I was so taken aback in that moment that I completely lost track of the floating throne that was carrying poor Herbie. The sand fell apart, and my little buddy started to drop toward the floor. He would’ve fallen all the way without the help of Shiori and her reflexes as she snapped her hand out to catch him in mid-drop. It seriously almost looked like a cobra lashing out at some unsuspecting prey.
“Okay, one, thanks.” I took Herbie back from her offering hand. “Two, you are like some kind of mutant ninja cat or something. I mean, damn. Good catch.”
The other girl shrugged, not taking her eyes off the big man. “Wh-what can I say? I like having the little guy around. I guess holding onto him makes me feel a little boulder.”
“Holding onto him makes you feel a little boul-” In spite of everything, I laughed abruptly. “Okay, mopey Shiori can stay locked in her room for awhile. You, I really wanna keep.”
Shiori blushed while I looked back to the tall man (while questioning my priorities), and finished with, “Anyway, glorious puns aside… three, you know Joselyn Atherby? I—she’s my mom, my mother.”
Well that certainly got the people behind the gray-haired man whispering among themselves. The man let it go on for a second, his own eyes showing surprise before he raised a hand to stop them. The group immediately fell silent, and he focused on me again. “You are one of Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs?”
It hadn’t escaped me that these people hadn’t set off my Stranger sense either, just like Twister. And a quick, questioning glance toward Shiori confirmed the same thing for her. Just how common was that?
Biting my lip while rubbing a thumb over Herbie reflexively, I slowly nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.”
The man regarded me for a few seconds in silence, clearly trying to decide if he believed me. The rifle didn’t waver. Clearly these people weren’t real big on immediate trust. “You are not both Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs. They were one boy, one girl. This we know truth from lie. Where is the boy-child?”
Realizing what he was talking about, I shook my head quickly. “No, not the twins. I’m her younger daughter, the one she had after she… I mean…” Hesitating as I tried to work out how to explain all of this quickly, I sighed. “It’s a long story. You know what she was? You know she was a Heretic.”
“Was?” The man’s head tilted, a frown creasing his face. “Past tense. Previous. Why do you not say is? Present tense. Alive. Safe. Friend-Joselyn Atherby must be is, not was. You are misspeaking.”
“No, no, she’s alive,” I said quickly, praying that I was right. “She’s alive, she’s just… the Heretics took her power away. They used a spell to make her a normal human again, you know, a um, a Bystander?”
The man turned his head and spat. “Friend-Joselyn Atherby was taken? It is answered why our distress beacon did not locate her for so long. It would fail to see one changed so much from our memory.”
“Why did it pick up us though?” I asked carefully. “We were just sitting on the beach by Crossroads-”
The name of the school made several of the tall figures make angry muttering noises, and I could see the way they held their weapons more prominently. Apparently they knew the place after all.
The gray-haired man stopped them with a hand, his eyes still on me for a few seconds before slowly looking toward Shiori. Scanning the other girl up and down in a blatantly appraising fashion that made me want to step in front of her protectively, he finally nodded. “You are not just Heretic or Bystander.”
Flinching, Shiori nonetheless gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. “No, sir. My umm…” She trailed off, obviously having a hard time getting the words out before managing, “My mother is a vampire.”
“Dhampyr,” he replied. “One parent vampire one parent not. Vampeel two parents vampires.”
“So a dhampyr is a half-vampire who has one human parent, and a vampeel is a half-vampire whose parents are both vampires?” I wondered just how common that was. Maybe Asenath would know.
“Not only human parent,” the man corrected. By that time, he had finally lowered his rifle. I had the feeling he was more comfortable explaining things, teaching things than he was as a soldier. He seemed to fall into it naturally. “Dhampyr half-vampire, half-anything. Vampeel only both vampire parents.”
“So if my mother’s a vampire, my father could be a human, or… anything else?” Shiori put in hesitantly.
The man nodded once more. “You were knowing this,” he guessed, turning his attention to me. “You were knowing this dhampyr and you were not killing her, were not threatening her, were helping.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered promptly after glancing toward Shiori once more. “I—she was having some problems. I was trying to help, trying to help her see that she’s not evil just because she’s part-vampire.”
Turning his head a little, the man spoke a few words in another language to the people behind him. They quickly dispersed, starting to head back through the narrow corridor. Then he looked back to us, once it was just him and the little boy, who had been silent up through all this. “That is why,” the man announced with a nod of understanding. “That is why the emergency beacon has brought you here.”
“Uhh, if you know why, could you fill us in?” I asked with a confused shrug. “Because I’m still lost.”
“I have not been polite,” the tall man announced then. “Please be accepting of apologies. Our signal was meant to alert our ally of our plight. We did not expect one of her childs to be brought to us. But I am not understanding. How is Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s child at the Crossroads if she is not Heretic?”
