“I understand that you had a rather important conversation earlier today with Avalon and Shiori.”
Jumping a bit at the sound of the voice, I blinked up guiltily to see Gaia standing there. I’d been sitting on the bench beside her office door, waiting for her to get back. And apparently, I had been so absorbed with writing in my notebook that I hadn’t even noticed the woman’s approach. Though, to be fair, if she actually wanted to sneak up on me, it really wouldn’t have mattered how much attention I was paying.
“Errr.” Belatedly getting over my surprise at her appearance to notice what she had actually said, I found myself blushing even more. Coughing, I decided the safe response was to ask, “She told you?”
Smiling faintly, the woman gave a slight nod. “Yes, she was surprisingly open about it. Normally I’d have to coax her into opening up, but this time she came straight to me, and talked about how she felt. I suppose she really needed to talk to someone about it. And as you have no doubt noticed, there aren’t really that many people whom Avalon trusts enough to have that sort of emotional conversation with.”
Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “I guess not. I think she opens up a bit to Scout, but that might be because Scout doesn’t say much.” Hesitating after that, I peeked back at the woman as my own nerves made me ask, “What do you think? A-about what we said and—and all that. Is it weird or… or dumb?”
The look on the red-haired woman’s face softened. “No, Felicity,” she murmured. “It is most certainly not dumb. Being open and honest with the people you care about is a good thing. You didn’t string either of them along, you didn’t make any promises you couldn’t keep. You told them how you felt and you did it before there were any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. That is never dumb, I assure you.”
Her hand reached out to find my shoulder then before she continued. “As for weird… well, you have to look at the lives that we lead. Weird is very much in the eyes of the beholder. What is strange and unsettling for others is what works for you. As you’ve obviously already heard, relationships among Heretics tend to be slightly different from what you are accustomed to among Bystanders. When one’s lifespan varies so significantly and when one is almost always in danger from one direction or another, having multiple romantic liaisons is encouraged more than not. Can you guess why else it would be?”
I paused, thinking about it for a second before straightening. “Because if you’re romantically involved with more than one person, there’s less chance of you completely shutting down forever if you—if you lose one of them. Because there’s others to help prop you up and get you through it. And since there’s so much fighting and killing, losing someone you care about like that is… probably not exactly rare.”
Gaia gave a silent nod, pursing her lips slightly with a thoughtful look before speaking. “No, it is not rare. You…” She paused again, eyes clearly looking at something far in the past. “You learn to live with losing things that you care about and moving on, once you have had an opportunity to grieve. And there are those within the Heretic community who believe that having other companionship helps to move beyond that loss more easily. Others disagree. I don’t believe that Professor Mason has ever been with another person that way since the loss of the twins’ mother.” Pausing, she looked to me. “Of course, there are other reasons beyond potential death for multiple relationships to be encouraged that way.”
Again, I thought about it quietly for a few seconds before making a guess, “I know that Heretics, umm, explore and colonize other worlds. And that probably means there’s a lot more deaths to get a foothold on a new hostile world. So if there’s more than one relationship, there’s… um, more chance of babies?”
“That is one way to look at it, yes,” Gaia confirmed with a slight wince. “Of course, that reasoning is never outright stated. But it is simple enough to see the supposed logic of. More romantic partners, in many ways, equals a higher chance of more children. And beyond that, having multiple romantic partners means that if one dies, the person is more likely to have someone else to continue their line.”
“Wow,” I muttered under my breath while shaking my head, “That’s kinda creepy if you think about it.”
The headmistress started to say something, but stopped abruptly and turned to look down the corridor. A few seconds later, the sound of approaching footsteps finally reached me, just as two figures came into view. Vanessa and Tristan. The two of them were each carrying a glowing blue orb about the size of a baseball. The temporary passes that Gaia had given them so they could come here after curfew.
“Okay, guess I owe you ten bucks,” Tristan remarked casually to his sister. “The office was this way.”
“Uh.” Raising a hand as the two neared us, I asked, “Why would you bet about where something was against someone with a perfect memory that’s been here long enough to already know that much?”
“Particularly,” Gaia added a bit pointedly, “when you have both already been to this office before.”
Grinning cheekily, the blonde boy shrugged. “I had a really good feeling about that other hallway.”
