fact, fully capable of leaving you right where you are.”
With that, she pivoted on her heel and left the man to scream useless insults and threats after her.
“All right, kid,” Seller announced while walking deeper into the apartment, toward another door. “Let’s get you fixed up, huh? You know where this door goes?”
Blearily, the poison working its way through her, Hannah lifted her gaze to look that way. “It’s a…. closet…”
The man smiled. “Wanna bet?” Leaning close enough to twist the knob without dropping the girl, he pushed it open, revealing a whole new building on the other side.
Eyes widening in spite of the pain she was in, Hannah stared at the impossible sight. “H-how…?”
“You think that’s cool, munchkin,” Seller announced, “then the rest of this stuff is gonna blow your mind.”
Four Months Ago
“They’ll never take me back,” the girl who had grown into a beautiful, powerful young woman over the past six years stood in the middle of the empty street. Rain poured down from above in great sheets, the raging storm making it all but impossible to either see or hear further than a few feet away. “Not after what I did,” she finished.
Beside her, the woman who had saved her life by sending her away all those years ago lay a hand on her shoulder. With her other hand, she clicked the top of a pen. The second the pen was clicked, the water stopped falling on the two of them. It was still raining just as heavily as before, but a space had opened up where the water simply avoided, falling to either side. It was as if an invisible shield had surrounded them.
“It’s going to be all right, Hannah,” Gaia promised the girl.
“All right?” Turning on her, the brunette shook her head. “I killed my teammate. That’s not all right. That’s not something they’ll ever forgive. I killed him. They’ll want payback for that. I have to run.”
“It was self-defense,” Gaia reminded her. “He was trying to–”
“I know what he was trying to do, I was there!” Hannah shot back. “You think it matters? I killed him and everyone saw me with the body. They know I killed him, they know it was me. They don’t know anything else. They don’t know about the harassment. They don’t know about the letters. They don’t know how many times he said he didn’t care that I like girls. Fuck, it was a turn-on for him! He said we could get one of the other babes in and make it a real party. But yesterday he just… he just… he tried to push the issue. I killed him. I just hit him and I hit him again, and then I couldn’t stop hitting him. That’s what they saw. That’s what they walked in on. Me, sitting on his chest, hitting his dead body for so long that his face was just a… a mess. I know what they saw. I know what they were going to do. So I ran away. I would’ve been taken anyway if Seller hadn’t gotten me out and given me your number. Now I… I don’t know what to do.”
“Listen to me, Hannah,” Gaia’s voice was firm. “You are going to be all right. First, the Garden wouldn’t dare attack the daughter of one of Crossroads’ senior staff. It would provoke a war.”
“But I’m not related to anyone from your school,” Hannah pointed out.
“You will be as soon as I finish adopting you,” Gaia replied simply. “You’ll be my daughter, my heir, and no one from that school will dare come after you. They’ll have to go through me first.”
Hannah’s mouth fell open. “You want to adopt me? Don’t you think I’m a little old for that?”
“Actually,” Gaia shrugged. “You happen to be the perfect age to start attending Crossroads.”
“Your school.” Hannah’s disbelief was palpable. “You want to adopt me and send me to your school.”
The Baroness nodded once. “You’ve learned so much from Eden’s Garden already, but I know they don’t start teaching magic until this year, Hannah. The human body can’t handle it until now. So you have a head-start on the physical parts, but you’ll be right with the others when it comes to magic. You’ll come to Crossroads. It will be hard for you to adjust, but I believe that you can manage it. I believe that you will excel, that you can excel at anything. I’ve been keeping an eye on you, Hannah, the whole time you were with the Garden Heretics. I know you. I know you can do this.”
Pursing her lips for a few seconds, the girl finally shrugged. “What the hell, it’s better than being on the run for the rest of my life.”
“Good,” Gaia smiled a bit. “We’ll spend the summer together. And in the fall, Hannah Sinclaire can join Crossroads.”
“No,” the young woman shook her head firmly, turning a bit to face the Headmistress. “Not Hannah. I’m tired of that name. That’s the name my father chose. I’m done with it. You want to adopt me? Fine, but change my whole name then.”
“Very well,” Gaia nodded once. “What shall we call you then, if not Hannah?”
The girl was quiet for a few seconds before she spoke. “I liked being at Eden’s Garden. You know, it’s not as bad as you Crossroads people make it sound. Sure it’s… different, and there’s some nasty people there. Hell, I’ve done some bad things. Things your people would consider bad. But it’s not all evil mustache twirling. They’re not a bunch of monsters. They just think differently than you. Hell, they say a lot of things about you guys that’s not true.”
Gaia’s head inclined into a simple nod. “I am aware of this. I would not have sent you with Seller if I didn’t believe you could be safe there.”
The girl continued, “I don’t want to forget where I came from. I don’t want to abandon it. Eden’s Garden taught me a lot. They taught me how to fight, how to protect myself. I’ll go to your school, I’ll even take your name. But I miss the Garden. I want my new name to help me remember it.”
“There is a possibility,” Gaia informed her. “I have… heard that the apple has a special significance to Garden students.”
“Apples, sure,” Hannah bobbed her head. “Or just fruit in general. The whole bullshit with the apple on the tree? The forbidden fruit? Yeah, that’s real for them. Sort of. That’s how they awaken us. You guys use the lighthouse, Eden’s Garden uses the fruit of knowledge. You eat the fruit, you become a Heretic.”
The Crossroads Headmistress nodded at that. “Of course. If you wish to hold onto your connection to the Garden, there is a name whose source was derived from the Old Welsh word for apple, aball. Or afal, depending on who you speak with. Ynys Afallon, to be specific. The island of apples. Or, in more common terminology… Avalon.”
“Avalon…” The girl considered for a moment before nodding slowly. “I like it.”
“Very well,” Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Then after today, you need never answer to the name of Hannah Owens again. This is your fresh start. From this point on, you are Avalon Sinclaire.”
“I still think this is all going to blow up in our faces,” the newly dubbed Avalon remarked quietly. “And Eden’s Garden won’t just let it go. They can’t. But…. what the hell, I suppose your Crossroads Academy has a new student. Just one thing though, I don’t do well with roommates. They never last.”
The Headmistress smiled faintly at that. “Never fear. I happen to have the perfect roommate in mind for you.”
“I’ll break her inside of a week. She’ll beg you to move her,” Avalon replied flatly.
Gaia met her gaze, her smile broadening just a bit. “We shall see, my new daughter.
“We shall see.”