Dakota Coalbright

Interlude 7A – Dreamcalls (Heretical Edge 2)

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Lying on her stomach, sprawled sideways across the bed in a pair of dark blue drawstring pants and a gray tanktop, Sandoval Lucas (née Mason) snored lightly. Her outstretched hand, hanging off the edge of the bed, held a purple field-engraver loosely between several fingers, while her construction mace rested with the handle lying across her back. A soft drizzling rain sound from a prepared white noise sleep assistance spell drowned out most of those light snores, as the brunette girl continued to slumber. The blinds across the room’s windows were half-raised, with somewhat dim light from simulated stars within the simulated nighttime visible through the gap.  

At once and with no apparent warning, Sands jerked upward and very nearly fell off the side of the bed. Her hand clutched the field-engraver so tight she bent it nearly in half, while the mace fell off her back and onto the floor with a loud thump (which itself would be inaudible outside of the room, thanks to magically reinforced sound-proofing). Said soundproofing would also prevent anyone else from hearing the young woman’s abruptly blurted shout of, “Erin!” 

Eyes wide, Sands shoved herself off the bed. She nearly tripped over the fallen mace, before stooping to grab and set it up on the nearby chair. From there, she jerked a drawer open and began to hurriedly grab clothes almost haphazardly. In a bare handful of seconds, she had changed out of her sleeping attire and into jean shorts and a red tee-shirt, all in near darkness without bothering to flip on a light. Grabbing her phone and the mace, she shoved both into their containers on her belt before bolting for the door. The whole way, she muttered a mixture of curses and apologies under her breath, even as she jerked the door open to leave her room. 

In the corridor beyond her room, Sands almost ran into her twin sister. Sarah was just coming out of her own room. Both girls’ eyes were wide as they almost stumbled into one another. 

“Erin!” Sands blurted as soon as she’d recovered from the near-collision, staring wildly at her sister through the dim light coming from the open windows in the corridor. “Did you–” 

“Yes,” came the simple, flat response. Sarah gave a short nod, glancing over her shoulder back through her open door. “Erin came to my dream. Sort of. She didn’t… talk. But I saw her.” 

Sands’ head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah! Yeah, I saw her too. And she didn’t talk, but I got like… ideas. Impressions. She’s not at Crossroads anymore. She ran away or… or something. They’re looking for her. And she’s trying to talk to her dad but she can’t get through.”

“But she found someone to help her, another girl.” Those words came not from either twin, but from Vanessa, who had just climbed the stairs and stood on the top step, hand on the railing. “Someone who has… some kind of connection to my family. And they need us to find them.” 

Sands glanced that way, biting her lip as she stared at the blonde girl. “You got the dream message too… All three of us got it. You were roommates with her and we spent a lot of time with her when we were kids. That’s gotta be it, right? Whatever spell she’s using to communicate, it must need some kind of connection like that. So she sent the message to all of us just to make sure we wouldn’t blow it off or anything.” Even as she said that, a guilty flinch crossed the girl’s face. They’d left Erin behind back at Crossroads. After lying to her for a whole year and leaving her out of things. No wonder the other girl was afraid of being ignored now. 

From the look on Vanessa’s face through the dim light, she felt about the same guilt. Her voice was quiet. “I don’t know who this girl is that she found, or how she’s connected to my family. She couldn’t get that part across in the dream. But it doesn’t matter. Even if she didn’t have someone else, we still have to go help her. We can’t… we can’t just…” She trailed off, her voice pained. 

“We can’t fail with her like we failed with Flick.” Sands finished for the other girl. It had only been a couple days since the assault on Fossor’s compound. The Necromancer himself had escaped, of course, even if they’d managed to destroy a lot of his resources at what was apparently his primary residence. 

They’d destroyed many of his ghosts, had wrecked over a dozen ongoing horrible spells he’d had in various levels of readiness, had claimed a whole vault full of various magical artifacts, gold, and other useful tidbits. They’d driven him to retreat. 

They had hurt him. That much was indisputable. Fossor had been hurt and forced to abandon a large amount of his personal resources. But it wasn’t enough. He still got away, and they hadn’t accomplished the primary goal. They hadn’t saved Flick or her mother. 

There had been no sign of Joselyn at all. Wherever she was, the woman wasn’t in the palace when Sands and the rest of the quickly-gathered army had descended into Fossor’s secret underground chamber. 

But worse than Joselyn not being anywhere in sight, Flick had been right there, clutched in Fossor’s grip. And they’d still failed to save her. Fossor had used a time travel spell again. A much stronger one than before, according to the adults. From what Wyatt, Sariel, and Dries had been able to put together, Fossor had sent Flick several years into the future. Years. 

What the hell were Sands and the others supposed to do about that? For all they knew, that was where Joselyn was too. Either way, Flick was gone. The only way she could come back was if she on that end managed to get someone to send her back to some time after she was sent forward. 

Not that that was stopping Wyatt and the other spell-focused people. They were apparently working on a way of attempting to grab hold of Flick and yank her back through time from this end. But from everything Sands had heard, it was… pretty unlikely to work. Still, they were trying, and she couldn’t fault them for that. She couldn’t blame anyone for needing to try

“They’ll find Flick,” Sarah insisted. “Or she’ll find a way to come back. We can’t do anything about that now.” She turned to look pointedly at her sister, adding in a firm voice, “We can do something about this.” 

Vanessa was already nodding in agreement. “Right. We can get Erin and this girl she found, figure out what she has to do with my family, help Erin contact her dad… We can do that.” After a brief pause, she added, “We’ll need help to do that.”

Sands folded her arms, suddenly feeling uncertain. “I didn’t get an address or anything, but I got umm… images? It’s like the spell couldn’t give real words, just impressions and sort-of thoughts. Feelings, that kind of thing.” 

“There was a submarine,” Sarah put in. “A black submarine, in the water near a building. And a bunch of like… science places. There was a planetarium, a place where little kids were playing with science experiments.” 

Sands added, “And there was that red shuttle thing. Except not a shuttle. It was like… it didn’t go anywhere, but it went up and down and stuff and made you feel like you were moving when you were inside it? Except without any magic. That’s a Bystander toy thing, right? But where–”

“OMSI,” Vanessa abruptly interrupted. When the other two looked at her, she elaborated. “Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I’ve been there a couple times. I told Erin about it. She said we should see it sometime. That’s… that’s what she was showing us.” 

“Are you positive that’s the same place?” Sands asked before making a face. “Why am I asking you if you’re remembering something right?” 

“I’m positive,” Vanessa confirmed. “The submarine. That’s the big thing. The other parts could maybe be other museums, but OMSI has a big submarine right next to their building. You can go on it and look through the periscope and everything. That’s–” She cut herself off, swallowing hard. “That’s the place.” 

“What’s the place?” That particular question came from Dakota Coalbright. The dark-haired girl, much younger than the others, had been staying in Vanessa’s room for these past weeks because it happened to be where she felt the most safe. She attended her own classes for those her age, but lived in this house. Vanessa didn’t mind. The two had been getting to know each other more. Plus, Dakota was apparently trying to help Avalon and Miranda fix the Eden’s Garden vines so they could grow properly. 

Now, the older blonde girl winced as she glanced toward her roommate, lowering her voice. “Sorry, Dakota,” she murmured. “Did we wake you up?” 

Head shaking, Dakota insisted, “I had to get a drink and you weren’t in the room. Then I heard you guys talking. What’s…” She looked back and forth between them, suddenly pensive. “What’s wrong?” 

The other three exchanged brief glances before Vanessa explained the dreamcall that they had all experienced, and what it meant. Given everything Dakota had been through, being forced to kill her own family members, spending years in a mental institution, all because she had been the unwitting pawn of an evil, potentially world-ending plant monster, Vanessa wasn’t about to try to keep the girl out of what was going on, even if Principal Fellows thought she should. Dakota deserved to know the truth, despite the fact that she was young and had been through so much. Vanessa herself knew as well as anyone what it was like to be in that situation. And even she couldn’t fully comprehend what it was like to have actually killed people you loved at all, let alone when you were just a little kid. Trying to avoid telling her what was actually going on now wouldn’t be fair. To say the least. 

Hearing that, Dakota hesitantly started, “So, um, your old roommate needs help getting here, and she has a friend that’s like… connected to your family. And now she sent you a message about where to meet her. But it’s not like, word messages, it’s just images of a place you know.” Once those words were met by nods, the younger girl bluntly asked, “Are you sure it’s not a trap?” 

“A trap,” Sands echoed thoughtfully, with a glance toward her sister, who grimaced. 

“Sure,” Dakota confirmed with a vague gesture. “You know, from those Crossroads people. Come on, your old roommate happens to run into someone connected to your family and they send you a magic dream message showing you where to meet them? That smells like a trap to me. What’re the odds of your friend finding some long-lost family member or something?” 

“You uhh, might be surprised,” Sands offered with a weak cough. “But yeah, you’ve got a point. On the other hand, we can’t just ignore it or abandon them.” Her voice was more firm then. “Erin was our friend for a long time. Even if we had to leave her out of stuff last year, even if we didn’t… couldn’t… get her involved, she’s still our friend. If she needs help, we have to be there.” 

Vanessa agreed hurriedly. “Yeah, she was nice to me. She helped me not umm, not stay in the library all the time. She was a really good roommate and I just… I just left her there. If she really does need help to get here and to contact her dad, then I’m going to help.” 

“But you’ll be careful, right?” Dakota insisted pensively. Her wide, perpetually sad eyes were focused on Vanessa as she continued, “You have to be careful. I mean–” Flushing belatedly, she waved both hands to indicate the twins as well. “Everyone, you all have to be careful.” 

“Don’t worry,” Sarah reminded the girl gently, “we can’t go anywhere without telling the adults what we’re doing.” Under her breath she muttered, “Even though we all technically are adults. I mean we’re eighteen, what–” Coughing to cut herself off, she finished with a shrug. “And they’ll insist that we all have a plan.”

Vanessa agreed, “Yeah, believe me, Dakota, we’re not just going to run off right now. We need a plan, and we’ll have plenty of help.” After a second of thought, she looked to the other two. “You didn’t get a time or a day or anything, right?”

