“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”
My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.
Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?
Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”
It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.
We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.
Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.
And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?
“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”
She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”
“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”
Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”
“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”
“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”
My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”
Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”
“Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”
“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”
Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”
“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”
“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”
Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”
“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”
“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”
Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go. He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”
“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”
I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”
He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”
My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”
He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”
“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”
Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”
Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”
The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”
“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”
“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And get past all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”
“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”
His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”
Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”
“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.
“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”
“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.
Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”
Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.
“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.
Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”
That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.
“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”
“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”
Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”
Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”
Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”
I started to add something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.
Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”
Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?”
“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”
“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”
I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”
From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”
“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”
The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”
Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”
Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”
Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.
He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.”
Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”
“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”
His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”
“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.
Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”
Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.
“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”
Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”
The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.
“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.
“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.
Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”
“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.
I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.
“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”