Seller

Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed to narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Interlude 22A – Miranda

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March 17th, 2012 (Just Under Six Years Ago)

“Flick, are you sure they’re gonna come?” twelve-year-old Miranda Wallbern asked her best friend while glancing across the food court table that the two of them were sharing. Right beside them was a railing that overlooked the first floor of the mall below, where they could see people walking.

The blonde girl bobbed her head up and down quickly, eyes centered on that lower area while she absently sipped her soda. “Uh huh,” she murmured under her breath. “They’ll be here, trust me.”  

“Duh, always,” Miranda retorted. “It’s just, we’ve been waiting here for two hours already and we haven’t seen ‘em. We’ve gotta get on the four o’clock bus if we’re gonna make it home before six.”

Saturday or not, six o’clock was dinner, and Miranda had to make it home in time. Unfortunately, the mall they were in wasn’t actually in Laramie Falls, the girls’ hometown. Instead, it was in a larger town about an hour and a half away. If they missed the bus getting back, they’d have to call one of their parents for a ride. And if that happened, they were going to have to explain not just why they weren’t where they were supposed to be, but why they were in a whole different city.

“We’ll make it,” Flick insisted, still not turning her gaze away from the lower level. “Kendall’s gonna be here. That’s her favorite store.” She nodded toward the front of the shop that could barely be seen down there from where they were sitting. “And that sale ends after today. She’ll be here.”

Giving her little blue flip phone a nervous look to check the time once more, Miranda nodded. “Okay, but we’ve gotta leave in an hour if we’re gonna make it to the bus, Kendall or no Kendall.”

Flick opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, a smile formed and she gave a little nod. “See?”

Sure enough, looking that way, Miranda saw the girl in question. Kendall Harver was walking right below them, accompanied by two of her friends/cronies. The trio were pretty much the most popular girls in the eighth grade, two years above where Miranda and Flick were. In their middle school, Kendall didn’t even know that the two of them existed. They were invisible sixth graders.

But after this… well, they wouldn’t be invisible to the girl anymore. That was for sure.

From their seats up on that second floor, Miranda and Flick watched. They caught glimpses of the girls moving back and forth through the store, picking up various clothes here and there. But mostly, they just waited. Eventually, Kendall and her sidekicks brought a stack of their selections to the checkout counter, which was perfectly framed in view from where the girls were sitting.

“Here we go,” Flick announced while holding her hand out. “How long do we have left?”

Digging into the bag at her side, Miranda came out with a camera, handing it to her friend before checking her phone again. “Fifteen minutes,” she announced. “If we run all the way to the bus.”

Flick smiled. “See? Plenty of time.” She took the camera, focusing it on the scene through the store window below. There was a rapid clicking sound as she took several pictures in quick succession, then paused before taking a few more. “Wait… wait…” the blonde murmured, clearly talking to herself as she held off from taking any more for a moment. “Wait for the money shot.”

She didn’t have to wait long. As the clerk in the store totaled u the older girls’ purchases, Kendall reached into her purse and came out with a white envelope full of cash. The second the envelope was opened, Flick started taking pictures again. She took pictures of the cash in the envelope, being taken out of it, being handed to the clerk, and of the clerk carefully counting all of it.

Finally, it was over. Kendall and her friends were handed their purchases, and Flick took a couple more quick photos of the three walking out of the store. Then she straightened and nodded to Miranda. “Time to run?” she asked, smiling brightly from the exhilaration of success.

Returning the other girl’s grin, Miranda’s head bobbed. “Yup,” she replied before adding, “All those pictures, that means we’ve got ‘em, right? And we’re not gonna get in trouble this time?”

“Randi,” Flick replied, standing up from the table. “I promise, we are not gonna get in trouble.”

*******

“You two girls are in so much trouble.

Two days later, Miranda and Flick sat in the principal’s office at their school. Principal Augustine Bonnelly was an older, severe-faced woman who had been the head of the middle school pretty much forever, according to anyone Miranda had asked. She had dark gray hair with flecks of white in it, almost like paint splotches. Her glasses were thick, and she always wore a dark red turtleneck that looked like it was so tight that it should’ve been choking her. Her expression at the best of times was optimistically put as ‘unhappy.’ And right now definitely wasn’t the best of times.

But if she expected Flick to be cowed by her words, the woman clearly didn’t know her at all. Beside Miranda, the blonde lifted her chin stubbornly. “I think you mean Kendall’s in trouble.”

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t correct me, Miss Chambers,” Principal Bonnelly retorted. “We’re dealing with your issue right now. Would either of you care to explain what this is?” Reaching down to her desk, she picked up a piece of paper. Both the front and back were covered with text and a couple pictures, while the title across the top of the front read: ‘FESTIVAL OF FRAUD’.

“It’s a newspaper,” Miranda informed the woman while shifting a little in her seat with a quick glance toward the other girl. “Well, um, sort of. It’s more of a flier, I guess. Cuz we couldn’t make a real newspaper, so we just printed out a bunch of those from the computer in the lab.”      

“A newspaper,” Principal Bonnelly echoed, her voice incredulous. “This is the very same… newspaper, as you call it, that the two of you distributed into every classroom of this school?”

“And every locker,” Flick reminded her. “Every classroom and every locker. Oh, and we put some up on the bulletin board by the trophy case and in the teacher’s lounge too. And there was one left over, so we put that one in that room the janitors hide in so they can smoke. Just in case.”

The woman took a visible breath at that before letting it out. “The two of you plastered these accusations across the entire school, without a single thought about the potential consequences.”

Flick’s head shook. “Nuh uh,” the twelve-year-old insisted with an even more stubborn look. “We thought about the consequences a lot. Mostly consequences for Kendall. You know, for stealing.”  

“Be careful, Miss Chambers.” Principal Bonnelly’s eyes narrowed. “You may be able to write whatever unproven accusations you want to in that ‘newspaper’, but when you’re talking to–”

To Miranda’s horror, Flick interrupted. “It’s not unproven. We have evidence and witnesses. Kendall and her friends took a bunch of money from the carnival and spent it on clothes.”

Sounding like she was really lamenting the fact that corporal punishment had been outlawed, Bonnelly retorted, “Are you referring to the carnival that was meant to raise money for our end-of-year field trip? The one that succeeded? We have the money, Miss Chambers.”

To Miranda’s own surprise, she was the one who spoke then. “Of course it did. They didn’t take all the money. That’d be stupid. As long as they left just enough for the trip, people wouldn’t look too close. If they didn’t, there’d be questions and stuff. People might talk about how much they spent.”

Flick added, “Kendall was the one with the cash box. All she did was walk around once an hour to get the money from all the games and refreshments, and they put the cash in the box.”

“A box,” the principal cut in to add with a note of obvious impatience, “which was padlocked. And Miss Harver didn’t have the key. Are you suggesting that all of the people, many of them adults, who were running those games were in on this scheme, Miss Chambers?”

“Didn’t you read the–” The sound of Flick’s incredulousness that the woman hadn’t even bothered to read through their entire article made Miranda flinch, and she quickly elbowed the other girl.

