Month: June 2017

Sharkhunt 23-04

Previous Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers’s efforts to bypass the Bystander Effect that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

It was time to head back to Crossroads. There was still a lot I wanted to ask these people who had grown up not just with my mother, but with more members of my family on that side. I had more questions than I could even keep straight in my head. Still, after waking Shiori and Avalon and as we walked back out of the cabin with Gabriel, one in particular stuck in my head.

So, looking toward the man who was guiding us, I started, “You said that they had this system for determining who would be the leader of the clan here, picking from the available heirs. But from what I can tell, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. That journal of his at the school was started in 1362, and from I’ve seen of it, he seemed to be the leader then. Not that it actually mentions the clan or anything, which is kind of… okay, it’s really weird that he doesn’t mention it.”

Gabriel gave a slight snort, head shaking as he glanced over toward me. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything you read from any of your ancestors that shows up in that school. It’s most likely been, let’s say ‘edited’ by their people. You think Ruthers would allow any mention of an alternative to their society in that school where impressionable young minds could pick it up?”

“Yeah, there didn’t seem to be too much interesting stuff in it.” Pausing, I amended, “Okay, there was a lot of interesting stuff. I mean it’s from hundreds of years ago. But it seemed… sterilized.”

Beside me, Avalon gave a slight nod. Even being woken up after a nap, she looked gorgeous. Her hair was heavily tousled, but in a way that was like in television shows or movies where they muss up someone’s hair to show that they were sleeping, yet it still ends up being pretty perfect.

“I read some of it,” she announced. “It was obviously doctored. I’m sure some of it is in his own words, but anything that disagreed with or contradicted the party line would’ve been removed.”

I coughed at that. “No wonder he goes on about never trusting Strangers and how evil they are.”

Shiori, who somehow looked more cuddly than ever, spoke up then, her attention on Gabriel. “Flick said you told her that he wrote that part right after everything that happened with Fossor.”

Gabriel nodded. “As I said, Lyell was angry. He wrote things in his anger that he came to change his mind about later. Of course, Crossroads would have removed those parts of the journal.”

“Figures,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Is there any way to get the unedited version? I mean, there must be one around here somewhere, right?” I added a hopeful look toward Gabriel.

“Unfortunately, the best way to see Lyell’s journal unedited,” he replied, “would be to bring it here and have someone take the time to fix it. I doubt even Ruthers would risk losing information permanently that could come in handy later. So he probably used magic to edit the book rather than physically tearing stuff out. Theoretically, it could be undone, if you can get the book here.”

“Gaia could probably do it,” I started, before realizing, “but she would have already if there wasn’t something stopping her. Maybe there’s some kind of alert on the book or something if it’s messed with. So maybe bringing it here is a bad idea, in case it sends up a signal or something.”

Shaking my head at the distraction, I brought the subject back around to why I’d started asking about this stuff in the first place. “But my point was, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. Hundreds of years. So how long ago was this clan… founded, I guess? If it was established at least as far back as the thirteen hundreds, and it’d been around long enough before that they already had a whole system to determine who the clan leader would be, how old is it?”

Smiling a bit at the question, the man remarked, “I wondered how long it’d take you to ask about that. The rest of the clan had something of a wager going on.” He paused then, clearly taking a moment to decide the best way to answer. “What do you think of your mother’s maiden name?”

“Maiden name?” I echoed. “You mean Atherby? I, uhh, dunno. I guess I never really thought about it that much. I tried looking it up to see if Mom had any other family back in middle school, but never really got anywhere. It’s not very common. But other than that…” I shrugged helplessly.

He chuckled. “It’s okay. It’s not really anything you could be expected to just know that easily. But you know you pronounce the name wrong.” He added the last bit with a pointedly raised eyebrow.  

I blinked. “Wrong?” Frowning, I spoke it aloud again, sounding it out uncertainly while giving a look to the other two girls. “Ath-ur-bee. Atherby. Ath-ur-bee. What’s wrong with that?”

“The last part,” he replied patiently. “It wasn’t supposed to be Athur-bee. Look at how it’s spelled.”

“By.” I tilted my head thoughtfully then. “Ather-by? So it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled.”

“The name of the clan has been deliberately altered over the years,” he explained. “No pun intended. “Mostly to draw less attention. But it was only altered a little bit. Specifically, a single additional R sound was removed from its original place directly following the A.”

“Arther-by?” Shiori immediately put in before her eyes widened and she made an adorable squeaking noise. “You mean Arthur, as in ‘founded by Arthur?’ Like, like, Arthur-Arthur?”

Chuckling both at Shiori’s voice and the double-takes that Avalon and I did, Gabriel gestured. “More like, ‘founded by those who were by Arthur. By, in this case, meaning beside. As in–”

“Knights of the Round Table,” Avalon was openly staring at the man (not that she’d ever stopped staring at him). “You’re saying this clan is the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table.”

I was still choking on that particular realization while Gabriel calmly corrected, “Some of them, not all. A few of the knights, after Arthur’s… death, created what you now know as this clan.”  

“Who–what–ah–” I was still openly floundering, trying to dredge the right words up out of my completely locked-up mind. “What knights? I mean who was–I mean who am I–I mean…”

“Who are you related to?” Gabriel smiled faintly. “We don’t know. When the knights created this clan, they cast aside their old names. It was their way of honoring their liege, by letting their old identities be buried along with him. Their leader took the name Arthur-by. Over time, that became Artherby with the e, and eventually Atherby. Finally, it turned to the way you pronounce it.”  

“Knights of the Round Table.” I spoke the words, still unable to believe that they were coming out of my mouth. “My family–my mother’s family–is related to–is… they’re descended from one of… oh.” Swallowing, I swayed a little bit in spite of myself. “I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Gabriel agreed, his voice as calm as ever. “That’s why I waited until you asked. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with your family’s history.” He paused then before amending, “more of your family’s history, rather. It’s also why Crossroads was so eager to take your mother in, and why they forgave a lot of her earlier, less obvious transgressions. They were obviously hoping that the rest of the remaining Atherby clan would fold into their organization.”

I’d taken in a lot of revelations over the past few months. Enough to the point that I’d thought I was immunized to any more surprises. But somehow, finding out that my family on my mother’s side was related to at least one of the literal Knights of the Round Table was still enough to leave me speechless. My mouth continued to open and shut a few times as I fought to find any words.

In the end, it was Avalon who spoke up before I managed to get my brain working again. “Wait,” she started with a frown. “One of Arthur’s knights is already a member of the Committee.”

“There is?” I blurted, looking that way while wracking my brain for a second. “Who–wait. You mean that Percival guy?” I thought back to what I remembered of the man. He’d been the one with the blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and the Nirvana tee-shirt. Not exactly the kind of appearance I would’ve expected from one of the legendary Knights of The Round Table.

On the other hand, I also never would’ve expected to find Virginia Dare teaching at my school, or Blackbeard working as one of the society’s leaders. So maybe my expectation of what historical figures would be like should just be quiet and stop making assumptions before I ended up finding out that George Washington was actually a shrunken Meregan or something even more absurd.

Gabriel was already nodding. “Yes,” he replied, “the Percival on the Crossroads Committee is the same man who was known as one of King Arthur’s knights. Obviously, he wasn’t one of the few who split off to create this clan. As for how he actually feels about it… you’d have to ask him.”   

It was a good question. What did Percival think about the fact that my mom and I (not to mention Wyatt, Abigail, and Koren) were descended from at least one of his old comrades in arms?

“I don’t…” My mouth shut as I tried to think. Eventually, the only thing I could say was, “You’re telling me that Arthur was a Heretic?” The words sounded weak even to me.

“All of them were,” he confirmed. “Arthur the most powerful of all. One of the most powerful natural Heretics who ever lived, if the myths are true. Until he was betrayed and murdered.”

“Myths… most powerful Heretic who–” I blinked, looking back over at him. “You said he was a natural Heretic. But what was he a natural Heretic of that made him so powerful?”

Gabriel smiled at the question, clearly expecting it. “According to the clan legend? A dragon.”

For a moment, I just stared, my mouth opening and shutting before dumbly repeating, “A dragon.”

His head bowed in a nod. “That’s what they say. You know the old ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ routine? Actually, it was pulling a tooth from a dragon. According to the Atherby clan legends, Arthur’s village was attacked by a dragon. Arthur tried to fight it, and was… well, almost killed. He was speared in the dragon’s mouth and almost swallowed. But Arthur managed to catch hold of the tooth and rip it out. The dragon spat him out in a rage, and he hit the ground. The blood from when he tore the tooth free mixed with his blood and… well, the rest of history. Or myth.” He shrugged. “The tooth was forged into the blade of Arthur’s weapon, Excalibur.”

“Wait a second,” Shiori blurted quickly. Her eyes were wide as she looked back and forth between all of us. “You mean we have Avalon, the island that Arthur was taken to… and a descendant of one of Arthur’s knights, and they’re… you’re, you know…”  She waggled her eyebrows pointedly.

Flushing at her words, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “She knew.” When I looked that way, her face was just as pink as mine felt. “Gaia,” she muttered. “She knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as we settled on my–on the name, she said she had the perfect roommate in mind. She was even smiling at the time. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Well, that was enough to make my face grow even redder. Before I could say anything about it, however, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was the secure phone, the one that was protected from any kind of surveillance measures by Crossroads. Digging it out, I glanced at the number before answering with a glance to the others. “Seth? Sorry, can I call you back a bit later?”

“You could,” the vampire drawled lazily, “if you’d like to miss your last chance to talk to Fahsteth.”

Shiori’s head was already whipping around, the girl obviously having heard that as I blurted, “Wait what?” Glancing to the others, I added, “What do you mean, last chance to talk to Fahsteth?”

“Just what I said,” Seth replied. “Turns out, your favorite shark merc’s leaving the planet after tonight. And he doesn’t plan on coming back anytime soon. Something about a bunch of powerful people that want him dead. You wanna talk to him at all, it’s gotta be in the next hour or two. And by hour or two,” he added, “I mean every minute that passes makes it more likely that he’ll just decide to cut and run anyway. I threw out a lot of favors to even find out this much. Believe me, you wait too long and he’ll be gone. And like I said, once he leaves, he ain’t coming back.”

“I–hold on.” Hitting the button to mute the phone, I looked to the others. “He says that Fahsteth’s leaving after tonight, in an hour or two at the latest. If we don’t go talk to him now, we won’t be able to before he’s gone for good.” Yeah, considering Gabriel obviously had at least as good of hearing as Shiori did, the only person I was actually giving this news to was Avalon. But still.  

“It’s not… terrible timing,” Shiori pointed out. “I mean, there’s no chance that whoever the Seosten spy is would know about it. We’re not at Crossroads, and everyone else is asleep right now.”

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed with a slight nod. “It was an accident, but this is a good time for it. We still have at least two hours before anyone would actually miss us. Longer if Gaia covers.”

“If you want to go see this Fahsteth,” Gabriel put in then, “I can arrange for transport. And you won’t be going in alone either. Not with that mercenary. He’s too dangerous.”

“We’ll have Seth with us, and anyone he brought,” I pointed out. “But any help you want to add would be good too. As long as we get Fahsteth to talk about what he knows. That’s what matters.”

Avalon nodded. “He’s the closest thing to a real lead we’ve ever had. Whoever the Seosten and their allies are, Fahsteth was working with them at least since I was a little girl. Probably longer. And now that they’re trying to kill him, he might be willing to talk about it.”

“Right.” I bit my lip. “So we get to Fahsteth, we convince him to talk to us… one way or another, and then–”

As I was talking, my phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Seth trying to get my attention, I glanced down, only to see that I had a second call incoming. This one was from Asenath. “Hold on.” Answering it, I started, “Senny, hey. Did you hear about–”

“Hi, Felicity.”

The voice made my heart practically stop. Not because the voice itself was all that surprising. I’d heard it my entire life, after all. No, what was surprising was hearing the voice coming through a phone that the owner of the voice shouldn’t have had the number to, using a phone belonging to someone that he shouldn’t have been able to get it from.

“… Dad?” I managed, once I’d managed to get far enough past my shock to actually speak.

I definitely had everyone else’s attention by that point, as my father replied, “Yeah. Asenath said that it’d be safer to call that phone, that we wouldn’t be… overheard. Is it safe on your end?”

“Is it safe on my–” I started to echo before shaking my head almost violently. “What are you talking about? What–I mean–how did–I–what?”

“I know, baby.” My father’s voice went silent for a moment before he continued. “I know all of it. Well, no, not all of it. But enough.”

