For as long as she could remember, Abigail Fellows had been outraged by the concept of those in positions of authority abusing their power. Even before her name had been Fellows, back when she was Abigail Carter, she had thrown herself in as an advocate on the side of people she believed were being taken advantage of. As a student, she’d involved herself in various marches and protests before eventually finding that the best way to fix the system was from inside it. That’s when she decided to become a lawyer. For the rest of her school career, she focused on getting the best education she could.
If pressed, she wouldn’t have been able to say what actually drove this feeling. All the woman knew was that she had this great sense of an incredibly unjust abuse of power that had to be corrected. It was that sense that had spurred her to become a defense attorney with an emphasis on civil rights.
All of which meant that she was accustomed to dealing with police. Good ones, bad ones, and everything in between. Abigail was involved with police so often she sometimes dreamed about them.
But this wasn’t like any dream she’d ever had. When she opened her eyes, Abigail found herself sitting in a cop car. In the driver’s seat beside her there was a pretty woman with short blonde hair. She was wearing a sheriff deputy’s uniform, and her gaze was focused on the road ahead of them as she drove.
“Uh,” Abigail blinked, twisting around to look in the back seat behind them. No one there. How… how did she get here? There was something… fuzzy about her memory. Her brain felt strange, like she’d been drinking or something. “Excuse me, what’s going on?” she asked the deputy beside her. “Where– Hello?” There was no answer. The blonde woman didn’t even look at her. “Hey, excuse me. I said–”
She reached out to touch the cop’s shoulder, only to squeal in surprise as her hand went right through the woman as though she wasn’t even there. Again, the cop herself showed no reaction whatsoever.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.” Struggling not to hyperventilate (could she hyperventilate?), Abigail spoke louder. “Hey! Hey, can you hear me? Can you—what–what’s going on?” Her voice cracked in a way that it hadn’t since she was a young girl, and she could feel herself panicking.
Was she… was she dead? This didn’t feel like a dream. It felt too real, too solid and grounded to be a dream. But if she was dead, what was she doing here in some cop car with a woman she’d never…
Frowning, Abigail turned her panicking eyes back to the blonde cop. Had she met her before? She wanted to say she hadn’t, that she had no idea who this woman was. And yet… looking at her, there was a strange sense of familiarity that she couldn’t explain. Not that she could explain any of this at all.
A second later, a car went speeding around the cruiser, blaring its horn as it rocketed past at what had to be at least twice the legal limit. For a moment, the blonde woman just blinked up as though surprised that someone would be that brazen. Then she just muttered, “Drunk tourists.” Her finger flipped the switch on the dash and the siren started up as she gave chase. “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll make this quick.”
At first, Abigail thought the woman was talking to her for some reason. But the cop reached out two fingers to press against a wallet-sized photograph that was taped to the dash that she hadn’t noticed before. The picture was of a small blonde girl that was mugging for the camera. She looked like she was five or six years old, and there was a clear resemblance. Clearly, this was the woman’s daughter.
But who was she? And why was Abigail here? Why couldn’t she touch her? Was this a dream or was it real? And if it was real, then… then what the hell was going on? She couldn’t be dead. That wasn’t…
A ghost of a memory, of her own daughter being terrified of… of someone in their house came to mind. Abigail jolted in her seat, blurting, “Koren! Koren, I have to get to Koren. I have to go back. I have to-”
The cruiser pulled to a stop behind the speeding car, which had obediently stopped by the side of the road and seemed to be waiting patiently. They even turned the engine off. The deputy watched the car briefly, a suspicious squint in her eyes that Abigail recognized from decades of working with the police.
After a few more moments of that, the blonde woman picked up her radio to report the stop and the car’s license plate before stepping out of the cruiser. Abigail scrambled to open the door on her side, and had a moment of panic as her hand repeatedly went through the handle. Belatedly, she realized (much to her embarrassment) that she didn’t need to open the door. Taking a breath, she lunged forward, passing right through the car to the street beyond. Turning, she hurried after the woman.
