Damn It Flick Turn In Your Protagonist Badge You’re Not Allowed To Actually Communicate With People.

The Next Step 8-02

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“You seem a little distracted, Flick.”

The words made me want to laugh out loud, though I was afraid it would sound more hysterical than amused. Distracted? Gee, Mister Therapist sir, I can’t imagine why I’d be distracted. I’m just sitting inside a literal magical school full of monster hunters and hunters-in-training, trying to figure out who keeps trying to kill my roommate, who succeeded at killing one of the most powerful teachers here, why my team mentor went from Captain America overachiever to someone so lazy he’d make Garfield look active and also happens to have been a student here almost a hundred years ago, who was involved in banishing my mother from this world and why she was banished to begin with, who my newfound older half-siblings are and if they know about me, how to save my mother from the evil son of a bitch necromancer she sacrificed herself to in order to save me, how to save myself from the same evil son of a bitch when he comes looking for me again, what to do about an evil younger half-brother, and now why my teammate’s adopted sister is doing the full ‘all work and no play’ over the name of the vampire that I currently have babysitting my father just in case the evil necromancer or my psychotic little brother pay another visit. So no, I have no idea why you’d think I’m distracted, no idea at all.

The sad part was, I was probably still forgetting something in that mental spiel.

“Sorry, sir,” I spoke aloud with a shrug while forcing myself to look at the man from where I was sitting in that armchair. He’d said from the beginning of our first session that I could sit anywhere I wanted, but the chair felt better than the couch for this situation, “I guess I’m just worried about Shiori.” That much was true enough, and I hardly had to explain why I would be.

“Are you?” the man asked, putting an immediate lie to my assumption. He said nothing else, prompted nothing. He didn’t move on, he didn’t actually press for that much clarification. He definitely didn’t ask inane questions like how Shiori’s actions made me feel. He simply spoke those two words and waited.

I took a moment, looking away while gathering my thoughts. I hadn’t blurted out anything about the name on the paper to Columbus. Instead, I’d just tucked the paper back into the notebook, made sure it was secure, and handed it to him. Part of me had wanted to keep it, but I was afraid of what Shiori would do if she found it missing and had some kind of panic attack. Considering the state I’d seen in her in last, I definitely didn’t want to give her any reason to freak out again before I could talk to her.

As for why I didn’t tell Columbus… well, I thought it would be safer if I talked to her first. Columbus was her brother, but she, for whatever reason, hadn’t said anything to him about it yet. Considering the secrets I was keeping, I kind of wanted to respect that enough to not blab about it right off the bat.

I had absolutely no idea why she would have Asenath’s name, or even if it was the same Asenath. I couldn’t figure out why they’d know each other. But considering how stressed the girl had been and how… crazy my life had become, I wasn’t going to rule it out. It was a pretty unique name, as far as I knew. The odds that there was no relation whatsoever between my Asenath and hers were pretty slim.

Obviously, I couldn’t say any of that. Instead, I nodded. “Columbus is her brother. I mean, adopted, but… they’re pretty much the same thing at this point. He’s my teammate, she’s his sister. He’s worried about her. She hasn’t been sleeping, she’s always tired, she’s stressed and… jumpy. Really jumpy. Columbus thinks that all this monster talk is getting to her. You guys run into that problem a lot, don’t you? Students who freak out about the monsters, and the whole… idea that they’re everywhere.”

Klassin gave a slight nod. “We do. Obviously we try to tailor our choices of bystander-kin recruits to people we believe can handle the stress, but that’s not a one hundred percent thing. When we do run into problems, every case is handled individually. Usually the person can be helped through it, and they grow into being a perfectly upstanding Heretic. Sometimes, we have to put them into less combat intensive environments. Not every Heretic is a front-line fighter, after all. Some go their whole lives without seeing an actual wild Stranger outside of controlled conditions once they leave this school.”

“What about Shiori?” I asked with a frown. “She’s been, umm, doing really well in Professor Katarin’s class.” That was an understatement. The man consistently praised how well the Asian girl seemed to be taking to combat, and aside from Avalon, she was clearly the best overall combatant in the class, and possibly even in our grade. Yet every time Katarin mentioned how well she was doing, Shiori didn’t look happy about it. Instead, she tended to either ignore it or look even more stressed than usual. Once, Columbus asked if she had any tips, and she had literally burst into tears before leaving the room.