“What do you mean you–”

“She’s a vampire,” my father cut me off. “Asenath. She’s a vampire. And you–your mother, Fossor, the Heretics, I know enough. I know what’s been going on. I worked out some of it, and your friends here have been filling me in on the rest. It’s… really… something.”

After what was probably a long moment of silence, he proved he really did know me by prompting, “Flick, sweetie, you have to breathe.” A pause, then, “Actually, do you still have to breathe? For all I know, you’ve gotten some kind of–”

“How?” I blurted then. “How do you–the Bystander Effect, you can’t be–you can’t remember, you can’t–” Then my eyes widened. “Did Asenath–”  

“I’m not a vampire, no.” There was a chuckle, weak as it was, in my father’s voice. “As for how, I guess we both have a lot to tell each other. But the most important thing is that we’re not home. Those… werewolves–” He paused, as though he couldn’t believe he was actually calling them that. “–the ones that are… upset with you, they came to the house.”

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

“It’s all right,” he assured me. “We’re fine. One of those–well, we should talk about it in person. That and everything else. Asenath told me you’d be awake, because you… listen, I’m told that if you talk to that headmistress of yours, she can arrange for you to come to where we are. I… we need to talk, Felicity. We need to talk about everything.”

My head was already nodding. “Y-yeah, yeah, I…” I was reeling, trying to cope with the sudden revelation. My father had broken the Bystander Effect? How!? How was he remembering all this? Did it have to do with the werewolves? Did they–did– I had to talk to him. I had to find out what the hell was–

“I can’t.” The words came as an abrupt realization. “I can’t come right now.”

There was a brief pause before my father asked, “What… what do you mean?”

Oh god. The sound of his voice, the idea of actually talking to my dad about everything that had happened, the thought of opening up about Mom, about all of it… and yet…

“I can’t–listen, Dad. God. I wanna talk to you. I swear. I swear I will, as soon as I can. But there’s this… this guy, this guy we have to talk to. It’s important. It’s really, really important, and if we don’t talk to him right now, we won’t get the chance again. It’s life and death, Dad.”

Silence came through the phone for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed to last forever. Finally, my father spoke quietly. “Felicity, I want to tell you something… important, okay?”

Swallowing, I held the phone tightly. “Y-yes.”

“I love you.” His voice was soft. “I know why you lied. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t blame you. You are the most important person in the world to me. Always. Forever. I trust you. If you say that you have to do this, I believe you. But promise me that you’re going to be careful. Promise me that you have help. Promise me that you’re… safe.”

My eyes closed. “If you know almost everything,” I replied, “then you know that I haven’t been completely safe in a really long time.” I swallowed then. “But yeah. I’m being careful. This isn’t about… about us. It’s a long story, but one of my teachers was killed. He was murdered. And we have to talk to someone who can tell us what happened. It’s our only chance.”

“I’d ask if you have to be the one who does it,” my father spoke quietly, “but I already know the answer.”

Giving a little involuntary shudder, I managed, “Wh-what about you? You’re safe?”

“Safe enough, with my two bodyguards,” he replied. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk, as soon as you’re done with… with what you’re doing, okay?”

“I love you, Dad.” I had to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“I know.” His voice was as tender as ever. “Sweetie, I know. I understand. Trust me, after what I went through to get past that stupid–I get it. We do have to talk, about everything. But I’m not mad at you, okay? I am not angry with you.”

There were tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away. “I… I’ve gotta go, Dad. I’ve gotta focus. But I’ll talk to you soon. As soon as I can, once it’s done. I promise. I swear.”

“I know you will. I’ll hold you to it.” Dad’s voice was quiet then. “Be careful, Felicity. Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I..” Swallowing, I added one more, “I love you. B-bye.”

Clicking the disconnect for that call, I gave the others one more look before shoring myself up. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button to switch over to the other call. Somehow, when I spoke, I managed to stop my voice from cracking almost entirely.

“S-Seth? Yeah. We’ll be there. Just make sure Fahsteth doesn’t leave.

“Because he’s got a lot to answer for.”

Mini-Interlude 28 – Lincoln Chambers

The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers gradually working his way through the Bystander Effect. I hope you enjoy. 

Previous Chapter

Several Weeks Ago

Flick was lying. Lincoln Chambers was sure of it. He knew she was lying. Every time she spoke to him, she gave the same tells that he’d been able to pick up on without her realizing since she was a little girl. A father just knew when his daughter was leaving things out. Especially when it was something she was uncomfortable with.

But what was she lying about, exactly? He’d tried to pin her down without making it obvious, asking her questions about her school, her friends, her teachers. Nothing specific pinged as being the lie. Which clearly meant that it wasn’t just a single untruth. There was something… big there.

It was the school. Every time she talked about it, every ounce of fatherly instinct he had said that she was lying. She was leaving out great swaths of information. Important information. But why?

He couldn’t let that go on. He was going to have to call the school, find out what exactly was going on over there, as soon as possible.

Flick lying… the video of Joselyn that existed long before it should have… the two couldn’t be related, could they? It seemed impossible, and yet–

******

One Day Later

“So you’re absolutely sure about that? No question in your mind? Not even the slightest doubt?”

It was getting late, and Lincoln was still at work. The man was sitting at his desk, every light in the large, open bullpen off except for the one beside his computer. He held the phone to his ear, listening for another few seconds while tapping a pen rhythmically against the desk.

“Right, thanks, man. Yeah, I owe you. Next time you get out here.” He paused then before laughing. “Well yeah, I suppose it’s easier to make the trip out there. We’ll see. Maybe over the summer. Flick’d like that, it’s been a long time since she saw you and Carla. Yeah, soon.”

Dropping the phone receiver back into its cradle, Lincoln plucked a notebook off his desk and stared at the writing there. Scrawled across the middle of the page were the words: Fake video. Definitely fake. But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?

Slowly, he used the pen to scratch out the first four words. The video that had shown up on his desk, the one that showed Joselyn standing in that emergency room as an adult a full decade before she should have been born, wasn’t fake. If J.T. said the thing hadn’t been tampered with, then it hadn’t been tampered with. He was an old friend who had never actually met Joselyn before she… disappeared. Lincoln hadn’t wanted to try to explain her presence in the video to anyone who would have recognized her. He couldn’t even explain it to himself, let alone others.

The video couldn’t be real. But it was. Which meant… his gaze slowly moved to the other words on the page, the options he had written mainly as a jest. Time-traveler, clone, identical older sister.

An identical mother could work as well, of course. But of course, outside of television shows using the same actors for budget purposes, people’s ancestors didn’t really tend to look identical to them. Not to the degree that he could see in that video. The woman there was Joselyn. He just… knew it. He knew his wife, and the woman in the video was his wife.

So clone or time-traveler. But that was impossible. Impossible. Utterly impossible.  

But still, there was–

*******

Lincoln was walking out of the newspaper office, head shaking. If J.T. didn’t call him back soon…

Screw it. Reaching into his pocket, Lincoln withdrew his cell phone. A folded up piece of paper came with it. It was probably a receipt or something, and he idly unfolded the thing while hitting the number on the phone for his old friend. The phone rang twice before J.T. picked up.

“Hey, man, we–” He paused, listening. “This summer? Right, but when did we–” Again, he stopped talking. This time wasn’t because of his old friend, however. It was because he had finished unfolding the paper, only to find a page that had been torn from his notebook. Fake video. Definitely fake had been crossed out several times. After that, the rest of the note (But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?) had been circled several times. And beneath it, he had written, ‘check voicemail’.

“Hey, sorry, let me call you back.” After apologizing, Lincoln disconnected and switched over to check his voicemail, as he had clearly written in his own handwriting despite not actually remembering doing so.

“Video’s real,” his own voice spoke up as soon as the message started. “Not only is it real, but you had it checked twice. Once by J.T. and once by Packer up in Michigan. You just called Packer to see if he could double-check, and he talked about the video like he already knew it. You already talked to him about it two days ago. Recording this message in case I forget again.”

And he had forgotten again. Forgotten an entire conversation? Two entire conversations if the way J.T. had been talking was any indication.

Forgetting two entire conversations, and probably more than that. How? What the hell was going on? How could he just forget entire conversa–

******

Two days later

Groaning in relief as he practically fell into his bed after a long day, Lincoln slid his hand across the empty spot where Joselyn should have been. It was a familiar practice, one that he had taken every night since she had disappeared. Yet now, ever since he received that video, it was one that somehow seemed to mean even more than it had before.

He should really find out if J.T. had ever finished going over the thing.

With that in mind, he stretched out, hand slipping up under his pillow. To his surprise, his hand found a notebook that had been stuffed there.

Taking out the notebook, Lincoln reached out to switch the light on, squinting at the thing. In his own handwriting, the words, ‘You’re forgetting things’ had been hastily scribbled. Forgetting things? Well obviously he’d forgotten writing the note and putting it under his pillow. So…

He kept reading. J.T. had finished going over the video. Not only that, Packer had done it too. He didn’t even remember giving the video to Packer. And he’d already had two different conversations with J.T.

Forgetting things. He was forgetting things. How? Was he… was there something wrong with his mind? Oh God. No. If something happened to him, Flick would–

No. No, he had to remember. He had to make himself remember. Obviously, he’d already realized that, or he wouldn’t have started leaving these notes for himself.

Hurriedly, the man reached for the pen on his bedside table and began to scribble on the next page of the notebook.

*****

Three Days Later

Something was wrong in his case file. Lincoln knew that much. Something within the extensive notes that he had taken about the terrorist attack that had taken place a couple months earlier was wrong. The case wasn’t leading anywhere. It seemed to be looping around in circles.

Did this have to do with his missing memories? He kept finding notes from himself, notes that he had written but didn’t actually remember writing. On top of that, he had begun finding tally marks on those notes. Tally marks that he had quickly realized indicated how many times he had found that particular note. The notes that had to do with the video that he’d found on his desk, a video that he’d had independently verified by more than one person.

Conversations he didn’t actually remember having. Notes he didn’t remember taking. Extensive letters that he had apparently written to himself, detailing his thoughts in ways that couldn’t have been faked by anyone else.

Strangely, he had started to sort-of remember things. That was, he could remember finding these notes multiple times, even if the contents of them and his own specific actions or thoughts were blurry. It was something in between deja vu and a specific recollection.

It was all a mess. None of it, his missing memories, the video being real, none of it made any sense. So, to clear his head, he had come back into his home office to look over the case files for the supposed terrorist attack one more time. Hopefully occupying his mind with something else would jog something loose.

And yet, looking over everything up on his bulletin board now, all he could think was that something was wrong. Something had changed. The still picture taken from that traffic cam that showed the limousine, another picture of the same limo in a fast food drive-through. His own note about the car being stolen. The bank accounts that had been used to pay for the food, as well as other services. Bank accounts that led nowhere but through four or five shell companies. Phone numbers he had taken from those company’s public information that had ended up rerouting him through dozens of automated messaging systems.

And worst of all, the fairly terrible picture that he had managed to scrounge up, the only one of its kind that he had been able to locate. It showed an utterly unremarkable-looking man. A man whom Lincoln was convinced had been behind those very attacks. But who was he? And why was he completely invisible to the system? No one Lincoln had sent the picture to from his extensive contacts in Los Angeles had any information at all about the figure. He was a ghost.

Standing there, looking at the information up on his bulletin board, all the pictures, all of his hand-written notes, all the photocopied articles, faxes, and the maps of where the limo could have gone in the time that it’d had, there was something… off. He couldn’t place it, couldn’t figure out what it was, but something was different from the way it had been. Something was just… wrong.

Slowly, the man let his gaze pass over the arranged notes, trying to sense what felt so off when he looked at it all together. Words, numbers, images, it all formed a single coherent symphony within his head. And yet, seeing it now, letting it fill his head, part of the song was wrong. It was small, a single incorrect note that most people would have missed against the rest of the noise. He had missed it himself for so long. Months by that point. Yet now, now it stuck out for reasons he couldn’t explain any more easily than he could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it.

Ever since he’d seen that video, Lincoln had been watching for other things that didn’t make sense. Things that seemed off or wrong around him. This… seemed to count somehow.

He stepped forward, humming a tune lightly under his breath as his hand lifted. Gradually, Lincoln traced his finger over the board. The image of the man, the bank account connected to the credit card that had paid for the meal at the restaurant, the phone number for the car service that the limo had been stolen from, the name of the company (a fake one that did no actual business in their advertised field) connected to the credit card that had paid for gas in that limo fifteen miles outside of town. The limo itself, its license plate circled in red. The… wait…

Lincoln paused. His finger halted in the air before slowly moving back along the board. The limo’s license plate. It ended in thirty-seven. Thirty-seven. His eyes scanned back over the board, searching… searching. There. The phone number for the car service. The last two digits there were a two and a four. Thirty-seven and then twenty-four.