“Um,” she hurriedly put in, “in case you missed it, we answered that in the story. Kendall was the only one carrying the lock box around, so she knew exactly how much was in there all the time.”

Flick’s head bobbed, and she added on the heels of Miranda’s words. “So when she knew that there was enough in there for the trip, she switched boxes. She had another box, just like that one. She hid the real one and walked around with the fake one so that people would put money in it. At the end of the day, she switched back and gave you guys the first one, the real one. You opened it up, counted the money, and saw it was enough. Then she took the fake box and everything in it. And bought clothes, and other stuff.”

“And your evidence of this is…” Principal Bonnelly prompted, waving a hand impatiently.

Miranda answered first. “We talked to Mr. Jenkins at the store. He said that Kendall bought a box just like the one that was used at the carnival, and a padlock too. Except Mr. Thomas,” she named the eighth grade chemistry teacher, “already bought the box himself. So she bought an extra.”

Flick nodded. “And we talked to everybody that was running booths that day. Jackie Townsend’s dad said that he thought the box was lighter in the afternoon, but Kendall told him that you guys emptied it after lunch. And Tricia Comess said that the padlock was on backwards the first time she saw the box, with the key part facing in. But when she saw it later, the lock was facing out. Oh, and we added up the amounts that people could remember putting in the box, and it’s almost enough to make the field trip by itself, even though a lot of them couldn’t remember. So it should be way over the goal, not just a little bit over.”

“Plus,” Miranda finished while tapping the paper, “We’ve got pictures of them paying for all that stuff at the mall in cash.”

“There’s more pictures,” Flick helpfully added while reaching out to point at the bottom of the page. “See? You just have to go to this website right there and you’ll find them all.”

Heaving a long, annoyed sigh, Bonnelly started, “If you had come to me or a teacher first-”

“You would’ve tried to deal with it quietly,” Flick interrupted. “Just because Kendall’s the star of the soccer team. The one that’s supposed to be going to state. They’ll lose without Kendall, and she definitely can’t play with something like this. Whoever we talked to might try to keep it quiet.” She shrugged then. “So we made sure they couldn’t. You know, by making sure everyone saw it.”

Steepling her fingers, the principal rested her forehead against her thumbs briefly before straightening. “I will be calling the police. Unfortunately, there’s no choice now. But no, Miss Chambers. My thought was that if you had come to me first, I could have ensured that your identities were kept secret. As it is, several students saw you putting up these papers, which means that now everyone is aware of where and who they came from. In your eagerness to spread the truth, you have made targets of yourselves.” Pausing then, she added, “I’ll also be calling your parents to help handle this. Miss Chambers, please wait outside for a moment. I’d like to talk to Miss Wallbern alone.”

Miranda gave her friend a nod of encouragement when the girl looked at her, then waited as Flick left the room to wait in the receptionist’s office.

Once they were alone, Principal Bonnelly took a breath. “Miss Wallbern, I understand that you and Miss Chambers are close friends. But you may wish to… reconsider just how much time you spend with her. She is a… troubled girl, lashing out at authority. It’s understandable, after what her mother did. Yet… it’s also something that she will find a way out of much easier than you will.”

“You mean cuz I’m black,” Miranda finished for her while folding her arms over her chest. “You think Flick’s gonna get us both in trouble, only she’ll get out of it and I won’t because she’s white and I’m black.”

It wasn’t anything all that new for her to hear. Miranda had been the only black girl in their grade ever since her family moved to Wyoming several years earlier. And the rest of the town wasn’t exactly swimming in them. She was used to people staring a bit, was accustomed to those that tried to ‘help’ when the best thing they could’ve done was leave well enough alone.

“The facts are the facts, Miss Wallbern,” the woman informed her. “Unfair though they may be. Miss Chambers’ mother was the sheriff before she… left. She still has friends on the force. Her father is a respected reporter. If things go wrong, you are the one who will bear the brunt of any punishment should someone need to be made an example of.”

“Principal Bonnelly,” Miranda started, “How come you’re acting like Flick and me did something wrong, just cuz we told the truth and found out about someone stealing?”

The woman sighed at that. “Sometimes things are more complicated than we want them to be,” she replied flatly. “I’m not saying that you didn’t… have the right intentions or accomplish something positive. I’m saying that the effects of those actions may come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t foresee. And that it is you who will most likely bear those effects, Miss Wallbern. Fair or not, that is what will happen. So, for your own sake, you may wish to think about just how much trouble you’re willing to let Miss Chambers drag you into.”

“Drag me into?” Miranda echoed. “Principal Bonnelly, Flick doesn’t drag me anywhere.

“We run into it together.”

******

Present Day

 

The stares weren’t subtle. As Miranda made her way through her assigned chores for the day, she felt the eyes on her, heard the whispers, felt the people who made a point of bumping into her as they passed, despite having plenty of room. Over the course of the day, the stares stopped looking away when she glanced in that direction, the whispers grew louder, and the bumps were more forceful. There were a lot of words, but traitor was the one she heard most often.

She knew why. Flick had already let her know what happened, just in case someone from Doxer and Trice’s tribe tried to go for a little revenge. Unfortunately, she had the feeling that Flick had been picturing a lone, fringe element, a single person or small group that would take offense. This was more than that. Most of the worst of it was from Lost Scar people, but not all, by any means.

Everywhere she went, there were people muttering thinly veiled insults and threats. Not everyone by any means, but enough. And most of the ones who didn’t actually say or do anything still simply walked away without intervening. Even some from her own tribe made a point of disappearing.

Things has just been pushed too far. First Hannah (Now Avalon) had killed Torv before escaping from any kind of trial by being taken under the protection of the Crossroads headmistress. Then Abigail Fellows had been brought on and given one of the precious few Eden Apples despite a lot of people saying that she was too old to learn how to fight or do anything productive. And to make things even more tense, Hisao had taken what he called a ‘leave-of-absence’ to teach at Crossroads. Her own mentor had left Garden to teach at the school of their rivals, a school that happened to be attended by her friend. More than a few people had made that connection, and Miranda had found herself pointed at more than once as the reason that Hisao had left.

So not only was she left temporarily mentorless, but all the people at Garden who were pissed off that the man was gone to teach their rivals were pointing at her as the reason behind it. That had been going on for weeks, though she didn’t tell Flick or Hisao anything about it when they talked. There were enough problems going on for them to deal with, serious problems. She could take care of herself.

And now it seemed like this was the tipping point. Doxer was dead. Trice was missing, ostensibly hiding out somewhere to avoid answering for what happened. Two more promising and powerful Garden students were gone, at least one permanently. In less than a year, Torv, Trice, and Doxer had all been lost, with the blame for it falling onto Avalon and Flick, both of whom were under Gaia Sinclaire’s protection. And Hisao, one of Gardens’ best Vigiles, was off teaching for her.

Hisao was gone. Avalon/Hannah was gone. Flick was out of their reach. All of them were protected by Gaia and the rest of Crossroads. The people who were upset couldn’t get near them.

