Iskolar

Growth 18-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Going to visit Wonderland was a big deal for Denny. And a big deal for Dakota too, come to think of it. Neither of them had had that sort of opportunity before. The opportunity to see so many Alters in a peaceful setting, that was. Dakota spent most of her time at the Eden’s Garden Rebels place, and while they were definitely on the side of Alters not all being evil, there weren’t exactly that many around the motel. And Denny had spent time up on the station, but still didn’t trust herself around people that much so she tended to stay in either Asenath or Abigail’s apartments. Abigail had decided not to push her about going to classes for awhile, and instead let her do homeschooling stuff. Eventually she would probably need to physically attend, but there was time for that. After everything she had been through, nobody thought pushing her was the right idea. 

So, this would be a pretty new experience for both of them. I just hoped it went better than my own first visit to that place. But then again, Theia was on our side now, so we could hardly–nope. I refused to finish that thought. Not in this reality, and certainly not with the things I’d already experienced. I may have had a tendency to push my luck with fate, but that was too far. 

“You’re tempting fate again, aren’t you?” 

The demand came from Avalon, who was squinting at me as she, Miranda, and I stood at the back of the small, fenced in area behind the motel where Iskolar the old Garden lady with the giant sword had just created a new portal leading up to the Station. One we weren’t going through. 

“Who, what, me?” I blinked several times at the accusation, while Valley continued to squint. 

“She’s right,” Randi put in idly, standing a bit back with her thumbs in her pockets as she regarded me with a very small smile. “You have that ‘I just thought something dumb and now reality is gonna make me pay for it’ face. You probably just thought something about how at least we won’t get attacked at Wonderland like you did the first time you went there, huh?” 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I felt the slightest pink flush cross my face. “I need to get friends who don’t know me as well,” I muttered under my breath. 

Before either of the other two could respond to that, the portal was finished and a small figure slowly came through. It was Denny, looking quite unsure of herself. She kept glancing around, hunching her shoulders in what seemed like an attempt to make herself smaller. Or possibly she thought she was a turtle and was trying to retract her head into a shell that wasn’t there. Either way, she basically shuffled her way through and looked very much like she might just decide that jumping back the way she’d come before the portal closed would be the best idea. 

Quickly, I spoke up. “Denny, hey. I uhh, hi.” Trying not to sound (or look) awkward, I offered her a smile and gestured. “We better let Iskolar shut down the portal now, or we’ll all have to listen to her and Llars flirting for the next hour.” 

Iskolar, for her part, scoffed at me. “You make your jokes, but I’ll have you know I could teach every one of you a thing or two about good flirting,” she retorted primly. “And good dating.” 

There was a brief pause before Denny nodded and took a few more steps toward us and away from the portal. She seemed like… well, she sort of seemed like someone who was just learning how to swim and had just moved barely far enough out into the water that their feet didn’t quite touch the floor of the pool anymore. Once she heard the portal itself turn off at a gesture from the woman who had created it, Denny gave a very soft gasp. She was clenching one hand tightly.

“Oh well, hello young lady,” Iskolar greeted her. “As I’m sure you heard just now, I’m Iskolar. And you–” 

“Denny,” the girl quickly put in. “I’m Denny. Hi. Um, thanks. I mean, for the…” She gestured behind herself at the spot where the portal had been a moment earlier. “The lift?” 

“Oh, any time, dear,” Iskolar assured her with a smile. “Any time at all. I hear you’re quite the crossword champion.” 

Denny blinked at that, seeming taken aback. “How did you… Dakota?” 

“She might’ve bragged once or twice about how quick her new friend was at solving those things,” Iskolar confirmed with a wink. “Faster than me, and I’ve been doing it a wee bit longer.” 

Now Denny was blushing, squirming a little under the attention. So I spoke up. “Dakota’s just grabbing a couple things from her room. You guys, uh, you’ve been talking a lot, huh?” 

Focusing on me, the girl gave a quick, somewhat jerky nod. “Oh–uh, yeah. Um, sort of. Abigail and Mr. Tougan–he’s my therapist– thought it would help if I talked to her. Because she um, because she had some bad experiences too.” 

