Croc

Mini-Interlude 22 – Croc

Previous Chapter                     Next Chapter

“Uh, here’s your order, sir. Will there be anything else?” The scraggly-haired teenager who held the tray full of three cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, two large drinks, and an order of chicken nuggets stared at his customer with wide eyes. He had to tilt his head back to look the man in the eyes.

“No thanks,” the man named Croc replied easily while taking the tray. “This’ll be just fine.” He gave the boy a nod before turning to walk across the mall food court. The boy’s stare was obvious, as were those of several of the people he passed.

It was nothing new. Born a member of the now-extinct Calusa Native American tribe that lived around what was now Florida, Croc had always stood out. He was an enormous man to begin with, which would have drawn people’s attention anyway. But adding in his Native ancestry drew their eyes even more. And of course, he had more than one reason for standing out from his peers.

He’d come to expect the stares, towering over everyone as he did. Such things had long since stopped bothering him, and he’d learned to differentiate the dangerous ones from those who were just curious. After all, correctly identifying danger was a fairly important skill for someone in his line of work.

Walking to a table on the far end of the food court, one that overlooked the ice skating rink below, he set the tray down and took a seat. Taking a handful of fries, he tossed them in his mouth while giving a slow, casual glance around (people tended to stop staring when he looked at them).

Ugh. The fries were cold. Frowning slightly, he gave a long look toward the counter where he’d bought his food. He could go back, but… Shrugging, the big man simply poured the fries out onto the tray and laid his hand over them. A moment of thought made his palm heat up. After that, it only took a few seconds before he took his hand away and tried another fry. There, warm again. That was better.

He’d worked his way through half the fries and one of his burgers by the time he sensed the approach of the man that he’d been waiting for. Which probably meant that the guy had been watching him the entire time and only just then chose to make his presence known.

“They’re watching you,” Wyatt Rendell announced while pulling the opposite chair out so that he could sit down.

“Chicken nuggets,” Croc replied, “As requested.” He slid the box over to the other man along with the second drink. “And an iced tea. Who’s watching? I suppose you already made sure it’s safe to talk.”

“Of course I did.” Wyatt pointed to the railing that the table was near. About six feet away, Croc could see a rune scribbled on it. Turning the other way, he saw a second rune about six feet in the other direction.

“There are six privacy spells protecting us right now,” Wyatt explained. “Those are two that I’m willing to show you. The others are mine.”

“That’s why you were so specific about where to sit.” Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “How long did you spend setting this spot up before you felt safe enough to meet here?”

Wyatt’s head shook. “Not long. Three hours. I was in a hurry.”

While Croc shook his head in wonder at that, the smaller man opened the box of nuggets. Instead of eating any of them immediately, however, he set a smaller box of toothpicks next to them. One by one, he pushed a toothpick into each of the nuggets and left it there. Gradually, each tiny sliver of wood turned a light blue color. Wyatt watched until each of them changed, then collected the picks before putting one of the nuggets into his mouth.

Poison, Croc realized with amazement. The man was testing to make sure the nuggets hadn’t been poisoned. He did the same with the drink before taking a sip.

“Eleven people watched you walk from the counter to this seat,” Wyatt finally answered after eating another nugget. “Starting from the nearest,” he added while reaching into his pocket to take out a driver’s license. “Jessica Wallace, age twenty-four. Local. Organ donor. The one that–”

Croc coughed. “Wyatt, did you steal that woman’s ID just to check up on her because she was looking at me?”

Scoffing, Wyatt shook his head. “Of course not. These,” he produced a pack of blank driver’s license cards, “are enchanted. All I have to do is get close enough to touch someone, and any license they have will copy itself onto one of these. I copied one from everyone who was watching you and ran them through my usual search protocols. They haven’t tripped anything yet, but you never know.”

Unable to help himself, Croc whistled low. “That’s pretty impressive. But trust me, I’m used to people staring. Kinda hard to blend in when you look like I do. You, on the other hand, no one sees you as a threat. They dismiss you. But they really shouldn’t. Because you… like I said, you’re pretty damn impressive. Which, I suppose, is why I wanted to talk to you again.”

“You’re still trying to convince me to betray my people,” Wyatt retorted, his tone affronted. “I told you when we were at Eden’s Garden, I will not betra–”

Wincing, Croc shook his head. It was true that he’d made the pitch to the other man more than once while he’d been at the Garden. And in the intervening time, he’d only become more impressed from the details he’d been able to pick out about the scrawny, unimpressive-seeming security guard. If Crossroads didn’t understand what they had with this guy, he was damned sure going to pick up their slack. Especially since he—well, Wyatt’s skill with security spells wasn’t the only thing that Croc was interested in.

“No, man, not betray. It’s just… you’d be good with the Unset. We treat our people right, and… and you’re the best security enchanter I’ve ever seen. I don’t want you to betray anyone, Wyatt. I’m not asking you to hurt anyone you work with. I just think you’d fit really well with us. You’re brilliant at this stuff, man. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve never seen anyone that can do the stuff you do, as easily as you do it.

“And, you know… it’d let you be near your sister.”

Wyatt paused at that. His mouth opened and shut before he shook his head. “But I’d have to leave my other sister and my niece. They need me. I can’t just abandon them. And I won’t abandon Gaia. She stood up for me. She got me this job, I… I owe her.”

Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “Yeah, from what I hear, Gaia Sinclaire’s pretty good. But what about that Committee? What about Ruthers and his group?”

