Kaste

Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Mini-Interlude 54 – Lincoln

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Thirty unheard messages. Voice mailbox full. Please listen to or delete messages to receive new ones.

Lincoln Chambers stared down at the cell phone in his hand as he lay on his side in bed. The phone wasn’t his, of course. Not his original phone, anyway. That had been tossed away much earlier so that he couldn’t be tracked quite as easily. No, this was a random, prepaid phone that one of the Atherby clan had picked up for him. He’d used it to call his old phone’s mailbox so that he could check the messages that had been left for him. Or, at least, that had been his intention days ago.

He had checked several of the messages at the time. Most were either from his work, wanting more answers than his original, terse ‘going underground for a story, back eventually’ call had given them. The others were from his parents, who wanted… well, any answers at all, really.

When he had asked for the phone, Lincoln’s intention had been to keep up with any questions the people in his life had. He’d intended to keep giving them updates on his supposed investigation while also fishing for hints about which of them wanted to know too much. There had been some vague idea there of working out who the Seosten had possessed to get to him.

Except he couldn’t do it. After listening to a few of his messages from the people he cared about, from his parents and friends, Lincoln had stopped. The idea that any of them could have been possessed, that they had been enslaved by those goddamn alien body snatchers, had been too much. He couldn’t make himself listen to their messages while having no idea if the person speaking was really themselves, or if they were being puppeted by an evil alien overlord.

It was even worse knowing that his daughter, his daughter was out there in their space. He had no idea how Felicity was doing, if she was okay, or anything. He was even more helpless and incapable of helping than he had been before. Which, honestly, was really saying something.

He wanted to pull them in, his parents at least. But if they were possessed, getting to them and testing them for possession without giving anything away or endangering anyone else was going to be hard. He needed to be ready for something like that, not just run off halfcocked.

Sighing and giving up on his latest attempt to psych himself up into actually listening to those messages, Lincoln clicked the phone back into sleep mode before sitting up in bed. The room that he had been sleeping in was sparse, decorated only with the bed itself and a single dresser where the few clothes that he’d been able to get were tossed. On top of the dresser was a cheap lamp, and a single photograph in a gold frame. It was one of only three rooms in the small cabin he’d been assigned to live in while he was staying here at the Atherby camp.

Other than this room, there was just a tiny bathroom and a combination living room/kitchen. There was very little to it. But honestly, he didn’t mind. The place reminded him of camping trips that he had gone on with his father back in the day. They were good memories. Safe memories.

Stepping out of bed, Lincoln squeezed himself into the small bathroom and took a long, almost scalding shower to wake himself up. That was one good thing about this place. There seemed to be an utterly unending amount of hot water. If that was a spell, he really wanted to find out how to use it before he left this place. If he left this place, which itself was really up in the air.

Just in time, as he finished dressing after enjoying the shower, there was a knock at the door. Lincoln gave his hair one last brush through with the comb before eying himself in the mirror. There was a little bit of stubble there, but not enough to worry about for the moment. Turning on his heel, the man moved through the main room of the cabin, taking in the early morning light coming in through the windows before tugging the door open. “If I didn’t know better,” he announced in the process, “I’d say that one of your powers was perfect timing.”

“How do you know it’s not?” The woman who stood there looked like she was in her early to mid-thirties, with dark blonde, almost brown hair that was layered in waves and fell to her shoulders. She was tall, a full six feet in height and almost distressingly thin to the point that Lincoln had more than once had the rather absurd urge to make her eat a sandwich despite the fact that he had seen her put away even more food than he did.

Her name was Kaste, or at least that’s what she called herself. Which was a pretty appropriate name, since ‘casting’ was her whole thing. The woman used magic a lot, which took energy. Hence how much she ate, all while never gaining a pound and remaining stick-thin. She was also an Alter of some description, though he’d yet to find the right way to ask what kind.

For a second, he squinted at the woman. “You used magic to know when I’d be ready.”

Rather than confirm or deny that, she just winked. “Does that mean you are ready now?”

“Need to throw some breakfast together,” Lincoln replied before stepping back and gesturing. “But uh, yeah, why don’t you go ahead and come in. You hungry? I’m not much of a cook, but I can pour cereal with the best of them. Behind my back and blindfolded, even.”  

Stepping into the cabin and closing the door after her with a soft click, Kaste raised an eyebrow at him. “And you do all of that without spilling anything? That is most impressive, indeed.”

He grinned. “Never said I did it without spilling. Just that I could do it.” With that, the man moved to the nearby cupboard and took down a couple of bowls before filling them (not behind his back) with cereal from the nearby box. Adding a couple of spoons and milk, he set the bowls down at the table while asking, “Something to drink? I’d suggest coffee, but uhh, still not sure where the Starbucks is around here, and the machine broke last night.” He waved a hand to indicate the object in question, which lay on its side on the nearby counter.

