Purin

Begin Again 10-01

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“Well,” Columbus announced a few minutes later as our group stood in the room that we’d been directed to wait in while Gaia sorted out a truce between Nicholas and the Meregan. “That just happened.”

“Yuuup,” I drawled absently, keeping my eyes on the opposite wall as I thought about what the man had said. My mind was reeling, hadn’t stopped reeling since Nicholas had finished his pronouncement.

Not that he’d had much more to explain beyond that, only that these Seosten had, for some unknown reason, created the effect that made most of humanity incapable of recognizing or remembering Alters.

After that very brief exchange, we continued standing there in the room in relative silence for another minute or two, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I couldn’t begin to understand what Sands, Scout, and Sean might be thinking. They’d been raised in Heretical society, so the idea that the Bystander effect was some kind of artificial thing forced on humanity had to be hitting them harder than me.

With that thought, I looked toward the twins to see how they were doing. Scout was sitting cross-legged on the floor, chin in her hands and elbows on her legs as she looked off into space with an unfocused gaze. Whatever she was thinking about, the quiet girl clearly wasn’t in the mood to share.

Sands, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in front of her sister. She was chewing worriedly at her fingernails while muttering intently under her breath. I couldn’t actually hear most of it, but the few words I managed to pick up sounded an awful lot like she was reciting the story that Professor Ross had told us about Hieronymus Bosch’s encounter with the Hangman demon. She didn’t sound happy.

My mouth opened to ask the other girl what she was thinking, but before I could say anything, she turned abruptly. Her gaze flicked over me before focusing on the figure a little bit to the side: Asenath. The vampire was currently crouched down on one knee, petting an eager and very happy Vulcan (who didn’t seem to mind the fact that she wasn’t human one tiny bit as long as she gave him belly rubs).

“Hey,” Sands spoke up to get her attention. “Va…” Trailing off, her expression changed to a slight wince before she forced a correction. “I mean, what was it… Asen… Asenad—I don’t remember what–”

“Asenath,” the vampire calmly informed her with an even expression, looking up from the mechanical dog without stopping her gentle rubbing. “A-S-E-N-A-T-H. The name’s from the bible. You know, wife of Joseph, he who wore the coat of many colors, among other fables.” Her eyes moved to Columbus, who was opening his mouth. “And no, that’s not me. I’m not quite that old. Centuries, not millennia.”

He shrugged. “Hey, when Bystander history class is taught by the Virginia Dare, you never know.”

Sands pressed on, clearly trying to do so before she lost her nerve. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of the vampire girl. “Asenath. Sorry, I’ve got it. Asenath. I was just… you’re a… I mean you’re a St—Alter.”

“That’s right,” Senny confirmed, looking very slightly amused as she gave a single nod. “A vampire, like you said before. It’s okay to say the word. Vampire. It’s what I am. Though I do prefer my name.”

Sands went silent, biting her lip worriedly for a second. Then she let out a long breath and straightened, looking directly at Asenath once more. “Well, have you ever heard of these Seosten assholes then?”

“Would you believe the answer if I gave one to you?” Senny asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dropping her gaze briefly before looking up again, Sands met her gaze in silence for almost half a minute, just staring into Asenath’s eyes before she finally spoke. Her voice was tentative, though it grew stronger with each passing word. “I really wanted you to be evil. Not just you, all of you. Strangers, Alters, whatever. I really, really wanted you to be evil. I wanted you to be monsters. Part of me kind of… still does. Sort of. It was just… it would’ve made everything so much easier, you know?”

“It was easier to think you were just hunting evil creatures with no morality,” Senny replied in a quiet voice. “Easier to think that your family, your friends, everyone you know were only killing bad guys.”

I saw the way Sands swallowed hard before nodding. “Yeah, that’s… I don’t want my Dad to have killed good—I love my dad. I love my family. I want them to be the good guys. I really, really want them to be the good guys.” Her words trailed off into a whisper before she looked away with a visible flinch.

Senny stood and took a couple steps that way, voice quiet. “Sandoval, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your father to be a hero. Nothing. You have nothing to be ashamed of, do you hear me? I am not offended. I understand. And your father, he’s… obviously saved a lot of people’s lives. Knowing that there are good Alters out there doesn’t change that. It doesn’t take away from the good he’s done.”

“But it’s not just that,” Sands insisted, glancing down at her sister before sighing. “He’s killed a lot of Strang—Alters. And he’s taught so many other Heretics that went on to kill even more of them. It’s exponential. And our mother, and—she was—I don’t… I can’t—It was just easier if you were all evil.”

Asenath lifted a hand, gently laying it on Sands’ shoulder. The other girl flinched a little and stiffened, but didn’t pull back. “You can’t judge yourself by what you do with the wrong information, only by what you do when that information is corrected. You’re right, it’s easier when everything is black and white. So I guess the question you have to answer now is, what are you going to do now that it’s not?”

The answer came after only a second of hesitation. “I don’t know,” Sands admitted with a little shrug. “But mostly, right now, I just want to repeat my question. Have you ever heard of the Seosten?”

Senny’s head shook. “No. Maybe under a different name. There’s a few different Alter species that specialize in possession, but nothing that’s ringing a bell right now. They’d have to be very old and very powerful. Old enough that my father didn’t know anything about them. He just thought the Bystander effect—he didn’t call it that of course, but he just thought it was something you Heretics did to them.”

While Sands sputtered, I was the first to find my voice. “Something Heretics did to humanity?”

It was Shiori who spoke, her voice interrupting before Senny could reply. “Sure. Heretics keep so many secrets anyway. Why wouldn’t Alters think that hiding the supernatural from humanity to ‘protect’ them from it was a Heretic plan. Sounds pretty in line with some of the other things we’ve heard about.”

I quickly spoke up while Sands’s eyes moved to squint at the other girl. “I think the point is that none of us knew that the Bystander Effect was something made by some other group, whatever their reasons were. Which means we’re probably not going to find any information about them back in Crossroads.”

“So…” Sean started uncertainly while looking first to me, then to the others. “What do we do about it?”

Avalon, who had been silent up to that point, finally spoke up. “Nothing. We don’t do anything about it.” Once everyone was looking at her, she continued. “One, Chambers said it herself. There won’t be any information at Crossroads about it, and that’s where we’re going. And two, we have got more than enough to worry about as it is. There’s just nothing for us to go on, and if we spread ourselves too thin looking into everything, we’ll never get anywhere. So, we focus on the issues we already have and leave this whole Seosten thing for later. If more information presents itself, we’ll worry about it then.”

Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I nodded. “She’s got a point. We’ve got entirely too many problems to deal with as it is to go throwing world-spanning mysteries on top of them. Whatever these Seosten are up to, I doubt their millennia-long plans are going to come to a head in the next few months.”

“So we focus on the mysteries we’ve got,” Columbus agreed. “Like who killed Professor Pericles.”

“Or who wants Avalon dead so badly they’re working with people from Eden’s Garden to get it,” Sands added after taking a seat next to her sister. “Which might be the same people. And are probably the same ones that summoned the zombies into the school, even if the teachers don’t think it’s connected.”

“Don’t forget Flick’s mom,” Shiori put in quickly. When the others looked at her, she shifted back a bit with a slight blush of embarrassment. Her voice turned to a mumble. “What? I know about stuff now.”

Smiling in spite of myself, I reached a foot out to poke the other girl’s leg. “Don’t worry, we’re not forgetting about my mom. Which reminds me, we still need to see if there’s any information in the school about whatever Ammon is. I mean, I know Crossroads teaches that Alter-Stranger hybrids are impossible, but there’s gotta be something in there, even if it’s purely theoretical or whatever.”

While the others were agreeing with that, I snapped my fingers, looking toward Avalon and Sean. “And that reminds me. I can tell you guys about what we found in the security room now.” Coughing, I hesitated before plowing ahead. I told them about my having two older half-siblings, and everything that Gaia had added about that, including the fact that she’d been close to telling me their names but kept getting interrupted. At some point, I was going to corner that woman and make her spit out the information before anything else happened.

“So Flick’s got older siblings too,” Sean announced, head tilted curiously. “That’s what you guys kept trying to tell us back at school?”

Columbus rolled his eyes. “Dude, you have no idea how many different ways I tried to make you remember it. It’s written on pretty much every wall of our room. Also on the ceiling. And there’s post-it notes all over your text books with the—you get the idea.”

“Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things we shouldn’t be forgetting again, there was that voice you guys heard,” Sean pointed out while nodding toward Sands and me. “The one that helped you fight that annoying son of a bitch from Eden’s Garden. You think that’s related to all this?”

I shrugged. “I think it has to be, at this point. And we still don’t know why Deveron’s in the school after he graduated a hundred years ago, why his attitude has changed so much since last year, or why no one remembers him. Even the headmistress doesn’t remember him being a student, apparently. So someone else erased him. Or he’s just–” I blinked, frowning thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s been possessed?”

“It seems to me,” Avalon pointed out, “that one of these Seosten would do a better job of blending in and behaving the same way he did last year if it was a simple case of possession. And it still wouldn’t explain much. Why use him at all when they could just possess one of the other students? They’d have to erase everyone’s memory, reduce his age, possess him, then act completely different from one year to the next. It just gets too complicated. Like I said, we should focus on what we have already.”

“Right, focus. If the world will let us,” I muttered before brightening. “At least we’re all on the same page now. And we have a fresh set of eyes to help. One that’s separate from our team, just in case.”

“Oh, that’s me!” Shiori piped up, lifting her hand and bouncing a little adorably. She cleared her throat, trying and failing to sound serious. “And I know just where we can go to find everything we want.”

“You do?” Sean asked, before Columbus’s flailing arm could slap the boy hard enough to stop him.

“Yup!” Shiori was grinning. “We just have to go to the Satisfactory.”

Columbus was pointing at me. “You. I blame you for the puns starting up again.” Despite his words, he seemed genuinely happy about that. I was about to tease him, before he spoke again and cut off any rational thought I had. “You turned her on, didn’t you?”

My only solace for the fact that it took me a solid minute to stop coughing and choking was that Shiori was in the exact same position.

******

Not very long after that, I was back on the Meregan ship, in the portal room embracing Gavant as well as I could. It felt like hugging onto my dad back when I’d been a very little girl. “Thanks for everything. You were my first, um, straight up aliens. Maybe next time we can go out into space.”

His massive hand patted my head gently. “We are being the grateful for you, Friend-Flick. You and Friend-Shiori, and Other-Friends have been done more for us than we can being thank any for doing.”

Purin spoke up. “We are being sorry that we have been brought you here to fight which is not yours.”

I shook my head quickly, releasing Gavant to hug Purin while Shiori took her turn. “Don’t be silly. You needed help to find your kids. Now you’ve got them. Plus you don’t have to fight Nicholas anymore.”

“Yes,” Gavant smiled while giving Shiori a head pat as well. “We are being have our children. That is been very good. And,” he added while looking at me. “It is something we will not been forgetting. When Friend-Flick or others need help, Meregan people will been there. Only need calling for us.”

Swallowing, I stepped back, glancing across the room to the portal. Most of my team was already heading through under the watchful eye of Gaia. They hadn’t spent as much time directly interacting with the Meregan. Only Columbus was staying back, waiting for his sister to finish saying her goodbyes. At least, that’s what he thought he was waiting for. In reality, Shiori wanted a chance to talk to him about what she really was without anyone else listening in, and Gaia was making sure she got it.

To that end, I turned my attention to the nearby boy, setting my fist against his shoulder before pushing. “Hey, Tristan. You’re heading out with your great, great, however many greats grandfather, huh?”

The kid nodded up and down quickly. “Yup. He’s already got some clues about where the rest of my family is. Plus he’s gonna teach me how to keep all his monster-people in line. You know, just in case.”

“I think the first step is to not call them monster-people,” I pointed out with a little smile, glancing toward the corner of the room where Asenath was standing. She gave me a slight nod while chuckling.

“I’m gonna see you again, right?” the boy pressed, his eyes intent on mine while he caught my hand.

“Yeah,” I promised. “After all, the Meregan still owe me a trip in space, and I plan to collect it.”

By that point, Shiori had taken Columbus by the hand and was leading him away from the group and into the same corner of the room that Asenath was waiting at. I could read the confusion on the boy’s face about what his sister wanted to tell him, but turned my attention away to give them privacy.

Instead, I gave Tristan a quick hug before stepping over to where Gaia stood. “Let me guess, when we’re back at Crossroads, we can’t talk about this stuff openly anymore.”

Her head dipped in a nod. “I’m sorry, but we do have to be more discreet. It’s impossible to say who might be listening at the wrong time. You and your friends should mostly be safe as long as you exercise caution, but as the headmistress, there are far more eyes on me most of the time. I would like to say that you should visit as much as possible, but I’m afraid the people who believe that you are a spy for your mother would see that as evidence that we are conspiring.”

“Which we are,” I pointed out mildly.

