Three figures hurried along the sidewalk near a mall in the middle of a mid-sized town somewhere in the western United States. Two female teenagers trailed behind a thin, older man, who bustled along in front of them, urging them onward.
“Come along, Veronica,” he prompted with a gesture toward one of the girls. “Let’s pick up the slack. We’re already running late. Wouldn’t want to be late for your meeting.”
Avalon paused in mid-step, looking toward the man in front of her. She glanced to Koren beside her before coolly pointing out, “We still have four and a half hours before the meeting, you know. And my name isn’t Veronica, it’s—”
That was as far as she got before the man was suddenly facing her, his hand covering her mouth. He made a loud, long shushing noise while putting his other hand to his lips, his eyes darting around wildly. He stared suspiciously at a car that was passing by, waiting in silence, even though there was no possible way that the inhabitants could have heard them. Silence, that was, aside from the uninterrupted, “Shhhhhhhhh…”
“I would’ve done that,” Koren idly remarked from where she was standing, “but I figured I’d probably end up on the ground with a broken arm if I tried it.”
“No real names,” Wyatt urged, his hand still covering Avalon’s mouth. “You don’t know what kind of traps might be set up to trigger if it hears your name. Or who else might be listening. We use codenames and stay subtle. That’s how we survive. You understand? Subtle.”
Avalon could have pointed out that none of the people who had stopped to look at the quirky-looking man with his hand over a teenage girl’s mouth as they stood beside a busy street thought he was being all that subtle. But that probably would have caused more problems than it solved. She wouldn’t put it past the man to try to interrogate every person who had stopped to rubberneck at the sight. And even though they did have plenty of time, she didn’t want to sit through that. What they had come for was much, much more important than that.
So, she just gave a slight nod until the man removed his hand from her mouth. There was no sense in arguing about it. As eccentric as he might have been (and she had a feeling that he played that up to some extent so people would underestimate him), Wyatt was still the very best security guard that Crossroads had. He was the reason she was still alive, that much she was certain of. And, beyond all that, he was a good man. He was a good person. And he was Flick’s brother. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her. She just had to listen to him, quirks and all.
“Fine, I’m Veronica,” she replied simply. Waiting until her response made the man relax a little bit, she added, “But we still have four and a half hours before we’re supposed to meet them.”
Them, in this case, was Koren’s mother (Wyatt and Flick’s sister), Abigail, Flick’s ancestor and Avalon’s first real father figure, Seller, and Flick’s old best friend, Miranda. They had asked Wyatt to come see them, because they needed his help with something that they didn’t want to talk about except in person. It was some big secret that they wouldn’t even tell Gaia.
Koren had come to see her mother, and Avalon had convinced Wyatt and her adopted mother to let her come as well to get away from the school for awhile. And, because if the trio from Eden’s Garden had something that important to talk about, it clearly either had something to do with Flick, or with the people who were trying to kill Avalon herself. Either way, she was involved.
Besides, she wanted to see Seller. It had been awhile.
If any part of Avalon had expected the news of how long they had to calm the man down, she was sorely mistaken. “Only four and a half?!” he blurted, head shaking as he spun around. “No, no, no, it’ll take at least that long to set up even a rudimentary perimeter. Come, hurry, hurry. We have to get this done before they show up. No time to waste.” Then he was moving even faster than before, rushing remarkably quickly along the sidewalk while leaving Koren and Avalon to shrug at each other before jogging after him.
Together, the three made their way down into the parking lot. But they didn’t go into the mall itself. Instead, the trio moved to one of the buildings in the far corner of the lot. At one point, it had been a seafood restaurant. But that had been closed down for several months, with barely any interest paid to the for sale sign in the window.
By the time they reached the back door, Wyatt had already taken a set of keys from his pocket. He unlocked the door, ushering the two girls in before turning to the nearby keypad as the alarm steadily beeped its warning at him. His finger danced over the pad, inputting a seven digit code from memory before the beeping finally stopped. Rather than relax, however, Wyatt immediately input a second seven digit code before there was an audible chime.
As the man finally turned away from the keypad, Avalon stared at him. “There was a second alarm? How did you know that? How did you get the keys? That wasn’t a magic spell or anything, you had the actual keys to get in here.”