But they could get near Miranda. They could whisper threats and insults, bump into her, and glare. Which would have been fine. She understood their anger, their frustration. She could deal with it if it stayed like that. But it wouldn’t. She knew that. They knew that. The only real question was how long it would take. And the answer was… not very long.

They waited until Miranda wasn’t on her tribe’s branch. She was down on the ground, feeding some of the animals that had to be penned up there, when she heard people approaching. Turning, the girl found herself facing half a dozen figures. Adult Heretics, most of whom had only graduated within the past few years.

All of them were from the Lost Scar tribe.

They had already formed a semicircle, one lifting his chin. “Hey, Wallbern, got a name for you when your birthday comes around. How about Traitor?”

Another boy shook his head. “Crossroads’ Bitch is better. Isn’t that what you are now? Just a little bitch for those other bitches they’ve got. Your mentor went over there, plus you’re like… super-duper-best friends with one of them. A friend who–uhh, what’d she do again?” he prompted, clearly already knowing the answer.

“Killed Doxer,” one of the other boys answered. “Bitch killed Doxer. Probably killed Trice too, they just won’t say so.”

The first boy shook his head. “Nah, I bet Tits McGee killed Trice. That’s why they’re trying to say he got away, cuz killing two guys in the same family… that’s bad news.”

Miranda took a breath, letting it out as she replied, “If Doxer didn’t wanna die, he shouldn’t have picked a fight he couldn’t win.” Pausing, she added, “again. And Trice ran away like a coward.”

“You fucking watch your mouth,” one of the boys snapped, taking a step that way. “Doxer and Trice were out there to get justice from the cunt that killed Torv. Now Doxer’s dead, and Trice is missing. So maybe we’ve just gotta get justice some other way.”

“Maybe,” another guy put in, “we let ‘em know that we’ve got the bitch’s friend right here. See if they’ll pop over for a visit then.”

“Nah,” another one replied, “I’ve got a better idea. We’ll invoke the Right of Reparation.”

Miranda knew what that was. Essentially, it was a way for various individual Garden Heretics to take payment either in monetary goods or blood from another Garden Heretic without getting in trouble for any damages done. When one Heretic invoked the Right of Reparation, they named a price. Sometimes it would be a flat amount, while other times it would be an amount of time that the person they were invoking it against would have to serve as essentially their slave for all intents and purposes. As long as the Right was upheld by one of the Vigiles, the Heretic that they challenged had to either pay that cost/serve them for the allotted time, or choose to face them in a one-on-one arena fight. If they lost the fight, the assigned penalty of either serving time or cost was doubled.

“Yeah,” one of the boys announced, his eyes on her. “We’ll invoke Right of Reparation. All of us, one at a time. Think your friend’ll show up if she finds out you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the arena?”

“Last time I checked,” Miranda retorted, “Right of Reparation means you’ve gotta get a Vigile to sign off on it.”

To that, the assembled Lost Scar boys chuckled. The one who had spoken first reached into his pocket and produced a small golden pin that looked like a spear piercing an apple. “Promoted last week,” he announced. “Looks like I can accept all the Reparation trials I want to.”

“You think anyone else is gonna step in and stop it?” another boy asked. “Look around. Your own tribe ain’t even here. They left you alone on purpose, bitch. After everything that happened, they ain’t gonna step in for you. Not now. Someone’s gotta pay, and you’re the only one here. No one else is gonna throw themselves in the crosshairs just to help you out.”

“So which is it gonna be?” one of them asked. “You gonna call your little friend and get her over here so she can pay for Doxer, or are we just gonna have to start kicking your ass over the arena over and over again until you change your mind?”

“Actually,” a voice started from nearby, “there’s a few problems with that.”

Miranda and the boys assembled around her all looked that way, only to see Abigail Fellows. The thin, older woman stood there with her arms folded across her chest as she stared them down.

The freshly minted Vigile pointed at the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Just be glad you get to walk around our tree pretending to be a real Heretic, and keep your ugly nose out of other people’s business.”

If she was cowed, the woman didn’t show it. Instead, she walked right up to put herself beside Miranda. “You can’t challenge her like that.”

Rolling his eyes, one of the boys snapped, “It’s called Right of Reparation. Just cuz you’re a clueless little Bystander bitch who doesn’t know what she’s–”

“Section Seventeen, paragraph forty-two of the Garden Rules and Standards,” Abigail interrupted. “Unless the accused party can be conclusively demonstrated to have harmed Eden’s Garden in some way themselves, they cannot be held accountable for the actions of those outside of the Garden. Also, section three, paragraph twelve: any connection, familial or otherwise, with members of Crossroads cannot be solely used to hold judgement against any Garden Heretic unless there is some other evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, if Miranda is found guilty of some kind of crime, then you can use her connection to Crossroads against her. But until then, she can’t be judged just because she has a friend who lives there.”

For a moment, the boys just stared. Then one of them sputtered, “That one was–that was written back when we first split from Crossroads. It was just supposed to stop all the infighting about who still had friends there, whose family didn’t come with them, and that kinda shit.”

“Funny, it’s still on the books,” Abigail informed them. “Which means it’s still the law. And Vigiles don’t get to change it. You need the Victors to do that.

“Oh, and speaking of which,” she added pointedly, “page forty-four of the Vigile Regulation Handbook says that they cannot preside over any Reparation trial that they have a personal stake in. And page forty-six says that a single Heretic can’t be challenged more than once for the same thing.”

Still not quite done, the woman pressed on. “Also, on October 29th, 1974, a trial that was brought before the Victors ended with them concluding that any Garden Heretic who is under the age of twenty may pass any challenge made against them to their mentor.”

“Yeah?” one of the boys snapped, “Well her mentor’s not exactly here, is h–”

Abigail cut him off. “Page eighty-two of the Vigile Regulation Handbook states that whenever a Vigile’s duties take him away from Garden for an extended time, he may pass all responsibility for his charge to another adult Heretic.”

“And that,” another voice put in as Seller revealed himself, stepping into view on the other side of Miranda, “would be me. Hi, mentee.” He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” a boy blurted. “You’re not even in the same tribe!”

Seller shrugged at that. “Funny, it doesn’t actually say anything about that. I mean, maybe they assumed that tribes would just stick to their own without it being written down, but the fact remains that it’s not specifically said.”

“So basically,” Abigail summed up for them, “you can’t challenge her because of something that someone outside of Garden did. She can’t be taken to trial just because she has a friend who lives at Crossroads, until she’s tried for some actual crime. You can’t invoke Right of Reparation more than once for the same thing. The Vigile who accepts and presides over the Reparation can’t have a personal stake in it, which you do. And even if you do get past all of that, you can’t challenge her directly, because she’s a minor. You’ll face her surrogate mentor instead.”

“Me,” Seller added. “And I’ll tell you what, I’d be willing to dismiss all those other things if you boys want. We’ll find another Vigile, grease his palms a little so he’ll accept the trial, then see what happens. Which one of you wants to be the first one to give it a shot?”

The answer, apparently, was none of them. They made a few noises about it not being over, and about how they’d make her pay for being a traitor before slinking away.

