Month: February 2016

Interlude 6 – Gaia Sinclaire

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April 3rd, 1920

“Three days, Joselyn,” Gaia Sinclaire spoke crisply as she entered the classroom, her eyes already directed toward the lone student sitting in the middle of the front row. The girl wore a security track uniform, which seemed to be directly at odds with the reason she was there. “Three days in a row that you have found yourself drawn into an open brawl, this time in the middle of the school courtyard.”

“To be fair, Professor, I wasn’t drawn into this one.” Sitting casually in her seat, ankles crossed at the end of her stretched out legs, Joselyn Atherby drummed her fingers along the desk with an air of dismissive lack of concern. “That bimbo didn’t even see it coming until I put his ass on the ground.”

Giving the girl a long look, Gaia let out a breath before moving to sit on the edge of her own desk directly in front of Joselyn. “If that is your best attempt at sounding penitent, I would strongly suggest that you not get your hopes up when auditions for the end of year musical begin.”

Drawing her legs back under the seat, Joselyn sat up a bit straighter, the casual expression falling from her face. It was replaced with an intense look. “You always said to be honest with you, Professor. You want honesty, you’ve got it. I’m not sorry I hit that asshole the first time, and every time I’ve hit him since then, I’ve been even less sorry. You want penitent? Fine, I’m sorry he’s still conscious.”

“Joselyn,” Gaia spoke sharply. “Talking like that is going to get you into trouble with the Headmaster.” After a brief pause, she amended, “Even worse trouble. Which, in your case, is saying something.”

“Headmaster Ruthers already wanted me gone anyway,” Joselyn replied, though she at least looked a little less flippant. “If it weren’t for you, I’d already be back out on the streets, just another clueless dame waiting to hook up with some drugstore cowboy and pop out a few kids. He’d wipe my memory so fast I wouldn’t know from nothing. That’s how he deals with people who don’t toe his line.”

“Insisting upon carrying out this vendetta against his son is hardly going to make things better, Joselyn.” With a sigh, Gaia reached across to take the girl’s hand, squeezing it. “Listen, the headmaster cannot have you banished just because he disagrees with you. That requires authority from the Committee with a two-thirds vote. But if you keep doing this sort of thing, if you don’t show that you are capable of following the rules, the headmaster will have a much easier time gaining those votes.”

“You mean pretend I don’t know the truth.” Joselyn’s voice was hard, and she extricated her hand from the older woman’s. “Pretend they’re not full of shit. Pretend this whole school isn’t lying to us.”

Without breaking the girl’s gaze, Gaia shook her head. “What we teach here are not all lies, Joselyn.”

“Yes, they are!” The girl stood from her seat, kicking the chair back in the process. “I know what I saw. That werebear wasn’t hurting anyone. She was protecting people, innocent people. She was protecting them and we stopped her. We killed her. We took away their protector, and now most of those people are either dead, or enslaved by those mobsters. That werebear was protecting them until we killed her. Now a lot more innocent people are dead. So you tell me, Professor, who’s the monster now?”

“That is a harder question than you realize,” Gaia admitted in a soft voice, still meeting the eighteen-year old girl’s intense stare. “Allow me to speak frankly, Joselyn. No, you are not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible that the creature you and your team were taken to fight was no threat to any humans.”

“Then why did we have to kill her?!” Joselyn’s voice rose so loud that Gaia was glad for the sound dampening spell she’d already cast on the room before starting this conversation. “We’re supposed to be the good guys, the heroes! We should be working with the Strangers that aren’t evil, not killing them! What the hell is killing the ones that aren’t evil going to accomplish other than turn them all into the complete monsters that you people keep trying to tell us they are? It’s wrong, and you know it.”

For a moment, Gaia admired the fire in the girl’s eyes. In this as with all things she was actually interested in, Joselyn Atherby was extraordinarily passionate. There was no middle ground, no demure politeness. The girl said what she meant, and damned the consequences. It was an admirable quality, one that would get her far in life and attract others to her. If she managed to survive long enough.

Joselyn continued, the heat in her gaze only growing as she went on. “Killing an innocent is wrong, Professor. It doesn’t matter what they are. If humans can be monsters and innocents, then so can Strangers. And if we kill the ones who are innocent, that makes us the monsters! I won’t do that. I don’t care what the consequences are. I won’t be a part of murdering innocent people. It’s wrong. It’s evil.”

When Gaia began to respond to that, it was with a voice whose softness was at odds with Joselyn’s loud, brash demands. “It is. Listen to me. Killing an innocent is evil, there is no question about that. But dear girl, please, listen to me. Did you think that you were the first person to notice this?”

Joselyn’s mouth opened and then shut, a frown knitting across her forehead. “What do you mean?”

The red-haired woman gave her student a gentle smile. “I mean, you are hardly alone. There are others who share your… opinion, that we should not be killing every Stranger we find. There are those of us who are well aware that there are some who are as innocent as any human Bystander, who pose no threat to anyone and could easily be left alone to live out their lives without ever harming a soul.”

Joselyn was staring at her in disbelief. “Then why do you let it happen?! What the hell is wrong with you!?” Her voice had risen to a shout, and she stepped around the desk to openly glare at her teacher.

Gaia took in a breath before letting it out again. “Joselyn, what do you think would happen if we openly stated the same views you have about working with Strangers? If those very few of us who believe this way were to be open with those beliefs, what do you believe would be accomplished?”

“Well,” Joselyn’s retort came immediately. “Maybe we’d stop murdering innocents, for one thing.”

Shaking her head at that, Gaia corrected the younger girl. “No. We’d simply be identified and removed from duty by the majority who do not see things the same way. In the long run, the only thing making such opinions known would do, is remove our ability to actually accomplish anything useful. And, in the end, it would actually cause many more innocents to die that wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Joselyn was simply staring at her in silent, yet obvious disbelief, so Gaia continued. “If these arguments were to become public knowledge, it would cause our people to hesitate in the face of possible danger. Our Heretical Sense does not discriminate between those that would kill or enslave us on sight and those who would not. It tells us nothing else, Joselyn. Many have wished that it did, that it would only alert us if the creatures we are facing are genuine threats. But it does not. It simply tells us that they are not human. And at the exact same time that we learn that, they are learning that we are the ones who hunt them. They know that we are Heretics. It is the actions in the seconds beyond that moment of identification that are most crucial. If we hesitate then, and the Stranger that we are facing is truly one of the monsters that so many of them are, the best case scenario is that we will die.

“If we teach our students that the creature they’re looking at when that alarm goes off in their head might be perfectly innocent, they will hesitate. They will pause and if that Stranger is not of the innocent variety, our student will be murdered. Or worse, captured and enslaved. Believe me, Joselyn, such a case would be worse than death. So, what do we do when given the choice between sending our students out to potentially kill Strangers who were guilty of no real crime, or sending them out to be massacred by the ones who were guilty, simply because our teachings made them hesitate at the worst possible time? Even worse, if such opinions were to become common knowledge, it would start open fighting between those who believed that way and those who do not. Our students, our people, would be fighting each other instead of the enemies. We wouldn’t be protecting anyone at that point.”

“There has to be a third option,” Joselyn insisted, the fire in her eyes hardly diminished at all. “You wanna know what you do? You find another way. You fix the problem. The Edge isn’t doing its job right. Someone built it, right? So find someone who can fix it. Don’t just accept it because it’s always been that way. You damn well do something about it. You change it! Make it better. It’s magic. Change it so that the damn thing will tell you whether the creature we’re looking at is evil or innocent.”

“If only it were that easy,” Gaia lamented. “We have been searching for a method to do just such a thing for many years, Joselyn. It is not as simple as you may believe. But that does not mean we have given up. If such a solution can be found, it may become possible to change things the way that you wish they would be changed. For now, however, we do the best we can. Those of us who share your opinion have spent many years, decades even, organizing a method of protecting certain communities of Strangers whom we know are truly innocent from our more… enthusiastic companions.”

Blinking once, Joselyn started in surprise. “What, you mean like an underground railroad?”

Gaia chuckled just a little bit. “Of sorts, I suppose. We don’t actually send them anywhere, unless we happen to know of an imminent patrol or investigation within the area. Instead, there are a few of us in positions of authority who simply ensure that such patrols rarely happen within areas where we have sent those innocent Strangers to stay, or that they are carried out by those who share our opinion.”

“You mean you’ve agreed with me this whole time?” Joselyn demanded. “You gave me detention last week just because I said not every Stranger is evil, and now you’re telling me you already knew that?!”

“As I recall, you spent that detention reading a book that you’d been meaning to get to for a long time,” Gaia pointed out mildly. “And I gave you that detention because if I had not, news of it would have reached the headmaster, and you would be in a much worse position. Both of us would be. As it was, when he asked after the situation, I informed him that you had already been punished for the mistake.”

She saw the way the younger, far more impetuous girl’s mouth started to open to blurt that it wasn’t a mistake. But Joselyn stopped herself at the last second, setting her face into an unhappy expression. “There has to be a better way. All that stuff, it’s just temporary, and it’s not enough. There are still innocent people dying. There has to be a way to fix it, to make things better for both sides.”

“Perhaps there is,” Gaia acknowledged. “I truly hope so. But until that solution is found, you must stop presenting yourself as a target. Stop attacking Jonathan. Continuing to draw the Headmaster’s attention by assaulting his son will end very badly for you, and there I cannot protect you from that for long.”

If she was cowed or frightened, Joselyn didn’t show it. “Like I said, Johnny boy had it coming. He’s a bimbo and a thug. He thinks just because his father’s the headmaster, he can do whatever he wants. I don’t let people like that push me, or anyone else around. Her face was set in a determined stare. “And I’ll figure out how to make it so that we don’t have to fight every Stranger we see.” The words were stated flatly and with utter conviction. “I’ll find the way to fix the Heretical Edge.”

“I hope you do, child,” Gaia replied in a soft, barely audible voice.

“I truly hope you do.”

******

October 29th, 2017 (Present Day)

“You’re entirely too soft on that girl,” the man in the luxuriously padded leather armchair announced. “Just like you were too soft on her mother. And we all know how that went, don’t we, Gaia?”

Standing on the other side of the obscenely ornate metal desk, Gaia simply inclined her head. “It’s Headmistress Sinclaire, Counselor Ruthers. I’m sure you of all people recognize the need to respect the title of the office that you personally held for so many years. And as far as Felicity Chambers goes, she was cleared of any wrong-doing by Professors Dare and Kohaku, as well as Runner Kine.”

“All of them your people,” Counselor Ruthers pointed out with a note of disdain in his voice. He was very nearly as old as Gaia was, yet like her, didn’t look anywhere near his age. Indeed, he could have passed for a man in his early forties. His straight brown hair was worn just past his shoulders, while his face resembled a heavyweight boxer who had gone a few too many rounds with people stronger than he was. His nose had been broken repeatedly and now sat a bit off-center in spite of his healing abilities, and his muscular frame had packed on more than a few extra pounds in the time since he’d been an active fighter. Gaia had heard students who met the man for the first time describe him as a bulldog in a fancy suit.

“They’re your people too, Counselor,” she reminded the man. “After all, we are all on the same side.”