“They’ll probably just be waiting there all day,” Sarah pointed out with a shrug. “You know, waiting for us to show up. 

“That was dreamjaunt they were using to communicate, right?” Sands put in as the memory of an old lesson from their mother came back to her. “Maybe we could find someone like Wyatt to mix some together and send a message back. You know, to let them know that we got it and show them like a clock or something.” 

“No!” That was Dakota, who hurriedly insisted, “If it’s a trap, you don’t want to give them any idea of when exactly you’ll be there. If they’re just waiting around there all day, it’ll be easier to check to make sure it’s not a trap. They have to wait around. But if you give them an exact time, they can plan a trap around that really easily, see?” 

“I get the feeling you and Wyatt are gonna get along really well,” Sands informed the kid before acknowledging, “But yeah, right, good point. Okay, so we just go tell our Moms what’s going on, right?” 

“We might want to wait a little bit on that,” Vanessa pointed out. 

“What?” Sands shook her head. “Why’re we waiting?” 

“Because,” Sarah reminded her sister while pointing to the nearby dark window.

“It’s two-thirty in the morning.” 

********

Thirty-eight hours later

 

Sands had wanted to go the very second the museum opened, of course. But Sariel, Larissa, Haiden, Principal Fellows, Professor Dare, and Professor Kohaku all insisted they wait until late in the day, to give the group time to plan a quick approach and extraction. As Kohaku put it, even if Erin and whoever she was with were on the up-and-up and weren’t trying to trap them, it was possible that someone from Crossroads or Eden’s Garden might have caught on anyway. They couldn’t be sure that Erin didn’t have secret minders following her around in case she might lead them somewhere important. 

Even without Wyatt (who was busy focusing on his attempt to work on a targeted time-travel spell to pull Flick back out of the future), the rest of the adults were definitely providing enough paranoia. Not that Sands could blame them, really. She knew all the dangers and everything, she just… she just wanted to get Erin out of there so she could say they accomplished something. With Flick banished years into the future, and no total guarantee that they’d be able to pull her back here… It was bad. It felt bad. But with Erin and whoever she had with her, that was something that had an immediate fix, something Sands and the others could do right then. They couldn’t help Flick right at the moment. But they could help another friend, the other one they had abandoned. 

As part of preparing to meet Erin and her friend, Dare and Kohaku, who had taken charge of the mission, such as it was, had sent several groups through the museum all day long. They were a mix of Natural Heretics whom Erin (and hopefully any Bosch Heretics following her) wouldn’t recognize and Alters who didn’t set off the Heretic sense for various reasons. 

They’d spotted Erin with some pale, dark-haired girl around the same age fairly quickly, apparently. From the description, Sands didn’t recognize her. Neither did Sarah or Vanessa. Or Tristan, for that matter. He’d insisted on coming too, and was currently sitting next to Sarah in the van they were all waiting in, the two of them whispering about some movie they’d watched or something. 

Sands knew those two had a thing. It had become progressively more clear over the past few weeks, even if they were obviously taking things slow. The pair read books together, went for walks together, watched movies, had food. They did all the dating things aside from actively calling it a date or kissing or anything. At least, Sands was pretty sure they weren’t kissing. 

Part of her felt like warning Tristan about hurting her sister. But she pushed that thought aside. Sarah didn’t need her to fight her battles or play protective sister for her. She was fine. Tristan was obviously going slow through all that stuff, and neither of them needed Sands butting in. 

Still, she couldn’t help but squint at the boy every time he wasn’t looking at her, before quickly looking away when he glanced in that direction. 

“Okay.” That was Larissa, sitting in the driver’s seat. “The four of you can make your approach. Tanner says they’re out by the submarine, sitting on a bench. We’ll be all around you. Kohaku’s nearby, just out of sight. Dare is on the submarine itself. We’ve got people on the roof, and I’ll be a few steps back in disguise, just in case.” As she said that, the woman took a masker and pulled it on, turning her appearance to an elderly, gray-haired woman. “Everything looks clear. But be careful.”

Sands, Sarah, Vanessa, and Tristan all slipped out of the van and headed that way. They bought their tickets, were informed that the place would be closing in forty-five minutes, and headed around toward the submarine. On the way, Tristan remarked, “You know, it’s too bad we have to rush in and out of here. This place looks pretty cool.” 

Vanessa shot her brother a quick look, eyes wide. “It’s science stuff. You want–” 

“Yeah, yeah, I said it’s cool.” Tristan nudged her. “Don’t have a coronary. Seriously though, we should come back here sometime.” His face and voice darkened then. “With Flick, if we can get her back sometime before we’re all over legal American drinking age.” 

Sands started to insist that they would get Flick back before then. But she was interrupted by the sudden sight of Erin. The girl’s hair had been bright pink the last time Sands saw her, but it was back to being blue. She was also, as promised, sitting next to a pale, anorexically thin girl with dark hair, who was staring intently at a very old-looking leather book in her hands. 

With a shrug, Sands walked that way with the others. Both seated girls looked up, before Erin quickly stood with a murmured word to her companion. 

“Hey, Erin.” Quickly, Sands stepped over to embrace her old friend. “You guys wanna get out of here?” She tried not to sound as nervous as she suddenly felt. 

Erin’s head bobbed, even as she took the time to embrace Sarah and then Vanessa. “Yes. Fuck yes, let’s go. There’s more than just you guys, right? Y-you’re sure there’s no Crossroads people here?”

“Definitely sure,” Sands confirmed. 

“Why?” That was Larissa, who had removed the masker and took Erin into her arms for a tight hug. “Do you think you might’ve been followed? And who’s your friend here?” 

“This is Dylan Averty,” Erin quickly introduced them all before adding, “And we have to get out of here. I have to tell you about Baron Dallant.” 

“Jeremiah?” Larissa frowned. “What about him? He’s undercover, but he’s on our side.” 

“He may be undercover,” Erin agreed, “but I’m pretty damn sure he’s not on our si–” 

“Pardon me.” 

The interruption came from a new figure, one who simply appeared a short distance away, prompting everyone there to jerk that way, drawing weapons and readying powers. Dylan had one hand raised with a small, strange, clearly magical bag clutched in it. Larissa and Dare were both right there in an instant. All of them faced the figure who had spoken. 

He was tall, purple, with red eyes and a long beard. Not to mention partially translucent. 

“Ghost,” Dare immediately snapped, her sword snapping upward. “One of Fossor’s.” 

“No.” That emphatic, sharp denial stopped the woman from lashing out. The purple ghost gave one shake of his head. “I am not his. Not anymore. That, in fact, is entirely why I have spent all this time searching for someone connected to the Chambers.” 

“What are you talking about?” Dare demanded, making certain to keep herself between the ghost and the teens, her sword already prepped with a ghost-harming spell. 

“I am no longer bound to the orders of that creature,” the spirit informed them. “Thanks entirely to the efforts of your… Felicity. And I am here to repay that incredible favor. 

“By leading you to where Fossor is, so you may stop him before it’s too late.”

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Interlude 6B – Avalon and Miranda (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know the problem with trying to plant something in Desoto?” Miranda Wallbern noted while she, Avalon, and Hisao stood on the beach looking out at the gulf of Mexico. “There is no Desoto!” With that blurted exclamation, the girl waved both hands wildly out toward the water. “There hasn’t been for over a hundred years, so what the hell are we supposed to do?” 

Taking a knee next to the gently lapping waves, Hisao was silent for a moment. The young-looking yet ancient Asian man (his birth apparently predated even the Seosten’s arrival on Earth, despite his casual nature and tendency to avoid standing out or drawing power to himself) put his hand against the water and seemed to be focusing. Finally, he spoke quietly. “The Victors are convinced that the vines will be able to grow on Desoto soil. They’ve done the rituals, the fortune-seeing spells, everything they can do. It all says that the vines will grow properly and bear more fruit once they’re planted in Desoto.” A wry smirk touched his face as he half-turned to glance at the girls. “They’re also convinced that you two can help make that work. I guess the spells told them that part too. Something about you being able to produce what is needed to bring the plants to life and make them bear fruit in the soil of Desoto.” 

Avalon, who had been quiet the whole time, moved a few steps closer. Her voice was flat. “There is no soil of Desoto,” she pointed out while sitting down with her feet in the water. She wore no shoes or socks at the moment, letting her bare toes get soaked as the waves lapped over them. “It was all destroyed to eliminate the Fomorian threat. Or at least delay it. Wasn’t the point of the spell that all of Desoto had to be erased? If there was still part of it here, that would make the Fomorians still a threat, wouldn’t it?” As she said it, Avalon frowned at the water. 

Despite her frown, Avalon actually didn’t mind being out here. Solving this problem was important, even if she was utterly baffled about why she was needed. Sure, she was the descendant of the man who had supposedly created the Edge. But Bosch had been possessed. It wasn’t really him. Maybe there was some kind of bloodline thing or… something. Who knew. 

But in either case, being out here also distracted her from obsessing over Felicity. Flick. They would find her. That much Avalon was positive about. Fossor wouldn’t have spent ten years planning out how to abduct her just to kill the girl. He wanted her around. The thought of what she was almost certainly going through, the thought of her being at Fossor’s mercy… that was enough to bring Avalon to multiple moments of screaming, frothing rage over the past few weeks. But she kept those moments mostly under control, and focused on keeping busy. 

They were planning out how to find Fossor. They had multiple leads, multiple chances. And she had made it damn clear to everyone involved just how annoyed she would be if they tried to leave her out of things or didn’t include her in the rescue. They knew how she would react, and she’d been promised by multiple people including Dare, Abigail, and Kohaku that she would be included and kept up to date on what was going on, that they would tell her the second they knew anything useful at all. It wasn’t enough to stop her from obsessing, of course. Not nearly. Yet it did, at least, soothe the young woman enough that she could try distracting herself here. 

Fossor would get what was coming to him. She would get Flick back. That much Avalon was absolutely certain of. It was just… the waiting. The being terrified of what the girl she loved was going through. Being helpless to do anything or even talk to her. She missed talking to Flick. 