Chuckling, Gaia gestured to her office door then, and like before, it dissolved like a gradually slowing waterfall until the room beyond was revealed. As the wood magically faded away, Tristan leaned closer to me and whispered under his breath, “I swear, that just looks more awesome every time I see it.”
I knew how he felt. Nodding quickly, I followed the twins and Gaia into the office. “So, do you really think you can transfer the anchor spell from me to Vanessa?” I asked tentatively while looking around.
“I have no doubt that such a thing is possible,” Gaia answered simply. “The question that remains is how difficult and time-consuming it will be. Which is what we are here to find out right now.”
She led us into the middle of the enormous room, and I glanced up to see the holographic globe of the world set into the domed ceiling with all the green, yellow, and red flares that popped up randomly. As I watched briefly, a couple of the flares (one red and one green) turned gold and then disappeared.
Inevitably, my attention moved from the holographic ceiling globe to the ‘windows’ at the back of the room. Specifically, to the one window in particular that showed my own neighborhood with our house in plain sight. It was just as late there as it was here, but I could see two figures standing in the backyard. Asenath and her mother. The two of them were watching the sky while apparently chatting.
Right, I’d actually forgotten that Gaia had a view over my house in her office. Maybe I should’ve mentioned that to Asenath at some point, though I wasn’t sure what it would have changed. Maybe if there was a problem, it’d be good if she knew there was a way to get Gaia’s attention? On the other hand, if there was a problem, and Gaia happened to be watching at the time, she’d probably notice.
“What are the lights for?” I found myself asking, mostly to distract myself. When Gaia looked at me, I raised a hand to point up at the colored flares in the globe. “Those. What do the colored flares mean?”
Vanessa nodded quickly, looking relieved that I’d been the one to ask. “I’ve been wondering that too.”
Glancing to the ceiling, Gaia watched the random lights for a moment before answering. “Each of the lights that you see there show a reported or suspected Stranger sighting or event. Green is a non-violent situation, yellow is potentially dangerous, and red is quite threatening. Black would be for someone such as Fossor, a potential world-ending threat. When they fade out on their own, it means that the situation was resolved in some other way, most likely because the threat disappeared. When they turn gold, it means a Heretic killed the Stranger or Strangers involved and resolved the situation that way.”
My mouth opened, but Vanessa beat me to the next question. “There’s lights all over the globe. I thought Crossroads only operated in North and some of South America and most of Western Europe.”
Gaia nodded once. “Yes, for the most part, Crossroads officially claims all of the United States, most countries in Western Europe, and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in South America. Those are the areas that we consider ‘ours’, though Eden’s Garden also lays claim to several of the same areas, so it can become rather… tricky diplomatically. For the most part, we often try to work around each other.”
Raising my hand before realizing the absurdity of that, I coughed and just spoke. “Professor Vandel said there’s a different Heretic group that covers Mexico. One that isn’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden.”
“The Hunahpu and the Xbalanque,” Vanessa put in then, looking to me. “They’re actually one group, named after their founders. Um, it gets kind of involved, but the short version is that in Mayan mythology, these twins named Hun and Vocub Hunahpu were really good ballplayers. They went to the Underworld and ended up being sacrificed by the Lords there. But Hun’s head was put up in a tree and spoke to a woman that came by. Then he—I mean it—the head spat in her hand, which made her pregnant. Honestly, I think the Mayans were kind of confused on the logistics of what makes a baby.”
She shook that off before continuing. “But the point is, she got pregnant and had a new set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Those two grew up to be the big hero twins. Like the Greek’s Heracles. They defeated the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld and a lot of other stuff before being turned into the sun and the moon. Their whole story was supposed to show how Mayan people could kill demons themselves, even if only in the afterlife that they didn’t have to be helpless forever. There’s more, but yeah. That’s the myth. The real Hunahpu and Xbalanque were Heretics who fought ancient Strangers and created a group meant to fight them. They’re two sides of the same group. The ones who call themselves Hunahpu focus more on physical fighting and hunting, and the ones that call themselves Xbalanque focus more on magic.”
Chuckling, Gaia nodded. “Very good, Vanessa. Yes, the Hunahpu and Xbalanque claim all of Central America and a sizable portion of Mexico. We do have some relations with them, allowing us to create what are essentially embassies within some of their territory. The same goes for places like Australia, France, and most of the Middle East. We have embassies in those places, even if we don’t claim them.
