Author: Cerulean

Sharkhunt 23-02

Previous Chapter

The only thing more surprising than seeing Avalon with that look on her face was the fact that she gave no reaction to me teasing her for having that look on her face. She just stood there with that goofy smile, staring at Prosser while her mouth opened and shut a few times as if she was trying to say something, but couldn’t get the words out. It was both strange (for her), and adorable.

Not that I was surprised that the other girl was kind of goofy when it came to Prosser. After all, I had seen her reaction before, when she found out that I had met the man. But still, it was always surprising to see Avalon act… well, not-Avalony. And this moment was almost on another level.

I was about to clear my throat and try to get my roommate’s attention when she finally spoke up. Her voice was a little shaky, but still understandable enough. “You–” She stopped, blinking rapidly before starting again in a voice that was somehow even weaker than before. “Mr. Prosser–”

The man winced a little at that. “Please,” he spoke simply, “call me Gabriel. I… much prefer that.”

“I… I… can’t.” Avalon’s face twisted a little bit, as if disagreeing with the man caused her actual physical pain. “You…” She trailed off again, visibly bracing herself before starting to speak again. “When I was young, I was weak… and scared. I didn’t think that I could ever protect myself. But Seller, he told me stories about Gabriel Prosser, about what you did, what you overcame. He told me some of the stories, and I looked up others. I took one of the books out of their library and I…” Her mouth worked a little, and I saw a hint of dampness in the girl’s eyes before she blinked it away. When she continued, her voice cracked a little bit from emotion. “I kept the book with me in… in class, in training, at meals, even in bed. I kept it everywhere b-because even though it was just a book, it was a book about you. So I thought that it–you could protect me. It was stupid, but–but I needed it. I needed you, and you were there. You just didn’t know about it.

“So, if you prefer Mr. Gabriel, I’ll call you that. But you’ll always be Mister to me.”

Oh… oh. Suddenly this wasn’t nearly as amusing as it had been a few seconds earlier. The fact that Avalon felt that strongly enough to say it not just in front of me, but in front of Shiori as well said a lot. The two of them had gotten a little closer, of course. But they would never be anything more than friends, at the most. And yet, she had exposed that vulnerable part of herself like that.

As for the man himself, his voice was quiet. “Mr. Gabriel’ll do just fine, Miss Sinclaire. Thank you.”

His eyes moved to Shiori then, and the other girl gave a little wave before speaking up. “Uh, hi, Mr. Gabriel. Thanks for, you know, teaching us how to exorcise these stupid wannabe-angels.”

Coughing, I raised an eyebrow. “You really had to try not to make a joke about exercise, huh?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly, voice plaintive. “It was really hard! I had a good one!”

Despite myself, I smiled and patted her shoulder. “Later.” Meanwhile, I squeezed Avalon’s arm with my other hand before turning to the man in front of us. “They’re both right though. We owe you a lot. With your help, maybe we can identify the Seosten that’s possessing one of our friends, then use your spell to drive them out and make it so they can’t possess anyone else for awhile.”

Gabriel shook his head at that. “It’s not my spell, Felicity. It was created by your family, the Atherbys. My teaching it to you now is just… passing the spell back to where it belongs.”

Swallowing, I gave a little nod despite myself. “You said that you agreed with Professor Pericles about sending my–my mom away from the clan because she was the last surviving Atherby and you didn’t want her to get drawn into all that stuff after both of her parents sacrificed themselves to get rid of the Fomorians. Well, her dad sacrificed himself. Her mom sacrificed… you know, everyone’s memory of her. Anyway, you said that the whole reason you agreed to send her away, to have Pericles’s Bystander friends raise her was to keep her safe. You must’ve–um, you must’ve been kind of annoyed when you found out that Crossroads recruited her after all that.”

“That’s putting it a bit mildly,” he replied. “As far as I recall, that was the only time that I raised my voice to Zedekiah Pericles. Thinking about them teaching Joselyn that hogwash was just… it was too much.  Losing Joshua, losing my memory of his wife, that was bad enough. But Joselyn, sweet little Bossy Jossy being brainwashed into the kind of mindless, kill-everything-in-sight automaton Crossroads and that other place like to churn out? I wanted to go get her out of there.”

Curiously, I asked, “Why didn’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the people that could’ve stopped you from taking her would’ve been too busy asking for your autograph or something.”  

He sighed. “Because your mother needed training. She was–is an Atherby. And it wasn’t my right to keep her away from being the best she could be. I could keep her safe from this, sure. Shove her in a glass bowl, clip her wings, throw up walls. But if I did that, if I took away her potential, if I limited what she could become, how would I be any different from the people that wanted to hurt her? How would I be any different from the people who thought they could control my destiny?”  

Shrugging, he added, “Training her here wasn’t an option. There were still too many threats that wanted to take a shot at the leader of the Atherby clan. If she came, she would’ve stepped right into those crosshairs. I thought letting her train there would at least give her a chance to stay somewhat anonymous. But then…” He smiled, clearly proud. “Well, she didn’t stay anonymous.”

“That’s one thing Mom doesn’t seem very good at,” I agreed. “She kinda sucks at anonymous.”

Avalon gave me a look then, her voice as dry as old leaves as she retorted, “You’re one to talk.”

While I blushed, Gabriel picked his shovel up off the ground before turning to walk toward the cabin. “If you girls don’t mind,” he spoke easily, “I’d like to get started while we have the chance.”

Quickly nodding, I started after the man. “Yeah, I might not need more than an hour of sleep before class, but these guys could probably use at least four or five if we can swing it.”

He led us past the cabin and around the side. I could see a vegetable garden there in the back, surrounded by a wire fence to keep any animals out. On the porch, a Bernese mountain dog lay slumbering in the dim light cast by the lantern there. He opened one eye as we passed, gave a sleepy rumble approximating a half-hearted bark, then closed it again and turned his head away.

Without looking back, Gabriel spoke up. “That’s Cashew. Best dog I ever saw for chasing pests off the property, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Fast and loud. Pretty sure he’s given a couple rabbits heart attacks when they come sniffing around the garden, trying to find a way past the fence. Popular guy too, he’s got a few puppies around the rest of the cabins.”

“Rest of the cabins?” I echoed, tilting my head at that. “I only saw this one.” Even as it was coming out of my mouth, I knew that it was a dumb thing to say. When would I get used to Heretic stuff?

The man glanced back, smiling faintly as he nodded. “That’s what you were meant to see.” He gestured toward a wooden archway ahead that stuck out of the side of the cabin. There were a few piles of logs set up there, as if it was just a place to stack firewood so that it would stay out of the rain. “One at a time, take a little walk through there,” he instructed, leaning on his shovel.

Shrugging, I went first. As I walked through the the archway, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my head and in my eyes. Coming out the other side, I blinked a few times and then looked around.

Oh. Wow. Now I could see dozens of cabins around at the lake, with more boats by their docks,  and even people walking around. Not just humans either, I could see Alters of various shapes and colors around the nearest cabins, illuminated by the lights from their homes. Some of them were standing at the edge of their property, staring in my direction. When they saw me looking at them, a couple raised their hands to wave. It took a second, but I belatedly remembered to wave back.

Eventually, the other two girls joined me in standing at the edge of the cabin to watch the people. Gabriel, stepping up beside us, gave a little nod that way. “Most of our people would be asleep right now, but when they heard you were coming to visit, a lot of them found reasons to stay up.” He smiled just a little bit. “Seeing the clan heir come around for the first time is kind of a big deal.”  

My eyes pulled away from the lantern-lit figures in the distance to blink that way. “Clan heir?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “The clan was begun by the Atherbys. Most remember Joselyn. And a lot of them remember Joshua and Lyell too. But it’s been a long time since they had an Atherby around, a direct descendant of their founder… our founder.” He looked to me, his expression soft. “And a lot of them are ashamed. Losing Joselyn’s children, letting Ruthers’ thugs take them, it tore them up. They felt like they failed her, like anything that happened to those kids was their fault.”

He sighed a little before continuing. “And others, they weren’t a part of the clan before. They joined because of Joselyn. There’s some Heretics out there who left Crossroads and the other place just to follow her, just to be around her. Seeing her daughter, it’s… important to them.”

Flinching at that, I opened and shut my mouth before swallowing hard. “I should talk to them.”

Gabriel nodded. “If you’re up for it, I thought you might stay a bit longer after we’re done. Since you don’t need as much sleep as Avalon and Shiori here, the others would love to meet you.”

I glanced to the other two girls before nodding. “Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down. “I’d love to meet the people that knew my family. I… I still don’t know very much about them. So… so if it’s okay, I’d kinda like to hear their–um, their stories. If you don’t think that’d be… bothering them.”

“Bothering them?” The man gave me a soft, somehow sad smile. “No, Felicity,” he replied, “telling you stories about your family wouldn’t be a bother. In fact, it would make a lot of us very happy.” 

******

A couple hours later, we were all sitting out on the dock near the water, using chairs that we had brought from the cabin. Gabriel was nodding with satisfaction as he examined the wooden boards that Avalon, Shiori, and I had used to carefully copy the anti-possession rune onto. “Good,” he announced. “Very good. You’re still a little shaky on the loop here, Felicity, and Shiori could use a little more work on these points at the end here. But for your first night, you’re all doing really well.”

Smiling at that announcement, the man continued. “Now I think you should each practice using the spell on each other, one at a time. I’ll provide the power and guide you through it until you can do it by yourselves. And I’ll dampen the pain a little, but you should all know what it feels like.” He paused before adding, “Unless you’d rather wait until next time to give it a shot.”

Avalon shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste, Mr. Gabriel.” She still blushed every time she spoke to or  looked at him, but at least she’d found her voice. “We’ll stay and practice.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Right, we do need to know what it feels like. So who’s going first?”

“Me.” Shiori turned slightly on the seat while pulling her sleeve up. “Go ahead, Flick.”

So, with Gabriel’s help and guidance, I used the field-engraver to start drawing the rune. It wasn’t the same one that Dare had provided. This one was from Gabriel himself, taken out of a box of them that he had carried out from the cabin.

Even as the rune started, Shiori gave a slight hiss, until the man laid his hand on her back. He did something, and she eased a little bit. But I could still tell that it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It might not have been the burning pain that it had been, but even with Gabriel’s help there was obviously no way that the rune could’ve been drawn without the subject waking up if they were asleep. So we couldn’t just go around to our friends and start drawing it on them. They’d notice. And besides, if they were possessed, every Seosten who was part of their mission would know what was happening at the same time that they did. Which pretty much meant that we had one shot at it.

Eventually, I finished drawing the rune. Gabriel took my hand and pressed it against the symbol. I felt him extend a sliver of his power through me and into what I had drawn, triggering the spell.

Obviously, nothing happened aside from the rune turning into a sweet-smelling smoke as it vanished from Shiori’s arm. She rubbed the spot a little, looked at us, and shrugged. “Boo. Guess I’m not possessed after all.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Woe be to the Seosten who tried to possess a dhampyr, or any hybrid. I’d almost like to see them try it.” Leaning back, he added, “All right, let’s go with you next, Felicity.”

I started to nod before blinking. “Oh, uh, I need to use the restroom first, actually. Do you mind?”

The man shook his head, gesturing to the cabin. “Go ahead. Head inside, turn right, second door on the left.”

On the way, I passed a few kids, Alter and human alike. They ranged in age from six up to twelve or so, all of them half-hidden behind the garden fence. When they saw me looking that way, there was a collective squeal from the group as they took off running, scattering into the darkness.  

“Hey, it’s okay!” I called. “It’s not like I’m gonna eat you guys or something. If you wanna…” I trailed off then, shaking my head before going inside. Maybe I’d see them again later.

Sure enough, a few of the kids were back again when I came out after finishing up inside. I saw a small, blue-skinned boy with dark red eyes, a pretty human girl with light blonde hair who looked like she was about eight or nine, and an amphibious figure whose gender I couldn’t make out. They were watching me just like the others had been. When I glanced that way, the two obvious Alters stammered excuses before taking off, disappearing into darkness once more.

The human girl, however, stayed behind. She raised a hand to wave while giving me a tiny smile.

Realizing that she wasn’t going to run away like the others, I stepped that way. “Hi,” I greeted her. “I’m Flick. What’s your name?”

“Me?,” the little girl replied with a cute, incredibly endearing little blush. “I–I’m Tabby.”

