Erin Redcliffe

Family Reunion 12-06

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“Would you stop doing that?!

The demand came from Koren, who was glaring at Deveron with her arms folded tightly over her chest. As everyone’s eyes turned to her, the girl tossed her head, throwing her tight brown braid behind her back. “You’re all like, ‘oooh, I’ve got this dramatic revelation. Let me reveal it in as shocking a way as possible so they all stare at me like big gaping fish because of how positively stupefying my news is.’”

The corner of Deveron’s mouth turned up a little before he shook his head ruefully. “I’m not doing it on purpose. But you needed to know. And maybe, hopefully, that helps explain why I couldn’t trust anyone here. The Seosten have been involved in Heretical society from the very beginning of Crossroads. They could have possessed anyone. There’s no way to know for sure. I mean, I’m pretty sure Prosser and his people have a way to test for it, but I have no idea what it is. They like to play their cards close to their chest. Especially after what happened with Jos. She was their big play, and it was working. Until…”

He trailed off there, and I glanced toward Wyatt, unable to help the blanch that came. “Until they took Wyatt and Koren—the original Kor—Abigail. Until they took Wyatt and Abigail.” Frowning, I turned back to Deveron. “So what you’re saying is, this whole Crossroads and Garden civil war thing that was supposed to be about Mom and all her rebels was actually about this Prosser guy and his group making a move against the Seosten that have been running and manipulating things from behind the scenes?”

“Trust me,” he answered quietly, his gaze meeting mine. “To us, to your mother and our people, it was absolutely about the rebellion. It was about stopping the genocide of innocent people, people who could be our allies against the real threats. Finding out that there was another group behind it, that there were people who were supplying aid for their own reasons doesn’t change what our reasons were.”

Wyatt was shaking his head rapidly. The poor guy looked so confused and unsure, like he had no idea how to react to any of this. I couldn’t blame him. Wringing his hands together, he bemoaned, “I knew it. I knew there were bad people. Can’t trust them. Can’t trust anyone. Anyone could be a spy. Anyone could be possessed. You said there’s no way to tell, no way to know. It could be anybody. Any of them, my people, my boss, anyone I look at, anybody. They could be possessed. It could be any of them.”

Deveron took his son’s (and trust me, that felt incredibly weird to think) wringing hands and held them, meeting the man’s worried gaze. “Hey, Wyatt. Listen to me, okay? This doesn’t change anything. As long as they don’t know that you know anything, they don’t have any reason to treat you differently.

“Besides,” he added after a moment, “As far as I know, ninety-nine point nine percent of the Heretics are completely normal. The Seosten don’t possess that many people, and it’s not necessarily the ones you might expect. Not everyone being a jackass can be blamed on the Seosten. That would make them too easy to find. Some people are just jackasses anyway, no manipulative possession creature needed.”

Koren snorted a little, her gaze flicking toward me briefly before turning back. “So basically, nothing changes. This whole Crossroads society was built on a lie, a lie created by these… Seosten things–”

“It’s worse than that,” I put in quietly, feeling a headache coming on at the sheer scale of what we were talking about. “According to that Nicholas Petan guy, the Seosten also created the Bystander effect. They’re the ones that did something to make sure that humans can’t recognize or remember Strangers.”

Deveron nodded, his face twisting into a grimace. “From what I know, that sounds right up their alley.”

Putting my hand to my forehead and rubbing it a little, I breathed out. “So let me get this straight. These Seosten, for whatever reason, create a magical binding of some kind that affects all humanity. It erases our ability to notice Strangers—oh, for the record, it turns out they call themselves Alters. Stranger is just a Heretic term. Evil Alters are called Nocen. You know, as in the Latin word for–”

“Noxious, guilty, bad…” Wyatt interrupted, head bobbing quickly. “I heard that word before. I heard Strangers trying to say they weren’t Nocen. They just kept saying it, but I didn’t know what they…” His face fell then, drooping sadly as the realization came to him. “I didn’t understand what they meant.”

“Just be careful not to use that term around anyone else.” Reaching out a hand past Deveron, I patted Wyatt on the shoulder gently. “We’re not supposed to know what it means. That or Alter. We have to call them Strangers here. And listen, it’s not your fault. You were taught that they were evil monsters.”

My gangly, short half-brother looked to me briefly, his eyes searching mine before puffing himself up as much as he could, sticking his chest out. “I will make up for it,” he vowed as if he was some kind of knight. “I don’t know how, but I will find a way to make up for the damage that I have done to them.”

