“A real life murder mystery, are you serious?”
“Yep!” Avalon half-chirped and half-growled in a put-on show of casualness betrayed by her clear annoyance and frustration. “You know, just one of those things Felicity managed to trip over.” As she said those words, the girl looked over her shoulder toward Aylen, who had been the one to ask the question. The two of them were on the edge of the new Wonderland wild west ghost town, watching Salten flying overhead. Avalon had needed a distraction, so she had her Peryton friend brought down to stretch his legs and wings. One of the Wonderland kids was perched on a special saddle they’d put on him. Salten had, of course, complained, but not too much. He liked giving rides to little kids, much as he might’ve made a show of grumbling about being saddled.
Now, of course, there was a line of kids waiting for their turn. Avalon was ostensibly making sure everyone had their fair amount of time, but mostly she had been pacing back and forth obsessing over what was going on with Flick. Then Aylen showed up and gave her a reason to rant about the whole situation. Not that she was angry with Felicity, of course. It wasn’t her fault she disappeared. They had all gone in to check that place out, after all. It was just her luck that she’d been part of the group to get sucked into what turned out to be a secret vault in a pocket dimension.
Honestly, after the past year and a half and everything that had happened since Avalon had met Felicity Chambers, it wasn’t even that surprising. She was mostly annoyed that her girlfriend had been taken away from her yet again without either of them having any say in the matter.
Now, she faced her other girlfriend and sighed. “She’s in there right now with those kids, Marina, and Fahsteth’s daughter, trying to solve a couple murders before the computer system will let them leave. They’re stuck in that place with a murderer, and I can’t do anything about it.” After saying those words, she turned and whistled for Salten to come down so the next kid in line could have a turn.
Aylen grimaced slightly, stepping closer before tentatively putting a hand on Avalon’s shoulder. “I, ahh, I know that has to be frustrating. I’m sorry.” She paused briefly before offering a very faint smile. “This whole situation is strange, isn’t it?”
“Strange because I have one girlfriend trying to help me feel better about my other girlfriend being magically teleported away to solve a decades old murder?” Avalon snorted audibly. “What’s so strange about that?” Her head shook then as she pulled the other girl’s arm to tug her into an embrace. “I’m sorry you have to put up with this. I’d understand if you want to get out of here.”
“Are you kidding?” Aylen retorted while returning the firm hug. “You’ve seen my family. This isn’t that bad. Besides, I know why you’re worried about Flick. I care about her too. Not like you do, but still. She has a habit of getting in trouble.” She paused thoughtfully before adding, “On the other hand, you know if anyone in our class group is ready to deal with a secret murderer, it’s her.”
Still holding onto the other girl, Avalon smiled to herself. “Of course. Though she’s not the only one well-suited for it. I’m sure you could sniff out a killer pretty well.”
“Maybe if they were about to strike again,” Aylen mused while leaning back to look her in the eyes. “Even then it’s not exactly reliable. I can’t tell every time someone is about to die.”
By that point, Salten had landed. Avalon squeezed the other girl one more time before moving to help the one boy down out of the saddle before lifting the next volunteer. The new young girl was a squirmy, bouncy Rakshasa child, who settled down once Avalon firmly told her that if she didn’t get strapped in properly she wouldn’t be going anywhere.
Soon, she was all set, and Avalon gave Salten half an apple to chomp down before sending him back up in the air. As the other kids all oohed and ahhed, split between asking the just-finished boy how his ride had been and watching the Rakshasa girl on her own turn, Valley stepped away from them and turned her attention back to Aylen. “Miranda and I went right through that door when they disappeared. Jeanne didn’t even have a chance to use her spear. We ripped it down and got into the place. Not that it helped at all. There’s some tunnels down there with supplies that were probably meant to be sent into the vault itself at some point. But nothing useful. Jeanne was tearing through some of the mountain itself when we got the call from Flick’s dad about what happened.”
“He’s not very happy either, I take it?” Aylen guessed, reaching out to take the other girl’s hand.
Squeezing back as their fingers interlocked, Avalon shook her head. “Not particularly, no. But honestly, I think he’s happy this wasn’t part of some bigger plot. It wasn’t Kushiel or those Whisper things, at least.” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “I really don’t like the idea of her being in there trying to find a killer who’s been able to hide this long, but it could be worse, you know?” She paused before giving a heavy sigh. “And how bad is it that I can say that? Out of all the possibilities of what could have teleported Flick away and kept all of us from getting to her, this is pretty close to the best case scenario.”
“There’s been a lot worse, that’s for sure,” Aylen agreed quietly. “I guess in this case the devil you know isn’t better than the one you don’t.” For a moment, the two of them stood together, watching Salten fly through the air with his newest charge. Then she added, “You know, I understand that you feel frustrated and like you can’t do anything to protect her when this stuff happens, but you’re pretty wrong about that.”
