The blurted expletive burst from Erin’s mouth as she looked away from the cell phone she’d been intently staring at for the past minute with disgust. “They really think I’m that stupid,” she muttered while gripping the phone and snapping the device in half. Both pieces were tossed into the nearby trashcan along the side of the path that led through the park she was standing in. Late as it was, the park was dark, save for spots of illumination from a few lampposts.
From a few yards away, Dylan spoke up while continuing to coast back and forth on the playground swing in the relative darkness. “Too many spy eggs getting in your batter?”
“What?” Blinking that way briefly, Erin belatedly nodded. “Something like that. They’ve obviously taken over my dad’s phone number and emails. I can’t get hold of him. I mean, ‘he’ answers my messages, but it’s obviously not him. Whoever’s writing his responses or answering in his voice doesn’t pass any of my tests. There’s things he should know, things he should pick up on about what I’m saying, and they don’t. They think I’m stupid enough to fall for their idiotic tricks.”
Tucking her legs to swing backward before snapping them out for a good forward arc, Dylan replied, “They sound really clingy. Why are they so mad about you leaving, are you a princess?”
“A prince–” Erin laughed, shaking her head. “No, but let’s get out of here before the royal guard show up anyway. I don’t know how long it’ll take them to trace those messages, but I don’t want to find out.” She glanced around the park, already nervous. It had been a little over a day since her escape from the grocery store, and it all still felt like a dream she would wake up from soon.
Kicking her legs out for one more high swing, Dylan hopped off at the end in a jump that brought her close to the waiting Erin… then sprawled out awkwardly across the grass with a yelp. Rolling over, the dark-haired girl looked up to the Heretic and raised a hand for help while asking, “Well, how come you stayed with these Crossfit people for so long if they’re that bad?”
Erin sighed at that, reaching down to catch the girl’s hand. She pulled her up while replying, “Crossroads. And they’re not bad. I mean it’s–not all of them–we didn’t know what…” Pausing, she admitted, “It’s a long story. A real long story. I’ll tell you about it after we get out of here. And you can tell me about you, because I’m curious about that whole story. Come on. Like I said, gotta go.”
The two turned to walk out of the park, while Dylan whistled. “C’mon, Fiesta, we’re leaving!”
In response to that, one of the dark shadows in the far corner of the playground area seemed to get up and move, revealing, as it moved closer to the light, a massive wolf-dog creature. As big as a lion, she was the same Crocotta from the grocery store that Erin had chosen not to report finding after seeing her with an assortment of puppies. And trailing along behind their mother were those same pups. There were six of them, whom Dylan had apparently named Taco, Nacho, Burrito, Fajita, Chalupa, and Queso to go with their mother’s name of Fiesta. Erin was pretty sure the other girl had been really hungry when she came up with all those names.
It was… strange being around an obvious Stranger-Beast like the Crocotta without fighting it. Erin had been raised to believe that Crocotta would almost never stop eating. They were constantly ravenous, filling their bottomless pit stomachs with absolutely anything they could, whether it was traditionally edible or not. There was very little their teeth couldn’t bite through, and they seemed to gain nourishment of… some kind from anything they shoved into it. They were, as far as she had always been taught back at Crossroads, essentially mindless beasts who devoured entire houses, neighborhoods, and towns if not stopped and culled in time.
But when she and this Dylan girl had escaped the grocery store the night before, finding themselves in the old-looking creepy house that Dylan said belonged to her, Fiesta and her pups had been waiting. And despite what Erin had learned, the Crocotta did not, in fact, eat literally everything from floor to ceiling. She and her offspring were clearly hungry, of course. But Dylan had simply fed them each a decent amount of meat for their size, along with a single metal coin for each of them. The coins were enchanted with some kind of spell, and when Erin had asked about it, the other girl had simply told her that it didn’t matter what kind of spell it was.
