“Miss Chambers.” A hand waved in front of my face as the voice repeated louder, “Miss Chambers.”
Snapping out of my daze, I blinked a couple times and looked around. Bus. I was on the bus that was bringing me back home. Hours had passed since… since that… since Avalon and I had… since we had…
“Miss Chambers.” Again, the hand was back while another shook my shoulder. “Are you all right?”
Oh, oh! Bus, right, yes. I straightened, face flushed while looking toward the woman who was speaking. Professor Kohaku. She had accompanied me for the trip. Apparently the plan was for her to stay on the bus after I got off, just watching over me long enough to make sure I made it to my father.
I wasn’t entirely sure what difference it made if I was with my father or not, since if anyone was going to come after me, Dad’s presence wasn’t going to stop them. But I wasn’t in the position to argue. So, I’d taken the little bus ride next to Kohaku and ended up zoning out a bit while thinking about that… that…
“I’m okay,” I quickly blurted before the woman shook me again. My blush was deeper, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Hadn’t stopped smiling throughout the entire trip, ever since… Crap, focus, focus. Don’t zone out. “I’m okay.”
The Asian woman continued to eye me for a moment before speaking carefully. “If something happened at the school that you wish to talk about… something between you and Miss Sinclaire…”
Eyes widening, I blurted, “No. No, nothing. I mean, it’s fine. It’s all good. Really good.” Okay, now I was outright blushing. Stupid traitor blood vessels. “I mean, nothing happened. I’m just… thinking.”
Yeah, just thinking about how that kiss had felt. And about how Avalon had looked at me afterward, how her hand had lingered on my face, and how… how… Okay, Flick, don’t zone out again. Focus.
“I, um.” Clearing my throat, I tried to change the subject by looking at Kohaku. “How are you?”
Rather than answer the admittedly lame question, the professor nodded toward the front of the bus. “We are almost at your stop.” After a brief pause, she added, “If it would make you feel more comfortable, I can step off with you and find a reason to escort you and your father to your home.”
My head shook a bit at that. “No, it’s—I mean, if anything happens, I’ll let you guys know. Wyatt gave me a couple…” Pausing, I looked around the bus briefly. There was almost no one on it, and the seats surrounding us were empty. Still, I lowered my voice. “He gave me a couple emergency alert things in case anything goes wrong. If any of the you-know-who’s decide to come visit, I’ll set them off.”
“As you wish.” Kohaku put her hand lightly on my wrist. “But if anything happens, promise that you aren’t going to try to play hero, Miss Chambers. Now is not the time to prove how capable you are.”
Meeting the woman’s intense stare, I nodded quickly. “I know. I promise, Professor. I’m not going to do anything stupid. The second anything bad happens, I’ll throw up every alert and alarm that I can. Hell, if it comes down to it, I’ll start a fire and throw up smoke signals. I’m not about to take that risk.”
“Good.” Kohaku took her hand off my wrist. “Make sure that Miss Porter understands the seriousness of the situation as well when she arrives, as well as Mr. Porter. They are both visiting, correct?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I confirmed. “Well, Shiori’s coming in a couple days, and Columbus is visiting late on Christmas. I mean—she’s going back to her adopted parents’ place on Christmas Eve to do the actual holiday stuff, then they’re both coming late on Christmas day.” I didn’t add that it made the most sense that way since night would be when Asenath could be the most active. Nor did I mention the frankly almost predatorily interested sound of Twister’s voice when she had asked if Columbus was coming.
The woman smiled. “Good,” she repeated. “The more people you have with you, the less likely that anyone will make a move.” Pausing, she looked to me. “I know it may sound as though we’re being paranoid, Miss Chambers. But in the case of this particular threat, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.”
My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I know, I know. I get it, I promise. No being stupid. No problem.”
She continued to study me for another few seconds before her smile returned. “I’m glad that you know better, Miss Chambers. And as I said, put a little thought into my offer. You would do well in Security.”
