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.”