Month: September 2016

Interlude 13B – Roxa

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July 1st, 2010

“Damn it, get your ass back here! Stop!” The angry voice was accompanied by the sound of running footsteps, two sets of heavy ones that were accompanied by as much panting as they were annoyed shouting, and one set from someone who was much smaller, in better shape, and less prone to yelling.

Through the shadowy mists of the late-night air, a small blonde girl appeared from around the corner of a building. She was sprinting full-tilt while carrying a heavy backpack that bounced against her with each step. She wore ill-fitting pants that were held up by a rope belt, and she wore a dark green army jacket that fairly well dwarfed her diminutive figure. The girl’s face was streaked with mud and dirt.

Within the girl’s next few steps, her pursuers came into sight from around the same building. Two uniformed police officers stumbled a little and bent over to pant heavily for a couple seconds before focusing on the girl. One shouted a curse, calling her a name that she was pretty sure no adult, let alone a police officer, was ever supposed to call a kid. Both set out after her again, their growled threats about how much trouble she was in contributing nothing toward their goal of actually convincing her to stop.

Roxa Pittman didn’t look back, didn’t slow down, and certainly didn’t even think about stopping. Instead, she continued to run down the dark California street, straight toward the nearby beach. Soon, the sound of her rapid footfalls changed from cement to the creaky wood of the pier. It protested even more as her pursuers made it onto the dock as well, and the three of them kept running toward the end.

“Give it the fuck up, you stupid little bitch!” One of the cops shouted furiously. “It’s the end of the god damn line, you don’t have anywhere else to go! I swear to god, if you don’t stop making me run, I’m gonna kick your skinny little ass so hard you won’t be able to sit down again for a fucking week!”

He said some other things, him and his partner, but Roxa had already tuned them out. She focused on running, on making it those last few steps. One foot, then another, just keep going. As the girl approached the end of the pier, she didn’t slow down. In fact, she pushed herself to go even faster.

“Aww fuck, no! Don’t you even think about it! I will beat you until your own mother doesn’t recognize—don’t do it! Don’t you fucking do it!” The cursing man lunged at the last second, fingers grasping.

Too late. Roxa took a step while shifting the heavy backpack off her shoulders. Through the next step, she flung the pack out as hard as she could. And after one final step, with the nearest cop’s fingers brushing slightly through her hair, she leapt off the edge of the pier as well. Tucking and turning in midair, the young girl dropped herself into a perfect dive straight down off, dropping twelve feet before hitting the water smoothly while the sound of the cops shouting behind and above her was cut off.

They were shining their flashlights down over the water, but Roxa didn’t rise to the surface. Instead, she simply shook her army coat off before swimming deeper. She continued downward, legs kicking behind herself as she made her way toward a cluster of mossy boulders a short distance from the pier.

It took almost thirty seconds for the girl to reach the boulders. As dark as it was, she had to go mostly from memory, and almost missed it. Once her grasping hand brushed the edge of the outer-most rock, she scrambled back that way and felt her way down to the very bottom of the middle boulder. There was a hole there, just big enough for the girl to squeeze her way into. By that point, her lungs were screaming at her. Turning onto her back, Roxa wormed her way through the hole while simultaneously sitting up. The very top of her head emerged into a small pocket of open air, and she nearly banged her head off the rocky ceiling. There was only enough room for about half of her head to be out of the water, but the air pocket itself ran all the up through to a couple small holes in the part of the rock that stuck out of the water. Roxa was able to tilt her head back to get her mouth all the way out of the water and took a deep, gasping breath before shuddering. Then she just sat there, panting for a few seconds.

Once she’d caught her breath somewhat, Roxa shifted to a slightly more comfortable position in her hidden underwater cave that was barely big enough for her. Then she settled in to wait, eyes closing.

Ten minutes passed before she felt comfortable enough to believe that the cops had given up and moved on. She counted off the seconds, all six hundred of them. Then the ten-year old took one more deep breath before eeling her way back down and out of her hidden air pocket. Once she was out and back into the open ocean, Roxa worked a small underwater flashlight out of one pocket and shone the light around the area between the rocks and the pier. Seeing nothing at first, she rose to the surface to breathe again while also looking tentatively out to the pier itself, ready to dive once more if need be.

No one was there. The cops had already moved on. Smiling a little, the girl dove down again. It took a couple more trips like that, up and down, before she finally found what she was looking for: the backpack. Grasping it in one hand, Roxa kicked her way back to the surface one last time before striking out for the beach. Considering how soaked she was, it was cold, even in the California summer air. She was shivering as she climbed out of the water and shook herself off. Nearby, the jacket that she had tossed away had already washed to shore, and she grabbed the sodden thing. After tucking it under one arm, she turned and hurried under the end of the pier that was attached to the land. Crawling into the small area there, she leaned as far as she could before snagging hold of a second, much dryer and lighter bag. This one had a change of clothes and a towel in it.

Once she had the bag of fresh clothes at her feet, Roxa glanced around again to make sure no one was around. As late as it was, that area of the beach was completely deserted. Still, she hurried through drying off and changing her clothes before shoving the wet ones into the bag the dry ones had been in.

Fully changed, the girl picked up both packs, slinging the heavy one over her back before simply carrying the other by the strap. Then she gave one last look around before jogging down the beach.

Fifteen minutes later, the girl made her way into an alley that was barely noticeable from the outside. The opening was mostly covered by a chain-link fence that wasn’t actually attached, but could simply be pushed out of the way. Even as she came into hidden area beyond, several sets of eyes were watching her apprehensively. The alley was full of homeless people, mostly older people. All of them were jumpy, and the sound of the fence being moved had them tense. But when they saw who was there, they all settled once more. A few called soft greetings to the girl, while one woman gave a merry, “Happy birthday!”

It wasn’t Roxa’s birthday. But then, Millicent greeted everyone by wishing them happy birthday, no matter who they were, whether she knew them or not, or what day it actually was. For the old woman, every day was everyone’s birthday. And she loved to give presents. Most of them were simple little crafts consisting of whatever she had been able to pick out of the garbage that day, but Roxa still treasured them.

Shifting the heavy pack off her shoulders, she unzipped it before stepping over to the nearest person. She didn’t know the man that well. He was old enough to have a face that was completely lined with thick wrinkles, and his hand shook a little as he waved at her. Roxa smiled slightly at him before reaching into the bag. Her hand found a can of ravioli, and she held it out to him. After a momentary hesitation brought on by a combination of pride and not wanting to take her food, the man accepted it.

One by one, Roxa made her way through the crowd while emptying her bag of stolen groceries. She handed out cans of food, meat, and fruit, as well as a few packs of hot dogs that she’d managed to snag. Beyond that, she also gave out medicine, mostly for headaches and other pain killers. But there was also cold and cough medication to help Cara, and some rash ointment for poor old Eugene.

Finally, her bag was pretty much empty. Roxa took the other one with her clothes and made her way to an out-of-the-way corner where a little sleeping bag had been set up with a set of boxes surrounding it. Tossing both bags down, she settled herself in while taking the last item out of the bag of stolen groceries: a can of chili. Popping the lid off, she reached around in her sleeping bag until she found an old metal spoon before starting to dig in.

After only a single bite, a mangy old tan dog, some kind of Cocker Spaniel/Labrador mix came nosing around. He looked up at Roxa, giving a little uncertain whine of hunger.

She hesitated for a second, looking at her can of food, her dinner. Her empty stomach growled warningly. But she ignored it, leaning over to empty about a third of the can out onto the ground. “There you go, buddy,” she offered. The dog hurriedly began to lap up the chili from the ground, and Roxa smiled before sitting back. Working her spoon through the can, she took a bite for herself before murmuring appreciatively. As hungry as she was, even the cold chili tasted incredible.

Roxa had never really known her real family. Her father was in prison for killing her mother’s sister, and her mother herself had died when she was still a toddler. Ever since then, the girl had been bounced around between various foster homes. None of them stuck, though some were worse than others. The last one had been the final straw. The man there had been a real creep who smacked his wife around whenever the kids were too loud. When he’d gone as far as trying to touch Roxanne, the then-nine-year-old had grabbed a nearby kitchen knife and stabbed him in the arm with it. Then she ran, while the man bellowed about how he was going to call the cops and get her sent to prison like her daddy.

Ever since then, Roxanne (now Roxa), had been living on the street, avoiding the police. She didn’t stay very long in any one place. The month that she had spent here was the longest she’d spent anywhere. And the girl knew she’d have to move on soon. The people here liked her well enough, but it still didn’t quite fit. They weren’t family. They weren’t… exactly right.

She didn’t know what she was looking for, but she did know she’d find it if she kept looking.

******

Present Day (Very early Friday, November 24th, 2017)

In the end, Roxa had found the place where she belonged. She had been recruited by Crossroads right out of her beach-front tent where the seventeen-year-old had been teaching herself math using an old laptop. She had scavenged the thing out of the trash and paid one of the more tech-minded street people to fix it for her by getting him enough candy to give himself cavities in every single tooth he still had.

Professor Pericles had been the one who found and talked to her, who had given Roxa an actual purpose. He had brought her to Crossroads, had given her the medicine that let her temporarily remember things that the Bystander Effect should have erased. The medicine was a brief measure, used to allow new Bystander recruits to make an actual informed choice about whether to join the school or not. If they chose not to, the effect wore off and they were sent home without any memory of any of it.

But Roxa had stayed. Of course she had. This was where she belonged. Saving people? Taking down monsters? Living on an island with the most perfect surf she’d ever seen in her life? She was home!

Except… now she wasn’t. Now… she had no idea where she was or how she’d gotten there. One second she had been teaching that cute new boy Tristan how to windsurf, while Gidget (her mechanical cougar/hoverboard) stayed on the beach and watched them carefully. In the next second, she was suddenly falling. Before she had even been able to do more than start to cry out, Roxa’s side had hit a tree branch hard enough to knock the breath from her. She had smacked into the tree a couple more times on the way down, before hitting the ground hard enough to snap her arm in several places while simultaneously knocking herself unconscious for a few minutes.

Or maybe it had done worse than that. Roxa wasn’t sure, because when she came to, there was blood all over the tree and ground. Her body felt fine, thanks to the regeneration effect from the Peridles, but all that blood…

At first, the groggy blonde had thought that she was in the jungle on the island. But that wasn’t right. First of all, the trees were entirely too huge, towering far higher than any real tree should. Not to mention the fact that, pretty as the jungle was, Roxa was positive that it didn’t look like this.

Then there was the fact that, as dangerous as the jungle was supposed to be, she was pretty sure there weren’t supposed to be centaurs in it.

Yeah, centaurs. But they weren’t the cool, majestic horsemen that she’d always thought of them. These were more like beasts. Their human torsos were covered in a light hair, they had long thick beards, and as soon as they had seen her picking herself up while staring at them, they had opened fire with their bows. Roxa would have been speared through by half a dozen arrows in the first few seconds if her acquired super-speed hadn’t kicked in. She had flung herself out of the way before deciding discretion was the better part of valor and took off.

The centaurs had chased for awhile, but while they were faster than most horses and could probably hit speeds of forty to fifty miles per hour, Roxa could hit sixty. In the end, she managed to escape, hiding behind the crook of a tree while the herd went thundering past her before she set back the other way.

And now… now she was lost. She was lost and had no idea where she was going or what she should do. The truth was, she couldn’t do much. She had no weapon, she was wearing nothing more than a bikini and a pair of surf shoes, and there was no way for her to contact Crossroads.

