Month: February 2017

Tis The Season 19-03

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Someone was screaming. Only the pain in my own throat revealed who. Me. I felt detached from what was happening, like I wasn’t the one standing there with blood and… and more spread over my face. Like I wasn’t the one frozen in shock at the sight of… of Scott, or what was left of him. A dull, yet somehow almost deafening echo rang through my ears. Part of that was the sound of the incredibly loud gunshot, while part was psychological. Standing there, staring, frozen, screaming. I was broken.

Scott. My babysitter. The guy I’d pretty much grown up with. He’d always been there. Always. Even before Mom disappeared, Scott had been there. Besides Dad, Scott was my one and only constant. He was more than my babysitter. He was my friend. And more than that. He was almost like a big brother. Actually, he was the closest thing to a brother I’d ever had before I’d found out about Wyatt’s existence.

And now he was… he was… dead. On the floor. The hole—the blood—the—him. In my shock, I stood there frozen as more people suddenly filled the room by the door. Professor Dare and Asenath, both there within a second or two of my scream. The latter went through the open front door and into the yard beyond to look for the threat, while Dare went to one knee by the body, her hand outstretched.

But there was nothing she could do. I knew that from the start. Scott’s head was—the hole—oh. I hadn’t stopped screaming. Not that more than a couple seconds had passed, even if it felt like hours in my mind. Everything was going slow. The crash from the kitchen that had to be my father reacting to the gunshot and my scream couldn’t have been more than two or three seconds removed from the actual event, and his pounding footsteps brought him into view a moment later, which itself felt like hours.

Dad was yelling my name. He stopped short at the sight of me, before his eyes went to the floor. A look of incomprehension, followed by dawning horror filled his gaze, and Scott’s name leapt from his lips.

Professor Dare rose, moving so fast she was up before I knew what was going on. Pursing her own lips, she blew out some kind of purple dust. As it struck my father in the face, he slumped to the ground.

Despite myself, seeing Professor Dare blow dust into my father’s face that knocked him out, in the horror of the situation, made my hand reflexively move for the weapon canister at my hip. Before I could get it out, however (not that it would’ve done anything), she caught my arm. Her voice was gentle, yet firm. “Flick,” she said quickly. “Your father is okay. He’ll be okay, I promise. Come here.”

Before I knew what was happening, she pulled me away from the front door, toward the kitchen. My feet moved automatically to follow after her, and whenever my head moved to look over my shoulder at the body, Professor Dare stopped me with a hand to keep me looking at her as she continued to back up. She forced me to keep looking into her eyes while pulling me out of sight of the… of Scott’s body.

“Flick,” she started once we were out of the way. “Sit.” Pulling me to a seat, the professor made me sink it before snapping her fingers. A glass from the nearby cupboard leapt to the sink and filled itself with water before going to her waiting hand, and she held it out to me. “Drink this, please. Slowly.”

Instead, I just stared at the glass in my hand. It started to slip away, almost falling to the floor before she caught it. Professor Dare went down to her knees, and I saw something in her expression. Something more than professionalism. That time, her voice cracked a little bit as she put both hands on my shoulders. “Flick, please. I—I can help you. But I need to know what just happened. I need to talk to you, and you can’t talk until you drink. The person at the door, that was… your friend, wasn’t it?”

I went briefly blind as liquid filled my eyes. Tears, I realized through the haze. And through those tears, I would have slipped off the chair and fallen to the floor, but Professor Dare held me up, supported me for just a second until she took me from the chair entirely. Her arms went around me, embracing me tightly. “I’m sorry,” she whispered close to my ear, emotion shredding her voice. “I’m so sorry, Flick.”

That lasted for… I had no idea how long. She held me as my face hit her shoulder and my sobs took over. All I could do was shake and sob, unable to even try saying anything. After a few long seconds, my limp hands rose before wrapping around her, and I slumped there half on the floor, clutching the blonde woman as tight as I could as my tears continued to pour out freely, soaking through her shirt.

At some point, Asenath returned. I heard her quietly tell Dare that there was no one out there, and that Twister was doing a quick search of the neighborhood. There was also something about somehow convincing the neighbors that the gunshot they’d heard had actually been a car backfiring as it passed.

Finally, through the hard lump in my throat, I managed, “Fossor. It was Fossor. Ammon. He—Scott–”

“It was him.” There was hatred and anger in Dare’s voice, something deeply personal. “Flick, I’m sorry. I–” She leaned back, looking me in my tear-blurred eyes. “I—we didn’t know you were on the phone. We didn’t hear any of your conversation until the very end. Fossor was using some kind of spell to block it. We heard your friend show up and then you suddenly stopped talking. Then we heard the phone fall and you started to say ‘turn around.’ Then you screamed. We came as soon as—but it was…”

“Too late,” I finished for her, my voice cracking painfully. “Even your time stop, the—you couldn’t–”

She shook her head. “It takes a second to start up. I heard the gunshot and… and we had to get to you.”

Falling back against the legs of the chair as I sat on the floor, I slumped weakly. “It was a Christmas present.” My voice felt dull and empty. “Fossor said it was a Christmas present. He made—he got Ammon to make Scott—to make Scott…” I couldn’t get any more words out. The tears took over again.

Senny was by my side on the floor as well by the time I caught myself once more. Her hand took mine, and I could see the pain in her eyes. “Flick,” she started, her voice full of self-recrimination. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. It—like she said, we heard him show up and then it was just quiet. I thought you were–” She hesitated, shoulders shrugging helplessly. “I’m sorry, I should’ve known something was wrong.”

My head shook, but I couldn’t find my voice for a few seconds. “Scott— he’s… his… he’s just… laying there. We—you can’t–” My gaze turned pleadingly toward Professor Dare for a moment. “Help?”

“Oh, Flick.” The pain came back to her eyes. I’d never seen the woman look so… helpless and emotional. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do for him. I wish there was. He’s gone, Flick. He’s–”

She said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I couldn’t hear it. The roar was back in my ears, and my head dropped. I saw the floor, then nothing. Tears took over yet again. I slumped down, falling onto my side as I shook. No, no, no. Scott. Please, please. God, why. Why did I have to lose him too? Fossor took my mother, he’d kidnapped her and kept her away over half my life. He was going to try to take me in less than a year. My whole life revolved around dealing with that. And now he had killed Scott.

Eventually, I managed to sit up and take the glass of water, drinking from it almost mechanically as my eyes continued to stare at the floor. A million thoughts whipped through my head like a tornado. Most were less than half-formed, and many consisted of more vague emotions than coherent ideas. Kill Fossor. Kill Ammon. Kill them both. Destroy them. The rage boiled up in me, overwhelming the grief.

“Scott,” I finally managed after sitting there for what felt like hours. “We–” My throat cracked, and I took another drink of the water. “He can’t just disappear. He des–” Tears came back and I squeezed my eyes shut tightly briefly before giving a shudder. “He deserves better than that. His family deserves better than that. He was adopted, but—but they loved him. We have to—they have to know. Not everything, but… but please, please don’t let them think he killed himself. He was murdered.” The tears were coming back full force as I spoke. “They can’t think their son killed himself. Please, please.”

Professor Dare’s hand touched my cheek as she nodded. “They won’t. I promise, Flick. They… his parents will know he was a hero. I won’t let them think that he—that he did that. It won’t be okay, but that’s the very least we can do. I’ll take care of it. I’ll move him and—and make sure that no one thinks he committed suicide. Will you–” she paused, looking hesitant and, again, emotional. “Will you be okay here with Asenath for a little bit? I’ll be back as soon as I can, but I’ll need to call some help.”

Sniffing once, I nodded before cringing. “My dad. What about when he… when he wakes up?” It felt sick to talk like this, to talk at all after what happened. I knew that both Dare and Asenath had lost people close to them many times. This wasn’t anything new to them. But it was new to me. It was Scott.

“His memory will have to be adjusted before he wakes up,” Dare informed me quietly and patiently. “It’s the only way if you want people not to believe that Scott killed himself, if you want to change it. He can’t remember seeing him there. He can’t remember hearing you scream or—or any of it. We can set it up differently, but your father can’t remember any of that. It’s that, or let things stay as they are.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. “If I can’t tell my dad what really happened to Scott, I don’t want him to think that he killed himself. I can’t—no. Please. I can’t let Fossor do that to him. And he’d never—never let me go back to school if he knew that I saw Scott—that I saw Scott–” My voice broke once more.

“I’ll take care of it,” Dare promised while giving my hand a squeeze. “Stay here with Asenath, okay?”

Weakly nodding, I lowered my gaze and stared at the floor again. In the background, I heard the two of them murmur to each other for a second, before Dare left the room to into where Scott’s body was. After a short time there, the front door opened and then closed again as she went to… handle things.

For a few minutes, neither I nor Senny said anything. We just sat there. My eyes stayed locked onto the floor while my hands clenched and unclenched. It was all I could do not to break down yet again. But the anger in me was still steadily overwhelming the grief. My voice, when I finally spoke again, was hard. “I hate him.” I spat the words harshly, because being angry felt better than being sad. Being angry felt productive. Being sad felt helpless. “I hate that son of a bitch. I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill them both. Ammon and Fossor. They deserve to die. They’re monsters. They’re both monsters.”

“They are,” Senny agreed. Her voice was as gentle as her hand against my arm. “Fossor is evil. The kind of evil that.. that shouldn’t exist. I’m sorry, Flick. I’m sorry you had to see any of this, that you have to deal with that piece of shit. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have a regular family.”

“I don’t want a regular family,” I snapped despite myself as the anger twisted inside me a bit more. “I want my family. I want my mom back, with the gifts and abilities that she earned. I want my dad to know the truth. I want to know the truth about the world, and I want to help people. I don’t want to go back to being clueless. I want to take my father into the truth. I want him to know everything, and I want my mom back, and I want…” Stopping, I shook my head violently. “But I can’t have that. Any of it. Not now, anyway. But no. I don’t want normal. I want the truth. I want my family back together, with the truth. I want to save people with my mom, with my dad. That’s what I want, not ‘normal.’”

Before Senny could say anything to that, the front door opened again. There was a brief sound of footsteps before Twister came into the kitchen. She was carrying a small computer pad, which she held out to me. “Flick,” the girl said quietly while meeting my gaze. “You should look at this. Trust me.”

I took the pad with a frown of confusion before turning it around. On the screen there was a video playing. A video of a young, familiar boy playing with a truck on the floor in some kind of big room. There were a few other kids around, but he was in the center frame, and immediately recognizable.

The anger boiled up again, and I almost threw the pad even as the tears returned. “Bastard! Why’d Fossor send a video of Scott as a kid? How did he even get a video of Scott from years long ago?”

“Flick,” Twister said gently, head shaking. “It’s not from years ago. Look at the calendar on the wall.”

Confused, I looked at the pad one more, my eyes searching. Sure enough, there was a calendar there. A 2017 calendar, which was set to December. And all around the room, there were Christmas decorations.

The truck that Scott-that eight year old Scott was playing with on the floor… it was a Christmas present.

Twister’s voice cut through as my brain completely locked up. “It’s a live feed, not recorded. He’ll start getting his memories back over the next few months. Then his tail should come in. Probably doesn’t have the ears, or you would’ve noticed as soon as you saw him after the whole Heretic thing. Tails you can hide though.”

“Pooka.” I managed, as a tidal wave of emotions tore down every wall in my mind. “Pooka.” Turning, I went to my feet so fast the chair behind me fell over. I didn’t care. “Scott—you’re saying he—he’s a… He’s a Pooka?!” My voice was a shout. Still didn’t care. “Scott—he’s not—he’s a—he’s a Pooka?!”

The Stranger sense didn’t recognize Pooka, didn’t register them as Strangers at all, or anything non-human. The thoughts were coming to me in a jumble. My grief wanted to turn into delight and relief, but it was hesitant, terrified that this was some kind of mistake or lie. I couldn’t deal with that. Couldn’t deal with losing Scott and then having that hope dangled in front of me only to be yanked away again.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” Asenath questioned while I was busy staring at the screen where the eight-year-old Scott was making engine noises as he ran the truck up over a green couch.

