“Could I ask you a few questions, Pro—errr, umm, Nevada?”
It was a couple hours later. After our cross-country field trip (and how amazing would it be if every school could just walk through a door and end up on whole new continent for an hourly field trip like it was nothing?), we’d gone on through Introduction to Heretical Magic and Stranger Truths 101. Now that class was over, but I’d told the others to go on to lunch without me while I talked to the teacher.
Nevada, looking as bubbly as ever, perked up even more. “A question? Oooh, I do love answering questions!” She stood from the desk, looking like she could barely restrain the urge to clap. Instead, the woman (who still looked like she was barely older than me), asked, “What can I do for you, Flick?”
I’d spent most of the class hour rehearsing what I wanted to ask her and in what order. “Professor Ross took us to ‘s-Hertogenbosch.” I was careful to pronounce the name of the city the way the teacher had.
Nevada’s thousand watt smile brightened even further at that. “Oh! I bet that was fun and interesting. I remember my first time there. Did you get a chance to have one of the Bossche bollen?” When I shook my head, she gasped. “No? Aww, you have to go back and get one. They’re these chocolate pastry balls with whipped cream inside. Seriously, Flick, they’re almost as big as a baseball. You’ve gotta try them.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before pressing on. “But why do they leave that rope just sitting there? I mean, why do they leave the hangman demon’s rope hanging from that tree like that? It seems kind of morbid, doesn’t it?” I had other questions, but the feeling that rope had given me made it the first on my mind. And I wanted to work my way up to the others after seeing how she reacted to this.
Nevada paused, a slight flinch marring that perfectly cheerful expression for a split second before she let out a long breath. “You wanna know why that rope is still there, huh? Well, because it’s cursed.”
“Cursed?” I echoed, frowning in spite of myself. “What do you mean, cursed? Like an enchantment?”
She cocked her head to the side a bit, considering. “A little, only this one’s permanent. You see—okay, we don’t have time for a full lesson, so I’ll give you the… what do bystanders call it, Clifford’s Notes?”
“Cliff’s notes,” I replied. “Close enough. Thank you, Pro—Nevada, I just really need to know.”
“Aww, darn.” Nevada shook her head slowly. “I thought it was Clifford’s notes and I liked picturing that big red dog telling short versions of all these books.” She gave a brief wistful sigh before shaking it off as she continued. “Okay, so here’s the short truth. The hangman demon is a sub-group of what we call Reapers. You know, as in the Grim? Reapers are these demons that are attracted to death. Like, super-attracted, they basically feed off of death. Most people think they actually absorb part of the dead person’s… soul or essence or whatever. They take in their memories, their past, their whole lives and add all those thoughts to their own collection. They’re like hoarders who collect people’s memories.”
I couldn’t help the slight shudder that came. “So what’s the difference between them and Hangmen?”
Nevada hesitated, drumming her fingers a little before she finally answered me. “The difference is that Reapers are willing to wait. They go where death happens to be and feeding when opportunity presents itself. Hangmen actually make those opportunities happen. See, the way the story goes, it started in Britain back in the fifth century, when the Germanic tribes introduced hanging to them. There was a public execution, and a man tried to stop it from happening. He was killed on the spot, and his death attracted a Reaper, who was feeding off of his, you know, memories while the actual execution happened. According to the story, the combination of seeing bystanders execute a healthy human being and absorbing the already dead man’s memories of, you know, how unjust and wrong that was actually changed the Reaper. It made him understand that he didn’t have to wait for death to happen.
“So the demon took the rope of the man who had been executed and used it to murder the executioner and three others. For the first time, the reaper made his own food. He became the first Hangman. And from there, he made more of it. He went from place to place recreating what had led to his change. Whether it was a personal choice or one magically enforced because of the exact situation that led to his change from Reaper to Hangman, well, people still debate that. But what we know is that he killed a lot of people, and every time he killed someone, that rope of his took in some of the… energy of their deaths, the same way the Hangman himself did. With every death, the rope grew more powerful. And as the Reaper introduced more of his own to these changes and more became Hangmen, they too took the ropes of the execution that they first witnessed and used them as their preferred tools of death.”
I swallowed hard in spite of myself. “Are other Strangers like that? Do they change because of things that humanity does, or concepts that humans introduce them to? Is that a common thing?”
“More common than you’d think,” Nevada admitted before sighing. “Anyway, to the point of your question, a Hangman’s rope is cursed. Anyone who takes it is infused with a completely irresistible urge to kill, to murder everyone they can in order to give the rope more power. No one can resist it.”