Clearly, this was something that she couldn’t explain. But repeatedly shouting and trying to touch the deputy wasn’t going to change anything. She’d already tried that, there was no point to doing it again.
All of this felt… well, to be frank, Abigail felt like she was going insane. But she had to be here for a reason. Whether it was a dream or some supernatural occurrence, staying with the cop seemed like the best way to find answers.
Mostly, Abigail just refused to be one of those people in the movies that experienced something unexplainable and repeatedly refused to believe it was happening no matter what evidence there was to the contrary. Yes, whatever was going on was absurd, terrifying, and incomprehensible. But it was also clearly happening. The facts were the facts, even if she didn’t know how it all fit together. She was going to figure out the truth by investigating, not by stamping her feet and insisting it was all wrong.
Catching up to the deputy, Abigail took a closer look at the uniform and the badge attached to it, belatedly realizing that she wasn’t a deputy at all. She was the actual sheriff. Sheriff Chambers, apparently. Which was surprising, since she looked… young. Very young to be a full-on sheriff.
She had already begun talking to the man in the car by that point. Abigail turned to look, frowning at the sight of him. He looked… ordinary, like any random middle-aged man she might pass in the mall.
And yet, she felt this strange sense of dread when she looked at the man. Logically, he looked so ordinary that she wouldn’t have felt strange about having him as Koren’s doctor. But some primal, instinctive part of her wanted to shout a warning for the blonde woman, Sheriff Chambers, to leave.
“Sir,” the blonde woman addressed him easily. “Can you tell me where you’re going in such a hurry?”
Rather than answer, the man simply regarded Sheriff Chambers curiously for a few seconds. He looked her up and down in a way that made Abigail intensely uncomfortable to witness. “You see?” he spoke calmly and sedately. “I told you that you’d look very good in a uniform, Joselyn. And here we are.”
The blonde woman’s gaze snapped up then, and she took a step back to give herself more space while her hand drifted closer to her holster. “Excuse me? Do… we know each other?” she asked, clearly even more suspicious that the man apparently knew her first name considering it wasn’t on her badge.
At first, the man chuckled. Then he frowned, shaking his head. “No, this isn’t nearly as much fun if you don’t understand what’s happening. You’re nothing now, nothing like you’re supposed to be.” He let out a long sigh, shaking his head lamentingly. “You need to remember, or it won’t be worth the trouble.”
“Remember wh–” Joselyn Chambers started to ask, even as the man’s hand was moving. Abigail tried to blurt out (yet another) useless warning, but the man had already completed his gesture. His empty hand came out of the car, flicking his fingers toward the sheriff. As he did so, two semi-translucent figures appeared out of thin air, catching hold of the woman’s arms before pulling them out to the side.
“What th—let go of–” Chambers started to demand, jerking in place against the grip of the… of the…
“Ghosts?” Abigail blurted. Wait. Wait, if they were ghosts, if they were ghosts, then she could… Eyes wide, the woman lunged forward to try to shove one of the ghosts away from the woman. Ghosts were supposed to be able to touch each other, right? Wasn’t that the rules, or… or something?
Apparently it wasn’t, because her hand went through the ghosts as easily as it did everything else. Abigail almost fell, stumbling as she turned quickly to find the blonde woman staring at the figures holding her arms. “You’re… you’re not…” Her voice cracked a little, and her head tilted back, eyes widening with realization. “You can’t be—this isn’t… real, this isn’t real. It can’t be. It… This isn’t–”
By that point, the man had stepped out of the car. Before he did so, however, he sprinkled some kind of ash out of a canteen so that he could stand on it. He was reaching into his jacket pocket with one hand.