Where was she? What was going on? Despair and confusion threatened to overwhelm her, but Roxa fought it back. No. She would not freak out. She’d been on her own before, plenty of times. She had grown up on her own. She could figure this out. She refused to be a victim. She hadn’t let it happen while she was a child, and she sure as hell wouldn’t let it happen now.

Someone would find her. The headmistress, one of the teachers, they wouldn’t just abandon her. All she had to do was survive until they arrived. Which meant that she needed a way to defend herself.

The arrows that the centaurs had shot at her. She could use those, assuming she could find her way back to where she had been…

She set out that way, but had only taken a few steps when a low chuckle interrupted. The laugh was dark, and seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, echoing through the heavily-shadowed forest. Roxa spun one way toward where she thought the chuckle was coming from, only to catch a hint of movement from the corner of her eye that made her jerk back the other direction.

That happened several more times, the girl whipping her head every which way to try to follow the sound of the chuckle as it kept changing direction. Finally, it stopped completely. Roxa stared at the last spot it had been coming from and took a tentative step that way before abruptly spinning around to face the opposite direction.

A wolf sat there only a few yards away, regarding her with obvious amusement. And as soon as her eyes fell on the thing, Roxa’s Stranger sense started to scream a warning at her.

She took a step back, but the wolf rose. In the same motion, it began to change. The thing grew and shifted, skin and bones snapping and cracking while the fur retracted. Within a few seconds, an enormous dark-skinned man stood naked in front of her. Somehow, he seemed no less intimidating than he had as a wolf.

Then he gave a humorless, entirely predatory smile. “Well hello there, little Heretic girl. Don’t you look scrumptious.”

Roxa watched him for a moment, then spun to run away. Sixty miles per hour, she could outrun him, she could–

One step in, and the man’s hand closed around her arm. He turned, flinging her hard to the ground behind him. The girl hit the dirt and rolled painfully, feeling something in her arm snap once more from the impact.

“Where ya goin’?” The werewolf taunted. He stepped over while Roxa was still recovering. Before she knew what was happening, the man brought his foot down heavily on one of her legs. His strength was enough to break the bone in two different places in that single stomp.

She cried out, and he repeated the gesture with the other leg before giving her a kick that knocked her from her stomach onto her back. His voice was a snarl. “We’re just getting started, kid.” His hand snagged her by the throat, and he lifted her off the ground with a smirk. “I haven’t even begun to have fun with you yet.”

He leaned in close, his teeth bared as he stared directly into her eyes for a few seconds. “My pack calls me Lemuel. Not that a name is going to do you much good, my delicious little morsel. You–”

She head-butted him directly in the nose. As the wolf-man recoiled with a surprised yelp, Roxa fell to the ground, landing on her backside. She twisted, grabbing a heavy rock from nearby. Bringing it up in both hands, she slammed the stone hard into the sensitive bits between the naked man’s legs that were dangling directly in front of her.

The wolf-man collapsed, groaning in pain. Roxa rolled over. She couldn’t run away, not on her injured legs. They were healing, but it would still take too long to get far enough away that the werewolf couldn’t find her. Their senses of smell were too good. No, she had to finish this.

Still holding the heavy rock, the girl pushed herself up near where the man had fallen. He was already starting to recover, but she brought the rock hard against the side of his head. The blow simultaneously knocked the man back down with a grunt and broke the rock into two pieces.

He was dazed but already recovering, his own healing and toughness making it hard to hurt him in any lasting capacity. But Roxa didn’t let up. Taking the largest piece of rock that remained, she aimed the jagged edge where it had broken directly at his exposed throat and began to drive it down with a scream.

An instant before she would have connected, something hit Roxa hard from the side. She was knocked onto her back, the rock flying away. For a few seconds, the girl was too dazed and in pain to realize what had happened.

Then her eyes opened, and she thought she was seeing double. Two more wolves stood there, stalking toward her while baring their teeth.

No, there were two more wolves. One of them had hit her, knocking her off of Lemuel before she could finish him. And now they were about to finish her.

“Enough,” Lemuel spoke and the wolves instantly stopped stalking toward her. The man was back on his feet. He glared at Roxa before smirking. “See? I have a pack. Friends. And you have…” He trailed off then, pausing before that smirk turned into a knowing grin. “Ah. Now there’s an idea.”

Roxa started to sit up, but the man snapped, “Hold her.” At his word, both wolves lunged forward. Each took one of her arms in its teeth, holding tight enough to hurt a little without actually breaking anything more than the skin. Still, her blood filled their mouths from the wounds, and they made appreciative noises.

She kicked out, but Lemuel stepped over and pinned both of her legs with one knee while dropping down in front of her. “Yes, that is an idea,” he murmured before holding up a single finger. “You see…” As he spoke, the fingernail elongated into a sharp, black claw. “Some people think that werewolves spread their… gift just by biting. That’s absurd. Do you have any idea how many people we bite? There’d be an epidemic. No. We have to purposefully share this gift with someone with a special little scratch.”

He wagged that claw back and forth in front of Roxa’s eyes. “Now, most people don’t survive the first change. That’s why we have to choose carefully. Your first change, that one… it’s nasty. Gets better, but the first one…” The man whistled low, demonstrating how bad it was before smiling. “Of course, we have family, friends, packmates there to help get the new recruit through it. Someone to hold onto you, coax you, protect you, give you food and water while you’re working your way through the worst.”

That smile turned vindictive as he drew the claw carefully down Roxa’s cheek before she could jerk her head away. “But you… well… you’re different.”

Standing up and brushing his hands off, Lemuel gestured. “First change takes about an hour. And it is going to be one of the most incredibly painful, torturous hours you could ever experience. Unlike us, you won’t have any friends, no one to help you through it. You will lie here and you will scream. Even if you make it through without that killing you… well, there’s lots of monsters in this here forest. And they’d love to find a tender little meal like you just… lying there… helpless… screaming from the agony.”

He shrugged then. “But hey, maybe you’ll survive the change. Doubtful, but maybe. Maybe you’ll somehow make it through with no one to help you, all alone out here. And maybe, maybe you’ll get even luckier and none of the monsters in this place will find you. Maybe you’ll survive the change and the forest itself.”

The two other wolves released her and retreated back behind the man while he smiled down at Roxa. “But you know what? Survive all of that, survive all of it, and you’ll still be one of us. You’ll still be a werewolf without a pack, without anyone.

“And all those little classmates, all those other Heretics, every last one of your so-called friends? Well, they’ll know what you are as soon as they see you. And they’ll kill you. You’ve got nothing, kid. Nothing but an hour of the worst pain of your life followed by a lifetime of being hunted by the people that were supposed to be your teachers, your mentors, your allies. So if the change doesn’t kill you… your friends will.”

With that, the man laughed once more. Then he turned and shifted, his body turning into a wolf once more. The three of them stared at Roxa like that before giving a trio of simultaneous howls.

Then they were gone, vanishing into the woods while Roxa felt the first spasm in her gut. She twisted, rolling even as her legs snapped out. The bones in all of her limbs simultaneously broke apart, the skin bulging up. A cry tore its way out of her throat as her vision blurred.

No. She would not be a victim. She didn’t care what the man said. She would not let him win. Never. Even as the pain shot through her, blinding her to everything else, Roxa held onto that one single thought.

She was not a victim. She would survive this. Somehow, someway, she would survive.

That thought filled her mind, and she clung to it like a life preserver in the middle of an ocean of agony.

And a few seconds later, her screams truly began.

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Interlude 13A – Sariel

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March 20th, 1986

The child’s name was Larissa. She was a rather small eleven-year-old girl, whose mess of brown hair never seemed to allow itself to be tamed for long. Not that she often put much effort into attempting to do so. No, Larissa was content to let her hair do whatever it wanted. It left her time to focus on the things she actually cared about, like reading comics and playing baseball with the neighborhood boys.

It was the former hobby she was engaging in then. Seated under a tree at the park, Larissa was intently reading the final issue of DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, which had just been released that very month.

The young girl was so intent on her reading, desperate to find out how the epic story ended, that she didn’t even notice the man approaching her until he was standing directly next to the tree. When the shadow of the man unexpectedly fell over her comic, she blinked up to see what was going on.

“Report,” the man ordered without preamble. He was as old as her grandfather, and was dressed in a nice suit and tie. He was even holding a briefcase, like he had just walked out of a business meeting.

“Um.” Larissa had no idea who this man was, which meant he fell into the ‘stranger’ category. “Please go away, sir.” She spoke firmly, hoping that the strange man would realize that he didn’t know her after all.

Instead, the man rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath something in some language Larissa couldn’t understand. Then he focused on her once more, his tone sharp. “I said report, Sariel.”

Larissa’s mouth opened, then shut. Her head tilted sideways for a moment before her eyes focused once more as a completely different set of body language settled over the girl. “Puriel.” the girl’s mouth said the name with clear annoyance. “I asked you not to make contact this way. I only take over Larissa while she’s asleep or in an emergency. She still thinks that I’m just an imaginary friend from her dreams.”

“And I told you that we don’t have time to engage with your folly,” Puriel insisted. “You are a spy, Sariel, not a friend. You should be controlling the girl as much as possible, to prepare for the moment that she is recruited by Crossroads. The Seraphim didn’t assign you to her so you could lounge in the back of her mind while she lays around reading this…” He plucked the comic from her hands. “… filth.”

“Actually, there’s some really good stories in those comics, Puriel,” Sariel informed him. Not that she expected the hard-headed being to listen. “And you used to enjoy the stories that the humans came up with. I seem to recall you paying attention to the tales that Greeks told when you were playing Zeus.”

He made an annoyed sound. “That was different. They were different. We directed the humans far more openly then. With the Heretics as numerous as they are now, that is impossible. And in any case, the Greek’s stories were at least entertaining. Not like… this.” He held the comic like it was excrement.

Sariel snatched it back from him, careful to avoid ripping the thing. “You only say that because they let you be the leader of their gods.” She paused before adding, “At least they got the arrogance right.”

“I am no longer Zeus,” Puriel spoke flatly. “And you have not been known as Artemis in quite some time, Sariel. Those days are over. You should focus on your current duties. Maintain control of the girl and keep an eye on her father until Crossroads approaches in a few of the human years. The Seraphim still believe that one of the legal cases that he works will be important some time in the future.”

“I know,” Sariel retorted without looking away from him. “If you’d just read my reports, you’d know that I’ve been using Larissa’s body while she’s asleep to go into her father’s office every night and read his files. I haven’t found anything that would interest the Seraphim. It’s all normal, boring legal cases.”

He just folded his arms while regarding her with clear disdain. “I’ve read the reports. I wanted to speak with you directly to ensure that you were not leaving anything out.”

“Well, I’m not.” Sariel made a shooing motion with the hand that wasn’t holding onto the comic book. “And there’s nothing else to tell you. So would you mind leaving? I already need to fix Larissa’s memory, and I’d like to make sure she has time to finish reading her book before she has to go home.”

Puriel made an expression of distaste before straightening. “Do not wait too long before you report again, Sariel. You may be on extended assignment, but the Seraphim are paying very close attention.”

With that, he pivoted on one heel and strode away silently. Most likely, he’d take the man he’d possessed to a bar of some kind and then leave him there with no memory of the past several hours.

Sariel, on the other hand, carefully used her magic to adjust the girl’s memory so that she would believe the strange man had come up and asked for directions to the nearest mall, which she had provided.

That done, she gave Larissa control of her own body once more and faded into the background. Some of her fellow Seosten maintained a rigid and constant grip on the bodies that they possessed, even allowing their hosts to know what was happening. Sariel, however, preferred to leave the humans she inhabited alone for the most part. As she’d told Puriel, she only took over when she absolutely had to, or at night while they were sleeping. He and his ilk believed that over-complicated things. But to Sariel, if they had to control these humans, the least they could do was leave them alone as much as possible.