Meeting his gaze Wyatt announced flatly, “Gabriel Ruthers will pay for his crimes. But I won’t abandon my family to do it.”

“That’s fair.” Croc wanted to push harder. He really thought that Wyatt would be good with the Unset. But the man was right, he had two younger family members at that school. And from what he’d heard, at least one of those family members was really good at finding herself in trouble.

“That’s fair?” Wyatt echoed, frowning with suspicion. “But?”

Croc’s head shook. “But nothing, man. You’re right, the kids need you. The whole reason I want you to join us is because you’re so good at protecting people. If you abandon your niece and sister just like that, what’s the point?” He paused then before adding, “But let me make you this offer.”

“I knew it,” Wyatt retorted, stiffening in his seat. “An offer I can’t refuse, you–”

“Easy,” Croc quietly reassured the man. “I know. I know how easy it is to ruin your trust. I get it. But, that’s not what this is. It’s not a threat. Like I said, an offer.” He pushed on before Wyatt could respond. “If the time comes that you can’t stay there anymore, for whatever reason, you have a place to come. Okay? That’s it. It’s an open offer. We could really use you. Whether it’s after your family graduates and moves on or… anything else. If you can leave or you just… have to. You come to Eden’s Garden and the Unset will take care of you. ”

“An open offer…” Wyatt was clearly chewing that over, searching for the problem with it before he squinted. “I’m not making a promise. I’m not signing anything. I’m not–”

“You don’t have to,” Croc assured him, finishing his last burger. “No promises, no contracts. Just this.” From his pocket, he produced a simple, almost blank card with nothing on it other than the barely visible indent of a robin in flight against a circle with a rose at the bottom.

Taking the card, Wyatt frowned. “What is it? What does it mean? Where is it from? What does it–”

Smiling, Croc shook his head. “It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing. The symbol is completely meaningless. The bird, the circle, the rose, they don’t lead anywhere. But anyone who saw that card would think it did, and they’d waste time trying to work it out. The design is nothing. But if you ever want to reconsider, or you need the Unset, or… anything. You write on that card and I’ll get what you write. And if it’s an emergency, you rip it in half. I’ll come right in.”

“Why?” Wyatt squinted at him, still suspicious. “Why would you give me something like this after I told you I wouldn’t join your side?”

“We’re on the same side,” Croc pointed out lightly. “Protecting people. And—well… Like I said, you’re one of the best security people I’ve ever seen. You’re worth the wait, man. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It took the man a moment to move again. He was just squinting off into the distance as though trying to work out how to respond to that. In the end, he shoved the card in a pocket and stood up. “I might throw it away.”

Croc nodded then. “That’s your right. You can throw it away, burn it, do whatever you want. Actually, don’t burn it. That’ll probably set off the emergency alert and I’ll come find you. Point is, do whatever you want with it. I’d like you to keep it, just in case. But that’s just me.”

Pausing then, he cleared his throat before nodding to the seat that the man had just stood up from. “You don’t have to leave so fast.”

Wyatt just blinked at him blankly. “Why would I stay any longer? I told you no, you gave me a way to change my mind, and I already ate the nuggets.”

Because I kind of like your company, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s any chance of you reciprocating that. The thought flashed through the big man’s mind, but he stopped himself from saying it. Skittish as Wyatt was about a simple job offer, expressing any kind of interest in that way would obviously push him too far. “I just thought you might want to sit down for awhile.”

“No.” The other man shook his head, still looking suspicious. “I don’t wait around for them to find me.”

“Them?” Croc echoed, wishing he knew more about this man, and what had happened to make him so suspicious of everyone.

“Anyone who’s looking,” Wyatt explained flatly, his gaze already dubiously studying the people around them. “There’s always someone. I don’t give them that kind of advantage.”

“Fair enough, man.” Croc couldn’t argue with that, as much as he wanted to. He really did enjoy Wyatt’s company, as odd as the man was. And as they’d told the Chambers girl, the Unset weren’t eunuchs. Though in his case, considering the amount of anything even approaching a date he’d been on in the past decade or so meant anything, they might as well be.

“Like I said, you change your mind, you let me know.” He offered his hand for Wyatt to shake. After a brief (for him) pause to skeptically examine the hand, the other man did so. They shook, and the scrawny little Crossroads security guard slipped away.

As Croc watched, the man walked through the crowded food court and moved to the restroom. Rather than going into either of them, however, he stepped into the janitor’s supply closet. The door closed after him. Less than ten seconds later, one of the janitors went to the same door, tugging it open to reveal nothing but mops and cleaning chemicals. Wyatt was gone.

Croc sighed a little, but he hadn’t really expected anything better than that. Hoped, maybe. But honestly, he really would have been incredibly surprised (and probably disappointed) if Wyatt had so easily abandoned his niece and sister. This was just… nice. And the closest thing to a date that he’d had for longer than he cared to admit.

Maybe he’d wait awhile and then see if the other man wanted to get together again. It’d take some doing to make him understand that he didn’t want anything in return, and that it wasn’t a trick or a trap. But… well, if letting Wyatt pick the spot and prepare it for several hours ahead of time just for a fifteen minute meeting was what it took to spend time with the man, then… well, he’d do that.

For a guy like Wyatt Rendell, it was worth the extra effort.

