Norbit Drish

Patreon Snippets 5

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The following is the fifth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Sariel’s Eldest Missing Child – Several Years Ago

“Come, Nihil.”

Kushiel entered the pristine medical room at a crisp walk, beckoning with her fingers for the child at her heels to keep up. The young girl herself looked to be about five in Earth human years, which would have made her roughly three as far as the Seosten home planet of Elohim was concerned. Her light blonde hair was worn short, almost into a buzz cut, and she wore a simple silver hospital gown, with flashes of a blue Seosten bodysuit visible beneath it as she moved.

The room the two of them entered was taken up almost exclusively by various medical and scanning equipment that lined every wall. In the middle was a single bed, its occupant sitting up and watching them. He was an older man, his long hair gray and his face lined from many millennia of life. Though he was looking their way, he showed no change of expression at their entrance aside from a single blink. Beyond that, his face was empty.

Gazing up at the man, the young girl asked, “This is your husband, Mistress?”

Rather than answer, Kushiel pointed to a single chair that sat in the corner. “Sit, Nihil. Be silent.” She waited until the girl obediently did so before turning to the man. “Puriel,” she announced, stepping that way to take his limp hand. “Puriel, look at me.”

He did so, eyes moving to meet hers and focusing slightly better than they had been. “Kushiel,” he started in a voice that was rough, a testament to how seldom he used it lately. “Are they alive?”

Sighing with obvious annoyance, Kushiel shook her head. “Just like the last time you asked, and the time before that, and every time stretching back to the first, no.” She pulled his hand up to put both of hers around it. “Husband. Love. You have to stop this. It was years ago. The orphanage chose to take you in. They chose to care for your wounds after your transport through the banishment orb. They cared for you when you didn’t know who you were. And yes, you were in no shape to protect them when the Fomorians came. They died, my husband. But you survived. You survived, and now you remember who you are. You have to move on. Your people need you.”

His gaze had gone empty again, as he stared off at nothing. Stared at his memories. Kushiel sighed, dropping his hand as she turned to the nearby counter where various instruments lay. “This is Sariel’s newest spawn.” Her hand waved vaguely to where Nihil sat. “I’ve told you about her. I brought her here because she’s ready for the first experiment.”

Puriel’s eyes focused once more, looking at her. “Experiment,” he repeated the word as though it was entirely foreign to him. Which wouldn’t be surprising, given how much of his mind had been damaged first by the loss (and subsequent return) of his memories about himself through the banishment orb, and then the trauma of every person, adult and child alike, in the orphanage that had taken him in being violently murdered by the Fomorians.

“Yes,” Kushiel snapped a little impatiently. “Experiment. Our daughter, Puriel. We have to fix her. Sariel’s spawn there is a Lie as well.” She smirked. “Even the great Artemis produced a Lie. How shamed must she be?”

“Artemis,” Puriel echoed, head tilting once more. “Sariel.”

“Yes, yes, the one who helped do this to you.” Angrily, Kushiel waved at the man with the laser scalpel she had picked up. “So what justice will it be to make her spawn to whatever experiments it takes to finally find a cure for our daughter? I have… ideas. Ideas I would not put our child through. But that?” She waved to the obediently seated child. “That I will feel no guilt over.”

She turned back to the table then, picking up a vial of red liquid to examine before setting it aside for a glowing green vial instead. Behind her, Puriel spoke again. “Experiment… you will… hurt the girl.”

Sighing long and low, Kushiel kept her attention on the various tools and vials. “To fix our child so that she is not a failure, I will hurt many, yes. You don’t have to concern yourself with it. I have several ideas… such as this.” Holding up what looked like a thin metal rod about three inches long with tiny red glowing spellforms drawn along it, she explained, “Inserting one of these into the spine of two different Seosten should make the first follow the actions of the second while they’re active. Including possessing and then not possessing. If a Lie can’t stop possessing on their own, perhaps they will if they’re remotely controlled by a non-Lie.”

Puriel’s voice came back then. “You can’t hurt the girl.”

Annoyed, Kushiel set the tools down. “For the last time, husband, you must let go of this absurd guilt. Nothing that happened to those–wait.” In mid-sentence, the woman sensed something wrong. She turned, only to find the bed empty. Instead, Puriel was standing next to the chair where the child she had dubbed Nihil was. He had taken the girl’s hand.

“No!” Kushiel blurted, spinning around so fast she knocked over the tray full of vials and tools to crash along the floor. “Get away from–”

It was too late. The girl vanished, reflexively possessing her husband in fear from the loud crash of everything Kushiel had knocked over. With a loud, violent curse, the woman lunged that way to grab her husband by the arms. “What were you doing?! What–Puriel?”

His eyes focused, and the man nodded. “I am here. I… am here. What happened?”

“You just–” Kushiel paused, then sighed once more. “You had one of your fugue states. It… never mind.” Her anger was evident through the way she clenched her fist so tightly, speaking through gritted teeth. “I will just have to find another specimen, since you had to destroy that one.”

She moved to pick up the fallen equipment then, grumbling to herself. Meanwhile, Puriel stared off into the distance, as a small voice spoke in his head.

Where… where am I?

In me, the man thought back. You are a part of me.

