Month: May 2016

Interlude 9 – Deveron

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About Six Months Ago

“Yo, yo, gimme some up top. C’mon, Dev-the-man, right up here. You know you want to. Slap it hard.”

Deveron Adams eyed his enthusiastic teammate ruefully. Norbit Drish looked about as close to a scrawny geek as you could get after a year at Crossroads Academy, and his name just fed into that. Which might explain why he displayed a personality that utterly clashed with both. Either way, Deveron liked him. Norbit (though he preferred to be called either Nizzle or his last name, and Deveron would chop off his own hand before he used the former) was loyal, funny, and an excellent fighter. He was a great guy to have in your corner. Even if he was weird. Really, unbelievably weird.

“Hey, Drish,” Deveron gave him the expected high five while shaking his head in amusement. “You got plans for the summer, man?” The two of them were one of many groups standing around waiting to be taken through portals back into the mundane world, to spend the summer months with their families.

“Yo, man,” the skinny, gap-toothed boy replied with a head bob that was clearly meant to showcase a non-existent rhythm. “I gots tons of babes and bros to hang with, chu know? I ain’t sure how we gonna fit it all in, cuz like, pshhh, all my homeys want a piece o’ this up here, you know what I’m saying?”

Deveron chuckled in spite of himself. You got used to Drish eventually. “Yeah, man, I know what you’re saying.” Giving the wiry boy a fist bump, he turned toward the nearby instructor. “Professor Tangle, how much longer until we can go? Pretty sure my dad’s firing up the barbecue as we speak.”

The teacher he was addressing was a black woman who appeared to be in her mid-forties, though Deveron knew for a fact that she was a lot older than that. Still, she was in decent shape for her age (either her apparent one or her real one), even though she hadn’t been an active duty Heretic for quite some time. Old habits died hard. Now, she was eyeing him over the top of her sunglasses. “A barbecue, Mr. Adams? And you fail to invite your favorite teacher? I knew I should’ve given you that F, ingrate.”

Grinning back at her, Deveron snapped his fingers. “You know, shit, you’re right. That was rude of me. After all the effort my favorite teacher put in this year?” Letting that hang for couple of seconds, he abruptly spun on his heel, raising his hand. “Hey, Professor Dare! You wanna come to a barbecue?”

Beside him, Drish guffawed while Tangle made an affronted noise. The woman scoffed a couple times, clearly playing up her offense. “Fine then, let’s get you home so we don’t eat into your precious recreation time, shall we? Maybe next year, you can get all your extra studying with Dare instead.”

Things continued that way for a few more minutes while the last preparations for departure were made. As they started to leave, Deveron gave the island one last fond look. He was going to miss this place over the summer. It had taken a lot to get used to, but now he found the idea of living a normal life, even for a few months, to be almost repulsive. There was something about the thought of being away from this place, even being back with his parents, that filled the boy with a weird sense of unease.

But he shoved that aside. After all, it was just travel jitters, a fear of change. He’d be fine as soon as he was home and saw his folks again. And in a few months, he’d be back here, ready for second year.

As good as his first year had been, as great as he’d been at every trial the school had given him, Deveron knew the second would be equally amazing. He was ready for it, he was up to the challenge.

Bring it on.

******

Before long, Deveron was whistling as he strolled down the sidewalk of his family’s street. The Adams lived in a moderately sized suburb just a little ways outside of Chicago. Their street was a cul-de-sac with the Adams residence being the house at the very top of the circle. The house, a two-story brick building with a roof that should really be replaced soon, was surrounded by an aging wooden fence.

At the gate, Deveron paused, head tilting slightly as his whistling quieted. Damn it, what was the name of that song? It had been stuck in his head for the past several hours, and he couldn’t stop whistling the tune. Yet every time he mentally grasped for the name of it or even where he’d heard the tune before, it slipped away. The name was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn’t quite get it. It was frustrating.

After a few more seconds of failed mental grasping, he finally shook his head and tugged the gate open before stepping through. His foot nudged a discarded basketball, and he stooped to pick it up before closing the gate behind him. Bouncing the ball between both hands, Deveron headed across the yard.

“Hey!” he called while mounting the steps onto the porch. The nearby swing still hadn’t been painted, a year after his father promised to do so. Which probably meant that Deveron himself would end up doing it over the summer. “Hey, I’m home, guys!” Tucking the ball under one arm, he pulled the front door open. It came easily, and the boy stepped into the house. “Guys? Mom, Dad, where is everybod–”

Empty. The living room, which should have been full of furniture, toys, games, a television, and a desk in the corner where the computer sat, was completely empty. Nothing was there except the gray carpet.

“What—huh?” Deveron blinked at the baffling sight, frowning before letting the ball drop from his hands. As it rolled across the floor, he started through the weirdly empty room to the kitchen, calling, “Mom? Dad? Hey, are you guys getting the carpets cleaned or something? Where the hell is everyth–”

His voice failed him again as he stepped into the kitchen. Empty. Just like the living room. The kitchen table was gone. The counter that should have been full of cereal boxes and a microwave was completely bare. The cupboards stood open and bare, their contents as mysteriously vanished as everything else. A layer of dust lay on the otherwise bare counter and the kitchen island, as if no one had been around to disturb the place in months. Which was… impossible. Absurd. His parents wouldn’t just vanish without a trace, without even telling him they were moving. No, something was wrong.

Instinctively, he reached for the camera bag attached to his belt. After almost a year of training at Crossroads, it was instinct to unzip the bag, tug his pistol into one hand, and hold it close to his side. Whatever was going on here, it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t ordinary. And that probably meant it had something to do with Strangers. Maybe one had found out that his family was connected to a Crossroads student or something? But why would he personally be targeted? Sure, he’d done well that year, but that shouldn’t be enough to justify making his family vanish. No, he was missing something.

Holding the gun at his side, Deveron took a breath and focused. His senses, enhanced from several different dead Strangers over the course of the past year, reached out through the house. He listened and sniffed for any sense of another person anywhere inside the house. Nothing. No one was here. At least, no one that he could sense. There were, of course, Strangers that were invisible to such detection.

To that end, he began to work his way methodically through every room. There were several powers he could have used to speed up the process, but he chose to take his time and search everywhere gradually to avoid missing any potential clue. Through the laundry room, the pantry, the den, and his parents’ bedroom downstairs, he searched. Each was as empty as all of the others, each equally dust-filled.

Eventually, the search took him up the stairs to the second floor. Quietly, he nudged the nearest door open into what should have been his mother’s sewing and craft’s room. Empty. Next, he took a quick glance through the next door into the bathroom. Empty. Stepping across the hall, he checked his father’s study, the so-called ‘man-cave’ where the guns and all his dad’s trophies were kept. Nothing. Empty.

Turning his head, Deveron looked toward the next closed door, the one that led into his own bedroom. Slowly approaching it with the gun raised just in case he’d missed something, he stopped just outside the door. One breath followed another. This was the last room, the last possible place to find any clues.

The door creaked open slowly, revealing a room that was… not empty. Unlike the rest of the rooms in the house, the place that had been Deveron’s bedroom held two pieces of furniture: a table with a television with an attached DVD player sitting on top of it. They were positioned in the exact middle of the room, facing the door. On the table in front of the television there was a DVD, and when Deveron took a cautious step closer, he found words written on the front of it. They read simply, ‘Play me now.’

First, he looked around the otherwise bare room. Taking a step to the closet, the boy tugged the door open, glancing in to find it as empty as everything else. Save for the table, television, and single DVD, the entire house was utterly devoid of any objects or furniture whatsoever. There was nothing else.

Left with nothing else to examine, Deveron stepped back over to the table and picked up the disc. Turning it over in his hands, he found nothing remarkable about the thing. It was just an ordinary DVD.

With a shrug, he carefully turned on the television before slipping the disc into the player. Finding the play button with his thumb, he pressed it before stepping back to fold his arms loosely over his chest. The gun was still held in one hand, but he was already pretty sure he wouldn’t need it. Whatever was going on here, whatever had actually happened to his parents, there was no immediate threat to shoot.

On the screen, he saw a view of this same exact room. The image was steady enough that it was obviously taken with a tripod, and he could hear a person muttering on the other side of it as the view zoomed in and out for a few seconds with a slight blurry image before focusing. A hand waved in front of the camera to test it before someone moved around in front of the lens, too close to make out details.

Gradually, they moved back and settled into frame, leaving Deveron staring at the view he had expected the least out of anything else that he could possibly have seen. The person in front of the camera was himself. Except not. It was clearly him, only several years older than he was right now.

“What,” he blurted out loud while straightening as his eyes went wide with surprise, “the fuck?”

“Ahh, hey there,” the man on the screen, Deveron himself, spoke up with a quick wave. “Hey, me. Yeah, I know.” A wry grin, utterly familiar and yet totally foreign seeing it from this angle, crossed the man’s face on the screen. “This is pretty damn weird, isn’t it? Okay, listen, before you shut this thing off and call for help from those Crossroads people, pay attention for a minute. First, you’re not dreaming, I’m not a shapeshifter, and this isn’t a trap. Well, it’s not a trap for you… me… us anyway. I’m pretty sure, knowing me the way I do, that you’re about to get up and walk out that door right now. Before you do that, do me one favor. Pause this video and walk to the window. Pull down the shades and find the present I’m leaving you. Do that, take a look at it, then you can decide to keep watching or leave.”

With a shaking hand, Deveron slowly reached out to hit the pause button on the machine. He stood there, frozen for a moment before looking toward the nearby window. For a few seconds, he did nothing. The thought of doing exactly what his older self (or whoever was on the tape) had said he should not do and just leaving the room to call Crossroads to let them sort this whole situation out was tempting.

In the end, he sighed and stepped to the window instead. Tugging down on the string, he pulled the shades down, squinting at the object that was taped onto the exact middle of them: a photograph.

It was an old black and white picture of a bunch of people all lined up, like a class portrait. In the middle, a couple of the students were holding up a plaque that read, ‘Graduating Class of 1922.’

Nineteen twenty-two. His eyes scanned the picture briefly before settling once more on a disturbingly familiar sight: himself again. He was there, plain as day amidst what was obviously other Crossroads students. The uniforms looked a bit different, clearly older in style. Yet it was very clearly Crossroads.

And standing next to him, there was a girl whose image made Deveron stop. A beautiful young woman, blonde hair cut short in a pixie cut, her slightly impish smile promising intelligence and mischief.

He knew her. He knew that face, those eyes, that smile. He… he knew her as much or better than he knew himself. Like the song that he’d been whistling on his way in, the name was on the tip of his tongue. Yet his failure to actually remember and put voice to that name was infinitely more saddening.

There were tears in his eyes. Tears that he couldn’t understand, for a name that he couldn’t remember.

For over a minute, Deveron stood there. He held the picture in one hand, staring down at it while a rush of overwhelming emotions that he had no chance of explaining or understanding rushed through him. Finally, after giving a heavy, visible shudder, he stepped back over to the table. Gently laying the picture in front of the television before brushing a finger over it, he then reached out to hit play again.

The first words out of the mouth of his older doppleganger were, “Her name is Joselyn. Joselyn Atherby. And she was… is… one of the most important people in the world to you. You were in school together, on a team together, partners together. You and Joselyn have been partners in every way. The—there’s only two people who matter as much to you—to us—as she does. Your children. The twins. A boy and a girl. They were—they are… they’re beautiful, and amazing and… and you were happy. You and Joselyn and the twins. It wasn’t a perfect life, there was a… a lot of work to do, a lot of fighting to hold on to what we had, to what you had. But as hard as it was, as much effort and blood as it took, you and Joselyn knew it was worth it. Because you—we were working to change the world, to make it better. I know a lot of this isn’t going to make sense yet, but I promise it will. You’ll understand, I just… I’m rambling a little. I have to… when I think about what happened, about what they did, about…”

His older self went quiet for a minute, saying nothing. His eyes were squeezed shut and Deveron could see the strain on his face before his eyes opened and he continued speaking. “One step at a time. The first thing you need to know is that you cannot trust anyone at Crossroads. No one. You know how you feel when you look at that picture? You know those emotions you have for the girl there, for Joselyn? The man behind Crossroads, the former Headmaster, Gabriel Ruthers, he stole her. He stole Joselyn and your kids, our kids. He took them away, erased them because… well, it’s a long story, and you’ll remember soon enough as it is.

“Right now, what you need to know is that he’s the enemy. And he’s got lots of allies, lot of spies all over that school, student and teacher alike. The headmistress, Gaia, she’s probably safe. Probably. Joselyn liked her anyway, and she’s helped out with certain things. But she wasn’t really part of our… our group. And I don’t know… our kids were taken. Our wife was taken, Deveron. Someone betrayed us, betrayed me, and… and I don’t feel like making the mistake of letting that happen again. Maybe trusting Gaia would be fine, but… but then again, someone else close to her might find out. It’s better to just… to just keep it to ourselves.”

The older Deveron on screen made a tight fist, his knuckles turning white before he managed to speak again. “Ruthers stole your kids and erased Joselyn from everyone’s memory. Even mine, yours, whatever. He tried to erase everything. He made her an ordinary person, took away her powers and abandoned her in the mundane world. And, well, a monster took her. A monster has our wife, and our children are… god knows where.

“I wouldn’t even know about it, except… Jos… she planned for something like this. She made allies, friends that could fix that kind of memory wipe. It took them awhile, but they found me. They made me remember the truth, all of it. They gave me back the memories that Ruthers and his people stole.

“I spent years searching, looking for Jos or the twins, trying to find any sign of them, anything at all. But Ruthers, he just… there was no way. Until… I got a message. A message from Joselyn. Somehow, I… I still don’t know how, she got a message to me. It wasn’t much, just an address and three words. Three little words. Please protect her.”