Glancing that way, the woman smiled faintly before shaking her head as she tugged a pair of what looked like coasters from her pocket. “I’ve got this one,” she announced. Dropping the coasters on the table next to one another, she waved her hand over them while speaking a word. A second later, a pair of mugs appeared on the coasters, each filled with steaming coffee.

Lincoln’s eyebrow almost popped off his face. Curious, he reached out to pick one up, trying it. “Now that,” he announced after taking a sip, “is a spell that you really have to teach me.”

That was what the woman was here for, why she came to visit every morning. Kaste had been teaching him beginner’s magic. While he wasn’t a Heretic or anything, he could now use spells since the Bystander Effect had been broken. He wasn’t exactly fantastic at the stuff yet, but he had at least managed a few small effects, mostly thanks to Kaste’s teaching. She was patient with him, and seemed just as delighted with any small success that he had as he was.

Winking then, the woman promised, “We’ll get there. But now you see what you can look forward to, once you learn enough.”

He took another sip of the coffee before nodding. “You sure know how to inspire your students, I’ll tell you that much.” With a smile, he took a bite of his cereal even as a slight pang made him wince inwardly. Flick. Felicity. Was she okay? How could he be enjoying himself when his daughter was out there. Even knowing, thanks to the message that had been delivered from the Moon twins, Vanessa and Tristan, that Felicity was not under some Seosten operating table but had actually been rescued by Larissa Mason and Haiden Moon wasn’t enough to alleviate his fear. He wanted her back on Earth, back where he could see her, not off running around in some alien empire while the Seosten tried their damnedest to snatch her away for their experiments.

Kaste, clearly recognizing his train of thought, spoke up then. “She’s strong, you know. I haven’t spoken to her very much, only met her the one time. But she’s definitely strong. She’d have to be, considering she’s descended from one of Arthur’s Knights.” She winked at him. “He didn’t choose them just because they looked good in a suit of armor, you know. They were all incredibly powerful. Your daughter and her mother are both descended along that line.”

Coughing at that, Lincoln shook his head. “Yeah, and don’t think that doesn’t still freak me out. My wife and kid are descended from one of the Knights of the Round Table? My daughter’s related to someone who ran around with King Arthur? The King Arthur? How do you ground someone like that? Not that that’s been an issue for a long time, but seriously. She’s my kid, and now I know that she’s… how do I talk to her now? How do I look at her knowing that she’s got that kind of blood, that she’s…” He trailed off, unable to find the right words. Logically, he knew it was silly. But whenever he thought about it, about the fact that Felicity was descended from a legend like that, it made him feel utterly inadequate.

Kaste put a hand on his, shaking her head. “You do what you’ve been doing, Lincoln. Felicity Chambers is who she is because of you, not because of any blood she has. Her power, the resources she could end up with, the way others treat her, that is because of her bloodline. But the person she is, that’s because of you. Don’t change that just because of what you know now.”

“You sound like you have a lot of experience raising kids like that,” Lincoln observed.

The woman looked away briefly, her voice quiet. “My sister and I have experience being that kind of kid. Our parents didn’t exactly take it that well, so Rain and I eventually ended up on our own. Trust me, you don’t want that for your daughter. She’s still Felicity, no matter who her ancestor was.”

Smiling, Lincoln nodded. “Of course she is. Still,” he added then, “it is a little hard to get used to the idea that I used to change her diapers. I always knew she had potential, but this?” He whistled, shaking his head before taking another bite of cereal. “It’s intimidating.”

“What you need,” Kaste informed him then, “is a lot more experience with magic. Then you’ll feel better. Practice. Lots and lots of practice.”

He returned her smile. “Well, in that case, you’ve got me for the rest of the morning.

“Let’s see what you can teach me today.”

******  

Hours later, Lincoln was standing on the edge of the lake, while some other figures played in the water about thirty yards away. He had just finished the sandwich that he had prepared for lunch after spending the entire morning learning magic from Kaste.

For a moment, the man watched the kids in the water. They were all teenagers, or close to it. Most of them didn’t look any older than thirteen or fourteen. There were ordinary humans mixed with Alters, though some of those Alters were so human-like that he couldn’t tell the difference from where he was even without the so-called Bystander Effect clouding his senses. Others were clearly not human.

As far as Lincoln had been able to find out, there were about a hundred regular, full time residents of the camp. Of those, about two dozen or so were combat capable adults. The rest were a mixture of civilians, children, and teenagers. The population seemed about evenly split between non-humans–Alters, he remembered to think of them as- and humans, or so-called ‘Natural Heretics’. Beyond that, there were almost as many ‘temporary residents’, people who would only be staying for anywhere from a few days to a month, depending on how long it took to find them another safe place to go.

He’d asked once, and learned that there were smaller enclaves or safehouses spread across not just this country but several others as well. Places that were under the Atherby Clan protection. It was some kind of combination of an underground railroad and a witness relocation program, keeping hunted Alters safe from the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics. All told, Gabriel Prosser had estimated the Atherby Clan’s total official membership at close to a few thousand. Not terribly large, and very spread out with the only real connection for a lot of them being Prosser himself. Yet still larger than Lincoln had expected. And it had apparently been much larger in years past. But the combination of the long war with the Heretics and not having an official Atherby to lead them over most of the past half century had made their numbers dwindle a bit.

