Wonderland had moved again since the last time I had visited. Now, they were set up in a literal ghost town. Literal in two different ways, actually. In the sense that there were some ghosts (mostly of the cowboy variety) hanging around, and in the fact that it had once been an actual lived-in town on the frontier of the wild west. There had been a small mining rush in the hills slightly to the north for a little while, but it hadn’t lasted long enough for the town to transition into some other way of life once the silver dried up. Plus, the railway that they had expected to come near, or even through, the town had actually been positioned about thirty miles south. So, almost as quickly as it had been built up, the town had been abandoned as its citizens sought better places elsewhere.
Decades later, the town had been used to film a few old movies. That hadn’t lasted very long either before they moved filming to other places closer to California, but it had been big enough to have a few new buildings built on the edge of town so the people filming around the place could have places to stay. Those new buildings included the garage where we had come through the portal. Being out a short distance away from the town proper (so they could film the westerns without getting something like that in the shot) made for a decent place to have people teleport in, so they could have the anti-transportation spells and other protections up around the main area.
From here, the nearest (legally) inhabited town was called Geraldine, about twenty miles south-westish. Population: a whole two hundred or so. The Missouri River was a few miles to the east, through a more mountainous area. In this place, they had plenty of privacy, and advance warning if anyone happened to come near.
Marina explained all of that to us as we walked out of the garage and found ourselves standing at the top of a low hill. This was the hill where people had been mining back in the day. In fact, if we looked a bit to the right, we could see the old mine entrance. To the left was a gas station and a motel, both looking like they had come out of the 1950’s. Because they had. Neither of them were technically in service, though the Wonderland people had taken them over as well. Straight ahead, meanwhile, the old town of what had been called Gust, Montana lay stretched out away from the base of the hill. It consisted of a main street with about ten buildings on each side, including the saloon, post office, jail with the sheriff’s office attached, a boot and shoe store, gun shop, and more. Behind the left-hand side of the main street was an assortment of small houses. Behind the right-hand side, meanwhile, were the stables and a long barn-like warehouse where food and other supplies had been stored.
“See?!” Baidy flew up into the air over our heads hovering there as she pointed toward the town. “We used to stay in a museum, but it got dangerous there so we had to move, then we lived in a big warehouse and it was really crowded, but then we moved here and it’s got a lotta space!”
“Lots of room to spread your wings, huh, Baidy?” Marina put in with a small smile. To us, she added, “We’ve got a few who like to run a lot too. They love it here. Miles and miles of open space.” Glancing toward Denny and Dakota, she added, “Most of the kids are up in the mountains right now, but they’ll be back later. They went for a hike with a couple of the scouts, and Buddy.”
“Yeah, I was kinda surprised he wasn’t around to say hi already,” Miranda murmured while glancing around. “Hope we get to catch up with the big guy later.”
“You will,” Quing announced as the avian-man stood behind us. He wasn’t quite glowering, but it wasn’t an open and friendly look either. “Buddy has made it clear that he wants to say hello before you leave again. And he wishes to meet these two.”
“M-meet us?” Denny managed a bit uncertainly. “He’s the big troll, right?” Her eyes glanced back toward me with obvious nervousness. “He’s… he’s nice?”
“Very nice,” I confirmed. “Right, Marina?”
The other girl gave a quick nod. “He’s a giant sweetheart. Emphasis on giant and on sweetheart. Trust us, he’s one of the nicest people here as long as you don’t try to hurt anyone he’s supposed to be protecting.”
Swallowing hard, Denny quietly murmured, “I’ll try not to.”
Yeah, there was definitely a whole thing there that was going to take a lot of time and therapy to work through. I watched as she absently took Dakota’s hand, the two of them standing closer together while watching the town below as though expecting a giant angry troll to come charging out at them. They were clearly still nervous about how this was going to go, which I couldn’t really blame them for. The only way to show them that it was going to be fine was to get down there and let them see for themselves.
From the look that Marina gave me, she had the same thought. So, we started down the dirt road leading to the main part of the town. Quint stayed behind, apparently to do a patrol around the perimeter. On the way, there was a shimmering effect in the air that lasted for about fifteen feet. It kind of tickled a little bit. According to Marina, if we hadn’t been allowed through, the alarms would have sounded and we would have found ourselves in a time distortion field that would’ve slowed our movement drastically, giving the Wonderland people time to respond.