As confused and lost as the sheriff might have been (not that Abigail herself was doing much better), she did recognize that motion for the threat that it was. Somehow, she bent and twisted, managing to yank her arms free of the ghosts that were holding her. Before they could seize the woman once more, she produced the pistol from her holster and brought it up into line with the man. Rather than order him to stop or give any other warning, she immediately opened fire. Four shots directly into his center of mass. The impact of the shots made the man stumble backward a step or two, and Abigail found herself suddenly abnormally pleased considering her usual take on police shooting without enough warning.
But… the man only stumbled. He didn’t fall. And as Abigail stared at the holes in his shirt, she saw no actual blood. The shirt was ripped and ruined, but there was no sign of any actual injury.
“No…” the sheriff murmured, her voice broken up by obvious shock. “That’s not…” She tried to shoot again, but those ghosts had her once more. They held her still while the man dusted himself off.
He came closer, reaching back into his pocket once again before producing a small red stone. It looked like a tiny ruby, about the size of a quarter. Rolling the gem between his fingers, he reached out to cup the woman’s chin. She spat threats at him, trying futilely to pull free of the ghosts before he pushed her chin up to tilt her head back. The blonde woman tried to resist him, but he forced the tiny stone into her mouth and then covered her mouth and nose with a hand until she was forced to swallow it.
Then he simply stepped back, waiting for a few seconds. As Abigail watched with mounting horror, the blonde woman first started going through several violent convulsions. Then her head jerked backward as she let out a cry of agonizing pain, literally drooling from the side of her mouth from whatever kind of seizure she was going through. Useless as it was, Abigail tried to help the woman. But she couldn’t even touch her. Nothing paid any attention to her. It was pretty much like she wasn’t even really there.
Finally, the sheriff jerked in place once more before her eyes opened again. At a gesture from the man, the ghosts let her go. She was breathing hard, obviously still trying to cope with… with whatever that thing had done to her. Rock? It must have been a pill, some kind of drug?
“Fossor,” the woman spat the name, her gaze centered on the man that she… somehow knew now?
“There we are.” The man, Fossor, sounded pleased with himself. “You see? This sort of thing is so much better when you’re more than another clueless, blind sheep, isn’t it? Much more amusing.”
Sheriff Chambers glanced to the gun that had fallen on the ground when the ghosts had caught her once more. Following her gaze, Fossor chuckled. “You know better now, Miss Atherby. There’s no point. That human weapon is incapable of hurting me, and you have nothing else. I have restored your memories, not your abilities. I don’t wish to lower myself to fighting you. But I do want you to understand what I am about to take away from you. Or rather–” He gestured toward the sheriff’s cruiser, and one of the doors popped open. A second later, the photograph that had been taped to the dash came flying toward him. He caught it, finishing his sentence. “–who I am taking away.”
The sheriff went wild at that. She once again broke the ghosts grip on her and threw herself that way with a scream. Her hand tore the photograph out of the man’s hand and she actually drove herself into him hard enough to knock the man backwards against his car. Her fist came up to strike him in the face, then the throat. She drove her knee into him while repeatedly punching for his throat as hard as she could, landing several direct hits until he finally twisted his way free. Rather than crying out in pain or acting like it hurt at all, however, the man was laughing. He caught Sheriff Chambers by the arm and gave her a hard shove up against his car, switching their positions. “My beautiful creature, you are feisty. I wonder if your child will be the same once I’ve had the opportunity to… educate her, to bring her up in my image. What do you suppose your old enemies and friends will think of her then?”
“No! Fossor, no! Not—no! Not Felicity!” the woman jerked against his grip, still wild before blurting, “Me. Take me instead. Take me instead.”
“You?” Fossor sounded amused. “What would I want with you when I can raise your daughter to be my perfect weapon? Why would I want to risk all of your annoying attempts to rebel when she can be much more easily molded?”