She smiled a little bit, bowing her head in amused acknowledgment. “Yes, which we are. But we hardly need to give them even more ammunition. At least until some of this settles down, it is probably better if we aren’t seen as cooperating that directly. If you need to send a message, you may do so through Avalon. Her visits will not be seen as anything strange.”

“I’ll do that,” I promised before taking a breath to steady myself. “You know what I’m gonna ask now though, right?”

She met my gaze. “You wish to know the identities of your older half-siblings.”

“Yes,” I confirmed emphatically. “We kinda figured out that we just keep adding new mysteries and issues. I’d like to solve at least this one while we have the chance. You said you knew them back before we were… interrupted.”

“I do.” Gaia nodded, a slight smile touching her face. “Though I’m not actually supposed to. Ruthers did his very best to hide them so that no one would know where they came from. But… I have my ways.”

She let me stand there like that, staring at her pleadingly for a few seconds before relenting with a chuckle. “All right, all right. Your older siblings were separated. Ruthers believed that was the best way to keep any of the rebellion from locating them, particularly their father, whoever he was. And no, that is something I do not know. The identity of Joselyn Atherby’s husband was a closely guarded secret.

“As I said, the twins were separated. Your brother was raised by a Heretic family. Knowing you were going to be here this year, I hired him to perform… security functions.”

I blinked once, then again before straightening. “Wait… Wyatt? You mean… you mean Wyatt is my…”

“Your half-brother, yes,” she confirmed. “I must caution you to be careful. Very few know of his relation to you. Not even Wyatt does, yet.”

I was trying to comprehend the idea that the ‘crazy’ security guard, the… enthusiastic guy who had thought that I was skipping class my first day on the island, was my older brother. It was… a lot to take in.

Gaia, however, had more surprises in store. “Your sister, meanwhile, was raised by a Bystander family. She’s still out there. But her daughter was brought to school just this year as well.”

“Her daughter…” I trailed off, frowning thoughtfully before my eyes snapped to the other woman’s. “Koren. Back when we picked out our weapons, I almost took the Hunga Munga because I felt drawn to them. But Koren did take them. Which means Wyatt is my brother and Koren is my… niece?” Boy did that ever feel weird to say. I reeled backward a step, trying to wrap my mind around that.

“That is… correct,” Gaia nodded after a momentary pause. “What do you plan to do with this information?”

I hesitated before shrugging a bit helplessly. “I guess I’ll do what Mom would want me to.

“I’ll get to know my family.”

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Against The Odds 9-07

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“So lemme see if I’ve got this straight,” Sean announced a bit later as he and the rest of my team stood in the Elvis docking bay along with Purin, Shiori, and Asenath. “The giant guys are aliens, she’s the vampire that helped save your dad from the bad guy, that kid we saw was banished here and cursed to stay no matter what they do, the guy you saw rescue the headmistress in your vision is now the bad guy that we have to rescue alien children from, and what else? Oh, right, the headmistress knows what we’ve been doing and has been sort of helping secretly from the background. That about sum it up?”

Thinking it through for a moment while tilting my head, I counted the points off on my finger before nodding. “Yup, I think that’s about the size of it.” I resisted the urge to look toward Shiori. It was up to her to decide if and when she wanted to tell people about her own situation and her relation to Asenath. Right now, considering the state she’d been in not so long ago, I couldn’t blame her for keeping quiet.

Sands, meanwhile, was staring at the vampire girl. She hadn’t really taken her eyes off Senny the whole time she’d been here. I was about to try stepping over to say something when Sands spoke up herself. “You’re a vampire.” Her gaze was still locked on Asenath, arms folded tightly over her stomach.

My mouth opened to say something, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Shiori about to speak as well. Asenath gave a minute shake of her head at both of us before focusing on Sands. “Yes. I am.”

Sands was quiet for a moment. I saw her mulling that over in her head, arms held even tighter against herself. When she finally spoke up, her voice was hesitant. “You really saved Flick and her dad?”

Slowly, Senny inclined her head in a brief nod. Her own voice was quiet as she replied, “It’s what I do.”

Again, Sands went silent, biting her lip as she looked first to her sister, then to the floor. She shifted her weight from side to side and stood like that for a minute before straightening and setting her shoulders. When she spoke, there was no grand speech or anything. She just said a single word. “Okay.”

And that was it. I could tell that Sands was still very uncomfortable with the idea of working with a vampire, to say nothing of the giant alien standing nearby. But she kept it down and pushed through it.

Columbus, still holding his sister’s hand tightly, interjected. “Sorry, I’m still stuck on ‘the headmistress knew the whole time.’ If she knows about this whole ‘Strangers aren’t always evil’ thing, why does she let the school teach us that they are? I mean, that kinda means a lot of dead innocents are on her head.”

Avalon, who had been quiet up to that point, made a slight snarling noise at him. “She’s doing the best she can. The Committee isn’t exactly going to let her start teaching that we should be friends with Strangers. Do you have any idea what would happen if the wrong person found out about her opinions and what she’s been doing? They’d tell the Committee and Ruthers would have an excuse to replace her. You think Heretics can be bad now? Without my mother heading things, it’d be a hell of a lot worse.”

“What I kinda wanna know,” Sean announced, rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head fondly while he looked between me and Shiori curiously. “Is how you two ended up on some alien world to begin with?”

Without missing a beat, Shiori piped up with an immediate, “I dunno, we didn’t exactly planet.”

She managed to hold onto the serious face for about three seconds before covering her mouth to muffle her own giggles, making a snorting noise against her palm as her face turned red from snickering.

The others were just staring at her, confused, while Columbus and I both put our hands to our foreheads. The boy recovered first, quickly embracing his sister. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but god I missed that.” He looked back toward me, frowning thoughtfully. “Whatever happened, thanks.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. It was up to Shiori to tell Columbus the truth if she wanted to. I hoped she would, because I really thought he could handle it. And as much as she had improved just from being able to talk to me about her issues, I thought being able to trust her brother with all of it was important.

Plus I kinda wanted to see Columbus’s reaction to knowing he was sort of Asenath’s brother too.

“Anyway, to answer your question,” I finally replied to Sean while tearing my gaze away from the adopted siblings. “The teleport probe was looking for my mom. It found me instead, because of my genetics and–” Stopping myself from saying too much, I finished with a simple, “things like that. So it got confused, thought I was my mother, and teleported me here. I guess Shiori just got dragged along.”

“Can we sort out the rest of all that stuff later?” Sands put in. “We’re supposed to be saving some kids.”

“Alien kids,” I pointed out mildly, watching the other girl’s reaction. “You’re really okay with that?”

Her eyes darted to me and I saw her flinch slightly before giving a very short nod. “They’re still kids.”

Avalon nodded once. “Right, my mother is going to wait for the rest of us to get into position before she confronts this Nicholas guy. But she says that the longer we wait, the more chance that he might be able to figure out what’s going on. Which means we need to get there as soon as possible.”

“And to get there,” Sean put in while staring at the collection of Elvises (Elvi?), “We’re going to take a ride on these… rocks.” His uncertainty and confusion was palpable as he squinted back at me.

“Aww, Sean,” I shook my head with feigned disappointment while putting a hand on his shoulder to squeeze playfully. “I’d think you of all people would know better, since you grew up around Heretics.

“Things aren’t always exactly what they appear to be.”

******

In the end, we split up, one pair to each Elvis. I went with Asenath since I had the closest relationship (as far as they knew) to her and was the most comfortable around the vampire. Meanwhile, Columbus and Shiori took one and Sands and Scout stayed together, which left Avalon and Sean to pair up.

What followed wasn’t exactly the most immediately professional ride back to the Nicholas Petan’s fortress city, but hey, the Elvises were fun to drive around and it took a minute for the others to work out all the controls. Not to mention getting the hang of working together the way the Elvises required.

But eventually everyone got the hang of it and we all followed Purin underground, tunneling our way through the sand, out of sight and hopefully unnoticed. It gave me time to catch up with Asenath, letting her know what had happened with Shiori, and hear about how her time with Dad was going.

Unfortunately, though the Meregan were able to make the trip shorter by bringing the ship significantly closer to the city, it was still long enough that it was almost sunrise by the time we got there. Which would have left Asenath in trouble, except that Gaia assured us she would take care of that.

Once we made it to the area overlooking the city, Scout sighted in on it with her rifle before bringing up the holographic image out the back so that everyone could get a much closer view of what we were dealing with. She scanned over the sixty foot high walls, the guard towers, and the massive tower in the middle of the city that was obviously Nicholas’s headquarters.

I stood out of the way alongside Shiori. The two of us glanced to each other while letting the others take in the sight, and I whispered, “You doing okay?”

Her eyes darted toward Columbus, then to Asenath, and she nodded. Her voice was low. “I’ll tell Columbus later. He deserves to know. The others… I know how you feel, but I can’t… I just can’t. Not yet. Maybe later. Maybe I’ll get there, but right now I just need time. Is that… is that all right?”

My voice softened. “Of course, Shiori. It’s your choice. I’m not going to push you. I get it. I really do.”

“So you’re telling us,” Sands spoke up then without looking away from the city. “We’ve gotta break into that fortress to save those alien kids? Flick, have you ever considered being a normal Heretic student?”

“Meh,” I gave an elaborate shrug. “Seems like it’d be pretty boring after going through all this stuff.”

Purin, who had been standing beside Asenath speaking in a low yet rumbling voice to the vampire girl for the past couple minutes while the rest of us were talking, straightened to his full height then. “I will being waiting here place with K’lecnahn. When children are being brought to outside wall, I will being calling Binsayeac ship to aborting distracting and come to pick up children and ally-friend-people.”

“He’ll wait here until we’re on the way out, then call their ship to stop distracting the rest of their army and come pick us up,” I translated for the others, who hadn’t adjusted to the Meregan speech patterns.

“Two distractions,” Columbus observed. “How’re we supposed to know when they’ve both started?”

Before I could say anything, Sands interrupted, pointing. “Uh, I think that’s a pretty good signal.”

We all turned, only to find what was obviously the Meregan ship hovering in the air just in front of the walled city. The thing was enormous, like a skyscraper carved out of stone and turned onto its side. It was longer on the bottom than the top, which rose up a bit right around the middle into what was obviously the bridge area, a wider and taller dome-like structure. Toward the end of the longer bottom section the ship split a little, its two sides leaving an open space between them where some kind of large orb of glowing energy the size of a couple cars hovered, crackling with obvious power.

The Meregan ship flew right up over the walls of the city, and as we watched, that glowing orb shot out a lance of energy that struck the nearest guard tower. The tower and its inhabitants immediately turned to stone, then began to crumble into pieces. They barely had a chance to know they were under attack.

“Uh, not to spoil our own fun,” Sean spoke with a raised hand. “But if they can do that, why are we even–” In mid-sentence, the boy’s question was answered as a dozen different shots from the city below struck the ship, sending it reeling upwards and back. The Meregan fired again, taking out a guard tower along the other side of the city before pulling out of the way as more shots came at them.

As we watched, the Binsayeac reversed and turned away, engines surprisingly silent rather than the roar I expected to hear. They turned around and flew away, high over the sand while the guards in the remaining towers continued to shoot after them. I heard the roar of the enemy Alters shouting threats.

Almost immediately, their army was dispatched to go after the Meregan. We watched from our place atop the hill as literally thousands of Alters of every shape and size went tearing out the gates and over the desert atop various vehicles. Some looked like cars, trucks, or motorcycles, while others were more of a science fiction bent, hovering or flying atop the sand. A few were even riding what I swore were horses, some of them just the same as the ones on earth while others looked distinctly larger and more reptilian. It was a completely random mix of familiar, archaic, and totally alien technologies.

And they were all, thousands of them, pursuing that ship, intent on ending this fight and the rest of the Meregan race while they were at it. So intent, in fact, that none of them noticed our little group.

“Okay, that’s one problem,” Sean spoke with a glance toward Senny. “What about the man in charge? And you know, what about our little sun problem? Because I don’t know about you guys, but personally, I’d rather get to know the cute vampire girl a bit more before she gets turned into ash.”

Senny gave him a bright smile and a thumbs up. “You’re taking this pretty well for a born Heretic.”

“What can I say?” Sean replied with a shrug. “Maybe Flick’s a really good influence or something.”

I snorted at that in spite of myself. “Yeah, or maybe you’re just a really easy going guy all around.”

His reply was a grin. “I’m pretty damn wonderful, aren’t I?” To Senny, he added, “To be fair, the fact that you’re pretty cute doesn’t hurt. Before I would’ve thought you were both hot and scary.”

“And now?” Asenath asked while arching a single eyebrow curiously, a smile touching her lips.

After thinking about it for a second, Sean replied, “Still hot and scary. But not entirely forbidden.”

Coughing and clearing my throat to hide my snicker as I spotted Shiori squinting suspiciously at the boy who was flirting with her big sister, I made myself focus. “Right, right, but that’s a good point. Gaia said that she’d ‘take care’ of the sun issue when she distracted Nicholas. What does that mean?”

The answer came almost immediately, but not from any of the people around me. Instead, the sky itself, having been growing progressively lighter with the approach of the sun, abruptly went dark once more. It was suddenly dark again, the steadily rising sun seemingly completely cut off without warning.

