Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff reacting to the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button.
Somehow, through sheer force of will, I stopped my hand from grabbing my weapon canister. I had a feeling that, regardless of what Asenath had said in our defense to get Shiori and me in here, pulling a weapon on one of their leaders wouldn’t go over that well. I’d ruin the tentative peace that Senny had obviously put a lot of work into preparing before our arrival. And I didn’t want to do that, no matter how much the sight of the drug-pushing slimy little weasel that used to be my boss raised my hackles.
He looked just like he had the night I’d helped Scott bust his side business. Tall, probably about six and a half feet, with shockingly red hair bursting out in every direction from his scalp. He looked like Carrot Top on stilts. With, of course, about a hundred pounds of extra weight. He was not a thin man.
“How?” I demanded in a flat voice while tightening my hand to the point that my nails were digging into my palm. It hurt, but it was a pleasant distraction from my own confusion. “How are you here?”
Apparently the smirk on Calvin’s face could grow bigger. “Well,” he drawled with obvious amusement. “You see, when two adults really like each other, or sometimes when they’re just bored and horny, th-”
“Oh, shut up.” Just because I couldn’t hit him without causing an incident didn’t mean I was going to be passive, especially when he was being gross. I’d put up with enough of that back when he’d been my boss. I wasn’t about to roll over for it now, no matter how important he was suddenly supposed to be.
“Flick?” Shiori looked back and forth between us, uncertainty written over her face. “You know him?”
Before I could say anything to that, Calvin spoke up. “Oh, we know each other all right. Little Flickster here used to be my employee. Not that she was that good at listening to instructions.” Shaking his head lamentingly, he added, “Can’t even tell you how many times I tried to point out that she’d get a lot further in life if she just wore slightly tighter pants.” Calvin shook his head slowly before abruptly snapping his fingers as if he’d forgotten. “Oh, and then she had to go and be an annoying little snitch.”
Asenath was abruptly between the two of us, facing Calvin. “My friend here is playing nice because she doesn’t want to scare everyone that’s already worried about having a Heretic around,” the vampire informed him darkly. “But the thing is, I’m not a Heretic. So I don’t feel the same need to limit myself.”
The man paused, his eyes flicking toward me as that smile of amusement faded just a little before returning. He stepped back, hands raised in surrender. “All right, all right, I can tell when someone’s sense of humor isn’t firing along the same cylinders as mine. Take it easy, I’m not starting anything.”
“Good,” Senny replied coolly, her gaze staying on the man as he stepped back. “Then I won’t finish it.”
In the background, I noticed that most of the pixies had flown away to hide in the corners of the store, getting out of the line of fire. Some had even flown away completely, abandoning the place through a back entrance as well as a couple of holes in the wall that led who knew where. Away from here.
Namythiet, however, just flew up off the emerald saber-toothed kitten, landing on my shoulder. “Wit was the Sept before. Wit was a good Sept. Not like his son.” She gave the man an annoyed scowl.
“Wait,” I interrupted, blinking. “Wit was his father’s name?” Looking to the steadily smirking man, I murmured in realization, “Witson. You used the last name Witson in Laramie Falls. Wit’s Son.”
Without taking my eyes off the red-haired man, I explained to Shiori. “Calvin owned and managed the movie theater I used to work at. And some other places in town. He was a real big-shot. Not big enough to stop the cops from busting him down so hard he had to sell the place and disappear after he got caught slinging his drug crap on the side, though.” Smiling faintly at him, I added, “Isn’t that right?”
“Don’t flatter yourself so much, kiddy,” he retorted. “You think I couldn’t beat a simple drug charge? That’s peanuts. I could pay that fine and be back on top within a month. I left cuz my old man kicked the bucket.” Jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the rest of the mall, Calvin continued. “So I had to come back here and take up his old position. Help lead this place into a new and brighter future.”