“It could still mean to plant the vines at the bottom of the gulf, right?” Miranda offered weakly, her face grimacing a little. “I know it’s like a mile deep, but that shouldn’t be anything to Heretics. Hell, they could probably just create a big, permanent shield dome or something to have air and plant them safely without having to worry about water or anything.” 

“They’ve tried that,” Hisao informed them. “Unfortunately, the vines don’t like the soil down there. Plus they need sunlight. They’ve tried artificial light, portals to bring sunlight down into that area, everything. The vines won’t grow down there. It’s close. Their botanists say that the vines are really close to taking root. But it’s like they’re missing something. They were hoping that one of you would be able to provide that missing thing. Or at least figure out what it is. Seller’s been down there for weeks off and on, trying to use his own powers to make the plants take root.” 

“His own powers?” Miranda echoed. “Oh, you mean his original powers. The biology manipulation or whatever.” Seller and Gaia had both received powers from the same creature when they had first become Natural Heretics. The creature had been a Djehuti, and unlike most inherited powers, the Djehuti split its own gifts in two. Gaia had received its incredible, vast control over technology, while Seller had received vast knowledge of how to create and manipulate the genetics of non-sapient living things. It made him almost as good at making or fiddling with living bodies (not only plants, but animals too) as the Fomorians were. Unfortunately, it was a gift he used quite sparingly in the wake of the invasion from those monsters, given how such things were viewed now. But at the time, it had also made him an invaluable resource for combating them. 

In any case, Seller had deep expertise with manipulating plants, so he had eventually been put at the head of the project for getting these Eden’s Garden vines to take root. 

Hisao was nodding. “Yeah, the original powers. He’s having trouble getting the vines to stop being giant pains in the ass, his words. Keeps getting close, but it’s not enough. He says he needs something else. There’s something about the vines that resists him fiddling with them. Seems like when they made the damn things, they put in a lot of protections against exactly what he’s doing. Probably so the Fomorians didn’t grab a sample for themselves and make their own version. Just in case. Which, you know, not a bad idea given who we’re talking about. But it still screws us over.” 

Miranda sighed heavily, kicking out to send a spray of sand out into the water. Like Avalon, she was dealing with Flick’s abduction about as well as she possibly could. In her case, it meant having multiple duplicates who were all out helping in various places. They were at school, on various training missions, on actual missions, helping out at the Atherby camp, and one was even in the Bystander world working at a homeless shelter. Miranda coped with feeling helpless by putting a dozen versions of herself to work all day long, then absorbing them at the end of the day and feeling everything they had accomplished. It didn’t solve the problem or anything. It didn’t make her forget that she could do nothing for Flick. But it… helped, somewhat. It was something. And at that point, every little thing that helped her get through each day until they could actually find Flick and get her away from that monster was worth it. 

“Okay,” the dark-skinned girl began, “so the plants won’t grow at the bottom of the gulf, but they’re close to growing. You said it’s just like there’s something stopping Seller’s power from working on them? And according to those fortune spells, the answer is something that Avalon and I can give. So… what is it? What are you guys missing that Avalon and I could give you?” Pausing, she shook her head and corrected, “Wait. What are you missing that either of us could provide? That’s important, right? It’s an important distinction. It has to be something that either of us could provide, not just one of us. Because if it was something that only Avalon could provide, I wouldn’t have been included.” 

“Or,” Avalon pointed out mildly, “it’s two things, one that you can provide and one that I can provide. My blood or something, maybe. If Radueriel tied Bosch’s blood to the Edge, it could still be tied to the vines… somehow. Maybe they need my blood in the soil to take root properly.” 

“Yeah, but what the hell could I provide?” Miranda asked with a confused wave of both hands. “Seriously, you might be special and all, but I’m just a normal Heretic student. Which, yeah, I know that’s not really normal at all, but still. I don’t have anything to do with this ancient stuff. Why would the vines need anything I could give them that other Garden people couldn’t? What do I have that others don’t? I’m not some super botanist. Hell, Seller can’t make the vines grow and he has the power to fuck around with the their genetics and all that shit. I don’t even have that. I definitely don’t have magic plant growing powers.” 

Hisao straightened up and took a step away to watch from nearby, silently observing the two girls while they debated back and forth about what the fortune-seeing spells could possibly have meant when they claimed that the two of them could provide the last bit that the vines needed to take root and begin growing properly. A curious look, followed by a brief flash of realization had crossed the man’s face, but he smoothed it out and waited for the girls to get to that point themselves. Old as he was, Hisao had long-ago mastered the art of patience. The girls would get there eventually. Best if they managed it themselves, and grew from the experience. 

It took a few more minutes of the two girls throwing out thoughts, shooting them down, considering everything they were capable of, and asking Hisao what had been tried. Then Avalon went quiet. Her head tilted curiously, a frown crossing the girl’s face as she stared at the sand. Hisao could almost see the wheels turning in her head, before she slowly looked over at the girl next to her. “What was that you said a minute ago, about magic plant growing powers?” 

Miranda, in turn, blinked at her in confusion. “Uhhh, what? Oh, I just said I don’t have magic plant growing powers. I mean, as far as I know. Maybe I have a super green thumb and never–” 

“Wait.” Avalon interrupted sharply. Her brow was knitted into an intensely thoughtful frown. “It’s something that both of us could provide. Or either of us. We were both part of Eden’s Garden, so their fortune spells considered us inside their… group or whatever. We were the part of Eden’s Garden who were most likely to be able to provide what the vines need. It has nothing to do with my blood or any power either of us have.” 

“It doesn’t?” Miranda started blankly, staring at the other girl. 

“No,” Avalon confirmed. She glanced toward Hisao pointedly. “You said Seller’s been trying to make the vines grow with his own power, but they keep resisting it. He needs help.” 

“Yes,” the man replied simply, watching her reaction. “They do have other plant-experts, even those with related gifts. But nothing has worked. It’s like the vines are actively resisting being grown anywhere beyond Eden’s Garden. That’s what Seller says, anyway. He thinks there might have been some kind of genetic-level modifications to ensure no one did… well, exactly what we’re trying to do. He’s trying to bypass it, but not having much luck so far.” 

“He needs help getting past that block,” Avalon pointed out. “Right now he’s just trying to overpower it, and I’m pretty sure Radueriel and his cronies would’ve been ready for that. That’s the whole problem. The Seosten who created the Eden’s Garden tree, or… or helped it be created, or whatever, they put in protections against genetic tampering just like what Seller’s trying to do. Because they didn’t want the Fomorians to take samples and create their own tree. And any defenses they included against the Fomorians are also going to stop Seller. I mean, maybe he can eventually get around it and force the vines to grow with enough effort, but we don’t have time for that. We need a way to bypass those protections so Seller’s power can work and he can make them grow right. Someone who can force the vines to do what they’re told that isn’t about messing with their genetics the way the Fomorians or Seller do.” 

“And you know someone like that?” Miranda asked, raising an eyebrow while racking her brain. 

“We both do,” the other girl informed her. “At least, we know someone with the potential to do that. That’s the entire reason those fortune spells kept pointing at us. Because we’re former Eden’s Garden students who have the exact connection needed. We’ve been loyal to Garden and we know the exact right person to help. The only person who could end up with the right powers.” 

For a moment, Miranda blinked at her. “Wait, someone with the potential to do that? Someone who could end up with–” Then she did a sharp double-take, eyes widening with realization. “Whoa, whoa! You don’t mean–but she hasn’t–” 

“Not yet,” Avalon agreed. “At least, not that we know of. But can you think of anyone else with the potential to do what we need? Who else fits that bill? It’s someone we both have a connection to and someone no one else has thought of asking for help from yet. So it can’t be anyone whose gift is well-known.” 

For a long moment, Miranda just stared. Then she looked toward Hisao and squinted. “How long ago did you figure it out?” the girl demanded. 

His response was a simple smile. “Not long, I promise. Just in the past few minutes. But yeah, I think you’re both right. She’s the only one who might fit. The best guess we’ve got right now, anyway.” 

“Right,” Avalon pushed herself up, turning away from the water. 

“Let’s go talk to the kid.” 

*******

“What?!” Eyes wide with confusion, thirteen-year-old Dakota Coalbright jerked to her feet from the kitchen table in the house where Sands, Sarah, Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, Eiji, and the slinky-like Alter known as Ruckus lived. Dakota had been staying there as well, despite her younger age, because being near Vanessa was where she was most comfortable. And above all else, Principal Fellows and the other staff wanted her to be comfortable. 

Unfortunately, she was definitely not that right now. She was in the kitchen with Avalon and Miranda, who had both asked to talk to her. Hisao leaned against the nearby doorway, giving the girls room to talk. And in this moment, comfort was about as far as possible from Dakota’s mind. 

“I don’t have–I’m not–I don’t have plant powers!” she blurted, head shaking so fast it almost might’ve popped off her shoulders. She denied it a little too firmly. “I don’t do anything like what–what he does! I’m not like that!” Her voice grew louder by the word, making the girl sound almost hysterical. 

Miranda took the lead, quickly raising both hands. “We know, we know. You’re not like him. You’re not like Kwur, not–not at all. Trust me, Dakota, we know you’re nothing like him. No one thinks you are. Nobody. You’re different. But…” She hesitated, then stepped over, tugged a chair out, and sat down. Her voice was quieter. “But there’s gotta be a reason Kwur wanted you taken care of. Whatever deal he and Fossor made, it included you being visited and checked up on, or whatever. Sariel and Apollo, they broke through the memory blocks on Vanessa and Julius Harn. They know Fossor was at the hospital. And with everything else they’ve worked out, and what… what Kwur said, it’s obvious that he wanted you kept alive for a reason.” 

Arms folded protectively against her stomach, Dakota shook her head just as frantically as before. “No. No, no. I’m not like that. I’m not–” 

“It doesn’t mean you’re evil.” That was Avalon, stepping forward. Her voice was as calm as she could make it, under the circumstances. She knew too well the sort of thoughts that were running through this girl’s head. “Having a connection to an evil thing doesn’t make you evil. If… Kwur putting his seed in your head before did make you a Natural Heretic of him, that doesn’t mean you’re anything like him. Yes, Dakota, we think that’s what the fortune spells that pointed at us meant, that we were supposed to involve you. We think you have Kwur’s powers, or at least some version of them. And if you do, you can convince the vines to grow in a way no one else could.” 