It was still a gross violation of privacy, and her time in the back of Larissa’s head had gradually made the Seosten woman question her assignment. Possessing an innocent little girl to spy on her father and then spy on the Heretic school that would eventually recruit her? It was more than a little hard to take.

The entire point of spying on Crossroads was because it had grown beyond the Seraphim’s ability to control or predict. It had been difficult enough while Ruthers was in charge. The man wasn’t one of theirs, and his hard-line attitude was difficult to sway when they would have liked to. Now, the newest headmistress was even less predictable and the Seosten leadership was convinced she was hiding things, important things that none of their implanted people were capable of prying out of the woman.

So they had assigned Sariel to Larissa for this two-fold mission. First, spy on the girl’s father, then let herself be recruited by Crossroads when the time came and eventually ingratiate herself enough with Gaia Sinclaire to learn whatever secrets the woman was keeping that might endanger their civilization.

And yet… Sariel didn’t know what to do. Disobeying the Seraphim, the Seosten elite leadership council, seemed both impossible and terrifying. But she truly didn’t want to hurt any of the humans, and she was tired of spying on them, tired of treating them like enemies. She just wanted to talk to the humans. For so many years, she had been watching them, reading their stories, watching their lives from the outside. Part of her… part of her just wanted some of that for herself. A quiet life, maybe even a real family. Puriel and the others thought humans were this enormous threat, just because the Fomorians had created them. But that had been so long ago, and the humans had become so much more than that.

But there was no convincing the Seraphim, and Sariel had no idea if she was brave enough to walk away. And even if she did, then what? They would simply assign another Seosten to possess Larissa and use her as a spy. Worse, the new Seosten would probably be like Puriel, maintaining constant control.

She couldn’t do that to Larissa . There was no good answer, no real solution. For now, she just had to continue as things were and hope that a better solution would present itself eventually.

Before long, Larissa had finished reading her comic and was running through the park, dodging around people in her way. She had to get to the bus stop in the next few minutes, or she’d have to wait for the next bus. And if that happened, she’d be late for dinner and her dad would probably yell again.

Worried as she was about how late it was, the girl cut through a small forested area in the middle of the park rather than following the path all the way around. It would shave a couple minutes off the trip, which might let her make it in time. She was sprinting along, comic held tightly in one hand as she hopped over fallen branches and ducked under the ones that were still attached to the trees.

Halfway through the forested area, however, Larissa  came around a particularly wide oak just in time to see something that horrified her young mind. Directly in front of her, only about twenty yards away, three men stood in a circle around a hole that had been dug in the ground. Next to the hole was the body of a fourth man. He lay there with a hole directly in the center of his forehead, his sightless eyes staring almost accusingly at the girl who was already skidding to a stop while making an involuntary noise of shock.

“Aww, fuck me!” the first man to notice her cursed before pointing. “Grab the kid, god damn it!”

Larissa pivoted and tried to run, but she wasn’t fast enough. One of the men caught her by the arm, yanking her back into the little clearing before throwing the girl hard to the ground. She landed next to the body before letting out a terrified yelp and rolled away from it.

“She’s just a kid, man,” one of the man argued. “Can’t we just let her go? We’ll be long gone by the time she brings anyone back here.”

The one who had shouted for them to grab her slapped him upside the head with a look of annoyance. “No, idiot. Because she’s seen our faces. Which means we’ve gotta get rid of the kid just like we got rid of Benny. Now just make it quick if you’re such a fucking pussy. Do her in the head and let’s get the hell out of here before anyone else shows up. We’ll dump ’em in the same grave. There’s room for her.”

Blinded by her tears, comic long forgotten, Larissa stared up at the men from her spot on the ground. “P-p-please,” she whimpered, “Please, I w-won’t say anything. Please, I’ll be quiet. I’ll be quiet. Please.”

Sighing, the second man lifted a gun from his belt and pointed it at her. “Sorry, kid. Nothing personal.”

The girl’s eyes rolled back a bit and her body seemed to seize into a small spasm. Before the man could pull the trigger, she focused once more, her eyes much harder than before. “You had your chance,” Sariel informed him in a hard voice. “But if you’re willing to kill a child, I’ll show you no mercy.”

“What the fu–” the man managed to get out before the girl’s hand snapped upward. With Sariel’s power, Larissa’s body was strong enough to smack the pistol out of his hand, sending it flying off into the bushes. Before he could react to that, she flipped herself backward and up. In mid-air, the girl lashed out, kicking the confused and startled man directly in his crotch before landing easily on her feet.

The man who had been giving the orders had his own gun out by that point, and was pointing it at her with a shouted curse. He pulled the trigger, but Sariel had already moved the girl’s body out of the way at a speed that would have been impossible for a normal human. The gun had one of those human silencer devices on it, so the shots were only about as loud as a person clapping hard. Both of the ones that the man managed to get off flew right through the air where the girl had been, hitting trees beyond.

She blurred across the ground that separated them, tearing the pistol out of the man’s grip with one hand before punching him in the throat with her other fist. While he was doubling over, she turned her back to him while lifting the gun she had taken from the man. The third man was stumbling backwards while trying to yank his pistol from his waistband. Without hesitating, Sariel shot him through the eye.

The man behind her had almost recovered enough from the punch to his throat to make a threat of himself. Before he could do so, however, she dropping her aim to point the pistol at his shoe and pulled the trigger again. The bullet tore through his foot, dropping the man to the ground with a cry of pain.

Mercilessly and without actually looking at his fallen form, Sariel pointed the gun first at the man’s chest, then at his head, pulling the trigger both times. His cries were silenced.

A sudden noise alerted her to the fact that the first man had not stayed down. Even though she had kicked him in the groin, he managed to pull himself across the grass and retrieve his pistol. Even then, the man was rolling over, lifting the gun toward her while cursing up a storm.

At the same time that he was lifting his own gun, Sariel lifted hers. Both of them shot, and the man’s head snapped back as a bullet tore through it. At the same time, however, Sariel felt the other bullet go through her host’s chest. It didn’t exactly hurt, since there wasn’t much that humans had that could hurt a Seosten. But the damage that it did to her host body was extensive. It was only Sariel’s own power that stopped the bullet from killing the girl immediately. Even then, she was damaged enough to need help. Sariel’s influence would keep her alive long enough to call for help, but they would need to hurry.

Turning on one foot, Sariel tried to make the girl’s body run for a payphone to call 911. Unfortunately, the body itself wasn’t up to the challenge. It stumbled and fell to one knee.

A moment later, Sariel ejected herself from the girl. It would appear as though the semi-transparent ghost of a blonde woman in her early twenties had simply pulled herself up and out of the critically injured child before solidifying into a fully physical form.

Once she was solid again, Sariel turned and bent to pick up the now-unconscious Larissa. Holding the girl in both arms, she began to run through the forest, back to the populated area of the park.

She was almost out of the woods when another large hawk flew down out of the sky. It passed directly over her head before wheeling around in the air ahead of her. Just as she realized what the bird was doing, it stopped in mid-air and rapidly transformed before her eyes. Instead of a bird, a man stood there blocking her path.

No, not just a man. A Heretic.

“I don’t know what you are or where you think you’re going with that girl,” the man announced while pulling a black sword with a glowing red line running up the center of it from what had looked like an empty belt. “But I’m not gonna let you take her.”

“Wait! You don’t understand–” Sariel started, only to lunge backwards as the man moved with impossible speed toward her. His sword swiped through the air where her head had been.

“I’m–” she snapped her head to the side to avoid the follow-up swing. “–trying to–” She pivoted, lunging sideways as the man instantly teleported his sword from one hand to the other in order to get a better swing at her. “–save her!”

But the man wasn’t listening. He was trying to kill her, intent on ‘saving’ the girl. She wasn’t even sure he was hearing the words she said. He was just blindingly, murderously enraged at the sight of a horribly injured child that he believed she was responsible for. And maybe she was.

With that thought, Sariel stopped dodging abruptly. She turned to the man, kneeling quickly to place the girl on the ground. Then she just straightened and faced him.

“Kill me then,” she said simply. “But take the girl to the hospital after you do. Save her.” At least then she wouldn’t have to spy on innocent people. She’d gladly sacrifice herself to save Larissa.

Flipping his sword around, the Heretic frowned at her. “I don’t know what kind of trick you–”

“It’s not a trick! Look, just–” Frowning, Sariel focused on the gun that she had just been using, the one that had fallen to the ground back in that clearing. With a thought and a slight application of her power, it reappeared in her hand. The Heretic moved, but she was already pointing the gun not at him, but toward her own head. “Save the girl,” she said simply, and closed her eyes before pulling the trigger.

She had relaxed all of her power, leaving herself completely vulnerable to the shot. Yet instead of dying, or even feeling any pain, Sariel felt the rushing air of something moving just past her head an instant before the bullet would have hit her. There was the sound of a loud ricochet, and then nothing.

Slowly, the woman opened her eyes. The Heretic was right in front of her, his sword held close to her head. He wasn’t trying to kill her, however. Instead, he’d used the flat of the blade to deflect the bullet.

“Why would you do that?” he demanded. There was no anger or condemnation in his voice, however. Instead, there was wonder and confusion. His eyes were searching hers intently.

“The girl,” she answered simply. “Please. She’s dying.”

At the reminder, the Heretic turned to look at the child on the ground. He didn’t hesitate that time. Instead, he took Sariel by one arm and yanked her after him as he knelt, sheathing the sword once more before putting a hand on Larissa as well.

A moment later, the air twisted around Sariel as the Heretic used some kind of power. The woods were gone, and they were instead standing in the entranceway of a busy hospital emergency room. There were people all around them, who froze briefly when the three figures simply appeared out of nowhere.

Then the Bystander Effect kicked in, and the people’s memories simply filled the idea that these three had come in through the doors, erasing the impossible teleportation.

A nurse was running to them, asking questions even as the Heretic lifted Larissa off the floor. She was put in a nearby gurney and rushed away to be taken care of.

Sariel watched her go, wanting to go after her. But when she took a step that way, she felt a hand on her arm once more. The Heretic was there. His voice was quiet. “She’ll be okay. They’ve got it.”

“I…” Pausing, Sariel nodded. “Thank you for letting me see that she was being saved. You… you can kill me now if you want to, if that’s your price.”

“If that’s my…” the man started before trailing off. He made a face, glancing away before his jaw tightened. Turning back to her, he made a gesture with his free hand.

Again, the world spun, and the two were back in the woods once more. The Heretic released her, stepping back a few steps before watching her with something like fascination.

“You’re not evil,” he said flatly. “You were really trying to save that girl. Why?”

“It’s a long story,” she replied. “But I never wanted to hurt anyone that didn’t deserve it. She didn’t.”

The man considered that before lifting his chin. “I think we have a lot to talk about.” He paused again, then carefully lifted his hand toward her, extending it. “What’s your name?”

“Sariel,” she answered before hesitantly accepting his hand. “What… what’s yours?”

The Heretic paused before replying, “Haiden.”

Both of them watched one another for a few seconds after introducing themselves. Neither was sure which one began to smile first, but eventually, both were. And then they began to talk. It was a discussion that lasted throughout the day, then through the night.

Eventually, the two checked on the girl, finding that she was indeed alive and would make a full recovery. Just in case, Haiden contacted Crossroads, warning them that a Stranger with possession powers had targeted one of their potentials. There was no love lost between Crossroads and Haiden’s Eden’s Garden group, but they were far more likely to listen to his warning than one that came from Sariel. He made sure the other Heretics took the warning seriously, and Larissa was soon being watched over by enough eyes that sending a replacement for Sariel to possess her again would be as close to impossible as they could make it.