“Just be careful, Wyatt,” Deveron cautioned. “Don’t act any different around them, or someone is going to notice. And believe me,” he added while looking toward me. “Not everyone will be as easy to convince as your own family and teammates. Gaia obviously made sure the people on your own team wouldn’t be quite as hard for you to talk to about it. And your family… well, that’s family. Everyone else… be careful. Trusting the wrong person at the wrong time is how Joselyn and I found ourselves in the middle of an open war. We were trying to be quiet about things. It worked for awhile, but we said the wrong thing to someone we thought we could trust and… well, after that, it wasn’t quiet anymore.”

“Okay,” I announced while straightening up. “Before we go any further with this, I have a serious question.” Raising my hand, I pointed at Deveron. “It was you, wasn’t it? Back during my first hunt, when those Garden students attacked us. You were supposed to be unconscious. But you were actually the voice in my head, weren’t you? You were the one directing Sands and me on how to fight them.”

He chuckled slightly, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, that was me. Those guys were…” His face twisted and I caught the anger there before he shook it off. “It was the best way I could help.”

“Or,” Koren put in then, her voice high with sarcasm as she stepped over beside me, “you could’ve just, you know, stopped acting like a completely useless asshole at any point and actually trained them.”

The boy’s mouth opened, then shut before he nodded. “I kept the routine going for too long. Like I said, I didn’t know who to trust. Anyone could be possessed. Hell, for all I knew, Gaia was possessed. Trusting the wrong person at the wrong time is a very bad idea. But, yeah, I probably took it a little too far. After all,” he added with a noticeable wince, “there’s no point to playing dumb if it gets you hurt.”

“Just teach us now,” I insisted. “Be the mentor you should’ve been from the beginning. You don’t have to give anything away. They didn’t think you were some kind of spy last year when you were the best at everything. Turn things around, teach us. If… if we’re going to be a real team, we need you. Sands is so confused right now. Do you have any idea how much you could help her with everything she’s going through? You could be a real mentor for her, and for Scout too. And Columbus. We need your help.”

Holding up both hands in acknowledgment, Deveron nodded. “You’re right. You all deserve a real mentor. Though, to be fair, you’ve been keeping up pretty damn well considering everything else.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds after that, until Koren finally asked, “So, what do we do now?”

It was Wyatt who responded, his voice hesitant. “I… would like to hear about… my real mother.” He gave an awkward, uncertain smile, clearly nervous as he looked from me to Deveron and back again.

“Yeah, Grandpa,” Koren teased in a tone that made it clear that she had no intention of letting him live that down any time soon. “Why don’t you tell us all about Grandma.” Despite the way she said it, I could tell that the other girl was actually interested. “After all, we’ve got all this time out in the jungle.”

A visible smile tugged at Deveron’s expression before he gave an easy nod. “Okay,” he announced casually before gesturing. “Why don’t we let Wyatt continue the tour, since he’s put so much work into it. And while we go, I’ll tell you all about the Joselyn that I know. And later,” he added while his voice turned serious, “we can talk about how we’re going to get her back from that evil son of a bitch.”

******

“And then we spent the rest of the day just talking about my mom,” I finished explaining while walking along the beach a few hours later. The rest of my teammates were walking along with me, the twins on one side while Avalon and the boys were on the other. They had all been listening intently to my story.

“Damn it, Flick,” Sands complained while shaking her head. “Are you seriously telling us that a naked boy literally falling out of the sky was only the second most surprising thing to happen to you today?”

Tilting my head, I coughed. “Well, when you put it like that, it kind of sounds completely ridiculous.”

“That’s because it is!” the other girl retorted while flailing her arms. “Your life is insane. Your–” she lowered her voice instinctively, “-your mom’s first husband is actually our team mentor, your non-evil half-brother is the school’s crazy security guard, and one of our classmates is your niece. Your life isn’t just crazy, Flick. It’s completely and utterly absurd. And then, on top of that, you add in this bit about…” Again, she lowered her voice while looking around. The area of the beach that we were at was empty aside from us. Still, she whispered, “the bit about these Seosten things creating Crossroads?”

“She’s got a point,” Sean agreed while stooping to take a large stick out of Vulcan’s mouth. He reared back to hurl it as far as he could before the mechanical dog went bounding off after it. “Sounds crazy.”