“Aww,” I managed to sound sickly-sweet. “They must be so relieved to finally have a sleazy, greasy, drug-pushing slumlord around to show them what they’ve been missing with all their more-than-weekly showers and vaguely functioning brain cells. I’m sure you’re showing them just how much you bring to the table. Though they might want to try counting the silverware before they let you leave the table…”
It was probably stupid to antagonize and belittle the man like that. But the fact was, seeing him took me completely by surprise. And when I’m surprised, I tended to say things I shouldn’t. Not that I didn’t say things I shouldn’t when I wasn’t surprised, but it was slightly more prevalent while I was reeling.
He gave me a look of annoyance before masking it with a smile that failed to fully reach his eyes. “Now that you know all about Alters and our world, you should really be thanking me, you know.”
“Thanking you,” I echoed in disbelief before staring at the man for a moment. “Why, exactly, do you think I should thank you for… anything? What, I should be grateful that you didn’t use whatever power you’ve got to hurt Scott or me when we caught you? For all I know, you did try something and the Bystander Effect just erased it.” The thought itself made me queasy, even though I was pretty sure things had gone down the way I remembered them happening. I just couldn’t be completely positive.
“Nope.” Calvin paused before waving his hand. “Well yeah, that too, I guess. But what I mean is, you should thank me for the drug thing. You know, the thing you had to play super girl scout and stop.”
Before I could demand to know why the hell I should thank him for that, Asenath spoke up quietly. “He’s a Bebarlang, Flick.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “Better known as a psychic vampire.”
“A psychic vampire?” Shiori repeated, head tilting as she stood beside me. Choo and Clubber had perched themselves on either side of her feet, peering up at us curiously. “Does he use tarot cards?”
Senny shook her head. “Not that kind of psychic. And not exactly a real vampire either. His kind aren’t related to mine at all. They feed off psychic energy instead of actual blood. Whenever someone dreams, they give off a sort of… aura that the Bebarlang can feed off of, if they’ve touched the person recently.”
“That’s why you gave out the drugs yourself,” I realized. “So you could touch the people that were getting them. But I’m still not exactly seeing why I should thank you for feeding off innocent people.”
Calvin spread his arms innocently. “Guy’s gotta eat, you know. And you should thank me because I used drugs. See, most Bebarlang feed by forcing people to have nightmares. Terrible, nasty, awful nightmares. The ahh, terror spices up the psychic energy you give off. It’s really quite delicious. Think of it as flavoring. Otherwise, eating that stuff is just bland and nasty. So we make it better with a little fear. Any emotional energy works, really. Fear is just the most common. So they scare people, give them nightmares and then gorge themselves on the yummy energy they give off when they dream.”
He smiled at me. “But I didn’t wanna scare people. Too much work, too much… chance of attracting attention if a bunch of humans start having nightmares all the time. So I figured out, get people high and hallucinating, and the energy they give off is just… oh, it’s incredible. If you were a Bebarlang, I’d say you’ve gotta try it. But hey, if you happen to kill one of them, maybe you’ll get the chance after all.”
Scowling at his choice of words, I took a moment to consider what he was talking about. “You’re saying you got people high so that you could feed off them, instead of forcing nightmares on them.”
“Just call me an altruist,” Calvin drawled, his smirk widening. “No one really got hurt, and I got to feed without traumatizing them. I’m not a complete monster.” Leaning slightly closer (though Senny was still between us), he added, “You can’t fault a guy for having to eat to survive, would you? After all, you’re supposed to be the kind, understanding Heretic. What do you want me to do, starve to death?”
God, I wanted to snap at him. I wanted to lash out, because he was just so… smug about it. But I stopped myself, and thought about what he was saying. My first instinct was, of course, to point out that he was still feeding off of people’s energy against their will, without their permission. But that was stupid. They couldn’t give permission because of the Bystander Effect. And how much did they need the so-called ‘psychic energy’ they were giving off? Was it just stuff that would fade out anyway?