“You okay?” Abigail asked. “Felicity called. She said you might need a little help dealing with some of the fallout from what happened, so we’ve been trying to keep an eye on you.”

Miranda bit her lip, head nodding. “I’m fine. You didn’t have to do that. Now you’re a target too. They don’t care that much about the rules. If they can’t come at us straight on, they’ll find a quieter way to do it.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Seller informed her. “For now, they’ll back off. Keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself be alone again. Because you’re right: next time, I doubt they’ll announce themselves like that.”

Hesitantly, Miranda glanced to the woman beside her. “How’d you know all that stuff? You only got here a couple months ago and even I’ve never read most of the stuff you were talking about. And I’ve never heard of someone from another tribe being able to step in and be a temporary mentor for someone from another tribe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.”

“Oh sweetie,” Abigail replied with a little smile. “I may be a terrible Heretic as far as all the fighting and killing goes. But this wasn’t about that. This was about rules and laws. It wasn’t about being a Heretic, it was about being a lawyer.

“And when it comes to that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Bystanders.”

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Mini-Interlude 16 – Nevada

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff (specifically, Nevada) both before and after dealing with the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving. 

The soothing sound of Dick Haymes’s classic rendition of Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 song ‘Til The End Of Time’ filled the almost-empty Stranger Truths classroom while Nevada lay on her back underneath a motorcycle that was parked just in front of her desk. An open and clearly thoroughly used toolbox lay beside the buxom blonde, and her grease-covered hands were busily working at the bike’s half-assembled engine before she noticed the arrival of a newcomer.

“I’m surprised that you can stomach listening to this kind of music,” Risa Kohaku announced from her place near the doorway. “Wasn’t this the…” She paused, stepping into the room before closing it behind her. Still, before continuing, the security chief went through half a dozen procedures to ensure their privacy. Finally, she finished her thought. “Wasn’t this the kind of music your old Master used to enjoy while you were still… in his employ?”

Pushing herself back before standing up, Nevada smiled reflexively. It was an old defensive measure she’d learned to deal with uncomfortable or upsetting memories. “You mean when I was a Djinn,” she replied flatly while waving her hand. A minor telekinetic touch shut off the music, leaving the room much quieter.

Wincing just a little at her directness, Risa nodded. “I would have thought that his preference for that music would have turned you away from it. Especially given his… proclivities while listening to it.”

Picking up a nearby wrench just to have something to squeeze, Nevada shook her head. “Not like it’s the music’s fault. Besides, he preferred the Perry Como version of the song. Something about Como being a natural born American while Hayes was from Argentina. Which was pretty funny considering dear old Master wasn’t even born on this planet, let alone America.”

“Sorry,” Risa murmured apologetically. “I know you don’t like to think about those times.”

Nevada shrugged. Her mouth opened to ask what the woman was doing there, but before she could say anything more, the door behind Risa opened abruptly, and Virginia Dare appeared.

“Felicity and Koren,” she announced. “They’re in trouble.”

“What kind of–” Risa started.

“Fomorian trouble,” Virginia interrupted. The tension and fear in her expression and voice were far more plain than Nevada remembered seeing them ever before. “There’s a Fomorian at Koren’s house.”

Those words instantly drained all the amusement and casual atmosphere from the room. Nevada dropped the wrench she had been squeezing so tightly and was already halfway to the doorway by the time Risa caught up with her. The security chief was paler than usual, her expression set in a grim line.

No one joked about the Fomorians. Not after what had happened during the last major altercation with them, including the loss of Desoto.

“Gaia?” Risa spoke tersely as the three of them emerged into the corridor.

“Still busy with the Committee,” Virginia replied, her own voice just as tense. “Ulysses is prepping the portal.”

She explained everything that had been in the message from Flick as they made their way through the hall. Their destination wasn’t the Pathmaker, but the enormous mirrors in the main corridor. As promised, Ulysses Katarin was already there, performing the opening enchantment on the mirror that would connect them to Koren’s house.

“Can’t put it inside,” the big man explained without looking up as the women approached. “Fomorian shit’s already blocking it. The closest I can get is the sidewalk at the front.”

“Do it,” Virginia prompted, her face tight with worry. “Deveron Adams and Wyatt are there too, but..” She paused, shaking her head. “We need to be there, now. Before now. Yesterday, if time traveling back into time you’ve already experienced wasn’t out of the question.”

Ulysses was already nodding, throwing the last bit of magic into the mirror before he stepped back. “Hope we can break that blood shield the Fomorian threw up. Cuz the last time I had to deal with one of those, it took a god damn hour to knock it down, and that was with nine of us.”

“We have a secret weapon,” Virginia reminded him before stepping through the mirror.

“Wyatt,” Ulysses finished for the woman, smiling mirthlessly. “Let’s hope the guy’s as good as Gaia says he is.”

Then they were through the portal, emerging through a simple wooden door that had appeared in the middle of the sidewalk. Across the street, an elderly woman walking her dog gave them a wave, and Nevada briefly wondered what exactly the woman had seen. What had the Bystander Effect turned the four of them stepping through a door that had no business being in the middle of sidewalk into? Maybe she saw them stepping out of a van?

Regardless, they had more important things to focus on. Wyatt was there. His wide-eyed gaze snapped around, focusing on them. “Felicity,” he blurted, “Koren, they–”

“We know,” Virginia interrupted before the man could start rambling. “How long will it take you to bring down the shield, Wyatt?”

Not, ‘can you bring it down’, Nevada noticed. For Virginia, it wasn’t even a question of whether the man could pull it off or not. She simply wanted to know how long it would take him to do it.

Swallowing hard, an act that sent his pronounced Adam’s apple bobbing, Wyatt nodded. “I can. I can do it. I’ve been examining the spell, and–”

“Details later, Wyatt,” Risa reminded him. “Right now, focus on smashing that spell down as soon as–”

“No,” Dare corrected her while shaking her head. “Don’t smash it down. He’ll know we’re coming. Wyatt, we need you to get the spell as close as you can to going down without alerting the Fomorian about what’s happening. Can you do that?”

Again, the nervous man fidgeted and seemed to hesitate before nodding. “Um, maybe. Yeah. I mean, normally I’d have to put my own power into it as I went. But if I leave most of the power out of it and just shape the spell, it might work. But I can’t put enough power in fast enough by myself. After I—umm, shape it, we all have to put power into the spell at the same time if you want it to go down fast.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Risa decided, laying a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “Be fast, Wyatt. The Fomorian cannot escape. Not with what it already knows.”

“Funny,” a new voice spoke up from the darkness as the man in the green suit came into view. “I would’ve thought that your first words would’ve been, ‘he can’t be allowed to hurt our students.’”

“It’s implied, Seller,” Risa snapped at the man from Eden’s Garden. “What are you doing here?”

It was Dare who answered. “He’s helping. Flick obviously called for his aid. Which is good. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have all the help we can get to deal with a Fomorian who managed to survive the war and escaped being banished. He’s gone unnoticed this entire time. We can’t just let the ridiculous Garden/Crossroads division matter right now.”

