Flick was off-planet. Not that that meant all that much as a statement by itself, to be fair. The entire Fusion school lived off-planet if one wanted to get technical. After all, the sun was quite a bit distant from the Earth. Ninety two million miles, basically. You could fit over eleven thousand Earths between the actual planet and the sun itself. But more specifically, Flick was completely out of the solar system. She, and those who had accompanied her, had gone off to visit Fossor’s home planet in order to find the missing vampire Rasputin, as well as give the ghosts she had collected an opportunity to be released there if they wanted to. And, of course, to talk to Fossor’s former slaves about what had happened to the dead piece of shit.
Avalon would have gone with her, in a heartbeat. But there were things to do here on the planet. They had a lead about how to find and free Gaia, and she wasn’t going to let that slip through her fingers. As much as she wanted to be with Felicity when she visited Fossor’s homeworld, she couldn’t miss the chance to save Gaia. Not after everything the woman had already done for her. Hard as it was, she had stayed behind, trusting Shiori to help keep Flick out of too much trouble.
Not all of it, by any means. She was completely confident that something would go wrong. There would be a lot of danger, fighting, and terror. The question wasn’t whether that stuff would happen, only whether Flick and the others would come back from it. And Avalon trusted that they would. Especially with both Shiori and Mrs. Chambers there. Not to mention Persephone, who may have abandoned her plans to make the girl her wife or whatever, but still obviously cared about what happened to her. They would help keep Flick safe, and she would do the same for them.
For now, Avalon focused on pushing those thoughts, and worries, out of her mind. She couldn’t affect any of it, so she was just going to have to wait and see what happened. After all, she had her own thing to focus on, with tracking down this lead. Wyatt had been the one who managed to dig it up. It, in this case, was an old Crossroads Heretic who had apparently grown disgusted with the entire civil war and walked away from it. From what Wyatt had put together, this guy wasn’t interested in joining the Rebellion, but he wouldn’t help the Loyalists either. He chose to become independent. Beyond that, while he wouldn’t help the rebels and refused to actively assist in saving Alters, he did at least commit to his neutrality by only hunting down the ones he was reasonably confident were actually attacking people. According to Wyatt, the guy actually did some investigation work to determine for himself that the Alters were guilty of hurting and killing people before he hunted them down.
In Avalon’s book, that actually put him on the Rebellion’s side, regardless of his claims of neutrality. When one side said ‘kill all of them’ and the other side said ‘only kill the bad ones,’ and your way of being neutral was to only kill the bad ones… yeah. But she wasn’t going to argue with that. If the guy wanted to say he was neutral just because he wasn’t actively participating in the Rebellion itself, then… fine, whatever.
The point was, he had also apparently been one of the Heretics involved in setting up the system for keeping Gaia prisoner. Wyatt thought they might be able to convince him to give them some real information about that, information they could use to find and free her. Unfortunately, that was time-sensitive given the guy was moving around a lot. He did everything he could to remain completely out of sight. So if they didn’t take advantage of knowing where he was going to be for the next couple days, they’d lose him. And who knew how long it would take to find the guy again? Especially if Crossroads decided to go after him themselves.
All of which was why Avalon was here, in the main library of Iowa State University. She was on the third floor, just beside several sets of individual study rooms starting to her right. To her left was the men’s restroom, with various plush cushioned seats and tables ahead of her where an assortment of students were busy studying and writing. Various shelves of books lay beyond them, with more students browsing through. One, a small teenage black girl, who looked like she was barely old enough to even be in college, was chewing on a pencil while flipping through a very large book of maps set up on a table at the end of one of the rows of shelves. A short distance away, a man in his twenties, wearing a rainbow colored beanie, was perusing a book about the history of war in Africa. And so it went throughout the room with more random students. Some looked bored, others frantic and terrified.
Either way, they were all busy and none paid Avalon more than a passing glance, if that much.
Well, one guy had done more than give her a glance, but he was going to be icing his wrist for awhile, and wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Not before they had a chance to finish what they were doing and get out of here, anyway.
‘They’ consisted of Avalon and her other girlfriend, Aylen. And wow. Just the thought of having one person she trusted enough to call her girlfriend would have been unthinkable only a little over a year earlier. To have two girls, two she cared about as much as she cared about Felicity and Aylen, and to have them return that affection… it felt impossible, as though her luck and life couldn’t possibly be that good.