“Hi, Tabby.” I paused before glancing off in the distance, the way the others had gone. “You didn’t leave with your friends?”


She glanced over her shoulder then before shaking her head. Her voice was soft. “I wanted to meet you.” Turning back, she added, even more quietly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.”

I flinched. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a big story around here, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Tabby hesitated before adding, “My mommy’s not here either.”

The thought of this adorable, innocent-looking little girl being left without a mother made me cringe. If her mom was killed by a Heretic, I’d just… Shaking that off, I asked, “She’s not… here? Is she alive? Do you know where she is?”

“I think she’s alive,” Tabby answered, looking away for a moment. “She’s a long ways away.”

“Then you can find her, right?” I asked, my voice quiet as I hesitantly put a hand out to touch her arm. “We’ll both find our moms. We’ll get them back, okay? Your mom and my mom. They’re alive, so we’ll get them back. You can’t give up on her, right?”

Her head bobbed up and down at that. “Uh huh. Mommy said I had to be brave. She said I could help people. But… but I miss her.” She squirmed a little then, looking ashamed of the admission.

“Hey.” I squeezed her arm, trying to be reassuring. “It’s okay to miss your mom. It doesn’t make you any less brave. You’re learning how to help people, right?”

Again, the girl nodded. “I’m trying to,” she answered quietly. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”

“I know what you mean.” Shaking my head, I gave her a little smile. “But we just keep trying, right? We get better, and eventually, we’ll find our moms.”

“Uh huh.” Tabby looked past me then, back to the lake. “You should go. They’re waiting.”

“Right, yeah. But I’ll see you later, okay?” Waiting until she nodded, I headed back down to the dock once more.

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked as I resumed my seat.

“Yup.” I smiled a little. “Just saw some of the kids up there.” Glancing that way, I laughed. “See?” Several of the children, including Tabby, were standing just at the edge of the bushes near the beach, watching us.

Gabriel looked that way before shaking his head with a chuckle as the kids scattered once more. “They’re supposed to be in bed. I guess they couldn’t sleep either.”

“I hope they don’t get in trouble…” Biting my lip at the thought, I shook it off. “So, are we doing this?” I pulled my sleeve up, turning my arm that way. “Who gets to draw on me?”

Avalon did, taking her turn to carefully sketch out the rune with Gabriel’s help. It stung a little, enough to make me wince even after the man softened the feeling. When it was done, the smoke sizzled off just like it had with Shiori.

“Whelp,” I remarked while rubbing my arm. “I’m not possessed either. Valley’s turn?”

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed. “We’ll do one more. After that, we’ll see about letting Avalon and Shiori get some sleep while you meet some of your family’s friends. Just don’t be surprised if they get a little overly-excited.”

“After all, they’ve been waiting a long time to see you.”

Sharkhunt 23-01

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 27 – Abigail and Wyatt

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Abigail and Wyatt discussing things like Flick, their parents, and Fossor. 

The city wasn’t one of the largest in the United States, but it wasn’t that small either. It was one of those cities that fit neatly within the upper end of medium, with several hundred thousand occupants. Large enough that visitors wouldn’t really stand out that much or be that memorable, yet small enough that crowds wouldn’t hide anyone that happened to be trying to spy on them.

At least, that was the way that Wyatt had explained his reasoning for this particular meeting place to Abigail. They had gone back and forth on exactly where to meet, using the coded messages that he had taught her how to make, using Seller and that large man, Croc, as intermediaries.

It was Seller who had brought her to the city. The man had offered to stay, but Abigail declined. She had the emergency beacons that he had given her if anything went wrong. Besides, Wyatt’s instructions about what to do had been specific about being by herself when she did them, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t going to make an exception for anyone. Not even their ancestor.

So, she went through the instructions on her own. First there was the part where she had to go into the nearest McDonalds and order a Kid’s Meal, then deposit the entire thing minus the toy in the trash bin. After that, she had to walk outside and leave the toy on the nearby bus stop, then wait for the next bus and board it before immediately getting off again at the next stop, walk back to the first stop and look for the toy. If it was there, she was supposed to turn right and go into the shoe store that was across the street. If it was gone, she was to turn left and into the paint store instead.

Seeing the toy, she went right and entered the shoe store. Making her way through to the back, she watched the order of the color of shoes in the last aisle. White, black, black, white. That meant she had to go into the restroom and enter the last stall. Scanning the graffiti there, she eventually found the words ‘I love Root Beer’ written in red marker. Root Beer. As in A&W. Abigail and Wyatt.

Touching her fingers to the words, she felt the power in them. Following Wyatt’s instructions, she focused on channeling energy into the spell that he had left there. As she did so, a literal door appeared behind the toilet. With a little effort, she squirmed past the plumbing, opening the door to step through.

She had just enough time to see that she was standing in a small motel room before Wyatt appeared. He held what looked like a flare gun in one hand, and a mirror in the other that he aimed at her before glancing in, as though checking what her reflection looked like. “Password?”

For a second, Abigail said nothing. She just stared at the man who… who was her… brother. She had a brother, a twin brother. At her age, the idea of having a long-lost sibling had been a far distant childhood dream.

And yet, some part of her had never quite shaken the feeling that there was something off about her family, something… missing. It was nothing that she had been able to explain, let alone prove. After all, her parents had done everything for her, had never shown Abigail anything but love. Yet the feeling had remained there, buried just under the surface. She had made up imaginary siblings as a child, the way many children had imaginary friends.

She had long-since grown out of those kind of games, yet the idea of keeping families together was what had primarily led her to become not just a defense attorney, but a civil rights defense attorney. Standing up for people who were being taken advantage of, legally defending those who didn’t have the knowledge or ability to properly defend themselves, it had all grown out of teenage years spent protesting abuses of power.

Now there was Wyatt. Her brother, her actual brother. And seeing him, talking to him, learning everything she could about him had brought Abigail to one very important conclusion: She wanted to take the people who had been responsible for raising Wyatt as well as everyone who had had a hand in putting him into that situation, and have them thrown into the deepest, darkest dungeon on the planet before throwing away the key.

Ruthers. Ruthers and his stooges, who had taken Wyatt in not because they cared about him, but because their arrogant piece of shit boss had ordered them to. Wyatt, who had… who had grown up knowing that the people who should have loved him more than anything else in the world didn’t actually give one shit about the then-innocent little boy.

Wyatt, her brother, had grown up in a household without actual love. He had become paranoid about being spied on because he was actually spied on. He had grown up with the knowledge that his parents, the people he should be able to trust beyond all doubt, would have killed him without a second thought if the man they were reporting to ordered them to do it.

Deepest. Darkest. Dungeon. Abigail wanted Ruthers and all his sycophants thrown there for the rest of their lives. Which, given this whole Heretic business, would probably be a very long time.

Finally shaking those thoughts off, the woman answered Wyatt’s request for a passcode by reciting, “Gabriel Ruthers is the most brilliant, charismatic, charming, and wonderful man in the history of the world.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Why does that have to be our passcode?”

“Because they’d never guess that we’d use it,” the man replied before hesitating. He stood there for a moment, then took a step forward and to the left. His left hand went up like he was gesturing to one of the nearby chairs, while his right hand moved as though to shake hers. At the same time, his arms actually widened a bit, as if a third part of him wanted to hug her. It was awkward and, at the same time, incredibly endearing.

Smiling just a little bit, Abigail saved the man by taking the choice off his hands. She stepped in and embraced him tightly. He made an awkward sound, almost like an ostrich, but eventually returned it.

This was her brother, a man who had a million contingency plans and escape routes for every situation, yet was trapped by a simple hug.

“Oh,” the man blurted, “I was–you were–you don’t have to–”

Abigail shook her head, stepping back after giving him another squeeze. “Of course I don’t have to,” she replied. “But I want to. You’re my brother, Wyatt. They already kept us apart for fifty years, we don’t have to do the rest of the work for them.”

He gave a shaky, awkward little smile at that before clearing his throat as he gestured to the nearby chairs on the other side of the motel room. “Should we, uh, sit down? I–we can order food if you’re hungry, or go get something, or if you’re bored, we can–”

Smiling, Abigail moved to the seat. “How about we just talk for now?” She tried to keep the emotion out of her voice, not wanting to scare the man off. He was her brother. Her twin brother, and this, this was the kind of routine that she had to go through just to talk to him for a few hours.

So they did. At first, it was about nothing too serious. Wyatt asked her a lot of questions about her childhood, about college, about becoming a lawyer and the kind of cases that she’d gotten into. He wisely avoided the subject of her husband, a man that she still didn’t remember despite hearing about him from both her daughter, and the man she had gotten her information from, Tribald Kine. Her husband’s grandfather’s cousin, apparently.

Eventually, the conversation came around to more serious subjects. Abigail went quiet for a few seconds, looking out the nearby window before the words came, words that she had known she had to ask from the moment that they had planned this meeting. “Wyatt…” she started slowly before letting out a sigh. “Wyatt, the… necromancer, the one that has our mother…”

“Fossor,” the man supplied helpfully.

“I know, I just–” She stopped, taking another breath. “Wyatt, he’s not going to be satisfied with just our mother, is he? He has Joselyn, but he’ll want more. If he knows about Koren, if that… if that Ammon boy realized why she was immune to him, or if he just told his father and he realized, then he’ll try to take–”

There was a sudden crash as Wyatt’s fist slammed down onto the table between them with so much force that the thing actually splintered. And in his eyes, she saw something she hadn’t seen before: fire, anger, and violence.

“No,” her gangly, deceptively-goofy looking brother announced. “I won’t let him take Koren. Believe me, Abigail, I… Koren and I… we’ve been…” He squirmed a little, as though ashamed of his little outburst. “Koren and I have been close. I won’t let anyone hurt her.”

Slowly, Abigail reached out and laid her hand on top of his fist. “I’m glad you’re there. I don’t think I could do this, this… staying away from my daughter if I didn’t know that you were there to watch her, Wyatt. I do trust you. I mean, I barely know you and yet…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “I just trust you. I know you’ll put yourself in front of her if anything happens, but I don’t want anything to happen to you either. I just–” She stopped, slumping back in the seat. “I keep getting this urge to… to call the police, or the FBI, or someone with authority. But what am I supposed to tell them? They wouldn’t believe me, or they’d just forget what I said, or… or whatever. It wouldn’t help.”

He reached across to her then, his hand finding hers. “I–Abigail… Koren won’t–I won’t let him take her,” he repeated, his voice firm. “I promise. I have… I have protection spells, more than you know, more than she knows. If anyone tries to take her, I’ll know. I’ll be there.”

For a moment, Abigail didn’t say anything. She returned the squeeze of his hand, trying to shut the terrifying thoughts of her baby girl being taken away out of her mind.

“… but he’s going to come for Felicity, isn’t he?” she asked quietly after a few long seconds of silence. “The deal that he made with… with Joselyn, with our mother, it only protects her until she’s no longer a child. That’s when she’s eighteen.”

There was a noticeable flinch from the man, and he hesitated long enough for her to prompt. “What? What is it?”

“Yes,” he answered finally. “Fossor has… made it clear to Felicity that he intends to come for her when she’s eighteen. She… told me that much. She’s scared, even if she doesn’t act like it.”

“They have to protect her, they… they will, right?” she quickly put in. “That headmistress, you, our… our father.” Even saying the word made her squirm a little inside. Deveron. The man she didn’t know, the man she had barely even seen, he wasn’t her father. She knew her father, she knew the man who had raised her, and thinking of Deveron Adams as her father, particularly when he looked like he was thirty years younger than she was, was just… strange.

That went for the pictures she’d seen of her biological mother as well. Deveron and Joselyn both looked so… so different from her. Growing up, Abigail had always looked gawky and strange. Her classmates had nicknamed her Olive Oyl since before she could actually remember. Which was why she didn’t have trouble thinking of Wyatt as her brother, even her twin. It fit.

But Joselyn and Deveron? They looked like models. They looked… perfect. Part of that on her father’s side, she knew from asking, was the fact that he had inherited the appearance of some Asian Incubus. But even knowing that didn’t make things seem less awkward. It was just… so much to take in.

Wyatt nodded slowly, hesitating before looking up to meet her gaze. “I think… I think part of Felicity-Flick, wants him to come for her. She wants a… a showdown. She wants to fight.”

“She can’t be that naive,” Abigail quickly blurted. “I know she’s getting… Koren’s told me how much stronger Felicity’s been getting, but that necromancer has been around for thousands of years. He’s beaten everyone that came after him. Why would Felicity think she could beat him?”

