Lincoln Chambers

Spy Hunt 26-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the conclusion to the 3-part Sariel and Larissa interlude series that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“So, it’s gonna work, right?” Despite myself, I couldn’t keep the tenseness and worry out of my voice. “Please, after everything we went through to get it, tell me that thing is gonna do its job.”

We were back at the Atherby camp by the lake, with some company in the form of Mateo’s pack and a few of the Wonderland people like Seth, Namythiet, and Fennicus, though most of that particular group was back reuniting with the children that had been abducted by Lemuel’s pack.

Of the people who were actually here at the camp, the majority were milling around, talking about the battle or celebrating the fact that Lemuel and most of his people had been dealt with, aside from those who had managed to scatter and flee. The point was, the big threat of the massive combined werepack had been dealt with, for the moment at least.

I’d also been eager to meet up with my father here at the camp after everything that had happened. Apparently, however,  Asenath and a couple other Alters had taken him out for a hike to take his mind off what was going on and so that he wouldn’t obsess over me being in a fight. They were on their way back, but it would take awhile. Long enough for us to deal with this.

Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, Mateo, and I (Vanessa and Tristan were off doing something with Duncan and Misty) were watching as Gabriel and an elderly-looking woman that he had brought in examined the choker. Gabriel had introduced the old woman with the simple name of Kay. Or maybe it was just the letter K. I wasn’t sure on that point. In any case, she was their expert in magical artifacts, their version of Wyatt, basically. For the past ten minutes, the woman had been carefully examining the choker, while I watched anxiously. The only reason I’d agreed to let her take it in the first place was that Gabriel had vouched for her, and was standing right there. If she would have asked to take it out of our sight, I’m not sure even that would’ve been enough. I was seriously thoroughly paranoid about that damn thing disappearing.  

On the other hand, I was also paranoid that, even after we got it, the thing wouldn’t work right. That was why I’d agreed to Gabriel’s offer to have his enchantment-expert look it over a bit.

And yeah, we could have just had Roxa or one of the other Alters put it on and see if it would stop the Heretic sense from going off.  But honestly, taking a magic enchanted necklace that I had just stolen from a completely demented, psychotic, probably possessed girl and putting it on someone else without having it checked over first sounded really, really stupid. But maybe that was just me.

Even then, however, I’d still made Gabriel use the Seosten-detection rune on the woman (as well as Mateo, since he was there too) right in front of me just to prove that they were safe. Maybe that was more evidence of blatant paranoia, but hey, better to be safe than choker-less.

Kay examined the choker for another second, running her fingers along it before finally giving a slight nod. Her voice was brittle, yet strong enough to hear as she announced, “The intended effect of allowing the wearer to be disguised from the Heretical Sense remains fully intact.”

A breath of relief escaped me before I realized what she had said. Blinking up, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “You said the intended effect remains intact. What about the rest of it?” Her voice sounded as suspicious and ready for bad news as I felt.

Beside Shiori, Roxa folded her arms over her stomach, looking a little sick (also like I felt). “They mean the ability to identify Seosten,” she announced quietly. “Please say it still works.”

Raising her gaze from the choker to give all of us a long look, Kay paused before answering. “Being altered into a different form has… somewhat weakened that particular effect.” Even as my heart dropped down into my stomach, she continued. “Calm yourselves. It is still effective, so far as I can tell. When used properly, it will inform the wearer if the subject is possessed or not.”

“When used properly?” I echoed, more confused by her phrasing than elated by the news that the enchantment would identify Seosten-possessed people. “What do you mean by that?”

“As I said,” the woman answered, “the effect has been somewhat weakened. It will no longer allow the wearer to identify any Seosten simply through sight. Now, you must touch the person.”

My mouth opened, then shut, as I absorbed the explanation. “Touch them. You have to touch them and… and that’s it? Just touching them will, uh, reveal if they’re possessed or not?” Sure, it wasn’t the best, but from the way she’d been talking (and probably from my own growing pessimism over the situation), I’d actually been at least half-expecting a lot worse than that.

“Yes,” Kay confirmed. “Physical contact will reveal whether the person being touched has been possessed. It need not be skin-to-skin, simple contact will be sufficient. Presuming,” she added, “that the contact is not hindered by anything thicker than perhaps a couple layers of clothing.”

She offered the choker to me then, her expression softening. “In other situations, I might offer to try to fix it. But I’m afraid that, as little as we understand the enchantment itself, any more work done to it may damage the magic further. Trying to expand its ability could make it worse, or simply remove its power entirely. If you can accept the limitation, it would be safest to leave it.” After a brief pause, she added, “In any case, this enchantment is a work of art. I have honestly never seen anything like it before. And I have been working with magic for a very long time.”

“Yeah…” I murmured, taking the choker from her thoughtfully. Maybe Wyatt could do something else with it. But I wasn’t going to say that to her after everything she’d done. Instead, I turned slightly and offered the choker to Roxa. “We got it for you,” I reminded her. “If you want it.”

Instead of taking the choker, however, the girl hesitated before looking toward Mateo. “I… I’m going to stay with the wolves. If that’s okay with you,” she added quickly, toward the pack leader.

I wasn’t that surprised. After everything that happened back during the fight, when she’d taken off to help her pack, I’d kind of expected her to choose to stay. After all, the werewolves had accepted her even knowing she was a Heretic, while she would have to trick the Heretics to accept her after becoming a werewolf. If it was me, I’d probably choose to stay with them too.

For Mateo’s part, he simply smiled. “If that’s your choice, then yes, of course. You are a part of this pack for as long as you want to be.” As he spoke, the man reached out and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder while repeating, “If it is your choice.”

“It is,” Roxa confirmed. “I want to stay with you guys. I’d rather be able to be myself, all of myself, than hide behind a magical artifact.”

With a sly look in his eyes, Mateo winked. “Well, I would say that the girl who went and killed Lemuel would be welcome in any pack she wanted to join. Are you sure that you want to stick with our little ragtag group? Maybe you’d feel more at home with one of the big fancy packs. With the rep you’re getting, you could probably even start out pretty high up.”

“Yeah right,” she snorted. “Pretty sure they wouldn’t want me after meeting me.” Looking toward me then, she blanched a little bit. “Sorry, after everything you went through to get it…”

Shiori spoke up before I could respond. “Hey, we needed the choker anyway. And besides,” she added easily, “just because you don’t want it right now doesn’t mean you can never use it. Since we have it, and it’s supposed to work, anytime you need to talk to a Heretic, you could just borrow it.”

I nodded at with that. “She’s right, anytime you want it, it’s yours. And,” I added with a quick look toward Avalon, “if you could actually use it really soon, and talk to your old team so that they know you’re okay and stop looking at me like I’m the devil or something. That would be really cool.”

Roxa snickered a little bit, covering her mouth. “They’ve been really coming after you, huh?”

“Actually,” I corrected her while shaking my head, “I would’ve preferred that kind of direct confrontation, honestly. Mostly they’re just staring at me, particularly when they don’t think I can see them. It’s kind of unnerving to keep glancing at a reflection, only to see one of them lurking around watching my every move. It’s kinda creepy. Please, tell them you’re okay and not stuffed into a freezer in my basement or something.”

Blinking at that, she gave a quick, vigorous nod. “Uh, oops. Yeah, I’ll talk to them in person. Maybe that’ll help get them off your case.”

Gabriel spoke up, his voice thoughtful. “If you’re going to be using it, maybe we should test the choker in a live situation, let you see how it actually lets you know that someone’s possessed.”

Shiori started, clearly reflexively. “If we had a Seosten, we could–oh, wait. Ermahgerd could possess people. Does that mean he’s a, uh, you know. A Natural you-know-what?”

Putting a hand over his mouth to cover an obvious smile briefly, Gabriel corrected, “It’s Enguerrand, actually, not, ah, Ermahgerd. And yes, he is what you call a natural-Seosten Heretic.” To me, he added, “If you would like to test the choker, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”

I agreed with that, and he called the knight-guy over. A brief explanation followed before Ermagh–damn it, Shiori– before Enguerrand nodded to me. “Of course, m’lady. ‘Twould be my honor to assist in this endeavor.” To Gabriel, he added, “Prithee, allow me entrance briefly?”

“Of course, Guerrand,” the other man agreed before bowing his head a little bit as he waited.

As the rest of us watched closely, Enguerrand reached out to touch Gabriel’s arm. As soon as he made contact, the armored man disappeared, vanishing entirely in an instant. A second later, Gabriel raised his head, giving a brief shudder before moving his eyes to me. “I am prepared.”

Kay gestured to me then. “There is no command phrase or any other method of activation. Simply put the choker on and then touch him. It should signal the truth to you immediately.”

So, I followed her instructions. Lifting the choker to my neck, I slipped it on and tightened it a bit before taking a breath. As soon as it was comfortable, I slowly reached out to touch the possessed-Gabriel’s arm with two fingers, a bit gingerly since I didn’t know what would happen.

As it turned out, what happened was simple: I saw a blurry, almost translucent  overlay of Enguerrand over top of Gabriel’s body that disappeared and reappeared randomly for a few seconds. When Gabriel’s body moved, the image of the other man duplicated the motion.

It lasted about six seconds through that brief touch, enough time to definitely notice without completely taking over or going on for too long. Other than that, there was no alert or anything. Touching him didn’t burn, or give an electric shock, or any of the other things I’d worried about.

Meanwhile, Shiori, Avalon, Roxa, and even Mateo were all watching me anxiously. Roxa was the first one to find her voice. “So?” she pressed curiously. “Does the thing work, or what?”

“It works,” I confirmed with a nod before explaining what I saw. Taking the choker off, I offered it to Avalon first, so she could try. One by one, she, Shiori, and Roxa used the choker before touching Gabriel to see what it was like. Once they were done, Enguerrand released him and stepped out, shaking himself off. “I believe,” he announced “that it has performed as desired?”

“Exactly as desired,” I confirmed, looking at the choker in my hand after Roxa handed it back to me. “I mean, it’d be easier if it worked all the time, constantly. But if it’s a choice between not working at all and needing to touch them, I’ll go with touching them every goddamn time.”

“Sure,” Shiori piped up. “And it’s not like it’ll be hard to touch anyone close enough to you to be a threat. Just gotta make up an excuse to hug them or something. Oh, and not give it away.”

I nodded at that. “Exactly. Finding the one that Charmiene is possessing shouldn’t be that hard, not with this. But we can’t go after her until we find out who the other guy is possessing. That um, Manakel guy. He’s gonna be harder. But we can start ruling people out. Like Deveron.”

That was one of the biggest reliefs of all this. Not only would we be able to find out who was possessed, we would also be able to find out who wasn’t possessed. And as soon as we could start ruling them out, we could start confiding in them again. I was really looking forward to that part. This whole ‘keeping secrets from my friends and people I trusted’ thing was for the birds.  

Gabriel started to say something then, before pausing. Raising his gaze to look past me, he spoke with a slight smile, musing aloud, “Maybe now is a good time to take a short break.”

“A short brea–” I started to question that before glancing back to see what he was looking at. What I saw was my father walking into view from around one of the cabins, accompanied by Asenath, Twister, and Calice, the female Relekun (tree-person) that I’d met before.

I stopped talking. Every other thought left my head. Before I knew what I was doing, my body had already pivoted, and my feet were carrying me that way. I sprinted, trying to call out, but the words caught themselves in a lump in my throat. Finally, I managed a thoroughly choked, “Dad!”

My father’s arms opened as I approached, and just like that, I was a little kid again. I could bench a thousand pounds, but I was a little kid again. I had just been involved in a massive battle against the largest combined pack of werewolves (and other weres) on the continent, but I was a little kid again. My father had his arms around me… and I was a little kid again.

I held tight (but not too tight) to the man who had raised me pretty much on his own for the past decade, who had spent ten years thinking that his wife had abandoned him and their child for no reason, who had broken through the Bystander Effect to learn what really happened. I wrapped my arms around him and held on, clutching my father for the first time since he had discovered the truth. Sure, we’d talked over the phone. But that was different from actually being there with him. Nothing, not even Fossor himself, could have made me let go in that moment.

For awhile, there was nothing else but this: holding onto my dad and feeling him holding onto me. I didn’t care about anything. The whole camp could have spontaneously exploded and it was iffy whether I would have noticed or not. My dad was there. That was all that mattered.

He seemed just as affected. I felt his arms close around me, and remembered all the times that I had run into his arms as a child, or crawled into his bed after a nightmare, or clutched onto him in the middle of the day for no reason other than the terrible thought of losing him like I had my mother. Every time, no matter what he had been busy with, my father had held me for just as long as I needed him to. He was never too busy for me, never too distracted to give me all the support and reassurance that he could. He was my dad.

My dad.

After a minute or so, I felt him run a hand up and down my back, coaxing me a little bit. “Well, hey, you.” There was a smile in his voice as he gently kissed the top of my head. “Fancy meeting you in a place like this.” Even though he was teasing, I could hear the lump in his voice.

Despite myself, I reflexively replied, “You’re right, I did meet Fancy in a place like this.”

With a tiny smirk, Dad raised an eyebrow. “Damn, you met the kobold too, huh? I had a whole thing planned for that.” He used a hand to muss up my hair. “Oh well, glad you’re here.”

“I had to come,” I pointed out, gulping before continuing, “you’d get lost without me around to help.”

“Kid,” my dad announced while leaning back so that he could put a finger under my chin, lifting it up to meet my gaze. “I’d be lost without you, period.”

“Dad…  Daddy.” Choking up again, I dropped my head to his chest and hugged my father once more, unable to help myself.

That took another brief time before I gathered myself, straightening to look at him. “Dad,” I whispered hoarsely. “I don’t… I don’t know where to start.”

“Honestly?” he replied, “neither do I. I–Felicity, you’ve got so much going on. All this–everything you’ve been doing, it–how are you even–” He sighed, embracing me tightly once more for a moment. “Did you… do what you needed to?”

“Pace got away,” I admitted. “But we got what we needed from her, and they think it’s destroyed.” Pausing, I added, “And Roxa killed their pack leader.”

“Killed.” Dad’s voice was flat. “You… say that so easily. You–”

“I killed too,” I admitted quietly, glancing away for a moment. “I killed then, and I killed before. Self-defense, mostly.” I wasn’t sure if it counted when the school put us in the situation where we had to fight to survive. But then again, the things we hunted were killing innocent people, or would have if we didn’t intercede, so… talk about a gray area.

“There’s a lot I don’t understand yet,” Dad murmured, watching me intently. “But I know you. If you say you had to do it…” His head shook. “God, Flick, this is… and your mom is–”

“Alive,” I interrupted. “That’s the important part. She’s alive and she’s out there. We just have to–to find her.”

Dad looked at me again, his gaze serious. “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to it than that,” he pointed out. “But… you’re right. We’ll find her. Right now I’m just trying to wrap my head around all this.”

Smiling a little, I nodded. “Take your time. You… um, seem to be coping with it pretty well, actually.”

His voice was dry. “With my job, I’ve learned how to freak out on the inside.”

From that point, my brain stalled out for a moment. There was so much I wanted to say to my dad, so much I wanted to get his opinion on, now that I could actually talk to him in person instead of just over the phone. “I…” Swallowing, I reflexively looked over my shoulder. And then I knew.

We had the choker. Soon, I would use it to check each and every person on our team, and everyone else that I could. We would figure out who Charmeine and Manakel were possessing. We would find a way to deal with all that. I would tell my dad everything I could. I would do everything I needed to do.

But right now, there was something that I wanted to do. So I took my father my the hand, leading him back that way.

“You, um, you know Shiori,” I started, weirdly nervous. “And this is-um, this is Avalon.

“Avalon, this is my dad.”