The other him rubbed a hand over his face, the emotion in his eyes so clear that Deveron could almost feel it himself, could almost remember feeling it. His voice was strained. “I went to the address. I found… she… she had a daughter. She has a daughter. God. God, she called her Felicity. Felicity. She’s… she’s beautiful. Smart, snarky, fun. She umm, she wants to be a reporter like her umm, like her dad. Her dad, he’s… he’s good. He’s great. I umm, I’m glad. I’m glad Joselyn had a good husband, another husband, and a kid, a daughter. She umm, she wanted to name our first daughter Felicity, but umm… but we named her after my mother instead. Your mother. Your real mother, not the false memory that was implanted of this place. You’ll remember her soon.

“And now I’m rambling again. Heh. Sorry, it’s just… Felicity. She’s… she’s already being watched by Crossroads. They’re gonna take her in as soon as she’s old enough. As of this recording, that’s next year. One year and she’ll be there.

“Fossor has Joselyn. He’s a necromancer, and he’s… he’s powerful. I… have to save her. I have to get her away from him. Somehow…just… she’s alive. She sent me that message, she wants me to protect her other daughter, and I will. I will make sure nothing happens to Felicity. But to do that, to protect her and to find our other children, the twins that Ruthers stole, I needed a little help.”

The older Deveron was silent for a few seconds, fist pressed against his forehead as he took in several deep breaths before starting again. “Find our twins, protect Felicity from Ruthers, Fossor, and anyone else that comes after her, and get enough power to find and save Joselyn. There’s only one real way of accomplishing all of that. I had to become a student at Crossroads again. Being there gives me free access to most of the grounds, in a year when Felicity shows up I’ll be a second year student, and the teachers will help me gain enough power to save my wife, to save Joselyn.

“So I went to Jos’s allies, the friends she made that returned my memories before. It took some convincing, but they agreed to erase me, to take me out of everyone’s memory, even my own. They’ll even make me look younger, apparently. So uhh, younger me, congratulations on that.”

He coughed, shaking his head before sighing. “The point is, no one, not even me, will know who I really am, or what I want. That’s the only way to make sure the Edge is fooled, and that Ruthers doesn’t find out anything. For the first year, I need to be an ordinary student. Well, if I know me, an extremely gifted ordinary student. But either way, just a student. One year of being the best student I can be. That way, next year, they’ll want me to stick around when I start fucking up.”
Hearing that, the younger Deveron frowned. Fucking up? What was he (literally himself) talking about?

“Yeah, fucking up,” his older doppleganger confirmed. “See, next year, you need to be one of the worst students possible. Be lazy, refuse to work, turn in assignments late, piss people off. I know. I know how it sounds, but do it. You were so good this year, so perfect at everything they put in front of you, that if you start fucking up now, they won’t kick you out. They can’t afford to. See, that’s the point. Crossroads needs you. You’re too good to throw away. As long as you’re not doing anything expulsion worthy, anything too bad, they’ll try to fix the problem. And that means they will take you… us… into the Runners HQ to try to figure out if something happened to you over the summer. When they do that, when they get you inside that building, you find a way into the file archives. That’s where you’ll find the records of our twins, our children. If anyone, anywhere has a record of where they were sent, of where Ruthers hid them, it’ll be the Runner Archives.

“It’s not gonna be easy. You might have to go in and out a few times before they trust you enough to leave you alone long enough to search the place. But it’ll happen. Show a little improvement, let them think that there might be something wrong that they haven’t figured out yet. Tease them a little. Get them to bring you back in until you get the chance to get into those archives. Find our children, Dev. Find our twins. Protect Felicity. Get enough power to save Joselyn. And while you’re at it, don’t… trust… anyone. Now, you can either walk away now, tell Crossroads everything, and just… not believe what I’m saying. Or you can keep listening, so we can go over a few more details of our…. my… your plan.”

Reaching out, Deveron hit pause on the DVD. For a few long moments, he stared into the image of himself, his older self. His mouth felt dry, the hand that grasped his pistol was so tight it was painful.

Then, slowly, his hand reached out once more. He pressed a finger against the machine once more, head bowed as a million thoughts ran through his mind at once. One breath, two breaths, three. The whole while, he stared at the picture on the table. The picture of himself… and Joselyn. His eyes found the girl’s, and he felt… entirely too much for this to be a lie. He felt the truth, and knew what he had to do, no matter how hard it felt.

He hit play.

“Still with me? Good. Now then, let’s get started…”

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Against The Odds 9-09

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“Wait, what?” Columbus demanded, looking between Shiori and me. “That one kid? You think he’s–”

“It makes sense,” Avalon interrupted with a frown. “He’s the only human here, and the Meregan have been taking care of him. Maybe this Nicholas guy thinks they’re holding him prisoner or something.”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Well that’s just stupid. They’re fighting over a miscommunication? Have they ever considered just talking things out so they don’t run into these kind of prob—wow is that really me saying that?” She made a face of confused discomfort for a brief moment before shaking her head.

Beside her sister, Scout made a slight snickering sound before quietly putting an arm around her.

I glanced to Senny first. The vampire girl was standing near the doorway, listening intently. Noticing my attention, she shook her head to indicate that no one was coming. Not yet anyway. I had no idea how much longer we’d have before being interrupted, so I quickly returning my attention to the Meregan boy who had been talking. Making myself smile, I asked as gently as I could, “Listen, uhh, what’s your name? I’m Flick. This is Avalon, Shiori, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, and Asenath.”

Something nudged my leg then, and I looked down before smiling slightly. “Oh, right. This is Vulcan.”

The boy took a hesitant step forward, still clearly uncertain about the situation. But he did smile a little at the mechanical dog, slowly reaching an open hand to him. “I am being… the… one of named Dis.”

While Vulcan curiously sniffed at the large boy’s hand and then nuzzled it eagerly, Sean’s eyes grew wide with delight at the obvious possibilities. “Wait, wait, lemme get this straight. Dis is your name?”

“Work out your Who’s On First routine later,” Avalon instructed before turning her attention back to the boy. “You were statues until just a few hours ago, weren’t you? What happened when you woke up?”

Dis blinked once, his head tilting a little curiously. “We are… were… being awakened in small room in talling building.” He pointed in the direction of the tower outside. “We were… being… much hunger.”

“You were frozen for a long time,” I acknowledged quietly. “I bet you were hungry. What happened?”

“Man-Nicholas had being surprise,” Dis answered promptly. “But he had being giving food and bringing I and others here to wait. He was being putting Other-Things to find Dis and other parents to trade Dis and others to giving them for boy-thing-human-person child-long-many-childs. Dessadant.”

“Descendant,” I corrected absently, frowning a little. “So he sent those people to contact the Meregan? If that’s true, why did they attack as soon as they found them? Why are they constantly fighting at all? Because I don’t believe the Meregan would just make that up. They said he’s been attacking them. That’s the whole reason they initiated the umm, statue thing, because they couldn’t save you without help after he kidnapped you to begin with.” My head shook. “We’re missing something important.”

“Yes,” the voice of Gaia replied. The woman herself appeared in the middle of the room. Except she wasn’t really there. Her form was semi-translucent, like a hologram. “You are missing something. It’s all right, there’s no need to fight anymore. We’ve… worked it out. You can come to the tower, and bring the Meregan children with you. The guards won’t try to stop you. There is… a lot to discuss.”

“No offense,” I retorted, glancing to the others. “But how do we know that’s really you, Headmistress?”

A slight smile touched the woman’s face and she gave a short bow of her head in acknowledgment. “Very good, Felicity. How do you know it’s me? I suppose I’ll just have to promise that we will find your mother and that when this situation is over, I will tell you the identities of her other two children.”

My mouth opened and shut before I coughed while looking to the others. “It’s either her, or she’s being controlled somehow. If it’s the latter, I think we’re kind of utterly screwed no matter what we do.”

Sands shifted her weight, clearly uncomfortable with the situation even as she gave a faint nod. “G-good point. If the headmistress was taken over, there’s no way we’d ever get out of here anyway.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the others, and Gaia’s image gestured. “Come to the tower. The guards there will let you in and guide you up to where we are. Trust me, you’ll all be fine.”

Left with little option other than to trust that things were kosher, we slowly left the building along with the Meregan kids (most of whom were as tall or taller than us). In the street outside the building, three of those hooded cat-figures stood a few yards away. They stiffened as we emerged, but did nothing. After a few seconds, the trio stepped out of the way, hands raising together to point to the tower.

“Well, that’s not creepy or anything,” Sands muttered under her breath. Her eyes were moving quickly from side to side, clearly anticipating some kind of betrayal or attack either from the cat-people or some other source, but she didn’t say anything else as we moved past them and toward the tower.

I noticed Columbus and Shiori talking quietly to each other as we walked, and when I glanced that way, they waved me back to them. I looked to the tower briefly, then took a step back. “What’s up, guys?”

“We think we both got the same power,” Shiori answered quietly after glancing toward her brother.

Columbus nodded. “It’s some kind of metal manipulation. Moving it, I mean. Shy-guy killed two of these yellow humanoid things back there, so it was probably them since she’s not just manipulating it.”

“Not just manipulating it?” I echoed, looking to the other girl for clarification. “What else can you do?”

For a second, Shiori hesitated before lowering her voice. “I was experimenting while you were talking to Gaia, and I can sort of… hear and see through it? The metal that I control, I mean. I tried it with one of my discs, and I heard those cat-people talking. It wasn’t English or anything, but the voice talking to them was. It was some kind of radio or phone or something they were listening to, taking orders from.”

Pausing, I looked toward Avalon as the group neared the doors that led into the tower. There were a couple more Alters there, including one that looked like an enormous, very ugly man with three different heads that were all facing different directions. One of those heads was glaring at us.

“What did you hear, exactly? Are we in trouble?” I asked quietly, hand lowering a little to my belt.

But Shiori shook her head. “No. I mean, I don’t think so. The guy talking to the cat-people was ordering them to stand down. It sounded like they were sort of arguing, but then he said they could either obey him or lose his protection and risk being taken by ‘them.’ That made them stop arguing really quick.”

Asenath stepped up on Shiori’s other side. Her voice was quiet. “The question is, who is ‘them?’”

The boy glanced to her, mouth open to say something, but Shiori spoke first. “Did you hear them too?”

“Yes,” Senny confirmed. “They weren’t there before, but they came just as your headmistress started to talk. Whatever they were saying to the man talking to them, they obviously weren’t happy about standing down. I don’t speak their language, but I’m pretty sure they wanted revenge for the ones that Flick and I… ahhh, killed.” Her eyes glanced toward me briefly. “Oh, and they’re called Rakshasa.”

“Oh good,” I muttered. “It’s probably a good idea to know the name of the race that wants to kill me.”

“Hey,” Senny replied with a casual, confident wink. “At least you’re not the only one they’re mad at.”

By that point, we had reached the doors of the tower itself and passed inside. The entranceway was shaped like a Y, with two separate, wide corridors splitting off from the main doors and a set of stairs directly in the middle that led up in a spiral shape. The floor looked like obsidian, while the walls were some kind of shiny, reflective metal that had been polished so much we could see ourselves in them.

Even more Alters of every kind I’d seen so far, and more that I hadn’t, stood along the walls. Most were glaring, obviously not happy about our presence. But none of them made any move toward us. They simply stood out of the way, glowering with a sense of silent vindictiveness, their anger palpable.

Only one made any move toward us. He was a shorter figure, his skin a pale blue while his hair was sea-green. He had four eyes, two stacked on top of each other on either side of his face. When he spoke, his voice was melodious, like a pleasant song. “The children of Crossroads, students of Gaia?”

Avalon answered for us, nodding once without taking her eyes off the figure. “Yes, that’s us.”

The blue-skinned man, who wasn’t quite as tall as I was, inclined his head acceptingly. His voice remained song-like. “I am called Valecie and will bring you to your teacher for discussions.”

He made an elaborate bowing gesture then with his arms spread wide, then pivoted smartly before starting to the stairs. As he climbed, the rest of us looked at one another. I could read the hesitation on all of our faces. But as we’d already established, at this point we didn’t have much choice otherwise.

Besides, the Meregan kids were already following, and we had to quickly catch up or risk letting them go on without us. So we trailed after the blue man, passing more silently hostile figures on the way

“Valecie,” I spoke as we continued to climb after passing a couple Alters that had practically been quivering with barely contained rage. “I know why all your people are… angry. And okay, I get it. We killed some of their friends, their families maybe. I know why they’re mad. But why aren’t they doing anything about it? How were Nicholas and Gaia so sure we could walk past all of them without someone getting pissed off enough to risk getting some revenge? I mean, if they’re that angry…”

A brief pained expression crossed the man’s face for a moment before he shook his head once. “It is very true that some of our united kind are angry with the students of Crossroads and would seek retribution if given no other recourse. But they will not, for the pain of loss pales against the threat of being cast away from Heretical protection and left as prey for Seostenic capture and entrapment.”

“Seostenic capture and entrapment?” I echoed the words, frowning. But before we could get any clarification about what the man meant, he stepped off the stairs at the very top and gestured to an enormous, dark red door that was almost fifteen feet tall, and wide enough to drive a car through.

“Our Lord Petan awaits you within, Students of Gaia, children of Crossroads. Do not tarry for long.”

Dis actually stepped closer to me. There was a look of uncertainty on the very big kid’s face. “We… we will being go to parents and families?” he asked hesitantly. The slight quiver of his lip reminded me that, as large as he and the others were, they were still just kids. There were a couple as small as Scout and Sands that were probably only six or so. Most probably didn’t understand anything we were saying.

Asenath was the one who spoke, her hand moving to squeeze the boy’s arm as she smiled. “Trust us, Dis. You and your friends are going to be home with your parents very soon. What’s your dad’s name?”

