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.