The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Asenath and Twister explaining the truth to Lincoln. I hope you enjoy it.
“You were a bear.”
The words came in a flat, stunned voice as Lincoln Chambers stared at the young, dark-skinned girl in the backseat of the car beside him. Asenath had ordered them both back there before taking her place behind the wheel (somehow, he hadn’t managed to bring himself to question being ordered into the backseat of his own vehicle) and hightailing it away from the house. Now she was following the speed limit (barely), making seemingly random turns along the dark streets.
The girl, in turn, gave him a thumbs up. “And then I was a squirrel. Kinda see why the bear stands out though. Going from bear to squirrel, it’s like following up Sammy Hagar with Gary Cherone. I mean, it worked when they went from David Lee Roth to Hagar. But Cherone is no Hagar.”
“Twister, is anyone following us?” Asenath asked from the driver’s seat as she took another turn.
Turning to look behind them for a few seconds, the other girl scanned the dark street. She watched a couple passing cars before shaking her head and turning back to face the front. “Looks clear, for now. But they’ll pick up the scent. Just a matter of time. The furballs are persistent.”
“Okay… okay.” Lincoln was struggling to keep up with what was happening. It wasn’t working that well. He was light-headed. “You’re a… you’re a shapeshifter, and those w-were werewolves. Real, actual werewolves. And they were really… oh.” He sat back a bit heavily. Now that the immediate adrenaline from the attack at his home was over, he was starting to feel dizzy.
“Hey, hey, stay with us.” The girl, Twister, turned in her seat to wave a hand in his face. “You went through all the trouble of kicking the Bystander Effect’s ass. You really wanna ruin it by fainting?”
Before Lincoln could find his voice, Asenath pulled into the driveway of a house. “Let’s go,” she instructed, already opening her door before hopping out. She turned, opening Lincoln’s door before holding a hand out to him. “I promised you an explanation, Mr. Chambers. And you’ll get it, but we’ve got to make sure we’re safe first.”
He hesitated only briefly before taking the offered hand. As the girl helped him out of the car, Lincoln looked around. “I know this place. It used to be Pat Mulhaney’s place before he moved.”
Asenath nodded distractedly while moving to the garage. “Yeah, I bought it. Needed a place to bounce to if anything happened. Like a pack of werewolves crashing the party.” She flipped up the cover of the keypad at the garage and hit several buttons before the garage door began to rise.
“But we’re not staying here,” Lincoln guessed. “Werewolves, if they’re anything like real wolves, they could find this place pretty quick. With their…” He paused, gesturing toward his own nose.
Twister was looking at him with admiration, head nodding. “Hey, you’re not too bad at this for a total Bystander. You’d be surprised how many guys out there forget that wolves can track their scent. I mean, it’s cool when it works in my favor, but seriously people.”
Asenath nodded, standing in front of the now-open garage as she gestured toward a nondescript sedan that sat there. “Right, we’re not staying here. Just switching cars. We’ll put some distance between us and the fidos before hitting the next step. Here.” Walking past the car to a tall fire-safe that took up one corner of the garage, she hit a few buttons on the keypad there before opening it. Within, Lincoln could see several boxes and duffle bags. “Get the trunk, would you?” she instructed, tossing the car keys to him.
He did, unlocking the trunk with the keys before opening it. “What’s all thi–” As he turned back while starting to ask his question, his eyes barely caught a glimpse of a blur of motion. It was like watching something on extreme fast-forward. Within a few seconds, the trunk was full and the fire-safe was empty. Asenath had one hand on the trunk, the other on one of the stored boxes.
“There’s clothes, food, money, stuff we need to be on the road,” she informed him. Then her voice softened a little bit. “And…” Pausing, the girl opened the box, gesturing for Lincoln to take a look.
Frowning thoughtfully, the man reached out to tug the side of the box so he could look in. What he saw made him blink. His expression softened, and he reached in to take out a framed photograph. It was a picture of Joselyn and him on their wedding day, a picture that had been hanging on the wall in the living room. “I don’t understand,” he started. “This was back at the house. What did-” He stopped as his other hand came out of the box with a piece of paper with a crayon drawing over it. Flick’s, from when she was in the first grade. It had been put away in a box in his office ever since she had decided it was too embarrassing to have the thing up on the fridge anymore.