No. That was wrong. It was wrong. The first phone number he’d had when he was just starting out as a cub reporter in California ended with three-seven-four-two. Three-seven-four-two. He remembered now. When he’d started setting up this board, he’d noticed that the last two digits of the car service and the last two digits on the license plate could go together to make the last four digits of his old phone number. It had been something completely offhand, utterly inconsequential.

And yet, he knew that was right. As little as it had actually mattered, it still stuck in his head.

Now it was wrong. Now the number for the car company didn’t end in four-two. It ended in two-four. Two-four, not four-two. But it had been four-two before. Three-seven-four-two.

It was something so minor, so inconsequential, that most people wouldn’t have noticed. But with the silly little nothing association he had made, linking the last two digits of that license plate and last two of that phone number together to make his old number, it had stuck in his head. Not perfectly. He hadn’t noticed when he went back to use the car service’s number in order to get more information from them. Hadn’t noticed for some time, actually. But it had stuck in his head, the wrongness of it. That was the source of the ‘bad note’ in the symphony of his investigation.

But why was it wrong? It hadn’t been wrong before, he knew that much. Somehow, the number he had written down had changed sometime between when he had first recorded it and now.

Had he changed it? Was this another one of his missing memories? But that didn’t make sense. Well, it made even less sense than any of this did.

Had it been different when he called the place to check up on their stolen vehicle? He paused, trying to remember. Not that he could trust his memory.

But he could trust his notes. Digging through them, he found the right paper and scanned through it. The information there matched what he remembered. Calling the car service had led him to the phone number that had been used to call for the car. According to the girl he had spoken to, the car had gone to the assigned location, only for the driver to wake up hours later with no idea what had happened. He’d taken the phone number that had called in the first place and tracked it through several names which, come to think of it, was where the whole ‘running in circles’ bit seemed to have started.

Considering that for a moment, Lincoln reached into his pocket and took out his cell before dialing the number that was written on the note, the one ending in two-four. It rang a couple times before being picked up by a familiar voice mail, announcing the name of the car service and asking him to leave his name and number and they would get back to him. It was the same message he’d heard before, when he’d left his information. They’d called him back an hour or so later and given him the information that eventually led him in circles.

Rather than leave a message, he clicked the disconnect and thought for a moment. Tapping the phone against his hand, Lincoln eventually dialed the number again. This time, he swapped the last two numbers to the way he remembered them being, the way that matched his old number.

Holding the phone to his ear then, the man listened as it rang three times before someone actually picked up. A male voice announced the name of the car service and then asked if they could help.

Pausing, Lincoln took a breath to collect himself before asking if they had any other phone number, such as one with the last two digits reversed. It was daytime, so he spoke quietly to avoid waking Asenath. The man on the phone was puzzled, but eventually replied that the service had a couple other phone numbers, neither of which were anywhere near similar to this one.

Thanking the man, Lincoln hung up. Then he stood there, staring at his phone for a few long seconds. The thought that he should have questioned the man further about the limo that had been stolen popped into his head, yet he was too distracted by the realization that his notes had absolutely been tampered with. And tampered with in a way that he hadn’t noticed except by chance. But who had that kind of access to his notes, to his home? Who could possibly have–

Slowly, the man turned his head in the direction of his daughter’s room, where his houseguest slept.

******

The next morning, Lincoln was sitting in his car on the way to work. Turning the car on, he flipped the visor down to avoid the glare from the rising sun. As he did so, something written on the mirror that was attached to the back of the visor caught his eye. In red marker, the words ‘cases of xeroderma pigmentosum’ were scrawled. Beside it was a hastily written phone number.

Xeroderma pigmentosum. That was the genetic disorder that Asenath suffered from, the one that made her unable to go out into the sunlight. He’d looked up the condition out of curiosity after reading the note that her doctor had sent him. But why was it written on his mirror, and what was the phone number next to it.

It was another note. Another note that he had apparently left for himself, in a big enough hurry that he couldn’t even wait for a notebook. That or he’d wanted to make absolutely certain that he saw it that morning.

Pulling out of the driveway, he hit the button for the phone on his steering wheel, then read out the number for the computer to dial for him.

It rang a few times before a female voice answered. “Syracuse University, admissions department. This is Anne, how may I direct your call?”

Taking his cue from the words on the mirror, Lincoln asked, “Yes, hi. I’m with–” He paused. They probably wouldn’t talk to some nothing newspaper in Wyoming. “I’m with the Times, doing a story on students who have to work through unique genetic conditions. Who would I talk to to find out your school’s history of dealing with people who have xeroderma pigmentosum?”

He expected her to ask what it was. Instead, the woman paused before remarking, “Boy, that’s weird. Fifty-two years old, never heard that term in my life. Now you’re the second guy to ask about it in the past couple days.”

So he had called before… Lincoln frowned. “Must be someone trying to scoop me,” he joked weakly before adding, “Does that mean you haven’t dealt with someone with that condition?”

“I haven’t, but the university has,” the woman replied. “Hold on, I’ve got it here. Yeah, one student over in Newhouse, about thirty years ago.”

She was obviously referring to S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University’s communications school. It was one of the best journalism schools in the country. Lincoln hadn’t gone to it, but he had toyed with the idea of trying to get Flick in. Especially after she was accepted into Crossroads.

The woman continued talking. “I can’t tell you much about her. Student confidentiality and all that. No names, no phone numbers. I’m not sure how much help I can be, honestly.”

Pausing, Lincoln drummed his fingers over the steering wheel for a moment before asking, “For demographic reasons, could you tell me what kind of ethnicity she was?”

“Oh, I don’t know… that sounds like a bad idea.” The woman hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before finally relenting. “Asian. The girl was Asian. Now that’s really all I can tell you.”

“It’s all right,” Lincoln managed. “That’s all I need.”

He disconnected the call, then sat back heavily while pulling the car to a stop at the red light.

Asian. An Asian girl at the journalism school who had the same condition that Asenath suffered from.

Sitting there, the man thought for a moment before looking through his phone. He flipped over to outgoing calls, the paused to stare. Several different numbers that he didn’t recognize filled up the screen.  

Thoughtfully, he tapped one, listening as a different university picked up. He gave the same spiel, only to get an angry retort from the man on the other end that nothing had changed since yesterday. There still had never been any students with that problem, so stop calling.

One by one, Lincoln went through every number. Pulling away as the light turned green, he talked to people. They all remembered someone else calling about the same thing the day before (though only a couple recognized his voice) and most told him the same thing. There had never been anyone at the school who suffered from that condition. Two others, however, confirmed that they did indeed have a student who matched Asenath’s description (at least as much as they would confirm it). Different names, but clearly the same person.

And all three ‘different’ Asian students with the same allergy to sunlight attended the schools dozens of years apart. The earliest was all the way back in 1957, then Syracuse University in the late eighties, and finally another university in the early 2000’s.

This was starting to get really–

******

Three Days Later

He had begun to remember when he left notes to himself. Not always. It seemed random, when and what he would remember and when and what he wouldn’t. Over the past several days, Lincoln had taken to writing down every single thought he had when it related to either Joselyn, Flick’s school, or the girl currently living in her room. He’d either write it down, or record it in one of his voice recorders (which he’d dug out after getting tired of using his own cell phone’s voicemail). About half of what he recorded, he actually remembered doing so. The other half he forgot, but repeatedly reminded himself of with notes that he had taken to leaving for himself everywhere.

He was remembering enough to keep the broad strokes clear in his head. For specifics, he often had to go back to his notes and recordings. In some cases he had to do it multiple times within the same train of thought to jog a memory that stubbornly kept trying to disappear.

The idea that he couldn’t trust his memory was bad enough. But the thought that he couldn’t trust the girl who slept in the same house he did, the girl who slept in his daughter’s bedroom, that was… indescribable. So many times, so many, he had been tempted to have it out with her.

Something always stopped him. A nagging thought in the back of his head that he hadn’t yet put together yet. A lost memory? A realization that hadn’t fully formed? He didn’t know. He could barely trust himself by that point.

What kind of person was he? Was his mind even his own? Were his decisions his own, his choices? How many times had his memory been erased before he started noticing, before he started taking notes to remind himself?

And would he start forgetting… other things? Would he forget Felicity? Would he–

Stopping that line of thought, Lincoln forced himself to focus. He was back in his home office, staring at the board in front of him. It was late enough that Asenath was up. He could hear the girl down in the kitchen, clinking away with something.

From his pocket, he withdrew the familiar notebook. Tapping his pen against it, he glanced down. Time-Traveler was written there, along with the word Hostage.

Was he a hostage? A hostage of the… immortal girl who had attended at least three different colleges over the past sixty years, always the same age? An immortal girl with an allergy to sunlight, a girl who never aged, who never went out in the sun, who–

*****

A few seconds later.

What? What had just happened? No. No, he knew this part. He had forgotten something. Forgotten–

Looking down, he found a word written not on the notebook, but on his own hand. Vampire.

Vampire. Immortal… avoided sunlight… it made–okay it didn’t make any sense, but that made as much sense as anything else considering he had unaltered video of his own wife walking around as an adult a decade before she was supposed to have been born. So sure, vampire.

God, he was going insane. He already was insane. Flick was just…

He stopped. Flick. Did Flick know? She had to have known something about–wait, no. What if—

*****

A few seconds later.

Again. Again he had forgotten something. Looking down, Lincoln saw more marks on his hand. This time, he had written, Flick knew.

Flick knew? Flick knew what? He thought back, looking at the notebook again. What did Flick have to do with Asenath, or the video of Joselyn, or the man in the grainy picture? What did Asenath have to do with the man, and why had she switched the number so that he called the wrong place?

Not just the wrong place. Somehow she had set it up so that he would call a place that sounded like the right one, a number posing as the car service, and had actually had someone else call him back to give false information, information that had led him in circles.

So Asenath was a… an immortal… a vampire, who was working with the man who was behind the attacks right at Flick’s birthday… and… and…

Was she a guard? Had the man… had he done something to Flick, and Asenath was here to keep him in line? He looked again at the word hostage on the notebook, frowning for a moment.

No. No, that didn’t make sense. Flick liked Asenath. He could tell. And that Shiori girl. Flick… really liked her. There was more there, and he just couldn’t believe that it was fake. The affection, the jokes they told, the… it wasn’t fake.

So did Flick not know that Asenath was his jailer, for lack of a better word?

Okay, no. That didn’t make sense either.

Wait. Hold on. Flick had called him. She’d called him not long after that school started, and asked him…

She’d asked him if Joselyn had ever attended a private school. He couldn’t remember her exact words, but he knew that much. She’d asked if her mother had ever gone to a private school.

Okay. Wait. Wait a second. What if she called because she already knew the answer. Something-she’d seen something that made her think of her mother, something similar to the video that he’d received.

Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. That was what Flick had been calling about. She found something that had to do with her mother.

But if Joselyn had gone to Crossroads, that would mean–

*****

A few seconds later.

Not this time. Realizing he’d lost time, Lincoln looked down at the notebook. He’d been writing the entire time. Notes taken in his own shorthand, almost unreadable by anyone else, but perfectly clear to him.

Reading through them, it only took him a minute to catch up. Which brought him to the fact that Joselyn going to Crossroads had to mean–

*****

A few seconds later.

Again. He read his notes, saw where he had circled particular points. Crossroads. Crossroads was the key. Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. Flick was going to Crossroads. Asenath was here with him. His jailer? No. Flick liked her. Flick trusted her. That was–

******

A few seconds later.

Flick. Asenath. Crossroads. Joselyn. The man in the picture. The video.

Grimacing, Lincoln quickly scratched out where he had written hostage. Beside it, he wrote protected. Flick trusted Asenath. She wasn’t here to threaten him, she was there to protect him.

And Joselyn. Joselyn wasn’t a vampire. He’d seen her out in the sunlight plenty of times. Plus, she had his baby. Could a vampire even do tha–he couldn’t believe this was a real line of thought.

Putting his pen beside Time-Traveler, Lincoln shook his head before writing Immortal.

Was Joselyn just that old? Had something happened… wait. Wait, Flick’s birthday. The man in the picture had come–

That was it. Oh God, that was it. The man in the picture had come on Flick’s birthday. He’d come to threaten her because… because of Crossroads. No, because Flick had gone to Crossroads.

There. He had it. It was right there. Right within his grasp of understanding.

Crossroads was where Joselyn had gone. It was her school, her… they were all part of it. Shiori, she went to Crossroads and she was Asenath’s sister–

But she wasn’t a vampire? Was she really her sister or–Figure that part out later. The point was, Joselyn went to Crossroads, and Shiori went there now. They were connected to the… to the immortal thing, his immortal wife, and the vampire.