That was putting it lightly, considering Dakota’s entire family had been forced to kill each other by a megalomaniac super plant, which only she had survived. She ‘won’ the massacre, and now she had Kwur’s own powers. Well, his plant control powers anyway. Whether she’d inherited anything else of his was yet to be determined. So yeah, she’d definitely had some bad experiences. I could see why Abigail and this Mr. Tougan guy had thought it might help the two of them to talk to each other. 

Denny was still explaining. “Mostly we talk over the computer. We do that a lot. Really a lot.” She admitted that with a slight blush, squirming on her feet. “Maybe a little too much. But she’s… she’s good to talk to. She understands a lot of–um, she understands a lot. And we don’t just talk about bad stuff. Or even mostly about bad stuff. Usually we talk about these shows we’ve been watching on Netflix or whatever. I mean, we put the show on at the same time and talk about it while we’re watching it. Mostly about the show, but sometimes we just start talking about other things and forget what’s going on so we have to rewind and–” All at once, she seemed to realize just how much she had been saying, and how quickly she’d been saying it, and clammed up. Her blush was deeper. “And it’s not a big deal.” 

Randi grinned while speaking up. “I mean, if you’re a crossword champion, I might need to get your help with my English homework.”

“Sorry,” Denny replied with a helpless shrug, “knowing a lot of words doesn’t really make me that good at knowing the rules of grammar or whatever. And I don’t even know that many words. It’s just that I see the clues and the number of letters and then I just… know what the right word is.” 

She hesitated before starting to say something else. But before she could, I sensed Dakota approaching. Sure enough, just as I turned to glance that way, the girl in question came around the corner. She was carrying a heavy backpack over one shoulder. Seeing Denny, she darted that way to embrace her. “Hey, Kitchen!” 

Denny, after the slightest hesitation, returned the hug. “Hey, Kentucky.” 

Weirdly, it was only while seeing the two of them together right then that I realized how relatively similar they looked. At least on paper. They both had dark hair and pale skin, and they were both close to the same age. Well, Dakota was thirteen while Denny was eleven. But even that wasn’t quite right, because Denny still had some memories (and was getting more as the days went on, apparently) of being her older self before she’d died, so–yeah. It was complicated. But they did look similar, enough that they could have been sisters. I wondered, inwardly, if that helped at all. Did they get along so well because both of them really needed some form of family? Not that I thought they were pretending or anything like that, just… subconsciously, maybe it helped them talk about the things they needed to talk about with each other. 

“Kitchen?” Randi echoed Dakota’s words, then Denny’s, “Kentucky?” Then she realized. “Your names.” 

“She was Den,” Dakota confirmed. “Then it turned into Closet, or Living, or Study, or any other room.” 

Denny nodded, looking a bit more at ease than she had before Dakota showed up. “And she’s any state. Except Nevada. I um, I met Nevada. But that still leaves a lot of others, doesn’t it, Utah?” 

Dakota promptly leaned over to whisper something quietly in the other girl’s ear that I couldn’t hear. Then the two of them snickered before Denny whispered something back. 

Yeah, I was going to have to make sure Abigail was aware of what a good choice having the two of them talk had been. But then, I was pretty confident she already knew that. My older sister was pretty good at this sort of thing, apparently. 

Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Right, so we’re going over to Wonderland. But there’s a couple of things we should probably warn you guys about so they don’t take you by surprise.” 

Looking a little hesitant once more, though bolstered by the presence of Dakota, Denny quietly asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? If there are a lot of people there, and if I hurt anyone–” 

Stepping that way, I took her hand and squeezed it, meeting her gaze. “Listen, okay? That’s not going to happen. You’re not gonna hurt anyone. There’s a lot of protection over there, people who know how to keep everyone safe. And you’ll have us with you every step of the way. We’re all just gonna go hang out, see some cool stuff, talk to cool people, and do cool things. But no one is going to force you into it. If you really, genuinely don’t want to do this, say the word and we’ll do something else. We can all hang out in one of the rooms around here and watch a movie, or play a game, or whatever. It’s no big deal. But if you’re just afraid that you’ll hurt someone, or that someone will hurt you, I promise we won’t let that happen. 