That, in truth, was why Avalon was so terrified of what was going on with Gaia. It felt like the world would find a way to make her pay for being happy with Felicity and Aylen by taking her adoptive mother away. Which… yes, that was ridiculous. If someone else had voiced that worry, Avalon would have told them they were being absurd.
Unfortunately, sometimes it was easier to give advice than to take it. It didn’t matter how much the girl told herself she was being an idiot about it, her feelings remained what they were. Stupid feelings.
“Valley,” Aylen spoke quietly from her spot beside the other girl. Her attention was on a blond, thoroughly average-looking guy who appeared to be in his early twenties. The man had just stood up from a table, tucking his laptop under his arm while putting a pencil behind his ear. He walked away from where he had been sitting, before the pencil fell to the floor beside another table where a dark-haired black man with a neatly-trimmed beard was studiously writing in a notebook. The second man, who appeared to be either an old student or a young professor, barely glanced up as the blond stooped to grab the fallen pencil and walked onward.
That was the signal. The blond man was Wyatt in disguise, using magic to both stop anyone from recognizing him and to block Alters from identifying him as a Heretic. Avalon and Aylen were using the same spells. They both still retained the same basic appearance, but just enough was altered to make them not immediately recognizable.
Wyatt dropping the pencil next to the other man had been the signal that he was the person they were looking for. The missing, ‘neutral’ Heretic, James Northern, was indeed a black man, though he looked quite a bit different in the pictures Avalon had seen. He was normally visibly older, for one, looking more like a man in his fifties than one in his twenties. They had known he would be using a disguise, just like they were. Which should have made it all but impossible to find the guy, but Wyatt had his ways. And if he said this was the person they were looking for, it had to be right.
Taking a breath as she told herself not to rush no matter how badly she wanted to, Avalon began moving that way. There had been some idea of coming with more than just the three of them for this, and especially to approach him with more than just herself and Aylen. But in the end, it had felt safer to avoid making James feel threatened by only coming to him with the two of them, while Wyatt stayed as backup in case they had to escape for whatever reason. That was also why they were approaching him in this public space, where he wouldn’t have to worry about a bunch of other Heretics starting a fight with him. That was the idea, anyway. It was all about keeping him calm. They’d see how well it went.
The man in question glanced up as the two girls approached. Without saying a word, Avalon tugged the chair across from him out and sat down. Aylen did the same beside her, both of them keeping their hands in plain sight. There was always the chance that he might use magic or a power to simply vanish in front of them, but they were hoping against hope that he would at least wait long enough to hear them out. Especially if he didn’t know who they were immedi–
“You’re late,” James noted in a calm voice. “She said you’d probably be here sometime this morning. It’s already afternoon.”
Blinking twice while resisting the urge to glance in Wyatt’s direction, Avalon carefully replied, “I don’t think we’re who you–”
“You’re Sinclaire’s adopted daughter, right? Avalon, formerly Hannah.” James noted before glancing toward Aylen. “And given you’re Native American, I’d say you’re her girlfriend. Not the Chambers girl, she’s probably not the type to racially appropriate like that, even for a disguise, unless she had to. Especially not in this case. So, Ms. Tamaya, I presume?”
Exchanging a glance with the other girl, Avalon sat back in her seat to look at the man intently. “You knew we were coming, then. But who told you that?” Her eyes were scanning the area around them, watching for any trap. Not that she expected anything to have gotten past Wyatt. And the fact that he wasn’t bailing them out immediately meant there wasn’t an apparent threat. Not yet, anyway.
“Not Crossroads,” James calmly informed her. “You’re safe here. She doesn’t want to hurt you or anything. She just wants to talk, and she wanted to do it privately. So she asked me to stay put and let you come to me.”
“Whoever this is, we still have to ask you something, Mr. Northern,” Aylen pointed out.
The man shook his head. “I can’t help you get the old headmistress out of prison. They would have changed everything after I left.” Before they could protest, he continued. “Whatever info I gave you would be outdated and useless at best, and would lead you into a trap at worst. But you won’t leave here empty-handed. I said I couldn’t help you. But she can.”