“In other places, we have no such luxury,” she continued. “Places such as the jungles of Africa are too much of a Stranger stronghold for any Heretic organization to establish more than the slightest foothold in. We lose far too many people simply trying to ensure that the worst threats within those areas stay contained there rather than spreading over the world. Penetrating deep enough to eliminate those threats permanently has proven impossible. They are simply too entrenched and dangerous to risk it.”
Remembering another thing that Vandel had said, I pointed up at the globe. “Like Canada? It’s supposed to be really dangerous to send Heretics in there too. Which is kind of weird, honestly.”
Gaia smiled faintly. “Canada has been claimed by a very powerful Alter. He is not actually malevolent, though you’ll be taught otherwise in your classes. He is proud and reacts to violence in kind. He rules his dominion fairly but decisively, and does not respond well to invasion. He and his people have killed many Heretics who attempt to impose a Crossroads or Eden’s Garden authority in his domain, enough that the Committee and the Victors have elected to leave Canada alone, for the most part.”
Remembering what the entire point of this little sidetrack had been, I asked, “So there’s Crossroads Heretics all over the world, not just in the areas that we say belong to us. Either through embassies, or these little… umm, I guess the best word would be expeditionary forces. That sounds better than invasion, right?”
“Both would be correct,” Gaia confirmed. “Though you should refer to them as expeditions in public.
“I believe, however,” she went on then, “that we have gotten off-track. I’m sure that Vanessa and Tristan would like to sleep at some point tonight. So let’s see what we can do about that anchor spell.”
Tearing my attention away from the hologram, I nodded and let the woman go to work. I still had a lot more questions. Those, at least, were never in short supply. But they could wait. For the moment, the important part was letting Gaia move the anchor spell over to Vanessa instead of me.
Hopefully, that way what had happened to Roxa wouldn’t happen again. Because considering everything that had happened so far, it wasn’t a matter of if I would be unexpectedly teleported to another world again, but when.
As it turned out, it was going to take a couple more sessions for Gaia to transfer the anchor spell. Petan and his people had done their best to make sure the spell wouldn’t be erased or negated by the Seosten curse that had left Tristan trapped on the other world. Which meant that, while she could still adjust it, even Gaia was going to have to put more effort into it than she’d expected. Which kinda showed just how powerful Nicholas Petan and his people were, honestly.
Now it was the next day, Sunday. Gaia had asked me to go back in the next night for another round with Tristan and Vanessa, since she didn’t want all of our next couple actual tutoring sessions to be taken up with that. Instead, she wanted to get it all done in a few days and move on. Which I couldn’t blame her for. And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of plans to do during the middle of the night anyway.
At the moment, I was sitting in the library, scribbling in my notebook again while waiting for Doug to show up. The two of us were supposed to work on our little project for Hunter track, so he’d asked me to meet him that afternoon. I just happened to be early enough that I was fully engrossed in my notebook when my item-sense poked me with the realization that someone had just come close enough for it to pick up.
Glancing that way while closing my notebook, I found Doug doing his best to ‘casually’ move close enough to see what was written in it. As I glanced up, he froze before gesturing. “You already start?”
“What?” I blinked, then glanced to the closed notebook before shaking my head. “Oh, no. This isn’t—this is something else.” Shoving the book away in my bag, I turned back to him. “Sorry, I figured I should wait for you. Ready to figure out what this thing is and how to kill it?”
Doug paused then, squinting at me for a second. It looked like he was about to say something else, the suspicion on his face rather obvious. In the end, however, he just gave a faint nod and pulled out a chair across the table from me. “Yeah, let’s get it done before Harper and Virus be—I mean Harper and Russell beat us.”
Taking out the file that Hisao had given us, I set it on the table. “Okay, so here’s what we know. The deaths happened in a small town in Kansas. Barely six thousand people. So far, there’s been four deaths. Three were children, ages nine, seven, and four. The other was an adult woman. But she was pregnant and the… the attack focused on her stomach, killing the fetus. Which means it was still probably focused on the child, not the mother.”