Again, the man swallowed hard, hesitating before his head shook. “I don’t think she does, not really. I think she feels guilty. She hated her mother–our mother for a long time for… for leaving. Finding out that she left to protect her, that she sacrificed her freedom to let Felicity grow up was… it hurt her more than she’ll tell anyone. Maybe more than she’ll admit to herself. I think part of her thinks that she deserves to be punished for that. She wants to beat him, but if she can’t… I don’t know.” His head shook solemnly. “Every time I think that she’s not taking it seriously, I remember that she’s… she’s training a lot. More than anyone else in her grade. She does the normal training, she does extra training with Avalon, with Headmistress Sinclaire, and with… Deveron.” He trailed off then, swallowing audibly.

After the few seconds of silence that followed that, Abigail quietly asked, “Do you… do you ever feel jealous?”

“Because she spent time with our mother,” he finished for her. “I… yes, sometimes. I look at her, and I look at pictures of Joselyn and they’re… they’re alike. Felicity looks like Joselyn’s daughter. We–I…”

“Don’t,” Abigail in turn finished for him. “We don’t look like either of them. I know. I know it’s stupid to be jealous. She had her mother taken away when she was young, but….” She closed her eyes briefly, squeezing them tightly. “God, I feel like such a bitch. She had a chance with her. She remembers her. She spent a few years with her real mother. And it’s stupid. It’s stupid to feel like this. Because I had a good childhood. I had parents who–” She stopped talking abruptly, eyes widening as she looked at the man across from her. “I’m sorry, Wyatt, I didn’t–”

He shrugged. “Everyone grows up differently. You’re right, Felicity had a few years with Joselyn. Then she was taken away. Which is worse, never knowing your mother, or knowing her enough to love her and then having her taken away?”

“I think the big point here is that Fossor is a sick, stupid son of a bitch,” Abigail announced, her voice darker than she remembered it being. “And so is Gabriel Ruthers. They deserve each other.”

She let that hang for a moment before sighing. “But Felicity doesn’t. She’s–she’s our little half–our little sister, Wyatt. You can’t let her sacrifice herself or do something stupid just because she feels guilty. Our mother–Joselyn, it would destroy her. Believe me, I know. If anything happened to me and Koren sacrificed herself to save me, I… “ She gave a weak, disgusted shudder at the thought.

“We have to save our mother. But we can’t let our sister sacrifice herself to do it, because that would destroy Joselyn more than anything Fossor could do to her in a million years. If it comes down to one or the other, we have to protect Felicity. Even if that means going against her choices.”

“You’re right,” Wyatt agreed. “No matter what… no m-matter what happens, we protect Felicity first.”

They looked at each other, as Abigail felt the guilt of the word settle in her stomach. The idea of not saving her mother, of not throwing away everything in order to save the woman who had given birth to her was… was almost incomprehensible.

And yet, she stood by what she had said. If Joselyn was saved at the expense of Felicity, it would destroy her, just like Abigail being saved at the expense of Koren would destroy her.

“I wish there was a way to meet her father,” she murmured finally. “I’d like to meet the man who married our mother as a civilian–a Bystander. I’d like to talk about what he knew about her, about how she made him feel, about what kind of person she was. Felicity’s memory was… tainted. She was a child. But her father–Lincoln, he knew her as an adult.”

Wyatt nodded slowly at that. “I’d like that too,” he agreed. “I talk to our… I talk to Deveron about her. You should do that. You could,” he added. “He really wants to spend more time with you.”

“I know.” Again, that guilt came back. “It’s just… it’s just awkward. I know he wants to see me more. I know he wants to talk. I just–everything that’s happened, I…” She breathed out. “I’ll try. I’ll try to spend some time with our father–with Deveron.”

Changing the subject, she looked back over to him. “I looked her up, you know. Felicity. I looked up everything I could about her in the Bystander world. She wasn’t exactly lying low or being normal and average even before she was a Heretic.”

The man frowned a little, head tilting. “What?”

Smiling despite herself, Abigail began to talk about the things she had learned. She told him about Felicity apparently repeatedly getting herself into trouble with her ‘investigations’, about how she had helped catch that drug dealing theater owner only a day before Crossroads had taken her in, about exposing that the most popular girl in her junior high had been stealing money from field trip donations in order to buy clothes, and more. Every year it seemed like there was some other secret story that Felicity Chambers blew apart with her little school newspaper. For a person who lived in a town as small as Laramie Falls, the girl seemed to have had a knack for finding an almost absurd amount of trouble.

Finally, Wyatt shook his head slowly. “How did you find all this out?”

“Some of it from newspapers,” she answered. “Other parts from calling people over there and saying that I was a college recruiter. And also from talking to Miranda.”

“Her friend,” Wyatt remembered.

“Her best friend,” she corrected. “Miranda had more stories than anyone else. More stories than she was even actually there for. I… I guess she sort of kept up with what Felicity did even after she was recruited by Eden’s Garden.”

Wyatt took that in for a moment, pausing before he realized aloud, “We’re gonna have a hard time keeping her out of trouble, aren’t we?”

Nodding emphatically at that, Abigail replied, “Yeah, but then again, that might be the most normal part of all this.

“After all, aren’t little sisters supposed to drive their siblings nuts?”

Previous Chapter                               Next Chapter

Interlude 22C – Joselyn

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of Pace posted yesterday (Sunday). If you missed it, you may want to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

July 10th, 1950

“My son, they would have killed him.”

Two women stood facing one another, their appearances within the illumination of the city street lights starkly contrasting. One was white, with blonde hair that stood out in the night. The other was black, her skin and hair both dark enough to fade easily into the shadows lurking just beyond the street lamps. Overhead, the moon was at its dimmest, a bare sliver that did little more than confirm its existence, while clouds ended any light that might have come from the far distant stars. The city itself, aside from the streetlights above these two women, was as dark as it was silent.

“You’re right, Calafia,” Joselyn Atherby replied to the much-older woman across from her. “They would have killed him. Because he was different. Because he wasn’t human. One little scratch. One scratch from that weretiger and now every plan, every dream, every goal you had for your son is gone. Everything you wanted to do for him, everything he was going to be for you is gone.”

Calafia bowed her head slightly, giving an almost imperceptible nod. “I know,” she murmured quietly. “I know, believe me, I know. But he’s… you… you made sure that he–”

“He’s okay,” Joselyn assured her. She didn’t know what it was like to be a parent, but she did know that the idea of having a child and being separated from them, not knowing if they were okay or what was happening to them, was the worst experience she could possibly imagine. So as angry as she was at the things that the woman in front of her had allowed to happen up until it was personal for her, she wouldn’t hold that reassurance away from her. “He’s safe, I promise.”

The relief in the other woman’s body language was obvious, as a great deal of the tension left her. “Don’t tell me where he is.” The words seemed to almost break her even as she said them. “Just… just promise you’ll make sure he stays safe, that none of our people will find him.”

“They believe he’s dead,” Joselyn replied, her tone turning a bit softer at the woman’s continued concern. “And they’ll keep believing that. No one’s going to find your son, Calafia. You have my word. I told you when you first made contact that we’d keep him safe, and I meant it.”  

For a moment, Calafia closed her eyes. Tears leaked from them, though if they were more from the relief that her son was safe or from the agony of the realization that she would never see him again, Joselyn couldn’t say. She just waited while the woman worked through her emotions.

Finally, Calafia straightened a little, her eyes finding Joselyn’s as she steadied herself. “You never said what you wanted in return for the aid of your people. You saved my son’s life.”

“Calafia,” Joselyn answered simply, “if you think that I need something in exchange for saving your son from the people who would kill him just for being a were, then you’ve missed the entire point.”

Pausing for a moment to take that in, the dark-skinned woman eventually spoke once more. “If there’s nothing else, you should leave this place. I owe you my son’s life, but the others do not. Gabriel has been fully accepted into our ranks. You must already understand what that means.”

“It means that he’s as powerful as you are now,” Joselyn confirmed. “And the first thing he’s going to do with that power is try to pay me back for making him look like such a fool for so long.”

“He won’t just try,” Calafia cautioned her. “If he finds you, he will win. You are here alone, Miss Atherby. Don’t be a prideful fool and throw your life away by waiting for him here. You might have been able to face him as he was, though even that was debateable. But now that he is a part of the Committee, you would be nothing more than a bug against a windshield. You would fail.”

“Maybe,” Joselyn allowed. “But if I don’t do something, he’ll keep coming anyway.” Her hand lifted to gesture at the empty, dark streets around them. “Why do you think I chose to meet here?”

Slowly, she turned in a circle as though taking all of it in. “It’s actually one of the most impressive things the Heretics have done, you know? An exact one-for-one replica of New York City, set down on a world far from Earth, yet almost identical to it. The perfect place for Heretics to practice fighting and hunting in an urban area. Yet devoid of any innocent civilians that might get hurt.”

Calafia took a moment to look around as well, as though seeing how impressive the recreated city really was for the first time. But soon, her gaze locked onto the much younger woman’s once more. “My… son’s condition has made me… think about the things that our society stands for. I don’t know yet how I feel about all of it, but in this case…My son would be dead if it was not for you, Miss Ath– Joselyn. I owe you far more than I can ever repay. But I will attempt to do so. If you ask, I will put myself in the path of Gabriel Ruthers. I will stop him from harming you.” Left unsaid was what that would mean. In exchange for the life of her son, Calafia would put herself against the Committee, would stand openly with the rebellion in defiance of Crossroads laws.

Joselyn smiled slightly, but shook her head. “If you really want to know what you can do to make it up to me… keep thinking about what it means. Think about all the mothers like you who have lost people like your son. Think about the people who have been killed for doing nothing more than being born. Think about all of them. But the most important thing you could ever do for me is… think about the monsters that we hunt and kill. Think about all the monsters you’ve ever killed or ordered killed. Think about them…. And stop thinking of them as monsters. Think of them as people. People with lives. People with families. People with loves, dreams, hopes. Just… people.”

Her voice had softened throughout that, but rose then, firm and confident. “But right now, the best thing you can do is leave. You’re right, Ruthers is gonna be here soon.” Her smile was humorless. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. And the best thing you can do is stay on the Committee. There might be a time that we need you, a time that we need help. You being on the Committee, that’s what we need right now. Just keep thinking. Not just about what I said, but about how you feel. Think about that. Feel it. Let yourself feel it, for once, without shutting it down. Keep feeling.”

“If I leave,” Calafia spoke quietly, “you will die.”

The blonde shrugged. “Messages outlive the messenger, Calafia. And you might be surprised.”   

Obviously realizing that she wouldn’t be able to change the rebel leader’s mind, Calafia bowed her head. “I wish you luck. And if you survive this encounter, we will speak again.”

“Yes,” Joselyn agreed. But by the time she finished with, “we will,” the other woman was gone.

For a few seconds, she just stood there. Eventually, however, she turned and began to walk slowly down the middle of the street. Streetlights came to life as she reached them, while the ones behind her doused themselves, creating a sort of roving spotlight that kept her illuminated.

Ten minutes after Calafia had left, Joselyn rounded a corner to find a man standing in her path. A man she knew far too well, from the years she had spent in what had been his school at the time.

“Shall I call you Headmaster still?” she asked, “Or would you prefer the term Counselor?”

Ruthers stood, his bullish, prizefighter-esque body lit by the lamps above him as he glared at the woman he loathed so thoroughly. “Atherby,” he snarled. “I already checked the city. You’re alone. Your husband isn’t here, and he’s not coming. Neither are any of your people. There’s a lockdown in effect. No one teleports in or out of the training city until this is over. So I’m going to give you one chance. Surrender, and you’ll go to trial. On the honor of my blood, I won’t harm you if you give up now.”

Joselyn shook her head, lamenting. “Aww. And here I thought you’d be excited to show off all your new tricks, like an eager little bulldog. All that power, all that strength, and you want me to surrender without letting you show me any of it? That doesn’t sound like you, Gabby.”

Gabby. She knew he hated the name, loathed it almost as much as he hated Joselyn herself. That was why she used it. Getting under his skin, making him stop thinking straight, it was part of the plan. This night, this moment, had been building since the moment she had decided that she would never be able to live in this society without pouring everything she had into making it better.

His smile was more like a grimace, like the man himself had never fully learned how to make that expression. “We both know you won’t surrender,” he replied flatly. “But now that I’ve offered you the chance and you’ve turned me down, you can feel even worse when this is all over.”