Now, he watched a blue-skinned figure with visible fins and gills splashing several of the others. She was directing a large wave over them with a simple gesture, laughing the whole time. They all were. The rest of the young teens ganged up on the blue-skinned figure, trying to get the jump on her while she kept holding them off from all sides with various directed waves.

“Helena is getting stronger every day,” a voice behind Lincoln announced, and he turned to find the two-headed hyena-like humanoid standing a few feet away from him. One of the two heads was male, while the other was female. It was the male head that had spoken just then.

Jones. That was his–her–their name, Lincoln remembered. He lifted his chin, nodding back over his shoulder at the laughing teenagers. “Helena, that’s the uhh, water girl out there?”

The female head nodded, speaking up then. “She is a Melusine. It’s good to see her laugh again. Her parents were…” She trailed off, baring her teeth briefly before looking away.

“Murdered,” the male Jones finished for his female half. “Her parents were murdered by Heretics. They tried to kill Helena as well, and would have if Duncan and Misty hadn’t gotten to them first.” As he spoke, they waved a hand back across the camp to a spot where the siblings in question were apparently teaching another group how to fight using wooden swords.

Lincoln stared that way for a few seconds, his eyes taking in the group as their training weapons cracked against one another. “They’re children,” he announced quietly. None in the group appeared to be older than nine or ten, and all of them looked entirely too serious while they listened to the instructions that Duncan and Misty were giving them. “They’re just innocent kids.”

“Can’t be innocent kids for long with the Heretics running around.” The bitter announcement came from the female Jones, who was staring that way as well. “All those kids are here at the camp because they don’t have anywhere else to go. They’ve already had at least one encounter with the Heretics. Most of them lost someone in the process. Maybe more than one someone.”

Jones’ male head nodded. “Some of ‘em will move on once there’s a good enough safe house to send them to. Others’ll stay here. Gabriel doesn’t force anyone to do what they’re not comfortable with. If they want to stay at the camp instead of going back out there, they can.”

Swallowing hard at the thought of what those kids had gone through, and would continue to go through, Lincoln took a moment to find his voice. “You’ve got quite a set-up here. Seems like you help a lot of people who need it.”

“Not as many as we’d like to,” the male Jones replied. “Sometimes we fail. Like…” His voice turned hoarse as he clearly spoke through a thick lump in his throat. “Like with the twins.”

“You mean Joselyn’s other kids?” Lincoln guessed. “Abigail and Wyatt.”

“When we knew them,” the female Jones announced, “they were Koren and Zedekiah. The poor kids.” Her head shook sadly, tears forming in her eyes. “We cared for them so much. They were only babies. Babies, and that monster stole them. Stole them and used them to force our Joselyn to surrender. Who would do that? What kind of coward abducts a mother’s tiny babies to use as hostages? Whatever moral ground Gabriel Ruthers once held, he surrendered it the moment he threatened the lives of innocent children to achieve his goal. He is a monster.”  

“Believe me,” Lincoln replied, “the more I hear about this Ruthers son-of-a-bitch, the more I want to put my fist through his face.”

Clearly changing the subject quickly, the male Jones asked, “Must be strange for someone like you, raised human I mean, to used to the idea that your wife has adult children out there. Children who are technically older than you are, even.”

“Oh, God.” Lincoln rocked back on his heels, head shaking. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I have stepchildren. Hell, I have a step-grandchild. It’s–God, it’s a lot to take in.”

“You met them, right?” the female Jones asked, her tone curious. “How did that go?”

Nodding, Lincoln answered, “Yeah, we met, once. They came with… with Deveron, Joselyn’s old–I mean her young–I mean…”

“We know him,” the male Jones assured him. “He is a good man, if a bit impulsive. But still, good.”

“Yeah, I got that impression too.” Lincoln sighed. “I mean, that’s good. It’s real good. They all seem great. A bit confusing sometimes, but great. Jos has great taste. I can see why she was–why she was involved with that… with Deveron. It’s just really awkward, looking at this kid, this guy that looks that young and thinking about how he knows Joselyn so much better than I do. She’s my wife. But she’s also his wife. And they were together for a long time. When I look at him, I think… I think about how he knows the real Joselyn, the full Joselyn. Me, I know the Joselyn after they wiped her memory, after they turned her into a normal human. I love her. God, I love her so much. But I think he knows her better than I do. He grew up with her. He went to war with her. He’s fought–the man has fought for decades to save her, to find her.”

“And yet,” the female Jones remarked, “you still feel a little bit like he’s stealing your wife.”

Lincoln put his hands up to his face, letting out a long, pained sigh. “I shouldn’t. I don’t want to. He deserves–he’s a good man. It’s just… complicated. It is incredibly complicated.”

