Month: August 2016

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-01

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“Okay, how? How do you do that?” I demanded while looking sideways toward my companion as the two of us strolled across the grass of the school grounds. There weren’t that many students around, since it was the morning of Thanksgiving break and a lot of people had already headed out to see their families. Still, the ones who were around still were waving and calling out greetings or even jokes.

“How do I do what?” Tristan asked casually while catching a half-full bag of popcorn that someone tossed him while passing. Calling a thanks to them, he tilted his head back to pour some into his mouth.

Taking the bag from him, I poured some into my mouth as well and chewed before answering. “That.” I gestured back the way we’d come, toward the guy that had passed him the bag. “You’ve been here for like… a week and you’re already friends with basically everybody. How do you do that so fast?”

It was true. Even in the short time that he had been around, Tristan had somehow managed to learn pretty much everyone’s name (and no, he didn’t have some perfect memory like Vanessa did. I checked), even some of the people from older years. It seemed like every time I saw him that he wasn’t with his sister, the boy was playing Frisbee with some of the second years, or hanging out on the beach with a bunch of our classmates, or even setting up an after dark barbecue. He was almost constantly active.

Even more than that, he seemed to take an incredible amount of joy just in including everyone. He went out of his way to make sure that everyone had fun. And somehow just seemed to intuitively know when someone should be left alone or when they needed attention. I’d met people that were full of life before, but Tristan was just insane. He was charismatic, gorgeous, and just plain fun to be around.

The boy shrugged easily while taking the bag back to have some more. “I dunno,” he replied. “I just like talking to people, I guess. I mean, when you’re as awesome as I am, you’ve gotta share the wealth.” His words were light, teasing me as he raised an eyebrow, flashing me that perfect, model-worthy grin.

“Besides,” he added then. “Have you seen this place? Of course I’m having fun. Once you get past all the rules and the–” Looking both ways while somehow making it look casual, he lowered his voice. “–fact that a lot of these people would kill me if they knew anything about me, it’s practically paradise.”

In spite of myself, I snorted. “That’s a pretty big asterisk you threw onto that ‘practically’ there. But at least you’re sure adjusting well.” I shook my head slowly. “Though I’m pretty sure your sister would prefer if you spent a little more time studying. And, you know, actually making it to class on time.”

“Yeah, I need to work on that whole schedule thing. Nessa’s gonna find a way to strangle me in my sleep if I’m late again. Totally my bad.” Slipping a pair of sunglasses from his shirt pocket, the blond boy slid them onto his face. “But what can I say? This school’s just got so many cute girls–” He used a finger to tilt the sunglasses down so he could look at me over the top of them. “–Present company most definitely included, it seems like a waste to spend so much time stuck in some stuffy old classroom.”

Flushing a little bit, I coughed. “Don’t forget that whole ‘not drawing more attention’ thing. Since giving certain people an excuse to look too closely at you and your twin could be a bad idea.”

Grimacing at that, Tristan’s head bobbed. “Fair enough. Sorry, it’s just… I’m here! I’m on Earth. Do you have any idea how long I dreamed about this? And, well, I’m not used to the whole class thing. My education was much more… hands on. This whole book studying thing, it’s not really me.” Before I could say anything, he pressed on. “I know, I know. I need to learn, gotta catch up. I get it. You’re right. I’ll do better. Besides, it’s vacation right now! No more school talk. You’re heading out soon, right?”

“Yup,” I nodded. “I would’ve been gone already, but Shiori had some things to do this morning. And since she’s coming to spend time with Senny… well, here I am.” I took back the bag of popcorn again.

Tristan snapped his fingers. “Right, Nessa’s out with her right now. She volunteered to help take care of her little friend out in the jungle while you guys are gone. I guess Shiori wanted to introduce them.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, I coughed. “She told Vanessa about Choo already? Wow, those two must be getting along even better than I thought they were, cuz she’s pretty protective of the feisty little guy.”

Chuckling, Tristan rubbed a hand over his forehead. “Yeah, ever since Nessa found out there was someone else around here in our… situation, she’s been picking poor Shiori’s brain pretty much every night. You should’ve seen her reaction when she found out the headmistress already knew about her.”

Yeah, as it turned out, Gaia had known that Vanessa was another one of the half-Alter students. She hadn’t known exactly what kind of Alter, or about her relationship with Tristan. Apparently, tracing that kind of lineage was harder when the rest of the family had been magically banished to other worlds.

“Speaking of Gaia,” I nudged the boy. “Is the team solution still just temporary?” For the moment, Tristan had been put onto the same team as his sister, and was in his own dorm without a roommate.

Taking the bag of popcorn back from me to empty the last of it into his mouth, Tristan shrugged. “She said we’ll see what opens up next semester. Right now I’m just supposed to be playing catch-up. Which, by the way, are her words, because I would not stick ‘playing’ anywhere near that much work.”

“Baby,” I retorted while elbowing him. He caught my arm and spun me around easily, making me yelp.

Releasing me after winking in a way that made me blush again, the boy balled up the empty popcorn bag and tossed it into the nearest trash can as we passed by. “The point is, it’s sure gonna be lonely around here while you’re off having Thanksgiving. It’ll be so bad, I might even get all my work done.”

Rolling my eyes at, I poked him in the shoulder. “Yeah, sure. You’ll be here all by own lonesome self. You know, along with your long-lost sister and all six dozen of your brand new friends, Mr. Popular.”

He grinned once more. “Well, sure. Believe me, spending time with Nessa is just… amazing. She’s… pretty much just like I remember. At least, I think she is. The whole memory thing is still a little fuzzy.”

Biting my lip, I glanced toward him. “Sorry you guys still don’t get to spend Thanksgiving with your parents. I was hoping Gaia might have a better idea of how to find them by this point. Especially after she found out that Vanessa’s your sister. I thought it might, you know, give her an idea or something.”

“Hey, it’s not her fault,” Tristan replied while giving me a serious look. “And it’s not your fault either. Nick was looking for any kind of information about them for years and couldn’t find them. Of course, all that means is that they weren’t on any of the worlds in the dimensions that we happened to check.”

Snapping my fingers at that, I looked to the boy. “Hey, yeah, I meant to ask you about that. Vanessa was kind of going on about it the other night. What’s that whole ‘dimensional time travel’ thing?”

Chuckling, Tristan stretched his arms up over his head before answering. “Nessa gets it more than I do. Which is weird, since I was the one that was involved in it. But the point is, the way time travel works… or at least the method Nick used for me, is like this. You only get one existence per timeline per dimension, reality, whatever. Only one. So if you’re here at Crossroads right now, you can’t also be in Paris at the same time. You can only exist in one instance in the same dimension at the same time.

“Plus, you can’t go forward in the same dimension either. Because it counts your dead body as existing. Even if you’re buried, gone, and rotted away. It’s just the way the rules work. So if you want to travel in time, you have to either go to a time where you haven’t existed yet, before you were born. Or you travel to a different dimension. You travel to a different reality and you’ve got a fresh slate. You can travel to anywhere in that timeline because there is no existence of you until you actually show up.”

I nodded slowly at that. “And because you were sent away from this reality when you were seven years old, you didn’t have an existing instance in this reality beyond that point. So you could time travel back, for you, to this time. But you couldn’t, say, go back to when your family was broken apart and stop it.”

Swallowing, the boy shook his head. “Nope. And trust me, because I asked, more than once. Never mind the whole paradox thing. It just flat out won’t even let you do it. Apparently just having two of the same person at the same time is enough to wipe every version of you out of existence completely.”

Shuddering at that thought, I looked toward him. “Well, however it happened, I’m glad you managed to get here, Tristan. And tell Vanessa that when I get back from this whole weekend holiday thing, the three of us are going to sit down and talk about… everything. We’ll find your parents, somehow.”

Looking at me seriously, Tristan quirked the side of his mouth up into a very slight smile. “Hey, you’ve got a lot to deal with already. The killer thing, that crazy teacher that hates Avalon for some reason, the big bad necromancer, your family… trust me, I’ve waited this long, I can wait a little longer. Take care of what you need to, Flickster. Don’t try to take on too many problems just because they’re there.”

“Hey,” I shrugged, raising both arms. “If I didn’t over-reach, I wouldn’t be me. Besides, we’re going in to visit Tangle in the hospital after Thanksgiving. And I’m pretty sure we’ll get some answers then.”

“Gonna bust some kneecaps until the comatose woman talks?” he teased.

Rolling my eyes again, I snickered. “Sure, you know me. I’m all thug-life.” I made a few fake goofy and exaggerated gang signs with my hands.

“Uh huh.” Tristan arched an eyebrow. “And if you go by the Wuyehn sign language, you also just said that your pink fluffy cabbage sings beautiful show tunes.”

******

After leaving Tristan, I made my way to someone else that I needed to talk to before leaving for the holiday. In this case, it wasn’t hard to find him. He was waiting for me beside the girl’s dorm.

“Deveron,” I greeted the boy… man… whatever, this was confusing. Guy. I greeted the guy.

“Felici–” He stopped, breathing out. “Flick, sorry. Listen, I know you’re probably in a rush, but I–”

Nodding quickly, I interrupted. “It’s okay, I was just going to come find you. I figured we should… you know, talk before I leave. Unless it’s past midnight and you’re gonna turn into an asshole again.”

Snorting, he dropped his head into an accepting nod. “I’ve got that coming and a lot more. I get it.” He cleared his throat then, looking back to me seriously. “But yeah, I’d like to chat. Somewhere private.”

“Well, the beach is pretty busy,” I pointed out. “But we could go up to the roof.” Nodding that way, I added, “After all, it’s not like anyone could listen in if you don’t want them to. Which, by the way, I am practicing.” He had taught us how to use that anti-eavesdropping spell, but it was complicated. Out of our entire team, Scout was the only one of us who had actually gotten it to work properly so far.

“You’ll get it,” he assured me before gesturing toward the roof. “After you.”

So, the two of us headed around the back of the dorm to the ladder before climbing up onto the roof. Once we were there, I waited for Deveron to set up another one of those privacy coins of his before speaking. “He really loves her, you know. My dad, he loves my mom. Even now. As far as he knows, she abandoned him, abandoned both of us. But he still loves her so much it… it really messed him up when she disappeared. I mean, I know you love her too. You guys were married. But so does he.”

His face softened a little and Deveron nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he replied quietly. “Believe me, Flick, it would be a lot easier for me if I could just hate your dad. But… I can’t. Because when it comes down to it, he’s gone through the same thing I have. They took Joselyn away from us. And I just can’t hate anyone that’s felt that. I love your mother. But I’m not gonna pretend that your dad’s love for her isn’t just as valid. I…” he stopped, taking a breath before pushing on. “All I care about right now is saving Joselyn. Whatever happens next, we can work it out. Right now, saving her is what actually matters.”

Meeting his gaze for a few seconds, I finally nodded, managing a slight smile. “Good.” After another moment of hesitation, I shifted awkwardly before asking, “So what’re you doing for Thanksgiving?”

Raising an eyebrow at me, Deveron shrugged. “Staying here, pretty much. They do a pretty cool Thanksgiving meal for anyone that’s here over the holiday. Chef Escalan goes all out. There’s a rumor that someone once even saw the guy crack a smile. I’m not sure if I buy it or not, but here’s hoping.”

Smirking in spite of myself, I admitted, “That’d be something to look forward to. But seriously. I don’t know if Koren’s talked to you yet or not, but we’re doing this thing at her family’s new house later in the evening. Apparently they’re having a big party with lots of people, and we were talking about how having you and Wyatt come by as father and son—only, you know, reversed, would be pretty cool.”

That time, his smile was genuine. It looked a lot different from his fake smirk. Warmer. I could kind of see why my mother migh’ve fallen for him. “I’d like that. I’ll uhh, talk to Koren and Wyatt, but yeah.”

“Good, good. It’s uh, it’s Koren’s family and her house, so work out the details with her. I just thought you should… get a chance to meet them and all that. And since Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, you deserve to…” Trailing off, I breathed out long and low. “This whole thing is confusing.”

“You think that’s confusing,” Deveron retorted. “Try having a son that looks like he’s twice your age.”

“Don’t forget about the part where he threatened to have you arrested if you fucked up again,” I reminded him.

Chuckling, he looked thoughtful. “Yeah…. is it weird that I was actually really proud of him right then?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “He was doing his job. You know, standing up to a lazy, incompetent,smug–”

“Yeah,” Deveron agreed.

“–dismissive, condescending, rude–” I continued.

“Yup, got it.”

“–chauvinistic, arrogant, pompous…”

*******

“So I guess that’s it,” I announced an hour later while standing in my dorm room. My eyes were on Avalon as I tugged my bag of clothes and other things up onto one shoulder. “I’m gonna meet Shiori and Professor Dare down by the Pathmaker and then we’ll head out.”

Standing there by my bed, arms folded over her stomach, Avalon just watched me. “Uh huh.”

“Which, I guess means that I’ll see you on Monday,” I added, feeling more than a little awkward. It was Wednesday morning. I was just going away for a few days. Less than a week. And yet, I felt like I should say something more to her.

The other girl just nodded. “Unless you decide you’ve had enough of this place and stay home to stick with that whole reporter like your dad thing.”

“I’m pretty sure I–” Blinking once, I tilted my head. “You listened to me. You know I wanted to be a reporter. You know my dad’s a reporter. You did pay attention.”

Now Avalon looked awkward. “You’re not exactly subtle about it, Chambers. I can’t just go selectively deaf and forget how to–”

“I’m gonna miss you too,” I interrupted, blurting it out with a happy (dorky) little smile. “I know it makes you uncomfortable to say it, so you don’t have to. It’s okay. I’m gonna miss you, Valley. And I hope you have a really good Thanksgiving, because… because you deserve it. All these people think you’re this unfeeling ice queen, but you’re not. You’re really not. You’re brilliant and beautiful and strong and… and pretty much the best roommate I could have. You push me to be better every single day and I couldn’t dream of a roommate… of a friend better than that. So when I say I’m gonna miss you, I’m not just saying it to be polite. I will really, really miss you.”

Coughing a little after the brief silence that followed, I moved to open the door. “And I know how awkward that’s gonna make you feel, so I’ll just leave now and you don’t have to–”

She was there, right in front of me. Even as I jumped a little at how fast the girl had moved, she… embraced me. Avalon hugged me tight. That went on for a few long, rather wonderful seconds. She felt… warm and soft.

“I’ll miss you too, Chambers,” she said in a soft, barely audible voice while still holding onto me. And then I felt it. Her lips very gently brushed my cheek. She… she kissed my cheek.

Even as I was still realizing what had happened, it was over. Avalon gave me a little push to get me out of the room. Her own face was pink. Her mouth opened, and I swear she was going to say something else. Then the girl stopped herself, looking… shy before she quickly shut the door in my face.