The man waved that off. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, G—Headmistress Sinclaire. You’ve gone out of your way to ignore each and every suggestion for new faculty members since you took over that place. I’ve sent you the files for six very qualified candidates to teach there and yet you continue to use the people who don’t know how to do what needs to be done.”

Yes, Gaia thought to herself, I’ve ignored your suggestions. But I’m not stupid enough to believe that you don’t have some of your minions on staff already, even if I don’t know who they all are yet.

Aloud, she simply demurred. “I examine each candidate carefully and make the most informed choice that I can. Your words do carry considerable weight, I assure you.”

They carry all the weight they need to make it from my desk to the garbage can across the room, in fact.

She pressed on before the man could get bogged down on that subject again. “The fact is, as far as we have been able to determine, Felicity is very lucky that she is neither dead, nor a slave of this… Ammon. You know why she’s immune to his power, what it means.”

“Oh do not start with that conspiracy garbage,” Ruthers all but spat. “Atherby regained her memory because your bleeding heart group wouldn’t go all the way with what needed to happen. She got her memory back and went on the run. It’s got nothing to do with any Stranger abducting her, especially not… him.”

“You may disagree with Joselyn Atherby on many issues, Counselor,” Gaia spoke through gritted teeth. “But the very thought that she would abandon her husband and child for over a decade of her own free will is patently absurd.”

The stubborn fool shook his head. “Not if she wanted to keep them out of her little rebellion.”

Restraining the urge to openly sigh, Gaia met his gaze. “If Joselyn returned to her rebellion, why have we not heard from them in years?”

“They got smarter,” Ruthers claimed. “Every set back we’ve encountered, every time one of those damned Strangers gets away when we should have had them, it’s them. They’re still out there, it’s just that they’re quieter now. They know they can’t win an open war, so now they’ve resorted to this petty campaign. But believe me, if you and your softhearted crap keep getting in our way, keep stopping the rest of us from doing the right thing, Atherby and her ilk will tear our whole world apart. They’re too gods damned blind to see the evil right in front of their faces. They’d rather have a tea party with the monsters than kill them, and if they get their way, this whole world will become a damn open buffet for every piece of sub-human trash out there.”

Once again giving thanks to every possible power in the universe that the man had only managed to convince half of his fellow committee members to vote to exclude Felicity from the school (they held an absurd belief that she would function as a spy for her missing mother), Gaia managed, with some effort, not to openly glare at him. “Dismissing the evidence that Ammon is the offspring of Joselyn and the Stranger who abducted her is extremely unwise.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ruthers put his fist down on the desk hard enough to rattle the random knick-knacks collected there. “Strangers don’t breed with humans. Next you’ll be trying to tell me that you think parrots have been mating with people. This Ammon, if he exists, is obviously one of Atherby’s pet Strangers trying to get a message to their Mistress’s daughter and fucking it up.”

The urge to argue with the man was great, but Gaia resisted. It wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Try to consider the evidence fairly before the committee votes next week,” she replied a bit stiffly. “We need to put resources toward finding Ammon, no matter where he comes from.”

“I agree completely,” Ruthers informed her with a smirk. “We find the kid, we find Atherby. And when we find Atherby, we’ll put an end to this entire charade. She’ll be brought to justice and punished the way she should have been the first time. No more half-measures.”

Taking that as the best she was going to get, Gaia excused herself a moment later and strode from the man’s office. In the hallway she was met by Virginia Dare, who had been waiting patiently for the past hour.

“Any luck?” the blonde woman asked as they started down the corridor.

Gaia shook her head once. “It’s like talking to a brick wall. He’s convinced that Felicity either knows where her mother is, or that Joselyn is trying to communicate with her through Stranger servants.”

Virginia let out a long, low sigh. “Flick knows more than she’s telling us. We have pretty good evidence that a very powerful necromancer was there that night. I think we both know what that means. But she’s not talking. Which means she doesn’t trust us.”

“I don’t blame her,” Gaia replied. “Not after everything that’s happened. Are the Runners any closer to determining who was responsible for Zedekiah’s death?” The loss of Professor Pericles had been a harsh blow.

“They checked the timing again.” Virginia sounded just as tired as Gaia felt. “No change. The murder happened before the shield was brought down. Even if it was possible for someone to get on the island and kill him in that tiny window through some kind of speed awakening, Zedekiah had already been dead for ten minutes by the time the shield came down. And the Pathmaker was shut down at the time, specifically to avoid interfering with the shield recharge. Which means it has to be one of us. Faculty or student, someone who lives at Crossroads killed Zedekiah.”

The two women exchanged sober looks before Virginia asked, “What about those Garden students that came after Avalon? They said something about having a mole on the island. If it wasn’t empty boasting, it’s probably related.”

“Indeed,” Gaia agreed. “And it’s something I would very much like to speak with the three of them about, but their leader is being quite stubborn about the whole affair. I doubt he’s going to let us have a conversation. It’s been… very frustrating.”

Virginia heaved a long sigh before nodding. “I’ll talk to Hisao and see if he can come up with anything subtle. No promises, but he does owe me.”

“Oh, I’m quite certain he does.” Gaia gave the other woman a sidelong look, and was gratified to see her blush.

Clearing her throat then, the headmistress spoke before Virginia was able to find her voice. “We’ll track down the person responsible for Zedekiah’s death, stop whoever is targeting my daughter, and find Joselyn. Once we do, things are going to change. Because Ruthers was absolutely right about one thing in there.

“It’s time to put an end to this entire charade.”

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Getting Some Answers 6-06

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“When I got home with my dad, Ammon was gone,” I finished giving my story a couple hours later. “I checked the house he was staying in with Rose, but there was no sign of him or where he went.”

The room I was telling my story in was the same one that I had been interviewed by Runner Kine in after the peridle situation. Kine himself was even one of the people sitting across the wooden table from me listening intently to every word I said, though he wasn’t alone this time. Sitting on either side of the very tall, almost skeletal-thin man were Professor Dare and Professor Kohaku, the former of whom had seemed to be in a pretty good mood ever since I met up with her again after spending the hour with Miranda. I didn’t know what she and Hisao had talked about, but the blonde woman’s unconscious smile had only dimmed once I progressed enough in my explanation of what happened.

It wasn’t just me mechanically reciting the events, either. Each of the three adults had taken turns asking questions about not only the important parts of the story, but also seemingly inconsequential details like what color shirt Ammon had been wearing, or what kind of pizza we’d had.

The suspicious part of me figured they were trying to trip me up and see if I was leaving anything out, which I was, of course. The optimistic part (and the fact that I still had an optimistic part of myself after everything that had happened over the weekend was kind of a thrilling discovery, believe me) figured that it was meant to prompt more relevant and important details to come to mind as I focused.

Practical me figured it was a bit of both, and told the other two sides to be quiet.

“To reiterate and make certain we have this correct,” Tribald Kine spoke up after the three of them had exchanged glances. “You arrived home and interacted with a young boy named Ammon who had been living in the next door house for several weeks. Your Heretical Sense did not warn you that he wasn’t human, but you believe now that he attempted to use some sort of mind control ability on you, which failed. At some point, you left the house to visit with old friends and to walk around your hometown. When you returned, your father and the bystander woman this Ammon boy had been living with made an excuse to leave for the evening, citing medical issues with the woman’s father. They left you and Ammon in the house alone. At a certain point post-midnight, you entered the living room of the house and were attacked by mind-controlled bystanders who had been your coworkers at your previous job.”

The man fell silent then, looking up and waiting until I gave a quick nod. His eyes ran over me searchingly for another moment before he continued, his tone more thoughtful now. “During this time, the boy boasted to you that your father would shortly be murdering the bystander woman, going so far as to tell you the exact location in an attempt to torment you with the knowledge that you would not be able to stop what was going to happen. He then ordered the bystanders to hurt you. Fortunately, before they could fulfill this command, you managed to kick and squirm your way free and escape the house.”

Again, I nodded, and Runner Kine went on. “From there, you… borrowed the car of a friend and drove to the motel, arriving just in time to render your father unconscious before he could fulfill his orders. Ammon then used your phone, which you had lost in the process of all this, to call your father’s phone. He informed you that he would be ordering the local police force to murder innocent civilians as punishment for your escape and rescue of your father and the bystander woman. To prevent this, you drove to the police station and engaged with Ammon in an attempt to retrieve your phone in order to summon Heretic-assistance. In the process, however, your phone was destroyed and Ammon escaped.”

“Yes, sir,” I confirmed, glancing from the man to the other two to avoid making a suspicious amount of eye contact (which itself makes lying as obvious as avoiding all eye contract does) “That’s right.”

We went over more of it. I told them I didn’t know why Ammon’s power didn’t work on me, why he targeted me, or why he was immune to my Stranger sense. I asked about other Strangers being immune, thinking of Twister, and was told that it happened occasionally, for reasons that I’d learn in time.

When that was done, Professor Kohaku spoke up. “I do have one more question, Miss Chambers. While the deaths of the civilian bystanders are very tragic, the fact of the matter is that there were not nearly as many as there could have been. Looking at the number of people who were killed and comparing it to the number of deputies who simply woke up within their own vehicles with no memory of what had happened, the death toll should have been much higher than it was. Yet from your depiction of events, you had no contact with these deputies and did nothing to stop them. Which leads me to ask, who did?”

Looking that way, I forced myself to blink with as blank an expression as I could manage. “Well, I sort of thought it was you guys at first. Heretics who didn’t know who I was, or something. If it wasn’t you, maybe it was people from Eden’s Garden? I mean, we saw–”

In mid-sentence, I noticed two things. First and most obvious, the word ‘stop’ appeared in glowing, three foot tall letters in the middle of the table. The word pulsed once to grab my attention. Yet no one else reacted to it. Their eyes remained focused on me, as if the big glowing word wasn’t even there.

The second thing I noticed was Professor Dare. Her hands were clasped in front of her on her side of the table. Her left hand covered her right, blocking it from the view of the other two adults, but I could see her right index finger tracing along the wood as though she was writing something out.

“Miss Chambers? Are you all right?” Runner Kine asked gently. “What did you see, exactly?”

Professor Dare finished tracing with her finger, and the word ‘stop’ was replaced by ‘do not mention our meeting.’ She then met my gaze directly, her earlier smile gone as she simply nodded.

I took a second. When I’d met up with the professor again after leaving Miranda, we hadn’t had much of a chance to talk. A couple of other Runners were already there, waiting to investigate the situation, so we didn’t have any privacy. After we went through the portal to come back to school, Professor Kohaku had been waiting nearby to escort me up to this debriefing with Runner Kine. There hadn’t been an opportunity for Professor Dare to say anything private to me, like the fact that she didn’t want me to say anything about meeting up with a couple people from Eden’s Garden for some reason.

Right, some reason. Don’t be dumb, Flick. You know exactly why she didn’t want them to know. The rivalry between this place and Eden’s Garden was obviously so bad that finding out we’d had a pretty peaceful meeting with a couple of them would probably look pretty bad to certain people. Hell, for all I knew, it might even put Professor Dare’s job at risk. I didn’t know how seriously they took this stuff.

Besides, if it meant not having to argue with people about renewing my friendship with Miranda, I wasn’t going to argue. I’d been a little bit worried about just how that was going to go down.