“Those memories in your head, his voice, they don’t control you. They don’t control anything. You have his power, and you can do whatever you decide to do with it, not the other way around. And when I say his memories don’t get to control you, I don’t mean by telling you what to do. I don’t mean by puppeting you. I mean they don’t get to stop you from living your life. He’s gone. You’re not. You’re here. You won. We will do whatever you are comfortable with. Just know that we’re going to be there, and make sure it’s what you want to do. Not what his memories want to force you into.” 

Denny was quiet for a moment, staring at me as she considered all that. Then she gave a single, barely perceptible nod. “I… I kinda want to see Wonderland. It sounds fun.” She actually sounded almost guilty in admitting that she thought it would be fun. Which made me want to take Fossor’s thus-far nonexistent ghost (please God no) and Kushiel’s entirely too-extant ghost, and punt both of them into the sun for what they had helped do to this girl. Yes, Fossor hadn’t been directly involved, but it was his fault. He was responsible. And besides, it wasn’t like I needed that much of an excuse to want to kill Fossor again. He had it coming a million times over. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be an issue. Not after everything that had been done to ensure he didn’t have some sort of loophole to come back through. He was dead and gone, period. 

I should know, people kept borrowing the memory of the event that Sariel had copied out of my brain so we’d have proof of what happened. And not just my brain, Mom’s too. Both of us had seen him die, so Sariel copied our memories and allowed people to see them. Apparently Fossor didn’t exactly lack people who wanted to see exactly how he died. Let alone experience doing it themselves. 

Shoving those thoughts away, I made myself smile at the girl in front of me. “Yeah? Cool, because trust me, it’s gonna be fun. Especially when you meet Buddy System. And Namythiet. And–well, a lot of people.” 

Avalon spoke up, voice curious. “What about you, Dakota? Are you okay with going over there?” 

There was the slightest hesitation as the other girl thought that through before nodding. “Now that the vine’s working, I want to… I want to celebrate. I wanna do something new, something really different. I wanna…. I wanna be happy.” She gave a small smile toward Denny, taking the girl’s hand. “I–we didn’t make it through everything those people put us through just to act like we died when we didn’t. We’re gonna go have fun, right, Library?” 

Straightening up a little bit, though she was still smaller than the girl next to her, Denny gave a firm nod of agreement. “Right, yeah, fun. Let’s do that fun thing. You said we’d meet someone named Buddy System?” 

“Yeah, he’s one of the people we need to warn you about,” Miranda murmured. 

“He’s a troll,” I confirmed. “I mean, not a stupid internet jerk, a real live troll. But he’s really nice. He just looks scary, and we didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Trust me, once you meet him, you’re gonna love the big guy.” Saying that, I tilted my head thoughtfully. “Actually, come to think of it, we haven’t actually seen Joan of Arc yet.” 

“I–what?” That was Denny, giving a double-take. “Haven’t seen who?” 

Grinning, I gestured toward Iskolar. “You hear that? Now she’s interested. Guess we better start up that portal and head over there. 

“Time for Denny to see just how crazy this world can get.” 

******

Marina Dupont was there to meet us when we came through the portal and into what looked like a moderately-sized garage, just big enough for two cars. The tall, pale brunette was accompanied by Quing, the avian-like Lavinisi who worked as one of Wonderland’s main security guards alongside Buddy. He was watching us intently from his spot in front of the main rolling door, his sharp eyes gazing at and through all of us as we appeared. The portal. He was watching the portal. I could see his right wing-hand touching the handle of one of his many knives, his entire body visibly tense. 

Right, of course he was a little worked up. He was responsible for the security of this place, and we had just come through a portal that led back to an encampment of a whole bunch of people who had been responsible for slaughtering a lot of Alters. Yes, the Garden people were rebelling against that and we were all trying to change things, but still. 

A moment later, the portal faded behind us, and Marina quickly stepped over, extending her hand to catch mine. But not to shake it. Instead, she pulled me into an embrace. “Hey, Flick!” Avalon got the same treatment and greeting, as did Miranda. “You guys really need to visit more. Do you have any idea how much the kids ask about all of you?” 

