A sneezing sound interrupted before I could say anything in response to Senny’s announcement. A familiar sneezing sound, that immediately made my head snap over toward Shiori.
Sure enough, Choo was sticking his head up out of a container on her hip that she had just opened. The little warthog-like Jerkern was looking around with obvious interest, head turning this way and that.
“You brought Choo?” I asked, surprised at the appearance of the little guy. “How?”
Shiori blushed, rubbing a couple fingers over his head. “I couldn’t just leave him alone for three weeks. Even if Avalon visited him, he’d get lonely. So… she talked to Gaia and found out that as long as he’s in one of these containers like they give us for our weapons, he’s technically not on school grounds because of the whole extra-dimensional pocket thing. If it stays closed and he never pops out, the security spells won’t detect him. So I put him in there and it let me take him through the grounds to the portal to go home. I was about to tell you about it, but then Senny talked about her big surprise with bringing us here, and I sort of got distracted.”
After hesitating slightly, I smiled and reached out to rub under the Jekern’s pig-like snout. “I get it. Wouldn’t want to make you think Shiori abandoned you, would we, little guy?”
In response, Choo sneezed sparks of electricity over my hand, then gave it a quick, curious lick.
“I think he’s hungry,” I informed the other girl as the little lightning-warthog continued licking my palm.
Shiori snorted, reaching into her pocket. “He’s always hungry.” Pulling out a raw carrot, she offered it to him. “Here you go, buddy.” Her smile grew as Choo proceeded to start chomping happily at the thing.
While the other girl was busy feeding her pet, I focused on looking around once more. “So this whole place is just, like, one big hiding place for Alters?” I murmured quietly, marveling even more as I looked around at all the little stores again. Everything looked simultaneously incredible and normal. The Alters here may have looked strange to me, but the things they were doing were just ordinary, like they were normal people trying to live their lives. Of course there were things I wouldn’t see in the Bystander world. They were selling magic, I saw one silver-skinned figure literally step through a solid wall before continuing on their way, and those pixies were still flying around. But at the heart of it, when you looked past all the uniqueness, they were just… people, people trying to live.
“It’s more than a hiding place,” Senny replied, watching the same people that I was. Her voice was soft and contemplative. “It’s a home. Like I said, it’s a place they don’t have to worry about being hunted.”
I felt the approach of someone with a gun and plethora of bladed weapons, along with a notepad, radio, and some jingling coins. Turning that way, I found tall (though not nearly as tall as Buddy) humanoid-bird figure with dark blue feathers and a beak. He looked like Falco from Starfox, and he was wearing what looked like a more official security outfit than Buddy. He did not, however, look quite as friendly.
“She’s right,” he spoke up flatly, in a voice that sounded far more gravelly than I would’ve expected it to. And whenever his beak closed far enough while he was talking, there was a sharp clacking noise. “People don’t have to worry about being hunted here. So you endanger that, and I’ll make sure you-”
Then Senny was there, hand on the bird-man’s chest to stop him from stalking closer. “Easy, Quing. You heard the Septs. Felicity and Reathma are allowed to be here. I already told you, I trust them.”
The bird-man, Quing, apparently, stared over her shoulder at the two of us. “Never said they weren’t,” he ground out with obvious annoyance. “Wouldn’t dream of going against the Septs’ decision. Nope.”
He gave us another look that clearly screamed that he wasn’t going to stop watching us before stalking past. As he did, I noticed that he had a pair of wings separate from his arms. They were folded tight against his back, but rustled with annoyance as if he could barely control himself from lashing out.
Once he was far enough away, I looked to Senny. “That man is not happy about us being here, is he?”
“Quing was the most outspoken voice against it,” the vampire explained quietly, her eyes focused on the pixie shop. “He sees himself as responsible for everyone’s safety. Buddy is the physical and visible deterrent, and Quing is the… subtle one, the one who watches threats and points Buddy at them.”
The big troll himself spoke up then, sounding just as pleased and optimistic as before. “Quing is laser. I am missile. Quing point, I blow up.” Grinning happily, he put his hands together before moving them apart like an explosion while mimicking the sound. “Boom. No more of dze bad guys. Buddy System.”
“Like the military,” Shiori put in. “He paints the target like a laser, then you fly in like a missile and… well, you destroy them.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Makes sense. Isn’t he a Lavinsi?”
“He’s a what?” I blinked, trying to remember if I’d heard that name before. It didn’t sound familiar.
Shiori blushed. “Oh, right, sorry. We learned about them in the Hunter’s track. They’re bird-men with all kinds of vision powers. X-Ray, telescopic, heat, all that stuff. And they’re really, really good at reading body language. A lot of powerful Alters use them as bodyguards because they can tell if someone’s about to attack or even if they’re doing something subtle, like about to use poison. Or even if people are lying. They’re so good at reading body language and facial expressions that a lot of people used to think they were telepathic. Until…” She trailed off, cringing as her expression fell from eager to ashamed. “Until Heretics killed enough of them to figure out what kind of powers they were getting.”