But, obviously we were expected and had been cleared. Something told me that Quing had done something back in the garage to allow us through the security field, but had kept it secret so we wouldn’t know exactly what was done. He wasn’t a very trusting sort, that Quing guy. Wyatt would probably love him.
Either way, we went on a tour through the town. We saw how the Wonderland people were living in this place. They’d worked some enchantments on the buildings to allow for extra rooms that shouldn’t have been there so everyone could fit. Apparently most of the regular civilians stayed in the various houses or in the motel above the saloon. The Septs lived and worked in the courthouse, children were educated both in the schoolhouse and in the church building, and most of the businesses were used for crafting things to be sold in online shops so the people could have regular Bystander money. They also raised cattle out on the fields and sold the meat to butchers.
We also met a lot of people along the way, of both the human-looking and very not human-looking variety. Some I’d seen before, though most at a distance, while others seemed new. Either way, they were friendly and cheerful. It was a lot for Denny, and even Dakota, to take in. They both kept looking around at everyone while clearly doing their best not to stare too much for fear of being rude. Still, the two of them were gawking a fair bit at all the different sights, especially when it was something like an eight-foot-tall crocodilian man putting the finishing touches on a beautifully hand-crafted grandfather clock that he planned to sell, or a cat-like Rakshasa woman brushing the coat of a preening Pegasus.
The point was, there was a lot to see around this place, and we’d barely scratched the surface even twenty minutes later. We kept stopping to look at things and talk to people. The younger girls didn’t do a lot of talking, especially Denny, who stayed almost entirely silent the whole time. But they paid attention, and were clearly enthralled with everything.
“You guys really like it here, huh?” I eventually asked as we stood outside the jail. Dakota and Denny were standing a few feet away, having a conversation with Baidy. They were talking about something to do with fishing, and how they couldn’t do it back anywhere near the Garden rebels place because of the whole Lotan and its pet Nuckelavee situation.
“It’s really nice,” Marina agreed quietly. “I think they like living in a real town, even if it’s a small one. They’ve got different houses, open space for everyone to stretch their legs and wings, even a school. Hell, they have businesses. Real businesses where they can make things and get money for it. It’s… it’s a real town here, you guys.”
Avalon, who had been pretty quiet through all of this, spoke up. “I should bring Salten here. I mean, he already gets plenty of space to run and fly around on the station. They have rooms for that. But I think he’d like to set foot on Earth too. He deserves that.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll bring him down, and Choo too,” I assured Valley while putting an arm around her and squeezing. “They can run around and play tag out there. Can you imagine it?”
“Imagine?” Valley retorted, “I’ve seen them do it. And yeah, probably better for them to do it somewhere that Salten won’t break a window turning his head too fast.”
“So that’s what happened the other day,” I exaggeratedly gasped. “Eiji kept insisting that he looked at his reflection in the window and it blew apart.”
“I’m not saying that couldn’t have happened too,” Valley mildly replied as a very small smile played at her face. “Salten’s only broken so many windows.”
“Speaking of open fields and broken windows,” Miranda started while giving me a nudge from the other side, “Maybe we can get a baseball game going at some point. Didn’t you say Sarah’s a good pitcher?”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied with a nod. “And are you sure you want to do that? Remember what happened the last time you and I played baseball?”
Miranda huffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh please, what’re the odds that you’ll go sliding into home and accidentally find a skeleton finger twice?”
Dakota, who had been saying something about some scary movie, abruptly pivoted to face us. “Wait, what? A skeleton finger?”
“More than just the finger, really,” Randi noted thoughtfully. “It was actually the whole hand and part of an arm, but most of it was buried. Everyone running across the bases for all that time worked away the dirt until a bit of the finger was uncovered. Flick found it the hard way.”
“And by hard way,” I put in with a grimace, “she means I was sliding into the plate and my leg got cut on the bone. So I brushed the dirt away from it until we figured out what it was.”
“That was a fun weekend,” Miranda cheerfully added. “Especially since it’s Flick, so you all know what she had to do.”
