Oscar

Convalescence 38-04

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The second I set foot on the Atherby campground again, my father was already sweeping me up into his arms. He had clearly been told ahead of time where to wait for us, because I was already off the ground and being crushed against him by the time the feeling of being teleported away from the Crossroads hospital had faded. And that grip only got tighter after a moment.

Making a brief, strangled noise, I quickly returned the embrace. My own voice was soft, tired, and worn out. “Hey, Dad,” I murmured. “So, what’ve you been up to?”

“What’ve I been up–” Dad’s voice was choked with disbelief before he set me down, putting his hands on my shoulders to push me back so he could look down at me. “Do you have any idea how–what I was–how many–the kind of–” He kept trying to talk, but clearly couldn’t put actual words to it. He just kept repeating the same few syllables over and over for the next few seconds before giving up. At that point, he just yanked me back against him for another hug.

“Yeah,” I murmured quietly, enjoying the sensation. “I’m glad to see you too. Even if it does feel like we just did this.” The words were a weak attempt at teasing.

“We did,” he teased me right back. “See what I mean when I say you need to stop getting in trouble? We’re repeating ourselves now. Broken record already. Except, ahh, you brought new friends this time.”

He was right, the others were all behind me, having been sent along by Gaia once all of our meetings with the Committee were over (at least for the time being). There was still a hell of a lot more to sort out and get through, like how they were going to deal with the Kohaku situation. But for the moment, our part of it was over. So I had insisted on coming here to be with Avalon (not to mention Tabbris and my father). Shiori had also insisted on staying with me, and everyone else came with as well. Which meant that Sean, Columbus, Scout, and Doug were seeing the camp for the first time. It wasn’t Koren’s first time, but she was there too. And Deveron… well, I wasn’t sure how often he’d been here beyond the time just a day earlier. For all I knew, this whole place was new since he’d been around regularly. I had heard that the camp itself tended to move around a lot, just to keep things safe. Gabriel Prosser was Gabriel Prosser, but there was still no need to take unnecessary risks.

In any case, turning back that way, I nodded. “Uh, yeah. Guys, this is Gabriel. Gabriel, guys.”

Doug was doing a whole gaping fish routine, his mouth opening and shutting repeatedly. Slowly, he lifted his hand to point at Gabriel as if indicating him to everyone else. Gradually, a quiet whine escaped the boy, as his head tilted. That whine turned to a faint, “Y-you… you…”

Looking equally impressed, Scout gave a quick nod, her head bobbing up and down. “You,” she agreed, voice squeaking just a little while she clutched Sean’s arm tightly.

For his part, Sean also looked like he felt a little faint. I saw him swallow a few times, shifting his weight while using one hand on top of Vulcan’s head to steady himself. “It’s–it’s um, it’s good to–uh.” Swallowing yet again, he finally managed, “It’s good to meet you, s-sir.”

Clearly Gabriel was completely accustomed to that kind of reaction, because he just smiled a little bit before waving them off. “The pleasure is mine. Given everything you’ve managed to deal with in such a short time, I am more honored than you know to meet face to face. And I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to meet back in the hospital. There were pressing issues to deal with.”

“Yeah,” I muttered, “like you getting to leave without dealing with the Committee. Lucky duck.”  

The man was clearly about to say something to that, before he stopped, looking toward Deveron. Something passed between the two men then, silent communication (which was probably literally silent communication considering I knew Deveron had telepathy and had no doubt that Gabriel did as well). They stood like that, meeting each other’s gazes for an almost uncomfortable amount of time before I cleared my throat. “Um, you guys know we can tell you’re talking about us, right? Or about me. Or whatever. We can tell.”

Clearing his throat at that, Gabriel gave a little smile that somehow looked both guilty and charming. The man still radiated power, and I could tell why the others all looked stunned into silence at his very presence.

Somehow I doubted that Doug would appreciate hearing that one of my first reactions upon meeting Gabriel Prosser for the first time had been to hit him.

“Yes, well,” the man himself was saying, “there is a lot to talk about, and even more to think about. But I would imagine that most of you are very tired. Your headmistress has said that you should stay here for the evening. Unless there are any objections?”

For a second, Doug seemed to forget who he was talking to. Looking away, he muttered a dark, “Yeah, sleep. Can’t wait to see what new and exciting nightmares come out this time.”

A look of sympathy and understanding crossed the man’s face, and he took a step forward before kneeling in front of Doug. “It’s been a rough year, hasn’t it?” He murmured the words.

I saw Doug’s mouth open and shut twice before he gave a tiny nod, clearly not trusting his voice. There was a lot of pain in his eyes as he met Gabriel’s gaze, fists clenching visibly.