Seller gave a brief bow. “Yes,” he murmured in agreement. “Besides, regardless of where they happen to attend school, I prefer not to leave my more promising descendants in danger. Particularly from a Fomorian.”

Nevada’s head snapped around at that, and she felt her own surprise jump. Her mouth opened to question what he meant,but she stopped herself. She had to focus on what was happening, not get distracted. Even if it was an announcement like that. Because if he was related to Flick, that meant that he was related to… Oh.

Virginia stepped away to use a telepathy power to contact Deveron on the inside to let him know what was going on. She also used the same mental discussion to get a report from the boy about the full situation inside.

Deveron. According to Gaia after a discussion the woman had had with the boy, he was the one who had originally recruited Nevada to join the school. He was the one who convinced her to turn herself into a human, and then a Heretic. After, of course, she had altered the Edge to allow hybrid students.

Before then, Nevada had simply… not really thought about who had recruited her. That was the power of the spell that had been used. Even though she’d clearly thought about the fact that she’d been recruited by a Heretic, she simply hadn’t thought about who it had been. And nothing about the fact that she couldn’t remember who he was, this man who had changed her life so much, had actually struck her as odd.

Magic scared her sometimes. And the fact that it frightened even her, a former Djinn, said… well, it said a lot. And at some point, she was going to have to have a discussion with Deveron about everything that she couldn’t remember.

Soon. She’d talk to him soon.

Meanwhile, Risa and Seller took a moment to put aside their initial hostility and talked about exactly what they were going to do once the spell went down. Then the Eden’s Garden Heretic stepped away to do something of his own that would apparently mask his own presence from the shield.

Of course, since he was apparently related to Flick and Koren, the spell would let him through anyway. But it would also alert the Fomorian to his arrival, so the man was doing something that would hide him from the spell once he passed through it.

Eventually, they were ready. Seller gave a quick salute before moving through the spell to cause a distraction. The man had enchanted a couple of stones, placing one in his pocket while leaving the other with Nevada and the others so that they could all hear what was going on.

“Tell me you’re ready, Wyatt,” Virginia urged, clearly not wanting to wait any longer.

“Ready,” the man confirmed.

Dare sent the message through to Seller, and the rest of them took a moment to gather their energy for the last push to break the blood shield. Meanwhile, they listened as the emerald-suited man announced his arrival to interrupt the Fomorian, who was apparently trying to convince Flick or Koren to choose which of them would go with him. Nevada tightened her fist, snarling under her breath while focusing on her own power.

Then Seller’s voice announced that if Dare was going to do it, she should do it right then. And on cue, Nevada, Ulysses, Risa, and Virginia all helped Wyatt by pouring their power into the spell that the enchantment expert had created. The invisible wall vanished, and they were through. Through and ready to make sure the Fomorian didn’t escape, and never hurt one of their students again.

******

“Where are they?” The booming demand came from the doorway that led into Koren’s house, and Nevada looked up from her slumped over position to find Gabriel Ruthers standing there, flanked by Gaia.

“The Fomorian, Chambers, and Fellows,” the man demanded before Nevada or any of the other exhausted and clearly bloodied figures could respond. “Where are they? If you let them escape–”

“Felicity and Koren are fine,” Virginia snapped. The woman was busy holding her hand tight against a deep wound in her own stomach until it could heal. “Physically, anyway. And the Fomorian’s body is in there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the kitchen. “He’s dead. But he got off a message. We’re not sure what it said, but… probably too much.”

“If they’re fine, then where are they?” Ruthers’s voice was dark.

“Eden’s Garden,” Risa answered without looking toward the man. The woman’s vision would take awhile to return after the fog that the Fomorian had released into her face had eaten away most of her eyes. “Koren’s mother was… critically injured. They took her to Eden’s Garden to have her turned into a Heretic so that–”

What?!” Ruthers’s voice turned into a bellow. His fury was palpable. “You allowed them to—what kind of failur–”

“Gabriel,” Gaia snapped. “Leave. The situation is handled. You and I can discuss it further later.”

At first, Nevada thought the man was going to blow his gasket and start screaming at Gaia right there. His face reddened and he glared at the woman for a few seconds before taking a visible breath. “You, I, and the rest of the Committee. We will all discuss this. And everything else.”

“I can’t possibly contain my excitement at the prospect, Gabriel.” Gaia replied flatly. “Now leave, and let me attend to my staff. There’s clearly no need for your presence here.”

“We’ll see where my presence is required, Gaia,” the man retorted.

“We will most certainly see.”

Then the man was gone, just as abruptly as he had arrived. Gaia let out a visible breath before stepping further into the building. Her attention was on the rest of them, her voice soft. “Are all of you all right?”

“We’ll be okay,” Ulysses replied for them, shifting his half-mangled form with a grunt. “Can’t say that tangling with a Fomorian is any more fun than it used to be, though.”

“No, I can’t imagine it would be,” Gaia murmured before stepping over to lay a hand on Nevada’s arm. “I’m going to discuss things with Seller, and find out how the others are. Tristan was pulled along with Felicity’s travel to Eden’s Garden.” She paused briefly. “And so was Roxanne.”

“Pittman?” Ulysses blurted. “How—oh damn it, she was touching him, wasn’t she?”

“They were surfing,” Gaia confirmed. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach them in time to prevent it. And now… now I fear what might have happened if she wasn’t pulled the entire distance. If she–” The woman stopped, obviously not wanting to put voice to the fear.

“Go,” Virginia urged. “Make sure they’re okay.”

“I have to ask,” Gaia started first, focusing on Nevada. “You… you were the one who killed him, weren’t you?”

Nevada nodded. “Yeah. Well, we all killed him, but that last hit, that was me.”

“And did you… gain anything from it?” the headmistress asked carefully.

Risa interrupted. “Why would you even have to ask that? Heretics don’t get powers from killing Fomorians. That’s one of the things that makes them such a pain in the ass. We all know that.”

“Normally, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But I thought perhaps… Nevada’s uniqueness would be different.”

“You mean the fact that I used to be a Djinn, and that it’s magic that made me human,” Nevada realized before shaking her head. “No. No, I didn’t get anything from it. At least, I don’t think I did. I don’t feel any different.”

Gaia met her gaze intently for a few seconds before nodding. “If that changes… tell me. If our hybrids are going to react to Fomorian kills any differently than a normal Heretic, we need to know about it.

“The last thing we need, at this point, is another surprise.”

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Mini-Interlude 12 – Seller and Abigail

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Seller and Abigail talking about their family. 

Against the background of the giant forest, its trees like the skyline of office towers in the middle of New York or Hong Kong, a lone man in a pristine emerald suit and matching sunglasses stood out. Despite the superficial similarity in coloration between his apparel and the surrounding foliage, there could be no mistaking such vestments for camouflage. They were far too bright and clearly artificial against the simple earthy greens of leaves and bushes. The man stood out like a brightly polished ruby set against the fur of a red squirrel. Both ostensibly of the same shade, yet clearly very different.

“So I have another question for you.”