“Of course there’s more than one alarm!” Wyatt informed her incredulously. “Do you think I’d only have one alarm on one of my buildings?” Belatedly, he amended, “Technically, there’s six, but I disabled the first four on our way here. Those last two have to be done in the building itself. Even I can’t do it remotely. Remember, your security is only as good as you make it be.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Avalon’s head was shaking. “Your building? I thought you just picked a random place that was closed down so we could meet the others in private.”
From the way that the man was staring at her for that, she might as well have suggested that the three of them abandon the whole Heretic thing, form an interpretive dance troupe, and take their act to Vegas. He sputtered for a moment before managing, “Picked a random place? Picked a random place? As if I would do something like that. As if I would relegate something this important to chance? That’s–that’s just- I would never even–”
As the man continued in that vein, Koren spoke up. “Wyatt owns about thirty or forty different places like this all over the country, under different names. Restaurants, laundromats, motels, pawn shops, little businesses that no one really pays attention to. He’s constantly making sure there’s a few that are closed down. You know, either they’re out of business, or they’re under renovations, pest removal, whatever. The point is, he always has a few to choose from that he knows are safe for private meetings, to fall back to in case Crossroads is attacked, or anything like that.”
Wyatt’s head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, naturally. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that. It’s common sense. Why would you meet in a random place that you have no control over? That’s preposterous.”
“Okay, sure.” Avalon found herself nodding. “But on the way down here, you were acting like four hours wouldn’t be enough to make this place secure. If it’s your place, then–”
Wyatt interrupted. “Of course! If this was some random place, we’d need days to secure it, not hours. Now come, we’re wasting time. Abigail was very specific. Whatever they need to talk about, it’s important and we need absolute privacy and secrecy. Take this.” Extending his hand, the man offered the two girls a notepad before nodding to Koren. “You know what to do.”
The other girl nodded, taking the notepad before gesturing for Avalon. “Come on. He’s got instructions for spells written in this thing. We’re supposed to use them on the parking lot while he gets things done in here. And,” she added while stepping outside, “we have to follow the instructions exactly. He’ll be double-checking and triple-checking everything we do, trust me.”
Trailing after the other girl, Avalon quietly remarked, “Sounds like you’re learning a lot from your uncle.”
Koren coughed at that. “Oh, trust me, you have no idea. He takes this whole mentor thing really seriously. You should’ve seen the written test he made me take last week. It was like an inch thick. I felt like I was taking the SAT’s or something.”
As the two reached the parking lot and started to look at the pad of instructions that Wyatt had given them to work from, Avalon asked, “What do you think Seller and your mom want to talk about?”
Koren shrugged. “I’m not sure. But from what Mom said, it’s really important. They need Wyatt’s magic expertise for something. Believe me, I tried to get more details, but they wouldn’t talk about it. They’re being really cagey about it.
“But whatever it is, I get the feeling that the Seosten would be pretty pissed if they knew about it.”
Hours later, as Koren and Avalon sat at one of the booths in the restaurant while Wyatt went over his last minute security measures one more time, the man abruptly stopped. “They’re here,” he announced, moving toward the nearby door. He was there before any knock came, opening it to reveal Abigail and Seller standing there.
“Mom!” Koren darted that way as her mother stepped in, embracing the woman tightly.
While those two reunited, Avalon exchanged a brief embrace with Seller. She felt a lump in her throat. After what had happened with her birth father, seeing the man who had been her real father figure for so long affected her more than she had expected it to.
“You okay, kid?” the man asked, clearly noticing her reaction as much as she tried to hide it.
She forced herself to nod. “Yeah, I… I’m fine. Better since that piece of shit is gone.”
Seller grinned at that. “You did real good there. That cockroach had too many chances.” Expression softening then, he added, “But I’m sorry you had to be the one to do it.”
“I’m not,” Avalon replied flatly. “If anyone was going to put that bastard in the ground, it was me. If anyone else did it, I don’t know if I’d believe it was real. I almost still don’t.”
Coughing, Seller nodded to her. “Listen, there’s a lot we need to talk about. That and other things. But right now, there’s something really important to get through.”
“The other one,” Wyatt suddenly announced, “you said the other one would be here. Miranda. Where is she?”
“She’s beyond the security spells,” Seller replied, “waiting with our…” He paused, clearly choosing his words carefully. “…our guest. We told them to wait until you were ready.”
“He means until we warned you,” Abigail quietly put in.
“Warned us?” Koren blinked, she and Avalon exchanging confused looks before the girl added, “Warned us about what? What kind of guest did you bring? It’s not like you’ve got some kind of Seosten informant or anyth–wait a minute.”