“Yup,” Klassin confirmed. “She could end up being a phenomenal hunter. And from what I hear,” he added then, pointed to me with one hand, “you aren’t exactly far behind. How many zombies was it?”

I flushed a little. “Not as many as you’ve heard. Besides, I would’ve been dead without the others. And Nevada. If she didn’t show up, they’d still be scrubbing bits of us out of the Little Zombie’s Room.”

“If you had to do it again,” the man started before holding up a hand. “Ignoring the rules and everything else, for some reason you have to do the same thing again and end up in the same situation, what do you think you’d do different? How would you prepare to face something like that again?”

I opened my mouth and then shut it before coughing. “I was gonna make a crack about bringing a minigun, but we actually have one of those.” Shrugging then, I added, “I guess I’d want to have some kind of distraction ready, something that could keep the zombies off us long enough for Sands to set up a good defense from one side right away. Then all four of us could have focused on dealing with the zombies on one side together before focusing on the other side. Maybe Sands could even make up some kind of corridor thing out of multiple walls. That way instead of the zombies just all pounding against the wall until it collapsed, they’d funnel down one opening in a single file line so we could deal with them that way. If I’d had time to think about it, or if… if I hadn’t freaked out so much…”

“Hindsight can be a curse, or a gift,” Klassin replied. “If you use it to lament what you didn’t do, it’s a curse. But if you use it to prepare for the future, then it’s probably one of the most potent gifts you can possibly have. It’s definitely one of our biggest assets. We live so long and have such powerful healing abilities that we can learn from our mistakes in ways that Bystanders rarely have the chance to.”

“Yeah…” I started slowly before letting out a long breath. “Well, if these past couple of months have been any indication, I’m gonna have a lot of chances to exercise that gift.”


About an hour later, I was standing out on the grass, trying to think through what I needed to do next. My first instinct was to find Shiori and try to talk to her, yet there was something else I could do first.

With that in mind, I tugged the phone from my pocket, considering it briefly before glancing up. It was late enough that the sun would definitely be down over there, so Asenath should be awake.

Wait. Wait just a damn minute. My mouth opened and then shut again as I looked back to the sky. Night time. It had been morning when I left the island for my birthday, and relatively the same time of day when I arrived in Wyoming, within an hour or two. But Wyoming was pretty much as far away from either ocean as you could possibly get. And as far as I knew, Crossroads Island (or whatever they called it) wasn’t anywhere near the mainland anyway. We were clear out in the middle of the ocean, as far from everything as possible. So why, exactly, was the island still operating on United States time? And it wasn’t just a matter of them making the clocks follow a certain schedule. How the hell was the sun where it was? If I left in the morning here, I should have arrived in Wyoming at like… mid-afternoon or something. I wasn’t exactly sure since I didn’t know where in the ocean we were supposed to be (or even which ocean it was). But I knew for sure that there should have been more than a one or two hour difference. Yet as far as I could tell, the island and the mainland were pretty much in sync.

Just… how? And why hadn’t it occurred to me to wonder about that before? Because seriously, that seemed like a pretty obvious thing to have not even thought about. Was it part of the magic that protected this place? I already knew for a fact that Heretics played fast and loose with memory spells.

Yet another thing I needed to look for answers to. Shaking my head, I hit the button on the phone and raised it to my ear. It rang about seven times before I heard Asenath’s voice on the other end. “Yeah.”

We knew from the start that we’d have to be careful about any conversations we had. I didn’t know how closely my outward calls and e-mails were being monitored, but I wasn’t going to risk saying too much.

“Hey, Sarah,” I started. We’d decided that the incredibly common Sarah was a better name for anyone to overhear than Asenath or Senny. “I had a question. This is probably gonna sound pretty weird, but do you happen to know anyone named Shiori Porter? It’s just that I swear I heard her say your name. Might be a coincidence, but I thought I’d check. You know, small world and all that.”