Chambers… or Atherby, or whatever her name was, went still. Her head lowered a bit before she managed a soft, “I’ll take an oath spell. I know you know how to do that. I will obey you as long as you don’t harm my child. I’ll go with you, I’ll do… I’ll do anything you want. Anything. Just leave Felicity alone. Please. She’s a child, she doesn’t know anything about any of this. If you take her, I’ll find a way to track you down. You know I will. But if you take me, there won’t be anyone looking for you until you’re ready. You can have me, Fossor. I’ll take the spell, I’ll take the oath. Take me, not her. Leave Felicity. Leave my child alone.”
The man seemed to consider that for a few long moments. He turned the woman around, touching her face. She seemed to reflexively recoil, but stopped herself.
“Take the great rebel leader herself, hmm?” Fossor tilted his head before nodding. “You’ll take the oath of obedience, and I will cause no harm to come to the child, Felicity. Understood?”
“Yes,” the woman almost spat the words, staring at him. “That’s the deal.”
They said something else, but Abigail felt dizzy. The world spun around her, and then she was abruptly lying somewhere else. Someone was shining a light in her eyes, and she heard the voice of her daughter ask, “Is it over? Did she eat it? Is she okay? Is she–”
Someone else interrupted, shushing her. Dazed as she was, all Abigail could do was mutter, “Gave… gave up for her… gave up for Felicity….”
“Wait, wait a minute, damn it!” Koren was there, her image blurry and indistinct. “Mom, what did you say? Mom, what about Felicity?”
But Abigail’s mind was drifting again. Unconsciousness was claiming her once more. Blearily, she tried again. “… she… let him take her… let him take her to save… Felicity. She saved Felicity. She… she went with… with him… for Felicity…”
Then it was over. The blackness overtook her, and all Abigail could do was pray that when she came to once again, there would be some rational, logical explanation for all of this.
“This is completely insane.”
Abigail made the announcement while staring at her daughter and… and Felicity. Felicity Chambers. That Felicity Chambers. The sheriff’s daughter. And, according to the story that they had just finished telling Abigail… her sister.
Her eyes moved up toward the only man in the room. Wyatt, some… some security guard from their school who was… who was supposed to be her brother. A brother and sister. She’d always been an only child, but this—this was…
“I know it sounds insane, Mom.” Koren was nestled up close to Abigail on the bed, holding onto her. “Monsters and magic and all that, I know. It sounds like we’re crazy, but–”
“No,” Abigail shook her head. “No, I believe that. I—that vision or dream or… or whatever it was, you said it was from something they made me eat?”
“The apple,” Felicity confirmed. “They had to make you into a Heretic so they could use magic to save your life, after…” she trailed off.
Abigail leaned back, eyes closing briefly as she took it all in. Finally, she spoke once more. “I believe that. Yeah, it does sound crazy. But after what I saw, after seeing you change your face, after… after all of it, it’s hard to deny. That man, that… Fossor, he used ghosts. And you knew that. You knew his name, you knew he used ghosts, you knew all of it before I even told you any of it. Which means you can either read my mind, or it really happened.”
She opened her eyes then to find Koren looking back toward the other two. Her daughter spoke hesitantly. “So, if you believe all that… then what’s–”
“Insane?” Abigail finished for her. She pushed herself into a slightly more upright position. “What’s insane is this whole… school concept! You’re children! Children! You said this… what was it, Crossroads? They recruit you before you’re even eighteen, and they turn you into soldiers. I’m supposed to believe that these are the good guys? They hand you weapons and throw you out against these people that could kill you, if you don’t kill them. They make you kill for them.
“And they’re the good ones! This place, this—what did you say it was called?”
“Eden’s Garden,” Wyatt supplied.
“Eden’s Garden!” Abigail raged. “According to you, they recruit even younger! Actual children! They are training child soldiers! You know who does that? South American warlords! Dictators!”