Lowering her gaze to look at the ground, Joselyn gathered her strength for what she had to do next. It wasn’t what she wanted to do. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. But she had to try. For everything that she was attempting to change about Heretic society, she had to try.

“Ruthers, it doesn’t have to be like this. None of this has to happen. Things can change. We can be better. You saw that yourself once. You took a chance. It backfired, but that doesn’t make the intention wrong. Trusting the wrong person doesn’t make every person evil. We can work together to change things. We can make Crossroads be the real heroes, the champions we should be. Not just for humans, but for everyone. We can protect them all.”

“You,” Ruthers snarled without a moment’s hesitation, “are a fool. And you are letting yourself and your followers be used by monsters. Yes, I worked with them once before. And what came of it? Humanity was nearly erased, you ignorant child. That is a mistake I will never make again. And I won’t let you drag humanity into extinction by making the same one. This ends now, Atherby.”

“On the contrary,” the blonde woman replied simply. “I think you’ll find that it’s just beginning.”

He was on her then. In the span of less than one hundredth of a second, the man went from standing a hundred feet away, to being directly in front of her. His fist lashed out, tearing through the air faster than sound itself. It was a blow that would devastate mountains. Several windows in the buildings surrounding them shattered from the force and speed of the punch. It was meant to end this entire conflict in a single, solitary blow. A punch meant to end Joselyn herself.

She caught it in the palm of her hand.

It wasn’t that simple, of course. The sheer force that was put into the blow meant that the kinetic energy had to go somewhere. She absorbed it, dissipating the excess into a wave behind her that shattered more windows and sent several cars flipping up and over each other. But for the most part, she simply put a hand up and caught a punch from a man who was now one of the most powerful beings on the planet.

“Come on, Gabby,” Joselyn’s voice was a taunt, as Ruthers stared at his fist pressed firmly into her palm. “I thought you were gonna bring something new to this.”

With a growl, the man yanked his fist back. His other hand lashed out, then the first. That continued for another eight strikes. Ten full blows, each powerful enough to go through concrete like it was rice paper. And all ten so quick that it defied not simply human comprehension, but seemingly physics itself. They came in the span of less than one tenth of a second. It was motion so fast that to the human eye, it wasn’t simply a blur. It was nonexistent.

Joselyn evaded them all. Her body twisted, turned, ducked, and stepped aside to avoid each blow, no matter how fast they came. He was fast, but she was just as fast as he was.

That was the entire point. Not that he understood that. Not that he had any idea.

As his flurry of punches failed to make contact, Ruthers seemed to realize that this wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that he expected it to be. He had come expecting to smack her down like a dog with his new power. But that wasn’t going to happen that easily. And in that realization, he finally unleashed.

A wave of the man’s hand caught all of the glass that had been shattered and now lay along the ground. The shards flew into the air, driving in toward Joselyn from every side, each moving as fast as a bullet. And even as they flew, each tiny shard of glass was transformed into jagged metal, which itself was superheated and surrounded by a tiny arc of what looked like purple electricity. Ghost-fire, as they called it. Energy that was able to burn ghosts, or anyone who was in a ghost-like, non-solid state. Hundreds of shards of glass, all simultaneously turned to burning metal with their own ghost-fire, just to make sure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible to avoid them. And all coming at her from every possible angle.

Grimacing, Joselyn threw both hands up and out. With her motion, a circular wall of concrete two feet thick rose from the ground to surround her, capping itself off in a dome just as the electrified, super-heated metal shards buried themselves in it.

Feeling the top of the concrete dome yanked from her control, Joselyn turned herself into an insubstantial, ghost-like state and leapt backward through the wall. She was just in time, as the roof of the dome slammed down with enough force that it would have crushed her in a solid state, and covered in ghost-fire to burn her in her current intangible form if she hadn’t moved.

In the next instant, she was gone. Her blinding speed carried her forward, before a leap took the blonde woman up and over the concrete structure. The leap would have carried her a good fifty feet into the air, except that as soon as she saw the man below her, Joselyn instantly changed the direction that her momentum was carrying her. Now, instead of leaping up and forward, she was suddenly leaping down, without actually touching anything to change direction.

Her fist lashed out. And with it, she summoned not only her own strength, but a literal lightning bolt. It shot, jagged and crackling with power, out of the sky. Her figure was enveloped in the lightning, its power wrapping itself around Joselyn just before both collided into the pavement with enough force to leave a ten-foot wide, three-foot deep crater in the street where Ruthers had been. Had been, because the man had teleported aside at the very last possible instant. Any windows within several blocks that hadn’t already been broken were shattered by the thunder that had accompanied the lightning.

“How?” the man demanded once the echoes of the thunder had faded, his voice dark. “You’re not this strong. Not this fast. Not this powerful.”  As he spoke, a flick of the man’s hand animated one of the cars that had been tossed aside earlier. It rose on impossibly articulated wheels to lunge for Joselyn like a mechanized jungle cat, its front half opening to reveal jagged teeth-like shards of metal as the thing went for her.

It came within a foot before a thought from Joselyn opened a portal directly in front of herself. The mechanical beast flew through the portal to be dumped out somewhere else in the city.

“Guess we both got an upgrade, didn’t we?” she shot back, rising from her crouch to face him.

His head shook. “It doesn’t matter. A few tricks won’t save you, Atherby. I’m putting you down before you destroy our entire society, before your naivety dooms humanity.”

In answer, Joselyn raised a hand and twitched her fingers, beckoning him to keep trying.

With a blur of speed, he was on top of her once more. That time, as his fist lashed out, the concrete beside the man tore itself up and into a giant approximation of his arm and hand that was twice as large as the man himself. Both his real fist and the one that had been summoned from the pavement covered with ghost-fire to ensure that she couldn’t simply turn intangible. And each flew with a speed that would have made bullets in mid-flight seem to be standing still.

Joselyn’s hunga munga were abruptly in her hands as she dove forward and down, passing just beneath the swinging, ghost-fire covered concrete fist before popping up in time to catch Ruthers’ against one of her weapons. The other lashed out toward his throat, but he jerked his head back just in time.

The concrete fist was coming for her from the back, but a thought from Joselyn froze the thing solid, covered in a thick layer of ice. At the same time, she followed up her attack with another rapid series of swings from her throwing axes, forcing her opponent onto the defensive for a moment.

A snap from the man’s fingers froze time.

A blink from her restarted it.

A wave of his hand summoned a tornado of fire that tore its way through the street, melting steel and concrete alike.  

A flick of her finger turned the inferno of wind and ash to stone in the middle of the street.

The ground tore itself apart under her feet, revealing a pit a hundred feet below that was instantly filled with lava. The lava itself erupted into the air, sending a shower of molten rock flying up toward her even as Joselyn herself began to fall.

With a roar of triumph, Ruthers concentrated the lava into a single, powerful geyser. He sent it right up through the spot where Joselyn was. For ten full seconds, the former headmaster kept that up. The spray of molten rock rose a solid hundred feet into the air, and was at least twelve feet wide. It completely enveloped the woman throughout that time, even as the man surrounded the geyser with ghost-fire and several other measures to prevent her from escaping.

Finally, he released it, letting the geyser of lava fall back into its pool.

“Oh,” Joselyn announced as she hovered there in the air, looking utterly unsinged. “Did I forget to mention that I’m immune to heat? And that I can fly? Oops.”

Giving a bellow of frustration and disbelief, Ruthers launched himself into the air. He was a nearly invisible blur, flying so fast along the edge of the tallest nearby building that he created a miniature sonic boom in his wake.

And as he flew, the skyscraper itself ripped up out of the ground. The building tried to fall apart, but Ruthers held it together through sheer force of will, his telekinesis wrapping itself around the structure to keep it intact even as the thing was torn from its foundation to rise up with him.

High in the air above the city, the man inverted. The building hovered there beside him. With a thought, he sent it flying like a missile… straight… back… down. Fast enough to crack the sound barrier by itself, the four hundred foot tall, multi-hundred thousand ton structure careened toward the ground… toward Joselyn.

A point had to be made. So she launched herself straight at the building. Flying toward the thing, Joselyn let herself crash through the bottom, then through floor after floor until she had punched through the top.

She joined the hovering man in the air, even as the building-turned-missile hit the ground with enough force to collapse most of the structures around it.

“Impossible,” Ruthers spat the words, his disbelief at war with his blinding rage. The man was literally shaking. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. This was wrong. It was all… all wrong.

“Remember this, Gabby,” Joselyn informed him, hovering thirty feet away. “As long as you keep murdering innocent people, as long as you keep blaming people who have done nothing wrong for your mistakes, as long as you destroy lives and turn families into terrified orphans and grieving parents, this will never end.

“And,” she added while raising a hand. “Anything you can do…” Her fingers snapped, erasing the anti-teleportation shield that had been erected around the city.

“I can undo.”

Then she was gone.

Previous Chapter                            Next Chapter

Mini-Interlude 26 – Pace

Previous Chapter                           Next Chapter

The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the origin of the crazy werewolf-Heretic we know as Pace. 

A little over one year ago.

Darkness.

“Hi, people!”

There was a pause, followed by a muttered curse and the sound of something being fumbled with. Suddenly, light appeared as the lens cap of the camera was removed, and a face popped into view. It was the face of a Hispanic girl in her late teens, with dyed green hair that was cut short on one side and long on the other. She was obviously holding the camera up pointed at herself. Now in sight, the girl waved. “There! Sorry, technical difficulties. The camera’s the technical, and I’m the difficulty.”

Giggling at her own self-depreciating joke, the girl known as Pace for her hyper-activeness (something that inheriting enhanced speed early on had only exacerbated) cleared her throat. “Okay, hiya, people of the Heretical-persuasion. People of Eden’s Garden, People of Crossroads, People of Etcetera. If you’re watching this, it means my plan worked. Or maybe I got caught and this is evidence at my trial. In that case, in lieu of a lawyer, I’d like my side’s closing argument to be Matthew McConaughey’s speech at the end of A Time To Kill. Just throw it up on the big screen. Not cuz I expect it to convince you fascists of anything, but it’s a really good speech and if we’re gonna waste everyone’s time with a sham like that, we might as well be entertained.”

The camera shook a little as she turned it around, showing the massive forest of Eden’s Garden in front of her. “Shh. You wanna know what we’re doing out here? I’m gonna show you what kind of ‘heroes’ our side really is. Because the truth is, sometimes we really suck.”

Again, the camera view spun back around to face the girl. “Actually, I’m gonna turn you off for a second. Cuz everyone knows the worst part of found footage movies is when they’re running around, you can’t see anything, and you just get motion sick. So I’m gonna turn you off. But we’re going that way.” She pointed, turning the camera a little to show a direction off in the forest of enormous trees. “Ten miles. We’re going that way ten miles. Be back in a flash!”

The camera cut out then, screen going black for about five seconds before the view came back. Now the view was clearly taken from up in one of those giant trees, looking down at a small clearing below. In that clearing, two men stood in front of a large cage, with a fur-covered figure huddled inside. The view zoomed in close enough to identify the figure as a werewolf in his half-human, half-wolf form. But unlike most such figures of immense power and strength, this one was so scrawny it looked half-skeletal. The figure had clearly been starved almost to death, with additional burns and other marks to show that the men standing over the cage hadn’t been content with simple starvation as a form of punishment.

“There it is,” Pace’s voice came in a whisper. “Our grand, conquering heroes, saving the world from vicious monsters.” Even as she spoke, one of the men shoved a long silver pole with a sharp end through the cage and jabbed it into the huddled, miserable, broken figure. Just as the yowl of pain came, he triggered a burst of electricity, just to make it worse.

“Stupid bastards,” Pace snarled before adding, “And don’t worry, they can’t hear me up here. Cone of silence. We can hear them, they can’t hear us. We–”

Whatever she had been about to say then was cut off as the second man used his own electrified silver spear to jab the emaciated werewolf hard in the leg while ordering, “Get your ass up! We got more spells to test, see if they keep you mutts where you belong.”

Surprisingly, the scraggly, seemingly almost-dead wolf gave a low chuckle. It sounded… strange, like the wolf wasn’t all there. “Again,” he pleaded. “Do it again. Do it again. Make us dance again. Bring the silver-fire, make it burn, make it sing. The fat lady sings, make us play your tune.”