“Shiori Porter?” Asenath replied, sounding thoughtful. “No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. Do you have a picture or anything? That might help. Did she say anything about how she might know me?”

“Nope,” I tried to keep my voice sounding as casual as possible. No reason to let anyone who heard this conversation think it was anything but idle curiosity that made me call. “It’s probably a whole lot of nothing.” That was a code we’d come up with that meant this was probably very important. “But I’ll see if I can get a picture and send it to you. Maybe you guys met at summer camp one year or something.”

I could hear the amusement in Senny’s voice. “I bet that’s it. I swear I’ve met so many people at those things. That’s probably how she knows me. So get a picture and I’ll let you know if she looks familiar.”

I promised to do that, and we chatted about a few inconsequential things just to throw of anyone that might listen to the conversation. I could tell there was something else that the vampire wanted to talk about, but she apparently wasn’t willing to risk being overheard. Obviously, we were going to have to find some other way to communicate. Maybe I could get back home and we could work out an actual code the same way Miranda and I had. Or maybe there was some actually secure method of communication. That would be nice. I really needed a bird that could carry letters for me or something.

Eventually, I disconnected and made a face. I’d really been hoping that Asenath would immediately know who Shiori was. Even if she couldn’t have given me too much information, anything at all would have been nice. As it stood, I was right back where I’d started. All I knew was that Shiori was freaking out and that she was obviously obsessed with someone named Asenath. Anything else was guesswork.

Well. I may not have been able to get a lot of answers to the questions that kept piling up, but this one I could deal with right now. No lying, no subterfuge, no guesswork. I was going to deal with this now.


It was easier said than done, of course. Actually finding Shiori turned out to be harder than I’d thought it would be. Especially since I didn’t want to tell Columbus why I wanted to talk to her so much. Part of me felt guilty about that. After all, he wasn’t just my teammate and friend, he was also her brother. But Shiori deserved the benefit of the doubt. There had to be a reason she hadn’t confided in her brother about whatever was bothering her, to the point of not even saying Asenath’s name despite how much she was obsessing over it. If she’d mentioned it, he would have said something as soon as I told the team about Asenath saving my dad. So there was no way she’d ever said the name in his presence.

In the end, I walked all the way around the school ground at least twice. I checked the dorms, the library, the rec room, the hallways, a few different classrooms, and more. It was getting pretty close to the time that I’d need to meet up with the twins to head for track training by the time I finally found Shiori. She was on the beach, which I’d checked once before, but the second time I went that way, I finally spotted the other girl a hundred yards down the beach, throwing rocks against the waves.

H’okay. Here went nothing. Bracing myself, I looked over my shoulder to make sure we were alone, then walked that way. Mentally rehearsing and throwing away possible things that I could say, I walked all the way down the beach without ever coming up with anything good. I should’ve practiced earlier.

She saw me coming, glanced my way, then turned back to the water to throw another rock. I saw her ears pink a little. “Columbus isn’t here,” she stated flatly as soon as I was within easy earshot.

A sarcastic quip jumped to mind, but I shut it aside. There were probably worse times to make jokes, but this was definitely pretty far up the list. “I didn’t come to find Columbus. I was looking for you.”

A guarded look crossed the girl’s face, and I didn’t miss the way she turned slightly to put me more in her view, without actually opening herself up at all. “Why?” Her voice was as suspicious as her gaze.

“Asenath,” I said quietly. “I saw it on your notebook. The paper fell out.”

My words were like a physical blow to the girl. I saw her cringe, the guilt obvious in her eyes. For a second, she looked completely lost, like a scared little girl who didn’t know what to do. “I… don’t…”

Swallowing hard, I looked over my shoulder again before turning back to her. This was it. There was absolutely no turning back after this point. If I was wrong… well, then things could get real bad, real fast. But I had to trust Shiori. I had to reach out to her. She was just… having such a hard time. If that had anything to do with Asenath, and there was anything I could do to help… well, I had to try. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

When I spoke, my voice was as quiet as I could make it while letting her still hear me. “She’s a vampire. Asenath is a vampire.”