“P-Purin,” Dis answered. “He is being putting in charge of K’lecnahn.” There was pride in his voice.

Beside me, Shiori put in, “We met your dad, Dis.” When the boy looked toward her with a clearly hopeful expression, she slowly reached out a hand to lay against his arm reassuringly. “He’s okay.”

My eyes moved from seeing the girl comfort and reassure the Meregan boy, to the spot where Sands was standing silently watching this. I couldn’t read the expression on her face, but it wasn’t exactly anger. It wasn’t even the confusion that had been there so many times. Now, she just looked thoughtful.

By that point, Avalon had reached up to shove the door open with help from Columbus and Sean.

I’d been expecting some kind of throne room on the other side. Instead, what I saw looked more like a war room. It was enormous, easily as long as a football field and just as wide. Throughout the room there were long tables scattered around that were covered with maps, papers, parchment, and what looked like weird pyramid-shaped figurines whose purpose I was unsure of. Alters of every size and type surrounded these tables, talking with each other, pinpointing places on maps, arguing, and seemingly acting out what looked like war plans. Along the walls I saw even more maps, not only of land, but some that looked like actual star maps, as well as photographs of multiple different planets.

At the far end of the room, Gaia stood next to the man that I immediately recognized from my vision. He looked a bit older by that point, enough to have some gray in his hair. But it was definitely him.

The Alters in the room, the ones who had been so busy with whatever wars they were planning, stopped talking one by one and straightened. All of them stared at us as we moved gradually past them. There was that same anger and frustration in their eyes. Yet, as promised, none moved to threaten or attack us.

Whatever this Seostenic thing was, the threat was stronger than their anger about the ones we’d killed.

Gaia stepped over as we approached, her gaze taking us in briefly before she focused on the Meregan. Her voice was as gentle as I’d ever heard it. “Children, are you ready to return to your families?”

Dis translated that for the rest of his friends, and there was a collection of quick nods. Apparently they understood at least enough English to know that that was confirmation. That or it was the same in the Meregan language. I wasn’t sure which was more likely. Either way, they were talking excitedly.

“They may leave,” Nicholas spoke smoothly, though it seemed like he was addressing the other Alters in the room more than the Meregan or any of us. “And I have summoned the expedition force back from their pursuit of the Meregan ship. We have an arrangement, and I have kept to my end of it.”

“Yes,” Gaia agreed. “And we will have Tristan here soon, I promise you that. First,” she held a hand out, making a quick circle motion before murmuring something under her breath. One of the rings on her hand began to glow bright blue before literally disintegrating in front of our eyes. As it faded away, the air in front of Gaia changed to reveal the interior of the Meregan ship, in the transport room.

“Go, children,” the woman instructed, holding the portal open while the Meregan kids quickly rushed through. On the other side, I could hear a cry of delight and surprise from Alecra.

Once they were through, Gaia collapsed the portal before looking back to the man. “The students deserve an explanation, and it should come from you, Nicholas.”

“They are not all students,” he observed, his eyes landing on Asenath. “Are you sure she can be trusted? They might have taken her.”

“She is safe,” Gaia informed him. “I am as certain of that as I am of anything else.”

“What—what are you talking about?” I finally blurted, unable to take any more of this. “What do you mean ‘taken’ her? Who’s they? What’s going on? Why did you attack the Meregan instead of just asking for Tristan? Why didn’t you explain any of it to them? Do you know who cursed him? Do you know where the rest of his family is? What are you doing out here? What’s with this army? What does ‘Seostenic’ mean? Why are these people so afraid of that’s more important than revenge for killing their friends and family? I thought my mom was the only Heretic who had an army of Strangers.”

Nicholas held a hand up to stop me by the end. “First, I will answer what I can, but some of your questions will have to wait for a later time, when you are more ready to hear them.”

I stared at him in disbelief, but it was Sean who spoke. “What kind of bullshit excuse to be cryptic is that?”

“Sean,” Gaia warned. “There’s more going on here than any of you know, and yes, some of it is going to have to wait. Explain what you can, Nicholas. Quickly.”

The man obliged. “Suffice to say, there is a… group. We call them Seosten, but they have many other names that you would recognize more quickly if they were used. This group has the ability to… among other things, capture and possess the bodies of Alters, taking them over entirely. Their identities, wants, desires, all are suppressed in favor of the Seosten who is controlling them.”

“You mean they’re possessed, like demons or whatever,” Columbus put in.

Nicholas gazed at him briefly before nodding. “The idea of such possession stems from the capabilities of these Seosten. Once they have taken someone, it is impossible to tell them apart from the real person. They gain access to all of their victims’ thoughts and memories. But the true individual is trapped, incapable of expressing themselves in any way. The Seosten has complete control of them.”

Sands was the next to speak. “You didn’t talk to the Meregan because you thought they were controlled by these Seosten people. You thought that’s why they had your descendant.”

“I have been their enemy for a very long time,” Nicholas confirmed. “I’ve learned magic that makes those loyal to me immune to the Seostenic possession. So long as they remain loyal, the creatures can’t take them over. My goal was never to destroy what remains of the Meregan race.”

“No,” I shot back. “You just sent your thugs to attack them for fun. I can’t believe I looked up to you when I–” Closing my mouth, I just shook my head angrily.

The man winced. “I instructed my people to retrieve the Meregan survivors. Their… interpretation of that order leaves something to be desired. For that I will make amends. My… attention has been elsewhere, I’m afraid. Until Gaia appeared, I was not physically present here. I believe that some of my people have creatively reinterpreted my orders in my absence, stretching the spirit of obedience as far as they can while remaining within the protection it provides.”

“And Tristan, was that why he’s been cursed?” Shiori pressed. “Did the… Seosten curse him because he’s related to you?”

Nicholas shook his head. “I do not believe that it is related, no. Well, only tangentially so. My descendant—Tristan’s father sought to kill one of the Seosten. Instead, he fell in love with and married her.”

I straightened at that, my eyes widening. “They said Tristan was half human and half something else, but they didn’t know what that other part was. Just that he wasn’t fully human.”

“Indeed,” Nicholas bowed his head slightly. “He and his sister are the products of a Heretic-Seosten coupling. I believe that his banishment was an unplanned side effect of whatever was used to retrieve my descendant’s Seostenic wife.”

“I don’t get it,” Columbus started with a frown that we all shared. “Have any of you even heard of these Seosten before? What’s the big deal? Aren’t they pretty much any other Stranger, only with a possession trick?”

Nicholas’s gaze was hard. “Any other Stranger? Hardly, child. The Seosten are not just Strangers, they are responsible for the very concept of Strangers.

“The Seosten created what you call the Bystander Effect.”

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Against The Odds 9-08

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Avalon’s clear voice called out as we approached the hole that had been left in the side of the massive sixty foot high wall. “Scout, near-left tower! Boy Porter, near-right tower! Mason, bridge over!”

The three of them acted immediately. Scout took a knee briefly, lifting her rifle into position at her shoulder before sighting in. A second later, she took the shot and the distant figure standing atop the tower who had been starting to react to our approach went pitching backwards, falling with a scream.

At the same time, Columbus simply looked up to find his own target on the other tower. As the guard was in the midst of calling out, the boy sent a powerful beam of concussive silver-blue light shooting up from his goggles. The blast took the guard full in the chest, lifting him clear off the tower before sending him flying. His scream echoed off into the night before fading as he fell entirely out of sight.

Both of them abruptly staggered, and I saw their auras (pink in Scout’s case, white in Columbus’s) flare up, each glowing briefly while the two of them obviously fought to hold back the gasps of pleasure.

Meanwhile, Sands gave a quick swipe of her mace toward the pile of broken debris that was all that remained of the tower that had been hit by the Meregan ship. The last thing it absorbed must have been wood, because the weapon created a wooden platform over top of the debris to serve as a bridge so that we could run straight across rather than tripping and stumbling our way through the unstable mess.

The bridge was wide enough for three of us to run across side by side. Avalon, Senny, and I did just that, moving together ahead of the others and through the gap in the wall. We were inside the city.

Ahead of us, a massive figure blocked the way. It was a nine foot tall, hairy beast that looked like a cross between a Sasquatch and a cyclops, with great shaggy fur, powerful arms that drooped all the way to the ground, and a single eye in the middle of its forehead. My Alter-sense helpfully chimed in as my eyes took in the figure, letting me know that yes, this thing was indeed not human. Thanks for that.

Even as the thing opened its mouth to roar a challenge, Senny disappeared from my side. I caught the slightest glimpse of her figure blurring through the air as she sped straight toward him before her fist took the enormous Alter straight in the stomach with enough force to double him over, the roar collapsing into a wheezing cry as the air was driven out of him by the hard blow. I was barely able to follow the vampire girl’s movement as she spun around while producing a knife from her belt, cutting through the doubled-over figure’s throat in a quick slice. Then, as blood sprayed out, she caught hold of his limp arm, hauling herself up and over his shoulder and back to land behind him. The ogre, or whatever he was brought both hands up to stop the spray of blood from his throat, gurgling while Asenath pivoted into a kick from behind him. Her leg took him in the side, launching him off the impromptu bridge and to the ground where he lay choking on his own blood until a quick stomp of the vampire’s foot into his already horribly wounded throat left him laying completely still and motionless.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only defender that had shown up. Two more figures swooped down out of the sky. They looked like ugly old hag witches with leathery bat-like wings and beaks in place of noses. Harpies, I knew from the lessons I’d had. Their big thing was scratching you with their claws and then retreating, because if they got hold of your blood they could do really nasty voodoo-like things with it.

The first harpy had almost reached Asenath when a flash of metal went tearing past me. With a snarl, Vulcan leapt, catching the harpy in mid-dive. The ugly bird-woman and metal dog tumbled end over end through the air and then on the ground. She screamed and the dog snarled, tearing at her violently.

Meanwhile, my eyes were focused on the second harpy, the one coming in toward Asenath’s back. I was too far away to get there in time. Yet even as that thought came to me and the urge to get there quickly filled my head, I felt something else. It was a sort of… tugging through the wood beneath my feet. Instinctively giving into the tug, I abruptly found myself literally sinking through the bridge.

No, wait, I wasn’t sinking through the wood, I was sinking into it. I was… holy crap, I was merging with it. My body disappeared, and in an instant, I was abruptly… part of the wooden bridge. It was hard to explain, but I could feel the wood all around me. I could sort of half-see through the area around the wood that my body had merged with in a fishbowl-like vision that was a little hard to sort out.

More importantly, I could move with incredible speed through it. A simple thought and I felt myself whooshing through the wooden bridge. It was like being sent through river rapids, and an instant after I thought it, my merged form was already directly behind Asenath while the nearby harpy descended.

Then I was up and out of the bridge, my body reforming while rising from the wood. In the same motion, I lashed out with my staff. The surprised harpy was taken across the beak just before she would have scratched my friend, giving a horrible scream-squawk as she tumbled sideways through the air.

She recovered quickly, orienting herself in my direction, eyes filled with violent hatred. But before the harpy could lunge at me, I made a sharp gesture with one hand that sent a cloud of sand flying into her eyes. The briefly blinded harpy reeled backwards with a new screech, flailing wildly with her claws.

Taking a quick step forward and to the side, I spun to put more force behind the next blow from my staff while triggering the concussive blast to make it even stronger. It slammed into the side of the harpy’s face, snapping her head all the way around in the wrong direction, cutting off her screech.

Bracing myself, I felt the pleasure at the kill rush through me, my own bright golden aura flaring up. Biting my lip to resist the urge to audibly react, I caught my staff against the ground to stay upright.

While I was stuck keeping myself under control, two fast moving discs went spinning past me on either side, drawing my attention suddenly to another of those wooden figures that Shiori and I had fought back in the Meregan ship. The other girl’s disc weapons struck the ground on either side of the charging figure before sending a line of electricity arcing between them to catch him in mid-step. The figure froze up, twitching and jerking helplessly while the energy kept him trapped there for a few seconds.

It was just long enough for Avalon to reach him. My roommate launched herself at the staggering, electrocuted figure, coming in just under the arc of electricity to slice through his leg with the energy blade created from her right gauntlet. Then she rolled past him while he fell onto that knee, pivoting in mid-motion to bring her other gauntlet-covered fist up and around. This time, rather than a simple sword-like construct, her gauntlet created two spinning buzzsaw blades. One took the wooden-man in the neck while the other dug into his chest. Each of the spinning energy saws tore right through him, separating both his head and his upper torso away from the rest of his body into three separate parts.

As the pale green light rose up around Avalon to reward her for the kill, I looked quickly to where Vulcan had just finished off his own harpy. Sure enough, Sean was glowing. Apparently even his mechanical dog killing the enemy was enough to count toward him absorbing it? I wondered briefly how that worked. I mean, sure, it was enough when I killed the things with my staff. But how did it determine that Sean should absorb the power when Vulcan was a separate entity from him? Curious.

Asenath’s voice interrupted my momentary distraction. “That’s it for the welcoming party,” she spoke quietly. “But we should keep moving before they have a chance to regroup and organize a resistance.”

Moving up beside me, Sands gestured behind her. “What was that thing back there with the bridge?”

I coughed at the question. “Err, yeah, like I said, Shiori and I sort of fought some of these things before. I killed one of those wooden guys. Suppose it lets me move through, well, wood like that. I mean, that’s my guess anyway. Unless it was from something I got from the big guy with all the shark-teeth.”

“Shark-teeth?” That got Avalon’s attention, and the girl turned my way abruptly before stopping herself. I saw the hesitation in her expression, though it only lasted a second. Then she got herself under control, nodding to Senny. “She’s right, we keep moving. Gaia and the Meregan may be distracting the big threats, but that doesn’t mean we can take forever. We get in, get the kids, and get the hell out.”

“Right,” Columbus agreed. “So where do we find these giant kids? We can’t just search the whole city.”