Previous Chapter                     Next Chapter

Search And Rescue 14-08

Previous Chapter        Next Chapter

In the months since I had been recruited by Crossroads Academy, I’d had to do some very difficult things, things that I thought were impossible at the time. But none of the things that I’d had to do in these months came anywhere near being as hard as it was to spend over a day around my father without telling him that my mother had made contact with me. None of the fights, none of the life-or-death situations, absolutely none of it even scratched the surface of the kind of effort it took not to tell my dad that I’d spoken to her. As simple and unimportant as it might have seemed to some, that single conversation was everything to me. And I knew that it would have been everything to him as well.

My mind had started trying to come up with justifications ever since Seller had dropped me off back at home late Friday afternoon after I’d had a chance to sleep for a solid six hours. Because as it turned out, I had left Eden’s Garden before Abigail woke up. With, of course, the promise that they’d let me know the second the woman was conscious and take me back there.  It was just the easiest way to avoid lying even more to my father about what was going on. Besides, spending time with him was important, and it kept me busy.

In any case, my brain kept pointing out that I didn’t have to include any of the supernatural stuff. I could just tell him that she’d sent me a message to see how I was doing, that she made contact. I didn’t have to say anything about the actual circumstances, did I? It could be enough just that she was alive.

But that was wrong. It wouldn’t have been enough. I knew that because it wouldn’t have been enough for me if the positions were reversed. I would have wanted to know more. I would have wanted every single detail, and after he gave me the details, I would have used all of them to try to track her down.

Whether to hug or to scream at her, I didn’t know. But I would’ve done it, and I knew my father was the same. He’d pick at me for absolutely everything he could use to track her down. And, well, that would be bad. Especially since anything I told him would be a lie. The truth was, as much as I wanted my dad to know that I’d had a chance to talk to Mom, I didn’t want to lie to him any more than I had to.

So, as hard as it was, I spent the rest of Friday night and all of Saturday trying to pretend that everything was fine. Shiori and Asenath knew, of course. But they couldn’t really do much with my father there. We talked about everything that happened while I was ‘showing them around town’, and they helped. Even Twister hung out with me a little bit sometimes while the others were asleep and dad was safe. She didn’t really talk much about herself, but she did say that she had a child of her own out there somewhere from one of her previous lives. Apparently she still sent them money regularly.

In any case, Saturday seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly. Eventually, however, it rolled over into Sunday. It was mid-afternoon and I was reading the Sunday comics on the living room floor while Shiori and Asenath slept (my cute classmate was trying to stick as much to her sister’s schedule as possible for these few days that she had to spend with her) when I finally got the call from Seller. Telling my dad that I had to run out and visit with someone, I ran to meet the man about a block away.

“She’s awake?” I asked quickly while pretty much skidding to a stop next to the well-dressed man.

“They’re checking her over right now,” he replied. “One last set of tests, just in case. Koren wanted me to get you asap. Something about wanting you to be there when they’re ready for her to have visitors.”

Breathing out, I nodded. Koren had already made it clear to me that she wanted me there when her mom woke up. Which was fine with me, because I really wanted to be there to meet my half-sister.

Before we went anywhere, I produced my phone and quickly typed out a text message to Tristan, who had gone back to Crossroads once I was back home. I warned him about what was about to happen. Once he sent a response back that he was ready, I nodded to Seller. The man took me by the arm, leading me out of sight behind some trees. He produced another of those pieces of bark, holding me while activating it to send us back to Eden’s Garden.

The nausea leapt back to me, twisting my stomach even more than it had the first time. Maybe part of it was my own nervousness and emotion. Either way, I almost lost my lunch, stumbling sideways a bit.

A hand stopped me from falling over, and I heard Wyatt blurt, “Felicity! Are you all right? What happened to you? Is it magic?” His voice turned dark, directed toward Seller. “If you did something–”

“I’m okay, I’m all right,” I interrupted quickly. Straightening, I forced a smile to my face. Putting my hands on my older (extremely protective) half-brother’s shoulders, I met his gaze. “See? Fine. I’m just not used to that teleportation. And I guess it affected me more right now because… well, I’m nervous.”

To say that Wyatt had been upset when he found out what Koren and I had been up to had been an understatement. He’d basically been out of his mind. Especially when he’d found out what actually happened. And he wasn’t just upset about Koren and me being in danger. When we told him what happened to Roxa, he had been just as pissed off. It was his job, he’d said, to protect all the students. He took his security position incredibly seriously, and thought that it was his job as the only Crossroads security team member at Eden’s Garden to make Pace pay for what she was partly responsible for.

Actually, it had been all we could do to convince him not to go tearing off to find her on her own tribe’s branch. He hadn’t cared about starting a war with Garden over attacking one of their own members, or how impossible it would have been to get to her. All he had cared about was that someone had hurt one of the students he was supposed to be taking care of, and had tried to hurt me. If we had let him, he would have stormed in there and dragged Pace out to face justice, every other consequence be damned.

Finally, however, we had convinced him that the time would come to get the crazy girl. Attacking her when she had the backing of the rest of her tribe or her werewolf pack was a phenomenally bad idea. Not to mention the fact that starting a war with Eden’s Garden would put more of the Crossroads students at risk. It was that last point that had finally calmed Wyatt down enough to think clearly.

Despite that, however, he was obviously still even more protective than usual. I’d had to point out that Dad wouldn’t let him stay with us, and that I had plenty of protection at home already. Besides, I’d added pointedly, he had to stay here at Eden’s Garden to protect Abigail and Koren. That had finally been enough to convince him to let me go home without his supervision. And now, here we were.

