“Marina, Marina!” The voice calling out belonged to a young girl, frantic as she came flying around the corner. Literally flying, as the girl was clearly not human. She was one of the bird-like Lavinsi, complete with dark red feathers all over her body, wings, and a beak. Coming around the corner of the hallway in the museum, she nearly crashed into the subject of her frantic calls, barely managing to halt herself at the last instant thanks to the incredible aerial agility inherent to her people. She jerked backward in the air barely a few inches from crashing into the older girl, before hovering there. Her wing-arms were still and motionless, mostly used for steering through the Lavinsi’s maneuvers in the air rather than for any actual thrust.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the young bird-girl hurriedly cried out while hovering there. “I just didn’t want you to go without me because I really wanted to go on this trip and I didn’t mean to sleep in but I was really tired and needed a nap and I tried to set my alarm but it’s really confusing and I guess I set it for AM instead of PM but I’m ready now I’m really ready.”
With a small giggle, Marina Dupont held her hands up. “Baidy, wait, here, hands.”
The wings folded in and extended that way, as Baidy (her real name was Baiden) took Marina’s offered hands, breathing hard from her desperate flight down the hall. Marina held her wing-hands and the two of them breathed in and out together a few times, a trick that the older girl had learned to help the often overly-excited Lavinsi girl calm down so she could speak.
“I… I didn’t want to be left behind,” she finally managed, while slowly dropping from her hovering position to land on the floor. “I’m sorry I had to take a nap and slept in, but I really would like to go on this trip, please.” It was clearly taking everything she had not to rush through her words, forcing herself to stay calm. Even then, her feathers (those that were visible around her museum souvenir tee shirt with the pterodactyl on it and her loose sweatpants) seemed to vibrate with energy.
With a smile, Marina assured the girl, “Don’t worry, we weren’t going to leave you behind. Your uncle said you’d be here so I was waiting for you. See?” She turned, indicating the glowing blue circle on the nearby wall. “Portal’s still here. Just waiting for one more little bird girl.”
“Uncle Quing?” Baidy gasped. The older Lavinsi wasn’t really her uncle. They had no actual relation, as far as Marina knew. But he had essentially adopted the young girl a month earlier when she had been rescued from a group of slavers. Baiden had originally been the sole survivor of her nest, which had been wiped out a couple years earlier. She had been bounced around through several stages of imprisonment before Wonderland’s current Tie-Breaker, Jeanne d’Arc, had rescued her and many others. Some had gone back to their own lives, others went to the Atherby rebellion. But Baidy had stayed here at Wonderland with her new adopted ‘uncle.’
In a hushed tone, the Lavinsi girl whispered, “I thought Uncle Quing was busy at work.”
“Pshhh,” Marina retorted, “Too busy to make sure you got to go on this field trip? Fat chance. I’m pretty sure he’d lock us out for good if we left without you.” She reached out, gently pushing the errant feathers from the top of the girl’s head before turning to gesture. “Come on, the others are already there. You don’t want them to get all the balls.” With a wink, she added, “Then you’d have to play with one of the balloons, and do you know how hard it is to knock pins down with one of those?”
Baidy giggled musically. “Nuh uh, they wouldn’t make me use a balloon! You’re silly!”
“Oh, sure they would,” Marina teased. “And the ones who argue about it? They get the helium balloons.” She mimed throwing one of those, then watching as it would simply fly up.
With a loud burst of laughter, the young winged girl flew away from Marina, passing straight through the portal. Marina watched her go, smiled a little to herself, and then followed her.
She had officially left Crossroads (taking all the children she could so that they couldn’t be used as hostages or pawns by the warring adults) several months earlier. That had been on May twentieth. It was now September tenth. In ten more days, it would be four months. Four months since she had abandoned everything she knew and had become… quite possibly one of the most hated traitors out of a very large group of traitors. Because she hadn’t just left. She took children with her. Not as hostages, but so that they couldn’t be used as hostages. She’d seen and heard messages from those who said that everything that happened in this war would be her fault, because she had prevented Crossroads from forcing the traitors to surrender for their children. And she’d also heard the same for the opposite reason, that her refusal to give all the children to the rebelling Heretics would make the war go on much longer than it needed to, and that the blood of every innocent Alter who was killed by the zealous fanatics was on her hands for not giving the Rebellion that leverage. Though, of course, there were plenty on both sides who were just happy to get their children back. The hateful ones were few, but vocal.