In the end, I just shook my head. “Sorry, I was just gonna say that we saw how quickly you guys sent people in as soon as you found out what happened, and you were swamped all weekend with emergencies. Maybe Eden’s Garden was just quicker or—err, you know, they happened to send in a Heretic or two while it was happening.” It was a little bit of a lame correction, I had to admit, but hopefully it was good enough to pass. I was hoping that my awkward pause would be chalked up to being uncomfortable or worried about implying that Eden’s Garden was faster than Crossroads.

The three of them exchanged a short series of silent glances with one another before Runner Kine stood up a little abruptly, plucking his notebook up to put in his pocket. “I think that’s about it for now. I’ll go over what you’ve said and if I have any more questions, I know where to find you.”

Quickly, I raised my hand. “Actually, uh, Runner Kine? I had a couple things I wanted to ask you about. I mean, not related to this, but a private thing?” It was my chance to get more information out of the man, considering he’d been the one that directed me to that picture of my mother to begin with.

He paused, glancing at me before shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to send me an e-mail with your questions. I’m sure you understand how busy we’ve been with everything. It’s lucky that I had time to stop by here at all. If it’s about anything that I can answer, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

He and Professor Kohaku were out the door a few seconds later, discussing something about revising the security and safety measures for any more students that left the school for any reason.

That left me with Professor Dare, who remained silent until the door had closed, then straightened up. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “I would prefer that our interaction with Hisao and your friend remain off of the official record. While there is nothing outright forbidden about it, some would be concerned.”

I was pretty okay with that, considering how little I felt like being interrogated about my loyalties toward Miranda. “That’s okay,” I assured the woman. “But what did you and Hisao talk about?”

Professor Dare’s mouth opened, then shut. I saw the slightest hint of a blush touch her cheeks before she stood from the chair. “Nothing of particular relevance. He had no new information.”

Before I could ask anything else, she changed the subject. “On a serious note, Miss Chambers, you have been through a very traumatic experience. Even if your father does not remember what he almost did, you remember it all. So I want you to visit Klassin Roe for a few weeks. He’s our school therapist, who specializes in talking about this sort of thing with our students, bystander-kin in particular.”

“You’re sending me to a shrink?” I asked a bit blankly. “But you’re part of the great big secret magic school full of adventure and mystery. Are you even narratively allowed to know what therapy is?”

That earned me a smile as the woman shook her head. “I’ll set up your first appointment for Thursday evening, Miss Chambers. You and Mr. Roe can discuss the best time for further meetings there. For now, I suggest you meet up with the rest of your team and talk about what happened. I’m sure they’ll want to know.”

Nodding while straightening up, I asked, “So if you and Hisao didn’t really exchange much information, what did you guys do while you were waiting for Miranda and me to finish?”

Pivoting on her heel, Professor Dare strode to the nearby door. “As I said, nothing of importance. Now if you’ll excuse me, the headmistress will want to have a discussion about the situation.”

“But what did you guys–” I started, only to find myself speaking to a closed door.

“Boy,” I remarked to the suddenly empty room. “For people who wanted to ask me so many questions, they sure disappeared pretty damn fast as soon as I had a few of my own.”

*******

“Hey, there she is!” Sean waved easily at me from where he was lying on a towel on the beach a few minutes later. “How was your trip, Flick? Get any decent birthday presents?”

Sue me, I took a second to appreciate his toned form before answering. The guy was wearing little more than a pair of green swim trunks, and the way he was stretched out on the towel was… distracting.

Snapping myself out of it with a physical shake of my head, I managed, “Not exactly a real vacation.”

“What happened?” The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find a distraction on the other end of the spectrum. As good as Sean looked in his suit, Avalon in a bikini almost made me wonder if I had lesbian tendencies, because god damn. Between the two of them, they could probably effectively capture the attention of anyone, no matter where they were on the Kinsey scale.
Not that they were alone in that. Even then, I could see Sands and Columbus emerging from the water. Though neither completely filled out their respective suits quite as well as Avalon and Sean did (Sands would have had to pack in a couple extra cantaloupes in her case, considering her petite size extended there as well), they weren’t exactly slouches either.

It probably helped that, while none of the rest of the team had received quite as much of a stamina upgrade as I had for the death of the amarok, killing those chamrosh had given a bit of a boost. Enough that everyone had more energy during morning exercises, and were less wiped during breakfast.

“Flick!” Sands jumped over to embrace me. “You’re back! Did ya have fun? Get anything good?”

I returned the embrace briefly, knowing that what I had to ask her about might end up taking her out of the hugging mood considering the opinion she had expressed before about Eden’s Garden.

Then I laughed and pushed the girl away. “Ew! You just wanted to get my clothes all wet.” Raising a finger to point at Columbus, I warned, “You don’t even think about it. Sands already got me wet enoaaaaaahhh…. I’m not even gonna finish that statement because I just realized what I was saying.”

Both boys looked briefly disappointed while Avalon rolled her eyes. Columbus lamented, “I would’ve treasured that sentence for a long time.”

Sands, meanwhile, simply cackled with amusement before dropping onto the empty towel next to Sean. “Maybe you should just change and join us. The water’s great today and we’ve got nothing else to do.”

“Actually, I kind of need to talk about what happened while I was home,” I announced while trying not to fidget too much. “It’s important, but we should have everyone. Where’s Scout?”

“Library,” Sands replied. “I can shoot her a text if you want. But what’s wrong, are you okay?” she asked while already picking up her phone from the nearby pile of supplies, tapping at the buttons on it quickly.

I pushed back the doubt and insecurity I had. They were my team, my friends. It had been a long time since I really understood what that meant. But Miranda’s instant acceptance of my story and willingness to put herself into danger to find out anything she could, her desire to help me find my mother, had reminded me. If I wanted them to ever trust me, I needed to take the plunge and trust them first, even with something as important as this.

“Like I said,” I replied, “we should really talk about it with everyone here. But trust me, you guys need to hear this.”

“It’s about time I told you everything about what’s been going on this year.”

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Getting Some Answers 6-05

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It was her. It was Miranda Wallbern, the girl who had been my best friend starting in the second grade and going all the way up to seventh. When she had showed up about a third of the way through the school year, Miranda had been the only black girl in my grade. Wyoming isn’t exactly super-diverse, to put it mildly, and it was the first time many of the elementary students had seen anyone like that.

I personally met Miranda after a third grade girl named Terry had tripped me in the lunch line, making me spill my milk all over my shirt. While others laughed, the new girl who had only been there a week and was constantly being stared at took her own milk and threw it in Terry’s face. That had pissed the older girl off, and she had jumped on Miranda, screaming like a banshee. So I grabbed her leg from where I was on the floor, dragging the older girl down. Everything had degenerated from there until all three of us ended up in the principal’s office, doomed to three weeks of after school detention.

From that moment, at around the age of eight, until she left town at the age of thirteen, Miranda and I had been inseparable. She had helped to fill a void that had been there after my mother had left the year before. Then, when she too had to leave because of her mother’s new job, I had stopped trying to make any close friends, afraid of the feeling that would come every time they had to leave as well.

“Well now, isn’t that interesting?” Somewhere in the background, I heard Hisao speak, his tone curious. “Sounds to me like we might have a little reunion going on after all. You two know each other?”

Miranda spoke first, her eyes never leaving me. “Yes, sir. This is Flick. My umm, my…” She hesitated, trailing off uncertainly before settling on a quiet, “We were friends before I joined the Garden.”

“Is that right?” Hisao glanced to me, but I barely noticed the attention. My mind was too busy reeling, trying to comprehend the odds of not only my mother secretly having been a Heretic, but my best friend becoming one as well. How unbelievably small were the chances that would happen on its own?

Clearing his throat when I didn’t respond right away, Hisao made a courteous gesture toward Professor Dare. “Ah, well, Virginia, it doesn’t seem fair for us to rip these two apart so soon if they were so close. What do you say to a brief consultation? We can compare notes, you could give a bit of information to your Runners when they show up, and these two could use that time to have little conversation.”

The blonde woman at my side started to shake her head before pausing. “We don’t–” She stopped then, glancing down toward me before letting out a quiet sigh. “All right.” To me, she said, “Hisao and I will go for a walk. You should catch up with your friend. I will meet you here in one hour.” She pointed to the bus stop where I had met my father. “You will be waiting here, ready to go. Do you understand?”

Slowly, distractedly, I nodded. My eyes still hadn’t left the dark skinned girl who stood across from me.

The two adults stepped away to confer, leaving us standing there. For a minute, neither of us spoke. Miranda opened her mouth a couple times, but nothing came out. I just stared, unable to make a sound.

In the end, she was the one who broke the silence first. “You’re a… a Heretic.” Her voice was strained.

My head jerked in a weird nod, and I finally forced myself to speak. “So are you,” I lifted a hand to point at her, unable to stop myself. “You’re from Eden’s Garden. You—Miranda, you’re a… you’re…”

She started to look away from me, her gaze dropping a bit while she spoke quietly. “I’m sorry I didn’t-”

That was as far as she managed to get before I dropped my bag and bodily threw myself at her, blurting, “You’re here!”

I had intended to hug her. Unfortunately for me, Miranda had been a Heretic for much longer than I had. Her reaction to me flinging myself in her direction was to quickly and smoothly sidestep before catching my arms. The next thing I knew, I was tossed up and over, the world spinning around once before I came down on my back on the nearby grass, the impact knocking the wind out of me.

I laid there on the cold and dirty ground for a few seconds, gazing blearily at the light blue sky while making a low wheezing noise. All I could focus on just then was trying to catch my breath.

“Oh my god!” Miranda’s face appeared above me as she dropped to her knees in the grass, looking horrified. “I’m sorry, Flick, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Are you all right? Can you breathe?”

With effort, I inhaled sharply, refilling my lungs while groggily lifting a hand into a thumbs up. It took me a few more long seconds of wheezing before I had enough air to actually try speaking. “P-peachy.”

The other girl’s head shook rapidly. “God, I’m sorry about that. Really, I just, I didn’t expect that.”

“Uggnnm, neither did I.” Coughing, I made myself sit up. The pain was already gone thanks to the power I’d absorbed from the peridles, and I found myself smiling wryly in spite of myself. “Good thing you didn’t know how to do that with Terry. That would’ve been like, six weeks of detention, at least.”

Her sudden snicker seemed to surprise Miranda, judging from the way her hand flew up to cover her mouth. I saw her eyes widen a bit before she slowly lowered it. Her voice was quiet. “Worth it.”

“So umm, you’re a Heretic,” I managed while shifting myself into a seated position there on the grass.

“I think we’ve been through that part already,” the girl reminded me as a tiny smirk pulled at her face.

Blinking once, I tilted my head. “We have? Oh, right. That was just before I went wheee ker-thump.” My hand gestured through the air in demonstration before slapping hard against the grass.

Miranda winced, head shaking. “Like I said, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I uhh, it was instinct.”

“It’s okay,” I promised her before letting out a long breath. “I probably had it coming. Throwing myself at you like that after finding out you’ve been training to be a bad ass monster hunter was pretty dumb.”

“Impulsive,” she corrected gently. “Not dumb, just impulsive. And kind of understandable.” Shrugging a little awkwardly, the other girl added, “I mean, I almost did the same thing. You were just first.”