But I can’t leave, the child hesitantly informed him. I’m not supposed to touch people. It’s bad. Touching is bad. You… you made me. Why?

Sariel’s child, came the simple response. Her children are Lies. Her…  I remember… children are Lies. I won’t let you be hurt. Not… not this time. Not this one.

I don’t understand, Mister.

Neither do I. But you are safe. I won’t crush you. I won’t… hurt you. I will raise you. I will… show you what I know.

I will keep you… safe.

******

Norbit Drish – Last Month

 

“Yo man, chu know I ain’t like saying bad things ‘bout my homeys. It ain’t fly.”

“Mr. Drish,” Klassin Roe addressed the nineteen-year-old, pale and skinny boy across the desk from him. “No one is asking you to say bad things about your friends. I only asked if you still feel as though he is… different than he was last year.”

For a moment, Norbit (not that anyone was allowed to call him by that hated name) rocked back and forth in his seat, considering the words. “Yeah, man, I mean… sure, it ain’t as bad as it was before, but he still ain’t really here, right? He ain’t like– It’s like, he didn’t give a shit about nothing at first. That was bad. Like–lazy or something. Like he gave up. Then all of a sudden it’s like he do care, but he only care ‘bout that Freshman team, right? Like, like, all his effort going that way and the rest of us, we’re just like… not even there for him, you know? I mean, we there, but we ain’t there. Like he don’t really– like he like us, but not like us like them, you know?”

Klassin stared at him for a moment, then turned his head to cough once. “I think I have the general idea, yes. Do you still see him as a good teammate, as a friend?”

“Hey, he’s a solid guy.” Drish shot back, using two fingers to point emphatically. “Deveron’s always got my back. You know, when he’s there. But he ain’t wanna like… he ain’t wanna hang out. He does work. He aces the tests, he’s all over that shit. But he never wants to–ya know, shoot the shit without actually shooting. He never wants to chill.”

Leaning back in his seat, Klassin nodded. “He’s good to have around, he does all the work. But he’s not really much of a friend to you. He doesn’t play games with you, doesn’t hang out.”

“Right, right, yeah.” Drish’s head bobbed up and down as he pointed at the man. “Like that. Like, if you need him, he’s right there. Always count on him in a fight. But like… if you don’t need him, can‘t ever find him. We used to be buds. We was tight last year. So tight, like this.” He crossed his fingers. “Now he just always running off on his own. Doing his own shit, or shit with those Freshmen. I mean, that’s cool and all, he’s working on the next gen and shiz, whatever. But throw a dog a bone, you know?”

Klassin considered the boy thoughtfully for a moment. “He was one of your best friends last year, and now he never hangs out. I understand. People change, and it can be hard sometimes.”

“Psshhh.” Waving his hand unconvincingly, Drish sat back. “Ain’t no big. I gots plenty of homeys to hang with. Don’t really need another one crowding me out. Ain’t gonna cry about it. Nice to have space. Space to stretch, you hear?”

With a nod, Klassin replied, “I do hear, thanks. But tell me one thing. What do you think of Deveron this year?”

“Man…” Starting to dismissively wave that off once more, Drish then hesitated. “It’s like… he’s a great fighter, great Heretic, good at all that shit. But I miss just like…doing nothing, you know? I miss hanging with him. Sitting on the beach just chilling. He never wants to do nothing. Always gots something to stay busy with. It’s exhausting just watching him.” Seeming to realize that he’d opened up too much for his own liking, the boy finally made a dismissive noise. “But whatevs, just chill with some babes. His loss.”

“Indeed,” Klassin agreed with the boy. “But let’s talk about something else. You went home for your birthday last week, right? Why don’t you tell me how that went?”

 

******

 

Remember Bennett – Present Day

 

Remember Humility Bennett. Many years earlier, she had been one of the original founding members of Eden’s Garden, before soon becoming one of the Victors of an entire tribe. It went through several names throughout the course of its history, the most recent one being Lost Scar.

She was also the mother of the late Edeva, who had in turn married Lyell Atherby and been mother to Joshua Atherby.

Remember’s great-granddaughter was Joselyn Atherby. Her great-great-granddaughter was Felicity Chambers.

“Victor Bennett?” A soft, hesitant voice interrupted the woman, as a demure young woman appeared in the doorway of her office. “I–I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am. You said you wanted to be informed if there was any news of the missing tribe students.”

Turning from the names that had been scrawled on the wall, Remember focused on her young assistant. “Yes, Aconitum. Did they find Trice?”

“Err…” The girl shook her head. “No, ma’am. It’s about Pace. The… men who were sent to give the warning to the Fellows woman–errr, that is… your… I mean–”

“My great-great-granddaughter, yes,” Remember dismissively finished for her with a wave of her hand. “I am well aware of the nuisance she’s made of herself and the situation surrounding her. Go on.”

Aconitum told her the story, at least as much as they knew, about what had happened back at the Bystander clothing shop. Men were dead, while Abigail, the newly dubbed Stray, and Pace were on the run.

“A werewolf…” Remember murmured under her breath. “No wonder she vanished for so long.” Clearing her throat, she ordered, “Take whoever is needed and find them. Find her. Pace is the priority. I want her brought back here. There may be a lot to learn from the girl if she has been taken into a wild pack.”