For weeks, Marina had carefully sent the children back to their homes. Some were easy. The ones who had both parents on the same side (or only one surviving/viable parent) simply involved setting up a safe handoff point. Then there were the ones who had one parent on the rebellion and one on the loyalist side. Those were trickier. Especially given everything Marina knew now. She believed the rebellion. How could she not? She had been living at Wonderland, she saw the Alters just trying to live their lives and survive. Of course she believed the Rebellion. But was it fair to simply always hand the child over to the rebel parent then?
It was a hard question, that was for sure. Marina had been kept up night after night worrying about what the right thing to do was. In the end, she had simply taken it on a case-by-case basis. She spoke to each child about their parents, talked to them about who they might want to go back to, and researched both parents as well as she could, including talking to them over untraceable phones and e-mail about who should take their child. In some cases, she had urged them to pick a relative or friend who could take care of the kid in question, someone that might not be so directly involved in the fighting. In others, there had been a clear choice of who was better. And in a few, it had come down to simply letting the child decide who to go to.
And then… there were the ones who didn’t want to leave. Those were, in many ways, the hardest. These children had suddenly been introduced to a bunch of people they really liked here in Wonderland. They, particularly the ones intended to go back to Crossroads, didn’t want to be sent there. They knew that what they were going to learn was wrong, even if both their parents, or the only viable one, believed in the propaganda. They didn’t want to be taught about how evil their new friends were. And all Marina could offer most of them was the suggestion that they simply listen without believing it, that they keep their heads down, and maybe try to talk to their parents if they thought it might help. But even that, she wasn’t sure was a good idea.
That’s what she did with the children eleven and younger. The ones over twelve were different. Even if their only guardians were at Crossroads, Marina let them decide for themselves if they wanted to go back. She let them decide if they wanted to stay here at Wonderland.
That was probably the worst thing she had done, in the minds of many. Marina had simply allowed any child twelve and over to choose where to stay, even if it was against the wishes of their parents. It was definitely the hardest thing to decide. A big part of her thought she should simply send them back home regardless. That was the obvious ‘right’ choice, wasn’t it? They were children, they couldn’t decide for themselves.
But in this case, what Crossroads was teaching was wrong. She knew that. After spending first weeks and now months among the supposedly ‘always evil’ Alters, she knew for certain that they were wrong. They were teaching genocide. So no, in this particular case, allowing those twelve and up to choose for themselves was, in her mind, the right thing. They were old enough to make their own choices in that regard. At least… she believed they were.
Shaking all that off, Marina gathered herself before stepping through the portal. There was a brief twisting sensation in her stomach, but nothing too bad. Then she was standing in the back of a parking lot, surrounded by Baidy and a couple dozen other children. Some were the children she had taken from Crossroads, who had either chosen to stay, had no viable parents to go back to (that was another possible situation, children whose parents were either injured or dead and who had been taken care of by Crossroads itself), or whose Rebellion-aligned parents asked for them to stay at Wonderland where they would be safer than the middle of a war. Others were Alters, or even the children of Natural Heretics who were aligned with Wonderland.
It was quite an eclectic group, that was for sure. And all of them immediately began clamoring for Marina’s attention for various reasons. Some asked if they could go in now, others needed to use the bathroom, or were hungry, or thirsty. Most were just overly excited about being out.
Marina looked over their heads toward the other couple older chaperones for this trip. They were a werebear boy in his early twenties named Diles, and a female Akheilosan (the pale humanoids with shark-like teeth with the power to tame predators) named Sesh. The two of them were chuckling with amusement while watching Marina being bombarded by excited children. Diles, Marina, and Sesh weren’t the only protection here for this group, of course. It was entirely too dangerous to take a bunch of kids out for even a simple field trip for a couple hours, given certain enthusiastic Heretics from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. These three were simply the direct chaperones. There were others scattered around the entire block surrounding the bowling alley that was their destination for tonight’s activity, using magic to keep weaker and more moderately strong Heretics away, while keeping a sharp eye out for those who were too powerful to be affected that way. There were several emergency escape plans in case everything went wrong, including prepared vehicles if magic was cut off.
All this, just to take a few kids on a bowling trip so they could have some fun for an evening. If Marina hadn’t already been convinced that Crossroads was wrong, that would have done it.
