“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…”