The words had barely left my mouth before Shiori was on me. Her foot kicked my legs out from under me, and I hit the sand on my back a second before the other girl landed top of me. Her voice was a loud cry right next to my ear. “I am not a vampire!” She blurted, sounding hysterical as she repeated herself. “I’m not a vampire!” Her hands grabbed at my face and arm, clearly desperate. She wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t sure she even realized that she was attacking me. She was just… panicked.

“Shiori!” I struggled, but even in a blind panic, the other girl was easily able to stop me from extricating myself. “Listen to me! Lis–”

Okay, enough was enough. I headbutted her. Which I immediately regretted as soon as the moment of blinding pain shot through my own temple. But at least the impact stunned the girl enough to make her stop for a minute.

Before it could wear off, I managed to speak again. “I don’t think you’re a vampire. Why would you think I think that? I said Asenath is a vampire, not you.”

“Oh god, you’re going to tell.” She rolled off me, tucked her legs to her body, and sat there shaking heavily. “I’m sorry.” She murmured as tears coursed down her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I hesitated, then scooted up behind the girl, shaking my head. “Hey, hey, look, I’m not… I’m not telling anyone. That’s why I’m here by myself. I didn’t even bring Columbus, Shiori. But… I need to talk to you. I swear, everything we say is private. You’re scared that I’m going tell them something bad about you? Well let me give you your own ammunition to use against me. I need you to trust me, Shiori. But I know you have no reason to. So… look, you want to know how I know that Asenath is a vampire? Because she’s my friend. She’s a vampire and she’s my friend. And if you told any of the teachers here that, I’d be in a hell of a lot of trouble. So calm down. I’m not turning you in for… for whatever you think I’m turning you in. We’re on the same side.”

Shiori looked thoroughly shocked and even more confused. “Wha… what about… what?”

Moving around in front of the girl, I met her frightened gaze. “Asenath is a vampire,” I repeated, “And she’s my friend. She saved my father’s life. I don’t know why you were recording her name in your notebook, what you think she did to you, or anything else. But I know her name was driving you crazy, and you can’t live like that. So I had to tell you. I had to try. But… why would you think that I thought you were a vampire? What does Asenath being a vampire have to do with you?”

For a long minute, there was no response at all aside from those fearful eyes staring at me. I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. Finally, however, Shiori spoke in a very quiet and slow voice. So quiet, in fact, that I had to lean closer to hear her.

“I… I think… she’s my… sister.”

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Basic Training 7-01

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About ten minutes later, I had just finished getting through the background of what happened up until I’d left the school a few days earlier, along with what I’d eventually found out from Seller, including our relationship. Everyone on the team was staring at me like I’d just grown two heads. Sean was the first to find his voice, shaking his head slowly. “You’re serious? You think your mom actually went here?”

“I know she went here,” I replied. “I’ve seen the pictures. I have the yearbook with her in it.”

Sands cut in then. “A yearbook that you let one of the Garden creeps mess with. He could’ve been messing with you. They do that all the time. Remember the assholes back by the lake that tried to kill Avalon?” She waved back toward my roommate. “Those are the kind of people you’re trusting now?”

It was Avalon who spoke up then, before I could. “Mason, be quiet for a minute, before your foot ends up so far down your throat that you start tasting your ankle. First, I was one of those ‘Garden creeps’ six months ago. Second, Seller took care of me for a long time. I trust him. Third, you should probably remember that part about how she found the picture of her mother in the trophy case here a long time before she ever saw Seller at all, and the person who directed her to it was one of the Bow Street Runners, which you might recognize as a Crossroads organization. So for your paranoid theory to work, he would have to be working for Eden’s Garden. Which still doesn’t explain Deveron.”

Sands opened her mouth a couple times through that, but kept stopping. By the end, she was biting her lip. I could see the denial and confusion on her face, but she obviously couldn’t find a response. It was true, she couldn’t really explain why Deveron was hiding a version of that picture that included himself.

Before she could push on with that denial anyway, I interrupted. “There’s more. Stuff that happened in between when I met with Seller the first time, and when we met the second time. I just wanted you to know the part that I actually meant to find out first, before…” I swallowed. “Before I tell you the rest.”