In the end, I nodded. “You’re right, it is better for you to do it that way instead of terrifying people and feeding off their nightmares.” Before his smile could grow anymore, I held up a hand. “But you know what? You’re still an asshole. Because you dealt to teenagers, kids. I saw the people who came into that theater, the people you dealt to. They weren’t exactly of legal age. You could’ve dealt your shit to people who are at least old enough to make the choice for themselves. But you didn’t. At least, not all the time. You gave that shit to people who were too young to even buy cigarettes. So don’t try acting all benevolent now. You helped get kids hooked on that garbage. Probably because they’re easy targets, and great repeat customers, since they won’t exactly know where else they can go to get their fix.”
Far from looking abashed, Calvin just gave a casual shrug. “Hey, I said I wasn’t a complete monster. Never claimed to be a saint. I doubt you’re Miss Perfect anyway. I mean–” His gaze turned into that familiar leer. “What’d you do for Deputy Boy Scout to get him wrapped around your little finger?”
The disgust I felt at his insinuation right there was enough to nearly make me dry heave. Or worse. And I almost completely forgot my private vow not to hit the guy and cause problems in this place. Honestly, it was probably more my shock that he would imply such a thing that stalled me long enough so I didn’t lash out more than any sense of decorum or diplomacy. I was too surprised to punch him.
Shiori, on the other hand, went to lunge at the man. The little Asian girl’s eyes were wide as she brought her hands up and took a step forward, only to have Asenath catch her around the waist.
“Easy, Reathma,” she murmured. “He wants to get a rise out of you. I heard one of the Septs voted against allowing you in, even after hearing the whole story. I guess we know which one it was now.”
“Ooh, feisty.” Calvin looked intrigued as he watched Shiori. Then he paused, looking back and forth between us for a moment with a curious expression. “And oddly defensive. Wait a sec, are you two–”
Asenath’s hand lashed out, smacking the man in the chest hard enough to make him stumble back into the nearby wall with a grunt. Her head turned to stare at him. “Like I said, I don’t have to be nice.”
“Is there a problem here?” The voice of the bird-man, Quing, interrupted. He was standing in the doorway, his eyes focused not on Calvin, but on Shiori and me, while his hand rested on the hilt of one of his knives. “I was told your Heretic friends knew how to behave themselves in civilized society.”
Namythiet flew off my shoulder, hovering directly in front of the security man’s face. “He started it!”
“It’s okay, Quing.” Calvin waved the annoyed bird-man away. “The little one’s right, I had it coming. And it wasn’t the Heretics who did the shoving anyway. They’ve been perfectly behaved little angels.”
Pausing, he looked back to me with narrowed eyes. “For now, anyway. But keep an eye on this one. She likes to think she’s smarter than she is. And she doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.”
His expression abruptly turned to a smile, and he waved casually at us. “See you soon, Flicker… and friends. The rest of the Septs are really interested in meeting you. Hope you don’t disappoint them.”
Then he was gone, whistling as he walked out into the mall. I watched his big bushy red hair vanish into the crowd before muttering under my breath, “I really don’t like that guy.” Wincing as soon as the words left my mouth, I looked to Quing. “Err, sorry. I guess that was rude for one of your leaders.”
Quing just watched me with those sharp eyes for a few seconds before giving a shake of his head. “You can say whatever you want. We aren’t totalitarian monsters. Criticize as much as you wish. But raise a hand to any of the people under my care, Sept or not, and I’ll make sure you never raise a hand again.”
“I’ll defend myself,” I replied to him without breaking his gaze. “That’s it. I don’t want to cause any problems, but I’m not going to just roll over and be a punching bag either. Respect goes both ways.”
The bird-man gave me a short, sharp nod before pivoting. “Come,” he muttered toward us while starting to walk back out. “He was right about one thing. The rest of the Septs are waiting to meet you.”
Biting my lip, I looked at Namythiet, who was still hovering in the air nearby. “How about we have that tour after this meeting? Assuming we don’t get kicked out on our hindquarters by the time it’s over.”