“Okay guys, okay, hold on. Remember, what’s the rule about going into other places?” As she spoke, Marina adopted what she called her ‘big sister’ tone, firm without being dangerous. Some of these kids were scared enough of Heretics. She couldn’t make it worse for them.
A chorus of answers came with, “Don’t make a big mess!”
“That’s right, don’t make a big mess. We have to be nice so they don’t make us leave.” With a little smile, Marina gestured. “Okay, let’s go. Double lines, right up to the doors. No pushing, no shoving. Everyone’s gonna get a chance to play! Follow Diles.”
The werebear boy went first, leading the children up to the bowling alley doors and making them head through two at a time. He would make sure they all got shoes and balls, and that they were divided into teams for each lane. Marina and Sesh, meanwhile, brought up the rear to ensure everyone made it inside and that there weren’t any stragglers. The Bystander Effect, of course, would make sure that they were seen as normal human children by everyone inside.
Just as the last kid filed inside (the sound of excited babbling about who got to be on what team and what ball they would use filtered out through the open doors), Marina started to go before stopping as the shark-toothed girl beside her blurted, “Sept Stav!”
Sure enough, when Marina turned around, she saw one of the Wonderland leaders walking across the lot toward them. Stav was a Granakin, a rock-like humanoid with long silvery hair that glittered in the parking lot lights.
“Good evening, Sept Stav, I hope the Earth has found you well,” Sesh promptly greeted, head bowing a bit before she gave a bright smile that showed all her many, many teeth. Despite her dangerous appearance, Marina had never met a bigger geek than Sesh. She played video games, hosted literal tabletop RPG’s for some of the others, and spent hours a day scouring the internet for news about her favorite shows and games. She had a collection of manga and anime bigger than Marina had ever seen before.
She was also, as Marina understood, the daughter of Fahsteth, the mercenary who had tried to kill Avalon Sinclaire as a child. Sesh despised her father with every fiber of her being, while he had repeatedly tried to recruit her over to his ‘family business.’ According to the Akheilosan girl, the last time she saw her father, he was attempting to convince her that hunting was in her blood and that she would never escape being the same kind of person that he was.
It had been Stav who took her away from that life, who managed to beat her father into retreating so that Sesh could live her own life. And the girl basically idolized him for that. Which was something that Marina could hardly blame her for, given everything she’d heard about Fahsteth.
With a smile of his own, the rock-man returned Sesh’s bow. “Good evening, small toothed one,” he murmured, a nickname he’d apparently given her since she was much younger. “Would you mind if I speak with Marina here for a moment?”
“Oh, of course not, sir,” Sesh quickly replied. “Will you be joining us afterward?” There was very clear hope in her voice. Stav was an adopted father figure to the girl. One much better for her than the one related to her by blood.
“As though I could say no to such an invitation,” the man replied with a low chuckle. “Yes, we will both join you all inside shortly, I promise.”
As the two of them were left out in front of the building, Marina gave a slight bow of her own. Like the other girl, she greeted him with, “Good evening, Sept Stav. I hope the Earth has found you well.” It was the customary words of his people, she had learned over these months. Though one replaced ‘Earth’ with whatever planet they happened to be standing on.
“I hope you are well also, Marina Dupont,” the rock man graciously replied. “And I hope you do not mind that I am pulling you from your charges for a moment. This should not take long. I simply wished to ask… if you have given any thought toward attending the new school that the Rebellion has just opened. I hear they are still accepting latecomers, if you are interested.”
Taken just a little aback by his question, Marina opened and shut her mouth. “I… um. I’m sorry if I’ve overstayed my welcome at Wonderland, honorable Sept.”
She started to go on, but he raised a hand, head shaking. “No, no, not at all. I’m afraid you misunderstand. We’re simply… “ Stav paused as though considering his words. “It is time for Wonderland to move again. We have our new location chosen. But before we do, those who are intending to stay as residents need to be added to our magic that allows them to find and reach our new location. We simply needed to know if you intend to stay or go to this other school, for planning purposes. And… if I might speak personally for a moment?”
Realizing the man was genuinely asking permission, Marina hurriedly nodded for him to go on.
“I truly hope you stay,” Stav informed her. “You have been very good with these children, both those you brought along, and those who were already here. You are a wonder with these children, Marina Dupont. And as we say, wonders belong at Wonderland. Your leaving would be a great loss for us. Yet, you could also do quite well at this new school. You deserve to attend to your own education.”