Her assistant hesitated before slowly asking, “And your, err… descendent, Victor? Shall we send a request to Crossroads to have her daughter brought in for questioning? They may be amenable to that in exchange for some favors.”

“Yes,” Remember agreed. “Send the request and see what they want in return. Go.”

Waiting until the girl had bowed and left, the old woman turned back to look at the name on the wall once more. Felicity Chambers. No wonder her primitive precognitive power had been pushing her to write the girl’s name. Though Aconitum wasn’t aware of Chambers’ relation to Abigail (or who their mother was), Remember was fully aware of it.

Chambers. The girl had such potential, that much was clear. It was too bad that Remember had failed to follow her first instinct to insist that she be recruited by Garden. Having the potential of that girl under her supervision, before she could be corrupted by Gaia Sinclaire, would have led to great things.

It was a shame, because it was clear that Felicity Chambers had the same great potential as her mother. And just as clear that she had already at least begun to be swayed to the wrong side in this war.

Losing more of her descendants would be a waste. Perhaps there was still time to right the course of things? That may be what her precognition was trying to tell her by making her write the girl’s name so often. A replacement for the loss of Doxer, perhaps? She had been the one to kill the boy, after all. Sinclaire would object, but if she could convince Ruthers that the girl would be better off outside of that woman’s influence…

Hmm. Her descendant… brought back to line as a member of her tribe. It was something to think about. A long shot, of course, and yet… as much as the girl had grown in such a short time, she could be an asset.

It was worth considering, at least. And if she could not be convinced to turn away from the same foolishness that had caused her mother to create such a rift in the Heretical world, then… she would need to be silenced, before she ended up making things worse.

And who better to ensure that happened than her own great-great-grandmother?  

******

 

Fossor – Present Day

 

It was known as Hidden Hills, a gated off community several minutes drive from the edge of a small town in Idaho. It was set up against a range of hills and reachable only via a partially paved road. To the outside world, it was either a retirement community or a cult, no one was quite sure which.

The truth was quite different. Hidden Hills was actually a collection of barracks and training grounds established by a man who called himself Sheol. A self-styled warlord who had broken and forcibly recruited numerous small bands of previously warring Alter groups, Sheol hammered fear of his displeasure into his troops, tempered against the great rewards they received for obedience. Hidden Hills was only one of his training centers, though possibly the largest. What he intended to do with his rapidly growing army was unknown to any but him.

Unknown, but… in at least one man’s opinion, not worth waiting around to find out. That particular man stood in the middle of the road, facing the gate that led into the community. His unassuming, vaguely husky figure appeared less a threat and more a simple tourist who had managed to get himself turned around on these confusing backroads.

Those who knew him, however, would never believe that the two dozen figures who appeared at the gate with firearms and other weapons raised and trained on the man was an overreaction. Indeed, their questions would more fall along the lines of why those men believed two dozen would be enough. Or perhaps why they wasted time with that when they could have been fleeing.

“Well,” Fossor remarked quietly as his eyes passed over the weapons trained on him. “I suppose this leaves out the possibility of asking to see your real estate listings.”

“Leave, necromancer.” The leader of their band, a jackal-headed figure with a wide shotgun-type weapon, demanded. “The grounds here are warded against your magic. You can raise no zombies, summon no ghosts, manipulate no skeletons. You have no power within two miles of these gates.” Even as the man spoke, another couple dozen armed figures joined them, doubling their initial numbers.

If those words (and the reinforcements) were a revelation, or particularly worrisome, Fossor gave no indication of it. He simply gave the man and his companions what might have been mistaken for a kind smile if one didn’t see the empty coldness in his eyes. “Is that right? Well, in that case… I suppose there’s nothing else to be done.” With an idle shrug, he turned to start casually strolling away. With each step, a cloud of dark ashes emerged from the canteen that had appeared in one hand. The ashes flew down to lead the man’s path so that he only stepped on them, creating a black path along the road.

After a few steps, however, he stopped. With those weapons trained on him, the man slowly tilted his head as though considering something. “Unless,” he murmured while raising one finger thoughtfully, “… there were youth in your stronghold back there.”

Slowly turning back that way, Fossor began to continue, only to be interrupted at the sound of a gunshot. That was followed by three more, as a collection of holes appeared in his chest. A final shot put a hole in the center of his forehead.

The gunfire faded at a shout, leaving the gathered troops staring at the necromancer… who appeared none the worse for wear. Indeed, the holes that had appeared in his body vanished almost instantly as his connection to his homeworld shifted the damage to one of the billions of enslaved life forms who dwelled there. His people were connected to him at all times, and any damage done to him was immediately shunted to them. So long as his connection to that world remained active, they would literally have to kill billions of what amounted to hostages before any damage could be done to the necromancer himself.

When the only evidence of the sudden attack that remained were the holes in his white shirt, Fossor raised a hand, touching a finger against the fabric there before uttering a single word. The holes patched themselves, erasing even that sign.

Then, without seeming to acknowledge the assault in any other way, he simply continued speaking. “If there were youth in there, teenagers… well, they might be a bit rebellious. They might… say… sneak out of your complex now and then, to visit town and… express themselves.”