Even after she had sent the Crossroads children back to their parents (on either side), Marina wasn’t totally done with taking care of children. First, there were the ones over twelve who had chosen to stay at Wonderland rather than go back to their parents. That was a choice Marina and the people here had allowed them to make. With the option to go back whenever they decided to. Thus far, none had. 

But even more than that, when the Wonderland Septs had learned how good Marina was with children, they had basically assigned her as a permanent… nanny, of sorts. And from what I had heard and seen, she had never been happier. This was where she belonged, teaching and taking care of younger kids. It suited her much more than Crossroads had. 

Once she had embraced and greeted us, she turned her attention to the other two. But Marina didn’t immediately reach out to them. She didn’t try to grab and hug them. Instead, she offered both of them a smile. “Hey. I’m Marina, what’re your names?” 

The two girls exchanged glances before Denny stood up straight. “Denny,” she answered quietly. “I’m Denny.” 

“And I’m Dakota,” the slightly older girl put in. “You… you went to Crossroads?” She had heard a lot about that place over the past few months, most of it from Sands and Sarah. 

Nodding, Marina replied, “That’s right, I went there for two years. Well, basically two years. Flick and Avalon were one year under me. But you know what?” she continued with a conspiratorial tone, “With all the stuff that kept interrupting them last year, I think they attended like… three months of classes. Maybe.” 

As she winked at the two of us, Dakota and Denny snickered a little. Then Marina added, “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure they’ve been through more training and live combat than fourth-year students who are about to graduate.” She glanced up toward me, offering a little smile. “They’re bonafide badasses, and you couldn’t ask for better friends.” 

“Yeah, they’re alright.” The grunt came from Quing, whose voice continued to surprise me for how deep and gravelly it was, coming from a relatively thin bird-man. “They’ve done some good work out there.” Those laser-focused eyes settled on me, our gazes locking. “Getting rid of Fossor, that was a big deal. Thanks. I mean, I ahh, know you had your own reasons for doing it, but still. Thanks.”

Before I could say anything, Miranda piped up, “Yeah, a lot of people are glad he’s dead. I don’t think that man had any friends.”

My mouth opened, but a young voice abruptly called, “Can I come out now?” It was coming from a corner of the ceiling in this garage, where a small face with feathers and an orange-yellow beak was poking out through an opening. “Nothing blew up and the portal’s gone!” 

Quing exhaled, giving all of us another quick once-over before waving one of his wing-arms. “Yeah, come down.” 

The face at the hole disappeared, before the girl it belonged to promptly dropped through. She glided down, her own wing-arms extended until she was hovering directly in front of us. It was a Lavinisi, like Quing. Only this one was a young girl, basically a little kid. Her feathers were dark red as opposed to Quing’s blue. She also wore tan cargo pants and a gray tee-shirt with an image of the actual Falco from Star Fox on it. Underneath that, she had clearly used red fabric marker to write (in somewhat shaky lettering), ‘Uncle Quing!’ 

After taking all that in, I noticed that she clearly wasn’t actually using her wings to keep herself up off the ground. They were just sort of extended out to either side as she hovered a couple feet off the floor. The Lavinsi flight seemed to be more of the Superman-like variety, with their wings acting as rudders in the air to guide them, or whatever. 

“Hi!” the young Lavinsi chirped, her attention focused on the two girls close to her own apparent age. “I’m Baidy! You’re Dakota and Denny. I heard you. Wait, was that rude? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or spy, but Uncle Quing said I had to hide until we knew it was safe.”  

“It’s okay, Baidy,” Marina assured her. “But you should greet everyone, remember?” 

“Oh!” Turning her attention to the three of us, Baidy quickly introduced herself once more, and made it clear that she had heard our names too. But she was clearly more interested in Denny and Dakota, which was fair. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured, “Well, it seems to me that we were promised a tour of the newest Wonderland. Pretty sure there’s no one better for that than someone who gets a birds-eye view of the place.” 

Grinning, Marina turned a bit to where Baidy was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s right, maybe you should help lead this tour. You know where everything fun and interesting is.” 

