About ten minutes later, I had just finished getting through the background of what happened up until I’d left the school a few days earlier, along with what I’d eventually found out from Seller, including our relationship. Everyone on the team was staring at me like I’d just grown two heads. Sean was the first to find his voice, shaking his head slowly. “You’re serious? You think your mom actually went here?”
“I know she went here,” I replied. “I’ve seen the pictures. I have the yearbook with her in it.”
Sands cut in then. “A yearbook that you let one of the Garden creeps mess with. He could’ve been messing with you. They do that all the time. Remember the assholes back by the lake that tried to kill Avalon?” She waved back toward my roommate. “Those are the kind of people you’re trusting now?”
It was Avalon who spoke up then, before I could. “Mason, be quiet for a minute, before your foot ends up so far down your throat that you start tasting your ankle. First, I was one of those ‘Garden creeps’ six months ago. Second, Seller took care of me for a long time. I trust him. Third, you should probably remember that part about how she found the picture of her mother in the trophy case here a long time before she ever saw Seller at all, and the person who directed her to it was one of the Bow Street Runners, which you might recognize as a Crossroads organization. So for your paranoid theory to work, he would have to be working for Eden’s Garden. Which still doesn’t explain Deveron.”
Sands opened her mouth a couple times through that, but kept stopping. By the end, she was biting her lip. I could see the denial and confusion on her face, but she obviously couldn’t find a response. It was true, she couldn’t really explain why Deveron was hiding a version of that picture that included himself.
Before she could push on with that denial anyway, I interrupted. “There’s more. Stuff that happened in between when I met with Seller the first time, and when we met the second time. I just wanted you to know the part that I actually meant to find out first, before…” I swallowed. “Before I tell you the rest.”
Columbus was the first to ask, “What do you mean? Did something else happen while you were there?”
In spite of myself, I gave a short, hard laugh that probably sounded more bitter than amused. “Dude, I’ve only told you the easy part so far. That’s the simple stuff, most of it Avalon already knew. But this next part, this is the big stuff. The stuff you probably won’t want to hear, the dangerous stuff.”
“More dangerous than some kind of secret conspiracy to hide the fact that your mom used to go here from you and from everyone else?” Sands sounded doubtful, but Scout touched her arm and she relented with a simple nod. “Sorry, I just—we’ve lived here our whole lives, Flick. Now you’re saying that they’re the kind of people who would keep something like that secret? Our teachers are practically family to us. One of them literally is. He’s our dad. And now they’re just keeping this secret?”
Oh boy. This was going to be a fun conversation, I could tell that already. “Sands, Scout, Sean, I need you guys to listen. I need you to not run away, not freak out, not start denying anything or arguing until I’m done. I know you guys grew up here. I know you trust the people here and I don’t think you’re wrong to. Okay? Let me start with that. I don’t think you’re wrong to trust most of the people here, not with almost anything, and especially not with your lives, our lives. But I’m going to say some stuff that you’ll probably disagree with, that you’ll probably want to argue with. I need you to stop. I need you to let me finish talking. All right? No matter what I say, no matter how upset or angry you get, I want you to promise that you will let me finish. After that, we can talk as much as you want, we can argue or debate or whatever, but you have to promise that you will be quiet while I tell you what happened, and not do anything rash until we all discuss it and figure out something together. Can you promise that?”
Sean glanced to the twins, then down toward his mechanical dog. Vulcan was sitting calmly at his side, making panting noises mixed in with the occasional hungry whine to get attention. The boy rubbed the metal canine’s head briefly before returning his gaze to me with a nod. “You got it. You’re a teammate, Flickster. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll listen to what you’ve gotta say. It’s the least we can do.”
Scout was nodding on the heels of his words, and Sands spoke up. “Right, we promise. What do you take us for? We’re not gonna completely freak out on you just because you tell us something we don’t like. I mean, you already pretty much said you think our dad is part of some conspiracy to keep the truth about your mother away from you, so how bad could the rest of it really be?”
I took in a long, deep breath before letting it out. “I don’t know exactly why my mother was banished from this place, why they made her a normal human again, or why they’ve used magic to erase the fact that she existed. I don’t know why any of that happened exactly. I have hints, but nothing super concrete. What I do know is…” I had to blink my eyes rapidly to stop the dampness in them from taking over, the lump in my throat forcing me to clear it. “What I do know is why she disappeared ten years ago. I know what happened to her, who took her, and what… what happened. I know who has her now.”
“You do?” Sands blurted before covering her mouth with an apologetic look, nodding for me to go on.