Because that was the truth about the Crocotta. They did eat a fair amount. But in reality, they had to be fed with two different things. They ate regular food and magic. Getting both was the only way for them to be satisfied. In the wild, they tended to rampage through places eating anything they could in order to take in the little bit of ambient magical energy all things naturally absorbed (and that living beings created). If they were simply fed a regular diet of objects enchanted by various spells, they were fine. Erin figured they’d probably like Enners too, the coins enchanted with blank magical energy that Heretics used as currency. Anything with magic.
Now, the two girls walked down the sidewalk rapidly away from the park, with Fiesta and her six pups trailing after them while the animals all made happy little barking noises. If any Bystanders noticed them, they would simply see a grown dog and her litter walking with their owners.
They didn’t go far before Dylan tossed another of what she called her ‘trip bags’ in front of them. A cloud of smoke enveloped the group, reaching around to take their canine followers. It didn’t take them directly to their destination, of course. As Dylan put it, that would have been too easy to track. Instead, the teleport spell jumped them through half a dozen locations for a split-second each time. It was… disorienting, to say the least. But just as Erin’s stomach heaved, the spell finally deposited them onto the large grass yard behind the old mansion they’d eventually appeared at the night before. Immediately, Fiesta and her pups went running across the yard, bounding happily in circles before sniffing along the tall fence that blocked them off from the dark forest beyond. Far off in the distance, the lights of a nearby city could be seen.
Now that they were safely away from the park and fairly unlikely to be jumped by a Crossroads squad anytime soon, Dylan curiously asked, “So, how’re you gonna find your dad now?”
Letting out a long breath, Erin admitted, “I don’t know. He’s not staying at our house, he already told me that after the whole Rebellion thing started. They moved him to a ‘safe location’ that he couldn’t tell me anything about. And even if he was at the house, it’s gotta be surrounded by now. If they think I’m stupid enough to believe some schmuck posing as my dad is the real thing, they definitely think I’m stupid enough to walk right up to our old house.” Her eyes rolled. “I’ve gotta think. There’s ways to get around them and talk to someone who can help me, I’m just… not sure how yet. I can’t exactly look up the phone number or address for these guys.”
Shaking that off, she focused on the girl in front of her. “But seriously, you’ve gotta tell me about you. Cuz this is all really confusing. You’re amazing at magic, but you don’t know anything about Heretics or the bigger world out there? And this place. This is like…” Pausing, Erin looked around, her gaze moving toward the enormous, ancient-looking mansion ahead of them. “This place looks like it’s haunted. You live in an empty haunted mansion on the outskirts of some town, but work at a grocery store? And you know all this magic. And what about your family?”
For a few seconds, Dylan didn’t respond. She stared at the Crocotta bounding around the yard in silence before finally replying quietly, “It’s not my house. I stay here and take care of it, but it’s not mine. It really belongs to the fox-man. I mean, it belonged to him. But he’s gone now.”
Erin frowned at that, glancing toward the Crocotta before hesitantly asking. “The fox-man?”
“I used to call him Ninetales,” Dylan informed her, still not looking that way. “Like the Pokémon.”
“I’m sorry, like the what?” Erin asked, staring at her blankly. “Wait, no, I’ve heard some of the Silverstones–errr, Bystander-Kin talking about that at Crossroads. It’s a game about making monsters fight for you, right?”
It was, apparently, Dylan’s turn to stare at her in confusion. “You’ve never seen… Where did you grow up, the moon?”
Snorting, Erin muttered, “Something like that. Anyway, a nine-tailed fox man. A Kitsune. You mean a Kitsune lived here?”
“Yup, that’s it!” Dylan agreed, pointing to her. “I didn’t know what he was called when I was little, so I just called him Fox-Man or Ninetales. He’s the one who saved me when…” She trailed off, her expression dropping into a look of fear and loss for a moment before she shook it off, clearly physically shoving the feelings aside as she changed the subject. “Come on, let’s go inside before Galazien’s people turn their spy satellites this way. I don’t think my cloaking spells are up to snuff with two of us here. Not yet, anyway.” The girl was already walking toward the dilapidated back porch of the mansion while waving a hand toward the assortment of doll heads mounted along the fence. Each doll head had various glowing spell runes drawn across its face.