Larissa was safe. Or at least as safe as possible.

To celebrate, the two of them went to dinner that next evening. And then they went to another dinner, and another. Before long, Sariel and Haiden would completely abandon their respective groups. They fell in love and ran away to begin their own family under a new name.

Sariel had enjoyed her time as both Artemis for the Greeks and Diana for the Romans. She wanted to use a name that reminded her of those days, of those lives.

The lunar goddess.

Moon. It was a good name.

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Mini-Interlude 8 – Vanessa and Tristan

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Very shortly after Gaia introduced Tristan to the school at their dinner.

Vanessa Moon was a logical person, as far as she could be. She was also a rule-abiding one. Again, as far as she could follow rules while continuing to do such little things as search for her missing family and avoid letting the authorities in charge of this school or her classmates themselves know that she was directly related to one of the so-called ‘Strangers’ that they were all supposedly training to kill.

Good student or not, she was fairly certain that such a revelation would probably result in her losing any chance at a decent report card. Also, death.

But the fact remained that as much as she could be a logical, rule-abiding student, she was. She did what she was told to do, followed every rule that she didn’t absolutely have to break, and generally worked as hard as possible to be a model student. She never acted out, had never been sent to the principal’s office or anything like it throughout her entire academic career. She always did her homework, never spoke out of turn, and so on.

Which meant that both sides of Vanessa, the secret half-Stranger who was just looking for her family, and the perfectly behaved model student, should have been utterly terrified at this point. Because in almost every other possible situation, being brought to the office of the Crossroads Headmistress would have left her petrified with fear. Not only did it go against the person she’d always been in all of her other schools (once she’d realized that ranting about her family disappearing into the shards of a glowing crystal ball wasn’t getting her anywhere), but attracting Headmistress Sinclaire’s attention also ran the risk of revealing who and what she really was.

But this was not a normal situation. And in that particular moment, Vanessa wasn’t thinking about any of that. Because nothing, not those worries or anything else, were the slightest blip against the pure and unadulterated joy that accompanied the one and only thought that was in her mind in that moment.

My brother’s back.

Both of them were standing in waiting room just outside of Headmistress Sinclaire’s office. The woman had said something about giving them a moment while she prepared things before stepping inside. But Vanessa had barely heard her. She had latched onto Tristan and hadn’t let go. Every time she tried to say something, the words caught in her throat. She was afraid of breaking the moment, of waking up to find out it had all been a dream.

But it wasn’t a dream. He was there. After a solid decade of being apart, her twin brother was there. Vanessa continued to hug Tristan as tightly as she could, refusing to let go even long enough to sit down in one of the chairs that lined the nearby wall.

And for his part, Tristan didn’t seem interested in letting go of her either. He was holding onto Vanessa just as tightly as she was holding him, and seemed possibly even more overwhelmed. It was obvious that he’d had no idea that she was at the school.

“Why—how… how did you… you…” The words escaped her, but she wasn’t sure they were even in the right order, let alone whether or not the resulting sentence would have made sense if they were.

Yet Tristan seemed to understand. “Long story, Nessa,” he assured her quietly. “It’s a really long story. I’ll explain it later. But hey, the point is, I’m here now. I’m here.”

“But how?” Vanessa demanded, head shaking. “I—I’ve looked into that sphere thing. I don’t know who made it, but I’ve found enough that I know what it does. You shouldn’t be able to be here. You should be on some other world. You shouldn’t be able to come here without snapping right back to where you were!” Her voice was a hissed whisper. “I’ve been trying to find a way to break it, but no one even knows who makes those spheres, let alone how to–”

Tristan promptly supplied, “Seosten. They’re called Seosten. And like I said, it’s a long story. Probably best told if you’re sitting down. Which….”

He started to gesture to the nearby chairs, but Vanessa’s head shook as she pulled back just enough to stare at her twin with wide eyes. “I—I couldn’t find—I mean I haven’t found Mom and Dad. I’ve been–”

And then she shut up abruptly, as the realization of where they were and what was happening finally overcame her incredible relief and elation.

Tristan obviously noticed her reaction, frowning briefly. “What–”

Before he could say anything else, however, Vanessa’s hand snapped up to cover his mouth. The boy made a noise of surprise until she shushed him. Eyes wide, she stepped back as far from the headmistress’s door as she could while keeping her voice low. “Listen, I can’t explain right now, but you can’t say anything about what you saw back at the house. You can’t talk about that guy that came to the door, o-or what he said about Mom or… or anything.”

“You mean that she’s a Seo–” Tristan started, only to have his mouth covered once again.

“Shhh!” Vanessa insisted. “Please, Tristan. Please. You don’t understand. These people—they—they’re… they’re good people, but they think…” She took a breath and let it out again. “If they knew what Mom was, what we are, they’d–”

“Kill you?”

The voice came from behind them, and Vanessa almost jumped all the way to the ceiling several meters above them (which, considering the Tsuchinoko she had killed earlier, was actually physically possible for her). She spun, reflexively putting herself in front of her twin.

“He-Headmistress Sinclaire,” she started, staring at the woman. Vanessa’s mind raced. They couldn’t escape the woman, couldn’t beat her and couldn’t hope to get away. Not in any normal way at least. But if they could get into the main student population, it might slow her down as she couldn’t outright attack them without explaining things. And in the resulting confusion, then maybe… maybe….

“I have lived a very long time,” the headmistress spoke quietly, her tone as gentle as Vanessa had ever heard. “But I would trade almost all of those years if it meant that I would never have to see another innocent child look at me the way you are right now.”

Before Vanessa’s open mouth could do more than make a confused noise, she felt Tristan’s hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay, Nessa,” he assured her. “It’s all right. She knows. She knows what Mom was, what we are.”

“You—she—what?” Vanessa’s head flipped back and forth, looking over at her brother and then back to Headmistress Sinclaire before repeating the motion several times. She had no idea where to look, and the only sounds coming out of her mouth were ones of utter bafflement and disbelief.

“Uh, could you maybe say something to her?” Tristan addressed the older woman. “I think she’s about to explode or something.”

In response, the headmistress straightened a little, gazing at Vanessa with a look that made the girl feel less certain of her terror. “Vanessa,” she said quietly, “you are in no danger from me. At worst, it is an apology that I owe you, not harm.”

“A… an apology?” She was confused, the words coming out hesitantly as she continued to lean back against her brother.

“Yes.” Headmistress Sinclaire answered simply before explaining. “I owe you an apology for allowing you to remain this fearful of being discovered. You appeared to be handling your unique situation quite well in comparison to others that I have seen, so I assumed that our discussion could wait. In the meantime, I’ve been attempting to help you where I could, directing books to be left where you could find them, ensuring that you were not disturbed during your late night library research excursions, and even making my own inquiries into the whereabouts of your family.”

Vanessa’s mouth hung open as she stared at the woman. “You—you knew? I mean—you—oh.”

“I know many things, Vanessa,” the headmistress confirmed. “I must confess that your relation to Tristan here did take me by surprise. I had been attempting to find out exactly what sort of… being your missing mother is, but my efforts were unsuccessful. Now, it seems, we have our answer.”

The girl’s head shook slowly. “But you—you’re the principal of—I mean the headmistress of—you teach—this—I… I don’t understand.” It wasn’t often that Vanessa had to say those words. Yet, in this case, she was rather thoroughly flummoxed.

“First, it bears repeating that you are in no danger from me,” Headmistress Sinclaire spoke firmly. “The truth is that there are those of us within the ranks of Heretics who believe that there should be a way to live peacefully with some of the beings that we refer to as Strangers. We know that many, such as your mother, are not evil. In fact, they would be a much greater ally against the true threats.”

“But… but you teach them—you teach us that they’re all… that we’re all…” Vanessa started.

The woman nodded while finishing for her, “Evil. Yes. Sadly, the overall leadership of Crossroads does not share that opinion. Nor do the majority of the populace. We are attempting to change minds, but that takes time and a lot of subtlety to avoid alerting those who would bring the leadership down on top of us. You, and those like you, are part of that quiet attempt.”

“We are?” Vanessa blinked once, then spoke before the other woman could explain. “You mean you get students who would be considered evil, put them through all this training, and if they graduate you’ve got another Heretic who doesn’t believe the official line. Oh, and on top of that, you have other Heretics who were friends with them when they were students and might be more open to the idea that they’re not all evil.”

Chuckling, the headmistress made a gesture of agreement. “Your reputation for intelligence is clearly not undeserved. Yes. It was only relatively recently that someone like you, one who is half-Alter—I’m told that is their word for themselves rather than Stranger– was capable of joining this school. The Edge itself had to be… updated to allow it.”

“So… so you always knew, and you were… and you’re really… you’re not…” Trailing off, Vanessa stumbled a little toward the nearby chair. “I think I should sit down.”

Tristan helped her over to it before sitting beside her with both hands on Vanessa’s arm. “If you think that’s crazy, wait til you hear the rest of the story.”

Putting her other hand over one of Tristan’s and squeezing it tightly, the girl stared at him in a bit of a daze. “The rest of the story?”

Before he could explain, Headmistress Sinclaire stepped that way. “I’m going to do as I promised now and leave you both to your reunion. I would not have interrupted at all, but I wanted you to know that you are safe here. Provided, of course, that you do remain discreet. I will do all that I can to protect you, as will my allies. But there are many that you must not allow to find out anything about your true situation.”

“The… the other teachers?” Vanessa asked hesitantly.

“Some are on our side,” the woman confirmed. “One, in fact, is also a Half-Alter. But it is up to that person if they wish to reveal themselves to you, not me. Later, I will discuss such things, along with which professors you may trust beyond a shadow of a doubt. But for now, enjoy your time with your brother, Vanessa. We can worry about everything else, including how to locate your parents now that we have more information, later. I promise you, we will do absolutely everything possible to bring your family together once more.”

“H-Headmistress?” Vanessa slowly raised a hand, as if she was in class. “You—um, you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, because it’s really personal. But… do you have a family? It’s just—I know you adopted Avalon. But you’ve been around for a long time, and yet I don’t think you’ve mentioned anyone else even though you… you seem to care a lot about people having their families.”

For a moment, the woman didn’t respond to her. Vanessa was afraid that her insatiable thirst for information, her urge to know things and inability to not ask a question once it had occurred to her, had gone too far.

But after a few seconds of that, Headmistress Sinclaire asked, “Do you know the origin of the name Sinclair? Generally spelled without the e.”

Without even thinking about it, Vanessa nodded. “It’s from the Highland Scottish Clan Sinclair. The name was originally Saint-Clair, because that’s where they were from, back in Normandy.”

Smiling faintly, the headmistress nodded. “Indeed. To answer your question, I am not… generally speaking, able to bear children. It’s simply one of those things. However, once, I did just that. I had a son. It…” She paused then, glancing away before speaking in a softer voice. “He was taken from me and… died before I was able to rescue him.”

Eyes wide at that, Vanessa made a noise of horror. “I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to–”

“It has been many years.” The woman shook her head. “At the time, however, I was very… inconsolable. I was taken in by the Clan Sinclair. They cared for me, nourished me, forced me to eat and drink when I only wished to die and join my son, the son that I never should have been able to have at all. They did everything for me until I was prepared to live again.

“And so, when I chose to reinvent myself, I took a new name. Sinclaire to honor the people who had done so much for me, adding the e as an admission that I was not born into their clan. And I took the name of Gaia as Earth Mother, to remind myself that I do not have to be mother only to one, but that I may… care for any who need me to do so.”