“Have you seen Abigail since she woke up?” I asked, changing the subject away from my thankfully rapidly fading nausea. “Have they let anyone in yet? Where’s Koren?” I was already looking around.

A different, yet familiar voice spoke up. “The healers are just finishing up their examination, Flick.”

Looking that way, I smiled in spite of myself at the sight of the large, red-armored man standing near the edge of the freeway-sized branch that Seller had brought us to. “Croc! What’re you doing here?”

The Unset man gave me a brief, small smile, touching his fist to his chest in a brief gesture that looked like a salute. “Visitors to our Garden require escort, Flick. Even ones who are here for a second time.”

That was about as far as we got before another voice yelped, and I saw Tristan come stumbling out of nowhere. Our connection had, sure enough, dragged him along for the ride. Actually, I still had to wonder about the difference between Crossroads and the rest of the world. I thought it was another world as well, because of how it was on the same time-scale as North America despite being in the middle of the ocean. Yet Tristan hadn’t been yanked away from Crossroads when I went home for Thanksgiving. Which meant… I had no idea. It was another thing I was going to have to ask Gaia.

“You okay?” I asked the boy once he had stumbled to a stop near the edge of the branch.

He gave me a quick smile, saluting with two fingers. “At least I had a chance to warn Vanessa this time. Though I had to talk her out of holding onto me when it happened. She really wants to see this place, but ahh, after Roxa fell off…” His face darkened just a little bit. “Not taking that chance with Nessa.”

“Boy,” Croc grunted. “I see you chose to arrive with clothes this time.” His tone was hard, but I could tell he didn’t mean it. The man clearly enjoyed giving Tristan a hard time about his original arrival.

“Yeah, well,” Tristan replied while giving the man a charming grin, “I didn’t wanna show off too much and end up luring a bunch of your students back to Crossroads. I don’t think we have room for them.”

Together, Croc and Seller guided Wyatt, Tristan, and me along the enormous tree branch. We passed several buildings built into and alongside the branch, before eventually reaching the main trunk of the tree itself. It was like walking up to the Empire State Building, if it had been made out of wood. The thing was beyond incredible. At some point, I wanted to come back here and look around while I wasn’t worried out of my mind about Abigail and everything else that was piling up. I wanted to enjoy it.

At the moment, however, Koren and her mother were all I could think about. Croc led us into an opening in the giant tree, and I saw a grand entrance hall. The place was enormous, just like everything else about this place. It wasn’t just a hole in a tree, the place looked like some kind of grand ball room or something. There were three different levels of balconies all overlooking the central area. There were stairways and ladders connecting all of the balconies to each other and to other holes that I could see led to other branches. Clearly, the balconies belonged to the tribes, and the holes were their own entrances.

Beyond that, in the center of the large room I saw more Unset. Each of them had their weapons ready and were warily watching over everything and everyone who entered. This place wasn’t like Crosroads. Miranda had already explained that a lot of the tribes loathed each other and would take any chance they had to start a fight. They were allied against the outside world, but inside there were rivalries.

I also saw wooden elevators and stairways that seemed to lead everywhere, all of them guarded either by Unset or by random tribe members. A lot of them were staring intently at Wyatt and me. I had the distinct impression that they weren’t exactly happy about our presence, but they said nothing. Probably because of Croc’s presence, because the large man met each person’s gaze until they turned away.

Then he led us to one of the wooden elevators, flicking a finger that made the other Unset guard standing near it step out of the way. We climbed on, and Croc pulled a lever that made the platform start to sink down into the floor, slowly taking us further down into the base of the giant tree.

We descended for several minutes before the elevator stopped. There was a metal door in front of us that Croc put his hand against. After a couple seconds, the door slid out of the way, revealing a corridor cut into the middle of the tree with more metal doors along both sides. Straight ahead, there was a semi-circular desk with a man in some kind of white medical uniform seated behind it. The guy didn’t seem to be much older than I was, maybe a couple years or so. He had semi-long black hair that hung close to his eyes, almost covering them like a sheepdog. The ends of his dark hair were tinted white.

As we walked off the platform, the man glanced up and immediately straightened. “Ah, you must be the Crossroads visitors.” His voice was firm and business-like, but I thought I heard just a bit of curiosity behind it, like he really wanted to know more about us but didn’t want to push his luck.

Croc stepped forward, saying something in a low voice to the man, who nodded and stepped out from behind the desk. “Right this way, I’ll take you to where they’re keeping Miss Fellows and her daughter.”

As we walked that way, the man introduced himself as Thieter, basically pronounced like Peter only with a Th sound. He explained that he was a junior level medical assistant, which basically left him to man the desk and mop up puke and other nastiness whenever he had to. He was also part of the Dust-Striders tribe, a group that Miranda had mentioned awhile back had originated in Egypt. Hence the name.

It turned out that Abigail’s room was at the far end of the medical wing, as far from the entrance as possible. I wondered if they did that on purpose, to make it harder for anyone to notice her presence, or to find her if someone decided they wanted to see the woman (for ill purposes or just out of curiosity).

Either way, as we approached the end of the hall I saw Koren pacing back and forth. She pivoted quickly at the sound of our footsteps, and came to us. “I can hear her in there,” she blurted. “They’ve gotta let me in! Why aren’t they letting me in? Is something wrong with her? What’s going on?”