Senny sniffed the air before shaking her head. “Too many other scents, or we’re too far away. I can’t pick them out. But if I know my megalomaniacal dictators, they’re probably somewhere in that tower.”

Avalon was already moving ahead. “Spread out a bit so we can’t all be hit by the same thing. Keep your eyes open and move fast. Gerardo, cover the rear with your dog. Scout, use your gun to check all the corners before we get to them and the roofs of the buildings to make sure we don’t get ambushed. Vampire, let us know if you hear or smell anything important that we need to check out. Let’s go.”

Leaning closer to Senny, I stage-whispered, “She’s not being racist or anything by calling you Vampire. It’s just that she doesn’t like calling people by their first names if she can help it, but she doesn’t know your last name. So she’s improvising.” I followed that with a quick thumbs up to my sighing roommate.

We ran then, spreading out as instructed as we made our way through the dark city streets. As we’d hoped, most of the actual military force had gone out after the Meregan, leaving a relative token resistance behind that were spread throughout the city. Still, hurrying was clearly in our best interest.

As we approached one blind corner, Scout brought her rifle up to her shoulder, firing a shot into the portal that she had created. The bullet went through the portal directly in front of her, then out the portal ahead that was facing ninety degrees around the corner of the building. I heard a yelp before Scout fired two more shots in rapid succession. By that point, we’d reached the corner and a large figure that looked like a bodybuilder mixed with some kind of frog lay collapsed on the ground with several holes in him. Scout, meanwhile, almost dropped her gun while giving a gasp as her glowing aura rose. She had one fist stuffed in her mouth to muffle herself, and still gave a heavy shudder.

Before we managed to go more than another block toward the tower, Scout pointed out a heavy force coming down both sides of the next street, as well as more on the roofs and another few from the back. It wasn’t a huge defense force or anything, but it was obvious that they knew where we were going.

“I’ve got that roof,” I announced, nodding toward the one on the right while charging my staff.

Senny glanced at me before nodding. “I’ll take the other one.” She gave me a wink then. “Race you.”

Avalon organized the group on the ground, sending herself and Sands forward to either side with Scout and Columbus covering each of them while Sean used Vulcan to cover the rear with help from Shiori.

Meanwhile, Asenath and I ran for our respective buildings. Just before reaching the wall, I shoved the staff behind me and triggered the charge to launch myself up and forward. The building rushed up toward me, and I would’ve slammed right into it if I hadn’t quickly put my staff forward and triggered more of the charge. Just like when I’d gotten onto the roof of the police station back home, except this building was taller. Which meant I had to switch between blasting the wall of the building behind me and the one in front of me a couple times, and the staff was completely drained by the time I finally launched myself up and over the edge to roll along the roof itself in a slightly uncontrolled sprawl.

Meanwhile, I’d caught glimpses of Asenath practically Spider-Man climbing her way up the side of her building, finding each minute finger and toe-hold like she was playing one of those parkour games. The vampire girl was moving so fast there might as well have been convenient a ladder just sitting there.

Once I rolled to a stop and hopped to my feet, I was just in time to see two hooded figures with curved swords standing in the middle of the roof, clearly taken by surprise at my sudden appearance. They recovered quickly, however, rushing forward while swinging those deadly sharp blades toward me.

Stepping forward toward the nearest sword, I brought my staff up in a quick block while pivoting to twist my body away from the other. I wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid the second slash entirely, taking a cut into the meat of my arm. It hurt, but I made myself ignore it. The other sword smacked against my staff, sliding away as I shoved the weapon to the side. In the same motion, I brought the opposite end of the staff up and around while turning to slam into the face of the hooded figure whose sword had cut me. Then I gave it a quick, tilted spin to smack him in the throat with the one end while simultaneously hitting the second figure in the gut with the opposite.

Working together, the two of them tried to attack me from both sides. It was all I could do to keep blocking as many of their attacks as possible. My staff spun up and around almost of its own volition as I let instinct take over. Avalon had drilled these defensive motions into me over and over again, and I fell into the rhythm of watching and deflecting their attacks for a few seconds while waiting for an opening. Their blades whistled through the air while I kept deflecting and dodging, allowing each passing second and motion to continue charging the formerly-depleted staff with more kinetic energy.

Finally, I caught both swords on either end of the staff and triggered just a little bit of the stored up energy. The brief, small blast was enough to send both hooded figures stumbling backwards. While they were reeling, I shoved one end at the ground to deposit a concussive mine between them with the rest of the energy that had been stored up. Then I dove sideways while kicking out with one foot to hit the back of one of their knees. The blow sent him stumbling forward into the mine, which blew up and sent both figures sailing off in opposite directions. One fell from the roof entirely, while the other skidded and rolled to smack into the nearby chimney.

He was back on his feet and coming at me faster than I might have expected, reacting while the sudden rush of pleasure from his companion not surviving the fall ran over me. Before I could recover fully, he gave me a light cut across the cheek and another, deeper one in the side that made me yelp in pain. His sword was bloody as he pulled it back, and I saw what looked like a feline face through the dark hood smile with glee.

Once again, the figure lashed out. This time, however, I side-stepped, catching his extended wrist with my staff to redirect his swing down and away from me. The hooded, maybe-feline figure hissed angrily and painfully as the blade cut through his leg. Before he could recover, I brought the staff up and around once more to smack across his throat. It was only a glancing blow, but the injured Alter stumbled away and fell to one knee, bleeding from the opposite leg where I’d made him cut himself.

He looked back at me briefly, hissing in anger before hurling himself forward and off the side of the building. Before I could react, he was already clinging to the side of the opposite building, slipping in through the window there to disappear from sight.

And yet, as my hand came down on the roof to steady myself momentarily, I felt a sticky fluid under my fingers. Blood. His blood.

At the same time, immediately as my fingers touched the blood, I sensed… him. It was hard to describe, but I could literally feel the cat-figure’s exact location and position as he moved through the building away from me. He was fleeing, but I knew exactly where he was. I could sense him.

Gasping in surprise, I pulled my fingers out of the blood and brushed them off. The sense faded. Slowly, I lowered them back to the blood. As soon as my skin came into contact with them again, I sensed his exact position once more.

The shark-man’s power. Touching someone’s blood let me sense them. But from how far away?

Before I could wonder too much about that, Asenath was standing beside me. “You okay?” she asked with obvious concern, hand touching my shoulder as she looked at the blood. Her nostrils flared a little to sniff. “Some of that’s yours.”

“I’ll… be okay.” I replied before blinking up at her. “Sorry, this is kind of like a buffet to you, huh?”

She shrugged a little. “I won’t lie, it smells really good. But you don’t last this long if you can’t keep your appetite under control. Besides,” she added with a wink, “I had a snack back there.” Sure enough, her mouth was slightly tinged with red, like a little kid that had been drinking fruit punch.

By that point, most of the cuts had healed enough that they weren’t completely debilitating or anything, and I used the staff to push myself back to my feet. “The others.”

“Allow me,” she offered, and when I didn’t refuse, the vampire hoisted me off the roof. She took a few quick steps forward before leaping down. The air rushed up around me for a second, just before she landed easily on her feet, setting me back on mine.

There were bodies all around us. Apparently the rest of my team and Shiori had been busy. Avalon gave me a quick look, eyes moving up and down me before she asked, “You good?”

I gave a quick nod and a thumbs up. “Stung a little, but I’ll make it.”

“They’re close,” Asenath announced then, head turning. “Not in the tower. There.” She pointed to a long, flat building that ran the length of a city block very near the tower itself, but not attached to it. “I smell Meregan. A lot of them.”

Sands looked like she wanted to say something about that, but clamped down on it while looking away.

“So how do we get in?” Sean asked, holding Vulcan in his gun mode.

“Front door’s there, back door’s there,” Avalon answered. “We go in both sides. But if there was a way to get someone in a less obvious way, just in case…”

I looked up, then nudged Shiori, who had come up nearby. “See that cracked window at the top? Too small to fit a normal person through, but…”

She grinned back at me, smile dazzling. “Go for it.”

Shiori turned into her sand form then, and I held a hand out to take control of her. She flew up and toward the window, sand splitting apart into a cloud that rushed in through the narrow opening. As soon as she was through, I relaxed my control and let her go back to herself.

Columbus raised his hand, mouth open to say something. He hesitated, then simply managed a weak, “You guys have been busy.”

Meanwhile, the others had already split up. Avalon and Senny went to the front of the building, while Sands, Scout, and Sean went to the back. Columbus and I followed the former.

The boy used a brief blast from his goggles on the door to knock it open, and we were through in an instant, finding ourselves suddenly standing in… well, honestly it looked a lot like the lounge back at Crossroads. There were couches lining the walls, what looked like hologram projectors for entertainment, and through an open doorway I saw beds. In the middle of the large room, about fifty or so Meregan children huddled together, clearly terrified out of their minds.

While we were taking all that in, the other three came charging in from the other side, leaving both of our groups just staring at each other over the heads of the scared Meregan kids.

“Uhh, are you guys okay?” I asked, a bit awkwardly. This didn’t exactly look like a dungeon.

Immediately, all of the Meregan youth started jabbering at me in their own language. Obviously, I couldn’t follow any of it even if they hadn’t all been talking over each other.

“Hold on, hold on!” I called out over the sound of their competing words. “Do any of you understand me? Can you speak our language?”

One by one, the tall children, all as big as I was even though they were clearly much younger, looked toward one of their number. He, a six-foot tall boy whose face made him look like he was about ten, hesitantly spoke up. “I… am the… speaking language for Man-Nicholas. You are the being understand?”

“Close enough,” I confirmed after glancing to the others. “We’re here to take you guys back to your parents. Do you understand? We have to move fast and get you out of here. Is everyone all right? You ready to see your families? Mom and dad? Parents?”

That caused some murmuring among them, and the one who had spoken tried again. “We-us are being taking the home for without being give the Man-Nicholas boy-thing-human-person?”

I had to think about that one, frowning in confusion. “What do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“Man-Nicholas is being hold us for keep safe but to trade to parent-people-families for boy-thing-human-person,” the Meregan kid stammered a little. “Man-Nicholas doesn’t not be wanting for us to be here, he is being-want-take child-long-many-childs from his blood with him.”

“Child-long-many-childs,” I echoed before snapping my fingers. “Descendant?”

“That is being ready-right-word,” the Meregan confirmed, head bobbing up and down along with several of the kids near him.

“The guy was holding them to trade for his descendant?” Sands echoed near me. “What descendant?”

I realized it at the same time as Shiori. Both of us spoke together.

“Tristan.”

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Against The Odds 9-07

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“So lemme see if I’ve got this straight,” Sean announced a bit later as he and the rest of my team stood in the Elvis docking bay along with Purin, Shiori, and Asenath. “The giant guys are aliens, she’s the vampire that helped save your dad from the bad guy, that kid we saw was banished here and cursed to stay no matter what they do, the guy you saw rescue the headmistress in your vision is now the bad guy that we have to rescue alien children from, and what else? Oh, right, the headmistress knows what we’ve been doing and has been sort of helping secretly from the background. That about sum it up?”

Thinking it through for a moment while tilting my head, I counted the points off on my finger before nodding. “Yup, I think that’s about the size of it.” I resisted the urge to look toward Shiori. It was up to her to decide if and when she wanted to tell people about her own situation and her relation to Asenath. Right now, considering the state she’d been in not so long ago, I couldn’t blame her for keeping quiet.

Sands, meanwhile, was staring at the vampire girl. She hadn’t really taken her eyes off Senny the whole time she’d been here. I was about to try stepping over to say something when Sands spoke up herself. “You’re a vampire.” Her gaze was still locked on Asenath, arms folded tightly over her stomach.

My mouth opened to say something, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Shiori about to speak as well. Asenath gave a minute shake of her head at both of us before focusing on Sands. “Yes. I am.”

Sands was quiet for a moment. I saw her mulling that over in her head, arms held even tighter against herself. When she finally spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “You really saved Flick and her dad?”

Slowly, Senny inclined her head in a brief nod. Her own voice was quiet as she replied, “It’s what I do.”

Again, Sands went silent, biting her lip as she looked first to her sister, then to the floor. She shifted her weight from side to side and stood like that for a minute before straightening and setting her shoulders. When she spoke, there was no grand speech or anything. She just said a single word. “Okay.”

And that was it. I could tell that Sands was still very uncomfortable with the idea of working with a vampire, to say nothing of the giant alien standing nearby. But she kept it down and pushed through it.

Columbus, still holding his sister’s hand tightly, interjected. “Sorry, I’m still stuck on ‘the headmistress knew the whole time.’ If she knows about this whole ‘Strangers aren’t always evil’ thing, why does she let the school teach us that they are? I mean, that kinda means a lot of dead innocents are on her head.”

Avalon, who had been quiet up to that point, made a slight snarling noise at him. “She’s doing the best she can. The Committee isn’t exactly going to let her start teaching that we should be friends with Strangers. Do you have any idea what would happen if the wrong person found out about her opinions and what she’s been doing? They’d tell the Committee and Ruthers would have an excuse to replace her. You think Heretics can be bad now? Without my mother heading things, it’d be a hell of a lot worse.”

“What I kinda wanna know,” Sean announced, rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head fondly while he looked between me and Shiori curiously. “Is how you two ended up on some alien world to begin with?”

Without missing a beat, Shiori piped up with an immediate, “I dunno, we didn’t exactly planet.”

She managed to hold onto the serious face for about three seconds before covering her mouth to muffle her own giggles, making a snorting noise against her palm as her face turned red from snickering.