“What about the others, your step-kids and step-granddaughter?” the male Jones asked.

That made Lincoln smile a little despite himself. “Wyatt might be a bit eccentric, but I like him. He’s loyal, and he’s brilliant. Thinking about what happened to him, to all of them, it still pisses me off. But he’s great guy. And Abigail seems like a brilliant lawyer. I feel sorry for anyone that tries to argue with that woman. Apparently she’s been devouring every book, scroll, and notepad they’ve got in that place that’s got anything to do with procedure or rules. Keeps quoting their own laws at them to get what she wants. That uh, that Seller guy, he thinks it’s hilarious.”

He sobered a little bit then. “They’re looking for that… Pace or Lies or whoever she is. Them and Miranda.” The reminder that his daughter’s childhood friend was also a Heretic was still enough to make the man shake his head. “Apparently Koren, Abigail’s daughter Koren, not Abigail herself, and Miranda are convinced that they can find a way to help the real Pace. They think that if they can get that handicapped Seosten out of the girl, she might be able to tell them everything she found out while she was possessed.”

“But,” the female Jones pointed out, “the only way to remove a Seosten Lie from a host is to kill the host.”

The two (or three depending on how one was counting) of them stood there in silence for a moment, darkly contemplating that.

“Oy, you lot!” The call came from nearby, and Lincoln turned while automatically looking down. The voice was distinctive enough that it could only come from one person.

Sure enough, the well-named Fancy stood there. The snazzily-dressed Kobold with his top hat, miniature suit, and monocle pointed his gold-tipped cane. He spoke in an affected accent that made it sound like he was channeling Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. “Wot’s wif all the ruddy broodiness over here, eh? Why, Oi just look to the beautiful sky an’ there’s a roight bloody rain cloud glooming its way over this spot roight here. Gonna mess up the kids’ lovely day out, you lot is.”

“You’re right,” Lincoln admitted. “No sense in dwelling. Not when there’s work to do.”

Both of Jones’ heads nodded, the male speaking. “Kaste left with Rain, so that must mean that she’s done teaching you for the day.”

“Yeah,” Lincoln confirmed. “She said they had plans. So uh, you guys think you’ve got time for another of our lessons before the kids are ready for me?” Not only had Lincoln been taking magic lessons from Kaste, but he had also been both learning everything he could about various Alters and their history so that he could catch up on as much as possible, and teaching as many mundane subjects to the kids around here as he could. He was no actual teacher, but they had books, and he could do a decent job of faking it up to a point. The kids and early teens needed to learn, and he wanted to give something back to these people. Thus, he would spend  a few hours each day with as many of the elementary and middle school-aged kids as he could in order to teach them basic math, english, history, and more.

“O’course!” Fancy chirped, gesturing grandly. “Come wif us, Sir Lincoln. We’ve got a roight good lesson plan today, we do.”

With a nod of her head, the female Jones confirmed, “Yes, we thought we’d walk around the camp and have a pop quiz. See how many types of Alters you can match to the people they are.”

Lincoln whistled. “Bringing out the hard stuff, huh? Alright, let’s do it. But I warn you, I have an excellent memory.”

The male Jones smiled. “No doubt born of all your experience as a reporter, Mr. Chambers.”

“Call me Lincoln,” he replied. “And actually, it was uhh, born of a few years of college spent with entirely too many last second desperate cram sessions the morning of a test after being out too late. But don’t tell my daughter that. She’s under the impression that I was a perfect student who never even saw a drink until I was thirty, and I don’t wanna crush that part of her naivety just yet.”

Both of the Jones heads smiled, speaking together. “Don’t worry, Lincoln. Your secret is safe with us.”

******  

A knock to the door of his cabin late that night brought brought Lincoln over to open it. He found the man himself, Gabriel Prosser, standing there with his coffee maker.

“I present,” the man started dramatically while holding out the machine, “Busy’s greatest triumph. Apparently it doesn’t just make coffee, you can program it to make it exactly like any of the top thirty coffee shops on the planet make theirs.”

“Heh.” Lincoln took the machine, joking, “Sure, but can it make it like Ricardo’s diner on thirty-fifth in LA? Because that’s the one that I–”

“Number three on the preset,” Prosser informed him, adding, “Busy says he looked into your preferences.”

Both men stared at each other for a moment then, Lincoln admitting, “That Kitsune scares me sometimes.”

“He is very thorough,” Prosser agreed, chuckling a little. “I hear that your lessons are going well, though. Both with Kaste and the others.”

“I’m doing my best.” Lincoln shrugged while giving the man a brief look. Gabriel Prosser. Lincoln had done a history report on the man (or the regular human understanding of him) back in his Freshman year of high school. Talking with him now, it was… disconcerting.

The man was a living legend. Literally. He was important history even to ‘Bystanders’. And clearly to Heretics, from what he had heard, Gabriel Prosser was an outright hero, a literal legend among legends. These were people who could knock down buildings, fly, teleport, even move mountains in some cases. And they were in awe of the man in front of him.