“Does that mean you don’t believe me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow as I looked back and forth at them.

Scout shook her head quickly. Sands glanced to her sister before sighing. “Of course we believe you, Flick. At this point, you could say pretty much anything and I’d believe it. I might not like it, but I’d believe it. It’s just that… this is a lot to take in, you know? Maybe it’s easier for you because you guys weren’t raised in Crossroads, but you’re trying to tell us that everything we know is one big lie.”

I shook my head at that. “It’s just different. Your society, most of it… it’s fine, you know? Think about it, Sands. They had to use a memory wipe spell to stop a rebellion. That means that a lot of Heretics believed what my mom was saying. Crossroads isn’t evil or anything. You were taught to hunt monsters and protect humanity. That’s still the right thing to do. It’s just… a little more complicated than that.”

Avalon spoke dryly then. “You have a gift for the understatement, Chambers. Telling Heretics that not every Stranger is an evil, irredeemable monster is complicated. Telling them that their entire society was built on a lie, and that the Edge itself was actually created by the same Strangers who made the Bystander Effect in the first place? You’d be lucky if most of them didn’t just burn you at the stake.”

I winced at that. “I guess that’s why Deveron and Mom kept that part of it secret. It kind of is a lot to take in.” Glancing toward the twins, I asked, “Are you guys sure that you’re okay with all this?”

Sands didn’t answer at first. She looked away, a thoughtful frown crossing her face. When Vulcan returned with the stick the next time, she was the one who took it. Turning the stick over in her hand, the girl reared back and threw it hard before finally answering. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, I wish I had a better answer for you. It’s just… I want… I just wanted to be a good Heretic. I wanted to be a part of a team and kick monster ass. That’s all I ever wanted. But now it’s… it’s so complicated. It’s different.”

I smiled as reassuringly as I could at her. “It’s okay, Sands. I get it. If you weren’t conflicted, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me, it’s understandable. You… you’ve had to accept a lot, and the fact that you’ve done this well at it… well, I don’t know if I could accept as much as you have in your situation.”

Sean nodded easily. “She’s right. Hell, it’s easier for me because of that thing with my uncle, but even I keep having that knee-jerk, reflexive ugly thought whenever Flickster here talks about good Strangers. It’s a lot to take in. Besides,” he added while turning a pointed look toward his roommate, “at least you haven’t gone completely crazy and started carrying around a backpack full of random junk.”

Columbus was indeed carrying around a pack that seemed to be completely crammed with assorted random items. I could see rolled up bits of paper with designs scribbled on them, various tools (some I recognized and some I didn’t), the handle of some kind of gun, and even what looked like the top of a deer antler. And that was just what I could see sticking out of the top of the bulging bag.

The boy himself snorted audibly at that. “I told you guys, it’s not junk. It’s my Development stuff. I keep getting ideas about stuff to build, but I’m nowhere near my supplies. Now they’re with me. And besides,” he added with a significant look toward me, “considering how often things happen around Flick here, I’d rather be prepared. Next time we get swept away somewhere, I’ll have my stuff.”

“That’s funny,” I remarked while looking toward Avalon. “I don’t see you carrying your whole workshop around with you.”

She met my gaze briefly before replying coolly, “That’s because I’m not a crazy person.”

“Not crazy,” Columbus countered while tapping a finger against the lens of his goggles. “Prepared.”

“Why don’t you ask for one of those extra-dimensional storage bags to carry that stuff in?” I asked curiously. “You know, like our weapon sheathes. Something that can hold a lot more than that bag.”

Columbus actually flushed a little, shifting uncomfortably in his as-always wrinkled and unkempt clothes. “It uhh, it is,” he admitted. While we stared at him, he continued. “It is one of those special bags. I just sort of put a lot of stuff in it. I’ve pretty much got a whole workshop in there, plus a lot of partially-finished designs that I’ve been working on. But on the plus side,” he added with a little grin, “at least my workspace in the Development garage is really clean now.”

“You guys have a garage?” I asked interestedly.

“It’s a whole underground complex thing with labs and workshops and stuff,” he explained. “Maybe we can show you sometime.”

Looking between him and Avalon, I nodded. “That would be pretty cool.”

By that point, we’d reached the area of the beach closer to the school. I could see some other students playing in the water and along the sand. In the distance, two female figures were riding some kind of windsurfing board together. Meanwhile, beside them, another figure rode a metal hoverboard.