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

One thing that I obviously had to ask before we went anywhere else with this particular conversation was a simple, “How? How’d you guys get out of the house? How did you get away from the werewolves? They said–they said it looked like the wolves were killed by a bunch of Heretics, but I know it wasn’t–I mean, if it was some of Gabriel’s people, he would’ve said so.”

“Not a bunch of Heretics,” Dad corrected. “Just one, actually. A powerful one, I think. Not that I have a lot to compare it to, but from what I saw, she’s pretty damn powerful. Scary powerful. She’s the one who weakened that memory suppression thing so I’d have a chance to break through it. Pretty sure if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be clueless. Not to mention dead right now.”

“One Heretic?” My eyes widened as I echoed those words. “You mean a Heretic broke the Bystander Effect for you? Or helped you break it. But who–what–how? What do you-”

“She was part of the Committee,” my father interrupted with a statement that made me give a choked gasp. “The uh, Crossroads Committee? That’s the group that–the leaders, right?”

“Th-the Committee?” I managed through a strangled voice. “The Committee as in that Committee? But–but who–what? You said she. As in a woman. Who was–I mean which one-”

“She said her name was Calafia,” he answered quietly. “Does that… mean anything to you?”

Calafia. Wait. Calafia? As in the dark-skinned woman who had never really said that much? I tried to think back to the single interaction I’d had with the woman while meeting the Committee.

She hadn’t said that much, I remembered. She’d spoken up to say that Litonya hadn’t been accusing me of anything, and to tell me that anytime I needed to take a break, I could. Other than that I couldn’t really remember anything she’d done. Mostly, she stayed in the background.

“She said that she owed your mother,” Dad interrupted my tornado of rebounding thoughts and confusion. “She said she owed Joselyn more than she could ever repay, but that one thing she could do was make sure her husband learned the truth. I don’t know what that meant.”

It made sense. Gabriel had said that the person who helped break the Bystander Effect for my dad had wanted to help, and that they did so because they owed my mother. And if anyone was going to be powerful enough to make it so that a normal human could break through the Bystander Effect, it would be someone who was part of the Committee. Still, I was stunned.

I was going to have to talk to her. Somehow, someway, I had to find out more about Calafia and what she owed my mother. I had to talk to her about my mother, about everything. If she could help… I shook that off, along with all the accompanying paranoia. Or tried to, at the very least.

Finally, I took a breath. “I guess you kinda want to know how my year’s been going so far, huh?”

“That’d be nice,” Dad replied dryly. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and we’ll go from there?”

“From the beginning?” I echoed before nodding. “Alright, here goes…” So I started to tell him what had happened, from the beginning. Starting with right after I left our house that first day.

“So let me get this straight,” my father asked in a tone that betrayed some combination of curiosity and indignance. “You just woke up on that bus, alone and in the middle of nowhere?”

Coughing, I nodded to myself. It felt like so long ago. It had only been a few months, but somehow, it seemed like that had happened at least a couple years back. “Yeah, I guess they still hadn’t quite decided what to do with me right up until the very last second. The Committee ended up with an unbreakable tie, so they had to have Gaia–Headmistress Sinclaire come in and break it. That’s why I didn’t get the normal orientation that all the other Bystander-kin got.”  

Pausing briefly, Dad started slowly. “Bystander–oh, that’s what they call… what, like Mug–”

“Ordinary humans, yeah,” I interrupted while shaking my head. “Bystanders. People like me, the ones that were raised in ordinary families are called Bystander-kin. Or Silverstones. As in–”

“Alicia, Clueless,” Dad cut in before grunting. “Not exactly a ringing endorsement or praise.”

“You got that faster than I did,” I muttered before taking a breath. “But yeah, that’s the term they use. And you should see the school here, Dad. It’s on this tropical island, with this ocean and a jungle everywhere. A real jungle, with all these wild animals and everything. It’s really pretty, gorgeous I mean, which is totally purposeful  and–and you’ve gotta meet my sharks, and–”

“I’m sorry, what?” Dad interrupted while sounding completely incredulous. “Did you just say I have to meet your sharks? Wait a second, kid. I know I’ve been pretty cool about this whole secret society of monster hunters thing, but did you go and join a finger-snapping gang that spontaneously breaks out into song too? Because I honestly don’t know if I could handle that.”

Covering my mouth with one hand to hide the snicker, I took a moment before replying as flatly as I could, “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are, you know. No, they’re real sharks. They’re like, umm, my friends. It’s sort of a um, a power that I inherited, taming these sharks.”

“A power you inherited by…” Dad started before trailing off. His voice was quieter. “By killing.”

Flinching a little bit, I sat up in bed to put my back against the headboard. “Would it help if I said the shark guy was attacking at the time, and that it was self-defense? And defense of others.”

“Kid,” Dad replied low, his voice quiet, yet firm. “I know you. You may have all this training, may have fought monsters and seen more crazy shit in a few months than I’ve seen in my entire life. But l know you. Of course it was self-defense. I’d never question that. You’ve done what you had to do. I’m not gonna run in and try to take over, try to pretend that I know better than you. Yeah, I’m your dad. But right now I feel about as clueless as…” He sighed, voice going a bit darker. “I’m your dad, I’m supposed to protect you from this stuff. But I’m not gonna pretend I can now. I’m not gonna act like a stubborn ass and start screwing everything up. So just… tell me what happened, all right? Tell me all of it, because if I’m gonna help at all, I need to know.”

Biting my lip, I backed up a bit. I told my father about seeing the light from the Heretical Edge. I told him about my vision, about recognizing Gaia. I told him about meeting my team, playing with Herbie, how much of an ass Deveron acted like at first, and more. I told him about how the food was delivered, how the room keys automatically unlocked our rooms when we got close to them, about choosing my weapon, my first classes, everything I could think of that had been my initial impression of the school over that first day or two. I told him all of it, trying to set the stage.

Then I told him about Professor Pericles. I told him about the man’s death, about how he had been murdered. And I told him about the Peridles attacking Avalon and me in the locked room.

“Wait, wait,” Dad interrupted. “How do you spell that name? The Peridles.” After I told him, he asked how to spell Pericles, then coughed. “Isn’t that weird? They’re only off by one letter. Pericles and Peridles. It might sound different, but spelling-wise, it’s just one letter.”

He was right. There was a difference in sound, with Pericles sounding like ‘Pair-Uh-Klees’ while Peridles was ‘Pair-uh-dulls’. But the spelling was almost identical. “Uhh, yeah.” I blinked a couple times. “I dunno if that means anything or is just a coincidence, but… yeah, they are.”

I continued from there, telling my dad everything I could remember. Or at least summarizing it. Over the next hour, I kept talking until my throat felt hoarse. Through it all, my father interjected a few times, making his own observations and questioning where he needed to for clarification. But mostly, he listened. And there was a lot of listening to do. Hell, up until I’d actually had to explain as much of it as possible, I hadn’t really comprehended just how much was going on.

“Damn, kid,” Dad finally muttered by the end. “When do you ever eat and sleep? Let alone study. Wait, you do have normal classes up there, right? Not just the monster hunting ones.”

Yup, still my dad. Chuckling despite myself, I replied, “Yes, Dad. All sorts of normal classes. Geography, Trig, Chemistry, the lot. I promise, I’m still getting all that stuff. Maybe a little slower than I would’ve because, let’s face it, there’s only so many hours in the day. But I’m getting it.”

“Good, good. I…” Trailing off, Dad took a moment to search for what to say next, grasping for the right words. “You know, I just… I just want to tell you… I want to tell you to stop all this, Flick. I want to tell you to stop all of it and just come here, to run away from it and hide. I want to tell you to leave it alone. But I get the feeling that,” he swallowed audibly, “that wouldn’t work.”

Swallowing hard, I bit my lip before answering. “No, Dad. It wouldn’t. Fossor, he’s gonna come for me regardless, as soon as I’m eighteen. At least here I can get training. And I have friends, friends that I can’t just abandon. Not with everything that’s going on. I need them, and they need me. It’s scary, yeah. But it’s really important too. It’s important and I can’t just walk away from it.”  

“I know, kid.” Dad’s voice was soft and quiet, and I could almost feel his frustration and helplessness. “I know you can’t. And–and I wouldn’t want you to. Not really. You’re just–you’re my girl. You’re my kid, kid. The more I hear about all this stuff, all these people, the power they’ve got, I just… I can’t do anything about it. I can’t fucking do anything to help you, not now.”

“You’re wrong, Dad,” I objected. “Just talking to you about this stuff, it helps. I can… I can think about it a lot more clearly. It’s less… jumbled in my head just from talking about it. That helps.”

There was a brief pause then before he started slowly, “Your mom, when you… when she talked to you through the… the monkey-thing, are you sure she–I mean are you positive it was–”

“It was her,” I promised him. “It was Mom, I swear. She’s… she’s with that fucking psychopath, that piece of shit. But it was her. She was Mom. Dad, she.. She didn’t–I mean it wasn’t her…” My eyes were filling up despite myself, despite the fact that I’d thought I’d already cried myself out earlier while explaining all of this the first time. “She didn’t abandon us, Daddy.” My voice was weak, even to my own ears. It sounded cracked and frail. “She didn’t really abandon us.”

The emotion in Dad’s voice matched what I felt. I could hear the cracks in it, could practically feel his desire to grab onto me. “I know, kid. She didn’t. She was saving you. She–” There was a brief pause as he fought to get himself under control, at least enough to speak. “She did everything for you. She never stopped being her. She didn’t…” He paused again, and I could almost hear his shudder before he continued quietly, yet firmly. “She never stopped loving you.”

“And she didn’t stop loving you either, Dad,” I added, just as firmly. “She’s Mom. She’s… she’s amazing. She always was. Even when they tried to take that away. She became a sheriff, Dad. She never, never stopped trying to help people. And now she’s–that fucking son of a bitch. That–” I stopped talking, my eyes squeezed as tightly shut as I could manage. Yet even that wasn’t tight enough to stop the few tears from leaking out, sliding down my face. “That monster.”

There was a little more then between the two of us, not all of it very coherent. We talked both to and at each other. Some of what we said was just… noise, emotional noise that was somewhat comforting. A lot would’ve meant very little to any outside audience. We were telling stories about Mom, about what we remembered. Only they weren’t the entire story. They didn’t need to be. One of us would start to say a couple words, and the other would know what we meant. Three words of an entire story, and none of the rest needed to actually be said. And this time, for once in the past decade, the stories weren’t tainted by the idea that she had abandoned us.

From there, I shifted back into talking more about the school. Dad asked questions, some of which I’d already thought of and some I hadn’t. His questions even helped lead me to my own.

It was just like when things were still more normal, when life wasn’t so crazy and he’d help me talk through some story I was writing for the school paper. It helped clear my head, helped me notice little things that I hadn’t before. Maybe none of it would actually pay off, but it still helped.

Mostly I just… enjoyed talking to my dad. Clearing things up, telling stories about my friends, my teammates, about everything that had happened, both the funny things and the scary ones. Bringing up to date on everything would take awhile, longer than this phone call. But I made the very best attempt that I could. We kept switching between my stories and Dad’s reactions, his thoughts, his jokes, his… everything. He had his opinions, his ideas, his thoughts to share.

He also wanted to punch Ruthers in the face. Actually, Dad went on at length about just how much he wanted to knock the guy’s teeth out. In detail and with vivid descriptions. It was nice to listen to, even if it was pretty much a pipe dream. Still, the thought of my dad laying Ruthers out on his ass was a really nice one. I had to smile while holding that special image in my head.

And he asked about Deveron. Not only him, but also Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren. He wanted to know all about Mom’s family. He wanted to meet them. I could hear the slight hesitance in his voice about meeting Deveron. Honestly, I would’ve been hesitant too, in his situation. The thought of meeting his wife’s first husband, the man he had never known about, had to be intimidating. But he still wanted to. He wanted to talk to them, all of them. He wanted to be a part of things. And now that he could remember what was going on, now that the Bystander Effect no longer worked on him, I wanted that too. But it was going to wait. For a few days at least, those reps from the Committee were going to pay entirely too much attention for me to take off. They’d be watching for me to try to disappear, probably thinking I’d sneak off to meet Mom.

“But Dad,” I eventually put in, “you guys can’t just stay wherever you are. The Heretics are gonna be looking for you. The Heretics, the Seosten, the werewolves, they’ll all be looking for you. I mean, Twister and Asenath are good, but you guys need help. You need…” I paused, lifting my chin thoughtfully. “You need to go to the lake, the place where Gabriel’s camp is. The Atherby camp. They’ll take you in, I know they will. There’s no way anyone’ll find you there.”

“You think they’ll go for that?” Dad asked slowly. “I mean, I’d like to meet them, your mom’s… people, I guess. That… Gabriel guy, he’s really the same guy from the history books?”

I laughed a little. “Yeah, and like I said, Professor Virginia Dare really is that Virginia Dare.”

“And I met her.” Dad’s voice trailed off, the awe apparent before he shook it off. “I’ve got so many questions the next time she shows up. The–the colony, do you know what happened to-”  

Snickering despite myself, I nodded. “Yup. But I’ll let her tell you about it. I think she liked meeting you too, Dad. And she’ll like it more now that you know what’s really going on. Soon, the next time you meet. But right now, speaking of that other historical figure, yeah, I know Gabriel’ll take you guys in. The Atherby clan’ll love having you, Dad. Just give me a sec. I’ll call him up and make plans for it. Wait, where are you guys? I mean, where can you get to easily?”

He told me where they were, just a little bit outside of the absurdly small town of Dixon, Wyoming. But it didn’t matter how big the town was. Gabriel would be able to find them there.

Telling my dad I’d call him back in just a minute, I disconnected before quickly dialing one of the numbers that had been magically sealed into my memory with that spell. It rang three times before being picked up.

“Felicity,” Gabriel’s voice wasn’t at all surprised by my call, even this late. “I take it you’ve had a chance to speak with your father.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, nodding quickly. “And I was wondering if you’d… um, pick them up? They’ve got a lot of people after them right now. I trust Senny, but…”

“But there’s no need to push things,” he confirmed. “Of course. The rest of the clan has been asking why we haven’t gone after them already. But we… it was better to wait for the invitation.”

Quickly, I told him where they were, and he promised to go collect them before anyone else caught up. Then he assured me that Dad and the others would be safe at the lake, and that I could come see them as soon as I could get away

“Um, one more question,” I put in then. “Did you–I mean…” Biting my lip, I explained about what had happened to those other Heretics, about the woman with the golden aura that killed them to save the Alters.

“I didn’t hear about that,” he murmured softly. “Do you think it was–”

“I don’t know, but they think so.” I sighed. “So I can’t get away, not as long as those guys are paying so much attention. Just… take care of my dad, please.”

“You have my word,” Gabriel assured me. “I’ll go and bring them in right now. Tell your father to meet at the post office in town.”

I confirmed that before hanging up, then dialed my father back. Telling him where to go and what to look for, I promised him that we’d talk again soon. He made me swear that the second I could get away from the island, I’d come talk to him in person. Actually, he made me swear it three different times. So I did. And I made him promise to be careful and to stay at the camp.

Finally finished, at least for the moment, I disconnected the phone and set it beside me on the bed.

I meant to run through things in my head some more. I meant to write in my notebook, think everything through again, maybe even get a little studying in. I meant to do all of that. But in the end, after everything that I’d been through that day, after everything that had happened, my brain was just on its last legs.

I blinked, and the next thing I knew, it was morning, and the phone was ringing next to my head. Groggily, I fumbled for it, blinking a few times before managing to hit the button. “Yeah?”

“Hey, Chambers, you busy?” Roxa’s voice spoke.