And for a solid minute, I just stood there, staring at the door while holding my fingers against my cheek.

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Interlude 12 – Fossor

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Several Thousand Years Ago, Somewhere Very Far Away From Earth

The boy’s name was Merakeul. Barely nine years old, he was an unimpressive sight. Slightly less than average height for his young age, with a very slightly chubby build yet not exactly fat. His brown hair was worn long, with a pony tail that matched that of the pretty girl who stood beside him. Where Merakeul was average, his twin sister Rahanvael was decidedly not. Her own features favored their very attractive mother far more than their father as Merakeul’s did, granting her an impish appearance that many said would lead to great beauty once she grew old enough for such things to be noticed.

Both of the twins, Mera and Rahan as they went by, wore the traditional mourning whites. They were shapeless, sack-like robes that society dictated be worn by the immediate family members of the deceased for at least one week following such a loss. After that, they would wear a simple white sash or armband denoting their grief for the remainder of the year. None but those grieving the death of dear loved ones ever wore an all white ensemble, or even the white sash or armband. It simply wasn’t done.

Staring straight ahead through the small, entirely empty and undecorated room at the single metal door set against the wooden wall, Mera struggled not to let himself squirm too much. The mourning robes were hot, and these ones clearly hadn’t been washed properly, because they had been itching since he put them on. Still, he tried to remain quiet and motionless, waiting as patiently as a small child could for the door to open. That was the right thing to do. It was what his mother would have wanted.

But it was just taking so long. And now his forehead was itching. Slowly and carefully, the boy lifted his hand, just to give his head a tiny scratch. Yet before he managed to get any relief, there was a whistle of wood, followed by a sharp pain in his knuckles that made the boy yelp in spite of himself.

“Be still,” Ozinar, father of the twins, ordered while lowering the cane he had used to discipline his son. The man was tall and heavyset, with a plain face that was well-lined from years of working in the fields. Like his children, Ozinar wore the traditional whites, though his were old and had been patched several times from previous mourning periods. The last had been his own father three years previously.

Flinching from being caught (and still itching), Mera lowered his stinging hand. Beside him, Rahan took it gently, her fingers cool as she used Mera’s body to shield her actions. With a tiny smile that only Mera could see, the girl gently rubbed the sting out of his knuckles, just as their mother would have.

The sting had faded by the time the door ahead of them opened. A figure in a red robe stepped into view. A golden hood obscured part of the man’s face, leaving his features in shadows. This, again, was tradition. The idea was that person who guided a mourning family through their final rites should have no real name nor appearance, as far as the family themselves were concerned. Their identity was unimportant. They were anonymous. Only their work, their gift to the surviving family, mattered.

The golden-hooded guide said nothing. He simply stood there while Ozinar gave his twin children a little push. Together, the two nine-year olds started to walk that way. They passed the silent, robed figure while their father fell into step directly behind them. Through the doorway, they found themselves in a narrow corridor that was cold enough to make Mera shiver. Why did it have to be so cold in here? Tradition again? Why did tradition dictate everything they did? It didn’t make any sense.

The corridor slanted downward, leading the group deep under ground. They had been walking for ten minutes, and both children were tired by the time the slope leveled off and the corridor opened up into a large circular chamber. The room they were in now was enormous. The ceiling, if there was one, was far out of sight through the darkness. The chamber was lit by spotlights positioned along the walls, focused on two bits of furniture: a small wooden table and a stone coffin that lay directly behind it.

Those two pieces, the table and the coffin, were the only objects within this massive chamber as far as Mera could see. Other than that, the room was empty. Which made the boy wonder why they needed a room that was this big anyway, if all that space was wasted. Tradition yet again? Did it really matter?

Their guide strode past, moving to the table on the same side as the coffin. As the hooded man turned to face them, he laid his hands on the table and spoke clearly for the first time. His voice was deep, but purposefully plain and forgettable. “You who have lost, come to pay respects to they who are departing this world. You who have lost, step forward and bid farewell to those who must dwell no longer.”

Together, the twins and their father moved across the chamber to join the man at the table, standing on the opposite side. Ozinar positioned his children to his right hand side, as was expected. Descendants of the deceased stood to the right of their mate or closest living relative, while other family stood to the left. As they had no one else save for the three of them, the space to Ozinar’s left remained empty.

Once they were in position, the hooded man spoke again, reciting the words exactly as Mera had seen them written many times. “Those who are prepared to depart, show yourself here one final time so that they who remain in your wake may bid you farewell. Come forth, one last time, to say goodbye.”

Then… Mera felt a tug. It wasn’t quite physical. Yet it was more than just a thought or an imagined feeling. Lifting his head, the boy looked to the source of the tug: the stone coffin that lay behind their guide. There was a sort of energy there, a feeling that he couldn’t explain. But it was growing stronger.

“The boy,” their guide broke from the established script for the first time. It was surprising enough to break Mera’s concentration, and he looked up to find the hooded figure staring at him while continuing to speak. “He has the gift. He can feel the energy of life as it gathers here. He will join the Order.”

“He will farm,” Ozinar stated flatly, his voice brooking no argument. “As I have, as my father did, and as all of our fathers have for as long as the fields have taken our seeds. That is how it shall be. It is–”

“Tradition,” the hooded man finished. He clearly didn’t agree, yet had already broken the ceremony too much to risk continuing the argument. His head turned slightly, and Mera felt eyes on him from under that hood before the man turned to gesture with one hand. The energy that had been steadily gathering suddenly peaked, coalescing into a single bright point of light that flared up almost painfully bright.

When the light faded, a translucent figure floated there atop the coffin. As soon as he saw it, Mera gasped in spite of himself. Beside him, Rahan did more than that. Her mouth fell open and the little girl blurted, “Mother!” She even made ready to fling herself that way before their father laid a hand on her shoulder, stopping her without speaking. Yet there was no reprimand. Stern as he was, even Ozinar recognized the situation. He simply put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder to stop her, then nodded.

At the nod, the hooded man waved his hand, and the ghost of their mother crossed the distance from the coffin to the table. She floated there, beautiful and smiling. When she spoke, it was quiet and sounded as if the sound was coming across a vast distance. Yet even then, there was love in her voice.

She told them how much she loved them, how much she missed them already. There were tears from mother and children, and even the stoic Ozinar dabbed at his eyes. The family held one last, final meeting. They spoke of school, of what the children were going to do and who would ensure they made it to school on time while their father was working out in the fields. They reminisced and spent their final ten minutes together talking about as much as they possibly could in such a limited time.

It couldn’t last. There were too many others waiting to have their own final rites, and only so many members of the Lerikan Order, those precious few with the ability to summon the recently deceased before they moved on. Ten minutes was all that Ozinar had been able to afford. Yet that was more than many. Some only managed the law-mandated two minutes to say good bye to their dead loved ones.

Astinel clung to her last few seconds, smiling in a way that didn’t quite hide her fear. “My family. My beautiful family. I love you. I love each of you. Rahan, Mera, mind your father. Be good, my beautiful babies. Be careful and live your lives. Be safe. Be prosperous. Grow old and be loved.”

She made a motion as though to run her hands through her children’s hair while smiling at her husband before beginning to fade away as the hooded member of the Lerikan Order stopped using his energy to anchor her. The figure faded, growing harder and harder to see before entirely disappearing…

And then reappeared, solidifying as much as she had been at the beginning of their meeting. Both ghost and the hooded figure gasped, and their eyes moved together to the single small figure who was holding his hand out.

Mera could feel the energy. He’d spent the entire meeting with their mother’s ghost testing it, reaching for it, until that final second. Just before the energy, his mother’s energy, had faded away entirely, he grabbed for it. He grabbed and held onto it, feeding his own strength into the connection.

“Merakeul!” his father snapped, the horror in his voice turning it hoarse. “Stop this now! Stop it at once!”

“I can hold her, father,” Mera spoke calmly, eyes wide as he stared up at his mother. “I can keep her here. She doesn’t have to go. She can stay. I can hold it. It’s all right now, it’s okay. We don’t have to–”

Something was tugging at his mother, trying to tear her away from his grasp. Mera turned his gaze to the hooded figure, whose own hand was twitching. The man spoke calmly, yet there was a strain to his voice. “It is not done,” he tried to explain to the boy. “Holding the deceased beyond their death is an affront. It is against nature. It is against the will of Ysoldeh. We say our goodbyes and allow them to depart. That is how it is done.”

“No,” Mera argued. “It doesn’t have to be that way. I can hold her. You don’t have to do anything. I can do it. I know I can. Just let me–”

His father’s cane rapped hard against the knuckles of his outstretched hand. The pain made Mera yelp and recoil, grabbing his hand. Too late, he felt the energy slip from his grasp while he was distracted. When the boy looked up, the ghost of his mother was gone. And he couldn’t feel her anymore.

Rahan grabbed and held him, hugging her twin brother tightly while crying openly. Mera let her hold him, turning his gaze away from their father and the hooded man. His eyes were lowered contritely, his shoulders shook, just as his sister’s did.

Yet where Rahan was shaking from her tears, Mera’s emotion was different. He felt grief, yes. But far more than that, burning deep within him, the boy felt a very different emotion toward their father. He shook not from sorrow, but from hatred.

Pure, unbridled hatred.

******

Seven Years Later

“Okay, okay.” Sixteen-year-old Rahan’s laughing voice filled the woods on the edge of their family’s property as Mera dragged her on through them. “I’m coming, already. What’s the rush? You never want anyone to come with you out here.”

“I’m ready,” Mera announced. The intervening years had not made him any more handsome nor distinctive. The teenage boy looked just as unremarkable as he had as a child. He all-but carried his sister toward a specific clearing, where a table stood with a cage set in the middle of it. In the cage there was a pella, a small rodent with pale green fur and a long snout that was used to stick into holes to find the bugs that were its primary diet.

“Ew,” the pretty girl made a face while staring at the rodent. “Please tell me that’s not your new pet, Mera.”

“It’s my demonstration,” Mera corrected her. “Just… stand there, Rahan. Just stand there and watch, okay?” When the girl reluctantly nodded, he reached out to open the cage. The pella made a bid for freedom, but he caught it in both hands. As it struggled, he turned to show it to his sister.

And then he swiftly broke its neck.

A scream of surprise escaped Rahan. The girl stumbled backward, eyes wide. “Mera!” she blurted in shock. “What did you—wh-what did you do?!”

“It’s okay, it’s all right!” Mera insisted. “Look, look!” Focusing on the energy, he made a gesture with one hand while using the other to hold the dead rodent. Before his sister’s eyes, the ghost of the small creature rose up, looking terrified and confused as it floated there in the air between them.

“Y-you killed it. You killed it,” Rahan stammered. “That’s its… its… ghost? But… but why–”

“Watch.” Mera held the pella’s corpse up, then gestured with his other hand. The translucent ghost-figure floated that way, scrambling against the invisible force controlling it until it was shoved back into its own body.

Then the rodent’s eyes opened and it jerked a little in his grasp, kicking and squeaking its little head off.

“You…” Rahan moved closer, staring in shock at the creature. “You brought it back. But—but how?”

“It’s not hard,” Mera explained. “Not now anyway. I’ve been practicing for years. But it only works if I do it within a day of the death. After that, there’s not enough energy. The spirit’s just… gone. And watch.”

He put the rodent down against the table, holding it steady while producing a small knife from his pocket.

“Don’t!” Rahan objected, moving to grab his arm.

He looked back at her. “Trust me. It’ll be okay. I promise. I know what I’m doing.” Extricating his arm from her grasp, he carefully exposed the animal’s neck before plunging the knife into it.

Rahan screamed again and jerked away… but there was no blood. There was almost no reaction at all. The rodent squeaked, but made no dying noise. Nor did it flail about in pain. It yelped a little, but seemed mostly unaffected.

Mera stabbed the thing twice more before pulling the knife away, showing her that there was no blood. “When I put it back,” he explained, “they’re different. They don’t die unless I want them to. They’re immortal, Rahan. Really immortal. As long as I want them to live, they will.”

“Mera,” Rahan managed, staring at him with wide eyes. “We have to tell father. We have to go to the Lerikan Order and show them what you can do. They can–”

“No,” Mera snapped. “Don’t you remember? I could’ve kept mother. I could’ve helped her. They wouldn’t understand.”

“But we can’t just keep it to ourselves, Mera!” Rahan insisted. “This is—if you can… this is too big for us. We have to talk to someone. We have to tell father.”

“Father is a–” Mera started before stopping himself. Taking a breath, he turned to put the pella back in its cage. Closing the door, he gestured to it. “Help me take it up there? He’ll want to see.”

Breathing a sigh of relief that her brother was being reasonable, Rahan stepped over to help pick up the cage. However, even as her hands closed around the handle, Mera caught her wrist. When she looked up, he stared into her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t bring you here just to show you. I brought you here to help you.”

“Help me?” Rahan blinked. “Help me with what? Mera, what are you–”

His knife found her neck, stabbing deep into it. Tears filled the boy’s eyes as he plunged the blade through his twin sister’s throat. She made a strangled noise before starting to fall, and he quickly caught her.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he frantically apologized. “I love you, Rahan. I promise, it’ll be okay. It’ll be all right. I’ll bring you back and put you in your body again. Then you’ll live forever. You’ll never die, not until I want you to, and I’ll never want you to.”

She lay collapsed against him, gurgling her last breaths while he cried for having to hurt her in order to save her. “I can’t lose you, Rahan,” he whispered. “Never, ever, ever. I won’t. I won’t lose you like we lost mother. I’ll bring you back and you’ll be immortal. You’ll be immortal, Rahan. I promise, it’ll be okay. It’ll be–”

A noise behind him. Mera turned his head that way, just in time to see their father racing across the clearing, his cane held high while a bellow of rage tore its way past his lips.

“Father!” Mera blurted while holding his sister’s rapidly dying body. “Wait, it’s okay! I can–”

The cane whipped around, slamming into the side of the boy’s head. He fell sideways, releasing Rahan. The girl fell to the ground, her wide, sightless eyes meeting Mera’s own.

“Wait!” the boy screamed as he struggled to get up, trying to reach out for the energy that was his sister’s life-force. “Stop, sto–”

His father’s foot hit his stomach, driving the air out of him. Then there was another kick, and another. Still, the boy fought to remain conscious, reaching out toward his twin. The energy. He could feel it. He could reach it. Right there… he was so close. Everything would be all–

His father’s cane came down hard against his head, and the last thing Mera saw before his consciousness fled was the ghost of his sister, slowly fading away.

******

Seventeen Years Later

“Fah-Twen!” The guard of the prison where Mera had spent the past seventeen years of his life, ever since his father had stopped him from saving his sister in time, stood two cells down. Two more guards, each armed with stun weaponry, stood a safe distance back. The man called again. “Fah-Twen! Present yourself.”

The prison assigned each inmate numbers in the old world style, from one of the nations that had existed before the great unification.