Every single one of them, Miranda, Avalon, Dakota, Denny, even Baidy, simultaneously agreed, “Investigate.”
A blush crossed my face as I huffed a little bit. “Oh come on, it was a skeleton hand buried under the baseball diamond by home plate. You don’t have to be obsessed with investigating things to want to find out more about it. I bet every single one of you, aside from Randi cuz she was there, want to know what that was all about and whose hand it was.”
To my satisfaction, they all exchanged brief looks before giving an assortment of nods. Before they could say anything, however, I felt someone else’s presence step into range of my item-sense from the direction of the jail while a voice spoke up. “If the stories I remember hearing while I was there are any indication, this should be good.”
Turning that way, I found myself looking at a woman who looked a fair bit like the legendary movie actress Audrey Hepburn. Her dark brown hair was cut short in a pixie style that fell just above her ears, with bangs in the front. She wore an outfit that was straight out of the sort of Western that would have been filmed here back in the day, with somewhat tattered old jeans, cowboy boots, a leather duster, button-up Western shirt, belt with a silver buckle and a pair of revolvers on either hip, and a full-on cowboy hat.
Without thinking at all, I quietly (but not quietly enough) murmured under my breath, “Oh my God, Tabbris was right, I really did have a crush on you.”
As everyone turned it to stare at me and I realized that I said the quiet part out loud, my blush returned with a vengeance. “I mean–I ahh–I wasn’t–who said that?” Turning, I looked over my shoulder as though searching for the culprit. “I think it came from the uhhh–yeah.” Still flushing despite myself, I focused that way while trying to ignore the assorted snickers. “You… you’re… I mean back in the day you were…”
“When you knew me, I was Trevor Rawlings,” the woman replied. “Your seventh grade math teacher. The news about your mother had gotten around, and I wanted to see what her daughter was like. I was going to go as a history teacher, but it felt a little on the nose.”
“You were named Trevor Rawlings?” Denny blinked back and forth between us. “Wait, is this a disguise thing, or a ‘coming to accept your true self’ thing?”
“A disguise thing,” came the response. “I accepted my true self a long time ago. And the fact that I consider myself… fluid in that regard. I have male moments and female moments. I’m not too fussed about what I’m called, given I’ve answered to everything under the sun. But a simple ‘they’ works quite well at all times. My birth name–”
“Joan of Arc,” Dakota abruptly blurted, her own eyes widening. “Holy crap, you’re Joan of Arc.”
An audible chuckle escaped the w–them as they focused on the girl. “That’s one of the things I’ve been called in my life, yes. Though it was actually more of Jeanne D’arc in the old days.” They pronounced the first name something like ‘Jahn’ with a bit of a rolling Juh sound. “I have gone by a lot of different names and titles over the years.”
“So like, you were a Heretic when you did all that stuff?” Denny hesitantly asked while biting her lip. “But why would they be able to imprison you, and then… I mean…” She trailed off awkwardly, clearly unsure how to continue that line of questioning.
“It’s alright,” Jeanne assured her. “That wasn’t a great time in my life, but it was also very long ago. To answer your question, no, I was not a Heretic. I’m still not, actually.”
That made most of the others do a double-take, while I snapped my fingers. “That’s right, you were empowered by Michael.”
“Empowered in more than one way,” they confirmed. “But yes, in a literal sense, he shared a small portion of his Dyeusai power with me, after saving me from the flames that would have ended my life. The power keeps me young, heals my wounds, and allows me to channel it into a protective barrier, or into my weapon so that it may penetrate very nearly anything it comes up against.”
“You were–umm, friends with Seth,” I put in. “He mentioned that. I mean, he mentioned a lot more than that, but I wasn’t sure how much to believe.”
“Yes, that does sound like him.” There was clear fondness in their voice as they gazed off into the distance before focusing on us once more. “To answer your question, yes, we were involved. Well, off and on. We had our ups and downs, as any relationship spread over so many years. But whatever our complications, I was sad to hear about his death. That’s why I took up his old position as Tiebreaker for Wonderland.”