The others were just staring at her, confused, while Columbus and I both put our hands to our foreheads. The boy recovered first, quickly embracing his sister. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but god I missed that.” He looked back toward me, frowning thoughtfully. “Whatever happened, thanks.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. It was up to Shiori to tell Columbus the truth if she wanted to. I hoped she would, because I really thought he could handle it. And as much as she had improved just from being able to talk to me about her issues, I thought being able to trust her brother with all of it was important.

Plus I kinda wanted to see Columbus’s reaction to knowing he was sort of Asenath’s brother too.

“Anyway, to answer your question,” I finally replied to Sean while tearing my gaze away from the adopted siblings. “The teleport probe was looking for my mom. It found me instead, because of my genetics and–” Stopping myself from saying too much, I finished with a simple, “things like that. So it got confused, thought I was my mother, and teleported me here. I guess Shiori just got dragged along.”

“Can we sort out the rest of all that stuff later?” Sands put in. “We’re supposed to be saving some kids.”

“Alien kids,” I pointed out mildly, watching the other girl’s reaction. “You’re really okay with that?”

Her eyes darted to me and I saw her flinch slightly before giving a very short nod. “They’re still kids.”

Avalon nodded once. “Right, my mother is going to wait for the rest of us to get into position before she confronts this Nicholas guy. But she says that the longer we wait, the more chance that he might be able to figure out what’s going on. Which means we need to get there as soon as possible.”

“And to get there,” Sean put in while staring at the collection of Elvises (Elvi?), “We’re going to take a ride on these… rocks.” His uncertainty and confusion was palpable as he squinted back at me.

“Aww, Sean,” I shook my head with feigned disappointment while putting a hand on his shoulder to squeeze playfully. “I’d think you of all people would know better, since you grew up around Heretics.

“Things aren’t always exactly what they appear to be.”

******

In the end, we split up, one pair to each Elvis. I went with Asenath since I had the closest relationship (as far as they knew) to her and was the most comfortable around the vampire. Meanwhile, Columbus and Shiori took one and Sands and Scout stayed together, which left Avalon and Sean to pair up.

What followed wasn’t exactly the most immediately professional ride back to the Nicholas Petan’s fortress city, but hey, the Elvises were fun to drive around and it took a minute for the others to work out all the controls. Not to mention getting the hang of working together the way the Elvises required.

But eventually everyone got the hang of it and we all followed Purin underground, tunneling our way through the sand, out of sight and hopefully unnoticed. It gave me time to catch up with Asenath, letting her know what had happened with Shiori, and hear about how her time with Dad was going.

Unfortunately, though the Meregan were able to make the trip shorter by bringing the ship significantly closer to the city, it was still long enough that it was almost sunrise by the time we got there. Which would have left Asenath in trouble, except that Gaia assured us she would take care of that.

Once we made it to the area overlooking the city, Scout sighted in on it with her rifle before bringing up the holographic image out the back so that everyone could get a much closer view of what we were dealing with. She scanned over the sixty foot high walls, the guard towers, and the massive tower in the middle of the city that was obviously Nicholas’s headquarters.

I stood out of the way alongside Shiori. The two of us glanced to each other while letting the others take in the sight, and I whispered, “You doing okay?”

Her eyes darted toward Columbus, then to Asenath, and she nodded. Her voice was low. “I’ll tell Columbus later. He deserves to know. The others… I know how you feel, but I can’t… I just can’t. Not yet. Maybe later. Maybe I’ll get there, but right now I just need time. Is that… is that all right?”

My voice softened. “Of course, Shiori. It’s your choice. I’m not going to push you. I get it. I really do.”

“So you’re telling us,” Sands spoke up then without looking away from the city. “We’ve gotta break into that fortress to save those alien kids? Flick, have you ever considered being a normal Heretic student?”

“Meh,” I gave an elaborate shrug. “Seems like it’d be pretty boring after going through all this stuff.”

Purin, who had been standing beside Asenath speaking in a low yet rumbling voice to the vampire girl for the past couple minutes while the rest of us were talking, straightened to his full height then. “I will being waiting here place with K’lecnahn. When children are being brought to outside wall, I will being calling Binsayeac ship to aborting distracting and come to pick up children and ally-friend-people.”

“He’ll wait here until we’re on the way out, then call their ship to stop distracting the rest of their army and come pick us up,” I translated for the others, who hadn’t adjusted to the Meregan speech patterns.

“Two distractions,” Columbus observed. “How’re we supposed to know when they’ve both started?”

Before I could say anything, Sands interrupted, pointing. “Uh, I think that’s a pretty good signal.”

We all turned, only to find what was obviously the Meregan ship hovering in the air just in front of the walled city. The thing was enormous, like a skyscraper carved out of stone and turned onto its side. It was longer on the bottom than the top, which rose up a bit right around the middle into what was obviously the bridge area, a wider and taller dome-like structure. Toward the end of the longer bottom section the ship split a little, its two sides leaving an open space between them where some kind of large orb of glowing energy the size of a couple cars hovered, crackling with obvious power.

The Meregan ship flew right up over the walls of the city, and as we watched, that glowing orb shot out a lance of energy that struck the nearest guard tower. The tower and its inhabitants immediately turned to stone, then began to crumble into pieces. They barely had a chance to know they were under attack.

“Uh, not to spoil our own fun,” Sean spoke with a raised hand. “But if they can do that, why are we even–” In mid-sentence, the boy’s question was answered as a dozen different shots from the city below struck the ship, sending it reeling upwards and back. The Meregan fired again, taking out a guard tower along the other side of the city before pulling out of the way as more shots came at them.

As we watched, the Binsayeac reversed and turned away, engines surprisingly silent rather than the roar I expected to hear. They turned around and flew away, high over the sand while the guards in the remaining towers continued to shoot after them. I heard the roar of the enemy Alters shouting threats.

Almost immediately, their army was dispatched to go after the Meregan. We watched from our place atop the hill as literally thousands of Alters of every shape and size went tearing out the gates and over the desert atop various vehicles. Some looked like cars, trucks, or motorcycles, while others were more of a science fiction bent, hovering or flying atop the sand. A few were even riding what I swore were horses, some of them just the same as the ones on earth while others looked distinctly larger and more reptilian. It was a completely random mix of familiar, archaic, and totally alien technologies.

And they were all, thousands of them, pursuing that ship, intent on ending this fight and the rest of the Meregan race while they were at it. So intent, in fact, that none of them noticed our little group.

“Okay, that’s one problem,” Sean spoke with a glance toward Senny. “What about the man in charge? And you know, what about our little sun problem? Because I don’t know about you guys, but personally, I’d rather get to know the cute vampire girl a bit more before she gets turned into ash.”

Senny gave him a bright smile and a thumbs up. “You’re taking this pretty well for a born Heretic.”

“What can I say?” Sean replied with a shrug. “Maybe Flick’s a really good influence or something.”

I snorted at that in spite of myself. “Yeah, or maybe you’re just a really easy going guy all around.”

His reply was a grin. “I’m pretty damn wonderful, aren’t I?” To Senny, he added, “To be fair, the fact that you’re pretty cute doesn’t hurt. Before I would’ve thought you were both hot and scary.”

“And now?” Asenath asked while arching a single eyebrow curiously, a smile touching her lips.

After thinking about it for a second, Sean replied, “Still hot and scary. But not entirely forbidden.”

Coughing and clearing my throat to hide my snicker as I spotted Shiori squinting suspiciously at the boy who was flirting with her big sister, I made myself focus. “Right, right, but that’s a good point. Gaia said that she’d ‘take care’ of the sun issue when she distracted Nicholas. What does that mean?”

The answer came almost immediately, but not from any of the people around me. Instead, the sky itself, having been growing progressively lighter with the approach of the sun, abruptly went dark once more. It was suddenly dark again, the steadily rising sun seemingly completely cut off without warning.

“What the–” I looked up, blinking in confusion. Then I saw them: storm clouds. There were thick, heavy, black storm clouds in the sky, totally blanketing the whole area around the city for several miles in every direction and leaving the area below shrouded in darkness, safe from the rising sun.

“Did… did Gaia just… snap her fingers and summon a storm?” Columbus stammered, his eyes wide as he looked between the sky and the rest of us, waving his hands a bit helplessly. “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” I teased in spite of myself. “Maybe you oughta try bringing her into your team too, Cyclops.”

He grinned back at me. “You think she’d go for it?”

My mouth opened to reply, but then I hesitated. “You know, I don’t think any of us know the headmistress well enough to say what she’d do. Except for Valley, maybe.” I grinned sidelong at my roommate.

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl as she squinted at me. “It’s been killing you to resist using that since you heard it, hasn’t it?”

My head went up and down as quick as it could. “It was hard!” Sobering, I hesitated before adding, “But seriously, if it really bothers you, I promise I won’t use it. If it’s like, between you and her.”

Avalon looked back at me for a few seconds, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Then she gave a slight shake of her head. “No, Chambers, I don’t mind you using it.”

“So Valley is o–” Sean started.

Avalon snapped a hand out, putting a finger against his forehead to stop him. Her voice was low. “I said I didn’t mind Chambers using it. I didn’t say anything about you.”

Well, apparently whatever powers I’d inherited from the Strangers that Shiori and I had fought hadn’t included an immunity to blushing. Cross that one off the list.

“Do you think your people are gonna be okay?” Asenath asked Purin then, while I was still getting myself under control. “That was a pretty big army.”

In reply, Purin gave a quick nod. “They will being very well. Better being when children are found.”

“In other words,” Avalon announced while starting down the hill, “we should hurry the hell up.”

As we raced on our way toward the hole that the destroyed tower left behind, I caught up with my roommate, turning slightly to speak to her with a lowered voice. “Are you and Gaia gonna be okay?”

At first, she didn’t respond. Then she gave a single nod. “Yeah, Chambers, we’ll be fine. We both kept secrets. We talked it out. Don’t start feeling guilty or anything. It was my choice to keep her out of it.”

I fell silent then, distracted briefly in spite of myself by the distinct motion of Avalon running. When I turned my head away, my gaze found Shiori moving alongside Columbus. Her eyes rose to me and the other girl immediately gave a smile that made my heart skip a little bit.

Oh boy. Oh wow. Was I really attracted to two different girls? And Shiori and Avalon were both extremely different, in almost every conceivable way. Yet I clearly liked both of them, despite the fact that I hadn’t really felt that kind of attraction to a girl before. It was all new and… well, kind of confusing. What was my type if I found both of them attractive? And what about all the guys that I’d been attracted to in my life? I still found Sean just as good-looking as ever, especially the thought of him shirtless. Just… wow. Yet I was obviously drawn to girls as well. It left me thoroughly confused. Was this what it meant to be bisexual? Was it that simple? Because I couldn’t explain it any other way. I was apparently attracted to both boys and girls, and very different boys and girls at that.

I knew one thing for sure as we raced across the sand toward the fortress city. And that was that this was really, really not the right time to be sorting this out in my head. So I put it aside, locked the thoughts away as well as I could, to deal with them later.

Because now? Well, now it was time to go be heroes.

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Against The Odds 9-06

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My eyes were wide with shock as I blurted out loud without thinking, “W-wait, what?! What do you mean, it was him? You’re talking about that noble guy that rescued you and Seller? He’s the bad guy?”

Gaia turned her attention to me, raising an eyebrow. “Ah. So that was your vision after all. I wondered about that. Your mother saw something… else.” Head tilting then, she added, “And you know Seller.”

Part of me wanted to reflexively flinch at that, but after thinking about it for a second, I just nodded. “We met when I visited home, just before everything happened with Ammon. Avalon set it up because I needed answers about my mother and why she and Deveron were erased from the old yearbooks.”

The older woman started to nod at that, then paused in mid-motion. I saw the way her forehead slowly wrinkled in apparent confusion before she looked up to me again. “Excuse me? Your mother and who?”

Blinking once, I went over what I’d said in my head briefly before replying, “Deveron? You know, our joke of a mentor? Mom’s classmate back when she went to Crossroads and later partner in crime? His stuff was erased from the yearbook to—aaaand you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

From the look on the woman’s face, it was clear that she didn’t. “No,” she confirmed flatly. “I’m afraid I have no idea. Which would seem to imply that the Mnemosyne spell was used more than once.”

“Mnemosyne spell,” I echoed. “You mean the spell that erased Mom and the rebellion from everyone’s memory.” Giving a quick glance toward Asenath, I added, “You mean they erased Deveron too, and this time they included you in the effect? Why? Why would they let you remember Mom but not him?”

Gaia shook her head. “The question is more complicated than that, I’m afraid. The Mnemosyne spell is entirely too complicated and power-intensive for it to have been cast without the knowledge or input by myself or any of those loyal to me who would have spoken up. The fact that it was cast without any of our knowledge is proof that it was not cast by Ruthers or anyone at Crossroads. It can’t be done.”

Shiori, shoulders hunched as she stepped back between me and Asenath, spoke up. “Eden’s Garden?”

“No,” Gaia responded quietly, her eyes narrowed in thought. “The original spell, to remove Joselyn from memory, required the input of the most powerful members from both Crossroads and the Garden. There is no conceivable way that they could have done it alone for Deveron Adams.” Looking up to me then, she added, “You said that he was your mother’s partner and schoolmate? Do you have any idea why he is at Crossroads now, or why his demeanor has changed so much in the past few months?”

“Sorry,” I replied while shaking my head. “I was kind of assuming that you put him in with us as a guide or something, or a clue or… I dunno. If you didn’t have anything to do with it, and the rest of Crossroads or Eden’s Garden didn’t either, then who the hell erased him and put him in the school?”

“That,” Gaia murmured quietly while fixing her stare on the floor, “is an extremely good question.”

For a moment I thought the woman was going to say something else about it. Instead, she simply shook her head before turning her attention back to the Meregan. “Nicholas Petan has harmed your people?”

