Late Saturday Evening, January 27th, 2018 (Two days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)
Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Douglas Frey wore his New York Rangers cap so much because he was a big baseball fan. That wasn’t exactly true, since in reality, he’d never watched a single one of their games and knew nothing about the team itself. Hell, he barely understood how the game was played, to be honest. No, the hat was far more important than as a symbol of sports team loyalty. It was the thing that kept the voices out of his head.
That… may have sounded slightly paranoid to people who hadn’t been through what Doug had. People who hadn’t experienced the Whispers, who didn’t know what they were capable of, wouldn’t understand why the hat was important, why he never went anywhere without it.
It had begun almost five years earlier, on the Crossroads-colonized world known as Vanaheimr, named after the world from Norse mythology. That was where Doug had grown up, he and his entire family, which consisted of his parents, three older brothers, two uncles, an aunt, and three sets of progressively older grandparents (grand, great, and great-great) had lived. His brothers ranged in age from ten years older than Doug, to sixty-three years older, while his oldest relative, Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan, was almost three hundred years old.
Not that he’d looked it. Sulan may have been around for close to three centuries, but he’d looked like a young, fit man in his mid-thirties at most. He had also pretty much been twelve-year-old Doug’s best friend in the world, at the time. The two of them did everything together. Sulan took his great-great-grandson on as many adventures as he could, the two of them exploring the wild jungles of Vanaheimr and the many creatures that dwelled upon it.
It had been during one of those excursions that things had… gone wrong. Doug and Sulan had been exploring what they first thought was a simple cave deep in one of the jungles. Partway through, they had run into actual architecture, evidence of man-made structures. Or at least sapient-being-made structures. It seemed like there was an entire building that had been buried beneath the cave. Neither of them could read any of the writing on the damaged walls, nor did Sulan recognize the images that were carved and painted into the walls as any Stranger that he’d had experience with. It was an entire race of creatures that had never been seen before, as far as Sulan was aware. And given that he was so old, he was aware of a lot.
Naturally, the two of them had been beyond ecstatic to find something like that. Sulan himself had almost been like a little kid as well. They’d explored deeper, only belatedly realizing that one of the symbols repeatedly displayed on the wall had been a warning, a warning to turn back and to never, ever open the doors that they were blundering through.
Even to the present day, Doug still wasn’t sure exactly when the Whispers had started. They began as his own thoughts, barely different from anything he would normally think. Over time, however, the twelve-year-old boy had begun to realize that the thoughts within his mind weren’t thoughts at all, but a distinct conversation. Something was in his head, whispering to him, talking to him, learning about him. Something… was testing him.
Sulan had come to the same conclusion by that point, and the two of them left the buried ruins. Closing everything up behind them once more, they had returned to the colony, letting the town authorities know what they’d found so that it could be explored properly and safely. Particularly, by people with experience dealing with whatever telepathic creature was inside.
Except there were a couple of problems with that. First, it wasn’t one creature at all, it was many of them. And second, they weren’t in the ruins anymore. Because Doug and Sulan had let them out when they blundered through all those doors.
As far as Doug and the people he’d talked to after the event had been able to work out, the creatures that they now called the Whispers were some kind of extradimensional species that was only partially present within the reality that humans inhabited. They were almost like ghosts, in that they had little to no physical presence. Their true power lay in their ability to gain control of a person’s mind through their whispering. The sound of their voices gradually infected the person, draining their will to resist until they were little more than playthings for the Whispers. A person who had been whispered to enough would follow their instructions.
And now, thanks to Doug and his grandfather, the Whispers had been released from their prison and set upon the colony world once more.
The result had been… more than Doug ever liked to think about. The Whispers had spread out to infect as many people as possible. Brother turned against brother, father against daughter, and friends attacked each other. It was a massacre, a civil war within the colony as some were taken over completely, while others were simply made paranoid and delusional.