The little pixie’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Good luck!” she chirped. “I’d come with, but I’m not allowed in the Sept Hall.” Visibly pouting then, she added, “Like it’s my fault I had to chase the Zezaflies in there before. What was I supposed to do, just leave them alone? They’re Zezaflies!”
Well, that definitely sounded like a story that I really wanted to hear more of, but Quing was already impatient, so I looked to Shiori. “Ready to meet the leaders of this place and play Heretic Diplomats?”
Nodding, Shiori crouched down to rub Choo’s face before presenting him with a little bag of salted pretzels, which he immediately started to devour. “Stay here, okay? Play with your new friend.” She gestured to Clubber before looking toward Namythiet. “I mean, if that’s okay? I don’t think the little guy’s ready to sit around a meeting room with a bunch of important bigwigs.”
The pixie smiled brightly, landing between Clubber and Choo. “O’course!” she chirped. “We’ll have fun.”
Leaving them to it, Shiori, Asenath, and I followed after Quing. The bird-man led us through the mall, and I got to see dozens more Alters either openly staring at us, or trying to pretend they weren’t. Most hid behind things, making sure there was something between us and them. Others went as far as to quickly shut doors as we passed. Some, mostly little ones, watched us with more curiosity than fear. A couple even tried to approach, only to be quickly yanked back by their parents or guardians. These were people who were accustomed to being hunted by Heretics, and they weren’t exactly ready to believe that we weren’t about to start killing them any second.
Eventually, we arrived in front of one of the mall’s anchor stores. According to the sign above, it had been a Sears. But the ‘a’ and the ‘r’ had been crossed out, and a ‘p’ and ‘t’ had been spray painted above them. Septs.
We walked inside, passing about half a dozen more armed guards that watched us with clear and obvious suspicion before reaching the escalator. Even more guards stood at both the top and bottom, and we had to pass between them to ride the moving stairs all the way to the top. They were not fooling around here.
At the top, in what looked like it had been the entertainment section, we found seven comfortable armchairs set up facing us. Behind and around them, a semi-circle wall of televisions and computer monitors had been set up. Most showed a different view from somewhere in the mall, or the surrounding parking lot, though a few displayed various familiar TV shows and movies.
In those chairs sat seven figures. The one on the far right was Calvin. He lounged there, watching his fellow Septs more than he was watching us.
Beside the man, to his left, sat a rock-like figure. He looked sort of like the Thing from the Fantastic Four, only dull gray instead of orange. And his head had long, gleaming silver hair that looked like strands of metal. Next to him sat a Rakshasa, one of the cat-people. Beyond that, I saw a male that I thought was a vampire, a centaur who was actually standing behind the chair that was supposed to be his, an older, yet still somehow regally beautiful female figure with blue skin and white hair, and a very small (though not as small as Namythiet) guy that looked a bit like a garden gnome.
“Heretics.” The Rakshasa spoke from her seat, cat-eyes watching us intently. “Asenath tells us that we should listen to what you have to say, that we will be interested in your claims of peace and alliance.” She paused, looking left, then right at her fellow Septs before focusing on us again. “Is this true?”
Something caught in my throat. I stopped, biting my lip as a rush of thoughts and doubts ran through my mind. What if I said the wrong thing? What if telling them anything was a bad idea, and it somehow got back to Ruthers? I wasn’t sure how, since he wasn’t the type to listen to Alter rumors anyway. But still… doubts and uncertainty plagued me long enough that the Septs started to whisper to one another, their doubts clearly magnifying.
I had to. Clearing my throat, I straightened as much as I could. “Your—umm… Septs? I’m sorry, I don’t know the… the right term…” Shaking that off, I tried to quell my nerves. Just do it, Flick. Just talk. Tell the truth. “I could tell you about myself, about my friends. But honestly, we’re not the ones you need to hear about.”
“What you need to hear about… is a woman named Joselyn Atherby.”