“Really?!” Baidy brightened, literally hovering higher in the air in her excitement. “Okay! Uh, come on!” She flew straight up toward the hole in the ceiling, only to stop when she was almost there. There was a momentary pause before she slowly sank back to the ground, looking somewhat sheepish. “I uhh, um, maybe we should use the door.” Her embarrassment at forgetting that we couldn’t fly wore off instantly as she flew that way, hitting the button to make the big rolling door start to rumble its way up. “You’re gonna love it here!” She was already giggling so much she almost couldn’t get her next words out. 

“It’s wonderful!” 

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Growth 18-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Obviously, finding out that the Garden Rebels could now make their own new Heretics was a big deal, a really big deal. Seriously, if this war ended up dragging on longer than the truce with the Seosten, we would need the ability to make more Heretics. Otherwise, the Loyalists would win simply through attrition. And while I wanted to think that we would be done with this much sooner, it wasn’t a good idea to plan on that. We had to be ready for this to be a long, drawn-out thing. Being able to create more Boscher Heretics was the only way we would survive. 

All of that and more was running through my mind as Miranda and I joined Avalon at the entrance to the portal room that would lead us down to the beachfront area where the Garden people had set up. 

As soon as she saw us, Valley pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and approached to embrace me tightly. “You know what this means,” she murmured. 

My head bobbed. “Of course I know what it means. The Rebellion isn’t completely screwed if this goes on much longer. It’s a big deal. Especially since–” I cut myself off, feeling the pain of Tribald Kine’s death wash over me once more before swallowing hard. “Especially since we’re already losing experienced Heretics. We need to be able to create more.” 

Miranda spoke up quietly while standing a couple feet back. “They have a lot of experienced Natural Heretics to choose from, people who would definitely agree to take the power boost. They don’t have to start with children or people who don’t know what they’re doing.” 

“Especially considering they don’t have to brainwash or lie to them to get them to fight,” I muttered under my breath. “They don’t have to get them when they’re too young to know any better.” That applied to both groups, really. Crossroads recruited Bystander-Kin when they were teenagers at most, and Garden tended to recruit even younger than that. They pulled in children and taught them to hunt down and kill other sapient creatures. When you thought about it for a minute, it was really fucked up. 

The three of us exchanged looks for a moment, obviously thinking about that. Finally, Miranda gave a firm nod. “Come on then, let’s get down there and see what’s up. If they’re right, if Dakota really managed to get those vines and the fruit working, we… we need to thank her.” 

“Everyone needs to thank her,” Avalon agreed. “And I feel like they already are. We might need to save Dakota from being…” She considered her words. “… overwhelmed. People can be a lot, even when they’re grateful.”  A brief pause, then, “Sometimes especially when they’re grateful.”

She knew what she was talking about, that was for sure. I knew she had been dealing with people being all over her for her own contributions toward the Seosten permission-possession spell. Obviously, she was glad that people weren’t trying to kill her anymore–okay there were still plenty of people who wanted to kill her, but not like that at least. She was glad the Seosten had no reason to actively try to kill her in order to stop a spell that had already been performed. And she knew why all those people were grateful for that spell. But having so many coming up and thanking her for something she didn’t feel like she’d actually contributed much toward as herself made Valley feel weird. She had told me that much over the course of the trip to that prison planet. She had been enjoying having some time away from the station so she could relax without feeling like she would be disappointing people who wanted to talk to her. She didn’t blame them for being happy and wanting to talk about the whole situation, but it was still a lot. 

Miranda and I nodded to one another before I spoke up. “You’re right, she might need a break right now. How about, after we check on the whole vine situation, we find out if she wants to take off for a bit? I was texting with Marina earlier and she said something about us coming to see Wonderland’s newest set-up.” 

The other two agreed with that, and we went through the door to the portal room. The man there knew us by name, and immediately asked if we were going because we’d heard the news. So it had gotten all the way up here already. That made sense, but also made me even more certain that Dakota would probably need a break from people. 

We exchanged a few words with the man, an elderly Yedveleran who had white-gray skin, was only about five feet tall, and had six arms as well as eyes that were attached to the end of antennae-like stalks atop his head rather than on the front of his head. His English name was Llars, which was about as close as we could get to pronouncing his actual name. Eventually, after a brief discussion about the whole situation, he sent a message to his counterpart down in the rebel Garden area. Once he got the go-ahead, Llars opened the portal and gestured for us to go ahead. “Make sure you let the kid know she did good, you hear?” 