Columbus was the first to ask, “What do you mean? Did something else happen while you were there?”

In spite of myself, I gave a short, hard laugh that probably sounded more bitter than amused. “Dude, I’ve only told you the easy part so far. That’s the simple stuff, most of it Avalon already knew. But this next part, this is the big stuff. The stuff you probably won’t want to hear, the dangerous stuff.”

“More dangerous than some kind of secret conspiracy to hide the fact that your mom used to go here from you and from everyone else?” Sands sounded doubtful, but Scout touched her arm and she relented with a simple nod. “Sorry, I just—we’ve lived here our whole lives, Flick. Now you’re saying that they’re the kind of people who would keep something like that secret? Our teachers are practically family to us. One of them literally is. He’s our dad. And now they’re just keeping this secret?”

Oh boy. This was going to be a fun conversation, I could tell that already. “Sands, Scout, Sean, I need you guys to listen. I need you to not run away, not freak out, not start denying anything or arguing until I’m done. I know you guys grew up here. I know you trust the people here and I don’t think you’re wrong to. Okay? Let me start with that. I don’t think you’re wrong to trust most of the people here, not with almost anything, and especially not with your lives, our lives. But I’m going to say some stuff that you’ll probably disagree with, that you’ll probably want to argue with. I need you to stop. I need you to let me finish talking. All right? No matter what I say, no matter how upset or angry you get, I want you to promise that you will let me finish. After that, we can talk as much as you want, we can argue or debate or whatever, but you have to promise that you will be quiet while I tell you what happened, and not do anything rash until we all discuss it and figure out something together. Can you promise that?”

Sean glanced to the twins, then down toward his mechanical dog. Vulcan was sitting calmly at his side, making panting noises mixed in with the occasional hungry whine to get attention. The boy rubbed the metal canine’s head briefly before returning his gaze to me with a nod. “You got it. You’re a teammate, Flickster. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll listen to what you’ve gotta say. It’s the least we can do.”

Scout was nodding on the heels of his words, and Sands spoke up. “Right, we promise. What do you take us for? We’re not gonna completely freak out on you just because you tell us something we don’t like. I mean, you already pretty much said you think our dad is part of some conspiracy to keep the truth about your mother away from you, so how bad could the rest of it really be?”

I took in a long, deep breath before letting it out. “I don’t know exactly why my mother was banished from this place, why they made her a normal human again, or why they’ve used magic to erase the fact that she existed. I don’t know why any of that happened exactly. I have hints, but nothing super concrete. What I do know is…” I had to blink my eyes rapidly to stop the dampness in them from taking over, the lump in my throat forcing me to clear it. “What I do know is why she disappeared ten years ago. I know what happened to her, who took her, and what… what happened. I know who has her now.”

“You do?” Sands blurted before covering her mouth with an apologetic look, nodding for me to go on.

Slowly, I started to explain what else had happened, beginning with Ammon getting my mind-controlled former coworkers to attack me. Even standing there on the beach, feeling the hot sun beaming down on me with the sound of the ocean nearby and my teammates in plain sight, I couldn’t help but remember the feeling of total helplessness as I’d been attacked in my own home and held down against the couch. I remembered the eagerness in Ammon’s eyes when he told them to make me cry, the feel of their tight grips trapping me, leaving me helpless and incapable of defending myself.

A hand touched my shoulder, and I glanced over to see Avalon standing there. She didn’t say anything, or even really make any particular expression. She just stood there with a hand on my shoulder, silent.

“How did you escape?” Sands asked quietly once the silence had gone on for several minutes.

This was it. No more delays or workarounds. This was the moment that I had to choose what I was going to tell them. If I told the truth, I risked alienating at least half my team, if not most of them. But if I lied, I risked the truth coming out later, probably at the worst possible time. And if I did lie to them now, they’d never listen to my explanations later. If I thought convincing them that Senny wasn’t evil now was going to be hard, trying to tell them the same thing after lying about it would be impossible.

They were all watching and waiting, some more patient than others. Even Vulcan turned his gaze up toward me, head tilted curiously as though waiting to hear the answer as well. He’d stopped whining.