Grumbling, the massive figure that was prisoner Fah-Twen (thirty-two in standard numbers) stood up from his bunk and stepped over that way. He stood there, allowing the guard to first cuff him, then search him before letting him out of the cell to head for dinner.

Next, the guard and his two companions moved to the cell beside Mera’s. “Fah-Kwur,” he called the next number. “Present yourself.”

Again, the prisoner did as ordered and was eventually sent to the meal. Finally, the guard moved to Mera’s cell. “Fah-Seur!” he called. “Come on, you know the drill. Front and center.”

This was it. Years of planning, of favors, of missed opportunities, and everything else had led to this. He had only this one, single opportunity. If he failed, there wouldn’t be another.

He stood from his bed, shuffling that way as he had every day for the past seventeen years. Shifting his feet apart, he put his back to the bars and allowed the guard to cuff him before starting to pat him down.

“Turn,” the guard ordered, and Mera obeyed. He pivoted, letting the man pat up his front while straightening. “Open,” he instructed, waiting to check the prisoner’s mouth for contraband.

Instead of obeying that time, Mera pursed his lips. A moment later, a small straw appeared, pushed into position by his tongue.

“What the hell is–” the guard started, just as Mera blew into the straw. A small, crudely fashioned dart shot from it and hit the man in his exposed neck. He recoiled as if he’d been struck by a bee, slapping his hand up to the wound.

As the man collapsed, the incredibly fast-working poison doing its work, both of his fellow guards lunged that way. One raised his weapon to take aim at Mera while the other checked on their companion.

The guard facing him fired a shot, but Mera was already diving to the floor. He landed awkwardly and painfully with his wrists cuffed behind him as they were. Yet the stun shot still missed, passing directly over his head.

By that point, the man he had shot the dart into was already gone. And as the guard by the cell fixed his aim, Mera rolled over while reaching out with his power. Immediately, he felt the dead man’s ghost. Tearing it away from the body, he forced the thing to obey his will, the way he had practiced with various dead animals for nearly two decades.

The ghost lunged upward, turning just solid enough (thanks to considerable effort from Mera), to rip the stun rifle away from the first guard. While he was still recovering from his surprise, the ghost dove onto the second guard, wrapping its hands around his throat and choking him. It took more effort than Mera would have liked to force the ghost to remain solid for that long, but it would be worth it.

Meanwhile, the second guard straightened from the dead body and spun that way. A cry escaped him as he tried to shoot at the ghost to save his co-worker. Yet the shots went right through it. The ghost was only solid where Mera wanted it to be.

Then… there were two ghosts for him to work with. Both caught hold of the remaining guard’s shoulders, slamming him backwards against the cell to bang his head hard off the bars. They repeated the motion again… and again… and again.

Soon, Mera had three ghosts to work with. Whistling to himself, he forced their spirits back into their bodies before ordering them to stand up and release him from the cuffs.

Then he stepped out of his cell, brushing himself off. In the distance, the alarms had already started blaring as the people observing over the cameras noticed what had happened. A voice over the intercom reported, “Prisoner Fah-Seur has escaped his holding and has taken control of several guards. Repeat, Fah-Seur has escaped holding and is in control of several guards. All units, report immediately to…”

The voice droned on, but Mera ignored it and began to walk, accompanied by the first of what would soon become many, many new companions.

No. He paused, shaking his head. Not Mera. He hadn’t been Merakeul in a very long time. This prison had shaped him over the past seventeen years. Since his father had destroyed his chance to save his sister, since the man had ripped his twin away from him because of his pathetic lack of understanding, Merakeul had died in this prison. It had shaped him, reformed him, and now he was more than he had been.

He was Fah-Seur. Thirty-four. And he was done trying to explain himself. He was done trying to make people understand. He’d lost his mother because they wouldn’t let him try, and he’d lost his sister because they were too stupid to let him finish saving her.

From that point on, no one was going to stop Fah-Seur from doing anything he wanted to.

No one.

******

Present Day

“Don’t think that I don’t know what you did.”

It was evening, and Fossor was sitting in his ornate dining room (one of several throughout the mansion, which itself was one of at least a dozen spread throughout this world), enjoying the meal that had been prepared by the reanimated corpse of a chef who had once been renowned throughout high society. His eyes were not on the delicious meal, however. Instead, they were focused at the other end of the table, where the beautiful blonde woman sat, her own plate untouched.

She had been watching him, waiting for the man to speak. Now, Joselyn Chambers arched an eyebrow. Her voice was calm. “What I did?”

“You,” the man replied while carefully cutting into his steak. He took the bite and savored it briefly before continuing. “Told our son how to break into Crossroads to visit his sister.”

The woman didn’t bother denying it. “You did say that I should do all that I could to let our son enjoy his birthday. I believe your exact words were, ‘no matter how much it disgusts or horrifies you, make sure our son has anything he asks for.’ And I do have to obey you in all things.”

Fossor took another bite, shaking his head. “Yes. And somehow, what our son chose to do just happened to expose their weakness to that school. And may even have drawn your not-so-little girl toward more answers than she deserves. Answers that you know full well she would not have found without that little bit of aid from Mother-dearest.”

That time, Joselyn said nothing. She simply sat there, watching him.

“It won’t matter,” he informed her after taking a sip of wine. “When the time comes and Felicity reaches her eighteenth birthday, she will join you here.” Setting the glass down, he added almost casually, “Perhaps she’ll provide me with another child, as you did. I’m sure that Ammon would appreciate having a younger brother or sister.”

She stood up at that. Surprisingly, the woman forced herself up against his previous order to sit. The magic that bound them should have kept her in her seat until their meal was done. Yet, despite that ancient, powerful magic, Joselyn rose to her feet.

She could go no further than that, only managing to stand and go no further. Still, her eyes were as hard as they had ever been.

“If you touch my daughter, in any way,” she promised him, “I will end you.”

For several long, quiet minutes, Fossor simply continued his meal. He said nothing, not addressing her failure to sit as ordered, or her words.

Finally, after setting the fork down on the empty plate and dabbing his mouth with the nearby napkin, the man looked up to meet the woman’s gaze.

He spoke quietly, calmly. “I have subjugated worlds, eradicated entire species, domesticated legions of once-brave warriors who thought to oppose me, yet now serve my every command. One of those is you yourself. And you say you will somehow end me if I touch Felicity? My dear Joselyn, it has never been a question of if.

“Only a question of when.”

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Family Reunion 12-08

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“You know,” Sands started after a solid ten seconds of silence (at least from our table), “I’m honestly not sure which I’m more surprised by: the fact that Vanessa is Tristan’s sister, or that Gaia clearly didn’t know about it. I mean, obviously she would’ve pulled her in first to talk in private if she knew, right?”

“Right,” I agreed as the others just nodded while staring at the reunion going on right in front of us. There were murmurs from the surrounding tables, and I could hear a few people asking each other where this kid had been if he was related to Vanessa. This, of course, was met with other people authoritatively declaring that of course they weren’t siblings. Obviously, Vanessa and this boy were long-lost friends. Maybe even boyfriend and girlfriend. Sixteen seconds. Sixteen seconds and some of my classmates were already shipping the two of them together over a freaking hug. Just… wow.

“She definitely didn’t know,” Columbus muttered before nodding toward the front. “Look at them.”

Glancing that way, I saw Gaia standing there while Professor Dare and Andressa McKay, the elderly Head of Admissions, spoke quietly to her in either ear. Behind them, a couple of the third-year professors were standing nearby, clearly waiting impatiently to talk. There was definitely a quick meeting going on. But it stopped abruptly as the headmistress spoke a single quiet word. Then she spoke up louder, interrupting the flurry of whispering that had been filling the large room. “Never allow it to be said that you will ever be so old and experienced that nothing will ever surprise you again.”

A broad smile crossed the woman’s mature, yet beautiful face then. “And never allow it to be said that Crossroads does not appreciate a good, old fashioned family reunion. As… unexpected as it may be.”

With that, she began to clap a few times, prompting others to join in. I could tell that Vanessa was already embarrassed by her outburst. But I could also tell that she didn’t really care all that much. The girl was clinging to her brother while people applauded, and a few of those nearer to the siblings offered their own congratulations. Obviously, there were some hold-outs. More than a few people simply sat there, looking around at the ones who were clapping like we should be embarrassed. But for the most part, it was now taken for what it was: a brother and sister being miraculously reunited.

Gaia didn’t let that sit for long before crossing the distance to where Vanessa and Tristan were. After a few words about giving them an opportunity to catch up, she left the room with the two in tow. Most likely, I assumed, to have a private discussion about what she knew about Vanessa’s… special situation.

Slumping back in his seat, Sean muttered in obvious amazement. “Vanessa’s half-Seosten. I guess that sort of explains her super special memory power. But… damn. That’s just… wow.” He was still stunned. Which, for someone who obviously prided himself on taking everything casually, probably said a lot.

“Yeah…” Deveron started slowly, shifting a little in his seat. “Okay, so one of the first things you should probably know. This… might be confusing, but that girl, that half-Alter. She’s actually not the–”

“–not the only only one,” I interrupted. “Yeah, we sort of know that part already. Thanks though.”

The guy stared at me for a few seconds, clearly taking that in before sitting back with a stunned expression on his face. “You already know one. You’ve already met one of the half-breeds here.”

Raising an eyebrow at him, I snarked, “Gee, you know what you could’ve done to find out what we knew and when? It’s this brand fangled new invention. Now, I know you’re old so you might not be quite as hip, but bear with me cuz I think you’ll like this one. They call it talking. It’s where you know something that someone else needs to know, and the two of you communicate that information with words.” Putting my hand against the side of my face, I adopted a shocked expression at the very idea.

Wincing, Deveron shook his head regretfully. “You’re not gonna let that go any time soon, are you?”

“Not planning on it,” I confirmed before frowning. “But how do you know about the half-breed thing?”

He smiled easily then. “Because I’m the one that recruited the Djinni who altered the Edge to allow half-breeds to become Heretics. They were actually technically the first half-Alter Crossroads Heretic. And no, I’m not going to tell you who they are. Not because I still want to keep secrets, but because that’s not my secret to tell. It’s theirs. I can say that Gaia was involved in making sure that happened.”

I sat back at that, blinking a couple times. In the end, Columbus was the first to find his voice. “So, Gaia knew that the Edge would accept half-Alters after… whoever changed it. She knew that she made a plan with someone to make that happen. But she just forgot that it was you she was working with?”

Deveron dipped his head in confirmation. “Joselyn’s allies made that happen. They—we didn’t know who to trust. Not when it came to Jos’s life. Gaia didn’t do anything to stop them from erasing her, so I didn’t know if I could trust her with this, with my family. I… didn’t know about the blood plague.”

Setting my fork down, I straightened up. “Look, I… I need to go. It’s been a long day, and I just need to… I just need to think. I’m sorry, I’ll talk to you later, okay?” Looking to Deveron until he nodded, I pushed myself up from the table and started to walk away after murmuring an apology to the others.

I just needed to get out of there. It was too much. The meeting with him, Koren, and Wyatt, Tristan falling out of the sky, finding out he was Vanessa’s brother and that she was half-Seosten as well, I needed to clear my head. I needed to take a walk out in the fresh air and just… think for awhile.

******

“And you two look pretty alike except for this mark on your nose, so I’ll call you Brody and Quint.”

It was about an hour later, and I was treading water in the ocean. The sharks that had saved Shiori and me earlier were surrounding me. I honestly wasn’t sure how I knew they were the exact same ones, but somehow I was just certain. The six sharks were swimming in circles around where I was, occasionally coming up to bump their noses against me. They were like cats rubbing up against a leg for attention.

My attention (and by extension, that of the sharks as well) was drawn then toward the girl who was standing in the shallows, watching us. Smiling a little in spite of myself, I started to swim that way. Or at least, I started to. After two strokes, the nearest shark bumped up against me until I put a hand on his top fin. Then he began to cut through the water much faster than I could have gone, bringing me right up to the shallows. Once we were there, I gave him a pat before straightening up. “Hey, Shiori.”

“Hey, Flick,” she returned the greeting with a casual wave. “Water you doin’?”

Knowing the other girl as I did, all I had to do was look at her expression. “Did you—yeah you did.” Snorting while she giggled, I said, “You seem to be doing okay with the water after what happened. Not the pun. That was bad. But with the whole being in it part. I thought you’d avoid it for longer.”

Her head shook. “Actually, I was planning on coming out there, not just standing here. But I chickened out. I guess I’m just gonna be a big baby when it comes to water for awhile. I just make bad puns when I’m nervous. Well, okay, I sort of always make bad puns. But they’re usually worse when I’m scared.”

“You have every right to be a big baby about it,” I assured her. “Besides, you’re standing in the water almost to your hips. You’re not being that much of a baby. Actually, you’re being braver than I would.”

“That’s doubtful,” she snorted before looking toward the sharks. “You were naming them, weren’t you? I heard a little bit of it. Could I umm, know their names so I can thank them for saving us earlier?”

“Oh, sure.” Smiling, I gestured to the two who looked alike. “I looked them up online too, so I could know what they were. Those two are Mako sharks. I called them Brody and Quint. That yellow one over there, it’s a Lemon shark. I called her Simpson. The one right, aww, hi buddy.” Leaning down, I reached out to pet the one who had just swum closer. “This one’s a Bull shark. His name is Sherman.”

“What about that sleek blue one over there?” Shiori asked, pointing. “He looks pretty.”

Grinning, I nodded. “Oh he’s definitely pretty, and he knows it too. His name is Jabberjaw. You know, cuz he’s blue on top and white on the bottom.” Raising my hand to wave at the circling shark, I called, “Yeah, you know we’re talking about you, don’t you, Mr. Vanity? You know you love all the attention.”

Shiori giggled (still an incredibly adorable sound) before waving to Jabberjaw. Then her attention turned to the final shark. The biggest, who couldn’t come as close as the others. “What about the big guy out there?” she asked, still swallowing a little nervously at the sight of him. “What’s his name?”

“That,” I announced while taking another step into the water and waving my hand under it toward the one in question, “is a female Great White.” Smiling broadly, I looked over my shoulder. “Her name is Princess Cuddles.”

“Princess Cuddles,” the other girl echoed slowly while staring at me with a slowly widening smile of her own. “You actually named the enormous Great White shark… a relentless underwater killing machine who happens to be one of the biggest non-Stranger predators that are still alive on the Earth today… Princess Cuddles.”

Laughing, I nodded while swimming out a little bit, just far enough that Princess Cuddles could come up to get her side rubbed. God, she was enormous. My best guess was that she was over two thousand pounds and around twenty feet long. “What can I say? She’s just too adorable. Aren’t you, pretty girl? Yes you are, yes you are.” I clung to the massive shark, letting her take me under the water and around in a brief circle before surfacing once more. I was sitting atop Cuddles by that point, grinning at the other girl.

