“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.