So Crossroads was a school for these people, and now they had shown up out of nowhere. They took in Flick. She found out about her mother going there, and now she had been doing her Flick thing and investigating.

Somehow, this man, who had some connection to Joselyn’s disappearance, had found out about Flick’s investigation, and came to town to threaten her, using the attacks to prove how dangerous he was.

And in reaction, Flick had asked her classmate’s vampire relative to stay with him, to protect him. That was–

******

A few seconds later.

Vampire relative. Vampire relative. Sister. He’d written that across the bottom of the page, underlining it. Shiori. Shiori was Asenath’s sister. Flick liked them both. She trusted them. She was–

Taking out his recorder, Lincoln hit play and spoke in a quiet voice, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”

He didn’t know how exact he was. But this felt like the right track. Asenath hadn’t changed the number on the board to hurt him. She’d been trying to keep him away from the man in the photograph.

He understood her reasoning. But he couldn’t just let it go. He had to know the truth. But to do that, he had to understand why he kept forgetting things, why… why everything was always so fuzzy. And most importantly, he had to let Asenath know that he knew, that he understood.

But to do that, he’d have to go about it in just the right way…

Sharkhunt 23-03

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“So I’ve got a question,” I started a little bit later as Gabriel and I walked along the edge of the lake toward one of the other cabins. Avalon and Shiori were both catching a nap back in his place, since neither would agree to leaving here without me. It was all I could do to convince them to sleep, even though they’d both been so exhausted they could barely keep their eyes open.

“Well, actually I have a lot of questions,” I amended. “But one in particular, about the heir thing.”

The man glanced at me before giving a slight smile. “You mean why are you considered the heir?”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh. I mean, Mom’s still alive. And Wyatt and Abigail are both older than I am. So why would you call me the ‘Atherby clan heir’?” Pausing, I added, “And when do they get to come out here? I’m sure they both wanna hear stories about the family.”

“I’d like to get them both out here,” Gabriel confirmed. “And we will, as soon as possible. Especially if they can come together. To see the twins again after so much time…” He paused, swallowing noticeably. “It would make some of the people around here very happy.” The way he said it made it clear that there were plenty who’d never gotten over losing them in the first place.

After letting that hang for a few seconds, the man continued. “And as far as the heir stuff goes, that’s all four of you, counting Koren. As direct Atherby descendants, you’re either the leader, or the heir. When the leadership position opens up for whatever reason, anyone with the title of heir can throw their hat in the ring to be chosen as the next leader. Then every adult member of the clan votes for it. If there’s more than one, I mean. Or if there’s no eligible heirs at all, someone else is voted on.” He coughed, eyes rolling a little bit. “That’s what happened with me.” Pausing, the man looked away while lowering his voice. “Apparently the whole ‘voting on multiple heirs’ thing used to be more important when there were more Atherbys. Lyell outlived most of his family and only had one son.”

“Joshua,” I finished for him, nodding before looking up as we reached the cabin. There were a eleven people around a bonfire that had been built up in the back. All of them seemed to be watching us, and my Heretic-sense went off like mad for a few seconds as I took in the sight.

“There’s an awful lot of people who know about my mom,” I pointed out. “Does that mean they were all protected from the spell that Ruthers and his people cast? But that doesn’t make sense, because I know that Asenath and Twister weren’t, and they were both helping the rebellion.”

“A few were protected,” the man explained. “Others were brought on since then and… restored.” He made a face that was barely visible in the light from the nearby lantern. “It took years to get this many back, and it’s nowhere near the numbers that the rebellion had under your mother.”

“Right, and speaking of getting people back,” I added, “is this the place where Scott ended up?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. He’s at another place, a house in one of the cities. As soon as he starts remembering enough of what happened, I will let you know. Assuming you’d like to visit.”

I nodded, but before I could say anything, one of the figures moved from the fire to come closer. As he approached, I saw what looked like a dark-skinned man with a pointed fox-like ears on top of his head, similar to Twister’s. Unlike Twister, however, he didn’t have a tail. He had nine of them. All were long, dark, and fluffy, spread out behind him like some kind of dark, furry peacock.

“Oh,” I blurted as the man came into view. “You’re a Kitsu–” Cutting myself off, I flushed a little bit. “Sorry, that’s probably pretty rude, huh? Um, hi.” I extended a hand. “What I mean is, hi, I’m Flick.”

The man, who was shorter and far more wiry than Gabriel, gave me a quick smile that showed a mouthful of perfectly white, canine teeth. “No, nah, not a problem, not a thing at all,” he blurted in a voice that was clearly accustomed to speaking a million miles a minute. “My name’s Biseon, but they call me Busy. Not sure why. Hah, I’m kidding, I know why. It’s cuz I’m always busy. Always working, always going, gotta keep going if we’re gonna survive a world like this, you know. Lotsa things wanna kill us. Heretics, Nocen, actually some people think we oughtta just call you all Nocen too since you’re always trying to kill us. Well, not you personally, but the other Heretics, other ones that are bad, scary, terrible. Glad you’re not like them. That would’ve been really–”

“Busy,” Gabriel interjected, “is our technology expert. You think he talks fast now, you should see him when he’s actually trying to explain something about those computers he likes so much.”

While the Hangman-Heretic was talking, Busy’s nine tails spread out before starting to wag up and down with obvious excitement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he quickly interjected. “See Heretic stuff, gotta take it apart, put it back together, see how it tick tick ticks, not like a bomb, well some of them are bombs. Usually catch those, not always, lost a few eyebrows. Lost a couple fingers, but made replacements. Heretics like to trap their stuff, make weapons burn Alters, not fair, not fun. Had to figure out how to undo it. Heretics here help, let me use weapons to figure out trick.”

Holding up a hand, I tried to latch onto at least one part of what he was saying before he could ramble on. “So Heretic weapons burn you guys if you try to touch them, but you worked out a way to get around it after the Heretics that are on your side let you examine their weapons?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, that’s it.” Busy’s head bobbed up and down even faster than his collection of tails. “Smart girl, very smart. Sharp, bright, shrewd,  what a whiz. Muldoon called it in the movie.”

Lost again, I worked my mouth for a second before starting to ask, “What mov–”

“Jurassic Park,” he interrupted. “Good movie. Terrible science, good movie. Fun. Eat popcorn, don’t complain. Totally inaccurate in every way. Wrong way to bring dinosaurs back. Wrong, but fun. Muldoon, clever girl. But don’t eat me. Don’t wanna be that movie-accurate, nope.”

Oh, right. Muldoon, the Jurassic Park guy that was eaten by the raptors. Now I was caught up.  “I promise not to eat you,” I assured him, adding, “And you made replacements for your fingers?”

In response, the fox-man lifted up both hands in front of me. The index and middle fingers of his left hand, and the pinkie, index, and thumb on his right all extended various tiny tools like screwdriver heads, drill-bits, scissors, and more. It made him look a bit like Inspector Gadget.

Gabriel ushered me over to the fire, where I saw more of the people up close. Of the eleven people there, my Heretic-sense picked out about half of them as being Alters. The others were either Heretics, or a kind of Alter that didn’t set off the sense. All of them were staring at me.

One of them cleared his throat. He was an Orc, one of the big, eight-foot tall guys with warthog face. This one had a long, scraggly gray beard, and was wearing ratty blue jeans and a black shirt that advertised some kind of automotive repair shop. “Yer da spittin’ image o’yer mudder.”

There was a chorus of agreement behind him, as the Orc’s face broke into a wide smile. He extended one of his large hands my way. “Name’s Oscar. Well, t’ain’t really muh name, but ya prob’ly couldna pronounce the righ’ one anyway.  Oscar’s close ‘nuff, an’ the kiddies been usin’ it ever-since tha’ Says-Me Street made tha’ one puppet in the trash can. Dunno why, Ah ain’t furry.”

“Oh, um, hi, Oscar.” I accepted his hand, and he grinned when I didn’t wince from the squeeze.

“Got a bit o’ a grip on ya there, yah?” he drawled, still giving me an easy smile before letting go.

I shrugged. “Um, yeah, there was this werewolf and…” Trailing off, I coughed. “Never mind.”

More of the people that had been by the fire introduced themselves then. Besides Oscar the Orc and Busy the Kitsune, there was a female Relukun (one of the wood-people) named Calice, a tiny male Kobold (a small, goblin-like creature) wearing a miniature suit, tie, and tophat that introduced himself as Fancy (he was even using a neat little cane), and a Prevenkuat (the two-headed hyena-people) who had one male head and one female head. I decided against asking how their plumbing was arranged.

That was it for the obvious Alters. Of the rest, three turned out to be Heretics, all of them naturals. There was Duncan, a natural Ullus-Heretic (it turned out the Ullus were the Alters that Columbus and Shiori had killed back on the Meregan planet to get their metal-manipulation powers. They looked like yellow-skinned humans with three eyes instead of two) who looked like he was about thirty-something, with brownish-blonde hair and a rugged build like a man who had lived outside for much of his life.

Beside Duncan was his younger sister, Misty. She was a natural Ogre Heretic who appeared to be in her late teens or very early twenties, with hair that was brown with little bits of blonde running through it here and there. She was also a waifish figure who looked like a stiff breeze would blow her apart. But thanks to the inherited Ogre-strength, she could easily shot put a pickup truck.

Then there was a man who looked like that ancient knight guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was even dressed like a knight in chainmail, and carried an old-looking sword in a scabbard at his hip. The guy actually kissed my hand while introducing himself as Enguerrand. Unlike the others, he didn’t volunteer what kind of Alter he had gained his Heretic-state from.

Beyond the trio of natural Heretics, there were three others who were apparently non-obvious Alters that my sense didn’t pick up. The two females seemed to be related to one another, and introduced themselves as Rain and Kaste. Both looked like they were in their mid-thirties. The guy, meanwhile, looked young. Barely out of his teens, if that. He called himself Berlin, and the only thing out-of-the-ordinary that I saw with him was that his eyes were a deep orange color.

He was also the one who started talking about my mother first, as we gathered around their fire. “Oscar’s right, you do look a lot like Joselyn. Not completely, but you are definitely her daughter.”

“Y–you actually knew my mom?” I asked, reminding myself again not to be fooled by how young he looked. Appearances meant nothing, as my 430-ish-year-old history teacher could attest.

“Course I did,” the red-haired, orange-eyed guy replied. “She’s the one that–” He paused before clearing his throat. “Ah, start from the beginning. I was working transport for these smugglers. I’m an Abeonas, see. We sorta specialize in what you call foldjumps, spots where we connect two different places and let anyone go straight from one to the other if they know the password.”

Right, I’d heard about them from the people in Wonderland, and from Mateo. That was how his pack had made the trip from Colombia all the way up there as quickly as they had.

Berlin continued. “So I was working for this smuggling group when your mom shows up and slaughters like… everyone. Everyone except me. Must’ve been ten guys. Tough ones too, couple of trolls in there for muscle. But Joselyn just went right through ‘em like they didn’t even matter. Killed them, then dragged me away from my own portal before I could get the hell out of there. Asked me if I knew what we were transporting in the truck. I told her it was weapons, magic stuff. She uh, she showed me it was more than that. Opened up the truck and there were these kids in there. Kids that were being taken out to be… sold.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “That was the tenth trip I made with those motherfuckers. Joselyn, she helped me set things as right as we could. We went back for the rest of the slavers, freed the ones that were there, killed all the bastards, then used their records to track down all the slaves that I helped deliver. Freed ‘em, killed their so-called owners, and that was that. Or it would’ve been. I probably would’ve found some other job working for one low life or another. Except Joselyn said I could do something more important. She talked up this rebellion of hers, told me I could make a difference. So, here I am.”

The old knight nodded. “Joshua would have been quite proud of his little girl.” He smiled faintly at me. “And his granddaughter. It’s too bad that he never got the chance to know any of you.”

Biting my lip, I asked him, “I take it that means you weren’t recruited by my mom then? It sounds like you were part of this whole clan thing already, if you knew my grandfather.”

He chuckled slightly. “I knew Joshua, yes. I changed his diapers.” Winking, the old man added, “His father, Lyell, was one of my best friends for a long time. He’s the one that saved me back when I first ran into the Alter that killed my family. I killed it, but the others would’ve killed me in turn if it wasn’t for Lyell Atherby. After that, we were friends until he passed. I watched over Joshua as a baby, I watched over little Joselyn, and I watched over the twins.” He paused then before flinching, looking away from me as his whole body sagged. “Never forgive myself for that.”

