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.”