Slowly, I started to explain what else had happened, beginning with Ammon getting my mind-controlled former coworkers to attack me. Even standing there on the beach, feeling the hot sun beaming down on me with the sound of the ocean nearby and my teammates in plain sight, I couldn’t help but remember the feeling of total helplessness as I’d been attacked in my own home and held down against the couch. I remembered the eagerness in Ammon’s eyes when he told them to make me cry, the feel of their tight grips trapping me, leaving me helpless and incapable of defending myself.
A hand touched my shoulder, and I glanced over to see Avalon standing there. She didn’t say anything, or even really make any particular expression. She just stood there with a hand on my shoulder, silent.
“How did you escape?” Sands asked quietly once the silence had gone on for several minutes.
This was it. No more delays or workarounds. This was the moment that I had to choose what I was going to tell them. If I told the truth, I risked alienating at least half my team, if not most of them. But if I lied, I risked the truth coming out later, probably at the worst possible time. And if I did lie to them now, they’d never listen to my explanations later. If I thought convincing them that Senny wasn’t evil now was going to be hard, trying to tell them the same thing after lying about it would be impossible.
They were all watching and waiting, some more patient than others. Even Vulcan turned his gaze up toward me, head tilted curiously as though waiting to hear the answer as well. He’d stopped whining.
“I was saved,” I began after coming to final decision, the only decision I could make. Taking a deep breath, I let it out slowly and focused on the twins while finishing the statement. “By a vampire.”
About ten solid seconds of silence followed that pronouncement before Sands interrupted it with a loud, “What?!” Her eyes were wide, and she looked absolutely shocked. “What the fuck do you mean, you were saved by a vampire? What the hell?! How do you—what–why would they—are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Sands. I’m okay. I just need you to keep listening. Just listen, okay? I know, I know how it sounds. I know how you’re going to take it, and I was really, really tempted not to tell you about it. But I have to. I have to because you’re my team. You’re my friends, my friends, and I have to trust you. But you have to trust me too. You have to trust me when I tell you this, and you can’t freak out. Okay?”
Sands was shaking her head, clearly straddling the line of completely losing her mind. “Okay? Okay what? Don’t freak out? Don’t freak out about the fact that you were with a vampire? A real vampire? They’re not twinkly sparkle heart throbs, Flick, they’re monsters! What the hell did they do to you? We have to tell someone. You can’t just see a vampire and then not tell the teachers, they have to know. They have to find out what happened, what he said to you and what–” She started to take a step away.
Before she could go any further, I took a couple steps that way, catching her by the arm quickly. “No, Sands. Listen to me. You promised. You promised you wouldn’t do anything rash until I finish. You cannot just freak out about what I’m telling you and run off because you don’t want to hear it. I know it’s hard, Sands. Trust me, I know. I know it’s fucked up and it’s going to freak you out. But please, please let me finish talking. Let me tell you what happened, okay? I am going to tell you about it, but if I’m trusting you enough to tell the truth about this, then you have to trust me enough to let me finish.”
Sands broke eye contact, glancing away for a moment. I could see the indecision on her face, the emotion there. She wanted to help me, but had no idea how. The idea of listening to someone who had possibly been compromised by a Stranger’s influence was warring against the friendship we had built up over the last couple months, and she’d spent a much longer time hating Strangers. After all, one of them had killed her mother and completely traumatized her sister so much she barely spoke any more.
In the end, it was Scout who stepped up beside Sands, taking her twin’s hand and squeezing it before she nodded for me to continue. At the feel of her sister’s familiar grip, Sands looked to her briefly. I saw the searching expression in her eyes before she looked back to me, duplicating Scout’s silent nod. She was ready. She may not like it, she was still clearly upset, but she would listen to what I had to say.
Sean, meanwhile, had folded his arms over his chest. He looked more than a little uncomfortable with the whole situation, but not nearly as much as Sands had been. His gaze was more… thoughtful, and when I looked his way, he simply gestured for me to continue without speaking a single word.
“It wasn’t a male vampire,” I continued once it was clear everyone was ready for me to go on. “She’s a female, a girl vampire. Her name is Asenath, and she saved my life when she didn’t have to. Ammon was about to have them… hurt me. She broke in, threw a knife at him, and got me out of there. She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to do anything. He wasn’t a threat to her, he didn’t even know she was there. She came and saved my life. If it wasn’t for her, I’d still be,” I swallowed hard, “with him.”