Wincing at his words, I hesitated for a second before reaching out to touch his arm. “Enguerrand,” I started, stumbling over his name just a little bit, “what happened wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t the fault of any of you guys. Gaia says that Ruthers didn’t even tell his own people what he was planning to do. Going after kids like that? It was…” I squeezed my hand tightly. “It was too far.”

The others had stories that were similar to Berlin’s. Most had been recruited by my mother at some point or another, and all had some kind of personal experience with her. All except Duncan and Misty, that was. Both were too young to have had anything to do with Mom, though their parents had been part of the rebellion, Heretics from Eden’s Garden who joined up with my mother back in the early days. Duncan and Misty had been born after the memory-erasing spell, since their parents were two of the people who had been protected from it. They had grown up seeing the clan slowly rebuild itself after being taken down to the bare bones by the effect of the Mnemosyne spell. And they may not have had personal interaction with my mother, but they had plenty of passed-down stories from their (sadly now deceased) parents to share with me.

“So then Mom says,” Misty continued the story she had been telling while leaning on the handle of her weapon (a sword as big around as she was and just as tall) while the blade was partially buried in the ground, “that Dad can’t have, you know, gland-to-gland combat with the vampire girl unless he brings her some absurd quest item. I don’t remember, it was like the holy grail or something. Not that, but pretty much. Anyway, she was obviously just teasing him, you know. But she played it all straight, so Dad thought she was serious. So he goes off and looks for help to find this thing, and it’s your mom that agrees to help him. I’m pretty sure she knew Mom was teasing too, but she went with it. They went off and actually found the damn thing and brought it back.”

“Wait, so my mother seriously went on some epic quest just to help your dad get laid?” I worked my mouth a little at that before weakly asking, “Well, uh, I guess ummm… did it work?”

Duncan shook his head. “Our mother always stopped Dad from finishing the story at that point.”

“But,” Misty put in, “Dad used to give us that wink. So I’d say he probably got with vampire girl.”

I started to nod before my eyes widened. “Wait a second. Vampire girl? It wasn’t Asenath was it?”

“Hey, yeah,” the girl replied. “That was her name. Wait, that’s the one you’ve got watching your dad, right?” Her head tilted a little, obviously thinking briefly. “You think she’s still got a thing for–”

Thankfully, Duncan stopped her by clearing his throat pointedly. He gave me a sympathetic look. “I think the best takeaway here is that your mother was always there for the people she cared about. Sometimes it was something life-changing and really important. Other times it was for… that.”

Fancy, the snappily-dressed Kobold, gave a quick nod of his head. The top hat tried to slip off, but he raised his cane in a practice maneuver that caught the brim of it just in time. “Hear hear,” he announced in a voice that sounded like he had taken on a faux-British accent after hearing almost insultingly bad versions in cartoons. “T’was Joselyn Atherby what rescued my clan from the old caves, innit? Tweren’t for her, those wankers would’ve had a right straight shot at wiping us out.”

“Wankers?” I echoed. “You mean, um, other Heretics?”

Adjusting the monocle on his face (the Kobold had a freaking monocle, how great was that?), Fancy nodded once more. “Quite, quite! Our clan was in our little hovels when some sodding students from that old island of yours showed up. Apparently slaughtering our people was some bloody test or somefin. So they comes running in without so much as a howdo, but before they can commence the pig-sticking, the pretty blonde human shows up. She says a bunch of fine words, gives most of the clan time to escape. But I stayed behind, so I saw when she smacked around the ones what thought they could still fight anyway. She took a few of them on, ones what believed what she said. Then she asked if I wanted her to drop me anywhere. Well, I couldna think of any better place to be than right alongside the woman what just saved all our lives. So I stayed. Decided I wanted to be a better specimen, so’s I went and made meself from the dirt-scrabbling, poor little wretch I was before into the fine example you see before you.”

There were more stories like that, and I sat and listened to as many as I could until Gabriel finally interrupted to say that we should be getting back before it got to be any later. I agreed, but only reluctantly, and with the promise that I could come back later to hear more of their stories. And maybe even hear from other people, since this wasn’t nearly all of the ones at the camp. Apparently they didn’t want to overwhelm me, so they’d drawn lots to see who would talk to me first. Which… honestly, the idea that so many people wanted to talk to me about my mother that they had to draw lots for it was pretty intimidating.

One thing was even more apparent than it had already been. My mother had changed an awful lot of lives through her rebellion. She had inspired people, saved them, brought them on to do great things for decades even after she was out of the fight. They looked up to her, adored her, loved her. They missed her as much as I did.

Getting her back, saving her from Fossor, wasn’t just about me. It was about them. It was about all the people she had helped, all the people she had recruited, inspired, and led. It was about the people who had known her as a baby, who had known my grandfather, and his father.

Ruthers and Fossor probably thought that they didn’t have anything in common beyond being alive for a long time. But they did. They were alike in one very important, crucial way.

We were going to put both of them in the fucking ground for hurting my mom.

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Sharkhunt 23-02

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The only thing more surprising than seeing Avalon with that look on her face was the fact that she gave no reaction to me teasing her for having that look on her face. She just stood there with that goofy smile, staring at Prosser while her mouth opened and shut a few times as if she was trying to say something, but couldn’t get the words out. It was both strange (for her), and adorable.

Not that I was surprised that the other girl was kind of goofy when it came to Prosser. After all, I had seen her reaction before, when she found out that I had met the man. But still, it was always surprising to see Avalon act… well, not-Avalony. And this moment was almost on another level.

I was about to clear my throat and try to get my roommate’s attention when she finally spoke up. Her voice was a little shaky, but still understandable enough. “You–” She stopped, blinking rapidly before starting again in a voice that was somehow even weaker than before. “Mr. Prosser–”

The man winced a little at that. “Please,” he spoke simply, “call me Gabriel. I… much prefer that.”

“I… I… can’t.” Avalon’s face twisted a little bit, as if disagreeing with the man caused her actual physical pain. “You…” She trailed off again, visibly bracing herself before starting to speak again. “When I was young, I was weak… and scared. I didn’t think that I could ever protect myself. But Seller, he told me stories about Gabriel Prosser, about what you did, what you overcame. He told me some of the stories, and I looked up others. I took one of the books out of their library and I…” Her mouth worked a little, and I saw a hint of dampness in the girl’s eyes before she blinked it away. When she continued, her voice cracked a little bit from emotion. “I kept the book with me in… in class, in training, at meals, even in bed. I kept it everywhere b-because even though it was just a book, it was a book about you. So I thought that it–you could protect me. It was stupid, but–but I needed it. I needed you, and you were there. You just didn’t know about it.

“So, if you prefer Mr. Gabriel, I’ll call you that. But you’ll always be Mister to me.”

Oh… oh. Suddenly this wasn’t nearly as amusing as it had been a few seconds earlier. The fact that Avalon felt that strongly enough to say it not just in front of me, but in front of Shiori as well said a lot. The two of them had gotten a little closer, of course. But they would never be anything more than friends, at the most. And yet, she had exposed that vulnerable part of herself like that.

As for the man himself, his voice was quiet. “Mr. Gabriel’ll do just fine, Miss Sinclaire. Thank you.”

His eyes moved to Shiori then, and the other girl gave a little wave before speaking up. “Uh, hi, Mr. Gabriel. Thanks for, you know, teaching us how to exorcise these stupid wannabe-angels.”

Coughing, I raised an eyebrow. “You really had to try not to make a joke about exercise, huh?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly, voice plaintive. “It was really hard! I had a good one!”

Despite myself, I smiled and patted her shoulder. “Later.” Meanwhile, I squeezed Avalon’s arm with my other hand before turning to the man in front of us. “They’re both right though. We owe you a lot. With your help, maybe we can identify the Seosten that’s possessing one of our friends, then use your spell to drive them out and make it so they can’t possess anyone else for awhile.”

Gabriel shook his head at that. “It’s not my spell, Felicity. It was created by your family, the Atherbys. My teaching it to you now is just… passing the spell back to where it belongs.”

Swallowing, I gave a little nod despite myself. “You said that you agreed with Professor Pericles about sending my–my mom away from the clan because she was the last surviving Atherby and you didn’t want her to get drawn into all that stuff after both of her parents sacrificed themselves to get rid of the Fomorians. Well, her dad sacrificed himself. Her mom sacrificed… you know, everyone’s memory of her. Anyway, you said that the whole reason you agreed to send her away, to have Pericles’s Bystander friends raise her was to keep her safe. You must’ve–um, you must’ve been kind of annoyed when you found out that Crossroads recruited her after all that.”

“That’s putting it a bit mildly,” he replied. “As far as I recall, that was the only time that I raised my voice to Zedekiah Pericles. Thinking about them teaching Joselyn that hogwash was just… it was too much.  Losing Joshua, losing my memory of his wife, that was bad enough. But Joselyn, sweet little Bossy Jossy being brainwashed into the kind of mindless, kill-everything-in-sight automaton Crossroads and that other place like to churn out? I wanted to go get her out of there.”

Curiously, I asked, “Why didn’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the people that could’ve stopped you from taking her would’ve been too busy asking for your autograph or something.”  

He sighed. “Because your mother needed training. She was–is an Atherby. And it wasn’t my right to keep her away from being the best she could be. I could keep her safe from this, sure. Shove her in a glass bowl, clip her wings, throw up walls. But if I did that, if I took away her potential, if I limited what she could become, how would I be any different from the people that wanted to hurt her? How would I be any different from the people who thought they could control my destiny?”  

Shrugging, he added, “Training her here wasn’t an option. There were still too many threats that wanted to take a shot at the leader of the Atherby clan. If she came, she would’ve stepped right into those crosshairs. I thought letting her train there would at least give her a chance to stay somewhat anonymous. But then…” He smiled, clearly proud. “Well, she didn’t stay anonymous.”

“That’s one thing Mom doesn’t seem very good at,” I agreed. “She kinda sucks at anonymous.”

Avalon gave me a look then, her voice as dry as old leaves as she retorted, “You’re one to talk.”

While I blushed, Gabriel picked his shovel up off the ground before turning to walk toward the cabin. “If you girls don’t mind,” he spoke easily, “I’d like to get started while we have the chance.”

Quickly nodding, I started after the man. “Yeah, I might not need more than an hour of sleep before class, but these guys could probably use at least four or five if we can swing it.”

He led us past the cabin and around the side. I could see a vegetable garden there in the back, surrounded by a wire fence to keep any animals out. On the porch, a Bernese mountain dog lay slumbering in the dim light cast by the lantern there. He opened one eye as we passed, gave a sleepy rumble approximating a half-hearted bark, then closed it again and turned his head away.

Without looking back, Gabriel spoke up. “That’s Cashew. Best dog I ever saw for chasing pests off the property, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Fast and loud. Pretty sure he’s given a couple rabbits heart attacks when they come sniffing around the garden, trying to find a way past the fence. Popular guy too, he’s got a few puppies around the rest of the cabins.”

“Rest of the cabins?” I echoed, tilting my head at that. “I only saw this one.” Even as it was coming out of my mouth, I knew that it was a dumb thing to say. When would I get used to Heretic stuff?

The man glanced back, smiling faintly as he nodded. “That’s what you were meant to see.” He gestured toward a wooden archway ahead that stuck out of the side of the cabin. There were a few piles of logs set up there, as if it was just a place to stack firewood so that it would stay out of the rain. “One at a time, take a little walk through there,” he instructed, leaning on his shovel.

Shrugging, I went first. As I walked through the the archway, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my head and in my eyes. Coming out the other side, I blinked a few times and then looked around.

Oh. Wow. Now I could see dozens of cabins around at the lake, with more boats by their docks,  and even people walking around. Not just humans either, I could see Alters of various shapes and colors around the nearest cabins, illuminated by the lights from their homes. Some of them were standing at the edge of their property, staring in my direction. When they saw me looking at them, a couple raised their hands to wave. It took a second, but I belatedly remembered to wave back.

Eventually, the other two girls joined me in standing at the edge of the cabin to watch the people. Gabriel, stepping up beside us, gave a little nod that way. “Most of our people would be asleep right now, but when they heard you were coming to visit, a lot of them found reasons to stay up.” He smiled just a little bit. “Seeing the clan heir come around for the first time is kind of a big deal.”  

My eyes pulled away from the lantern-lit figures in the distance to blink that way. “Clan heir?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “The clan was begun by the Atherbys. Most remember Joselyn. And a lot of them remember Joshua and Lyell too. But it’s been a long time since they had an Atherby around, a direct descendant of their founder… our founder.” He looked to me, his expression soft. “And a lot of them are ashamed. Losing Joselyn’s children, letting Ruthers’ thugs take them, it tore them up. They felt like they failed her, like anything that happened to those kids was their fault.”