In a desperate attempt to stop the Whispers from having everyone kill each other, Sulan and Doug had returned to the ruins. They tried to find the answer to sealing the creatures away again, and in doing so, they’d discovered that some of the symbols on the walls were useful in combatting or identifying them. Two were particularly potent. One allowed anyone touching it to actually see the Whispers as a vague outline that would, at the very least, allow them to be identified and hit by certain attacks. Meanwhile, the other important symbol rendered anyone touching it temporarily deaf to their incessant whispering.
That was why Doug’s hat was so important. Sulan had etched the symbols into the inside of the baseball cap, a simple souvenir from his last visit back to Earth. He’d placed the hat on Douglas’s head, and finally the young boy had been free of those neverending whispers.
Sulan had etched the symbols onto a piece of his own clothing as well, and the two of them had returned to the town. Doug’s great-great-grandfather forced him to wait outside while he went in to… deal with the situation.
Whatever ended up happening in there, Sulan never told Doug the whole story. When all was said and done, over half of the extensive colony had been killed, including a good portion of their family. Of them all, only Doug’s eldest brother and mother had survived.
From that point on, the symbols used to identify the Whispers and render someone immune to them were a part of everyday life at the shattered and devastated colony. Sulan took the brunt of the blame for what had happened, accepting exile from the colony. He still sent Doug letters and other messages, but the two of them didn’t get to interact as much as they had.
Five years later, Doug still rarely ever took off the hat with its magic symbols that had been drawn on the inside of it. Despite the fact that there was no indication that the Whispers had ever been to Earth, or ever would be there, he just… didn’t feel comfortable without it. Plus, if the Whispers ever did show up, he wanted to know about it immediately. After what they had done to his home, to so much of his family… he couldn’t risk something like that again.
And now, the idea that Flick Chambers or anyone might be trying to use some kind of choker to take over Roxa’s mind, after what he had seen the Whispers do… he wouldn’t let that happen. Ever. To anyone. Not if there was anything that he could possibly do about it.
That was why he was here, sitting in a cheap motel in the middle of Wyoming, sharing a room with the rest of his team while they took turns spying on Flick’s house. Well, they had been spying on the house, until Jazz came back from a short patrol to insist that they go back to the motel and gather everyone so that she could tell them what she’d overheard.
“Um, really?” Rudolph spoke up, his usual lax tone turned tense. “You really think that Gaia is part of this? Does that make sense? I mean, I know we thought she might be compromised somehow or something, but just chatting with vampires or whatever?”
“I know what I saw, Rudy,” Jazz retorted. “I know what I heard. It was her voice. They went inside right after that, but it was definitely her. The headmistress was checking on the vampire that’s staying with Flick’s dad, ‘keeping him out of trouble’, she said.”
“What does that mean?” Doug finally spoke up. “Keeping her dad out of what trouble?”
Standing by the desk with his arms folded, Paul announced, “It means we can’t trust her.” Seeing the looks that the others gave him, he shook his head. “Just think about it. Whether she’s been controlled, replaced, compromised, whatever, we don’t know. Which means we don’t know who we can trust right now. If we can’t trust the headmistress, then… well, anyone could be a threat, you know? Anyone we look at could be one of them.”
“One of who?” That was Gordon, his voice a little tense. “We don’t even know who they are. Is this still just an Eden’s Garden thing? Because it seems a little more involved than that.”
Isaac, lounging back on one of the two beds in the room, spoke up then. “So what do we do about it, bossman?” He flicked a pencil into the air, catching it on the way back down before passing and rolling the thing between his fingers absently. “Can’t trust the headmistress, don’t know who else to go to without going through the headmistress or without her hearing about it. Maybe we should just find some evidence and go straight to the top.”
“Straight to the top?” Jazz demanded, squinting at the boy. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Isaac shrugged, looking hesitant before giving a little sigh, like he didn’t really want to be the one that brought it up. “You know, those… what are they called again? The Royal Court.”
“Committee,” Rudolph supplied quietly before looking down. “You mean the Committee.”
Pointing the pencil at him, Isaac nodded. “Right, right, those guys. They’re above Gaia, right? So they’re the ones we should go to if we think she’s, ya know… not all on our side.”