“What the–” I looked up, blinking in confusion. Then I saw them: storm clouds. There were thick, heavy, black storm clouds in the sky, totally blanketing the whole area around the city for several miles in every direction and leaving the area below shrouded in darkness, safe from the rising sun.

“Did… did Gaia just… snap her fingers and summon a storm?” Columbus stammered, his eyes wide as he looked between the sky and the rest of us, waving his hands a bit helplessly. “Seriously?”

“Yeah,” I teased in spite of myself. “Maybe you oughta try bringing her into your team too, Cyclops.”

He grinned back at me. “You think she’d go for it?”

My mouth opened to reply, but then I hesitated. “You know, I don’t think any of us know the headmistress well enough to say what she’d do. Except for Valley, maybe.” I grinned sidelong at my roommate.

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl as she squinted at me. “It’s been killing you to resist using that since you heard it, hasn’t it?”

My head went up and down as quick as it could. “It was hard!” Sobering, I hesitated before adding, “But seriously, if it really bothers you, I promise I won’t use it. If it’s like, between you and her.”

Avalon looked back at me for a few seconds, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Then she gave a slight shake of her head. “No, Chambers, I don’t mind you using it.”

“So Valley is o–” Sean started.

Avalon snapped a hand out, putting a finger against his forehead to stop him. Her voice was low. “I said I didn’t mind Chambers using it. I didn’t say anything about you.”

Well, apparently whatever powers I’d inherited from the Strangers that Shiori and I had fought hadn’t included an immunity to blushing. Cross that one off the list.

“Do you think your people are gonna be okay?” Asenath asked Purin then, while I was still getting myself under control. “That was a pretty big army.”

In reply, Purin gave a quick nod. “They will being very well. Better being when children are found.”

“In other words,” Avalon announced while starting down the hill, “we should hurry the hell up.”

As we raced on our way toward the hole that the destroyed tower left behind, I caught up with my roommate, turning slightly to speak to her with a lowered voice. “Are you and Gaia gonna be okay?”

At first, she didn’t respond. Then she gave a single nod. “Yeah, Chambers, we’ll be fine. We both kept secrets. We talked it out. Don’t start feeling guilty or anything. It was my choice to keep her out of it.”

I fell silent then, distracted briefly in spite of myself by the distinct motion of Avalon running. When I turned my head away, my gaze found Shiori moving alongside Columbus. Her eyes rose to me and the other girl immediately gave a smile that made my heart skip a little bit.

Oh boy. Oh wow. Was I really attracted to two different girls? And Shiori and Avalon were both extremely different, in almost every conceivable way. Yet I clearly liked both of them, despite the fact that I hadn’t really felt that kind of attraction to a girl before. It was all new and… well, kind of confusing. What was my type if I found both of them attractive? And what about all the guys that I’d been attracted to in my life? I still found Sean just as good-looking as ever, especially the thought of him shirtless. Just… wow. Yet I was obviously drawn to girls as well. It left me thoroughly confused. Was this what it meant to be bisexual? Was it that simple? Because I couldn’t explain it any other way. I was apparently attracted to both boys and girls, and very different boys and girls at that.

I knew one thing for sure as we raced across the sand toward the fortress city. And that was that this was really, really not the right time to be sorting this out in my head. So I put it aside, locked the thoughts away as well as I could, to deal with them later.

Because now? Well, now it was time to go be heroes.

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Against The Odds 9-06

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My eyes were wide with shock as I blurted out loud without thinking, “W-wait, what?! What do you mean, it was him? You’re talking about that noble guy that rescued you and Seller? He’s the bad guy?”

Gaia turned her attention to me, raising an eyebrow. “Ah. So that was your vision after all. I wondered about that. Your mother saw something… else.” Head tilting then, she added, “And you know Seller.”

Part of me wanted to reflexively flinch at that, but after thinking about it for a second, I just nodded. “We met when I visited home, just before everything happened with Ammon. Avalon set it up because I needed answers about my mother and why she and Deveron were erased from the old yearbooks.”

The older woman started to nod at that, then paused in mid-motion. I saw the way her forehead slowly wrinkled in apparent confusion before she looked up to me again. “Excuse me? Your mother and who?”

Blinking once, I went over what I’d said in my head briefly before replying, “Deveron? You know, our joke of a mentor? Mom’s classmate back when she went to Crossroads and later partner in crime? His stuff was erased from the yearbook to—aaaand you have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

From the look on the woman’s face, it was clear that she didn’t. “No,” she confirmed flatly. “I’m afraid I have no idea. Which would seem to imply that the Mnemosyne spell was used more than once.”

“Mnemosyne spell,” I echoed. “You mean the spell that erased Mom and the rebellion from everyone’s memory.” Giving a quick glance toward Asenath, I added, “You mean they erased Deveron too, and this time they included you in the effect? Why? Why would they let you remember Mom but not him?”

Gaia shook her head. “The question is more complicated than that, I’m afraid. The Mnemosyne spell is entirely too complicated and power-intensive for it to have been cast without the knowledge or input by myself or any of those loyal to me who would have spoken up. The fact that it was cast without any of our knowledge is proof that it was not cast by Ruthers or anyone at Crossroads. It can’t be done.”

Shiori, shoulders hunched as she stepped back between me and Asenath, spoke up. “Eden’s Garden?”

“No,” Gaia responded quietly, her eyes narrowed in thought. “The original spell, to remove Joselyn from memory, required the input of the most powerful members from both Crossroads and the Garden. There is no conceivable way that they could have done it alone for Deveron Adams.” Looking up to me then, she added, “You said that he was your mother’s partner and schoolmate? Do you have any idea why he is at Crossroads now, or why his demeanor has changed so much in the past few months?”

“Sorry,” I replied while shaking my head. “I was kind of assuming that you put him in with us as a guide or something, or a clue or… I dunno. If you didn’t have anything to do with it, and the rest of Crossroads or Eden’s Garden didn’t either, then who the hell erased him and put him in the school?”

“That,” Gaia murmured quietly while fixing her stare on the floor, “is an extremely good question.”

For a moment I thought the woman was going to say something else about it. Instead, she simply shook her head before turning her attention back to the Meregan. “Nicholas Petan has harmed your people?”

The three tall figures looked to one another, clearly conferring silently before Gavant gave a single nod. “Enemy-Nicholas Petan has been killed many of our people. Not as many as Threat-Fossor.” His voice cracked a little. “The Threat-Fossor has been killed most of… most of our people. Enemy-Nicholas Petan has been killed some of the remains. But his focusing is not been for killing, but for taken.”

“Taking,” Asenath put in. “You mean your people. He’s been stealing your people. Your children.”

“That’s why they needed help,” I confirmed. “They sent for Mom, but… well, I don’t think Fossor was going to let her go out on a day trip to save a bunch of enslaved children.” Even saying his name made me shake a little bit, hand clenching until I felt something soft touch it. A glance down showed Shiori brushing her fingers gently against mine without looking at me, a slight blush touching her cheeks.

“I am aware of some of the situation.” Gaia’s voice was quiet and thoughtful. “But the fact that it involves Nicholas… this seems to be a much bigger threat than I originally assumed it was.”

“I don’t get it,” I started uncertainly. “He was a great guy when he saved you before. He was all honorable and stuff, like some noble knight. What—why the hell is he enslaving children now?”

Gaia’s response was a sight. “Honestly, I wish I knew. I lost contact with Nicholas… a very long time ago, even by my standards. What he’s been doing, or why he’s even here, is beyond me. I didn’t even know he was still alive.” Then her eyes narrowed. “But it is a question that I’ll be certain to ask him.”

“You’re…. you’re gonna help then?” I asked slowly, biting my lip before pressing on. “I mean, you’re actually gonna help the Meregan get their children back, even if it means fighting against Nicholas?”

“Fighting will not be my first resort,” Gaia informed us. “But if it comes down to it, yes. I will press the man for answers. Whatever his explanation, I will make certain that he does not harm anyone else.”

Asenath moved up near me, Shiori still sandwiched between us. Her eyes were narrowed, and I was pretty sure she was still plenty suspicious. Not that I could really blame her, to be honest. “If you expose yourself like that,” she pointed out quietly, “you make it harder to save the kids later. If he knows you’re involved, it gets rid of the element of surprise. He’ll put even more guards on them.”

Rather than debate the point, Gaia gave a single, accepting nod. “Yes. That’s why we won’t actually be asking him to release them. I will go to him and request an explanation. While he is… shall we say occupied, the rest of you will be rescuing the children and bringing them back here. As I said, regardless of what his eventual explanation may be, the Meregan young belong with their families.”

Surprise hit me, and I blinked at her words. “You—you still want us to go in there and rescue them?”

Gaia’s head dipped in a slight nod. “Yes. I will either get satisfactory answers from Nicholas, or distract him long enough for you to do what is needed. Either way, the children will be returned to their home.”

I had to admit, it was a better plan than I’d had. We’d honestly had no particular way to deal with the Heretic, even before finding out just who he actually was. Now, with Gaia focused on him, we could (hopefully) handle the smaller threats at least long enough to get those kids back where they belonged.

And yet… “We still need help,” I informed the headmistress firmly. “You haven’t seen that city they’ve got out there. It’s not just a little encampment, it’s a whole walled fortress. Maybe we’ll get in and out without being seen, but if not, we’re gonna need more than just us to get those kids out nice and safe. Even if you’re distracting Nicholas and the Meregan are distracting the bulk of his army. That’s why we were trying to contact the rest of my team. They…err, wait, crap, did you know that they knew?”

There was obvious amusement in Gaia’s gaze as she looked at me silently for a moment, a smile tugging at her lips before she spoke. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I am not aware of everything you’ve been up to, but I know that you have convinced Avalon and the rest of your team to help you investigate. Even Sandoval, which is a very high mark in your favor, for the record. And it proves that you are indeed your mother’s daughter. The way that Joselyn was able to pull people to her side, it was… well, if I’m being perfectly honest, I have been jealous of it in the past. Your mother is a brilliant leader.”

Something thick caught in my throat, and I had to look away for a second. Folding my arms against my stomach, I forced out a long, low breath before returning my gaze to her. “Were you keeping an eye on me the whole time? After Mom disappeared, I mean. Was Crossroads really watching for that long?”

What looked like a sad little smile touched the woman’s face that time, and she was quiet for a moment, briefly lost in her own thoughts and memories. “Yes,” she finally answered in a voice that was so quiet it was almost inaudible. “Well, Crossroads as a whole watched you because the Committee is convinced that you’re still in touch with your mother somehow. Some, led by Ruthers, believe that she was playing the long game, pretending to take herself out of your life so that we would be more likely to accept you into the school. They think that she has been secretly training and teaching you this entire time, just out of our sight, so that you might work to convert our ‘real’ students to her way of thinking.”

I stared at her open-mouthed, but it was Shiori who blurted, “That’s…. stupid! Flick isn’t—her mom wouldn’t—I don’t even know her mom and I know that’s stupid! She left her family for a decade just as part of a plan to mess with Crossroads? How… how… how arrogant are they?! Do they really think that everything revolves around them? How—how out of touch—how stupid—how crazy are–” After that, the other girl just sort of devolved into incoherent stammering, occasionally getting an actual word out.

It was Asenath who quieted her, putting an arm around the girl and leaning in to whisper something against her ear that actually made Shiori give a snort of amusement. She was still flushed with indignation however, and glanced toward me before clearing her throat. “Err, I mean it’s really dumb.”

“There are others on the Committee who agree with you,” Gaia replied easily. “That’s why nothing overt was done. Ruthers advocated picking you,” she looked toward me, “up as soon as possible. Nothing that bad,” she added quickly, “the other members of the Committee wouldn’t have gone for it. But his plan was to have you placed with a Heretic family, out of your mother’s reach and influence. He almost had them sold on it, even played up how much safer you would be with active Heretics than if any of those nasty Strangers happened to come across the great Joselyn Atherby’s daughter unprotected.”

I wanted to scream. Actually, fuck it, I did scream. “You mean he came up with that point after it was too fucking late?!” My yell echoed through the room and made Tristan jump, but I didn’t care. I was seeing red. “They threw my mom under the bus, just tossed her out into the world where anyone could find her, and only after some psychopath takes her away do they think about how vulnerable that is? And even then, it’s just part of a stupid fucking excuse to keep her child, me, away from her?!”

Gaia’s head bowed, and I saw the way she flinched. “I’m sorry, Felicity. I’m very sorry about… everything. I genuinely tried to find your mother after she disappeared. I wish I’d done more now. I wish there was more I could have done. As it was, it took all the clout I had to make the Committee see reason and leave you where you were. You belonged with your father. Taking you from him at that point… I don’t think he would have survived it. My efforts, they were centered on that, on keeping you where you belonged. By the time I was free to really search for Joselyn, the trail was just too cold. It was my choice to focus on keeping you with your father, and I would make the same choice again. But for my further failure to find your mother, to save her from this… this monster, I am very, truly sorry.”

