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 my 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.