Dead. Not dead. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to feel. Could I be happy? Could I be relieved? My body, my brain didn’t know how to switch emotions that fast. I wanted to sob again. I wanted to cry and scream and laugh and… and everything in between.

“I didn’t know.” Twister shrugged. “Not like we recognize each other on sight. But—yeah, that’s him.”

Scott. Scott wasn’t dead. He was, but he wasn’t. He was a Pooka. He was still alive—sort of. He’d get his memories back in a few months. He was a kid again, but he was alive. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t–

Tears, these ones of much better emotions, flooded my eyes yet again. It took me a second to find my voice, but when I did, a question came. “I—but if you didn’t know, where’d this pad come from?”

“Guy gave it to me when I was checking the neighborhood,” she explained. “Said he wanted you to know that Scott wasn’t dead, that he was sorry he didn’t get back soon enough to help.”

“Get back soon enough to…” I echoed in confusion, my eyes moving from the pad to the girl and back again. “I don’t… Scott’s a Pooka. He—oh my god. He was here on purpose. He grew up with me. They put him here to… to watch Mom. And then to watch me. He knew the whole time. He knew all of it. He was watching me, probably… protecting me. He was—he… but who? Who put him there?”

“I did.” A new voice spoke up. All of us jumped, even Asenath. Turning, we saw a man standing there. A tall, broad-shouldered black man whose form filled the doorway he was standing in, and whose aura seemed to fill the entire room, the entire house.

“And it’s probably time that we talk,” Gabriel Prosser announced.

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Tis The Season 19-02

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As a quick note, there was a brief mini-interlude focusing on Rudolph and Roxa’s old team posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“The amount of stuff you can get used to in such a short time is kind of amazing if you think about it,” I murmured under my breath, only half-aware that I was speaking out loud. It’s not like there was anyone around for me to talk to. It was daytime on Christmas Eve, so Asenath was sleeping. Shiori had gone back to visit her adoptive parents and Columbus until the next day, and Twister was watching over my dad while he spent some time in the newspaper office doing story research for a few hours.

Which left me alone. But it wasn’t that bad. I’d spent a lot of time alone before Crossroads happened. It gave me time to think and get my head on straight. Not to mention shop. Yeah, I sort of still needed to pick up presents for my dad and some others. Which felt bad, but I did have a lot on my mind lately.

Besides, it wasn’t like this town ever got that busy, even at Christmas. There were crowds, but it wasn’t anything like the kind of stuff I’d seen on the news about bigger cities. And the fact that I didn’t have to find a place to park was one less problem to deal with. I just walked into the store and started browsing.

“And what kind of stuff is that, Miss Chambers,” an unexpected voice cut through my daydreaming, making me jerk around in surprise. My item-sensing power had been telling me about people passing by the entire time I’d been standing in front of the shirt display, but this one hadn’t just kept walking.

“Scott,” I blurted, recognizing my former babysitter-turned-deputy immediately, as soon as my brain caught up with my reflexes. My hand stopped moving for my weapon canister and I tried to relax.

Not fast enough, apparently. Scott Utell, standing there in civilian clothes rather than his deputy uniform, raised an eyebrow at me. “Whoa, nice defensive posture there, little lady. Been taking classes up there in that fancy pants private school you abandoned us common folk for?” His tone was lightly teasing.

Flushing a little bit before using the face-shifting power to make it go away, I straightened and tried to change the subject. “Sorry, you just took me by surprise. What-uh, what are you doing here, Scott?”

Lifting the bag that he was holding (my power told me there were a few books, a dvd, two shirts, a game, and some kind of action figure inside), Scott shook it a bit. “Shopping. Why, what’re you doing? Oh, and by that, I mean what are you doing that’s making you get used to a lot of stuff in a short time?”

Shrugging while thinking of an excuse, I replied, “Oh, you know. That fancy pants school. Easy to get used to the crowds and all those rich kids. Then I come back here and this feels like the strange place, even though I grew up here. It’s kind of—um, easy to forget how small and… quiet it is around here.”

I didn’t even have to make any of that up, honestly. It was strange to come back to this quiet, sleepy town after everything that had happened. Granted, it wasn’t really because of spoiled rich kids, but still.

“Yeah, I suppose it would be.” Scott lowered the bag before nodding toward my own empty hands. “Doesn’t look like you’re having much luck with the whole shopping thing, though. What’s the matter, not enough options? Used to those giant four story malls with a whole special store for everything?”

Coughing, I shook my head rapidly while trying not to blanch too much. “No. Please no. Let’s just say I’ve had enough malls for the time being. Just a nice, quiet department store is good enough for me.”

Scott looked interested. “Sounds like there’s a story there. And the Flick I know loves sharing stories.”

It took a bit of effort, but somehow I managed to keep my voice at least somewhat casual.“Sorry, Scott, I’m not really in the mood to talk about it. I just—sort of want to focus on the normal stuff right now.”

That eyebrow of his went up again. “Normal stuff, huh? As opposed to—wait, don’t tell me. You ran up there and found yourself a bunch of trouble, didn’t you? I should’ve known. You help bust the closest thing Laramie Falls ever had to a drug kingpin, I can’t imagine what kind of stuff they’ve got up there.”

Weakly, I gave a slight nod, my voice quiet despite my attempt to sound casual. “You’d be surprised.”

“Maybe I would,” Scott acknowledged, his eyes watching me for a moment. “But if you change your mind and decide you do want to talk about it, well, my ears are always open. Keep it in mind, okay?”

If only it was that simple. “Yeah,” I murmured. “I’ll keep it in mind.” Straightening then, I cleared my throat. “But for right now, I’m gonna hijack you so you can help me find something good for my dad.”

“Hijack me, huh?” Scott shook his head with obvious amusement. “Don’t I have to be a boat or a truck or something to hijack me? I think the word you’re looking for is kidnap, Miss Super-Reporter.”

“Eh.” I shrugged with a faint smile, enjoying the (relatively) normal conversation. “I blame any failures in my vocabulary on you making up words when we were playing Scrabble. I mean honestly, tviuckt?”

Scott chuckled, giving a totally not-at-all innocent shrug. “Way I see it, that just taught you to check your sources before accepting whatever someone tells you. See? Told you I was a great babysitter.”

I rolled my eyes at that, catching his arm. “Right, good excuse. Now come on, help me go shopping.”

******

“Oh, hey, Professor Dare.”

It was later that afternoon, and I had just opened the door at the sound of the bell to find the blonde woman standing on our porch. She wore a nice red coat as an obvious pretense to caring about the weather, though I was pretty sure it didn’t actually bother her, and was carrying a leather briefcase.

“Felicity,” she greeted me with a warm smile, one that felt more open than she normally was at school. “I hope I’m not too early. I wanted to get here soon enough to help out a little bit rather than just eat.”

Behind me, Dad spoke up. “Oh, we never object to help around here. Especially when it comes to anything involving food.” He stepped over, extending a hand as I moved aside. “Lincoln Chambers.”

Taking his hand, Professor Dare smiled. “Mr. Chambers, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Virginia Dare.”

After the brief handshake, Dad paused, head tilting a little curiously as he regarded her for a second. “You know, Flick said your name before, but now I’ve just gotta ask. Did your parents happen to be–”

“History nerds,” Dare confirmed for him with a chuckle. “My mother. She couldn’t resist the chance to name me Virginia. Sometimes I think it’s the only reason she actually married my father, for his name.”

She lied so well and simply that for a second, I forgot what the truth was. Dad, meanwhile, chuckled as well. “Well, I’m just glad they gave you an interesting name. It must be a good conversation starter.”

As he spoke, Dad stepped back out of the way with a gesture. “And please, come on in out of the cold.”

“It does tend to attract questions from the right kind of people,” Dare acknowledged while moving inside. “Ones that know their history. And those are the best ones to have a conversation with.” Her head nodded toward me. “Like your daughter. I find conversations with Felicity are never boring.”

Dad patted my shoulder briefly. “She doesn’t like to blend into the crowd, that’s for sure.” His voice was embarrassingly fond before he shook his head, thankfully not launching into an entire ‘proud father’ spiel about me. “Right, mind if I take your coat? I’ll just put it up in the closet out of the way.”

As Dare shrugged off the coat and handed it to him, Dad started to take it before pausing. He glanced back to her, that thoughtful look back on his face as he gave the woman another quick once over. “You know,” he began slowly. “You look really familiar. Have we met before? Maybe down in Los Angeles. I used to work there before coming out here, and I still fly back now and then to visit some friends.”

Shaking her head at that, Professor Dare replied, “I don’t think we’ve actually met, no. If we had, you would’ve remembered the name. But I have been to California. Maybe we passed by each other.”

Dad seemed to consider that for a moment before nodding. “Maybe. I just could’ve sworn I–” He paused and then shook it off. “Never mind. Let me put this away.” Waving the coat, he stepped over to the closet. “Flick, why don’t you show Professor Dare around a little bit before we worry about food?”

I started to do that, stepping away with her. Once we were far enough away, I whispered, “Is he actually wrong, or has he met you before?” Glancing to her, I added pointedly. “Like say, around here.”

“You don’t need to whisper,” Dare replied in a normal voice. “Your father won’t hear anything we’re talking about.” She looked over to me then before nodding. “And yes, he probably did see me around now and then. Actually, I’m surprised you didn’t recognize me too. After… after your mother disappeared, Gaia thought it would be a good idea to have some of us check in on you now and then. Just in case anything happened. I tried to stay in the background, but… well, there aren’t many people in this town. And,” she added almost as an aside to herself, “Maybe part of me wanted you to see me.”

“Wanted me to see you?” I echoed uncertainly, mulling that briefly before shaking my head. “Why?”

For a few seconds, her only response was a long, low sigh as she watched me. Then Dare raised her hand to lay on my arm. “Because I missed your mother, Felicity. She was… she was a very good student. She challenged the others, made the people around her better. I was hoping she might actually become a teacher. Then the underground became a full scale rebellion and… well, that was never going to happen. But I still had a chance to talk to her now and then. I um—I volunteered to come here because I missed that. I missed her. Same reason I volunteered to pick you up for school in September.”

That made me remember that I wanted to ask Professor Dare exactly what had been going on when I was left alone in an almost empty field with just the bus and that door. I wanted her take on what was up with that, though it obviously had something to do with making sure Mom wasn’t secretly with me.

Before I could say anything about that though, we reached the top of the stairs and I saw my bedroom door open. Asenath was standing there, hand against the doorjamb as she watched our arrival curiously.

Seeing her, Professor Dare paused, voice going silent. Her face softened, and she stared for a moment with obvious emotions swirling through her expression before murmuring, “Gods, I see him in you.”

Equal emotion flickered in Senny’s gaze before she brought it mostly under control. In that moment, I realized that as old and experienced as she was, in some ways, the other girl was still a little girl waiting for her father to come back. She was a little girl who missed her daddy, and hearing someone who knew him say that they saw him in her had to be wrecking her. After all, I knew how it felt to have someone say that they saw my mother in me. Especially after everything that I had found out about her.

Finally, Senny found her voice. “Papa talked a little bit about a girl he used to take care of. I was little, so I can’t remember all of it. But he said she was like a daughter to him, that she was… that she was like my sister. I just… he said she wasn’t a vampire, so I thought she’d died a long time before. I didn’t—I…”

She trailed off like that, clearly unsure of what to say as she stood there staring at the blonde woman.

Clearing my throat after a second of that, I gestured. “Right. Here, I’ll give you guys some privacy and let you talk for a bit. Take your time, use my room and get to know each other. I’ll just be downstairs.”

After looking back and forth between them for a second, I smiled to myself while moving back to the stairs. Heading down, I heard the quiet murmur of their conversation before it faded to white noise.

Dad was in the kitchen, reading the recipe that I’d managed to get Twister to write down for us. He’d wanted to try his hand at making an actual Christmas Eve dinner rather than just calling for takeout or grabbing a frozen family dinner at the store, so I told him that Asenath’s mother (the one that he thought had cooked dinner for us back when I’d visited for my birthday) had sent the recipe for him.

