“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?