Asenath’s voice was quiet. “I made copies of everything that I thought was important, things that you wouldn’t want to lose. Pictures, your wedding license, birth certificates, anything special.”
Something caught in Lincoln’s throat then. “Y-you brought copies of everything and kept them–”
“No,” she interrupted. “The copies are back at the house. Just so you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. These are the originals. I’ve been smuggling them out a bit at a time for weeks. I just–” She paused, biting her lip. “I know what this kind of stuff can mean. I didn’t want you to lose it.”
There was absolutely nothing that Lincoln could say that would adequately portray his feelings in that moment. A simple ‘thank you’ was woefully, pathetically inadequate. And by the time he had found enough of his voice to say anything at all, Asenath had already moved to the front of the car. “Everyone in, we need miles between us and the wolves. Preferably hundreds of them.”
Forcing himself to focus, Lincoln put the pictures back into the box and closed the trunk before making his way around to the front passenger side. He slipped in, his voice curious as he asked, “They’ll still be able to track our scents, won’t they?”
“We’ll deal with that as soon as we get some distance,” Asenath replied while turning the car on. She waited while the other girl hopped into the back before reversing out of the garage, narrowly avoiding his car in the process. As she expertly whipped the car out onto the street, the girl added, “Miles first, then we’ll take the time to get rid of the smell. Trust me, we’ve done this before.”
“Ran from werewolves before, she means,” Twister put in. “Taking a Bystander with us who’s somehow managed to break the Bystander Effect without being an Alter, that’s pretty new.”
“Bystander, Alter, Bystander Effect, what is all this?” Lincoln asked, his head shaking. “And why are those werewolves after us? And what–sorry.” He coughed. “Start wherever you need to.”
“Right, starting…” Asenath paused before gesturing over her shoulder with one hand as she took a sharp turn, heading for the exit from town to get onto the freeway. “First, that’s Twister. Say hi.”
“Hi.” Twister gave him a little wave. “We’ve met a few times. You gave me part of your sub a week ago.”
“That was y–of course it was you.” Lincoln coughed. “You’ve been watching me during the day.”
“While I slept,” Asenath confirmed. “Next, you’re a Bystander. It means a normal human. Well, normally it means a human that can’t see or remember supernatural things, but you can now, so I’m not sure what you are. Point is, Bystanders are ordinary humans. It’s a Heretic term, but a lot of Alters started using it too. You know, the ones that don’t just call you slaves or dinner instead.”
She let that sit for a second before continuing. “Next, Twister, me, those werewolves, and a bunch of other things are called Alters. Well, we all have different names for each other and ourselves, but collectively Alter is the most common word. It means ‘Alternative-from-human.’ Some of the older things, the ones that were never human and don’t have any ties to humanity, hate it. They don’t think we should define ourselves by what we are in relation to humans. But still, it stuck.”
“Bystanders, Alters, got it.” Sitting back, Lincoln glanced out the car window. “And the Immortals-”
“They’re not actually immortal, lots of them just tend to live for a long time,” Asenath corrected. “And they’re the ones we keep calling Heretics. That’s what they call themselves. Heretic, because they believe in all the supernatural stuff that would’ve made normal humans call them–you know.” She gave a slight smirk then before adding, “They used to be normal humans.”
“Used to be?” Lincoln frowned. “I thought it was a… uh, genetic thing. Joselyn was an Imm–Heretic, so Flick became one. Figured it was just a part of her, so they recruited her.”
Asenath shook her head then. “It’s kind of inherited, just not really genetically. I mean, as far as we know. Maybe being a Heretic-child makes you more likely to get good powers or something…”
“Get good powers?” He turned away from the window then to look at her, eyes widening just a little. “Powers, as in… actual powers. Like that woman back at the house was using.”