“You can talk to the vines,” Miranda agreed. “You can get around the blocks that the Seosten installed. No one else could do that. If… if you do have these powers, you’re the only person in the world who can make the vines take root before it’s too late.” 

Avalon nodded. “That’s not evil, Dakota. If you can do that, you’ll be giving a lot more people the chance to fight against evil. Power isn’t evil just for existing. What you do with it is good or evil.” 

Squirming, Dakota opened and shut her mouth a couple times. She still looked pale (though she always did) and afraid. But there was something else there, a sort of very faint, yet growing determination. At the moment, it was just a seed, but it was there. 

“But I… I…” She cringed, the admission coming in a hollow voice. “… I think I made a flower grow once. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t. I just–I–I never did it again!” Admitting that she really had used those plant-powers despite claiming she didn’t have them made the girl wilt inwards with shame and fear of their reaction. 

“It’s okay,” Miranda quickly assured her. “It’s okay, Dakota. We know why you… why you’ve been avoiding it. Why you’ve been pushing the powers away. But if you can help, if you can make these vines grow so that we can make more Heretics… you could help the Rebellion. You could save a lot of people.” 

For a moment, there was no response other than a few quiet sniffles. The very thought of actively using a power that belonged to the abomination who had forced her and the rest of her family to kill each other was… was…

“Okay,” came the very soft, almost inaudible voice.

“I’ll try.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, we were all very confused. Sands, Sarah, Felix, Triss, Tabbris, December, Dare, and I all stared at one another in wordless bafflement while Vanessa was clung to by the little girl who apparently knew her well enough to go for an immediate hug despite all her very understandable trauma. A girl she herself couldn’t remember at all. Which really should have been practically impossible given her memory powers, so what in the living hell?

Eventually, Dare stepped more fully into the room. “Dakota,” she started carefully. “How do you know Vanessa, exactly?” As she asked that, the woman glanced at the girl in question with an expression that clearly asked for her to wait until Dakota actually answered before speaking up.

For her part, Dakota stepped back, suddenly looking a lot more uncertain when she realized how many people were watching her. She actually half-hid behind Vanessa, which just made it more clear how much she trusted and looked up to the other girl. “Um. She visited the hospital where I was. She visited a lot of the kids, but she… she…” Biting her lip, Dakota glanced to the blonde girl. “She believed me,” the girl murmured in a quiet, hesitant voice. “When I told her what happened, she believed I wasn’t crazy. She… she’s the one who sent the doctor to me.”

Vanessa still looked pretty clueless. Considering that for a moment, she slowly nodded. “I did visit the hospital a few times to see people that I knew from before… but…” Focusing on Dakota, she continued. “What doctor are you talking about? Because…” She seemed to be considering her words very carefully to avoid upsetting the girl or dismissing her. “I think something happened to my memory. I don’t remember talking to you, and I really should.”

For a second, it was clear that the dark-haired girl felt reflexively hurt by not being remembered. But she pushed that down, shifting a bit on her feet before slowly asking, “Does… does that mean someone used magic on you? But you said you never forget anything. You said you’d always remember me because you have a magic memory. How can someone take that away?”

“There are always checks and balances,” Dare spoke up, drawing the attention of both girls. “Nothing is one hundred percent perfect and foolproof. Even a memory as protected as a full Seosten’s… or someone with that same gift, such as Vanessa, can be tampered with given enough power or skill. Remember, even Sariel’s memory was affected by the Seosten banishment orb. The real question right now is who changed her memory. And why.”

Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. That was definitely the most important question at the moment. But before we went further with that, something else seemed important too. And that something was introductions. So, I looked to the poor, clearly very skittish girl. “Hi, Dakota. I’m Flick. This is Tabbris.” I gently pulled my little sister up in front of myself, as she gave a short wave.

“Hi!” Tabbris piped up, her own hand moving to grab December (who still seemed surprised that anyone would willingly touch her), pulling the girl up beside us. “This is December! She’s cool.”

December’s mouth opened, then she stopped short. Turning to the girl beside her, she quickly asked, “Waitasec. Wasthatapun? YouknowcuzcoolandDecember. December’swinterandcold.”

Tabbris, in response, simply grinned and giggled a little bit. She said something very quick in Latin. I’d been learning a lot, but I wasn’t perfect yet. Plus, she said it at December speed.

So, instead of trying to follow that, I glanced to the others and asked, “Could the person who erased Vanessa’s memory have been the… you know, plant guy himself? Or one of the minions he took over, trying to isolate her from anyone who could help?” Belatedly, I added, “Or who could bring help.” Cool as she was, of course, I really doubted pre-Heretic Vanessa would have been much of an issue for someone like Kwur. Or any of those people, really.

Sarah spoke up then, taking a step closer with a look that made it clear that she was very much sympathizing with the girl who had witnessed (and been a part of) such horrific trauma as a child. Trauma that she couldn’t talk about very much. “Maybe the doctor Vanessa asked about?”

Before anyone else could say anything, Dakota shook her head quickly. “Nuh uh. Doctor Folgers is really nice and really cool and he helped seal the bad plant so no one could find it. Vanessa said she’d send someone who could help me and Doctor Folgers came and helped.”

“Doctor Folgers,” Dare echoed, looking over to Vanessa. “How about it, you remember them?”

A slight frown touched the other girl’s face, as she squinted off into the distance while murmuring, “Folgers. I…” Now she looked even more troubled while her head shook. “I don’t remember. No, I don’t remember hearing that name before.” Even as she said it, there was a slight hitch to her voice. It was obvious that she was very close to freaking out. Which I couldn’t blame her for, given how she’d relied on her perfect memory through literally her entire life. The idea that someone had actually messed with it after all had to be hitting pretty hard right then.

Dare seemed to consider for a moment before asking, “Dakota, what can you tell us about this Doctor Folgers? How did he meet with you, what did he look like? How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Did he tell you anything specific about how he sealed up that basement?”

“Why didn’t he take the plant or destroy it?” Sands quickly put in. “That seems pretty important.”

“Hey, yeah,” Triss put in from a bit further back where she and her own sister were standing (Felix was being pretty quiet at the moment). “How come this helpful magic doctor guy didn’t just destroy the stupid evil plant if he believed what you said and knew how dangerous it was?”

“He couldn’t!” Dakota put in quickly and a bit defensively before flushing a little as everyone looked at her. Once more, she seemed to instinctively shrink behind Vanessa for protection. Her voice was a bit quieter. “He said he tried to destroy it, but he could sense the… the voice trying to get to him. So he sealed it off. He said he was going to research more ways to safely get rid of it. He said he had some friends who knew magic better than he did and they could help.”

Reading something in her voice, I hesitated before asking, “You never saw him again, did you?”

“No,” the young girl confirmed quietly and with obvious sadness, shrinking in on herself a bit. “He never came back after that. I asked about him and they said there wasn’t a doctor by that name. I asked about Vanessa, and they said she was too busy to come see me anymore.”

Flinching noticeably, Vanessa went down to one knee and embraced the girl tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while holding her. “I’m sorry I… I’m sorry something happened and I couldn’t remember you. We’re going to help you now, I swear. We’ll figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. You’re safe here, Dakota. Can… can you answer Professor Dare’s question about what Doctor Folgers looked like? Maybe that will help me remember him.” She sounded doubtful about that, but was clearly ready to try just about anything that might work.

So, Dakota described the man. Apparently he was rather rotund, shaped basically like a large beach ball. She said he was maybe about my height, and wore a doctor coat over a ruffled lime green shirt with some flowers on it. His stethoscope was purple, and he was always chewing a lot of bubblegum. Oh, and he apparently had very dark green, almost black eyes, along with a very friendly smile that made her feel safe when he talked to her.

The more the girl talked about him, the more obvious it became that she really missed him. He’d obviously made a very strong impression on her for the limited time they’d interacted. It made me feel even worse about the thought that she’d been alone for so long after something as traumatizing and soul-crushing as what she’d been through. This kid needed a lot of help.

Unfortunately, getting the description didn’t seem to help Vanessa at all. She squinted, clearly focusing very hard on trying to remember before sighing almost explosively. “Not remembering something is awful,” she declared. “Is this what everyone else feels like all the time when they can’t remember? Gotta say, not a fan.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I confirmed. “Maybe someone shapeshifted into you to talk to her because you went to the hospital and could be someone she trusted? But… why? And who?” My head shook. Too much speculation. “If your memory was messed with, maybe your mom can help? She’s basically the best expert we have at that kind of thing, isn’t she?”

As Vanessa nodded, Dare was already moving. “I’ll see if we can bring her down. You guys talk to Dakota a bit. Maybe she remembers some other things that could be useful.” To the girl in question, she asked, “Are you going to be okay here?”

Dakota gave a short nod, though she was staying very close to Vanessa. “I’m… yes, I’m okay.”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Felix declared. “We’re in a space station in the middle of the sun. Definitely don’t have to worry about that psycho monster plant dude finding you up here.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Plus you’re surrounded by people who would kick his ass.” Offering her a small smile, I added, “Do you mind if we take a few samples from you for the spell so we can go back out there and find this plant guy before he hurts more people? I swear it won’t hurt.”

“I don’t care if it does,” Dakota informed me solemnly. “You can hurt me to find him. I deserve it.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like… like it was a universal certainty that she deserved pain. That, more than anything I’d heard so far, showed me just how messed up this kid really was.

Vanessa, thankfully, was right there. Still on one knee, she shook her head while putting both hands on Dakota’s shoulders. But she didn’t say ‘you’re wrong’ or anything like that. Instead, she asked in a very calm, collected voice, “Why do you feel like you deserve to be hurt?”