“Yeah,” I started to speak, but my voice failed me for a moment. I had to take a breath before starting again. “I’m sorry too. But right now, those kids are still missing. And we still need the rest of my team.”

She didn’t respond at first, falling silent again for a few seconds. Then Gaia gave a slight nod and gestured toward the pool where the fountain was. The water rose once more, and I saw the image change. Instead of showing the beach, we were now seeing the hallway just outside the twins’ room.

The door opened a second later, and the two of them came hustling out together. Sands was saying something about checking with Avalon one more time. In mid-sentence, both girls went right through the portal and ended up taking several steps through the fountain before their brains caught up.

“What the–” Sands blurted, twisting around while yanking her mace into her hand. Her eyes spotted the three Meregan, and I saw the way she took a quick step through the water toward them. “Hey!”

Scout, meanwhile, had spotted the rest of us and laid a hand on her sister’s arm to stop her before pointing our way once Sands looked back toward her. The mix of confusion in both of their eyes as their gazes flicked from the Meregan and Asenath, to Shiori, Tristan, and me, then to the headmistress and back on through the line again was almost amusing. They were both completely lost.

“Flick, Shiori!” Sands blurted. “H-Headmistress? Wait, you… you said they were… wait. You said they were doing some secret job for you, but—but…” Stammering, she looked back to the Meregan.

“Hello, Sands,” Gaia greeted her calmly. “Hello, Scout. Please come out of the water, there’s a lot to talk about, but we need to bring the rest of your team over as well. Trust me, everything is… well, not fine, but well enough as far as you’re concerned. It’s all right.”

Leaning closer to the woman, I spoke quietly. “You told them we were doing a secret job for you or something?”

The headmistress gave a faint nod without looking. “It wouldn’t have been right to let them continue to tear their hair out with worry. Especially poor Columbus.” She looked toward Shiori then. “Simply leaving him in fear for what happened to his sister would have been utterly irresponsible and cruel.”

Slowly, Sands and Scout climbed out of the water. “Okay…” Sands started, still clearly feeling very defensive. She was clutching her mace. “But why are you standing next to a Stranger, and why are there giant strangers over there, at least I assume they’re Strangers even though they don’t feel like it for some reason, and…” She trailed off, eyes flicking toward me, looking for answers.

“It’s okay, Sands,” I assured her. “Both of you, it’s fine. She knows. She knows about my mom and all that. She’s on our side. I mean—you know what I mean. We’re not in trouble. Well, technically we are because there’s some bad, bad stuff going on, but the headmistress, she’s with us. You can trust her.”

“You?” Sands looked completely aghast as she stared at Gaia. “You’re part of this… this Stranger love fest? But you’re the head of the school that teaches us all about how evil they all are! Why–huh?!” That last noise sounded like the verbal manifestation of poor Sands’s brain slipping one of its gears.

“It’s a very long story, I’m afraid.” Gaia intoned with a slight smile. “Your teammate can tell you some of it. For now, we need to focus on assisting these innocent people.” she gestured toward the Meregan.

“Hello,” Purin called, waving a hand enthusiastically. “We are being glad to having meet you.”

Sands looked at the man, mouth working in silent confusion while Scout silently waved back.

Tristan, for his part, waved enthusiastically before practically sprinting that way to start talking at the two girls. Obviously, the poor kid (who should have been our age… the Heretic world was weird) was still pretty starved for human interaction.

“Now then,” Gaia cleared her throat. “To the others.”

It went on like that. Gaia pulled through Sean and Avalon next, the latter of which looked as close to utterly shocked as I’d ever seen her. Once she realized what was going on, her face actually pinked a little. “M… mother…”

“It’s quite all right, Valley,” Gaia assured her. “We’ll talk later, but… I understand.”

Valley… Avalon… Realizing that it was a shortened nickname, my eyes lit up and the girl immediately shot me a warning look, raising a finger to quiet me.

It did not, however, stop me from snickering as Tristan, standing out from the rest of us, blurted while staring at my roommate, “Ho-holy crap, dude… are you like… a… a movie star or something?”

She ignored him. Which, to be fair, was pretty reasonable for Avalon. She must like the kid or something. Maybe finding me safe had put her in a really good mood. Even teasing myself with that thought made me blush, and I found myself looking between Avalon and Shiori thoughtfully.

Vulcan, meanwhile, left Sean’s side and came running up to where I was. Smiling, I crouched down to greet the mechanical dog, rubbing his head before nodding to the boy himself. “Hey there, guys.”

Next, and finally, Gaia brought Columbus through. The boy was on his way down the stairs, taking them several at a time so that he came through the portal in mid-jump, making him crash straight down into the water with a sudden surprised yelp. “Wha—blllrggphh!”

Shiori was in the water before he had recovered, hauling her brother back up before grabbing onto him in a tight hug. “Columbus! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry so much. I’m sorry I ignored you. I’m sorry I was so out of it. I’m sorry, please forgive me, please. I love you. I didn’t mean to push you away, please don’t be mad at me, please?”

Looking totally taken aback, Columbus froze, standing there in the water for a second. He looked at us, then to the Meregan and then back again.

Then he just hugged his sister back, leaning down to whisper something before clutching her tighter. His second whisper was a bit louder, just enough to make out. “I missed you.”

“So…” Sean spoke up a moment later, turning away from the two of them. “Not that I don’t love going on a field trip with my school principal, my team, a little kid, a bunch of giants and… whatever you are,” he nodded toward Asenath. “But why are we here, exactly?”

“Well, Sean,” I replied after glancing toward Gaia.

“We’re about to rescue some really, really big children.”

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Against The Odds 9-05

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In the past several months, I’d repeatedly had to reassess my standard for what the true definition of being dumbfounded was. Seeing Gaia Sinclaire simply take control of alien teleporter technology while standing on a different world entirely and just nonchalantly step into the room like that took my previous definition of that word and punted it all the way down the field. I was so thoroughly shocked in that moment that I couldn’t make actual words come out of my mouth. There were just vague sounds.

In the end, it was seeing the Meregan, beings twice my size with technology beyond what I could even begin to understand, shrinking back from her that snapped me out of my shock. “H-headmistress!” I blurted while having absolutely no idea whatsoever what I was going to follow that single word with.

Her eyes turned to me, and I started to talk. The words just poured out. “You can’t hurt these people, yeah I said people because that’s what they are. I know they’re big and I know they look strange because they’re sort-of giants but that doesn’t make them evil. Yeah I know what everyone says at the school you’re in charge of and I know all of that but I think you have to do evil things to be evil.”

I was so… well, honestly terrified in that moment that the words kept coming. I was nervous so I babbled without even waiting to see how the woman was reacting. “And if you don’t do evil things I think that should mean you’re not really evil but according to your school someone is evil just because they were born different from human which really seems sort of umm, bad if you think about it which I really think you should because the letter from my mom said I could trust you and oh yeah I forgot to mention I know my Mom was a Heretic and I know I should’ve come to you sooner before this all spiraled out of control but I really, really, really, hope she was right and I really can trust you because there’s something bad happening now but they aren’t the ones doing it and if you’ll just wait a second-”

“Felicity,” Gaia spoke calmly, snapping my attention back to her. She was holding one hand up placatingly, her other hand at her side. The single word without any particular inflection or threat behind it shut me up immediately and more effectively than I could ever remember happening before.

Once I was quiet, she continued. “When I said that there are many things we need to discuss, I did not mean that each of those discussions should take place simultaneously within the next thirty seconds.”

My mouth opened and then shut again, but before I could find any more words, someone else spoke. “H-headmistress.” Shiori was on her feet, looking just as terrified as I felt, or possibly even worse. She was standing slightly in front of Asenath. As scared of Gaia as she clearly was, the girl still stood straight, planting herself between the vampire and probably the most powerful Heretic we’d ever met.

Asenath, on the other hand, clearly wanted to put herself in front of her little sister. She had a hand on the girl’s shoulder and was obviously attempting to make her stop holding herself in the way.

“Good morning, Shiori,” Gaia greeted her as simply and calmly as ever. “I see you’ve met your sister.”

Well shit, then. Even the past few months of total surprises hadn’t made me adjust my standards for being dumbfounded quite that quickly. That time, all I managed to do for a solid ten seconds or so was openly gape. Behind me, I was pretty sure that both other girls were having fairly identical reactions.

In the end, it was Tristan who broke the resulting stunned silence. The kid was standing at my side, staring up at Gaia as he blurted out loud, “Holy crap, are you Jean Grey?” When her eyes turned that way, he shifted somewhat behind me while continuing. “I mean, you sort of look like her. You know, from the comics? It’s just the—the red hair and the pretty and the, umm, yeah.” He made a sort of all encompassing gesture with his hand. “I mean, obviously you’re not, but no one else was talking.”

“I’m sorry,” Gaia answered, sounding truly regretful. “I’m afraid I’m not really her, no.”

“Wait… wait, just… just…” I held up both hands, feeling flustered and confused. Looking toward the spot where Asenath and Shiori were standing, having settled for being side-by-side when it became clear that neither of them would accept the other being in front of them, I hesitated. Then I turned back to the headmistress. “Baroness, Headmistress, Professor, Miss, whatever you want me to call you. You mean you’re not here to-I mean you’re not gonna—you know that Asenath is her—you know Asenath?”

“Pardon me one moment, please.” Holding a hand up to us, Gaia looked toward the Meregan. “Noble peoples. You have my every apology for using your transportation technology without your express permission and guidance. If any damage has been done, I will ensure that it is taken care of. You have my word that I mean neither any of you nor any of your allies, friends, family, or companions any ill will or intent. So long as myself and my students are safe, I have no particular quarrel with you.”

Gavant lifted his head, watching the smaller woman for a moment warily at first. “That is… being good, Else-Leader-Gaia. We are wishing no harm to you or yours as well. The beacon was not been hurt.”

It probably said a lot that the rest of us remained totally silent through this, until Gaia turned back our way. “Now, to start with, no, I do not know Asenath personally. I have, however, heard of her through several stories and acquaintances, including her long-standing alliance with one Joselyn Atherby.”

“Mom,” I spoke quietly, mostly under my breath while trying to process that. So Asenath really had worked with my mother after all. Since she obviously would have brought that up before, that fact must’ve been wiped out of her memory by the spell that erased everything else about my mother’s rebellion from everyone’s mind. Whatever else I could say about it, that spell was pretty thorough.

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed quietly. “Your mother. You know about what happened to her then, and why.”

“I know she led some kind of rebellion against the idea of killing every Alter in the world just because they’re not human,” I replied, watching the other woman’s reaction. “I know it went on for a long time, even after she was captured. And I know that a bunch of Heretics did some kind of spell to erase the memory of what she did from pretty much everyone’s mind just to stop the rebellion from continuing.”

After glancing away briefly, Gaia gave a single nod before speaking again. “That is true. Your mother, young as she was in the grand scheme of things, was able to lead a rebellion against those much older, more experienced, and with greater resources than she had. She was able, on her own, to fight those who should have been far stronger than she was. She was not just a great and inspiring leader, but had also somehow found a way to gain enough power to stand toe to toe against Heretics that should have been much stronger than she was, all things considered. That is what truly made the rebellion as powerful as it was while Joselyn was in charge of it. The Heretical leaders could not risk an open fight as easily as they could with any other form of conflict, because their victory was not guaranteed.”

“But if you knew all this, if you remember all of it, then you couldn’t be a part of the rebellion,” I pointed out, confused. “You’d have to have been a part of casting the spell that erased those memories.”

Gaia nodded. “You’re right, I was not a part of the rebellion. Not… openly. I felt, and your mother agreed, that the teaching of students at Crossroads was too important. If I left, or was seen as a real ally to Joselyn and her people, I would have been replaced by one much closer to Ruthers. My place was there, a quiet ally who would help where I could without giving away that connection to her enemies.”

“And they believed that,” I spoke slowly. “They believed you were on their side so much they didn’t even erase your memories about Mom or the rebellion. They… they included you in it.”

“Yes,” she acknowledged, meeting my gaze. “I added my power to the casting of that spell. But more than that, I was the one who suggested it be used, and that Joselyn be returned to the Bystander world.”

Staring at her, I demanded, “Why? Why would you do that? You obviously don’t think that every Alter or Stranger or whatever you call them should be killed, and Mom left that message about trusting you. So why, why, why would you help them erase the memory of her from everyone? Why would you help them turn her into an ordinary human again? Why would you do any of that instead of helping her?!”

Gaia waited quietly until I was done before responding, as simply as ever. “Because she asked me to.”

Well, that threw me yet again. Eyes wide, I stared while sputtering, “B-because she—what the hell?”

“You know that your mother spent more than a decade imprisoned, while the rebellion continued,” Gaia began to explain. “Toward the end of that time, Ruthers, the former Crossroads headmaster and the Committee member most devoted to ending that rebellion, came up with a plan to destroy them once and for all.” She went quiet briefly, wincing. “He planned to unleash a blood plague onto them.”