“Because you’ve got that big stick, and we’re looking at a whole lotta werewolves that probably wanna do worse than play fetch right now.”

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Mini-Interlude 29 – Lincoln, Asenath, And Twister

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Asenath and Twister explaining the truth to Lincoln. I hope you enjoy it. 

“You were a bear.”

The words came in a flat, stunned voice as Lincoln Chambers stared at the young, dark-skinned girl in the backseat of the car beside him. Asenath had ordered them both back there before taking her place behind the wheel (somehow, he hadn’t managed to bring himself to question being ordered into the backseat of his own vehicle) and hightailing it away from the house. Now she was following the speed limit (barely), making seemingly random turns along the dark streets.

The girl, in turn, gave him a thumbs up. “And then I was a squirrel. Kinda see why the bear stands out though. Going from bear to squirrel, it’s like following up Sammy Hagar with Gary Cherone. I mean, it worked when they went from David Lee Roth to Hagar. But Cherone is no Hagar.”

“Twister, is anyone following us?” Asenath asked from the driver’s seat as she took another turn.

Turning to look behind them for a few seconds, the other girl scanned the dark street. She watched a couple passing cars before shaking her head and turning back to face the front. “Looks clear, for now. But they’ll pick up the scent. Just a matter of time. The furballs are persistent.”

“Okay… okay.” Lincoln was struggling to keep up with what was happening. It wasn’t working that well. He was light-headed. “You’re a… you’re a shapeshifter, and those w-were werewolves. Real, actual werewolves. And they were really… oh.” He sat back a bit heavily. Now that the immediate adrenaline from the attack at his home was over, he was starting to feel dizzy.

“Hey, hey, stay with us.” The girl, Twister, turned in her seat to wave a hand in his face. “You went through all the trouble of kicking the Bystander Effect’s ass. You really wanna ruin it by fainting?”

Before Lincoln could find his voice, Asenath pulled into the driveway of a house. “Let’s go,” she instructed, already opening her door before hopping out. She turned, opening Lincoln’s door before holding a hand out to him. “I promised you an explanation, Mr. Chambers. And you’ll get it, but we’ve got to make sure we’re safe first.”

He hesitated only briefly before taking the offered hand. As the girl helped him out of the car, Lincoln looked around. “I know this place. It used to be Pat Mulhaney’s place before he moved.”

Asenath nodded distractedly while moving to the garage. “Yeah, I bought it. Needed a place to bounce to if anything happened. Like a pack of werewolves crashing the party.” She flipped up the cover of the keypad at the garage and hit several buttons before the garage door began to rise.

“But we’re not staying here,” Lincoln guessed. “Werewolves, if they’re anything like real wolves, they could find this place pretty quick. With their…” He paused, gesturing toward his own nose.

Twister was looking at him with admiration, head nodding. “Hey, you’re not too bad at this for a total Bystander. You’d be surprised how many guys out there forget that wolves can track their scent. I mean, it’s cool when it works in my favor, but seriously people.”

Asenath nodded, standing in front of the now-open garage as she gestured toward a nondescript sedan that sat there. “Right, we’re not staying here. Just switching cars. We’ll put some distance between us and the fidos before hitting the next step. Here.” Walking past the car to a tall fire-safe that took up one corner of the garage, she hit a few buttons on the keypad there before opening it. Within, Lincoln could see several boxes and duffle bags. “Get the trunk, would you?” she instructed, tossing the car keys to him.

He did, unlocking the trunk with the keys before opening it. “What’s all thi–” As he turned back while starting to ask his question, his eyes barely caught a glimpse of a blur of motion. It was like watching something on extreme fast-forward. Within a few seconds, the trunk was full and the fire-safe was empty. Asenath had one hand on the trunk, the other on one of the stored boxes.

“There’s clothes, food, money, stuff we need to be on the road,” she informed him. Then her voice softened a little bit. “And…” Pausing, the girl opened the box, gesturing for Lincoln to take a look.

Frowning thoughtfully, the man reached out to tug the side of the box so he could look in. What he saw made him blink. His expression softened, and he reached in to take out a framed photograph. It was a picture of Joselyn and him on their wedding day, a picture that had been hanging on the wall in the living room. “I don’t understand,” he started. “This was back at the house. What did-” He stopped as his other hand came out of the box with a piece of paper with a crayon drawing over it. Flick’s, from when she was in the first grade. It had been put away in a box in his office ever since she had decided it was too embarrassing to have the thing up on the fridge anymore.

Asenath’s voice was quiet. “I made copies of everything that I thought was important, things that you wouldn’t want to lose. Pictures, your wedding license, birth certificates, anything special.”

Something caught in Lincoln’s throat then. “Y-you brought copies of everything and kept them–”

“No,” she interrupted. “The copies are back at the house. Just so you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. These are the originals. I’ve been smuggling them out a bit at a time for weeks. I just–” She paused, biting her lip. “I know what this kind of stuff can mean. I didn’t want you to lose it.”

There was absolutely nothing that Lincoln could say that would adequately portray his feelings in that moment. A simple ‘thank you’ was woefully, pathetically inadequate. And by the time he had found enough of his voice to say anything at all, Asenath had already moved to the front of the car. “Everyone in, we need miles between us and the wolves. Preferably hundreds of them.”

Forcing himself to focus, Lincoln put the pictures back into the box and closed the trunk before making his way around to the front passenger side. He slipped in, his voice curious as he asked, “They’ll still be able to track our scents, won’t they?”

“We’ll deal with that as soon as we get some distance,” Asenath replied while turning the car on. She waited while the other girl hopped into the back before reversing out of the garage, narrowly avoiding his car in the process. As she expertly whipped the car out onto the street, the girl added, “Miles first, then we’ll take the time to get rid of the smell. Trust me, we’ve done this before.”  

“Ran from werewolves before, she means,” Twister put in. “Taking a Bystander with us who’s somehow managed to break the Bystander Effect without being an Alter, that’s pretty new.”

“Bystander, Alter, Bystander Effect, what is all this?” Lincoln asked, his head shaking. “And why are those werewolves after us? And what–sorry.” He coughed. “Start wherever you need to.”

“Right, starting…” Asenath paused before gesturing over her shoulder with one hand as she took a sharp turn, heading for the exit from town to get onto the freeway. “First, that’s Twister. Say hi.”

“Hi.” Twister gave him a little wave. “We’ve met a few times. You gave me part of your sub a week ago.”

“That was y–of course it was you.” Lincoln coughed. “You’ve been watching me during the day.”

“While I slept,” Asenath confirmed. “Next, you’re a Bystander. It means a normal human. Well, normally it means a human that can’t see or remember supernatural things, but you can now, so I’m not sure what you are. Point is, Bystanders are ordinary humans. It’s a Heretic term, but a lot of Alters started using it too. You know, the ones that don’t just call you slaves or dinner instead.”

She let that sit for a second before continuing. “Next, Twister, me, those werewolves, and a bunch of other things are called Alters. Well, we all have different names for each other and ourselves, but collectively Alter is the most common word. It means ‘Alternative-from-human.’ Some of the older things, the ones that were never human and don’t have any ties to humanity, hate it. They don’t think we should define ourselves by what we are in relation to humans. But still, it stuck.”

“Bystanders, Alters, got it.” Sitting back, Lincoln glanced out the car window. “And the Immortals-”

“They’re not actually immortal, lots of them just tend to live for a long time,” Asenath corrected. “And they’re the ones we keep calling Heretics. That’s what they call themselves. Heretic, because they believe in all the supernatural stuff that would’ve made normal humans call them–you know.” She gave a slight smirk then before adding, “They used to be normal humans.”

“Used to be?” Lincoln frowned. “I thought it was a… uh, genetic thing. Joselyn was an Imm–Heretic, so Flick became one. Figured it was just a part of her, so they recruited her.”

Asenath shook her head then. “It’s kind of inherited, just not really genetically. I mean, as far as we know. Maybe being a Heretic-child makes you more likely to get good powers or something…”

“Get good powers?” He turned away from the window then to look at her, eyes widening just a little. “Powers, as in… actual powers. Like that woman back at the house was using.”

“Yeah, that’s–” Asenath paused, looking thoughtful as if she was trying to decide the best way to explain it. “Okay, first, let’s back up. Bystander Effect. It’s a bit of powerful magic that makes it so that every normal human that sees something supernatural either forgets what they saw, or never actually recognizes it for what it is. Say a bunch of harpies fly right over your head, you’ll think you saw a flock of birds. Get jumped by a chupacabra, you’ll see it as a wild dog. Anything obviously supernatural happens, you’ll see it, but as soon as it stops, you’ll forget what you saw. Or it’ll just rewrite your memory with something else. Same thing if you actually start putting things like this together. As soon as you actually believe anything supernatural happened, your memory’s gone.”

“Magic,” Lincoln echoed flatly. “Like, magic-magic. I–right. Yeah, that thing is a pain in the ass.”

“Tell me about it.” The girl’s words were hard, making Lincoln think that she’d had her own bad experiences dealing with that particular problem. “That’s what it is, a giant pain in the ass.”

Shaking her head then, she continued. “Anyway, Bystander Effect, Bystanders. Then we have Heretics. Basically, any time a human mixes their blood with an Alter, they’ve got a decent chance of turning into what they call a Natural Heretic. That’s sort-of a human-Alter hybrid. Human being with the strengths and powers from whatever Alter they were mixed with. Say you’ve got a banshee that attacks a human. Their blood mixes. The human’ll start getting the abilities of a banshee. Loud scream, sense impending death, some kind of ghost-form, the lot. Sometimes they get every power at low strength and gradually improve, sometimes they get one at a higher strength and gradually gain others over time. Point is, Natural Heretic. They get the powers of the Alter they were mixed with, they can use magic, and the Bystander Effect doesn’t work anymore ”

Lincoln digested that for a few seconds. Humans mixing their blood with supernatural creatures to gain their powers, he could see how stuff like that could happen. So many rituals in ancient civilizations had to do with blood. And yet… “That’s not what happened with Felicity, is it?”

From the backseat, Twister piped up. “Nope, she’s a member of what we call the extra-judgey Heretics.” After a pause, she added, “Not that she’s that judgey. You know, since we’re here.”

Asenath snorted at that. “Right, there’re these Alters called Reapers. As in–”

“As in the Grim Reaper?” Lincoln swallowed hard at that. “Take your soul to the afterlife Reaper?”

“Not quite that metaphysical,” she replied while shaking her head. “But still, pretty damn dangerous. They’re some of the most powerful Alters you’ll ever see. They feed off death. They can sense it. So they show up where there’s a lot of death and sort of… feast off it. Plus, every time they feed off something’s death, they gain their powers, memories, skills, all of it.”

“Wait.” Lincoln frowned. “Something like that has to be rare, right? Something that can get all that power, there’s no way that there’s a lot of them. So what does that have to do with this Crossroads place? What, do they have one of those things chained up in the basement to bleed it whenever they-oh my God, they have one of those things chained up in the basement to bleed it.”

“Not… exactly,” Asenath put in slowly. She hesitated a bit before starting to explain. She told him about Hieronymous Bosch, the Hangman-Reaper he had killed, and how the man had founded Crossroads by creating what they now called the Heretical Edge, the instrument that created a hundred Reaper-Heretics every year. The Crossroads student body. She explained all of that, as well as how some parts of the school had broken off to form another group, Eden’s Garden.

“Right, so that’s bullshit,” Lincoln announced simply as soon as she was done. “The story, I mean, not just you saying it. I’m sure they tell the students that, but seriously? A man from hundreds of years ago created something that could make super-Heretics at the drop of a hat all by himself? It’s a lovely, inspiring story, sure. It gives the kids their very own founding father that beat impossible odds, created the thing that’s gonna give them all their fancy new power, and founded the school they’re about to join. Perfect little tale to get them to feel good about the place.”

“Now see,” Twister remarked happily from her place in the backseat, “I knew there was a reason I liked you. Your bullshit detector is phenomenal. You sure there isn’t any Luduan in your blood?”

Before Lincoln could ask what that was, Asenath explained, “Truth-detecting Alter. Anyway, you’re right. A lot of it’s bullshit. Not that we knew for sure until Flick went to the Meregan planet and–”

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Lincoln demanded, “I’m sorry, Flick did what?”

So they told him. Together, Asenath and Twister informed Lincoln of just what Felicity had done on the Meregan world, why she had been pulled there, and how she had helped the race of giants save their children. During the course of it, Asenath also told him about her sister and how Flick had been the one to pull the girl out of her misery over the revelation of her vampiric origin.

“That… explains a lot.” The man was quiet, thinking about that for a moment before letting out a sigh. “But wait, you said the Meregan pulled her there because they thought she was her mother. Joselyn knew the Meregan? And why was she… why was Joselyn pretending to be a normal person, and where…” They’d reached that most important question, possibly of his life. “Where did she go? Why did my wife disappear? Who was that man that came to threaten Flick?”

“Right, now we’re in the thick of it.” Asenath went quiet, hands tight on the wheel before she started. “Crossroads, they teach their kids that we’re all evil. Every Alter–well, they call us Strangers. Everything not-human is evil. They teach them to hunt us, kill us, gain our power, and hunt more of us down. They use magic, weapons, powers, everything to kill anything not-human.”  

“Of course they do,” Lincoln muttered under his breath. “It’s part of that whole ‘us versus them’ mentality, times a million. I’m sure they ran into plenty of bad Alters out there, decided you were all bad, and now they convince generation after generation to hunt you. So your only choice is to defend yourselves as soon as you see them, which just convinced them you’re evil all over again.”

“Pretty much,” Asenath confirmed quietly before sighing. “But Joselyn, apparently she was different. She went to Crossroads back around early nineteen hundreds, and she ended up starting this whole… rebellion against that stuff. She believed that there were good Alters and bad ones. So she, some other Heretics, and those good Alters all joined up to rebel and try to change things, try to make things better. They wanted good people on both sides, Alters and Heretics, to work together to protect Bystanders from the bad ones. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden… let’s just say they didn’t like that idea. So, they had a war. Your wife was the leader of the rebellion.”

“You were a part of that, weren’t you?” Lincoln realized, watching the girl’s expression as she spoke.

Her response was a single word. “Apparently.” Then, before he could ask what Asenath meant by that, she continued. “The rebellion went on for a few decades like that. We were… apparently doing pretty well. Good enough that they were losing people on their side faster than they could replace them with hardliners. Kinda hard to make all your students believe that Alters are all mindlessly evil monsters when they see their friends, family, and former classmates working alongside them. So they were gradually losing their hold. Every year that passed, more and more of their students were joining the rebellion. At least, I think that’s how it was going. The memories are…” She paused before shaking her head. “Never mind, we’ll get there.

“Anyway, it was going that way for awhile. Then… well, Gabriel Ruthers happened. He used to be the Headmaster of up at the Crossroads school. Then they made him part of the Committee. That’s the… their leadership, the leaders of the whole Crossroads society. They made him one of them partway into the war. And eventually, he decided that the best way to end the whole thing was to take Joselyn off the board. But he couldn’t beat her straight up, so… he… took her children.”

That brought Lincoln’s head snapping around. “That motherfucker did what?!”

“She had… twin babies,” Asenath’s voice was soft. “Ruthers, he had them kidnapped and then held them over her head. He ordered her to turn herself in, in exchange for her babies’…. In exchange for their lives.”

Lincoln had, quite honestly, never been so angry in his life. The things he had seen through his time in LA, some of it had been pretty bad. Even ‘abducted babies’ bad. But hearing that it had happened to the woman he loved, the woman he still loved even after all the time that had passed, it made him want to find the man who had taken her children away to use against her and rip that motherfucker apart with his bare hands.