The three tall figures looked to one another, clearly conferring silently before Gavant gave a single nod. “Enemy-Nicholas Petan has been killed many of our people. Not as many as Threat-Fossor.” His voice cracked a little. “The Threat-Fossor has been killed most of… most of our people. Enemy-Nicholas Petan has been killed some of the remains. But his focusing is not been for killing, but for taken.”

“Taking,” Asenath put in. “You mean your people. He’s been stealing your people. Your children.”

“That’s why they needed help,” I confirmed. “They sent for Mom, but… well, I don’t think Fossor was going to let her go out on a day trip to save a bunch of enslaved children.” Even saying his name made me shake a little bit, hand clenching until I felt something soft touch it. A glance down showed Shiori brushing her fingers gently against mine without looking at me, a slight blush touching her cheeks.

“I am aware of some of the situation.” Gaia’s voice was quiet and thoughtful. “But the fact that it involves Nicholas… this seems to be a much bigger threat than I originally assumed it was.”

“I don’t get it,” I started uncertainly. “He was a great guy when he saved you before. He was all honorable and stuff, like some noble knight. What—why the hell is he enslaving children now?”

Gaia’s response was a sight. “Honestly, I wish I knew. I lost contact with Nicholas… a very long time ago, even by my standards. What he’s been doing, or why he’s even here, is beyond me. I didn’t even know he was still alive.” Then her eyes narrowed. “But it is a question that I’ll be certain to ask him.”

“You’re…. you’re gonna help then?” I asked slowly, biting my lip before pressing on. “I mean, you’re actually gonna help the Meregan get their children back, even if it means fighting against Nicholas?”

“Fighting will not be my first resort,” Gaia informed us. “But if it comes down to it, yes. I will press the man for answers. Whatever his explanation, I will make certain that he does not harm anyone else.”

Asenath moved up near me, Shiori still sandwiched between us. Her eyes were narrowed, and I was pretty sure she was still plenty suspicious. Not that I could really blame her, to be honest. “If you expose yourself like that,” she pointed out quietly, “you make it harder to save the kids later. If he knows you’re involved, it gets rid of the element of surprise. He’ll put even more guards on them.”

Rather than debate the point, Gaia gave a single, accepting nod. “Yes. That’s why we won’t actually be asking him to release them. I will go to him and request an explanation. While he is… shall we say occupied, the rest of you will be rescuing the children and bringing them back here. As I said, regardless of what his eventual explanation may be, the Meregan young belong with their families.”

Surprise hit me, and I blinked at her words. “You—you still want us to go in there and rescue them?”

Gaia’s head dipped in a slight nod. “Yes. I will either get satisfactory answers from Nicholas, or distract him long enough for you to do what is needed. Either way, the children will be returned to their home.”

I had to admit, it was a better plan than I’d had. We’d honestly had no particular way to deal with the Heretic, even before finding out just who he actually was. Now, with Gaia focused on him, we could (hopefully) handle the smaller threats at least long enough to get those kids back where they belonged.

And yet… “We still need help,” I informed the headmistress firmly. “You haven’t seen that city they’ve got out there. It’s not just a little encampment, it’s a whole walled fortress. Maybe we’ll get in and out without being seen, but if not, we’re gonna need more than just us to get those kids out nice and safe. Even if you’re distracting Nicholas and the Meregan are distracting the bulk of his army. That’s why we were trying to contact the rest of my team. They…err, wait, crap, did you know that they knew?”

There was obvious amusement in Gaia’s gaze as she looked at me silently for a moment, a smile tugging at her lips before she spoke. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I am not aware of everything you’ve been up to, but I know that you have convinced Avalon and the rest of your team to help you investigate. Even Sandoval, which is a very high mark in your favor, for the record. And it proves that you are indeed your mother’s daughter. The way that Joselyn was able to pull people to her side, it was… well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I have been jealous of it in the past. Your mother is a brilliant leader.”

Something thick caught in my throat, and I had to look away for a second. Folding my arms against my stomach, I forced out a long, low breath before returning my gaze to her. “Were you keeping an eye on me the whole time? After Mom disappeared, I mean. Was Crossroads really watching for that long?”

What looked like a sad little smile touched the woman’s face that time, and she was quiet for a moment, briefly lost in her own thoughts and memories. “Yes,” she finally answered in a voice that was so quiet it was almost inaudible. “Well, Crossroads as a whole watched you because the Committee is convinced that you’re still in touch with your mother somehow. Some, led by Ruthers, believe that she was playing the long game, pretending to take herself out of your life so that we would be more likely to accept you into the school. They think that she has been secretly training and teaching you this entire time, just out of our sight, so that you might work to convert our ‘real’ students to her way of thinking.”

I stared at her open-mouthed, but it was Shiori who blurted, “That’s…. stupid! Flick isn’t—her mom wouldn’t—I don’t even know her mom and I know that’s stupid! She left her family for a decade just as part of a plan to mess with Crossroads? How… how… how arrogant are they?! Do they really think that everything revolves around them? How—how out of touch—how stupid—how crazy are–” After that, the other girl just sort of devolved into incoherent stammering, occasionally getting an actual word out.

It was Asenath who quieted her, putting an arm around the girl and leaning in to whisper something against her ear that actually made Shiori give a snort of amusement. She was still flushed with indignation however, and glanced toward me before clearing her throat. “Err, I mean it’s really dumb.”

“There are others on the Committee who agree with you,” Gaia replied easily. “That’s why nothing overt was done. Ruthers advocated picking you,” she looked toward me, “up as soon as possible. Nothing that bad,” she added quickly, “the other members of the Committee wouldn’t have gone for it. But his plan was to have you placed with a Heretic family, out of your mother’s reach and influence. He almost had them sold on it, even played up how much safer you would be with active Heretics than if any of those nasty Strangers happened to come across the great Joselyn Atherby’s daughter unprotected.”

I wanted to scream. Actually, fuck it, I did scream. “You mean he came up with that point after it was too fucking late?!” My yell echoed through the room and made Tristan jump, but I didn’t care. I was seeing red. “They threw my mom under the bus, just tossed her out into the world where anyone could find her, and only after some psychopath takes her away do they think about how vulnerable that is? And even then, it’s just part of a stupid fucking excuse to keep her child, me, away from her?!”

Gaia’s head bowed, and I saw the way she flinched. “I’m sorry, Felicity. I’m very sorry about… everything. I genuinely tried to find your mother after she disappeared. I wish I’d done more now. I wish there was more I could have done. As it was, it took all the clout I had to make the Committee see reason and leave you where you were. You belonged with your father. Taking you from him at that point… I don’t think he would have survived it. My efforts, they were centered on that, on keeping you where you belonged. By the time I was free to really search for Joselyn, the trail was just too cold. It was my choice to focus on keeping you with your father, and I would make the same choice again. But for my further failure to find your mother, to save her from this… this monster, I am very, truly sorry.”

“Yeah,” I started to speak, but my voice failed me for a moment. I had to take a breath before starting again. “I’m sorry too. But right now, those kids are still missing. And we still need the rest of my team.”

She didn’t respond at first, falling silent again for a few seconds. Then Gaia gave a slight nod and gestured toward the pool where the fountain was. The water rose once more, and I saw the image change. Instead of showing the beach, we were now seeing the hallway just outside the twins’ room.

The door opened a second later, and the two of them came hustling out together. Sands was saying something about checking with Avalon one more time. In mid-sentence, both girls went right through the portal and ended up taking several steps through the fountain before their brains caught up.

“What the–” Sands blurted, twisting around while yanking her mace into her hand. Her eyes spotted the three Meregan, and I saw the way she took a quick step through the water toward them. “Hey!”

Scout, meanwhile, had spotted the rest of us and laid a hand on her sister’s arm to stop her before pointing our way once Sands looked back toward her. The mix of confusion in both of their eyes as their gazes flicked from the Meregan and Asenath, to Shiori, Tristan, and me, then to the headmistress and back on through the line again was almost amusing. They were both completely lost.

“Flick, Shiori!” Sands blurted. “H-Headmistress? Wait, you… you said they were… wait. You said they were doing some secret job for you, but—but…” Stammering, she looked back to the Meregan.

“Hello, Sands,” Gaia greeted her calmly. “Hello, Scout. Please come out of the water, there’s a lot to talk about, but we need to bring the rest of your team over as well. Trust me, everything is… well, not fine, but well enough as far as you’re concerned. It’s all right.”

Leaning closer to the woman, I spoke quietly. “You told them we were doing a secret job for you or something?”

The headmistress gave a faint nod without looking. “It wouldn’t have been right to let them continue to tear their hair out with worry. Especially poor Columbus.” She looked toward Shiori then. “Simply leaving him in fear for what happened to his sister would have been utterly irresponsible and cruel.”

Slowly, Sands and Scout climbed out of the water. “Okay…” Sands started, still clearly feeling very defensive. She was clutching her mace. “But why are you standing next to a Stranger, and why are there giant strangers over there, at least I assume they’re Strangers even though they don’t feel like it for some reason, and…” She trailed off, eyes flicking toward me, looking for answers.

“It’s okay, Sands,” I assured her. “Both of you, it’s fine. She knows. She knows about my mom and all that. She’s on our side. I mean—you know what I mean. We’re not in trouble. Well, technically we are because there’s some bad, bad stuff going on, but the headmistress, she’s with us. You can trust her.”

“You?” Sands looked completely aghast as she stared at Gaia. “You’re part of this… this Stranger love fest? But you’re the head of the school that teaches us all about how evil they all are! Why–huh?!” That last noise sounded like the verbal manifestation of poor Sands’s brain slipping one of its gears.

“It’s a very long story, I’m afraid.” Gaia intoned with a slight smile. “Your teammate can tell you some of it. For now, we need to focus on assisting these innocent people.” she gestured toward the Meregan.

“Hello,” Purin called, waving a hand enthusiastically. “We are being glad to having meet you.”

Sands looked at the man, mouth working in silent confusion while Scout silently waved back.

Tristan, for his part, waved enthusiastically before practically sprinting that way to start talking at the two girls. Obviously, the poor kid (who should have been our age… the Heretic world was weird) was still pretty starved for human interaction.

“Now then,” Gaia cleared her throat. “To the others.”

It went on like that. Gaia pulled through Sean and Avalon next, the latter of which looked as close to utterly shocked as I’d ever seen her. Once she realized what was going on, her face actually pinked a little. “M… mother…”

“It’s quite all right, Valley,” Gaia assured her. “We’ll talk later, but… I understand.”

Valley… Avalon… Realizing that it was a shortened nickname, my eyes lit up and the girl immediately shot me a warning look, raising a finger to quiet me.

It did not, however, stop me from snickering as Tristan, standing out from the rest of us, blurted while staring at my roommate, “Ho-holy crap, dude… are you like… a… a movie star or something?”

She ignored him. Which, to be fair, was pretty reasonable for Avalon. She must like the kid or something. Maybe finding me safe had put her in a really good mood. Even teasing myself with that thought made me blush, and I found myself looking between Avalon and Shiori thoughtfully.

Vulcan, meanwhile, left Sean’s side and came running up to where I was. Smiling, I crouched down to greet the mechanical dog, rubbing his head before nodding to the boy himself. “Hey there, guys.”

Next, and finally, Gaia brought Columbus through. The boy was on his way down the stairs, taking them several at a time so that he came through the portal in mid-jump, making him crash straight down into the water with a sudden surprised yelp. “Wha—blllrggphh!”

Shiori was in the water before he had recovered, hauling her brother back up before grabbing onto him in a tight hug. “Columbus! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry so much. I’m sorry I ignored you. I’m sorry I was so out of it. I’m sorry, please forgive me, please. I love you. I didn’t mean to push you away, please don’t be mad at me, please?”

Looking totally taken aback, Columbus froze, standing there in the water for a second. He looked at us, then to the Meregan and then back again.

Then he just hugged his sister back, leaning down to whisper something before clutching her tighter. His second whisper was a bit louder, just enough to make out. “I missed you.”

“So…” Sean spoke up a moment later, turning away from the two of them. “Not that I don’t love going on a field trip with my school principal, my team, a little kid, a bunch of giants and… whatever you are,” he nodded toward Asenath. “But why are we here, exactly?”

“Well, Sean,” I replied after glancing toward Gaia.

“We’re about to rescue some really, really big children.”

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Against The Odds 9-05

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In the past several months, I’d repeatedly had to reassess my standard for what the true definition of being dumbfounded was. Seeing Gaia Sinclaire simply take control of alien teleporter technology while standing on a different world entirely and just nonchalantly step into the room like that took my previous definition of that word and punted it all the way down the field. I was so thoroughly shocked in that moment that I couldn’t make actual words come out of my mouth. There were just vague sounds.

In the end, it was seeing the Meregan, beings twice my size with technology beyond what I could even begin to understand, shrinking back from her that snapped me out of my shock. “H-headmistress!” I blurted while having absolutely no idea whatsoever what I was going to follow that single word with.

Her eyes turned to me, and I started to talk. The words just poured out. “You can’t hurt these people, yeah I said people because that’s what they are. I know they’re big and I know they look strange because they’re sort-of giants but that doesn’t make them evil. Yeah I know what everyone says at the school you’re in charge of and I know all of that but I think you have to do evil things to be evil.”

I was so… well, honestly terrified in that moment that the words kept coming. I was nervous so I babbled without even waiting to see how the woman was reacting. “And if you don’t do evil things I think that should mean you’re not really evil but according to your school someone is evil just because they were born different from human which really seems sort of umm, bad if you think about it which I really think you should because the letter from my mom said I could trust you and oh yeah I forgot to mention I know my Mom was a Heretic and I know I should’ve come to you sooner before this all spiraled out of control but I really, really, really, hope she was right and I really can trust you because there’s something bad happening now but they aren’t the ones doing it and if you’ll just wait a second-”

“Felicity,” Gaia spoke calmly, snapping my attention back to her. She was holding one hand up placatingly, her other hand at her side. The single word without any particular inflection or threat behind it shut me up immediately and more effectively than I could ever remember happening before.