“That sick son of a bitch!” Asenath abruptly blurted, eyes wide as she took a quick step forward. “Are you serious? Is he fucking crazy? No, scratch that, of course he is. Why the hell isn’t he locked up?”

“Wha—I don’t get it, what’s a blood plague?” I asked while looking back and forth between the female figures. Shiori, who had moved up with her sister, looked just as confused and lost as I was.

It was Asenath who spoke. “A blood plague is what my father’s people, the Akharu, had done to them. Against most people, it’s an enslavement tool. Their blood itself is cursed so that they and anyone connected to them, depending on the exact spell you use, is uhh, they’re slaves. They’ll follow the orders of whoever cast it for the rest of their lives. So will their children, and their children’s children. It won’t just enslave them, it’ll enslave all future children they ever have. Forever. There’s no real cure.”

I stared at the other girl for a second, but it was Shiori who spoke, sounding just as uncertain and lost as I felt. “B-but you’re not a slave. And I don’t think your dad was? So… what, what happened?”

“The Akharu were too powerful at that point for that spell to work that well against them,” Senny explained. “They were already… okay, it’s a long story, but they were basically practically immortal already by that point. The blood plague couldn’t enslave them, because their own regeneration kept working against it. Instead, it just sort of… paralyzed them. As long as the infected blood was in their system, it left them completely paralyzed. They couldn’t move at all. They were alive, but… frozen. Turned out that they could put new blood into their system to counteract the effect, but that blood would be infected eventually. So they had to keep adding new blood every once in awhile. Hence…”

“Vampires,” I realized. “That’s why they have to keep drinking blood. But you’re not a full Akharu.”

“They went looking for a cure,” she replied softly. “When they got to Earth, the Akharu found out they could change humans into vampires. And they could have children with humans because the human blood of the offspring counteracted the curse, so their hybrid children, like me, weren’t born slaves.”

“So… so Ruthers was going to use some magic blood curse to enslave not just the rebellion, but any children they ever had, forever?” I felt sick inside, almost physically staggering from the thought.

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “He was waiting for approval from the rest of the committee. The majority still opposed the idea, but he was wearing them down with each successive month. I don’t know how long it would have taken for him to be given the approval he needed, but it was inevitable. Those against the plan were only a majority by one vote. At least one of those who were appalled by the idea would bend, or even die and be replaced by someone who would approve of the idea. It was only a matter of time.

“So, I went to Joselyn. I told her what was happening. Together, we came up with the only possible course of action that we could. We had to offer the Committee a different solution, one that would not result in such… barbaric action. Because it is possible to undo a memory spell. It would even be possible to make your mother into a Heretic again. But the blood plague, that could not be fixed. The Akharu have searched for such a cure for thousands of years without any success. We had to give the Committee another plan, one that would seem less extreme yet still accomplish their goals. Your mother volunteered to have her memory taken away from the people, and her power taken away from herself, in order to protect them. She surrendered everything she had worked for throughout her entire life in order to save her people from an eternity of slavery. If you learn nothing else in your life, know this, Felicity. Your mother is the most heroic person I have ever known in my long life.”

Rocking backwards on my heels from that, I worked my mouth a bit before managing, “What about her children? Her other children, I mean. Who are they? Where are they? What happened to them?”

“First, they were taken in after she was captured,” Gaia began in a slow, careful tone.

Before she could continue, however, Asenath interrupted sharply. “No.” When our eyes turned that way, the vampire girl continued while shaking her head. “You’re wrong. They weren’t taken after Joselyn was captured. They were taken before. That’s the whole reason she was captured.”

It was Gaia’s turn to look confused. Her eyes narrowed a bit. “I’m sorry?”

Asenath’s expression held a look of silent fury, a rage at what she was about to say clearly boiling over in her. “Your people, your… Ruthers, he killed children. His people set fire to a building where our families were kept, where the civilians were, where the children were. They set fire to the children’s rooms as a distraction, then they killed the guards in the nursery and stole Joselyn’s babies right out of their cribs. They wanted us to be so busy protecting and saving the rest of the children from the fire just so they could steal Joselyn’s in order to use them as leverage against her. Ruthers and his people killed innocent children that day, and used more innocent children, Joselyn’s children, to threaten her into surrendering. That’s why she turned herself in. That’s why she let them take her. That’s Ruthers’s great victory.”

Gaia looked as sick as I felt. Her voice was quiet. “Joselyn never told me… she never corrected the record that her children were taken after she surrendered… she never… “ Sighing, she lowered her head. “She was still protecting them. Still protecting everyone from that maniac.”

“Yeah,” I blurted, “And now she’s in the hands of another fucking psychopath, and this one happens to be an immortal necromancer with some kind of ash obsession.”

That brought Gaia’s gaze up. “So you do know about Fossor and your mother.”

“Fossor,” I spat the name darkly. “Yeah, I know about him. I know he took her. And you know why? Because he came for me, to turn me into a weapon against you guys. He thought it would be funny to turn Joselyn Atherby’s daughter into an obedient little toy to use against you and the rest of the Heretics. Mom convinced him to take her instead. I was seven years old and she sacrificed herself again. He’s had her for a decade. He’s got a son with her, a fucking son that’s a god damn psychopath himself! Do you know what that means? Do you know what he—what he’s done? What she’s gone through?!” I was shouting by the end.

Gaia’s face was pained. “Felicity, I… I’m sorry. Yes. I know what sort of torture and pain she has been put through. I know what she allowed to happen. If we can find her, if we can save her, I promise you that we will. Damn Ruthers, damn the committee, damn our entire society. If I can save Joselyn, I will. You have my word on that. But I will also keep you safe, and that means protecting you from the committee as well. As hard as it may be, you cannot openly rebel against them. You cannot let on that you know any of this. You must be patient.”

Before I could respond to that, Shiori spoke up. “What about me?” She took a step away from Asenath, waving the other girl back with a hand while keeping her eyes on the headmistress. “You called Asenath my sister. You knew she was a vampire, and you knew as soon as you came here that she was my sister. You knew everything. You knew before you came here. You knew while I was still in Crossroads. You probably knew even before I got there, didn’t you? You knew what I am, and what I… what I saw, what I was… what I thought.”

Gaia’s eyes closed, and I saw her flinch slightly before returned the other girl’s gaze. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “I knew who your mother was, and what you were, Shiori. I knew of your relation.”

“Why?!” Shiori blurted out loud, her voice raised into a yell. “Why would you do that? Why would you let me keep thinking I was a monster?! You had to notice what I was doing, how much it hurt, what I was… you had to know, so why didn’t you stop it?!”

Gaia’s response was simple. “I did.” Lifting her hand, she took Shiori’s and tugged her closer before enveloping the other girl in an embrace. “Did you think that you left that notebook behind accidentally, or that the specific bit of paper that would lead Felicity to realized your connection to your sister just happened to fall out right in front of her? Sometimes the best action is an indirect one. You needed help. But not from me. You needed it from Felicity. I simply pointed her toward you.”

My mouth was working in silence for a solid fifteen seconds before I finally managed, “I… god, there’s so many things I need to ask you. I’ve got questions, so many questions. But their kids,” I pointed back toward the Meregan. “Their children, the last of their race, are in danger. If you’re really on our side, if you’re really not some psycho kill all the Alters person, you have to help them. Please, please, Headmistress, please help them. They’ve been enslaved by some Heretic and he’s going to wipe out their whole race, or just enslave all of them.”

“A heretic?” Gaia lifted her chin, still embracing Shiori. “Who?”

“I—I think they said—what, Nicholas?” I asked the Meregan.

Gavant nodded. “This is being his name. Enemy-Nicholas Petan.”

Gaia’s face actually paled a bit. “Oh dear.”

“What?” I blurted, looking at her with confusion. “Do you know him?”

Slowly, the woman nodded. “Yes. I know Nicholas very well. My first encounter with Alters, as an ordinary bystander, was when I was taken and imprisoned by a group of orcs. I was taken along with another man that you likely now know as Seller, Avalon’s mentor.”

“Nicholas Petan is the man who saved us from those creatures.”

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Against The Odds 9-04

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A few minutes later, I got to see what it had looked like when Shiori and I had been transferred over. It… wasn’t anything special. Just like I hadn’t noticed that we were in a new place until afterward, I almost missed the fact that Asenath had arrived. One second there was no one standing in the designated space, and in the next, the vampire girl was suddenly there. It even took my Stranger sense a second to kick in to warn me that ‘ooh there was a big scary Alter standing there.’

Asenath had appeared with her back to us, facing the wall. She immediately pivoted back the right way, her gaze passing over the trio of tall Meregan just long enough to give them a nod of greeting before focusing on me. “Flick,” the deceptively-young looking vampire started smoothly. “Are you o–”

In mid-sentence, the girl stopped. Her head tilted slightly, and I saw her nostrils flare a little bit as she sniffed. A little frown creased her forehead for a moment as she sniffed once more. Then, silently, she took a few short steps to the side, crossing around behind me to where Shiori was partially-hidden.

At first, Asenath said nothing. She just stood there, watching the other girl with an unreadable expression. Meanwhile, Shiori just sort of shuffled from one foot to the other, unable to lift her gaze from the floor. The girl’s cheeks were pink, and I could see her mouth open and shut a couple times.

Even the Meregan didn’t say anything. They were aware of just how important this moment was. And Tristan, well, he was sitting nearby, watching what was happening with interest but staying quiet.

My own mouth opened to say something witty, but I stopped. No. Forcing the urge to break the silence back down, I made myself remain silent. This wasn’t about me, and it didn’t need any of my help.

Slowly, Asenath reached out a hand. With two fingers, she gently touched the bottom of Shiori’s chin, tilting it up. Bit by bit, the other girl’s gaze rose, until the two of them were face to face, eye to eye.

Gradually, the emotionless mask fell from Asenath’s face. I saw her wince, her lower lip trembling just a little before she spoke quietly, her voice filled with sudden understanding and regret. “Oh… Oh no.”

Before Shiori’s face could finish crumpling at the admittedly bad choice of words, Asenath stepped forward and embraced her. I could hear the other girl’s gasp as Senny wrapped both arms around her tightly. She spoke again, repeating her words. “No, oh no. I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. I’m sorry.”

Standing straight, clearly taken aback as her wide eyes found me, Shiori managed a weak, “Wh-what?”

Without releasing the girl, Asenath spoke quietly. “I didn’t know what was happening, what you were going through. I didn’t know who you were. I had no idea you were with the Heretics. If I’d known where you were, what you were going through, I would’ve.. Reathma, you must have been so scared.”

“I… I…” Shiori floundered a bit, stammering while Senny held onto her. “You know who I am?”

“Of course I know who you are,” Asenath confirmed with a tiny smile. “You think I wouldn’t recognize the scent of my own sister? I’ve made a whole career out of tracking family members for other people. Trust me, if I couldn’t figure out who you were at first scent, I’d be the worst vampire in the world.”

“But I—but you–” Falling silent briefly, the other girl hesitated. Finally, she very slowly lifted her hands to tentatively touch Asenath’s shoulders in a very tentative hug that she clearly wasn’t very certain about. “I thought I was a monster,” she whispered. “They said people like me deserved die.”

I saw the way Asenath stiffened before lifting her head to look at her sister. “Hey, listen to me, okay? I’ve been around for about two hundred and thirty years, and if there’s one thing I’ve figured out it’s that drinking blood and living a long time doesn’t make someone a monster. You know what does? Doing monstrous things. Human, Alter, Hybrid whatever you call yourself. Evil actions are evil actions.”

“I wanted to find out about my family for so long,” Shiori admitted quietly. “I kept looking for anything. And then when Professor Dare showed up to talk to Columbus and me, I thought maybe that’s why my parents disappeared, why they gave me up. I thought they were heroes, h-heroic monster slayers and they were just trying to pr-protect me. But then I saw the v-vision from the Heretical Edge a-and it was my mother giving me up. I s-saw her, she was a… a vampire. She was a vampire, and I thought that meant I was a monster too. I thought th-they’d kill me if they found out. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to t-talk to or wh-where to go. I—I… I think they know something’s wrong.”

Asenath was shaking her head, leaning back a bit to look down at the other girl. Her fingers tilted Shiori’s chin up once more. “I’m going to tell you something right now, and I want you to pay attention, okay? Both of your parents, our mom and your dad, are heroes. They did let you go to protect you, and it was very, very hard for them. It hurt so much because all they wanted to do was take care of you.”

She sighed then before continuing. “But our mom… our mother, she has enemies, enemies that wouldn’t think twice about killing a baby to get at her. That’s why she had to send you away. Hell, that’s gotta be why she let them give you a Japanese name when both our mom and your dad are Chinese. She was hiding you so that her enemies wouldn’t have a chance of tracking you down to use against her.”

Shiori barked a short, humorless laugh then, shoulders shaking. “I don’t think that worked very well.”