That was all she needed to hear. Avalon was already through the door and moving across the lot while Seller tried to say something else. Her eyes darted around wildly until she spotted two figures standing in the shadows near the edge of the lot. Three more steps carried her closer, until she finally recognized the person standing next to Miranda.
Lies. Pace. Whatever she was going by. The Seosten-possessed girl stood there, staring through Avalon. It was obvious that she didn’t even see her. The intricately layered privacy spells that Wyatt had made them lay down ensured that all Miranda and Lies could see or hear was an empty parking lot. They had no idea that anyone was approaching.
“You,” Avalon blurted then, even as her hands moved to the bracelets that she wore on either wrist. One at a time, she slapped the bracelets with her opposite hand. There was a confirmation beep, and the bracelets expanded into her familiar gauntlets, before a solid-light energy blade emerged from the ends of both while she stalked that direction, moving for the unsuspecting crazy Seosten murderer while raising one of those blades..
“Stop.” It was Seller. The man appeared behind Avalon, catching her by the shoulders to bring her up short. “It’s okay. She’s with us.”
“With you? With you?” Avalon stared at the man incredulously, her mouth open. “Are you serious right now? Is she still possessed? Because I’m pretty sure there’s no way she couldn’t be. How is she with you? Do you know what she-”
“I know.” The man shook his head. “Trust me, Ha–Avalon, I know. Yes, she is still possessed, but it’s more complicated than that. Just… let us explain.”
If it had been almost anyone else, Avalon probably wouldn’t have listened. But for Seller, she sighed, retracting the energy blades from her gauntlets without actually dismissing the gauntlets entirely. “Fine,” she muttered. “But you do something for me first.”
Knowing what she wanted, Seller extended his arm, pulling his sleeve up. He waited patiently then, while Avalon used her field-engraver to carefully draw the Seosten-expulsion rune. Not that she expected it to actually do anything, but just to be on the safe side.
Sure enough, though Seller grunted a bit from the pain of the spell being used, he definitely wasn’t possessed.
By that point, Wyatt had joined them. He started to berate Avalon for storming out of the room where the majority of the security spells were concentrated, before stopping when his eyes found Lies standing there.
“That,” he announced flatly, “is one of the bad guys.”
Sighing, Seller nodded. “As I said, it’s complicated. Right now, she’s willing to help us. But she needs something in return. And her people are trying everything they can to kill her before that happens. Which means we need you to let her through the security spell so that she can get under cover before they find her again. Believe me, they’ve been… tenacious on that front.”
It took another few seconds of convincing that they weren’t being manipulated or coerced into this before Wyatt finally took the time to add Lies into the security exceptions. Once it was done and he had lowered the spell enough to let them in, Miranda and the Seosten suddenly jumped as the group clearly appeared right in front of their eyes.
“Oooh,” Lies started with a wide smile, “good trick. But do it again, this time with more flair. There was no showmanship behind it, no panache.”
“Take it easy, Theia,” Seller cautioned. “Things are complicated right now.”
“Theia?” Avalon blinked, looking between the man and the Seosten girl. “Who the hell–what?”
Clearing her throat, Miranda spoke up. “It’s a long story. Can we talk about it inside? My other selves think we’re still clear for the time being, but being out here like this makes me nervous.”
Wyatt was bobbing his head suddenly. “Yes, yes, inside. Everyone inside. There are spells out here, but many more covering the building. Quickly now.” He gestured for them to go, before adding in Lies’ direction, “And don’t think that you’re off the hook just because I’ve let you inside. You try anything, and you won’t live long enough to regret it, Missy.”
“Aww,” Lies’ smile just grew wider as she addressed Seller. “You said this was going to be complicated, but he’s already flirting with Theia-me.”
While everyone else sputtered at that, she started to walk to the building with a low whistle, leaving Avalon and the others to follow behind.
Koren was waiting there with her mother as they stepped into the restaurant, looking incredulous. Avalon had the feeling that Abigail had told her daughter at least some of what was going on while they were alone. But clearly not enough to stop her from still being confused.
“Okay,” Avalon started once they were all back in the building and the door had been closed once more. “What is going on? Why is Lies here?”
“Hey!” Abigail suddenly barked, “don’t call her that. It’s not her name.” She stepped that way, with Koren beside her as she put a hand on the Seosten’s shoulder. “Her name is Theia, and she’s going to help us. She’s going to tell us who Manakel is possessing.”