My mouth opened to ask him if he needed any help (with, of course, added teasing about him burning the place down), but before I could, the doorbell rang. Waving a hand as he straightened up, I called, “I got it!” Then I jogged through the hall to the entrance, wondering who it could be. Professor Dare was already there, and Senny said that Jiao wouldn’t be around until the next evening, at the earliest.

Peering through the peephole briefly, I blinked at the person there before opening the door. “Scott?”

“Hey, Flick.” He stood there, in uniform that time. Like earlier, he was holding a bag in one hand. “I’m not interrupting or anything, am I? I just thought I’d stop by and do a little Christmas present delivery.”

“Oh!” Quickly stepping back, I shook my head. “No, come in. Sorry, I just thought we were doing that tomorrow. Gimme a second, I’ll run upstairs and get yours.” Turning, I called, “Dad, Scott’s here!”

I’d taken a few steps toward the stairs when the house phone rang. Dad called from the kitchen to ask if I’d grab it, so I stopped and grabbed the handset off the wall before hitting the button. “Hello?”

“Are you having a nice time at your last Christmas with your father, Felicity?”

The voice… the words… my blood ran cold and I stopped short. Fossor. Fossor was on the phone. He had actually called me. What kind of sick—but I knew the answer to that. Him. He was the kind of sick freak who would find that amusing. My first instinct was to throw the phone against the wall, to break the damn thing or get it as far away from myself as possible. Even just hearing that son of a bitch’s voice freaked me out and made me start shaking almost immediately. I started to snap off a demand about what he wanted, but the words died in my throat. I couldn’t speak, not through any magic of his, but because I was afraid. Afraid of why he was calling.

He continued, clearly amused by my response (or lack thereof). “I asked you a question, young lady.”

Finally, I found my voice. “What-” It cracked a bit and I caught myself. “What the hell do you want?”

“As I said,” he replied smoothly, “I wanted to see how you were doing, and if you were making the most of your last Christmas with your father. It is important to spend the time with family that we can, don’t you think? Almost as important as it is to listen to your father and do as you’re told. Do you listen to your father, Felicity? Or is obedience to the male role model something else we’ll have to work on?”

I couldn’t help it, the words came reflexively before I knew what I was saying. “Yeah? Well it doesn’t seem like Ammon tends to listen to you all that much. Last I saw, he likes going off on his own a lot.”

If he was annoyed by those words, the man’s voice didn’t show it. “Yes, Ammon has been disciplined for his misbehavior. Children will be children, after all. I’m sure you’ll understand when the time comes. But there are times that he does as he’s told, and relays the instructions that he’s told to relay.”

The instructions that he was told to relay? I wanted to hang up. So much of my brain was screaming at me to just hang up. My hand was tight around the receiver, and I had to stop myself from using enough of my strength to snap the thing in half. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak, “What?”

Fossor’s response was a simple, “Don’t you want to turn around and open your present?”

“Turn aro–” Dropping the phone, I pivoted back the other way, toward the door. My mouth was already open, starting to shout, to scream.

Scott stood there. The bag was on the floor, wrapped presents strewn at his feet. In his hand, my old babysitter, my friend, held his service revolver up with the barrel against the bottom of his chin.

“Merry Christmas, Felicity.”

Then he pulled the trigger.

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Mini-Interlude 19 – Rudolph

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Rudolph and his new team (Roxa’s old team). 

The early light of the still-rising sun above the ocean illuminated the beach where six figures, five male and one female stood almost a quarter mile away from the edge of the Crossroads school grounds.

“See this here?” Jasmine Rhodes stood beside Rudolph Parsons, gesturing to the boy. “This is bullshit.”

Blanching a little, Rudolph glanced toward the tall, black girl with a weak shrug as he offered, “Sorry?”

Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy, put a hand on Rudolph’s shoulder and squeezed reassuringly. His role as the peacemaker of the team was well established. “Aww, I’m sure Jazz didn’t mean it like that.”

Rolling her eyes, the girl shoved both hands back through her dual-colored purple and pink hair. “No, I don’t mean your very existence is bullshit. I mean you’re another dude. They think they can replace Roxa with a guy. Which means I’m all by myself. This team is a great big sausage fest.”

That, naturally, was the perfect opening for Isaac Acosta, the short Hispanic boy with black curly hair that fell to his shoulders. His face lit up and he grabbed his roommate by the arm. “You hear that, Gordo? She said we have great big sausages. Do you–”

Gordon Kuhn, his face as flat and humorless as ever, slipped free of his boisterous roommate’s grasp. His voice was dull. “I heard what she said, Isaac. It’s not funny.”

“Aww,” Isaac’s grin lit up the beach more than enough for both of them. “Don’t worry, big guy. Like I said before, we’ll find something that makes you laugh before the year’s out. That’s my new life’s goal. How do you feel about monkeys on little trampolines?”

“We’re getting a little off-subject here,” Paul pointed out. “We didn’t come out here to talk about Gordon’s sense of humor.” To Jazz, he added, “Or your lack of female companionship.” His hand went up almost immediately in Isaac’s direction to forestall the boy’s next words. “I know. I know. I heard it when I said it. Let’s just let that one go for now, kay?”

“My ‘lack of female companionship’ is a pretty big subject.” Jasmine insisted while folding her arms under her chest. “Who the hell am I supposed to talk to about girl stuff, Doug?”

In the back of the group, the short, skinny boy kept his eyes riveted to the Gameboy that his fingers were still dancing across. The lowered bill of his omnipresent New York Rangers cap hid the boy’s expression, though his voice was mild. “I choose to take that as a compliment.”

Jazz shook her head. “I’m serious. You three,” she gestured toward Paul, Douglas, and Rudolph, “get moved to a bigger room for you all to share. Meanwhile, I’m all by myself. It’s…” She shifted a little before sighing. “It’s lonely, okay?”

Feeling a pang of sympathy, Rudolph bit his lip before speaking up. “I can, umm, ask Headmistress Sinclaire if she can switch me with a girl. It’s okay, I don’t mind going to another team.”

Sighing, Jazz shook her head. “Nooo, it’s okay. That’ll just break up some other pair of girls and leave one of them by herself. I can deal. Besides,” she added pointedly, “I don’t want another girl. I want Roxa back. We had a good system. Err,” the girl waved vaguely toward Rudolph. “No offense. Nothing wrong with you. You’re just not Roxa.”

“That,” Paul seized on the opportunity to cut in, “is why we’re out here. Why we wanted to talk to ya away from the school.”

Rudolph blinked around at his five new teammates staring at him. Well, four. Douglas was still engrossed in his game, fingers flying over it so fast they were almost a blur. “You wanted to talk tome about Roxa? Uh, sorry, I really don’t know anything more than you do. Just what the teachers said. She went-”

“Yeah, yeah, we know the official line. Family emergency, had to stay home.” Isaac interrupted. “We don’t buy it. Something else is going on.”

Blinking again, Rudolph hesitated before asking slowly, “Something else? You think the… teachers are lying?”

Paul shook his head before considering. “No, we—okay, yeah. But we don’t think they’re being malicious or anything. We think they’re trying to—dunno, protect us or protect Roxa or something. Whatever, they’re not telling the whole truth.”

“What makes you think–” Rudolph started.

“Roxa doesn’t have any family,” Jazz interrupted. “Trust me, we talked about it. She was an orphan. She lived on the streets. So how does she suddenly have a family emergency?”

Before Rudolph could try to find an answer to that, Paul took over. “That kinda told us there was something else up. So we looked into it. Which brings us to you.”

“Me?” The pale boy blanched again, head shaking. “Listen, I really don’t know anything else. I just volunteered to come over here so Tristan could stay with his si–”

Gordon interrupted, his face somehow more serious than before. “It’s not about that. It’s about Flick Chambers.”

Now Rudolph was even more confused. “Flick? What about her? What does she have to do with Roxa?”

“We’re not sure, exactly.” Paul shook his head. “But—you’re tutoring her, right? With the whole bow thing.”

Rudolph nodded slowly at that, looking around at them. “Yeah? Why? What does that have to do with anything?”

“Like he said,” Jasmine put in, “we’re not sure exactly what Flick’s got to do with Roxa. It’s just… eh, you tell him, Doug.”

The short boy finally looked up from his game, thumb hitting the pause button as he focused. “It’s this power I got on that second hunt we went on. It sort of… gives directions.”

Rudolph’s head tilted uncertainly. “Gives directions?”

Douglas nodded. “Yeah, I mean, once a day I can ask a question and it gives me a hint about where I can find the answer. Sometimes it’s really vague, sometimes it’s really specific. Depends on the question. So I keep asking it how we can find out the truth about Roxa. And every single time, it just gives me one thing. Flick Chambers. That’s the only hint it’ll give me. Flick Chambers, over and over again.”

“Oh.” Rudolph straightened with realization. “That’s why you’ve been staring at her. I thought you had a crush.”

Doug coughed, flushing a little bit. “I was trying to make my power give me more information. But it won’t. It’s just Flick Chambers over and over again.”

“So you see,” Jazz put in then, “why we’re interested in your whole tutoring thing with her.”

Hesitating, Rudolph slowly nodded. “Sure, but I don’t know if she knows anything about her. Did Flick and Roxa ever even talk to each other?”

The other five exchanged glances before Paul spoke up. “We’re not sure. But we need to find out. Whatever the teachers are lying to us for, doesn’t matter. Roxa’s our teammate. We wanna help her if we can. And right now, the only clue we’ve got is Flick. So we’re hoping you could tell us everything you know about her.

“Cuz whatever happened to Roxa, that girl’s involved.”

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Tis The Season 19-01

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“You’ve got story-face,” I informed my father a few days later (and just two days before Christmas) as the two of us walked together along the sidewalk a couple blocks from home. We both had hot chocolate, and I was also carrying a sack of TV dinners to throw into the oven when we got back home. Shiori and Asenath were off spending some time together, doing their own thing for a few hours. Hopefully not getting into any kind of trouble like what had happened back at Wonderland. Which, I still maintained, Calvin speaking up on my behalf was the absolute strangest part of the whole ordeal.

After taking a drink of his hot chocolate, Dad glanced sidelong toward me. “Story-face?” he echoed.

I nodded while taking a long sip of my own steaming cup. “You know, the face you get when you’re thinking really hard about a big story you’re investigating. Your eyes get that faraway, yet intense look. Anything juicy?” Inwardly, I was repeatedly telling myself that it couldn’t involve his investigation into Fossor. Asenath had promised me that they were sufficiently leading him away from that. So at least whatever had him thinking so hard now couldn’t be as dangerous as that would’ve been with Fossor.

Dad didn’t answer at first. When I looked that way, he was frowning at his cup. A second later, he seemed to shake it off. “Sorry, can’t really talk about it right now. Confidential stuff. Maybe later.” Reaching out, he ruffled my hair, like he used to do more when I was a kid. “You understand, right?”

Trying not to let him see the uncertainty I felt (what could he be working on?), I nodded and forced a smile. “Must be something pretty special if you won’t share with your poor, deprived only daughter.”

Snorting, Dad gave my head a push. “Nice try. You were better at Bambi eyes when you were eight.”

“So, does that mean you would’ve told eight-year-old me about the story you’re working on?” I asked with mock abhorrence. “Why, that sounds downright horrifying. No wonder I’m so desensitized.”

Dad rolled his eyes and took a long gulp of his drink. “You know me, can’t let movies and video games do the heavy lifting. You’re my kid, damn it. If I don’t get to traumatize you, what’s the point?”

“Some would say the point is the joy of raising a child, teaching them everything you know, and sending them into the world to contribute to a civilization that’s been building for millennia,” I offered.

His response was an elaborate shrug. “Ehhh.” Giving me a little push with his hand, Dad smiled faintly. “Pretty sure you already passed anything I could really teach you, kid. Now, if your mom was–” He seemed to have been talking without thinking, but as soon as those last words left his mouth, he froze. Stopping there in the middle of the sidewalk, Dad winced and tried to backtrack a little bit. “I mean…”

“Dad.” Reaching out, I put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, remember? I’m okay with talking about mom now.” Pausing, I added while trying not to feel too guilty. “I actually kind of… like talking about her.”