Asenath was already continuing. She told him about the memory spell, about how the whole rebellion was erased from most of the people’s memories when the memory of Joselyn was taken away, and how the woman had been put into normal human society to live her life after that.

“But not everyone forgot her,” Lincoln realized. “That man that was here–”

“Fossor,” Twister supplied. “He’s a necromancer, and one scary dude.”

Asenath nodded. “That’s for sure. We don’t know exactly how he kept his memory of Joselyn, or how he found her later. But he did. From… from what we know, he showed up and threatened to take Flick away, to raise her as his… weapon, servant, whatever. But Joselyn made a deal with him, so he’d take her instead of her child. That’s… that’s why she disappeared.”

And there it was. After all this time. After all his wondering, agonizing over what he’d done wrong, or who had taken her, or what had happened, the answer was there. Lincoln finally knew, finally understood, why Joselyn had walked out of his life.

For Felicity. She had left to save Felicity from the terror, pain, and misery of a life in service to that monster. And in turn, she had taken on all it for herself. She had… she was… for ten years, Jos had been–

“Stop the car,” he managed through a strained voice. As the girl quickly pulled over to the side, Lincoln shoved his door open and half-fell out. Landing on his knees, he threw up.

It kept coming for a few seconds, before he simply knelt there with his eyes closed. His body felt like heaving again. He wished his soul could throw up. He wished he hadn’t seen as many things as he had as a reporter, so that his mind wouldn’t immediately jump to everything that that piece of shit had been doing to his wife, what he obviously wanted to do to Flick.

“That’s why he was here,” he managed once he’d picked himself up and gotten back in the car. “Because Flick found out about her mom, so she’s been looking for her. So he showed up to threaten her into leaving him alone.”

“Actually,” Twister corrected, “it was his son that came first. Daddy Necromancer was just there to grab his brat, and put in a little psychological trauma just for the hell of it.”

“His son?” Lincoln started before jerking in his seat as the realization came. “Ammon!” he blurted, eyes wide. “That’s why that kid was so obsessed with Felicity, why he was over all the time, why–what–what the hell did–”

“As far as we can tell,” Asenath informed him, “Ammon came by himself, of his own volition. That’s what got me involved. He… he killed a girl at a gas station on his way to town, Denise. Her mother called me–”

“Wait,” Lincoln interjected. “Her mother just called you? How did she get your number?”

Shrugging, Asenath replied, “I help people out. It’s what I do. Then I give them my number and tell them to have people call me if they know anyone who needs my kind of help. They think I’m just a really effective, really young-looking private detective.”

“That’s pretty… convenient, isn’t it?” Lincoln mused aloud. “I mean, I’m sure you’re effective. But this… Ammon kills one girl at a gas station somewhere… not even in town, and her mother just happens to get your phone number from someone, which just happens to lead you directly to our house? And that’s all just… coincidence? Who gave her mother your number?”

The question made Asenath blink, then frown. “… you know, I’m not… sure. Like I said, my number gets passed around, so I’m used to getting weird calls. But now that you say it like that…I think I need to call Denise’s mother the next time we get a chance.”

Shaking that off, she continued. “Either way, Ammon was here to see his sister. But he broke his Daddy’s rule about staying away from Flick, so Fossor came to get him. All those attacks that night, the ones all over the country, they were distractions. He wanted to make sure all of the Heretics that were supposed to be watching over Flick were too busy to interrupt.”

Slumping back in his seat, Lincoln forced back the urge to vomit once more. “Ammon is Joselyn’s… he…” Shuddering, he blinked a little. “But what does that have to do with the werewolves that attacked us? Do they work for this… Fossor?”

Coughing, Asenath shook her head. “Actually, the wolves have nothing to do with Fossor, as far as we know. No, that’s… something else.”

“Something else,” he echoed, staring at the vampire. “Just how busy has my daughter been this year? Does she even go to class?”

The girl chuckled slightly. “You’d be surprised. But we’re here.” She had pulled the car off the freeway by that point, stopping in the lot of an apartment building next to a blue SUV.

“Here?” Lincoln looked around. “What is this place?”

“Just a pitstop,” she answered. “Like the house back there in town, but further away. I’ve been renting an apartment here too. We should have time to get in there and let everyone take a shower to get your scent off. Then I’ve got fresh clothes for everyone. We toss the old ones and transfer all the stuff from the trunk into the new car.” She nodded to the SUV beside them. “Then we get the hell out of here. I wanna be back on the road in twenty minutes, max. So let’s move.

“And then,” she added while stepping out to start across the lot to the building, “I’ll tell you all about your daughter’s crippling inability to focus on one goddamn problem at a time.”

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Sharkhunt 23-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers’s efforts to bypass the Bystander Effect that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

It was time to head back to Crossroads. There was still a lot I wanted to ask these people who had grown up not just with my mother, but with more members of my family on that side. I had more questions than I could even keep straight in my head. Still, after waking Shiori and Avalon and as we walked back out of the cabin with Gabriel, one in particular stuck in my head.

So, looking toward the man who was guiding us, I started, “You said that they had this system for determining who would be the leader of the clan here, picking from the available heirs. But from what I can tell, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. That journal of his at the school was started in 1362, and from I’ve seen of it, he seemed to be the leader then. Not that it actually mentions the clan or anything, which is kind of… okay, it’s really weird that he doesn’t mention it.”

Gabriel gave a slight snort, head shaking as he glanced over toward me. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything you read from any of your ancestors that shows up in that school. It’s most likely been, let’s say ‘edited’ by their people. You think Ruthers would allow any mention of an alternative to their society in that school where impressionable young minds could pick it up?”

“Yeah, there didn’t seem to be too much interesting stuff in it.” Pausing, I amended, “Okay, there was a lot of interesting stuff. I mean it’s from hundreds of years ago. But it seemed… sterilized.”

Beside me, Avalon gave a slight nod. Even being woken up after a nap, she looked gorgeous. Her hair was heavily tousled, but in a way that was like in television shows or movies where they muss up someone’s hair to show that they were sleeping, yet it still ends up being pretty perfect.

“I read some of it,” she announced. “It was obviously doctored. I’m sure some of it is in his own words, but anything that disagreed with or contradicted the party line would’ve been removed.”

I coughed at that. “No wonder he goes on about never trusting Strangers and how evil they are.”

Shiori, who somehow looked more cuddly than ever, spoke up then, her attention on Gabriel. “Flick said you told her that he wrote that part right after everything that happened with Fossor.”

Gabriel nodded. “As I said, Lyell was angry. He wrote things in his anger that he came to change his mind about later. Of course, Crossroads would have removed those parts of the journal.”

“Figures,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Is there any way to get the unedited version? I mean, there must be one around here somewhere, right?” I added a hopeful look toward Gabriel.

“Unfortunately, the best way to see Lyell’s journal unedited,” he replied, “would be to bring it here and have someone take the time to fix it. I doubt even Ruthers would risk losing information permanently that could come in handy later. So he probably used magic to edit the book rather than physically tearing stuff out. Theoretically, it could be undone, if you can get the book here.”

“Gaia could probably do it,” I started, before realizing, “but she would have already if there wasn’t something stopping her. Maybe there’s some kind of alert on the book or something if it’s messed with. So maybe bringing it here is a bad idea, in case it sends up a signal or something.”

Shaking my head at the distraction, I brought the subject back around to why I’d started asking about this stuff in the first place. “But my point was, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. Hundreds of years. So how long ago was this clan… founded, I guess? If it was established at least as far back as the thirteen hundreds, and it’d been around long enough before that they already had a whole system to determine who the clan leader would be, how old is it?”

Smiling a bit at the question, the man remarked, “I wondered how long it’d take you to ask about that. The rest of the clan had something of a wager going on.” He paused then, clearly taking a moment to decide the best way to answer. “What do you think of your mother’s maiden name?”

“Maiden name?” I echoed. “You mean Atherby? I, uhh, dunno. I guess I never really thought about it that much. I tried looking it up to see if Mom had any other family back in middle school, but never really got anywhere. It’s not very common. But other than that…” I shrugged helplessly.

He chuckled. “It’s okay. It’s not really anything you could be expected to just know that easily. But you know you pronounce the name wrong.” He added the last bit with a pointedly raised eyebrow.  

I blinked. “Wrong?” Frowning, I spoke it aloud again, sounding it out uncertainly while giving a look to the other two girls. “Ath-ur-bee. Atherby. Ath-ur-bee. What’s wrong with that?”

“The last part,” he replied patiently. “It wasn’t supposed to be Athur-bee. Look at how it’s spelled.”

“By.” I tilted my head thoughtfully then. “Ather-by? So it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled.”

“The name of the clan has been deliberately altered over the years,” he explained. “No pun intended. “Mostly to draw less attention. But it was only altered a little bit. Specifically, a single additional R sound was removed from its original place directly following the A.”

“Arther-by?” Shiori immediately put in before her eyes widened and she made an adorable squeaking noise. “You mean Arthur, as in ‘founded by Arthur?’ Like, like, Arthur-Arthur?”

Chuckling both at Shiori’s voice and the double-takes that Avalon and I did, Gabriel gestured. “More like, ‘founded by those who were by Arthur. By, in this case, meaning beside. As in–”

“Knights of the Round Table.” Avalon was openly staring at the man (not that she’d ever stopped staring at him). “You’re saying this clan is the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table.”

I was still choking on that particular realization while Gabriel calmly corrected, “Some of them, not all. A few of the knights, after Arthur’s… death, created what you now know as this clan.”  

“Who–what–ah–” I was still openly floundering, trying to dredge the right words up out of my completely locked-up mind. “What knights? I mean who was–I mean who am I–I mean…”

“Who are you related to?” Gabriel smiled faintly. “We don’t know. When the knights created this clan, they cast aside their old names. It was their way of honoring their liege, by letting their old identities be buried along with him. Their leader took the name Arthur-by. Over time, that became Artherby with the e, and eventually Atherby. Finally, it turned to the way you pronounce it.”  

“Knights of the Round Table.” I spoke the words, still unable to believe that they were coming out of my mouth. “My family–my mother’s family–is related to–is… they’re descended from one of… oh.” Swallowing, I swayed a little bit in spite of myself. “I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Gabriel agreed, his voice as calm as ever. “That’s why I waited until you asked. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with your family’s history.” He paused then before amending, “More of your family’s history, rather. It’s also why Crossroads was so eager to take your mother in, and why they forgave a lot of her earlier, less obvious transgressions. They were obviously hoping that the rest of the remaining Atherby clan would fold into their organization.”

I’d taken in a lot of revelations over the past few months. Enough to the point that I’d thought I was immunized to any more surprises. But somehow, finding out that my family on my mother’s side was related to at least one of the literal Knights of the Round Table was still enough to leave me speechless. My mouth continued to open and shut a few times as I fought to find any words.

In the end, it was Avalon who spoke up before I managed to get my brain working again. “Wait,” she started with a frown. “One of Arthur’s knights is already a member of the Committee.”

“There is?” I blurted, looking that way while wracking my brain for a second. “Who–wait. You mean that Percival guy?” I thought back to what I remembered of the man. He’d been the one with the blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and the Nirvana tee-shirt. Not exactly the kind of appearance I would’ve expected from one of the legendary Knights of The Round Table.

On the other hand, I also never would’ve expected to find Virginia Dare teaching at my school, or Blackbeard working as one of the society’s leaders. So maybe my expectation of what historical figures would be like should just be quiet and stop making assumptions before I ended up finding out that George Washington was actually a shrunken Meregan or something even more absurd.

Gabriel was already nodding. “Yes,” he replied, “the Percival on the Crossroads Committee is the same man who was known as one of King Arthur’s knights. Obviously, he wasn’t one of the few who split off to create this clan. As for how he actually feels about it… you’d have to ask him.”   

It was a good question. What did Percival think about the fact that my mom and I (not to mention Wyatt, Abigail, and Koren) were descended from at least one of his old comrades in arms?

“I don’t…” My mouth shut as I tried to think. Eventually, the only thing I could say was, “You’re telling me that Arthur was a Heretic?” The words sounded weak even to me.

“All of them were,” he confirmed. “Arthur the most powerful of all. One of the most powerful natural Heretics who ever lived, if the myths are true. Until he was betrayed and murdered.”

“Myths… most powerful Heretic who–” I blinked, looking back over at him. “You said he was a natural Heretic. But what was he a natural Heretic of that made him so powerful?”

Gabriel smiled at the question, clearly expecting it. “According to the clan legend? A dragon.”

For a moment, I just stared, my mouth opening and shutting before dumbly repeating, “A dragon.”

His head bowed in a nod. “That’s what they say. You know the old ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ routine? Actually, it was pulling a tooth from a dragon. According to the Atherby clan legends, Arthur’s village was attacked by a dragon. Arthur tried to fight it, and was… well, almost killed. He was speared in the dragon’s mouth and almost swallowed. But Arthur managed to catch hold of the tooth and rip it out. The dragon spat him out in a rage, and he hit the ground. The blood from when he tore the tooth free mixed with his blood and… well, the rest of history. Or myth.” He shrugged. “The tooth was forged into the blade of Arthur’s weapon, Excalibur.”

“Wait a second,” Shiori blurted quickly. Her eyes were wide as she looked back and forth between all of us. “You mean we have Avalon, the island that Arthur was taken to… and a descendant of one of Arthur’s knights, and they’re… you’re, you know…”  She waggled her eyebrows pointedly.

Flushing at her words, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “She knew.” When I looked that way, her face was just as pink as mine felt. “Gaia,” she muttered. “She knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as we settled on my–on the name, she said she had the perfect roommate in mind. She was even smiling at the time. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Well, that was enough to make my face grow even redder. Before I could say anything about it, however, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was the secure phone, the one that was protected from any kind of surveillance measures by Crossroads. Digging it out, I glanced at the number before answering with a glance to the others. “Seth? Sorry, can I call you back a bit later?”

“You could,” the vampire drawled lazily, “if you’d like to miss your last chance to talk to Fahsteth.”

Shiori’s head was already whipping around, the girl obviously having heard that as I blurted, “Wait what?” Glancing to the others, I added, “What do you mean, last chance to talk to Fahsteth?”

“Just what I said,” Seth replied. “Turns out, your favorite shark merc’s leaving the planet after tonight. And he doesn’t plan on coming back anytime soon. Something about a bunch of powerful people that want him dead. You wanna talk to him at all, it’s gotta be in the next hour or two. And by hour or two,” he added, “I mean every minute that passes makes it more likely that he’ll just decide to cut and run anyway. I threw out a lot of favors to even find out this much. Believe me, you wait too long and he’ll be gone. And like I said, once he leaves, he ain’t coming back.”

“I–hold on.” Hitting the button to mute the phone, I looked to the others. “He says that Fahsteth’s leaving after tonight, in an hour or two at the latest. If we don’t go talk to him now, we won’t be able to before he’s gone for good.” Yeah, considering Gabriel obviously had at least as good of hearing as Shiori did, the only person I was actually giving this news to was Avalon. But still.  

“It’s not… terrible timing,” Shiori pointed out. “I mean, there’s no chance that whoever the Seosten spy is would know about it. We’re not at Crossroads, and everyone else is asleep right now.”

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed with a slight nod. “It was an accident, but this is a good time for it. We still have at least two hours before anyone would actually miss us. Longer if Gaia covers.”

“If you want to go see this Fahsteth,” Gabriel put in then, “I can arrange for transport. And you won’t be going in alone either. Not with that mercenary. He’s too dangerous.”

“We’ll have Seth with us, and anyone he brought,” I pointed out. “But any help you want to add would be good too. As long as we get Fahsteth to talk about what he knows. That’s what matters.”