Blinking back a few tears, Vanessa managed a weak, “I… I’m sorry for making you think about that again…”

Headmistress Sinclaire’s voice was soft, but certain. “As I said, it has been a very long time. And you should know it, so that you understand that when I say that I will do everything within my power to reunite you with your family, I mean it.”

She gave a firm nod then, reaching out to brush Vanessa’s hair back with a gentle smile before turning away. “Take all the time that you need, both of you. We can discuss the rest of this later.”

Then the woman was gone again, closing the door after herself while leaving Vanessa and Tristan to begin what promised to be a very, very long conversation.

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-08

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“Flick, Flick, wait! Hold on!” Miranda was on her feet in front of me, stopping me from sprinting out of the room. Her eyes were wide as she held her hands up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

My mind was racing. After hearing that recording and realizing what had happened, it was all I could do not to shove the other girl out of the way to keep going. “They killed Professor Pericles,” I blurted. “Now, the person they meant to kill is right here. I helped bring Wyatt here, to Eden’s Garden.”

Miranda’s head shook back and forth. “Wyatt, that security guy? You’re not making sense. Flick, just slow down for a second. What happened? Are you saying he’s the guy that—he’s that Zedekiah guy?”

“I–” Taking a deep breath, I exhaled before nodding. “I can’t explain all of it. Like, literally can’t. I could try, but I’d be wasting my breath because there’s still that spell I told you about that stops you from remembering even if I do explain it. Trust me, it’s really freaking annoying. But the point is, his real name is Zedekiah. That’s his birth name, and he’s really damn good with security magic. So he’s gotta be the one they’re after. He’s the guy they were trying to get rid of when they killed Professor Pericles.”

Nodding once, Miranda continued to meet my gaze while patiently pointing out, “But they don’t know that.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “I know you’re freaked out right now, especially after everything that happened. But there’s no reason they should know who he is just because you do. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just Wyatt, remember? Besides,” she added then, “Being here isn’t necessarily any more dangerous for him than being back at Crossroads. I mean…” Trailing off, she looked at me silently.

Letting out a breath again, I lowered my head before nodding. “You’re right. He’d be in just as much danger there as here if they knew who he was. Maybe more, I don’t know. I–” Working my mouth, I looked at the other girl. “I really wanna explain this to you. I wish I could just tell you the whole story. But all I can say is that I can’t lose him. I can’t lose Wyatt, Randi. I can’t let anything happen to him.”

“I get it,” Randi assured me. “I mean, I don’t get all of it, but I understand what you mean. There’s no reason to think he’s in any more danger right now though. And if you go running off to find him, that’ll probably make things worse.” She hesitated then before offering, “I think your best move is to wait.”

“Wait,” I echoed with a nod, reluctant as it was. “You’re right. I just—kinda freaked out for a second there.” Smiling faintly in spite of myself, I put my hand over hers. “Thanks for talking me down.”

She returned my smile and shrugged. “Hey, what are friends for?”

Shaking myself, I abruptly blurted, “Okay, hold on. Before we do anything else, can you send that recording to my phone? Like, right now. Then e-mail it to me. Then upload it to some kind of storage site. And while you’re doing that, I’ll make another e-mail address and copy it over.”

“Wow,” Miranda laughed. “You really don’t wanna lose this recording, do you?”

“Let’s just say I’d rather avoid that particular problem,” I muttered before getting to work.

Once we had done that, Miranda nudged me with her fist. “Now why don’t we see how much you can tell me about the–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sound of a commotion just outside. There was a sudden crashing noise, followed by three different voices talking loudly at the same time. And one of those voices I immediately recognized.

“Oh shit,” I blurted out loud as my eyes widened. I grimaced a bit, spinning around before practically throwing myself toward the doorway. “Damn it, damn it, damn it, this is a different world, isn’t it?”

Miranda was right behind me. “Err, yeah? I mean, of course it is. Why? What’s going on out there?”

Instead of taking the time to explain it to her, I lunged for the exit. Yanking it open, I blurted before even taking the time to see what was going on, “Don’t hurt him! He’s not a spy, it’s my fault he’s here!”

Just as I’d expected, just as I’d known in that moment as soon as I recognized his voice, there was a single, blond figure facing off against Croc and the rest of the Unset who had been standing guard. Tristan. Of course. The boy was linked to me. I was his anchor, the thing keeping him on Earth. So when that magic registered that I wasn’t on Earth anymore, it yanked him toward where I was. Whoops.

He was also soaking wet and wearing little more than swim trunks, which immediately made me freeze as my brain briefly blue screened. It was obvious that the boy had been out in the ocean when he’d been pulled right into the middle of Eden’s Garden. Which was nice to see, but now was not the time, Flick.

The Unset had stopped moving as soon as I spoke, their reactions good enough that they stopped any hostile motion. But Tristan either hadn’t heard me or he was too focused on what he saw as a threat. The boy was already yanking the silver chain necklace (the only other thing he was wearing besides the swim trunks) off his neck and was throwing it toward the ground. In mid-fall, the silver chain transformed. It grew a hell of a lot bigger, expanding into a massive fifteen foot long mechanical snake. The thing was coiled partway around Tristan, and its eyes were like little glowing green emeralds.

Heaving itself up so that the top third of its body was off the ground, the snake-robot dropped itself onto Tristan’s waiting, outstretched arm. His arm disappeared up into the snake’s body, with the head sticking out a little bit past his hand. Then the snake’s mouth open wide, before a large barrel extended.

“Tristan!” I blurted out even louder that time, waving a hand. “Stop, stop! It’s okay, don’t start a fight!”

Stopping short, Tristan’s head tilted. At the same time, the head of his snake (cannon barrel included) did the same. Both looked curious. “Flick?” He was clearly confused. “What’s—uh what’s going on?”

“Yes,” Croc spoke from nearby, his hand on his pike-weapon. “What exactly is happening here?”

Biting my lip, I looked from Unset to Tristan and back again before starting. “Okay, it’s a long story… on both sides. But what you guys need to know is that someone bad put a curse on Tristan that made it so he couldn’t go back to Earth. Someone else fixed it by using different magic to anchor him to me so he could go to Earth and stay there. But since I came here, and this place is on a different world…”

“He was brought here as well,” Croc finished for me, straightening a little while stowing his weapon. He spoke a single word to the rest of his people, and they all relaxed somewhat as well. “I understand. But there are others who may not look very kindly on his unannounced arrival. You should go back inside the room until you’re called by Seller. You can explain things to the boy in there, out of sight.”

Nodding quickly, I gestured with my head. “Come on, Tristan. I’ll explain in a minute. But Croc’s right, we can’t just stand out here in the open. Someone’s gonna… see… you…” I trailed off toward the end as my head turned and I finally had a second to take in the sight around me. The view made my jaw drop.

Yes, Avalon had told me a little bit about Eden’s Garden. So had Miranda. But neither of their descriptions did the place justice. We were standing on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to several big trucks on next to each other. And this was just one, one branch of many. Most of those other branches had literal buildings built on them, along with little playgrounds, a few roads, and more stuff that shouldn’t have been able to be in a freaking tree. There was an entire city built in this tree, with people of all ages running back and forth, training, shopping, or just living.

There was also green pretty much everywhere. No matter where my eyes moved, I saw more lush vegetation. More giant trees (though this one was clearly the biggest) stretched out as far as my eyes could see, and below them, I could make out an unbelievable amount of other plants, including beautiful flowers of every conceivable color. No wonder they called this place Eden’s Garden.

Apparently I stood there and stared for awhile, because the next thing I knew, Miranda was tugging my arm. “I’ll show you around as soon as there’s a chance,” she promised. “But we need to move now.”

Shaking myself, I nodded. By that point, Tristan had already retracted his snake-cannon back into its necklace form and was wearing it again. He gave the Unset a curious look before jogging over to us.

After giving one last look at the incredible vista, I stepped back through the doorway with the other two. As soon as the door had shut, I pivoted toward the boy. “Tristan, I am so sorry. I didn’t even think about what it was going to do to you when I came here. I completely forgot about our anchor thing.”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry about it.” Rubbing his hand over one ear and then back through his wet hair, Tristan gave me a charming grin that made my heart flip over once more. Why, why did he have to be wearing so little when he was pulled along? “I guess that’s what Gaia was trying to tell me before.”

I blinked at that, glancing toward Miranda before asking, “Wait, Gaia was there? What happened?”

“One sec.” Holding up a finger, he focused on the other girl while giving her an easy, disarming smile. “Sorry, there wasn’t really a chance for introductions out there. I’m Tristan.” He held a hand out to her.

For her part, Miranda blinked at the offered hand before shaking it. “Miranda. Flick mentioned you. You’re that one who used to be a kid because you were turned into a statue for a few years, then you came back in time as the right age.” Pausing, she turned to look at me. “Your school is fucking weird.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before focusing. “Right, so, Randi, that’s Tristan. Tristan, that’s Randi. You guys know each other now. So, Gaia?” I pressed, looking at the boy.

“Yeah, I was out on the water with Roxa,” he explained. “She was teaching me how to windsurf.”

Hearing that, an unwanted flash of jealousy shot through me that I tried to quash. Shut up, stupid brain.

If Tristan’s smile was any indication, he noticed. But he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he just continued. “We were out there and I saw Gaia come out to the beach. She was doing that thing where she talks and you hear her just fine even if she’s nowhere near you. Which is really cool, for the record. Anyway, she was saying something about you, but I didn’t catch all of it before I was suddenly right in front of those scary guys in the armor. Guess she wasn’t fast enough to get the whole warning out.”

“Seller must’ve contacted her,” I murmured to myself. “Or maybe Professor Dare or one of the others. Either way, she came to tell you that you were about to be yanked along with us. Which, um, sorry.”

Tristan shrugged at that, still grinning. “You know, the day I complain about being teleported to a couple pretty girls is the day that you know I’ve been taken over by an evil mind-controlling Stranger.”

Coughing a little as my blush spread, I gave the boy a look. Which was a mistake, because it just made me blush even more. “Oookay, maybe we should find you a shirt or something to wear. Miranda?”

“Actually, I kinda like him the way he is.” Beside me, Miranda smirked while looking him up and down.

I was spared from having to respond to that by the door opening. Seller stepped inside and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the boy there. He took a second before speaking. “Croc said you had a friend show up. He neglected to mention that your friend wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

“Abigail,” I pressed while stepping that way. “Is she—did they agree to…” I couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in my throat, all of my thoughts jumbled up. And that time, it wasn’t because of Tristan.

In response, Seller nodded to me. “The Victors have agreed to give Abigail one of the apples. Wasn’t exactly easy, but when it comes down to it, I’ve got a few allotted to me that are mine to give out unless they can come up with a compelling reason against it. Some of them didn’t like it, but they couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to convince the others to overrule me. So, she got the apple.”

I sagged with relief at that. “So, she’s okay then? They gave her the apple and she’s gonna be all right?”

“Well,” Seller cautioned me gently, “it’s still going to take a little time. That Fomorian really messed her up. Whatever he did to her—we’ve got people fixing her, but she’s gonna have to stay under for a day or two while they do it. This isn’t normal damage, those guys are nasty. He threw in some kind of little biological traps while he was opening her up back there.” He shook his head, looking disgusted and even a little bit disturbed. “Like I said, they’ll fix her, but give it a couple days. They’re keeping her unconscious while they do their work. I asked, and they said you could see her in a few hours.”

“A few hours?” I echoed, trying to tell myself to calm down. It made sense. Abigail had been opened up with Koren’s hand literally on her heart, pumping it for her. The fact that they’d let me see her in a few hours and that she should be okay in a couple days was pretty amazing.