Once that bomb had settled and Sands had visibly stopped herself from speaking up (though she still had a look of flat disbelief on her face), I went on. I explained what Asenath had told me about my father, and how she’d driven me to the motel where he had been sent to kill Rose, even going so far as to sniff out the room itself once we were close enough. I told them how we’d stopped him at the last second, that she had been the one to knock my father out and saved him from becoming a murderer.
“If it wasn’t for that vampire, I would be with Ammon, being tortured. And my dad would be a murderer. He’d be in prison confessing to killing that innocent woman. Whatever else you’ve been told, whatever else you think about vampires, that much is the absolute truth. She saved my life, and she saved my father. She didn’t have to, but she did. And she did it because she was trying to find Ammon. She was trying to find him because he killed another girl. You remember that gas station murder that Professor Dare had us practice investigating on?” I asked the twins. “That was Ammon. Remember how I picked up the exact same stuff the murderer took? That was because of my connection to him.”
Sands was already shaking her head, mouth opening to say something. But I pressed on first, needing to get through everything before any of them interrupted. I had to make them understand. “There’s more. Ammon called me using my phone—I mean he called my dad’s phone to talk to me.” I explained what else happened, how Ammon said he was going to send those deputies out to kill people, and that Asenath had gone to stop as many as she could while I tried to get to Ammon and my phone so that I could call in reinforcements from Crossroads. I told them how I’d gotten him out to the sidewalk with my phone in my hand. Then I stopped, remembering the next part and the fear that I had felt. Slowly, quietly, I described everything that had happened when Fossor arrived. I told them what he’d said, the power he’d displayed and what he told me about my mother, how he had her and the deal they’d made.
“Flick…” I could hear the horror in Sean’s voice, the shock of what I’d told them all obvious in both his face and his tone. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your mom. If all that’s true, if he was—fuck, I’m sorry.”
Sands was nodding. “Y-yeah, if your mom’s with a necromancer, if he’s that bad, I… Oh Flick, that’s bad. That’s really, really bad.” Her voice cracked a little, clearly remembering the loss of her own mother and how that had gone down. “She really gave herself up to protect you?”
“That’s what he said,” I confirmed. “And somehow I get the feeling this is the kind of guy who gets more amusement out of hurting people with the truth than he does out of lying. He’s a monster. He wanted me to know where my mom was. He wanted me to know what she did, and that I spent ten years hating her after she… after she put herself in that situation to save me from him for as long as she could. He wanted me to know just how much she tried to help me, and that he’d be back in a year to take me anyway. He wanted me to think about it, to worry about it, to be afraid of what he’ll do.”
“That psychotic piece of shit,” Sean spat the words, clearly so furious he could barely contain himself. “He can’t get away with that. He can’t just do anything he wants to just because he’s got power. Doing all this shit, all this—no. No, he can’t get away with it. People like that, pieces of shit like him deserve to die. That’s why the Heretics exist, to destroy evil fucks like that son of a bitch.”
“I’m with him,” Columbus put in. My fellow so-called Silverstone had been silent through all this, his expression that of someone who had been completely overwhelmed by what they were hearing. Now he just looked determined, his mouth set in a thin line. “There’s some sick shit, but that’s just… wrong.”
“He’s evil,” I agreed after swallowing the lump in my throat. “He’s pretty much the epitome of what they’ve been telling us about how bad Strangers can be.” Looking to the twins then, I added, “But Asenath isn’t. She promised to help deal with him, to help me stop him and get my mother back.”
“Flick, I–” Sands’s voice broke up a bit once more before she forced her way through it. “I get it. I get it, okay? It’s your mom, your mother. If someone told me they could help me save my mom’s life, I—I wouldn’t care what they were. I wouldn’t care if they were a vampire, I’d do anything to save my mom. So I get it, I do. But you can’t trust them. She’s a Stranger, Flick. She has to be using you somehow. Please. Please just let us talk to someone here, they can help. They can tell us what to do about her.”
I knew how hard this was for her, how impossible what I was asking her was. She’d waited her whole life to be a hunter, to be just like her father and to kill the kind of monsters who took her mom away.
Still, I shook my head at her. “No, Sands. You have to listen. You have to believe me, Asenath is not evil. She’s not. I know what you’ve been taught. I know how hard it is, but–”
“She is!” Sands blurted, her voice rising with emotion. “She has to be! They’re all evil! They’re all monsters, complete and utter monsters! She’s tricking you somehow, Flick! They’re not human, they don’t have human feelings or human thoughts or human anything! They’re evil monsters! They–”
“No,” the voice came not from me, or even Avalon. It came from Scout. The other girl shook her head, her voice soft yet firm. “They aren’t.”