Dakota stared at her, mouth opening before she swallowed hard and looked away. An expression of deep, lingering shame crossed her face. When she spoke, it was in a broken, halting voice while tears filled her eyes. “I did bad things.” For such a simple statement, there was a lot behind those few words. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I… I didn’t want to hear more details. My own imagination was plenty bad enough as far as thinking about what had happened that terrible day. The last thing I wanted was to know for certain.

“Did you want to do those bad things?” Vanessa asked her simply, watching the girl’s eyes while still holding her by the shoulders. “Did they make you happy?”

Lip trembling for a few seconds, Dakota’s entire face crumpled in, tears falling freely. “No. No.” She repeated that a couple times, head shaking. Crying openly by that point, she stammered in a horrible, broken voice that hitched and cracked between almost every word. “No, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. I want my Mommy and Daddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna do that. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be here. I want my Mommy and Daddy and everyone. I want to go back. Please, please, I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.”

That was about as much as she could say, collapsing against Vanessa, who held her tight. The older girl’s voice was quiet and soothing. “You didn’t do it,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose it. You’d never hurt your family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dakota. Your mom and dad knew it wasn’t your fault. Your brothers and sisters knew that too. You’re okay.”

The two stayed like that for a couple minutes, Vanessa simply holding her close and soothing her the way I was pretty sure Vanessa herself had needed for quite some time as a child. Finally, Dakota looked up to her, sniffling a little. “You have to find the plant man and make him stop before he makes someone else kill people,” she said in a weak voice. “Please.”

“We will,” Vanessa promised her firmly. “We’re going to find him and stop him. We just have to take a few samples from you so we can do that, okay? It’ll be really easy and really quick.”

The girl agreed once more, and then Vanessa and Tabbris set out taking hair, skin, saliva, and blood samples from her. The last bit was the ‘hardest’, but even that wasn’t bad. All they did was set an enchanted vial against her arm and let it slowly fill up by essentially teleporting her blood the very short distance from her arm into the vial. There wasn’t even any penetration involved.

While they were busy with that, I focused on the others. “What do you guys think? Does this Doctor Folgers sound familiar to anyone?” To December, Triss, and Felix, I added, “You guys have more experience with the non-Heretic side of the world. Maybe he rings a bell?”

Unfortunately, they all shook their heads. As did Sands and Sarah. Triss spoke up with a hesitant, “I don’t think we know anyone who looks like that. I mean, he kind… maybe sounds a little bit like that one guy who used to be part of the Crossroads Committee before he died.”

“Brockett,” Sands put in. “Oliver Brockett. But it’s definitely not him. He wouldn’t need to go get help to deal with this guy. Or at least he wouldn’t admit it. And if the Committee knew that thing was there, they would’ve either destroyed it or blocked the whole house off a lot more than just putting an illusion over the basement. And he was still around until a few months ago. It can’t be him.”

“She’s probably right,” I murmured before offering, “Maybe we can go to the hospital where Dakota was and find the security footage from the last time she saw him? If we got an actual look at him, that might help identify the guy.”

“Not a bad idea, Felicity.” That was Sariel, coming into the room alongside Dare. As she entered, Tabbris and Vanessa both moved to embrace her, and she returned their hugs fondly. Then she looked at me, continuing her thought. “But there are easier ways to share the image of this doctor with you, without going to the hospital. First, however…” She focused on her Vanessa, frowning thoughtfully as she brushed the girl’s hair back and stared into her eyes with the look of a doctor examining a patient.

The rest of us exchanged uncertain looks and waited, while Sariel checked over her eldest daughter with a few prepared spells. Through it all, Vanessa remained quiet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her memory had possibly been altered.

“Something is definitely missing,” Sariel finally declared, straightening a bit. Her voice was tense. “Whoever did it was an expert, a surgeon of memory adjustment. They removed specific memories and carefully connected the remaining pieces so you wouldn’t notice. For example, say you were sitting in a chair in the waiting room, reading a magazine when someone came up and interrupted. The two of you have a ten minute conversation, then get up and walk into an examination room to talk to a doctor together before leaving to ride the elevator back down to the lobby before you finally part ways. Whoever went into your mind erased your memory of the other person entirely. They cut out the entire private conversation, then edited the person out of your memory of speaking with the doctor. Think of it as adjusting your memory of everything the doctor said to the second person as being said to you, with the other person’s questions being moved to you and even adjusted to sound more like something you’d say.”

Vanessa stared at her mother, mouth open. “That… that… who–why–” Her hands covered her mouth and she looked stricken at the thought. And for her part, Sariel didn’t look any happier. If anything, she was clearly even more upset and holding back most of it.

“I don’t know,” the Seosten woman replied in a quiet voice. “But we’ll find out, I promise you that much. Whoever did this was skilled enough that they didn’t leave much in the way of traces. We need to find the person themselves if we want to replace the memories.”

“Finding out who this doctor guy is might help with that,” I put in. “You said you could do something about that without having to go to the hospital to look through security footage?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed, clearly taking a second to focus on the issue at hand instead of her daughter’s altered memory. “We only need someone who does remember him.”

“Memory transfer?” Vanessa guessed, looking to Dakota before reaching out to take the nervous girl’s hand reassuringly as she spoke directly to her. “If it’s okay with you, we could project your memories of the guy so everyone can see him. Would you be okay with that?”

Yeah, it was clear that, memory or no memory, Vanessa was very protective of this girl. Maybe that was just her own personality and all. Or maybe some part of her actually did remember her, even if she couldn’t actively recall those memories. Whatever it was, she definitely felt something.

“Okay,” the girl agreed quietly. “Whatever you have to take, I don’t care. Just find him and stop him.”

Sariel moved that way, taking a knee alongside her daughter before gently grasping the traumatized little girl’s hands. “Dakota, my name is Sariel. I’m going to use a spell that’s going to draw out one specific memory and project it for everyone to see. That’s all. It will take the memory you’re thinking about, so I need you to focus on when you saw Doctor Folgers. Think about talking to him, about what he looks like and hold that in your head, okay?”

The girl quickly agreed, and Sariel produced a small pink crystal. Promising that it wouldn’t hurt, she held the crystal up to Dakota’s forehead before murmuring the activation word for the spell. Immediately, the crystal began to glow and give off a soft hum. I heard Dakota gasp, but clearly Sariel had been right about it not hurting. At most, it seemed to tickle her a little bit.

Then the crystal glowed a bit more brightly, a light projecting off of it to reach the middle of the room before resolving into a hologram. As we all stared, the image resolved into a man. Just as Dakota had described, he was about my height, very rotund, with that outlandish outfit. And just as I’d thought, he didn’t look familiar at all. Aside from surface-level description, he didn’t look like Counselor Brockett.

“Ummm….” Slowly, I shook my head. “Nope, I’ve still got nothing. You guys?”

“Oh!” That was Tabbris, whose eyes widened. “We’ve seen him, we have seen him! Or a–I mean a picture, a–Mama, do me before the crystal runs out!”

With a shrug, Sariel did so, moving the crystal over to her daughter’s head. It took another few seconds, then projected another image. This one wasn’t of a person. It was of a hallway. Belatedly, I recognized it as the hallway within the casino in Vegas. It was taken from the moment I was thrown across the corridor and up against the wall by Sarez’s defensive spell, the one that left me stunned for a few seconds while Tabbris took over and made me run after him. In that moment, the image froze, showing a single painting on the wall.

It was a painting of the man we had just seen from Dakota’s memories. A very detailed one too. It looked important, like… like the man himself was important.

“Oh.” Tilting my head as I stared at the image, I said, “that’s from the Vestil casino. I guess we’re going back to Vegas then.”

“We were going back there anyway,” Vanessa pointed out. “Now that we have what we need to make the tracking spells so we can find Kwur.”

“Indeed,” Dare agreed, her own gaze intent on the image hanging in the air. “And I believe it’s time you all had a little more aid in ending this situation.” She looked to the rest of us. “Not all together. We can split into smaller groups and search the city for any trace of these plants. The tracking spells should signal if anyone gets close to them.”

Sands piped up quickly, “Hey, yeah. This time, you guys are totally not leaving without us.”

“I will have a discussion with these… Vestil about who the man in the painting is,” Sariel murmured. “That may lead to who…” It sounded like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “… manipulated my daughter’s memory.”

“I’m going with you,” Vanessa declared flatly.

Looking to Sands and Sarah, I asked, “You guys wanna wander Vegas together?” As they quickly agreed, I glanced back to the image from Dakota’s memories once more. Why was the doctor who had helped that girl and had apparently also been erased from Vanessa’s memory in a painting hung on the wall of the Vestil casino? Did that have anything to do with why Vegas was being targeted now? Unfortunately, my morbid guess was that this guy, whoever he was, had made Vegas a target by getting involved in the situation. But who was he? What exactly was going on?

And at some point in the course of all this, would I end up with an actual answer instead of yet another handful of questions?

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Causality And Casualty 5-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Please note that the Heretical Edge edition of Patreon Snippets will be posted on Friday for Patrons and Saturday for the public. This is to avoid making everyone wait even longer to get back to the plot while not making my wonderful $10+ Patrons wait too long to get their own snippets as well. 

The girl’s name was Dakota Coalbright. Apparently, four years ago, when she was nine years old, her father brought home some kind of plant from Canada. The plant turned everyone in her family, including the girl herself, into murdering psychopaths. Her whole family was killed (by each other), leaving only Dakota. Exactly how many of those deaths she was… well, responsible for was the wrong word, given the situation. Exactly how many of the deaths she had been forced to participate in was not something the girl was talking about, according to Sands. For all we knew, she might not even remember exactly how it went. Actually, I was… kind of hoping she didn’t, honestly. 

How terrible would that have been? By that point in my life, I’d only had my dad. How would I have felt if some plant, or any other effect, made me kill him? It would have destroyed me. I was seriously unsure if I ever would have recovered from something like that. I had no idea what kind of horrific sights, sounds, even smells were locked in this girl’s memory. But it had to be really bad. 