No. It was no good. I couldn’t stop feeling guilty. Dad deserved to know about Mom. He deserved to know the truth about what happened, but how could I possibly explain it to him? Any of the supernatural parts he’d just forget about, which was… pretty much all of it. I couldn’t even think of how to explain it in ways that didn’t involve anything supernatural that wouldn’t make him think I was crazy.

“Do you?” Dad asked, giving me a long, questioning look before he pushed on. “Why is that, exactly?”

I blinked at the unexpected question. “What do you mean? Why do I like talking about Mom now?”

Nodding, Dad put the cup to his mouth and paused for a few seconds before sipping carefully. His eyes never left me. “It just seems kind of sudden. I was wondering if something might’ve prompted it. You know, something that made you ask if she went to private school, back in September when you called.”

Shit. Of course, it was just my luck to have a dad that not only paid attention, but also remembered stuff like that. Trying to keep my face straight, I let it look like I was thinking. “Oh. Yeah, I just thought I remembered her talking about it. Something about the uniform made me think she mentioned it.”

Dad continued to look at me questioningly for a moment longer before nodding. “Well, like I said, your mom moved around a lot as a kid because of your grandfather’s military work. Not sure what he did, exactly, since they…” He paused then, trailing off the last words quietly. “… weren’t really talking then.”

After biting my lip, I nudged him. “What happened, did you remember something about Mom’s dad?”

“No.” Dad shook his head. “I was just thinking about how I never met your mother’s parents. Never even talked to them. It’s… too bad they were estranged. Your mom didn’t even really talk about why. Didn’t talk about them much at all, really. And it wasn’t like there was a sore point. She didn’t seem emotional about it or anything. Whenever I brought it up, she just said they weren’t on speaking terms. Just like that, normal, flat. I didn’t really focus on it because I didn’t want to bring up something that hurt her, but looking back on it, I don’t think it did hurt her. But your mom cared. Her emotions were… let’s just say, you know how some people wear their emotions and beliefs on their sleeve? Your mom went a step further than that. She turned her emotions into a giant mech suit and used it to smash the people that she thought deserved it. For her to not show any emotion about her parents if the situation was bad enough that they didn’t talk at all for the entire time that we knew her…” he trailed off slowly.

See? Reporter father. Bad idea as far as the whole ‘keeping secrets about Mom’s supernatural back-story’ thing went. With an inward wince, I shook my head. “Maybe it was one of those emotional wounds that kind of… scabbed over.” At the last second, I stopped myself from using Mom’s disappearance as an example. “Or maybe she just wasn’t really that close to her parents even before?”

Dad was clearly quietly thinking about that for a couple long, quiet seconds before looking at me with what I knew from many years of experience post-Mom disappearance was a forced smile. “Maybe that’s it. Now come on, kid. Let’s get home before those frozen dinners become lukewarm dinners.”

“Lukewarm?” I echoed. “Dad, in case you missed it, we’re kind of in Wyoming in the middle of winter. We could leave these things outside for two hours at lunchtime and they’d still be as hard as a rock.”

“See, see?” He pointed at me while teasing mercilessly. “I knew going to school up there in Washington was gonna turn you into a great big sissy. You never used to complain about the weather down here. You thought it was great. Now all of a sudden it’s ‘aww, woe is me, it’s a wee bit cold.’”

Yeah, as far as Dad was concerned, Crossroads was in Washington. They used that location to explain why some of the Bystander-kin students might mention stuff that had to do with a beach or the ocean when they went home for the holidays. Though I wasn’t sure if they had an actual campus or anything for parents to visit. Or what would happen if one of them asked to. Clearly something else to ask about.

And he did have a point. I was used to being on an island where either the weather was completely perfect, or hot when I was out on the beach away from the temperature shield. It’d been awhile since I spent much time around this kind of cold. But of course, I wasn’t just going to admit that he was right.

“If I have ever said the words ‘wee bit cold’ in that order, non-sarcastically,” I shot back while giving him a light kick, “I’ll eat the containers these dinners come in. And I wasn’t complaining. I was stating facts. I think the inside of our freezer is warmer than the air out here. If it gets much colder, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to breathe out, grab my frozen breath out of the air and throw it at you like a snowball.”

Dad smiled, but clearly couldn’t resist a last dig. “Like I said, that school is turning you into a wussy.”

“You’re not wrong about much,” I replied. “But that? That you couldn’t be more wrong about.”

******

Later that night, I was standing in the kitchen with Twister as the Pooka taught me how to do a few things in the kitchen that didn’t involve a microwave or the telephone and a restaurant delivery menu. Dad had gone down to the office for what he called a ‘last minute story check.’ Since it was dark, Asenath had followed him, just to make sure he didn’t get into any trouble. Because I was pretty sure it would be just like Fossor to do something nasty that close to Christmas. He’d probably find it hilarious.

“Big bad teacher babe’s coming tomorrow night, right?” Twister interrupted my thoughts, pulling my attention back to her as the dusky-skinned girl sat up on the counter, kicking her legs back and forth.

“She’s not bad,” I answered quickly and pointedly while peeling potatoes into the sink the way the girl had instructed. “Professor Dare’s nice. Though she did start out as an amarok-Heretic, so ‘big bad’ does sort of make sense for the wolf thing.” Shaking that off after thinking about it for a second, I nodded. “But anyway, yeah, she’s coming to talk to Asenath about Tiras. So you don’t have to worry about her seeing you or anything. They kind of already figured out that you guys are watching over my dad.”

“Nothing personal against Professor Cool,” Twister replied, “but I’m just not really in the mood to test that. So I’ll probably take off for a few hours while she’s around. Not like you need me to help protect your pops if she’s in the house anyway. If the necro-asshole’s gonna try something, it won’t be then.”

“Oh, yeah.” Nodding, I looked over at the other girl. “Sorry this whole ‘playing bodyguard for my dad’ thing has gone on this long. It’s probably not the most exciting or glamorous job you’ve ever had, huh?”

Her response was a dry, “I’ve had worse. And more boring. A lot more boring. This one isn’t bad. Especially since I’ve started sort-of remembering some… things ever since you brought up all that shit with your mom. Mostly from dreams, and a lot of it slips away when I wake up. But I’m pretty sure they’re actually memories. You know, memories that were suppressed by that god damn stupid spell.”

“Yeah, I remember Senny mentioned that you guys were having dreams like that.” Frowning, I asked, “But why would that happen? I don’t get it. Why would just talking to me about it make you start remembering stuff? I’m pretty sure the Mnemosyne spell isn’t supposed to work like that, like, at all.”

Her response was a shrug, and her ears (the cute fox ones) flicked. “Dunno. Heretic magic is weird and inconsistent. And a big pain in the ass. But speaking of things Senny mentioned, there’s something else I should really tell you about. She would’ve, but I made her promise to let me tell you myself.”

Blinking at that, I set down the potato peeler and looked at her. “Something you should tell me about?”

She nodded, slipping off the counter to stand up. Her beautiful fluffy tail shook back and forth a few times as she considered her words. “Yeah, see, uhh… well, remember how my lifespan thing works?”

My head bobbed up and down. “Sure, yeah. I mean, it still seems weird, but then, most of the stuff I’ve been hearing about is. You’re basically like a phoenix. Every time you die, you get reborn as a nine year old kid with all your memories. So you look like you’re eleven right now, because the last time you died was a couple years ago, but you’re actually over a hundred. See what I mean? Weird. But I get it.”

She scoffed a bit dismissively at that. “Hey, to me, your lifespans are the weird ones. Linear lifetime without going back and forth between childhood and being an adult? Freaks.” Winking, she held that for a second before pushing on. “Anyway, this is actually about the last time I died. Two years ago.”

“The last time you died?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly at her. “Uh, okay then. What happened?”

Twister paced back and forth over the kitchen. “It was weird. Someone was going around killing a bunch of Pooka. It was like they were looking for one in particular, but weren’t sure which one, so they were just killing all of them. All of us. Anyway, word got out, so I was laying low at Mardi Gras–”

I interrupted. “Laying low at Mardi Gras? How is going to something like that laying low, exactly?”

Her retort was pointed. “If I couldn’t go to Mardi Gras, I might as well have let the guy kill me. I mean hell, dying sucks, but it’s not the end of the world. Not for Pooka. Besides, I figured it’d be easier to blend into the crowd. Safety in numbers, that sort of thing.” Shaking her head, the girl looked away. “Long story short, it didn’t really work out that way. Bad things happened and I ended up dead. Then reborn, yadda yadda, I’m a little kid again instead of my sexy self. But that’s not the important part.”

My mouth opened and shut, and I stared at the girl. “You… dying isn’t the important part of the story?”

She shrugged. “Like I said, not really that big of a deal for Pooka. And even if it was, this would still be more important. Cuz while it wasn’t the end of the world, I really didn’t like dying. Especially when I didn’t know why it happened. Whatever the guy that killed me was looking for, I wasn’t the right one. So I looked into it. You know, cuz I was pissed off. I kind of hoped I could find the dick again and get some payback. Couldn’t find him. But I did find out why he was targeting Pooka, what he was after.”

Unsure of where this was all going, I shook my head slowly. “So, why was he going after you guys?”

Opening the fridge, Twister leaned inside and plucked out a yogurt. She opened it and held a hand out until I passed her a spoon from the drawer behind me. Then she dug in while answering. “Turns out, one of my uhh, let’s call him a cousin. He’s sort of a thief for hire that works through a middleman. You know, no contact with the actual client or anything. Anyway, he got hired to steal something really important. Then when he had it, he figured it was worth more than the client was paying. So he took off with it instead of delivering. Which is a shitty business practice, because it leads to stuff like… well, a pissed off client hunting down and killing every one of your species that he can find because all he knows about you is that you’re a Pooka and he really wants the stuff you stole. And bad Yelp reviews.”

“I feel like you said that in the wrong order,” I mused briefly. “But who was the crazy murder-client?”

She blew out a long breath. “I never saw a face or anything. All I knew was that they really wanted to find something that I didn’t know about, and they were ticked off when I couldn’t give it to them. So I had no idea who they were until you guys got back from Wonderland and Senny told me about what you found out. ”

“Wonderland?” I echoed, confused. “What did we find out at Wonderland that told you who killed you and all those other Pooka?”

Twister took another bit of yogurt, holding the silence for a moment before she answered. “I didn’t find out who the client was back when I looked into it. But I did find out what they were after, what my cousin stole for them and then took off without turning in. And I found out that the guy eventually got it from him, after… after a lot of really bad payback for running off with his merchandise.”

She was quiet for a few seconds, staring down at the yogurt with a sigh. “It was when Senny mentioned Denuvus. That’s when I knew.”

“Denuvus?” My head tilted. “You mean that legendary Alter guy, the one they think was used to turn Ammon into a Heretic? Wait, you think he’s the guy that killed you?”

Her head shook. “Nope. I mean that’s what was stolen, the thing that got the client so kill-happy. A vial of Denuvus’s blood that some collector had.”

“Denuvus’s blood…” My eyes widened. “Wait, you mean one of the other Pooka stole a vial of Denuvus’s blood and ran off with it two years ago, and someone went completely nuts and started killing all the Pooka he could find until he tracked down the right one?”

“That’s about the size of it,” she confirmed with forced casualness.

Slumping back against the counter, I whistled. “Fossor. It has to be Fossor. He had a Pooka steal the blood so he could turn Ammon into a Heretic, and then started going after you and all the other ones when the guy took off with it. Then he got it and… and used it…”

So now we knew pretty much for sure where Ammon’s power came from and how he got it. But how could we use that against him? And why had a vial of this legendary, mythical Denuvus’s blood just been sitting in someone’s vault or whatever, waiting to be stolen? And hell, if Denuvus existed, where was he now?

Most of all, why did it still seem like every time we answered one question, four more took its place?

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Interlude 18B – The Committee

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September 3rd, 2017 (The day before school began)

The room was a perfect circle, with a floor of glistening white marble, walls of polished emerald, and a vaulted ceiling that displayed the sky through a holographic representation. In the middle of the room, centered precisely, sat a circular table that was about half the size of the room itself. Twelve chairs were arranged around the table at equal distances from each other, none raised higher than any of the others.

