“Well,” Columbus announced a few minutes later as our group stood in the room that we’d been directed to wait in while Gaia sorted out a truce between Nicholas and the Meregan. “That just happened.”
“Yuuup,” I drawled absently, keeping my eyes on the opposite wall as I thought about what the man had said. My mind was reeling, hadn’t stopped reeling since Nicholas had finished his pronouncement.
Not that he’d had much more to explain beyond that, only that these Seosten had, for some unknown reason, created the effect that made most of humanity incapable of recognizing or remembering Alters.
After that very brief exchange, we continued standing there in the room in relative silence for another minute or two, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I couldn’t begin to understand what Sands, Scout, and Sean might be thinking. They’d been raised in Heretical society, so the idea that the Bystander effect was some kind of artificial thing forced on humanity had to be hitting them harder than me.
With that thought, I looked toward the twins to see how they were doing. Scout was sitting cross-legged on the floor, chin in her hands and elbows on her legs as she looked off into space with an unfocused gaze. Whatever she was thinking about, the quiet girl clearly wasn’t in the mood to share.
Sands, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in front of her sister. She was chewing worriedly at her fingernails while muttering intently under her breath. I couldn’t actually hear most of it, but the few words I managed to pick up sounded an awful lot like she was reciting the story that Professor Ross had told us about Hieronymus Bosch’s encounter with the Hangman demon. She didn’t sound happy.
My mouth opened to ask the other girl what she was thinking, but before I could say anything, she turned abruptly. Her gaze flicked over me before focusing on the figure a little bit to the side: Asenath. The vampire was currently crouched down on one knee, petting an eager and very happy Vulcan (who didn’t seem to mind the fact that she wasn’t human one tiny bit as long as she gave him belly rubs).
“Hey,” Sands spoke up to get her attention. “Va…” Trailing off, her expression changed to a slight wince before she forced a correction. “I mean, what was it… Asen… Asenad—I don’t remember what–”
“Asenath,” the vampire calmly informed her with an even expression, looking up from the mechanical dog without stopping her gentle rubbing. “A-S-E-N-A-T-H. The name’s from the bible. You know, wife of Joseph, he who wore the coat of many colors, among other fables.” Her eyes moved to Columbus, who was opening his mouth. “And no, that’s not me. I’m not quite that old. Centuries, not millennia.”
He shrugged. “Hey, when Bystander history class is taught by the Virginia Dare, you never know.”
Sands pressed on, clearly trying to do so before she lost her nerve. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of the vampire girl. “Asenath. Sorry, I’ve got it. Asenath. I was just… you’re a… I mean you’re a St—Alter.”
“That’s right,” Senny confirmed, looking very slightly amused as she gave a single nod. “A vampire, like you said before. It’s okay to say the word. Vampire. It’s what I am. Though I do prefer my name.”
Sands went silent, biting her lip worriedly for a second. Then she let out a long breath and straightened, looking directly at Asenath once more. “Well, have you ever heard of these Seosten assholes then?”
“Would you believe the answer if I gave one to you?” Senny asked with a raised eyebrow.
Dropping her gaze briefly before looking up again, Sands met her gaze in silence for almost half a minute, just staring into Asenath’s eyes before she finally spoke. Her voice was tentative, though it grew stronger with each passing word. “I really wanted you to be evil. Not just you, all of you. Strangers, Alters, whatever. I really, really wanted you to be evil. I wanted you to be monsters. Part of me kind of… still does. Sort of. It was just… it would’ve made everything so much easier, you know?”
“It was easier to think you were just hunting evil creatures with no morality,” Senny replied in a quiet voice. “Easier to think that your family, your friends, everyone you know were only killing bad guys.”
I saw the way Sands swallowed hard before nodding. “Yeah, that’s… I don’t want my Dad to have killed good—I love my dad. I love my family. I want them to be the good guys. I really, really want them to be the good guys.” Her words trailed off into a whisper before she looked away with a visible flinch.