Slowly, casually strolling back the way he had just come, the man went on. “And these… hypothetical rebellious youths could find themselves over the course of… mmm… a couple weeks being talked into receiving tattoos as a sign of the… I don’t know, unity of their little gang. Tattoos of… let’s just say a particular magical spell which, upon their death, causes them to rise once more to attack and brutally murder everyone they see without that tattoo… well, that’s the kind of spell that wouldn’t be affected by your necromancy blockers. Since they brought it in themselves.”

Regarding the increasingly nervous and skittish soldiers, Fossor gave a thoughtful hum. “Of course, the real question would be how to ensure those deaths all happened at a useful time. One can’t simply depend on even the most morose of teenagers to do something useful like a group suicide, after all.” His finger rose illustratively. “But… if, say… the ink in those magical tattoos happened to be of a particular incredibly lethal poison set to activate at a certain time… such as… say…”

Slowly, deliberately, the man raised his arm to look at his watch. As he did so, the sound of screaming and gunfire filled the air. It came not from the troops assembled before the necromancer, but from the stronghold behind them. Smoke rose from several buildings, as the screams of horror and rapidly rising stench of death grew with each passing second.

“Thirty seconds ago,” Fossor finished, giving an apologetic smile. “Oops.”

Some of the men opened fire, to no avail. Most immediately gave up that endeavor and raced back into the stronghold, to put out fires, to put down their risen children, to save their friends. None of those efforts would prove any more fruitful.

As for Fossor, he calmly adjusted his shirt and gave his thumb a slight lick before using that to polish a smudge off of his watch. A cloud of ashes rose from his canteen to create a path to the open gate, and he slowly, casually strolled that way to enter the compound.

Within the hour, there would be nothing left save empty buildings.

 

*******

 

Lies/Theia – Last Year

 

A portal opened into a field of grass set beside a wooden cabin. Nearby stretched the crystal clear water of a lake, with a couple of kayaks and other boats tied to a dock.

Through that portal stepped a single, pale figure with brown hair and matching eyes. Appearing to be about fifteen by human standards, the girl set foot on the grass before looking around curiously. Her head tilted back, and she spread her arms to both sides while looking at the sky with her mouth open to taste the air.

The Lie daughter of Kushiel and Puriel had never set foot on Earth before. Nor had she been outside on any planet more than a handful of times. This was… in many ways, a new experience.

She had only stood there for a few seconds like that before the sound of approaching footsteps drew her attention. Lowering her gaze from the sky, she was just in time to spot a small figure running not along the ground, but over the roof of the nearby cabin.

“Hiya!” The call came with a wave, before the figure turned into a blur of motion, going all the way across the roof to hope from one tree to another, then to a third like a some kind of turbocharged squirrel. Leaping from the third tree in the span of less than two seconds since her movement had begun, the small figure rocketed across the remaining distance between them before snapping to an almost vibrating stop directly in front of the newly arrived girl.

The so-called Lie tilted her head, taking in the figure in front of her. She was clearly much younger, appearing to be only nine or ten years old at most. Which, given the fact that Seosten aging didn’t slow for several years after that, meant that Lies was actually over a decade older than her.

The younger girl had dark hair, her eyes so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants, and a white hoody that seemed almost too big for her diminutive figure. And she gave Lies barely a second to take her in before launching into a spiel that came so fast and free of any particular pauses that it was almost impossible to follow.

“Hiyayou’rethenewgirlrightyeahthat’srightwhyelsewouldyoubeheremyname’sDecemberwhat’syours?”

“Breathe, December.” The voice came from the cabin behind them, as a six-foot tall blonde woman emerged. She wore a glittering red gown that made it appear as though she had just stepped from the dance floor of a dinner party for some royal wedding. “Remember what we talked about, leave some space between your words.”

She was joined a moment later by a dark skinned woman who appeared to be in her twenties who wore a very ruffled tan trench coat over a white shirt, and an enormous Hispanic man with heavily patched and fraying clothes.

“Hello,” the blonde woman politely greeted Lies. “We were told you would be coming to pay us a visit while your… group settles in, until a new body can be found for your mission. I am January. You’ve met December already. These are July and September.”

“Julie,” the black woman corrected. “It’s Julie.”

The large man gave a nod. “And you can call me Tember.” He showed a toothy smile. “Like timber.”

Confused, the new arrival tilted her head. “Why are you giving me names? We are all Lies, aren’t we? Lies don’t have names.”

“Hey!” The sharp retort came from a different girl. This one, arriving from around the side of the cabin, appeared to be what the humans would call Asian in her late teens. She wore simple army fatigues with her hair cut short. “We don’t use that word around here!” Clearly bristling with anger, she stormed that way before yet another figure caught her arm.

“May’s right,” that one, a thin man with dirty-blond hair who wore a flannel shirt tucked into his jeans, announced. “We don’t use the L word. Like I said, she’s May. I’m November.”

“We,” announced a black man in a white suit whose dark hair fell to his shoulders as he stepped into view, “are the Calendar. And we do not allow others to define our worth with their contemptuous slurs.” To the new arrival, he added, “February. Though I have been known to answer simply to Feb.”