That thought made me straighten again. “Wait, Koren. Is she–”

“I’m okay,” the girl in question murmured as she stepped into the room. Despite her words, she didn’t exactly look that good. She was a little pale and shuddered a bit even standing there.

Turning his head a bit, Seller looked at something in his hand. “Excuse me a second, apparently your headmistress just sent another message.”

He stepped out of the room, and Koren watched him go before talking in a bit of a daze. “I was up with my mom, but they told me they needed space to work on her, so… h-here I am, I guess. I don’t… I don’t really know what to. Wyatt’s still there, he refused to leave and they said he could help them make sure none of the… the traps that the… the monster left in her body go off. He’s… he’s helping with… that…”

She trailed off then while still looking dazed and out of it, and I stepped that way to hug the girl. “Koren,” I managed a little weakly, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Her head shook at that. “Remember what he said? It wasn’t about you. It was about me. It was all about me. He didn’t even know about you. He was after me. That whole time, even back then, all those people he kidnapped to make it look like a real Stranger attack? Showing up in my house and scaring me? Even letting me get away. It was all part of his plan. All of it. And now he-he killed my… my…”

In mid-sentence, Koren turned away, falling to her knees as she threw up. I went down with her, trying my best to tug the girl’s hair away from her face while wincing. Through the next few moments, I rubbed her back and held her hair out of the way while she emptied her stomach.

Eventually, she sagged against me, so obviously exhausted that she was fighting to stay awake. “I… I have to tell you… Mom… she said something when she ate the apple. Her… her vision. She said something just before they knocked her out, something about what she saw.” Another pause then, before, “It was about your mom… and you.”

“Me?” I blinked in surprise. “What do you mean? What did she say?”

Still looking at the floor, Koren replied in a blank monotone. “She said… ‘she gave up for her. She let him take her to save her, to save Felicity. She saved Felicity. She went with him for Felicity.’”

It was my turn to settle roughly onto the floor, almost falling. Abigail’s vision had been of Mom. She’d seen Mom surrender herself to Fossor, trade herself for my life. She saw… oh god.

I had to talk to her. I had to… had to say something. What, I had no idea. But I had to be there when she woke up.

Tristan and Miranda, who had been silent the whole time up to that point, finally came closer. They sat down nearby, and the four of us were just sitting there quietly when the door opened again.

Seller entered, but he wasn’t alone. Croc was with him. The Unset man didn’t look that happy, and neither did Seller.

“Sard them! You know this is insanity. They can’t just write the girl off like that!” My ancestor ranted. “Damn your orders.”

“I may disagree with the orders,” Croc spoke quietly. “But I may not disobey them. That would bring our entire system down. The Victors have spoken.”

“What?” I blurted, my eyes wide. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to–”

“Abigail’s fine,” Seller assured me. “Well, as fine as can be expected. No, this isn’t about her. It’s about the girl he was with when he was dragged over here.” He looked toward Tristan.

Tristan, meanwhile, blinked. “Roxa? What about her?”

Seller muttered something angrily under his breath before answering. “Let me guess. You two were touching each other when you were dragged here.”
“Uhhh, yeah?” Tristan spoke slowly, uncertainly. “She was teaching me how to wind surf. We were sort of—you know, her hands were on me.”

Cursing again, Seller nodded. “Well, turns out, when you were teleported away, so was the girl.”

My eyes widened at that. “Oh god, is she okay? Wait—oh… oh shit, did she land on another branch or something?”

“If only,” Seller grumbled before looking at me. “No. Apparently she let go somewhere along the way. She didn’t make it all the way to the tree.”

Beside me, Miranda made a noise of shock. “Wh—what do you mean? You don’t mean—she couldn’t be…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed. “She’s out there…. somewhere” He pointed off into the wilds beyond the tree.

“They have to go find her!” Miranda insisted, practically leaping to her feet. “You don’t understand, Flick. That place is dangerous! There’s monsters all over the place, thousands of them. The ones beyond the barrier aren’t domesticated. She can’t survive out there by herself. They’ve gotta send a rescue party!”

“Yeah,” Seller’s voice was dark. “The Victors nipped that one right in the bud. They said with the pack movements out there and everything else going on, it’s too dangerous to send a rescue party out to save one Crossroads student.”

Well. Any desire I might’ve had to be an exchange student with this place completely fucking vanished in that instant. I was on my feet, staring at the man in disbelief. “What the fuck?! That’s ridiculous. That’s insane! That’s—that’s—bullshit! They can’t just leave her out there to die!”

“Believe me, I’ve tried to tell them that,” Seller assured me with an exasperated sigh. “I did. That’s what I’ve been doing out there. But they’re not listening. They’ve made up their minds.”

“Well then screw them,” Miranda said sharply, her hands squeezing into fists. “If they won’t do what’s right, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.”

Turning that way quickly, I stared at the girl. “You… you’ll go out there with me?”

“With us,” Tristan spoke up before shrugging at me with a little smile. “Can’t let a couple pretty girls run out into the nasty forest alone. Especially since the whole reason Roxa’s trapped out there is because she happened to be touching me.”

“You can’t possibly understand how dangerous it really is in that forest,” Seller started.

I turned that way, snapping, “No. You know what I can’t do? I can’t leave an innocent girl out there to die. It’s not who I am and it’s sure as hell not anyone I want to become. So either help as much as you can, or just tell us how to get down to the ground. Because we’re going to save Roxa.”

On the heels of that announcement, Tristan raised his hand. “Uh. Before we do that though, maybe I should put some pants on…”

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

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Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-06

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“You know, I’d say that you’re fucking crazy,” I retorted after a few seconds of silence. “But I’m pretty sure all of this,” I gestured around the room a bit wildly, “pretty much made that a forgone conclusion.”

The grayish-green, sharp-edged face of the Fomorian simply smiled at me for a moment before speaking. “Why do you believe that, out of every species in this vast universe, humans are somehow able to form genetic bonds with what you call Strangers? A trillion creatures in this unending void, and, for some unexplained reason, only your species is capable of becoming one of these… Heretics. Truly?”

He made a dismissive gesture then before tapping the table in front of him. “Think about it. Try to comprehend the odds against such a thing. Humans, for no reason whatsoever, genetically bond with any other sapient creature simply by bathing in their blood sufficiently? Think of the manufactured Heretics such as yourselves. That’s simply taking the same premise to genetically bond an entire army of humans using the exact same creature, what you call the Hangman. A natural Heretic, whatever name they may go by, isn’t that different. They simply bond their genetics to a different creature.”

Deveron hadn’t lowered his weapon. His voice was dark. “Forgive me if I’m not falling all over myself to believe a word out of your mouth. Now, I believe I said to let the babies go.” His thumb pulled the hammer of the flintlock pistol back with a decisive click. “I rarely repeat myself once. Never twice.”

If the threat meant anything to the Fomorian, he didn’t show it. Instead, the creature simply looked to me. “The power and knowledge of our race is considerable. But we are relatively few in number, as far as that goes. We reproduce rarely, and many of those offspring don’t exactly survive to completion.”

Glancing toward Deveron and then back again, I swallowed hard before forcing myself to speak. Whatever it took to waste enough time that Seller, Professor Dare, and the others could make it here. We needed help. “So you’re saying that you created humans as, what, some kind of military project?”

That smile returned. “Indeed. Very good. We created your race to serve as our soldiers, our warriors so that we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with such… barbarism. Humanity was conceived as the ultimate weapon with the ability to bond yourselves with the genetics of any other sapient creature. No matter what race we found ourselves competing against, our new soldiers would be able to bond to them. Any advantages, abilities, or genetic gifts these other species possessed, you would be able to gain those very same gifts simply by taking a bit of their blood. You were our most glorious creation.”

Koren, arms still buried in her mother’s back to pump her heart, was in tears. “If you like us so much,” she demanded, “then why the hell are you doing this?! Help my mom! Or tell us what you want!”

Tutting her with a wagging finger, the Fomorian shook his head. “In due time, in due time.” He glanced briefly to Deveron, looking him up and down once more before continuing with a sigh of lamentation. “If all had gone as planned, humanity would’ve spread over the universe, serving as soldiers to expand our reach far beyond what we ourselves could possibly have maintained given our low population.”

Keep him talking and distracted, a voice in my head instructed. Deveron, obviously. Dare is already outside with reinforcements. They’ll be in here as soon as they can get that damn shield down.

Swallowing hard, I made myself stare at the Fomorian when all I really wanted to do was run to Koren and her mother… my sister. I forced my attention to stay on him. “But it didn’t go as planned, did it?”

His eyes, suddenly hard and dark, stared at me in a way that made me want to shrink backwards in spite of myself. The voice that came was much less calm than it had been. “No,” he spat. “A traitor to our cause, a traitor to our species, abandoned the project and took the only true samples with him. He came here, to this planet, and released them into the wild. They became your first ancestors. And we spent millennia searching for our stolen creations. Imagine our pure joy when we arrived on this world and found that, not only have you reproduced into the billions, but that some of you had already discovered your ability to bond the genetic abilities of other species to yourselves. Our creations were achieving our dreams. Given the proper direction and guidance, you would easily serve your original purpose.”

He tapped the table a few times, staring down at it before muttering. “Little did we realize that our worst enemies, the closest creatures our species has to contemporaries, had already found you and begun to influence your growth. Their leadership knew our creation, knew what you were capable of. They sought you the same as we had, and they found you sooner. So, to prevent you from becoming what you were meant to be, they first created a magical curse, an effect that would prevent your species from realizing that any other sapient race existed. They sought to ensure the failure of our project by stunting your growth. Their magic is what you refer to as the Bystander Effect.”

“The Seosten,” I realized, lifting my chin. “You’re talking about the Seosten. They’re your enemies.”

That dark, hate-filled look came back for a moment before the creature shook it off. He continued in a falsely sweet, calm voice that wasn’t fooling any of us. “Yes. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect to block our wonderful creations from fulfilling their purpose. Except, that wasn’t enough. You, our wonderful, perfect, most glorious experiments, could not be contained. Some of you managed to accidentally bond yourselves to other creatures anyway. And such bonding destroyed their curse, freeing you to become more than what you were. These, what some of you call ‘wild Heretics’, terrified the Seosten. And they were right to be frightened. Our creations cannot be hobbled that easily.”

From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Deveron’s attention was on Koren, and her eyes were shut while tears continued to fall freely down her cheeks. Her shoulders were shaking heavily. My best guess, my hope was that Deveron was trying to reassure her, promising her that there would be help for her mother soon. All she had to do was keep it together, keep pumping the heart until they got here.

Before the Fomorian could start paying attention to them, I made myself ask a question. Be a reporter, Flick, I told myself. Ask questions, make him keep talking. He obviously wants to, so play into that.

“So they tried something else, didn’t they?” I put in slowly. “After their Bystander Effect didn’t work.”

“They tried many things,” the Fomorian retorted sharply. “One of which was to guide you themselves. Who do you think was behind the creation of your Academy? They guide you the way they wish, subtly pointing you to their enemies.” His smile returned. “Even our greatest threat recognizes the glory of our creation. They loathe us, but they don’t hesitate to use humans to achieve their own goals.”

“You know what the real question is?” I asked while looking straight at the creature. “Why are you telling us this? Why are you even here? It’s like Koren asked, what the hell do you even want? You set this whole thing up to, what, get us here and then monologue at us about your race for some reason?”