The bus had stopped by then, and I promised to think about it before thanking her again for the escort. Then I straightened up, grabbed my bag, and shrugged into my coat before stepping off the bus. As I entered the cold Wyoming winter air, my eyes looked around for my father.
It wasn’t hard to find him. He was the one standing all by himself near the bus, holding a sign up over his head as though he was in a busy airport waiting for some arrival he barely knew. I blinked up toward the sign, and didn’t bother suppressing my groan.
The sign read, ‘Mrs. Felicity Depp.’
Quickly moving across the snowy ground, I reached up to grab the sign out of his hand, face flushed. “Jerk,” I informed my oh-so-hilarious dad. “I haven’t had a crush on Johnny Depp in years.”
Dad continued to smirk while letting me yank the sign away and crumple it up. “I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear that. Ten-year-old you did send that letter swearing your undying love.”
Red-faced, I gave him a light kick, careful to watch my strength. “I was ten. I also thought The Last Airbender was gonna be a great movie, so I was naive and my tastes sucked. Also, you’re a jerk, jerk. A jerky jerk jerkington.”
Even as I said it, however, my arms were wrapping around my father and I held him tight while repeating one last, “Jerk.”
He chuckled before hugging me tight enough to lift me off the ground. “Love you too, Cubby.”
We stayed there like that for a few moments, clutching onto each other. I’d missed my father more than I realized while everything was going on. Yes, I’d seen him not that long ago at Thanksgiving. But still, weeks apart was a long time for the two of us.
Eventually, however, Dad pulled back and smiled down at me. “Wanna grab chicken for lunch on the way back? You’ve gotta be starving after that bus ride.”
“Sure, Dad,” I replied, unable to resist returning his smile. Being around my father just made me… happier. Between that and what had happened back on the island with Avalon when we…
Dad’s fingers snapped in front of my face. “Hey, yo. You okay, kid?”
Well, if I’d been blushing before, now it was practically a five-alarm fire. My head jerked up and down rapidly. “I’m good,” I squeaked. “All good. Hungry. Let’s eat. Eating’s good.”
From the look on his face, Dad knew there was something else going on (I mean, obviously, he wasn’t blind and deaf). Still, he didn’t push. Instead, he led the way to the car.
As we went, I glanced up to see the bus pulling away with Professor Kohaku. Watching the exhaust as it disappeared down the road for just a moment, I shook myself and continued after my father.
It was time for a vacation. And I definitely, undeniably needed it.
“So, um, what exactly does the name Reathma mean, anyway? And where does it come from?”
It was a few days later, about a week before Christmas itself. Asenath had said from the beginning of my vacation that she wanted to take Shiori and me somewhere special. And now that Shiori had actually arrived, Senny had insisted on having us come with her to whatever the surprise was. So, while Twister stayed with my dad to make sure nothing happened to him, the three of us took off.
I didn’t know where we were going, since Senny had insisted that we blindfold ourselves and sit in the back seat of the car while she drove. Which, honestly, I could always use the Blemmye’s power to know exactly where we were in relation to home. But that felt like cheating, so I avoided it for the time being.
Senny had been driving and taking more twists and turns than were probably absolutely necessary. She’d said something about taking magical ‘shortcuts’ that would get us much further a lot faster, and apologized for taking the roundabout way. Apparently, however, it was one of the conditions for her bringing us to… wherever she was bringing us. All I knew was that it was apparently a pretty big deal.
Shiori, beside me in the seat and equally blind, continued. “I mean, I tried to look it up, but I wasn’t sure how to spell it. Is it Wraith, like ghost? Wraith-Ma. Like Wraith-Mom. Am I a ghost-mom?”
I could hear the amusement in Asenath’s voice. “Nope. It’s R-E-A-T-H-M-A. Reathma. It just sounds like Wraith-muh. And it’s a word from my father’s homeworld that means oath or promise, basically. A reathma is essentially a blood oath, a um, a promise not for anything specific but just to be there for the other person. If you and someone else have a reathma, you’ll back them them up no matter what happens. If they need protection, food, a place to stay, anything. And they’ll do the same for you.”