That latter one was obviously Roxa, with her transforming cougar. As for the other two, one was blonde, while the one that seemed to be steering the board they were on had bright pink hair.

“Is that Erin and Vanessa?” I asked Columbus curiously.

He glanced that way before adjusting his goggles. “Yup. I guess Erin changed her hair color. Maybe she got tired of blue.”

We stood there, watching the three of them out on the water while quietly discussing what we were going to do. Avalon finally said, “Gaia made the arrangements for us to visit the hospital during a training exercise after Thanksgiving. You’ll have a chance to see Tangle.”

“Great,” I murmured. “Maybe we’ll get some answers about what the hell her deal is.” Glancing toward her, I asked, “What about Tristan? Has she umm, decided what she’s going to do?”

“She was talking to the Committee with him all day,” the other girl replied. “I’m pretty sure she’s planning on introducing him to the rest of the school as a new student over dinner tonight.”

Sean’s stomach promptly growled, and the boy grinned. “Well, speak of the devil. Must be about time to eat.”

Sure enough, it looked like the other students were all heading in. The trio that had been out in the water approached the beach where we were. Before long, I could see that Erin was holding her sword back behind them, summoning some kind of wind-control to maneuver the sail right up to the sand.

She and Vanessa came trotting off the board, while Roxa landed nearby, turning her board back into its cougar form. I had to remind myself to stop staring at the three girls in their swimsuits. And, from the look of things, so did the boys.

“Whooo!” Erin pumped her fists in the air. “See, Nessa? I told you that shit was amazing.”

For her part, Vanessa’s face was flushed, and she was breathing hard while nodding her head. “I-it was… exciting,” she admitted in between a bit of panting.

“You okay?” I asked, raising an eyebrow at the studious girl.

Her head bobbed a little more. “Yes,” she answered after catching her breath. “It’s just—I don’t—I haven’t done that before.”

“Told you I was gonna get you out on the water,” Erin teased before looking at Roxa. “We’ll beat you next time.”

The blonde grinned while shaking her wet hair out. “Bring it on. Gidget and me’ll take you on anytime.” She patted her cougar, who was exchanging curious looks with Vulcan.

Erin tugged the board up onto the beach before hitting some kind of button on the side. The whole thing, sail and all, folded down into something about the size of a briefcase. There was even a handle, which she picked up. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving. Come on, let’s go eat.”

The rest of my team and I exchanged looks before nodding. I smiled. “Sure, let’s get some food. I heard the headmistress has some kind of surprise to introduce us to.”

“A surprise?” Vanessa asked curiously while running a brush through her hair before pushing it into a blue scrunchie. “What kind of surprise?”

Shrugging at her, I started to walk up the beach to the school. “I’m not sure,” I lied.

“Let’s go find out.”

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Interlude 5 – Vanessa

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Ten Years Ago

“Nessa, look up here, sweetie. Look at Daddy, okay?” The handsome man with expertly styled dark hair went down to one knee in front of his seven-year-old daughter. A smile tugged at his face. “Just one more set of tests, okay, Nessabird? I need you to focus just for another couple minutes, then you can go play with Tristan. I promise, just one more set of tests and then you can go play, all right?”

Tearing her attention away from the window where she had been watching her twin brother Tristan running through a gymnastics set on the parallel bars that their father had installed in the backyard, Vanessa bobbed her head. “Okay, Daddy.”

“Good girl, great.” Haiden Moon’s smile broadened as he gently kissed his daughter on the forehead. “Okay, let’s run through it again.” He leaned back then and produced a deck of cards, shuffling it up.

Standing there in the living room of her family’s house, Vanessa watched curiously as her father shuffled up the deck of cards. He did so as thoroughly as possible, which considering the time he had spent as a dealer in Vegas, was pretty considerable. After that was done, he went through the deck and tossed out roughly a third of the cards at random, putting them out of the way unused.

Finally, he held the deck up. “One pass, okay?” One at a time, he drew the top card off of what remained, held it in front of Vanessa’s face for about two seconds, then put it down into a new pile.

Vanessa, for her part, simply stood and watched as each card passed in front of her face one at a time.

Once they were through all of the cards, her father pointed to the pile he’d made. “You got it?”

Head bobbing up and down once more, Vanessa chirped, “Uh huh, I got it, Daddy.”