“Well, no,” the Fomorian replied. “Not exactly. You see, I actually did all of this,” he indicated the babies around us, “to ensure Koren’s cooperation. Your sudden arrival and ability to bypass the shield was unexpected, and I was forced to improvise with… that.” He waved a hand toward Koren and her mother. “True, I could have simply taken my prize and left. But I wished to see for myself why you were both capable of passing the blood shield. And now that I’ve looked you over, I understand. You and Koren here are both descended from the Atherby line. He,” the Fomorian nodded toward Deveron, “is not related to the Atherby’s. But he is related to Koren, and so he was able to pass the shield.”

Before I could say anything to that, he went on unprompted. “As for why I came here to begin with, well, that has to do with the destruction that the Baroness who currently runs your Seosten-crafted Academy brought against my people. We arrived here, finally locating our lost creations and sought to retrieve them. Sought to give you all purpose, to free you from this pitiful backwards existence. But, just as many children rebel against their parents out of ignorance, the Heretics fought us. Most likely directed by our Seosten enemies, of course. But either way, their resistance would not have succeeded.”

Not bothering to resist the urge to smirk at him, I nodded. “Until Gaia destroyed your portal so you couldn’t come here anymore.”

The Fomorian made a noise that was somehow simultaneously dismissive and annoyed. “I have just finished telling you that we created humanity and crossed the entire universe searching for that lost creation. Do you really believe that destroying a single portal would have been enough to block us?”

Well, when he put it that way… I frowned. “What do you mean? You could just make another one? If so, then where is it? Why haven’t all your people come back? Because you’ve obviously been alone for a long time. Otherwise you wouldn’t be such a Chatty Cathy right now. How long has it been since you had an actual conversation? Over a hundred years? That’s gotta get pretty boring, doesn’t it? If you guys could make another portal and come back any time you wanted, your people would’ve done it by now.”

He smiled thinly, a dangerous, evil look. “The Atherbys.”

“Mom’s family?” I frowned, shaking my head. “What do they have to do with any of this?”

“They,” the Fomorian answered, “were part of a group of Hunters. Wild Heretics, unaligned with any school. The patriarch of the clan was the close friend and protege of the one known as Gabriel Prosser.”

“Prosser,” I echoed, breathing the familiar name. “The ex-slave who fought the Hangman demon. He knew our mother’s family? They were… they were close?” I had long-since stopped wondering how this creature knew about my mom even after the spell that the Heretics had done. If Fossor had a way of protecting his own memory from such things, I wasn’t surprised that this Fomorian had one as well.

“The very same,” he confirmed with a sly smile. “Why do you think your mother was so easily able to find aid from his camp when she needed it? The one called Prosser remembers his allies. He came when she needed him, because her father was once one of his closest, dearest friends and confidants.”

Shrugging then, the Fomorian added, “Then Joshua Atherby allied himself with Gaia Sinclaire. Both sought to end my race’s ability to come to this world. She, your baroness, would destroy our physical portal. Meanwhile, Joshua Atherby and his wife would sacrifice themselves to empower a spell that would bar our entry into this world. Very, very few of us escaped that spell through the sheer luck of being in mid-transit upon this world when it was cast. Most of my people that were here were either eradicated or sent back through the portal upon its destruction. And with the empowered spell blocking the rest of them from ever creating another portal to this place, we were stranded and alone.

“And I have spent over what you call a century searching for the method to reverse that spell. Only to eventually find that I could not do it myself. Because that, of course, would be entirely too simple.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I straightened with realization. “An Atherby made the spell, so you needed an Atherby to undo it. You had to find one of Joshua Atherby’s descendants.”

Deveron finally spoke up then. “That couldn’t have been fun, especially after they erased Joselyn from all the records and hid her away. Believe me, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what that’s like.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” The Fomorian regarded him briefly before making a noise of annoyance. “Indeed. I finally located the correct family after many, many years of searching through every possible dead ends, only to find that, of all preposterous things, Joselyn Atherby’s daughter was not a Heretic.

I suppressed the urge to laugh in his face. “And you needed her to be a Heretic, because non-Heretics can’t use magic. You were stuck. You spent all that time looking for an Atherby to bring your people back, and you finally found one that you couldn’t even use. Must’ve sucked to be you right then.”

The Fomorian glared at me for a moment. At the same time, the babies that he was connected to began to squirm and whine a little. Obviously, their connection was close enough that they could feel his anger. I was going to have to watch out for that.

In the end, however, he gave a short nod. “Yes. It… sucked, as you say. I was forced to employ… alternative methods. I created a Stranger attack and involved Joselyn Atherby’s granddaughter. I hoped that such an event would prompt Crossroads Academy to take her on as a student. It required that I alter a human being sufficiently to provide the Heretic investigators with their supposed culprit, but my efforts were successful. The child was, eventually, taken into the school and turned into a full Heretic.

“After that, I simply had to wait for the child to come home. Unfortunately, I learned that the Heretics were planning on secretly moving this family, to protect them from some external threat. To avoid losing my opportunity, I simply disposed of the original father and took his place, changing their memories so that they would believe it had always been that way.”

I saw the way Koren froze up, her tears coming anew from the way the Fomorian so offhandedly mentioned ‘disposing of’ her father. It made me want to put my staff through his smug, stupid face. Oh god. Her dad. Koren’s dad. Was he really… was he… For a second I couldn’t find my voice.

It didn’t matter. The Fomorian went on anyway. “I replaced the human, changed their memories, and waited for the brand-new Heretic Atherby to come back to me. We were about to depart, so that Koren could begin learning what she needs to do to remove the spell that blocks my people from arriving, when you passed through the shield and my curiosity was piqued.”

“And now?” I pressed, hoping against hope that the shield would be down any second. Where the hell was Seller, anyway? He should’ve been able to pass through the shield too. So where was he?

“Now… I suppose I should offer you a choice,” the Fomorian mused. “I only require one Heretic Atherby. It could be either of you.” He looked back and forth between us. “Do I have a volunteer?” He smiled then. “You see? I can be reasonable. I only require one of you to fulfill my goal, and all of the others will be free to go. Even the tiny offspring.”

“They’re not going with you.”

The voice wasn’t Deveron. It was Seller. The man in the emerald suit was standing at the back of the room, close to the Fomorian and directly behind Koren and Abigail.

Whipping his head that way, the Fomorian made an appraising noise. “… an ancestor. Another relative of Atherby… but I should have felt you pass through the shield.”

“Yeah, sorry about taking so long,” Seller casually mentioned in my direction. “I had to make sure your friend here wouldn’t notice me going through the shield. Us old-school Heretics have lots of fun little tricks. And speaking of fun little tricks, if you’re gonna do it, Dare, do it now.”

It took me a second to process his last few words. By the time I had, Professor Dare was suddenly in the room, alongside Professor Kohaku, Professor Katarin, and Nevada.

“I’d tell you to let our students go,” Dare spoke to the creature in a dark voice. “But I think I’ll just make sure you never bother them again.”

The Fomorian somehow looked simultaneously astounded and furious. “That is impossible,” he spat. “It would take any human at least twice as long as that to bring down the blood shield, and I would have felt it beginning to weaken.”

“Well, we have something you don’t,” Deveron informed him.

Wyatt, I thought with a smile. We have a Wyatt. I didn’t know how he was as good as he was with magic, but I was beyond glad that he was. I owed him… everything.

“No matter,” the Fomorian decided, giving them a doubtful look. “I have researched you, Miss Dare. And the rest of you. None of you would risk the lives of so many innocent offspring of your species. Perhaps others in your camp, but not you.”

“You’re not wrong,” Dare conceded. “So you should ask yourself, why exactly would we come in here then?”

“Oh right,” Seller snapped his fingers. “That’s the other thing I was doing while you were babbling: protecting the babies from you.”

Before the Fomorian could respond to that, Dare yanked her sword from its place at her hip. Just like when I had seen her destroy all those peridles, she slammed the blade into a portal that appeared on the floor. More portals appeared around each of the umbilical cords that connected the Fomorian to the infants, and she cut through each of them at once.

Immediately after that, Seller flipped a coin out of his pocket. It flew through the air, catching the candlelight briefly before seeming to disappear.

And just like that, I was outside on the grass. A bunch of babies were lying in their incubators all around me, and Koren was nearby with her mother.

Professor Dare and Seller had worked together to sever the Fomorian’s connection to the babies without hurting them, and Seller had done something to send us all outside. Meanwhile, they were in there, fighting that… creature.

Wyatt was there too, lying unconscious on the grass with his hand outstretched. Apparently bringing the shield down that fast had taken a lot out of him.

“Flick!” Koren screamed, yanking my attention to her. She was still sobbing, and her arms were still in her mother. “Pl-please, help. Please help me, help me. I don’t know what to do. He said if I stopped, if I didn’t… she’d… she’ll… I—I c-can’t. Please, Flick. Please.” Her tears were falling freely, and she could clearly barely form the words. “Please, if m-my dad… I… I can’t lose her too. Please, Flick. Pl-please. Please… I can’t lose her too. Please. I’m sorry I was mean before. I’m sorry for everything I ever said. I don’t know… I don’t know. I can’t lose her too. Please, Flick. Please help me. Please. Please.”

“I… I don’t know what to do,” I stammered, staring at the hole in Abigail’s back. That wasn’t normal medicine. It wasn’t anything regular doctors could fix, and Heretic healing abilities didn’t work on Bystanders. Unless…

Seller!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “Seller, get out here, we need you! Seller! Se–”

“Easy, kid,” the man’s voice spoke tensely as he appeared there, hand on my shoulder. “I’m here. Though I should be in there, helping your teachers. A Fomorian is no joke, especially as annoyed as that one is. You–”

“Seller, damn it, look!” I pointed to Abigail. “In case you’ve been away from normal humans for too long, that’s not something they can fix.”

Paling a little even in the darkness, Seller took a step that way and knelt down. He put a hand on Koren’s arm, then another on Abigail. “How you doing, kid?”

“P-please, sir…” Koren whimpered the words weakly. “Please help her. If you can help her, please.”

He looked at me, raising an eyebrow. “You know what you’re saying. What you’re asking. What it’ll mean. The shit-storm it’ll provoke.”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged. “I’m pretty sure Ruthers will lose his fucking mind. I don’t care. She’s my sister, Seller. Your descendant. You wanted to start helping us, watching out for us? Then start now. Start with her. I know Crossroads won’t like it, but do it anyway. Take her. Save her life. You did it with Avalon, now do it with Abigail. Make her a Heretic.”

“Kid?” Seller asked, looking toward Koren.

Her head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Please. Whatever it takes, just save her. Save my mom.”

Breathing out, Seller finally nodded. “All right. Well, I’ll take her then. I’ll uh, have to take you too,” he informed Koren. “At least until we get this whole… thing sorted out.” He indicated where her arms were to demonstrate.

Go ahead, Deveron’s voice spoke in my head. We’ve got this. I’ll explain it to the others, somehow. Get Abigail the help she needs. Make sure she’s okay. I… I can’t go. Go for me. Please.

“Yeah,” I confirmed out loud, addressing both Deveron and Seller at once. “And you’re taking me too. Koren and I are both going with you, to make sure Abigail’s all right.” When he started to object, I snapped, “Call it a diplomatic visit, because we’re related. Call it whatever the hell you want, but I’m not leaving until I know Abigail’s okay.”

The man cursed briefly. But before he could say anything else, another voice spoke up. “Me too.”

Wyatt. He was awake, straightening up weakly. “I… I’m going too.” Clearing his throat, obviously still exhausted, he nonetheless announced, “I’ll go as… as Felicity and Koren’s security escort. To make sure they’re safe.” His eyes were on Abigail, on his sister.

