“So I’ve got a question,” I started a little bit later as Gabriel and I walked along the edge of the lake toward one of the other cabins. Avalon and Shiori were both catching a nap back in his place, since neither would agree to leaving here without me. It was all I could do to convince them to sleep, even though they’d both been so exhausted they could barely keep their eyes open.
“Well, actually I have a lot of questions,” I amended. “But one in particular, about the heir thing.”
The man glanced at me before giving a slight smile. “You mean why are you considered the heir?”
My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh. I mean, Mom’s still alive. And Wyatt and Abigail are both older than I am. So why would you call me the ‘Atherby clan heir’?” Pausing, I added, “And when do they get to come out here? I’m sure they both wanna hear stories about the family.”
“I’d like to get them both out here,” Gabriel confirmed. “And we will, as soon as possible. Especially if they can come together. To see the twins again after so much time…” He paused, swallowing noticeably. “It would make some of the people around here very happy.” The way he said it made it clear that there were plenty who’d never gotten over losing them in the first place.
After letting that hang for a few seconds, the man continued. “And as far as the heir stuff goes, that’s all four of you, counting Koren. As direct Atherby descendants, you’re either the leader, or the heir. When the leadership position opens up for whatever reason, anyone with the title of heir can throw their hat in the ring to be chosen as the next leader. Then every adult member of the clan votes for it. If there’s more than one, I mean. Or if there’s no eligible heirs at all, someone else is voted on.” He coughed, eyes rolling a little bit. “That’s what happened with me.” Pausing, the man looked away while lowering his voice. “Apparently the whole ‘voting on multiple heirs’ thing used to be more important when there were more Atherbys. Lyell outlived most of his family and only had one son.”
“Joshua,” I finished for him, nodding before looking up as we reached the cabin. There were eleven people around a bonfire that had been built up in the back. All of them seemed to be watching us, and my Heretic-sense went off like mad for a few seconds as I took in the sight.
“There’s an awful lot of people who know about my mom,” I pointed out. “Does that mean they were all protected from the spell that Ruthers and his people cast? But that doesn’t make sense, because I know that Asenath and Twister weren’t, and they were both helping the rebellion.”
“A few were protected,” the man explained. “Others were brought on since then and… restored.” He made a face that was barely visible in the light from the nearby lantern. “It took years to get this many back, and it’s nowhere near the numbers that the rebellion had under your mother.”
“Right, and speaking of getting people back,” I added, “is this the place where Scott ended up?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. He’s at another place, a house in one of the cities. As soon as he starts remembering enough of what happened, I will let you know. Assuming you’d like to visit.”
I nodded, but before I could say anything, one of the figures moved from the fire to come closer. As he approached, I saw what looked like a dark-skinned man with pointed fox-like ears on top of his head, similar to Twister’s. Unlike Twister, however, he didn’t have a tail. He had nine of them. All were long, dark, and fluffy, spread out behind him like some kind of dark, furry peacock.
“Oh,” I blurted as the man came into view. “You’re a Kitsu–” Cutting myself off, I flushed a little bit. “Sorry, that’s probably pretty rude, huh? Um, hi.” I extended a hand. “What I mean is, hi, I’m Flick.”
The man, who was shorter and far more wiry than Gabriel, gave me a quick smile that showed a mouthful of perfectly white, canine teeth. “No, nah, not a problem, not a thing at all,” he blurted in a voice that was clearly accustomed to speaking a million miles a minute. “My name’s Biseon, but they call me Busy. Not sure why. Hah, I’m kidding, I know why. It’s cuz I’m always busy. Always working, always going, gotta keep going if we’re gonna survive a world like this, you know. Lotsa things wanna kill us. Heretics, Nocen, actually some people think we oughtta just call you all Nocen too since you’re always trying to kill us. Well, not you personally, but the other Heretics, other ones that are bad, scary, terrible. Glad you’re not like them. That would’ve been really–”
“Busy,” Gabriel interjected, “is our technology expert. You think he talks fast now, you should see him when he’s actually trying to explain something about those computers he likes so much.”