“Good girl, good.” Smiling, her father began to slide cards off of the top one at a time with a single finger without letting either of them see what each was. “One, two, three, four, five…” After the sixth card, he picked up that set and put them on the bottom of the deck. Then he counted down eight more and split those eight into two equal halves, putting four on the bottom and the other four into the spot another six cards down from where they had been. Finally, he cut the deck in half perfectly evenly and put the bottom on the top before gesturing. “Are you sure you’re ready, Nessabird?”

Biting her lip as she looked at the resulting deck, Vanessa hesitated for a moment before nodding. “Yes, Daddy. I can do it.” She wanted to make her father proud of her, even though she didn’t understand what was so special about what she did. It was just remembering stuff. Everyone remembered stuff.

“All right then,” her father thought for a moment before nodding as the first question came to him. “The year that transcontinental railroad was completed in Utah, subtracted from the year that Yellowstone National Park was made the first National Park in the United States.”

Head tilting slightly to the side, Vanessa took a few seconds to think, brow furrowing up a bit. “Uh, 1869 subtracted from umm, uhh, oh yeah, 1872. So three. Three cards, Daddy.”

“All right then,” her father counted three cards off the top and then pointed to the fourth one. “This is?”

Without missing a beat, the little girl promptly replied, “That’s the nine of clubs, Daddy.”

Turning the card over to reveal that she was right, Haiden smiled and leaned in to hug her. “Good girl! My sweet, brilliant little bird.” He mussed her hair fondly before nodding. “Okay, let’s see.” Leaning back once more, he tried again. “The number of years that Julius Caesar was dictator of the Roman Republic, added to the number of letters in the first name of the person who invented the telescope.”

Tilting her head back to look at the ceiling, Vanessa recited, “49 BC to 44 BC, five years. And it was umm, uhh, oh, Hans Lippershey. Eeeee, Lippershey. Isn’t that a fun name, Daddy?”

Smiling fondly, her father chuckled while nodding. “Yes, baby girl, Lippershey is a wonderful name.”

Bouncing up and down happily, Vanessa continued. “Oh, right. Uh, Hans is four letters, plus five years, nine cards. Nine cards, daddy.” She pointed to the deck and waited until her father had counted down that many and rested his finger against the tenth card down before promptly adding, “Four of hearts!”

Turning the card over to reveal that she was right again, her father laughed. “Can’t stump you, huh?”

They continued that game/test through a couple more renditions, Haiden trying the best he could to come up with a selection of questions and numbers that would defeat the memory and historical knowledge of his daughter, only to fail each and every time. She answered everything, and always knew where every single card was, even when he began to put previously set-aside cards back in.

Their game was interrupted as the door opened, admitting Tristan along with a taller blonde woman whose ethereal beauty was astonishing to behold. Seeing her, Vanessa immediately abandoned their game and popped to her feet to throw herself that way with a happy squeal. “Mommy!”

Laughing, Sariel Moon reached down to grab her daughter, lifting the girl off the floor easily. “Nessa! Hey there, baby girl. You hungry, sweetie? Cuz Mommy brought burgers.” She nodded to the bags that Vanessa’s twin brother was already carrying through the room and into the kitchen to set on the table.

“And french fries?” Nessa asked hopefully, bouncing a little in her mother’s arms as she clung to her.

Chuckling, Sariel nodded. “Of course, my sweet little potato-fanatic. I wouldn’t come without fries.”

It was true. Vanessa absolutely adored potatoes. Anything that had to do with them in any way. Fried, baked, mashed, boiled, she loved absolutely any type of potato made in any way. She loved potatoes more than any other kind of food, including cookies and other desserts.

Haiden, by that point, had stood up and crossed the room. He leaned around their daughter to kiss his wife briefly. “Mmm, remember how you were about chocolate when you first… crossed over?”

“Crossed over from where, Mommy?” Tristan piped up from the kitchen doorway. He already had one of the unwrapped cheeseburgers in hand with a couple bites taken out of it. The young boy was almost a mirror image of his sister save for a few very minor differences attributed to their genders.

Vanessa noticed the way their mother flinched at the question before shaking her head. “Never mind, sweetie. It’s nothing for you to worry about. Let’s see about getting everyone fed, shall we?”

The four of them were about halfway through enjoying the lunch that Sariel had brought home when there was a knock at the front door, three soft and polite raps against the wood. Hearing that, the woman stood and motioned for Haiden to stay where he was. “Eat, I’ve got this.”

