“Well, that was a bit of a surprise, wasn’t it?”
Minutes after watching Flick leave with her blonde instructor, Miranda Wallbern stood on the street of the town she had spent six years of her life in, beside the man who had been most responsible for training her since the moment she’d been taken out of the life she’d had here. “Yeah, pretty surprising.”
Hisao, who seemed to be in a pretty good mood considering the fact that he and the Crossroads instructor apparently hadn’t actually found anything useful, gazed down at her curiously for a second before clearing his throat. “I’ve still got some work to do around here, but you look pretty distracted. You wanna head back and I’ll shoot you a message if I need to ask you anything about this place?”
Miranda’s gaze lifted to look at the man briefly. Did he know anything about what she and Flick had talked about? Hisao was far from a hardliner for the Garden, and she might even be able to get some help from him. But it wasn’t a sure thing, and she had already promised to keep Flick’s secret. Besides, considering the stakes, just thinking that the man might be helpful wasn’t enough to risk including him.
In the end, she kept her expression as passive as possible. In the Garden, one learned very quickly how to maintain a good poker face and avoid showing emotion. Letting people know you were affected by something was too dangerous. “Are you sure you don’t need me to be your guide, Vigile Hisao?”
Vigile. It was the title that the Garden used for their detectives, the Heretics who investigated suspected Stranger situations. The name originated from the Vigiles Urbani that the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus had brought together as the closest thing Rome had to a dedicated city police organization. Miranda had heard that the Crossroads equivalent were actually called Runners, though they were organized differently. For one thing, Vigiles tended to have completely autonomous authority. They didn’t report to any command structure or have everyday oversight. Only the Vigile’s tribal chief or a vote from the combined Council could overrule a judgment that the Vigile made. They acted as not only detectives, but also judge, jury, and executioner for rogue Gardeners as well as Strangers.
“I think I can manage to find my way,” Hisao replied, his tone somewhat bemused. “Considering I could throw a rock from one side of this town and make it reach the opposite side pretty easily.”
“That’s not really fair,” the dark-skinned girl pointed out while giving a little shrug of one shoulder. “I’ve seen how strong you are, Vigile Hisao. You could probably do the same thing in Los Angeles.”
The man gave a loud bark of laughter before nodding. “Fair enough, kid. I’ve got this though. Considering Dare and her student were here, I doubt there’s any more Strangers lurking around. I’ll do a walk through and make sure it looks clear, check out the police station, see if there’s anything to find. If I need you for anything else, I’ll let you know. You go ahead, I’m sure you’ve got plenty on your mind.”
Miranda gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir. I mean, thank you, sir.” Turning on her heel then, she began to walk away while digging into her pocket. A moment later, she came out with a piece of bark. Holding it in one hand, the girl glanced back toward her mentor while walking around a pair of older women who were arguing about which of their grandsons was going to be the first to graduate college. Hisao gave her a brief wave, then turned his attention back to the city. Despite what he’d said, Miranda knew the man wouldn’t leave until he had a better idea of what had happened here. No matter how long that took.
Which meant she had to be fast. As she went around the corner of the building, ostensibly to put herself out of sight of any Bystanders, the girl focused on the power that she had inherited so relatively recently. As usual, there was a brief sense of disorientation, and then she was staring at herself.
“Remember,” she told her duplicate quickly, “You have to be fast. And don’t let Hisao see you.”
“Duh,” the other Miranda told herself while rolling her eyes. “We don’t wanna answer those questions.”
The duplicate peered around the corner of the building carefully, watching to make sure the coast was clear and Hisao wasn’t watching before giving the original Miranda a thumbs up. Then she took off, sprinting away from the building and across the street, heading back into town as fast as she could.
The original Miranda wouldn’t know what her duplicate was up to until she absorbed her again, which would only happen once the other her gave their mental tug to indicate she was ready, or something happened to kill her. The latter was a situation that Miranda had only experienced once before, but it was something she had absolutely no desire to go through again. The disorienting shock that came from the combination of feeling the sharp loss of one of her other selves combined with the flood of memories that filled her mind right up to the point of death had practically been a physical blow.
“Good luck,” she spoke aloud to her departing self, then turned her attention back to the piece of bark in her hand. Flipping it over to put the inside part out, she lifted it while muttering, “Time to go home.”
With that, Miranda shoved the bark upward and out, slapping it against the wall of the building. An instant later, both the girl and the wood vanished, leaving no sign that she had ever been there.