Tristan stepped out of the way, while Thieter moved to open the door. I heard a voice inside say something to him, and he turned back to us. “Uh, you can go in now. Just family members.”

Together, Koren and I moved that way. Wyatt stalled, looking a little nervous until I took his hand. “It’ll be okay,” I promised him. “We’ll explain everything to her. It might take awhile, but… she’ll get it.”

Then we were in the room. A couple of the other medical personnel gave us brief looks before they left, and my eyes finally settled on the woman who sat in the nearby bed.

Abigail looked even paler than she had before, though her face was flushed with obvious confusion. As soon as she saw her daughter, however, she tried to sit up. “Koren!” Her arms opened, and the girl beside me fairly leapt that way to embrace her mother. “What’s happening? Where are we? These people aren’t explaining anything. They’ve barely said a word to me since I woke up. Is this a hospital?”

“Mom…” Koren hesitated a bit after giving her mother a long, firm hug. “I—how much do you remember?” She asked the question a little awkwardly, glancing back toward the two of us.

“I…” Abigail trailed off, frowning noticeably. “I remember your father… wait… no. No, that man wasn’t–” She sat up abruptly, eyes widening considerably. “That man wasn’t your father! He was… he was…” Her frown deepened and I saw the rush of emotion. “Why can’t I… remember what your father… what… what…” With each word, her voice grew louder, and she was trying to get out of the bed.

“Mom, it’s okay! I—we know, we know, Mom.” Koren winced, holding her hands up to calm her mother down. “It’s… oh god. It’s a long story.” Her voice cut off a little, sounding a bit strangled from emotion. How was she supposed to tell her mother that her husband had been erased from her memory?

Trying to help her, I stepped forward. “Miss… Umm… Abigail?” I started a little awkwardly. God, this was my sister. I had a sister. It was all I could do not to hug her, which probably would have confused the woman even more than she already was. Beside me, I could feel Wyatt tensing up as well, obviously stopping himself from lunging that way.

The woman’s eyes found me and she frowned a little. “Do I know you?”

Swallowing, I put a hand on Koren’s back. “I don’t think so. Not yet. My… my name is Felicity. Felicity Chambers.”

“Felicity,” the woman echoed, her eyes widening even more. “I know that name. I… no, that was a dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream, Mom.” Koren’s voice was quiet. “It was a vision.”

“A vision?” Abigail shook her head. “I don’t—did someone slip something into my food? Did I overdose on something? Is this–”

“Mom, listen,” Koren interrupted. “Please, just… just listen for a minute. I know you’re gonna want to interrupt. I know you’re not gonna believe this at first. I know you’ll think it’s crazy and impossible. So let’s start with the impossible and… and move on from there.” She looked to me then. “Flick, could you…?”

I nodded and stepped a little closer. “Abigail, I—umm, just watch, okay? It’s okay, no one here is gonna hurt you, I promise. We just have to show you some stuff.. and tell you about… the world.”

Abigail opened her mouth to say something then, but I preempted her by focusing on my face-shifting power. At a thought, my features morphed until I looked identical (from the neck up anyway) to Koren.

Well, that got a reaction. Abigail practically jerked off the bed, her eyes wide as she blurted a curse. “How did you—what—wait–wait, you–!”

“Mom, Mom, it’s okay!” Koren stepped closer, catching her mother around the shoulders to hug her tightly. “I know, Mom. I know it’s a lot. I’m sorry. We just had to—I didn’t want to tell you the whole story until you knew that the impossible things really are possible. We needed you to understand that we’re not crazy. You’re not crazy. Look.” She pointed to me, while I changed my face back to myself, then to Abigail’s own face, then back once more.

“What we’re going to tell you is going to sound insane,” I told the woman before gesturing to get her attention down to the clip on my belt. While she was watching, I tugged my staff up and out of the tiny container, showed it to her, then pushed it down again. “But it’s the truth.”

“The truth? How were you… how were doing that thing with your face?” Abigail demanded, clutching her daughter tighter to her. “Who are you? What was that… that dream about… about…” She trailed off, her expression pensive. “And who…?”

Her gaze moved toward Wyatt then, before she froze. “You… I know you. I… I’ve had dreams about you.”

The poor guy seemed to freeze up briefly before shifting a little awkwardly. “I—Uhh, my name is–” He gulped, sending his pronounced Adam’s apple bouncing. “My name is Wyatt. Um, I’m… I’m…”

“We should start from the beginning,” I announced, helping him as much as I could.

“Right,” Koren sat down on the edge of the bed, still holding onto her mother. “Mom, please, just listen okay? Like I said, this is going to… it’s gonna sound insane. But it’s true. It’s all true.”

Then, between the three of us, we started to tell Abigail the truth. All of it.

Previous Chapter        Next Chapter

 

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-08

Previous Chapter              Next Chapter

“Flick, Flick, wait! Hold on!” Miranda was on her feet in front of me, stopping me from sprinting out of the room. Her eyes were wide as she held her hands up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

My mind was racing. After hearing that recording and realizing what had happened, it was all I could do not to shove the other girl out of the way to keep going. “They killed Professor Pericles,” I blurted. “Now, the person they meant to kill is right here. I helped bring Wyatt here, to Eden’s Garden.”

Miranda’s head shook back and forth. “Wyatt, that security guy? You’re not making sense. Flick, just slow down for a second. What happened? Are you saying he’s the guy that—he’s that Zedekiah guy?”