Seller hung his head for a second before straightening. “You’re all my descendants, so it could work. But it’ll be tricky. You don’t go anywhere without me, you don’t do anything unless I say to, got it? This isn’t gonna be a picnic. So just… damn it, stay close and don’t push your luck.”

I nodded along with the other two, most of my attention riveted to Abigail, who still looked completely out of it.

Seller sighed briefly. “Okay then. I guess you’re all coming to Eden’s Garden for a little visit.

“Gabriel help us.”

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Mini-Interlude 7 – Ammon

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“Wheee!” The innocent-sounding, exuberant cry of a child filled the hospital hallway as a wheeled office chair spun and slid its way down the corridor. Its rider, mop of unruly blond hair flying wildly, gave another cheer of excitement that morphed to a groan as the chair inevitably slid to a stop.

The corridor was far from empty. Patients, doctors, nurses, and more were lined up along both walls. They stood rigid, and although it was incredibly late, past midnight even, none of them cautioned the boy to be quiet. They could no more reprimand him than they could move away from the positions that he had ordered each of them into. The boy had demanded silence, and so silence was what he received.

Once the chair had come to a complete stop, Ammon hopped off and spun back the way he had come. His eyes roved over the assortment of brand new friends that he’d gathered, while the boy chewed his lip thoughtfully. “New game, new game, new game… something fun…”

As he was trying to come up with a new way to pass the time while waiting for his newest little project to be finished, Ammon’s thoughts wandered back toward the subject had occupied them for so long.

Felicity. Flick. His sister. She was supposed to be nice to him. She was supposed to be a good person. So why was she so mean? Why was she so rude and obnoxious to him, him, her little brother? It was wrong. People were supposed to be nice to him. Especially his own family. Mother was nice to him. Father was… well, Father was Father. He was different. He was the disciplinarian.

Maybe Felicity had gone too long without someone like Father. Maybe she needed to be disciplined.

Because she was rude! And mean. She obviously cared more about a couple random girls than him. She liked those girls more than she liked her own brother! What kind of terrible, awful person was she?

And who were those girls anyway? Some rude bimbo that she shared a room with, who had threatened to do horrifying things to Ammon until he made her wash her own mouth out with soap. Right, the headmistress’s daughter. That witch was rude too, interrupting when he was trying to have a talk with his sister.

He should’ve taught her a lesson by making the bimbo cut herself open. Or cut her own eyes out. That would’ve been fun.

And that other girl, the one he tried to make drown herself to lure stupid rude Felicity away, the Asian one. Who was she? From the way his sister had reacted, she knew the girl. And knew her well enough to be upset.

Father had told him that people like Felicity would try to stop other people from dying. The idea had seemed… strange to him at the time, and he’d almost expected Father to be wrong for once. Even as he sent the girl running toward the ocean, some part of him had expected Felicity to abandon her and continue chasing him.

Honestly, he was kind of upset that she hadn’t. Wasn’t he, her own flesh and blood brother, more important than some stupid little girl? They weren’t even roommates. They weren’t even on the same team or anything. He knew who Felicity’s teammates were, and that Asian girl wasn’t one of them.

Maybe he’d ask the girl himself if he saw her again. And maybe he’d just find some other way of entertaining himself with her.

Entertaining… oh right, he was trying to think of a new game. Aloud, he muttered, “I need something fun. Something fun with the chair. That chair’s really fun. But I don’t know any other new… ooooh.” Turning back to look at the chair in question, Ammon smiled slowly.

Abruptly, he turned back the other way, pivoting on his heel before striding past all the people. He was looking for the right person, dancing his hand along as he went while calling in a sing-song voice, “Eenie, meenie, miney, no, nope, moooo, no, not you, not you, moe!” Stopping short, the boy kept his hand where it was, pointing toward a small boy. The boy was even younger than Ammon, and he wore a hospital gown with dancing monkeys on it.

“Hi!” Ammon stopped in front of the boy, giving him a wide smile. “What’s your name? How old are you? My name is Ammon, you should answer my questions.”

The little boy stood completely still, just as he had been ordered to. But his eyes betrayed his terror. “U-umm, m-my name is Evan. I’m s-six. Almost seven.”

“Neat!” Ammon announced before stepping back. “If you’re related to Evan right here, take one step forward, okay?”

Peering up and down the rows of people, at first he thought there was no response. Then he remembered, there were people behind him too! Laughing at himself, Ammon turned that way. Sure enough, a teenage girl, about the same age as Felicity, was standing out of line.

“Hi, what’s your name? You should answer my question.”

Tears were leaking from the girl’s eyes. “P-P-Paige. M-my name is Paige.”

“Hiya, Paige.” Ammon waved. “You’re related to Evan?” When the girl nodded, he clapped a couple times. “Okay! Evan, go stand by Paige. We need another contestant!”

Again, Ammon went down the line until he’d found another child. This one was a girl. According to her when he asked, she was five years old, and her name was Ricki. Annoyingly, he couldn’t find an older brother for the girl, which would’ve been perfect. Instead, he found the girl’s grandfather, an old man named Donald.

It would have to do.

“Okay, Ricki and Donald stand over there by Paige and Evan. Don’t move. Everybody wait here!” With that instruction, Ammon dashed off down the corridor to get the rest of what he needed for this game.

He was back a couple minutes later, wheeling a second chair down the hall ahead of him. On the seat, there was a couple thick rolls of duct tape that he’d snagged from the janitor’s closet. So helpful, duct tape.

“Mmmkay, Ricki, you sit right here on this one,” he ordered before pointing to the first chair. “And Evan, you sit right there on that one.” Once they were seated, he held up both rolls of duct tape. “Paige, you tape your brother to the chair. Donald, you get to tape your granddaughter. Both of you make sure it’s nice and tight so they can’t get out!”

While they were busy with that, Ammon whistled to himself off-key while strolling down the hall. Halfway there, he started to skip. Skipping was fun, and darn it, he was going to have fun!

At the end of the hall, he reached the elevator doors. Rather than push the button, Ammon braced his fingers inside the doors and began to pry them apart. It wasn’t that hard, and soon the doors were open. Leaning in, he looked up first, and found the bottom of elevator itself very close, only one floor away. Then he looked down, toward the bottom of the shaft a good six floors away. Giving a low, impressed whistle, the boy straightened up once more and returned to the spot down the hall where the two children had been tightly bound to their chairs.

“Hi, guys!” Waving a hand cheerfully, Ammon fondly ruffled both of their hair before stepping behind them. Positioning the chairs carefully, he grabbed the tape and walked about ten feet away before using it to make a line across the floor.

Satisfied, he popped to his feet and smiled happily. “Okay! Here’s the game. My name is Ammon. Paige, you hold the back of Evan’s chair. And Donald, you hold Ricki’s chair. On the count of three, both of you run forward and shove the chairs as hard as you can, right at the open elevator down there as soon as you reach the tape. You have to push them as hard as you can, and you have to try to be accurate. No fair trying to miss.

“So you push the chairs as hard as you can, and we’ll see who wins!”

Everyone involved was sobbing by that point, and even most of the people who weren’t involved. The latter part was pretty annoying. They were obviously drama queens. Why did they care what was going on? He’d asked if anyone else was related to the kids, and no one had spoken up. If they weren’t family, why were they crying?

Stupid.

Shaking that off, Ammon stepped out of the way. “Okay, on the count of three. One… two… three!”

Sobs, loud, annoying, distracting sobs, filled the air as grandfather and older sister raced forward before shoving their respective relatives down the corridor once they reached the taped off line. The children taped to the chairs shrieked as their chairs went rolling straight toward the open doors of the elevator shaft.

Both came up short. Evan’s chair rolled to a stop about three feet from the edge, while little Ricki’s was only about six inches from tipping over into the shaft.

“Oooh, so close! You almost won, Grandpa Donald!” Ammon gave an encouraging smile to the traumatized man. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get it this time.”

“Th-th-this time?” Paige stammered, eyes going even wider somehow. She looked like an owl, and Ammon giggled a little.

“Yup! You didn’t think I’d only give you one shot, did you? Here, let’s try it again.”

So, he wheeled the crying, pleading, sobbing children back to where they had been and had the two relatives try once more. He ordered them again to try as hard as they could to shove the chairs far enough to fall into the shaft, then stood out of the way to watch eagerly.

It was so close! Both chairs went right down the corridor, rolling perfectly right up to the very edge. Then they got too close and bumped into each other, rebounding in opposite directions to bump into the wall on either side of the open shaft.

“Darn!” Shaking his head lamentingly, the boy strolled that way. “Okay Paige, Grandpa Donald, both of you should come this way. I want you to see something.”

He walked right to the elevator shaft and waited for the girl and the old man to reach him. Then Ammon pointed down the shaft. “See? This is what you’re aiming for. Think about it, if the chairs reach here, they’ll bounce right off that wall right there and tumble aaaaaaaaaaaaall the way down to the bottom. Won’t that be fun?! Look. Look closer, darn it. It’ll be funny!”

Annoyed that neither of the two seemed to be having nearly as much fun as he was, Ammon opened his mouth to tell them to try again. But before he could, another voice spoke up.

“Ah, Mr. Ammon, sir?” A doctor stood there behind them, shifting from foot to foot nervously.

Pivoting that way, Ammon’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Doctor Sang! You finished it?”

The man stood stiffly, holding a computer print-out. “Yes, we have the results. We tested the hair you gave us against the blood sample that you had Nurse Kingston draw from you.”

“Aaaand?” Ammon prompted. “My name is Ammon. Tell me, tell me, tell me.” He was impatient. It had already taken longer than he’d expected, just to find out that Koren girl’s name (which he’d managed by ‘chatting’ with one of the Heretics that he’d found out on a mission), and then working out where her family lived (they’d moved recently, which made things even more complicated). Then he’d had to sneak into their new house while the parents were gone and searched for the boxes of the girl’s stuff until he found the bathroom supplies. But he’d managed to get a used brush that still had some hair left in it.

The uncomfortable man gave a short nod. “It’s all in the report. But yes, you were correct. The tests were conclusive. You are related to the person the hair sample was obtained from. Your DNA was twenty-five percent similar, which probably indicates a relationship of either half-siblings or uncle and niece, or aunt and nephew. Or possibly grandparent and grandchild. In this case, the connected relative would be your mother, because you share DNA on your X chromosome. If you shared no DNA on your X chromosome, the parent that you both shared DNA with would be your father.”

Ammon considered that, head tilted thoughtfully. So. His guess was right. He had another sister. Or possibly a niece. Whichever. This… Koren was related to him as well. And this relative he hadn’t been ordered to stay away from. Mostly because he hadn’t actually told his father about her, hadn’t mentioned that there had been another person he couldn’t affect. Which… if he found out, Father would be furious about. But in the meantime, it meant that this one he could play with… any… time… he wanted.

Which meant… he needed to think. He had to leave this place and take his time on this. Couldn’t screw it up again.

“Sorry guys,” Ammon announced. “We don’t have time to finish our game.”

Both Paige and Grandpa Donald slumped a little, expressions of relief crossing their faces.

“Buuuut,” he put in then, a mischievous smile crossing his young face. “If we can’t finish the game, that means you aren’t winners. And you know what you are if you aren’t winners?”

Their mouths opened, but Ammon wasn’t interested in hearing their guesses. Reaching out, he planted one hand against each of their chests before giving a solid shove. Both the old man and the teen girl reeled backwards, cries escaping their mouths before they went plummeting down the elevator shaft.

“Losers,” Ammon finished. “It makes you losers.”

Peering out into the shaft itself, he tilted his head while looking at the still, broken figures below.

“See? I knew it’d be funny.”

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