Eating the last of her beloved french fries, Vanessa turned in her seat to watch as her mother went to the door. She was reaching for her half-eaten cheeseburger when the door was opened to reveal an older man with thick bushy eyebrows wearing an uncomfortable-looking tweed suit.

As soon as she saw the man, Vanessa’s mother cursed and slammed the door in his face before turning. Her voice was raised in a shout. “They found us! Haiden, get the twins out! Get them out of–”

Before she could finish the warning, the door disintegrated. Vanessa’s young eyes went wide as the wood literally collapsed into dust, revealing the older man with his hand outstretched.

“Sariel,” he spoke for the first time with a voice that was cultured and powerful. “It is time to come home. Your people need you now more than ever. You have responsibilities to attend to. It is not our place to take a mate among the humans. We have entertained this folly for far too long. Come home.”

Haiden, who had already left the kitchen to move into the living room, spoke up. Vanessa saw her daddy produce a funny looking sword from what she swore was a previously empty belt. It was black with a red glowing line running all the way up the center of the blade. “You’re not wanted here, Puriel.”

“M-Mommy?” Tristan had joined their father at the doorway into the living room. “Who’s he?”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was locked in place, still staring with wide eyes at the sword that their father was holding. Where had it come from? She knew she’d never seen it before, and Daddy’s belt couldn’t have held it. There wasn’t even a sheathe for it! He’d just pulled it out of… of nowhere! But how? She wanted to run to her parents, but confusion and fear held her frozen motionless in her seat.

Sariel’s voice was shaken with obvious fear tempered by resolution. “Don’t do this, Puriel. We can make our own choices. We can all have our own lives. This is mine. My family, my choice. Leave us.”

The older man’s face twisted, anger clear in his features. “You are being selfish, Sariel. This lie is not your place.” His hand swept around to take in the whole house and the rest of the people in it. “Your place is alongside your sisters and brothers performing your assigned duties in defense of our world.”

“Our world doesn’t need defending!” Sariel blurted. “That’s a lie that the Seraphim hand down to the Choir to make us do their bidding. You know it is. You know it’s ridiculous. This world is not a threat!”

“This world requires our guidance,” Puriel insisted, his tone brooking no disagreement. “They are savages without our care, and if we allow them to progress without our influence, they will become the force that destroys all of our people. There can be no compromises or our entire world will fall. You are coming home now, and not even your Heretic of a mate will stand in the way.” He stretched a hand out then, and a glowing ball of light appeared between his fingertips, beginning to grow immediately.

“You’re not taking her!” Haiden took a quick step that way, sword coming up to lash out at the glowing ball. As the blade passed through it, the bright orb shattered like a mirror, pieces spraying in every direction. At the same time, Vanessa heard what sounded like wind chimes. Each of a dozen different glass-like shards shot through the room to impact the walls and floor, narrowly missing the occupants.

“Stupid human filth!” Puriel blurted angrily, his hatred obvious as he jerked away from the blade. “You don’t know what you’ve done! The stepping-stone is unstable, it is–” His words were swallowed up into a scream as the man was hauled off his feet by an invisible force and hauled with a loud scream toward the nearest of the shards. Before Vanessa’s astonished gaze, the man literally shrank down before being hauled straight into the glass, disappearing in it.

“Well,” Haiden started. “That was easier than I th–” His words were cut off as he too was suddenly fighting an invisible force that hauled him off the floor toward one of the shards. “What the–”

“It’s seen you!” Sariel caught hold of her husband’s arm, trying to brace him. “It’s seen you, so it won’t stop trying to take you! It’s taking you through the portal, and it’s broken so it could take you anywhere! Any world, any of them! Hold on, just hold on! I’ll think of something. I’ll think of–”

It was too late, however. With a great rush of power and a cry from both man and wife, Haiden was yanked out of Sariel’s grasp. His body was flung through one of the nearby glass-like shards.

“Daddy!” Vanessa cried out in unison with her brother. Finally snapping out of her frozen state, she threw herself off the kitchen seat and began to rush into the living room. Tristan was already leaping toward the spot where their father had disappeared.

Sariel, however, caught her son by the arm while turning to throw her hand up toward her daughter. Vanessa yelped as she ran into an invisible wall that seemed to spring up in front in the doorway, preventing her from entering. “Ow! Wha–” She put a hand up against the slightly warm solid air.