“The fuck is this mutt’s problem?” one of the men asked the other. “You break him already?”

The second man shrugged. “Been playing with him for a few weeks, Anguis. You just didn’t notice cuz you’ve been having too much fun.”

“Yeah?” The first man, Anguis, tapped his silver spear against the cage. “Well we need a better one then, cuz the last one lasted two months before we had to put ‘im down. They’re boring when they break too fast.” To show his annoyance, the man jabbed his spear at the figure in the cage again.

“See?” Pace’s voice came in what was almost a growl. “This is how we treat them. Does that werewolf look like a threat to anyone? Are we really the good guys if we—hold on, let’s get a better view. These are the guys who–”

As she was speaking, the girl shifted around, trying to slide further down the branch to get a better shot of the pathetic, starved werewolf. Unfortunately, she happened to slide a little too far. There was a yelp, followed by the air spinning around the camera as it and the girl holding it fell rapidly.

She landed hard on the ground with a yelp of pain, the camera bouncing over into a nearby bush, falling onto its side as it continued recording.

Before Pace could stand, the man who wasn’t Anguis had his foot on her throat to hold her there. “The hell is this?!”

“Hey,” Anguis called. “I know that one, Tin. She’s one of Lost Scar’s cadets. What’s she doing out here?”

“That’s a good question,” Tin replied while staring down at Pace. “Now why don’t you just start–”

Unfortunately for the man called Anguis, he had been distracted by Pace’s abrupt arrival while in the midst of shocking his prisoner yet again. As he’d turned to see what was going on, he had left the silver spear where it was, half in the cage. And in that distracted moment, the werewolf’s hand lashed out to grab it. Somehow, he managed to tear the weapon from the man’s grip, twist it around, and then abruptly gave the thing a hard jab right up through the Heretic’s throat and out the other side.

The man was already falling even as Tin spun that way. He acted too slow, however. The emaciated werewolf caught hold of a gun that was on Anguis’s belt. Tearing it free, he fired three quick shots. They took Tin in the knees, dropping the man with a shout of pain.

While the man was on the ground, the werewolf fired another handful of shots at the door of the cage itself. There was a shower of sparks, and then he was able to shove his way free.

Pace tried to push herself up, but let out a gasp of pain. The fall had taken too much out of her. Her legs were broken, at the very least. And it would take her healing power some time to stitch her back together. Too much time.

She looked up then just in time to see the werewolf shove the spear through the chest of the injured Tin. He pulled the spear back, then shoved it down again, then back and down again. With each thrust, more blood spurted forth. And with each crimson spurt, the werewolf giggled. “Pretty! Do it again! More pretty!”

There was the slightest sound of leaves crackling as Pace shifted slightly, her mouth opening to say something, anything. At the sound, however, the almost-skeletal werewolf twisted to look at her, jerking the spear free of the the dead man.

“O-okay,” Pace started. “I know this is g-gonna be hard to believe, but I was trying to help. I mean I was going to help. I was going to… to try to–”

“Pretty girl,” the werewolf murmured. He came forward, limbs dropping a little to let the spear drag along the ground in one hand while the pistol hung limply from the other. It was like the burst of energy had faded and now he was back to being almost dead. Clearly, the wolf was running on fumes. And yet, something kept him going, something kept driving him forward.

“Pretty girl,” he repeated. “Pretty Heretic girl. Stronger. Not like this one.” He gestured to his own broken body. “Sick. Dying.”

“I–I’m sorry,” Pace spoke hesitantly. “I’m sorry, if I could… if I can do something. If I can help you…”

The broken, deranged, starved werewolf smiled slowly. “The pretty Heretic wants to help?”

“If I can,” she confirmed. “I can’t–I mean I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”

Abruptly, the werewolf was there. The weapons had fallen to the ground, and he was kneeling over her. The suddenness of his arrival made her jerk backward, almost hitting her head on a nearby rock. As it was, even that bit of movement made her cry out in pain from her not-yet-healed wounds.

“Oh, there is,” the werewolf almost purred. “There very is. This one almost dead. So very almost dead. Too sick. Couldn’t escape. Fun to see tears. Fun to see pain. But too late now. Far too late. Can’t get better. Silver wounds.”

Pace’s mouth opened, but before she could say anything, the werewolf abruptly grabbed her chin with one hand, twisting her head to the side before drawing a single black claw down her cheek.

She yelped, jerking a bit as her hand grabbed for her face. “What–what did you–what–” She knew. She’d had the lessons. She knew what the thing had done to her, but the shock was still setting in.

“Yay!” the half-dead werewolf cheered. “Can let this one go now. Didn’t wanna let it go. Liked the wolfy. Pretty furry wolfy. But now, wolfy-heretic. Even better!” He leaned closer to Pace, speaking in a stage-whisper. “I’m broken. Broken, broken. They call us Lies. Lies cuz we can only hold one at a time. Not like them. Supposed to go in any, leave any, any time. We’re broken. Handicapped. Something wrong when we’re born, so we can only take one. One at a time, and can’t let them go til they die, you see? Handicapped. Take one form, only hold it until they die. Then take another. Can’t leave, can’t jump in and out. Stuck. Pick a form, stuck until it dies. Lies, they call us Lies. English-human word is Lies.”

“I… I don’t know what you’re–” Pace started, only to yelp in surprise as the werewolf abruptly stepped back from her and straightened up. He had the silver spear back, holding it in both hands. And yet, just as the injured girl made to defend herself, the werewolf stabbed the weapon not at her, but up through his own throat.

The body dropped lifelessly to the ground… leaving a second body standing there. This one was a girl. An ethereally beautiful girl who looked to be about fifteen years old, with light brown hair and matching eyes, along with skin that was almost porcelain pale.  

“Happy re-birthday!” the girl announced, before lunging forward.

Pace jerked back, only to stop short as the other girl simply disappeared inside her. There was a spasm of movement, and a cry from the Heretic student before she fell onto her back.

A few seconds passed like that as the girl jerked and made a few pathetic mewling noises. Then she went completely still. For almost a minute, she laid there, body healing while she simply remained silent and seemingly frozen.

Just as suddenly, she sat up. Her head turned from one side to the other, as though taking in her surroundings. Gradually, she stood, testing her newly healed legs. First one, then the other. She took a few steps, looking down at the corpses at her feet. The bodies of the two Heretics, and the one of the werewolf.

A giggle escaped her. A giggle that suddenly became a laugh, which itself was just as abruptly cut off into an eerie silence.  

Slowly, her head turned. She looked toward the fallen camera with eyes that were no longer Pace as she had been only minutes earlier.

“Oh,” the Seosten Lie announced.

“This is gonna be fun.”

Previous Chapter                           Next Chapter

Interlude 22B – Asenath and Lincoln

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

“Now that,” Lincoln Chambers announced while sitting back in his seat at the kitchen table, “was a good gyro.” Tapping his cleared plate, he winked at Asenath, who was sitting across from him. “What do you think? They just opened last week, think they’ll stay in business?”

Senny nodded with a slight chuckle. “If they keep making food like that, for sure.” She winked at him then. “Now we just need some ice cream. Or are we supposed to go with Greek yogurt just to keep up the theme?”

“Actually, before we get to dessert, there was something else I wanted to try,” the man replied. He reached under the kitchen table, lifting up a metal box with a padlock on it to set on the table between them. After putting in the combination, he carefully opened the box to reveal several guns inside. The man silently ran his hand over the weapons with an almost reverent look before withdrawing a nine-millimeter pistol, turning it over in his hands.

Shifting slightly in her seat, Asenath raised an eyebrow curiously. “Sorry, Mr. Chambers. I don’t think there’s a gun range that’s still open this late.” She smiled faintly. “At least, not in this town.”

He chuckled, head shaking. “I told you, it’s Lincoln, not Mr. Chambers. And it’s okay. I don’t need the gun range. What I want…” He paused, looking up to meet her gaze. “… is to test a theory.”

With those words, the man abruptly raised the pistol to point the thing at his own head. His finger tightened on the trigger as Asenath’s reactions kicked her up and out of the seat. She didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t know if he had been enchanted, possessed, or if Ammon had gotten to him somehow, impossible as that seemed considering how much she and Twister were watching. But she couldn’t let this happen. She couldn’t let Flick lose her father, whatever it was.

With a blur of motion, she went up and over the table. Her hand snatched the pistol out of the man’s hand an instant before he would have finished pulling the trigger. The girl went from sitting in her seat to standing on the opposite side of the table with the gun in her hand in a split-second.

It wasn’t until then that Asenath felt the weight of the weapon that she was holding. The weight was wrong. It was light–too light. There was… Pausing as the realization came to her, she held the gun off to the side before pulling the trigger, once, twice, then a third time. Every pull resulted in a simple, definitive click. It was empty. There were no bullets in the magazine or the chamber.  

“Yeah,” Lincoln announced calmly as her eyes moved up to him. He hadn’t moved from his seat except to turn his head so he could watch her. “I kinda figured something like that would happen.”

“You… you were testing me,” Senny realized as she carefully laid the empty pistol on the table. Her stare never left the man. “Why? How did you–what?” For once, the vampire-girl was in uncharted waters. She’d never seen anything like this, not from an ordinary human, a Bystander.

In answer, Lincoln first reached into his jacket pocket before producing a small notebook. He tossed it onto the table and flipped the thing open, revealing that it was completely full of scribbled notes. As the man flipped through the pages, Asenath could see where parts had been scratched out, erased, amended, and more. She saw words and phrases like, ‘Immortal’, ‘Time-Traveler’, and where ‘Hostage’ had several lines drawn through it, with ‘Protected’ scrawled in beside it.

There were more, clearly the result of the man hurriedly scribbling notes here and there, every time a thought came to him. It was stream-of-consciousness writing, from a man who was clearly aware that he could lose his train of thought any moment. Or have the thoughts taken from him.

“I kept forgetting,” he announced quietly, patting the notebook. “Things I saw, stuff I noticed here and there. Conclusions, guesses, whatever you want to call it. It kept  going out of my head. But I’ve been a reporter for a long time. And when you’re a reporter, you know what you learn to do real quick if you’re gonna  be any good at the job? Write stuff down. Oh, and–” Again, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing a silver voice recorder. Hitting the play button, he held it up as his voice emerged from the thing to say, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”   

Pressing the stop button, Lincoln quietly added with a glance at the gun. “Guess I was right.”

Asenath was still reeling as he continued. “But I guess the thing that really made me wake up was probably this.” Picking up his nearby cell phone, the man carefully cued something on it before holding the phone up for her to see. On the screen, a video began to play. It was clearly an ancient video, at least as far as human technology was concerned. There were dark lines running through the screen and there was no sound in it. Even then, however, the view it was showing was clear enough. There was a hospital waiting room full of people watching a news report of the Kennedy assassination. And there on screen was a woman holding two infant children. Joselyn Chambers. Or, to be more accurate at that point, Joselyn Atherby. She was there, clearly shown in a video that had to have been taken at least ten years before she had supposedly been born.

“So like I said,” Lincoln went on once Asenath had seen enough of the video. “This is the one that really got me thinking. I started recording things, thoughts, ideas, everything. Then I kept forgetting them, but I’d find my notes later and remember. I started using this thing,” his hand indicated the voice recorder, “just to keep track of every thought I had. Started leaving notes for myself on my pillow, in my car, everywhere that I’d run into them. Thought I was going crazy for awhile. I mean, how could Jos be… how could she be that old a decade before she was born? It didn’t make sense. It was obviously fake. Obviously. Had to be fake. But I couldn’t figure out why. What was the point? So I sent it to a friend of mine in LA, a computer guy. I figured he’d tell me how it was fake, maybe pull some actual information off the video that might lead to answers about Jos. Like maybe she sent it, maybe she was trying to tell me something. There could be a message in it.”

He paused, raising his gaze to her again.  “But you know what he told me after he looked at it?”

After a moment of silence, Senny answered, “He said it was real, that it wasn’t tampered with.”

Lincoln gave a faint nod. “Yeah. He said he went over the whole thing backwards and forwards. And trust me, if there was anything fake in it, he would’ve found it. He’s good. Really good. So if he said it was real, it was real. Which is just…” his head shook quickly, “insane. It couldn’t be. Couldn’t be real. Joselyn could not have been there in 1963. It just–it was wrong. Impossible. So how could the video be real? How? It couldn’t be real, because she wasn’t alive then, let alone that old. Back and forth, I just kept going back and forth. It couldn’t be real. But it was. It was. It was real, so I had to accept it. And to accept it, I had to figure out why. I had to figure out how.