For four years, the girl had been in some mental hospital somewhere, as everyone believed that she had killed her entire family all by herself. I had to believe that had something to do with the Bystander Effect making them believe that a nine year old girl could kill an entire family like that. Not just psychologically, of course. There were plenty of fucked up people out there. But physically. I kind of doubted it was physically possible for her to do some of the things involved in those killings. But the Bystander Effect knew that magic was involved, so it made them think this was possible. Or something. Or maybe they just didn’t want to look too closely into it.

Either way, the point was that the kid (well, now thirteen-year-old) broke out of her prison/hospital when she heard some voice in her head, the same voice that apparently had convinced her and her family to kill each other before. Realizing that it meant the monster was back and loose, she broke out to get home. My best guess was that she wanted to save whoever was in her old house. But it didn’t work. Apparently when she got there, the people didn’t listen to her. They heard the voice and left, rather than kill each other. Probably because the voice in their heads (Kwur, obviously) had actual instructions for them beyond violence. 

But Dakota herself had been left to deal with the ghosts of her dead family members, which led to her hiding in the same basement area the murder plant had previously been left in, when Sands, Sarah, Triss, Felix, and Kohaku found her and heard the whole story. Hearing about ‘Canada’ made them call us. Or try to. Apparently no calls had been able to reach us while we were talking to Prelate at the Gehenna outpost. They’d tried a few times, only getting through once we were out and back to the bus. Finally, Sands was able to get through and we found out the rest of the story. 

It was… kind of convenient, really, that Sands and the others managed to get hold of someone who had been infected by Kwur’s spores or whatever right when we needed someone like that. I wondered, honestly, if that had been some kind of trap or something. But I couldn’t figure out what the point would be. This Kwur guy (if guy was the right word for him) couldn’t know that Kohaku would investigate some random ghost sightings. And even if he did, there didn’t seem to be a point to it. No, I had no idea if this was anything more than coincidence. But if it was, it didn’t seem to be something that Kwur set up. That said, I still wanted to keep my eyes open.

In any case, the girl had very clearly been infected by those Kwur spores, which meant she could help us track down other infested people, or even the main part of Kwur that was out of the prison. As Vanessa and Tabbris had explained, it wouldn’t be an instant locator spell or anything. At most, it would let us know if we were anywhere near someone like that. But it was something. And something was more than we’d had before.

Still, the girl didn’t want to go to Canada. Which, given her history with just one plant from that place, I couldn’t blame her for. And we didn’t want to send her into Vegas, given it was apparently rapidly deteriorating into a warzone. The best place for the kid was up in the star station. So, Vanessa, Tabbris, December, and I were going to go up there. We’d talk to the kid, see if we could find out anything else specific from her (like if she recognized the name Kwur at all), and get the samples we needed for the tracking spell. Meanwhile, the others would go back to Vegas itself, try to calm things down if they could, and look around for any hint of the evil plant. Maybe someone had given a flower gift somewhere in one of the casinos? Yeah, cuz that would be incredibly easy to narrow down. 

Either way, they were trying. We just had to hope that this Dakota girl’s contribution would be enough to find that piece of Kwur before things got a lot worse than they already were. 

Coming through the portal that Haiden had set up, the four of us emerged into one of the transport rooms. As soon as we appeared, I saw Abigail and Dare, standing with one of the other male adults whose name I couldn’t place. He was a thin, fairly short Latino guy who appeared to be in his fifties. I was pretty sure he was one of the former Garden Heretics who was teaching some classes here now. 

The three adults were deep in conversation, but when we appeared, it stopped. The Garden guy leaned in to say something to Abigail more quietly, while Dare stepped forward to meet us. I saw her eyes flick briefly to me before she addressed the group. “Long couple days, huh?” 

Groaning, I bobbed my head up and down. “You could say that. And they’re not over yet.” 

“Butit’sreallyinteresting,” December piped up from where she was standing next to Tabbris and just behind Vanessa and me. “It’salotmorefunthan… justrunningboringsurveillence… allthetime.”

Exchanging a brief look with me, Vanessa asked, “What about the stuff up here? Are they almost finished with the spell yet?” We’d been told before we left the first time that Dries and the others were just about finished adjusting the anti-possession spell so that it would block any of our people from being possessed as long as they returned to the station periodically for a refresh. That was the whole reason Avalon stayed behind instead of going on this trip to begin with, because they needed her to be close for the last bit before the spell would be ready. 

Dare grimaced slightly. “There were a couple of hiccups on that front. Turns out to make the spell work properly, they needed a… let’s call it a rare crystal. And by rare I mean we only knew of a few of them on Earth. The good news is, one of the crystals we knew about is in Brazil.” 

I blinked, starting to ask why that was a good thing. But Tabbris quickly blurted, “That’s where Hasty and the other werewolves went.” When I glanced at her, she blushed before explaining in a somewhat quieter voice, “She told me where they were going cuz we’re supposed to watch the new Fallstrider season on DVD but she made me promise to wait until they got back.” 

Yeah, apparently over the past couple months, Tabbris and the werewolf known as Hasty from Mateo’s pack had bonded a bit over a shared interest that Fallstrider anime. Now, whenever the pack was around, those two would find a quiet place to pop in the show. Which, honestly, was pretty awesome. I’d been interested in seeing what the fuss was about, but I’d look into it on my own. I didn’t want to butt in on what was clearly something Tabbris liked having with someone else. She deserved that.

December, in that moment, looked a little confused. “Waityouhaveafriend…namedHastyand…. it’snotme? Butbeinghasty… iskindamything.” 

Tabbris giggled, head shaking. “Hasty’s her nickname. I think you’d like her. And you can watch the show with us when she’s back. Oh! I’ll have to show you the rest of it first.” 

“Youcanshowme…” December informed her, “Butifit’satvshow… itwon’tdomuchgood.” 

Tilting her head, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Do you not like TV? Is it because you have to sit down?” 

“IcansitdownifIwantto,” December sniffed before shaking her head. “ButIcan’twatchtv… cuzthere’snomagic… inthescreen… soIcan’tseeit.” 

Frowning uncertainly at Tabbris, who was frowning back at me, my mouth opened. But Vanessa beat me to it. “December, are you blind?” 

Defensively, the girl insisted, “Ihearandsmellandtasteandfeelreallygood. AndIseemagic. Iseemagicevenbehindme. Allaroundme. ItbouncesoffthingssoIknowwheretheyare. Ievenknowwhattheylooklike…. cuzthemagicsenseisreallysensitive. Anddifferentcolorsfeeldifferent. Iseemagic… andsoundwaves… andheatandelectricityandstuff. But… I can’t… see… normal not-magic screens… andstufflikethat.” She offered a shrug, clearly still self-conscious. “Icanseewithanimals!” 

“No, no, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “We just…” December was like that Daredevil guy back in Seosten space that I’d fought? What she was describing was the same thing Apollo had talked about back then. He’d said it was a rare mutation that was the result of various experiments the Seosten had done to cure their pregnancy problem. So this kid had both that and SPS? Geez. 

“You can see electricity and soundwaves and magic and stuff?” Tabbris had jumped straight to that, her eyes shining with delight as she started. “What does that stuff look like? What does anything look like? Do you–” Realizing they were holding things up, she shot a quick, apologetic look toward Dare before stepping back as she pulled December with her. The two lowered their voices to talk.

With a shake of her head and a small smile, Dare nodded to Vanessa and me. “In any case, yes, the pack was in Brazil. So Avalon, Rebecca, and Aylen went with Deveron and Lillian to see what they could do about getting that crystal they need. They just left right after classes this morning.” 

Grimacing at the revelation that I’d missed Avalon, I exhaled. “Makes sense, they’ve gotta get that spell up.” Pausing, I looked toward December briefly before adding, “I wish we had time to help them…”  

Giving me a look that said she knew exactly how I was feeling, Dare gently replied, “I think they’ve got it handled for now. You’ve got your own situation to deal with, it sounds like.” 

“Situation to deal with… yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Seriously, monster alien plant thing, gonna try to break out the evil version of Arthur if we don’t put a lid on his bullshit. And part of said bullshit is starting a war in Las Vegas. So, ya know.” 

“We really need to talk to this Dakota,” Vanessa finished for me, voice slightly calmer than mine. 

Abigail spoke up then. “Yes, you will. She’s in one of the guest rooms with Sands and Sarah. They’re taking care of her. But…” She paused, clearly considering her words. “Be… careful, girls. I’ve barely spoken to her, but she’s obviously fragile right now. I know this is important, but don’t push her too hard. Making her think about what happened back then, it’s… it’s not a good idea.” It sounded like she was having a hard time even letting us go talk to this girl about the source of her trauma. Which was completely understandable, especially for someone like Abigail. Still, we didn’t have a choice. Not with Kwur (or at least a piece of him) out there ready to put a lot more trauma on a lot more people. She was our best, maybe only, chance to find him before things got so much worse for everyone. 

“It’s okay, Abigail,” I assured her, meeting my older sister’s distraught and conflicted gaze. “We won’t push her any more than we absolutely have to. We just need to get the samples from her and ask if there’s anything she knows that might help find this plant thing.” Offering her a small, hopefully somewhat reassuring smile, I added, “We’ll deal with this and then get right back to doing the school thing.” 

Returning my smile somewhat, she retorted, “You better. Don’t think you can blow off as many classes as you want just because we’re related. I’ll throw your butt in extra detention just to make an example out of you.” 

Making a show of shuddering at the idea of what extra detention would be like, I replied, “Well, we better get to it then. Guys?” I glanced over to Tabbris and December. “Ready to go?” 

They were. Dare escorted us out of the room, leaving Abigail and the other guy, who belatedly and briefly greeted us before returning to his conversation with my older sister. It sounded like they were talking about some kind of situation with the rebel Garden people who weren’t up here. I hoped they were okay. We kind of needed all the allies we could get. 

“What’s Mr. Echolls talking to Principal Fellows about?” Vanessa asked Dare curiously as we moved down the station corridor at a pace slightly faster than normal walking, but not quite jogging. “It sounded important,” she noted, glancing back that way with a thoughtful frown.