I almost exploded at that, “So why the hell is it just sitting out in the middle of nowhere tied to a tree?!”
Rather than chastise me for the outburst, Nevada replied simply, “Because we can’t move it, Flick. Like I said, anyone who takes it becomes a vicious murderer. That includes any method of transportation. Any attempt to move it makes the rope consider that person its new owner, and the urge to kill overwhelms them. Do you want someone like the Headmistress to risk moving it? As powerful as she is, if she was taken over by the rope’s murderous energy, how many of us would it take to stop her? How many of her own students would she kill to appease its hunger? It’s not worth the risk. So Bosch and the old Heretics did the best they could. They erected a magical barrier around the whole area that keeps Bystanders from noticing the rope, and prevents them from building up the land. You might’ve noticed that that whole area is still undeveloped. That’s because of the magic that makes them ignore it. Beyond that, there are the same enchantments around the rope itself that are around the Pathmaker building. So anyone approaching it anyway, like a student who can see through the first spell, or a Heretic that completely loses their mind, shouldn’t make it more than a few steps toward it. And if they do, there are at least two more lines of magic protecting the rope that I won’t detail to you right now.
“No one can move the rope without being seen as its new master and thus end up a murderous psychopath. So they did the best they could by making sure that no one could get close enough to take it.”
I almost asked her about the feeling I’d had, the sensation that had come over me when I looked at the rope back in that grove. But no one else had said anything about it. Avalon had even said that she hadn’t felt anything when she looked at it. Which meant that whatever the feeling was, it wasn’t normal.
“What about Stranger breeding?” I forced myself to change the subject, even as the very thought of the rope made me want to continue talking about it, almost like a compulsion. It took effort to push on to a different subject. “One time Sands said that one of the reasons people hate Eden’s Garden here is that they supposedly experiment in Stranger-Heretic breeding experiments. Why would you need to experiment? I mean, we’re practically Strangers ourselves, aren’t we? The Edge changes our genetics so that we can see Strangers, so that we can absorb their powers, so we can… do everything we do. Why wouldn’t we be able to procreate with certain Strangers anyway, at that point?”
Nevada winced once more, her bubbly expression dampened a bit. “Careful, Flick. Some people are really sensitive about that line of thought. They say that we use the demon magic, but we’re not overtaken by it. The idea that we’re so far not human that a Stranger could breed with us is a… a very harsh topic. There’s dangerous people on both sides of that debate. But the gist of the argument isn’t that breeding a Stranger and a Heretic is impossible, it’s that the offspring won’t be viable. The problem isn’t making an actual genetic match, it’s that, according to one side, any offspring will die shortly after being born. The experiments that Eden’s Garden gets into are to make those offspring live after birth.”
I thought about Ammon, about how dangerous he was, and couldn’t help the little shiver that came. But before I could say anything else, there was a short knock at the door and Professor Carfried poked his head in. “Hey, I was wondering if you had a chance to—oooh, sorry, am I interrupting something?”
Realizing that any other questions I had would have to wait, I shook my head. “No, sir. I should probably get to lunch anyway.” To Nevada, I managed a weak smile. “Thanks, that’s… helpful.”
“Of course, Flick,” she replied. “Let me know if you have any other questions, okay?”
Nodding slowly, I made my way past Professor Carfried and out the door. I had a couple of answers now, though not nearly enough to really do anything with. And I still had no idea why the rope had given me the feeling it had when nobody else had experienced it. Questions were still piling up.
And if I wanted to start really answering them, I needed to get busy.
Later that same night, I was making the first step of that effort by standing outside of the twins’ room about an hour before the three of us were supposed to report to track training (I’d missed the last one for my birthday visit). Forcing my nerves down, I raised a hand to knock on the door.
Scout was the one who opened the door. Her eyes flicked up to me and then the girl hesitated before nodding once. She stepped back out of the way a bit, gesturing for me to come into their room.
“Who is–” Sands started to ask before falling silent as I stepped into the room. She was sitting on her bed, looking at a box that was in her lap. When she saw me, the girl closed the lid of the box, setting it aside on the nearby dresser. “Oh, uhh, hi, Flick.” Her voice betrayed her own confused feelings.
“Hi,” I replied, pausing slightly before looking toward her sister. “Scout, umm, could I have a minute?” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock. “Herbie can keep you company.”
The quiet girl nodded quickly and shot her sister a brief glance before taking the little guy out of my hand as she stepped out to the hall. She closed the door after herself, leaving Sands and me alone in the suddenly very quiet room.
In the end, it was Sands who broke the silence. Without looking up, she asked, “Are you mad at me?”