“No, baby!” her mother called. “They haven’t seen you. The shards haven’t seen you so they won’t take you. Stay out of sight, stay out of sight! Don’t let them see you, just stay there until they’re gone. Stay safe! Stay safe! I love you, baby. We all love-”

Those were the last words that Sariel Moon managed to get out before she too was captured by the force that yanked her away from her son and through one of the nearby shards.

“Mommy!” Tristan grasped at the space where their mother had been before whirling toward his sister. “Nessa!” His voice was raised in a blind panic. “Nessa, help me! Help me, Ness! Please, I don’t wanna go! I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared!”

“Triss!” Still unable to get through the invisible forcefield that remained even after her mother’s disappearance, Vanessa began to sob in frustration and terror. “Go out the front door! Go out the front! Maybe it won’t take you! Go, go, Tristan! Go–”

It was too late. Even as her brother made a run toward the open doorway, another invisible force caught hold of him. His cry of fear matched Vanessa’s own horrified cry as he was yanked away and through one of the shards embedded in the floor.

And then the chimes were gone. As suddenly as they had come, the sound vanished along with all of the shards. Vanessa, leaning hard against the invisible wall that had stopped her from coming to her family, yelped as it too disappeared. She fell forward, landing on the living room floor hard.

Then she just lay there, staring at the spots where the shards had been, where her family had been taken. She stared, tears falling heavily as she cried out for her mother, father, and brother.

There was no response. There was nothing. And for a decade, Vanessa had no hope of ever seeing her family again.

******

Present Day

“That’s it, no more library for you.”

Seventeen-year-old Vanessa yelped as her roommate hauled her up out of her seat. Erin was chuckling. “You spend much more time in here today and you’ll turn into one of the books. Then I’d have to get a new roommate.”

“Okay, okay.” Vanessa flushed, shaking her head as she extricated herself from the blue-haired girl’s grasp. “I’ll take a break. For two hours.”

“Nuh uh,” Erin shook her head. “Four hours, at least. We’ve got a movie to watch with the boys, and then Malcolm wants to go surfing. You’re not missing that, babe.”

“But I don’t know how to surf,” Vanessa protested, glancing back toward her book longingly. Just a few more. She didn’t know exactly what her mother was yet, but she was narrowing it down considerably with each new book that she read, comparing the information the Heretics had against what she remembered.

She wasn’t human. Vanessa knew that for a fact. She’d always known that, ever since that day. Whoever her mother had been, whatever she had been, she was from another world.

The police hadn’t listened to her. They thought she was traumatized from some kind of ordinary home invasion and abduction. She’d spent years in hospitals and special group homes until she stopped talking about what she’d seen and pretended to accept that her family had been taken by some mundane group of abductors who never materialized or asked for any ransom. She grew up knowing the truth, yet unable to talk to anyone about it.

Until the Heretics had arrived. Heretics. The same thing that her father had been called. Seemingly unaware of how much she already knew, they had come to recruit her, telling her about what they were and what they considered their duty.

They didn’t seem to realize that she wasn’t fully human. If her mother wasn’t, then Vanessa wasn’t either. That probably had something to do with her impossibly perfect memory, the absolutely flawless recall of everything she ever saw. Tristan too had had his own skills that their parents tested, his lying mainly in the realm of physical prowess. He’d been a remarkable gymnast even at that young age, his balance, coordination, and strength on par with Olympic contenders much older.

The fact that she wasn’t fully human had worried her, thinking that the Heretical Edge wouldn’t work. But it had, and Vanessa had witnessed the marriage between her mother and father through the provided vision. It was a beautiful, touching scene that made her cry heavily when she compared it to what had happened ten years ago and how they had all been split up and taken away from one another. Her family was gone, broken apart by those magical shards.

Erin was still talking, shrugging off Vanessa’s protest that she didn’t know how to surf. “I’ll teach you. Trust me, you’ll be awesome, genius-girl. Now c’mon, let’s go meet the boys.”

With a soft sigh, Vanessa allowed herself to be taken that way, leaving her books behind.

She was getting closer. Everything she did, every class she took, every book she read, every project she put her mind toward was another step toward her goal. The goal she’d had since the moment that the Heretics had arrived to confirm that her seven-year-old self had not been crazy after all.

She was going to find her mother, father, and brother. Whatever it took, however long she had to work at it, she’d find them. That was why she chose the Explorer track in spite of her fear and awkwardness in the face of confrontation. Because they had been dragged to some other place, some other world, and she was going to figure out which one it was. She was going to track them down.

She was going to save her family.

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