Reaching up, the man rested a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “I’m very sorry about your friend, Douglas. What happened to him was unfair, and it shouldn’t have happened. He was a good person, a strong and brave person. Believe me, I looked into him when Felicity there was being tutored by him, and when all of… when all of that went down. Everything I saw convinced me that Rudolph Parsons was a remarkable friend, and would have been an incredible man if he had not been murdered. I will always count his death as a loss for humanity at large, and myself personally for not having had the honor of meeting him directly.”

Doug was clearly struggling for words there for a few long seconds, before he gave a visible shudder while managing a weak, “No offense, sir. But Rudolph would have liked to hear that. And that’s the problem.”

Gabriel’s head shook easily. “No offense taken. I would have liked him to hear it as well.”

He straightened then, keeping his hand on Doug’s shoulder. “What we can do is try to make as few people go through what you have, what he did, as possible. That’s all we can do. But for now, all of you have done quite enough. Fancy and Oscar will show you where you can sleep.”

“Avalon?” I quickly spoke up. I wasn’t going anywhere except to where Valley was. Not after everything we had just been through.

Nodding at that, Gabriel replied simply, “We’ll take you to her, while Oscar and Fancy show the others to a cabin.”

The little smartly dressed Kobold himself had shown up by that point, grinning as he tipped that top hat of his to the assembled group. “Roighteo,” he announced in that clearly put-upon accent he’d taken from cartoons or something. “We roight love playin’ poisenal tour guide t’buncha wee ones, don’t we, buddy?”

Beside him, the enormous eight-foot tall warthog-faced Orc lumbered up into view before giving a broad smile. “Sure ‘nuff. ‘ey there. Pleased t’meetcha.”

“You’re… Fancy and Oscar?” Columbus managed, staring at the rather mismatched pair.

“Betcha can’t guess which one’s which,” Oscar drawled with a wink.

It was Shiori who piped up then, “They started calling him Oscar after Sesame Street got really big.”

Looking confused at that, Columbus pointed out, “But he doesn’t have a trash can. And he’s not furry.”

“Yeah,” Oscar himself agreed with a slow, lazy shrug. “Ah don’t get it either, tell ya truth.”

Swallowing hard, I looked to the others. “Get some sleep, guys. You… you deserve it after everything that just happened. I mean, you deserve a–” My voice cracked. “You deserve a lot more than that. But I don’t–I can’t…”

Sean shook his head. “It’s okay, Flick. We know. This’ll all be here later. Dunno what we’ll do with it, but it’ll be there. Right now, I feel like I could sleep for a week.”

They headed off then, except for Koren, who was staying to meet up with her mother, and Shiori, who lagged behind. Choo was beside her, sitting back on his haunches while looking eagerly back and forth between us like an excited puppy. He, thank God, didn’t seem to have any actual injuries from being kicked across the room. And he seemed pretty proud of the collar that Percival had given him. He kept trying to show it off to anyone who looked at him twice, tilting his head back and doing this thing where he wiggled back and forth to draw attention to it.

“You’ll be okay?” Shiori asked a bit pensively, watching me before looking back toward her brother.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised, gesturing. “Go with Columbus. I’ll talk to you in the morning, I promise. Get some rest.”

We hugged briefly. Or at least, it started brief. I started to let go, but for a second I couldn’t do it. I had to hold onto her a bit tighter. Swallowing, I waited to catch the girl’s gaze before kissing her. She returned it, and there was a yearning there that I had to pull myself back from.

“Love you,” I whispered, nuzzling her briefly. “Go. Sleep.”

“Stay with Avalon,” she replied, giving me a little smile. “It’s her turn.”

Then she started off, jogging to catch up with the others. Which left me standing there with Koren, Gabriel, and my dad. As soon as I saw all of them looking at me, my face went red.

“Fliiick and Shiori, sitting in a tree–” Koren started in a sing-song voice that was interrupted as I stuck my hand through a portal and swatted her lightly upside the head. “Ow!”

“Yeah,” I shot back, “and don’t forget that I can push that tree over on you if I want to.”

She made a face at me before immediately paling, a sick look overtaking her. “I–I’m sorry, I…”

“It’s okay,” I replied quietly. “It’s easy to just… forget about everything that’s going on. Too easy sometimes. I feel guilty about it too. I feel guilty about… a lot of things.”

We exchanged brief looks then, before Koren gestured. “My mom’s gonna be here soon. She texted.” Idly waving her phone, she added, “If you want to wait and see her–”

“I’m sure she wants to talk to you first,” I assured her. “I’ll see her soon enough. Make sure she knows I’m okay and that if she wants to come find me, she can, okay?” When the other girl nodded, I hesitated before adding, “What about the pixie? The one that told you about Manakel being part of security. We owe her a big thanks too.”