Once I was quiet, she continued. “When I said that there are many things we need to discuss, I did not mean that each of those discussions should take place simultaneously within the next thirty seconds.”

My mouth opened and then shut again, but before I could find any more words, someone else spoke. “H-headmistress.” Shiori was on her feet, looking just as terrified as I felt, or possibly even worse. She was standing slightly in front of Asenath. As scared of Gaia as she clearly was, the girl still stood straight, planting herself between the vampire and probably the most powerful Heretic we’d ever met.

Asenath, on the other hand, clearly wanted to put herself in front of her little sister. She had a hand on the girl’s shoulder and was obviously attempting to make her stop holding herself in the way.

“Good morning, Shiori,” Gaia greeted her as simply and calmly as ever. “I see you’ve met your sister.”

Well shit, then. Even the past few months of total surprises hadn’t made me adjust my standards for being dumbfounded quite that quickly. That time, all I managed to do for a solid ten seconds or so was openly gape. Behind me, I was pretty sure that both other girls were having fairly identical reactions.

In the end, it was Tristan who broke the resulting stunned silence. The kid was standing at my side, staring up at Gaia as he blurted out loud, “Holy crap, are you Jean Grey?” When her eyes turned that way, he shifted somewhat behind me while continuing. “I mean, you sort of look like her. You know, from the comics? It’s just the—the red hair and the pretty and the, umm, yeah.” He made a sort of all encompassing gesture with his hand. “I mean, obviously you’re not, but no one else was talking.”

“I’m sorry,” Gaia answered, sounding truly regretful. “I’m afraid I’m not really her, no.”

“Wait… wait, just… just…” I held up both hands, feeling flustered and confused. Looking toward the spot where Asenath and Shiori were standing, having settled for being side-by-side when it became clear that neither of them would accept the other being in front of them, I hesitated. Then I turned back to the headmistress. “Baroness, Headmistress, Professor, Miss, whatever you want me to call you. You mean you’re not here to-I mean you’re not gonna—you know that Asenath is her—you know Asenath?”

“Pardon me one moment, please.” Holding a hand up to us, Gaia looked toward the Meregan. “Noble peoples. You have my every apology for using your transportation technology without your express permission and guidance. If any damage has been done, I will ensure that it is taken care of. You have my word that I mean neither any of you nor any of your allies, friends, family, or companions any ill will or intent. So long as myself and my students are safe, I have no particular quarrel with you.”

Gavant lifted his head, watching the smaller woman for a moment warily at first. “That is… being good, Else-Leader-Gaia. We are wishing no harm to you or yours as well. The beacon was not been hurt.”

It probably said a lot that the rest of us remained totally silent through this, until Gaia turned back our way. “Now, to start with, no, I do not know Asenath personally. I have, however, heard of her through several stories and acquaintances, including her long-standing alliance with one Joselyn Atherby.”

“Mom,” I spoke quietly, mostly under my breath while trying to process that. So Asenath really had worked with my mother after all. Since she obviously would have brought that up before, that fact must’ve been wiped out of her memory by the spell that erased everything else about my mother’s rebellion from everyone’s mind. Whatever else I could say about it, that spell was pretty thorough.

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “Your mother. You know about what happened to her then, and why.”

“I know she led some kind of rebellion against the idea of killing every Alter in the world just because they’re not human,” I replied, watching the other woman’s reaction. “I know it went on for a long time, even after she was captured. And I know that a bunch of Heretics did some kind of spell to erase the memory of what she did from pretty much everyone’s mind just to stop the rebellion from continuing.”

After glancing away briefly, Gaia gave a single nod before speaking again. “That is true. Your mother, young as she was in the grand scheme of things, was able to lead a rebellion against those much older, more experienced, and with greater resources than she had. She was able, on her own, to fight those who should have been far stronger than she was. She was not just a great and inspiring leader, but had also somehow found a way to gain enough power to stand toe to toe against Heretics that should have been much stronger than she was, all things considered. That is what truly made the rebellion as powerful as it was while Joselyn was in charge of it. The Heretical leaders could not risk an open fight as easily as they could with any other form of conflict, because their victory was not guaranteed.”

“But if you knew all this, if you remember all of it, then you couldn’t be a part of the rebellion,” I pointed out, confused. “You’d have to have been a part of casting the spell that erased those memories.”

Gaia nodded. “You’re right, I was not a part of the rebellion. Not… openly. I felt, and your mother agreed, that the teaching of students at Crossroads was too important. If I left, or was seen as a real ally to Joselyn and her people, I would have been replaced by one much closer to Ruthers. My place was there, a quiet ally who would help where I could without giving away that connection to her enemies.”

“And they believed that,” I spoke slowly. “They believed you were on their side so much they didn’t even erase your memories about Mom or the rebellion. They… they included you in it.”

“Yes,” she acknowledged, meeting my gaze. “I added my power to the casting of that spell. But more than that, I was the one who suggested it be used, and that Joselyn be returned to the Bystander world.”

Staring at her, I demanded, “Why? Why would you do that? You obviously don’t think that every Alter or Stranger or whatever you call them should be killed, and Mom left that message about trusting you. So why, why, why would you help them erase the memory of her from everyone? Why would you help them turn her into an ordinary human again? Why would you do any of that instead of helping her?!”

Gaia waited quietly until I was done before responding, as simply as ever. “Because she asked me to.”

Well, that threw me yet again. Eyes wide, I stared while sputtering, “B-because she—what the hell?”

“You know that your mother spent more than a decade imprisoned, while the rebellion continued,” Gaia began to explain. “Toward the end of that time, Ruthers, the former Crossroads headmaster and the Committee member most devoted to ending that rebellion, came up with a plan to destroy them once and for all.” She went quiet briefly, wincing. “He planned to unleash a blood plague onto them.”

“That sick son of a bitch!” Asenath abruptly blurted, eyes wide as she took a quick step forward. “Are you serious? Is he fucking crazy? No, scratch that, of course he is. Why the hell isn’t he locked up?”

“Wha—I don’t get it, what’s a blood plague?” I asked while looking back and forth between the female figures. Shiori, who had moved up with her sister, looked just as confused and lost as I was.

It was Asenath who spoke. “A blood plague is what my father’s people, the Akharu, had done to them. Against most people, it’s an enslavement tool. Their blood itself is cursed so that they and anyone connected to them, depending on the exact spell you use, is uhh, they’re slaves. They’ll follow the orders of whoever cast it for the rest of their lives. So will their children, and their children’s children. It won’t just enslave them, it’ll enslave all future children they ever have. Forever. There’s no real cure.”

I stared at the other girl for a second, but it was Shiori who spoke, sounding just as uncertain and lost as I felt. “B-but you’re not a slave. And I don’t think your dad was? So… what, what happened?”

“The Akharu were too powerful at that point for that spell to work that well against them,” Senny explained. “They were already… okay, it’s a long story, but they were basically practically immortal already by that point. The blood plague couldn’t enslave them, because their own regeneration kept working against it. Instead, it just sort of… paralyzed them. As long as the infected blood was in their system, it left them completely paralyzed. They couldn’t move at all. They were alive, but… frozen. Turned out that they could put new blood into their system to counteract the effect, but that blood would be infected eventually. So they had to keep adding new blood every once in awhile. Hence…”

“Vampires,” I realized. “That’s why they have to keep drinking blood. But you’re not a full Akharu.”

“They went looking for a cure,” she replied softly. “When they got to Earth, the Akharu found out they could change humans into vampires. And they could have children with humans because the human blood of the offspring counteracted the curse, so their hybrid children, like me, weren’t born slaves.”

“So… so Ruthers was going to use some magic blood curse to enslave not just the rebellion, but any children they ever had, forever?” I felt sick inside, almost physically staggering from the thought.

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “He was waiting for approval from the rest of the committee. The majority still opposed the idea, but he was wearing them down with each successive month. I don’t know how long it would have taken for him to be given the approval he needed, but it was inevitable. Those against the plan were only a majority by one vote. At least one of those who were appalled by the idea would bend, or even die and be replaced by someone who would approve of the idea. It was only a matter of time.

“So, I went to Joselyn. I told her what was happening. Together, we came up with the only possible course of action that we could. We had to offer the Committee a different solution, one that would not result in such… barbaric action. Because it is possible to undo a memory spell. It would even be possible to make your mother into a Heretic again. But the blood plague, that could not be fixed. The Akharu have searched for such a cure for thousands of years without any success. We had to give the Committee another plan, one that would seem less extreme yet still accomplish their goals. Your mother volunteered to have her memory taken away from the people, and her power taken away from herself, in order to protect them. She surrendered everything she had worked for throughout her entire life in order to save her people from an eternity of slavery. If you learn nothing else in your life, know this, Felicity. Your mother is the most heroic person I have ever known in my long life.”

Rocking backwards on my heels from that, I worked my mouth a bit before managing, “What about her children? Her other children, I mean. Who are they? Where are they? What happened to them?”

“First, they were taken in after she was captured,” Gaia began in a slow, careful tone.

Before she could continue, however, Asenath interrupted sharply. “No.” When our eyes turned that way, the vampire girl continued while shaking her head. “You’re wrong. They weren’t taken after Joselyn was captured. They were taken before. That’s the whole reason she was captured.”

It was Gaia’s turn to look confused. Her eyes narrowed a bit. “I’m sorry?”

Asenath’s expression held a look of silent fury, a rage at what she was about to say clearly boiling over in her. “Your people, your… Ruthers, he killed children. His people set fire to a building where our families were kept, where the civilians were, where the children were. They set fire to the children’s rooms as a distraction, then they killed the guards in the nursery and stole Joselyn’s babies right out of their cribs. They wanted us to be so busy protecting and saving the rest of the children from the fire just so they could steal Joselyn’s in order to use them as leverage against her. Ruthers and his people killed innocent children that day, and used more innocent children, Joselyn’s children, to threaten her into surrendering. That’s why she turned herself in. That’s why she let them take her. That’s Ruthers’s great victory.”

Gaia looked as sick as I felt. Her voice was quiet. “Joselyn never told me… she never corrected the record that her children were taken after she surrendered… she never… “ Sighing, she lowered her head. “She was still protecting them. Still protecting everyone from that maniac.”

“Yeah,” I blurted, “And now she’s in the hands of another fucking psychopath, and this one happens to be an immortal necromancer with some kind of ash obsession.”

That brought Gaia’s gaze up. “So you do know about Fossor and your mother.”

“Fossor,” I spat the name darkly. “Yeah, I know about him. I know he took her. And you know why? Because he came for me, to turn me into a weapon against you guys. He thought it would be funny to turn Joselyn Atherby’s daughter into an obedient little toy to use against you and the rest of the Heretics. Mom convinced him to take her instead. I was seven years old and she sacrificed herself again. He’s had her for a decade. He’s got a son with her, a fucking son that’s a god damn psychopath himself! Do you know what that means? Do you know what he—what he’s done? What she’s gone through?!” I was shouting by the end.

Gaia’s face was pained. “Felicity, I… I’m sorry. Yes. I know what sort of torture and pain she has been put through. I know what she allowed to happen. If we can find her, if we can save her, I promise you that we will. Damn Ruthers, damn the committee, damn our entire society. If I can save Joselyn, I will. You have my word on that. But I will also keep you safe, and that means protecting you from the committee as well. As hard as it may be, you cannot openly rebel against them. You cannot let on that you know any of this. You must be patient.”

Before I could respond to that, Shiori spoke up. “What about me?” She took a step away from Asenath, waving the other girl back with a hand while keeping her eyes on the headmistress. “You called Asenath my sister. You knew she was a vampire, and you knew as soon as you came here that she was my sister. You knew everything. You knew before you came here. You knew while I was still in Crossroads. You probably knew even before I got there, didn’t you? You knew what I am, and what I… what I saw, what I was… what I thought.”

Gaia’s eyes closed, and I saw her flinch slightly before returned the other girl’s gaze. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “I knew who your mother was, and what you were, Shiori. I knew of your relation.”

“Why?!” Shiori blurted out loud, her voice raised into a yell. “Why would you do that? Why would you let me keep thinking I was a monster?! You had to notice what I was doing, how much it hurt, what I was… you had to know, so why didn’t you stop it?!”

Gaia’s response was simple. “I did.” Lifting her hand, she took Shiori’s and tugged her closer before enveloping the other girl in an embrace. “Did you think that you left that notebook behind accidentally, or that the specific bit of paper that would lead Felicity to realized your connection to your sister just happened to fall out right in front of her? Sometimes the best action is an indirect one. You needed help. But not from me. You needed it from Felicity. I simply pointed her toward you.”

My mouth was working in silence for a solid fifteen seconds before I finally managed, “I… god, there’s so many things I need to ask you. I’ve got questions, so many questions. But their kids,” I pointed back toward the Meregan. “Their children, the last of their race, are in danger. If you’re really on our side, if you’re really not some psycho kill all the Alters person, you have to help them. Please, please, Headmistress, please help them. They’ve been enslaved by some Heretic and he’s going to wipe out their whole race, or just enslave all of them.”

“A heretic?” Gaia lifted her chin, still embracing Shiori. “Who?”

“I—I think they said—what, Nicholas?” I asked the Meregan.

Gavant nodded. “This is being his name. Enemy-Nicholas Petan.”

Gaia’s face actually paled a bit. “Oh dear.”

“What?” I blurted, looking at her with confusion. “Do you know him?”

Slowly, the woman nodded. “Yes. I know Nicholas very well. My first encounter with Alters, as an ordinary bystander, was when I was taken and imprisoned by a group of orcs. I was taken along with another man that you likely now know as Seller, Avalon’s mentor.”