We promised we would, before stepping through the portal. It carried us to the small, fenced-in field behind the main motel where the Garden had set up (though they had spread out throughout this entire neighborhood, taking up in a few different motels and apartment buildings). Llars’s counterpart on this side of the portal, an actual Garden Heretic woman named Iskolar, was right there to greet us. She was elderly, like Llars himself, and from what I’d heard other people say, I was pretty sure the two of them were actually courting one another. Which was pretty great. I hoped the two of them would make it work.  

In any case, Iskolar was a fairly short woman herself, standing around the same height as me at five foot four inches. She had graying blonde hair that was very big and poofy, and a broad smile to go with her broadsword. Yeah, the weapon was practically bigger than she was, strapped to her back. I’d seen her wield it though, and she was incredibly deadly despite outwardly looking and acting like a goofy grandmother. Honestly, she made me think of Betty White cosplaying as a barbarian. I felt like she could offer us cookies with one hand while fending off a horde of snarling wolf-monsters with her sword in the other. It was a really fun image in my head. 

Before we left that fenced-in area, Iskolar insisted that we take a bag of chocolate candies that she wanted Dakota to have. She also made us promise that we weren’t going to overwhelm the poor girl and would help her get a break from everyone who was demanding more and more of her time. When we told her our plan to take the girl to see Wonderland, Iskolar was delighted. On the other hand, she also suggested that Dakota might like to see a movie as well, and that we should take her to ‘that new Humphrey Bogart film.’ So it was possible that she was somewhat behind the times. I supposed once you had been a Heretic for so long, it became harder to keep track of how lives went in the Bystander world. Still, it was the thought that counted.

Once we made our way out of there, it wasn’t hard to find where practically everyone else was. The beach across the street from the motel was packed full of people. Mostly Heretics, but also some Alters mixed in there. Standing on the sidewalk, the three of us could see the crowd over there, all packed in around something we couldn’t make out. But I had a guess. 

Sure enough, as we headed across the beach, the three of us could see through the crowd enough to catch a glimpse of the long, thick vine leading out into the ocean. They were all gathered around that single vine, though it looked like most of the people were being kept several feet back by the Rebel Victors, who were examining several golden apple-like fruits attached to the vine. The excitement in the crowd was palpable, even as they intently watched what the Victors were doing.  

No, not just Victors, I realized. Seller was there too, as was a slender woman with dyed green hair and a leather jacket who was holding what looked like a stethoscope up to one of the golden fruits. It was like she was listening to them, while Seller himself was examining a different one with a jeweler’s magnifying glass. Obviously, Seller was there because of his expertise in biological manipulation, which told me that the other woman was probably along the same lines. I didn’t recognize her, but that hardly meant anything. 

“You know that woman?” I asked the other two quietly, while scanning the area for Dakota herself. Finally, I spotted her standing a bit behind Jack Childs, the cowboy Victor. Which reminded me that we needed to talk to him and Fu Hao about that whole ‘the prison camp was actually run by Zoya Dalal and possibly my ancestor Remember Bennett’ thing. 

Miranda and Avalon both nodded, the latter replying, “Her name’s Nostrum. I don’t know the name of what she was a natural Heretic of, but it gives her the power to make real medicine out of random ingredients. Medicine that actually does what she wants it to, as long as you take it soon enough. But if anyone else put the exact same ingredients together in the exact same way, it wouldn’t work. It needs her power to actually function properly.” 

“She was almost burned at the stake for being a snake oil salesman back in the old west,” Miranda added. “She didn’t understand that leaving her medicine for too long would make it not work. Jack Childs saved her from that, and brought her into Garden. She’s really good with this sort of thing now.” 

By that point, Childs himself had caught sight of us. He said a word to someone next to him, and that man (a tall, pale figure with an old faded Levi jacket and long dark beard), straightened up before walking our way. The large crowd parted for him, as he made his way through I thought he was right in front of us. Extending a hand, he announced, “Name’s Beetle. You three should come this way, Victor Childs would like to have a chat.” He spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that made it clear the matter wasn’t up for discussion. Which was fine, considering we wanted to go over there anyway. But I still didn’t really like the feeling that I was being summoned like a servant. It irked me, though I told myself I was overreacting and pushed it aside. The guy was just a little blunt and accustomed to being quickly obeyed, given he obviously worked as some sort of assistant for the Victors.  