Yes, this entire thing had been a longshot, of course. but it had been something. And now Avalon was reeling a bit from being told, in rapid succession, that the man couldn’t help but that someone else here could. Her eyes scanned the room once more before flatly asking, “She who? Someone asked you to sit around and wait for us to approach, and you did? I thought you didn’t want anything to do with Loyalist Heretics or Rebels.”
“I don’t, for the most part,” he confirmed. “There’s more important things to do than fight each other. But she’s neither of those things anyway. You’ll see for yourselves, if you go into that study room over there, second on the right. Go in there and she’ll meet you. And yes, I’m aware of how much that sounds like a trap. But you have my word, for whatever that may be worth, that it is not. If you want to save the woman who adopted you, that’s how you do it. Go in that room and have a little discussion.”
Avalon was silent for a moment, running through all that in her mind. She knew that others would have screamed at her for even entertaining the idea. But they were here already, and James had obviously known they were coming. He knew who they were, yet had sat and waited for them to approach. Either this really was some sort of trap, or he was telling the truth about this mysterious woman wanting to talk to them about saving Gaia.
She couldn’t risk walking away from something like that. So, giving a very short nod to him, Avalon stood. “Thank you.”
“Thank me by focusing more on saving people than fighting a war against the Loyalists,” he replied simply, turning his attention back to the book he had been looking at.
There was a lot Avalon wanted to say to that. Instead, she glanced toward the study room in question. She and Aylen exchanged looks, before starting to head that way together. Wyatt would have heard that whole conversation, but he hadn’t moved from the table he’d taken up residence at. He wasn’t doing anything to stop them from going into that room. Either he knew it was pointless to try to prevent Avalon from doing everything she could to get the answer they needed, or he too knew this was still their best, and possibly only, chance. Or, most likely, both.
Whatever the reasoning, the man stayed where he was, though Avalon knew he wasn’t nearly as involved with his book as he appeared to be. He would be keeping track of everything that happened in this place, and where everyone was. Even more so now than before.
Trusting the man to let them know if anything was wrong, the two girls walked to the study room. It appeared to be empty, but before going in, Avalon carefully plucked a coin from her pocket and activated the spell on it. It would glow bright red if there were any transport spells inside the room that would have sent them somewhere else once they passed through. Yet when she surreptitiously tossed it through the doorway, it stayed dark. No transport magic then.
With one more glance at one another, the girls stepped through into the room. Nothing happened. They looked around the small space a bit, then moved to sit down at the table. There was nothing to do now but wait, and hope this wasn’t a complete waste of time. Or worse.
They weren’t waiting very long before the door opened, and another person stepped in. It was the young black girl Avalon had noticed looking through maps earlier. She stood barely over five feet, a diminutive figure with long, intricate braids, each of which was dyed a different color of the rainbow. She wore glasses along with an open flannel shirt over a gray tee, and jean shorts. Without saying anything, she closed the door behind her, before moving to sit at the table across from them. Only once she was seated and had adjusted herself, with both arms crossed on the table in front of her, did she look directly at the other two and finally speak. “So, the way I hear it, y’all wanna get Gaia Sinclaire out of the slammer. And the sooner the better, yeah?”
“Yes,” Avalon confirmed. “But before we say anything else, who are you?”
Her question was met with a smile that showed the stranger’s perfect white teeth. “Who am I? Oh, you could call me a witch. Most do. Some for good reasons, some for bad.”
She seemed to consider something for a moment before making a decisive clicking sound with her tongue. “Usually I like to play coy with this, but that’s probably a waste of our time right now. There’s already a lot for us to talk about, and I don’t exactly have unlimited time. Pressing concerns elsewhere, you know.” She paused then before audibly chuckling. “Isn’t that weird? It doesn’t matter how old you are, there never seems to be enough time to do everything you want and need to. You’d think once you live as long as I have, you’d run out of stuff to keep you busy.”
