“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 things 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 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.”