“Yeah, that’s–” Asenath paused, looking thoughtful as if she was trying to decide the best way to explain it. “Okay, first, let’s back up. Bystander Effect. It’s a bit of powerful magic that makes it so that every normal human that sees something supernatural either forgets what they saw, or never actually recognizes it for what it is. Say a bunch of harpies fly right over your head, you’ll think you saw a flock of birds. Get jumped by a chupacabra, you’ll see it as a wild dog. Anything obviously supernatural happens, you’ll see it, but as soon as it stops, you’ll forget what you saw. Or it’ll just rewrite your memory with something else. Same thing if you actually start putting things like this together. As soon as you actually believe anything supernatural happened, your memory’s gone.”
“Magic,” Lincoln echoed flatly. “Like, magic-magic. I–right. Yeah, that thing is a pain in the ass.”
“Tell me about it.” The girl’s words were hard, making Lincoln think that she’d had her own bad experiences dealing with that particular problem. “That’s what it is, a giant pain in the ass.”
Shaking her head then, she continued. “Anyway, Bystander Effect, Bystanders. Then we have Heretics. Basically, any time a human mixes their blood with an Alter, they’ve got a decent chance of turning into what they call a Natural Heretic. That’s sort-of a human-Alter hybrid. Human being with the strengths and powers from whatever Alter they were mixed with. Say you’ve got a banshee that attacks a human. Their blood mixes. The human’ll start getting the abilities of a banshee. Loud scream, sense impending death, some kind of ghost-form, the lot. Sometimes they get every power at low strength and gradually improve, sometimes they get one at a higher strength and gradually gain others over time. Point is, Natural Heretic. They get the powers of the Alter they were mixed with, they can use magic, and the Bystander Effect doesn’t work anymore ”
Lincoln digested that for a few seconds. Humans mixing their blood with supernatural creatures to gain their powers, he could see how stuff like that could happen. So many rituals in ancient civilizations had to do with blood. And yet… “That’s not what happened with Felicity, is it?”
From the backseat, Twister piped up. “Nope, she’s a member of what we call the extra-judgey Heretics.” After a pause, she added, “Not that she’s that judgey. You know, since we’re here.”
Asenath snorted at that. “Right, there’re these Alters called Reapers. As in–”
“As in the Grim Reaper?” Lincoln swallowed hard at that. “Take your soul to the afterlife Reaper?”
“Not quite that metaphysical,” she replied while shaking her head. “But still, pretty damn dangerous. They’re some of the most powerful Alters you’ll ever see. They feed off death. They can sense it. So they show up where there’s a lot of death and sort of… feast off it. Plus, every time they feed off something’s death, they gain their powers, memories, skills, all of it.”
“Wait.” Lincoln frowned. “Something like that has to be rare, right? Something that can get all that power, there’s no way that there’s a lot of them. So what does that have to do with this Crossroads place? What, do they have one of those things chained up in the basement to bleed it whenever they-oh my God, they have one of those things chained up in the basement to bleed it.”
“Not… exactly,” Asenath put in slowly. She hesitated a bit before starting to explain. She told him about Hieronymous Bosch, the Hangman-Reaper he had killed, and how the man had founded Crossroads by creating what they now called the Heretical Edge, the instrument that created a hundred Reaper-Heretics every year. The Crossroads student body. She explained all of that, as well as how some parts of the school had broken off to form another group, Eden’s Garden.
“Right, so that’s bullshit,” Lincoln announced simply as soon as she was done. “The story, I mean, not just you saying it. I’m sure they tell the students that, but seriously? A man from hundreds of years ago created something that could make super-Heretics at the drop of a hat all by himself? It’s a lovely, inspiring story, sure. It gives the kids their very own founding father that beat impossible odds, created the thing that’s gonna give them all their fancy new power, and founded the school they’re about to join. Perfect little tale to get them to feel good about the place.”
“Now see,” Twister remarked happily from her place in the backseat, “I knew there was a reason I liked you. Your bullshit detector is phenomenal. You sure there isn’t any Luduan in your blood?”
Before Lincoln could ask what that was, Asenath explained, “Truth-detecting Alter. Anyway, you’re right. A lot of it’s bullshit. Not that we knew for sure until Flick went to the Meregan planet and–”
Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Lincoln demanded, “I’m sorry, Flick did what?”