He sighed a little before continuing. “And others, they weren’t a part of the clan before. They joined because of Joselyn. There’s some Heretics out there who left Crossroads and the other place just to follow her, just to be around her. Seeing her daughter, it’s… important to them.”

Flinching at that, I opened and shut my mouth before swallowing hard. “I should talk to them.”

Gabriel nodded. “If you’re up for it, I thought you might stay a bit longer after we’re done. Since you don’t need as much sleep as Avalon and Shiori here, the others would love to meet you.”

I glanced to the other two girls before nodding. “Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down. “I’d love to meet the people that knew my family. I… I still don’t know very much about them. So… so if it’s okay, I’d kinda like to hear their–um, their stories. If you don’t think that’d be… bothering them.”

“Bothering them?” The man gave me a soft, somehow sad smile. “No, Felicity,” he replied, “telling you stories about your family wouldn’t be a bother. In fact, it would make a lot of us very happy.” 

******

A couple hours later, we were all sitting out on the dock near the water, using chairs that we had brought from the cabin. Gabriel was nodding with satisfaction as he examined the wooden boards that Avalon, Shiori, and I had used to carefully copy the anti-possession rune onto. “Good,” he announced. “Very good. You’re still a little shaky on the loop here, Felicity, and Shiori could use a little more work on these points at the end here. But for your first night, you’re all doing really well.”

Smiling at that announcement, the man continued. “Now I think you should each practice using the spell on each other, one at a time. I’ll provide the power and guide you through it until you can do it by yourselves. And I’ll dampen the pain a little, but you should all know what it feels like.” He paused before adding, “Unless you’d rather wait until next time to give it a shot.”

Avalon shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste, Mr. Gabriel.” She still blushed every time she spoke to or  looked at him, but at least she’d found her voice. “We’ll stay and practice.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Right, we do need to know what it feels like. So who’s going first?”

“Me.” Shiori turned slightly on the seat while pulling her sleeve up. “Go ahead, Flick.”

So, with Gabriel’s help and guidance, I used the field-engraver to start drawing the rune. It wasn’t the same one that Dare had provided. This one was from Gabriel himself, taken out of a box of them that he had carried out from the cabin.

Even as the rune started, Shiori gave a slight hiss, until the man laid his hand on her back. He did something, and she eased a little bit. But I could still tell that it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It might not have been the burning pain that it had been, but even with Gabriel’s help there was obviously no way that the rune could’ve been drawn without the subject waking up if they were asleep. So we couldn’t just go around to our friends and start drawing it on them. They’d notice. And besides, if they were possessed, every Seosten who was part of their mission would know what was happening at the same time that they did. Which pretty much meant that we had one shot at it.

Eventually, I finished drawing the rune. Gabriel took my hand and pressed it against the symbol. I felt him extend a sliver of his power through me and into what I had drawn, triggering the spell.

Obviously, nothing happened aside from the rune turning into a sweet-smelling smoke as it vanished from Shiori’s arm. She rubbed the spot a little, looked at us, and shrugged. “Boo. Guess I’m not possessed after all.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Woe be to the Seosten who tried to possess a dhampyr, or any hybrid. I’d almost like to see them try it.” Leaning back, he added, “All right, let’s go with you next, Felicity.”

I started to nod before blinking. “Oh, uh, I need to use the restroom first, actually. Do you mind?”

The man shook his head, gesturing to the cabin. “Go ahead. Head inside, turn right, second door on the left.”

On the way, I passed a few kids, Alter and human alike. They ranged in age from six up to twelve or so, all of them half-hidden behind the garden fence. When they saw me looking that way, there was a collective squeal from the group as they took off running, scattering into the darkness.  

“Hey, it’s okay!” I called. “It’s not like I’m gonna eat you guys or something. If you wanna…” I trailed off then, shaking my head before going inside. Maybe I’d see them again later.

Sure enough, a few of the kids were back again when I came out after finishing up inside. I saw a small, blue-skinned boy with dark red eyes, a pretty human girl with light blonde hair who looked like she was about eight or nine, and an amphibious figure whose gender I couldn’t make out. They were watching me just like the others had been. When I glanced that way, the two obvious Alters stammered excuses before taking off, disappearing into darkness once more.

The human girl, however, stayed behind. She raised a hand to wave while giving me a tiny smile.

Realizing that she wasn’t going to run away like the others, I stepped that way. “Hi,” I greeted her. “I’m Flick. What’s your name?”

“Me?” the little girl replied with a cute, incredibly endearing little blush. “I–I’m Tabby.”

“Hi, Tabby.” I paused before glancing off in the distance, the way the others had gone. “You didn’t leave with your friends?”

She glanced over her shoulder then before shaking her head. Her voice was soft. “I wanted to meet you.” Turning back, she added, even more quietly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.”

I flinched. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a big story around here, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Tabby hesitated before adding, “My mommy’s not here either.”

The thought of this adorable, innocent-looking little girl being left without a mother made me cringe. If her mom was killed by a Heretic, I’d just… Shaking that off, I asked, “She’s not… here? Is she alive? Do you know where she is?”

“I think she’s alive,” Tabby answered, looking away for a moment. “She’s a long ways away.”

“Then you can find her, right?” I asked, my voice quiet as I hesitantly put a hand out to touch her arm. “We’ll both find our moms. We’ll get them back, okay? Your mom and my mom. They’re alive, so we’ll get them back. You can’t give up on her, right?”

Her head bobbed up and down at that. “Uh huh. Mommy said I had to be brave. She said I could help people. But… but I miss her.” She squirmed a little then, looking ashamed of the admission.

“Hey.” I squeezed her arm, trying to be reassuring. “It’s okay to miss your mom. It doesn’t make you any less brave. You’re learning how to help people, right?”

Again, the girl nodded. “I’m trying to,” she answered quietly. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”

“I know what you mean.” Shaking my head, I gave her a little smile. “But we just keep trying, right? We get better, and eventually, we’ll find our moms.”

“Uh huh.” Tabby looked past me then, back to the lake. “You should go. They’re waiting.”

“Right, yeah. But I’ll see you later, okay?” Waiting until she nodded, I headed back down to the dock once more.

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked as I resumed my seat.

“Yup.” I smiled a little. “Just saw some of the kids up there.” Glancing that way, I laughed. “See?” Several of the children, including Tabby, were standing just at the edge of the bushes near the beach, watching us.

Gabriel looked that way before shaking his head with a chuckle as the kids scattered once more. “They’re supposed to be in bed. I guess they couldn’t sleep either.”

“I hope they don’t get in trouble…” Biting my lip at the thought, I shook it off. “So, are we doing this?” I pulled my sleeve up, turning my arm that way. “Who gets to draw on me?”

Avalon did, taking her turn to carefully sketch out the rune with Gabriel’s help. It stung a little, enough to make me wince even after the man softened the feeling. When it was done, the smoke sizzled off just like it had with Shiori.

“Whelp,” I remarked while rubbing my arm. “I’m not possessed either. Valley’s turn?”

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed. “We’ll do one more. After that, we’ll see about letting Avalon and Shiori get some sleep while you meet some of your family’s friends. Just don’t be surprised if they get a little overly-excited.”

“After all, they’ve been waiting a long time to see you.”

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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Mini-Interlude 27 – Abigail and Wyatt

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Abigail and Wyatt discussing things like Flick, their parents, and Fossor. 

The city wasn’t one of the largest in the United States, but it wasn’t that small either. It was one of those cities that fit neatly within the upper end of medium, with several hundred thousand occupants. Large enough that visitors wouldn’t really stand out that much or be that memorable, yet small enough that crowds wouldn’t hide anyone that happened to be trying to spy on them.

At least, that was the way that Wyatt had explained his reasoning for this particular meeting place to Abigail. They had gone back and forth on exactly where to meet, using the coded messages that he had taught her how to make, using Seller and that large man, Croc, as intermediaries.

It was Seller who had brought her to the city. The man had offered to stay, but Abigail declined. She had the emergency beacons that he had given her if anything went wrong. Besides, Wyatt’s instructions about what to do had been specific about being by herself when she did them, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make an exception for anyone. Not even their ancestor.

So, she went through the instructions on her own. First there was the part where she had to go into the nearest McDonalds and order a Kid’s Meal, then deposit the entire thing minus the toy in the trash bin. After that, she had to walk outside and leave the toy on the nearby bus stop, then wait for the next bus and board it before immediately getting off again at the next stop, walk back to the first stop and look for the toy. If it was there, she was supposed to turn right and go into the shoe store that was across the street. If it was gone, she was to turn left and into the paint store instead.

Seeing the toy, she went right and entered the shoe store. Making her way through to the back, she watched the order of the color of shoes in the last aisle. White, black, black, white. That meant she had to go into the restroom and enter the last stall. Scanning the graffiti there, she eventually found the words ‘I love Root Beer’ written in red marker. Root Beer. As in A&W. Abigail and Wyatt.

Touching her fingers to the words, she felt the power in them. Following Wyatt’s instructions, she focused on channeling energy into the spell that he had left there. As she did so, a literal door appeared behind the toilet. With a little effort, she squirmed past the plumbing, opening the door to step through.

She had just enough time to see that she was standing in a small motel room before Wyatt appeared. He held what looked like a flare gun in one hand, and a mirror in the other that he aimed at her before glancing in, as though checking what her reflection looked like. “Password?”

For a second, Abigail said nothing. She just stared at the man who… who was her… brother. She had a brother, a twin brother. At her age, the idea of having a long-lost sibling had been a far distant childhood dream.

And yet, some part of her had never quite shaken the feeling that there was something off about her family, something… missing. It was nothing that she had been able to explain, let alone prove. After all, her parents had done everything for her, had never shown Abigail anything but love. Yet the feeling had remained there, buried just under the surface. She had made up imaginary siblings as a child, the way many children had imaginary friends.

She had long-since grown out of those kind of games, yet the idea of keeping families together was what had primarily led her to become not just a defense attorney, but a civil rights defense attorney. Standing up for people who were being taken advantage of, legally defending those who didn’t have the knowledge or ability to properly defend themselves, it had all grown out of teenage years spent protesting abuses of power.

Now there was Wyatt. Her brother, her actual brother. And seeing him, talking to him, learning everything she could about him had brought Abigail to one very important conclusion: She wanted to take the people who had been responsible for raising Wyatt as well as everyone who had had a hand in putting him into that situation, and have them thrown into the deepest, darkest dungeon on the planet before throwing away the key.

Ruthers. Ruthers and his stooges, who had taken Wyatt in not because they cared about him, but because their arrogant piece of shit boss had ordered them to. Wyatt, who had… who had grown up knowing that the people who should have loved him more than anything else in the world didn’t actually give one shit about the then-innocent little boy.

Wyatt, her brother, had grown up in a household without actual love. He had become paranoid about being spied on because he was actually spied on. He had grown up with the knowledge that his parents, the people he should be able to trust beyond all doubt, would have killed him without a second thought if the man they were reporting to ordered them to do it.

Deepest. Darkest. Dungeon. Abigail wanted Ruthers and all his sycophants thrown there for the rest of their lives. Which, given this whole Heretic business, would probably be a very long time.

Finally shaking those thoughts off, the woman answered Wyatt’s request for a passcode by reciting, “Gabriel Ruthers is the most brilliant, charismatic, charming, and wonderful man in the history of the world.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Why does that have to be our passcode?”

“Because they’d never guess that we’d use it,” the man replied before hesitating. He stood there for a moment, then took a step forward and to the left. His left hand went up like he was gesturing to one of the nearby chairs, while his right hand moved as though to shake hers. At the same time, his arms actually widened a bit, as if a third part of him wanted to hug her. It was awkward and, at the same time, incredibly endearing.

Smiling just a little bit, Abigail saved the man by taking the choice off his hands. She stepped in and embraced him tightly. He made an awkward sound, almost like an ostrich, but eventually returned it.

This was her brother, a man who had a million contingency plans and escape routes for every situation, yet was trapped by a simple hug.

“Oh,” the man blurted, “I was–you were–you don’t have to–”

Abigail shook her head, stepping back after giving him another squeeze. “Of course I don’t have to,” she replied. “But I want to. You’re my brother, Wyatt. They already kept us apart for fifty years, we don’t have to do the rest of the work for them.”

He gave a shaky, awkward little smile at that before clearing his throat as he gestured to the nearby chairs on the other side of the motel room. “Should we, uh, sit down? I–we can order food if you’re hungry, or go get something, or if you’re bored, we can–”

Smiling, Abigail moved to the seat. “How about we just talk for now?” She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, not wanting to scare the man off. He was her brother. Her twin brother, and this, this was the kind of routine that she had to go through just to talk to him for a few hours.