Glancing that way, Avalon raised an eyebrow. “I’m wrong?”
Aylen met her gaze. “Yeah, sort of. I mean, sure, you can’t always stop her from being taken away on these weird trips. You can’t lock her in a box and make sure no one bad ever so much as looks at her. To be honest, I’m pretty sure you don’t actually want to do that anyway. But you can protect her. You have protected her. Even when you don’t get taken along with Flick, you still protect her. All that fighting she can do now, a big part of that is because of you. She’s one of the best fighters in our whole–in a few different age groups. And sure, a big part of that is because of being taught by people like Deveron, or her mom, or Athena, or–yeah, there’s a list. But another big part of it is you. You laid the groundwork, and you make her keep training. You push her to be better all the time.”
Turning to face Avalon directly, Aylen put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “You spend all this time helping her train and teaching her how to fight even better, and then she uses it when these people drag her off like this. She knows how to defend herself and she’s really good at it, because of you. You stand here and you talk as though you can’t protect her, but you do that by teaching her and making her train all the time. All those exercises you put her through, that’s you protecting her, Avalon. Because you can’t be there all the time. She’s ready for these situations, and much worse than this, because you make sure she is.”
Avalon processed that for a moment, before raising both hands to cup the other girl’s face. Gently brushing her fingers down Aylen’s cheeks, she leaned in to kiss her softly. Their lips barely touched, before she exhaled softly and touched her forehead against Aylen’s. “You’re pretty smart, you know that?”
“I have good breeding,” Aylen lightly teased, adding a soft chuckle. “You know, that’s an even more fun joke to make now that you actually understand what it means.”
For her part, Avalon chuckled as well before glancing up to make sure everything was still fine. Of course, Salten would have made certain she knew if something was wrong, but still. Sure enough, the Peryton was still flying in a lazy, casual loop while his diminutive rider squealed in joy. As she watched that, Avalon quietly asked, “Have you figured anything else out about the Arthur thing?”
“You truly are trying to distract yourself from this, aren’t you?” Aylen gave the other girl another quick kiss before stepping back a bit while running her hands through Avalon’s long hair.
“Just a bit,” Valley confirmed dryly. “Shiori’s already distracted. She’s off helping her sister with that whole finding the person who stole her dad’s memory thing. Meanwhile, I’m standing here watching kids fly around while I wait for Flick to solve a decades old murder in a pocket dimension. So yes, please, help me be distracted?”
Wincing, Aylen offered a helpless shrug. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how good of a distraction it’ll be. We haven’t figured out anything new. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do to bring him back. I don’t know if it’s something about my genetics, or something I can physically accomplish, or a choice I might make, or–or anything. I’ve been talking to Grandfather and he isn’t sure either. And my mothers don’t know anything. Or they all know exactly what’s supposed to happen and aren’t telling me because it’ll change something, I’m not sure which. Either way, there’s no answers coming from that direction. And Mercury already said he doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that I’m the one who’s supposed to do it.”
“It’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it?” Avalon quietly murmured, hand moving to cup the girl’s face once more.
Sighing, Aylen leaned into the touch while giving a slight nod. “I’d say you have no idea, but you do. How did you put up with that whole ‘being the one person who can enter the blood vault and get the spell that can stop Seosten possession and change the whole balance of power in the universe’ thing?”
“Mostly by not thinking about it in those terms too much,” Avalon replied with a cough. “It’s way too overwhelming if you let it be. Sorry I brought it up.”
“No, no, it’s okay.” Aylen insisted. “Trust me, I think about it all the time. How can I not? I’m supposed to… you know. Do that, somehow. It’s never far from my mind. In fact, I was just thinking about–hang on.” There was a buzzing in her pocket, and she tugged a phone out before reading over the text, a grimace finding its way to her face almost immediately.
“Something wrong?” Avalon asked while watching her expression.
Aylen glanced up, expression darkening. “Sort of, yeah. Shiloh’s asking for help. She and a couple others were supposed to pick up some new arrivals at the bus station, but there’s some old friends there. Well, definitely not friends. Old classmates, of the sort who stayed with Crossroads. They need some help dealing with the situation.” Quickly, she added, “But I can grab a couple others to–”
“No, I’ll go with you,” Avalon insisted. “I can’t help around here. Someone else can watch the kids and make sure they all get a chance with Salten.”
“Are you sure?” Aylen pressed. “I don’t want–”
Avalon immediately interrupted, voice firm. “Aylen, trust me, I do not need to stand around worrying about Flick for the next… however long this takes. Now please, just tell me where we’re going.
“Besides, if there’s one thing that’s gonna make me feel better about all this, it’s being able to punch someone in the face.”