“Only because I won a bet that made him answer to it.” The correction came from what appeared to be a teenage girl around fourteen or fifteen, with long red hair. She wore clothes that were the spitting image of the uniform worn by the Heretical Crossroads students, and introduced herself as April.

Before long, they were joined by the remaining four members of the so-called Calendar. There was the incredibly quiet and apparently very introverted March, who stood as tall as Tember and had green hair fashioned into a crewcut; a Caucasian man in his mid-thirties who wore a lab coat over a Hawaiian shirt and went by October or Otto, another man around twenty or so with close-cropped dark hair in dark clothes and a white jacket who was June; and a much older man called August whose gray hair went well with his perfectly tailored suit.

Looking around at the gathered dozen, Lies blinked twice. “You wear different clothes,” she noted. “You call yourselves different names. You refuse to answer to the name Lie. Why?”

It was August who spoke, his voice a smooth timbre. “We are the Calendar. We serve Cahethal, and in exchange, we maintain our individuality as we please.”

“Hemeanswedoagoodjobandshelikeswhenwedoagoodjobsosheletsusdowhatwewantwhenwe’renotonajobsowedon’thavetogobackt–”

As December warp-sped her way through her version of the explanation, April took a step forward to cover the younger girl’s mouth. “Sorry, I’d say she’s just excited to meet you, but she’s pretty much always like this.”

“It’s true,” January confirmed. “She is not one to sit still. Which is why she is never assigned to simple, long-term quiet surveillance. The last time we tried that, the humans were treated to the sight of a raccoon repeatedly performing backflips and cartwheels out of a tree before giving them an intricate dance routine set to music from a nearby stereo.”

“I got bored,” was December’s only defense.  

“You possess animals,” Lies put in then, “not people.”

“Animals are easier to dispose of so that we may emerge without drawing attention to missing people,” Otto explained while polishing his glasses on the end of that incredibly loud shirt. “We keep a veritable zoo beneath our feet here.” He tapped the ground demonstrably. “Perhaps we’ll have an opportunity to show it to you before your leader calls for your return.”

“Indeed, perhaps we will,” January agreed. “But for now, come. It’s time for lunch.”

The collection of Lies-who-didn’t-call-themselves-Lies began to walk back to the cabin, leaving Kushiel’s daughter to stare after them. They were… odd. Very odd. What kind of Lie refused to answer to that word?

She couldn’t even imagine it.

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Interlude 9 – Deveron

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About Six Months Ago

“Yo, yo, gimme some up top. C’mon, Dev-the-man, right up here. You know you want to. Slap it hard.”

Deveron Adams eyed his enthusiastic teammate ruefully. Norbit Drish looked about as close to a scrawny geek as you could get after a year at Crossroads Academy, and his name just fed into that. Which might explain why he displayed a personality that utterly clashed with both. Either way, Deveron liked him. Norbit (though he preferred to be called either Nizzle or his last name, and Deveron would chop off his own hand before he used the former) was loyal, funny, and an excellent fighter. He was a great guy to have in your corner. Even if he was weird. Really, unbelievably weird.

“Hey, Drish,” Deveron gave him the expected high five while shaking his head in amusement. “You got plans for the summer, man?” The two of them were one of many groups standing around waiting to be taken through portals back into the mundane world, to spend the summer months with their families.

“Yo, man,” the skinny, gap-toothed boy replied with a head bob that was clearly meant to showcase a non-existent rhythm. “I gots tons of babes and bros to hang with, chu know? I ain’t sure how we gonna fit it all in, cuz like, pshhh, all my homeys want a piece o’ this up here, you know what I’m saying?”

Deveron chuckled in spite of himself. You got used to Drish eventually. “Yeah, man, I know what you’re saying.” Giving the wiry boy a fist bump, he turned toward the nearby instructor. “Professor Tangle, how much longer until we can go? Pretty sure my dad’s firing up the barbecue as we speak.”

The teacher he was addressing was a black woman who appeared to be in her mid-forties, though Deveron knew for a fact that she was a lot older than that. Still, she was in decent shape for her age (either her apparent one or her real one), even though she hadn’t been an active duty Heretic for quite some time. Old habits died hard. Now, she was eyeing him over the top of her sunglasses. “A barbecue, Mr. Adams? And you fail to invite your favorite teacher? I knew I should’ve given you that F, ingrate.”

Grinning back at her, Deveron snapped his fingers. “You know, shit, you’re right. That was rude of me. After all the effort my favorite teacher put in this year?” Letting that hang for couple of seconds, he abruptly spun on his heel, raising his hand. “Hey, Professor Dare! You wanna come to a barbecue?”

Beside him, Drish guffawed while Tangle made an affronted noise. The woman scoffed a couple times, clearly playing up her offense. “Fine then, let’s get you home so we don’t eat into your precious recreation time, shall we? Maybe next year, you can get all your extra studying with Dare instead.”

Things continued that way for a few more minutes while the last preparations for departure were made. As they started to leave, Deveron gave the island one last fond look. He was going to miss this place over the summer. It had taken a lot to get used to, but now he found the idea of living a normal life, even for a few months, to be almost repulsive. There was something about the thought of being away from this place, even being back with his parents, that filled the boy with a weird sense of unease.