“Her name is Pace,” Avalon pointed out in a sharp tone. “Lies, Theia whatever you call her, she’s the one enslaving the girl you’ve got your hand on. And why would she help us?”
“Because she wants to stop enslaving her,” Abigail shot back, her own voice just as sharp as Avalon’s. “Theia wants us to help her get out of Pace without killing her. That’s why we need Wyatt.” She looked to her brother then. “We already tried the spell that Felicity brought back from Gabriel’s people. It didn’t work, but some other spell might, and you were the best idea we had about who could try and come up with something.”
“That’s the trade, isn’t it?” Koren put in then. “She wants to get out of Pace, in exchange for telling us about Manakel.”
Miranda nodded. “Yup. We help ‘fix’ her little problem, and she tells us everything she knows. Not just about Manakel, but all of it. Manakel especially. She says… she says that’s something we’ll want to know.”
“Yeah?” Avalon demanded, “And how are we supposed to believe that this is for real? What if she’s just setting all this up? What makes you think that we can trust her?”
“Trust?” Theia interrupted before any of the others could speak. “Theia-I am very trustworthy. We could have done a lot worse than we did. Why, Theia-I never even told Manakel about Present’s little secret.”
That was enough to drive Avalon across the few feet that separated them. Her hands caught the other girl by the shoulders as she shoved her back against the nearby wall. “Flick,” she spat. “Her name is Flick. Call her Present again, and I don’t care what kind of deal you’ve got. I will end it. And you.”
Holding up both hands placatingly, the Seosten nodded. “Right. Force of habit. Flick. Flicky. Yes. But for the record, Pace-I would really like you to do that again, harder next time. And maybe with mud and bikinis invol–oh. Would you pretend we didn’t say that?” She shrugged. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Pace-she’s telling Theia-me to say, and what was just a subconscious thought.”
Clearing her throat, Abigail reached out to pull Avalon’s arms back from the other girl. “Theia speaks for both herself and Pace. She uses the names to differentiate. Pace-I or Theia-I.”
Opening and shutting her mouth at that for a few seconds, Avalon finally shook her head. She felt tense, like she desperately wanted to hit something or someone. “What… what did you mean? What secret of Flick’s did you not tell Manakel?”
“The big one,” Theia replied, her tone knowing. “You know, the reason she can’t be possessed? Believe me, they all want to know that. But we didn’t tell them. We kept it nice and secret.”
Blinking blankly at that, Avalon glanced to the others before shaking her head. “Are you saying that you actually know why Flick can’t be possessed?”
“Of course we–” Theia suddenly stopped, head tilting. “Wait, wait.” She laughed suddenly. “You don’t? You really don’t know? Oh. Oh… wow. That’s funny. That’s really funny. We thought it was a trick. We thought you were keeping it secret.”
Avalon grabbed the girl again. This time, instead of pushing her against the wall, she pulled her closer, hands locked around her shirt. “What? What do you know? What the hell is it?”
“Theia.” That was Miranda. The girl looked just as taken aback as Avalon felt. “Please. What happened to Flick? Why can’t she be possessed?”
“Well,” the Seosten replied simply, “that’s easy. She can be. In fact, she already is.”
The words made no sense. They were gibberish. Avalon gave a sharp, confused shake of her head. “Wait, what? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Possessed,” Theia elaborated. “She’s already possessed. She’s been possessed the whole time. Obviously since before you knew her, since the Seosten tried to possess her a long time ago and couldn’t do it. She’s been possessed for years.”
That time, Avalon did shove the girl, hard against the wall. “Shut up!” she blurted. “No, she’s not! I know Flick! I know her. She’s not really one of your fucking people. She’s not being puppeted by one of you. She’s not one of your slaves!”
Bouncing off the wall, Theia shook her head. “Theia-I didn’t say that. We said she was possessed, not that she’s being puppeted.”
Miranda was there too, cursing as she demanded, “What the hell are you talking about?! Flick isn’t possessed.”
“But she is,” Theia insisted. “Remember the choker all of you stole from us? Our special choker? Theia-I saw the Flicky with it, while we still had it. We touched her. We saw her. We saw the Seosten inside her.”
Avalon felt numb, confused, lost, and empty for a few seconds. In the background, she saw Wyatt slumping down, muttering to himself about how he could have missed it. He looked shellshocked.