Miranda joined them, instantly volunteering as soon as Avalon poked her head in the craft shop where the other girl had been distracting herself by talking to the elderly glassblower who had been working there and told her what was going on. The three of them were also accompanied by Nevada, as well as Erin Redcliffe. Given what Shiloh had reported about what they were facing, the five of them should have been more than enough. But better to be safe than sorry.
According to Shiloh’s report, she and a couple others were waiting across the street and had been about to make their move to make sure the station was safe, when they noticed Zeke Leven sitting on one of the benches. From there they had identified three other students from their year, as well as a single adult who appeared to be watching over them. This was a hunt. They were clearly waiting for the bus to arrive. Which would happen in the next fifteen minutes. There wasn’t a lot of time to spare. Not if they wanted to deal with this before there were even more civilians in the line of fire.
Now, they were all gathered inside the empty office room across the street from the bus stop. The blinds were drawn, but Avalon stood at the edge of them peering through the gap. She could see Zeke still sitting there, just barely in view, obviously watching for the bus to arrive. Part of her wondered why they would have someone who would set off every Alter’s danger alert as soon as they saw him sitting in plain view. But maybe they wanted a panic?
“I’ll handle Gilbert,” Nevada was saying. “The rest of you pair up. There’s four of them and eight of you, so two for each. Don’t be cocky, okay?” She turned a serious expression to them, a far cry from her usual perky attitude. “Yes, you’re all better than they are. You have a lot more real-world experience. But don’t be stupid about that. Take advantage while you can.”
The others who had been with Shiloh to make the original pick-up were Eiji Ueda, the large Japanese-Canadian boy whose study habits rivaled Vanessa’s, as well as Cameron Reid and Rebecca Jameson.
“Right,” Shiloh started to agree. “So we all pair up and spread out to jump these guys before the bus gets here. If we’re really quick and careful, maybe we can deal with it without scaring the people we’re supposed to be protecting, right? I mean, it’s not like they haven’t been through enough.” Her voice turned to a mutter then. “The whole reason we had to move them was because their old home got burned to the ground in a raid.”
Rebecca nodded. “They lost three people. Three members of their family. We promised they’d be safe on this trip, that as soon as they got here, we’d take them to their new home.”
“And they will be safe,” Avalon announced without taking her gaze off Zeke. “We’ll handle these guys and then take the Alters to that new house. We aren’t going to let anything happen to them.” Maybe she couldn’t help Flick right now, or contribute in any way to that whole situation, but she could help these people. She could make sure they didn’t lose any more people they cared about. She could help deal with this. She would help deal with this.
Erin spoke up from the corner of the room where she stood with her hand on the hilt of her sword. “That bus is gonna be here in twelve minutes. If we’re going to do this without letting those people end up getting caught in the middle, we need to get out there now.” She sounded anxious. Probably because she was thinking about her own father. Apparently he was still stuck back at Crossroads. Not because he was loyal to them or anything, but because they were essentially holding him prisoner. And probably not just him, come to think of it. He was just one example. Crossroads wasn’t eager to let anyone leave to join the Rebellion, to say the least.
Avalon knew there was something more going on with that whole situation. Erin had been spending a lot of time with Nevada trying to work it out, and the two of them seemed somewhat cagey about it. That was why the girl was with Nevada when they had called her for help with this. Hell, Erin was probably just as happy for the distraction as Avalon herself was.
“Yeah,” Rebecca spoke up, her gaze glancing toward Avalon with a nod of understanding. She was worried about Flick too. “We need to move. I’ll go with Eiji. If that’s cool?”
The tall, muscular boy agreed easily. From there, the others paired up, with Avalon and Aylen remaining together. However, just as they were about to move out, Valley gave one last glance out the window before holding her hand up abruptly. “Wait.”
“What do you–” Nevada started before looking that way. Clearly, she used some sort of X-Ray power, because she was staring right at the wall in the direction of where Zeke was, before cursing loudly.
“What?” Rebecca demanded. “What’s going on? What do you guys see out there?”
“Ghosts,” Avalon answered. “There’s a bunch of ghosts surrounding Zeke out there. And the others.” She grimaced before adding, “They don’t look very friendly.”
“Ghosts?” Shiloh echoed in confusion. “What’re ghosts doing out there? Why’re they messing with Heretics? They don’t stand a chance, right?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, we can be rather surprising and tenacious when we want to be. Well, our version can, anyway.” The voice came from the far corner of the room, where there should have been no one. As they all whipped their gazes that way, weapons raised, the assembled Rebel Heretics saw a single figure standing there. Or rather, hovering.
“Ahem, what’s the right word?” mused Invidia, the Whisper who had taken over Charmeine’s ghost. “Oh yes.