The voice came from behind the man in question, but he didn’t turn to look. There was no need to. The sunglasses that he wore provided him with full three hundred and sixty degree vision all the way around himself. They also amplified light so that he could see perfectly in near-total darkness, protected him from most harmful vision effects, and included various telescopic and X-Ray vision capabilities.

Some of those same skills weren’t exactly necessary due to other powers that he’d gained over the years from various creatures. But he kept the glasses anyway. Not only out of sentimental value (which there was plenty of), but also because an enemy believing they had stripped those abilities from him by taking away the glasses would be in for a surprise.

“I would be very surprised if you went too long without one, Abigail,” he replied easily to the woman who was picking her way carefully through the giant bush that he had been waiting in front of. “It’s a lot to take in. If possible, I’ll try to answer.”

Abigail Fellows, who at one point in her very early childhood had been known as Koren Atherby before eventually giving that forename to her own daughter out of some not-entirely lost memory, straightened up and dusted herself off before focusing on him. “Why do they call you Seller? I mean, is it—wait, is it safe to talk?”

“It is,” he confirmed, reaching out to tap the watch that he wore. Among the Bystanders, it was known as a Louis Moinet Magistralis, a watch brand which sold for roughly eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It also held enchantments remarkably well. “As long as you stay within a few yards of me, we’re safe from eavesdroppers for the time being.”

“Right, then why?” Abigail folded her thin arms, staring down her nose at him. “And is it Seller Atherby? Because no one I’ve seen ever uses a last name with you.”

“People of Eden’s Garden don’t usually stick with our birth names,” he answered carefully. “When trainees turn eighteen, they’re given a new name either by their closest mentor and teacher, or by a committee of leaders, depending on the tribe. A couple tribes even let people choose their own names. And, to be honest, even some of the ones that assign them mostly do that as a formality. If the trainee requests a specific name, they’ll probably get it.”

“So that’s why that boy that I saw Miranda with was named… Noble?” Abigail mused aloud. “And then the werewolf girl with the green hair, she was… Pace?”

“And her partners are Doxer and Trice, yeah.” Seller nodded. “Miranda explained the first one to me, but I didn’t follow most of it. Something about how finding out everything about a person or a company is called doxing, and he fancies himself good at finding that sort of thing, so he calls himself Doxer.”

“And Trice?” she asked, sounding annoyed at the very mention of their names.

“It’s an old Middle English word,” he replied. “It means either an instant or a very brief time. You know how people say ‘I’ll get that done in a jiffy?’ Well, same thing. ‘I’ll get that done in a trice.’”

“Well their names should be ‘pawn, stooge, and patsy.’” Abigail’s voice was a huff. “I cannot believe that there’s nothing we can do to make them–” She stopped herself through visible effort, muttering under her breath before focusing again. “Distract me, why the name?”

Shrugging, Seller started to walk again, leading the woman through the forest. “I wasn’t always part of Eden’s Garden. When I first started interacting with them, I was a mercenary. They called me Sellsword for awhile. Somehow that got shortened to Seller. I guess after I officially joined them, they wanted to sound more polite or something.”

After a moment of silence as they picked their way through more enormous bushes, he continued. “And I don’t use the name Atherby because it’s not mine anyway. My family married into that one after me. Not that I’ve had much to do with my bloodline in the past. I guess I ahh, kind of feel guilty about that sometimes, but another part of me figures most of them—you–are better off without any of my enemies knowing about you. Believe me, there’s people out there that wouldn’t rest until all of you were dead if they knew you were related to me.”

“Yeah,” Abigail retorted, “Because our family is doing so well already.”

He winced, just a little bit. “Fair. But my own problems would still add onto those threats. And as you just managed to point out, that’s the last thing you need.”

The woman turned, squinting at him intently. “And just how many other ‘family members’ do you have out there? How many generations separate us? Two, three, four? Should I call you Grandpa, Great-grandpa?”

“Call me Seller,” he insisted with a quick shake of his head. “Just Seller.” After a moment of letting that hang, he sighed. “But fine, if you insist. You know your mother. The one I can’t talk about that much because of the damn enchantment.”

“Joselyn—wait, why can I talk about her but you can’t?”

He chuckled darkly. “Part of the spell. You weren’t a target of it. I was. Anyway, some of the other stuff I can talk about. Her parents. Her father was Joshua, and his father was Lyell. Lyell’s wife was named Edeva. She was my daughter.”

Abigail blinked at that. “So you’re Wyatt’s, Flick’s, and my… great, great-grandfather. That’s… less than I thought there would be. Flick said that you didn’t know she was your descendant.”

He coughed. “Yes, but that’s not so much a matter of losing track as not knowing that the woman even had another daughter. Part of the deal with Crossroads was not tracking her down after all that happened.”

Abigail was quiet then, frowning thoughtfully. Before she managed to speak again, Seller stopped in front of another one of the giant trees. To anyone else, it would have looked like any other tree in this forest aside from the much larger one that the Heretics lived on.

Yet, to Seller’s eye, it stood out almost as much. “Here,” he announced, tapping his hand against the wood in a distinct rhythm. A moment later, part of the tree itself lifted up and turned, revealing a large opening. He gestured for the woman to precede him, then stepped in after her.

Abigail blinked in the darkness. “Well? What now?” The two of them were standing inside the tree.

In response, the man tapped the wood again in another distinct pattern. As he finished, the tree began to lower itself once more with the two of them in it.

“A—a hidden elevator?” Abigail demanded as the tree sank back into the ground before revealing a cave in front of them.

Seller nodded, gesturing for her to accompany him into the cave. “Over the years, I’ve found it beneficial to have a few places that even other Gardeners aren’t aware of. This is one of them.”

The cave itself was about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide on average, though there were spots that were much narrower and others that were slightly wider. Here and there he had placed chests of supplies or other things he thought he might need in case of emergency. And at the back of the cavern was the only living creature besides himself, Abigail, and Hannah who had ever been in the place.

“Oh… my… god.” Abigail’s eyes were wide as she stared at the thing even as it cautiously eyed them from as far away as possible. “Is that a… is that a Pegasus?”

“Of course not,” Seller retorted. “A Pegasus is a horse with wings. You see the antlers? This is a Peryton. It’s a stag with wings. His name is Salten, and he belongs to Han—Avalon. Obviously, she couldn’t take him with her to Crossroads, and she was afraid that Trice and his cronies would do something to him. So she asked me to take care of him. I take him out with me for exercise and fresh air. While you’re here, you can help out.”

He watched then as Abigail slowly stepped forward, staring at the majestic animal. It was slightly larger than an elk, yet smaller than a moose. Most of the Peryton’s body was white, while its antlers were a gleaming silver. Meanwhile, both its wing feathers and tail feathers were blue save for the ones along the edges, which were black with silver tips.

“Who would… hurt such a beautiful creature?” the woman asked breathlessly while taking another step that way. “Is it okay to touch him?”

“If he’ll let you,” Seller replied. “He and Hannah basically grew up together. They were more like siblings than mistress and steed, though he let her ride him. They wrestled a lot.”