“Then I started thinking that’s why she disappeared, you see? I figured that’s why Jos vanished, because she went back in time. She time traveled.  Yeah, I know, insane. That’s what I thought. But…” He waved the phone with the video on it. “It’s real. The video’s real, so there has to be an explanation. Time travel. It explains why she disappeared, why no one’s been able to find her.”

“You think your wife… went back in time?” Asenath asked slowly, her brow furrowing a bit.

“No.” Lincoln shook his head. “Not anymore. See, even then there was just too much that didn’t make sense. I mean, not that time travel itself made sense, but even within the context of that, there were too many questions. Too many things it didn’t answer. Especially when it came to you.”

“When it came to me?” Asenath echoed, head turning slightly as her curiosity rose even more.

He nodded. “You see, I know when Flick is keeping things from me. I know when she’s upset and won’t talk about it. I know when she’s… lying. She’s been getting better about it, but I can tell. I know my daughter.  And every time she talks about that school she’s going to, she’s lying. She doesn’t want to. I can tell that too. But she is. She’s lying about a lot of it. So if she’s lying, why?”

The man pushed himself back from the table then, finally standing as he let out a breath. “And the thing is, what are the odds that some mysterious school on the other side of the country suddenly recruits my daughter, full scholarship, she starts lying about it, and it’s not related to this video? I’ve seen her teacher, talked to her. I’ve seen all the pamphlets about this Crossroads, seen the website all about their campus. So if my kid is lying about it, then they’re all lying about it. And that kind of conspiracy, convincing Flick to lie, faking all of that, it’s too big not to be connected to this video. You see? Two things that big, an entire fake school and my wife being in this video, they had to be connected. Had to be. Because two things that big, that insane, couldn’t be separate.”

Standing there, he folded his arms across his chest while watching Asenath. “But if they were connected, then you had to be connected. You were here because of Flick.” He raised his chin to her. “But see, that’s what didn’t fit for a long time. I thought you were here to keep me in line, make me a hostage while… whoever’s behind that school convinced Flick to keep lying. But that didn’t make sense. Because she likes you. She really does, I can tell. And Shiori, Columbus, all of them. Even that professor of hers, the one that visited. She likes all of you, but she’s still lying.

“None of it made sense. She likes the school, at least, some of the people in it anyway. She’s obviously learning how to take care of herself. She’s stronger than she was. But she’s lying to me. Doesn’t want to, but she is. And then I figured it out. I realized why she’s been lying. It’s because she can’t tell me the truth.” His finger moved to touch his own head. “Because I’ll forget. Hell, for all I know, she has tried to tell me the truth. Me forgetting and her lying, they’re connected.”

The man let that sink in for a moment before he went on. “So the school, her teachers, her friends, all of that couldn’t be connected to time travel. But you know what it could be connected to?” He paused briefly, meeting Asenath’s gaze before answering his own question. “Immortals.”

That made Senny’s mouth open and shut a few times. “… immortals?” she managed weakly.

“Virginia Dare,” the man replied. “She’s not named for the girl at all. She is the girl, the woman. And the reason Jos can look like she’s the same age ten years before she was supposedly born as she was when I knew her, is because she is the same age. Dare, Jos, probably everyone at that school, they’re all immortals. Or, if not immortal, they live a long time. My guess is so that they can fight people like you.” He paused, his eyes taking in her reaction. “… vampires, that is.”

Before she could even start to form a coherent thought, let alone reaction to that, Lincoln continued. “Super speed, you’re really strong, and an allergy to sunlight? Yeah, even with the doctor’s note, that one wasn’t hard to pick up on. So the way I see it, there’s these people that Jos comes from. Immortal or just live a long time, I don’t know. Whatever it is, she was part of them. And they fight, well, people like you. Vampires, maybe other things, I don’t know. Only bad ones. Jos was part of it, but she ran away. I don’t know why, but she left. She took off. Maybe the kids she had back then, the ones in the video… maybe something happened to them and she couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t know. Either way, my guess is that she came here and made a new life, the life she had with us. But one of those people she used to fight found her. They took her away.

“Fast forward a few years, and those people, Jos’s people, they come and recruit Flick. They take her into their school, start teaching her how to take care of herself. And they tell her about her mom. They tell her that this bad guy has her. That’s why she’s there. That’s why she’s so much stronger now, because they’re teaching her, they’re training her. And that’s why she’s suddenly… that’s why she’s not mad at her mom anymore. Because she knows that Jos was abducted, that she didn’t choose to leave. So Flick’s there because she wants to save her mom. And she’s not telling me about it because she thinks I’d just forget all of it. That’s why she’s been lying about it.”

Slowly, the man reached up to the nearby fridge to take down a newspaper article that had been clipped there. “And you’re here… because of this.” He showed her the article. It was about the supposed ‘terrorist attack’ in the city several months earlier. “Flick’s birthday. It’s her birthday, she’s back from that school, and something like this happens? It had to be connected. Had to be. So the way I see it, it’s this guy.” From his pocket, he drew out another picture. It was the picture that Senny and Flick had seen pinned up on the board in Lincoln’s office, the one that had been taken from the bad surveillance footage that showed Fossor himself.

“That’s the guy who took my wife,” the man announced flatly, confidently. “And he came here on Flick’s birthday to threaten her. All those attacks, those were warnings. Telling her to back off. And that’s why you’re here now. You’re part of the school, whatever it really is. You’re part of it, and Flick asked you to come and stay with me. You’re not keeping me hostage. You’re protecting me.”

It wasn’t perfect. There were holes in his assumptions, yet other conclusions that he had reached relatively correctly with very little to go on. And yet, none of it made sense. He shouldn’t have been able to remember any of what he was doing. It shouldn’t have been that easy. The shock of it, the utter confusion of a Bystander being able to both retain enough information to know that something was off and to put it together as close to accurately as he had, was enough to stun the two-hundred year old vampire into silence. For a moment, Senny just opened and shut her mouth. “What–how did… how…”

“I told you,” the man replied simply, “I’m a damn good reporter.”

Again, her mouth opened. But before she could actually say anything, something else caught her attention. Footsteps. They were coming from outside, yet from more than one direction. The house was being approached from both sides. A moment later, her nose caught the scent.

Werewolves. At least four of them, maybe more. They were approaching the back door and the one at the front. And from their pace, they weren’t exactly planning on stopping to knock.

She moved. Even as the terrible crash came as the two sets of werewolves kicked either door in, Senny was already in the front hall. Her foot caught the door there, slamming it back the other way just as the massive figure there tried to stomp his way inside. The door took him in the face, making him snap backward. It only gained a couple of seconds, but seconds mattered right then.

“Twist!” she shouted while blurring her way back through the kitchen to the back door. “Code fur!”

Two werewolves were there, already pushing their way in through the shattered door. One of them saw her and snarled, “Vampire bi–”

That was as far as he got before Senny reached the kitchen knives. Her hands snatched two from the wooden container, and she gave them a quick toss that left one embedded in the scraggly-haired man’s shoulder and the other in the arm that he was reaching for her with.

He screamed, jerking backward with a look of disbelief at the knives embedded in him. Knives that were actual silver, since Asenath had spent her time in the house gradually replacing the old stainless steel knives with new ones that would actually get the job done if they needed to. Just in case.

“You got real bullets for that thing?” she snapped over her shoulder at Lincoln. “Load it!”

Even as she finished talking, one of the other wolves behind the one she had put the knives in shoved his companion out of the way. He gave her a brief smile that showed a mouthful of fangs before lunging forward. At the same time, fur began to sprout up over the man’s exposed skin, and he grew taller, shifting into his half-man, half-wolf form.

By that point, Senny had two more knives in her hands. She met the werewolf’s charge by leaping up and backward onto the far side of the table. An instant later, she kicked it forward, sending the table into the werewolf’s stomach with enough force that the table itself was broken. But it also doubled the man over enough that she was able to drive one of the knives up through his throat and into his brain.

Four deafening gunshots, all fired in rapid succession, filled the air then. From the corner of her eye as the wolf she had killed collapsed, Senny saw the one from the front door standing there in the kitchen entrance with four bullet holes in his chest. Unfortunately, the bullets themselves weren’t silver or magic (she really wished they had some Heretic bullets right then), so the wounds were barely enough to make the big werewolf pause. Then, with a snarl, he started forward.

That was when the bear showed up. Taking up most of the front entranceway, the enormous shaggy creature lashed out a furry paw that caught the wolf across the face and sent him flying sideways.

Twister. She was up, which made this whole thing a little easier. Survivable, at least.

Another werewolf from the front, this one in actual wolf form, joined in the attack, rushing in to save his partner even as the Twister-bear turned to face them both. At the same time, two more wolf-men shoved their way in. They saw their dead partner while the one with knives in his arm and shoulder bellowed, and came for Senny.

One werewolf dead, one injured. Two more there at the back. At least two at the front. Six werewolves. This was a full scale assault. They were there to either kill Lincoln, or take him.

Senny wouldn’t let that happen. Even as the first wolf reached her, she jerked sideways to avoid his claw-filled hand as it lashed out. A quick swipe of the knife drew a line of blood from the arm, as well as a snarl of pain from the wolf himself.

The second wolf went for her from the other side, forcing the vampire to keep an eye on both of them. They were fast, impossibly so. But so was she. And she had far more experience than either. Probably more experience than both combined.

But they were still werewolves. And she had to keep half an eye on Lincoln, making sure he was behind her. One of the wolves, after a flurry of blindingly quick swipes, managed to smack the girl upside the head. It was a glancing blow, but from the wolf, it still knocked her back a step. And that was enough for the second wolf to nail her in the stomach with a kick that knocked her right into Lincoln. Both stumbled, falling against the counter.

“Werewolves?” he blurted, staring at the girl while catching her arm. “And is that a fucking bear?!

“Oh sure,” Senny retorted. “You’ve figured out I’m a vampire and you think your wife and daughter are some kind of immortal hunters, but the bear startles you.” Pausing, she added, “Anyway, the bear’s on our side.”

“Look, vampire bitch.” The wolf that she had injured had entered the room then, making it three werewolves facing her. “We’re taking the Bystander. You can let us do it and keep breathing–or whatever you cunts do, or you can–”

“I think that’s enough.” The voice came from the open doorway at the back. As everyone’s eyes turned that way, a lone figure stepped through. A figure that sent all of Senny’s danger senses about Heretics into a screaming fit.

She was an almost achingly beautiful black woman, who radiated power as she stood there. “You may run,” she informed the gathered werewolves, “or–”

They lunged for her. With a collective howl, all three of the werewolves there in the kitchen went for the woman as one pack, rushing her together.

Unfortunately for them, all that meant was that they failed together.

The woman pursed her lips and blew out a white cloud that enveloped the wolf directly in front of her. In an instant, he was frozen solid, a statue of ice.

At the same time, she moved, her form flowing as smoothly as if it was water flowing through a river. Gracefully sidestepping the second wolf, she brushed a hand over his side. At her touch, he turned to stone.

By that point, the third wolf was leaping up and into the air with his claws raised. The Heretic gave a quick nod of her head, and the figure was caught by an invisible force that sent him flying backwards. Just before he would have hit the wall, a half dozen sharp, clearly silver spikes emerged from it. The wolf-man gave a pathetic yowl as he was impaled through on all of them.

Impossible as it seemed, through all of that, the first werewolf hadn’t yet hit the ground. Frozen solid, he was still in mid-fall at the moment that the third wolf was impaled on the wall.

The Heretic turned, catching the falling, frozen wolf by the back of the neck before using her considerable strength to slam him into the counter. He hit with enough force that his frozen head exploded.

It was at that moment that the wolf who had been turned into stone at her touch landed on the floor. In the same motion that she had used to turn while shoving the frozen wolf-man’s head against the counter, the Heretic brought her foot down hard on the stone-wolf. The blow shattered the figure into dozens of pieces.

“Or die,” she finished her earlier statement, the entire ‘fight’, if it could even be called that, having taken roughly two and a half seconds.

“Wolves at the front are done!” Twister announced, having shifted back into her human form as she came into the kitchen. “How are we–” She paused, taking in the sight around them before her eyes found the woman. “What… the he–oh shit!” Jumping back, she shapeshifted into a squirrel before landing on Asenath’s shoulder.