Her expression sobered almost immediately then, eyes seeming to stare right through Avalon as she pointedly added, “I’ve gone by more names than there are students in this school. I could list them for you, but we’d be here for way too long. And at some point that sort of thing just turns into bragging. Only a few of them are actually known these days anyway. Isis, and yes I am pretty pissed off about that name getting ruined, Werethekau, Freja, but most just call me–”
“The Wandering Woman,” Aylen managed, sitting up a bit straighter. “Wait, how do we know you’re–”
“Telling the truth?” the woman finished for her. From within her open flannel shirt, she produced a rotted apple core, the skeleton of some sort of rodent, and a silver-bladed knife. Without wasting a moment, she dropped the first two on the table, then calmly and without any expression whatsoever, drove the blade of the knife through three of the fingers on her right hand, slicing them clean off.
Avalon and Aylen, rather understandably, jolted a little bit at that. Though before they could say anything, the woman waved her uninjured hand at the damaged one. In the blink of an eye, her fingers were reattached, and there was no visible blood left on the table. Another gesture made the rotted, mostly-eaten apple quickly reform itself into its perfectly pristine, crispy-looking self, as though it was fresh off the tree. And, with barely a look that way, the woman turned the rat skeleton into a live, squeaking creature that was sniffing the apple with interest.
While the two Heretics were still reacting, both felt themselves shrink in their seats. No, they weren’t just shrinking. They were getting younger. The two quickly exchanged half-panicked looks, only to find themselves staring at twelve-year-old versions of one another. They were sitting there, practically drowning in their too-large clothes. A noise of confusion and shock escaped both girls.
“I am who I say I am,” the woman informed them, before tucking both rat and apple away. With another wave of her hand, she returned the girls to their proper ages, this time in the blink of an eye rather than the slower effect she’d used when deaging them. “And if you want to save Gaia Sinclaire, I can help you do that.”
“Why?” Avalon asked, once she’d found her voice. “Everyone says you don’t get involved in this sort of thing.”
“I don’t let others drag me into their problems,” came the short reply. “There’s a difference. I choose when to involve myself and with what. There’s a lot going on that you don’t know about. I have to pick and choose just how involved to get. There’s only one of me, after all, and a lot to do. Remember what I said about not having enough time?”
“What–” Aylen started before taking a second to find the right words. “What do we call you? And uhh, do you want me to leave you guys alone?”
“I’ve been using Sawyer recently,” the woman replied easily. “That should do. But no, you should stay. After all, this involves you too. And that thing you’re supposed to do that you’ve been wondering about.”
“You know about–” Aylen caught herself. “Of course you know about that. Wait, does that mean you know more about it? Do you know how I’m supposed to do it? Do you know what–”
Sawyer held a hand up to stop her. “I know more than I can tell you now, I’ll say that much. But I can tell you more than you already know.” She smiled faintly. “Listen, sometimes it’s fun to be creepy and mysterious, but it also takes a lot of time, and it can be annoying as fuck. I mean, from the other side of it too. So let’s just cut to the chase, shall we?” She pointed toward Avalon. “You want to save Gaia Sinclaire. If you wanna do that, you need some of her blood. Or blood from someone related to her.”
“But Gaia’s only son died ages ago,” Avalon pointed out. “The Seosten used his body and… and that’s it. We can’t find him. She doesn’t have any other descendants.”
“You’re right,” Sawyer confirmed. “You can’t find what you need that way. But she had a half-brother. Okay, she had two half-brothers. One of them is the one you’re trying to bring back.” Her eyes glanced toward Aylen, then back again. “But the other, Chadwick, lived a completely normal life. Well, as normal as one could live after your entire family disappeared or were killed by a dragon and you were sent off to a new family. Chadwick lived and died, and his descendants continue on to this day. Some even became Natural Heretics, though the Seosten never allowed any to go near Crossroads or Eden’s Garden. That would’ve been too dangerous, if one of them had turned out to be the Merlin Key.”
“You’re saying we need to find one of Chadwick’s descendants and use their blood to locate Gaia,” Avalon put in. “But the hardliners would’ve blocked her from that sort of magic. They aren’t stupid.”
“Well, not in that sort of way, no,” Sawyer agreed while taking her glasses off. She held them by one side and tapped the other against her hand. “But what I’m about to tell you ain’t the sort of magic you can just block like that.”
Before saying anything else, she dropped the glasses and reached into her pocket to take out a package of Starburst candies. “God, I love these things.” Tapping it against the table, she pried an orange one out, unwrapped it, and popped the thing in her mouth. Then she offered the package to them. “Go ahead.”