She looked over her shoulder at him quizzically. “Wrestled?”

Seller smiled faintly at the memory. “Well, as much as a thirteen-year-old girl and a Peryton fawn can wrestle, yes.”

Abigail turned away from him then, looking back to the squinting creature. “… you miss her, don’t you?” she asked quietly, lifting her hand to show him her palm. “You miss Ava… Hannah.”

At the sound of the name, Salten took a quick step forward. His big head leaned around to peek behind Abigail as though searching for the girl in question. He seemed to sniff the air, then let out a slightly shuddering snort before focusing. Seller could see the eagerness fade into sadness when there was no sign of his long-time companion.

“Ohhh…” the woman shivered visibly before reaching up to put her hand against the side of the Peryton’s nose. “You do miss her. I know. My…” She swallowed. “I lost my husband recently, and I’m not… I can’t remember him. I remember… loving someone, and thinking about losing that makes me sad. But I can’t remember anything about the man himself. I don’t… I can’t feel what I’m supposed to feel. I can’t mourn him because I don’t remember him at all. I don’t know anything about our life together. And my daughter is… my daughter is off in the same place your Hannah is, and I can’t help her. I’m supposed to be okay with that but—but I don’t know how I can be.”

Salten went still for a moment, then lowered his head against the woman’s shoulder, stepping closer in what Seller realized was as close to a hug as the animal could get.

The two of them stood like that for a few minutes before Abigail collected herself, looking back toward Seller as something else obviously occurred to her. “You said Joshua, Joshua’s father Lyell, and Lyell’s wife Edeva, your daughter. What about Joshua’s wife? According to Flick, both of them sacrificed themselves to drive the Fomorians out of the world.”

Seller didn’t respond at first. He looked away silently for a few seconds before murmuring, “Not exactly.”

“What? What do you mean, not exactly?” the woman demanded while reaching out to gently run her hand down Salten’s side.

He sighed. “Both of them sacrificed themselves in a way. The magic they were doing, it required two kinds of sacrifice. One literal, one metaphorical. Joshua sacrificed his life literally. His wife sacrificed hers metaphorically. She sacrificed her identity as Joshua’s wife and her connection to that family. It was erased from everyone’s memory. Even I don’t know who she was. Every bit of her as connected to the Atherby line was erased, both physical and mental. When I think of her now, it’s just a black spot where her face and name should be.”

Abigail’s eyes were wide. “That’s—what—that’s vile. Can’t it be… undone?”

“If it was,” the man replied softly, “It would weaken the spell keeping the Fomorians away. There has to be a living component of the spell for it to stay as strong as it is. That’s part of the whole point of there being two sides of the sacrifice that banished them.”

“So this… woman, she’s still alive?”

He nodded. “I would assume so. Probably staying with Gabriel Prosser. He wouldn’t have wanted to leave Joshua’s wife all on her own, so I imagine he made arrangements beforehand, even if he wouldn’t remember afterward who she really was or about her connection to the Atherby’s.”

“So you’re telling me that we have a mother out there whom no one remembers… and a grandmother?” Abigail demanded. “What the–” she launched into possibly the longest single string of curse words Seller could remember emerging from an adult.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that your mother got the idea for her own erasure from her mother’s,” Seller replied once she had finally run out of breath. “But yes, self-sacrifice does seem to be an ongoing theme of the Atherby line. Particularly since my own family was connected to it.”

“Well, it needs to stop,” Abigail stated flatly. “And you need to involve yourself more. Don’t start on the whole enemies thing. There’s already enemies, so your excuses don’t hold water. Look at what’s happening. Look at what’s been happening ever since… well, it seems like it started back with the Fomorian… invasion. But it’s still going on. We need to work together, or we’re going to lose more of our family.”

Sighing, Seller gave a slight nod. “You have a point. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot we can do about it right now.”

The woman was silent for a few long seconds while she ran her hand along the animal’s side. When she spoke, her tone was thoughtful. “Actually… maybe there is…

“Tell me more about Edeva and Lyell.”

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Search And Rescue 14-08

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In the months since I had been recruited by Crossroads Academy, I’d had to do some very difficult things, things that I thought were impossible at the time. But none of the things that I’d had to do in these months came anywhere near being as hard as it was to spend over a day around my father without telling him that my mother had made contact with me. None of the fights, none of the life-or-death situations, absolutely none of it even scratched the surface of the kind of effort it took not to tell my dad that I’d spoken to her. As simple and unimportant as it might have seemed to some, that single conversation was everything to me. And I knew that it would have been everything to him as well.

My mind had started trying to come up with justifications ever since Seller had dropped me off back at home late Friday afternoon after I’d had a chance to sleep for a solid six hours. Because as it turned out, I had left Eden’s Garden before Abigail woke up. With, of course, the promise that they’d let me know the second the woman was conscious and take me back there.  It was just the easiest way to avoid lying even more to my father about what was going on. Besides, spending time with him was important, and it kept me busy.

In any case, my brain kept pointing out that I didn’t have to include any of the supernatural stuff. I could just tell him that she’d sent me a message to see how I was doing, that she made contact. I didn’t have to say anything about the actual circumstances, did I? It could be enough just that she was alive.

But that was wrong. It wouldn’t have been enough. I knew that because it wouldn’t have been enough for me if the positions were reversed. I would have wanted to know more. I would have wanted every single detail, and after he gave me the details, I would have used all of them to try to track her down.

Whether to hug or to scream at her, I didn’t know. But I would’ve done it, and I knew my father was the same. He’d pick at me for absolutely everything he could use to track her down. And, well, that would be bad. Especially since anything I told him would be a lie. The truth was, as much as I wanted my dad to know that I’d had a chance to talk to Mom, I didn’t want to lie to him any more than I had to.

So, as hard as it was, I spent the rest of Friday night and all of Saturday trying to pretend that everything was fine. Shiori and Asenath knew, of course. But they couldn’t really do much with my father there. We talked about everything that happened while I was ‘showing them around town’, and they helped. Even Twister hung out with me a little bit sometimes while the others were asleep and dad was safe. She didn’t really talk much about herself, but she did say that she had a child of her own out there somewhere from one of her previous lives. Apparently she still sent them money regularly.

In any case, Saturday seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly. Eventually, however, it rolled over into Sunday. It was mid-afternoon and I was reading the Sunday comics on the living room floor while Shiori and Asenath slept (my cute classmate was trying to stick as much to her sister’s schedule as possible for these few days that she had to spend with her) when I finally got the call from Seller. Telling my dad that I had to run out and visit with someone, I ran to meet the man about a block away.

“She’s awake?” I asked quickly while pretty much skidding to a stop next to the well-dressed man.

“They’re checking her over right now,” he replied. “One last set of tests, just in case. Koren wanted me to get you asap. Something about wanting you to be there when they’re ready for her to have visitors.”

Breathing out, I nodded. Koren had already made it clear to me that she wanted me there when her mom woke up. Which was fine with me, because I really wanted to be there to meet my half-sister.