So, I pushed aside my initial reaction and the three of us followed him back through the crowd. Childs thanked Beetle before sending him off on some other errand. Then he focused on us. “Guess you heard the news already.” 

Looking over my shoulder at the assortment of people all eagerly waiting for the announcement of whether this was real or not, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, we heard. That’s why we’re here.”  That said, I leaned over to look at Dakota, who was standing there with her arms folded around herself, looking pretty overwhelmed. “Hey, how’s it going? You busy?” 

Visibly blushing, the younger girl looked up and met my gaze. I saw the faintest smile cross her face as she offered a shrug. “Oh, um, you know. Just doing this and that. Nothing big.” Her voice squeaked a little as she made the joke, but the important part was that she made it. She really was getting better than she had been months earlier. Being out of that hospital, and far away from Kwur’s influence, seemed to be doing wonders for her. 

Before any of us could say anything else, Seller exchanged a whispered conversation with Nostrum that was obviously magically protected. Then he turned and stepped closer, waving a hand. As he did so, some sort of small, flying insect emerged from his sleeve and spread what looked like dust through the air. Only then did he speak. “Now none of the lookie-loos can hear us, or read our lips.” He focused on me, adding, “Long time no see, kid.” His gaze took in Miranda and Avalon as well, as he added, “Kids. Wow, all three of you, huh?” 

“What’s the diagnosis?” That was one of the other Victors, a man who looked like he was in his early forties with a wide, round face that held a perpetually surprised expression, and short dark hair. Lamorak, one of Arthur’s old knights. “Is this real?” As he asked that, Lamorak glanced toward Dakota, adding, “I still think we should have done our tests first before everyone else heard about it. If this is a false positive, people are going to be upset about getting their hopes up. And it’s not us who will have to deal with the worst of it.” 

Flinching a little, Dakota straightened up, glancing at me before turning back that way. Her voice caught slightly, but she pressed on. “I–it’s real. I promise.” 

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed, offering a faint smile of his own. “Don’t get me wrong,” he informed Lamorak, “you are too. This whole thing would have been easier if we didn’t have the crowd.” 

“They are eager to know that our people can continue on,” Fu Fao noted as she stepped closer, the elderly Asian woman glancing straight at Avalon briefly before she continued. “While I agree that tests should have been completed, it was very difficult to keep the situation secret when we brought Seller and Nostrum in to do those tests. Word travels quickly. Particularly when we are so very thorough.” 

Seller shrugged. “Well, in any case, it’s like I said. The kid’s right. The vine’s doing what it’s supposed to do. The fruit we see now, that’s about all you’re gonna get for the year, but it should bloom normally next time.” 

“How many is that?” Childs asked. “What’s the crop this time around?” 

“Twenty-four,” came the answer from Nostrum, as the woman joined us. “That’s twenty-four people we can turn into Bosch Heretics, which means–” 

“Six,” Seller interrupted, sounding curious and thoughtful. “Six fruits per tribe. Four rebelled. Well, three and a half. But Aniyah and her half of the Reapers won’t see it that way.” 

“You’re right.” That, of course, was Aniyah Keita herself. The red-haired (with one spot of black in the front) Victor stepped up beside Lamorak, the man she was apparently very involved with. “Even if only half our tribe came with, we have every right to our six fruits to make our choices.” 

By that point, the final three Victors had joined the group. There was Fu Hao’s partner, the small, thin (though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle) man with dyed blue hair known as Carseus, as well as the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (Cleo) Selene. It was the woman who spoke up. “Having six new recruits to our tribes will be very welcome.” Her dark eyes found Dakota, and the beautiful woman offered the girl a tender smile, that of a regal-yet-understanding queen. “Thank you so much for your work. We could not have done any of this without you. We would still have nothing for the future of our people.” 