“He is a Lavinsi,” Asenath confirmed. “And Heretics killed most of his family, including his son. That’s why Quing hates them so much. It’s why he doesn’t trust you. I’m sorry, it’s just… the way things are.”
“It shouldn’t be,” I replied flatly while looking after the the way the bird-man had gone. I wondered if he had been a part of Mom’s rebellion. Or would he not have trusted her that much? How different would his life be if Ruthers and his ilk hadn’t erased everyone’s memory? How different would this entire place and everyone in it be if the rebellion had continued, if they hadn’t had their minds wiped?
A heavy hand settled over my shoulder, large enough to practically encircle my entire torso. When I glanced that way, I found Buddy giving me another smile of encouragement. “You are not dze same as dze odzer Heretics. I have seen dzem. Fought dzem. Lost some. Von some. You are not like dzem.”
Taking in a long, deep breath before putting my hand over one of the troll’s fingers to squeeze, I nodded. “I’m trying not to be. Thanks, big guy. Sorry your partner isn’t happy about us being here.”
“Quing will feel better soon,” the big troll assured me while moving his hand. “You vill change mind, not for arguing, but for not doing dze bad sings dzat he sinks you vill do. Dzat is how to change mind.”
Smiling, I gave him a quick pat on the arm. “You’re a smart guy, Buddy. They’re lucky to have you here.” Then I glanced to Asenath. “He mentioned the Septs. Isn’t a Sept like a clan or something?”
“Yes, but not in this case,” Senny replied. “The name Septs comes from the Latin word Septem, or Seven. There’s, you know, seven of them and they’re basically the leadership for this place. Actually, they’re kind of the leadership for a few different places, but this is the biggest one. The rest are all little settlements scattered around here and there. The Septs mediate disputes, pass judgments, establish and interpret the rules, and all the rest of that stuff. They’re the judges and the leaders, and their territory covers… hmm, maybe about a quarter of the United States? A little less. Mostly in the North-West.”
“Does that include Wyoming?” I asked, curious about how this whole thing was set up. “And how do they decide who the Septs are. Is it an inherited title like royalty, or do they fight for it, or… what?”
Senny nodded again. “It covers most of Wyoming, yeah. The edge of their territory is right around the south-eastern area of the state. It comes down around most of Utah, then up through Nevada and cuts through down through most of California. For the most part, they control Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. But there’s obviously disputes. You know, some groups just don’t like following the Septs’ rules, yet they want to live there. It gets violent sometimes.”
She trailed off then, looking away like she was remembering something before shaking it off. “Anyway, like I said, there’s seven of them. As for how they’re chosen, it’s a mixture. Three of the positions are sort-of inherited. Basically, the last person in that position designates a successor. It’s usually one of their relatives, but sometimes it’s a friend or a student. Then the next three are voted in by every ‘member in good-standing’ every ten years. Basically, if you live in this area, follow the rules and aren’t considered an enemy, you get to vote. So three and three, half inherited, half voted on.”
“And the last one?” I asked, even more curious by that point. This was obviously a lot more thought out and civilized than people at Crossroads or even Eden’s Garden would’ve given them credit for.
“Tie-Breaker,” Senny explained. “That’s what the seventh member of the Septs is called, it’s their title. That’s the one that’s earned through battle. One day a year, the Tie-Breaker can be challenged to a fight. If the challenger wins, they become the new Tie-Breaker, the new seventh member of the Septs.”
Shiori whistled low. “And here I thought you guys just sort-of all ran around doing your own thing.”
Chuckling, Senny shrugged. “For the most part, we do. The ones who don’t live here or in one of the smaller settlements mostly do our own thing. Especially those of us who don’t really stay in one place that often. I move in and out of the Septs’ territory a lot. But there has to be some kind of organization. It can’t all just be complete anarchy, even if there’s some who would actually prefer it that way.”
Shaking her head, she gestured before starting off. “Come on, we’ve been standing here long enough. Let me show you around before we meet the Septs. They’ve been wanting to talk to you for awhile.”
I blinked, glancing toward Shiori before starting to follow. “They want to talk to us? Um. How much do they know? I mean, you called Shiori your sister, so… did you tell them about, you know, me?”
Senny paused before looking over her shoulder. Her face was serious. “Not all of it. I didn’t tell them about your mother or any of that. I figured that was yours to share if you want to. It’s kind of a big deal. But I did tell them that you were different, that you had a connection to a group of Heretics that don’t think that all of us are evil, and that there’s more to it. If you want to tell them the rest, that’s up to you.”
I hesitated, thinking about it. From what Avalon had explained (after learning from Gaia), since I wasn’t actually targeted directly by the original memory spell, I could tell them about my mother and their little rebellion. The mnemosyne magic wouldn’t stop me, because I was just sharing a story rather than a specific memory. I had learned about Mom’s rebellion myself, which meant there was a rather big loophole. If I chose to, I could tell these Septs that there had been a major Heretic-Alter alliance against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden before their memories were erased. But was telling them that the best idea? My instinct said it was, but I didn’t want to jump into it without considering the consequences.