Senny stood and took a couple steps that way, voice quiet. “Sandoval, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your father to be a hero. Nothing. You have nothing to be ashamed of, do you hear me? I am not offended. I understand. And your father, he’s… obviously saved a lot of people’s lives. Knowing that there are good Alters out there doesn’t change that. It doesn’t take away from the good he’s done.”
“But it’s not just that,” Sands insisted, glancing down at her sister before sighing. “He’s killed a lot of Strang—Alters. And he’s taught so many other Heretics that went on to kill even more of them. It’s exponential. And our mother, and—she was—I don’t… I can’t—It was just easier if you were all evil.”
Asenath lifted a hand, gently laying it on Sands’ shoulder. The other girl flinched a little and stiffened, but didn’t pull back. “You can’t judge yourself by what you do with the wrong information, only by what you do when that information is corrected. You’re right, it’s easier when everything is black and white. So I guess the question you have to answer now is, what are you going to do now that it’s not?”
The answer came after only a second of hesitation. “I don’t know,” Sands admitted with a little shrug. “But mostly, right now, I just want to repeat my question. Have you ever heard of the Seosten?”
Senny’s head shook. “No. Maybe under a different name. There’s a few different Alter species that specialize in possession, but nothing that’s ringing a bell right now. They’d have to be very old and very powerful. Old enough that my father didn’t know anything about them. He just thought the Bystander effect—he didn’t call it that of course, but he just thought it was something you Heretics did to them.”
While Sands sputtered, I was the first to find my voice. “Something Heretics did to humanity?”
It was Shiori who spoke, her voice interrupting before Senny could reply. “Sure. Heretics keep so many secrets anyway. Why wouldn’t Alters think that hiding the supernatural from humanity to ‘protect’ them from it was a Heretic plan. Sounds pretty in line with some of the other things we’ve heard about.”
I quickly spoke up while Sands’s eyes moved to squint at the other girl. “I think the point is that none of us knew that the Bystander Effect was something made by some other group, whatever their reasons were. Which means we’re probably not going to find any information about them back in Crossroads.”
“So…” Sean started uncertainly while looking first to me, then to the others. “What do we do about it?”
Avalon, who had been silent up to that point, finally spoke up. “Nothing. We don’t do anything about it.” Once everyone was looking at her, she continued. “One, Chambers said it herself. There won’t be any information at Crossroads about it, and that’s where we’re going. And two, we have got more than enough to worry about as it is. There’s just nothing for us to go on, and if we spread ourselves too thin looking into everything, we’ll never get anywhere. So, we focus on the issues we already have and leave this whole Seosten thing for later. If more information presents itself, we’ll worry about it then.”
Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I nodded. “She’s got a point. We’ve got entirely too many problems to deal with as it is to go throwing world-spanning mysteries on top of them. Whatever these Seosten are up to, I doubt their millennia-long plans are going to come to a head in the next few months.”
“So we focus on the mysteries we’ve got,” Columbus agreed. “Like who killed Professor Pericles.”
“Or who wants Avalon dead so badly they’re working with people from Eden’s Garden to get it,” Sands added after taking a seat next to her sister. “Which might be the same people. And are probably the same ones that summoned the zombies into the school, even if the teachers don’t think it’s connected.”
“Don’t forget Flick’s mom,” Shiori put in quickly. When the others looked at her, she shifted back a bit with a slight blush of embarrassment. Her voice turned to a mumble. “What? I know about stuff now.”
Smiling in spite of myself, I reached a foot out to poke the other girl’s leg. “Don’t worry, we’re not forgetting about my mom. Which reminds me, we still need to see if there’s any information in the school about whatever Ammon is. I mean, I know Crossroads teaches that Alter-Stranger hybrids are impossible, but there’s gotta be something in there, even if it’s purely theoretical or whatever.”