All of us looked that way, Sands looking almost betrayed. “Wh-what? Scout, you–”
Her twin pressed on, speaking even more. “They aren’t evil, Sands. Not all of them.” She went quiet then for a long few seconds, head turning away from our attention. It was obvious that she wanted almost nothing more than to stop talking and go back to being the silent twin who never spoke up. Instead, she finally continued after collecting herself. “Mom didn’t go out on the boat to watch whales. She went to meet with a… a Stranger. One of her friends that was a… a Stranger.”
“What?!” Sands was staring, her eyes as wide as they had ever been. “No! No, she wouldn’t do that!”
“She did.” Scout’s voice was even more firm, her gaze locked on her sister’s. “They were friends. Mom told me I couldn’t tell anyone, not even you. She told me it had to be our secret, because no one knew that her friend was a Stranger, that I had t-to… to promise to keep it quiet because people wouldn’t understand.
“Then the bad man showed up looking for her. I wanted to help Mom after he took her, I wanted to help her but the woman made me stay under the bed. She used some kind of… of magic to hide me. She used her magic to make me invisible so he couldn’t find me, but she couldn’t hide herself. So he found her. He found her and took her and Mom, but he couldn’t find me even when he looked under the bed. He couldn’t see me because of her. She could’ve escaped, she could have gotten away, but she saved me instead. She was a Stranger and she saved me. So they’re not all evil. I know you want them to be because they took Mom, but they’re not. They can be good too, Sands. I… I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t know what to say. I was scared.”
“Scared?” Sands opened her mouth and shut it, her expression going through several emotions all at once. “You didn’t—you never… but Mom was—I can’t… I can’t… believe you… I…” Turning away, she shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t do this. I can’t do it right now, I’m just… I can’t.”
Without another word, Sands took off, running around Avalon and up the path. In another moment, she was gone.
Scout looked horrified, hand covering her mouth. I saw the tears in her eyes, the thought of her sister being upset with her clearly leaving the girl all but broken.
“Hey,” Sean spoke up, his hand going out to touch Scout’s shoulder. “Just give her time. You’ve had years to deal with this. It’s a lot for her to take in. She needs space to cope. You’re sisters, twins. It’ll be okay. This is a hell of a lot to throw on her, and she just needs to think it through. You’ll be fine.”
Columbus was nodding. “Yeah, believe me, Shiori and I have fought a lot. But she’s totally my best sis. We get over it and move on. She will too. Just give her a chance to work through it on her own.”
Scout had let her normal quietness return to her like a favored cloak, wrapping the silence around herself. She gave a simple nod, but didn’t look at any of us. Her gaze was on the ground once more.
We stood there, everyone trying to figure out what to say next, now that Sands had run away. The only sounds were the sound of the nearby ocean as the waves lapped against the shore, and animals in the distant jungle. Beyond that, none of us spoke. None of us seemed to have any idea of what to say next.
In the end, it was Columbus who broke the silence first. “You really think your mom’s still alive? You think you can get her back?”
“Not by myself,” I admitted. “I need help. He’s too strong. He’s… he’s terrifying. I can’t do this by myself.”
“You won’t be by yourself, Chambers.” Avalon assured me.
Sean nodded in confirmation. “She’s right. That’s what you’ve got a team for.”
“If I had a chance to save my mom,” Columbus put in, “I’d do it in a second. Can’t really say no when it’s yours. Whatever you need, if I can help, fuck, just ask. I’m there.”
A hand touched mine, and I looked to see Scout. She remained silent, but gave a simple nod. She was in. She was going to help.
I swallowed hard. “You guys… what about Sands?”
“She’ll be back,” Sean replied with confidence. “Just give her a chance to work through it. Like I said, it’s a lot to take in. Let her deal with it her own way. She’ll come around eventually.”
The lump in my throat kept trying to get in the way of talking, but I forced it down, managing a weak smile in spite of myself. “So which thing would you guys like to talk about first, how we’re going to figure out what my mother did here when all of our teachers and a literal magic curse are trying to keep it secret, or how we’re going to stop the evil piece of shit who’s so powerful that the Heretics tried to banish him from the entire world and failed?”
“Boy,” Columbus spoke into the silence that followed, clearly trying to lighten the mood. “Being part of an elite group of magical monster hunters just wasn’t enough for you, was it? You had to go above and beyond.”
“What can I say?” I managed with a weak shrug.
“I’m an overachiever.”