At each of the four compass points in the room, there was a heavy, thick iron door. Softly glowing magical runes of privacy and protection were activated on those doors whenever, like now, the occupants carried on their often heated conversations and debates over the running of their society.

“We have been over this time and time again,” Gabriel Ruthers announced from his place at the circular table. A glass of amber liquid sat in front of him, and he took a smooth pull from it before continuing. “Whether or not the girl is a threat, it would be absurd for us to use our resources to turn her into one.”

Directly across from him, a man who would have looked at home in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as one of the titular pirates sat stroking his beard. His voice was like gravelly thunder that filled the room. “Where I’m from, we don’t go blaming the sins o’the parents on all the little ones. That way lies terrible things. Which of us could stand up to moral scrutiny over not just everything we’ve done, but everything all our ancestors did way back through history? At what point do we draw the line, eh?”

“At the point, Teach,” Ruthers addressed him, “that it risks allowing a girl into our society and among our children who may be an agent conditioned by her terrorist mother to destroy our civilization.”

“Edward raises a fair point, Gabriel.” Beside Ruthers to his left, a pale and pristinely beautiful auburn-haired woman spoke. “We have no evidence that Joselyn Atherby has had any contact with her daughter within the past decade. Conditioning a child like that takes far more than a secret visit now and then that we don’t even have any actual evidence of. And given the reports we’ve received about the girl’s attitude concerning her mother’s absence, I find it difficult to believe that they are secretly allied.”

Before Ruthers could speak, the woman on his other side spoke up. Her darker skin revealed her Native American ancestry, and she looked old. They were all old, but she looked it more so than the rest of them. Her face was lined with more wrinkles than belonged on a normal person. Yet despite that, every motion she made was filled with life and energy. At that moment, she was pointing at the pale woman.

“You have a son in the school this year, Sophronia,” she chastised. “You should want to protect him.”

The other woman shifted in her chair, giving her colleague a hard look. “I do. And I’m the one who decides what Zeke needs protection from. At this point, from what I’ve seen and heard in those reports, being around someone like this Chambers girl may do him some good. Your argument only holds water if we believe that she’s a threat. I don’t happen to believe that, so you’ll have to try something else.”

Another man across the table, sitting beside Teach, cleared his throat. He was an exceedingly handsome black man with finely chiseled features and the smooth voice of an old jazz singer. “I’m sure Litonya wasn’t trying to question your parenting choices, Sophie. We’re all just very close to the situation. Which, if you think about it, is another point against the Chambers girl. If we can’t even agree on whether or not to allow her into the school, how will we agree on what to do if she doesn’t work out?

“Besides,” he added, “blood is blood, and she is her mother’s daughter. Her loyalty will be to her.”

Beside him, Teach twisted a little in his seat to squint at his neighbor with a clearly disbelieving look. “You of all people should know that family doesn’t always mean loyalty, Geta. How long did your brother let you share the throne with him after Septimius died? Less than a year? You really think this Chambers girl is some kind of secret plant by her mother after they haven’t even talked in a decade?”

Geta’s fist came down on the table. “That is immaterial,” he thundered back. “You know as well as I do that Caracalla was manipulated by one of the very same Strangers that we are charged with protecting our world from. His decisions were not his own, and I would not be at this table today if I hadn’t fought against the creature who took my brother’s sanity. Losing my brother was my first sign of the evil of Strangers. And I have seen far too many such signs over these centuries to risk allowing the same kind of dangerous treason to rise up in this society again after we worked so hard to remove it the first time. Do you really want to risk another war, just to allow one girl to enter our society? I have nothing directly against the Chambers child, but she is perfectly safe where she is. There is no reason to bring her into Crossroads. Maybe she is an agent of her mother and maybe she isn’t. But the benefit of her inclusion is far too small when compared to the risk that she either is a threat or may become one.”

Another woman, her Spanish ancestry apparent in her features, spoke from her place to the left of Sophronia. “That’s getting too close to straying from the point of today’s meeting. We aren’t here to discuss the nature of Strangers, only whether Felicity Chambers should be allowed into Crossroads.”

As Ruthers opened his mouth, the man who sat to Geta’s left interrupted. “Well, maybe we should discuss it, Elisabet.” His long blonde hair was tied into a ponytail, and the man wore a tee shirt advertising some modern Bystander musical group called the Ramones. “Because as some of us have tried to tell the rest of you for a long ass time now, there’s more to Strangers than we allow to be taught. And if we could just be open to entertaining some of what Atherby was teaching, we might be able to-”

“That is quite enough, Percival.” The disgust and annoyance in Elisabet’s voice was palpable. “This discussion isn’t an excuse to bring up that old lie. Strangers are incapable of living in harmony with humanity. They see us as prey, and any indication otherwise is a trick.” Her hand rose to point at him. “And don’t forget, we may have voted to allow such insane words to be spoken in this room, but if there is ever any indication that you or anyone else has been spreading them to the rest of our people…”

Teach grunted with annoyance of his own. “Sure, sure. Wouldn’t want the people to know that we can’t even agree on whether Miss Big Bad Terrorist Leader was right or not. It might confuse the poor dears.” His words were dripping with sarcasm, even as he grabbed the bottle of rum in front of him to take a long drink from before slamming it back down on the table. “Sure as hells wouldn’t want that.”

To Teach’s right side, a rotund, heavyset man who clearly hadn’t actively fought for many years scooted his chair a short distance away from his neighbor. “Do we need another vote to show you that you lack the numbers to enact any such change, Edward?” he asked while polishing his glasses on his shirt.

“A vote proves nothing, Oliver.” Teach snapped. “Not within this body of stubborn fools. If you want to see proof that there can be decent Strangers out there, you need to get out and interact with them, not sit in this room blowing smoke up each other’s arses. When was the last time any of you lot took the time to talk to something not-human before you shoved a sword in its gut? Never? That’s what I thought.”

Still cleaning his glasses, Oliver made a haughty sound before setting them back on his face. “Careful, old pirate. Keep talking like that and someone might think that you’re going back to your old ways.”

Teach just gave the man a dirty look. “Lucky for me,” he grunted, “as Elisabet already mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with bringing up the subject in this room. And you know full well why we made that rule. Cuz if we didn’t, you’d have a fight on your hands. And the Committee fighting looks bad.”

“It’s a fight you would lose, Edward.” The admonishment came from a young-looking Asian woman who sat to the left of Percival. Her features were more handsome than pretty, though her strikingly violet eyes definitely made her stand out. “The few of you who believe such complete nonsense do not have the numbers to even cause a tie within our ranks, let alone to affect actual change in policy. Which also means that, if we were to engage in combat, your side would certainly not survive for very long.”

Sophronia spoke up while Teach was still starting to react. “Is that a threat, Jue?” Her voice, while calm, was laced with warning as she lay both palms down on the table. “Because I believe you’ll find that, while there may be only a few of us who believe that peace with Strangers may eventually be a possibility, we are far from weak. If you wish to threaten us, you may come to regret such a decision.”

“Enough, enough.” Between Jue and Litonya, a man who looked like the stereotypical lumberjack with his thick beard which rivaled Teach’s, and dark red and black checkered shirt shook his head. “We’re not here to threaten each other. That’s the entire reason we voted to allow this kind of discussion, so that it wouldn’t keep falling to threats and violence. If the people outside this room understood how often we almost go at each other’s throats, they’d lose all confidence in us. So let’s try to stay civil.”

“Davis is right,” Oliver agreed, though his tone made it clear that he disliked the other man. “So we’ll settle this before it gets out of control again. Let’s see a show of hands. Who among us believes that there is any merit in Atherby’s old claims, that Strangers either are or can somehow be taught morality.”

Ruthers tried to stop it, but around the table, three hands were raised: Teach, Percival, and Sophronia.

“You’re all insane.” The words came from the left of Elisabet, where a man who could have stood in as a body double for the mythological Thor if his hair had been red rather than black sat. His fist hit the table hard. “I think the girl should be allowed into the school, because she hasn’t done anything wrong and her rebel mother hasn’t even talked to her for years. But the idea of good Strangers is just… it’s insane. We’ve all seen the depravity Strangers get up to when we aren’t there to hold them in check.”

Next to the big man, to his left, an almost astonishingly attractive black woman laid a hand on his arm gently to stop him from going on. “I don’t think now is the time for that kind of argument, Sigmund. Our emotions already run high because of the Felicity Chambers discussion. Let’s not get off track with insults and threats about a subject that we already know is not going to be settled any time soon.”

“The subject has been settled, Calafia” Ruthers pointed out a little testily. “Not everyone has to agree for a subject to be settled. This committee has long-since established that a majority vote binds all of us to it, since before almost any of us were actually a part of it. We may disagree in here, but out there, we present a united front. It’s the only way to lead our people. And the majority agree that Crossroads cannot afford another Atherby-like rebellion. It would destroy our civilization and allow Strangers to run rampant. To that end, I insist upon a vote. Do we allow Atherby’s daughter into our school? Do we take the risk of subjecting both our students and our entire society to another civil war so soon after the last one was finally put to rest? Like all of you, I hold no personal grudge against the child. But she is a potential threat. And further, there is no particular benefit to her recruitment. She brings nothing of importance to the table, and the potential downsides are far too numerous to explain here. So, let’s vote and get this over with.” As he finished speaking, Ruthers finished the last of the contents of his glass.

The lumberjack, Davis, nodded. “I agree. Let’s have a vote and see where we all stand on the subject.”

“Fair enough,” Litonya agreed. “Let’s say… if you believe that this Felicity Chambers should be allowed to enter Crossroads, despite the dangers related to her mother’s rebellion, raise a hand.”

The first hand to rise was that of Edward Teach, who scowled across the table at Ruthers rather pointedly. It was followed almost immediately by Sophronia’s hand, entirely unsurprisingly. After a couple more seconds of silence, two more hands were raised practically simultaneously as Percival and Calafia joined the other two. And for a moment, it seemed like that’s where the vote would fall, with only four of the twelve Committee members choosing to accept Felicity Chambers into Heretic society.

Then Davis lifted his own hand with a soft grunt and shrug, raising the vote in her favor to five. And a second after that, the count turned to six as the others were joined by Sigmund, the massive viking.

That was where they stood. There may have only been three members of the Committee who held any belief in Atherby’s claims of the potential for Strangers to be good: Edward Teach, Sophronia/Sophie Leven, and Percival. But the other three, Davis, Calafia, and Sigmund, believed that Felicity should be given a chance in the school even if they didn’t believe her mother’s claims.

Ten seconds passed then, as the Committee members looked at one another that way before Jue shook her head. “Is that where we stand now? A vote of six to six? Do we need to go over the facts with all of you again? Do we need to discuss the kind of damage that this Chambers girl could do to our society if she is working with her mother? Might I remind you all that some of your own friends and descendants were killed in the war that Joselyn Atherby started. Do you all want to live through such a thing again?”

Percival, still standing out in his ridiculously modern clothing, spoke up. “And do we need to remind you lot that Chambers didn’t do anything wrong, and hasn’t had contact with her mother for, again, a decade. What the hell kind of long-con game do you think she’s playing?”

That sparked another argument that lasted for a solid ten minutes before things settled enough to vote again. And again, they were tied. So they argued some more.

“It seems that we simply are not going to be able to come to an agreement,” Calafia remarked after their third such vote with absolutely no change in the result. “We are dead-locked, six to six. And from the sound of each other’s passionate arguments, none of us are going to be convinced to switch sides.”

“You know what that means,” Teach pointed out, unable or unwilling to hide his amused expression. “If we’re tied, it’s the leader of the school that gets to decide whether to accept the new student or not.”

“Gaia Sinclaire.” Litonya’s dislike of the woman was evident in her voice and pinched expression of annoyance. “And we all know how she’ll vote. She was too soft on Atherby in school and she’ll be too soft on her child. The woman is too soft in general. We can’t simply pass that kind of decision to her.”

“First of all,” Sophronia spoke up. “I would dearly love to see you call Gaia soft to her face, Litonya. I think the results would be… amusing. And Prosser knows, we could use a little amusement right now.” She smiled a little at the thought before continuing. “And second of all, you can’t simply refuse to follow the rules because you know they’ll go against you. We’ve voted five times now, and all five times they’ve come out to a tie. Therefore, the current head of the school is allowed to cast the tie-breaking vote. And the current head of the school is Gaia Sinclaire, which means she casts the vote, regardless of her established opinion.”