“You wanna come in for a minute?” he finally asked, moving to put the coffee maker down. “I’d say ‘get out of the cold’, but I doubt it bothers you.”

Prosser gave a slight smile at that, stepping in before turning to close the door. “Sure. Actually, I wanted to ask if you gave any thought to what I told you before.”

Lincoln took in a breath at that before letting it out. “About becoming a natural Heretic of one of your people?”

With a nod, the other man replied, “Any single one of the people here would be honored to be bound to you, Lincoln. They have all asked me repeatedly if they could possibly be the one to share their blood with you. And becoming a Natural Heretic would protect you a lot more than simply being a human who knows some magic. Especially with the kind of threats that are going to be coming after you if they get half a chance, both from the Edge Heretics and from Fossor.”

The man had a point, Lincoln knew. He bit his lip, slowly nodding. “I know, I know. I just–it’s a hard decision to make. Like you said, they all want to help. But I can only make that choice once. What can I…. who can I bond to that would actually do the most good for me and my family?”

“You’re right,” Gabriel agreed then. “That is a very difficult decision to make.”

“I’ll tell you what I do want to do,” Lincoln announced pointedly. “If your people will agree to it, I want to write their stories. Anyone who will talk to me, I think… I think this stuff needs to be written down. It needs to be shared. Some people need to see it to understand just how bad these things are, for a human context, if you forgive the phrase. I’m not sure what else to… call it. Anyway, some people need these personal stories to have context. And other people… they need to read the stories to understand that they’re not alone. That can… it can help. Their stories, their histories, their lives deserve to be recorded. Their struggles deserve to be shared.”

Gabriel watched him briefly, seeming to look through the man for a few seconds before his chin inclined. “I see that Abigail is not the only one who will be putting her lifetime of accumulated skills to good use.” A small smile touched his face. “I will speak to the others. Some will agree. But I am sure that I don’t have to tell you to only record the stories of those who agree.”

Lincoln nodded, and for a few minutes, the men kept talking. They discussed the possibilities of different Alters that he could be bonded to, before Lincoln promised that he would think more about it. It wasn’t a decision that he would make on a whim.

After bidding the other man good night and seeing him out, Lincoln locked up (a matter of habit more than anything else, really) and made his way to the bedroom, turning out lights as he went.

Who would he ask to become bonded to? Who could he become a Natural Heretic of? What kind of Alter would give him the best chance of actually helping his wife and daughter, of helping his family with everything that was coming after them?

It was going to take a lot to try to decide, a lot of thinking and a lot of research. As he lay in bed, all Lincoln could do was hope that he would eventually make the right choice. Because there was a lot riding on it.

His eyes were open as he lay there, staring at the photograph on the nearby dresser. The picture was of himself, Joselyn, and little Felicity. It had been taken only a month or so before Joselyn’s disappearance, and was the last family picture that they’d taken together.

Blinking back tears, the man reached out to touch his fingers against the photograph, brushing over the images of his wife and his daughter. “My girls,” he whispered, his voice sounding rough to his own ears. “How can I help you? What can I do?”

There was no response, of course. Slowly, Lincoln lowered his hand from the picture, before raising it enough to turn out the light. Then he lay back on the bed in the resulting darkness.

Before long, he was asleep.

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Sharkhunt 23-03

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“So I’ve got a question,” I started a little bit later as Gabriel and I walked along the edge of the lake toward one of the other cabins. Avalon and Shiori were both catching a nap back in his place, since neither would agree to leaving here without me. It was all I could do to convince them to sleep, even though they’d both been so exhausted they could barely keep their eyes open.

“Well, actually I have a lot of questions,” I amended. “But one in particular, about the heir thing.”

The man glanced at me before giving a slight smile. “You mean why are you considered the heir?”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh. I mean, Mom’s still alive. And Wyatt and Abigail are both older than I am. So why would you call me the ‘Atherby clan heir’?” Pausing, I added, “And when do they get to come out here? I’m sure they both wanna hear stories about the family.”

“I’d like to get them both out here,” Gabriel confirmed. “And we will, as soon as possible. Especially if they can come together. To see the twins again after so much time…” He paused, swallowing noticeably. “It would make some of the people around here very happy.” The way he said it made it clear that there were plenty who’d never gotten over losing them in the first place.

After letting that hang for a few seconds, the man continued. “And as far as the heir stuff goes, that’s all four of you, counting Koren. As direct Atherby descendants, you’re either the leader, or the heir. When the leadership position opens up for whatever reason, anyone with the title of heir can throw their hat in the ring to be chosen as the next leader. Then every adult member of the clan votes for it. If there’s more than one, I mean. Or if there’s no eligible heirs at all, someone else is voted on.” He coughed, eyes rolling a little bit. “That’s what happened with me.” Pausing, the man looked away while lowering his voice. “Apparently the whole ‘voting on multiple heirs’ thing used to be more important when there were more Atherbys. Lyell outlived most of his family and only had one son.”