Gazing at the dolls for a moment, Erin gave herself a little shake before quickly hurrying after the other girl and into the house. Fiesta and the pups were fine outside, according to Dylan. They’d just have to bring the Crocotta out some food before they ended up getting too hungry.
As worn down and broken-looking as the outside of the mansion was, the inside had been fixed up pretty well. The kitchen was almost as large as the one the cooks used at Crossroads (Erin had to shove the thought of poor Chef Escalan out of her head really quick), the place clearly intended to serve an enormous amount of people. The same went for the rest of the house, really. It was gigantic. In the short time she’d been there, Erin had barely seen a small portion.
Now, as the two of them stood in that giant kitchen, she asked, “Um. What… I’m sorry if this is too much, especially after everything you did to help me. But what happened with the Fox-Man? What do you mean, he saved you? And um… is there a reason you don’t use his name?”
For a few long seconds, Dylan didn’t answer. She didn’t even move, standing there with her back to the other girl, apparently frozen save for her hands, which opened and shut nervously. When she finally did speak, her voice was quiet. “Galazien the Iron-Souled. It was his people.”
The urge to start blurting out more questions rose up in Erin, but she pushed it back down. Dylan would explain things in her own time and… well, in her own way. She just had to wait.
Another few seconds passed as Dylan moved to take down a glass from the nearby cupboard. She filled it up with water and took a sip before staring into the sink. “I was in fifth grade. I just got an A on my math test and I came home with it. I was waving the paper and yelling for my mom when I went inside. It was… it was the back door. I went in the back door. Not here. We lived in Iowa. Ames, Iowa. It was nice, we–” Realizing she was getting off on a tangent, the dark-haired girl shook her head quickly, taking another long gulp of water without looking up.
“I was calling for my mom, so I could show her my test. But there were people there, two guys right in the hallway by the backdoor. I thought they were wearing costumes, cuz they had… armor. They had metal and leather armor on, and they were holding these big swords. They were just standing there, looking at me when I saw them. One of them said, ‘That’s her’ and he sounded all… happy? He sounded really happy. Then I heard my mom yell for me to run, so… so I tried to run. I turned around, but the one guy grabbed my shoulder and he picked me up. I was yelling and kicking, but he carried me into the living room. My mom was in there with more of those guys. And some girls. There were like… ten of them in our house, all dressed in armor.”
Without saying anything, Erin stepped that way, putting a hand on the other girl’s back before gently guiding her over to sit on a nearby chair. She pulled another chair over to sit next to her.
Dylan, staring at the floor as she sat stiffly in that chair, swallowed hard. “They said some other things. I can’t remember. There was something about my mom hiding me from them. She was… she was sitting on the couch, with these two big guys next to her. When I tried to kick away from the guy holding me, she reached for me, but one of them hit her in the face. She yelled, I… I screamed, and the guy holding me threw me against my dad’s chair. Another guy put his sword against my mom and told me not to move. He called me something… not my name. He called me barn. Like, ‘little barn, if you do not sit and be silent, your mother’s blood will spill.’”
Another quiet moment passed, the girl clearly lost in her own memories before she closed her eyes. “My mom, she tried to tell them it wasn’t me. She said they had the wrong one. Then my dad came in. He wasn’t supposed to be home yet. He was supposed to be at work still. He came home early, with… with a pizza. He had a pizza in his hands and he… saw… he saw what was going on. But they… the guy by the door, he had this big axe and he… he… my dad… his head was… the axe… his neck… and his head was… and…” Her own head dropped, collapsing against her raised hands as she buried her face against her palms while falling forward off the chair to land on her knees against the floor.
Quickly, Erin moved off her seat and knelt next to the other girl. Without thinking, she put both arms around her. “Dylan, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it. You don’t have to say anything else. It’s okay. I’m sorry I asked. I’m so sorry.”