Avalon nodded. “He’s the closest thing to a real lead we’ve ever had. Whoever the Seosten and their allies are, Fahsteth was working with them at least since I was a little girl. Probably longer. And now that they’re trying to kill him, he might be willing to talk about it.”

“Right.” I bit my lip. “So we get to Fahsteth, we convince him to talk to us… one way or another, and then–”

As I was talking, my phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Seth trying to get my attention, I glanced down, only to see that I had a second call incoming. This one was from Asenath. “Hold on.” Answering it, I started, “Senny, hey. Did you hear about–”

“Hi, Felicity.”

The voice made my heart practically stop. Not because the voice itself was all that surprising. I’d heard it my entire life, after all. No, what was surprising was hearing the voice coming through a phone that the owner of the voice shouldn’t have had the number to, using a phone belonging to someone that he shouldn’t have been able to get it from.

“… Dad?” I managed, once I’d managed to get far enough past my shock to actually speak.

I definitely had everyone else’s attention by that point, as my father replied, “Yeah. Asenath said that it’d be safer to call that phone, that we wouldn’t be… overheard. Is it safe on your end?”

“Is it safe on my–” I started to echo before shaking my head almost violently. “What are you talking about? What–I mean–how did–I–what?”

“I know, baby.” My father’s voice went silent for a moment before he continued. “I know all of it. Well, no, not all of it. But enough.”

“What do you mean you–”

“She’s a vampire,” my father cut me off. “Asenath. She’s a vampire. And you–your mother, Fossor, the Heretics, I know enough. I know what’s been going on. I worked out some of it, and your friends here have been filling me in on the rest. It’s… really… something.”

After what was probably a long moment of silence, he proved he really did know me by prompting, “Flick, sweetie, you have to breathe.” A pause, then, “Actually, do you still have to breathe? For all I know, you’ve gotten some kind of–”

“How?” I blurted then. “How do you–the Bystander Effect, you can’t be–you can’t remember, you can’t–” Then my eyes widened. “Did Asenath–”  

“I’m not a vampire, no.” There was a chuckle, weak as it was, in my father’s voice. “As for how, I guess we both have a lot to tell each other. But the most important thing is that we’re not home. Those… werewolves–” He paused, as though he couldn’t believe he was actually calling them that. “–the ones that are… upset with you, they came to the house.”

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

“It’s all right,” he assured me. “We’re fine. One of those–well, we should talk about it in person. That and everything else. Asenath told me you’d be awake, because you… listen, I’m told that if you talk to that headmistress of yours, she can arrange for you to come to where we are. I… we need to talk, Felicity. We need to talk about everything.”

My head was already nodding. “Y-yeah, yeah, I…” I was reeling, trying to cope with the sudden revelation. My father had broken the Bystander Effect? How!? How was he remembering all this? Did it have to do with the werewolves? Did they–did– I had to talk to him. I had to find out what the hell was–

“I can’t.” The words came as an abrupt realization. “I can’t come right now.”

There was a brief pause before my father asked, “What… what do you mean?”

Oh god. The sound of his voice, the idea of actually talking to my dad about everything that had happened, the thought of opening up about Mom, about all of it… and yet…

“I can’t–listen, Dad. God. I wanna talk to you. I swear. I swear I will, as soon as I can. But there’s this… this guy, this guy we have to talk to. It’s important. It’s really, really important, and if we don’t talk to him right now, we won’t get the chance again. It’s life and death, Dad.”

Silence came through the phone for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed to last forever. Finally, my father spoke quietly. “Felicity, I want to tell you something… important, okay?”

Swallowing, I held the phone tightly. “Y-yes.”

“I love you.” His voice was soft. “I know why you lied. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t blame you. You are the most important person in the world to me. Always. Forever. I trust you. If you say that you have to do this, I believe you. But promise me that you’re going to be careful. Promise me that you have help. Promise me that you’re… safe.”

My eyes closed. “If you know almost everything,” I replied, “then you know that I haven’t been completely safe in a really long time.” I swallowed then. “But yeah. I’m being careful. This isn’t about… about us. It’s a long story, but one of my teachers was killed. He was murdered. And we have to talk to someone who can tell us what happened. It’s our only chance.”

“I’d ask if you have to be the one who does it,” my father spoke quietly, “but I already know the answer.”

Giving a little involuntary shudder, I managed, “Wh-what about you? You’re safe?”

“Safe enough, with my two bodyguards,” he replied. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk, as soon as you’re done with… with what you’re doing, okay?”

“I love you, Dad.” I had to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“I know.” His voice was as tender as ever. “Sweetie, I know. I understand. Trust me, after what I went through to get past that stupid–I get it. We do have to talk, about everything. But I’m not mad at you, okay? I am not angry with you.”

There were tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away. “I… I’ve gotta go, Dad. I’ve gotta focus. But I’ll talk to you soon. As soon as I can, once it’s done. I promise. I swear.”

“I know you will. I’ll hold you to it.” Dad’s voice was quiet then. “Be careful, Felicity. Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I..” Swallowing, I added one more, “I love you. B-bye.”

Clicking the disconnect for that call, I gave the others one more look before shoring myself up. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button to switch over to the other call. Somehow, when I spoke, I managed to stop my voice from cracking almost entirely.

“S-Seth? Yeah. We’ll be there. Just make sure Fahsteth doesn’t leave.

“Because he’s got a lot to answer for.”

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Mini-Interlude 28 – Lincoln Chambers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers gradually working his way through the Bystander Effect. I hope you enjoy. 

Several Weeks Ago

Flick was lying. Lincoln Chambers was sure of it. He knew she was lying. Every time she spoke to him, she gave the same tells that he’d been able to pick up on without her realizing since she was a little girl. A father just knew when his daughter was leaving things out. Especially when it was something she was uncomfortable with.

But what was she lying about, exactly? He’d tried to pin her down without making it obvious, asking her questions about her school, her friends, her teachers. Nothing specific pinged as being the lie. Which clearly meant that it wasn’t just a single untruth. There was something… big there.

It was the school. Every time she talked about it, every ounce of fatherly instinct he had said that she was lying. She was leaving out great swaths of information. Important information. But why?

He couldn’t let that go on. He was going to have to call the school, find out what exactly was going on over there, as soon as possible.

Flick lying… the video of Joselyn that existed long before it should have… the two couldn’t be related, could they? It seemed impossible, and yet–

******

One Day Later

“So you’re absolutely sure about that? No question in your mind? Not even the slightest doubt?”

It was getting late, and Lincoln was still at work. The man was sitting at his desk, every light in the large, open bullpen off except for the one beside his computer. He held the phone to his ear, listening for another few seconds while tapping a pen rhythmically against the desk.

“Right, thanks, man. Yeah, I owe you. Next time you get out here.” He paused then before laughing. “Well yeah, I suppose it’s easier to make the trip out there. We’ll see. Maybe over the summer. Flick’d like that, it’s been a long time since she saw you and Carla. Yeah, soon.”

Dropping the phone receiver back into its cradle, Lincoln plucked a notebook off his desk and stared at the writing there. Scrawled across the middle of the page were the words: Fake video. Definitely fake. But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?

Slowly, he used the pen to scratch out the first four words. The video that had shown up on his desk, the one that showed Joselyn standing in that emergency room as an adult a full decade before she should have been born, wasn’t fake. If J.T. said the thing hadn’t been tampered with, then it hadn’t been tampered with. He was an old friend who had never actually met Joselyn before she… disappeared. Lincoln hadn’t wanted to try to explain her presence in the video to anyone who would have recognized her. He couldn’t even explain it to himself, let alone others.

The video couldn’t be real. But it was. Which meant… his gaze slowly moved to the other words on the page, the options he had written mainly as a jest. Time-traveler, clone, identical older sister.

An identical mother could work as well, of course. But of course, outside of television shows using the same actors for budget purposes, people’s ancestors didn’t really tend to look identical to them. Not to the degree that he could see in that video. The woman there was Joselyn. He just… knew it. He knew his wife, and the woman in the video was his wife.

So clone or time-traveler. But that was impossible. Impossible. Utterly impossible.  

But still, there was–

*******

Lincoln was walking out of the newspaper office, head shaking. If J.T. didn’t call him back soon…

Screw it. Reaching into his pocket, Lincoln withdrew his cell phone. A folded up piece of paper came with it. It was probably a receipt or something, and he idly unfolded the thing while hitting the number on the phone for his old friend. The phone rang twice before J.T. picked up.

“Hey, man, we–” He paused, listening. “This summer? Right, but when did we–” Again, he stopped talking. This time wasn’t because of his old friend, however. It was because he had finished unfolding the paper, only to find a page that had been torn from his notebook. Fake video. Definitely fake had been crossed out several times. After that, the rest of the note (But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?) had been circled several times. And beneath it, he had written, ‘check voicemail’.

“Hey, sorry, let me call you back.” After apologizing, Lincoln disconnected and switched over to check his voicemail, as he had clearly written in his own handwriting despite not actually remembering doing so.

“Video’s real,” his own voice spoke up as soon as the message started. “Not only is it real, but you had it checked twice. Once by J.T. and once by Packer up in Michigan. You just called Packer to see if he could double-check, and he talked about the video like he already knew it. You already talked to him about it two days ago. Recording this message in case I forget again.”

And he had forgotten again. Forgotten an entire conversation? Two entire conversations if the way J.T. had been talking was any indication.

Forgetting two entire conversations, and probably more than that. How? What the hell was going on? How could he just forget entire conversa–

******

Two days later

Groaning in relief as he practically fell into his bed after a long day, Lincoln slid his hand across the empty spot where Joselyn should have been. It was a familiar practice, one that he had taken every night since she had disappeared. Yet now, ever since he received that video, it was one that somehow seemed to mean even more than it had before.

He should really find out if J.T. had ever finished going over the thing.

With that in mind, he stretched out, hand slipping up under his pillow. To his surprise, his hand found a notebook that had been stuffed there.

Taking out the notebook, Lincoln reached out to switch the light on, squinting at the thing. In his own handwriting, the words, ‘You’re forgetting things’ had been hastily scribbled. Forgetting things? Well obviously he’d forgotten writing the note and putting it under his pillow. So…

He kept reading. J.T. had finished going over the video. Not only that, Packer had done it too. He didn’t even remember giving the video to Packer. And he’d already had two different conversations with J.T.

Forgetting things. He was forgetting things. How? Was he… was there something wrong with his mind? Oh God. No. If something happened to him, Flick would–

No. No, he had to remember. He had to make himself remember. Obviously, he’d already realized that, or he wouldn’t have started leaving these notes for himself.

Hurriedly, the man reached for the pen on his bedside table and began to scribble on the next page of the notebook.

*****

Three Days Later

Something was wrong in his case file. Lincoln knew that much. Something within the extensive notes that he had taken about the terrorist attack that had taken place a couple months earlier was wrong. The case wasn’t leading anywhere. It seemed to be looping around in circles.

Did this have to do with his missing memories? He kept finding notes from himself, notes that he had written but didn’t actually remember writing. On top of that, he had begun finding tally marks on those notes. Tally marks that he had quickly realized indicated how many times he had found that particular note. The notes that had to do with the video that he’d found on his desk, a video that he’d had independently verified by more than one person.

Conversations he didn’t actually remember having. Notes he didn’t remember taking. Extensive letters that he had apparently written to himself, detailing his thoughts in ways that couldn’t have been faked by anyone else.

Strangely, he had started to sort-of remember things. That was, he could remember finding these notes multiple times, even if the contents of them and his own specific actions or thoughts were blurry. It was something in between deja vu and a specific recollection.

It was all a mess. None of it, his missing memories, the video being real, none of it made any sense. So, to clear his head, he had come back into his home office to look over the case files for the supposed terrorist attack one more time. Hopefully occupying his mind with something else would jog something loose.

And yet, looking over everything up on his bulletin board now, all he could think was that something was wrong. Something had changed. The still picture taken from that traffic cam that showed the limousine, another picture of the same limo in a fast food drive-through. His own note about the car being stolen. The bank accounts that had been used to pay for the food, as well as other services. Bank accounts that led nowhere but through four or five shell companies. Phone numbers he had taken from those company’s public information that had ended up rerouting him through dozens of automated messaging systems.

And worst of all, the fairly terrible picture that he had managed to scrounge up, the only one of its kind that he had been able to locate. It showed an utterly unremarkable-looking man. A man whom Lincoln was convinced had been behind those very attacks. But who was he? And why was he completely invisible to the system? No one Lincoln had sent the picture to from his extensive contacts in Los Angeles had any information at all about the figure. He was a ghost.

Standing there, looking at the information up on his bulletin board, all the pictures, all of his hand-written notes, all the photocopied articles, faxes, and the maps of where the limo could have gone in the time that it’d had, there was something… off. He couldn’t place it, couldn’t figure out what it was, but something was different from the way it had been. Something was just… wrong.

Slowly, the man let his gaze pass over the arranged notes, trying to sense what felt so off when he looked at it all together. Words, numbers, images, it all formed a single coherent symphony within his head. And yet, seeing it now, letting it fill his head, part of the song was wrong. It was small, a single incorrect note that most people would have missed against the rest of the noise. He had missed it himself for so long. Months by that point. Yet now, now it stuck out for reasons he couldn’t explain any more easily than he could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it.

Ever since he’d seen that video, Lincoln had been watching for other things that didn’t make sense. Things that seemed off or wrong around him. This… seemed to count somehow.

He stepped forward, humming a tune lightly under his breath as his hand lifted. Gradually, Lincoln traced his finger over the board. The image of the man, the bank account connected to the credit card that had paid for the meal at the restaurant, the phone number for the car service that the limo had been stolen from, the name of the company (a fake one that did no actual business in their advertised field) connected to the credit card that had paid for gas in that limo fifteen miles outside of town. The limo itself, its license plate circled in red. The… wait…

Lincoln paused. His finger halted in the air before slowly moving back along the board. The limo’s license plate. It ended in thirty-seven. Thirty-seven. His eyes scanned back over the board, searching… searching. There. The phone number for the car service. The last two digits there were a two and a four. Thirty-seven and then twenty-four.

No. That was wrong. It was wrong. The first phone number he’d had when he was just starting out as a cub reporter in California ended with three-seven-four-two. Three-seven-four-two. He remembered now. When he’d started setting up this board, he’d noticed that the last two digits of the car service and the last two digits on the license plate could go together to make the last four digits of his old phone number. It had been something completely offhand, utterly inconsequential.

And yet, he knew that was right. As little as it had actually mattered, it still stuck in his head.

Now it was wrong. Now the number for the car company didn’t end in four-two. It ended in two-four. Two-four, not four-two. But it had been four-two before. Three-seven-four-two.

It was something so minor, so inconsequential, that most people wouldn’t have noticed. But with the silly little nothing association he had made, linking the last two digits of that license plate and last two of that phone number together to make his old number, it had stuck in his head. Not perfectly. He hadn’t noticed when he went back to use the car service’s number in order to get more information from them. Hadn’t noticed for some time, actually. But it had stuck in his head, the wrongness of it. That was the source of the ‘bad note’ in the symphony of his investigation.

But why was it wrong? It hadn’t been wrong before, he knew that much. Somehow, the number he had written down had changed sometime between when he had first recorded it and now.

Had he changed it? Was this another one of his missing memories? But that didn’t make sense. Well, it made even less sense than any of this did.

Had it been different when he called the place to check up on their stolen vehicle? He paused, trying to remember. Not that he could trust his memory.

But he could trust his notes. Digging through them, he found the right paper and scanned through it. The information there matched what he remembered. Calling the car service had led him to the phone number that had been used to call for the car. According to the girl he had spoken to, the car had gone to the assigned location, only for the driver to wake up hours later with no idea what had happened. He’d taken the phone number that had called in the first place and tracked it through several names which, come to think of it, was where the whole ‘running in circles’ bit seemed to have started.