“Joshua,” I finished for him, nodding before looking up as we reached the cabin. There were a eleven people around a bonfire that had been built up in the back. All of them seemed to be watching us, and my Heretic-sense went off like mad for a few seconds as I took in the sight.

“There’s an awful lot of people who know about my mom,” I pointed out. “Does that mean they were all protected from the spell that Ruthers and his people cast? But that doesn’t make sense, because I know that Asenath and Twister weren’t, and they were both helping the rebellion.”

“A few were protected,” the man explained. “Others were brought on since then and… restored.” He made a face that was barely visible in the light from the nearby lantern. “It took years to get this many back, and it’s nowhere near the numbers that the rebellion had under your mother.”

“Right, and speaking of getting people back,” I added, “is this the place where Scott ended up?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. He’s at another place, a house in one of the cities. As soon as he starts remembering enough of what happened, I will let you know. Assuming you’d like to visit.”

I nodded, but before I could say anything, one of the figures moved from the fire to come closer. As he approached, I saw what looked like a dark-skinned man with a pointed fox-like ears on top of his head, similar to Twister’s. Unlike Twister, however, he didn’t have a tail. He had nine of them. All were long, dark, and fluffy, spread out behind him like some kind of dark, furry peacock.

“Oh,” I blurted as the man came into view. “You’re a Kitsu–” Cutting myself off, I flushed a little bit. “Sorry, that’s probably pretty rude, huh? Um, hi.” I extended a hand. “What I mean is, hi, I’m Flick.”

The man, who was shorter and far more wiry than Gabriel, gave me a quick smile that showed a mouthful of perfectly white, canine teeth. “No, nah, not a problem, not a thing at all,” he blurted in a voice that was clearly accustomed to speaking a million miles a minute. “My name’s Biseon, but they call me Busy. Not sure why. Hah, I’m kidding, I know why. It’s cuz I’m always busy. Always working, always going, gotta keep going if we’re gonna survive a world like this, you know. Lotsa things wanna kill us. Heretics, Nocen, actually some people think we oughtta just call you all Nocen too since you’re always trying to kill us. Well, not you personally, but the other Heretics, other ones that are bad, scary, terrible. Glad you’re not like them. That would’ve been really–”

“Busy,” Gabriel interjected, “is our technology expert. You think he talks fast now, you should see him when he’s actually trying to explain something about those computers he likes so much.”

While the Hangman-Heretic was talking, Busy’s nine tails spread out before starting to wag up and down with obvious excitement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he quickly interjected. “See Heretic stuff, gotta take it apart, put it back together, see how it tick tick ticks, not like a bomb, well some of them are bombs. Usually catch those, not always, lost a few eyebrows. Lost a couple fingers, but made replacements. Heretics like to trap their stuff, make weapons burn Alters, not fair, not fun. Had to figure out how to undo it. Heretics here help, let me use weapons to figure out trick.”

Holding up a hand, I tried to latch onto at least one part of what he was saying before he could ramble on. “So Heretic weapons burn you guys if you try to touch them, but you worked out a way to get around it after the Heretics that are on your side let you examine their weapons?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, that’s it.” Busy’s head bobbed up and down even faster than his collection of tails. “Smart girl, very smart. Sharp, bright, shrewd,  what a whiz. Muldoon called it in the movie.”

Lost again, I worked my mouth for a second before starting to ask, “What mov–”

“Jurassic Park,” he interrupted. “Good movie. Terrible science, good movie. Fun. Eat popcorn, don’t complain. Totally inaccurate in every way. Wrong way to bring dinosaurs back. Wrong, but fun. Muldoon, clever girl. But don’t eat me. Don’t wanna be that movie-accurate, nope.”

Oh, right. Muldoon, the Jurassic Park guy that was eaten by the raptors. Now I was caught up.  “I promise not to eat you,” I assured him, adding, “And you made replacements for your fingers?”

In response, the fox-man lifted up both hands in front of me. The index and middle fingers of his left hand, and the pinkie, index, and thumb on his right all extended various tiny tools like screwdriver heads, drill-bits, scissors, and more. It made him look a bit like Inspector Gadget.

Gabriel ushered me over to the fire, where I saw more of the people up close. Of the eleven people there, my Heretic-sense picked out about half of them as being Alters. The others were either Heretics, or a kind of Alter that didn’t set off the sense. All of them were staring at me.

One of them cleared his throat. He was an Orc, one of the big, eight-foot tall guys with warthog face. This one had a long, scraggly gray beard, and was wearing ratty blue jeans and a black shirt that advertised some kind of automotive repair shop. “Yer da spittin’ image o’yer mudder.”

There was a chorus of agreement behind him, as the Orc’s face broke into a wide smile. He extended one of his large hands my way. “Name’s Oscar. Well, t’ain’t really muh name, but ya prob’ly couldna pronounce the righ’ one anyway.  Oscar’s close ‘nuff, an’ the kiddies been usin’ it ever-since tha’ Says-Me Street made tha’ one puppet in the trash can. Dunno why, Ah ain’t furry.”