While the others were agreeing with that, I snapped my fingers, looking toward Avalon and Sean. “And that reminds me. I can tell you guys about what we found in the security room now.” Coughing, I hesitated before plowing ahead. I told them about my having two older half-siblings, and everything that Gaia had added about that, including the fact that she’d been close to telling me their names but kept getting interrupted. At some point, I was going to corner that woman and make her spit out the information before anything else happened.
“So Flick’s got older siblings too,” Sean announced, head tilted curiously. “That’s what you guys kept trying to tell us back at school?”
Columbus rolled his eyes. “Dude, you have no idea how many different ways I tried to make you remember it. It’s written on pretty much every wall of our room. Also on the ceiling. And there’s post-it notes all over your text books with the—you get the idea.”
“Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things we shouldn’t be forgetting again, there was that voice you guys heard,” Sean pointed out while nodding toward Sands and me. “The one that helped you fight that annoying son of a bitch from Eden’s Garden. You think that’s related to all this?”
I shrugged. “I think it has to be, at this point. And we still don’t know why Deveron’s in the school after he graduated a hundred years ago, why his attitude has changed so much since last year, or why no one remembers him. Even the headmistress doesn’t remember him being a student, apparently. So someone else erased him. Or he’s just–” I blinked, frowning thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s been possessed?”
“It seems to me,” Avalon pointed out, “that one of these Seosten would do a better job of blending in and behaving the same way he did last year if it was a simple case of possession. And it still wouldn’t explain much. Why use him at all when they could just possess one of the other students? They’d have to erase everyone’s memory, reduce his age, possess him, then act completely different from one year to the next. It just gets too complicated. Like I said, we should focus on what we have already.”
“Right, focus. If the world will let us,” I muttered before brightening. “At least we’re all on the same page now. And we have a fresh set of eyes to help. One that’s separate from our team, just in case.”
“Oh, that’s me!” Shiori piped up, lifting her hand and bouncing a little adorably. She cleared her throat, trying and failing to sound serious. “And I know just where we can go to find everything we want.”
“You do?” Sean asked, before Columbus’s flailing arm could slap the boy hard enough to stop him.
“Yup!” Shiori was grinning. “We just have to go to the Satisfactory.”
Columbus was pointing at me. “You. I blame you for the puns starting up again.” Despite his words, he seemed genuinely happy about that. I was about to tease him, before he spoke again and cut off any rational thought I had. “You turned her on, didn’t you?”
My only solace for the fact that it took me a solid minute to stop coughing and choking was that Shiori was in the exact same position.
Not very long after that, I was back on the Meregan ship, in the portal room embracing Gavant as well as I could. It felt like hugging onto my dad back when I’d been a very little girl. “Thanks for everything. You were my first, um, straight up aliens. Maybe next time we can go out into space.”
His massive hand patted my head gently. “We are being the grateful for you, Friend-Flick. You and Friend-Shiori, and Other-Friends have been done more for us than we can being thank any for doing.”
Purin spoke up. “We are being sorry that we have been brought you here to fight which is not yours.”
I shook my head quickly, releasing Gavant to hug Purin while Shiori took her turn. “Don’t be silly. You needed help to find your kids. Now you’ve got them. Plus you don’t have to fight Nicholas anymore.”
“Yes,” Gavant smiled while giving Shiori a head pat as well. “We are being have our children. That is been very good. And,” he added while looking at me. “It is something we will not been forgetting. When Friend-Flick or others need help, Meregan people will been there. Only need calling for us.”
Swallowing, I stepped back, glancing across the room to the portal. Most of my team was already heading through under the watchful eye of Gaia. They hadn’t spent as much time directly interacting with the Meregan. Only Columbus was staying back, waiting for his sister to finish saying her goodbyes. At least, that’s what he thought he was waiting for. In reality, Shiori wanted a chance to talk to him about what she really was without anyone else listening in, and Gaia was making sure she got it.