She paused then, clearly hesitating before adding in a soft voice. “I hope you don’t mind being named after something from my dad’s world. I know he doesn’t really—he’s not really related to you or any-”
“It’s great,” Shiori interrupted quickly, her voice making it obvious that she was sincere. “It sounds beautiful, really. And… Senny, maybe he’s not my dad, but he’s—he’s yours and that’s good enough for me. Besides, it sounds like the name means a lot. ” After another hesitation, she added in a quieter voice. “I guess I was just kind of wondering if the name had anything to do with my real dad.”
That was kind of a good question, actually. Why had Shiori’s mother named her after a word from Senny’s father’s world instead of giving her a name that had something to do with Shiori’s father? What did that name have to do with Shiori herself other than the fact that Jiao obviously loved her husband. Did she not care as much about Shiori’s father, whoever he was? Or was I reading too much into it?
Asenath was quiet for a few moments before her voice returned. “Mom will tell you everything about your father and… and the rest of it, I promise. She sent a message saying she’d be here by Christmas.”
We continued on that way for another hour before the car finally parked. Asenath got out and helped the two of us out without taking the blindfolds off. Carefully, she led us across what felt and sounded like a vast, mostly empty parking garage considering the echo in the vampire’s voice as she directed us.
We entered what was obviously an elevator, and ascended a ways until a ding announced our arrival. Senny ushered us off, then reached up and removed the blindfolds. “All right, here we go.”
Blinking at the sudden bright fluorescent lights, I looked around, squinting uncertainly. “A hallway?” From what I could see from where I stood, we were in some kind of plain corridor. There was linoleum on the floor, plain, unremarkable walls, and a simple door in front of us. It looked incredibly mundane.
Shiori looked just as uncertain and unimpressed, but Senny just smiled at us before starting to explain. “I can’t exactly tell you where we are. I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard it was just to get permission to bring you both here to begin with. Lots of favors and promises, and you’re going to have to meet the big guy so he can chat with you before you go anywhere else. But still, here we are.”
She continued to hold the doorknob, and I paused while glancing to Shiori to find out if she had any idea what her sister was talking about. Getting nothing but a shrug in response, I coughed. “Okay, got it. Big secret place. But uh, exactly what kind of secret place are we talking about? What’s going on?”
Asenath smiled at us, as if that was the question she had been waiting for. Rather than answer verbally, she pushed the door open and stepped aside, gesturing for us to go ahead. So, after giving Shiori another uncertain look, I took a step forward and moved through the doorway to see what lay beyond.
A mall. We were in a mall, stepping out of one of the service corridors. But it wasn’t an ordinary mall. Even as my eyes took in the semi-familiar layout that immediately screamed ‘mall’, I was recognizing some of the differences. For one thing, I was pretty sure that no actual mall I’d ever heard of would have had an eight and a half foot tall troll wearing a comically undersized security hat on his massive head standing in the middle of the aisle.
It wasn’t just a hat the troll was wearing. He also wore a shirt that probably would have been too big for Shaquille O’Neal. But on the troll, it was tiny and stretched impossibly tight over his huge form. On the front of the shirt, the words, ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’ were written.
My Stranger-sense started screaming at me (obviously), as soon as my eyes spotted the enormous troll. But he wasn’t the only Alter in sight. No. Everywhere I looked there was another non-human. The entire mall was full of them. Looking left, I saw a group of blue-skinned figures that were about three feet tall with bald heads and enormous yellow eyes that took up most of their faces. They were walking quickly past a Menmeran (that was what the bodybuilder frogmen that Scout and Sean had killed on the Meregan planet had been called, I’d eventually found out), who was studying the window display of one of the stores. A window display that didn’t actually have any mannequins. Instead, about a dozen of what I swore were actual flying pixies fluttered about performing some kind of show for the Menmeran and a few other figures who had slowed or stopped to watch. It involved ribbons and really intricate flying sequences. Further in the same store, I caught a glimpse of more elaborate shows going on.