“You probably should’ve,” I informed my old friend with a sage nod. “Then we’d be hugging instead of sitting here on the grass doing, uhh, whatever you call this.” Gesturing around us absently, I shrugged.

“You’re not mad at me?” Miranda’s voice was clearly hesitant and uncertain. She looked at me, biting her lip. “I thought you’d be upset that I didn’t really keep in contact, that I umm, disappeared.”

Looking at the grass, I took in a long breath before letting it out again. “Maybe I was for awhile. Maybe I’ve been upset before, when I think about you leaving. But I don’t care about that right now, Randi. I don’t care about being mad, or what happened. You’re my… I mean, you were my… I mean… fuck it, you were my best friend for years. Who cares about being mad or petty? You’re here. Now I’m gonna hug you for real this time. You can either accept it, or throw me on the ground again.”

That little smile returned, and Miranda shook her head. “Thanks, I think I can control myself this time.”

With that, I shifted closer and promptly put both arms around the other girl, embracing her as tight as I could. “You’re really here,” I managed to speak in a low voice that cracked only a little. “You’re here.”

After a second, Miranda returned the hug. Her arms closed around me and I felt her grip tighten almost painfully. She was clearly a lot stronger than she looked. “Flick,” she spoke hesitantly while hugging me. “I can’t believe it. I thought I might see you when we came, that I might have a chance to say, to say… something. But I never thought you’d be a Heretic. I never thought you’d know any of this!”

In spite of myself, I had to smile while continuing to embrace her. “It is kind of crazy, huh?”

“Super crazy,” she replied before leaning back to look at me. “Flick, my god. How long have you…”

“Been a Heretic?” I finished with a shrug. “Just couple months, actually. Since the school year started.”

Her head bobbed up and down then. “Right, right, I remember. Crossroads starts way later than we do.”

Belatedly realizing what that meant, my eyes widened a little bit. “Wait, you left here when you were thirteen. Was that when you, umm, became a Heretic? Was that why you really moved?”

She shifted a little, leaning back to nod slightly. “I didn’t know at the time, but sort of. The Garden people were the ones that made sure Mom got that new job in New Hampshire. It was to, umm, you know, avoid a bunch of questions from people we knew about why I just disappeared. Easier to have a kid not be around very much when you just moved into a brand new area like that, where nobody knows your family. They do it a lot, since people tend to pay more attention to younger kids disappearing for most of the year than the older teens that Crossroads takes in. So they moved us out there and recruited me before we even got there. Mom and Dad think that I’ve been at military school for years now, and that I’m being recruited straight into the army after graduation.”

My head was shaking slowly while I struggled to deal with all this. Finally, I bit my lip and gestured with a hand. “Do you want to, um, take a walk? We could get a soda or something at Billy’s on Third.”

“Billy’s?” Miranda echoed blankly, head tilting. “I thought Dale’s was on Third, by the laundromat?”

“Yeah, that’s Billy’s now,” I informed her with a shrug. “Dale moved to Oregon. Billy’s his nephew. You know, that guy a few years older than us that used to sell Playboys behind the school to the kids whose parents actually had decent locks on the internet? Now he sells them straight off the rack.”

Sighing, Miranda stood up while offering a hand to me. “Should’ve kept the name Dale’s. It’s better.”

I accepted her hand and straightened to my feet, an easy smile coming then. “I know, right? He just had to change it to prove it was his.” Making a face then, I added, “He redecorated too. Took away the benches that were outside and the arcade machines, because they–” I raised my hands to make air quotes. “encourage people to sit around and gossip instead of spending their money and moving on.

“He took out the machines?!” Miranda sounded appalled. “Not Mortal Kombat. Tell me he left my baby alone, at least.” When I shook my head, she made a strangled sound. “Gah, are you sure he’s not a Stranger, Flick? Cuz he sounds like an unrepentant monster to me. Some kind of fun-hating bastard.”

“Right now I’m not sure about anything,” I replied while shrugging once more. “If you’re a Heretic, and my–” I stopped talking abruptly then, falling silent while realizing what I had been about to say.

Looking at me quizzically then, the other girl asked, “And your what? What’s going on, Flick?”

I remained silent for a moment, biting my lip hard while looking at Miranda. Part of me felt like I should keep quiet, like sharing what I knew with someone who was still part of Eden’s Garden was a bad idea. After all, Trice and his friends who had tried to kill Avalon were from there.

But so what? I was pretty sure Doxer was left handed. Did that mean I was going to be suspicious of left handed people from now on? Just being from another school didn’t mean anything. Avalon proved that by herself. Plus there was Seller. He knew pretty much everything already. More than I did, actually, considering the spell that prevented him from actually explaining anything about my mother.

Most of all, however, more importantly than any of that, Miranda was my friend. She’d been there for me for years after my mother disappeared. She helped me through some of the worst times, sitting with me and helping me move on with my life. She wasn’t just a friend or someone I used to know, she had been my best friend. I could tell her anything and everything. If I couldn’t trust her with my secrets, then I might as well curl up and die on the ground right then, because nobody was trustworthy.

“My mom,” I finally spoke out loud after several long seconds. “She… she was a Heretic too.”

Performing a sharp double-take, Miranda’s eyes went wide. “Wh—huh? But she… what do you mean?”

Biting my lip, I gestured once more while bending down to grab my heavy bag, hauling it back up onto my shoulders. “Come on, Randi. Let’s go get a drink. I’ll tell you all about it. But I’m pretty sure that you’re going to be even more pissed off that Billy took out those benches after I do.

“Because this is a story you’ll probably want to sit down for.”

******

In the end, after getting a couple sodas from the convenience store, the two of us walked over to a small park that was down the street, and sat down at one of the picnic tables there. I worked my way through the whole story, explaining everything that had happened since the moment I woke up on that empty bus. I told her about all of it, leaving absolutely nothing out. Once I started talking, it all came in a rush.

By the time I was done, Miranda was staring at me in open shock. “Oh my god. Oh my god, Flick. Your mom. Your mom is still out there. She’s—it wasn’t her fault. You were– you mean all this time, she’s been–” Cutting herself off, I saw the surprise fade sharply into horrible guilt. “Oh…”

Flinching, I nodded. “Yeah, oh. She did it for me. She surrendered herself to protect me. All this time I hated her, and she’s been suffering just to protect me. I—I’m an awful daughter, Randi. I’m–”

“You didn’t know,” she interrupted quickly. “Stop that. Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t know about it. You couldn’t have known, Flick. So don’t you dare put that on yourself. This Fossor piece of shit, he’s the bad guy. He’s the one that needs to go down.”

Before I could say anything else, the other girl pressed on. “I’ll look around the Garden. Maybe they’ll have information about this guy that Crossroads doesn’t. Plus from what I’ve heard, your place tends to uhh, babysit you guys a lot more and restrict what information you can have until you’re older. At Eden’s Garden, it’s all out there. If you know what to look for and how to find it, you can look up anything.”

“You’d do that?” I asked hesitantly, looking up at the girl.

“That’s a dumb question, Miss Super Reporter,” Randi shot back at me. “I’m your friend. Okay, maybe we haven’t talked in a long time, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re still friends. I mean, if you…”

“I still want to be,” I confirmed before she had even finished the sentence. “Damn straight.”

“Even if I go to Eden’s Garden and you go to Crossroads?” she asked. “This is kind of bigger than your average football team rivalry. It’s more like the US and Russia during the Cold War. Some of them can get along, like Hisao and, umm, what was her name?”

“Professor Dare,” I replied. “Virginia Dare. And before you ask, I’m pretty sure it’s the same person, but I haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask her about specifics yet.”

Miranda just shook her head. “If you still want to be friends, I want to help. If you’re really not mad about me disappearing. I… kind of thought you’d hate me after what happened with your mom.”

Smiling at the other girl, I replied, “Even if you didn’t wanna help, I’d still want to be friends, Rands. You disappearing, it… hurt. But I got over it. I’d rather be your friend than hold grudges. Grudges are just stupid. They waste time that we could spend having fun and they don’t accomplish anything, so to hell with them. You’re my friend, period. And if you happen to get any info on the son of a bitch who stole my mom, that’s even better.”

She reached across the picnic table, grabbing my hand tightly. “You’ve got it. I swear. If there’s anything in the Garden about this Fossor fucker, I’ll find it. And I’ll check out Trice and his thug friends too, see if I can figure out who they’ve been working with over at your place.”

My head shook. “I don’t want you to get in trouble, Randi. Those guys are dangerous.”

Her smirk grew while she leaned back in her seat? “Dangerous? You know who else is dangerous?”

“Oooh, ooooh, I know, I know!” A voice spoke up from beside me on the left. I turned that way to see Randi sitting there, waving her hand eagerly. “Me, I’m dangerous!”

“Don’t forget about me!” An identical voice on my right put in, and I turned to see Randi there as well.

Slowly, I looked at Randi on my right, then Randi on my left, then Randi across from me. She wasn’t teleporting, there was just that many of her. Three. There were three of her. “Wh—you’re… you can…”

All three of them grinned broadly at me, while the one across from me (the original, I guessed?) gave me a thumbs up. “Multiply, yup. I can make about twenty before things get too stressed. So believe me when I say, I’ll be okay. I know how to take care of myself, Flick, I promise.”

Unable to help myself, I laughed out loud, covering my mouth while my shoulders shook.

After watching me for a moment with all three pairs of eyes, the trio of Mirandas all spoke together as one. “What’s so funny?”

Getting myself under control, I managed a little shrug. “Oh, you know… I was just thinking about that conversation I had with Asenath. She asked about why I didn’t have a many friends before Crossroads.”

Gesturing around at the three of them, I finished with, “Turns out I’ve had a bunch of them.

“It’s just that they all happen to be the exact same person.”

Snickering at that, the Miranda across from me shrugged while the ones on either side high fived over the top of my head. Those two disappeared then, leaving only the one across from me to speak. “You can trust me, Flick. If there’s anything in the Garden, I’ll find it, I swear. About your mom, about this Fossor fuck, about whoever’s trying to kill your roommate over there, I’ll dig it up.”

“We’ll have to use a code when we talk to each other,” I pointed out. “So no one knows what we’re doing, or who you are.”

“Secret codes?” Randi was smiling back at me. “Remember when we tried to make up our own language?”

“Yeah,” I drawled the word out before shaking my head. “That’s a lot harder than it sounds when people do it in books and stuff.”

The other girl’s head nodded while she informed me sagely, “It’s because we’re not twins. They cheat.”

“I’ll be sure to ask Sands and Scout about that,” I promised before taking her hand once more. “Seriously, Miranda. Be careful, okay? I don’t care what school you go to or how long it’s been, you’re my friend. I want to keep you around. I…” Swallowing hard, I blinked back tears. “I need you to be okay.”

Her gaze met mine seriously, and the girl nodded without breaking eye contact. “I’ll be careful, Flick. I promise. But let’s figure out that code right now, while we’ve got the chance.

“You and me, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

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Getting Some Answers 6-04

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“So how does it feel to be seventeen years old, kid?”