So they told him. Together, Asenath and Twister informed Lincoln of just what Felicity had done on the Meregan world, why she had been pulled there, and how she had helped the race of giants save their children. During the course of it, Asenath also told him about her sister and how Flick had been the one to pull the girl out of her misery over the revelation of her vampiric origin.
“That… explains a lot.” The man was quiet, thinking about that for a moment before letting out a sigh. “But wait, you said the Meregan pulled her there because they thought she was her mother. Joselyn knew the Meregan? And why was she… why was Joselyn pretending to be a normal person, and where…” They’d reached that most important question, possibly of his life. “Where did she go? Why did my wife disappear? Who was that man that came to threaten Flick?”
“Right, now we’re in the thick of it.” Asenath went quiet, hands tight on the wheel before she started. “Crossroads, they teach their kids that we’re all evil. Every Alter–well, they call us Strangers. Everything not-human is evil. They teach them to hunt us, kill us, gain our power, and hunt more of us down. They use magic, weapons, powers, everything to kill anything not-human.”
“Of course they do,” Lincoln muttered under his breath. “It’s part of that whole ‘us versus them’ mentality, times a million. I’m sure they ran into plenty of bad Alters out there, decided you were all bad, and now they convince generation after generation to hunt you. So your only choice is to defend yourselves as soon as you see them, which just convinced them you’re evil all over again.”
“Pretty much,” Asenath confirmed quietly before sighing. “But Joselyn, apparently she was different. She went to Crossroads back around early nineteen hundreds, and she ended up starting this whole… rebellion against that stuff. She believed that there were good Alters and bad ones. So she, some other Heretics, and those good Alters all joined up to rebel and try to change things, try to make things better. They wanted good people on both sides, Alters and Heretics, to work together to protect Bystanders from the bad ones. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden… let’s just say they didn’t like that idea. So, they had a war. Your wife was the leader of the rebellion.”
“You were a part of that, weren’t you?” Lincoln realized, watching the girl’s expression as she spoke.
Her response was a single word. “Apparently.” Then, before he could ask what Asenath meant by that, she continued. “The rebellion went on for a few decades like that. We were… apparently doing pretty well. Good enough that they were losing people on their side faster than they could replace them with hardliners. Kinda hard to make all your students believe that Alters are all mindlessly evil monsters when they see their friends, family, and former classmates working alongside them. So they were gradually losing their hold. Every year that passed, more and more of their students were joining the rebellion. At least, I think that’s how it was going. The memories are…” She paused before shaking her head. “Never mind, we’ll get there.
“Anyway, it was going that way for awhile. Then… well, Gabriel Ruthers happened. He used to be the Headmaster up at the Crossroads school. Then they made him part of the Committee. That’s the… their leadership, the leaders of the whole Crossroads society. They made him one of them partway into the war. And eventually, he decided that the best way to end the whole thing was to take Joselyn off the board. But he couldn’t beat her straight up, so… he… took her children.”
That brought Lincoln’s head snapping around. “That motherfucker did what?!”
“She had… twin babies,” Asenath’s voice was soft. “Ruthers, he had them kidnapped and then held them over her head. He ordered her to turn herself in, in exchange for her babies’…. In exchange for their lives.”
Lincoln had, quite honestly, never been so angry in his life. The things he had seen through his time in LA, some of it had been pretty bad. Even ‘abducted babies’ bad. But hearing that it had happened to the woman he loved, the woman he still loved even after all the time that had passed, it made him want to find the man who had taken her children away to use against her and rip that motherfucker apart with his bare hands.
Asenath was already continuing. She told him about the memory spell, about how the whole rebellion was erased from most of the people’s memories when the memory of Joselyn was taken away, and how the woman had been put into normal human society to live her life after that.
“But not everyone forgot her,” Lincoln realized. “That man that was here–”
“Fossor,” Twister supplied. “He’s a necromancer, and one scary dude.”
Asenath nodded. “That’s for sure. We don’t know exactly how he kept his memory of Joselyn, or how he found her later. But he did. From… from what we know, he showed up and threatened to take Flick away, to raise her as his… weapon, servant, whatever. But Joselyn made a deal with him, so he’d take her instead of her child. That’s… that’s why she disappeared.”