Considering that for a moment, Lincoln reached into his pocket and took out his cell before dialing the number that was written on the note, the one ending in two-four. It rang a couple times before being picked up by a familiar voice mail, announcing the name of the car service and asking him to leave his name and number and they would get back to him. It was the same message he’d heard before, when he’d left his information. They’d called him back an hour or so later and given him the information that eventually led him in circles.

Rather than leave a message, he clicked the disconnect and thought for a moment. Tapping the phone against his hand, Lincoln eventually dialed the number again. This time, he swapped the last two numbers to the way he remembered them being, the way that matched his old number.

Holding the phone to his ear then, the man listened as it rang three times before someone actually picked up. A male voice announced the name of the car service and then asked if they could help.

Pausing, Lincoln took a breath to collect himself before asking if they had any other phone number, such as one with the last two digits reversed. It was daytime, so he spoke quietly to avoid waking Asenath. The man on the phone was puzzled, but eventually replied that the service had a couple other phone numbers, neither of which were anywhere near similar to this one.

Thanking the man, Lincoln hung up. Then he stood there, staring at his phone for a few long seconds. The thought that he should have questioned the man further about the limo that had been stolen popped into his head, yet he was too distracted by the realization that his notes had absolutely been tampered with. And tampered with in a way that he hadn’t noticed except by chance. But who had that kind of access to his notes, to his home? Who could possibly have–

Slowly, the man turned his head in the direction of his daughter’s room, where his houseguest slept.

******

The next morning, Lincoln was sitting in his car on the way to work. Turning the car on, he flipped the visor down to avoid the glare from the rising sun. As he did so, something written on the mirror that was attached to the back of the visor caught his eye. In red marker, the words ‘cases of xeroderma pigmentosum’ were scrawled. Beside it was a hastily written phone number.

Xeroderma pigmentosum. That was the genetic disorder that Asenath suffered from, the one that made her unable to go out into the sunlight. He’d looked up the condition out of curiosity after reading the note that her doctor had sent him. But why was it written on his mirror, and what was the phone number next to it.

It was another note. Another note that he had apparently left for himself, in a big enough hurry that he couldn’t even wait for a notebook. That or he’d wanted to make absolutely certain that he saw it that morning.

Pulling out of the driveway, he hit the button for the phone on his steering wheel, then read out the number for the computer to dial for him.

It rang a few times before a female voice answered. “Syracuse University, admissions department. This is Anne, how may I direct your call?”

Taking his cue from the words on the mirror, Lincoln asked, “Yes, hi. I’m with–” He paused. They probably wouldn’t talk to some nothing newspaper in Wyoming. “I’m with the Times, doing a story on students who have to work through unique genetic conditions. Who would I talk to to find out your school’s history of dealing with people who have xeroderma pigmentosum?”

He expected her to ask what it was. Instead, the woman paused before remarking, “Boy, that’s weird. Fifty-two years old, never heard that term in my life. Now you’re the second guy to ask about it in the past couple days.”

So he had called before… Lincoln frowned. “Must be someone trying to scoop me,” he joked weakly before adding, “Does that mean you haven’t dealt with someone with that condition?”

“I haven’t, but the university has,” the woman replied. “Hold on, I’ve got it here. Yeah, one student over in Newhouse, about thirty years ago.”

She was obviously referring to S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University’s communications school. It was one of the best journalism schools in the country. Lincoln hadn’t gone to it, but he had toyed with the idea of trying to get Flick in. Especially after she was accepted into Crossroads.

The woman continued talking. “I can’t tell you much about her. Student confidentiality and all that. No names, no phone numbers. I’m not sure how much help I can be, honestly.”

Pausing, Lincoln drummed his fingers over the steering wheel for a moment before asking, “For demographic reasons, could you tell me what kind of ethnicity she was?”

“Oh, I don’t know… that sounds like a bad idea.” The woman hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before finally relenting. “Asian. The girl was Asian. Now that’s really all I can tell you.”

“It’s all right,” Lincoln managed. “That’s all I need.”

He disconnected the call, then sat back heavily while pulling the car to a stop at the red light.

Asian. An Asian girl at the journalism school who had the same condition that Asenath suffered from.

Sitting there, the man thought for a moment before looking through his phone. He flipped over to outgoing calls, the paused to stare. Several different numbers that he didn’t recognize filled up the screen.  

Thoughtfully, he tapped one, listening as a different university picked up. He gave the same spiel, only to get an angry retort from the man on the other end that nothing had changed since yesterday. There still had never been any students with that problem, so stop calling.

One by one, Lincoln went through every number. Pulling away as the light turned green, he talked to people. They all remembered someone else calling about the same thing the day before (though only a couple recognized his voice) and most told him the same thing. There had never been anyone at the school who suffered from that condition. Two others, however, confirmed that they did indeed have a student who matched Asenath’s description (at least as much as they would confirm it). Different names, but clearly the same person.

And all three ‘different’ Asian students with the same allergy to sunlight attended the schools dozens of years apart. The earliest was all the way back in 1957, then Syracuse University in the late eighties, and finally another university in the early 2000’s.

This was starting to get really–

******

Three Days Later

He had begun to remember when he left notes to himself. Not always. It seemed random, when and what he would remember and when and what he wouldn’t. Over the past several days, Lincoln had taken to writing down every single thought he had when it related to either Joselyn, Flick’s school, or the girl currently living in her room. He’d either write it down, or record it in one of his voice recorders (which he’d dug out after getting tired of using his own cell phone’s voicemail). About half of what he recorded, he actually remembered doing so. The other half he forgot, but repeatedly reminded himself of with notes that he had taken to leaving for himself everywhere.

He was remembering enough to keep the broad strokes clear in his head. For specifics, he often had to go back to his notes and recordings. In some cases he had to do it multiple times within the same train of thought to jog a memory that stubbornly kept trying to disappear.

The idea that he couldn’t trust his memory was bad enough. But the thought that he couldn’t trust the girl who slept in the same house he did, the girl who slept in his daughter’s bedroom, that was… indescribable. So many times, so many, he had been tempted to have it out with her.

Something always stopped him. A nagging thought in the back of his head that he hadn’t yet put together yet. A lost memory? A realization that hadn’t fully formed? He didn’t know. He could barely trust himself by that point.

What kind of person was he? Was his mind even his own? Were his decisions his own, his choices? How many times had his memory been erased before he started noticing, before he started taking notes to remind himself?

And would he start forgetting… other things? Would he forget Felicity? Would he–

Stopping that line of thought, Lincoln forced himself to focus. He was back in his home office, staring at the board in front of him. It was late enough that Asenath was up. He could hear the girl down in the kitchen, clinking away with something.

From his pocket, he withdrew the familiar notebook. Tapping his pen against it, he glanced down. Time-Traveler was written there, along with the word Hostage.

Was he a hostage? A hostage of the… immortal girl who had attended at least three different colleges over the past sixty years, always the same age? An immortal girl with an allergy to sunlight, a girl who never aged, who never went out in the sun, who–

*****

A few seconds later.

What? What had just happened? No. No, he knew this part. He had forgotten something. Forgotten–

Looking down, he found a word written not on the notebook, but on his own hand. Vampire.

Vampire. Immortal… avoided sunlight… it made–okay it didn’t make any sense, but that made as much sense as anything else considering he had unaltered video of his own wife walking around as an adult a decade before she was supposed to have been born. So sure, vampire.

God, he was going insane. He already was insane. Flick was just…

He stopped. Flick. Did Flick know? She had to have known something about–wait, no. What if—

*****

A few seconds later.

Again. Again he had forgotten something. Looking down, Lincoln saw more marks on his hand. This time, he had written, Flick knew.

Flick knew? Flick knew what? He thought back, looking at the notebook again. What did Flick have to do with Asenath, or the video of Joselyn, or the man in the grainy picture? What did Asenath have to do with the man, and why had she switched the number so that he called the wrong place?

Not just the wrong place. Somehow she had set it up so that he would call a place that sounded like the right one, a number posing as the car service, and had actually had someone else call him back to give false information, information that had led him in circles.

So Asenath was a… an immortal… a vampire, who was working with the man who was behind the attacks right at Flick’s birthday… and… and…

Was she a guard? Had the man… had he done something to Flick, and Asenath was here to keep him in line? He looked again at the word hostage on the notebook, frowning for a moment.

No. No, that didn’t make sense. Flick liked Asenath. He could tell. And that Shiori girl. Flick… really liked her. There was more there, and he just couldn’t believe that it was fake. The affection, the jokes they told, the… it wasn’t fake.

So did Flick not know that Asenath was his jailer, for lack of a better word?

Okay, no. That didn’t make sense either.

Wait. Hold on. Flick had called him. She’d called him not long after that school started, and asked him…

She’d asked him if Joselyn had ever attended a private school. He couldn’t remember her exact words, but he knew that much. She’d asked if her mother had ever gone to a private school.

Okay. Wait. Wait a second. What if she called because she already knew the answer. Something-she’d seen something that made her think of her mother, something similar to the video that he’d received.

Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. That was what Flick had been calling about. She found something that had to do with her mother.

But if Joselyn had gone to Crossroads, that would mean–

*****

A few seconds later.

Not this time. Realizing he’d lost time, Lincoln looked down at the notebook. He’d been writing the entire time. Notes taken in his own shorthand, almost unreadable by anyone else, but perfectly clear to him.

Reading through them, it only took him a minute to catch up. Which brought him to the fact that Joselyn going to Crossroads had to mean–

*****

A few seconds later.

Again. He read his notes, saw where he had circled particular points. Crossroads. Crossroads was the key. Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. Flick was going to Crossroads. Asenath was here with him. His jailer? No. Flick liked her. Flick trusted her. That was–

******

A few seconds later.

Flick. Asenath. Crossroads. Joselyn. The man in the picture. The video.

Grimacing, Lincoln quickly scratched out where he had written hostage. Beside it, he wrote protected. Flick trusted Asenath. She wasn’t here to threaten him, she was there to protect him.

And Joselyn. Joselyn wasn’t a vampire. He’d seen her out in the sunlight plenty of times. Plus, she had his baby. Could a vampire even do tha–he couldn’t believe this was a real line of thought.

Putting his pen beside Time-Traveler, Lincoln shook his head before writing Immortal.

Was Joselyn just that old? Had something happened… wait. Wait, Flick’s birthday. The man in the picture had come–

That was it. Oh God, that was it. The man in the picture had come on Flick’s birthday. He’d come to threaten her because… because of Crossroads. No, because Flick had gone to Crossroads.

There. He had it. It was right there. Right within his grasp of understanding.

Crossroads was where Joselyn had gone. It was her school, her… they were all part of it. Shiori, she went to Crossroads and she was Asenath’s sister–

But she wasn’t a vampire? Was she really her sister or–Figure that part out later. The point was, Joselyn went to Crossroads, and Shiori went there now. They were connected to the… to the immortal thing, his immortal wife, and the vampire.

So Crossroads was a school for these people, and now they had shown up out of nowhere. They took in Flick. She found out about her mother going there, and now she had been doing her Flick thing and investigating.

Somehow, this man, who had some connection to Joselyn’s disappearance, had found out about Flick’s investigation, and came to town to threaten her, using the attacks to prove how dangerous he was.

And in reaction, Flick had asked her classmate’s vampire relative to stay with him, to protect him. That was–

******

A few seconds later.

Vampire relative. Vampire relative. Sister. He’d written that across the bottom of the page, underlining it. Shiori. Shiori was Asenath’s sister. Flick liked them both. She trusted them. She was–

Taking out his recorder, Lincoln hit play and spoke in a quiet voice, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”

He didn’t know how exact he was. But this felt like the right track. Asenath hadn’t changed the number on the board to hurt him. She’d been trying to keep him away from the man in the photograph.

He understood her reasoning. But he couldn’t just let it go. He had to know the truth. But to do that, he had to understand why he kept forgetting things, why… why everything was always so fuzzy. And most importantly, he had to let Asenath know that he knew, that he understood.

But to do that, he’d have to go about it in just the right way…

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Interlude 22B – Asenath and Lincoln

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“Now that,” Lincoln Chambers announced while sitting back in his seat at the kitchen table, “was a good gyro.” Tapping his cleared plate, he winked at Asenath, who was sitting across from him. “What do you think? They just opened last week, think they’ll stay in business?”

Senny nodded with a slight chuckle. “If they keep making food like that, for sure.” She winked at him then. “Now we just need some ice cream. Or are we supposed to go with Greek yogurt just to keep up the theme?”

“Actually, before we get to dessert, there was something else I wanted to try,” the man replied. He reached under the kitchen table, lifting up a metal box with a padlock on it to set on the table between them. After putting in the combination, he carefully opened the box to reveal several guns inside. The man silently ran his hand over the weapons with an almost reverent look before withdrawing a nine-millimeter pistol, turning it over in his hands.

Shifting slightly in her seat, Asenath raised an eyebrow curiously. “Sorry, Mr. Chambers. I don’t think there’s a gun range that’s still open this late.” She smiled faintly. “At least, not in this town.”

He chuckled, head shaking. “I told you, it’s Lincoln, not Mr. Chambers. And it’s okay. I don’t need the gun range. What I want…” He paused, looking up to meet her gaze. “… is to test a theory.”

With those words, the man abruptly raised the pistol to point the thing at his own head. His finger tightened on the trigger as Asenath’s reactions kicked her up and out of the seat. She didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t know if he had been enchanted, possessed, or if Ammon had gotten to him somehow, impossible as that seemed considering how much she and Twister were watching. But she couldn’t let this happen. She couldn’t let Flick lose her father, whatever it was.

With a blur of motion, she went up and over the table. Her hand snatched the pistol out of the man’s hand an instant before he would have finished pulling the trigger. The girl went from sitting in her seat to standing on the opposite side of the table with the gun in her hand in a split-second.

It wasn’t until then that Asenath felt the weight of the weapon that she was holding. The weight was wrong. It was light–too light. There was… Pausing as the realization came to her, she held the gun off to the side before pulling the trigger, once, twice, then a third time. Every pull resulted in a simple, definitive click. It was empty. There were no bullets in the magazine or the chamber.  

“Yeah,” Lincoln announced calmly as her eyes moved up to him. He hadn’t moved from his seat except to turn his head so he could watch her. “I kinda figured something like that would happen.”

“You… you were testing me,” Senny realized as she carefully laid the empty pistol on the table. Her stare never left the man. “Why? How did you–what?” For once, the vampire-girl was in uncharted waters. She’d never seen anything like this, not from an ordinary human, a Bystander.

In answer, Lincoln first reached into his jacket pocket before producing a small notebook. He tossed it onto the table and flipped the thing open, revealing that it was completely full of scribbled notes. As the man flipped through the pages, Asenath could see where parts had been scratched out, erased, amended, and more. She saw words and phrases like, ‘Immortal’, ‘Time-Traveler’, and where ‘Hostage’ had several lines drawn through it, with ‘Protected’ scrawled in beside it.

There were more, clearly the result of the man hurriedly scribbling notes here and there, every time a thought came to him. It was stream-of-consciousness writing, from a man who was clearly aware that he could lose his train of thought any moment. Or have the thoughts taken from him.

“I kept forgetting,” he announced quietly, patting the notebook. “Things I saw, stuff I noticed here and there. Conclusions, guesses, whatever you want to call it. It kept  going out of my head. But I’ve been a reporter for a long time. And when you’re a reporter, you know what you learn to do real quick if you’re gonna  be any good at the job? Write stuff down. Oh, and–” Again, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing a silver voice recorder. Hitting the play button, he held it up as his voice emerged from the thing to say, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”   

Pressing the stop button, Lincoln quietly added with a glance at the gun. “Guess I was right.”