“I–” Taking a deep breath, I exhaled before nodding. “I can’t explain all of it. Like, literally can’t. I could try, but I’d be wasting my breath because there’s still that spell I told you about that stops you from remembering even if I do explain it. Trust me, it’s really freaking annoying. But the point is, his real name is Zedekiah. That’s his birth name, and he’s really damn good with security magic. So he’s gotta be the one they’re after. He’s the guy they were trying to get rid of when they killed Professor Pericles.”

Nodding once, Miranda continued to meet my gaze while patiently pointing out, “But they don’t know that.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “I know you’re freaked out right now, especially after everything that happened. But there’s no reason they should know who he is just because you do. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just Wyatt, remember? Besides,” she added then, “Being here isn’t necessarily any more dangerous for him than being back at Crossroads. I mean…” Trailing off, she looked at me silently.

Letting out a breath again, I lowered my head before nodding. “You’re right. He’d be in just as much danger there as here if they knew who he was. Maybe more, I don’t know. I–” Working my mouth, I looked at the other girl. “I really wanna explain this to you. I wish I could just tell you the whole story. But all I can say is that I can’t lose him. I can’t lose Wyatt, Randi. I can’t let anything happen to him.”

“I get it,” Randi assured me. “I mean, I don’t get all of it, but I understand what you mean. There’s no reason to think he’s in any more danger right now though. And if you go running off to find him, that’ll probably make things worse.” She hesitated then before offering, “I think your best move is to wait.”

“Wait,” I echoed with a nod, reluctant as it was. “You’re right. I just—kinda freaked out for a second there.” Smiling faintly in spite of myself, I put my hand over hers. “Thanks for talking me down.”

She returned my smile and shrugged. “Hey, what are friends for?”

Shaking myself, I abruptly blurted, “Okay, hold on. Before we do anything else, can you send that recording to my phone? Like, right now. Then e-mail it to me. Then upload it to some kind of storage site. And while you’re doing that, I’ll make another e-mail address and copy it over.”

“Wow,” Miranda laughed. “You really don’t wanna lose this recording, do you?”

“Let’s just say I’d rather avoid that particular problem,” I muttered before getting to work.

Once we had done that, Miranda nudged me with her fist. “Now why don’t we see how much you can tell me about the–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sound of a commotion just outside. There was a sudden crashing noise, followed by three different voices talking loudly at the same time. And one of those voices I immediately recognized.

“Oh shit,” I blurted out loud as my eyes widened. I grimaced a bit, spinning around before practically throwing myself toward the doorway. “Damn it, damn it, damn it, this is a different world, isn’t it?”

Miranda was right behind me. “Err, yeah? I mean, of course it is. Why? What’s going on out there?”

Instead of taking the time to explain it to her, I lunged for the exit. Yanking it open, I blurted before even taking the time to see what was going on, “Don’t hurt him! He’s not a spy, it’s my fault he’s here!”

Just as I’d expected, just as I’d known in that moment as soon as I recognized his voice, there was a single, blond figure facing off against Croc and the rest of the Unset who had been standing guard. Tristan. Of course. The boy was linked to me. I was his anchor, the thing keeping him on Earth. So when that magic registered that I wasn’t on Earth anymore, it yanked him toward where I was. Whoops.

He was also soaking wet and wearing little more than swim trunks, which immediately made me freeze as my brain briefly blue screened. It was obvious that the boy had been out in the ocean when he’d been pulled right into the middle of Eden’s Garden. Which was nice to see, but now was not the time, Flick.

The Unset had stopped moving as soon as I spoke, their reactions good enough that they stopped any hostile motion. But Tristan either hadn’t heard me or he was too focused on what he saw as a threat. The boy was already yanking the silver chain necklace (the only other thing he was wearing besides the swim trunks) off his neck and was throwing it toward the ground. In mid-fall, the silver chain transformed. It grew a hell of a lot bigger, expanding into a massive fifteen foot long mechanical snake. The thing was coiled partway around Tristan, and its eyes were like little glowing green emeralds.

Heaving itself up so that the top third of its body was off the ground, the snake-robot dropped itself onto Tristan’s waiting, outstretched arm. His arm disappeared up into the snake’s body, with the head sticking out a little bit past his hand. Then the snake’s mouth open wide, before a large barrel extended.

“Tristan!” I blurted out even louder that time, waving a hand. “Stop, stop! It’s okay, don’t start a fight!”

Stopping short, Tristan’s head tilted. At the same time, the head of his snake (cannon barrel included) did the same. Both looked curious. “Flick?” He was clearly confused. “What’s—uh what’s going on?”

“Yes,” Croc spoke from nearby, his hand on his pike-weapon. “What exactly is happening here?”

Biting my lip, I looked from Unset to Tristan and back again before starting. “Okay, it’s a long story… on both sides. But what you guys need to know is that someone bad put a curse on Tristan that made it so he couldn’t go back to Earth. Someone else fixed it by using different magic to anchor him to me so he could go to Earth and stay there. But since I came here, and this place is on a different world…”

“He was brought here as well,” Croc finished for me, straightening a little while stowing his weapon. He spoke a single word to the rest of his people, and they all relaxed somewhat as well. “I understand. But there are others who may not look very kindly on his unannounced arrival. You should go back inside the room until you’re called by Seller. You can explain things to the boy in there, out of sight.”