“So,” Shiori went back over them. “Brody and Quint, Simpson, Sherman, Jabberjaw, and Princess Cuddles.”

“That’s right,” I looked back in the water before asking, “Or just Cuddles, for those that are familiar with her. She’s not too hung up on royal qualifiers for her friends.” Grinning, I added, “I umm, I know you had a bad experience. But do you wanna stay awhile anyway and play with these guys? They won’t let anything happen. Neither will I.”

“I know…” the other girl spoke quietly before smiling a bit more. “Sure, I’ll stay out here with you.

“Let’s play with the sharks.”

******

So we spent some time out there with my new not-so-little friends. There were some other students in the water, but none of them wanted to come very close even after I assured them that they were safe.

That was okay though, it gave me time to just play with the sharks and Shiori. Though I did get tongue-tied a bit at the sight of the thoroughly soaked cute Asian girl. Especially when she came up out of the water and shook her hair out before laughing because Simpson poked her in the back. It was… wow.

Eventually, the two of us left the sharks to dry off, pull our clothes on over damp swimsuits, and head back inside. As we went, Shiori asked, “Do you think they’ll be okay? I mean, do you think they’ll start fighting as soon as you’re not in a certain radius?”

“You mean because they’re different species?” I asked as we passed a group of second years playing frisbee. When the other girl nodded, I shook my head. “I’m not sure how I know… but I know they won’t do that. I think… I think this power, whatever it is, it sort of… changes them? They’re a pack now. Or a frenzy, or a school… or a shiver, whatever, there’s lots of names for groups of sharks. They’re different species, but they’re also my shiver, my pack. So they’ll stay together, look after each other.”

Shiori was staring at me, eyes widened a bit. “Really? Holy carp, that’s cool. I mean, kind of terrifying in a way, but also really cool. Do you think they’ll recruit more sharks while they’re out there?”

My head shook again. “I’m pretty sure I have to actually be out there. This… shark summoning and taming power or whatever you call it has to do its thing while I’m there.” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced my extra-special little rock buddy. “And I didn’t forget about you! Thanks for watching over my stuff, Herbie.”

Glancing sideways toward her then, I added, “Speaking of awesome pets–” Giving the rock in my hand a guilty look, I amended, “–ahem, and partners, of course, did you manage to get out there to feed Choo?”

“Yup!” she chirped, grinning back at me. “I took a whole plate out there for him. You should’ve seen the little guy chow down. And he was a little lonely, so I played with him for a few minutes.”

Then she sobered, pausing a little. “Vanessa…” Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before pushing on in a much quieter voice. “She’s… like me, isn’t she? I mean, not just like me, but she’s… you know…”

I nodded. “Tristan is, so she must be too. It explains the super memory, I guess. Though I don’t know if Tristan has anything like that. He didn’t say.. but it could be different for each offspring or something.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly thinking about something before speaking up slowly. “Someone should probably talk to her.” Shifting on her feet, Shiori hesitated, glancing to me. “Right?”

“I think that’s what the headmistress is doing,” I pointed out. “At least, part of what she’s doing, anyway. But if you mean someone like her, yeah. It might help if someone else talked to both of them.”

Again, she paused. For a few long seconds, Shiori looked indecisive. Then her head bobbed once more. “I’ll do it. I’ll talk to them.” Offering me a little smile, she added, “Talking to you, before, it really helped me. And if I can help her the same way, just… let her know there’s others that are… like her and her brother, I think I should.”

Before I could say anything to that, a figure came running up out of the shadows, pointing at me. “Aha! There you are! I knew I’d find you!”

“Hey, Wyatt,” I gave him a little wave. “What’s up? Is everything okay?”

He coughed, straightening a little. “Ahem, ahh, I think you should come with me, Miss uhh, Chambers. There’s a few things about your record that we need to address.” His eyes glanced toward my companion.

“It’s okay, Wyatt,” I assured him before looking that way as well. “Shiori’s a… friend. She knows everything. You can talk in front of her.”

He blinked at that, squinting at the girl a little while looking her up and down. His voice was cautious. “Are you sure about that?”

Shiori, for her part, returned his uncertain look for a couple seconds before seeming to come to a decision. Her voice was quiet. “You can trust me, Mr. Rendell. I know you’re probably nervous about me knowing your secrets. I know I would be. So… “ Taking in a breath before letting it out, she met his gaze evenly, her voice very low, so quiet I could barely hear her. “My real mother is a vampire. So… now you know my secret too.”

Wyatt reeled backward at that, eyes widening as he looked from me to her and back again. When I nodded, he made a noise of confusion before returning his stare to the girl. Scanning her up and down, he managed a weak, “Well, do you… does that mean that you…” He opened his mouth as if showing off fangs and hissed a little. It looked kind of ridiculous and silly.

Shiori flushed hotly, head shaking incredibly fast. “No,” she blurted. “I don’t…drink blood or anything.”

“Well,” Wyatt straightened, looking her up and down. “In that case, Miss Porter, consider your secret safe. I will do everything I can to protect the friends of my… family.” As he said the last word, the man made this goofy, endearing grin that made me want to hug him.

Then he turned on his heel and started to walk away. “Come along then,” the man ordered in what was obviously his best approximation of a stern voice, clearly for the benefit of anyone that might notice him talking to us. “I need to have a nice long discussion with the two of you about appropriate use of school facilities.”

We looked at each other, shrugged, and trailed after him. The short, lanky man led us up across the grounds and into the main building. Guiding us through a confusing maze of turns down various corridors, we eventually reached a simple-looking, unlabeled wooden door. Taking a key out of his pocket, Wyatt tapped it against the side of the door three times in what looked like specific locations. Then he turned the knob and opened the door. Instead of going in, however, he immediately shut the door, tapped the key three more times in different locations. Then he opened it again and gestured for us to go in.

We did so, crossing the threshold to move into what turned out to be a tiny office whose space was mostly taken up by a large rickety desk. There were two simple folding chairs in front of it that took up all the room before the door, and a somewhat nicer chair on the other side. The desk itself was covered with papers and an ancient computer that looked like it belonged to the early 80’s. I couldn’t see any way for Wyatt to actually get to the other side of the desk without crawling under or over it.

“Oh,” the man spoke quickly. “Before you sit down, turn in a quick circle and say, ‘The mice are meesing out.’”

Shiori and I looked at each other before following his instructions. I felt silly, but I wasn’t going to question it at this point. For her part, my companion giggled at the meesing out part.

Finally, Wyatt shut the door behind himself before squeezing past us. He went right through the desk, passing through the solid object like he was a ghost before turning to collapse in his seat. Once there, the man waved eagerly to the folding chairs. “Sit, sit. Oh, you’re not in trouble, by the way. I just had to say that in case of spies.”

“I uh, I got that,” I confirmed before taking one of the chairs. “Are you okay, Wyatt? Nothing… umm, nothing happened, did it?”

His head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing. I mean yes, but… but no, I just wanted to give you something. Or somethings.”

Before I could ask what he meant, the man leaned over in his chair, fishing around on the floor before coming up with a box about a foot across. It was covered in white wrapping paper with rocket ships on it. Plopping it down on the desk, he slid it to me. “Open it,” he requested, smiling eagerly.

“Oh, um, okay, sure.” Taking the present (it wasn’t very heavy), I carefully tugged the wrapping paper off. There was a cardboard box underneath, and when I opened that up, I found a little stuffed frog.

“What… aww.” Taking the toy out, I stared at it. The thing was adorable. It had this cute smile on its face and the bottom of its feet were yellow. “Wyatt, you… is… is this a late birthday present?”

“One of them,” he confirmed. When I blinked up at that while hugging the frog to my chest, he gestured. “Look at the card.”

There was indeed a card inside the box as well. Taking it out without letting go of the frog, I opened it up and read aloud. “Dear Felicity—hey that’s me. Dear Felicity, I hope you have a hopping good first birthday. Love, Wyatt. Wait… first… birthday?”

In answer, Wyatt reached down again, taking out a second box which he plopped down on the desk again while taking the first box away. “I missed them,” he announced. “That’s bad. So I’m making up for it.”

Slowly, I opened the box, reaching in to take out an enormous coloring book and large box of crayons. The card read, “Dear Felicity, happy… they say the two’s are terrible, but I bet yours are going to be colorful. Happy second birthday.”

“Oh my god.” Covering my mouth, I stared at the card, then up to the man. “Wyatt, did you…” I was blinking tears out of my eyes. “Did you get me a… a birthday present for every year that you missed?”

“We should hurry,” he urged with a quick nod. “There’s still fifteen more to get through, you know.”

“Wyatt, I… I…” Words failed me. I didn’t care anymore. Standing from the chair, I pushed the box aside and climbed onto the desk. Leaning over, I wrapped my arms around the man… my brother, as tight as I could.

Yeah, it looked silly. But you know what? At that point, I really didn’t care.

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Family Reunion 12-07

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Gaia wasn’t in the cafeteria when we got there. Professor Dare was, and before dinner started she informed everyone that there would be an announcement from the headmistress once dinner was over. Which meant that they needed everyone to stay put after they were finished. This was, naturally, met with a chorus of groans that stopped almost immediately. Dare, like most of the staff around here, had a way of seeming to look everyone in the eye at once that made it impossible to anonymously complain.

“Well,” Sands remarked after looking around the room once we had found a table to sit at, “I wonder what’s taking the headmistress so long. I mean, it’s just a…” Trailing off, she glanced around at the other tables once more before lowering her voice. “Just a new student. So what’s taking her so long to just come in here and assign him to a team? It’s not like they could actually say no to a new recruit.”

Avalon shook her head, her voice flat. “It’s not that simple. Not with how paranoid the Committee is right now. They’re–” She paused as though considering the right words before continuing. “–not reacting well to everything that’s happened. Some of them think that Chambers has been attracting too much danger to the school. As soon as they found out that she was one of the ones that found him, they probably started up with the conspiracies.” Looking at me, the beautiful girl added, “They’re idiots.”

“Are they?” I asked with a weak shrug. “I mean sure, I’m not Ruthers’ biggest fan and he’s not mine. But beyond that, they kind of have a point. Bad things do keep happening around me. Ammon came onto the school grounds because of me. He wouldn’t have found out about Koren if it wasn’t for that. It’s not going to take a genius for him or his father to work out why his powers didn’t work on her.”

“Don’t be such an idiot, Chambers,” Avalon snapped. “Should I leave the school just because people have been trying to kill me? Do you want me to leave?” Her voice was as hard as her intense stare.

Flushing a little at that, I shook my head quickly. “No, of course not. Those idiots coming after you isn’t your fault. You shouldn’t have to walk away from everything here just because–” I stopped. “Oh.”

Smirking, Sean reached across the table to poke me with one of the menus until I took it. “Don’t worry, Flick. It may take awhile, but Gaia has a lot of clout. She’ll get enough of the Committee to sign off on letting him stay. Trust me, most of those guys know better than to annoy the baroness too much.”

Before I could say anything to that, Columbus spoke up. “Okay, that’s been bugging me for awhile. What’s this whole ‘baroness’ thing? I mean, is there a king and queen too? What’s she the baroness of?”

I nodded quickly while glancing at the menu. “Me too. I haven’t really heard anyone else be addressed by a similar title like Gaia has.” Using my finger to circle the options for spaghetti with garlic bread and a coke before circling the little ‘finished’ note in the lower right corner. Then I put the menu down.

It vanished a moment later and was replaced by a steaming plate of food that made my mouth water.

“See?” a new voice spoke up as Deveron (and boy was I having very conflicting feelings about him now) tugged a seat out beside Columbus before dropping himself into it. “This is why they need an extra course for Bystander-kin who don’t know enough about Heretic society. They just expect you guys to pick all this stuff up by osmosis or something. Frankly, it’s pretty poor planning on their part.”

He held that for a solid five or six seconds before coughing as a wry smirk crossed his face. “Oh come on, stop glaring. I’m kidding. Yes, you should’ve been told all this stuff by your mentor. But, to be fair, I’m pretty sure Avalon over there has been enjoying playing the role more than she’ll ever admit.”

For her part, my roommate just stared intently at him in silence before taking a bite of her Cobb salad. Deveron managed to hold her gaze only for a few seconds before coughing as he looked away. “Right, I think you see my point. Anyway, there’s no king or queen or anything. That’s what the Committee is for. But under them are the Archdukes. Each Archduke is in charge of the day to day running of the world they’re assigned to. Sort of like the president of a country, while the Committee is the UN. You know, if the UN had any actual power and could veto anything the president said if they felt like it.”

I raised a hand along with both eyebrows. “Yeah, what do you mean by the world they’re assigned to?”

“You know,” he replied, “the whole Explorer thing where they find brand new worlds to expand into?”

Columbus and I looked at one another for a moment. He was the first time speak, his tone as uncertain as I felt. “Well, yeah, sure. But we thought that was just sort of… you know, exploring. Looking around, like… like when we go up to the moon and bring back rocks and soil samples. Little stuff like that.”

Avalon was the one who spoke next. “Of course. But the Bystanders have always talked about colonizing the moon and living there. If they had the technology ready, they would’ve done it a long time ago. Part of the Explorers job is to bring back samples from places that are too dangerous to settle on. But another part of it is to establish beachheads for colonies on other worlds to expand out from.”

My mouth opened and shut. “I… never mind, I probably shouldn’t say what I want to say right now.”

Deveron shook his head, plopping a menu of his own down before it was replaced with a salad identical to the one that Avalon was eating. “Don’t worry about it.” From his pocket, he produced a coin, which he flipped onto the table. “Anyone listening in right now is just hearing a mundane conversation about school work. As long as no one comes close enough to touch any of us, it’s safe.”

Blinking at the coin, I managed a weak smile in spite of myself. “You’re showing us how to make those, mentor.” After eyeing him pointedly for a moment, I continued my previous thought. “But seriously, you’re saying that we’re actually… invading and conquering other worlds? We’re the alien invaders? You know, guys, it was already getting pretty hard to see us as the good guys, but with this?”

“It’s… it’s not supposed to be like that,” Sands said weakly. “It’s supposed to be a… a defensive measure, to stop dangerous locations from being able to invade us with forces that the Heretics can’t hold back. We’re protecting people. I mean…” She trailed off, clearly trying to come to terms with the difference between knowing about the invasions when she thought all Strangers were evil, and now.

“The British Empire didn’t see themselves as the bad guys either,” Sean pointed out mildly while eating his own spaghetti. “It’s not really that different. Just make the whole ‘new world’ thing a lot more literal.

Shaking my head, I waved a hand dismissively. “Okay, we’ll unpack that whole thing later. What about this whole Archduke thing. Each world the Heretics expand into has an Archduke in charge of it?”

“Garden calls them something else,” Avalon put in mildly. “Each tribe has their own name and way of doing it. Usually it’s centered around whoever is the most powerful person in the colonization team.”