Asenath was still reeling as he continued. “But I guess the thing that really made me wake up was probably this.” Picking up his nearby cell phone, the man carefully cued something on it before holding the phone up for her to see. On the screen, a video began to play. It was clearly an ancient video, at least as far as human technology was concerned. There were dark lines running through the screen and there was no sound in it. Even then, however, the view it was showing was clear enough. There was a hospital waiting room full of people watching a news report of the Kennedy assassination. And there on screen was a woman holding two infant children. Joselyn Chambers. Or, to be more accurate at that point, Joselyn Atherby. She was there, clearly shown in a video that had to have been taken at least ten years before she had supposedly been born.

“So like I said,” Lincoln went on once Asenath had seen enough of the video. “This is the one that really got me thinking. I started recording things, thoughts, ideas, everything. Then I kept forgetting them, but I’d find my notes later and remember. I started using this thing,” his hand indicated the voice recorder, “just to keep track of every thought I had. Started leaving notes for myself on my pillow, in my car, everywhere that I’d run into them. Thought I was going crazy for awhile. I mean, how could Jos be… how could she be that old a decade before she was born? It didn’t make sense. It was obviously fake. Obviously. Had to be fake. But I couldn’t figure out why. What was the point? So I sent it to a friend of mine in LA, a computer guy. I figured he’d tell me how it was fake, maybe pull some actual information off the video that might lead to answers about Jos. Like maybe she sent it, maybe she was trying to tell me something. There could be a message in it.”

He paused, raising his gaze to her again.  “But you know what he told me after he looked at it?”

After a moment of silence, Senny answered, “He said it was real, that it wasn’t tampered with.”

Lincoln gave a faint nod. “Yeah. He said he went over the whole thing backwards and forwards. And trust me, if there was anything fake in it, he would’ve found it. He’s good. Really good. So if he said it was real, it was real. Which is just…” his head shook quickly, “insane. It couldn’t be. Couldn’t be real. Joselyn could not have been there in 1963. It just–it was wrong. Impossible. So how could the video be real? How? It couldn’t be real, because she wasn’t alive then, let alone that old. Back and forth, I just kept going back and forth. It couldn’t be real. But it was. It was. It was real, so I had to accept it. And to accept it, I had to figure out why. I had to figure out how.

“Then I started thinking that’s why she disappeared, you see? I figured that’s why Jos vanished, because she went back in time. She time traveled.  Yeah, I know, insane. That’s what I thought. But…” He waved the phone with the video on it. “It’s real. The video’s real, so there has to be an explanation. Time travel. It explains why she disappeared, why no one’s been able to find her.”

“You think your wife… went back in time?” Asenath asked slowly, her brow furrowing a bit.

“No.” Lincoln shook his head. “Not anymore. See, even then there was just too much that didn’t make sense. I mean, not that time travel itself made sense, but even within the context of that, there were too many questions. Too many things it didn’t answer. Especially when it came to you.”

“When it came to me?” Asenath echoed, head turning slightly as her curiosity rose even more.

He nodded. “You see, I know when Flick is keeping things from me. I know when she’s upset and won’t talk about it. I know when she’s… lying. She’s been getting better about it, but I can tell. I know my daughter.  And every time she talks about that school she’s going to, she’s lying. She doesn’t want to. I can tell that too. But she is. She’s lying about a lot of it. So if she’s lying, why?”

The man pushed himself back from the table then, finally standing as he let out a breath. “And the thing is, what are the odds that some mysterious school on the other side of the country suddenly recruits my daughter, full scholarship, she starts lying about it, and it’s not related to this video? I’ve seen her teacher, talked to her. I’ve seen all the pamphlets about this Crossroads, seen the website all about their campus. So if my kid is lying about it, then they’re all lying about it. And that kind of conspiracy, convincing Flick to lie, faking all of that, it’s too big not to be connected to this video. You see? Two things that big, an entire fake school and my wife being in this video, they had to be connected. Had to be. Because two things that big, that insane, couldn’t be separate.”

Standing there, he folded his arms across his chest while watching Asenath. “But if they were connected, then you had to be connected. You were here because of Flick.” He raised his chin to her. “But see, that’s what didn’t fit for a long time. I thought you were here to keep me in line, make me a hostage while… whoever’s behind that school convinced Flick to keep lying. But that didn’t make sense. Because she likes you. She really does, I can tell. And Shiori, Columbus, all of them. Even that professor of hers, the one that visited. She likes all of you, but she’s still lying.

“None of it made sense. She likes the school, at least, some of the people in it anyway. She’s obviously learning how to take care of herself. She’s stronger than she was. But she’s lying to me. Doesn’t want to, but she is. And then I figured it out. I realized why she’s been lying. It’s because she can’t tell me the truth.” His finger moved to touch his own head. “Because I’ll forget. Hell, for all I know, she has tried to tell me the truth. Me forgetting and her lying, they’re connected.”

The man let that sink in for a moment before he went on. “So the school, her teachers, her friends, all of that couldn’t be connected to time travel. But you know what it could be connected to?” He paused briefly, meeting Asenath’s gaze before answering his own question. “Immortals.”

That made Senny’s mouth open and shut a few times. “… immortals?” she managed weakly.

“Virginia Dare,” the man replied. “She’s not named for the girl at all. She is the girl, the woman. And the reason Jos can look like she’s the same age ten years before she was supposedly born as she was when I knew her, is because she is the same age. Dare, Jos, probably everyone at that school, they’re all immortals. Or, if not immortal, they live a long time. My guess is so that they can fight people like you.” He paused, his eyes taking in her reaction. “… vampires, that is.”

Before she could even start to form a coherent thought, let alone reaction to that, Lincoln continued. “Super speed, you’re really strong, and an allergy to sunlight? Yeah, even with the doctor’s note, that one wasn’t hard to pick up on. So the way I see it, there’s these people that Jos comes from. Immortal or just live a long time, I don’t know. Whatever it is, she was part of them. And they fight, well, people like you. Vampires, maybe other things, I don’t know. Only bad ones. Jos was part of it, but she ran away. I don’t know why, but she left. She took off. Maybe the kids she had back then, the ones in the video… maybe something happened to them and she couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t know. Either way, my guess is that she came here and made a new life, the life she had with us. But one of those people she used to fight found her. They took her away.

“Fast forward a few years, and those people, Jos’s people, they come and recruit Flick. They take her into their school, start teaching her how to take care of herself. And they tell her about her mom. They tell her that this bad guy has her. That’s why she’s there. That’s why she’s so much stronger now, because they’re teaching her, they’re training her. And that’s why she’s suddenly… that’s why she’s not mad at her mom anymore. Because she knows that Jos was abducted, that she didn’t choose to leave. So Flick’s there because she wants to save her mom. And she’s not telling me about it because she thinks I’d just forget all of it. That’s why she’s been lying about it.”

Slowly, the man reached up to the nearby fridge to take down a newspaper article that had been clipped there. “And you’re here… because of this.” He showed her the article. It was about the supposed ‘terrorist attack’ in the city several months earlier. “Flick’s birthday. It’s her birthday, she’s back from that school, and something like this happens? It had to be connected. Had to be. So the way I see it, it’s this guy.” From his pocket, he drew out another picture. It was the picture that Senny and Flick had seen pinned up on the board in Lincoln’s office, the one that had been taken from the bad surveillance footage that showed Fossor himself.

“That’s the guy who took my wife,” the man announced flatly, confidently. “And he came here on Flick’s birthday to threaten her. All those attacks, those were warnings. Telling her to back off. And that’s why you’re here now. You’re part of the school, whatever it really is. You’re part of it, and Flick asked you to come and stay with me. You’re not keeping me hostage. You’re protecting me.”

It wasn’t perfect. There were holes in his assumptions, yet other conclusions that he had reached relatively correctly with very little to go on. And yet, none of it made sense. He shouldn’t have been able to remember any of what he was doing. It shouldn’t have been that easy. The shock of it, the utter confusion of a Bystander being able to both retain enough information to know that something was off and to put it together as close to accurately as he had, was enough to stun the two-hundred year old vampire into silence. For a moment, Senny just opened and shut her mouth. “What–how did… how…”

“I told you,” the man replied simply, “I’m a damn good reporter.”

Again, her mouth opened. But before she could actually say anything, something else caught her attention. Footsteps. They were coming from outside, yet from more than one direction. The house was being approached from both sides. A moment later, her nose caught the scent.

Werewolves. At least four of them, maybe more. They were approaching the back door and the one at the front. And from their pace, they weren’t exactly planning on stopping to knock.

She moved. Even as the terrible crash came as the two sets of werewolves kicked either door in, Senny was already in the front hall. Her foot caught the door there, slamming it back the other way just as the massive figure there tried to stomp his way inside. The door took him in the face, making him snap backward. It only gained a couple of seconds, but seconds mattered right then.

“Twist!” she shouted while blurring her way back through the kitchen to the back door. “Code fur!”

Two werewolves were there, already pushing their way in through the shattered door. One of them saw her and snarled, “Vampire bi–”

That was as far as he got before Senny reached the kitchen knives. Her hands snatched two from the wooden container, and she gave them a quick toss that left one embedded in the scraggly-haired man’s shoulder and the other in the arm that he was reaching for her with.

He screamed, jerking backward with a look of disbelief at the knives embedded in him. Knives that were actual silver, since Asenath had spent her time in the house gradually replacing the old stainless steel knives with new ones that would actually get the job done if they needed to. Just in case.

“You got real bullets for that thing?” she snapped over her shoulder at Lincoln. “Load it!”

Even as she finished talking, one of the other wolves behind the one she had put the knives in shoved his companion out of the way. He gave her a brief smile that showed a mouthful of fangs before lunging forward. At the same time, fur began to sprout up over the man’s exposed skin, and he grew taller, shifting into his half-man, half-wolf form.

By that point, Senny had two more knives in her hands. She met the werewolf’s charge by leaping up and backward onto the far side of the table. An instant later, she kicked it forward, sending the table into the werewolf’s stomach with enough force that the table itself was broken. But it also doubled the man over enough that she was able to drive one of the knives up through his throat and into his brain.

Four deafening gunshots, all fired in rapid succession, filled the air then. From the corner of her eye as the wolf she had killed collapsed, Senny saw the one from the front door standing there in the kitchen entrance with four bullet holes in his chest. Unfortunately, the bullets themselves weren’t silver or magic (she really wished they had some Heretic bullets right then), so the wounds were barely enough to make the big werewolf pause. Then, with a snarl, he started forward.

That was when the bear showed up. Taking up most of the front entranceway, the enormous shaggy creature lashed out a furry paw that caught the wolf across the face and sent him flying sideways.

Twister. She was up, which made this whole thing a little easier. Survivable, at least.

Another werewolf from the front, this one in actual wolf form, joined in the attack, rushing in to save his partner even as the Twister-bear turned to face them both. At the same time, two more wolf-men shoved their way in. They saw their dead partner while the one with knives in his arm and shoulder bellowed, and came for Senny.

One werewolf dead, one injured. Two more there at the back. At least two at the front. Six werewolves. This was a full scale assault. They were there to either kill Lincoln, or take him.

Senny wouldn’t let that happen. Even as the first wolf reached her, she jerked sideways to avoid his claw-filled hand as it lashed out. A quick swipe of the knife drew a line of blood from the arm, as well as a snarl of pain from the wolf himself.

The second wolf went for her from the other side, forcing the vampire to keep an eye on both of them. They were fast, impossibly so. But so was she. And she had far more experience than either. Probably more experience than both combined.

But they were still werewolves. And she had to keep half an eye on Lincoln, making sure he was behind her. One of the wolves, after a flurry of blindingly quick swipes, managed to smack the girl upside the head. It was a glancing blow, but from the wolf, it still knocked her back a step. And that was enough for the second wolf to nail her in the stomach with a kick that knocked her right into Lincoln. Both stumbled, falling against the counter.

“Werewolves?” he blurted, staring at the girl while catching her arm. “And is that a fucking bear?!

“Oh sure,” Senny retorted. “You’ve figured out I’m a vampire and you think your wife and daughter are some kind of immortal hunters, but the bear startles you.” Pausing, she added, “Anyway, the bear’s on our side.”

“Look, vampire bitch.” The wolf that she had injured had entered the room then, making it three werewolves facing her. “We’re taking the Bystander. You can let us do it and keep breathing–or whatever you cunts do, or you can–”

“I think that’s enough.” The voice came from the open doorway at the back. As everyone’s eyes turned that way, a lone figure stepped through. A figure that sent all of Senny’s danger senses about Heretics into a screaming fit.

She was an almost achingly beautiful black woman, who radiated power as she stood there. “You may run,” she informed the gathered werewolves, “or–”

They lunged for her. With a collective howl, all three of the werewolves there in the kitchen went for the woman as one pack, rushing her together.

Unfortunately for them, all that meant was that they failed together.

The woman pursed her lips and blew out a white cloud that enveloped the wolf directly in front of her. In an instant, he was frozen solid, a statue of ice.

At the same time, she moved, her form flowing as smoothly as if it was water flowing through a river. Gracefully sidestepping the second wolf, she brushed a hand over his side. At her touch, he turned to stone.

By that point, the third wolf was leaping up and into the air with his claws raised. The Heretic gave a quick nod of her head, and the figure was caught by an invisible force that sent him flying backwards. Just before he would have hit the wall, a half dozen sharp, clearly silver spikes emerged from it. The wolf-man gave a pathetic yowl as he was impaled through on all of them.

Impossible as it seemed, through all of that, the first werewolf hadn’t yet hit the ground. Frozen solid, he was still in mid-fall at the moment that the third wolf was impaled on the wall.

The Heretic turned, catching the falling, frozen wolf by the back of the neck before using her considerable strength to slam him into the counter. He hit with enough force that his frozen head exploded.

It was at that moment that the wolf who had been turned into stone at her touch landed on the floor. In the same motion that she had used to turn while shoving the frozen wolf-man’s head against the counter, the Heretic brought her foot down hard on the stone-wolf. The blow shattered the figure into dozens of pieces.

“Or die,” she finished her earlier statement, the entire ‘fight’, if it could even be called that, having taken roughly two and a half seconds.

“Wolves at the front are done!” Twister announced, having shifted back into her human form as she came into the kitchen. “How are we–” She paused, taking in the sight around them before her eyes found the woman. “What… the he–oh shit!” Jumping back, she shapeshifted into a squirrel before landing on Asenath’s shoulder.

“Uhhh…” Lincoln was shakily holding the gun up, pointed at the woman. “Okay. Okay, those were werewolves. Werewolves. And you–you’re…”

“Heretic,” Asenath finished for him, her eyes on the woman. “And not just a Heretic. You’re…  you’re a…”

“Part of the Committee,” the woman confirmed. “My name is Calafia. And you are Asenath. And Twister, I presume.”

“Flick,” Lincoln quickly put in. “You–you’re part of Flick’s school, part of Jos’s people, the immortals.”

“So close, Mr. Chambers,” the woman spoke easily. “You are so very close right now. I’m impressed. I thought it would take you longer to reach these conclusions, even with the weakened Bystander Effect.”

“Weakened Bystander Effect?” Asenath’s gaze snapped that way. “How do–wait… you. You did it. It’s you–you’re the reason he’s remembering. You weakened it, you let him… you let him remember, but why? What the hell are you doing?”

The profoundly dangerous woman simply inclined her head. “Let’s just say I owe Joselyn Atherby a great deal, and leave it at that for now. But yes. I was the one who informed Gabriel Prosser of where he could locate Joselyn to begin with. I also sent him the video of Joselyn in the hospital from our secure archives and asked him to make sure that Mr. Chambers received it.”