While Avalon and Aylen hesitantly each took one of the candies, the woman continued. “I tell ya, people talk about the good old days, but speaking as someone who’s been around for all the days, they’re full of shit. Rose-colored glasses and all that. Ironically, that’s one of the reasons the old days were shit. No easy way to get glasses. Now, where was I?”
“Blood from Chadwick’s descendant for some special spell,” Aylen informed her.
Pointing that way, Sawyer nodded. “Right, yeah, that. If you wanna save Gaia, you need three things. The first is the blood of Chadwick’s descendant. The second is the blood of two of her heirs.”
“You heard me say that Gaia doesn’t have any natural children, right?” Avalon pointed out.
With a slight smirk, Sawyer replied, “I said heirs, not children. You count as one of those heirs. Virginia Dare counts as the other. She sees both of you as her kids. Well, she sees a lot as her kids in one way or another, but you two more than others.” She set the glasses down before continuing. “So that’s easy. And third, you need the blood of a Reaper.” Before Aylen could say anything, she continued. “That is, the blood of a full Reaper, not a half-one.”
Avalon opened and shut her mouth before shaking her head. “Oh, right, so all we have to do is find a full Reaper and ask if we can pretty please borrow some of his blood.”
“Her blood,” came the correction. “Because your friends Guinevere and Michael the Seosten already went and found one willing to help. Her name’s Jones. It’s a long story, and probably one she should tell you herself. Point is, they found her to help bring Arthur back, but she can help you with this too. You get the blood from those four people. The Reaper, the descendant, yourself, and Virginia Dare, then follow these directions.” A sealed envelope seemed to appear from nowhere in her hand, which she slid across the table. “It’ll tell you exactly where Gaia Sinclaire is, no matter how much they try to block it. And it’s an ongoing spell, so you’ll find her again even if they move her.”
While Avalon slowly took the envelope, Aylen asked, “Seriously, why are you doing all this? Why are you helping this much?”
“Let’s just say there’s some big trouble coming,” Sawyer replied. “And if this planet is gonna get through it, which I’d kinda like it to do since I happen to live here, we’ll need Arthur back on his feet.”
“Wait, Arthur?” Avalon blinked. “What does Arthur have to do with Gaia? I mean,” she amended, “I know she’s his sister and all that, but how does saving Gaia help bring him back?”
Unwrapping and eating another Starburst, Sawyer remained silent, watching them until she had swallowed it. “Simple, she’s the only chance you’ve got of getting anywhere near the Reaper that’s locked up inside that lighthouse.”
“My grandfather?” Aylen blurted. “What–wait, huh?”
“Your Reaper grandfather, as opposed to the Fomorian one, yeah,” the woman confirmed. “He was there the day Arthur met the dragon. If you wanna bring Arthur back, you need what’s locked up inside his copy of the Reaper archives. He’ll know more once you talk to him. Plus some other stuff, but Guinevere’s got most of that covered. What you really need are in those archives. And the only way to get them is with that Reaper’s help. Which you can only get to with Gaia’s help.” She smiled a bit, looking back and forth between the two girls. “See how convenient it is that you two came together?” A pause followed before she laughed. “Hah, and that works both ways. You came here together, and you came together as a couple. Now seriously, your babysitter’s getting nervous out there. I haven’t exactly been letting him hear what we’re talking about, cuz I despise eavesdroppers. You better head back out there before he decides to do something drastic.”
“Wait,” Avalon quickly put in. “Ruthers thought they might be able to convince you to take Felicity’s necromancy away. Was… was he right about that?”
Sawyer’s head shook. “Oh, I don’t think I’ll be taking anything away from that girl,” she murmured. “She’ll need everything she can get soon enough. Especially when he decides he’s ready to train her. Which should be any time now.”
Avalon was nodding slowly, before blinking at that last part. “He? Wait, when who decides to–” But even as she began to ask that, her eyes focused on the spot where Sawyer had been sitting.
There was no sign of her. She had disappeared in the span of a blink, leaving no sign she had ever even been there.
No sign, that was, aside from two wrapped Starburst candies, one for each of the girls.