Sean was nodding. “Sure, the Archdukes are in charge. Except for here on Earth. The Committee handles things here. But under the Archdukes they have barons and baronesses. We don’t have an Archduke here on Earth, but we do have barons and baronesses that are assigned to each section of the world. You know, like there’s a different baron in charge of each of the different states in the US.”

Columbus frowned at that. “So Gaia’s supposed to be in charge of some other area? What’s she the baroness of, and why is she here at the school instead of there? She can’t really do both, can she?”

Scout leaned over to whisper something to her sister, who nodded. Her voice was obviously pained. “Scout says that you can when the place you were in charge of doesn’t really exist anymore.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I demanded as my eyes widened. “What do you mean, the place she was in charge of doesn’t exist anymore?” Columbus looked just as confused, even with the goggles covering his eyes.

There were more glances from the others to each other before Deveron spoke. “In the 1800’s, before Gaia became a teacher here, she was the baroness in charge of the state just south of Mississippi.”

Blinking once at that, I asked slowly, “You mean Florida?”

“West of Florida,” Sands explained. “Kind of connected up against parts of it and then the bottom of Alabama and Mississippi, in that gulf area.”

Columbus was already shaking his head before I could respond. “There’s no state there, guys. I may have gotten a C plus in geography, but even I know that much. There’s nothing but water there.”

“Nothing but water now,” Deveron murmured. As we stared at him, he continued. “There used to be a state in that spot. It was called Desoto. As in Hernando de Soto, the conquistador that was the leader of the first real European expedition down in that area. First European to cross the Mississippi river.”

My mouth opened and shut a few times. “You’re saying this… this Desoto was a state, as in an actual land mass that existed there and now it’s just gone? What the hell happened? And why don’t we–” I stopped short, sighing as my head dropped a little. “Let me guess, they used another memory spell.”

“It was around the time of the Spanish-American war, right before the turn of the century,” Deveron explained. “There was a… an invasion by really bad Strangers. Yeah, I know, but trust me. Joselyn and I both looked into it. These were the real deal. It was a full scale hostile invasion, one that Heretics couldn’t turn back. At least, not in time to stop it from spilling out into the Bystander world too much to cover up. I don’t know what the Bystanders at the time thought it was, but there were literally thousands dead in just a few days. It was a massacre. You were lucky if you were killed. The ones who were taken prisoner… well, let’s just say they were experimented on. These things, these Strangers, the Heretics called them Fomorians, after the old Irish myths. The Fomorians were really into biological experimentation. The stuff they did to the humans they found… it was bad. Stuff you don’t wanna hear about over dinner. Jos and I found a lot of good Strangers, but the Fomorians weren’t one of them.”

Avalon took over speaking then. “Gaia was in charge of that area. She saved as many as she could. She ignored Crossroads rules and had Heretics reveal themselves to Bystanders. They wouldn’t remember afterwards anyway, so she had them use Heretic powers and technology to evacuate the state. Then…”

She trailed off, and Deveron took up the story once more. “She had the state destroyed. She made sure the whole place was annihilated just to make sure all of the Fomorians were killed and their incursion point, the spot where more of them could come through from their homeland, was gone forever.”

I sank a little in my seat, feeling overwhelmed. “They… had to destroy an entire state just to stop an invading force of monsters? And then… then they erased the state from the minds of Bystanders because… because losing an entire state like that, especially back then, would be impossible to explain. I mean, they could have said it was some kind of massive geological disaster or something, but…”

“It was easier to just erase it,” Sands spoke under her breath, looking away. “It was a massive failure for Crossroads. And for Heretics in general, I guess. A lot of people died. But more would’ve if Gaia didn’t do what she did. She made the impossible choice. She basically cut off a limb to save the rest of the body. But a lot of Heretics didn’t like it. They thought we should’ve stayed to fight to the end.”

“It would’ve been the end if she didn’t do what she did,” Deveron put in. “The Fomorians were just getting stronger. They were pulling in more and more of their armies from the other side, and it was all the Heretics could to to keep them confined to that one state. The line was going to fall any day at that point. So Gaia did the only thing she could. She made the impossible choice and destroyed the state.”

Columbus was the first one to find his voice after that. “How… how did she go from that to teaching?”

Sands shifted uncomfortably in her seat before answering. “It was the right thing to do, but like I said, a lot of Heretics didn’t like it. Gaia was pretty unpopular for awhile. No one wanted her around. The person who did, the one who gave her a job and a place to live, was the Headmaster here at the time.”

“Ruthers,” I realized abruptly. “Ruthers was the headmaster here back then, wasn’t he?”

Though his face still contorted a little in obvious dislike, Deveron nodded. “He may be a piece of shit, but he believes in doing everything to help humanity. Some people disagreed with Gaia’s choice of revealing Heretic technology and magic to Bystanders, even if it was temporary. But Ruthers thought it was the right thing to do. So he gave Gaia a job teaching here. Eventually, people got over it and realized that Gaia did the right thing after all. The Heretics she worked with on the ground during the fighting itself got into power and replaced some of the old, stubborn fools who hated her for it.”

“Anyway,” Sands added with a slight shrug, “that’s why she has that title. She’s the baroness of the lost state, the woman who destroyed the place she was in charge of in order to save the rest of humanity.”

I realized something then, starting a little. “That’s why she was so against the idea of open war through the rebellion. That’s why she’s been trying so hard to do things quietly. Because she doesn’t want to risk putting the Heretics in a position where another group of invaders could do even more damage. She’s afraid that that kind of open warfare is going to end with losing a lot more than just a single state.”

Before we could do more than look at each other after that, the woman in question arrived. Gaia made her way through the room while people’s eyes turned that way. By the time she arrived at the front, everyone’s attention was on her. The headmistress paused, glancing around the room before smiling faintly. “Good evening,” she spoke in a calm, quiet voice that still somehow easily reached us. It sounded and felt like she was right beside the table rather than clear on the other side of the room.

Gaia waited while everyone murmured their own greetings before continuing. Most people clearly just wanted to get out of there and back to whatever they were doing or had planned. Still, they listened fairly politely.

“Thank you all for being gracious enough to wait here until I could get back. I do appreciate that you have limited free time, and that this is eating somewhat into your weekend.” Gaia smiled a little bit then. “I promise that this will not take long. But as each of our new students at the start of the year are given their chance to be the center of attention, I thought it only fair that our newest student be afforded the same opportunity for the spotlight.”

That caused a few whispered discussions here and there, before the headmistress lifted her hand toward the nearby door, gesturing for the boy to come in. “While I’m sure everyone is well aware that Crossroads is not normally a place that has mid-semester transfers, there are specific exceptions. I would like to introduce you all to–”

“Tristan!” the voice came from across the room, and my attention snapped that way along with everyone else’s. Hell, even Gaia looked surprised to hear the sudden shout.

It was Vanessa. The blonde girl was standing up, plate of half-eaten food forgotten as she stared that way with her mouth wide open.

For his part, Tristan looked just as confused as everyone else. Then something seemed to click in his head, and his eyes widened. “Va…. nessa?” he managed, sounded completely shocked. That only lasted for a few seconds, however, before he abandoned his spot beside the headmistress. Sprinting that way, the boy literally leapt up and over one of the tables, clearing it completely before landing on the other side, near the table where Vanessa was practically tripping over herself to get around it. The two of them met in a tight embrace, completely ignoring the fact that everyone was staring at them.

“What—what just happened?” Sands demanded, eyes wide.

My mouth opened and shut. “I… I think Tristan just found his sister.”

The second realization struck me an instant later. “… which means Vanessa isn’t fully human. She’s half-Seosten just like he is.”

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Family Reunion 12-06

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“Would you stop doing that?!

The demand came from Koren, who was glaring at Deveron with her arms folded tightly over her chest. As everyone’s eyes turned to her, the girl tossed her head, throwing her tight brown braid behind her back. “You’re all like, ‘oooh, I’ve got this dramatic revelation. Let me reveal it in as shocking a way as possible so they all stare at me like big gaping fish because of how positively stupefying my news is.’”

The corner of Deveron’s mouth turned up a little before he shook his head ruefully. “I’m not doing it on purpose. But you needed to know. And maybe, hopefully, that helps explain why I couldn’t trust anyone here. The Seosten have been involved in Heretical society from the very beginning of Crossroads. They could have possessed anyone. There’s no way to know for sure. I mean, I’m pretty sure Prosser and his people have a way to test for it, but I have no idea what it is. They like to play their cards close to their chest. Especially after what happened with Jos. She was their big play, and it was working. Until…”

He trailed off there, and I glanced toward Wyatt, unable to help the blanch that came. “Until they took Wyatt and Koren—the original Kor—Abigail. Until they took Wyatt and Abigail.” Frowning, I turned back to Deveron. “So what you’re saying is, this whole Crossroads and Garden civil war thing that was supposed to be about Mom and all her rebels was actually about this Prosser guy and his group making a move against the Seosten that have been running and manipulating thing from behind the scenes?”

“Trust me,” he answered quietly, his gaze meeting mine. “To us, to your mother and our people, it was absolutely about the rebellion. It was about stopping the genocide of innocent people, people who could be our allies against the real threats. Finding out that there was another group behind it, that there were people who were supplying aid for their own reasons doesn’t change what our reasons were.”

Wyatt was shaking his head rapidly. The poor guy looked so confused and unsure, like he had no idea how to react to any of this. I couldn’t blame him. Wringing his hands together, he bemoaned, “I knew it. I knew there were bad people. Can’t trust them. Can’t trust anyone. Anyone could be a spy. Anyone could be possessed. You said there’s no way to tell, no way to know. It could be anybody. Any of them, my people, my boss, anyone I look at, anybody. They could be possessed. It could be any of them.”

Deveron took his son’s (and trust me, that felt incredibly weird to think) wringing hands and held them, meeting the man’s worried gaze. “Hey, Wyatt. Listen to me, okay? This doesn’t change anything. As long as they don’t know that you know anything, they don’t have any reason to treat you differently.

“Besides,” he added after a moment, “As far as I know, ninety-nine point nine percent of the Heretics are completely normal. The Seosten don’t possess that many people, and it’s not necessarily the ones you might expect. Not everyone being a jackass can be blamed on the Seosten. That would make them too easy to find. Some people are just jackasses anyway, no manipulative possession creature needed.”

Koren snorted a little, her gaze flicking toward me briefly before turning back. “So basically, nothing changes. This whole Crossroads society was built on a lie, a lie created by these… Seosten things–”

“It’s worse than that,” I put in quietly, feeling a headache coming on at the sheer scale of what we were talking about. “According to that Nicholas Petan guy, the Seosten also created the Bystander effect. They’re the ones that did something to make sure that humans can’t recognize or remember Strangers.”

Deveron nodded, his face twisting into a grimace. “From what I know, that sounds right up their alley.”

Putting my hand to my forehead and rubbing it a little, I breathed out. “So let me get this straight. These Seosten, for whatever reason, create a magical binding of some kind that affects all humanity. It erases our ability to notice Strangers—oh, for the record, it turns out they call themselves Alters. Stranger is just a Heretic term. Evil Alters are called Nocen. You know, as in the Latin word for–”

“Noxious, guilty, bad…” Wyatt interrupted, head bobbing quickly. “I heard that word before. I heard Strangers trying to say they weren’t Nocen. They just kept saying it, but I didn’t know what they…” His face fell then, drooping sadly as the realization came to him. “I didn’t understand what they meant.”

“Just be careful not to use that term around anyone else.” Reaching out a hand past Deveron, I patted Wyatt on the shoulder gently. “We’re not supposed to know what it means. That or Alter. We have to call them Strangers here. And listen, it’s not your fault. You were taught that they were evil monsters.”

My gangly, short half-brother looked to me briefly, his eyes searching mine before puffing himself up as much as he could, sticking his chest out. “I will make up for it,” he vowed as if he was some kind of knight. “I don’t know how, but I will find a way to make up for the damage that I have done to them.”

“Just be careful, Wyatt,” Deveron cautioned. “Don’t act any different around them, or someone is going to notice. And believe me,” he added while looking toward me. “Not everyone will be as easy to convince as your own family and teammates. Gaia obviously made sure the people on your own team wouldn’t be quite as hard for you to talk to about it. And your family… well, that’s family. Everyone else… be careful. Trusting the wrong person at the wrong time is how Joselyn and I found ourselves in the middle of an open war. We were trying to be quiet about things. It worked for awhile, but we said the wrong thing to someone we thought we could trust and… well, after that, it wasn’t quiet anymore.”

“Okay,” I announced while straightening up. “Before we go any further with this, I have a serious question.” Raising my hand, I pointed at Deveron. “It was you, wasn’t it? Back during my first hunt, when those Garden students attacked us. You were supposed to be unconscious. But you were actually the voice in my head, weren’t you? You were the one directing Sands and me on how to fight them.”

He chuckled slightly, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, that was me. Those guys were…” His face twisted and I caught the anger there before he shook it off. “It was the best way I could help.”

“Or,” Koren put in then, her voice high with sarcasm as she stepped over beside me, “you could’ve just, you know, stopped acting like a completely useless asshole at any point and actually trained them.”

The boy’s mouth opened, then shut before he nodded. “I kept the routine going for too long. Like I said, I didn’t know who to trust. Anyone could be possessed. Hell, for all I knew, Gaia was possessed. Trusting the wrong person at the wrong time is a very bad idea. But, yeah, I probably took it a little too far. After all,” he added with a noticeable wince, “there’s no point to playing dumb if it gets you hurt.”

“Just teach us now,” I insisted. “Be the mentor you should’ve been from the beginning. You don’t have to give anything away. They didn’t think you were some kind of spy last year when you were the best at everything. Turn things around, teach us. If… if we’re going to be a real team, we need you. Sands is so confused right now. Do you have any idea how much you could help her with everything she’s going through? You could be a real mentor for her, and for Scout too. And Columbus. We need your help.”

Holding up both hands in acknowledgment, Deveron nodded. “You’re right. You all deserve a real mentor. Though, to be fair, you’ve been keeping up pretty damn well considering everything else.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds after that, until Koren finally asked, “So, what do we do now?”

It was Wyatt who responded, his voice hesitant. “I… would like to hear about… my real mother.” He gave an awkward, uncertain smile, clearly nervous as he looked from me to Deveron and back again.

“Yeah, Grandpa,” Koren teased in a tone that made it clear that she had no intention of letting him live that down any time soon. “Why don’t you tell us all about Grandma.” Despite the way she said it, I could tell that the other girl was actually interested. “After all, we’ve got all this time out in the jungle.”

A visible smile tugged at Deveron’s expression before he gave an easy nod. “Okay,” he announced casually before gesturing. “Why don’t we let Wyatt continue the tour, since he’s put so much work into it. And while we go, I’ll tell you all about the Joselyn that I know. And later,” he added while his voice turned serious, “we can talk about how we’re going to get her back from that evil son of a bitch.”