“Oh, um, hi, Oscar.” I accepted his hand, and he grinned when I didn’t wince from the squeeze.

“Got a bit o’ a grip on ya there, yah?” he drawled, still giving me an easy smile before letting go.

I shrugged. “Um, yeah, there was this werewolf and…” Trailing off, I coughed. “Never mind.”

More of the people that had been by the fire introduced themselves then. Besides Oscar the Orc and Busy the Kitsune, there was a female Relukun (one of the wood-people) named Calice, a tiny male Kobold (a small, goblin-like creature) wearing a miniature suit, tie, and tophat that introduced himself as Fancy (he was even using a neat little cane), and a Prevenkuat (the two-headed hyena-people) who had one male head and one female head. I decided against asking how their plumbing was arranged.

That was it for the obvious Alters. Of the rest, three turned out to be Heretics, all of them naturals. There was Duncan, a natural Ullus-Heretic (it turned out the Ullus were the Alters that Columbus and Shiori had killed back on the Meregan planet to get their metal-manipulation powers. They looked like yellow-skinned humans with three eyes instead of two) who looked like he was about thirty-something, with brownish-blonde hair and a rugged build like a man who had lived outside for much of his life.

Beside Duncan was his younger sister, Misty. She was a natural Ogre Heretic who appeared to be in her late teens or very early twenties, with hair that was brown with little bits of blonde running through it here and there. She was also a waifish figure who looked like a stiff breeze would blow her apart. But thanks to the inherited Ogre-strength, she could easily shot put a pickup truck.

Then there was a man who looked like that ancient knight guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was even dressed like a knight in chainmail, and carried an old-looking sword in a scabbard at his hip. The guy actually kissed my hand while introducing himself as Enguerrand. Unlike the others, he didn’t volunteer what kind of Alter he had gained his Heretic-state from.

Beyond the trio of natural Heretics, there were three others who were apparently non-obvious Alters that my sense didn’t pick up. The two females seemed to be related to one another, and introduced themselves as Rain and Kaste. Both looked like they were in their mid-thirties. The guy, meanwhile, looked young. Barely out of his teens, if that. He called himself Berlin, and the only thing out-of-the-ordinary that I saw with him was that his eyes were a deep orange color.

He was also the one who started talking about my mother first, as we gathered around their fire. “Oscar’s right, you do look a lot like Joselyn. Not completely, but you are definitely her daughter.”

“Y–you actually knew my mom?” I asked, reminding myself again not to be fooled by how young he looked. Appearances meant nothing, as my 430-ish-year-old history teacher could attest.

“Course I did,” the red-haired, orange-eyed guy replied. “She’s the one that–” He paused before clearing his throat. “Ah, start from the beginning. I was working transport for these smugglers. I’m an Abeonas, see. We sorta specialize in what you call foldjumps, spots where we connect two different places and let anyone go straight from one to the other if they know the password.”

Right, I’d heard about them from the people in Wonderland, and from Mateo. That was how his pack had made the trip from Colombia all the way up there as quickly as they had.

Berlin continued. “So I was working for this smuggling group when your mom shows up and slaughters like… everyone. Everyone except me. Must’ve been ten guys. Tough ones too, couple of trolls in there for muscle. But Joselyn just went right through ‘em like they didn’t even matter. Killed them, then dragged me away from my own portal before I could get the hell out of there. Asked me if I knew what we were transporting in the truck. I told her it was weapons, magic stuff. She uh, she showed me it was more than that. Opened up the truck and there were these kids in there. Kids that were being taken out to be… sold.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “That was the tenth trip I made with those motherfuckers. Joselyn, she helped me set things as right as we could. We went back for the rest of the slavers, freed the ones that were there, killed all the bastards, then used their records to track down all the slaves that I helped deliver. Freed ‘em, killed their so-called owners, and that was that. Or it would’ve been. I probably would’ve found some other job working for one low life or another. Except Joselyn said I could do something more important. She talked up this rebellion of hers, told me I could make a difference. So, here I am.”

The old knight nodded. “Joshua would have been quite proud of his little girl.” He smiled faintly at me. “And his granddaughter. It’s too bad that he never got the chance to know any of you.”

Biting my lip, I asked him, “I take it that means you weren’t recruited by my mom then? It sounds like you were part of this whole clan thing already, if you knew my grandfather.”

He chuckled slightly. “I knew Joshua, yes. I changed his diapers.” Winking, the old man added, “His father, Lyell, was one of my best friends for a long time. He’s the one that saved me back when I first ran into the Alter that killed my family. I killed it, but the others would’ve killed me in turn if it wasn’t for Lyell Atherby. After that, we were friends until he passed. I watched over Joshua as a baby, I watched over little Joselyn, and I watched over the twins.” He paused then before flinching, looking away from me as his whole body sagged. “Never forgive myself for that.”