Geta straightened in his seat, letting out an audible sigh. “As much as I hate to admit it, she has a point. I disagree with how this vote will go, but I won’t stand against it. We’ve failed to come to a consensus ourselves, so it’s up to the Headmistress to decide, even if we know how that will end up going.”

“Indeed,” Elisabet confirmed with a look toward Ruthers. “And we all know who to thank for Sinclaire ending up where she is.”

Ruthers, for his part, stared around at the other members of the Committee. His bulldog expression hardened and twisted as he obviously fought to find the right argument. All he had to do was convince one of the others to turn. Teach, Sophie, and Percival were hard set against him, so it would have to be one of the other three. Yet even as his mind desperately sought the right words to change their minds, he knew it would be useless.

The vote would stay tied, which meant that Gaia would make the final decision. And as they all knew, that decision would not be in his favor.

Felicity Chambers was coming to Crossroads.

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Interlude 18A – Namythiet

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“They shouldn’ta locked the door!” The pint-sized, purple-winged and blue-haired pixie teenager huffed the words with obvious annoyance and agitation. She hovered in front of Seth Dozeran’s face, hands on her hips as she ranted at her mentor. “I coulda helped with those bad dogs. I’d give ’em a poke in the eye with ol’ Cataclysm here.” Her hand moved to pat the tiny sword at her hip pointedly. “I’d poke the eye out and skewer it on my blade, like an olive on a toothpick! An olive on a toothpick!

The vampire arched an eyebrow for a silent moment as he seemed to consider her before replying smoothly. “I’m the one that used the code to lock the store, Shortstop.” It was a nickname that Namythiet had objected to until Seth explained that the shortstop was one of the most important defensive spot in baseball, since they had to field more hit balls than any other position.

Still, his words made her flutter up a bit higher as she blurted, “You? You locked me in here so I couldn’t get out? But why? I thought you trusted me to fight with you! Don’t you… think I could help?” Her wings beat a little slower as she sank a bit in the air, the equivalent of a human hanging their head.

For a moment, it looked like the man was going to say something dismissive. Then he heaved a sigh and muttered something about feelings. “Needed you to be around for back-up, kid, in case there were more of the bastards. You know how tricky wolves can be. They hit us again from behind, we would’ve needed you to play guerrilla tactics and take them by surprise. Better than just being out in plain sight.”

Hovering a little closer to him, Namythiet studied his gaze with the intensity of a teenager valiantly attempting to spot the loopholes in a parent’s unwanted instructions for a few long seconds. Finally, she bobbed up and down in the air a bit before nodding. “I woulda kicked their asses! Me and Clubber both.” Her hand pointed down to the emerald-furred saber-toothed tiger cub that sat studiously licking down his own shoulder until he went so far that he fell over onto his side with a squeak of surprise.

“Yes,” Seth replied dryly, “I’m sure they dodged a number of bullets by avoiding that fight. But look.” He raised his hand, palm up so that the pixie could land on it. “The other Septs need to ask you a favor. They’d be in here themselves to do it, probably Limnoreia or Fennicus, but they’re busy making sure those werecub parents don’t go running off on their own to get their stupid, panicky asses killed.

“So that leaves me to talk to you about the favor. But I want you to think about it before you say yes, you got it? This isn’t a normal favor. It’s important, and it’s dangerous. More dangerous than anything you’ve done before. So don’t just go agreeing just because you think it’ll make you look brave, got it?”

Feeling intensely curious (even more than usual) by that, Namythiet alighted onto his hand and cocked her head to the side. “The Septs wanna ask me for a favor? Really?” She had to stop herself from immediately blurting out an agreement to anything they asked for. “Um, well, what do they want?”

The man who had bypassed every other eligible and eager potential student that longed to be the Tie-Breaker’s protege to instead begin training her, a four and a half-inch tall pixie (a fact that most people in Wonderland insisted was supposed to be his idea of a joke), regarded Namythiet in silence for a moment as though considering how much to tell her. Finally, he sighed. “You know the Heretics that were here? Asenath says she brought them to see you before everything went down. And I can still smell ’em.” His gaze flicked around the small shop where the most of Namythiet’s pixie-kin were still cautiously poking their heads out of their hiding places, or fluttering outside picking up bits of debris.

Bobbing up and down in the air in short, excited hops with a single flap of her wings that brought her off the man’s palm repeatedly, the pixie chirped, “Sure, they visited. They brought a friend for Clubber to play with too, a Jekern! His name’s Choo. Is she really your sorta-sister? The girl I mean, not Choo.” She giggled at the unintentional insinuation, spinning in the air after her latest wing-assisted bounce.

“Shiori, yeah.” The vampire nodded. “More of a sort-of niece than a sort-of sister, I guess. Not really into the whole family thing anyway, so let’s not put a label on it. Besides, you say that too loud and Asenath’s bound to poke her head in and start ranting about how we’re not related, so keep it down.”

Shaking that off, he went on. “Point is, apparently the other one, the blonde, she knows some other werewolf pack that has a problem with the one that attacked us. So they’re gonna go look for the pricks, maybe try to find out where they took the kids they stole. But they’re not a big pack, not like the others. There’s just a few of them. So they’re gonna need a little more muscle when they do track ’em down.”

Perking up, Namythiet drew her sword and flew up off the man’s palm. “I’ll be the muscle!” Her sword swished through the air rapidly. “Cataclysm and me, we’ll teach those wolves the meaning of fear!” Gesturing belatedly downward with the end of the needle-like blade, she added, “Oh, and Clubber too. He’ll make the dumb little puppies pee their furry panties with one mighty roar. Won’t ya, buddy?”

The green saber-toothed tiger yawned so wide he fell over backwards, and then proceeded to spin around rapidly as though trying to figure out what had tipped him over. Settling on the fact that it must have been his own tail, he pounced and turned over in a somersault while letting out a squeaky yowl.

“Oh yeah.” Seth’s voice was as dry as kindling. “I’m sure he’ll strike the fear of God into the bastards.”

Before Namythiet could respond to that, the man’s hand lashed out to catch hold of her. He was clearly careful not to grab her wings, instead letting them flutter about uselessly as he held onto the rest of her body in his fist. It was tight enough to be uncomfortable (and no pixie enjoyed being held like that), but not quite painful. “You listen, got it?” He had his serious voice on, one he hardly ever used. But it combined with the way he was looking at her made the pixie stop squirming and stare with wide eyes. “This isn’t a game. Those wolves, they will kill you like a human swatting a fly. And then I’m gonna be every shade of pissed off, cuz that means I’ve gotta name one of these other losers my apprentice.”

Pulling his hand in with her still clasped tightly in it, he stared intently at her. “So don’t die, you got it?”

When she nodded quickly, he released her carefully so she could fly. It wasn’t the kind of point that he made often, but he did make it. As much as he was teaching her, Seth still took the time now and then to illustrate just how vulnerable she really was if he thought she was getting too big for her britches.

“If you agree to go,” he continued once she was hovering once more, “it’s as a scout, not a front-line soldier. You go with these guys, and if they find what they’re looking for, you send a message back so the rest of us can come run the attack. Understand? No charging in, no stupid heroics. You send the message and wait for us to show up. You run off on your own and you’ll never be my apprentice again.”

For once, Namythiet nodded seriously, meeting the man’s intense stare. “Send the ‘help’ message to you once we find the stupid, ugly bastards. You got it, boss!” She saluted him with the blade of her sword.

“Good.” He grunted the single word of approval and paused then before squinting at her. “That… thing you were working on earlier, before the Heretics showed up, is it ready for the road?”

If she had perked up at the thought of going out to help hunt down the Nocen wolves, that question made the pixie positively beam while blurting, “Ready? You mean they might actually use it?!”

“I asked if it was ready,” he reminded her. “Or can you get them ready in–” He checked his watch. “About two hours. That’s how long it’s gonna take this pack to get up here through the foldjumps.”

The foldjumps were areas where two points that were hundreds of miles apart could be briefly connected into a single location. They were created by Alters known as Abeonas, for which the Roman Goddess of Outward Journeys had been named. Basically, the Abeonas would designate one point in one location and then travel hundreds of miles before designating the other point to link the two together. From that point on (until the Abeonas dismissed the connection or died), if someone was in that exact location and gave the proper password (deliberately thinking the password was good enough, since many Alters couldn’t speak normally), the two areas would connect again. Which meant that if someone started in one place, connected the areas with the password and then moved forward before the connection stopped, they would be just past the point of the second area. Usually, Abeonas charged exorbitant rates to use their foldjumps, but Wonderland had a special arrangement with a few of them.

“Yup!” Namythiet nodded confidently. “It’s almost ready now, if I work the whole time, it’ll definitely be ready by the time the good werewolves get here. Do you really think they’ll use it?”

“Well,” Seth replied casually, “they probably won’t want to run around on all fours the whole time they’re wandering over the countryside hunting this pack o’nasties. So I’d say yeah, they’ll use it.”

While she was pumping her fist with excitement, he extended a finger to her. On the end of it was something that, to him was an incredibly tiny thread. To the pixie, it was a normal sized belt. “Take this. After you find the guys and send the message about where you are, snap it. It’ll summon Venice.”

He wasn’t giving the pixie the ability to conjure up an ancient Italian city known for canals and drop it on her enemies, unfortunately. Venice was the name of one of Wonderland’s allied Abeonas, as all of them were named after a city, usually one that was famous in some way. Wonderland’s were Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia (the latter insisted that his chosen city’s contribution of the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich qualified it as at least as important as the former two cities, perhaps even more so).

“Find the bad wolves, summon Venice, help you lay the smack down on the furry assholes. Got it!” Tying the belt around her waist, Namythiet gave him a thumbs up. “Good. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when we crash their party.” Despite her words, the little pixie’s voice shook with anger as she thought about what the wolves had done to her home, to her friends and the people she lived with.

“Just remember what I said,” Seth warned her flatly. “No stupid heroics. None. Do what you’re told.

“But yeah, maybe if this works out, we can give them a taste of their own medicine.”

******

“We cannot begin to express the extent of our appreciation and gratitude for your actions,” Limnoreia announced quietly a few hours later, as she stood in the middle of the mall parking lot. “This is far beyond the call of anything we could have expected from those who are not fully allied with us.”

Namythiet, perched on the Nereid’s shoulder, turned slightly to look at the group that the Sept was addressing. The pack of werewolves wasn’t that large, only six in number. They were still in their wolf-forms from their run up through the foldjumps. There was a big dark brown one that was almost a head taller than the others, full of muscle. Beside that one was a slightly lighter one that seemed to be the leader. Arrayed behind them were a tawny-furred female who wore a red choker with a green gem in it, a black female, a male with rustic red fur like a fox, and a caramel-colored female that kept pacing back and forth sniffing everything. The choker on the tawny wolf was the only decoration any wore.

The pack all exchanged glances with a few yips before five of them took a couple steps forward and began to shift, changing shape and growing into their human forms. Meanwhile, the tawny female about-faced and trotted over to one of the nearby parked cars, sliding under it and moving out of sight.

While Namythiet was trying to figure out what the sixth wolf was doing, the others finished changing. The lead-wolf was a thin Hispanic man who looked utterly unassuming and unimportant, the kind of man who would almost always be overlooked. Beside him, the enormous wolf had turned into an even more enormous man, a giant Samoan who looked massive even to the pixie’s distorted perspective.

The other three wolves had turned into a black woman with short purple hair, a pale, red-haired man that was even shorter than the lead-wolf, and a Hispanic woman with long dark hair tied into a ponytail.

All five were naked, though none seemed to care that much.

“Our greetings to you, Sept.” The leader started once he had finished the change. “Sorry we couldn’t be here sooner, but… well, even with the foldjumps, Colombia is still pretty far away from San Jose.”

That was where Wonderland was located: San Jose, California. With the foldjumps that Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia had created and continued to maintain, it was at least semi-connected to enough cities in North and South America that even a trip from as far away as the wolves had started only took a few hours for them to run. The vast majority of that time was spent running from one fold to another.