“I was saved,” I began after coming to final decision, the only decision I could make. Taking a deep breath, I let it out slowly and focused on the twins while finishing the statement. “By a vampire.”

About ten solid seconds of silence followed that pronouncement before Sands interrupted it with a loud, “What?!” Her eyes were wide, and she looked absolutely shocked. “What the fuck do you mean, you were saved by a vampire? What the hell?! How do you—what–why would they—are you okay?”

“I’m fine, Sands. I’m okay. I just need you to keep listening. Just listen, okay? I know, I know how it sounds. I know how you’re going to take it, and I was really, really tempted not to tell you about it. But I have to. I have to because you’re my team. You’re my friends, my friends, and I have to trust you. But you have to trust me too. You have to trust me when I tell you this, and you can’t freak out. Okay?”

Sands was shaking her head, clearly straddling the line of completely losing her mind. “Okay? Okay what? Don’t freak out? Don’t freak out about the fact that you were with a vampire? A real vampire? They’re not twinkly sparkle heart throbs, Flick, they’re monsters! What the hell did they do to you? We have to tell someone. You can’t just see a vampire and then not tell the teachers, they have to know. They have to find out what happened, what he said to you and what–” She started to take a step away.

Before she could go any further, I took a couple steps that way, catching her by the arm quickly. “No, Sands. Listen to me. You promised. You promised you wouldn’t do anything rash until I finish. You cannot just freak out about what I’m telling you and run off because you don’t want to hear it. I know it’s hard, Sands. Trust me, I know. I know it’s fucked up and it’s going to freak you out. But please, please let me finish talking. Let me tell you what happened, okay? I am going to tell you about it, but if I’m trusting you enough to tell the truth about this, then you have to trust me enough to let me finish.”

Sands broke eye contact, glancing away for a moment. I could see the indecision on her face, the emotion there. She wanted to help me, but had no idea how. The idea of listening to someone who had possibly been compromised by a Stranger’s influence was warring against the friendship we had built up over the last couple months, and she’d spent a much longer time hating Strangers. After all, one of them had killed her mother and completely traumatized her sister so much she barely spoke any more.

In the end, it was Scout who stepped up beside Sands, taking her twin’s hand and squeezing it before she nodded for me to continue. At the feel of her sister’s familiar grip, Sands looked to her briefly. I saw the searching expression in her eyes before she looked back to me, duplicating Scout’s silent nod. She was ready. She may not like it, she was still clearly upset, but she would listen to what I had to say.

Sean, meanwhile, had folded his arms over his chest. He looked more than a little uncomfortable with the whole situation, but not nearly as much as Sands had been. His gaze was more… thoughtful, and when I looked his way, he simply gestured for me to continue without speaking a single word.

“It wasn’t a male vampire,” I continued once it was clear everyone was ready for me to go on. “She’s a female, a girl vampire. Her name is Asenath, and she saved my life when she didn’t have to. Ammon was about to have them… hurt me. She broke in, threw a knife at him, and got me out of there. She didn’t have to do that. She didn’t have to do anything. He wasn’t a threat to her, he didn’t even know she was there. She came and saved my life. If it wasn’t for her, I’d still be,” I swallowed hard, “with him.”

Once that bomb had settled and Sands had visibly stopped herself from speaking up (though she still had a look of flat disbelief on her face), I went on. I explained what Asenath had told me about my father, and how she’d driven me to the motel where he had been sent to kill Rose, even going so far as to sniff out the room itself once we were close enough. I told them how we’d stopped him at the last second, that she had been the one to knock my father out and saved him from becoming a murderer.

“If it wasn’t for that vampire, I would be with Ammon, being tortured. And my dad would be a murderer. He’d be in prison confessing to killing that innocent woman. Whatever else you’ve been told, whatever else you think about vampires, that much is the absolute truth. She saved my life, and she saved my father. She didn’t have to, but she did. And she did it because she was trying to find Ammon. She was trying to find him because he killed another girl. You remember that gas station murder that Professor Dare had us practice investigating on?” I asked the twins. “That was Ammon. Remember how I picked up the exact same stuff the murderer took? That was because of my connection to him.”