Paul grimaced at that, head shaking a little. “Go to the Committee? I dunno, it doesn’t…” Pausing, he gave a long, low sigh. “I mean, I guess I don’t have any better ideas. We can’t just talk to Gaia about it. Which means we can’t trust any of the teachers. Anyone else could be corrupted too. Or they just plain wouldn’t listen to us. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to stop Gaia if she’s been… compromised. The only people I can think of who could stop her, bring her back to her senses, rescue the real Gaia or… whatever’s going on, are the Committee. Do you guys–do any of you have any better ideas?” the boy asked, sounding helpless as he glanced around the room at the team, letting the question hang in the air.
No one responded, at least at first. The silence grew between them for a few seconds before Paul nodded. “Okay then. I guess we need to start talking about the best way to contact the–”
“Flick,” Doug abruptly interrupted before their leader could finish, drawing everyone’s attention. “Whatever’s going on, she knows all about it, right? So we talk to Flick.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Isaac blurted, sitting up in the bed. “Haven’t we been over this? We can’t talk to Flick, she’s too dangerous. Especially now that we know the headmistress is working with her. Anyone in Crossroads might be part of it. We just don’t know, right?”
“Look,” Jazz put in then. “This is just way over our heads, okay? Maybe Isaac’s right and we should take it to the Committee. I mean, they’re at her house talking about ancient necromancers and–”
“Ancient necromancers?” Gordon interrupted. “What was that again?”
The girl glanced that way. “Oh, right. Yeah, with the whole headmistress thing, I guess I forgot that detail. They mentioned Fossor too. You know, as in the big bad nasty? It was umm…” She paused, thinking about it. “They were steering Flick’s dad away from him.”
“Steering Flick’s dad away from Fossor?” Doug echoed, feeling confused by that. “What–how–what does that nasty fuck have to do with Flick’s dad?”
“For all we know, they’re drinking buddies,” Isaac muttered, folding his arms. “Guys, this doesn’t change anything. We still–”
Before the boy could continue, Rudolph spoke up. “She knew the name.” As everyone looked that way, he continued. “We were doing a group project a couple months ago. Vanessa found this journal by this Lyell Atherby guy, and it mentioned Fossor. Flick, she acted like she recognized the name. When Koren read it out, Flick got all… jumpy and grabbed the book.”
He told them more, about how the journal had explained that Fossor had approached the ancient Heretics, only to be rebuffed by all of them except for Gabriel Ruthers, who actually trusted the necromancer, an act which led to the Black Death.
“Okay, what the hell?” the words blurted their way from Doug’s mouth before he knew what he was saying. Still, he stuck with it, shaking his head. “Now I’m just confused. What does Fossor have to do with this whole thing, and what does that have to do with Eden’s Garden or any of this? And why are a vampire and Headmistress Sinclaire working together to keep Flick’s dad away from him? I–I… we’re missing something. Probably a lot of somethings.”
“Yeah,” Paul replied. “And they’re ‘somethings’ that the Committee can sort out, right? It’s above our level, we know that for sure. So we take it to the Committee. That’s the best we can do. We don’t know what’s going on, but they can figure it out. We just take what we’ve got to the actual adults and let them figure out how to pro–”
Frowning to himself throughout all of that, Doug finally spoke up, interrupting their leader. “Why didn’t you tell us about that before?”
Rudolph, realizing that he was the one being addressed, blinked that way. “What?”
“About Flick’s reaction to hearing about Fossor,” Doug clarified. “It seems kind of relevant, so why didn’t you bring it up before?”
“Well, I just… I…” Rudolph paused, frowning. “I um. I’m not sure. I probably should’ve.”
“Yeah.” There was something tickling at the back of Doug’s mind, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something… important. Finally, he shook his head to clear it. “Maybe it’s time to do what we should’ve done from the beginning.”