Beside her, Koren flinched. “Um, Mom, maybe don’t throw around the ‘dictator’ label for the people who saved your life? I mean–”
“They know exactly what they’re doing,” Abigail spoke sharply. “They’re taking you when you’re young and impressionable, when they can mold you the way they want. And no wonder, if they’re trying to convince you all that every species that isn’t human is evil. No wonder they have to start early. You’re just—you’re… you’re children!” She was repeating herself by then, but it bore repeating.
“So… you…” Felicity seemed to hesitate before speaking up again. “You believe that they’re not all evil?”
“Believe that someone isn’t evil just because of how they were born or a mistake they made?” Abigail met the girl’s gaze. “Felicity, I’ve been working my entire adult life to prove that. And believe me, I’ve seen plenty of monsters in my life. Monsters in human form. So if the kind of putrid evil I’ve seen humans do to each other is real, then I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that there are good… what did you say they were called?”
“Heretics call them Strangers,” the blonde girl answered. “They call themselves Alters.”
“Of course they call them Strangers,” Abigail muttered darkly. “Anything to make them sound more inhuman. Anything to make killing them sound less wrong. Killing them without a trial, without even any evidence that they did anything wrong!” She was getting loud again.
“Mom, listen to me, listen.” Koren was shaking her shoulder. “You have to calm down. I know, Mom. I know what you’re thinking. But you can’t just storm out there and start making demands. You can’t change things by suing these people. It won’t work. Your mom, Grandma Joselyn, she ran an entire rebellion against them and they erased her. They erased her memory, Mom. Please. Keep it under control. I don’t want them to do the same thing to you, okay?”
Wyatt was bobbing his head up and down, his eyes wide as they met hers. “Please. I made the room safe. They can’t hear anything we say, they can’t. But you can’t say those things out in the open.”
“Can’t say them in the open?” Abigail echoed. “I want to say it to their faces. Every last one of these teachers of yours, the ones teaching you to kill. They’re all—they’re all…”
“Most of them are doing the best they can,” Felicity spoke quietly. “They’re working inside the system they’ve been raised in. The ones who aren’t part of Gaia’s subterfuge really believe that Alters are evil, and that they’re protecting humanity. And the ones that are with her are trying their best to change things gradually. But like Koren said, open rebellion… failed. And now my mom—our mom— is with Fossor.”
Abigail’s mouth opened and shut. She looked away. “And one of those Alters… you called him a… Fomorian? He took my husband, my real husband that I can’t even remember. Koren’s father. The man I married. The man I chose to marry, and I can’t even remember him.”
The horror of that was a black pit in her stomach, a heavy weight that she couldn’t even comprehend.
Felicity nodded, staring at her. “That memory thing? That’s what they did with Mom. They erased her from everyone’s memory. And it’s what they’ll do to you if they think you’re a problem. We could wake up tomorrow and not even remember you exist.”
“Please, Mom.” Koren pleaded. “Don’t act out. Pretend, okay? Just pretend for awhile. It’s not forever. We’ll figure something else out, I promise. But please, don’t make them erase you. I… I can’t remember Dad. I don’t want to forget you too. Please, Mom. Please.”
Letting out a long breath, Abigail put both arms around her daughter and pulled her in against herself. “Okay,” she murmured. “I’ll play along. For now. But I’m not letting this go on forever. I won’t just sit down and let these… atrocities continue.”
She saw the smile touch Felicity’s face. “Believe me, big sis, I wasn’t planning on letting them go either. I guess that’s something we have in common.”
Slowly raising her gaze to Wyatt, Abigail stared at him, studying the man intently. “You’re supposed to be my brother? My twin… you look younger than me.”
“Heretic healing,” the man managed, giving her a little goofy smile that she felt immediately endeared by. He shifted then, looking awkward. “I can go away, step out and let you stay with your daughter. That’s—it’s okay. I don’t mind. I can just be–”
“No,” Abigail interrupted, reaching out a hand to grab his before he could withdraw. “Don’t go. I’d kind of like all of you to stay.
“I think we have a lot to talk about.”