But he shoved that aside. After all, it was just travel jitters, a fear of change. He’d be fine as soon as he was home and saw his folks again. And in a few months, he’d be back here, ready for second year.

As good as his first year had been, as great as he’d been at every trial the school had given him, Deveron knew the second would be equally amazing. He was ready for it, he was up to the challenge.

Bring it on.

******

Before long, Deveron was whistling as he strolled down the sidewalk of his family’s street. The Adams lived in a moderately sized suburb just a little ways outside of Chicago. Their street was a cul-de-sac with the Adams residence being the house at the very top of the circle. The house, a two-story brick building with a roof that should really be replaced soon, was surrounded by an aging wooden fence.

At the gate, Deveron paused, head tilting slightly as his whistling quieted. Damn it, what was the name of that song? It had been stuck in his head for the past several hours, and he couldn’t stop whistling the tune. Yet every time he mentally grasped for the name of it or even where he’d heard the tune before, it slipped away. The name was on the tip of his tongue, but he just couldn’t quite get it. It was frustrating.

After a few more seconds of failed mental grasping, he finally shook his head and tugged the gate open before stepping through. His foot nudged a discarded basketball, and he stooped to pick it up before closing the gate behind him. Bouncing the ball between both hands, Deveron headed across the yard.

“Hey!” he called while mounting the steps onto the porch. The nearby swing still hadn’t been painted, a year after his father promised to do so. Which probably meant that Deveron himself would end up doing it over the summer. “Hey, I’m home, guys!” Tucking the ball under one arm, he pulled the front door open. It came easily, and the boy stepped into the house. “Guys? Mom, Dad, where is everybod–”

Empty. The living room, which should have been full of furniture, toys, games, a television, and a desk in the corner where the computer sat, was completely empty. Nothing was there except the gray carpet.

“What—huh?” Deveron blinked at the baffling sight, frowning before letting the ball drop from his hands. As it rolled across the floor, he started through the weirdly empty room to the kitchen, calling, “Mom? Dad? Hey, are you guys getting the carpets cleaned or something? Where the hell is everyth–”

His voice failed him again as he stepped into the kitchen. Empty. Just like the living room. The kitchen table was gone. The counter that should have been full of cereal boxes and a microwave was completely bare. The cupboards stood open and bare, their contents as mysteriously vanished as everything else. A layer of dust lay on the otherwise bare counter and the kitchen island, as if no one had been around to disturb the place in months. Which was… impossible. Absurd. His parents wouldn’t just vanish without a trace, without even telling him they were moving. No, something was wrong.

Instinctively, he reached for the camera bag attached to his belt. After almost a year of training at Crossroads, it was instinct to unzip the bag, tug his pistol into one hand, and hold it close to his side. Whatever was going on here, it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t ordinary. And that probably meant it had something to do with Strangers. Maybe one had found out that his family was connected to a Crossroads student or something? But why would he personally be targeted? Sure, he’d done well that year, but that shouldn’t be enough to justify making his family vanish. No, he was missing something.

Holding the gun at his side, Deveron took a breath and focused. His senses, enhanced from several different dead Strangers over the course of the past year, reached out through the house. He listened and sniffed for any sense of another person anywhere inside the house. Nothing. No one was here. At least, no one that he could sense. There were, of course, Strangers that were invisible to such detection.

To that end, he began to work his way methodically through every room. There were several powers he could have used to speed up the process, but he chose to take his time and search everywhere gradually to avoid missing any potential clue. Through the laundry room, the pantry, the den, and his parents’ bedroom downstairs, he searched. Each was as empty as all of the others, each equally dust-filled.

Eventually, the search took him up the stairs to the second floor. Quietly, he nudged the nearest door open into what should have been his mother’s sewing and craft’s room. Empty. Next, he took a quick glance through the next door into the bathroom. Empty. Stepping across the hall, he checked his father’s study, the so-called ‘man-cave’ where the guns and all his dad’s trophies were kept. Nothing. Empty.

Turning his head, Deveron looked toward the next closed door, the one that led into his own bedroom. Slowly approaching it with the gun raised just in case he’d missed something, he stopped just outside the door. One breath followed another. This was the last room, the last possible place to find any clues.

The door creaked open slowly, revealing a room that was… not empty. Unlike the rest of the rooms in the house, the place that had been Deveron’s bedroom held two pieces of furniture: a table with a television with an attached DVD player sitting on top of it. They were positioned in the exact middle of the room, facing the door. On the table in front of the television there was a DVD, and when Deveron took a cautious step closer, he found words written on the front of it. They read simply, ‘Play me now.’

First, he looked around the otherwise bare room. Taking a step to the closet, the boy tugged the door open, glancing in to find it as empty as everything else. Save for the table, television, and single DVD, the entire house was utterly devoid of any objects or furniture whatsoever. There was nothing else.

Left with nothing else to examine, Deveron stepped back over to the table and picked up the disc. Turning it over in his hands, he found nothing remarkable about the thing. It was just an ordinary DVD.

With a shrug, he carefully turned on the television before slipping the disc into the player. Finding the play button with his thumb, he pressed it before stepping back to fold his arms loosely over his chest. The gun was still held in one hand, but he was already pretty sure he wouldn’t need it. Whatever was going on here, whatever had actually happened to his parents, there was no immediate threat to shoot.