Limnoreia shook her head. “Please, call me Limnoreia. And there are no apologies necessary, pack-leader. As I said, you have already gone far above and beyond what we could possibly have expected. Your pack owes us no particular favors or effort, yet you have already gone quite far out of your way to assist us. That is…” She paused before shaking her head. “It is more than I can properly express my gratitude for. Though…” Turning her gaze slightly toward the car in the distance, she asked, “Is your pack-mate quite… all right?”

It was the Hispanic woman (still pacing back and forth the same as she had been doing in wolf form) who answered. “That’s just Roxa. She’s not used to being a wolf yet, so she’s still embarrassed by changing. Or, you know, the naked part after. And she’s not as fast at it. So she changes over there.”

“And Hasty’s only saying that because she knows Roxa can hear her and likes teasing her,” the leader announced, giving the woman a look before he turned back and extended a hand. “My name is Mateo, Limnoreia. As I said, that’s Hasty. The big man beside me prefers the name Fezzik. That’s Lesedi and Corson.” He gestured to the black woman and the red-haired man respectively. “And like she said, over there is Roxa. She’s still a little shy.” Shaking that off, he focused on the Sept once again. “Flick said you had a run-in with the pack we’ve been looking for. How’d they even get in here? I would’ve thought that this place would be… well, a pretty tough nut to crack.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment, Limnoreia spoke quietly. “In ordinary cases, yes. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of simply lowering our defenses rather than adding the Heretics into them. The thought was that if anything went wrong, the defenses could be immediately raised to expel them. But when the other pack invaded, the defenses failed to come back. After an inspection, we found that the second Heretic who arrived with the pack, the one that the Chambers girl called Doxer, used some skill he acquired somewhere to take control of the lowered defenses once he was through them. He prevented them from being raised. It was an… unfortunate combination of events. Our lowering the defenses allowed him access to them so that they could not be raised again.”

Mateo’s head shook. “Heretics working with Nocen. Isn’t that just our worst nightmare?” Giving a shudder, he pushed on. “Like I said, we were hoping to find the pack anyway. This is a decent lead. But if they’ve got the numbers we think they do, there’s no way we can take them on ourselves.”

“We never expected you to,” Limnoreia quickly confirmed. “That would be… completely absurd on our part. We’re just afraid that… sending our people out now, as emotional and unstable as they are, would create more problems than it would solve. If they did find the other pack, they would not wait for reinforcements or for any kind of plan. And more likely, they’d simply walk into some other threat in their rush to find their children and other loved ones. It is our hope that by keeping them here and allowing them to train and busy themselves in other ways, they will be ready when the time comes.

“That is what Namythiet here is for.” Lifting her hand, the woman indicated the pixie. “She will accompany you and send a message back that will summon our forces once you have located the pack. With the aid she’s been provided, they will be able to arrive almost immediately. And rest assured, should you require any other assistance at any time, we will provide anything we can.”

“Good.” Mateo nodded. “Going after this Nocen pack, it’ll be good to have some back-up. I can’t even–”

Before he could finish speaking, a blonde teenage girl emerged from behind the car that the tawny wolf had disappeared behind, dressed in shorts and a simple tee shirt. As soon as she saw the girl, Namythiet flew up off of Limnoreia’s shoulder, drawing her needle-sword.

“Heretic!” she blurted in a half-panicked voice. “Run, Sept, I’ll protect you!” Holding the sword in front of herself, she flicked back and forth through the air. “You want to take my Sept, Heretic, you’ll have to go through me and my little friend! Sic her, Clubber!”

The green tiger cub, who had been lounging nearby, lifted his head to look that way for a moment. Then he proceeded to pounce… at a passing butterfly… which he missed entirely.

A blue hand moved up under her feet to catch the pixie gently. “Easy,” Limnoreia softly counseled. “It’s all right, Namythiet. We already knew that one of their wolves used to be a Heretic.” To the girl herself, she added, “Though we had not heard that you possessed the ability to summon clothes for yourself. That must be quite useful.”

Flushing slightly, the Heretic-wolf (Roxa, apparently), shook her head. “It wasn’t me.” To demonstrate, she reached up to the choker that she still wore. As her hand approached the jewel, it literally disappeared from sight. A moment later, she began withdrawing handfuls of clothes, which she tossed to her packmates so that they could start to get dressed.

“My old headmistress sent this to me,” she explained. “It’s like the pocket dimensions that hold our weapons, only it can hold clothes and anything else we can’t carry in wolf form. Oh, and speaking of weapons…” Trailing off, she looked toward Mateo.

“Go ahead, Roxa,” the pack-leader replied with a nod. “Call her down here. It seems safe enough.”

The blonde gave a loud whistle then. A moment later, there was a rush of motion. Namythiet quickly looked up and flew a little higher in time to see some kind of metal hoverboard come flying down out of the air. As it approached, the board shifted and transformed, four legs extending out to catch itself while it finished changing into the shape of a mechanical cougar.

“We thought it’d be good to have some back-up,” Mateo explained while he and the others began to get dressed in the clothes that Roxa tossed them. “You know, just in case.”

Namythiet, however, didn’t hear anything the Sept said in return. She was too busy flying straight up to the robot cat with a squeal of joy. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! A real life Heretic animal-weapon! And it’s not gonna eat me! Wait, it’s not gonna eat me, is it?”

The blonde girl blinked, stepping over before laying a hand on the robot cougar’s head. “Gidget won’t eat you. You like robots, umm… Namythiet, was it?”

“That’s me!” the pixie chirped excitedly, unable to help herself. “And do I like robots? Do I like robots?!”

Limnoreia calmly explained, “Namythiet is a Hephaesetical pixie. They’re quite rare. Most pixies are connected or tied to nature in some way, be it to plants, water, the earth itself, or even particular animals. Hephaesetical pixies, however, are connected to technology and… well, artificial constructions.”

“She means I like to build stuff!” the young pixie summarized while inspecting the mechanical cougar. “I always wanted to see what the Heretics built. Can I look, huh, huh, can I? Please?” She gave the blonde her best wide-eyed innocent pleading stare.

“Why don’t you call the van over so they can see what they’re working with?” Limnoreia suggested. “I’m sure you’ll have a chance to ask anything you want later.”

“Van?” Hasty perked up, moving from her pacing to stand beside her pack leader. “What van? There’s a van?”

In response, Namythiet turned in the air and put her fingers to her mouth to give a piecing whistle that was quite loud considering her small size.

Immediately, a dark green van that was parked across the parking lot started up. Its headlights turned on, and the vehicle roared over the lot before skidding to a stop nearby, engine idling.

“We thought that, considering your search may take you anywhere, something more subtle than a pack of wolves would be better,” Limnoreia began. “And as Namythiet has been working on this for the past several weeks to indulge her Hephaesetical urges, it was already prepared.”

“You uhh, built a van?” Roxa asked, her tone curious.

“Not just a van,” Namythiet blurted excitedly. “The van!” Flying over to the side of it, she raised her arms and gestured the way she had seen human models do. “See, it’s got armor that’s hard enough to take most human gunfire without even scratching it. And it’s got stabilizers to keep it upright even if an Amarok or a Nemean crashes into it. It’s got all kinds of surveillance stuff in it, both human technology and magic. It can get up a hundred and thirty miles an hour. It can change colors or turn invisible, and it has these…”

Whistling a short, complicated song, she waited until two ballistae rose out of the top of the van. One faced forward, the other backward. Both could rotate all the way around, allowing a full three hundred and sixty degree firing arc.

“A couple of really big crossbows?” the black girl, Lesedi, asked curiously.

“Ballistae,” Namythiet corrected. “And they can fire three different things. EMP bolts to shut down electrical things like if you’re chasing a car, explosive bolts to do boom damage, and bolts that spray out this knock-out gas to put them to sleep. Pretty cool, huh?” She was beaming with pride.

Smiling, Mateo nodded. “Very… cool indeed. And you’re right, spending time in a van’ll be a lot better than running across the country on all fours. Even if it is a little cramped.”

“Cramped?” Namythiet echoed, her broad smile widening even more. “Wanna bet?”

With that, she flew around to the back and landed on the handle before giving one more whistle. In response, the handle dropped out from under her feet before the door opened, revealing the van interior.

The pack of werewolves stood there and stared. “Okay,” Corson started as the first to find his voice. “What the hell?”

Instead of looking like the ordinary back interior of a van, what they saw through the open door was more like an entire apartment. There was a living room ahead of them with a couch, recliners, and a television on plush blue carpet, an open doorway to the side with a visible bathroom, a connected kitchenette just off from the living area, and another couple doors further in.

“It’s like the Heretic pocket dimension stuff,” Roxa blurted while the rest stared. “Like the stuff for our, I mean their weapons, or the apartments that the teachers use that are bigger on the inside.”

“It’s a freaking TARDIS,” the big Samoan announced, sounding utterly overjoyed. “It’s a TARDIS!” Turning, he carefully took Namythiet in his massive hands and began to literally jump up and down with her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Giggling, the little pixie squirmed her way free eventually before turning on Roxa. “And it’s not Heretic pocket dimension stuff. They stole it from pixies. We made it first.”

The blonde flushed. “Oh, uh, sorry. I didn’t… umm… I didn’t know.”

Mateo stepped forward then, laying a hand on Roxa’s shoulder. “Are you sure you want us to take something this important….?”

“Finding the kids is important!” Namythiet insisted. “You need all the help you can get. And besides, like Sept Limnoreia said, Clubber and me are going with you!”

The Nereid herself gave a slight nod. “Indeed. As I said, you’ll have every bit of assistance we can provide. I know you’ll want to leave soon, but would you mind coming inside for a few minutes first? We’d like to introduce your pack to the parents of the children who were taken, so that they can see who will be leading the search. And we have supplies we’d like to give you.”

Glancing to his pack to make sure they were all right with it, Mateo nodded. “Sure. Yeah, let’s go in for a bit. But we’ll have to get on the road soon. Because I have a feeling, wherever Lemuel’s pack took those kids, we need to find them as soon as we can.

“Before it’s too late.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to give it a look with the Previous Chapter button. 

The aftermath of the werewolf attack made the mall that was Wonderland look like it had been hit by a tornado. Or even a bomb. There were holes in the walls, stands tipped over, glass from broken windows spread everywhere, and more debris than I could process. Worse, however, were the bodies lying on the floor. Some were being tended to by others, but far too many were lying still and empty with sightless gazes, their broken forms torn apart too much to even try to save. And… not all of them were adults.

I had heard of massacres before, had seen reports on the news about what happened in war or during terrorist attacks. I wasn’t that naive. I knew that innocent people died a lot, even children. I knew it, logically in my head. And finding out that not all Alters/Strangers were evil had made it clear that this kind of thing could happen even to them. Hell, hearing about what happened to the Meregan was heartbreaking. And yet… this… seeing it in person, seeing these innocent people who hadn’t done anything wrong lying there, broken or dead was… it made me want to throw up. Everywhere my eyes turned, another sight of blood, of ripped organs or exposed bone made my heart want to shrivel up and die. I saw a little girl, no older than five or so with a pair of small blue horns on her head sitting in a corner with her obviously dead mother’s head in her lap. The girl herself was covered in blood, and I couldn’t even tell if it was hers or not. She was just sitting there with dust and bodily fluids covering her, a shell-shocked look on her young face as she stared at nothing, stroking her dead mother’s face.

I must have stopped walking, my gaze centered on that little girl with the body of her mother, because Shiori squeezed my hand to get my attention. “Flick,” she whispered under her breath, “are you okay?”

I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t. Because that little girl was just one of many sights that tore my heart out when I saw them. And I couldn’t just walk past. Releasing Shiori’s hand, I slowly moved that way, putting one foot in front of the other before I consciously realized what I was doing. In a moment, I was standing near the girl. My mouth opened to say something, but I had no idea what. I’m sorry? How stupid and trite was that? What could I possibly say that would make any of this even a little bit better?