Blushing so much I was afraid she might actually catch fire, Dakota stammered, “I–it’s no big deal. I mean–it is, I’m glad I could help. I just–umm–” She was scrambling a bit. 

“She’s just happy it worked,” I quickly spoke up for her, stepping that way to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s just six per tribe this time, but next year it’ll have more.” Behind me, Miranda and Avalon stepped over as well, all three of us standing with Dakota. 

Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Miss Chambers is correct. Though it will be five per, not six. The remaining four fruit will be put away for an emergency, just as we kept a few back before.” Her gaze found me and then Avalon in quick succession, and I knew what she was thinking about. The only reason both Avalon and Abigail had survived their own near-death situations while they were Bystanders had been because Garden had a few of those fruits stored away for such occasions. Granted, four weren’t very many, but still. I understood why she wanted to keep a few hidden away.

For a brief moment, I was afraid there might have been an argument. The Victors all exchanged long looks, before Carseus spoke up. “Ahem, I suppose that’s a good point. We do want to stick a few in a vault for a rainy day. We’ve all seen how important that can be. I suppose that means all of us need to agree together on what happens with each of those four?” 

That prompted a round of nods. They had settled that much at least. All seven Victors would vote on any use of the extra fruit, while being given five each to be used by their own tribes. I wasn’t sure how the five would be split amongst the three tribes who each had two Victors (maybe each of them would pick two and decide together for the fifth), but that wasn’t my business. 

Something else was though. Giving a quick glance toward Dakota, I spoke up. “Hey uhh, before you make the official announcement that the fruit is good and the vines are healthy, do you think you could let Dakota here slip away for awhile? That is, if she wants to.” I looked to the girl in question once more. “Sorry, do you wanna get out of here for awhile or stick around for your big–” 

“I want to get out of here,” she immediately piped up, before flushing a bit guiltily in the direction of the Victors. “I mean, sorry. I’m really glad I could help, and happy that you guys will have the fruit you need, and all that. But your people are kind of overwhelming already, and I–” 

“There is no need to apologize,” Alexander Helios, who looked as much like an old, noble emperor as his twin sister looked like a queen, announced. His dark hair was worn long, falling just past his shoulders as it gently swayed in the ocean breeze. “You have done everything we asked of you, and more than we could have truly hoped. Thank you, Dakota Coalbright. While I hope that you return for the feast in your honor later, it may be for the best for your own sense of peace if you take this portal.” He created the portal in question at that very moment, raising one hand to do so. “And I hope your friends here will escort you?” His eyes glanced back to the three of us behind her. 

That was a big deal. I knew that immediately. This girl had just fixed their special vines and given them back the ability to create new Heretics. She was indescribably important to them, and he was trusting Avalon, Miranda, and me to keep her safe. That meant a lot. 

I still wanted to talk to Fu Hao and Childs about the prison thing, but now was not the right time. They were really busy. Besides, Dakota needed to get out of here for her own sanity. So, I simply told them that we needed to talk later, then went with the others through that portal. It carried us to a spot further down the beach, out of sight from where the crowd was all gathered. A moment after we appeared and the portal had closed, we all heard a loud cheer erupt from that direction.  

“I think they told them the apples are working,” Miranda noted dryly, before glancing at Dakota with a smile. “See, you did pretty amazing stuff back there.” 

Dakota was blushing again, shaking her head. “It wasn’t just me. The others helped too. And… and those monsters are still trying to get at the fruit. They’ll be trying even harder now that the vines work.” 

“The Victors will deal with that,” I reminded her. “It’s not your job. You did your part. Now just let them handle the rest, right?” 

She hesitated slightly before giving a short nod, her voice quiet. “Right.” 

“Great.” Giving the younger girl a quick, reassuring smile, I added, “Now, Marina over at Wonderland was talking about us paying a visit, and I thought you might like to come with. What do you think? You’ve heard of that place, right?” 

Her response was a hesitant, “Umm… Yeah, I’ve heard of it. If… if you think it’s okay, then sure. Err, can we invite Denny? We’ve been talking a lot and I think… I think she needs a break too.”

“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get Denny down here so we can all check out the new Wonderland together.

“Something tells me we should take this chance while we’ve got it.” 

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