While the Hangman-Heretic was talking, Busy’s nine tails spread out before starting to wag up and down with obvious excitement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he quickly interjected. “See Heretic stuff, gotta take it apart, put it back together, see how it tick tick ticks, not like a bomb, well some of them are bombs. Usually catch those, not always, lost a few eyebrows. Lost a couple fingers, but made replacements. Heretics like to trap their stuff, make weapons burn Alters, not fair, not fun. Had to figure out how to undo it. Heretics here help, let me use weapons to figure out trick.”
Holding up a hand, I tried to latch onto at least one part of what he was saying before he could ramble on. “So Heretic weapons burn you guys if you try to touch them, but you worked out a way to get around it after the Heretics that are on your side let you examine their weapons?”
“Yes, yes, exactly, that’s it.” Busy’s head bobbed up and down even faster than his collection of tails. “Smart girl, very smart. Sharp, bright, shrewd, what a whiz. Muldoon called it in the movie.”
Lost again, I worked my mouth for a second before starting to ask, “What mov–”
“Jurassic Park,” he interrupted. “Good movie. Terrible science, good movie. Fun. Eat popcorn, don’t complain. Totally inaccurate in every way. Wrong way to bring dinosaurs back. Wrong, but fun. Muldoon, clever girl. But don’t eat me. Don’t wanna be that movie-accurate, nope.”
Oh, right. Muldoon, the Jurassic Park guy that was eaten by the raptors. Now I was caught up. “I promise not to eat you,” I assured him, adding, “And you made replacements for your fingers?”
In response, the fox-man lifted up both hands in front of me. The index and middle fingers of his left hand, and the pinkie, index, and thumb on his right all extended various tiny tools like screwdriver heads, drill-bits, scissors, and more. It made him look a bit like Inspector Gadget.
Gabriel ushered me over to the fire, where I saw more of the people up close. Of the eleven people there, my Heretic-sense picked out about half of them as being Alters. The others were either Heretics, or a kind of Alter that didn’t set off the sense. All of them were staring at me.
One of them cleared his throat. He was an Orc, one of the big, eight-foot tall guys with warthog face. This one had a long, scraggly gray beard, and was wearing ratty blue jeans and a black shirt that advertised some kind of automotive repair shop. “Yer da spittin’ image o’yer mudder.”
There was a chorus of agreement behind him, as the Orc’s face broke into a wide smile. He extended one of his large hands my way. “Name’s Oscar. Well, t’ain’t really muh name, but ya prob’ly couldna pronounce the righ’ one anyway. Oscar’s close ‘nuff, an’ the kiddies been usin’ it ever-since tha’ Says-Me Street made tha’ one puppet in the trash can. Dunno why, Ah ain’t furry.”
“Oh, um, hi, Oscar.” I accepted his hand, and he grinned when I didn’t wince from the squeeze.
“Got a bit o’ a grip on ya there, yah?” he drawled, still giving me an easy smile before letting go.
I shrugged. “Um, yeah, there was this werewolf and…” Trailing off, I coughed. “Never mind.”
More of the people that had been by the fire introduced themselves then. Besides Oscar the Orc and Busy the Kitsune, there was a female Relukun (one of the wood-people) named Calice, a tiny male Kobold (a small, goblin-like creature) wearing a miniature suit, tie, and tophat that introduced himself as Fancy (he was even using a neat little cane), and a Prevenkuat (the two-headed hyena-people) who had one male head and one female head. I decided against asking how their plumbing was arranged.
That was it for the obvious Alters. Of the rest, three turned out to be Heretics, all of them naturals. There was Duncan, a natural Ullus-Heretic (it turned out the Ullus were the Alters that Columbus and Shiori had killed back on the Meregan planet to get their metal-manipulation powers. They looked like yellow-skinned humans with three eyes instead of two) who looked like he was about thirty-something, with brownish-blonde hair and a rugged build like a man who had lived outside for much of his life.
Beside Duncan was his younger sister, Misty. She was a natural Ogre Heretic who appeared to be in her late teens or very early twenties, with hair that was brown with little bits of blonde running through it here and there. She was also a waifish figure who looked like a stiff breeze would blow her apart. But thanks to the inherited Ogre-strength, she could easily shot put a pickup truck.