“Right,” Paul agreed. “Thanks, Doug. We do what we should’ve done from the start. We take what we know to the Committee, and–”
“No, not the Committee,” Douglas disagreed. “I still think we should talk to Flick. She hasn’t–I mean. Okay, look. I play a lot of video games, right? Video games, movies, books, all of it. And you know what? I don’t feel like being the character that comes in and fucks everything up because he thinks he knows what’s going on, but he’s wrong. I don’t wanna be that guy. If Gaia’s working with Flick and a vampire and all that, maybe they’ve got a reason. How about we don’t just automatically assume that Gaia’s evil because we heard one side of a phone conversation? Can we just step back from that cliff, please?”
Jazz slowly spoke up, sounding thoughtful. “So what do you suggest?”
“Like I said,” he replied pointedly, “we talk to Flick. Alone. Say I’m wrong and this whole thing really is sketchy. Well, if we ask Gaia about it and I’m wrong, we’re fucked. But if we ask Flick about it, confront just Flick, then maybe even if I’m wrong, we still get some answers. One way or the other. You wanna find out what happened to Roxa? That’s how we do it. But if we bring in the Committee, there’s no going back from that. That’s a switch we can’t unflick. Pun intended and I am so sad that Shiori isn’t here for this conversation because she would be so jealous.”
“You’re insane,” Isaac informed him. “How’re we gonna talk to ‘just Flick’? How are we supposed to get her alone? We have no idea how wired up with spells and spies and whatever else Crossroads is. You don’t know who we can trust over there. If Gaia’s in on it, anyone could be.”
Douglas nodded at him. “Yup, you’re right. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads.”
Isaac gave a satisfied nod then. “Right, thank you. So let’s just take it to the big guys and–”
“No.” Doug shook his head. “That’s not what I was saying. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads, so let’s take the whole thing out of Crossroads. Let’s confront Flick about it somewhere that Gaia isn’t around. Somewhere she couldn’t possibly have anything set up.”
Isaac squinted at him then, and Doug thought there was something… different and strange in the boy’s gaze before it passed. “Okay…” he announced slowly, glancing toward Paul briefly before asking, “and how exactly would you suggest we do that, man? We can’t exactly just snap our fingers and magic up an excuse to take Flick off school grounds and away from everyone else. I mean, unless you’ve got some serious pull that you haven’t been sharing with the rest of the class.” The latter was added in a teasing tone as Isaac winked at him.
“Maybe we can.” The words came not from Doug, but from Rudolph. The boy looked thoughtful.
“Excuse me?” Paul was looking at Rudolph, frowning a little while cracking his knuckles a little methodically. “You seriously have an idea to take Flick off school grounds so we can confront her without Gaia or anyone around?”
“Dude,” Jazz interrupted while the other boy flinched. “Could you sound any more critical? Give him a chance, huh?” To Rudolph, she asked, “Seriously though, what’s up?”
Again, the boy looked hesitant before breathing out and straightening. “I visit my great-great-great grandfather at night sometimes. He’s one of the doctors at the EJC, err, the Eduard Jenner Center.” To Isaac, he added, “It’s basically one of the main Heretic Hospitals.”
Isaac, who had stood from the bed and was watching Paul for a moment, turned his attention back to Rudolph. “Gotcha. So what does that have to do with our little problem? You wanna make Flick get the flu or something?”
As Doug watched, curious about where the other boy was going with this, Rudolph’s head shook. “No, no, nothing like that. But I was there the other night, and one of Grandpa Donald’s old friends was there for some kind of night class that he’s been teaching for the people that are laid up in there. He’s this guy that works in the Bystander world, Josiah Carfried.”
“Wait,” Jazz interrupted. “As in–”
“I think they’re related, yeah,” Rudolph confirmed. “Not sure how. But the point is, he works at some museum or something, and he was talking to Grandpa Donald about how Professor Dare asked him to have the Investigative Track show up and help out.” He flushed a little. “I wasn’t supposed to hear about it, I don’t think. But I kinda did. And then Gramps was saying that he should spice it up a little, so the Josiah guy got this idea about having a prize for whoever helps him the most with whatever he has them do.”
“Okay, this sounds really great and all,” Isaac informed the other boy doubtfully. “But I really think–”
Gordon spoke up then. “What kind of prize, exactly?”