Nodding quickly, I gestured with my head. “Come on, Tristan. I’ll explain in a minute. But Croc’s right, we can’t just stand out here in the open. Someone’s gonna… see… you…” I trailed off toward the end as my head turned and I finally had a second to take in the sight around me. The view made my jaw drop.

Yes, Avalon had told me a little bit about Eden’s Garden. So had Miranda. But neither of their descriptions did the place justice. We were standing on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to several big trucks on next to each other. And this was just one, one branch of many. Most of those other branches had literal buildings built on them, along with little playgrounds, a few roads, and more stuff that shouldn’t have been able to be in a freaking tree. There was an entire city built in this tree, with people of all ages running back and forth, training, shopping, or just living.

There was also green pretty much everywhere. No matter where my eyes moved, I saw more lush vegetation. More giant trees (though this one was clearly the biggest) stretched out as far as my eyes could see, and below them, I could make out an unbelievable amount of other plants, including beautiful flowers of every conceivable color. No wonder they called this place Eden’s Garden.

Apparently I stood there and stared for awhile, because the next thing I knew, Miranda was tugging my arm. “I’ll show you around as soon as there’s a chance,” she promised. “But we need to move now.”

Shaking myself, I nodded. By that point, Tristan had already retracted his snake-cannon back into its necklace form and was wearing it again. He gave the Unset a curious look before jogging over to us.

After giving one last look at the incredible vista, I stepped back through the doorway with the other two. As soon as the door had shut, I pivoted toward the boy. “Tristan, I am so sorry. I didn’t even think about what it was going to do to you when I came here. I completely forgot about our anchor thing.”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry about it.” Rubbing his hand over one ear and then back through his wet hair, Tristan gave me a charming grin that made my heart flip over once more. Why, why did he have to be wearing so little when he was pulled along? “I guess that’s what Gaia was trying to tell me before.”

I blinked at that, glancing toward Miranda before asking, “Wait, Gaia was there? What happened?”

“One sec.” Holding up a finger, he focused on the other girl while giving her an easy, disarming smile. “Sorry, there wasn’t really a chance for introductions out there. I’m Tristan.” He held a hand out to her.

For her part, Miranda blinked at the offered hand before shaking it. “Miranda. Flick mentioned you. You’re that one who used to be a kid because you were turned into a statue for a few years, then you came back in time as the right age.” Pausing, she turned to look at me. “Your school is fucking weird.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before focusing. “Right, so, Randi, that’s Tristan. Tristan, that’s Randi. You guys know each other now. So, Gaia?” I pressed, looking at the boy.

“Yeah, I was out on the water with Roxa,” he explained. “She was teaching me how to windsurf.”

Hearing that, an unwanted flash of jealousy shot through me that I tried to quash. Shut up, stupid brain.

If Tristan’s smile was any indication, he noticed. But he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he just continued. “We were out there and I saw Gaia come out to the beach. She was doing that thing where she talks and you hear her just fine even if she’s nowhere near you. Which is really cool, for the record. Anyway, she was saying something about you, but I didn’t catch all of it before I was suddenly right in front of those scary guys in the armor. Guess she wasn’t fast enough to get the whole warning out.”

“Seller must’ve contacted her,” I murmured to myself. “Or maybe Professor Dare or one of the others. Either way, she came to tell you that you were about to be yanked along with us. Which, um, sorry.”

Tristan shrugged at that, still grinning. “You know, the day I complain about being teleported to a couple pretty girls is the day that you know I’ve been taken over by an evil mind-controlling Stranger.”

Coughing a little as my blush spread, I gave the boy a look. Which was a mistake, because it just made me blush even more. “Oookay, maybe we should find you a shirt or something to wear. Miranda?”

“Actually, I kinda like him the way he is.” Beside me, Miranda smirked while looking him up and down.

I was spared from having to respond to that by the door opening. Seller stepped inside and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the boy there. He took a second before speaking. “Croc said you had a friend show up. He neglected to mention that your friend wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

“Abigail,” I pressed while stepping that way. “Is she—did they agree to…” I couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in my throat, all of my thoughts jumbled up. And that time, it wasn’t because of Tristan.

In response, Seller nodded to me. “The Victors have agreed to give Abigail one of the apples. Wasn’t exactly easy, but when it comes down to it, I’ve got a few allotted to me that are mine to give out unless they can come up with a compelling reason against it. Some of them didn’t like it, but they couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to convince the others to overrule me. So, she got the apple.”

I sagged with relief at that. “So, she’s okay then? They gave her the apple and she’s gonna be all right?”

“Well,” Seller cautioned me gently, “it’s still going to take a little time. That Fomorian really messed her up. Whatever he did to her—we’ve got people fixing her, but she’s gonna have to stay under for a day or two while they do it. This isn’t normal damage, those guys are nasty. He threw in some kind of little biological traps while he was opening her up back there.” He shook his head, looking disgusted and even a little bit disturbed. “Like I said, they’ll fix her, but give it a couple days. They’re keeping her unconscious while they do their work. I asked, and they said you could see her in a few hours.”

“A few hours?” I echoed, trying to tell myself to calm down. It made sense. Abigail had been opened up with Koren’s hand literally on her heart, pumping it for her. The fact that they’d let me see her in a few hours and that she should be okay in a couple days was pretty amazing.

That thought made me straighten again. “Wait, Koren. Is she–”

“I’m okay,” the girl in question murmured as she stepped into the room. Despite her words, she didn’t exactly look that good. She was a little pale and shuddered a bit even standing there.