Abigail, meanwhile, was already pushing past her. She took hold of Theia, her own voice rising. “You said that the Seosten is in her, but not puppeting her. What does that mean?”
“Wait.” Theia shook her head. “Pace-I will explain. She is better at it. She understands more, doesn’t make the same assumptions. Theia-I will just… say the words that she thinks.”
Taking a long, deep breath, she continued. “We saw a small Seosten child with Flick. She was young, and small. Not an infiltrator. Not a spy. Not enslaving Flick. She was not controlling her. She was just there. Just possessing her. Waiting. We… thought that she was part of Gaia’s plan. Or maybe part of Gabriel Prosser’s plan, a rogue Seosten child that they used to protect Felicity Chambers from being possessed.”
Avalon rocked backward, taking all that in. Around her, she could see the others looking similarly shocked by the explanation. “Gaia… Gaia doesn’t know anything about that,” she muttered. “She would’ve told me, would have told us. And Gabriel… no, it wasn’t him.”
“Flick’s possessed?!” Miranda blurted. “But-but how? How? Why? Who would–some Seosten kid? A kid?! She–I don’t… That– that doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand.”
Seller’s voice was dull. “Neither do I. I… knew there had to be some reason she was immune. But I never thought—I didn’t.. Oh God. Gaia’s going to want to know about this.”
Theia spoke carefully again, clearly relaying only what Pace was telling her to say. “As far as we could tell, the Seosten child was not controlling her. She never made her do anything.”
“Flick didn’t know.” That was Miranda, speaking quietly, yet confidently. “Flick didn’t know she was possessed. Trust me, she didn’t know.”
Koren shook her head, speaking up for all of them then. “But if it’s not one of Gaia or Gabriel’s plans, then who’s the Seosten that’s possessing Flick? Where did she come from? And what does she want? If she’s not controlling her, then… then… what the hell is going on?”
The only response that came to that was silence, as everyone in the room exchanged helpless, confused stares. None of them knew the answer. None of them knew anything about the Seosten who was apparently possessing Flick, who had been possessing Flick the entire time she had been at the school, and long before.
“I’m calling Vanessa,” Koren suddenly blurted. She looked to Avalon while yanking the phone from her pocket. “I’m calling her before she jumps to her dad’s head again. I’ll tell them to meet us out on the beach, so we can tell them about this. If we can tell her before she jumps to her dad’s head again, she can pass on the message, it’ll–”
She stopped then, as the phone was clearly answered at the other end. “Hello? Vanessa–wait, Headmistress?”
That made everyone’s heads snap that way, as Koren blurted, “Why do you have Vanessa’s–oh. I… yes, ma’am.” Silently, she handed the phone to Seller, who took it and stepped away for a moment. Wyatt joined the other man immediately, both of them having a conversation with Gaia over the phone.
“They’re gone,” Koren spoke quietly, her voice dull. “Vanessa and Tristan, they disappeared. They… they think the Seosten took them.”
“Pffffft, no way.” That was Theia, shaking her head. “She’d never allow it. Manakel tried to make her let him take them before. She wouldn’t agree to it, and he wouldn’t dare go behind her back.”
“What?” Avalon’s head snapped around at that. “Who? Wouldn’t let Manakel take them?”
“Uh uh.” Theia wagged a finger at her reproachfully. “First, you have to help us, before we tell you more of those yummy secrets. We already gave you a freebie about the little Seosten possessing the Chambers girl. See, we’ve been downright charitable.”
The others tried fruitlessly to press the Seosten girl to tell them more, while Avalon just took a step away. The reminder made bile rise in her throat, as she turned to face the nearby window. In the background, she could hear Seller talking to Gaia. But she didn’t listen. All she could focus on was her rapidly mounting fear and confusion.
Felicity was possessed. Why or how that had happened, or what the apparent child Seosten wanted, she had no idea. But if they were in Seosten space, would the child remain silent? Was she still leaving her host alone, still content to just possess the girl without making her do anything? Or had things progressed past that point? Was she playing the long game? Now that they were in Seosten space, was it only a matter of time before the girl made her move and took over?
“Flick,” Avalon whispered, her cracked, hoarse voice barely audible as she stared up at the stars dotting the night sky. “Flick, please be okay. I don’t know what’s going on. But please… please be safe. I need you to be safe. I need you to be okay. I need you to… to be here. I need… I need…
“I need you.”