On the screen, he saw a view of this same exact room. The image was steady enough that it was obviously taken with a tripod, and he could hear a person muttering on the other side of it as the view zoomed in and out for a few seconds with a slight blurry image before focusing. A hand waved in front of the camera to test it before someone moved around in front of the lens, too close to make out details.

Gradually, they moved back and settled into frame, leaving Deveron staring at the view he had expected the least out of anything else that he could possibly have seen. The person in front of the camera was himself. Except not. It was clearly him, only several years older than he was right now.

“What,” he blurted out loud while straightening as his eyes went wide with surprise, “the fuck?”

“Ahh, hey there,” the man on the screen, Deveron himself, spoke up with a quick wave. “Hey, me. Yeah, I know.” A wry grin, utterly familiar and yet totally foreign seeing it from this angle, crossed the man’s face on the screen. “This is pretty damn weird, isn’t it? Okay, listen, before you shut this thing off and call for help from those Crossroads people, pay attention for a minute. First, you’re not dreaming, I’m not a shapeshifter, and this isn’t a trap. Well, it’s not a trap for you… me… us anyway. I’m pretty sure, knowing me the way I do, that you’re about to get up and walk out that door right now. Before you do that, do me one favor. Pause this video and walk to the window. Pull down the shades and find the present I’m leaving you. Do that, take a look at it, then you can decide to keep watching or leave.”

With a shaking hand, Deveron slowly reached out to hit the pause button on the machine. He stood there, frozen for a moment before looking toward the nearby window. For a few seconds, he did nothing. The thought of doing exactly what his older self (or whoever was on the tape) had said he should not do and just leaving the room to call Crossroads to let them sort this whole situation out was tempting.

In the end, he sighed and stepped to the window instead. Tugging down on the string, he pulled the shades down, squinting at the object that was taped onto the exact middle of them: a photograph.

It was an old black and white picture of a bunch of people all lined up, like a class portrait. In the middle, a couple of the students were holding up a plaque that read, ‘Graduating Class of 1922.’

Nineteen twenty-two. His eyes scanned the picture briefly before settling once more on a disturbingly familiar sight: himself again. He was there, plain as day amidst what was obviously other Crossroads students. The uniforms looked a bit different, clearly older in style. Yet it was very clearly Crossroads.

And standing next to him, there was a girl whose image made Deveron stop. A beautiful young woman, blonde hair cut short in a pixie cut, her slightly impish smile promising intelligence and mischief.

He knew her. He knew that face, those eyes, that smile. He… he knew her as much or better than he knew himself. Like the song that he’d been whistling on his way in, the name was on the tip of his tongue. Yet his failure to actually remember and put voice to that name was infinitely more saddening.

There were tears in his eyes. Tears that he couldn’t understand, for a name that he couldn’t remember.

For over a minute, Deveron stood there. He held the picture in one hand, staring down at it while a rush of overwhelming emotions that he had no chance of explaining or understanding rushed through him. Finally, after giving a heavy, visible shudder, he stepped back over to the table. Gently laying the picture in front of the television before brushing a finger over it, he then reached out to hit play again.

The first words out of the mouth of his older doppleganger were, “Her name is Joselyn. Joselyn Atherby. And she was… is… one of the most important people in the world to you. You were in school together, on a team together, partners together. You and Joselyn have been partners in every way. The—there’s only two people who matter as much to you—to us—as she does. Your children. The twins. A boy and a girl. They were—they are… they’re beautiful, and amazing and… and you were happy. You and Joselyn and the twins. It wasn’t a perfect life, there was a… a lot of work to do, a lot of fighting to hold on to what we had, to what you had. But as hard as it was, as much effort and blood as it took, you and Joselyn knew it was worth it. Because you—we were working to change the world, to make it better. I know a lot of this isn’t going to make sense yet, but I promise it will. You’ll understand, I just… I’m rambling a little. I have to… when I think about what happened, about what they did, about…”

His older self went quiet for a minute, saying nothing. His eyes were squeezed shut and Deveron could see the strain on his face before his eyes opened and he continued speaking. “One step at a time. The first thing you need to know is that you cannot trust anyone at Crossroads. No one. You know how you feel when you look at that picture? You know those emotions you have for the girl there, for Joselyn? The man behind Crossroads, the former Headmaster, Gabriel Ruthers, he stole her. He stole Joselyn and your kids, our kids. He took them away, erased them because… well, it’s a long story, and you’ll remember soon enough as it is.

“Right now, what you need to know is that he’s the enemy. And he’s got lots of allies, lot of spies all over that school, student and teacher alike. The headmistress, Gaia, she’s probably safe. Probably. Joselyn liked her anyway, and she’s helped out with certain things. But she wasn’t really part of our… our group. And I don’t know… our kids were taken. Our wife was taken, Deveron. Someone betrayed us, betrayed me, and… and I don’t feel like making the mistake of letting that happen again. Maybe trusting Gaia would be fine, but… but then again, someone else close to her might find out. It’s better to just… to just keep it to ourselves.”

