“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 returned 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.”