“Uhhh…” Lincoln was shakily holding the gun up, pointed at the woman. “Okay. Okay, those were werewolves. Werewolves. And you–you’re…”

“Heretic,” Asenath finished for him, her eyes on the woman. “And not just a Heretic. You’re…  you’re a…”

“Part of the Committee,” the woman confirmed. “My name is Calafia. And you are Asenath. And Twister, I presume.”

“Flick,” Lincoln quickly put in. “You–you’re part of Flick’s school, part of Jos’s people, the immortals.”

“So close, Mr. Chambers,” the woman spoke easily. “You are so very close right now. I’m impressed. I thought it would take you longer to reach these conclusions, even with the weakened Bystander Effect.”

“Weakened Bystander Effect?” Asenath’s gaze snapped that way. “How do–wait… you. You did it. It’s you–you’re the reason he’s remembering. You weakened it, you let him… you let him remember, but why? What the hell are you doing?”

The profoundly dangerous woman simply inclined her head. “Let’s just say I owe Joselyn Atherby a great deal, and leave it at that for now. But yes. I was the one who informed Gabriel Prosser of where he could locate Joselyn to begin with. I also sent him the video of Joselyn in the hospital from our secure archives and asked him to make sure that Mr. Chambers received it.”

“But… but…” Asenath was floundering. “You’re–you’re part of the… you’re one of… you’re…”

“As I said,” Calafia spoke calmly, “I owe Joselyn more than I can ever repay. But to start, allowing her husband to learn the truth, that was something that was within my capability. Yet, to ensure that none of my… colleagues recognized what was happening, I could not break the Bystander Effect. I could only weaken it. He had to work through the rest of it himself, on his own. As I said, I expected it to take longer.” She turned slightly to look at the man. “You are a very surprising man, Lincoln Chambers. Joselyn chose well, even under… her circumstances.”

“My wife.” Lincoln took a step that way, the pistol falling to his side. “You know what happened to my wife. You know the man–you have Flick, you have–tell me what–tell me–” He seemed choked up, frozen and incapable of deciding what he wanted full answers to first.

“I’m afraid I cannot stay here,” Calafia informed them. “My presence will be noticed before long. You need to leave. The wolves will return, in greater numbers. I’m afraid Felicity has… angered them. They were retaliating, and it’s not a retaliation that will stop any time soon. You need to leave this place, stay on the run until the pack and those behind it are dealt with.”

“But I need to know!” Lincoln snapped. The poor man’s face was red as he fought to cope with everything he was seeing, everything that was being revealed to him. “I need to know about my wife, about my daughter, about what’s really going on! I want to talk to Felicity.”

“Go,” Calafia repeated, before her eyes fell on Asenath. “And tell him the truth. He’s close, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. You can tell him the rest of it. He’s broken through the Bystander Effect enough to retain it by this point.

“Tell him everything.”  

Previous Chapter                                Next Chapter

Interlude 22A – Miranda

Previous Chapter                        Next Chapter

March 17th, 2012 (Just Under Six Years Ago)

“Flick, are you sure they’re gonna come?” twelve-year-old Miranda Wallbern asked her best friend while glancing across the food court table that the two of them were sharing. Right beside them was a railing that overlooked the first floor of the mall below, where they could see people walking.

The blonde girl bobbed her head up and down quickly, eyes centered on that lower area while she absently sipped her soda. “Uh huh,” she murmured under her breath. “They’ll be here, trust me.”  

“Duh, always,” Miranda retorted. “It’s just, we’ve been waiting here for two hours already and we haven’t seen ‘em. We’ve gotta get on the four o’clock bus if we’re gonna make it home before six.”

Saturday or not, six o’clock was dinner, and Miranda had to make it home in time. Unfortunately, the mall they were in wasn’t actually in Laramie Falls, the girls’ hometown. Instead, it was in a larger town about an hour and a half away. If they missed the bus getting back, they’d have to call one of their parents for a ride. And if that happened, they were going to have to explain not just why they weren’t where they were supposed to be, but why they were in a whole different city.

“We’ll make it,” Flick insisted, still not turning her gaze away from the lower level. “Kendall’s gonna be here. That’s her favorite store.” She nodded toward the front of the shop that could barely be seen down there from where they were sitting. “And that sale ends after today. She’ll be here.”

Giving her little blue flip phone a nervous look to check the time once more, Miranda nodded. “Okay, but we’ve gotta leave in an hour if we’re gonna make it to the bus, Kendall or no Kendall.”

Flick opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, a smile formed and she gave a little nod. “See?”

Sure enough, looking that way, Miranda saw the girl in question. Kendall Harver was walking right below them, accompanied by two of her friends/cronies. The trio were pretty much the most popular girls in the eighth grade, two years above where Miranda and Flick were. In their middle school, Kendall didn’t even know that the two of them existed. They were invisible sixth graders.

But after this… well, they wouldn’t be invisible to the girl anymore. That was for sure.

From their seats up on that second floor, Miranda and Flick watched. They caught glimpses of the girls moving back and forth through the store, picking up various clothes here and there. But mostly, they just waited. Eventually, Kendall and her sidekicks brought a stack of their selections to the checkout counter, which was perfectly framed in view from where the girls were sitting.

“Here we go,” Flick announced while holding her hand out. “How long do we have left?”

Digging into the bag at her side, Miranda came out with a camera, handing it to her friend before checking her phone again. “Fifteen minutes,” she announced. “If we run all the way to the bus.”

Flick smiled. “See? Plenty of time.” She took the camera, focusing it on the scene through the store window below. There was a rapid clicking sound as she took several pictures in quick succession, then paused before taking a few more. “Wait… wait…” the blonde murmured, clearly talking to herself as she held off from taking any more for a moment. “Wait for the money shot.”

She didn’t have to wait long. As the clerk in the store totaled u the older girls’ purchases, Kendall reached into her purse and came out with a white envelope full of cash. The second the envelope was opened, Flick started taking pictures again. She took pictures of the cash in the envelope, being taken out of it, being handed to the clerk, and of the clerk carefully counting all of it.

Finally, it was over. Kendall and her friends were handed their purchases, and Flick took a couple more quick photos of the three walking out of the store. Then she straightened and nodded to Miranda. “Time to run?” she asked, smiling brightly from the exhilaration of success.

Returning the other girl’s grin, Miranda’s head bobbed. “Yup,” she replied before adding, “All those pictures, that means we’ve got ‘em, right? And we’re not gonna get in trouble this time?”

“Randi,” Flick replied, standing up from the table. “I promise, we are not gonna get in trouble.”

*******

“You two girls are in so much trouble.

Two days later, Miranda and Flick sat in the principal’s office at their school. Principal Augustine Bonnelly was an older, severe-faced woman who had been the head of the middle school pretty much forever, according to anyone Miranda had asked. She had dark gray hair with flecks of white in it, almost like paint splotches. Her glasses were thick, and she always wore a dark red turtleneck that looked like it was so tight that it should’ve been choking her. Her expression at the best of times was optimistically put as ‘unhappy.’ And right now definitely wasn’t the best of times.

But if she expected Flick to be cowed by her words, the woman clearly didn’t know her at all. Beside Miranda, the blonde lifted her chin stubbornly. “I think you mean Kendall’s in trouble.”

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t correct me, Miss Chambers,” Principal Bonnelly retorted. “We’re dealing with your issue right now. Would either of you care to explain what this is?” Reaching down to her desk, she picked up a piece of paper. Both the front and back were covered with text and a couple pictures, while the title across the top of the front read: ‘FESTIVAL OF FRAUD’.

“It’s a newspaper,” Miranda informed the woman while shifting a little in her seat with a quick glance toward the other girl. “Well, um, sort of. It’s more of a flier, I guess. Cuz we couldn’t make a real newspaper, so we just printed out a bunch of those from the computer in the lab.”      

“A newspaper,” Principal Bonnelly echoed, her voice incredulous. “This is the very same… newspaper, as you call it, that the two of you distributed into every classroom of this school?”

“And every locker,” Flick reminded her. “Every classroom and every locker. Oh, and we put some up on the bulletin board by the trophy case and in the teacher’s lounge too. And there was one left over, so we put that one in that room the janitors hide in so they can smoke. Just in case.”

The woman took a visible breath at that before letting it out. “The two of you plastered these accusations across the entire school, without a single thought about the potential consequences.”

Flick’s head shook. “Nuh uh,” the twelve-year-old insisted with an even more stubborn look. “We thought about the consequences a lot. Mostly consequences for Kendall. You know, for stealing.”  

“Be careful, Miss Chambers.” Principal Bonnelly’s eyes narrowed. “You may be able to write whatever unproven accusations you want to in that ‘newspaper’, but when you’re talking to–”

To Miranda’s horror, Flick interrupted. “It’s not unproven. We have evidence and witnesses. Kendall and her friends took a bunch of money from the carnival and spent it on clothes.”

Sounding like she was really lamenting the fact that corporal punishment had been outlawed, Bonnelly retorted, “Are you referring to the carnival that was meant to raise money for our end-of-year field trip? The one that succeeded? We have the money, Miss Chambers.”

To Miranda’s own surprise, she was the one who spoke then. “Of course it did. They didn’t take all the money. That’d be stupid. As long as they left just enough for the trip, people wouldn’t look too close. If they didn’t, there’d be questions and stuff. People might talk about how much they spent.”

Flick added, “Kendall was the one with the cash box. All she did was walk around once an hour to get the money from all the games and refreshments, and they put the cash in the box.”

“A box,” the principal cut in to add with a note of obvious impatience, “which was padlocked. And Miss Harver didn’t have the key. Are you suggesting that all of the people, many of them adults, who were running those games were in on this scheme, Miss Chambers?”

“Didn’t you read the–” The sound of Flick’s incredulousness that the woman hadn’t even bothered to read through their entire article made Miranda flinch, and she quickly elbowed the other girl.

“Um,” she hurriedly put in, “in case you missed it, we answered that in the story. Kendall was the only one carrying the lock box around, so she knew exactly how much was in there all the time.”

Flick’s head bobbed, and she added on the heels of Miranda’s words. “So when she knew that there was enough in there for the trip, she switched boxes. She had another box, just like that one. She hid the real one and walked around with the fake one so that people would put money in it. At the end of the day, she switched back and gave you guys the first one, the real one. You opened it up, counted the money, and saw it was enough. Then she took the fake box and everything in it. And bought clothes, and other stuff.”

“And your evidence of this is…” Principal Bonnelly prompted, waving a hand impatiently.

Miranda answered first. “We talked to Mr. Jenkins at the store. He said that Kendall bought a box just like the one that was used at the carnival, and a padlock too. Except Mr. Thomas,” she named the eighth grade chemistry teacher, “already bought the box himself. So she bought an extra.”

Flick nodded. “And we talked to everybody that was running booths that day. Jackie Townsend’s dad said that he thought the box was lighter in the afternoon, but Kendall told him that you guys emptied it after lunch. And Tricia Comess said that the padlock was on backwards the first time she saw the box, with the key part facing in. But when she saw it later, the lock was facing out. Oh, and we added up the amounts that people could remember putting in the box, and it’s almost enough to make the field trip by itself, even though a lot of them couldn’t remember. So it should be way over the goal, not just a little bit over.”

“Plus,” Miranda finished while tapping the paper, “We’ve got pictures of them paying for all that stuff at the mall in cash.”

“There’s more pictures,” Flick helpfully added while reaching out to point at the bottom of the page. “See? You just have to go to this website right there and you’ll find them all.”

Heaving a long, annoyed sigh, Bonnelly started, “If you had come to me or a teacher first-”

“You would’ve tried to deal with it quietly,” Flick interrupted. “Just because Kendall’s the star of the soccer team. The one that’s supposed to be going to state. They’ll lose without Kendall, and she definitely can’t play with something like this. Whoever we talked to might try to keep it quiet.” She shrugged then. “So we made sure they couldn’t. You know, by making sure everyone saw it.”

Steepling her fingers, the principal rested her forehead against her thumbs briefly before straightening. “I will be calling the police. Unfortunately, there’s no choice now. But no, Miss Chambers. My thought was that if you had come to me first, I could have ensured that your identities were kept secret. As it is, several students saw you putting up these papers, which means that now everyone is aware of where and who they came from. In your eagerness to spread the truth, you have made targets of yourselves.” Pausing then, she added, “I’ll also be calling your parents to help handle this. Miss Chambers, please wait outside for a moment. I’d like to talk to Miss Wallbern alone.”