And there it was. After all this time. After all his wondering, agonizing over what he’d done wrong, or who had taken her, or what had happened, the answer was there. Lincoln finally knew, finally understood, why Joselyn had walked out of his life.
For Felicity. She had left to save Felicity from the terror, pain, and misery of a life in service to that monster. And in turn, she had taken on all it for herself. She had… she was… for ten years, Jos had been–
“Stop the car,” he managed through a strained voice. As the girl quickly pulled over to the side, Lincoln shoved his door open and half-fell out. Landing on his knees, he threw up.
It kept coming for a few seconds, before he simply knelt there with his eyes closed. His body felt like heaving again. He wished his soul could throw up. He wished he hadn’t seen as many things as he had as a reporter, so that his mind wouldn’t immediately jump to everything that that piece of shit had been doing to his wife, what he obviously wanted to do to Flick.
“That’s why he was here,” he managed once he’d picked himself up and gotten back in the car. “Because Flick found out about her mom, so she’s been looking for her. So he showed up to threaten her into leaving him alone.”
“Actually,” Twister corrected, “it was his son that came first. Daddy Necromancer was just there to grab his brat, and put in a little psychological trauma just for the hell of it.”
“His son?” Lincoln started before jerking in his seat as the realization came. “Ammon!” he blurted, eyes wide. “That’s why that kid was so obsessed with Felicity, why he was over all the time, why–what–what the hell did–”
“As far as we can tell,” Asenath informed him, “Ammon came by himself, of his own volition. That’s what got me involved. He… he killed a girl at a gas station on his way to town, Denise. Her mother called me–”
“Wait,” Lincoln interjected. “Her mother just called you? How did she get your number?”
Shrugging, Asenath replied, “I help people out. It’s what I do. Then I give them my number and tell them to have people call me if they know anyone who needs my kind of help. They think I’m just a really effective, really young-looking private detective.”
“That’s pretty… convenient, isn’t it?” Lincoln mused aloud. “I mean, I’m sure you’re effective. But this… Ammon kills one girl at a gas station somewhere… not even in town, and her mother just happens to get your phone number from someone, which just happens to lead you directly to our house? And that’s all just… coincidence? Who gave her mother your number?”
The question made Asenath blink, then frown. “… you know, I’m not… sure. Like I said, my number gets passed around, so I’m used to getting weird calls. But now that you say it like that…I think I need to call Denise’s mother the next time we get a chance.”
Shaking that off, she continued. “Either way, Ammon was here to see his sister. But he broke his Daddy’s rule about staying away from Flick, so Fossor came to get him. All those attacks that night, the ones all over the country, they were distractions. He wanted to make sure all of the Heretics that were supposed to be watching over Flick were too busy to interrupt.”
Slumping back in his seat, Lincoln forced back the urge to vomit once more. “Ammon is Joselyn’s… he…” Shuddering, he blinked a little. “But what does that have to do with the werewolves that attacked us? Do they work for this… Fossor?”
Coughing, Asenath shook her head. “Actually, the wolves have nothing to do with Fossor, as far as we know. No, that’s… something else.”
“Something else,” he echoed, staring at the vampire. “Just how busy has my daughter been this year? Does she even go to class?”
The girl chuckled slightly. “You’d be surprised. But we’re here.” She had pulled the car off the freeway by that point, stopping in the lot of an apartment building next to a blue SUV.
“Here?” Lincoln looked around. “What is this place?”
“Just a pitstop,” she answered. “Like the house back there in town, but further away. I’ve been renting an apartment here too. We should have time to get in there and let everyone take a shower to get your scent off. Then I’ve got fresh clothes for everyone. We toss the old ones and transfer all the stuff from the trunk into the new car.” She nodded to the SUV beside them. “Then we get the hell out of here. I wanna be back on the road in twenty minutes, max. So let’s move.
“And then,” she added while stepping out to start across the lot to the building, “I’ll tell you all about your daughter’s crippling inability to focus on one goddamn problem at a time.”