Oh boy. “This is a pretty long story, uhhh, Mister…” I trailed off, squinting a little before extending a hand to him. “Why don’t we start with actual introductions? My name is Flick. This is Shiori. Hey wait, new question. How are you speaking English right now? I mean, mostly English.”
The man looked at my hand like he was confused for a moment before realization dawned. Slowly, he put out his own massive hand, engulfing my own before shaking with obvious special care not to crush it in his powerful grip. “Friend-Flick, Friend-Shiori. I am called Gavant, of the Meregan people. And we have been knowing the language of your people from Friend-Joselyn Atherby and Friend-Tristan.”
“Gavant,” I tried out the name. “Nice to meet you, Gavant. I mean, really confusing to be here, but nice. You were, uhh, saying something about why the beacon brought us?”
Gavant slung his rifle over his shoulder while explaining, “The beacon is working by connecting our thoughts of Friend-Joselyn Atherby with other tests. Blood tests. Being tests. Thought tests. Action tests. It is working by sending test until it has found match. Blood match. Action match. Person match. You helping dhampyr triggered match when beacon scanned. Not Joselyn-Friend, but close. Daughter, helps Dhampyr, compassion for not-humans. Beacon thinks you are correct and brings you here.”
“What about me though?” Shiori put in quickly. “Why would it bring me with her, just because I was there?”
He shook his head then. “You are being very similar to another who was with Friend-Joselyn. One of her allies.”
“Asenath,” I realized belatedly, eyes widening. “Asenath’s her half-sister. She must’ve… I dunno, she must’ve been one of my mother’s friends? And then the spell made her forget.”
Shaking off that little revelation and setting it aside for later, I focused on the current situation. “But your place was buried,” I pointed out. “Buried under sand. And my mother’s been… not a Heretic for a long time, and she was imprisoned before that. So how long have you guys been waiting?”
“Our records are saying we have slept five revolutions,” the man answered after a moment of silence.
The boy, Tristan apparently, spoke up then. “That’s five years! I was a rock-guy for five years? Man, I wish I could’ve moved, I would’ve been like the Thing. Raaaaaar, it’s clobberin’ time, screw you Reed!”
“Wait, Thing?” Shiori did a quick double take from her place beside me. “You know—you’re human.”
“Friend-Tristan is part-human,” Gavant corrected. “Part-other. We are not knowing which other.”
“But how did you get here?” I asked in confusion, looking at the little boy. If they’d been frozen for five years, that would mean that he should be about my age, shouldn’t it? Would he have been a classmate? Also, for something that was supposed to be impossible, I was sure running into a lot of half-Alters.
The boy shrugged, and I could see the frustration on his face. “I dunno. I remember being in a house, with my mom, my dad, and my sister. Then it kinda goes blank, and I was just here, on this world. Oh, if you didn’t know, this is a new world.” Leaning closer to me, he stage-whispered, “It’s really cool.”
Then his face fell. “But I’m lost. I can’t get home, and I don’t remember who my parents are. I don’t even remember my sister’s name. It’s always right on the tip of my tongue, but… but I can’t remember.”
Stricken by that, I reached out to grab the boy’s hand, tugging him into a hug that he accepted. “I don’t understand, why don’t they just send you back to Earth? I mean, our Earth. They brought us here.”
“We have attempted such a thing,” Gavant explained, the sadness at their apparent failure easily readable on his face. “We have three times sent Friend-Tristan to his home world. The Banish crystal has cursed him to always return here, no matter other steps we take to send him away. He has been affected by magics to be sent here and to stay here. We are not knowing how to undo what it has done.”
“They tried for a long time.” Tristan confirmed. “I was um, seven when I first came here, I think. They keep trying, but nothing works. They send me home and a few seconds later, I show up here again.”
“Who the hell magically banished a seven-year old?” Shiori demanded, the anger in her voice apparent.
Praying that the answer wasn’t Crossroads for once, I shook my head before looking toward the gray-haired man. “Is that why you sent the beacon to look for my mother, to get her help with Tristan?”
“It is not why,” the man denied. “That is for a much greater threat. But I am still not understanding. Friend-Joselyn Atherby was removed from her power. This is sad for all. But where is she being now?”
Flinching at the question, I let out a long sigh before starting to explain. “The Crossroads Heretics captured her, imprisoned her, and… they made her a Bystander again, like I said. They sent her out into the world without her memory. She met my dad, fell in love, and they had me. Then someone found her. One of the really, really bad guys. He gave some of her memories back somehow, I don’t know how, but he gave her enough of her memories to understand who he was. Then he said he was going to take me. I was just a little kid and he was going to take me away. Mom…” Closing my eyes as I felt the tears well up again, I forced myself to finish. “Mom traded herself for me. She went with Fossor.”
“Threat-Fossor?” The anger in Gavant’s voice made me look at him quickly. His eyes were blazing, and I saw the way his fists clenched hard. “He is the one who has taken Friend-Joselyn Atherby?”