Making a short, slightly amused shoulder shrug, Asenath admitted, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect you to end up with the Heretics. It should’ve been impossible. Hybrids aren’t ever picked up by the Edge. That’s one of the reasons we keep them secret. If Heretics knew there was a way for Alters to produce offspring with humans, offspring that they couldn’t detect, they’d go nuts with paranoia. Knowing them, the crazy ones might even come up with a way to detect you, and then hybrids would be in even worse danger. So we push the idea that it’s impossible just so they don’t have any reason to start looking that hard. The easiest way to protect something is to make your enemy think it can’t exist.”

Shiori was quiet for a few seconds before looking up again. “Do you think there’s others like me? You said the Edge isn’t supposed to pick up hybrids. But it picked up me, s-so there could be others. Others that think they’re monsters, th-that keep hearing about how evil they are and… and don’t know what to do about it. Maybe even in o-older classes. They might’ve been there for years, hearing that… stuff.”

Wincing a little noticeably, Asenath gave a slight nod. “There might be, I really don’t know. If you were taken there, I… hell, I’m surprised the Heretical Edge even worked on you. It… seems impossible.”

“So there might be others,” Shiori murmured. “Th-there might be others that are as scared as I was… am,” she amended with a little shiver. “I’m still scared. If they find out what I am—who my mom is…”

“Hey,” Asenath was holding her tighter, I could tell. “I won’t let that happen. You don’t have to go back. You can stay with me. I’ll take care of you, I promise. You don’t have to go through that anymore.”

For a few seconds, Shiori didn’t say anything. Slowly, her arms fully enveloped the other girl, hugging her older sister with much less reservation. I saw the way she pressed her forehead against Asenath’s shoulder, giving a noticeable shiver before she spoke quietly. “Yes, I do. I do have to go back there.”

Before Asenath could object, she went on. “My brother, Columbus, he’s there. My team is there. Even if they’d think… even if they’d turn on me, I have to go back. I can’t run and hide just because—just because it’s easier.” Giving a helpless little shrug, the girl murmured, “And if there’s others like me in there, others that that’ve been in my position, I have to try to find them. I have to try to help them.”

“Even if it’s safer to come with me?” Asenath’s voice sounded strained, even a bit lonely, and I thought a bit about what she’d said before about how she tended to lose people. As she’d said, she had her own abandonment issues. “I’d like to have a sister around. It… it’d be nice to have someone else to talk to.”

“I’m not saying no to having a sister,” Shiori spoke carefully then, leaning back to look at the much older girl. I saw the way their eyes met, the half-sisters, born centuries apart. “I want to have a sister. I want to know you. I want to know our—our mom, everything. But I’m not going to run and hide. All those people that the Heretics help, they do help them. Just because there’s problems doesn’t mean they’re all wrong. You don’t fix things by running and hiding. You fix them by… by working on them.

“Besides,” she added with a brief glance my way. “I… kinda don’t want to leave Flick now. Not after everything we’ve already been through. Not after what she said, what… she really made me feel better.”

Asenath was quiet for a second before she looked over at where I was. “Thanks for helping my sister.”

I shrugged a little at that, smiling in spite of myself. “Hey, you helped my dad. What else could I do?”

Returning my smile with one of her own briefly, Asenath then turned her attention to the waiting Meregan. Her tone turned a little more proper, and she made a brief bowing motion. “You have my apologies for my rudeness in not addressing you properly, sirs and miss. I’m afraid even with all the time that I’ve lived, I haven’t actually met any of your people, so I don’t know your correct greetings.”

“It is being well,” Gavant assured her. “We are being know well the missing of peoples and family. You are not being need to apologizing for such emotion. Please, do not being allow us to be interrupting.”

I saw the way Asenath bit her lip hesitantly, eyes glancing toward her little sister before she gestured. “Does that mean you don’t mind if I talk to her for awhile? We’ve got a lot to catch up on, then you can tell me about this threat, and the kids that are in danger. Unless there’s something urgent that we can-”

I shook my head. “We’ve gotta wait until we can pull the rest of my team in anyway. You can talk.”

She raised an eyebrow, watching me with a doubtful look. “You’re bringing in the rest of your team?”

“I know what you’re thinking.” I let out a long sigh before going on. “And yes, it’s not ideal. But we need help. And if we’re ever going to convince people that the way the Heretics are going about things is wrong, if we’re ever going to change what’s happening, we have to start somewhere. I honestly can’t think of a better place to start than with my own team. If I can’t get them to work with a vampire to save a bunch of children, then… then there’s no hope at all. And I’d personally rather not believe that.”

Asenath stepped away then to have a talk with Shiori, and I moved back over to where the Meregan were. My eyes found the spot where Tristan was, and I hesitated before addressing them. “You found Asenath just by using a bit of Shiori’s DNA or whatever, and some thoughts about her. Can’t you do the same thing to find Tristan’s family? He said he remembers having a mom, a dad, and a sister. He remembers being in a house. Can’t you use that and his genetics and do your little tracking thing?”

Poor Gavant look ashamed, glancing away with a flinch. “We have been tried. We are being trying more and more. This spell that is been blocked him, that keeps being return him to this world, it has being affecting our efforts as well. Without more information of what has being done, we cannot probably being do any better. But, we will not being stop trying to be finding Friend-Tristan’s family.”

“What about your own kids?” I asked then, frowning. “You could pull Shiori, Asenath, and me off a completely different world. Couldn’t you just use the technology to locate and transport your children?”

That time, it was Alecra who spoke, her voice clearly sad. “We have been tried that as well, many times. Enemy-Nicholas Petan is being aware of our power and was made protections against it.”

“Protections like the ones around Crossroads,” I realized with a sigh. “The same reason we have to wait until Avalon’s out on the beach before we can contact her and get the rest of my team out here.”

From there, I just moved to sit next to Tristan. I figured the kid could use a human to talk to. He couldn’t really tell me anything about his family or what happened to him, of course, but I managed to get him talking about other things. We should have been the same age, so I still remembered everything he did about movies, toys, games, and cartoons. It was… a little odd talking to a twelve-year old boy about stuff we both liked when we were seven-years old. But I got over it pretty quick, and we just chatted.

Before I knew it, my phone was beeping to let me know that it would be time to get up if I was home. Which meant that it would be time for Avalon to be down on the beach, considering her usual schedule.

Straightening up, I brushed off my legs and glanced to the other side of the room. Asenath was sitting there with Shiori, the latter actually asleep with her head in Senny’s lap while the other girl gently stroked her hair. For a second, I stood there and smiled at the sight before moving to where the Meregan waited. “All right, so how do we find Avalon without using any of her DNA or anything?”

“You were said that she would being on beach area where you and Friend-Shiori were being found?”

I nodded to Alecra. “Yeah, she always goes jogging around now. I mean, assuming she hasn’t changed that up since Shiori and I were taken, which… shit, she might. I mean, if they won’t let anyone out of the shield… oh crap, oh crap, why didn’t I think of that before now?” Raising my hands to my head, I let out a low groan of frustration. “Damn it, what if she doesn’t come out? What if none of them do?”

Purin laid his massive hand on my shoulder. Well, his palm was on my shoulder anyway. His whole hand covered a lot more than that. “You must being calm yourself, Friend-Flick. If there is being trouble with locating your friends, we will be settling that problem when it is being proven to exist.”

Breathing out, I made myself calm down, looking at the man with a slight smile. “You’re right, I get it. Deal with the problem if it presents itself. Right now, just focus on what we know. So how do we find her, assuming she is on the beach?”

Alecra answered. “We will being simply return the beacon focus to where it was finding you and Friend-Shiori before. If Other-Friend is there, we will being see her.”

I started to nod, then paused, glancing to her. “Hey, uhh, I thought of something else. That statue outside, the one of my mother. They said it was supposed to be some kind of message thing to let her know what was going on when she appeared. But then you said that Mom should’ve appeared in here, not outside. So why was the statue out there?”

The Meregan woman made what looked like an embarrassed smile. “The Message-Stone should being appear as near as possible to where its intended person-to-being-hear it is. It tried to being appear to you when you were being arrived here. But the Binsayeac had not even power ready. It could not being project Message-Stone far enough. It only had being put Message-Stone as close as it could.”

Nodding slowly, I glanced toward the water fountain. Already, the image in the water was showing the beach. Seeing that, I smiled. “Hey, look.” There was a female figure, slightly obscured by their nearness to the ‘screen.’ “You found her after all.”

All three Meregan looked confused, then turned their attention to the fountain as well. Gavant was talking. “We had not been done anything yet.”

“Wait, what?” I blinked, equally confused. “You mean you didn’t turn on the beacon thing? Then how did it–”

The figure on the beach came even closer to the fountain screen then, and reached out a hand. That hand actually came out through the screen, appearing inside the room with us. Then she took another step, crossing the whole way through the screen to end up inside the fountain in the middle of the room.

“Well,” Baroness Gaia Sinclaire spoke calmly while straightening to her full height.

“I believe we now have many things to discuss.”

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Against The Odds 9-03

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“Are you, uhh, are you really sure about this?” Shiori asked awhile later as the two of us followed Purin up out of the Elvis docking bay (or whatever it was called) back in the Meregan base/ship. We had raced back even faster than the trip out there, Purin seeming to trust that we knew how to drive the boulder-vehicle well enough that he pushed his own harder than he had before. It had been a wild ride.

“Because this,” Shiori continued in a quiet murmur, “seems like a plan that could go wrong really fast.”

Unable to deny that, I nodded. “You’re right, it could go wrong. It could backfire spectacularly. But if we’re gonna rescue those kids, we’re gonna need them.” Pausing then, I added, “And they’re my team.”

The girl paused briefly, a visible flinch crossing her face. “Right,” her voice faltered. “Your team.”

We were in the doorway between the vehicle garage and the corridor, and I turned to Shiori. My hand found hers almost instinctively. “Hey, I… I’m sorry, that was really insensitive. I know, you’d rather have your team here too. I’m going on about wanting my team here, and you… you… I’m sorry.”

At first, Shiori’s gaze turned down and to the side, toward the floor. Then the girl set her shoulders and physically straightened. Her eyes found mine while she shook her head. “No more sulking, remember? Yeah, it sucks that I can’t t-tell them about what I am. But… but I’m not gonna brood about it anymore.”

Her face twisted a little in thought then before she added, “Besides, do you even know how you’re gonna get Columbus and the others here anyway? Because I’m pretty sure they won’t be past the shield and out on the beach like we were. Especially in the middle of the night. It’s like four in the morning.”

“Avalon’ll be down for exercise in another hour,” I assured her. “I know her schedule like the back of my hand. She goes running on the beach at five thirty.” Looking toward Purin, who had paused to watch, I asked, “Is there any way to send a message instead of just teleporting them without warning? I’d kind of like to tell my friends what’s going on and let them choose to come help if they want.”

The big man’s head bobbed immediately. “This is being very possible to have been done, Friend-Flick.”

“That still leaves an hour and a half before she’s on the beach,” Shiori pointed out. “What do we do until then? And are we sure that this umm, Nicholas guy won’t send an even bigger army before then?”

Wincing at the thought, I started to shake my head. Before I could say anything, however, Gavant spoke up while approaching from further down the corridor. “We will being moving, Friend-Shiori. Enemy-Nicholas Petan is having a large army, yes. But he is not having large enough to be finding us.”

“Wait, so, the spaceship is ready to move?” I asked, giving a quick. nervous glance around the corridor.

Gavant winced a little before shaking his head. “Our vessel is not being space-worthy yet. More repairs are being needed. But it is being less difficult to be moving on planet. That moving we can be done.”

“Right,” I nodded. “Probably a good idea to move then, before we get any more unwanted guests.” Hesitating then, I took a breath before looking at Shiori. “As for what we’re gonna do until Avalon’s up, I’ve got an idea.” My eyes met hers while I spoke quietly. “Asenath. We can ask Asenath for help.”

The suggestion made Shiori’s eyes widen. “Asenath,” she breathed out in surprise. “You mean…”

“Yeah,” I confirmed while squeezing her hand upon realizing I was still holding it. “Your sister.”

For a second, I saw the hope in the girl’s eyes. I saw the expression of a child that only wanted to know her real family, and where she had come from. Then it clouded over with worry, like a storm crossing a bright, sunny day. “But what if she, I mean what if I… wh-what if they…” Shiori started to babble.

I responded by lifting her hand, then grabbing the other one. Interlacing our fingers together, I met her gaze while holding our hands up above our heads that way. “Hey,” I replied quietly, “it’s okay. We don’t have to tell any of the others that you guys are related if you don’t want to. Or anything else about you. I mean, I think you should tell Columbus the truth because he’s your brother and he’s been worried as hell. But that’s up to you, and no one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to. All right?”

Looking down at the floor at first, then back up again to meet my gaze, Shiori nodded. “Okay.” Her voice was quiet, yet a little hope had crept back into it. “And I would like to meet this… Asenath.”

“I know she’d like to meet you too,” I confirmed before looking back toward Gavant and Purin. “Can we do that? If I give you a um, I don’t know, an address or whatever, can you reach someone else?”

“We are not understanding what is this ‘address,’” Gavant responded with a slight frown. “But if Friend-Flick is be telling us all of who this sister of Friend-Shiori is, we can be finding her then.”