Sands was already shaking her head, mouth opening to say something. But I pressed on first, needing to get through everything before any of them interrupted. I had to make them understand. “There’s more. Ammon called me using my phone—I mean he called my dad’s phone to talk to me.” I explained what else happened, how Ammon said he was going to send those deputies out to kill people, and that Asenath had gone to stop as many as she could while I tried to get to Ammon and my phone so that I could call in reinforcements from Crossroads. I told them how I’d gotten him out to the sidewalk with my phone in my hand. Then I stopped, remembering the next part and the fear that I had felt. Slowly, quietly, I described everything that had happened when Fossor arrived. I told them what he’d said, the power he’d displayed and what he told me about my mother, how he had her and the deal they’d made.

“Flick…” I could hear the horror in Sean’s voice, the shock of what I’d told them all obvious in both his face and his tone. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your mom. If all that’s true, if he was—fuck, I’m sorry.”

Sands was nodding. “Y-yeah, if your mom’s with a necromancer, if he’s that bad, I… Oh Flick, that’s bad. That’s really, really bad.” Her voice cracked a little, clearly remembering the loss of her own mother and how that had gone down. “She really gave herself up to protect you?”

“That’s what he said,” I confirmed. “And somehow I get the feeling this is the kind of guy who gets more amusement out of hurting people with the truth than he does out of lying. He’s a monster. He wanted me to know where my mom was. He wanted me to know what she did, and that I spent ten years hating her after she… after she put herself in that situation to save me from him for as long as she could. He wanted me to know just how much she tried to help me, and that he’d be back in a year to take me anyway. He wanted me to think about it, to worry about it, to be afraid of what he’ll do.”

“That psychotic piece of shit,” Sean spat the words, clearly so furious he could barely contain himself. “He can’t get away with that. He can’t just do anything he wants to just because he’s got power. Doing all this shit, all this—no. No, he can’t get away with it. People like that, pieces of shit like him deserve to die. That’s why the Heretics exist, to destroy evil fucks like that son of a bitch.”

“I’m with him,” Columbus put in. My fellow so-called Silverstone had been silent through all this, his expression that of someone who had been completely overwhelmed by what they were hearing. Now he just looked determined, his mouth set in a thin line. “There’s some sick shit, but that’s just… wrong.”

“He’s evil,” I agreed after swallowing the lump in my throat. “He’s pretty much the epitome of what they’ve been telling us about how bad Strangers can be.” Looking to the twins then, I added, “But Asenath isn’t. She promised to help deal with him, to help me stop him and get my mother back.”

“Flick, I–” Sands’s voice broke up a bit once more before she forced her way through it. “I get it. I get it, okay? It’s your mom, your mother. If someone told me they could help me save my mom’s life, I—I wouldn’t care what they were. I wouldn’t care if they were a vampire, I’d do anything to save my mom. So I get it, I do. But you can’t trust them. She’s a Stranger, Flick. She has to be using you somehow. Please. Please just let us talk to someone here, they can help. They can tell us what to do about her.”

I knew how hard this was for her, how impossible what I was asking her was. She’d waited her whole life to be a hunter, to be just like her father and to kill the kind of monsters who took her mom away.

Still, I shook my head at her. “No, Sands. You have to listen. You have to believe me, Asenath is not evil. She’s not. I know what you’ve been taught. I know how hard it is, but–”

“She is!” Sands blurted, her voice rising with emotion. “She has to be! They’re all evil! They’re all monsters, complete and utter monsters! She’s tricking you somehow, Flick! They’re not human, they don’t have human feelings or human thoughts or human anything! They’re evil monsters! They–”

“No,” the voice came not from me, or even Avalon. It came from Scout. The other girl shook her head, her voice soft yet firm. “They aren’t.”

All of us looked that way, Sands looking almost betrayed. “Wh-what? Scout, you–”

Her twin pressed on, speaking even more. “They aren’t evil, Sands. Not all of them.” She went quiet then for a long few seconds, head turning away from our attention. It was obvious that she wanted almost nothing more than to stop talking and go back to being the silent twin who never spoke up. Instead, she finally continued after collecting herself. “Mom didn’t go out on the boat to watch whales. She went to meet with a… a Stranger. One of her friends that was a… a Stranger.”