It was later the same night, my last night away from Crossroads, and I was sitting with my father. The two of us were on the couch, and I had nestled up against his side with my head against his chest while he held me close with one arm. Being there, listening to his heart beating steadily, was comforting.

A few seconds passed before I answered him quietly. “It’s pretty exciting so far, I’ll tell you that much.” Shrugging then, I added, “But I don’t think you really get to call me a kid anymore.”

“Puh shaw,” Dad replied simply. “Puh shaw, I say. You could be forty years old and I’ll still call you kid.” His arm squeezed me a little tighter against him. “Cuz you’re mine.” Turning a little, he lifted his other hand around to muss my hair fondly, his voice soft with what sounded like wonder. “My kid.”

Lifting my head from his chest to look up, I smiled, embracing him a bit more fully. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, Felicity,” he replied gently while returning the hug. He held me tight for a few more seconds before asking, “You sure your friend’s gonna be okay walking around out there by herself?”

I couldn’t help the chuckle that came then. “Yeah, because this place is such a hot spot for crime.”

Dad’s voice turned a bit hollow then. “It was last night.” I felt his embrace tighten. “My god, all those people. How does something like that happen in a place like this? A terrorist attack in Laramie Falls?”

The now-familiar pang of guilt popped up as I shook my head. “Trust me, Senny’ll be okay. She just wants to get the lay of the land if she’s gonna be staying here. Besides, she’s used to being out at night.”

Nodding a little, Dad mused thoughtfully. “I guess she would be. Allergic to the sun, that’s gotta be rough.” Chuckling, he rubbed a hand over my hair once more. “Probably gets called a vampire a lot.”

I coughed to cover the reflexive snicker that came before giving a serious nod. “I bet she does too.” Shifting on the couch, I straightened to look at my dad directly. “Thanks for letting her stay here.”

“Ehh, I was getting pretty lonely anyway.” Dad waved a hand dismissively. “Your pops is a social creature. I like to bounce ideas off someone. Since you’re off getting an education, I need another sounding board. Hell, I was talking to that Ammon kid about a lot of the stuff I’d usually tell you.”

Before I could find a response to that, he frowned thoughtfully. “It’s still kind of weird that he and Rose would just up and take off like that. That letter they left on the door about moving was pretty vague.”

Rose hadn’t left a letter, of course. Asenath had written it after making sure that the woman herself was sent back to her home. As far as her family and doctors would be concerned, the woman had simply wandered off, gotten confused, and lost her memory for awhile. Which, while the idea of making that poor woman think she had some kind of mental problem like that seemed bad, I figured having doctors keep an eye on her brain after what she’d been through was a good idea. Even if they didn’t know exactly what had really happened, they would at least be watching for any problems.

“They probably rushed it because of what happened,” I offered a little lamely. I really didn’t want to talk about Ammon at the moment. “You know, because that stuff is enough to scare anyone.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, my father nodded. “You’re telling me. Makes me glad you’re nice and safe at that school.” Raising a hand, he pointed at my nose before poking it. “No more drug dealer busts for a good long while, kid. You just focus on your schoolwork instead of throwing yourself into trouble.”

Somehow, I managed to resist the urge to tell him he had to pick one, do my schoolwork or don’t get into trouble. “Don’t worry, Dad. I do everything my teachers tell me to. I’m a good little student.”

“Uh huh,” Dad’s response was somewhat less than totally convinced. Rather than press the issue, however, he glanced to his watch thoughtfully. “Well, I guess we’ve got time for one last present.”

Blinking at that, I echoed, “Present?” Shifting on the couch, I brightened. “Pressie? For me? But we already opened all the presents, even the phone you bought today.” He’d stopped by the store on his way home to get a replacement for the one that I’d told him was lost while Senny and I looked for him.

“You’re right, all those presents were opened already. All the presents from me,” Dad confirmed. He shifted then, looking somewhat guilty or nervous for a second. “But not the present from your mother.”

My gaze snapped up, eyes widening noticeably as I stammered, “Pre-present from who? What, huh?”

“Shhh, hey, calm down.” Dad raised both hands to settle on my shoulders. “It’s just something I’ve been holding for you until you were ready to see it, something your mother made for you a long time ago. Until now, I didn’t think you were… ready for it. But now, well, I think it’s time for you to have it.”

I just sat there, quietly confused and anxious while my father stood up and moved to the nearby closet. He dug around inside it for a few moments, setting some old game boards and boxes out of the way before coming out with a very thick black binder that looked pretty heavy as he hauled it out of the closet a little awkwardly.

Before I could ask what it was, Dad came back over to the couch and sat down. Up close, I could see that it wasn’t a binder, but a photo album. Or rather, a couple of photo albums that had been bound together. On the new cover of the joined albums were white handprints of two very differently sized hands, one large and one tiny, clearly an adult’s and a child’s. The lock was in between them. And it really was heavy. I grunted as he laid the thing on my lap.

“This,” Dad began by picking up my wrist to lay my hand against the smaller print, “is yours. You were about four years old at the time. I remember you wanted to paint your hand on everything after that.”

Leaving my hand where it was, my eyes moved toward the larger print. Something stuck in my throat for a moment before I managed to speak through it. “Does that mean that that… is that… hers?”

Smiling, my father nodded before touching a finger against the mark. He traced all the way along the handprint with a wistful sigh. “Yup, this is your mother’s. She wanted you to have it at your graduation. Which, I guess technically means I should’ve waited another year, but I think you need it now.”

“There’s a lock on it,” I noted, touching the clasp thoughtfully. “Do we have the key?”

“Check the back,” Dad replied, turning the heavy album over to show me the envelope taped there.

Taking the envelope off, I slid it open and dug a tiny silver key out of it before looking up again as my father stood up from the couch. “Where are you going?”

“Just going into the other room, kid,” my father answered with a slightly weak smile. “This bit is between you and your mother. I’ll be here after when you wanna talk or just sit for awhile, but you should have a chance to see this by yourself. I’ll be in the kitchen going through those leftovers.” Managing a smile then, he added with a chuckle, “Too bad Asenath’s mother couldn’t stick around long enough for me to meet her. I would’ve tried to see how much she’d charge to cook for us full time.”

That was the story we’d gone with for where all of Twister’s amazing food had come from, that Asenath’s mom had stopped by to make sure she was settling in, but had to leave before he came back.

“I’m sure she’ll come by and cook again,” I murmured absently while still staring at the album. Somehow, knowing it was from my mother made it feel even heavier than it should have.

Dad laid a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Take your time, Felicity. It’s okay. Your mom wanted to share this with you. She umm.” He coughed, closing his eyes briefly before clearly forcing himself to continue. “She was working on it since they day you were born. It’s umm, well, you’ll see.”

He stepped out of the room then, leaving me sitting on the couch with the album on my lap. For a couple minutes, I just sat there, staring at the two handprints while trying desperately to remember making them. Please. I could see the print, I knew it was mine. Why couldn’t I just remember the day that Mom and I put them on the book? It was a happy memory, it had to be. I wanted it back.

Finally, a heavy sigh escaped me as I lifted a slightly trembling hand to press the tiny key into the lock. Turning it, I unlatched the clasp and set the key on the nearby table before opening the large book.

The first thing I saw on the very first page was a photograph of a hospital room. My mother was lying in the bed, and she had an absurdly tiny bundle in her arms. A baby. Me. She was holding me.

Beside the picture there was the date, followed by a note. It read, ‘My happiness. My luck. From the day we learned that you were coming, I knew who you were. Felicitas. Luck and good fortune. If all the stars should fall and touch the Earth, I will still never see one which brightens my life more than you have throughout every moment I have known you. You are, and will always be, my Felicity.’

“Mom,” I managed the single word, tears stinging my vision as I touched the words, then the picture. My eyes moved to the next photograph, which showed the baby me in one of those hospital bassinets alongside several other infants. The date written beside the picture was the day after the first, and written below it was another short note from my mother. In this one, she wrote about how she wanted to go home with me, but the doctors insisted that she rest for a day or two first. She talked about how freaked out Dad had been throughout the whole thing, and that she was going to tease him forever about being the panicked one when the birth had actually happened. It was a brief note, but she managed to get a lot across with few words, ending with a simple, ‘I love you, my Felicity.’

That continued, I realized even as it became harder to see the actual book through my own tears. Every page of the thick book was filled with photographs and short notes. My mother, my mom… she had taken a picture of me every single day since I was born. She put all of them in this book, with a dated note beside it. Sometimes the notes were very short, only a few words about how proud she was of me, how much she loved and treasured me, and sometimes they ran on for a bit. There were a few times that the notes were written on lined notebook paper that had been folded up and attached to the page. She didn’t just talk about me either. Sometimes she went on about a conversation she’d had at the grocery store, something funny someone at the sheriff’s office had done, or just what the weather had been like lately. She talked about anything that came to mind, leaving a note for me by each picture.

I couldn’t make myself read each and every note just then. The tears were coming too heavily. But I flipped through and saw the last page. I saw the very last thing my mother had written in the book before she had closed and locked it for the very last time.

It was a photograph of seven-year old me sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of soup. The soup she had heated up for me right before disappearing for the last time. I remembered that day. I remembered the soup. She’d fixed the bowl for me when I said I was hungry. Halfway through it, I’d heard noises in my parent’s room. When I went to investigate, I found my mother filling suitcases with clothes. She promised me there was nothing wrong and that she just had to get rid of a few things, that she would be back soon. Then she’d hugged me, so tight it had almost been painful, telling me she loved me before taking the suitcases out to a waiting car. I’d watched from the window as she shoved the suitcases into the back and then got in the car to be driven away. That was the last time I saw my mother. I never knew she took the picture while I was eating that soup.

Beside the picture was another short note. This one read, in shaky handwriting, ‘You are the most amazing, wonderful thing I have ever done. I love you, Felicity. I can’t begin to tell you how much. I love you, my baby girl, my brilliant little one. Of every creature I have seen, you are the most magical to me. You are my gift, my luck, my light. I will always love you, and no matter what happens, I will always choose to protect you. Be safe, my child. Be careful.’

It ended with four words, clearly scribbled at the last second and in a rush. ‘You can trust Gaia.’

For a few seconds afterward, I simply sat there, staring at the words on the page, and the last photograph. No words came. No thoughts would come. All I could do was sit there, staring at the very words that my mother had written to me, the last thing she had said.

No, I reminded myself a moment later. Not the last thing. Because she was still out there, still alive.

“I’m coming, Mom,” I whispered under my breath while touching the album. My other hand clenched tightly shut. Before the tears overtook me once again, I finished with, “I swear, I’ll find you. I will.

“I’ll save you.”

******

The next morning, after giving my father what had to be the longest hug in recorded history, and making sure that Senny and Twister were set up with everything they needed, I left. It was time to head back to the Academy.

Dad thought I was taking the bus again, of course. He wanted to drop me off, but I convinced him I could get there myself, that I wanted to walk and enjoy the fresh air. Really, I didn’t want to cause a scene because I knew how hard it was going to be for me to leave him again, especially after everything that had happened and what I now knew.

But he was as safe as I could make him without being able to tell him the truth. He had Asenath and Twister on his side, and they’d let me know if anything happened.