Once she was sure the coast was clear, the girl who chose to think of herself as Miranda B (or just B) ran away from the building. Hisao was further down the street, walking purposefully on his way to explore the city. He would be methodical in his search, which meant she still had time to make it.
Considering the years of physical training she’d gone through, it didn’t take long to reach her destination. The sight of Flick’s neighborhood, and the house itself, was instantly familiar. It brought back memories of a far more innocent and simple time, before she’d known about all the creatures that secretly lived alongside humanity. Some evil, others not so much. It reminded her of childhood.
Flick had mentioned that her father was going to be busy doing his job all day considering everything that had happened over the weekend, and sure enough, the driveway was empty. The man was probably at the sheriff’s office, hounding the people there for answers that they had no way of actually having.
Still, considering what was waiting inside the house, B didn’t want to go barging inside. That was a recipe for disaster. Startling a vampire who was in an unfamiliar location and was probably on edge anyway considering everything that was going on would probably end up with her original self experiencing the death of another duplicate. And considering she was that particular duplicate, the girl was going to give that result the hardest and definitive pass she could manage.
So, rather than force her way in and set off a nuclear chain of events, B bent down to pick a small rock out of the grass. Rubbing her left thumb along it, she began to whisper a quick, simple enchantment, the first one she’d learned when magical instruction had begun earlier that year.
Once the rock was glowing with the magic she’d infused it with, the girl held it tightly while whispering into it. “Asenath. I know you’re a vampire. My name is Miranda, Flick’s friend. She said that she told you about me and that you saw a picture of me. I’m a Heretic for Eden’s Garden, but I’m here to help. There’s another Heretic, my teacher, walking through town right now. He’s investigating the city, and if he happens to see you or the other Stranger that you’re working with, things might go bad. Please come to the door and knock, then back away so the sun doesn’t hit you when I open it. I want to help you make sure that Hisao doesn’t find out about you, or your friend. That’s all.”
Once her message was complete, B watched as the rock crumbled to dust in her hand. She gave the dust a toss, and it disappeared under the door jam. The rock would seek the nearest occupant, reassemble itself, and then recite its message several times to make sure the point was made.
After that was done, she only had to wait about two minutes before there was a single knock against the other side of the door, followed by the sound of the deadbolt being unlocked. B waited a few seconds to give the vampire inside time to back away, then opened the door. She stepped quickly inside while closing it behind her to block out the sun as quickly as possible. Once the door was safely shut, she looked up. As soon as she did, that familiar hunger kicked in. Seeing the vampire standing there, safely away from the sun’s reach, Miranda B could feel the adrenaline pump into her system, priming her for a hunt. It was a feeling sort of like being at the start of a race, or an important baseball game. The figure standing there was, without a doubt, a Stranger. Not that that came as a surprise.
Asenath looked her up and down briefly, then gave a curious sniff. “Well, you’re definitely a Heretic. Flick didn’t mention that. She said she didn’t know anything about you after you moved away.”
“We just met again,” B replied. “My mentor and I, we were investigating what happened. We ran into Flick and her teacher, and she told me what’s going on. I know Hisao, he won’t leave here until he’s positive that he’s seen everything he can. And if I know Flick’s dad the way I know I do, the two of them are going to meet at some point. I know, Flick said that your… shapeshifting friend was invisible to her Stranger sense, but Hisao has other ways to test for that sort of thing. He’s a professional.”
Asenath paused, seeming to consider that for a moment before nodding. “Thank you, I’ll warn her. And we’ll make sure to stay out of sight until the Heretic is gone. I have… experience with some of your people. Some good, some bad. Unfortunately, I don’t know which side of the line this Hisao falls on.”
“He’s pretty accepting,” B acknowledged with a tiny smile. “But even so, I figured that him seeing you guys would make things more complicated for Flick, even if he does let you explain. And the last thing this situation needs is even more complications. Besides, from the way Flick talked, the less people know about this situation, the better. Especially if Garden Heretics helped wipe her mom’s memory.”
“And since Seller knew about it, that’s a likely scenario,” Asenath agreed. “Okay. Well, I guess we should figure out how to get Twister away from Lincoln before anything bad happens.”
As soon as her hand pressed the bark against the wall of the building, Miranda felt the world spin around her. It was, as always, incredibly disorienting, and she almost stumbled before catching herself.