To that end, I turned my attention to the nearby boy, setting my fist against his shoulder before pushing. “Hey, Tristan. You’re heading out with your great, great, however many greats grandfather, huh?”
The kid nodded up and down quickly. “Yup. He’s already got some clues about where the rest of my family is. Plus he’s gonna teach me how to keep all his monster-people in line. You know, just in case.”
“I think the first step is to not call them monster-people,” I pointed out with a little smile, glancing toward the corner of the room where Asenath was standing. She gave me a slight nod while chuckling.
“I’m gonna see you again, right?” the boy pressed, his eyes intent on mine while he caught my hand.
“Yeah,” I promised. “After all, the Meregan still owe me a trip in space, and I plan to collect it.”
By that point, Shiori had taken Columbus by the hand and was leading him away from the group and into the same corner of the room that Asenath was waiting at. I could read the confusion on the boy’s face about what his sister wanted to tell him, but turned my attention away to give them privacy.
Instead, I gave Tristan a quick hug before stepping over to where Gaia stood. “Let me guess, when we’re back at Crossroads, we can’t talk about this stuff openly anymore.”
Her head dipped in a nod. “I’m sorry, but we do have to be more discreet. It’s impossible to say who might be listening at the wrong time. You and your friends should mostly be safe as long as you exercise caution, but as the headmistress, there are far more eyes on me most of the time. I would like to say that you should visit as much as possible, but I’m afraid the people who believe that you are a spy for your mother would see that as evidence that we are conspiring.”
“Which we are,” I pointed out mildly.
She smiled a little bit, bowing her head in amused acknowledgment. “Yes, which we are. But we hardly need to give them even more ammunition. At least until some of this settles down, it is probably better if we aren’t seen as cooperating that directly. If you need to send a message, you may do so through Avalon. Her visits will not be seen as anything strange.”
“I’ll do that,” I promised before taking a breath to steady myself. “You know what I’m gonna ask now though, right?”
She met my gaze. “You wish to know the identities of your older half-siblings.”
“Yes,” I confirmed emphatically. “We kinda figured out that we just keep adding new mysteries and issues. I’d like to solve at least this one while we have the chance. You said you knew them back before we were… interrupted.”
“I do.” Gaia nodded, a slight smile touching her face. “Though I’m not actually supposed to. Ruthers did his very best to hide them so that no one would know where they came from. But… I have my ways.”
She let me stand there like that, staring at her pleadingly for a few seconds before relenting with a chuckle. “All right, all right. Your older siblings were separated. Ruthers believed that was the best way to keep any of the rebellion from locating them, particularly their father, whoever he was. And no, that is something I do not know. The identity of Joselyn Atherby’s husband was a closely guarded secret.
“As I said, the twins were separated. Your brother was raised by a Heretic family. Knowing you were going to be here this year, I hired him to perform… security functions.”
I blinked once, then again before straightening. “Wait… Wyatt? You mean… you mean Wyatt is my…”
“Your half-brother, yes,” she confirmed. “I must caution you to be careful. Very few know of his relation to you. Not even Wyatt does, yet.”
I was trying to comprehend the idea that the ‘crazy’ security guard, the… enthusiastic guy who had thought that I was skipping class my first day on the island, was my older brother. It was… a lot to take in.
Gaia, however, had more surprises in store. “Your sister, meanwhile, was raised by a Bystander family. She’s still out there. But her daughter was brought to school just this year as well.”
“Her daughter…” I trailed off, frowning thoughtfully before my eyes snapped to the other woman’s. “Koren. Back when we picked out our weapons, I almost took the Hunga Munga because I felt drawn to them. But Koren did take them. Which means Wyatt is my brother and Koren is my… niece?” Boy did that ever feel weird to say. I reeled backward a step, trying to wrap my mind around that.
“That is… correct,” Gaia nodded after a momentary pause. “What do you plan to do with this information?”
I hesitated before shrugging a bit helplessly. “I guess I’ll do what Mom would want me to.
“I’ll get to know my family.”