Looking up at them, Rudolph hesitated before answering quietly. “A trip to New York City. Four days out there, away from the island.”
“Flick’s not in Investigation anymore,” Paul pointed out mildly.
Rudolph’s head bobbed. “Yeah, the prize is for the whole team of whoever finds it. Or teams, you know. They’re supposed to break into pairs, from what Josiah was saying.”
“So… what?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “You want us to find a way to make sure, what, Flick’s team and our team both win this trip?”
Straightening, Doug gave a quick nod. “Sure, we can do that. We just need to make sure one of you ends up in a pair with either Sands or Scout. And then make sure that pair wins.” This could work, and it sounded a lot easier than taking stuff to the Committee. And less… final. Doug wasn’t sure how he felt about Flick, but if she was just being manipulated into doing all this herself, if there was a way to do this without turning the girl in… that was the best way, it had to be. Sulan wouldn’t have just thrown the girl under the bus without a second thought. He would have given Flick a chance.
Paul and Isaac were looking at each other. Neither seemed convinced. Their team leader slowly shook his head. “I dunno, guys. How do we make sure they’re on the same team? How do we make sure that team wins?”
Shrugging, Jazz replied, “The team part we can figure out as we go. As for the winning thing… “
“I can help,” Doug quickly spoke up as his eyes widened with realization. “My power. Whoever gets on a team with one of the twins, just send me a text or something. Tell me what you’re trying to do, I’ll ask my power how to win, and then send it back.”
Together, they all looked at each other for a few long seconds. Isaac made a face. “Did we all just forget something? Remember how much ass that Chambers chick can kick? That’s why we didn’t confront her to begin with.”
“This is different,” Doug insisted. “Six of us and one of her. We get her alone, make it look like we’re all separating, and then we confront her all together. Between the six of us, we can at least get answers.”
Give her a chance to explain her side, it’s what Sulan would have done.
Paul lifted his chin. “Not a bad idea, really. I mean, maybe a bit of a longshot, but still. Nice job thinking outside the box, guys. But… yeah, I think our best shot is still just letting the adults handle it. So we’ll just try to get hold of–”
“Let’s take a vote.” Jazz’s voice was challenging, her eyes staring at their team leader.
“I’m sorry?” Paul blinked at her.
The girl shrugged. “You always said that if we disagreed, we’d take a vote, right? You’re not a dictator. That’s what you said. So let’s take a vote. Everyone who wants to to go with Rudolph’s plan, raise your hand. If you want to go with the ‘inform the Committee’ plan, keep your hand down.”
She raised her hand, followed by a slightly hesitant-looking Rudolph. A moment later, Gordon’s hand joined theirs. And Doug’s raised hand made four. The only ones who kept their hands down were Isaac and Paul.
Isaac made a disgruntled noise, shoving a hand into his pocket. “Right, I guess we just–”
Doug interrupted the other boy then, calling up the power that allowed him to ask one question per day and get an answer. “How is Josiah Carfried dividing up the people from Professor Dare’s Investigations class to do this contest of his?”
The answer came almost immediately, and he smiled before looking at Rudolph. “Right, got it. Wait, let me think….” He focused for a moment before smiling. “You know what? I think I know what to do. But if we’re gonna pull this off, you’ve gotta go back to that hospital tomorrow night. And we’ll need a spell from the school. I saw it the other day, but I don’t remember it exactly.”
Hand still in his pocket, Isaac squinted at him, his voice strange. “Wait, you just used your power? The one you can only use once per day? You used it on this, right now?”
Nodding absently, Doug replied, “Yeah, felt like the right time for it.” To Rudolph, he added, “You said Josiah’s has been there teaching night classes? You think he’ll be there tomorrow night? And do you think you can get into that hospital again?”
Slowly, Rudolph nodded. “I… yeah, he should be there. And I can visit. No… uh, no problem.”
“Great.” Jazz was grinning, raising both fists into the air. “We’re going to New York, baby!
“Even if we’ve gotta cheat to do it.”