The question made me blink. “Wha—mad? Why would—I was going to ask you the same thing.”
That actually made the girl look toward me. Her face was pensive. “I thought you’d be mad because you thought I didn’t care about saving your mother, that my—that I didn’t want to help.”
I was quiet for a moment, thinking that through before stepping over to sit down on the bed beside her. “I guess part of me did hope that you’d just… get over this reaction. But that’s not very fair, is it?”
Emotion twisted the girl’s face before she turned away again, shoulders hunching up. “They’re supposed to be monsters. Vicious, evil, irredeemable monsters. And we’re supposed to be heroes.”
Before I could say anything, she looked back to me. There were tears in her eyes. “You’re asking me to throw away everything I’ve been taught since I was born. You’re asking me to change… to change everything. I’ve been waiting for this year my whole life, Flick. Do you have any idea how many times I had to sit and watch everybody else get to learn this stuff? I grew up here, on this island, with these people. I watched class after class go through, all of them going on to do… amazing things. They went on quests, they saved people, they protected everyone. I just wanted that. I just wanted to be a hero.”
“That’s what I’m asking you to be, Sands.” My voice was soft as I met the girl’s gaze. “Because, as far as I know, being a hero isn’t about killing something because someone tells you it’s bad. It’s about doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is or how many people tell not to. It’s about saving someone, protecting someone, even if everyone you know says it’s wrong, because you know it’s right.”
Her gaze flickered a little, and I went on. “I’m not trying to tell you that every Stranger is good, or that everything you know is wrong. I’m telling you that the vampire I met was not evil. I’m telling you that if it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead, or worse. Without her, my father would be dead, or in prison. Without her, an awful lot of innocent people would have been killed by the deputies that Ammon took control of. She saved me, she saved my father, she saved Rose, and she saved all those people.
“I’m asking you to believe that evil is something we do, not something we are. If someone is evil just because they exist, then what’s the point? How can you judge someone or something that doesn’t have a choice? That’s not evil. That’s just… programming. Real evil requires having a choice. And even if ninety-five percent of them choose evil, that means there are five percent who don’t. Five percent that might be able to help. Five percent who wouldn’t hurt an innocent, who are innocent. Five percent for whom we are the monsters, Sands. Not heroes, not champions, monsters. We are the creatures under the bed that they scare their children with. Children who grow up hating us, who might not have if we gave them a chance. If we could find those five percent, help them, grow with them… well then it might actually turn into more than five percent.
“But for now, for now we’re killing all of them that we find. We are killing them, Sands. No trial, no jury, no chance to defend themselves. And that’s not heroic. That’s murder. And it’s wrong.”
Reaching out then, I took the girl’s limp hand and squeezed it with both of mine. “Listen. I want you to think about this. A human is altered by a Stranger’s blood and becomes a powerful being who can live for a very long time and gains strength by fighting others. Think about that and then tell me if I’m talking about vampires or heretics, Sands. Because I don’t see that much of a difference.
“What I want… is for you to believe that it’s possible for a Stranger to make a choice. Call it mutation, call it random, call it whatever you want. I just want you to… believe that the girl who saved my life and helped me save my father isn’t evil. Don’t look at what she is, look at what she does, what she did.
“I’m not asking you not to be a hero, Sands. I’m asking you to be a real one. Make the hard choice.”
My hands squeezed both of hers. “I need your help, Sands. I need my team. I refuse to be a victim. I will not just sit around and cry for a year until that son of a bitch comes after me again. I will train. I will work my ass off. I will be ready. Most of all, I will save my mother. But if I don’t have you guys… I… I won’t make it. A year isn’t enough time. I need you. Please. If I’m going to have any chance, I need help. I can’t do it by myself.”
For the first time, Sands actually returned the squeeze against my hands. She took a breath and let it out before looking up. I could still see the doubt in her eyes, but she gave a tiny little nod. “I’ll try. I’ll… think about what you said, I promise. All of it. I still think they’re mostly evil, but maybe there’s…” She trailed off before shrugging. “I dunno. But I’ll help you save your mom. Of course I will. We’re teammates. As long as you want to be, I… I’ll be there. I’ll help.”
Letting out the breath that I hadn’t known I was holding, I managed a weak smile. “Oh, good. Because you’re probably not going to like the first thing we need to do.”
“Less than I like everything else you’ve said?” Sands managed an even weaker smile to meet mine. “I find that pretty hard to believe.”
I gave a weak shrug at that. “Well, that depends on how you feel about sneaking around your own father.
“Because I’m pretty sure he’s the one who took my mother’s weapons.”