Without looking that way or breaking stride at all, Dare replied, “The Garden people have been having a bit of a problem with a group of Blemmye and their Manticore pets hitting a couple of their supply lines while they were in the middle of a fight with their own loyalists. They couldn’t spare the resources to deal with it without being hit hard on that other front. Nevada and Hisao took a few older students with Gordon, Douglas, Jazz, and Koren to help clean out that little problem. Abigail asked to be kept up to date with that, given… her daughter.”   

Right, the Blemmyes. Those were the humanoids with no heads but faces on their torsos that I’d seen (and fought against) when we were at Eden’s Garden looking for Roxa all those months earlier. Almost a year, come to think of it, considering it happened right at Thanksgiving. Damn. 

I also knew that the only reason Dare wasn’t out there with Hisao and Koren herself was likely because she wanted to know what happened with me being in Canada. Hell, the fact that Hisao was there was probably the only reason she wasn’t there with Koren. I wondered if she was having him keep her just as informed about what was going on as Abigail with that Garden teacher. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had a spell ready to jump straight there if need be. 

Rather than address that, of course, I just shook my head. “Lots of things going on right now. It feels weird to know that… you know, Koren and Jazz and the others are out fighting one thing, Valley, Rebecca, and Aylen are dealing with something else, and Sands and Scout went out earlier and ended up bringing back this Dakota girl.”

“You mean it feels weird that they’re out doing all that and you’re not there?” Dare asked with a raised eyebrow before pointing out, “It’s not as though you’re sitting on your laurels, Felicity.” 

Flushing a bit, I nodded. “I know, I get it. They probably feel the same way about me being in Vegas, then Canada and all that. I guess you get used to feeling helpless like that and just having to wait to see how it goes.” 

“If you do grow accustomed to it,” my secret grandmother informed me in a soft voice, “it hasn’t quite happened for me yet. But you do learn to tolerate it. Just be there when you can.” She gave me a brief, yet meaningful look, offering a small smile of reassurance. “That’s what matters.”

Before long, the five of us reached the area with the guest rooms. Or at least these ones. I was fairly confident that there were a lot more, considering the size of this place. Felix and Triss were outside in the corridor, apparently having a conversation about some band they both liked. When the two saw us coming, Felix’s eyes lit up and the Nekomata Hybrid grinned. “Well hey, looks like neither of you bet enough to lose your shirts in Vegas.” At a sideways kick to the leg from her half-sister, she coughed. “And that’s a good thing. Very good thing. Don’t gamble. Or something.” 

“Felix,” Dare spoke warningly, raising her voice just a little bit so that it shifted from more casual conversation to the tone of an authority figure. That was all she said, that one word. But it was enough. 

“I know, I know,” the girl conceded. “That one was a bit over the line. I heard it as soon as I said it. I might be pushing it a bit hard to avoid thinking about… other things.” The white cat ears on top of her head flattened a little as she looked to the nearby door. 

Exchanging a brief look with Vanessa to make sure we were on the same page, I spoke up. “It’s okay. What’s going on with the girl?” 

Triss replied, again with that faint Russian accent I’d noticed the first time we met, “Sarah and Sands are in there with her. They’re playing one of those Zelda games. Apparently they had it in the hospital the kid was in and she knows it backwards and forwards, inside and out. She keeps telling the twins all about the lore of the whole series. Something about multiple timelines.” 

“Sounds like something Shiori’d be able to help her with,” I noted. “Is… do you think she’s okay to talk right now?” 

Both of the sisters looked to each other before Felix nodded. “Kid’s pretty tough, considering what she went through.” 

So, we went inside. I saw Sands and Scout sitting on either side of a couch. Sure enough, they were watching the Zelda game on a large screen, while the girl in question sat between them. She was pretty tiny, looking practically malnourished, with very pale skin and dark hair that apparently refused to be tamed. When the door opened, the girl turned quickly, reacting almost like she had been shot as she stared at us. 

Then she had an… odd reaction. I saw her face light up with recognition, and she blurted, “Vanessa!” In one move, the kid flung herself over the back of the couch, landing on the floor before bolting that way to embrace the girl beside me. “Vanessa! You’re here, I didn’t know you were here!” 

“Whoa, hey,” I teased while stepping back. “Didn’t know you had history with the new girl. How come you didn’t say anything? Dakota Coalbright’s a pretty unique name.” 

Vanessa hadn’t pulled back from the embrace. She stood there, returning it while looking at me of total and complete confusion. She mouthed a silent, ‘I don’t remember her.’ 

Wait… no. That was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was perfect. She’d never forgotten anything in her life. 

So how could this Dakota girl know her so well that she instantly went for a hug, while Vanessa didn’t remember her at all? 

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Interlude 3B – Triss, Felix, Sands, and Sarah (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sometime While Flick And Company Are In Canada

“So, what’s the deal with all the twins around here?” seventeen-year-old Felix Laja, the human-Nekomata hybrid asked her six-month older half-sister (and full Nekomata), Triss. She was eyeing Sandoval and Sarah Lucas (formerly Mason) as the four of them stood in one of the transport rooms of the Fusion School space station. Or, as many had taken to calling it, the star station. “Not that I, or my dreams, are complaining, mind you. Just seems to be a lot of them.” 

For their part, Sands and Sarah looked to each other for a silent moment before stepping apart. The latter replied simply, “Heretic regeneration abilities gained from various kills increase the chance of multiple-birth pregnancies by anywhere from twenty-five percent to thirty-six percent.” 

“Whoa, really?” Felix blinked at the girl while tilting her head, the bangs of her short white-blonde hair falling into her face briefly before she blew them out. “I didn’t really think there was a–wait.” She squinted at the straight-faced Heretic for a second. “You’re screwing with me!”

Snickering, Sands gestured to Sarah. “Yeah, she is. But you had it coming. Seriously, gross.” 

“Don’t mind her,” Triss spoke up in an obviously long-suffering voice while poking her sister in the back of the head. “Between being a complete lech all the time, and her obsession with pushing people’s envelopes, sometimes Felix doesn’t know where the line actually is.” 

“I’m a cat,” the hybrid girl retorted while doing a quick casual standing backflip for no apparent reason other than boredom. “If someone tries to tell me where the line is, I push it off the table. Even if I have to drag it onto a table first. Look, the metaphor falls apart pretty easily.” 

Triss opened her mouth to retort that she was more of a cat then the other girl. But before the words could come, the door on the other side of the room opened and Risa Kohaku entered. The former head of Crossroads School Security (and former host of the Seosten Manakel) crossed the room to where they were. She held a computer pad in one hand and glanced at it before stopping briefly to tap something in. Then she looked to the group. “You girls okay with a trip?” 

“You asked for the four of us, right?” Sands piped up, her tone making it clear that she was incredibly curious. “Which, for the record, thank you. Seriously, you have no idea how boring it is just sitting around waiting for Flick, Columbus, and the others to get back from their thing. We can’t even bug Avalon cuz she’s busy with the spell stuff. And Mom’s on that trip to London.” 

Giving a slight nod of agreement, Sarah added, “Why did you ask for us specifically?”  

“Well,” the woman replied, “first, because I know the two of you–” She nodded to the twins. “–are good enough to pull this off. And because I promised your mom I’d take you on a mission if something came up that seemed to be your speed. Something about wanting you to have a chance to stretch your legs a bit. I don’t know, seems like she might trust you or something.” 

Then Risa glanced to Triss and Felix. “As for you two, well, let’s just say you’ll be very useful for what we’re going to be doing today. But before we get into that, I need all four of you to swear to me that you’re going to work together. I mean it. No running off on your own, no solo heroics, nothing like that. I don’t mean you have to be joined at the hip in a fight, but be reasonable. You all work together. If you don’t, I’m sending all four of you back here immediately.” She squinted at them to make her seriousness clear. “Do you understand?” 

There was a chorus of agreement from the group before Risa nodded. “Good. Now, as for what we’re actually doing, take a look at this.” She touched a couple buttons on her handheld computer and a hologram appeared a few feet away from her. It was about ten feet high and ten feet wide, an image of a very large farmhouse, nearly a mansion in its own right, sitting in the middle of nowhere with a rundown silo and a barn that was missing several large pieces of its walls on either side of it. There was a fenced-in paddock that looked as though it hadn’t seen use in decades. The road leading through the field up to the house was made of dirt and covered in very deep ruts from heavy vehicles moving over it repeatedly. Yet there was no sign of any such machinery at the farm. And from the looks of it, there hadn’t been for some time.

“The place is known as the Coalbright Farm,” Risa informed them. “It’s been abandoned for four years, ever since the nine-year-old daughter supposedly went crazy and killed her entire family one night. Two younger sisters, one younger brother, and one older brother, along with both parents and a grandfather.” 

“A fucking nine-year-old killed her entire family?” Sands demanded dubiously. 

“So they said,” Risa confirmed. “And so did she. They were found by neighbors the next morning with the girl sitting with the bodies. She claimed she was possessed by a demon, which forced her to do it. She was found psychologically unstable, and remanded to a mental health institution, where she stayed until one week ago, when she escaped by stabbing an orderly with a ballpoint pen and taking his keys.” 

“Seosten?” Sarah guessed immediately while making a face as she glanced toward her sister. 

Sands quickly nodded. “Yeah, maybe this kid was telling the truth about being possessed before, and she escaped when the Seosten came after her again to shut her up? Or the Seosten just possessed her again for some reason. I mean, they love secrets.”

“A fair thought,” Risa replied, “But why wait four years to do it? And why do it while there’s a truce going on? There could be an argument that it doesn’t apply to this particular situation, but still. I don’t think any of those in charge would take that kind of risk unless they absolutely had to. And whether it’s something they had to take that much of a risk on, or something unrelated, we need to know.” She paused before adding with a look to Felix and Triss, “In any case, the Seosten bit doesn’t answer the other part of this whole thing, the reason the other two are here.”   

“Let me guess,” Triss put in quickly, “ghosts. There’s ghosts at that farm from all those dead people and you want us along because we can make ghost-fire to help deal with them, right?”  