“I uhh, I take it you know him,” I managed a bit weakly. “How do you know Fossor?”
Gavant scowled, the anger never leaving his gaze. “Threat-Fossor has being responsible for the deaths of many of our people. What you are seeing of us here, in this place, Friend-Flick, are all that are remaining of the Meregan. We had being many, spread of the world like your humans. Now we are this, because of Threat-Fossor. We are all who survive, and we only because we were not here for fighting.”
“Not here?” I asked, confused as I looked around. “You mean not on this world? Where did you–”
“It’s a spaceship!” Tristan interrupted, his eyes wide with delight. “We’re on a spaceship! They said they could take me up in it if they ever get the supplies they need to fix it, and um, if I get unbanished.”
Gavant nodded. “The Meregan were being explorers. We searched the stars, but returned when our people sent their distress beacon, like the one we sent for Friend-Joselyn Atherby. When we returned, our people, all but those on this ship, were no-more living. Dead. Gone. Taken. Threat-Fossor is using them for his powers, his control over the dead. They are being no more than weapons now. More weapons.” His voice shook with each word, the distress obvious as he failed to contain his emotion.
“Oh god,” Shiori’s hand found her mouth as she gaped in horror. “You mean he killed a-all your people on this world? All of them? Then he—but…” She looked at me. “How do you beat someone like that?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly, forcing the words out through the thick knot in my throat. “But I have to. I have to figure it out, because he has my mom. I have to save her. I… I won’t give up on her.”
Not this time, I reminded myself. This time I couldn’t give up on my mother. Not after everything she did to protect me. Not after everything I’d learned about the kind of person she’d been. Especially now.
“If Threat-Fossor has taken Friend-Joselyn Atherby,” Gavant announced, “then you will be having our aid.” His face fell a bit then, the sorrow even more apparent. “Not that we can be providing much.”
“Trust me, I’ll take all the help I can get,” I assured the tall man. “If there’s a way to beat Fossor, any chance at all, you’re welcome to join in. You deserve that much at least, after what he did to you.”
Shiori spoke up slowly then, a frown creasing her forehead. “But if you didn’t send the beacon thing for Flick’s mom because of Tristan, why did you send it then? And why were you guys all statues?”
“Statues?” Gavant echoed before nodding. “Ah. You are calling our long-sleep as statues. That is how the Meregan do safely travel through space for very long times. It is a technology, a learning that we make and use to seal ourselves so that are not aging through the years that we are going in space.”
That reminded me, and I gave a little yelp. “Oh god! I knocked one of your people over and shoved him under the front entrance.” I stared at the big man. “I’m sorry, I thought it was a real statue and I was afraid the door would slam shut or something like in all those movies, but I really didn’t mean–”
The big man chuckled, a loud rumbling noise of amusement. “That is being why Purin was woken there. It is being well, Friend-Flick. You were not knowing. Purin was being very confused.”
Flushing a little at that, I asked, “What about the statue out front? The one that looks like my mom.”
“A message-stone,” the man replied easily. “It will take the shape of the one it is meant for, and when that person is touching it, the message-stone will collapse, imparting its message and knowledge into the one it is meant for. We had left Friend-Joselyn a message stone to revive us from our long-sleep.”
“Guess it’s a good thing you did it accidentally anyway,” Shiori pointed out quietly.
Nodding, I asked the man, “So you guys froze yourselves as stones and sent out an emergency beacon for my mother, asking for her help. Was it about Fossor? Was that why you sent the beacon?”
“No.” Gavant shook his head, his eyes downcast for a moment. “We had called for the help of Friend-Joselyn Atherby because of another threat. Another has appeared on our world, with an army of his own. He has assaulted our home here, and did steal our childs. He and his forces had taken our childs. We are needing her help in returning them.” Now his distress was even worse. I could see the frustration, fear, and loss in his sad gaze. “They are all of the Meregan future. We are not knowing how to save them. We only protect them while waiting for Friend-Joselyn Atherby by using long-sleep.”
“Wait,” I started. “So that thing you did, it made them all statues too? Are you sure he wouldn’t just… umm, hurt the statues?”
“He cannot be doing this,” Gavant answered solemnly. “The long-sleep is being protecting from all damage. A Meregan in long-sleep would be safe in the heart of the sky-light.”
Sky-ligh—sun, I realized belatedly. “So they’re protected. Or they were protected. But what about now? If you guys all woke up… does that mean–”
“Our childs will be awake,” Gavant confirmed, his eyes widening a bit. “You Friend-Flick did not use the careful instructions of waking only our beings and not our childs beings.”
“If they’re awake,” Shiori started. “And this bad guy kept them around, then he probably…”
“Knows that you guys are awake too,” I finished. “Quick, we need to–”
That was as far as I got before the shouts of warning and fear started. They were accompanied by screams of pain, of challenge, and by the sound of a massive, terror-inducing battle cry.
The bad guys were here.