Dylan, however, continued despite her clearly wretched memories and feelings. “My mom was screaming. I was screaming. She tried to get up, but they… the man put his sword through her chest. She was dying. I watched her die. I watched her die and I saw my dad’s head. I saw them, and the man by me, he grabbed my hair. He grabbed my hair and made me look at them. He said, ‘They thought they could hide you from him. They thought they could hide from Galazien the Iron-Souled. You’ll come to him now. You’ll come to him with us.’ And… and he started to pick me up. But the Fox-Man appeared. He just… he teleported in with smoke, and he killed them. He killed all of them with magic. Then he picked me up and said we had to go. But… but just as he started to use another teleport bag, like… like the ones I use, another bad guy came through the door. He threw a spear and it… it hit the Fox-Man in the stomach right before we teleported.”
Abruptly, the girl pushed herself up to her feet, looking around the kitchen. “We showed up right here. His blood was all over me. I was screaming… crying… he was… he was dying. I said I could call 911, but he grabbed me. He grabbed me right over there.” Her hand rose to point into a corner of the room, by one of the sinks. “He held me really tight and told me not to trust anyone. He told me Galazien’s people would do anything to find me. He told me to get his book, his… his magic book. It was in the living room. I brought it to him and he… umm… he used some kind of spell. It wasn’t a spell from the book though, it was another spell. He pushed his fingers into my mouth. They had blood all over them. It was gross. I was trying to get away, but he held me really tight and put his bloody fingers in my mouth while he used some kind of spell.
“That was… that was only… only a few seconds, but it felt like a long time. Then he let me go. Because he was dead. He died with his fingers in my mouth, and I threw up. I threw up over there.”
“He was turning you into a Natural Heretic of himself,” Erin murmured under her breath. “Probably using a spell to make sure it took or… or something.”
“I don’t know what any of that means,” Dylan admitted, her voice hollow. “But when I looked at his magic book, I understood it. I just… I knew what the spells meant. When I looked at the magic that was in this whole building, I knew how to make them work. I knew what they did, how to copy them, how to make them different. I just… knew.”
“He was a Kitsune,” Erin quietly informed her. “They’re like… there’s different types that are good at different things. He must’ve been a magic-focused Kitsune. And he passed that instinctive expertise at magic to you.”
Shrugging at that, the other girl folded her arms, staring at the spot where the old fox-man had died right after saving her. “He had other magic books around here. I read them. I learned how to do magic, and I took care of myself.”
“You… you stayed here in this big empty house all by yourself?” Erin hesitantly asked. “How did you eat, or… or learn things? You didn’t go to school?”
“He had a big library. I taught myself,” Dylan replied. “And I used magic to summon food, or grow it in the backyard. I can plant seeds and use magic to make them grow really fast. Sometimes I’d sell things to people for money, or get jobs babysitting or walking dogs, that kind of thing. I used magic to make them think they already knew my parents.”
“And eventually you got a job at that grocery store,” Erin finished for her. “You’ve been hiding from this… this Iron-Souled guy all that time, after raising yourself in this mansion since you were a kid.”
“I saw his people sometimes,” Dylan murmured. “I saw his fire-breathing skeleton horses, and his slaves. Never him though. He can’t get here. I think he needs me for that, but I don’t know why. I just know he can’t find me. I have to keep hiding.”
Erin had a lot more questions, but she didn’t want to push any further after everything she had just heard. “I’m sorry, Dylan,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry you went through all that, and that you’ve been alone for so long. You… is that your real name, the one you told me before, Dylan Averty?”
“Dylan is,” the girl murmured. “Not my last name. We… we used my mom’s last name. I dunno why. All I remember was my mom said she wanted to hold onto her past just a little bit. Maybe that’s why I keep using Dylan. Because I don’t wanna let that go.”
“Dylan,” Erin started slowly, “what’s your real last name? What was your mom’s real name?”
There was a brief pause then, before Dylan answered in a soft, sad voice. “Holt.
“My mom’s name was Vanessa Holt.”