Marina only hesitated for a moment before straightening. “I want to stay here,” she replied. “I believe… I believe in what they’re doing at the rebellion. I do. After the months I’ve spent at Wonderland with you guys, I… how could I not? But the kids here need me. And I need them. This is what I’m good at. If you don’t mind, sir, this is where I want to be.”
The rock-man offered her a smile. “I am glad to hear that, Marina Dupont. We will make it official, in that case. You will be added to the spell protecting Wonderland, and will be one of its defenders in times of crisis.” Extending a large hand to her, he waited until she accepted with her own before shaking it gently. “Now then, with that business out of the way, let us go in and bowl, shall we? I will need you to remain close as an impartial witness, of course. Sept Calvin and I have a bet, and I intend to break his high score.”
Holding the door for the large man, Marina gestured for him to go ahead. Left alone in the lot, she looked around briefly before starting to follow him in. There were two sets of doors to enter the bowling alley, with a vestibule between them. As she began to cross the space between the two sets of doors (there was just enough space for a couple vending machines and one of those coin-operated riding horse things for little kids), Marina’s attention was drawn down toward the floor at the sound of a squeak. A mouse, small, brown, and plain, sat there right in front of the doors. Wait, no, two mice. The second one came into view a moment later, both of them looking up at Marina curiously.
“Uh.” The willowy girl blinked at the mice. “Are you guys–” Before she could get further than that, a squeak from behind her drew Marina’s attention that way. In the back corner was another small rodent, this one a chipmunk. She’d barely noticed it, before the tiny creature abruptly slammed its head sideways into the bit of metal that stuck out from the doorjamb. As Marina yelped in surprise and took a reflexive step back, the chipmunk fell dead, while a glowing figure popped up out of it. A glowing figure that quickly resolved into… a little girl. She couldn’t have been older than ten years old, with black hair framing light skin, and eyes that were so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants and a large white hoodie.
“Hi!” the girl blurted to the suddenly baffled Marina. “Sorrywedidn’tmeantoscareyousometimeswedocuzit’sagoodwayoftestingpeoplebutthistime–”
“December.” The new voice came from behind Marina yet again, and she spun with a hand down toward the handle of her hidden corseque in time to see that the two mice were now dead, and had been replaced by a couple more figures. The one who had spoken looked like a fifteen-year-old red-haired girl who wore a schoolgirl uniform. “We’re scaring her anyway, slow down.”
The third figure was an Asian girl who looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, with short black hair and army fatigues, folded her arms while looking to Marina. “Do yourself a favor and don’t pull that weapon out. We didn’t come to fight, or to hurt anyone. Why do you think we waited until you were out in the real world instead of coming to find you in Wonderland, Marina?”
Eyes widening even more, the former Crossroads student frowned, taking a step back to put all three of them in her field of view. She didn’t draw her corseque just yet, but she didn’t move her hand away from the handle either. “You know my name? You–wait, I know what you are. You’re Seosten. I know what–”
The little girl, December, launched into another flood of words that were hard-to-impossible to follow. “Listenwereallydon’thavealotoftimetoexplainthisbeforeyourpeopleinsidestopbeingsodistractedandthingsgetawkwardsowe–”
Her mouth was covered by the red-haired girl. “She’s right, we don’t have a lot of time before things could get a lot more awkward. We don’t want to fight, we don’t want to hurt anyone. We just want you to pass a request to the people in that new school that your friend the Sept was just talking about. I’m April, this is December, and that’s May.” She indicated the Asian girl last.
“We know you have friends still in that place,” May herself informed her. “Friends in high places. You’ve got contacts, and you can get a message to them.”
Biting her lip, Marina let her gaze pass over each of them, trying to figure out if they were serious about not wanting to fight. “Are… what kind of message? If you’re trying to threaten them, I don’t think–”
December managed to squirm free, words blurting from her once more. This time, however, it was clear she was making an effort to slow herself down to be at least somewhat understandable. “Notathreat. It’s notathreat. Our boss is supposed toplaynicewhile the truceison.”
“Yes,” April confirmed. “There’s a truce for the rest of the school year. Our boss has to play nice during it. Plus, even longer if the truce continues the way your side wants it to. And she’s really curious about this school. That’s why she sent us.”
“We don’t want you to send a threat to them,” May explained. “We want you to send a request. A request to enroll the three of us in that school.”