“Nicholas Petan is the man who saved us from those creatures.”

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Against The Odds 9-04

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A few minutes later, I got to see what it had looked like when Shiori and I had been transferred over. It… wasn’t anything special. Just like I hadn’t noticed that we were in a new place until afterward, I almost missed the fact that Asenath had arrived. One second there was no one standing in the designated space, and in the next, the vampire girl was suddenly there. It even took my Stranger sense a second to kick in to warn me that ‘ooh there was a big scary Alter standing there.’

Asenath had appeared with her back to us, facing the wall. She immediately pivoted back the right way, her gaze passing over the trio of tall Meregan just long enough to give them a nod of greeting before focusing on me. “Flick,” the deceptively-young looking vampire started smoothly. “Are you o–”

In mid-sentence, the girl stopped. Her head tilted slightly, and I saw her nostrils flare a little bit as she sniffed. A little frown creased her forehead for a moment as she sniffed once more. Then, silently, she took a few short steps to the side, crossing around behind me to where Shiori was partially-hidden.

At first, Asenath said nothing. She just stood there, watching the other girl with an unreadable expression. Meanwhile, Shiori just sort of shuffled from one foot to the other, unable to lift her gaze from the floor. The girl’s cheeks were pink, and I could see her mouth open and shut a couple times.

Even the Meregan didn’t say anything. They were aware of just how important this moment was. And Tristan, well, he was sitting nearby, watching what was happening with interest but staying quiet.

My own mouth opened to say something witty, but I stopped. No. Forcing the urge to break the silence back down, I made myself remain silent. This wasn’t about me, and it didn’t need any of my help.

Slowly, Asenath reached out a hand. With two fingers, she gently touched the bottom of Shiori’s chin, tilting it up. Bit by bit, the other girl’s gaze rose, until the two of them were face to face, eye to eye.

Gradually, the emotionless mask fell from Asenath’s face. I saw her wince, her lower lip trembling just a little before she spoke quietly, her voice filled with sudden understanding and regret. “Oh… Oh no.”

Before Shiori’s face could finish crumpling at the admittedly bad choice of words, Asenath stepped forward and embraced her. I could hear the other girl’s gasp as Senny wrapped both arms around her tightly. She spoke again, repeating her words. “No, oh no. I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. I’m sorry.”

Standing straight, clearly taken aback as her wide eyes found me, Shiori managed a weak, “Wh-what?”

Without releasing the girl, Asenath spoke quietly. “I didn’t know what was happening, what you were going through. I didn’t know who you were. I had no idea you were with the Heretics. If I’d known where you were, what you were going through, I would’ve.. Reathma, you must have been so scared.”

“I… I…” Shiori floundered a bit, stammering while Senny held onto her. “You know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are,” Asenath confirmed with a tiny smile. “You think I wouldn’t recognize the scent of my own sister? I’ve made a whole career out of tracking family members for other people. Trust me, if I couldn’t figure out who you were at first scent, I’d be the worst vampire in the world.”

“But I—but you–” Falling silent briefly, the other girl hesitated. Finally, she very slowly lifted her hands to tentatively touch Asenath’s shoulders in a very tentative hug that she clearly wasn’t very certain about. “I thought I was a monster,” she whispered. “They said people like me deserved die.”

I saw the way Asenath stiffened before lifting her head to look at her sister. “Hey, listen to me, okay? I’ve been around for about two hundred and thirty years, and if there’s one thing I’ve figured out it’s that drinking blood and living a long time doesn’t make someone a monster. You know what does? Doing monstrous things. Human, Alter, Hybrid whatever you call yourself. Evil actions are evil actions.”

“I wanted to find out about my family for so long,” Shiori admitted quietly. “I kept looking for anything. And then when Professor Dare showed up to talk to Columbus and me, I thought maybe that’s why my parents disappeared, why they gave me up. I thought they were heroes, h-heroic monster slayers and they were just trying to pr-protect me. But then I saw the v-vision from the Heretical Edge a-and it was my mother giving me up. I s-saw her, she was a… a vampire. She was a vampire, and I thought that meant I was a monster too. I thought th-they’d kill me if they found out. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to t-talk to or wh-where to go. I—I… I think they know something’s wrong.”

Asenath was shaking her head, leaning back a bit to look down at the other girl. Her fingers tilted Shiori’s chin up once more. “I’m going to tell you something right now, and I want you to pay attention, okay? Both of your parents, our mom and your dad, are heroes. They did let you go to protect you, and it was very, very hard for them. It hurt so much because all they wanted to do was take care of you.”

She sighed then before continuing. “But our mom… our mother, she has enemies, enemies that wouldn’t think twice about killing a baby to get at her. That’s why she had to send you away. Hell, that’s gotta be why she let them give you a Japanese name when both our mom and your dad are Chinese. She was hiding you so that her enemies wouldn’t have a chance of tracking you down to use against her.”

Shiori barked a short, humorless laugh then, shoulders shaking. “I don’t think that worked very well.”

Making a short, slightly amused shoulder shrug, Asenath admitted, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect you to end up with the Heretics. It should’ve been impossible. Hybrids aren’t ever picked up by the Edge. That’s one of the reasons we keep them secret. If Heretics knew there was a way for Alters to produce offspring with humans, offspring that they couldn’t detect, they’d go nuts with paranoia. Knowing them, the crazy ones might even come up with a way to detect you, and then hybrids would be in even worse danger. So we push the idea that it’s impossible just so they don’t have any reason to start looking that hard. The easiest way to protect something is to make your enemy think it can’t exist.”

Shiori was quiet for a few seconds before looking up again. “Do you think there’s others like me? You said the Edge isn’t supposed to pick up hybrids. But it picked up me, s-so there could be others. Others that think they’re monsters, th-that keep hearing about how evil they are and… and don’t know what to do about it. Maybe even in o-older classes. They might’ve been there for years, hearing that… stuff.”

Wincing a little noticeably, Asenath gave a slight nod. “There might be, I really don’t know. If you were taken there, I… hell, I’m surprised the Heretical Edge even worked on you. It… seems impossible.”

“So there might be others,” Shiori murmured. “Th-there might be others that are as scared as I was… am,” she amended with a little shiver. “I’m still scared. If they find out what I am—who my mom is…”

“Hey,” Asenath was holding her tighter, I could tell. “I won’t let that happen. You don’t have to go back. You can stay with me. I’ll take care of you, I promise. You don’t have to go through that anymore.”

For a few seconds, Shiori didn’t say anything. Slowly, her arms fully enveloped the other girl, hugging her older sister with much less reservation. I saw the way she pressed her forehead against Asenath’s shoulder, giving a noticeable shiver before she spoke quietly. “Yes, I do. I do have to go back there.”

Before Asenath could object, she went on. “My brother, Columbus, he’s there. My team is there. Even if they’d think… even if they’d turn on me, I have to go back. I can’t run and hide just because—just because it’s easier.” Giving a helpless little shrug, the girl murmured, “And if there’s others like me in there, others that that’ve been in my position, I have to try to find them. I have to try to help them.”

“Even if it’s safer to come with me?” Asenath’s voice sounded strained, even a bit lonely, and I thought a bit about what she’d said before about how she tended to lose people. As she’d said, she had her own abandonment issues. “I’d like to have a sister around. It… it’d be nice to have someone else to talk to.”

“I’m not saying no to having a sister,” Shiori spoke carefully then, leaning back to look at the much older girl. I saw the way their eyes met, the half-sisters, born centuries apart. “I want to have a sister. I want to know you. I want to know our—our mom, everything. But I’m not going to run and hide. All those people that the Heretics help, they do help them. Just because there’s problems doesn’t mean they’re all wrong. You don’t fix things by running and hiding. You fix them by… by working on them.

“Besides,” she added with a brief glance my way. “I… kinda don’t want to leave Flick now. Not after everything we’ve already been through. Not after what she said, what… she really made me feel better.”

Asenath was quiet for a second before she looked over at where I was. “Thanks for helping my sister.”

I shrugged a little at that, smiling in spite of myself. “Hey, you helped my dad. What else could I do?”

Returning my smile with one of her own briefly, Asenath then turned her attention to the waiting Meregan. Her tone turned a little more proper, and she made a brief bowing motion. “You have my apologies for my rudeness in not addressing you properly, sirs and miss. I’m afraid even with all the time that I’ve lived, I haven’t actually met any of your people, so I don’t know your correct greetings.”

“It is being well,” Gavant assured her. “We are being know well the missing of peoples and family. You are not being need to apologizing for such emotion. Please, do not being allow us to be interrupting.”

I saw the way Asenath bit her lip hesitantly, eyes glancing toward her little sister before she gestured. “Does that mean you don’t mind if I talk to her for awhile? We’ve got a lot to catch up on, then you can tell me about this threat, and the kids that are in danger. Unless there’s something urgent that we can-”

I shook my head. “We’ve gotta wait until we can pull the rest of my team in anyway. You can talk.”

She raised an eyebrow, watching me with a doubtful look. “You’re bringing in the rest of your team?”

“I know what you’re thinking.” I let out a long sigh before going on. “And yes, it’s not ideal. But we need help. And if we’re ever going to convince people that the way the Heretics are going about things is wrong, if we’re ever going to change what’s happening, we have to start somewhere. I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than with my own team. If I can’t get them to work with a vampire to save a bunch of children, then… then there’s no hope at all. And I’d personally rather not believe that.”

Asenath stepped away then to have a talk with Shiori, and I moved back over to where the Meregan were. My eyes found the spot where Tristan was, and I hesitated before addressing them. “You found Asenath just by using a bit of Shiori’s DNA or whatever, and some thoughts about her. Can’t you do the same thing to find Tristan’s family? He said he remembers having a mom, a dad, and a sister. He remembers being in a house. Can’t you use that and his genetics and do your little tracking thing?”

Poor Gavant look ashamed, glancing away with a flinch. “We have been tried. We are being trying more and more. This spell that is been blocked him, that keeps being return him to this world, it has being affecting our efforts as well. Without more information of what has being done, we cannot probably being do any better. But, we will not being stop trying to be finding Friend-Tristan’s family.”

“What about your own kids?” I asked then, frowning. “You could pull Shiori, Asenath, and me off a completely different world. Couldn’t you just use the technology to locate and transport your children?”

That time, it was Alecra who spoke, her voice clearly sad. “We have been tried that as well, many times. Enemy-Nicholas Petan is being aware of our power and was made protections against it.”

“Protections like the ones around Crossroads,” I realized with a sigh. “The same reason we have to wait until Avalon’s out on the beach before we can contact her and get the rest of my team out here.”

From there, I just moved to sit next to Tristan. I figured the kid could use a human to talk to. He couldn’t really tell me anything about his family or what happened to him, of course, but I managed to get him talking about other things. We should have been the same age, so I still remembered everything he did about movies, toys, games, and cartoons. It was… a little odd talking to a twelve-year old boy about stuff we both liked when we were seven-years old. But I got over it pretty quick, and we just chatted.

Before I knew it, my phone was beeping to let me know that it would be time to get up if I was home. Which meant that it would be time for Avalon to be down on the beach, considering her usual schedule.

Straightening up, I brushed off my legs and glanced to the other side of the room. Asenath was sitting there with Shiori, the latter actually asleep with her head in Senny’s lap while the other girl gently stroked her hair. For a second, I stood there and smiled at the sight before moving to where the Meregan waited. “All right, so how do we find Avalon without using any of her DNA or anything?”

“You were said that she would being on beach area where you and Friend-Shiori were being found?”

I nodded to Alecra. “Yeah, she always goes jogging around now. I mean, assuming she hasn’t changed that up since Shiori and I were taken, which… shit, she might. I mean, if they won’t let anyone out of the shield… oh crap, oh crap, why didn’t I think of that before now?” Raising my hands to my head, I let out a low groan of frustration. “Damn it, what if she doesn’t come out? What if none of them do?”

Purin laid his massive hand on my shoulder. Well, his palm was on my shoulder anyway. His whole hand covered a lot more than that. “You must being calm yourself, Friend-Flick. If there is being trouble with locating your friends, we will be settling that problem when it is being proven to exist.”

Breathing out, I made myself calm down, looking at the man with a slight smile. “You’re right, I get it. Deal with the problem if it presents itself. Right now, just focus on what we know. So how do we find her, assuming she is on the beach?”

Alecra answered. “We will being simply return the beacon focus to where it was finding you and Friend-Shiori before. If Other-Friend is there, we will being see her.”

I started to nod, then paused, glancing to her. “Hey, uhh, I thought of something else. That statue outside, the one of my mother. They said it was supposed to be some kind of message thing to let her know what was going on when she appeared. But then you said that Mom should’ve appeared in here, not outside. So why was the statue out there?”

The Meregan woman made what looked like an embarrassed smile. “The Message-Stone should being appear as near as possible to where its intended person-to-being-hear it is. It tried to being appear to you when you were being arrived here. But the Binsayeac had not even power ready. It could not being project Message-Stone far enough. It only had being put Message-Stone as close as it could.”

Nodding slowly, I glanced toward the water fountain. Already, the image in the water was showing the beach. Seeing that, I smiled. “Hey, look.” There was a female figure, slightly obscured by their nearness to the ‘screen.’ “You found her after all.”

All three Meregan looked confused, then turned their attention to the fountain as well. Gavant was talking. “We had not been done anything yet.”

“Wait, what?” I blinked, equally confused. “You mean you didn’t turn on the beacon thing? Then how did it–”

The figure on the beach came even closer to the fountain screen then, and reached out a hand. That hand actually came out through the screen, appearing inside the room with us. Then she took another step, crossing the whole way through the screen to end up inside the fountain in the middle of the room.

“Well,” Baroness Gaia Sinclaire spoke calmly while straightening to her full height.

“I believe we now have many things to discuss.”

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