******

“And then we spent the rest of the day just talking about my mom,” I finished explaining while walking along the beach a few hours later. The rest of my teammates were walking along with me, the twins on one side while Avalon and the boys were on the other. They had all been listening intently to my story.

“Damn it, Flick,” Sands complained while shaking her head. “Are you seriously telling us that a naked boy literally falling out of the sky was only the second most surprising thing to happen to you today?”

Tilting my head, I coughed. “Well, when you put it like that, it kind of sounds completely ridiculous.”

“That’s because it is!” the other girl retorted while flailing her arms. “Your life is insane. Your–” she lowered her voice instinctively, “-your mom’s first husband is actually our team mentor, your non-evil half-brother is the school’s crazy security guard, and one of our classmates is your niece. Your life isn’t just crazy, Flick. It’s completely and utterly absurd. And then, on top of that, you add in this bit about…” Again, she lowered her voice while looking around. The area of the beach that we were at was empty aside from us. Still, she whispered, “the bit about these Seosten things creating Crossroads?”

“She’s got a point,” Sean agreed while stooping to take a large stick out of Vulcan’s mouth. He reared back to hurl it as far as he could before the mechanical dog went bounding off after it. “Sounds crazy.”

“Does that mean you don’t believe me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow as I looked back and forth at them.

Scout shook her head quickly. Sands glanced to her sister before sighing. “Of course we believe you, Flick. At this point, you could say pretty much anything and I’d believe it. I might not like it, but I’d believe it. It’s just that… this is a lot to take in, you know? Maybe it’s easier for you because you guys weren’t raised in Crossroads, but you’re trying to tell us that everything we know is one big lie.”

I shook my head at that. “It’s just different. Your society, most of it… it’s fine, you know? Think about it, Sands. They had to use a memory wipe spell to stop a rebellion. That means that a lot of Heretics believed what my mom was saying. Crossroads isn’t evil or anything. You were taught to hunt monsters and protect humanity. That’s still the right thing to do. It’s just… a little more complicated than that.”

Avalon spoke dryly then. “You have a gift for the understatement, Chambers. Telling Heretics that not every Stranger is an evil, irredeemable monster is complicated. Telling them that their entire society was built on a lie, and that the Edge itself was actually created by the same Strangers who made the Bystander Effect in the first place? You’d be lucky if most of them didn’t just burn you at the stake.”

I winced at that. “I guess that’s why Deveron and Mom kept that part of it secret. It kind of is a lot to take in.” Glancing toward the twins, I asked, “Are you guys sure that you’re okay with all this?”

Sands didn’t answer at first. She looked away, a thoughtful frown crossing her face. When Vulcan returned with the stick the next time, she was the one who took it. Turning the stick over in her hand, the girl reared back and threw it hard before finally answering. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, I wish I had a better answer for you. It’s just… I want… I just wanted to be a good Heretic. I wanted to be a part of a team and kick monster ass. That’s all I ever wanted. But now it’s… it’s so complicated. It’s different.”

I smiled as reassuringly as I could at her. “It’s okay, Sands. I get it. If you weren’t conflicted, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me, it’s understandable. You… you’ve had to accept a lot, and the fact that you’ve done this well at it… well, I don’t know if I could accept as much as you have in your situation.”

Sean nodded easily. “She’s right. Hell, it’s easier for me because of that thing with my uncle, but even I keep having that knee-jerk, reflexive ugly thought whenever Flickster here talks about good Strangers. It’s a lot to take in. Besides,” he added while turning a pointed look toward his roommate, “at least you haven’t gone completely crazy and started carrying around a backpack full of random junk.”

Columbus was indeed carrying around a pack that seemed to be completely crammed with assorted random items. I could see rolled up bits of paper with designs scribbled on them, various tools (some I recognized and some I didn’t), the handle of some kind of gun, and even what looked like a the top of a deer antler. And that was just what I could see sticking out of the top of the bulging bag.

The boy himself snorted audibly at that. “I told you guys, it’s not junk. It’s my Development stuff. I keep getting ideas about stuff to build, but I’m nowhere near my supplies. Now they’re with me. And besides,” he added with a significant look toward me, “considering how often things happen around Flick here, I’d rather be prepared. Next time we get swept away somewhere, I’ll have my stuff.”

“That’s funny,” I remarked while looking toward Avalon. “I don’t see you carrying your whole workshop around with you.”

She met my gaze briefly before replying coolly, “That’s because I’m not a crazy person.”

“Not crazy,” Columbus countered while tapping a finger against the lens of his goggles. “Prepared.”

“Why don’t you ask for one of those extra-dimensional storage bags to carry that stuff in?” I asked curiously. “You know, like our weapon sheathes. Something that can hold a lot more than that bag.”

Columbus actually flushed a little, shifting uncomfortably in his as-always wrinkled and unkempt clothes. “It uhh, it is,” he admitted. While we stared at him, he continued. “It is one of those special bags. I just sort of put a lot of stuff in it. I’ve pretty much got a whole workshop in there, plus a lot of partially-finished designs that I’ve been working on. But on the plus side,” he added with a little grin, “at least my workspace in the Development garage is really clean now.”

“You guys have a garage?” I asked interestedly.

“It’s a whole underground complex thing with labs and workshops and stuff,” he explained. “Maybe we can show you sometime.”

Looking between him and Avalon, I nodded. “That would be pretty cool.”

By that point, we’d reached the area of the beach closer to the school. I could see some other students playing in the water and along the sand. In the distance, two female figures were riding some kind of windsurfing board together. Meanwhile, beside them, another figure rode a metal hoverboard.

That latter one was obviously Roxa, with her transforming cougar. As for the other two, one was blonde, while the one that seemed to be steering the board they were on had bright pink hair.

“Is that Erin and Vanessa?” I asked Columbus curiously.

He glanced that way before adjusting his goggles. “Yup. I guess Erin changed her hair color. Maybe she got tired of blue.”

We stood there, watching the three of them out on the water while quietly discussing what we were going to do. Avalon finally said, “Gaia made the arrangements for us to visit the hospital during a training exercise after Thanksgiving. You’ll have a chance to see Tangle.”

“Great,” I murmured. “Maybe we’ll get some answers about what the hell her deal is.” Glancing toward her, I asked, “What about Tristan? Has she umm, decided what she’s going to do?”

“She was talking to the Committee with him all day,” the other girl replied. “I’m pretty sure she’s planning on introducing him to the rest of the school as a new student over dinner tonight.”

Sean’s stomach promptly growled, and the boy grinned. “Well, speak of the devil. Must be about time to eat.”

Sure enough, it looked like the other students were all heading in. The trio that had been out in the water approached the beach where we were. Before long, I could see that Erin was holding her sword back behind them, summoning some kind of wind-control to maneuver the sail right up to the sand.

She and Vanessa came trotting off the board, while Roxa landed nearby, turning her board back into its cougar form. I had to remind myself to stop staring at the three girls in their swimsuits. And, from the look of things, so did the boys.

“Whooo!” Erin pumped her fists in the air. “See, Nessa? I told you that shit was amazing.”

For her part, Vanessa’s face was flushed, and she was breathing hard while nodding her head. “I-it was… exciting,” she admitted in between a bit of panting.

“You okay?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at the studious girl.

Her head bobbed a little more. “Yes,” she answered after catching her breath. “It’s just—I don’t—I haven’t done that before.”

“Told you I was gonna get you out on the water,” Erin teased before looking at Roxa. “We’ll beat you next time.”

The blonde grinned while shaking her wet hair out. “Bring it on. Gidget and me’ll take you on anytime.” She patted her cougar, who was exchanging curious looks with Vulcan.

Erin tugged the board up onto the beach before hitting some kind of button on the side. The whole thing, sail and all, folded down into something about the size of a briefcase. There was even a handle, which she picked up. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving. Come on, let’s go eat.”

The rest of my team and I exchanged looks before nodding. I smiled. “Sure, let’s get some food. I heard the headmistress has some kind of surprise to introduce us to.”

“A surprise?” Vanessa asked curiously while running a brush through her hair before pushing it into a blue scrunchie. “What kind of surprise?”

Shrugging at her, I started to walk up the beach to the school. “I’m not sure,” I lied.

“Let’s go find out.”

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Family Reunion 12-05

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I’ve been a part of more than my fair share of stunned silences. Especially (but not solely) in the months since joining Crossroads. Still, the one that followed Deveron’s announcement seemed to eclipse the others. Not only did none of us speak for several long moments, but that quiet seemed to extend all the way to the animals. Somehow, even the jungle itself appeared to be taken aback, stunned by his words. Through those few seconds, no one and nothing made any sound. The very air was still.

In the end, it was Koren who found her voice first (possibly because she hadn’t been dealing personally with Deveron all semester). “What—what the hell do you mean Joselyn Atherby is your wife? You’re not—that’s not-huh?” The other girl’s eyes were narrowed, and I saw the way she took a step toward me. It put the two of us side by side, facing the boy. In that moment, I was extremely grateful to her. For all the problems she might have had socially, Koren was actually taking this family thing seriously.

“Okay,” Deveron spoke slowly after exhaling. “I guess I’ve got a little bit of explaining to do, huh?”

“A little?” I blurted out loud, staring at him. “I think you’ve got a lot of explaining to do. Starting, but definitely not ending with what Koren said. What the hell do you mean my mother is your wife?”

That brought Wyatt’s gaze snapping around. “Your mother?” he blurted. “That’s who that is? Who—what–” He blinked, then whirled back to Deveron, hand raised to point accusingly. “You piece of filth! How dare you taunt Miss Chambers about coaxing her own mother to cheat on her father with you!”

The man’s accusation prompted all three of the rest of us to blurt out loud, “That’s not what happened!”

Deveron shook his head, hands held up. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m doing this wrong. Let’s start with the basics.” He looked toward Wyatt. “There’s stuff I need to tell all of you. These two already know some of it. More than you do. But I need to tell you everything. I just need you to try to listen, okay, Wyatt?”

The security guard just stood there for a moment, his eyes narrowed suspiciously. Not just as Deveron, but at Koren and me as well. “I knew it,” he muttered, clearly distracted. “I knew there were secrets. You’re spies. No—traitors—no, not that. What? What secrets? I should call the headmistress. I should call Reid, or Risa. They’ll sort all of this out. They’ll sort you out really well. I should call them.”

“Gaia already knows most of it,” I gently informed him. “It’s… listen, Wyatt. Just for a second, listen to me, okay?” Taking in a long, low breath before letting it out slowly, I continued. “I don’t know what Deveron’s talking about. I don’t know what he’s about to say. But I do know that there’s secrets that you need to know about. People have been lying to you your whole life. I think you know that. They hide things from you, lie to your face, spy on you. I think you’ve figured out a long time ago that something isn’t right. That’s why you—that’s why you’re so paranoid. Because you don’t know who to trust. I’m not saying that you have to trust us right now. But I am saying that we’re going to tell you the truth. After that, it’s up to you if you want to believe it or not. But please, just listen long enough to decide.”

I wasn’t sure how the man was going to respond at first. He just stood there, watching me. His eyes twitched a little at my words, and I could see the indecision behind his gaze. Part of him obviously wanted to put a stop to this whole thing and just call in the rest of security to deal with us. But I also saw the need there, the desire to actually know the truth. He didn’t trust us, but he did want to listen.

“Fine,” Wyatt finally decided. “I’ll listen to what you have to say. But,” he raised his finger in a warning sign. “If you think you can trick me, or manipulate me, you have another thing coming.”

Before I could promise that none of us were going to lie to him, the man reached into his pocket, producing a small red ball, which he held up. “If you’re going to talk, you hold this. Take it.” He tossed the ball in my direction. “Hold onto it and then tell me what your name is. Your full, real name, please.”

Blinking, I looked at the ball in my hand before shrugging. “Okay, my name is Felicity Chambers.”

Wyatt was squinting at me very intently for a few seconds, watching for something before nodding. “Okay, fine. Now say something that isn’t true. You can say anything you want to, as long as it’s a lie.”

Glancing at the ball again, I hesitated. But if it would convince the man that we were telling the truth, it was worth whatever this test was. “Okay, I’ve got it. I have never drunk any alcohol in my life.”

The instant after I finished speaking, the ball grew hot enough that I had to drop it with a yelp. “Ow!”

Deveron stared at me, eyebrow raised. “Alcohol, huh?”

I coughed. “I was fourteen, it was my first–never mind. It’s a long story.”

Wyatt reached over then, bending to pick up the ball, which in addition to growing very hot, was also blue instead of red. I guessed that was just in case whoever was holding it happened to be immune to heat. “Anyone who is speaking will hold this. If you lie,” he spoke severely, “the ball will know. And then I will.” He rubbed his thumb over the ball until it turned back to red, then held it toward Deveron.

“No lies,” Deveron promised while taking the ball in his hand. “But first, we all need to be on the same page. That means, you need to know who Joselyn Atherby is.” His gaze turned to Koren and me briefly. “You two already know a lot of it, obviously. But you,” he looked back to Wyatt. “The first thing you need to know is that Joselyn was a student here around a hundred years ago, while Gabriel Ruthers was headmaster.. Actually,” he paused then before adding, “both of us were. We were classmates.”

“You were a student before?” Wyatt looked doubtful, his gaze flicking down the ball in Deveron’s hand. When his lie detector failed to go off, he raised his eyes once more, frowning. “But the teachers would know. They’d know if you were a student before. The headmistress was still teaching here then.”

“Don’t worry,” the other boy assured him. “I’ll get to that, I promise. One thing at a time. We were students here, but Joselyn… Joselyn disagreed with them. She disagreed with them on one very major thing. She thought that not every Stranger was evil. Jos believed that there were good ones too, Strangers who could be allies for us. Or even ones that just wanted to live and peace and be left alone.”

“That’s–” Wyatt shook his head. “That’s absurd. Strangers are evil. That’s the entire point of the Heretics. Didn’t she pay attention to all the people they kill, all the innocent children they massacre?”

I spoke up then. “She didn’t think that all Strangers are good, Wyatt. She thought that some were. There are good Strangers and bad ones. Just like there’s good people and bad people. Look at all the evil things that human beings do. Look at all the serial killers, psycho cultists, and mass murdering dictators. Then look at all the good people that have been around all this time. Does the fact that humans like Hitler or Pol Pot have existed mean that humans like Martin Luther King Jr don’t exist?”

“Or Mother Theresa,” Koren put in then, trying to help while Wyatt continued to stare at me.

Coughing, I shook my head. “Actually, she’s closer to the other end of the spectrum. But never mind.”