Once her vision cleared, she saw what looked like a solid wall of tree bark in front of her. The bit of bark that had been carefully cut from the tree was back in its spot, and as she watched, it fused itself into place. The tree was left whole, without so much as a blemish where the piece had been broken.
Stepping back from the spot, Miranda turned, letting her gaze take in the view while trying to imagine how Flick would feel if she saw this place. It was familiar to her by now, but when she’d first arrived, she’d had a hard time believing that it was real, that this majestic view wasn’t a hallucination.
She wasn’t standing on the ground, or even on a floor. No, her feet were planted solidly on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to drive three semi trucks side by side along it without bumping into one another, and long enough that those same trucks would run out of gas before they reached the end of it. And this was only one branch of the Tree of Knowledge. One of eight.
Some tribes left the edges of their branches completely open, saying that anyone dumb enough to fall off deserved what they got. Miranda’s tribe was one of those that actually put safety rails up, though there were several open patio-type areas (some used for eating or relaxing and others used for training) extending away from the branch that could be reached for an even better view. Though she didn’t have time to go out there at the moment, Miranda had spent plenty of time gazing down from one of those patio areas, admiring the unbelievably gorgeous sight.
The place they called Eden’s Garden was most beautiful, lush, and vibrant area that she had ever seen. It stretched on for over hundreds of miles in every direction, a forest of giant trees (though the Tree of Knowledge was by far the largest, standing twice as tall as any of its competition). Far below, the area between the giant trees, where the sun reached, was filled with what could only be described as paradise. There were flowers as tall as Miranda herself and in every color she could think of as well as wide fields of grass where normal animals such as deer and wild horses mingled alongside magical creatures such as pegasi, sprites, and even the occasional unicorn (a fact that had made the very young Miranda nearly pee herself in glee). Eden’s Garden cultivated what they called ‘acceptable Strangers’, which were magical creatures that the Victors declared both non-threatening and useful to the Garden’s cause. The denser foliage was full of predators on both sides of the Magical/Mundane scale.
Over time, Miranda had come to realize that most of the tribes didn’t see these creatures as their equals or even as fully sapient. While they didn’t actively kill all of them the way that Crossroads did, the majority of Eden’s Garden treated even the Strangers they accepted like animals and as unfeeling servants, even slaves in some respects. They weren’t afforded equal rights and protections just because they weren’t openly murdered.
Crossroads killed every Stranger they could find. Eden’s Garden enslaved and bred the ones they didn’t kill. No one bothered to ask the Strangers themselves what they wanted. It was an inconsistency that had bothered her for awhile, though always in the back of her mind until today, until she’d spoken with Flick. The news about her mother, that she’d been part of some kind of ‘rebellion’, made Miranda think about how Eden’s Garden treated their own supposed allies, the Strangers that they ‘saved’ from Crossroads. If someone wanted to rebel against Crossroads, her first thought had been that they would join Eden’s Garden. But if that person wanted to be true and equal allies with Strangers… then no, Eden’s Garden would not be a place for them.
Shaking that off, Miranda glanced down the length of her tribe’s branch. There were rules against building anything too near the central trunk (it was supposed to ensure that any tribe that turned hostile and tried to attack the central trunk itself didn’t have any defensive structures or ways to disguise their approach), but in the distance she could see the first of her tribe’s buildings. The branch, wide enough to be a large freeway, became a road with literal and quite expansive houses on either side. There were grass yards, fountains, even a couple of parks for the little ones to run around in, safely enclosed to protect against accidents.
Other tribes kept their own branches far more war-like, she knew. Her tribe was one of those that focused more on the family aspect of the tribe than their wars. But some of them eschewed all of that in exchange for constant battle preparations. They lived and breathed their hunts from the time they were born or brought into the tribe until they finally died. Each branch was a tribute to its tribe’s way of thinking.
Meanwhile, the main trunk of the tree itself was so mind-mindbogglingly enormous that Miranda felt like an ant climbing along its surface. The interior of the tree was mostly hollow, and it functioned essentially like a massive skyscraper. There were offices inside, training rooms, laboratories, meeting halls, and so on. Everything that the eight Garden tribes needed to do as a group took place inside the tree, including their joint ruling body. Known as the Council of Victors, or just the Victors, the sixteen-member group consisted of two representatives from each tribe that were nominated by that tribe’s chief and then confirmed in a vote by the adult members of that tribe. The Victors lived and met within a chamber at the very top of the tree, directly beneath the area where the fruit of knowledge grew. Both the Victors and the fruit were heavily guarded by a group of Gardeners who called themselves the Unset. Essentially, the Unset were Heretics without a tribe, whose loyalty was only to the Council of Victors and who could not be convinced to side with one particular group in the event that one tribe or another tried to take over the tree. Which, considering the way some of the Garden tribes behaved, wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Outwardly, Gardeners were united. But inside, there were always some petty arguments going on, disagreements that often went back centuries.