“She’s in Gaia’s office,” the girl informed me. “Pretty sure she’ll still be there whenever we get back.”

With that settled, Dad and Gabriel walked with me toward the other end of the campground. On the way, my father looked to me. It seemed like he wanted to say something, but kept hesitating, like he wasn’t sure of himself. Finally, he settled on, “They let us know everything that happened–well, as much as they could put together. Sariel filled me in with… with how it ended. He’s dead. The bad guy–”

“One of the bad guys,” I corrected. “One of them is dead.”

“One of them,” he agreed, looking a bit sick briefly before visibly forcing himself to move on. “But they also said that… that you–”

“I got his necromancy.” As I spoke, I couldn’t look at him. “I brought Rudolph back. I mean, I made him come to the room where we wer–” Turning, I fell to my knees right there by the side of the walking path and threw up again. My stomach heaved, and I lost… well, there wasn’t a lot left in there to be honest, so it was mostly dry heaving. Tears had started flowing again.

Dad knelt there with me. I had been trying to hold it together, but then… then I just lost it. He embraced me, and we just sat there like that for a little bit. I babbled explanations, rambling about everything from how I’d figured out that Avalon was there, to all the fighting we had done, to seeing Tabbris in the fox facepaint and how guilty that made me feel, to bringing Rudolph to the room and feeling even more guilty, and onward. And not even in that order. It was random rambling that couldn’t possibly have made any sense. But Dad still knelt there, holding me while he let me talk until I was done.

“I’m sorry,” I murmured, clinging to him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I didn’t even know who exactly I was saying it to. Him? Avalon? Rudolph? Everyone I had failed or not done the exact right thing at the exact right time for?

Either way, Dad just held onto me, murmuring soft reassurances until I was ready to stand up. Once I did, I felt even more embarrassed at the sight of Gabriel waiting a few feet away. “I… sorry.” Repeating myself, but at least that time I knew what I was apologizing for.

“It’s quite alright,” he assured me, shaking his head while nodding to my father. “Would you like some more time alone?”

“I… I want to see Valley,” I murmured despite myself, taking a moment to embrace my dad even tighter. “Can we talk in the morning? I promise to be more… coherent.”

With a tiny smile, Dad nodded, gesturing. “Go with Gabriel. And Flick? Get some sleep. You still need it.”

I went the rest of the way with Gabriel. The large man walked with me, waiting until we were close to the cabin he had been leading me to before he spoke again. “I have someone who can help teach you about your new ability.”

My mouth opened, but then I stopped myself from saying what impulsively came to my mind. I wanted to say that I didn’t want training with it. I wanted to never use it again. But that was stupid. I knew that. It was emotional. It was… I needed to wait. I needed to let my head clear.

So, instead, I just gave a tiny nod. “We’ll see. I… is she in there?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “She’s mostly just relegated to bed rest. Which means not leaving that bed for any longer than it takes to use the restroom or clean up. There are spells on it that speed up the healing process. So don’t let her leave there, okay?” With a wink, he added, “It’s your job to make sure she stays in bed.”

Returning the smile hesitantly, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I’ll take that seriously.”

With that, I walked into the cabin. The front door opened into a small hallway. There was a dark bedroom to the left, a kitchen straight ahead, and then to the right there was a short walk before it opened up into a larger room. That was where Avalon was. The bed was in the middle of that room, with a television in the corner, the fireplace a bit to her right, and a big dining table a bit behind her. It looked like there had been a couch where the bed was, but it had been moved.

There were also lots of spellforms drawn around and on the bed itself.

And there was Valley. She looked… better than she had in that office, but was still clearly hurt and weak. Except when she saw me, then a bit of color came back to her face as she reflexively smiled.

“Felicity…”

I wanted to cry. I wanted to plead with her never to get hurt again. I wanted to… do a lot of things. But I also wanted to make things better. I wanted to be there with her in the now, not spend all our time weeping about the past.

So, I made myself tease her instead. Because that’s what we did.

“If you don’t stop getting beat up,” I informed the beautiful, amazing girl lying in that bed, “I’m gonna change your nickname to Crashtest Dummy.”

“Call me a dummy again, Chambers,” she retorted with a sniff, “and see where it gets you.”

Slowly smiling, I leaned in closer while whispering softly, “Okay… where does it get me now?”

Avalon gave me a tiny smile then, seemingly making the room just a little bit brighter in the process. Her voice was even softer than mine had been. “You wanna know where it gets you?” She almost purred the words, making my knees shake as my heart did a few jumping jacks.