“I can summon him down here,” I hesitantly offered. “I mean, his ghost. He’s sort of… up in the station right now. We found him–his ghost that is, in the Auberge. So, if you want, I can bring him down here. You know, so you guys can talk.”
“I’d like that,” Jeanne quietly murmured, a thoughtful look crossing their face before they added, “But perhaps we should finish your tour first. Then I can meet his ghost, and apologize for not being there when he needed help.” It was a bit subtle, but I could hear the guilt and pain in their voice. They really had cared about Seth, that much was clear.
Before anyone else could say anything, the sound of running footsteps through the hard-packed dirt caught our attention, along with a voice calling, “Tiebreaker! Tiebreaker!”
It was a pale girl, about my age (or at least that was how she looked, it was impossible to tell for sure in this world). Her hair was short like Jeanne’s, but rather than being pixie-cut, it was spiked up and gelled (or magicked) to stay in place. The spikes of hair looked sharp enough to cut my hand if I had entirely lost all sense and stupidly patted her on the head. It was also gray. Not old people gray. More of a shimmering sort of gray, darker at the roots and almost silver on the tips. She wore baggy cargo pants with a lot of pockets, black tennis shoes with purple laces, an Abe Sapien from Hellboy tee-shirt, and a black San Jose Sharks (the hockey team) varsity jacket.
She came right up to us, skidding to a stop before offering a curious look. “Hiya.”
“Hey Sesh,” Marina greeted the girl. “These guys are just visiting for awhile. This is Flick, Miranda, and Avalon. And these two are Dakota and Denny. Guys, this is Sesh.”
Sesh had been smiling through all that, and with that smile, I noticed something else. She had multiple rows of very sharp teeth, like a shark. I knew what that meant. Or at least I was pretty sure. She was an Akheilosan. Like–
“Fahsteth,” Sesh immediately spoke up, as if she’d read my mind. Her attention wasn’t on me, however. It was on Avalon. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right. He’s my dad. But believe me, nobody wants him dead more than I do.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Even if the list of people who would tap dance on his grave is pretty long.”
“Um, who’s Fahsteth?” That was Denny, hesitantly asking the question as she looked back and forth between all of us. “I mean, besides a pretty bad guy, I guess?”
Avalon and Sesh both answered at the same time, “A piece of shit.”
“Jinx, you owe me a coke,” Sesh instantly announced before blanching slightly as she realized who she had said it to. “But, uh, I guess we’ll call it even on account of all of the times my Dad tried to kill you. Or helped someone else try.”
“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed Denny. “The short version is that he was working for the Seosten who were trying to kill me through most of my life so I wouldn’t open the vault that my ancestor sealed with a blood-relation lock and take the spell that would stop the Seosten from possessing people here on Earth.”
“The end of that story is we got in the vault anyway and that spell is what was used just a little while ago to make all our people Seosten-immune,” I added. “We can’t make it work for everyone in the world yet, but you know. One step at a time.”
“Anyway, the point is, I heard you cut my dad in half once,” Sesh informed Valley. “And even though that still wasn’t enough to kill him, that was still the best news I got in a long time.”
Dakota and Denny both sputtered audibly, the former blurting, “Being cut in half wasn’t enough to kill him?!”
“He’s enhanced himself a lot,” Sesh replied with a shrug. “Or had other people do it. Actually killing him requires rolling a nat 20 like five times in a row.”
Avalon stared at her blankly, along with the rest of us. “It requires rolling a what now?”
Before Sesh could answer, however, Jeanne spoke up. “You were trying to get my attention? Is there a problem?”
Sesh shook her head. “Not a problem, something awesome. You’ve gotta check it out. I was hiking through the hills over there and I found a door. Like, a vault door straight out of Fallout. It’s built right into the hill, but it’s really hidden. You have to squeeze through these rocks and bushes and stuff, then crawl through a tunnel, but then it opens up and there’s this circular area with some water coming out of an underground stream, and the vault door is right there and it’s fucking cool.”
Arching an eybrow, Jeanne replied, “Well then, why don’t we suspend the tour for a moment and go see this ‘fucking cool’ vault door?”
Looking to the others, I shrugged. “Sure, why not?
“But I swear, if we see the name ‘Vault-Tec’ written anywhere around there, we are walking away and never looking back.”