So I thought long and hard about it, while Asenath began to show us around the place they called Wonderland. We started by going into the store where the pixies were flying around, doing their little shows. Most of them immediately flew away, pretty much hiding behind safety screens or completely disappearing from sight. But a few actually fluttered up a bit closer, clearly curious to see Shiori and me, even if they were still obviously nervous and incredibly skittish about the whole situation.
Well, most of them were obviously nervous. One, however, came flying straight up to hover in front of my face. She was a tiny thing, with bright violet wings and dark blue hair. She was wearing what looked like leather armor, and she had a needle-like sword sheathed at her side. When she spoke, her voice was high-pitched and excitable. “Hello!” She waved with both hands. “Hi, I’m Namythiet!”
“Oh, uh, hi.” Leaning back a little to see the winged figure a little more clearly (she was hovering very close), I examined her. All of them were tiny, of course. But somehow, this one looked even smaller. Going by her face and build, my guess was that she was still a young pixie, maybe in her early teens. Assuming pixies had ‘teenagers’ of course. The point was, most of the others I had seen in the store looked like women (albeit incredibly small ones), and this one looked like barely more than a child.
“Namythut, you said your name was?” I asked, hesitantly holding my hand up with a couple fingers out for her to perch on if she wanted to. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette for that sort of thing was, so I hoped it wasn’t rude.
If she was offended, the tiny pixie didn’t show it. She just landed on my fingers before straightening up. Now that I had a close look at her, I estimated her size at about four and a half inches. Meanwhile, the adult pixies that were hovering in the background, watching us with obvious uncertainty, mostly topped out at about six inches or so. It looked like human heights, except with inches instead of feet.
“It’s Namythiet,” the little pixie corrected me. “Nah-Mee-Thee-It. Namythiet. And you’re a Heretic.”
There was a collective gasp from the other pixies, as if they were afraid that having it stated flat out was going to send me into some kind of murderous rage, or like they thought I’d somehow forgotten about being a Heretic, and reminding me would make me suddenly realize I was supposed to kill them.
“Oh, don’t be such big babies,” Namythiet snapped over her shoulder at the rest of the pixies. “Senny says they’re nice, so they’re nice. You think Senny’s stupid or something? She wouldn’t bring bad Heretics here.” Turning back to me, she puffed herself up a bit proudly, hand settling onto the hilt of her little sword. “Besides, if you guys cause any trouble, you’ll have to deal with me and Clubber.”
Shiori piped up from beside me, “Is that Clubber?” She nodded to the sword at the pixie’s hip.
Giggling, Namythiet shook her head. “Nope. That’s Clubber.” She lifted a hand to point off to the side.
The two of us looked that way, only to find what looked like the world’s smallest, greenest saber-toothed tiger. The thing was obviously still a kitten, its emerald fur bright against the white cushion it was sitting on. It yawned at us, showing off impressive fangs for its size.
Choo had popped out again, and after making sure it was all right, Shiori carefully took him out of her little container and set him down on the cushion beside Clubber. The Jekern and the tiny saber-toothed tiger proceeded to sniff and investigate one another.
“So you and Clubber protect this place, huh?” I asked Namythiet.
The little pixie bobbed her head rapidly. “Yup! Dozeran’s teaching me how to fight. I’m his apprentice!”
“The tie-breaker,” Asenath explained. “Dozeran’s the current tie-breaker of the Septs.” To Namythiet, she added, “You wanna help me show them around? You spend more time here than I do.”
Perking up, Namythiet hovered up off my finger, hands on her hips. “You mean it? You want me to come with?”
I had to smile at her enthusiasm. “Sure, if you’re not too busy keeping the riffraff out of here.”
“Eh,” she waved a hand dismissively. “They can get along on their own for awhile. Clubber!” Whistling, the little pixie flew that way before landing on the saber-toothed kitten’s back. “Let’s go, boy!”
With that, Clubber hopped to the floor with the pixie on his back and pranced to the doorway, with Choo following along behind. Shiori and I looked at each other, giggling in spite of ourselves before we trailed after them.
“So!” Namythiet called up from her mount once we were all back in the mall proper. “Whattaya wanna see first, huh? What’re you interested in, big-Heretic-people?”
“Yeah,” a strangely familiar voice spoke up from nearby. “I’m kind of interested in that too. What are you interested in… Heretics?”
I turned that way. My Stranger-sense, which had been quiet for awhile after giving me the initial screaming warning about all the Alters around me, kicked in again to inform me that the figure standing a few feet away was, in fact, also not human.
“Septer,” Asenath greeted the figure with obvious surprise. “We didn’t expect to see any of you until I brought them to the meeting hall.” To us, she added, “Septer is the title for any member of the Septs. This is one of the inherited positions. His name is–”
“I know his name,” I retorted flatly. I hadn’t looked away from the man, had barely blinked. “And he knows me.”
Calvin. The man who had been my boss at the theater, the one whose little drug ring I had helped dismantle as one of the last things I’d done before being recruited by Crossroads. The man who had pretty much run or had heavy investments in half the businesses in Laramie Falls before I helped Scott take him down so that he had to sell off almost all his holdings.
My drug-dealing, skeevy old boss was one of the Septs. He was one of the people in charge here. He was an Alter.