“Right, right,” I realized aloud. “It’s like you were saying about how the beacon caught me instead of my mom. It looks for similar genetics, mindsets, actions, memories, personality. You just need me to… what, talk about what I know about Asenath and then your beacon can lock onto her just like that?”

“That is being true,” he confirmed. “If it is being narrowed down to one world, it is being easier. Our beacon was been already used on your world. That will being easier than one whole new world.”

Releasing Shiori, I started to say something else, but the sound of jogging footsteps caught my attention. Not that it was hard to know who was coming, since there was only one other person in the whole ship who could run without it sounding like rumbling thunder echoing around us. “Tristan?”

Sure enough, the boy came running up, skidding to a stop. Excitement shown on his face. “They’re about to start up the engines!” He called, clearly beside himself. “They’re gonna start the ship!”

Despite the urgency of the situation, I felt a flutter of excitement and more than a little awe. I was in a spaceship, a real spaceship, and they were about to start the engines. Part of me wished there was time to bask in how amazing that was, how unbelievable, and how jealous Dad would have been if he knew.

Actually, that raised an interesting question. How would the Bystander effect work when someone was brought onto a working spaceship and taken to another world? Would they just think they were driving in a car or… going on a ship? Or would they fully process it while they were experiencing it, then forget immediately as soon as it was over? The latter seemed more likely given what I knew about the effect.

Shaking off those thoughts, I smiled in spite of myself. The boy’s obvious excitement was infectious. “I guess we better work on getting those reinforcements here then, if the ship’s already ready to take off.”

The boy looked nervous all of a sudden, kicking at the floor with his foot. “Do uhh, do you mind if I…”

Realizing what he was asking, my eyes widened. I suddenly felt like a bitch. He obviously wanted to stay around us. We were the first humans that had been here with him for years, and we’d run out with barely a word right after meeting him. “You wanna hang out while we work on getting our friends?”

Tristan’s head bobbed rapidly, his perfect blonde hair flying with the motion. Seriously, the kid would have given any of those famously cute little boy actors a run for their money without even trying that much. When he got a little bit older, he was going to end up being the subject of a ton of crushes. I had to wonder how much of that had to do with whatever his ‘other half’ besides human was. Not to mention my thoughts of whether the boy had been magically banished because of something to do with the Heretics refusal to accept that there could be human-alter hybrids.

In the end, I just gave the boy a thumbs up. “Cool.” Then I looked to Gavant. “How do we get started?”

The big man pointed down the corridor. “Explore-Master Purin will being take you to beacon room while ship is prepared for launch. It should not be interrupting your work. Meregan beacon will being unhindered by ship movements and activity unless we are being in live combat situation.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I murmured before nodding. “All right, Purin, let’s get to it.”

The other Meregan man made that salute or prayer gesture with his left hand again, where he pressed it sideways against his chest with the ring and middle fingers stretched out while the rest were pushed back against his palm. He thumped his hand against his chest that way while facing Gavant. Speaking quickly in their own language for a moment, he gave what sounded like an agreement before turning. “Come, Friends-Flick, Shiori, and Tristan. We must be hurry if we are to be finding your other people.”

The four of us jogged down the corridor, hurrying past several other Meregan who were all hard at work effecting repairs and maintenance on the ship to make sure everything was ready. As we jogged, I looked down at the boy. “So you really don’t remember anything about your family or anything?”

Tristan shook his head. “Nuh uh. They tried everything to send me back or help me remember, but it, uh, like I said, it just sends me right back.” Making a face then, he added, “I wish I could remember.”

Despite myself, I reached out to ruffle his hair as we ran. “Hey, don’t worry. We’re not just gonna run off back home and forget all about you when this is over, I promise. We’ll figure something out.”

The boy looked a bit doubtful, but nodded while remaining silent. Before I could say anything else, the jog brought us to a circular platform of some kind, with a safety rail around it that was taller than I was.

Once we were all in the circle, it started to descend, sinking deeper into the tomb-like ship. I had to wonder why so much of the Meregan technology seemed to be centered around things like rocks and rough masonry. Sure there was smooth metal in certain places, but a lot of the exterior things were very different. There was no aerodynamic structure or anything a modern human would design. Their spaceship looked more like a building than a vehicle, and their scouting vehicles looked like boulders.

As if to add to that, as the elevator stopped and a large set of doors opened in front of us, we saw what looked an awful lot like a cave in front of us. It was almost as large as the cafeteria at Crossroads. There were multicolored crystals lining the walls that fluctuated between red, blue, and green randomly. The floor was marble, and there was a wading pool in the middle of the circular chamber. In the middle of the pool there was a small fountain that shot up at least a good ten feet. And to the side, I could see one of the other Meregan, a woman with long green hair, fiddling with one of the crystals.

Shaking off my surprise at the sight, I stepped into the cavern. “Okay, so um, how does this work?”

“Oh, and we better make sure that it brings them here and not outside like we did,” Shiori added.

Pointing at her, I nodded emphatically toward Purin. “Yeah, what she said. Why did we end up out there instead of in this place anyway? Seems like that could have saved a lot of, you know, confusion.”

The Meregan woman who had already been in the cavern looked embarrassed while speaking up. “That is being my fault, Friends-Flick and Shiori. I am being Alecra, and the mistake was been mine.”

She approached, leaving the crystals behind while continuing to explain. “The beacon was been set to transport Friend-Joselyn Atherby here into this room location. But I was made mistake by not changing location to be matching new coordinates after Binsayeac was been hidden under ground from intruders.”

Quickly, Tristan murmured, “Binsayeac’s the name of the ship. They said it means, umm, Friend-Finder.” His lips were pursed a little, the anger in even his young voice apparent. “They named their ship Friend-Finder. They wanted to go out in space and find other people to talk to, other… friends. They just wanted to help and make a big intergalactic community. They never wanted to hurt anybody.”

I flinched at the thought that this race of explorers, who had gone so far as to name their spaceship after the idea of community and friendship, had been almost completely wiped out. This ship that they had made for the purpose of extending a hand of solidarity to worlds beyond their own had become the home of pretty much their entire species. And if we didn’t save their children, it might all end here.

Forcing that thought aside rather than let myself dwell on the idea of failing, I focused on what Alecra had explained, parsing it for a moment before getting it. “Oh, you set the coordinates for this room, but then they hid this ship to stay away from the bad guys, but you forgot to change the coordinates. So where we showed up would have been where the ship was before you guys took it underground.”

“That is being correct, Friend-Flick,” the tall, green-haired woman confirmed. “If we are to be bring your Friends-People here to help, we will being move the coordinates to bringing them to here.”

After making that clear, she extended a hand. “You will must come being in water if the beacon is to being correct in its search. Lord-March Gavant was said that you was to look for Friend-Shiori’s sister?”

I nodded. “She’s never met her though. Asenath’s her half-sister, but I’m the only one that knows her.”

“Then you must being both in water,” Alecra explained patiently. “The beacon will being scan Friend-Flick’s memories and will being scan Friend-Shiori’s blood and body to being make accurate location.”

With a brief glance toward the other girl, I let out a breath. “All right, let’s do it then. Wait, I can send her a message, right? We locate her and send a message first. I don’t want to just snatch her without warning. That, you know, might be bad.” I coughed, wincing at the thought of both a startled Asenath showing up here with no idea of what was going on, and Twister being left alone, equally clueless.

Beside me, Shiori got that mischievous look again, even as she tried to keep a straight face. “Yeah,” she intoned with clearly false solemness. “Pulling in a vampire without warning them ahead of time would definitely be rued.”

I blinked, blinked again, mouthed her words to myself while she just watched me with obvious amusement and self-satisfaction. Then I got it. “You spelled it r-u-e-d, didn’t—yeah you did.” Groaning while the other girl giggled, I found myself smiling anyway. Especially when Tristan apparently got it abruptly and started to snicker as well.

Finally, I looked back at the two Meregan. “Shiori’s puns aside, what about that warning?”

“Yes, Friend-Flick,” Alecra confirmed with a simple nod. “There will being a chance for conversation.”

With that, Shiori and I both started down into the pool. It was clearly meant to come up to about the knees of a full grown Meregan, which meant it was all the way up past our waists.

Alecra had us each stand on either side of the fountain, then told us to put our hands in the spray. “As the water is being hitting your skin, you are to being speaking of the person you are to being looking for.”

Meeting Shiori’s curious, obviously eager gaze, I smiled. “All right. Let me talk about what I saw when I first met Asenath, how she saved my life. Let me describe what I felt when I realized what she was, and what she did for other people. Let me tell you how grateful I am to her for everything she’s done. And how much I trust her to protect my dad.”

I’d already talked about this with the other girl, but now I went into greater detail. I described the feeling of Asenath saving me at the last second from whatever torture Ammon had had in mind. I openly admitted my own skepticism, and how the vampire had won me over, and how it had felt to see that she had stopped my father from becoming a murderer. I talked about seeing the determination in Asenath’s eyes, and the incredible compassion that had come while she was helping me process what I found out about Fossor and my mother.

Finally, I finished with a quiet, “So if certain people refuse to consider Asenath to be human, then we can’t use the word humanity to mean compassion, kindness, and just… plain caring about other people anymore. Because I’ve never met anyone in my life who embodies those concepts more than Asenath. She’s a vampire, but she’s not a threat. She’s not a monster. She’s my friend. She saved my life.

“She’s a hero.”

Alecra’s quiet voice spoke into the resulting silence. “It is been done.”

With that, the spray of water between us opened up, spreading apart to show empty space that abruptly filled with the image of Asenath herself. The vampire girl was standing on the roof of my house, looking both ways down the street. She didn’t seem to be alarmed or anything, just… watching.

Through the semi-translucent image, I could see Shiori’s face. There were tears streaming down it as she stared, lost in the image. “My…. sister…?”

“That’s her,” I confirmed quietly before looking back toward Alecra. “How do I…?”

“You are to be touching the image and speaking,” the Meregan explained. “She will be hearing your voice.”

I nodded at that, then reached up to put my hand against the image. It felt like touching silly putty that had been stretched out a long ways, yet didn’t break. “Asenath, it’s Flick.”

In the image, the girl jolted a little, turning around before frowning. I quickly went on. “I’m not there. But uhh, it is really me, I swear. Um, when we met, you said Mr. Raphardy was either racist or sexist or both, because he charged you ‘about three times what that piece of shit was worth.’”

She relaxed marginally then, and I heard her voice as she spoke. “Where are you? How are you talking like this?”

I hesitated before starting to explain. “I uh, I’m not on the planet. This other race called the Meregan pulled me and… Shiori here. Listen, there’s a lot to talk about. A lot. But we need your help. The Meregan children are in a lot of danger and… and we um, we can’t really help them without you. Can you… uhh… would you…”

“Bring me,” the vampire spoke calmly, her voice quiet yet confident. “You don’t have to ask, Flick. It’s children. Give me a minute to warn Twister.”

I wanted to tell her about Shiori, but figured that was something best talked about in person. With a glance toward the other girl, I nodded. “Okay, they’ll bring you through as soon as you’re ready.”

I turned to Shiori then, as Asenath moved to tell her partner in bodyguard-duty that she was leaving for (hopefully) a short trip. “Are you ready for this?”

Her nod was emphatic, the tears still evident. “Yes,” she replied in a quiet, barely audible voice.

“I’m ready to meet my sister.”

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Against The Odds 9-02

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“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” I screamed out loud a few minutes later.

Beside me, Shiori provided her own enthusiastic agreement. “AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”

The two of us yelled out loud in concert as the giant boulder posing as our vehicle went flying over the next sand dune and into the air. The boulder spun wildly, though our own view remained solidly forward. With our joined screams echoing in our ears, we flew a good fifty feet before the boulder came down once more to hit the ground. The impact sent a shower of sand spraying in every direction.

And yet, we weren’t injured. Whatever technology kept the inner part of the orb separate from the actual boulder also protected us from the force of impact. We still had enough sense of motion and g-forces to know they were there, but considering how wild the ride had been I was pretty sure that if we hadn’t had some kind of protection, we both would have thrown up our entire insides. It was insane.

Working together, the two of us each pushed one of the pedals (themselves big enough for both of our feet to fit into) backward. The Elvis’s forward momentum was arrested almost immediately, and we started to roll backwards for a second before lifting our feet up once more so that it rolled to a stop.

A second later, the sound of Purin’s urgent voice came from near the top of the boulder where I saw a few dotted holes indicating a speaker of some kind. “Is the Friends-Flick and Shiori not being well?”

“We… we…” I started, trying to get my breath under control while looking toward the other girl.

Shiori was panting as well, staring back at me with wide eyes. “Oh god. That was… that was… so….”

Together in perfect unison, we both blurted out as one, our voices filling the Elvis. “Awesome!”

“I know, right?” I started again, laughing with exhilaration. “We were like, ‘whooo’ and you were like ‘aaahhh’ and I was like, ‘eeeeeeh’ and then whoosh and oh my god, oh my god, how is there not a Six Flags here already?” My babbling was matched only by Shiori’s as she rambled right back at me.