In the end, I said nothing. No sound would come out of my mouth through the confusion in my brain and the lump in my throat. But I must have made some kind of sound, because the blankly staring girl turned her head. Her amber eyes found me, and I heard a squeak of wordless terror. Her arms went down, and I realized belatedly that the girl was covering her mother’s body as much as she could. All without ever taking her gaze off me, while big, thick tears of indescribable fear flooded her eyes.

Then Asenath was between us. Her hand found my shoulder and she gave me a brief sympathetic look before turning to the girl. “Ylena,” she whispered, kneeling for a moment to give the terrified, grieving girl a hug. Those terrified eyes stayed on me for another second before the girl let herself be embraced.

Turning away, I moved back to Shiori. “They know,” I murmured softly, my voice dull. “They know to be afraid of us. Even that girl, her mom was—and she was… even then, she was scared of us, of me.”

“They teach ’em young.” It was Seth, leaning against a nearby decorative pillar that had managed to remain standing. “Recognize the Heretics and run away. Hide. Run and hide, because the monsters are gonna get you.” Pausing, he took a cigarette out and stuck it between his lips before flicking open a lighter. Giving the lit cigarette a couple puffs, he finished with, “In this case, you’re the monsters.”

The words were harsh, but they were nothing I hadn’t already been thinking before he said anything. Heretics were the monsters to Alters. They had us and the actual evil Alters to worry about, the Nocen.

For a few moments, Shiori and I stood there in silence. Eventually, Asenath joined us once more. From the corner of my eye, I saw another adult Alter kneeling with the little girl, Ylena. Senny looked to me, her expression soft. “She didn’t mean it like that. She’s just—her aunt was the only family she had left.”

I winced, but it was Shiori who spoke. “Aunt?” she asked, her voice making it clear that she was afraid of the response even though she couldn’t stop herself from continuing. “I thought that was her mother.”

Shaking her head, Senny explained, “Her parents were killed about a year ago, by–” In the midst of her sentence, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes flicked over to us and I saw the truth in her brief hesitation.

“Heretics,” I finished for her. “Her parents were killed by Heretics.” I wanted to ask if it was Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretics, or even natural ones. But in the end, it didn’t really matter at all.

“Yes,” the vampire girl confirmed softly before letting out a low sigh. “That’s why this is important.”

“I know.” Swallowing hard, I forced myself to nod. “I get it. The war that my mom started, the rebellion, it was… it brought Heretics and Alters together. We can’t let that just be forgotten forever.”

With that clearly on all of our minds, we started back toward the Septs place once more. My eyes kept wandering, taking in even more of the destructive scene. I’d thought that the little girl, Ylena, with her dead aunt would be the worst thing that I saw. But that was just one of many examples that were all warring for the top position. Or, to be more accurate, the bottom position in this endless sea of tragedy.

Still, they all seemed to be pulling themselves together more quickly than I would have thought. Shiori clearly noticed that too, since she murmured, “It’s like they’re all…” She stopped talking for a second, and I saw realization dawn in her eyes even as the last few words escaped her weakly. “… used to it.”

Asenath hesitated before nodding. “They are. We are. This isn’t the first place Wonderland has been, and it won’t be the last. These people, they deal with potential attacks from Heretics and Nocen all the time. They grow up learning to watch out for Heretics, to keep their eyes open and avoid leading any of the hunters back to their homes. But it doesn’t always work. Attacks happen. They pick up the pieces and move on.” Her gaze found mine briefly. “Most of them have spent their whole lives like this.”

Their whole lives, spent dealing with one attack after another. The thought made me physically ill. That girl, Ylena, most of these Alters had grown up just like her. They’d lost parents, other family members, friends. All because of what they were born as, not anything they had actually done. The Heretics, we… we hunted them down and made their lives miserable, made them hide, because they weren’t human.

Of course, it was more complicated than that. There were a lot of bad Alters that did horrifying things to humans. Look at what happened to Koren’s father. And I knew that a lot of the Heretics, even the hardliner ones, genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. It wasn’t all black and white, and if I fell into the trap of assuming that all Alters were good and innocent and all Heretics were vicious killers, it would be no better than the hardliner Heretics who thought the opposite. There was nuance. Good Alters, bad Alters. Good Heretics, Bad Heretics. And somehow, Mom had been able to convince a large enough group of each of that fact to start a rebellion that had lasted more than half a century.

Walking back into the former Sears where the Septs were located, we found the group already waiting aside from the empty chair that Seth casually strolled over to and dropped himself in. None of the faces looked happy, though I couldn’t tell how much was directed at us and how much was at the situation.

Fennicus, the centaur, spoke first. “You’ll forgive us,” he began in a low voice, “if we hurry this along. We have things to do. People to take care of.” There was a brief pause before, “Loved ones to bury.”

Flinching, I nodded. “I’m sorry. We can come back another day if you… if you want. I just—I didn’t want to just walk away, not after…” Unable to find the right words, I finished with a weak, “I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them from killing anyone. I’m sorry that they were here, that they followed us to Wonderland. I tried to stop her. Pace. She’s a Heretic, but she’s also a werewolf, like the others. And she came to take me because… because she and her friends want to hurt my friend, someone I care about.”

“They fought another Heretic to save Alters,” the rock-man, Stav, pointed out. “That aids their claim.”

Unfortunately, the little gnome guy, Kimper, shook his head. “It does nothing of the sort. We already know the hybrid was of the ilk that call themselves Eden’s Garden, while these two are from their Crossroads. And those two groups fight and hate each other almost as much as they fight and hate us.”

Xi, the Rakshasa, inclined her head. “That is true. However, in any case I could think of, Heretics from both organizations will put aside their differences to focus on what they see as the much larger threat: us. They may hate each other quite a bit, but they hate us far more than that. Generally speaking.”

“I don’t hate any of you,” I interrupted in spite of myself. Then I hesitated before nodding toward Calvin. “Well, okay, I’m not his biggest fan. But to be fair, I didn’t like him back when I thought he was human, so that shouldn’t count. The point is, I know that Pace and her pack came here because of us, because of me. They were here for me, and I can’t—I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them from killing anyone.” It was repeating myself, I knew, but no other words would come to mind. I just felt… numb.

“How did they get past your security so easily?” Shiori put in. “I mean, shouldn’t it have been harder for them to get as far as they did? Or at least, shouldn’t there have been an alert sooner?”

Kimper nodded, arms folded over his tiny chest. “Yes. But we lowered a number of the security spells in order to allow your entrance.”

That hit me hard, and I paled. “So… it was our fault they were able to get in here.”

Limnoreia, the blue-skinned Nereid shook her head. “No, Heretic-child. It is not your fault. We had the choice of either lowering our defenses entirely, or adding both of you into their exceptions. We chose the former because we did not trust you enough to risk giving you specific access through those spells. The thought was that if you caused trouble, the defenses could easily be raised and they would target you immediately. It was our mistake. Unfortunately, it is not one that we have paid for.”

Cringing, I thought about Ylena’s dead aunt. “I know. The… the people who died, the ones who were hurt, I’m sorry there’s nothing we can… nothing we can do…”

To my surprise, it was Calvin who spoke. “Oh gods, would you just tell her the truth? She’s either not falling for your little test, or she didn’t have anything to do with it. Probably the latter. I don’t like the little self-righteous snoop, but she’s too much of a damn goody good to be into the whole abducting children thing.

Confused by that, I stared at the man before looking toward the others. “Wait, what’s he talking about?”

“Yes,” Senny agreed with a voice that sounded just as confused as I felt. “What is he talking about?”

The rest of the Septs looked at each other, but it was Seth who spoke after linking his arms behind his head. “Turns out, the fleabags weren’t just here for you after all. Well, maybe they came for that and just took advantage of the situation. Whatever it was, they didn’t end up taking off empty-handed.”

Limnoreia explained in a pained voice. “While we were distracted by the primary attack, several other wolves, accompanied by another Heretic, infiltrated the areas where our nursery and daycare are located. They took several of the children there before they could be stopped.”

More of Pace’s pack—Lemuel’s pack, I reminded myself. Twelve attacked directly. Three more had been keeping the back clear until Seth killed them. And others, apparently, had gone after the children.

A hard, heavy weight seemed to slam itself deep into the pit of my stomach at that. “W-wait,” I blurted, eyes wide. “What do you mean, they took several children? Why—why would they take… take kids?”

“Weres,” Asenath said quietly, sounding pained. “They took were-children, didn’t they?” When the group of Septs nodded, she cursed. “Damn it! Of course they did.” To Shiori and me, she explained, “That’s how a lot of Nocen were-packs expand their numbers. They either turn humans that they think have potential, which has its own risk of failure if the subject doesn’t survive the first change. Or they take the children of weres. Those have… a much higher survival rate because the change is natural.”

While I was reeling from that, something else struck me, and I looked back to the Septs. “Wait, you said there was another Heretic with them. Do you have a picture of them, or a description or anything?”

“He was tall,” Xi explained after exchanging looks with the rest of them. “And he was of the Moors.”

I started to ask what ‘of the Moors’ meant, but Asenath quietly murmured, “She means he was black.”

“Doxer,” I muttered aloud. “It had to be Doxer. Pace, she said something about him helping them find us—me, but I didn’t think he was actually here. Why would he help the pack abduct were-children?”

Senny shrugged a bit. “Maybe he was trying to impress Pace, or owed her. Whichever, the point is-”

“The point,” Fennicus interrupted with a heavy and obviously irritated stomp of his hoof against the floor, “is that we shouldn’t be sitting around in here. We should be working to find those children.”

Kimper was standing in his seat, head bobbing up and down. “We need to send teams out after them!”

“We do that,” Seth pointed out idly from his place, “and we leave Wonderland vulnerable. We already lost enough as it is. If we send enough to challenge this other pack and get the kids back, we leave the people that are left here vulnerable to another attack.” He glanced to me while flicking a switchblade open and shut. “And if we don’t send enough, we’re just handing the pack more victims to play with.”

“What would you have us do, then?” Fennicus demanded. “If we do nothing, the parents and guardians of the were-children will go off on their own. Some of them might do that anyway, regardless. They’ll spread out and get themselves killed, or taken. We must be seen to take action on this, immediately.”

That started a whole new round of arguments between them, some arguing for rescue teams while others continued to point out that lowering their numbers more was going to leave Wonderland weak.

In the midst of all of that, I interrupted. “Hey! Hey, I think we can help. Let us help find the kids.”

All of their eyes turned to me, and Stav spoke in a rumble. “I think you underestimate how long such as search will take. This is not a short or small endeavor, and from what you have said, there is more than enough on your… how do humans say… bowl already.” Beside him, Xi leaned closer to whisper, and the rock-man corrected himself. “Plate. Enough on your plate. How will you spend the time to search for the children, particularly without arousing the confusion and suspicion of your school teachers?”

Wincing at that, I admitted, “Not us, exactly. You’re right, we already have a lot to deal with. And it’s not like we can just wander all over the place searching the country for wherever the pack is holed up. But we do know others that can search. And they’d have sort of a… sort of personal stake in the matter.”

Clearly surprised, Shiori glanced to me. “Wait,” she blurted quickly. “You’re talking about asking–”

I nodded. “There’s another werewolf pack. A smaller one, but… capable. One of them was another Heretic until she was turned by Lemuel, the leader of the pack that attacked you. He didn’t do it to recruit her, he did it to make her die. But she survived, and she was taken in by this other pack. And they want to deal with Pace and the rest of them as much as you do. When they hear that Lemuel’s pack took were-children, I think they’ll want to be involved.”

“A pack of werewolves…” Limnoreia murmured thoughtfully. “Their senses would give them a better chance of tracking the abductors, assuming they could arrive soon enough…”

They conferred quietly for a moment before Xi spoke up for them. “Contact them, Miss Chambers. See what they can do. And for the time being, you may consider us… not quite allied. Not yet. That is something we will have to explore further, preferably without interruptions. But we are not enemies either. We shall see where this goes. Particularly if your contact is able to save the children.”

Taking a breath, I nodded and turned to take the phone from my pocket. Going through the contacts briefly, I hit one of them and brought the phone to my ear.

“Sean? Yeah. Um, listen… is Mateo there?

“I have a really, really big favor to ask.”

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