It was a good thing I’d left him behind, because I barely came within sight of the bus stop with my bag (much heavier now with the photo album added to it) over my shoulder before a figure stepped into view ahead of me.

“Professor Dare?” I managed to get out before the blonde woman took a knee in front of me. “I—I’m sorry about the phone, I’m sorry I didn’t–”

“Miss Chambers,” she spoke abruptly, her expression clearly worried. “Are you… are you all right?”

I blinked once. “All right? I—umm, I don’t know. A lot—there was this… kid and he could– I umm, I’m sorry, Professor. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him. I’m sorry I couldn’t–”

“No, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare replied firmly while lifting her hands to my arms. “Listen to me, you did nothing wrong, all right? Nothing. You are a student. We are the ones who failed. We failed to be there for you, we failed to protect you. We failed to notice you were in trouble. Our safety measures were compromised, our methods failed. We are at fault, not you. You are not in trouble. You did nothing wrong.” Her hands squeezed my arms. “Are you sure you’re okay? We only found out that one of the attacks took place here this morning, when I mentioned where I was picking you up. Then we tried to call you, but you didn’t answer, and the emergency beacon was deactivated.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. Asenath and I had planned out how much to tell them, but it was sticking in my throat. “I—I–” Coughing, I managed a nod. “The boy, he… he controlled minds or something. He almost made my Dad kill this woman, and he made all those deputies, they’re the ones who killed—they–did it because he told them to. He was—I don’t know. I don’t know. He took my phone and I don’t know where it is, and–”

“Shhh,” Professor Dare took both of my hands in hers. “It is all right now, Miss Chambers. We will talk about everything you saw, everything that happened, but take your time. What matters is that you are safe now. You are all right. Thank the Edge, you’re okay. Let’s get back to the school first, then you can sit down and talk about everything.”

Unfortunately, even that was doomed, apparently. Because even as Professor Dare straightened up and turned while keeping one of my hands in hers, another voice spoke up.

“Virginia Dare, how remarkable to meet you wandering around a nowhere place like this.”

Turning, both of us took in the sight of the Asian man standing a few yards away, leaning against a no parking sign. He wore urban camo military pants along with a black turtleneck. His dark hair was shaped into a simple crew cut, and he looked like he was in his late thirties.

“Hisao, what are you doing here?” Professor Dare addressed the man curtly without releasing my hand.

The Asian man shrugged dismissively. “Oh, you know. Investigating Stranger attacks. Crossroads still does that, right? I know Garden’s always been better, but you shouldn’t just give up completely.”

He held that for another handful of seconds before abruptly laughing. Waving a hand in front of his face, the man continued. “Oh I’m kidding and you know it. Don’t glare at me so hard. I had to say it just to see that look on your face. Don’t kill me. Seriously, is Crossroads investigating this place? That your new partner? Looks kind of young for you guys.”

“This is… my student,” Professor Dare answered. Her stance had relaxed somewhat, though she glanced toward me curiously before going on. “I’m picking her up to go back to school. Our investigators will be along shortly. We’ve been a bit…”

“Overworked?” The man, Hisao apparently, finished for her. “Yeah, us too. The last few days have just run us all completely ragged. Must be a full moon or something, huh?” Before either of us could say anything else, he brightened. “Ah, there’s my little assistant. You find anything, kid?”

Another figure moved past us to join him while shrugging. “I’m not sure, it’s been a long time.”

“Had to bring the kid along since she used to live here,” Hisao explained casually. “Thought she might notice anything that was off.”

He was right. The girl standing beside him now, only just turning to face us, had lived here a few years earlier. I knew exactly how long it had been since she left, because it was the moment that I had lost my best friend, when her mother had gotten a new job that took them far away.

Our eyes met, and I saw the dawning recognition even as I blurted her name.

“Miranda?”

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Getting Some Answers 6-03

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The scent that struck me as I neared the back door of my house to head in made me stop in my tracks. What the hell? It smelled like a restaurant in there. Not just any old place either, but a good restaurant. I had to take a second to make sure I hadn’t gotten confused and wandered into the wrong back yard, because that was not a smell that I would ever believe could actually come from the our kitchen.

While I was confirming that, yes, I was definitely in the right place, Twister opened the door. The dusky-skinned girl stood there, watching me with obvious amusement. She had taken off the ratty old homeless person’s coat , exchanging it for father’s barbecue apron. It dwarfed her diminutive form, and was obviously tied around her waist several times.

“Senners wants to know if you’re coming inside or not,” she called to me. “She’d ask herself, but you know.” To demonstrate her point, the girl stuck her hand out into the sunlight and then proceeded to engage in an incredibly dramatic pantomime of bursting into flames and, apparently, exploding.

“Right, yeah.” I shook my head and moved up past the girl and into the house, shutting the door behind me. Once I was inside, the smell was even stronger, and I turned toward the stove. “What’re you–” I stopped short, staring at the pots bubbling away. Even the oven light was on. “Are you two… cooking?”

Behind me, Twister barked out a single, loud laugh before walking around me to the stove to pick up a spoon. “Two? Nah, see, your house is still standing. That’s how you know ol’ Assy isn’t trying to cook.”

From the other side of the room, safely away from the doorway and the sunlight, Asenath cleared her throat before speaking up. “Okay, I’m going to go ahead and veto that particular nickname right now.”

Stirring some concoction that she had bubbling in one of the pots, Twister snickered. “Sorry, my bad.” She turned to wink at me, her dark fox ears twitching. “You’re not that old. Young Assy it is.”

“I will literally eat you,” Asenath informed her mildly before focusing on me. “Sorry, she insisted on making lunch. I hope you don’t really mind the whole, uh, kitchen takeover thing.”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, of course not. I just didn’t know our kitchen could make anything like this. And where’d all this food come from? I know Dad doesn’t stock up like this. Hamburger Helper is pretty much the limit of our combined cooking skill, and this looks, um, slightly more involved.”

“I brought it in after you skedaddled for your meeting,” Twister answered, looking a bit thoughtful as she shook out a little bit of something in a seasoning bottle into one of the pots, then stirred it more. “Guessed that the single pops living here wouldn’t really have much in the way of real food.” She shrugged then. “Everyone deserves to eat good on their birthday so, ya know, figured I’d provide.”

I stared at her for a moment. “Wow, I, umm, thanks, Twister. You didn’t have to do that. Dad and I usually go out to a restaurant or something to celebrate. But seriously, thanks for this. We don’t cook much… at all. Like I said, if it doesn’t come straight out of a box, it’s pretty much beyond us.”

“That’s still better than me,” Senny replied with a nod, “Poor taste in nicknames aside, Twister wasn’t really wrong about what would’ve happened if I tried to help. I—ahh–don’t get along with stoves.”

“Or toasters, microwaves, blenders, those little toy ovens that make brownies with a light bulb…” Twister began to recite while stirring another of the pots, dodging out of the way as Senny aimed a lazy kick in her direction. “Hey, don’t blame me for your curse. Cooking just isn’t in your genes.”

Focusing on me then, the girl lifted the spoon and held it out toward me. “Try my groovy gravy, girl.”

Obediently taking the spoon in my mouth to taste what she’d made, I very nearly impersonated my own post-stranger killing reaction. My eyes closed and I gasped. “Mmmm, jeeze, that’s the gravy? Where the hell did you learn how to cook like this? Or is it some kind of ingrained pooka skill?”

Her response was to lightly swat my hand with the spoon. “Ingrained skill? Hell nah, I worked my tush off to learn how to cook. I studied under three different world famous chefs for years, okay? You’re tasting a couple decades worth of hard work and training in that spoon. Ingrained skill, bah.”

Sticking my tongue out at her, I scoffed. “I was just asking. But hey, that leads me to another question. A couple decades? So, I guess you are older than you look then?” I gestured to her small figure, which still didn’t look like she could be older than eleven or twelve at the latest. “How old are you then?”

She winked at me, those ears twitching with amusement. “Two, eleven and a hundred and seven.”

I squinted. “Two, eleven and a hundred and seven? What am I supposed to do, add them together?”

It was Asenath who explained. “She’s all three. She’s two, and she’s eleven and she’s a hundred and seven. See, a pooka is sort of like a phoenix. When they die, they’re reborn a short time later in the form of a child around age eight or nine, but with all their old memories. The last time that happened to Twist was about two years ago, but she was first born over a century ago. So her whole self has been around for a hundred and seven years, this particular incarnation has been alive for just over two, and since she was reborn around age nine, now she looks like she’s eleven. Make sense now?”

“I uhh, I think so,” I confirmed before looking at the pooka girl curiously. “So you really keep the memories from all your past lives whenever you get, ahh, reborn?”

“Most of ’em,” she confirmed while turning back to the stove to focus on her bubbling pots. “It’s sort of like having a reference book that’s constantly in my head. Or a bunch of twin sisters whispering in my ear. Or… you know, it’s hard to explain. I’m just me, Twister. I was born two years ago, I look like I’m eleven, and I’ve got about a hundred and three years worth of memories and thoughts in my head.”

I shook my head slowly, trying to take all of that in. In mid-shake, something else caught my eye, something I hadn’t noticed during our initial meeting because of the heavy coat she’d been wearing. The sight of it made me gasp and straighten suddenly, eyes widening. “Oh my god. Twister. Is that a tail?”

Turning my way quickly, the girl faced me with a blush. I saw the object of my attention shoot back up inside her shirt and mostly out of sight. “What?” Her voice absolutely failed to convey confusion.

Senny giggled a little from her spot. “Oh come on, let her see the tail. You know how girls like it.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Twister grumbled even as she relented, letting the black bushy tail drop back into sight before shaking it out. “I’m trying to be taken seriously as a bodyguard, which is pretty damn hard considering the rest of my looks. And the second a girl sees the tail, they’re always like–”

“Eeee, it’s so fluffy!” I cooed, all-but flinging myself to the floor so I could see the tail a bit closer. My hands moved to pet it, but I caught myself at the very last second. “Can I, umm, would you mind if I…”

A long, heavily put-upon sigh emerged from the girl. “That. That’s what they do.” To me, she gave a slight nod while flicking the tail in my direction. “Fine, fine. Go ahead. But just this once.”

Grinning, I took the tail in hand and stroked it gently. The fluffiness was unbelievable. It was so soft and cuddly. I wanted to hug it forever and forget about every other problem I had. Which was probably why I was playing up my reaction to the tail somewhat. It was easier to focus on that than think about everything I couldn’t fix yet, like my mother’s… everything. If I let myself slow down and think about every terrifying and heart-wrenching thing I could think about, I’d completely fall apart again.

“Thanks,” I finally said quietly, giving the fluffy tail another quick pet. “I kind of always wanted to have a tail when I was a kid.” I started to laugh. “Hell, I remember this one time, my mo–” Stopping in mid-sentence, my face blanched and I straightened away from the girl. It took me a moment to force myself to continue in a softer tone. “My mother took one of my dad’s old socks, filled it up with something, and sewed it onto the back of my sweat pants so I could have a tail around the house.”

“That’s adorable,” Senny spoke quietly, stepping closer to the table so she could pull out a chair while staying safely away from the door. “And focusing on positive memories is good. You’ll get her back.”