So they did. At first, it was about nothing too serious. Wyatt asked her a lot of questions about her childhood, about college, about becoming a lawyer and the kind of cases that she’d gotten into. He wisely avoided the subject of her husband, a man that she still didn’t remember despite hearing about him from both her daughter, and the man she had gotten her information from, Tribald Kine. Her husband’s grandfather’s cousin, apparently.

Eventually, the conversation came around to more serious subjects. Abigail went quiet for a few seconds, looking out the nearby window before the words came, words that she had known she had to ask from the moment that they had planned this meeting. “Wyatt…” she started slowly before letting out a sigh. “Wyatt, the… necromancer, the one that has our mother…”

“Fossor,” the man supplied helpfully.

“I know, I just–” She stopped, taking another breath. “Wyatt, he’s not going to be satisfied with just our mother, is he? He has Joselyn, but he’ll want more. If he knows about Koren, if that… if that Ammon boy realized why she was immune to him, or if he just told his father and he realized, then he’ll try to take–”

There was a sudden crash as Wyatt’s fist slammed down onto the table between them with so much force that the thing actually splintered. And in his eyes, she saw something she hadn’t seen before: fire, anger, and violence.

“No,” her gangly, deceptively-goofy looking brother announced. “I won’t let him take Koren. Believe me, Abigail, I… Koren and I… we’ve been…” He squirmed a little, as though ashamed of his little outburst. “Koren and I have been close. I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Slowly, Abigail reached out and laid her hand on top of his fist. “I’m glad you’re there. I don’t think I could do this, this… staying away from my daughter if I didn’t know that you were there to watch her, Wyatt. I do trust you. I mean, I barely know you and yet…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I just trust you. I know you’ll put yourself in front of her if anything happens, but I don’t want anything to happen to you either. I just–” She stopped, slumping back in the seat. “I keep getting this urge to… to call the police, or the FBI, or someone with authority. But what am I supposed to tell them? They wouldn’t believe me, or they’d just forget what I said, or… or whatever. It wouldn’t help.”

He reached across to her then, his hand finding hers. “I–Abigail… Koren won’t–I won’t let him take her,” he repeated, his voice firm. “I promise. I have… I have protection spells, more than you know, more than she knows. If anyone tries to take her, I’ll know. I’ll be there.”

For a moment, Abigail didn’t say anything. She returned the squeeze of his hand, trying to shut the terrifying thoughts of her baby girl being taken away out of her mind.

“… but he’s going to come for Felicity, isn’t he?” she asked quietly after a few long seconds of silence. “The deal that he made with… with Joselyn, with our mother, it only protects her until she’s no longer a child. That’s when she’s eighteen.”

There was a noticeable flinch from the man, and he hesitated long enough for her to prompt. “What? What is it?”

“Yes,” he answered finally. “Fossor has… made it clear to Felicity that he intends to come for her when she’s eighteen. She… told me that much. She’s scared, even if she doesn’t act like it.”

“They have to protect her, they… they will, right?” she quickly put in. “That headmistress, you, our… our father.” Even saying the word made her squirm a little inside. Deveron. The man she didn’t know, the man she had barely even seen, he wasn’t her father. She knew her father, she knew the man who had raised her, and thinking of Deveron Adams as her father, particularly when he looked like he was thirty years younger than she was, was just… strange.

That went for the pictures she’d seen of her biological mother as well. Deveron and Joselyn both looked so… so different from her. Growing up, Abigail had always looked gawky and strange. Her classmates had nicknamed her Olive Oyl since before she could actually remember. Which was why she didn’t have trouble thinking of Wyatt as her brother, even her twin. It fit.

But Joselyn and Deveron? They looked like models. They looked… perfect. Part of that on her father’s side, she knew from asking, was the fact that he had inherited the appearance of some Asian Incubus. But even knowing that didn’t make things seem less awkward. It was just… so much to take in.

Wyatt nodded slowly, hesitating before looking up to meet her gaze. “I think… I think part of Felicity-Flick, wants him to come for her. She wants a… a showdown. She wants to fight.”

“She can’t be that naive,” Abigail quickly blurted. “I know she’s getting… Koren’s told me how much stronger Felicity’s been getting, but that necromancer has been around for thousands of years. He’s beaten everyone that came after him. Why would Felicity think she could beat him?”

Again, the man swallowed hard, hesitating before his head shook. “I don’t think she does, not really. I think she feels guilty. She hated her mother–our mother for a long time for… for leaving. Finding out that she left to protect her, that she sacrificed her freedom to let Felicity grow up was… it hurt her more than she’ll tell anyone. Maybe more than she’ll admit to herself. I think part of her thinks that she deserves to be punished for that. She wants to beat him, but if she can’t… I don’t know.” His head shook solemnly. “Every time I think that she’s not taking it seriously, I remember that she’s… she’s training a lot. More than anyone else in her grade. She does the normal training, she does extra training with Avalon, with Headmistress Sinclaire, and with… Deveron.” He trailed off then, swallowing audibly.

After the few seconds of silence that followed that, Abigail quietly asked, “Do you… do you ever feel jealous?”

“Because she spent time with our mother,” he finished for her. “I… yes, sometimes. I look at her, and I look at pictures of Joselyn and they’re… they’re alike. Felicity looks like Joselyn’s daughter. We–I…”

“Don’t,” Abigail in turn finished for him. “We don’t look like either of them. I know. I know it’s stupid to be jealous. She had her mother taken away when she was young, but….” She closed her eyes briefly, squeezing them tightly. “God, I feel like such a bitch. She had a chance with her. She remembers her. She spent a few years with her real mother. And it’s stupid. It’s stupid to feel like this. Because I had a good childhood. I had parents who–” She stopped talking abruptly, eyes widening as she looked at the man across from her. “I’m sorry, Wyatt, I didn’t–”

He shrugged. “Everyone grows up differently. You’re right, Felicity had a few years with Joselyn. Then she was taken away. Which is worse, never knowing your mother, or knowing her enough to love her and then having her taken away?”

“I think the big point here is that Fossor is a sick, stupid son of a bitch,” Abigail announced, her voice darker than she remembered it being. “And so is Gabriel Ruthers. They deserve each other.”

She let that hang for a moment before sighing. “But Felicity doesn’t. She’s–she’s our little half–our little sister, Wyatt. You can’t let her sacrifice herself or do something stupid just because she feels guilty. Our mother–Joselyn, it would destroy her. Believe me, I know. If anything happened to me and Koren sacrificed herself to save me, I… “ She gave a weak, disgusted shudder at the thought.

“We have to save our mother. But we can’t let our sister sacrifice herself to do it, because that would destroy Joselyn more than anything Fossor could do to her in a million years. If it comes down to one or the other, we have to protect Felicity. Even if that means going against her choices.”

“You’re right,” Wyatt agreed. “No matter what… no m-matter what happens, we protect Felicity first.”

They looked at each other, as Abigail felt the guilt of the word settle in her stomach. The idea of not saving her mother, of not throwing away everything in order to save the woman who had given birth to her was… was almost incomprehensible.

And yet, she stood by what she had said. If Joselyn was saved at the expense of Felicity, it would destroy her, just like Abigail being saved at the expense of Koren would destroy her.

“I wish there was a way to meet her father,” she murmured finally. “I’d like to meet the man who married our mother as a civilian–a Bystander. I’d like to talk about what he knew about her, about how she made him feel, about what kind of person she was. Felicity’s memory was… tainted. She was a child. But her father–Lincoln, he knew her as an adult.”

Wyatt nodded slowly at that. “I’d like that too,” he agreed. “I talk to our… I talk to Deveron about her. You should do that. You could,” he added. “He really wants to spend more time with you.”

“I know.” Again, that guilt came back. “It’s just… it’s just awkward. I know he wants to see me more. I know he wants to talk. I just–everything that’s happened, I…” She breathed out. “I’ll try. I’ll try to spend some time with our father–with Deveron.”

Changing the subject, she looked back over to him. “I looked her up, you know. Felicity. I looked up everything I could about her in the Bystander world. She wasn’t exactly lying low or being normal and average even before she was a Heretic.”

The man frowned a little, head tilting. “What?”

Smiling despite herself, Abigail began to talk about the things she had learned. She told him about Felicity apparently repeatedly getting herself into trouble with her ‘investigations’, about how she had helped catch that drug dealing theater owner only a day before Crossroads had taken her in, about exposing that the most popular girl in her junior high had been stealing money from field trip donations in order to buy clothes, and more. Every year it seemed like there was some other secret story that Felicity Chambers blew apart with her little school newspaper. For a person who lived in a town as small as Laramie Falls, the girl seemed to have had a knack for finding an almost absurd amount of trouble.

Finally, Wyatt shook his head slowly. “How did you find all this out?”

“Some of it from newspapers,” she answered. “Other parts from calling people over there and saying that I was a college recruiter. And also from talking to Miranda.”

“Her friend,” Wyatt remembered.

“Her best friend,” she corrected. “Miranda had more stories than anyone else. More stories than she was even actually there for. I… I guess she sort of kept up with what Felicity did even after she was recruited by Eden’s Garden.”

Wyatt took that in for a moment, pausing before he realized aloud, “We’re gonna have a hard time keeping her out of trouble, aren’t we?”

Nodding emphatically at that, Abigail replied, “Yeah, but then again, that might be the most normal part of all this.

“After all, aren’t little sisters supposed to drive their siblings nuts?”

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Interlude 22C – Joselyn

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of Pace posted yesterday (Sunday). If you missed it, you may want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

July 10th, 1950

“My son, they would have killed him.”

Two women stood facing one another, their appearances within the illumination of the city street lights starkly contrasting. One was white, with blonde hair that stood out in the night. The other was black, her skin and hair both dark enough to fade easily into the shadows lurking just beyond the street lamps. Overhead, the moon was at its dimmest, a bare sliver that did little more than confirm its existence, while clouds ended any light that might have come from the far distant stars. The city itself, aside from the streetlights above these two women, was as dark as it was silent.

“You’re right, Calafia,” Joselyn Atherby replied to the much-older woman across from her. “They would have killed him. Because he was different. Because he wasn’t human. One little scratch. One scratch from that weretiger and now every plan, every dream, every goal you had for your son is gone. Everything you wanted to do for him, everything he was going to be for you is gone.”

Calafia bowed her head slightly, giving an almost imperceptible nod. “I know,” she murmured quietly. “I know, believe me, I know. But he’s… you… you made sure that he–”

“He’s okay,” Joselyn assured her. She didn’t know what it was like to be a parent, but she did know that the idea of having a child and being separated from them, not knowing if they were okay or what was happening to them, was the worst experience she could possibly imagine. So as angry as she was at the things that the woman in front of her had allowed to happen up until it was personal for her, she wouldn’t hold that reassurance away from her. “He’s safe, I promise.”

The relief in the other woman’s body language was obvious, as a great deal of the tension left her. “Don’t tell me where he is.” The words seemed to almost break her even as she said them. “Just… just promise you’ll make sure he stays safe, that none of our people will find him.”

“They believe he’s dead,” Joselyn replied, her tone turning a bit softer at the woman’s continued concern. “And they’ll keep believing that. No one’s going to find your son, Calafia. You have my word. I told you when you first made contact that we’d keep him safe, and I meant it.”  

For a moment, Calafia closed her eyes. Tears leaked from them, though if they were more from the relief that her son was safe or from the agony of the realization that she would never see him again, Joselyn couldn’t say. She just waited while the woman worked through her emotions.

Finally, Calafia straightened a little, her eyes finding Joselyn’s as she steadied herself. “You never said what you wanted in return for the aid of your people. You saved my son’s life.”

“Calafia,” Joselyn answered simply, “if you think that I need something in exchange for saving your son from the people who would kill him just for being a were, then you’ve missed the entire point.”

Pausing for a moment to take that in, the dark-skinned woman eventually spoke once more. “If there’s nothing else, you should leave this place. I owe you my son’s life, but the others do not. Gabriel has been fully accepted into our ranks. You must already understand what that means.”

“It means that he’s as powerful as you are now,” Joselyn confirmed. “And the first thing he’s going to do with that power is try to pay me back for making him look like such a fool for so long.”

“He won’t just try,” Calafia cautioned her. “If he finds you, he will win. You are here alone, Miss Atherby. Don’t be a prideful fool and throw your life away by waiting for him here. You might have been able to face him as he was, though even that was debateable. But now that he is a part of the Committee, you would be nothing more than a bug against a windshield. You would fail.”

“Maybe,” Joselyn allowed. “But if I don’t do something, he’ll keep coming anyway.” Her hand lifted to gesture at the empty, dark streets around them. “Why do you think I chose to meet here?”