“But… but…” Asenath was floundering. “You’re–you’re part of the… you’re one of… you’re…”

“As I said,” Calafia spoke calmly, “I owe Joselyn more than I can ever repay. But to start, allowing her husband to learn the truth, that was something that was within my capability. Yet, to ensure that none of my… colleagues recognized what was happening, I could not break the Bystander Effect. I could only weaken it. He had to work through the rest of it himself, on his own. As I said, I expected it to take longer.” She turned slightly to look at the man. “You are a very surprising man, Lincoln Chambers. Joselyn chose well, even under… her circumstances.”

“My wife.” Lincoln took a step that way, the pistol falling to his side. “You know what happened to my wife. You know the man–you have Flick, you have–tell me what–tell me–” He seemed choked up, frozen and incapable of deciding what he wanted full answers to first.

“I’m afraid I cannot stay here,” Calafia informed them. “My presence will be noticed before long. You need to leave. The wolves will return, in greater numbers. I’m afraid Felicity has… angered them. They were retaliating, and it’s not a retaliation that will stop any time soon. You need to leave this place, stay on the run until the pack and those behind it are dealt with.”

“But I need to know!” Lincoln snapped. The poor man’s face was red as he fought to cope with everything he was seeing, everything that was being revealed to him. “I need to know about my wife, about my daughter, about what’s really going on! I want to talk to Felicity.”

“Go,” Calafia repeated, before her eyes fell on Asenath. “And tell him the truth. He’s close, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. You can tell him the rest of it. He’s broken through the Bystander Effect enough to retain it by this point.

“Tell him everything.”  

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Tis The Season 19-06

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As a quick note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to click the ‘previous chapter’ button above. 

Later that night, I was laying on the roof of the house, staring at the sky. There was snow around me, but I didn’t really care. I’d thought about making an angel in it, but the very concept of angels was pissing me off at the moment, so it didn’t sound like fun. Instead, I just lay there watching the stars.

It had taken awhile to tell my teacher everything that had happened while she was gone. Dare was… well, to say she was surprised was putting it lightly. Plus, I think she was a little bit jealous about my interacting with Prosser. There was a certain wistfulness to her reactions that made me think that she wanted to have been there. I wondered if she had ever met the man, or if her reaction simply came from spending so much time around the Heretics that practically worshiped him (without knowing him).

Eventually, she promised not to tell anyone about it other than Gaia. Then Jeremiah had come back in with Suttle to erase my father’s memory about seeing Scott. The baron had left me a card with his phone number if I ever wanted to contact him again, adding a note on the back with an e-mail address as well. It was different from the one that was already on the card. A more private one, he’d said.

I wasn’t really planning on using it. The man seemed friendly enough, and his reasoning for helping made sense. I just… wasn’t sure about how much I trusted him, or how much I wanted to push that trust, even if Professor Dare said it was okay. Call me crazy, but I thought it was better to be more discreet.

It took effort after that, but I finally convinced her and Senny to spend some time together while they had the chance, insisting that I’d be fine. Fossor had had his fun, showing that he could still hurt the people I cared about. At this point, he probably didn’t even know that Scott was a Pooka. If he had, he’d never have used him as an object lesson. Which meant that he’d probably leave me alone to stew in my misery, having (in his mind) made his point. So, after extensive discussion, I eventually got the two of them to go by promising that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. And technically that was the truth. Laying on the roof wasn’t actually going anywhere, and I had desperately needed to get out of the house for a little bit.

Inside, Dad was doing his thing, and I didn’t want to be there for that. I didn’t want to look him in the eyes while he sat there with no idea of what was coming the next day. I knew that probably before the morning was over, Dad was going to find out about the discovery of Scott’s body. And that was going to destroy him about as much as it had destroyed me when I’d thought that Scott was dead. He’d been around for so long that my father clearly practically saw him as nearly a surrogate son in a lot of ways. What was he going to do when he was forced to think that the boy was gone forever, that he was dead?

And how could I look my father in the eye and react normally without telling him that Scott was okay? How could I look myself in the mirror with the knowledge of what kind of pain my dad was going through? Or his parents. Oh God, the people who had been Scott’s adopted mother and father, how could I let them feel the way they were going to feel when the news about their son came in? I knew them, I’d spent time at their house growing up. How could I let them think that he was dead forever?

And yet, what else could I do? Tell the truth? They’d either think I was insane, or if they did believe me (or if I told them too much), they’d completely forget it. The Bystander Effect would make sure of that.

A dark shape blotted out the moon that I was staring at as I lay on my back on the roof of the house. The raven flew in a lazy circle before coming back around to land nearby, shifting into Twister’s form.

“Hey,” I gave a wave without looking that way. “Kinda late for you to be up, isn’t it? Couldn’t sleep?”

Instead of making a crack like she normally would, the Pooka girl just watched me for a few seconds before taking an obvious breath to steady herself. “So, uh, there was a lot of stuff going on back there with all the Heretics being around and everything else, but… there’s probably something I should talk to you about before it blindsides you. Something about your dad and this whole Pooka revival thing.”

Confused (and honestly a little trepidatious about how bad it could possibly be), I asked, “What?”

“Your dad,” she started, looking like this was basically the last thing in the world she actually wanted to talk about, but was forcing herself to. “He’s not going to remember Scott after this. Like, at all.”

The words fell like a bomb. And like a bomb, it felt like a concussive wave had punched through my gut. For a moment after she spoke, I just stared at her while trying to comprehend. “What—what?!”

“It’s a Pooka thing,” she elaborated. “You know how the Bystander Effect erases all the supernatural stuff from human memories? They see something completely inexplicable and it just ‘poof’, disappears?” When I nodded, she gestured. “That’s what happens when Pooka die. Anyone that’s not immune to the Bystander Effect just… poof, we disappear from their minds. We’re erased. That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time around normal humans, because every time I die, they completely forget who I am. It sucks, so I stopped doing it. But it’s been awhile, so I didn’t even think about it last night when… when everything happened. It was all going so fast and there were Heretics here and–” She sighed. “Sorry.”

“You—he–” My mouth worked while my head shook. “That doesn’t even… how? You mean my dad just—forgot everything about Scott? Everything? All of it? What about his parents? Do they just forget they had a son? They have pictures! And his mom still had his room with some of his stuff that he didn’t take with him. What about all that? What about his job? Do they just forget about him? What about cases he’s supposed to testify in, or tickets he’s written, or anything else he did as a deputy?”

“Bystander Effect,” she answered. “They’ll look at the pictures and not see him. They’ll see his room and stuff and think it belongs to someone else, like a friend that stayed for awhile, or a nephew, or anything else other than the truth. People will suddenly remember the cases being taken by someone else. Everything in the Bystander world gets rewritten as if he was never there.” Her expression darkened a bit then as she looked away from me, voice dropping to a mutter. “Like I said, it sucks ass.”

“No, but—that’s not–” My stomach was sinking. His parents would just forget he existed? That was—that was just… wrong. Sure, I hadn’t known how I was going to help my dad and Scott’s parents get through losing him, but I didn’t want them to forget him. That was sick. It was awful. “That’s not fair.”

“Tell me about it,” Twister muttered. Her voice made it clear that she’d been personally burned by that. She looked over at me, brow twisted into a frown. “You said those angel fucks were behind that shit?”

“Seosten,” I muttered quietly while nodding. “Yeah. They created the Bystander Effect, apparently.”

“Yeah, well…” Twister went silent briefly, her emotions playing over her face far more than they usually did. “I’d like to get them in a room somewhere and let them know just what I think about that.”

Closing my eyes, I thought about Scott’s parents, coworkers, and friends just forgetting he ever existed. I thought about his entire life in the Bystander world being completely erased, of him being erased.

“So would I,” I muttered so quietly that the words were carried away by the breeze. “So would I.”

******

Christmas Day. It had always been important to my dad and me, a way of showing that we were still a family even though Mom wasn’t there anymore. When I was still young, he always went completely out of his way to make it special, obviously feeling like he had to make up for her absence. Not just as far as presents went, but with food and everything else too. He’d have holiday movies playing through the whole day, and the entire house would be filled with the smell of all the food he picked up from the restaurant and bakery the day before. Not to mention the lengths he went to as far as decorations went.

He’d always done everything he could to make sure that I didn’t feel like we were missing anything for the holiday. But we were. We were missing my mother, and no amount of cookies, music, bright lights, or Ralphie finally getting that BB gun could fill the void that her absence had left for all these years.

This year was worse in that regard. A hollow sort of empty feeling had settled over the proceedings throughout the morning, despite my (admittedly fairly pitiful) attempts to show enthusiasm. How could I, when the thought of Scott being completely erased dominated every moment that passed? Thinking about everyone grieving Scott’s death had been bad enough, but the idea that they forgot him? It made me feel sick. My stomach had twisted up inside throughout the morning, leaving me unable to eat.

“Hey kid,” Dad interrupted my thoughts, stepping in front of my chair while shaking a carton at me. “You want some of these pineapple cookies before I eat all of them? You didn’t take much breakfast.”

My mouth was already opening to speak even as I took the carton. The words came out automatically, before my brain had a chance to actually think about what I was saying. “Pineapple, Scott’s favorite.”

Even as I said the words, I was berating myself. No, no, no. I didn’t want to hear what came next.

Sure enough, Dad just chuckled as he stepped over to pick up the TV remote. Flipping through channels to find a Christmas movie we hadn’t already watched, he asked, “One of your classmates?”

It was a good thing that he wasn’t looking at me, because it took a few seconds for me to blink away the tears that tried to flood my eyes. And if he’d seen that, there was no way Dad wouldn’t push me on it.

“N-no,” I managed a bit weakly, the painful lump in my throat making it hard to breathe, let alone speak. “Just a…” I closed my eyes tightly for a moment before opening them. “Just a… good friend.”

“A good friend, huh?” Dad looked over at me slyly. “Should I be concerned about this ‘good friend’?”

No. I wanted to grab my dad and shake him. I wanted to shout Scott’s name into his face until it sank in. I wanted to scream at him that Scott had been taking care of me since I was a baby, that he himself had helped coach Scott’s Little League team, that… that he saw the boy as practically an honorary son.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do any of that. Because if I did, at the very best, he’d just think that I was crazy. At worst, the Bystander Effect would erase what I told him. Twister was right, this sucked ass.

Finally stopping on a station for longer than a few seconds, Dad smiled. “There we go, Earnest Saves Christmas. You used to love this movie. You begged so much for me to let you stay up to see it when you were ten.” Smiling at that memory, he glanced to me. “So, this Scott. He’s not from that school?”

Words almost failed me. Thought almost failed me. All that was left was emotion. And not very good emotion. Stumbling to my feet, I shook my head. “I—I need some air. I’ll be back later.” The words croaked their way out of me even as I went for the door, grabbing my coat and fleeing before he could ask more questions.

I was going to have to explain that later, or at least tell my father something. But I wasn’t thinking about that just then. All I could think about was how hard it was to breathe in the house and that I needed to leave before I blurted out something that I really shouldn’t. I had to go, had to get outside and just walk.

So that’s what I did. Pulling my coat on, I all but ran down the sidewalk. I had to get away, had to leave before my dad asked me any more questions, or looked at me with that completely blank expression whenever I brought up Scott. Seeing his total lack of memory about someone that important killed me.

I had no idea where I was planning on going, but it didn’t matter. I’d only barely made it to the end of our property, stepping into the neighbor’s driveway before a voice called out my name. Not Dad. Shiori.

Turning that way, I saw both her and Columbus trotting my way, the latter carrying a brightly wrapped present under one arm. They were also both grinning until they got close enough to see my expression.

“Flick?” Shiori blurted, eyes widening as she took a step my way. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

My mouth opened and shut, then I moved. Before I knew what I was doing, my arms were already around the girl. I hugged her tightly, drawing a squeak of surprise before she returned the embrace.

For a few long seconds, I didn’t say anything. I just hugged Shiori and tried not to cry. It was all I could do to remain standing. Which seemed stupid. Scott wasn’t dead. Things could have been a lot worse. Yet somehow, the thought of my father forgetting him, of his own parents forgetting him… it ruined me.

Finally, I got enough control over myself to release Shiori. Stepping back, I sniffed once before blushing with embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I just… I…” My shoulders shrugged helplessly and I nodded my head back the way I’d been going. “Do you guys mind… umm, walking with me?”

Both of them agreed quickly, and we started to walk. Shiori and Columbus kept giving me looks that were as curious as they were sympathetic. They obviously wanted to know what had happened. But they didn’t ask, didn’t push me to explain. Obviously, they were going to let me tell it on my time.

So, eventually, I did. As we walked fairly aimlessly down the streets, I quietly explained everything that had happened. I told them about the phone call, about Scott ‘dying’, about finding out he was alive, Prosser’s visit, meeting with the baron, and what Twister had told me. I explained everything, trying to keep my voice as steady as possible even as the two of them reacted with horror through a lot of it.

“But… but how does that—how?” Columbus stammered once I finished talking. “What about all the records, the physical records about his existence? Not just papers, but videos. And stuff in the computer, and… and all of it. What about all that stuff? Does the Bystander Effect just erase all that?”

I gave a helpless, equally annoyed shrug. “According to Twister, it’s more simple than that. People affected by it just don’t see things like that. If they look at a paper that mentions the person, their brains won’t comprehend it. The memory of what they read disappears immediately. It’s like back when we were trying to tell Sean and Avalon about Koren and Wyatt. The memory doesn’t stick in their head. If Scott’s parents look at a picture with both of them and little Scott, all they’ll see is the two of them. It doesn’t physically change documents or anything, it just makes it so they can’t retain that information long enough for their brain to do anything with it. It’s automatically erased before they consciously acknowledge it.”

“That’s… that’s…” Shiori stammered, face red as she stared at me. “That’s just… wrong.

“I know,” I acknowledged quietly, feeling even more helpless than I had before. “But what can we do? My dad, his co-workers, his friends, even his family all forgot him. I saw it with my dad, he had no idea who I was talking about.”

“Bystander Effect,” Columbus muttered darkly. “You know, the more I hear about that thing, the more I hate it. Those wannabe angels really screwed us over.”

Shiori and I both nodded in silent agreement. After a moment, I murmured, “Can you imagine how different the world would be without it?”

“In good and bad ways,” Columbus pointed out. “I mean, if humans knew they could get superpowers by putting Alter blood in their blood? A lot of people would hunt innocent Alters down just for that.”

“And a lot wouldn’t,” I replied. “I mean, sure, there’s bad people like that. But if it was all in the open, Alters could have… you know, rights and people who did that could be held accountable.”

“Would they be?” Columbus countered. “I’m just saying, humans don’t have the best track record of being able to get along with each other, let alone whole new races. Some of whom actually do prey on humans. It’s all… muddled.”

I nodded, acknowledging that. “It wouldn’t be perfect. It’s not like erasing the Bystander Effect would make everything into paradise. But still… the Seosten magic isn’t right. It’s not the way things should be.”

We continued walking then, each of us silent for a few minutes, clearly lost in our own thoughts.

Eventually, Shiori’s hand found mine and squeezed it a little. Her voice was quiet. “What about Fossor and Ammon?”

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I managed to respond, “They’ll pay. Everyone they hurt, everyone they killed, everything… everything they’ve done. My mom, They’ll pay for it. That Denise from the gas station, Scott, everyone. They’ll pay for everyone they hurt, everyone they killed.

“Fossor wanted to remind me that he’s still a threat. He wanted me to take him seriously. Well, I’m going to. Everyone he’s ever hurt or killed, every life he’s ruined, every person he’s destroyed, I’m going to take it incredibly seriously.

“And when the time comes… I’m going to make him choke on it. All of it.”

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