The older Deveron on screen made a tight fist, his knuckles turning white before he managed to speak again. “Ruthers stole your kids and erased Joselyn from everyone’s memory. Even mine, yours, whatever. He tried to erase everything. He made her an ordinary person, took away her powers and abandoned her in the mundane world. And, well, a monster took her. A monster has our wife, and our children are… god knows where.

“I wouldn’t even know about it, except… Jos… she planned for something like this. She made allies, friends that could fix that kind of memory wipe. It took them awhile, but they found me. They made me remember the truth, all of it. They gave me back the memories that Ruthers and his people stole.

“I spent years searching, looking for Jos or the twins, trying to find any sign of them, anything at all. But Ruthers, he just… there was no way. Until… I got a message. A message from Joselyn. Somehow, I… I still don’t know how, she got a message to me. It wasn’t much, just an address and three words. Three little words. Please protect her.”

The other him rubbed a hand over his face, the emotion in his eyes so clear that Deveron could almost feel it himself, could almost remember feeling it. His voice was strained. “I went to the address. I found… she… she had a daughter. She has a daughter. God. God, she called her Felicity. Felicity. She’s… she’s beautiful. Smart, snarky, fun. She umm, she wants to be a reporter like her umm, like her dad. Her dad, he’s… he’s good. He’s great. I umm, I’m glad. I’m glad Joselyn had a good husband, another husband, and a kid, a daughter. She umm, she wanted to name our first daughter Felicity, but umm… but we named her after my mother instead. Your mother. Your real mother, not the false memory that was implanted of this place. You’ll remember her soon.

“And now I’m rambling again. Heh. Sorry, it’s just… Felicity. She’s… she’s already being watched by Crossroads. They’re gonna take her in as soon as she’s old enough. As of this recording, that’s next year. One year and she’ll be there.

“Fossor has Joselyn. He’s a necromancer, and he’s… he’s powerful. I… have to save her. I have to get her away from him. Somehow…just… she’s alive. She sent me that message, she wants me to protect her other daughter, and I will. I will make sure nothing happens to Felicity. But to do that, to protect her and to find our other children, the twins that Ruthers stole, I needed a little help.”

The older Deveron was silent for a few seconds, fist pressed against his forehead as he took in several deep breaths before starting again. “Find our twins, protect Felicity from Ruthers, Fossor, and anyone else that comes after her, and get enough power to find and save Joselyn. There’s only one real way of accomplishing all of that. I had to become a student at Crossroads again. Being there gives me free access to most of the grounds, in a year when Felicity shows up I’ll be a second year student, and the teachers will help me gain enough power to save my wife, to save Joselyn.

“So I went to Jos’s allies, the friends she made that returned my memories before. It took some convincing, but they agreed to erase me, to take me out of everyone’s memory, even my own. They’ll even make me look younger, apparently. So uhh, younger me, congratulations on that.”

He coughed, shaking his head before sighing. “The point is, no one, not even me, will know who I really am, or what I want. That’s the only way to make sure the Edge is fooled, and that Ruthers doesn’t find out anything. For the first year, I need to be an ordinary student. Well, if I know me, an extremely gifted ordinary student. But either way, just a student. One year of being the best student I can be. That way, next year, they’ll want me to stick around when I start fucking up.”

Hearing that, the younger Deveron frowned. Fucking up? What was he (literally himself) talking about?

“Yeah, fucking up,” his older doppleganger confirmed. “See, next year, you need to be one of the worst students possible. Be lazy, refuse to work, turn in assignments late, piss people off. I know. I know how it sounds, but do it. You were so good this year, so perfect at everything they put in front of you, that if you start fucking up now, they won’t kick you out. They can’t afford to. See, that’s the point. Crossroads needs you. You’re too good to throw away. As long as you’re not doing anything expulsion worthy, anything too bad, they’ll try to fix the problem. And that means they will take you… us… into the Runners HQ to try to figure out if something happened to you over the summer. When they do that, when they get you inside that building, you find a way into the file archives. That’s where you’ll find the records of our twins, our children. If anyone, anywhere has a record of where they were sent, of where Ruthers hid them, it’ll be the Runner Archives.

“It’s not gonna be easy. You might have to go in and out a few times before they trust you enough to leave you alone long enough to search the place. But it’ll happen. Show a little improvement, let them think that there might be something wrong that they haven’t figured out yet. Tease them a little. Get them to bring you back in until you get the chance to get into those archives. Find our children, Dev. Find our twins. Protect Felicity. Get enough power to save Joselyn. And while you’re at it, don’t… trust… anyone. Now, you can either walk away now, tell Crossroads everything, and just… not believe what I’m saying. Or you can keep listening, so we can go over a few more details of our…. my… your plan.”

Reaching out, Deveron hit pause on the DVD. For a few long moments, he stared into the image of himself, his older self. His mouth felt dry, the hand that grasped his pistol was so tight it was painful.

Then, slowly, his hand reached out once more. He pressed a finger against the machine once more, head bowed as a million thoughts ran through his mind at once. One breath, two breaths, three. The whole while, he stared at the picture on the table. The picture of himself… and Joselyn. His eyes found the girl’s, and he felt… entirely too much for this to be a lie. He felt the truth, and knew what he had to do, no matter how hard it felt.

He hit play.

“Still with me? Good. Now then, let’s get started…”

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