Slowly, she turned in a circle as though taking all of it in. “It’s actually one of the most impressive things the Heretics have done, you know? An exact one-for-one replica of New York City, set down on a world far from Earth, yet almost identical to it. The perfect place for Heretics to practice fighting and hunting in an urban area. Yet devoid of any innocent civilians that might get hurt.”

Calafia took a moment to look around as well, as though seeing how impressive the recreated city really was for the first time. But soon, her gaze locked onto the much younger woman’s once more. “My… son’s condition has made me… think about the things that our society stands for. I don’t know yet how I feel about all of it, but in this case…My son would be dead if it was not for you, Miss Ath– Joselyn. I owe you far more than I can ever repay. But I will attempt to do so. If you ask, I will put myself in the path of Gabriel Ruthers. I will stop him from harming you.” Left unsaid was what that would mean. In exchange for the life of her son, Calafia would put herself against the Committee, would stand openly with the rebellion in defiance of Crossroads laws.

Joselyn smiled slightly, but shook her head. “If you really want to know what you can do to make it up to me… keep thinking about what it means. Think about all the mothers like you who have lost people like your son. Think about the people who have been killed for doing nothing more than being born. Think about all of them. But the most important thing you could ever do for me is… think about the monsters that we hunt and kill. Think about all the monsters you’ve ever killed or ordered killed. Think about them…. And stop thinking of them as monsters. Think of them as people. People with lives. People with families. People with loves, dreams, hopes. Just… people.”

Her voice had softened throughout that, but rose then, firm and confident. “But right now, the best thing you can do is leave. You’re right, Ruthers is gonna be here soon.” Her smile was humorless. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And the best thing you can do is stay on the Committee. There might be a time that we need you, a time that we need help. You being on the Committee, that’s what we need right now. Just keep thinking. Not just about what I said, but about how you feel. Think about that. Feel it. Let yourself feel it, for once, without shutting it down. Keep feeling.”

“If I leave,” Calafia spoke quietly, “you will die.”

The blonde shrugged. “Messages outlive the messenger, Calafia. And you might be surprised.”   

Obviously realizing that she wouldn’t be able to change the rebel leader’s mind, Calafia bowed her head. “I wish you luck. And if you survive this encounter, we will speak again.”

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. But by the time she finished with, “we will,” the other woman was gone.

For a few seconds, she just stood there. Eventually, however, she turned and began to walk slowly down the middle of the street. Streetlights came to life as she reached them, while the ones behind her doused themselves, creating a sort of roving spotlight that kept her illuminated.

Ten minutes after Calafia had left, Joselyn rounded a corner to find a man standing in her path. A man she knew far too well, from the years she had spent in what had been his school at the time.

“Shall I call you Headmaster still?” she asked, “Or would you prefer the term Counselor?”

Ruthers stood, his bullish, prizefighter-esque body lit by the lamps above him as he glared at the woman he loathed so thoroughly. “Atherby,” he snarled. “I already checked the city. You’re alone. Your husband isn’t here, and he’s not coming. Neither are any of your people. There’s a lockdown in effect. No one teleports in or out of the training city until this is over. So I’m going to give you one chance. Surrender, and you’ll go to trial. On the honor of my blood, I won’t harm you if you give up now.”

Joselyn shook her head, lamenting. “Aww. And here I thought you’d be excited to show off all your new tricks, like an eager little bulldog. All that power, all that strength, and you want me to surrender without letting you show me any of it? That doesn’t sound like you, Gabby.”

Gabby. She knew he hated the name, loathed it almost as much as he hated Joselyn herself. That was why she used it. Getting under his skin, making him stop thinking straight, it was part of the plan. This night, this moment, had been building since the moment she had decided that she would never be able to live in this society without pouring everything she had into making it better.

His smile was more like a grimace, like the man himself had never fully learned how to make that expression. “We both know you won’t surrender,” he replied flatly. “But now that I’ve offered you the chance and you’ve turned me down, you can feel even worse when this is all over.”

Lowering her gaze to look at the ground, Joselyn gathered her strength for what she had to do next. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. But she had to try. For everything that she was attempting to change about Heretic society, she had to try.

“Ruthers, it doesn’t have to be like this. None of this has to happen. Things can change. We can be better. You saw that yourself once. You took a chance. It backfired, but that doesn’t make the intention wrong. Trusting the wrong person doesn’t make every person evil. We can work together to change things. We can make Crossroads be the real heroes, the champions we should be. Not just for humans, but for everyone. We can protect them all.”

“You,” Ruthers snarled without a moment’s hesitation, “are a fool. And you are letting yourself and your followers be used by monsters. Yes, I worked with them once before. And what came of it? Humanity was nearly erased, you ignorant child. That is a mistake I will never make again. And I won’t let you drag humanity into extinction by making the same one. This ends now, Atherby.”

“On the contrary,” the blonde woman replied simply. “I think you’ll find that it’s just beginning.”

He was on her then. In the span of less than one hundredth of a second, the man went from standing a hundred feet away, to being directly in front of her. His fist lashed out, tearing through the air faster than sound itself. It was a blow that would devastate mountains. Several windows in the buildings surrounding them shattered from the force and speed of the punch. It was meant to end this entire conflict in a single, solitary blow. A punch meant to end Joselyn herself.

She caught it in the palm of her hand.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. The sheer force that was put into the blow meant that the kinetic energy had to go somewhere. She absorbed it, dissipating the excess into a wave behind her that shattered more windows and sent several cars flipping up and over each other. But for the most part, she simply put a hand up and caught a punch from a man who was now one of the most powerful beings on the planet.

“Come on, Gabby,” Joselyn’s voice was a taunt, as Ruthers stared at his fist pressed firmly into her palm. “I thought you were gonna bring something new to this.”

With a growl, the man yanked his fist back. His other hand lashed out, then the first. That continued for another eight strikes. Ten full blows, each powerful enough to go through concrete like it was rice paper. And all ten so quick that it defied not simply human comprehension, but seemingly physics itself. They came in the span of less than one tenth of a second. It was motion so fast that to the human eye, it wasn’t simply a blur. It was nonexistent.

Joselyn evaded them all. Her body twisted, turned, ducked, and stepped aside to avoid each blow, no matter how fast they came. He was fast, but she was just as fast as he was.

That was the entire point. Not that he understood that. Not that he had any idea.

As his flurry of punches failed to make contact, Ruthers seemed to realize that this wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that he expected it to be. He had come expecting to smack her down like a dog with his new power. But that wasn’t going to happen that easily. And in that realization, he finally unleashed.

A wave of the man’s hand caught all of the glass that had been shattered and now lay along the ground. The shards flew into the air, driving in toward Joselyn from every side, each moving as fast as a bullet. And even as they flew, each tiny shard of glass was transformed into jagged metal, which itself was superheated and surrounded by a tiny arc of what looked like purple electricity. Ghost-fire, as they called it. Energy that was able to burn ghosts, or anyone who was in a ghost-like, non-solid state. Hundreds of shards of glass, all simultaneously turned to burning metal with their own ghost-fire, just to make sure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible to avoid them. And all coming at her from every possible angle.

Grimacing, Joselyn threw both hands up and out. With her motion, a circular wall of concrete two feet thick rose from the ground to surround her, capping itself off in a dome just as the electrified, super-heated metal shards buried themselves in it.

Feeling the top of the concrete dome yanked from her control, Joselyn turned herself into an insubstantial, ghost-like state and leapt backward through the wall. She was just in time, as the roof of the dome slammed down with enough force that it would have crushed her in a solid state, and covered in ghost-fire to burn her in her current intangible form if she hadn’t moved.

In the next instant, she was gone. Her blinding speed carried her forward, before a leap took the blonde woman up and over the concrete structure. The leap would have carried her a good fifty feet into the air, except that as soon as she saw the man below her, Joselyn instantly changed the direction that her momentum was carrying her. Now, instead of leaping up and forward, she was suddenly leaping down, without actually touching anything to change direction.

Her fist lashed out. And with it, she summoned not only her own strength, but a literal lightning bolt. It shot, jagged and crackling with power, out of the sky. Her figure was enveloped in the lightning, its power wrapping itself around Joselyn just before both collided into the pavement with enough force to leave a ten-foot wide, three-foot deep crater in the street where Ruthers had been. Had been, because the man had teleported aside at the very last possible instant. Any windows within several blocks that hadn’t already been broken were shattered by the thunder that had accompanied the lightning.

“How?” the man demanded once the echoes of the thunder had faded, his voice dark. “You’re not this strong. Not this fast. Not this powerful.”  As he spoke, a flick of the man’s hand animated one of the cars that had been tossed aside earlier. It rose on impossibly articulated wheels to lunge for Joselyn like a mechanized jungle cat, its front half opening to reveal jagged teeth-like shards of metal as the thing went for her.

It came within a foot before a thought from Joselyn opened a portal directly in front of herself. The mechanical beast flew through the portal to be dumped out somewhere else in the city.

“Guess we both got an upgrade, didn’t we?” she shot back, rising from her crouch to face him.

His head shook. “It doesn’t matter. A few tricks won’t save you, Atherby. I’m putting you down before you destroy our entire society, before your naivety dooms humanity.”

In answer, Joselyn raised a hand and twitched her fingers, beckoning him to keep trying.

With a blur of speed, he was on top of her once more. That time, as his fist lashed out, the concrete beside the man tore itself up and into a giant approximation of his arm and hand that was twice as large as the man himself. Both his real fist and the one that had been summoned from the pavement covered with ghost-fire to ensure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible. And each flew with a speed that would have made bullets in mid-flight seem to be standing still.

Joselyn’s hunga munga were abruptly in her hands as she dove forward and down, passing just beneath the swinging, ghost-fire covered concrete fist before popping up in time to catch Ruthers’ against one of her weapons. The other lashed out toward his throat, but he jerked his head back just in time.

The concrete fist was coming for her from the back, but a thought from Joselyn froze the thing solid, covered in a thick layer of ice. At the same time, she followed up her attack with another rapid series of swings from her throwing axes, forcing her opponent onto the defensive for a moment.

A snap from the man’s fingers froze time.

A blink from her restarted it.

A wave of his hand summoned a tornado of fire that tore its way through the street, melting steel and concrete alike.  

A flick of her finger turned the inferno of wind and ash to stone in the middle of the street.

The ground tore itself apart under her feet, revealing a pit a hundred feet below that was instantly filled with lava. The lava itself erupted into the air, sending a shower of molten rock flying up toward her even as Joselyn herself began to fall.

With a roar of triumph, Ruthers concentrated the lava into a single, powerful geyser. He sent it right up through the spot where Joselyn was. For ten full seconds, the former headmaster kept that up. The spray of molten rock rose a solid hundred feet into the air, and was at least twelve feet wide. It completely enveloped the woman throughout that time, even as the man surrounded the geyser with ghost-fire and several other measures to prevent her from escaping.

Finally, he released it, letting the geyser of lava fall back into its pool.

“Oh,” Joselyn announced as she hovered there in the air, looking utterly unsinged. “Did I forget to mention that I’m immune to heat? And that I can fly? Oops.”

Giving a bellow of frustration and disbelief, Ruthers launched himself into the air. He was a nearly invisible blur, flying so fast along the edge of the tallest nearby building that he created a miniature sonic boom in his wake.

And as he flew, the skyscraper itself ripped up out of the ground. The building tried to fall apart, but Ruthers held it together through sheer force of will, his telekinesis wrapping itself around the structure to keep it intact even as the thing was torn from its foundation to rise up with him.

High in the air above the city, the man inverted. The building hovered there beside him. With a thought, he sent it flying like a missile… straight… back… down. Fast enough to crack the sound barrier by itself, the four hundred foot tall, multi-hundred thousand ton structure careened toward the ground… toward Joselyn.

A point had to be made. So she launched herself straight at the building. Flying toward the thing, Joselyn let herself crash through the bottom, then through floor after floor until she had punched through the top.

She joined the hovering man in the air, even as the building-turned-missile hit the ground with enough force to collapse most of the structures around it.

“Impossible,” Ruthers spat the words, his disbelief at war with his blinding rage. The man was literally shaking. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This was wrong. It was all… all wrong.

“Remember this, Gabby,” Joselyn informed him, hovering thirty feet away. “As long as you keep murdering innocent people, as long as you keep blaming people who have done nothing wrong for your mistakes, as long as you destroy lives and turn families into terrified orphans and grieving parents, this will never end.

“And,” she added while raising a hand. “Anything you can do…” Her fingers snapped, erasing the anti-teleportation shield that had been erected around the city.

“I can undo.”

Then she was gone.

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