Instinctively, I leaned closer. Though whether it was to hear her gentle whisper better, or to kiss her, I really wasn’t sure. Either way, I found my own lips only a few short inches from hers. I saw the soft, wonderful smile cross Avalon’s face… just before there was a slight pain in my hand. My pain tolerance power took care of most of it, but I still felt it, gasping as I looked down to see the other girl’s hand in mine, two of her fingers shoving into a pressure point in my palm.

“Ow,” I remarked. “That is not where I thought that was going.”

“Told you,” Avalon sniffed while releasing me with a wink. “That’s what it gets you.”

Making a show of rubbing my hand and pouting at her, I asked, “What do I get if I don’t call you a dummy?”

That beautiful smile that made my knees weak came back, along with a hint of a mischievous glint in her eyes as she reached up with her hand to take my ‘injured’ one once more. Slowly, she drew it to her lips, giving the palm a gentle, tender kiss that drew a weak whimper from me.

“O-oh…” I murmured softly once the kiss faded, as Avalon drew her lips from my hand. “I think… um…” I swallowed hard, trying to think straight. “I think I might like that one better.”

“Is that right?” Avalon’s whisper came then, as she used her grip on my hand to give me a slight tug closer. Weak as I felt, it was easy. I found myself inches from her once more, before the girl added a tender, “Maybe you’ll like this even more.”

Then she kissed me. Really kissed me. And my thoughts vanished. Vanished, that was, save for one thing that I really needed to say, the only thing in my mind then.

“I love you, Valley.”

“I love you too, Felicity.”  

******

Eventually, we both fell asleep together like that. I woke up after a couple of hours, raising my head just enough to look through the nearby window. I could see a tiny sliver of light over the lake in the distance as dawn approached. Everything looked so peaceful and serene.

For awhile, I just laid there with my arms around the sleeping Avalon, enjoying the moment. I liked being here like this with her more than I could describe. It felt… right.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to wake her up or disturb her rest. She really needed rest. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that much, after everything that she had been through. I was kind of hoping that she’d sleep most of the day. Seeing her the way she’d looked up in that hospital office… I never wanted to see her like that again. It had scared me more than I could admit.

Carefully, as I tried not to wake up the girl beside me, I slipped out of the bed. For a moment, I just stood there, gazing down at the beautiful vision lying there. Even weak and clearly beat to hell, Avalon looked so absurdly amazing that it made my heart start to do somersaults. I couldn’t resist very gently reaching out to brush my finger ever so softly over her cheek. She shifted a little, and I lifted my hand before stepping back. Time to go before I accidentally woke her up.

Making my way out of the cabin as quietly as possible, I slipped my shoes on before gingerly closing the door behind me. For a few seconds, I just stood there, looking out at the lake while listening to people running around in the distance. I took that in, letting the very early morning breeze brush over me. It felt nice. Not as nice as being with Valley. But still nice.

Rudolph. The thought of him, the memory of his dead face, all of that blood flooding his shirt, hit me like a bucket of cold water. I saw him back in that room with Manakel. And I saw him standing there after all of it was over, when I had accidentally summoned him.

The thought of Doug’s suddenly happy voice as he cried out the boy’s name, only for that to be just as quickly dashed made my head drop with shame. A much colder chill that had nothing to do with the breeze hit me then, and I closed my eyes tightly. Rudolph. Damn it. Damn it. It kept hitting me. Just like Professor Katarin. They were dead, and I would never… never really see them again. Never talk to them again. They had been murdered by monsters. Even if one of those monsters was dead, even if Manakel would never hurt anyone again, that didn’t bring Rudolph back. Even if Isaac never broke out of Athena’s prison, that didn’t bring Katarin back.

Maybe I had necromancer powers. But I didn’t know how to use them. And even if I did, that wouldn’t change things. Zombies, ghosts, whatever, none of it actually brought the person back to life. Death was permanent.There was nothing anyone could do about that. And it sucked.

“Hey, Flick. Your dad thought we should talk.”

The familiar… yet not familiar voice made me start a little, as it came just as the sense of someone moving within range of my power reached me. I turned, blinking away the tears in my eyes briefly before looking at the figure who stood there at the other end of the patio, watching me with an understanding that belied his apparent youth.

Apparent, because despite the fact that the boy who stood there looked as though he couldn’t possibly have been older than about nine or so, I knew the truth. I knew that he was much older than that. Just like I knew that we had a lot to talk about.

“Oh my God.” The words left me in a rush even as I found myself moving that way, every other thought dropping out of my head.

“Scott!”

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Sharkhunt 23-03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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