“What?!” Sands was staring, her eyes as wide as they had ever been. “No! No, she wouldn’t do that!”

“She did.” Scout’s voice was even more firm, her gaze locked on her sister’s. “They were friends. Mom told me I couldn’t tell anyone, not even you. She told me it had to be our secret, because no one knew that her friend was a Stranger, that I had t-to… to promise to keep it quiet because people wouldn’t understand.

“Then the bad man showed up looking for her. I wanted to help Mom after he took her, I wanted to help her but the woman made me stay under the bed. She used some kind of… of magic to hide me. She used her magic to make me invisible so he couldn’t find me, but she couldn’t hide herself. So he found her. He found her and took her and Mom, but he couldn’t find me even when he looked under the bed. He couldn’t see me because of her. She could’ve escaped, she could have gotten away, but she saved me instead. She was a Stranger and she saved me. So they’re not all evil. I know you want them to be because they took Mom, but they’re not. They can be good too, Sands. I… I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t know what to say. I was scared.”

“Scared?” Sands opened her mouth and shut it, her expression going through several emotions all at once. “You didn’t—you never… but Mom was—I can’t… I can’t… believe you… I…” Turning away, she shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t do this. I can’t do it right now, I’m just… I can’t.”

Without another word, Sands took off, running around Avalon and up the path. In another moment, she was gone.

Scout looked horrified, hand covering her mouth. I saw the tears in her eyes, the thought of her sister being upset with her clearly leaving the girl all but broken.

“Hey,” Sean spoke up, his hand going out to touch Scout’s shoulder. “Just give her time. You’ve had years to deal with this. It’s a lot for her to take in. She needs space to cope. You’re sisters, twins. It’ll be okay. This is a hell of a lot to throw on her, and she just needs to think it through. You’ll be fine.”

Columbus was nodding. “Yeah, believe me, Shiori and I have fought a lot. But she’s totally my best sis. We get over it and move on. She will too. Just give her a chance to work through it on her own.”

Scout had let her normal quietness return to her like a favored cloak, wrapping the silence around herself. She gave a simple nod, but didn’t look at any of us. Her gaze was on the ground once more.

We stood there, everyone trying to figure out what to say next, now that Sands had run away. The only sounds were the sound of the nearby ocean as the waves lapped against the shore, and animals in the distant jungle. Beyond that, none of us spoke. None of us seemed to have any idea of what to say next.

In the end, it was Columbus who broke the silence first. “You really think your mom’s still alive? You think you can get her back?”

“Not by myself,” I admitted. “I need help. He’s too strong. He’s… he’s terrifying. I can’t do this by myself.”

“You won’t be by yourself, Chambers.” Avalon assured me.

Sean nodded in confirmation. “She’s right. That’s what you’ve got a team for.”

“If I had a chance to save my mom,” Columbus put in, “I’d do it in a second. Can’t really say no when it’s yours. Whatever you need, if I can help, fuck, just ask. I’m there.”

A hand touched mine, and I looked to see Scout. She remained silent, but gave a simple nod. She was in. She was going to help.

I swallowed hard. “You guys… what about Sands?”

“She’ll be back,” Sean replied with confidence. “Just give her a chance to work through it. Like I said, it’s a lot to take in. Let her deal with it her own way. She’ll come around eventually.”

The lump in my throat kept trying to get in the way of talking, but I forced it down, managing a weak smile in spite of myself. “So which thing would you guys like to talk about first, how we’re going to figure out what my mother did here when all of our teachers and a literal magic curse are trying to keep it secret, or how we’re going to stop the evil piece of shit who’s so powerful that the Heretics tried to banish him from the entire world and failed?”

“Boy,” Columbus spoke into the silence that followed, clearly trying to lighten the mood. “Being part of an elite group of magical monster hunters just wasn’t enough for you, was it? You had to go above and beyond.”

“What can I say?” I managed with a weak shrug.

“I’m an overachiever.”

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