The woman nodded once more. “Of course, there’s been various reports of ghosts from the farm for the entire time, since shortly after the deaths. But in the past week, ever since the girl broke out of the hospital, those reports have skyrocketed. Eighteen people in the nearby town have talked about being woken up at night by ghostly figures outside their windows or even inside their rooms. The police searched the property several times since the girl escaped, but they found nothing, not even any sign that she’s been there at all. And yesterday morning, two teenagers who snuck into the place to show off were found dead. They supposedly hung themselves in the main room of the house, suspended together from the upstairs banister.” 

“I’m gonna hit the X for doubt button,” Felix piped up. “I mean, yeah, they totally obviously didn’t kill themselves. Duh. But what’s going on then? Someone possesses this girl or controls her somehow back when she’s gods damned nine years old to kill her whole family for no apparent reason, then four years pass where people in the town occasionally report a ghost, and now the girl breaks out of her hospital just in time for those ghost sightings to go up several thousand percent and a couple more people die? What’s the deal with all that? How’s it connected, how–ohhh, right, we’re supposed to figure that out.” Quickly, she looked to the other three. “Dudes, dibs on Daphne if we run into the Scooby gang out there. I totally called it, you all heard me.” 

Risa gave a slight shake of her head. “Yes, we did. Now, to the next point. Yes, the five of us are going to investigate the farm and figure out exactly what is really happening. But that’s not our primary goal. We’re actually looking for a group of refugee Alters who were supposed to hole up at the house to wait for extraction. We’ve used the farm a few times in the past months with no problems. This time, our people found out about the situation when a pair showed up to take the Alters to safety and found the place crawling with police dealing with the supposed suicides. That’s when we picked up the news about Dakota Coalbright escaping, and everything else.” 

She said that, and she was even pretty convincing. But Sarah knew better. Risa had been controlled by Manakel to do terrible things. It wasn’t a coincidence that she’d chosen this mission. The stated goal may have been to find the lost Alters, but it was pretty apparent that Risa Kohaku had stamped ‘and help the girl’ in bright red letters across that statement. 

“You don’t think it’s one of the Alters in the group that killed those teenagers, do you?” Sands asked, biting her lip uncertainly as she quickly added, “I mean, I know, I know, they’re not all bad. Come on, I get it by now, definitely. But there’s still some bad, just like there’s some bad humans.” 

“That’s part of why we’re investigating,” Risa confirmed. “Just in case. We need answers either way. But the fact that Dakota escaped so recently after such a long time seems like too much of a coincidence to be unrelated. It’s probable that the Alters we sent there are in just as much danger as anyone else. We’re going to find them and work out what actually happened. 

“So, everyone ready to go? Because I’m pretty sure this is going to be a long day.” 

********

With a terrifying shriek that would send cold chills through anyone’s heart, the gray-green ghostly figure of an old man with a pitchfork dove at Sands as she stood in the farmhouse kitchen. Instantly, the girl shifted into her two-dimensional shadow form and allowed the ghost to pass right over her. Then she popped back up, spinning while activating the spell she’d put on her mace that allowed it to hit intangible figures. “Hey, bitch!” she blurted while slamming the mace in the back of the ghost’s head, “You’re not the only one who can pull the ‘can’t hit me’ trick!” 

The ghost stumbled from the blow, just before two quick shots from Sarah’s sniper rifle came through an invisible portal and struck him in the chest. Like the mace, the bullets were enchanted to be able to hit him, and his form flickered while the man bellowed in a mindless rage, which literally shook the house from the force of his anger. A couple dust-covered paintings were knocked from the walls to shatter against the floor, and the lamp hanging above the table swung a bit, shuddering as it was nearly torn from the chain holding it to the ceiling. 

While her sister followed up the attack against the angry, staggering ghost, Sarah (crouched on the front porch of the house) briefly switched the view of her scope to see through a different portal. That one showed her the living room next to the kitchen, where Felix and Triss were busy fighting a couple more ghosts, those of the older brother and the mother who had been killed. Taking careful aim, she fired a shot that caught the brother and stunned him long enough for Triss to swipe a ghost-fire covered set of claws through his chest. Meanwhile, Felix launched herself backwards, bouncing off the wall and using that to propel herself forward into a flip above the mother-ghost. She ignited her hands with the same ghost-fire while dropping down on top of the figure with a loud snarl that was, in turn, drowned out by the howl from the ghost herself. 

Felix fell through the ghost after damaging her with the flaming claws. Before the ghost, in turn, could retaliate, Sarah fired a quick shot that caught her in the forehead and made her reel. That left her open for the Nekomata hybrid to spin and rake her claws through the ghost’s leg. 

Without missing a beat, Sarah shifted her scope view back to the kitchen. She saw Sands use the spider-web production power she’d gained from the Spinnevurrs the year before to catch hold of the kitchen table and yank it to herself. The table passed harmlessly through the ghost in front of her. But just as the table landed in front of her, Sands slapped a prepared spell-coin against it. At a command word from her, the table ignited with ghost-fire, making the intangible figure flinch backward with a shriek. Before he could react further, Sands lashed out with her foot and kicked the table into him. His entire form went up in flames while his horrible screech filled the air. While he was still engulfed by that powerful ghost-fire, Sands used a power she’d gained over the summer. Specifically, she extended her left hand and projected what amounted to a shotgun-like burst of power that was capable of severely disorienting conscious minds while also damaging or even unraveling spells and other magical constructs, particularly those who weren’t shielded or were caught unawares. Which, given the fact that ghosts like this were not actually the ‘spirits’ of dead people, but the remains of their magic given semi-conscious form, did a lot of damage. The burning figure was blown in half by the shotgun-like blast from Sands. 

Sarah, meanwhile, disabled her scope view. She remained where she was for a moment, before abruptly rising and spinning on one foot. As she did, the solid-hologram that had been made to look like her missing arm shifted and turned into a blade. The blade went right through the face of one of the younger sister ghosts who had been attempting to sneak up behind her. Of course, the solid-hologram did little to the ghost. But the eight-inch long metal cylinder that was projecting the hologram had been given the same ghost-fire spell enchantment, and Scout activated that with a word while the cylinder was buried in the surprised ghost’s head. The ghost became even more surprised as she burst into flames and dissipated. She wouldn’t be gone for good, of course. That would take a lot more. 

“Good job, Sarah.” That was Risa, who appeared through a conjured portal from where she had been fighting in the upstairs of the house. “That’s the last of them for now. Come on.” With that, she led the girl inside to meet up with the others, who had just gathered. “Everyone okay here?” 

“Peachy,” Triss replied while rubbing her shoulder. Her tail swished back and forth before catching against her sister’s and intertwining with it fondly. “But what do we do now? Those ghosts aren’t going to stay gone forever. They’re tied to this place, right? The house, it’s gotta be what’s keeping them here.” 

Felix bobbed her head quickly. “Yeah, sounds like the best thing is to burn the place down. Burn down the house, get rid of the ghosts. The home is their anchor, so we get rid of it, right?” 

“We do,” Risa confirmed. “But first, we check the basement.” 

The four girls exchanged confused glances before Sands asked, “What basement? We’ve been all over this place, there’s no stairs down to a basement.” 

With a wink, Risa replied, “That’s because someone hid them with magic. Which is why the police never found their missing fugitive.” With that, she turned to an apparently blank part of the wall and made a gesture with her hand. A chunk of that wall was torn away, revealing a set of stairs leading, sure enough, down into the darkness. “Stay together, girls,” she ordered, before starting to descend. 

All five descended the stairs carefully, finding themselves in a wide open, unfinished basement. A dark-haired, pale young girl who had very clearly been long-deprived of much sunlight sat in the middle of the room on the hard basement floor. She was small and thin, her hair and skin dirty and clearly uncared for through not only this past week, but for quite some time before. Even as the group approached with weapons drawn, the thirteen-year-old spoke in a trembling voice. “It’s too late. It’s too late, he came back. He came back, he came back.” There was terror and loss in her voice and she barely seemed cognizant that they were there. 

Giving the students a look for them to be quiet, Risa carefully asked, “Who came back, Dakota? What happened here? What happened four years ago?” She took a knee next to the girl. “It’s okay.” Extending a hand carefully, she used a subtle power that would calm the clearly traumatized thirteen-year-old’s wild emotions slightly. 

It didn’t help very much. She blinked up, tears streaming down her face. “There were people here this week, strange people with powers and magic. He took them. They found their way in here and he took them. They broke the magic and came in here. They weren’t supposed to come in here. They found him, and he took them.” As she spoke, Dakota raised a small hand to point across the room. The group looked that way, but all they could see was a shattered flowerpot with a bit of dirt lying around it. 

“Dad… Dad went on a trip,” the girl was explaining in a hollow voice. “He went on a trip and he… he brought back a flower for Mom. But the flower was evil. The flower was evil. It made everyone do bad things. Mom, Dad, James, even Raina and she was practically a baby. I felt it too. I felt it too. It made me so mad. Like when James used to make fun of me cuz I sucked at basketball, but… but worse. Really worse. It was like that for everybody. We attacked each other. W-we… we attacked each other and I heard his voice. I heard… I heard him laugh. I could hear him laughing. And he.. he told us to kill each other. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill my Mom and Dad. I wanted to kill my–we were– They wanted to kill me. I was–he made us. He made us. I’m sorry. Oh god, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The girl shuddered heavily, slow tears falling down her face as she continued, sounding empty and lost.  “I heard his voice again. I heard it in the hospital and I knew he was back. I knew someone found the basement. The doctor who believed me said he’d hide it with magic and no one would find it, but someone found it. Those people found it. I tried to tell them but they were already affected. They heard his voice and they ran away. They left. But my family–my family was here. I couldn’t–I couldn’t–” With that, she dissolved into wretched sobbing, doubling over.

“Something in a flower… turned all these people into violent monsters,” Sands murmured softly. “It was hidden down here in the basement, but the Alters found it and were affected. That… somehow woke up this thing and now the Alters are gone? Where’d they go?” 

Risa shook her head. “I don’t know, but…Dakota, this is important.” She tenderly touched the girl’s shoulder. “We’re going to take care of you, I promise. Nothing is going to hurt you anymore. But we need to know, where did the flower come from? Where did your father get that flower?” 

The answer came in a halting, miserable voice. “Canada.

“He brought it from Canada.”

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