“The point,” Deveron announced while holding up his hand with the ball held tight in it, “is that Joselyn believed there were good Strangers. So we looked for them. And we found them. We found good Strangers. And we convinced other students, other Heretics, that there was a chance for all of us to work together, Heretics and Strangers. We were going to protect everyone that was innocent, whether they were human or not.” He shrugged. “The leaders of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden disagreed. They thought we were corrupted, that we were traitors. So we… went to war over it.

“The war,” he continued, “lasted a long time. Decades. We were convincing more and more of the Heretics that they didn’t have to massacre every Stranger they came across. Even the ones who didn’t actively join in the war were starting to doubt their mission. They were starting to pay attention, starting to notice inconsistencies in the Heretical teaching. They started giving Strangers a chance.”

“I’ve never heard of any of this,” Wyatt objected while folding his arms over his chest with a distinctively uncomfortable look. “If this was true, I would’ve heard about it. A Heretical civil war?”

“Yes,” Deveron agreed. “You would have heard of it. Except…” He paused, clearly gathering himself before pushing on. “Except for Gabriel Ruthers.” When he said the name that time, I could hear the utter hate in his voice. Deveron clearly despised Ruthers to the point that his face contorted with anger just from saying the man’s full name out loud like that. Knowing what I knew, it was understandable.

After taking another moment to collect himself, he continued. “Ruthers wouldn’t allow that to happen. He knew his side was losing. Whether it took another year or another century, the Heretics were waking up. They were realizing that they didn’t have to kill every Stranger, that we could work together with them. He was losing them. And a big part of why he was losing was Joselyn. She… she found a way to become as strong as they were, as strong as the committee. Even I didn’t know exactly what she did. She had allies that helped her, allies that helped all of us. So the Committee couldn’t just stamp us out. Joselyn was strong enough to fight them, even Ruthers himself. They fought a few times and he couldn’t beat her. She was strong enough to fight him to a stand-still, and he… well, he hated it. So he…” The anger, hatred, and disgust in Deveron’s face was open and obvious by that point. “He didn’t fight her face to face anymore. He found another way to beat her, another way to destroy her.”

It was obvious, after a few seconds, that Deveron couldn’t go on right then. So I reached out and took the ball from his hand while facing Wyatt. My own voice was low. “Ruthers stole their children,” I said softly. “Joselyn had twin children, a boy and a girl. Ruthers stole them from her.” Glancing back toward Deveron then, I squinted a little before amending quietly, “from both of them, I guess.”

Deveron took the ball back from me then, his face set. “He stole our children to convince Joselyn to surrender. So she did. She surrendered to protect our children. But then something Ruthers didn’t expect happened. The war kept going anyway. Even without Joselyn, we… we kept fighting. Well, the others kept fighting. I was looking for our children, and for Joselyn. I was trying to find them.”

Before he could continue, Wyatt demanded, “If that’s true, why didn’t Ruthers demand your surrender then? You said he had your children, only he only forced this Joselyn to surrender, not you. Why?”

“Because,” Deveron answered, “my relation to them was a secret. Joselyn kept our entire relationship quiet so that people couldn’t use it against her. I don’t think she had that specific situation in mind, but generally speaking, she wanted to make sure that Ruthers and his people couldn’t use me against her.”

Wyatt took a moment to think, the indecision obvious on his face before he finally pressed on. “What happened then? If all of that is true, what stopped the war? And why haven’t I heard about any of it?”

That time, it was my turn to answer. I took the ball before speaking. “Because Joselyn went to Gaia and asked her to suggest that the Heretics use a powerful spell to erase all memory of her and the rebellion from everyone’s minds. The spell required a hell of a lot of power, but it finally stopped the war.”

Wyatt was staring at me, open-mouthed. But in this case, he wasn’t the only one. Deveron was also staring, looking just as taken aback as Wyatt. “Excuse me? What do you mean, it was Joselyn’s idea?”

Quickly, I explained what Gaia had told me about the blood plague that the committee had been ready to unleash. I told them about how it had turned the Akharu into the first vampires, because of the way their own power worked against being enslaved. I explained that anyone else subjected to the plague would become a complete slave, and that it wasn’t just them, but all of their descendants, forever.

By the time I was was done describing it, Deveron, Wyatt, and Koren all looked sick. I swallowed hard before forcing myself to finish, “Joselyn knew she couldn’t stop them from doing it if the rebellion kept going. So she came up with another solution, one that wouldn’t enslave everyone. She got Gaia to convince the Committee to erase her from everyone’s mind, to make her a normal person again. So they did. They erased her, and stopped the whole war. Then they put Joselyn in the regular, mundane world, as a normal person. They hid her out of the way. And while she was there, she met my dad. They fell in love, and… and they had me.”

Wyatt bit his lip, his eyes squinting at me intently for a few seconds while he processed that. “What about these twins of hers?” he demanded after a moment. “Whatever happened to them?” Something about his voice told me that he already knew, or at least suspected, part of the truth.

Koren answered first. “One of them was—err, is my mother. A-Abigail Fellows. Err, Abigail Carter. That’s her maiden name. She was um, she was raised as a normal person. Trust me, she doesn’t know anything about any of this. She’s a lawyer in the real world. And–” She blinked toward Deveron, who was staring at her intently, obviously drinking in every word. “I… I guess she’s your daughter, huh?”

Deveron nodded once, closing his eyes briefly. “It’s more than that. Your mother’s name was Koren. That’s the name that Jos and I gave her. It was my mother’s name, and Joselyn agreed to it, even though she always wanted to name her child Felicity.” He glanced toward me briefly. “She loved that name, and we… we said we’d use the name for our second daughter. Somehow, she must’ve remembered it.”

“But if my mom was an infant when they took her,” Koren asked, “how did she remember the name Koren?”

Shaking his head, Deveron offered a weak little shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe someone else used the name around her while she was little and it stuck in her mind, even if she doesn’t remember why.”

Wyatt looked between us, clearly trying to come to terms with what he was hearing. “And the son,” he pushed a bit gruffly. “Tell me what happened to the son, this…son of yours, the brother.”

“You already know,” I realized, looking at him. “You’re smarter than anyone gives you credit for, Wyatt. You know what he’s about to tell you, what we’re about to say.”

The man glanced away before taking a breath. “That’s why no one trusts me,” he managed after a second. “That’s why everyone has spied on me my… my whole life. That’s why my parents—the people who raised me, that’s why they were spying on me too. That’s why they agreed to kill me if they had to. This… the man they were working for, the man behind everything, the one who sent people to spy on me my whole life, you’re saying it was…”

“Ruthers,” Deveron confirmed flatly. “Gabriel Ruthers. Of course he spied on you. The man is paranoid. He probably thought that Joselyn was trying to contact you.”

He started to say something else, but Wyatt held up a hand to stop him. The poor security guard turned away, slapping his fist against his chest a couple times before running both hands back through his straggly scarecrow-like hair. He worked his mouth, making odd little popping sounds before rapping his knuckles against his forehead. “Have to think. Have to focus. No, that’s crazy. Listening. We’re listening, we are. Just stop. Just stop, they’re watching. They’re watching you, so shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

I took a step that way, with Koren right beside me. But Deveron beat both of us. He moved there, putting a hand on the other man’s arm. His voice was quiet, cracking a little. “I’m sorry. I should’ve found you. I… I tried. I tried to find all three of you, my family. But… but I failed. I couldn’t find you until it was too late. If I could—If there was a way to… you… you are my son, Wyatt. You are my son, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

That brought Wyatt’s head snapping around, his mouth open as he just sort of stared at the much younger-looking boy who was actually his father. “You… but I… I’m strange. I know that. I–”

“I don’t care, Wyatt,” Deveron informed him. “You are my son. And after everything that Ruthers put you through, after the life you’ve had, you still try to do the right thing. You are a good man, better than I’ve been. You’ve raised yourself to be a good person, despite my failure. So yes, I’m proud of you.”

Poor Wyatt looked so emotional then that I thought he was going to literally combust. He worked his mouth, making a noise low in his throat. “My… dad…. my… dad… my….” He made another noise, wringing his hands like he had no idea what to do with them.

Deveron knew. He embraced his son, hugging him until Wyatt returned it, albeit a little awkwardly on his part. It was like Wyatt knew the basic idea of a hug, but wasn’t sure exactly how they were supposed to work. And that, almost more than anything else so far, made me want to cry.

“Wh-what about Joselyn?” Wyatt realized after another few seconds of that. His gaze was on me, just as intent as always. “Your—my-our… our mother. Wait, our mother. Our…” His eyes widened and he took a step to me. Before I knew what was happening, he had actually lifted me off the ground. “Our mother! Our mother! Sister—you are… you’re my sister!”

“Eeep!” I squeaked, flushing a little. “Um, yeah, I guess I am. Hi.”

He beamed at me, an awkward buck-toothed smile that was the most endearing one I had ever seen. “Where is our mother?”

The question dropped my spirits. Lowering my gaze, I sighed. “He… a… a bad guy. A necromancer, he… he…”

“Fossor abducted her,” Deveron explained for me. “He took her. I… Joselyn’s allies, the people she worked with before, they came to me. They gave my memory back, so I was looking for you all for a long time, for years. But I couldn’t find you. Until… until Joselyn sent me a message. She got a note to me somehow, with an address and three words. The three words were ‘please protect her.’ And the address was Flick’s,’ he nodded toward me.

“I knew Crossroads was going to take you in, so I had myself de-aged and sent there a year early so that I could be your mentor this year,” he went on. “And then this year, I… well, I acted like I did to convince them to take me into their security rooms. I knew they’d need me because of how good I was last year. So they’d take me into the Runners HQ to find out what was wrong with me.

“So they did. And I managed to look through their files, just like I planned. That’s how I found out who you were, Wyatt. And who Koren’s mother was.”

Poor Wyatt was clearly staggered by all of this. He set me down, then looked toward Koren. “You… you’re my niece,” he said, as if in awe.

“Hey, Uncle Wyatt,” Koren droned with a wry smile. “Pretty fucked up family we’ve got here, huh?”

His response was a beaming, endearingly awkward and dorky smile. The man looked like Goofy crossed with an actual scarecrow, and yet he was somehow incredibly charming that way. “It’s wonderful.”

A second later, however, his gaze dropped. “Joselyn… mother… my mother… our mother, we have to find her. We have to save her!”

“We will,” I promised him. “There’s a lot more to talk about, other things like… like Ammon and what happened at my town when I was there. But…” I looked toward Deveron. “You said the people that Mom was working with found you, brought your memories back and de-aged you to come here. Who are they? Are they the ones that erased you from Gaia’s memory, and from everyone else’s? How? They’re not Crossroads or Eden’s Garden.”

“No,” he agreed. “They’re not. Joselyn’s allies… I didn’t know who they were while the war was going on. Like I said, she kept them secret, for everyone’s benefit. Jos… she kept a lot of secrets.”

He smiled fondly then, clearly lost in his memories for a few seconds before shaking himself. “Anyway, they came to me after Joselyn was… erased. They’ve been helping from the background, trying to turn things around without drawing attention to themselves. They work best when people don’t know they exist. Especially the Crossroads or Eden’s Garden leadership.”

“But who are they?” Koren pressed. “And how are they so powerful?”

“I only know the one that came to speak to me,” Deveron admitted. “Most of their organization is… well, still secret. But the man I spoke to was Gabriel Prosser.”

I did a quick double-take. “Gabriel Prosser? Avalon told me about him. Garden practically worships the guy. He’s like… a solo Heretic or something. He hurt a Hangman, and its blood mixed with his. It was sort of like how Hieronymus Bosch became a Heretic.”

Deveron snorted at that. “Yeah, except Prosser’s situation was true.”

Koren, Wyatt, and I all blinked at that. The other girl was the first to speak. “What do you mean, his was true?”

“I mean,” Deveron explained in a flat tone, “that Hieronymus Bosch was a liar. He wasn’t the one who constructed the Edge. He was just the first one it was used on.”

I stared at him, mouth opening and shutting a few times. “But… if Bosch didn’t build the Edge, who did?”

He stared right back at me while answering. “Well, I suppose technically he did build it. Except that it wasn’t really him. He wasn’t the one who created the Edge, or the one who founded Crossroads, or who made up the entire rules of the society, or any of it. He was there. It was ‘him’, but it wasn’t Bosch the human.

“It was the Seosten who was controlling him.”

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Family Reunion 12-04

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“Seriously, how cool is this?” The blond boy spread his arms while spinning in an enthusiastic circle. “I’m home!” He paused then before raising his voice to echo through the trees. “I said, I’m home!” His voice turned into a giddy laugh that was almost hysterical. “Home. God damn. I’m home. I’m home.”

“How—what–when–what–” Those and similar words fell out of my mouth without any further input from my brain, which was busy running in circles while screaming. I almost reflexively lowered my hand from where it was shielding the important bits from my field of view, only catching myself at the last second. My vocal confusion finally settled itself on a single, properly summarizing word. “Huh?”

Tristan, for his part, was still grinning incorrigibly. He was clearly enjoying my reaction, and let it continue for a few seconds before giving me a quick salute. “So you remember me after all.” He paused briefly then before adding in a thoughtful tone. “Though I guess it hasn’t been that long for you, huh?”

“A… a…” I worked my mouth, trying to find the right thing to say. “No, it’s only been a couple weeks. It was—you were just–” I stopped, taking a breath before shaking my head. “How, Tristan? What are you doing here, how are you here, what happened, where did you come from, why are you older now?”

“It’s a, uh, kind of a long story,” Tristan admitted. “But the gist of it is, it’s been years for me, not for you. It’s because of the spell thing that kept rebounding me back over there. The short version is that I needed an anchor to get here and actually stay so that I don’t get snapped back to the other dimension again. We had to choose an anchor that I had a close connection to that was already in this dimension.”

“Me,” I realized immediately. “You used me for the anchor. That’s why you were—wait, that was you in that meteor? You almost killed me! Who taught you how to pilot your plummeting space rock?”

He had the grace to look a little embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I was supposed to land near you after it locked on. But the whole crossing the interdimensional barrier thing must’ve taken a lot out of me. I passed out, lost control, woke up over there after crashing.”

“And you’re naked,” I pointed out in spite of myself. “What part of interdimensional travel requires you not to wear pants? Because I did my own version of it, and I distinctly remember keeping my pants.”

His smile never faltered, and the boy made no real move to cover himself. “Sorry, yeah, like I said, it has to do with the system they used to shoot me here. Nick and the Meregan said I had to be as—uh, natural as possible. I think their exact words were ‘as you were born from your mother, no more.’”

I seriously doubted that he had come out of his mother looking like he did now, but I got the gist of it. Still, I hesitated before asking, “And why are you showing up here in the past—I mean your past—I mean-you know what I mean. Why exactly has it been years for you, but only a couple weeks for me?”