Turning his head a bit, Seller looked at something in his hand. “Excuse me a second, apparently your headmistress just sent another message.”

He stepped out of the room, and Koren watched him go before talking in a bit of a daze. “I was up with my mom, but they told me they needed space to work on her, so… h-here I am, I guess. I don’t… I don’t really know what to. Wyatt’s still there, he refused to leave and they said he could help them make sure none of the… the traps that the… the monster left in her body go off. He’s… he’s helping with… that…”

She trailed off then while still looking dazed and out of it, and I stepped that way to hug the girl. “Koren,” I managed a little weakly, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Her head shook at that. “Remember what he said? It wasn’t about you. It was about me. It was all about me. He didn’t even know about you. He was after me. That whole time, even back then, all those people he kidnapped to make it look like a real Stranger attack? Showing up in my house and scaring me? Even letting me get away. It was all part of his plan. All of it. And now he-he killed my… my…”

In mid-sentence, Koren turned away, falling to her knees as she threw up. I went down with her, trying my best to tug the girl’s hair away from her face while wincing. Through the next few moments, I rubbed her back and held her hair out of the way while she emptied her stomach.

Eventually, she sagged against me, so obviously exhausted that she was fighting to stay awake. “I… I have to tell you… Mom… she said something when she ate the apple. Her… her vision. She said something just before they knocked her out, something about what she saw.” Another pause then, before, “It was about your mom… and you.”

“Me?” I blinked in surprise. “What do you mean? What did she say?”

Still looking at the floor, Koren replied in a blank monotone. “She said… ‘she gave up for her. She let him take her to save her, to save Felicity. She saved Felicity. She went with him for Felicity.’”

It was my turn to settle roughly onto the floor, almost falling. Abigail’s vision had been of Mom. She’d seen Mom surrender herself to Fossor, trade herself for my life. She saw… oh god.

I had to talk to her. I had to… had to say something. What, I had no idea. But I had to be there when she woke up.

Tristan and Miranda, who had been silent the whole time up to that point, finally came closer. They sat down nearby, and the four of us were just sitting there quietly when the door opened again.

Seller entered, but he wasn’t alone. Croc was with him. The Unset man didn’t look that happy, and neither did Seller.

“Sard them! You know this is insanity. They can’t just write the girl off like that!” My ancestor ranted. “Damn your orders.”

“I may disagree with the orders,” Croc spoke quietly. “But I may not disobey them. That would bring our entire system down. The Victors have spoken.”

“What?” I blurted, my eyes wide. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to–”

“Abigail’s fine,” Seller assured me. “Well, as fine as can be expected. No, this isn’t about her. It’s about the girl he was with when he was dragged over here.” He looked toward Tristan.

Tristan, meanwhile, blinked. “Roxa? What about her?”

Seller muttered something angrily under his breath before answering. “Let me guess. You two were touching each other when you were dragged here.”
“Uhhh, yeah?” Tristan spoke slowly, uncertainly. “She was teaching me how to wind surf. We were sort of—you know, her hands were on me.”

Cursing again, Seller nodded. “Well, turns out, when you were teleported away, so was the girl.”

My eyes widened at that. “Oh god, is she okay? Wait—oh… oh shit, did she land on another branch or something?”

“If only,” Seller grumbled before looking at me. “No. Apparently she let go somewhere along the way. She didn’t make it all the way to the tree.”

Beside me, Miranda made a noise of shock. “Wh—what do you mean? You don’t mean—she couldn’t be…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed. “She’s out there…. somewhere” He pointed off into the wilds beyond the tree.

“They have to go find her!” Miranda insisted, practically leaping to her feet. “You don’t understand, Flick. That place is dangerous! There’s monsters all over the place, thousands of them. The ones beyond the barrier aren’t domesticated. She can’t survive out there by herself. They’ve gotta send a rescue party!”

“Yeah,” Seller’s voice was dark. “The Victors nipped that one right in the bud. They said with the pack movements out there and everything else going on, it’s too dangerous to send a rescue party out to save one Crossroads student.”

Well. Any desire I might’ve had to be an exchange student with this place completely fucking vanished in that instant. I was on my feet, staring at the man in disbelief. “What the fuck?! That’s ridiculous. That’s insane! That’s—that’s—bullshit! They can’t just leave her out there to die!”

“Believe me, I’ve tried to tell them that,” Seller assured me with an exasperated sigh. “I did. That’s what I’ve been doing out there. But they’re not listening. They’ve made up their minds.”

“Well then screw them,” Miranda said sharply, her hands squeezing into fists. “If they won’t do what’s right, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.”

Turning that way quickly, I stared at the girl. “You… you’ll go out there with me?”

“With us,” Tristan spoke up before shrugging at me with a little smile. “Can’t let a couple pretty girls run out into the nasty forest alone. Especially since the whole reason Roxa’s trapped out there is because she happened to be touching me.”

“You can’t possibly understand how dangerous it really is in that forest,” Seller started.

I turned that way, snapping, “No. You know what I can’t do? I can’t leave an innocent girl out there to die. It’s not who I am and it’s sure as hell not anyone I want to become. So either help as much as you can, or just tell us how to get down to the ground. Because we’re going to save Roxa.”

On the heels of that announcement, Tristan raised his hand. “Uh. Before we do that though, maybe I should put some pants on…”

Previous Chapter               Next Chapter

A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

Previous Chapter                 Next Chapter

Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

Previous Chapter               Next Chapter