“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.”