We were basically talking over each other, yet still following everything the other person said. I’d finish a sentence, then go back and respond to something she’d said before returning to my previous thought, then jump back to what she’d said a moment later. Meanwhile, she did the same thing. It probably sounded like complete gibberish to anyone else (including poor Purin), but we carried on like that for a solid minute or two, complete with sound effects and a probably unhealthy amount of giggling.

Finally, I got myself under control enough to clear my throat. “I mean, uhh, we’re fine down here now, Purin, sir. We’re just great, just uhh…” I coughed. “Putting your machine through a few stress tests. You know, getting the hang of the controls and maneuverability. It’s important to understand how the G-Forces might negatively impact the performance of, uhh, science word, science word, science word.”

Beside me, Shiori squinted, a smile threatening her serious expression. “You realize you didn’t actually say anything scientific, right? You literally just said ‘science word, science word, science word’.”

Leaning closer (which basically put our heads side by side, I stage-whispered, “D’ya think he noticed?”

“I am been noticed,” Purin confirmed over the Elvis’s communication unit. I could see his boulder parked about a dozen yards away, resting just a little up the next dune. “I am being glad that Friends-Shiori and Flick are been enjoyed their K’lecnahn testing. Are you being sure of it controlling?”

With a quick glance toward the other girl, I nodded. “I think we’ve got it, yeah. Thanks for indulging us.” We knew it was important to get to this enemy encampment as soon as possible. Every minute counted, but we’d had to be sure that we could control this thing before we actually got underway.

“Tunnel is being good now,” the Meregan advised. “Then we will not being seen from explorers.”

“Right, not letting any of this Nicholas Petan guy’s scouts spot us is probably a really good idea.”

The tunneling ability of the Elvis was something we hadn’t actually tested. I wasn’t sure how it worked exactly, but Purin began to talk us through it. “Both be squeezing handles and pulling back. When light in K’lecnahn is being blue, it is being still uncovered. When light in K’lecnahn is being yellow, it is being all covered by ground and fully hiding. Stopping squeezing and pulling handle to be make K’lecnahn stop diving and be staying where it is. Be squeezing and pushing handle in to be rising.”

Shiori was nodding. “Squeeze and pull to go down, stop when the light turns yellow, squeeze and push to go up. It’s sort of like a submarine or something. Only under the sand. Which is weird. And cool.”

“So very, very cool,” I agreed. It was easy like this, easy to focus on the fun and interesting stuff. But the thought of what we were going to find once we actually got out there was still kind of terrifying. There was a Heretic who had not only made himself an army out of all different Alters, but he was also probably about a billion times stronger than we were. How were we supposed to fight him if we were wrong about him moving on and he was actually there? What could two first-semester kids do, exactly?

Shutting that aside rather forcibly, I looked toward Shiori. “All right, ready to try out this subsilican?”

“Subsilican…” Shiori echoed with obvious amusement before nodding. “I’m ready. Let’s dive.”

“I will being dive first,” Purin advised. “K’lecnahn will being make tunnel through sand that will be staying for minutes before it will being fall. You will being follow behind through same tunnel. That is been easier and you will being only have to stop when I am been stop. I will being direct you to go.”

Both of us agreed, and then watched as Purin’s Elvis rolled directly in front of us. A moment later, the boulder started to roll in place, not actually going anywhere. It just spun faster and faster for a few seconds before gradually sinking into the ground. As we watched, the giant stone vehicle dug its way under the sand until it had completely disappeared from sight, leaving behind a hole that was quickly covered by more sand that fell in over top of it, leaving the other boulder completely hidden from view.

“Well,” I shrugged. “Here goes nothing.” Closing my hand around the handle, I squeezed. It… stayed in place. Flushing, I put both hands up on it. “Okay, jeeze, this thing doesn’t wanna move, apparently.” It took genuine effort from both hands for me to actually fully squeeze the handle and pull it back.

The other girl, meanwhile, looked at me for a moment before reaching up to squeeze her own handle with a single hand, completely at ease. It obviously didn’t take much effort at all. “Huh, that’s not hard.”

Coughing at that, I nudged her with my hip. “I think we just figured out what one of those Alters gave you. Probably the orc thing, if I was gonna guess. I dunno, just seems like that’s where it’d come from.”

Together, Shiori and I squeezed the handles and pulled them back. Our own Elvis started to spin around us, and it slowly sank down through the sand. Blue lights come to life around the edges of the monitor as the sand rose around us. We were sinking straight down in this boulder that suddenly felt smaller.

Finally, the lights around the monitors turned yellow, and we stopped pulling the handles, letting them return to their normal position. Above, I pictured the sand falling into place, covering us entirely. We were underground. It was about as close to actually being buried alive in a grave as I ever wanted to be.

“All right,” I announced a second later, feeling like my voice was louder than it should be. “Let’s do this.” Slowly, the two of us started to push the pedals down and forward, just a little bit to start out.

Rather than immediately rolling forward, I saw what looked like a collection of tiny dots of laser light shoot out through the sand in front of us. There were six of them. Six little dots of energy that started in the middle, then grew while spreading apart to create a hole directly in front of us. They held the sand out of the way, essentially creating a forcefield that revealed Purin’s boulder waiting a few feet away.

As soon as we had revealed him, Purin’s voice came over the radio. Or whatever it was. “That is being good now. We move, you will be following. It is being a long trip, over three nipuns before arriving.”

“Nipuns?” Shiori echoed, frowning slightly in thought. “How long do you think that is in Earth hours?”

“Let’s find out,” I suggested. “Purin, what we call one full day is one rotation, one light and dark cycle. It takes twenty-four of what we call hours to get all the way through. It takes sixty of what we call minutes to reach one of those twenty-four hours, and sixty of what we call seconds to reach one of those minutes. A second is this long. One second, two seconds, three seconds. How many of our seconds like that, one second, two second, three seconds, would it take to make one nipun?”

It took the big man a few seconds to respond as he worked all of that out in his head before answering, “Ninety of your seconds would be making one of our tinel. Thirty tinel would be making one nipun.”

I thought that through briefly. “Okay, ninety seconds is a minute and a half. Each of their tinels are a minute and a half long, and it takes thirty tinels to make one nipun. So ninety times thirty, which is… oh, duh, twenty-seven hundred. Two thousand, seven hundred seconds in one nipun. Divide that by sixty and it’s… hold on…” It took me a few seconds to work that out in my head. “Sixty goes into two thousand seven hundred… forty-five times? Yeah, forty-five. So one nipun is forty-five minutes. Three would be around two hours and fifteen minutes. Right, guess we better get settled into for a long ride.”

“Company’s not bad though,” Shiori offered, her voice a little shy as she glanced at me from the side.

I nodded in firm agreement. “Absolutely. Not bad at all. All right, Purin, let’s head out. We’re right behind you.”

As the boulder ahead of us began to roll, we applied pressure to the pedals, pushing them down and forward, gradually picking up speed to keep up with the Meregan. I could see the little laser forcefield thing of his Elvis packing away the sand, but ours just followed in his wake. Behind us, I could see in the second monitor, the sand stayed in place until we were past it, then collapsed a second later.

We’d been rolling along for a few minutes in pleasant, comfortable silence, both of us lost in our own thoughts. Then Shiori spoke up. “So what do you think we picked up from those Strangers, besides the strength from the orc?” When I glanced to her, she blanched a little. “Err, I mean Alters.” Then she blanched even more a second later. “Wait, we probably shouldn’t use that term back at school, right?”

“Right,” I nodded. “I’m pretty sure calling them Alters in front of people at Crossroads would be bad.”

Swallowing hard, Shiori fell silent for a moment. When she spoke up, her voice was quiet. “It feels morbid to talk about ‘ooh, what kind of powers did we get from those living beings we killed.’ Yeah, they tried to kill us, they obviously weren’t on our side or innocent or anything. It was totally self-defense. But still, they were… alive, and now part of them is with us. We basically Highlandered them.”

“I know what you mean,” I agreed. “A few months ago, I couldn’t stand to stomp on a mouse in the theater I was working at. Now I’m… just… killing these things. Yeah, they’re attacking me first, but still. It makes me wonder if there’s something else in the Heretical Edge. Something that makes us less resistant to killing. I mean, the power comes from the blood of a Hangman right? They’re obsessed with death. So wouldn’t it make sense that if we combine them with our own genetics, we’d get some of their… affinity for killing and all that? They feed off it, they seek it out. I’m pretty sure there’s something in there that explains why we’re not as freaked out about the killing thing as we should be.”

We fell silent for a few seconds, both of us thinking about what that meant. The idea made me shiver, and I wondered what other alterations it might have made to my mind and instincts or those of my friends, or the rest of the Heretics. Maybe all of that had something to do with why it was so hard for them to believe that not all Alters were evil. Maybe accepting that ran against that genetic programming. The thought made me feel a little sick to my stomach, though I realized that the programming, if that’s what it was, couldn’t be completely unbreakable. After all, my team and I had moved past it. Even Sands, for the most part, was getting the idea. So if there was anything to this theory, it wasn’t so much programming and mind control as something like… mind nudging, maybe?

Shaking that off, I changed the subject. “Anyway, besides your strength, I’m not sure what else we picked up. I feel like I can move more sand than I could before, and I’ve got a little more control. That’s obviously the sand-goblins—err.” I addressed the tiny holes where the speaker was. “Hey, Purin? What are those Alters we fought called? The little ones that turn into sand and fly around a lot.”

“They are been known as Harabeold, Friend-Flick,” the big guy replied easily. “They are been pests.”

“Harabeold,” I echoed, sounding it out. “I guess pest is a pretty apt name for them too.” At least now we knew what they were actually called instead of just relying on the name sand-goblin. “What about that ugly guy that was made of wood? What are those things called, Ents or Dryads or something?”

“We have not been hear of these Ents or Dryads,” our Meregan responded slowly. “This ‘wood man’ you fought is being called Relukun. More than one together are being called Relukae.”

“Relukun and Relukae, got it.” I nodded before looking back to the girl beside me. “Guess we’ll find out what sort of gifts they give eventually. Kinda hard to test them out in here. But in the meantime,” I added slowly, “we should pass the time by playing a game. I spy with my little eye, something…”

“Is it sand?” Shiori asked dryly, one eyebrow raised rather pointedly while a smile played at her lips.

“… we should probably play a different game,” I conceded before giggling slightly in spite of myself.

Shiori just smiled. “I’ve got a better idea. Why don’t you umm, tell me about you? I mean, we already talked a lot about my… situation, and your thing with your mom and all that. But tell me about you. You know, what you like where you’ve gone on vacation, what’s your favorite food, your favorite movie, all that stuff. Tell me everything about Flick.”

I coughed at that, flushing slightly. “That might take awhile.”

Her response was a shrug. “Like the guy said, we’ve got three nipuns before we get there.

“Might as well spend it listening to something interesting.”

******

A couple hours later, the Elvis we were in opened up to let us climb out. Purin had parked us near the base of a massive hill that was supposed to overlook the encampment where Nicholas Petan’s army had been the last time the Meregan were awake.

“It is being a few nens away,” Purin warned as we hiked up the hill. He was holding out what looked like a pair of binoculars to us that were so big we could each have used one of the lenses like one of those old pirate spyglasses. “You will be need using this to see Enemy-Nicholas Petan’s camp.”

“Uhh,” Shiori announced a second later from her spot a few feet ahead. “I really don’t think we will.”

Purin turned his attention that way before freezing, and I took a couple more steps to see over the top at what they were looking at.

We were indeed far above where the enemy camp should have been. But there was no camp down there. Instead, there was an entire city. Massive sandstone walls surrounded the place, rising what had to be at least sixty feet up, with manned guard towers every fifty feet. As high as we were, I could see into the city itself. There were buildings everywhere, even roads. I saw what looked like a market of some kind toward the front, and in the middle there was a massive fortified tower that stood at least two hundred feet tall. From the looks of it, the tower itself was bristling with weaponry.

“They’ve… uhh, improved their camp,” I finally managed to say, rather dumbly.

“No way they’re going to be able to break in there to save the kids,” Shiori responded, her own voice sounding weak.

I was quiet for a minute, looking toward Purin, who looked stricken at the thought that his people wouldn’t be able to save their children. Finally, I cleared my throat. “So we get help. We don’t fight them directly. Purin, can your people distract the army those guys can send out? You don’t have to win, you just have to keep them busy. Make them chase you.”

“We can be doing this,” he agreed slowly. “But Friends-Flick and Shiori cannot be finding Meregan children all by themselves in such a place. It is being too dangerous.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “But your teleportation thing, the emergency beacon. It pulled us off our own world. Could it do the same thing for others?”

“It could be doing,” he confirmed with an uncertain tone. “But why would we be doing that? Friend-Joselyn Atherby is still missing and not found.”

Nodding, though a slight flinch went through me at the reminder of my mother, I pushed on. “Nope, not my mom. I’ve got other reinforcements in mind.

“It’s time to bring in the rest of my team.”

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