Miranda gave her friend a nod of encouragement when the girl looked at her, then waited as Flick left the room to wait in the receptionist’s office.

Once they were alone, Principal Bonnelly took a breath. “Miss Wallbern, I understand that you and Miss Chambers are close friends. But you may wish to… reconsider just how much time you spend with her. She is a… troubled girl, lashing out at authority. It’s understandable, after what her mother did. Yet… it’s also something that she will find a way out of much easier than you will.”

“You mean cuz I’m black,” Miranda finished for her while folding her arms over her chest. “You think Flick’s gonna get us both in trouble, only she’ll get out of it and I won’t because she’s white and I’m black.”

It wasn’t anything all that new for her to hear. Miranda had been the only black girl in their grade ever since her family moved to Wyoming several years earlier. And the rest of the town wasn’t exactly swimming in them. She was used to people staring a bit, was accustomed to those that tried to ‘help’ when the best thing they could’ve done was leave well enough alone.

“The facts are the facts, Miss Wallbern,” the woman informed her. “Unfair though they may be. Miss Chambers’ mother was the sheriff before she… left. She still has friends on the force. Her father is a respected reporter. If things go wrong, you are the one who will bear the brunt of any punishment should someone need to be made an example of.”

“Principal Bonnelly,” Miranda started, “How come you’re acting like Flick and me did something wrong, just cuz we told the truth and found out about someone stealing?”

The woman sighed at that. “Sometimes things are more complicated than we want them to be,” she replied flatly. “I’m not saying that you didn’t… have the right intentions or accomplish something positive. I’m saying that the effects of those actions may come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t foresee. And that it is you who will most likely bear those effects, Miss Wallbern. Fair or not, that is what will happen. So, for your own sake, you may wish to think about just how much trouble you’re willing to let Miss Chambers drag you into.”

“Drag me into?” Miranda echoed. “Principal Bonnelly, Flick doesn’t drag me anywhere.

“We run into it together.”

******

Present Day

 

The stares weren’t subtle. As Miranda made her way through her assigned chores for the day, she felt the eyes on her, heard the whispers, felt the people who made a point of bumping into her as they passed, despite having plenty of room. Over the course of the day, the stares stopped looking away when she glanced in that direction, the whispers grew louder, and the bumps were more forceful. There were a lot of words, but traitor was the one she heard most often.

She knew why. Flick had already let her know what happened, just in case someone from Doxer and Trice’s tribe tried to go for a little revenge. Unfortunately, she had the feeling that Flick had been picturing a lone, fringe element, a single person or small group that would take offense. This was more than that. Most of the worst of it was from Lost Scar people, but not all, by any means.

Everywhere she went, there were people muttering thinly veiled insults and threats. Not everyone by any means, but enough. And most of the ones who didn’t actually say or do anything still simply walked away without intervening. Even some from her own tribe made a point of disappearing.

Things has just been pushed too far. First Hannah (Now Avalon) had killed Torv before escaping from any kind of trial by being taken under the protection of the Crossroads headmistress. Then Abigail Fellows had been brought on and given one of the precious few Eden Apples despite a lot of people saying that she was too old to learn how to fight or do anything productive. And to make things even more tense, Hisao had taken what he called a ‘leave-of-absence’ to teach at Crossroads. Her own mentor had left Garden to teach at the school of their rivals, a school that happened to be attended by her friend. More than a few people had made that connection, and Miranda had found herself pointed at more than once as the reason that Hisao had left.

So not only was she left temporarily mentorless, but all the people at Garden who were pissed off that the man was gone to teach their rivals were pointing at her as the reason behind it. That had been going on for weeks, though she didn’t tell Flick or Hisao anything about it when they talked. There were enough problems going on for them to deal with, serious problems. She could take care of herself.

And now it seemed like this was the tipping point. Doxer was dead. Trice was missing, ostensibly hiding out somewhere to avoid answering for what happened. Two more promising and powerful Garden students were gone, at least one permanently. In less than a year, Torv, Trice, and Doxer had all been lost, with the blame for it falling onto Avalon and Flick, both of whom were under Gaia Sinclaire’s protection. And Hisao, one of Gardens’ best Vigiles, was off teaching for her.

Hisao was gone. Avalon/Hannah was gone. Flick was out of their reach. All of them were protected by Gaia and the rest of Crossroads. The people who were upset couldn’t get near them.

But they could get near Miranda. They could whisper threats and insults, bump into her, and glare. Which would have been fine. She understood their anger, their frustration. She could deal with it if it stayed like that. But it wouldn’t. She knew that. They knew that. The only real question was how long it would take. And the answer was… not very long.

They waited until Miranda wasn’t on her tribe’s branch. She was down on the ground, feeding some of the animals that had to be penned up there, when she heard people approaching. Turning, the girl found herself facing half a dozen figures. Adult Heretics, most of whom had only graduated within the past few years.

All of them were from the Lost Scar tribe.

They had already formed a semicircle, one lifting his chin. “Hey, Wallbern, got a name for you when your birthday comes around. How about Traitor?”

Another boy shook his head. “Crossroads’ Bitch is better. Isn’t that what you are now? Just a little bitch for those other bitches they’ve got. Your mentor went over there, plus you’re like… super-duper-best friends with one of them. A friend who–uhh, what’d she do again?” he prompted, clearly already knowing the answer.

“Killed Doxer,” one of the other boys answered. “Bitch killed Doxer. Probably killed Trice too, they just won’t say so.”

The first boy shook his head. “Nah, I bet Tits McGee killed Trice. That’s why they’re trying to say he got away, cuz killing two guys in the same family… that’s bad news.”

Miranda took a breath, letting it out as she replied, “If Doxer didn’t wanna die, he shouldn’t have picked a fight he couldn’t win.” Pausing, she added, “again. And Trice ran away like a coward.”

“You fucking watch your mouth,” one of the boys snapped, taking a step that way. “Doxer and Trice were out there to get justice from the cunt that killed Torv. Now Doxer’s dead, and Trice is missing. So maybe we’ve just gotta get justice some other way.”

“Maybe,” another guy put in, “we let ‘em know that we’ve got the bitch’s friend right here. See if they’ll pop over for a visit then.”

“Nah,” another one replied, “I’ve got a better idea. We’ll invoke the Right of Reparation.”

Miranda knew what that was. Essentially, it was a way for various individual Garden Heretics to take payment either in monetary goods or blood from another Garden Heretic without getting in trouble for any damages done. When one Heretic invoked the Right of Reparation, they named a price. Sometimes it would be a flat amount, while other times it would be an amount of time that the person they were invoking it against would have to serve as essentially their slave for all intents and purposes. As long as the Right was upheld by one of the Vigiles, the Heretic that they challenged had to either pay that cost/serve them for the allotted time, or choose to face them in a one-on-one arena fight. If they lost the fight, the assigned penalty of either serving time or cost was doubled.

“Yeah,” one of the boys announced, his eyes on her. “We’ll invoke Right of Reparation. All of us, one at a time. Think your friend’ll show up if she finds out you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the arena?”

“Last time I checked,” Miranda retorted, “Right of Reparation means you’ve gotta get a Vigile to sign off on it.”

To that, the assembled Lost Scar boys chuckled. The one who had spoken first reached into his pocket and produced a small golden pin that looked like a spear piercing an apple. “Promoted last week,” he announced. “Looks like I can accept all the Reparation trials I want to.”

“You think anyone else is gonna step in and stop it?” another boy asked. “Look around. Your own tribe ain’t even here. They left you alone on purpose, bitch. After everything that happened, they ain’t gonna step in for you. Not now. Someone’s gotta pay, and you’re the only one here. No one else is gonna throw themselves in the crosshairs just to help you out.”

“So which is it gonna be?” one of them asked. “You gonna call your little friend and get her over here so she can pay for Doxer, or are we just gonna have to start kicking your ass over the arena over and over again until you change your mind?”

“Actually,” a voice started from nearby, “there’s a few problems with that.”

Miranda and the boys assembled around her all looked that way, only to see Abigail Fellows. The thin, older woman stood there with her arms folded across her chest as she stared them down.

The freshly minted Vigile pointed at the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Just be glad you get to walk around our tree pretending to be a real Heretic, and keep your ugly nose out of other people’s business.”

If she was cowed, the woman didn’t show it. Instead, she walked right up to put herself beside Miranda. “You can’t challenge her like that.”

Rolling his eyes, one of the boys snapped, “It’s called Right of Reparation. Just cuz you’re a clueless little Bystander bitch who doesn’t know what she’s–”

“Section Seventeen, paragraph forty-two of the Garden Rules and Standards,” Abigail interrupted. “Unless the accused party can be conclusively demonstrated to have harmed Eden’s Garden in some way themselves, they cannot be held accountable for the actions of those outside of the Garden. Also, section three, paragraph twelve: any connection, familial or otherwise, with members of Crossroads cannot be solely used to hold judgement against any Garden Heretic unless there is some other evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, if Miranda is found guilty of some kind of crime, then you can use her connection to Crossroads against her. But until then, she can’t be judged just because she has a friend who lives there.”

For a moment, the boys just stared. Then one of them sputtered, “That one was–that was written back when we first split from Crossroads. It was just supposed to stop all the infighting about who still had friends there, whose family didn’t come with them, and that kinda shit.”

“Funny, it’s still on the books,” Abigail informed them. “Which means it’s still the law. And Vigiles don’t get to change it. You need the Victors to do that.

“Oh, and speaking of which,” she added pointedly, “page forty-four of the Vigile Regulation Handbook says that they cannot preside over any Reparation trial that they have a personal stake in. And page forty-six says that a single Heretic can’t be challenged more than once for the same thing.”

Still not quite done, the woman pressed on. “Also, on October 29th, 1974, a trial that was brought before the Victors ended with them concluding that any Garden Heretic who is under the age of twenty may pass any challenge made against them to their mentor.”

“Yeah?” one of the boys snapped, “Well her mentor’s not exactly here, is h–”

Abigail cut him off. “Page eighty-two of the Vigile Regulation Handbook states that whenever a Vigile’s duties take him away from Garden for an extended time, he may pass all responsibility for his charge to another adult Heretic.”

“And that,” another voice put in as Seller revealed himself, stepping into view on the other side of Miranda, “would be me. Hi, mentee.” He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” a boy blurted. “You’re not even in the same tribe!”

Seller shrugged at that. “Funny, it doesn’t actually say anything about that. I mean, maybe they assumed that tribes would just stick to their own without it being written down, but the fact remains that it’s not specifically said.”

“So basically,” Abigail summed up for them, “you can’t challenge her because of something that someone outside of Garden did. She can’t be taken to trial just because she has a friend who lives at Crossroads, until she’s tried for some actual crime. You can’t invoke Right of Reparation more than once for the same thing. The Vigile who accepts and presides over the Reparation can’t have a personal stake in it, which you do. And even if you do get past all of that, you can’t challenge her directly, because she’s a minor. You’ll face her surrogate mentor instead.”

“Me,” Seller added. “And I’ll tell you what, I’d be willing to dismiss all those other things if you boys want. We’ll find another Vigile, grease his palms a little so he’ll accept the trial, then see what happens. Which one of you wants to be the first one to give it a shot?”

The answer, apparently, was none of them. They made a few noises about it not being over, and about how they’d make her pay for being a traitor before slinking away.

“You okay?” Abigail asked. “Felicity called. She said you might need a little help dealing with some of the fallout from what happened, so we’ve been trying to keep an eye on you.”

Miranda bit her lip, head nodding. “I’m fine. You didn’t have to do that. Now you’re a target too. They don’t care that much about the rules. If they can’t come at us straight on, they’ll find a quieter way to do it.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Seller informed her. “For now, they’ll back off. Keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself be alone again. Because you’re right: next time, I doubt they’ll announce themselves like that.”

Hesitantly, Miranda glanced to the woman beside her. “How’d you know all that stuff? You only got here a couple months ago and even I’ve never read most of the stuff you were talking about. And I’ve never heard of someone from another tribe being able to step in and be a temporary mentor for someone from another tribe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.”

“Oh sweetie,” Abigail replied with a little smile. “I may be a terrible Heretic as far as all the fighting and killing goes. But this wasn’t about that. This was about rules and laws. It wasn’t about being a Heretic, it was about being a lawyer.

“And when it comes to that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Bystanders.”

Previous Chapter                        Next Chapter