Wincing at his words, I hesitated for a second before reaching out to touch his arm. “Enguerrand,” I started, stumbling over his name just a little bit, “what happened wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t the fault of any of you guys. Gaia says that Ruthers didn’t even tell his own people what he was planning to do. Going after kids like that? It was…” I squeezed my hand tightly. “It was too far.”

The others had stories that were similar to Berlin’s. Most had been recruited by my mother at some point or another, and all had some kind of personal experience with her. All except Duncan and Misty, that was. Both were too young to have had anything to do with Mom, though their parents had been part of the rebellion, Heretics from Eden’s Garden who joined up with my mother back in the early days. Duncan and Misty had been born after Mom surrendered herself. They had grown up seeing the clan slowly rebuild itself after being taken down to the bare bones by the effect of the Mnemosyne spell. And they may not have had personal interaction with my mother, but they had plenty of passed-down stories from their (sadly now deceased) parents to share with me.

“So then Mom says,” Misty continued the story she had been telling while leaning on the handle of her weapon (a sword as big around as she was and just as tall) while the blade was partially buried in the ground, “that Dad can’t have, you know, gland-to-gland combat with the vampire girl unless he brings her some absurd quest item. I don’t remember, it was like the holy grail or something. Not that, but pretty much. Anyway, she was obviously just teasing him, you know. But she played it all straight, so Dad thought she was serious. So he goes off and looks for help to find this thing, and it’s your mom that agrees to help him. I’m pretty sure she knew Mom was teasing too, but she went with it. They went off and actually found the damn thing and brought it back.”

“Wait, so my mother seriously went on some epic quest just to help your dad get laid?” I worked my mouth a little at that before weakly asking, “Well, uh, I guess ummm… did it work?”

Duncan shook his head. “Our mother always stopped Dad from finishing the story at that point.”

“But,” Misty put in, “Dad used to give us that wink. So I’d say he probably got with vampire girl.”

I started to nod before my eyes widened. “Wait a second. Vampire girl? It wasn’t Asenath was it?”

“Hey, yeah,” the girl replied. “That was her name. Wait, that’s the one you’ve got watching your dad, right?” Her head tilted a little, obviously thinking briefly. “You think she’s still got a thing for–”

Thankfully, Duncan stopped her by clearing his throat pointedly. He gave me a sympathetic look. “I think the best takeaway here is that your mother was always there for the people she cared about. Sometimes it was something life-changing and really important. Other times it was for… that.”

Fancy, the snappily-dressed Kobold, gave a quick nod of his head. The top hat tried to slip off, but he raised his cane in a practice maneuver that caught the brim of it just in time. “Hear hear,” he announced in a voice that sounded like he had taken on a faux-British accent after hearing almost insultingly bad versions in cartoons. “T’was Joselyn Atherby what rescued my clan from the old caves, innit? Tweren’t for her, those wankers would’ve had a right straight shot at wiping us out.”

“Wankers?” I echoed. “You mean, um, other Heretics?”

Adjusting the monocle on his face (the Kobold had a freaking monocle, how great was that?), Fancy nodded once more. “Quite, quite! Our clan was in our little hovels when some sodding students from that old island of yours showed up. Apparently slaughtering our people was some bloody test or somefin. So they comes running in without so much as a howdo, but before they can commence the pig-sticking, the pretty blonde human shows up. She says a bunch of fine words, gives most of the clan time to escape. But I stayed behind, so I saw when she smacked around the ones what thought they could still fight anyway. She took a few of them on, ones what believed what she said. Then she asked if I wanted her to drop me anywhere. Well, I couldna think of any better place to be than right alongside the woman what just saved all our lives. So I stayed. Decided I wanted to be a better specimen, so’s I went and made meself from the dirt-scrabbling, poor little wretch I was before into the fine example you see before you.”

There were more stories like that, and I sat and listened to as many as I could until Gabriel finally interrupted to say that we should be getting back before it got to be any later. I agreed, but only reluctantly, and with the promise that I could come back later to hear more of their stories. And maybe even hear from other people, since this wasn’t nearly all of the ones at the camp. Apparently they didn’t want to overwhelm me, so they’d drawn lots to see who would talk to me first. Which… honestly, the idea that so many people wanted to talk to me about my mother that they had to draw lots for it was pretty intimidating.

One thing was even more apparent than it had already been. My mother had changed an awful lot of lives through her rebellion. She had inspired people, saved them, brought them on to do great things for decades even after she was out of the fight. They looked up to her, adored her, loved her. They missed her as much as I did.

Getting her back, saving her from Fossor, wasn’t just about me. It was about them. It was about all the people she had helped, all the people she had recruited, inspired, and led. It was about the people who had known her as a baby, who had known my grandfather, and his father.

Ruthers and Fossor probably thought that they didn’t have anything in common beyond being alive for a long time. But they did. They were alike in one very important, crucial way.

We were going to put both of them in the fucking ground for hurting my mom.

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