Running a hand back through his (somehow artfully mussed) blond hair, Tristan explained. “Yeah, see, like I said before, we had to use you as an anchor. Except, the you that I remembered, the you that I had an actual connection with, was from a few years earlier. A lot of things can change in that time. Especially Heretics. Your whole lives, powers, everything can change. So we had to anchor me to the you that I remembered, not the you that will exist in a few years. Uh, shit, does that make any sense?”

I opened my mouth while starting to shake my head, then stopped and considered. “You know, if I just accept that that sort of thing is possible, then I guess it makes as much sense as anything else does.”

“Oh good,” the boy announced with a grin. “Because they also gave me a much more complicated and technical reason, but I kinda stopped listening after a couple sentences because it involved math.”

“Right, uh, um, why– never mind.” I shook my head. “Could you just—I don’t suppose you could find a big leaf or something and cover yourself while I figure out how to get some help out–” My eyes widened then, and I grabbed for my pocket. “The stick!” After feeling around through both pockets, I groaned. “Oh god, it must’ve fallen out when I was in the river. I don’t suppose you happened to find a completely ordinary-looking stick when you pulled me out and picked it up for no apparent reason?”

Tristan, who had at least moved over behind a nearby boulder that covered him from about the waist up, shook his head. “Uh, nope. Not really in the stick collecting business. Why, was it a cool one?”

“It was a magic one,” I retorted. “As in, the guy escorting us on this field trip was using it to track us if we got separated from the group. I was supposed to break it if I got lost. You know, like right now.”

“Oh, right!” Tristan snapped his fingers. “This is that uh, island place, huh?” He looked around the small clearing that we’d ended up in before whistling low. “This is awesome. This is so freaking awesome. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to come back to Earth, how many times I dreamed about it? This is insane. I mean, sure, it’s no Baskin-Robbins or Burger King—oh god, I remember Burger King. I would kill for a Whopper. But you know, this is pretty cool too. It’s Earth.”

Clearly, Tristan was too excited about being back on Earth to really think straight. I guess I really couldn’t blame him, after all the time he’d spent trapped away from here. I’d be pretty excited too.

“Okay, my pack,” I realized then. “Did you see my pack anywhere? I had it on me when I fell in.”

“Oh yeah,” he perked up even more, pointing behind me. “I think I saw it caught on that rock over there, where those bushes are. Hang on, I’ll grab it.” He started to come out from behind the rock.

“No, no, that’s fine.” I quickly shook my head before going to get the pack myself. Dragging it out of the river while doing my best to avoid anything that might bite me, I hauled the soaked thing up onto the embankment. Thankfully, the pack was waterproof, so the stuff inside still looked pretty dry.

“Here,” I hauled a pair of sweatpants out of the pack and threw them over to the boulder that Tristan was standing behind. “Put those on, then we can see about sending off a signal so they know where–”

That was about as far as I got, while Tristan had just taken the sweatpants from the rock where they’d landed, before a whistling sound filled interrupted. I had just blinked up at the sound, barely noticing it. Tristan, meanwhile, somehow managed to drop the pants that he had been holding and spun toward the trees opposite the riverbank while his hand snapped up. The whistling sound stopped, and Tristan was standing there with some kind of dart caught between two fingers where he’d snatched it out of the air.

My eyes were wide, and I was already snatching the staff from its place on my belt when a familiar voice bellowed throughout the clearing, “Step away from the student immediately, assassin!”

Pivoting on one heel, my eyes widened at the sight of Wyatt. He had just emerged from the trees, hand extended toward the boy with a silver machete. The blade was giving off some kind of violet sparks.

Before I could say anything, Wyatt had already put himself beside me with the machete held up defensively. “Did you really think you could abduct one of the students in my care and bring her here to… to…” Trailing off, the man looked back at me, then toward Tristan. His eyes seemed to take in the sweatpants laying on the rock where the boy had dropped them, then the fact Tristan was clearly naked.

After processing all of that, I swore actual steam must’ve come out of Wyatt’s ears. His face turned red, and he actually started to move that way while lifting the blade. “You foul-minded, dirty piece of–”

“Wyatt!” I quickly grabbed his arm before he could go any further (or do anything with that weapon). “It’s okay, it’s all right! It’s not like that. I gave him pants to wear because he didn’t have any. It’s okay!”

“Yeah, dude.” Tristan was holding his hands up, palms out. “I come in peace. Well, I mean, I guess the actual arrival part wasn’t all that peaceful. But that was an accident, I swear. I’m not such a bad guy. Actually,” he added with a roguish grin, “I have it on good authority that I’m pretty cool when you get to know me.” Flipping the dart expertly through his fingers before setting it carefully on the boulder, he then asked, “Is it all right if I put the pants on now? I think it’d make Flick a lot more comfortable.”

“Are you sure you’re not just traumatized?” Wyatt demanded, his eyes expressing honest concern. “Because if this pretty boy has hurt you in any way while you’re under my care, I will make sure he…”

I shook my head quickly. “No, I promise, it’s fine. It’s—it’s a long story, but he’s not an enemy. He’s not. He’s just… like I said, very long story. But how did you find us? Where are Koren and Deveron?”

“Right here.” The answer came not from Wyatt, but from Deveron himself. He and Koren emerged from the bushes where Wyatt had come from. I noticed that Deveron was actually standing a bit in front of Koren, as if shielding her from Tristan. He had a hand on her arm to keep her behind him, while his other hand held that pistol of his. He was glaring in the other boy’s direction. “Are you all right, Flick?”

That was… kind of weird. He actually sounded concerned, like he was genuinely worried about me.

“I’m fine. Really.” I managed to restrain myself from injecting any kind of sarcasm about his attitude. As annoying as he’d been pretty much all semester, right now really didn’t seem like the time for it.

By that point, Tristan had managed to get the sweatpants on, and came out from behind the rock with his hands raised. “See, dudes? It’s all good. Flick and me, we’re old friends. No harm, no foul.”

“No harm?” Deveron echoed. A second later, he literally teleported. A cloud of smoke appeared where he had been, while the boy himself appeared in front of Tristan. His fist lashed out to deck Tristan, knocking the boy to the ground. Meanwhile, Deveron shouted, “You almost hit her with a meteor!”

I was frozen in surprise. Wyatt and Koren seemed to be as well. Tristan, however, caught himself on one hand as he fell while lashing out with a kick that caught Deveron at the leg. “It was an accident!”

Deveron rolled with the fall, practically bouncing back to his feet. The pistol had vanished from his hand as he grabbed Tristan by the shoulder when the boy flipped back to his own feet. “An accident?” he demanded, the anger in his voice only rising. “It was an accident? She fell off the bridge! She could’ve drowned, she could’ve hit her head! Something else could have found her, and your excuse is that it was an accident?” He cocked back his fist again, clearly ready to swing and not stop swinging.

“Whoa, whoa!” Lunging that way, I put myself between the two of them, pushing one hand against Deveron’s shoulder while putting my other arm against Tristan’s chest. “Okay, okay, I’ll back off a little on the whole ‘you suck as a mentor’ thing, just calm down for a second. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone. This is all just one big misunderstanding. So let’s take a step back and breathe, all right? Breathe.”

Both of them stepped away from each other, Deveron lowering his hand after a few tense seconds. His eyes, however, were still narrowed suspiciously at the other boy. “Fine. Who the hell are you, then?”

“That,” Wyatt announced while coming forward to join Deveron, “is what I would like to know. Explain yourselves.” His eyes moved from Tristan to me, squinting a little as his suspicion returned. “If this wasn’t an attack, what was it? Some incredibly ill-conceived attempt to meet up for illicit nookie?”

My eyes widened at that and I blurted, “No! Just—no, it’s—okay, remember…” Hesitating as I thought of how much I could possibly explain, I finally just shook my head. “Remember how Headmistress Sinclaire sent us out on that special mission for our monthly hunt? Tristan here was a part of it. She knows him, okay? The headmistress knows him. You don’t have to take my word for it, she’ll vouch for him. So we just get him to her office, or get her out here, or whatever, and you’ll see. He’s not a threat.”

Wyatt looked doubtful for a few seconds, but finally nodded. From his pocket, he withdrew a short metal rod, only about as long as my index finger and slightly thicker than a pencil. There were runes etched into the side of it. Rubbing his thumb over the runes, the man murmured something under his breath. One by one, each of the symbols began to glow silver, then blue before fading back to normal.

“There,” he announced. “The headmistress should be here shortly. Then we’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Sounds good to me, man,” Tristan put in, adjusting the sweatpants slightly. They were really far too small for him, but at least they helped a little bit. “Just as long as that dude doesn’t punch me again.”

Before Deveron could retort, I interrupted by clearing my throat pointedly. Focusing on Wyatt, I asked, “Seriously, how did you find me so quick? I lost that stick you gave me when I fell in the water.”

Wyatt scoffed. “Weren’t you listening this morning, Chambers? I told you, always have a back-up plan. Did you really think I’d take anyone into the jungle and only have one way of finding them if something went wrong? Especially you with all the trouble you keep finding.” The scrawny man gave me a buck-toothed smile. “I planted three different trackers on you before we even started this hike.”

After staring at the man for a few seconds, I shook myself. “Uh, wow. I mean, good. Yeah, good.”

Deveron and Wyatt were both standing between me and Tristan. It was obvious that they weren’t going to let me anywhere near the guy until Gaia showed up to sort this whole thing out. So I focused on Koren instead, stepping that way before lowering my voice. “Are you okay? I um, I sort of heard you scream just before everything went dark back there.”

She was staring at me, her voice lowered to a hiss. “Am I okay? You fell off a cliff into a river in the middle of the jungle. Of course I was screaming, I thought I—I thought you were gonna—I…” She trailed off, fidgeting a little before folding her arms tightly across her stomach. Her voice was a very low whisper, so quiet that I could barely hear her even as close as we were. “I was worried about you.”

Smiling in spite of myself at that, I teased her just a little bit. “And here I thought you didn’t like me.”

Koren flushed with embarrassment. “I don’t know if I like you or not,” she sniffed at me. “You’re weird. But you’re–” She stopped then, glancing to the others who were all staring at each other before settling on a simple, “You’re my classmate. And as my classmate, I really don’t want you to get hurt. Or worse. It’s not about whether I like you or not, it’s about wanting my classmates to be safe.”

I grinned back at her, but just as my mouth opened to say something, another voice spoke up. “I am seriously considering confining you to the school grounds, Miss Chambers,” Gaia announced while stepping into view. Her words might have come off as harsh if it wasn’t for her light tone that took it from a serious lecture to easy teasing (even if she did have a point). “You seem incapable of going anywhere without attracting a frankly incredible amount of… interest.”

I shrugged at the woman. “Hey, I was in my dorm room when Ammon showed up.”

Her face grimaced at the reminder before she focused on the boy. Unlike me, she recognized him immediately. “Tristan,” the woman spoke sharply. “How–” Stopping herself, she looked him up and down. “I assume Nicholas finally agreed to have you educated here, rather than as part of his team.”

“Uh-” Tristan started, looking briefly blank before he caught himself. “Nick, yeah, he sent me back here. Said this was the best place to go.”

“Well,” Gaia pursed her lips, looking him up and down. “You could have found a better way of announcing yourself. Nicholas’s method of… travel has always lacked subtlety. And I told him that if he wanted you to join this school, it needed to be at the beginning of the year.”

Sighing as she shook her head, the woman gestured. “Come then, we’ll discuss this in my office and see if we can sort things out from there.” To me, she added, “I’d like you to come there as well, Felicity, but a bit later. I’ll send for you once I’ve had a chance to speak to Tristan here and sort out his immediate future.”

“I’ll uh, return your pants later, Flick.” Tristan offered, giving me a casual wave and wink before he moved after the headmistress.

Before they left, Gaia looked back to us. “Other than this… excitement, I trust your hike has been educational?”

Wyatt snapped himself into a full salute, banging his hand off his forehead sharply. “Yes, ma’am!” Belatedly, he added, “Wait, does this mean you’re not making me bring them in?”

Gaia shrugged, looking to me and Koren. “Are you ready to come in?”

The two of us looked at one another before shaking our heads. I looked toward Deveron, then to Wyatt before returning my gaze to the headmistress. “No, ma’am. I mean, I mean, I got a bit soaked, but I should dry pretty–” The headmistress waved her hand, and I was immediately perfectly dry. “–fast?”

“Good,” Gaia announced with a slight smile. “Tristan’s arrival, while surprising, was not an attack of any sort. I see no reason to force your trip to come to a stop just yet, if all of you are willing to continue. It will take several hours to deal with Tristan in any case. We will have to… speak with the Committee about things.”

Wyatt rubbed his hands together. “I thought we were going to have to be done for the day, but if you… if you girls really do want to keep going…” The poor guy looked at us uncertainly and nervously. It made me want to hug him.

“Sure, a little meteor attack isn’t enough to make me give up on a jungle hike,” I replied while glancing at Koren. “You’re still up for it too, right?”

The other girl nodded. “If Flick isn’t quitting after that, I’m definitely not quitting.”

“Excellent,” Gaia announced. “Then I look forward to hearing about your trip later on, girls. Come, Tristan. You and I have much to discuss.”

She took the boy with her then, and I promised to meet up with him later so we could talk. There were, to put it mildly, a lot of things I wanted to ask him. But I couldn’t do it right there.

That always seemed to be the way things went, didn’t it? I was out here in the middle of the jungle, almost as private as we could possibly get, with my half-brother, my niece, and… some guy who clearly had a connection to my mother. And I was still coming up with reasons not to open up to them, not to just flat out talk about what we all knew. Maybe I should stop doing that. Maybe I should stop letting things stop me from talking things out. Maybe enough was enough…

“Well now,” Wyatt looked even more eager than he had before. “I didn’t expect to get down into this area yet, but there’s a very interesting little nest of–”

“Wait,” I spoke without fully meaning to, my mouth getting ahead of my brain. As the other three looked at me, I blanched a little but pressed on. “I think there’s something a lot more important that we need to do while we’re out here. Gaia didn’t just leave us here to go on a tour, as cool as the tour is. She wanted us to talk. She wanted us to really talk.”

Slowly, I turned to look at Deveron. “But you’re the problem,” I said bluntly, staring at him. His advice just before  Tristan’s arrival, and how he’d reacted to the boy himself, was completely at odds with the way he’d been behaving through most of the semester. So which one was real?

“You know more than you’re saying. I know that much. But I don’t know if I can trust you,” I informed him. “Give me one reason to, just one reason to think you’re more than the piece of shit, lazy son of a bitch mentor. Say one thing that could make me give you another chance. And I swear to god, if you make a crack, if you dismiss this, if you do anything but give me something honest, I don’t care what your reasoning is. I will not listen to you again.”

“Chambers,” Wyatt started. “What the heck are you–”

Deveron spoke then, his gaze never leaving mine. He gave me the answer I’d asked for, the simple words to make me listen to him and prove he was taking it seriously.

“Joselyn Atherby is my wife.”

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