In spite of my worry and fear, I made myself nod once before tugging out a chair for myself as well. Sitting down then, I finally set the yearbook on the table between us. “Well, Seller says he fixed everything that was done to this thing. So it should be just the way it was back in 1919.”

Still, it took me a moment to make myself open the book. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but I was nervous about what I was going to find. And to their credit, Twister and Asenath didn’t rush me. They just waited and watched while I left one hand on the cover, bracing myself for what could be in there.

Finally, I opened the book to the page that had been altered before to show four entries instead of the six that it should have had. My eyes fell immediately on the familiar image of Deveron first. He looked… well, pretty much the same as he did now as far as physical appearances went. On the other hand, he also looked a lot more innocent. I couldn’t even say what gave that impression. It was just pretty much everything. His eyes were more open and inviting, even excited. He was giving a wide smile that clearly said he was ecstatic to be there. He looked totally optimistic and carefree.

From there, my eyes moved down slightly, and I saw the picture of my mother at my age. She was… god, she was pretty. Unlike my own hair in its simple ponytail, hers was cut short and done up in one of those bob cuts. She sat there, facing the camera with a casual, mysterious smile on her face that clearly implied that there were secrets she wasn’t going to tell. My mother, seventeen years old in the year 1919, the first year that she had attended Crossroads. Almost a hundred years earlier.

The uniforms looked slightly different and less modern than ours, but the same basic style was there. They even had the same color piping system. Deveron’s was green for the Hunter track unlike the Explorer red that I knew him as having. My mother’s, meanwhile, was white for Security, like Sean’s.

I also saw their weapons. They were holding them in the pictures. Deveron’s wasn’t the flintlock pistol that I knew. Instead, he held the neck of a long rifle like one of those old big game hunters.

When I saw the weapons that my mother was holding in her picture, my eyes widened and I reached out to touch them. Hunga Munga, the African throwing axes. When I had been choosing my own weapon, before settling on the staff that was now mine, I had lingered over those. I’d felt the connection, though I hadn’t really understood why. I’d felt somehow drawn to them. In the end, however, I’d taken the staff. Koren was the one who had chosen the Hunga Munga.

Shaking off the feeling of awe at the sight of my mother, I turned the book around. “Okay, this is probably a long shot, but what the hell. The son of a bitch who stole her somehow remembered her in spite of the spell, so let’s just check. Can you tell me if you recognize this girl at all? This is my mom.”

Both of them leaned in to look at the yearbook, but shook their heads. “Sorry,” Asenath apologized. “It’s not ringing any bells. Except—wait, hold on.” She peered closer at the photo. “Not her, but those.” Her fingers moved to touch the picture where my mother’s weapons were. “Those are familiar.”

“Hey, yeah,” Twister agreed, tail going back and forth almost hypnotically in her eagerness. “They are. You think they’re the same ones?”

Blinking back and forth between them, I frowned. “Okay, you’ve seen African throwing axes before.”

Both shook their heads, and Senny explained. “No, you don’t understand. It’s more than that. About, uhh, a little under twenty years ago, Twister and I—she was in her old body then—we were hired to protect this underground auction. They were selling off a bunch of stuff, including Heretic weapons.”

“That stuff goes for tons of money,” Twister added. “Having a weapon that belongs to the people that keep trying to hunt us down and kill us? It’s a sign of prestige or danger or whatever. Like mounting a lion’s head on the wall or something. Only less stupid and gross and more sweet weapons.”

Shifting in my seat while looking at the picture again, I asked, “So, you saw Hunga Munga there?”

Asenath nodded emphatically. “Oh yeah, we definitely saw them. One set, just like those ones in the picture. But more than that, we had to deal with a Heretic attack right in the middle of the auction.”

“They were insane!” Twister blurted with a raised voice. “Six Heretics just to shut down a little auction that wasn’t even that big of a deal. There weren’t even any real Nocens there.”

“Nocens?” I echoed. “Latin for evil or wicked, so I’m guessing it’s your term for evil, uhh, Alters?”

“Hey, pretty good.” Senny was smiling. “Yeah, it’s the term Alters use for those of us that openly attack and kill innocent people for fun. I mean, some do it now and then, or get pushed into it, or whatever. Nocens are the worst ones, the ones that do it for fun, who actually want to do really, really bad things.”

“Right, so none of those were at this little magical item auction, but you were still attacked by six Heretics. I take it these weren’t students or something?”

“Definitely not students,” Twister confirmed with a shudder. “Trust me, blondie, those were the real deal. Full strength, full power Heretics coming at us like we were the worst of the worst. We barely got away, and even that was just because they stopped coming after us after they got what they wanted.”

My eyes moved back to the photograph. “The Hunga Munga. You’re sure that’s what they were after?”

Senny nodded. “Absolutely positive. They went absolutely insane to get them back, and then they broke off the fight, a fight they were winning, to retreat with the damn things as soon as they had them.”

Shaking my head in confusion, I asked, “But why? Why would they be so obsessed with getting those weapons back? Even if they were my mother’s, what difference would it make?”

Both of them shrugged. Asenath added, “Sorry, I haven’t really had much of a chance to discuss the ins and outs of Heretic weapons with your people. They tend to focus pretty heavily on the part where they try to stick the pointy end into me as many times as they can.”

“There has to be a reason they wanted them back so much,” I said slowly, still staring at that picture as if it would spit out an explanation. “A reason why they’d send six fully trained Heretics after them.”

“Maybe you should find those weapons yourself,” Twister suggested with a shrug. “Might get an answer then.” She picked up the yearbook and started to flip through it absently.

She had a point. If I could locate the weapons that the Crossroads Heretics had been so obsessed with recovering, it could go a long way toward answering a lot of questions.

I considered that. Would it even be possible to find them? They had to be kept somewhere really safe and secure, considering the effort they’d gone through to retrieve the weapons to begin with.

Still, if it would help my mother, I’d try anything. “I’ll look for them,” I promised. “I’m not sure where to start, but I’ll give it a shot.”

“You could try starting with this guy,” Twister announced while turning the book around toward me with her finger up on one of the pictures. “Since he was the one that almost killed me to snatch the damn things out of my hands. You know him?”

I looked, and coughed at the sight. Like Deveron and Mom, the picture was of someone much younger than how I knew them. But he was still recognizable. “Yeah, I know him. He’s the father of two of my teammates.”

Liam Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s dad. He was the one who had led the charge to retrieve what I was increasingly certain were my mother’s weapons. To find out what had happened to them, I was going to have to search his place. And the best, maybe even only way to do that, was with the help of the twins.

I was going to have to tell Sands and Scout what was going on.

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Getting Some Answers 6-02

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I was three steps from the bowling alley when a realization struck me so suddenly that it was almost a physical blow. I literally tripped over my own feet, catching myself against the door as my eyes widened with the abrupt thought that, quite frankly, should have occurred to me ten minutes earlier.

Twister hadn’t set off my Stranger-awareness sense.

There had been no sense of alarm, no screaming alert in my head. I had seen her shapeshift, and yet there was nothing. No alarm in my head, no sense telling me that she wasn’t human, nothing at all.

How? Why? What the hell was going on? Why wouldn’t my Heretic sense go off when I saw her? It went off with everyone else, didn’t it? So why was it sleeping on the job when it came to Twister?

Ammon didn’t set off my alarm either. Which I had thought might be because of our apparent blood relation, similar to how our other abilities clearly didn’t work on each other. But that wasn’t right, because Seller hadn’t been alerted when he saw Ammon either. Unless he didn’t care about warning me, which I was at least going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he would have said something.

Except he was my ancestor. Which meant he was Ammon’s ancestor. So the blood relation was still there. Could that be why the kid didn’t set off Seller’s sense too? I didn’t know, but it seemed dangerous to assume that anyone else would have been able to sense him. If they could and I assumed they couldn’t, I would be wrong in a good way. But if they couldn’t and I assumed they could, the surprise would be… much less pleasant.

So I had to go with the assumption that Ammon didn’t set off anyone’s Heretical sense (which was kind of terrifying in whole new ways) because he was… what, because he was half-human? Maybe? But if that was the case, why wouldn’t Twister have set it off? Was it for the same reason? Was she half-human too or something? Or was her apparent Stranger radar (Strang-dar?) immunity something else?

“Yo, Barbie! You gonna go in, or just stand there like an idiot all day?” A teenage boy standing behind me tapped his foot impatiently, waving a hand for me to hurry up. “You need help figuring out how to work those complicated door handles? Or were the four letters on that Pull sign just too hard to read?”

Smiling as I turned to look over my shoulder, I adopted a cheerful tone. “Ohh, is that what it says?” Laughing lightly, I gestured toward the door. “That’s my bad. See, I thought it said, ‘wait here for impatient douche.’” Letting a shocked expression cross my face then, I pointed at the boy, then back to the door, then back to the boy with my mouth open. “What do you know? We were both right!”

The annoyed boy’s response was to shove past me and through the door, muttering, “Bitch.”

And that was apparently the end of our witty repertoire, since I was interrupted by a hand catching my arm to pull me away from the door. When I jerked, the hand tightened almost painfully and Seller spoke in a low, terse voice. “Keep walking. Don’t say a word until I tell you to. Just be quiet and walk.”

The funny thing is, in that sort of situation, the urge to talk right after you’ve been told not to becomes almost unbearable. Or, it does for me anyway. I was practically biting my tongue off as we strolled around the back of the bowling alley to an alley between it and the liquor store. From there, we continued down the alley, past a couple more cross streets and through a parking lot. Whenever I glanced toward the man, he was always scanning in every direction. The sunglasses that he wore made it impossible to tell where his eyes were, but his head was in constant motion, taking in everything.

Finally, several blocks away from where we’d started, the man stopped. He stepped around in front of me while giving one last suspicious look around before speaking sharply. “What happened last night?”

“Uhhhh…” I trailed off, thinking through everything he might be referring to. “A lot of stuff?”

“No kidding.” His voice was flat. “Tell me about it. All of it.”

“First, answer a question,” I countered. “Did you notice anything suspicious yesterday when we met? Anything stand out to you? Anything that might’ve set off a screaming stranger alert in your head?”

“First, we don’t get the screaming alert,” the man replied simply. “That’s a Crossroads thing. Garden Heretics mostly get a feeling that’s kind of like uhh, hunger is the best thing I could compare it to. Hunger and adrenaline, like the sudden knowledge that a good hunt is about to happen.”

That derailed me into a totally different avenue of curiosity. “Wait, it’s a different feeling for you guys? You don’t feel the ‘danger, danger, danger’ thing? Well, which came first, your policy and attitude about Strangers, or the way your Strangedar works? Which one influenced the other?”

“Why don’t we focus on you answering the question first,” Seller replied tersely. “What happened?”

So I told him about Ammon. I told him all of it, actually. Yeah, part of me wanted to hold back things like what the son of a bitch that kidnapped my mother had said about all that. I didn’t want it getting back to Crossroads somehow so that they would try even harder to bury everything I needed to know.

But honestly, if he was going to do that, Seller could already tell them more than enough. At this point, I had to trust that he wasn’t going to blab. So I told him everything. In for a penny, in for a pound.

By the time I was done, when I finished telling the man everything that had happened since we’d separated the day before, his face was noticeably paler, which didn’t do a lot to encourage optimism.