Then there was a man who looked like that ancient knight guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was even dressed like a knight in chainmail, and carried an old-looking sword in a scabbard at his hip. The guy actually kissed my hand while introducing himself as Enguerrand. Unlike the others, he didn’t volunteer what kind of Alter he had gained his Heretic-state from.
Beyond the trio of natural Heretics, there were three others who were apparently non-obvious Alters that my sense didn’t pick up. The two females seemed to be related to one another, and introduced themselves as Rain and Kaste. Both looked like they were in their mid-thirties. The guy, meanwhile, looked young. Barely out of his teens, if that. He called himself Berlin, and the only thing out-of-the-ordinary that I saw with him was that his eyes were a deep orange color.
He was also the one who started talking about my mother first, as we gathered around their fire. “Oscar’s right, you do look a lot like Joselyn. Not completely, but you are definitely her daughter.”
“Y–you actually knew my mom?” I asked, reminding myself again not to be fooled by how young he looked. Appearances meant nothing, as my 430-ish-year-old history teacher could attest.
“Course I did,” the red-haired, orange-eyed guy replied. “She’s the one that–” He paused before clearing his throat. “Ah, start from the beginning. I was working transport for these smugglers. I’m an Abeonas, see. We sorta specialize in what you call foldjumps, spots where we connect two different places and let anyone go straight from one to the other if they know the password.”
Right, I’d heard about them from the people in Wonderland, and from Mateo. That was how his pack had made the trip from Colombia all the way up there as quickly as they had.
Berlin continued. “So I was working for this smuggling group when your mom shows up and slaughters like… everyone. Everyone except me. Must’ve been ten guys. Tough ones too, couple of trolls in there for muscle. But Joselyn just went right through ‘em like they didn’t even matter. Killed them, then dragged me away from my own portal before I could get the hell out of there. Asked me if I knew what we were transporting in the truck. I told her it was weapons, magic stuff. She uh, she showed me it was more than that. Opened up the truck and there were these kids in there. Kids that were being taken out to be… sold.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “That was the tenth trip I made with those motherfuckers. Joselyn, she helped me set things as right as we could. We went back for the rest of the slavers, freed the ones that were there, killed all the bastards, then used their records to track down all the slaves that I helped deliver. Freed ‘em, killed their so-called owners, and that was that. Or it would’ve been. I probably would’ve found some other job working for one low life or another. Except Joselyn said I could do something more important. She talked up this rebellion of hers, told me I could make a difference. So, here I am.”
The old knight nodded. “Joshua would have been quite proud of his little girl.” He smiled faintly at me. “And his granddaughter. It’s too bad that he never got the chance to know any of you.”
Biting my lip, I asked him, “I take it that means you weren’t recruited by my mom then? It sounds like you were part of this whole clan thing already, if you knew my grandfather.”
He chuckled slightly. “I knew Joshua, yes. I changed his diapers.” Winking, the old man added, “His father, Lyell, was one of my best friends for a long time. He’s the one that saved me back when I first ran into the Alter that killed my family. I killed it, but the others would’ve killed me in turn if it wasn’t for Lyell Atherby. After that, we were friends until he passed. I watched over Joshua as a baby, I watched over little Joselyn, and I watched over the twins.” He paused then before flinching, looking away from me as his whole body sagged. “Never forgive myself for that.”
Wincing at his words, I hesitated for a second before reaching out to touch his arm. “Enguerrand,” I started, stumbling over his name just a little bit, “what happened wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t the fault of any of you guys. Gaia says that Ruthers didn’t even tell his own people what he was planning to do. Going after kids like that? It was…” I squeezed my hand tightly. “It was too far.”
The others had stories that were similar to Berlin’s. Most had been recruited by my mother at some point or another, and all had some kind of personal experience with her. All except Duncan and Misty, that was. Both were too young to have had anything to do with Mom, though their parents had been part of the rebellion, Heretics from Eden’s Garden who joined up with my mother back in the early days. Duncan and Misty had been born after Mom surrendered herself. They had grown up seeing the clan slowly rebuild itself after being taken down to the bare bones by the effect of the Mnemosyne spell. And they may not have had personal interaction with my mother, but they had plenty of passed-down stories from their (sadly now deceased) parents to share with me.