The branch that Miranda was standing on belonged to her own tribe. Like every other tribe, the name of the tribe had been changed several times as the years passed on. At the moment, they called themselves the Eternal Eye. If she looked up and to the right, she could see the edge of the branch that belonged to her tribe’s nearest neighbors and closest allies, the branch that belonged to the tribe known as the Vigilant Sons. That was the tribe that Flick’s ancestor Seller belonged to, the same one that her new roommate had been a part of, though the females of the tribe called themselves Vigilant Daughters.
Further on around the tree were the remaining six primary branches, belonging to the Dust-Striders, the Children of Bosch, the Reapers, the Remnant Guardians, Fate’s Shepherds, and Lost Scar respectively.
It was that last one that Miranda was focused on. Lost Scar was the tribe that Trice and his friends belonged to. Thinking about those nasty pieces of shit attacking the girl that had been her best friend throughout elementary school almost made Miranda angry enough to reach for the pouch on her belt that held her weapon, the one that she’d chosen just a few months earlier after being trained for several years to handle over a dozen different weapon types. Her weapon.
In the end, however, she forced herself to calm down. Grabbing her weapon and charging up to where Trice was wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. She didn’t know how just yet, but she’d find out who they were working with in Flick’s school. No matter what it took.
“Hey, Randi!” One of her tribe mates called out a greeting as he past her on his way out of the tree interior. “You and Hisao already back from that… uhh, where were you going again?”
“Hey, Noble,” Miranda returned the greeting easily before answering. “We were at Laramie Falls, but Hisao’s still there. He sent me back, said he could handle the rest of it by himself.”
Noble, an incredibly tanned and well-toned guy who knew just how attractive his tendency to run around shirtless (as he was now) made him, flashed her one of his perfect smiles. “You lived there?”
“For a few years,” Miranda replied while starting to walk toward the same entrance that the young man himself come out of, a hole in the enormous wooden wall that was the Tree of Knowledge’s trunk. “I’ll catch you later, got some stuff to do.”
“You know where to find me, babe,” Noble gave her another charming smile that she knew would have affected her much more if she hadn’t been so preoccupied, then turned to jog on his way.
She watched him go for a moment, partly to make sure he didn’t try to follow her and partly because watching Noble walk (or jog) away was a very enjoyable way to pass a few seconds.
Shaking that off, the girl began to head into the tree interior once more. As she passed through the hole, Miranda found herself on the entrance hall. Essentially, it was an enormous room surrounded by three different levels of balconies overlooking a central area. Each balcony was connected via multiple stairways and ladders to one another and to the center of the room. Each balcony was also connected to several different holes that led out to each tribe’s branch.
Meanwhile, in the center of the open room there were several Unset guards that kept their eyes open for any single tribe that might make any untoward moves. The paranoia was real, considering each tribe essentially governed itself save for very important issues that the Victors voted on. And some of those tribes had openly advocated taking over the tree at various points in their history, some not exactly a long time ago. The Eden’s Garden alliance was fragile in some respects.
There were also both stairways and elevators leading up and down throughout the tree, though Miranda only had clearance to go down. Up were the more important rooms, the Victors’ quarters and meeting hall, and the fruit. She’d been up there one time, when she was first brought here and had to eat the fruit to become a Heretic. Other than that, she had only ever gone down the stairs. The watchful Unset made sure of that.
Giving the nearest of those guardians a brief smile, Miranda headed down the stairs. Her next stop would be the main library, a room located near the base of the tree, close to where people were able to go out into the Garden itself, where no one was allowed to build anything for fear of destroying the paradise that existed beyond the Tree of Knowledge (plus the fact that any single tribe being allowed to build at ground level would, in the minds of some, give that tribe an advantage over others).
Eventually, Miranda would have to find out what Trice and his thug friends actually knew. But for now, she would scour the library for any mention of this Fossor.
Surely, between the Crossroads library and the one here at Eden’s Garden, there was some information about the man who had abducted Flick’s mother. There had to be answers about where he came from, what he wanted, and what he was capable of.
And, most importantly, how to stop him.