Looking right, my eyes spotted one of the Relukun wood people walking alongside a couple Satyrs as the trio moved into another store that appeared to be selling every movie from the past hundred years or so, if the window display was any indication. And further on, there was an actual clothing store that a group of teenage Alters of half a dozen different species were all loitering in front of, while the proprietor (a humanoid lion whose mane was graying with age) barked angrily at them to come in and buy something or move the hell away from the entrance so that actual customers could get through.
There was more and more to see. Everywhere I looked, there were other Alters going about their day. It was like we’d stepped through a portal into some kind of alternate universe where the whole world was Alters. The entire mall was full of them. Some of the stores I looked at seemed fairly normal and close to what you’d see in the human world, such as the clothing store or the place that was selling movies. Then there were the clearly abnormal ones, such as the place where the pixies were giving their flying shows, or a magic shop that appeared to be selling actual magic things rather than tricks and illusions.
And that was all before I looked up. Because when I did, I realized that this was only the first floor. There were two more floors above that one, with open space clear to the ceiling so that we could see the railings that surrounded the upper landings. In those upper floors, there weren’t stores. Instead, I caught glimpses of actual homes that had been built into what had been the rest of the mall’s shops, tiny apartments here and there, and even what looked like over-sized birdhouses where more pixies fluttered about. I saw wet clothing hanging from lines to dry, children of every shape and size running around, old women gossiping, and even what had to be a teacher leading her students on a field trip. There was an ugly old Harpy perched on the top railing, cackling to herself while watching something that was happening further back on the third floor where I couldn’t see. And more, so much more.
By that point, Shiori had moved up to join me. She looked just as taken aback as I was, her eyes wandering back and forth while she made noises of surprise and fascination. Together, we stared.
“It’s pretty impressive, huh?” Asenath spoke up, moving up on Shiori’s other side while watching us, wearing an amused expression on her face. “Twister and I figured you guys might like to see this.”
My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, the big troll took two lumbering steps our way. Now, I noticed that he carried a gigantic club in one hand. The thing looked like a broken part of a telephone pole that had some railroad spikes driven through it to make a sort-of oversized nailbat.
“Dzese are dzem?” the troll asked in what sounded like an awfully chipper and upbeat voice considering his size and the weapon he was carrying. “Dzese are dze Heretics, Senny? Huh, huh?”
“Easy, Buddy, easy.” Asenath chuckled, smiling as she nodded. “Yes, this is my friend. And my sister.”
I blinked, but it was Shiori who realized how Senny had said it and blurted, “Your name is Buddy?”
The troll grinned and thumped his free hand against the words on his shirt. “I am Buddy System. Using Buddy System for being safe. Funny, yes?” He had what sounded like a heavy Russian accent.
Shiori was clearly delighted by it going by her face, and I had to chuckle too as I eyed his massive spiked club. “Buddy System. Yeah, I guess you would be pretty damn effective at protecting people.”
Buddy gave a clearly proud and delighted smile, thumping his chest again. “Buddy System keep safe.”
Senny spoke up again. “Buddy’s pretty much the first line of defense in this place. I mean, besides the magic keeping people away from it to begin with, of course. He’s kind of the most visible deterrent to stop anyone from starting trouble once they’re in here. And he does a really great job at it.”
“But what is this place?” I asked, looking around at the Alters again. Some of them had stopped short, staring and whispering to one another as they watched us with obviously worried expressions. At least no one had panicked yet, probably because of who we were standing with. That and they had probably been warned about our arrival. Even then, however, I could tell that a lot weren’t very comfortable.
Smiling at the question, Senny replied, “This? On the outside, it’s just some rundown mall in some random city that never gets worked on, yet the humans all somehow leave alone. But in here, on the inside, it’s a place for Alters to go and relax. It’s a place for us to be safe from prying eyes and the wild world out there. There’s no fighting in here, no violence unless the aggressor wants to be banned for life. It’s a place for Alter children to run around without worrying about Heretic boogeymen jumping out of the woodwork, or Nocen monsters snatching them. Basically, it’s home for a lot of Alters.
“Flick, Reathma… welcome to Wonderland.”