“So then Mom says,” Misty continued the story she had been telling while leaning on the handle of her weapon (a sword as big around as she was and just as tall) while the blade was partially buried in the ground, “that Dad can’t have, you know, gland-to-gland combat with the vampire girl unless he brings her some absurd quest item. I don’t remember, it was like the holy grail or something. Not that, but pretty much. Anyway, she was obviously just teasing him, you know. But she played it all straight, so Dad thought she was serious. So he goes off and looks for help to find this thing, and it’s your mom that agrees to help him. I’m pretty sure she knew Mom was teasing too, but she went with it. They went off and actually found the damn thing and brought it back.”
“Wait, so my mother seriously went on some epic quest just to help your dad get laid?” I worked my mouth a little at that before weakly asking, “Well, uh, I guess ummm… did it work?”
Duncan shook his head. “Our mother always stopped Dad from finishing the story at that point.”
“But,” Misty put in, “Dad used to give us that wink. So I’d say he probably got with vampire girl.”
I started to nod before my eyes widened. “Wait a second. Vampire girl? It wasn’t Asenath was it?”
“Hey, yeah,” the girl replied. “That was her name. Wait, that’s the one you’ve got watching your dad, right?” Her head tilted a little, obviously thinking briefly. “You think she’s still got a thing for–”
Thankfully, Duncan stopped her by clearing his throat pointedly. He gave me a sympathetic look. “I think the best takeaway here is that your mother was always there for the people she cared about. Sometimes it was something life-changing and really important. Other times it was for… that.”
Fancy, the snappily-dressed Kobold, gave a quick nod of his head. The top hat tried to slip off, but he raised his cane in a practice maneuver that caught the brim of it just in time. “Hear hear,” he announced in a voice that sounded like he had taken on a faux-British accent after hearing almost insultingly bad versions in cartoons. “T’was Joselyn Atherby what rescued my clan from the old caves, innit? Tweren’t for her, those wankers would’ve had a right straight shot at wiping us out.”
“Wankers?” I echoed. “You mean, um, other Heretics?”
Adjusting the monocle on his face (the Kobold had a freaking monocle, how great was that?), Fancy nodded once more. “Quite, quite! Our clan was in our little hovels when some sodding students from that old island of yours showed up. Apparently slaughtering our people was some bloody test or somefin. So they comes running in without so much as a howdo, but before they can commence the pig-sticking, the pretty blonde human shows up. She says a bunch of fine words, gives most of the clan time to escape. But I stayed behind, so I saw when she smacked around the ones what thought they could still fight anyway. She took a few of them on, ones what believed what she said. Then she asked if I wanted her to drop me anywhere. Well, I couldna think of any better place to be than right alongside the woman what just saved all our lives. So I stayed. Decided I wanted to be a better specimen, so’s I went and made meself from the dirt-scrabbling, poor little wretch I was before into the fine example you see before you.”
There were more stories like that, and I sat and listened to as many as I could until Gabriel finally interrupted to say that we should be getting back before it got to be any later. I agreed, but only reluctantly, and with the promise that I could come back later to hear more of their stories. And maybe even hear from other people, since this wasn’t nearly all of the ones at the camp. Apparently they didn’t want to overwhelm me, so they’d drawn lots to see who would talk to me first. Which… honestly, the idea that so many people wanted to talk to me about my mother that they had to draw lots for it was pretty intimidating.
One thing was even more apparent than it had already been. My mother had changed an awful lot of lives through her rebellion. She had inspired people, saved them, brought them on to do great things for decades even after she was out of the fight. They looked up to her, adored her, loved her. They missed her as much as I did.
Getting her back, saving her from Fossor, wasn’t just about me. It was about them. It was about all the people she had helped, all the people she had recruited, inspired, and led. It was about the people who had known her as a baby, who had known my grandfather, and his father.
Ruthers and Fossor probably thought that they didn’t have anything in common beyond being alive for a long time. But they did. They were alike in one very important, crucial way.
We were going to put both of them in the fucking ground for hurting my mom.