Even as I was speaking, a queasy feeling rose in my stomach that I had to push down. Looking over at Douglas, I added, “The report says it looks like the attacks were done by wild animals. Except for the pregnant mother. They said… they said that one looks like she was stabbed in the stomach by something and then everything inside was…” I blanched, looking away.
“Sucked out,” Doug finished for me, sounding queasy as well. “Like punching a straw into a juice box and—oh fuck.”
It took both of us a few seconds to collect ourselves then. Gross, awful, evil. It was a good reminder that not all Alters were pleasant. There were plenty out there that did need to be stopped. But that would be easier if the Heretics would just work with the Alters who weren’t psychotic evil monsters.
“Hey,” Douglas broke into my drifting thoughts. “You okay with this?”
Shaking a little, I nodded and straightened up. “Yeah, let’s just figure out what this thing is. Okay, so some people reported a noise like a card in bicycle wheels, that uhh, tok tok tok tok sound.”
“Is it a monster masquerading as a little kid with a bike like that?” Doug asked. “Could be how they get close to these kids and the pregnant mother.”
I thought about it, flipping through the file before shaking my head. “I don’t think so. No one reported any strange kid or anything, and the people who said there was the card in the bike wheel sound said they looked and never saw anything.”
Sitting back in his seat, Doug slowly looked out over the rows of books all around us. “I guess we should start looking up things that eat human children, huh?”
Groaning, I picked myself up and tried not to be sick. “Yeah, remind me to tell Hisao just how much I love this assignment.”
So we looked. The two of us hunted through the shelves, taking one book after another with the oh-so pleasant prospect of looking up creatures that ate children. There were a frankly depressing number of options.
“Could it be a Lamia?” Doug asked at one point, looking up from the book he was looking through. “They’re supposed to have a snake body below the waist and they do eat children.”
Biting my lip, I asked, “But what about the sound? What could they do that would make that sound?”
He shrugged and looked through the book some more. “It says they can remove their own eyes and use them to spy on people. That’s… really fucked up.”
“Tell me about it,” I muttered before looking down at my own book again. “Hey, wait, hold on. Listen to this. It’s called an Aswang. They’re a shapeshifter. During the day, they look and act just like normal people. They’re so normal, in fact, that the Stranger-sense can’t pick them up while the sun is out. So during the day, they’re just normal people. They have friends, they interact with their neighbors, they even have jobs.
“But at night, they turn into monsters. They shapeshift into things like bats, dogs, even wild boars. And they eat children and unborn fetuses. They use a long proboscis like a mosquito to shove into the womb of the expectant mother and… and take what they want.”
“Sounds close to me,” Doug agreed. “But what about the sound?”
Picking up the book, I read from a particular part. “The Aswang often make a noise that has been described as ‘tik-tik-tik’, which is louder the further away the Aswang is, and quieter the closer it is. This is done to confuse the intended victims.”
“Tik-tik could be mistaken for tok-tok, I guess,” Douglas murmured, sitting back in his seat. “So if it is an Aswang, it’s probably still there, pretending to live a normal life during the day.”
Nodding slowly, I added, “But the Stranger-sense can’t identify it while the sun’s up. It’s like they’re literally two different beings. At night, the normal figure is replaced with the monster. So how do we identify the right one? Maybe it’s someone connected to the deaths?”
Doug, who had taken the book by that point, shook his head. “Nope, look.” He turned it around and pointed to another part. “The Aswang never hunt their own friends or neighbors. It also says that sometimes when they kill children, they make a magic facsimile that goes back home, appears to get sick, and dies. So we should look and see if there’s other child deaths that weren’t reported because it looked like they just got sick.”
“Right, right,” I agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “So we’ll look that up, and then… how do we figure out who the Aswang is?” Even as I finished talking, I snapped my fingers. “Wait, I know. The deaths just started happening, so we look up who recently moved to the city. There’s only six thousand people, there can’t be that many who recently moved there before the deaths started.”
Doug closed the book then, straightening up. “Okay, well, how do we look all that stuff up? It’s not gonna be in the library here.”
I was already standing, grabbing my bag. “We’ll have to ask Professor Hisao to let us go to the town and look up that stuff in their records.”
“Go… to the town?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow.
“Sure,” I confirmed, already walking out of the library. “You didn’t think we were gonna solve this whole thing by sitting in the library, did you?
“We totally have to go sit in a different library to solve it.”