“You know who it was, don’t you?” I stared at my ancestor with realization. “You’d have to. That—his shtick is too specific, and he’s too powerful not to be one of the big names. You know the guy.”

“I’ve heard of him,” Seller confirmed in a quiet, reluctant voice. “Unfortunately, he’s not the kind of creature that lives out a quiet life in the suburbs without bothering anyone. He’s… bad. Real bad.”

“I kind of got that impression already.” I resisted the urge to shudder with fear at the memory of the monster’s threat to return in one year. Terror and helplessness weren’t useful feelings. I had to focus. “What else can you tell me tell me about him? Like a name, for instance. What’s his name?”

Still, Seller hesitated. “Look, this really isn’t the sort of thing a student should be dealing with.”

“Well, I don’t really have a choice!” I snapped, raising my voice before catching myself. “He named me, okay? He wants me. I didn’t pick this fight, I didn’t flip through a book of indescribable evil, point to a random entry, and say, ‘I choose this son of a bitch to ruin my life.’ He came after me. He did it a decade ago and my mother stopped him by letting him take her instead. In a year, he’s gonna do it again. He’ll come after me, and he’ll go through anyone in his way to get what he wants. Which means that I can either spend a year crying about how unfair it is and then curl up and wait for him to play his sick games, or I can spend it trying to beat him. So do me a favor. Stop telling me how much I shouldn’t have to deal with this because I’m just a student, and give me some information I can actually use.”

For a moment after I finished, the man said nothing. He just watched me through those shades of his before letting out a long breath. “You’re telling me that this creature has stolen one of my descendants, forced her to have a half-breed child with him, and is attempting to take you as well. Another of my descendants.”

“That about sums it up,” I confirmed darkly. “And what about this half-breed thing. Is that common?”

He shook his head. “No. That’s… new, coming from him. I’ve heard of a few other Stranger races being able to procreate with humans and make offspring like that, but not like this. Every other half-breed I know of is mostly human except for their immunity to the Stranger effect. Like a vampire’s child. Whatever this Ammon is, it’s something different. Something I’ve never heard of before.” The man paused then before looking at me. “The responsible part of me thinks you should tell your superiors.”

“I’ll tell them some of it,” I confirmed. “I’ll tell them about Ammon. But not him. Not that I saw him. If I do, they’ll just try even harder to hide what happened with my mother from me. They’ll pay attention to what I’m looking at, they’ll bury it even deeper. Half that council, whatever it is, voted to keep me out of the school, to stop me from being a heretic at all. I refuse to believe that they went through whatever magical ritual garbage they had to do to erase my mother from everyone’s memory, and then didn’t keep track of her afterward. And if they were keeping track of her, then they know she disappeared. They knew it back then. Which means they probably know why she disappeared. And if they knew why she disappeared, then they knew that leaving me out here, clueless and alone, was a death sentence. They knew it, and half of them still voted for it. They already proved, right then, that they care more about protecting their stupid secrets or holding whatever grudges they have against my mother than they care about what happens to either me or her. So no, I’m not telling them a damn thing about what I already know until I have a better idea of who I can trust and who I can’t.”

“Fair enough,” Seller conceded. “Fine. The man you met last night has a few different names. He’s been around for a long time. But the name most people know him by is Fossor.” In response to my blank look, he spelled it for me and added, “It’s what the early Christian church called gravediggers.”

“Fossor,” I repeated the name quietly, feeling an involuntary shudder run through me. Somehow, giving a name to the monster who had terrified me so much the night before didn’t make me feel much better.

Shaking that off, I refocused my attention. “Why did you want to know what happened last night? How did you know anything happened at all—wait, dumb question. All those deaths. The better question is, why isn’t this place swarming with Heretics right now? Why haven’t I been grabbed and questioned already? Hell, why aren’t my teachers here trying to find out what the hell happened to me?”

“Oh trust me, they would have been,” Seller assured me. “You would’ve had half your school faculty dropped on your head the instant anything happened. They don’t just send out first year students without keeping track of them. Even we don’t do that, and Garden students are generally less… coddled than Crossroads. No, the second you were in danger, it should’ve set off a dozen alarms back there.”

“So why didn’t it?” I asked with a frown. “The same reason they couldn’t step in when Avalon and I were locked in the room with the Peridles? Or when those guys from your school ambushed my team?”

He had the courtesy to at least flinch. “Trice, Doxer, and Pace weren’t working alone. We know that much. Whether those attacks have anything to do with this… I don’t know.”

“Aren’t you a teacher or something out there?” I demanded. “Why don’t you just try asking them?”

“Garden works differently than Crossroads,” he replied. “It’s not so much a school as… an army. Or several armies. We’re a collection of semi-independent groups operating under one banner in public. But in the Garden itself, there’s eight different tribes. Trice and his friends are part of a different tribe than I am. Which means I have no actual authority over what they do or what happens to them.”

The answer made me sigh. Of course it couldn’t be that simple. “Right, fine. Why hasn’t anyone from Crossroads showed up to check out what’s going on yet? And why did you insist on walking all the way out here? That can’t just be because of the people that Ammon murdered. There’s something else.”

“I couldn’t say if there were alarms about what happened to you or not,” Seller replied. “If there were, they were probably overshadowed by every other alarm that was going off last night.”

“Wait,” I had to double-take. “What other alarms? What happened last night?”

“Oh just about everything.” The man sighed. “I couldn’t guess how much your people picked up, but on our end, we had no less than a dozen separate Stranger attacks in high population areas in the country in the same two hour time period. We’ve been running ourselves ragged just to keep things under control. I almost called off our meeting here until I saw the news about all the deaths here and knew it had to have something to do with you. So I ran a test and you had gravewatch markers.”

“Gravewatch markers?” I echoed with a frown. “What the hell are gravewatch markers?”

“Ah, didn’t have that class yet, huh?” Seller shrugged. “Long story short, a necromancer will put gravewatch markers on a person that they want ghosts to keep track of. Then their summoned pets keep track of the person that was marked and report back. There’s other uses, but that’s the one they were using.”

I stared at the man, opening my mouth and then shutting it as I tried to cope. “Let me get this straight. You’re saying I’ve had ghosts following me around, reporting about what I’m doing to this Fossor guy?”

“Sounds like it was him, yeah,” the man confirmed. “There were two of them. So that’s why we took that little walk. I set a little trap in this area. The spirits crossed into it and got burned. So you’re clean now. No more gravewatch markers. You’re welcome for that.”

“How long were they there?” I demanded. “Was this new or have they been-no, they couldn’t have been there already. I may not know who to trust at Crossroads, but they would have noticed that much. He must have stuck them on me last night, to keep track of what I’m doing.”

That had to sit for a minute. The idea of that monster putting any kind of magic on me made me want to throw up again. I had to shudder heavily before forcing myself to focus. “A dozen attacks that you guys noticed. Probably different ones that Crossroads noticed. That has to be related, right?”

Seller nodded. “Someone as big as Fossor is, yeah. That would make sense. He has the clout to pull it off. I’d say he set off those attacks to keep everyone busy so that no one showed up to check on you. If you didn’t personally call for help, they wouldn’t notice one more situation.”

“And he made damn sure I couldn’t call for help,” I murmured under my breath. “Now they’re so busy dealing with all those other attacks that they still don’t know what happened here.”

That answered one question, but I was reminded of the next one. “Hey, speaking of not noticing things, what about other strangers that don’t set off my alarm thing?”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “Other strangers? Besides this… half-breed you mentioned?”

I nodded. “Yeah, like Twister. Asenath’s friend. She’s a umm, pooka? But I didn’t get any kind of alert. She shapeshifted right in front of me and this whole Stranger sense of mine didn’t make a peep.”

“Ah,” he nodded then, adjusting his tie. “Yeah, pooka. That makes sense. ” In response to my blank stare, he shrugged. “There’s a few types of Strangers that even the Heretical Edge, in whatever form it takes, doesn’t pick up. Pooka are one of them. Why do you think mythology about whether they’re good or bad is so convoluted and unclear? They’re one of the Strangers we just can’t pin down.”

“What other kinds are there?” I asked. “And why don’t they tell us about these Strangers we can’t detect? And why would the Edge just completely fail at detecting them?”

Seller shook his head. “I’m not one of your teachers, but my guess is they just haven’t gotten to it yet. As for why, there’s a lot of theories about it, none of which we have time to go over. I have other things to take care of.” He produced the yearbook, holding it out to me. “This is for you, it’s set back to the way it was before it was altered.”

Taking the book, I had to resist the urge to open it right then and there. “I have a lot more questions.”

“So do I,” he replied. “For once, I might even enjoy going back and forth. Unfortunately, duty calls. Like I said, a dozen attacks. I can’t spare anymore time for this.”

His mouth opened to say something else, but then the man paused to frown slightly. “I… look, I haven’t exactly been keeping track of my descendants for a long time, but… I’m glad you’re not dead. And what you said about that creep taking your mother, I… I’ll see what I can do. You need help to deal with it, I’ll do what I can. For now, take this.” He reached into his pocket and then held something out to me.

I looked at the thing in his palm. “Gum?”

“Chew it up and swallow it,” he explained. “Yeah, I know. Just do it. After that, if you get in trouble, real trouble that you don’t have any other help with, say ‘Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Recourse.’ Got that?”

I took the stick of gum. “Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Recourse. Got it. Why?”

“The first time you say those words after you swallow that gum, I’ll know about it. I’ll know you said it and I’ll know where you are.” Seller took his sunglasses off to meet my gaze with his own pale eyes. “It will only work once. So don’t test it, don’t abuse it, and only use it when you have no other choice.”

Putting the gum in my mouth to chew, I nodded. “Okay. Worst case scenario emergency only, I get it.” While chewing, I tilted my head a little. “Does this current emergency thing mean you don’t have time to explain what happened between you and Asenath down in Texas?”

He visibly blanched. “I’ll let her tell the story, if she’s going to. Now I really have to run.”

I wanted to make him stay and answer more questions, but doing so felt selfish. There were dying people out there, people that had only been put into danger as a distraction so that Fossor could have his little chat with me. Making Seller stay here just to answer my questions instead of saving them would have been wrong.

“Okay,” I said. “If I find out anything else, I’ll send word through Avalon.”

“Good,” Seller gave a short nod, then looked awkward for a moment before turning away to walk. “Be careful. You should be clear of gravewatch markers now, but keep an eye out anyway. If you see a ghost, your sense will register it and let you know. But you have to actually see them first.”

“Watch out for ghosts, got it.” I watched the man walk away, then looked down at the book he’d handed over. Time to take it home and see what kind of answers it could give me.

And how many questions those answers led to.

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A Few Quick Notes

First, I want to thank all of you for reading. Every single person who reads this story, comments on it, lets me know what you like or don’t like, your thoughts, theories, and so on is awesome. You’re all fantastic. Those people who share links to the story with others are truly amazing.

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I can’t actually express my thanks to donators in any way better than what you guys come here for, which is more writing. Thanks to our Patreon donators, the current goal for bonus chapters this month is $66.50. Every time we hit that goal, there will be an extra bonus chapter the next Wednesday (if the final donation arrives by Tuesday, the bonus chapter will go up the next day unless there are extenuating circumstances).

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