Before we went anywhere, I produced my phone and quickly typed out a text message to Tristan, who had gone back to Crossroads once I was back home. I warned him about what was about to happen. Once he sent a response back that he was ready, I nodded to Seller. The man took me by the arm, leading me out of sight behind some trees. He produced another of those pieces of bark, holding me while activating it to send us back to Eden’s Garden.

The nausea leapt back to me, twisting my stomach even more than it had the first time. Maybe part of it was my own nervousness and emotion. Either way, I almost lost my lunch, stumbling sideways a bit.

A hand stopped me from falling over, and I heard Wyatt blurt, “Felicity! Are you all right? What happened to you? Is it magic?” His voice turned dark, directed toward Seller. “If you did something–”

“I’m okay, I’m all right,” I interrupted quickly. Straightening, I forced a smile to my face. Putting my hands on my older (extremely protective) half-brother’s shoulders, I met his gaze. “See? Fine. I’m just not used to that teleportation. And I guess it affected me more right now because… well, I’m nervous.”

To say that Wyatt had been upset when he found out what Koren and I had been up to had been an understatement. He’d basically been out of his mind. Especially when he’d found out what actually happened. And he wasn’t just upset about Koren and me being in danger. When we told him what happened to Roxa, he had been just as pissed off. It was his job, he’d said, to protect all the students. He took his security position incredibly seriously, and thought that it was his job as the only Crossroads security team member at Eden’s Garden to make Pace pay for what she was partly responsible for.

Actually, it had been all we could do to convince him not to go tearing off to find her on her own tribe’s branch. He hadn’t cared about starting a war with Garden over attacking one of their own members, or how impossible it would have been to get to her. All he had cared about was that someone had hurt one of the students he was supposed to be taking care of, and had tried to hurt me. If we had let him, he would have stormed in there and dragged Pace out to face justice, every other consequence be damned.

Finally, however, we had convinced him that the time would come to get the crazy girl. Attacking her when she had the backing of the rest of her tribe or her werewolf pack was a phenomenally bad idea. Not to mention the fact that starting a war with Eden’s Garden would put more of the Crossroads students at risk. It was that last point that had finally calmed Wyatt down enough to think clearly.

Despite that, however, he was obviously still even more protective than usual. I’d had to point out that Dad wouldn’t let him stay with us, and that I had plenty of protection at home already. Besides, I’d added pointedly, he had to stay here at Eden’s Garden to protect Abigail and Koren. That had finally been enough to convince him to let me go home without his supervision. And now, here we were.

“Have you seen Abigail since she woke up?” I asked, changing the subject away from my thankfully rapidly fading nausea. “Have they let anyone in yet? Where’s Koren?” I was already looking around.

A different, yet familiar voice spoke up. “The healers are just finishing up their examination, Flick.”

Looking that way, I smiled in spite of myself at the sight of the large, red-armored man standing near the edge of the freeway-sized branch that Seller had brought us to. “Croc! What’re you doing here?”

The Unset man gave me a brief, small smile, touching his fist to his chest in a brief gesture that looked like a salute. “Visitors to our Garden require escort, Flick. Even ones who are here for a second time.”

That was about as far as we got before another voice yelped, and I saw Tristan come stumbling out of nowhere. Our connection had, sure enough, dragged him along for the ride. Actually, I still had to wonder about the difference between Crossroads and the rest of the world. I thought it was another world as well, because of how it was on the same time-scale as North America despite being in the middle of the ocean. Yet Tristan hadn’t been yanked away from Crossroads when I went home for Thanksgiving. Which meant… I had no idea. It was another thing I was going to have to ask Gaia.

“You okay?” I asked the boy once he had stumbled to a stop near the edge of the branch.

He gave me a quick smile, saluting with two fingers. “At least I had a chance to warn Vanessa this time. Though I had to talk her out of holding onto me when it happened. She really wants to see this place, but ahh, after Roxa fell off…” His face darkened just a little bit. “Not taking that chance with Nessa.”

“Boy,” Croc grunted. “I see you chose to arrive with clothes this time.” His tone was hard, but I could tell he didn’t mean it. The man clearly enjoyed giving Tristan a hard time about his original arrival.

“Yeah, well,” Tristan replied while giving the man a charming grin, “I didn’t wanna show off too much and end up luring a bunch of your students back to Crossroads. I don’t think we have room for them.”

Together, Croc and Seller guided Wyatt, Tristan, and me along the enormous tree branch. We passed several buildings built into and alongside the branch, before eventually reaching the main trunk of the tree itself. It was like walking up to the Empire State Building, if it had been made out of wood. The thing was beyond incredible. At some point, I wanted to come back here and look around while I wasn’t worried out of my mind about Abigail and everything else that was piling up. I wanted to enjoy it.

At the moment, however, Koren and her mother were all I could think about. Croc led us into an opening in the giant tree, and I saw a grand entrance hall. The place was enormous, just like everything else about this place. It wasn’t just a hole in a tree, the place looked like some kind of grand ball room or something. There were three different levels of balconies all overlooking the central area. There were stairways and ladders connecting all of the balconies to each other and to other holes that I could see led to other branches. Clearly, the balconies belonged to the tribes, and the holes were their own entrances.

Beyond that, in the center of the large room I saw more Unset. Each of them had their weapons ready and were warily watching over everything and everyone who entered. This place wasn’t like Crosroads. Miranda had already explained that a lot of the tribes loathed each other and would take any chance they had to start a fight. They were allied against the outside world, but inside there were rivalries.

I also saw wooden elevators and stairways that seemed to lead everywhere, all of them guarded either by Unset or by random tribe members. A lot of them were staring intently at Wyatt and me. I had the distinct impression that they weren’t exactly happy about our presence, but they said nothing. Probably because of Croc’s presence, because the large man met each person’s gaze until they turned away.

Then he led us to one of the wooden elevators, flicking a finger that made the other Unset guard standing near it step out of the way. We climbed on, and Croc pulled a lever that made the platform start to sink down into the floor, slowly taking us further down into the base of the giant tree.

We descended for several minutes before the elevator stopped. There was a metal door in front of us that Croc put his hand against. After a couple seconds, the door slid out of the way, revealing a corridor cut into the middle of the tree with more metal doors along both sides. Straight ahead, there was a semi-circular desk with a man in some kind of white medical uniform seated behind it. The guy didn’t seem to be much older than I was, maybe a couple years or so. He had semi-long black hair that hung close to his eyes, almost covering them like a sheepdog. The ends of his dark hair were tinted white.

As we walked off the platform, the man glanced up and immediately straightened. “Ah, you must be the Crossroads visitors.” His voice was firm and business-like, but I thought I heard just a bit of curiosity behind it, like he really wanted to know more about us but didn’t want to push his luck.

Croc stepped forward, saying something in a low voice to the man, who nodded and stepped out from behind the desk. “Right this way, I’ll take you to where they’re keeping Miss Fellows and her daughter.”

As we walked that way, the man introduced himself as Thieter, basically pronounced like Peter only with a Th sound. He explained that he was a junior level medical assistant, which basically left him to man the desk and mop up puke and other nastiness whenever he had to. He was also part of the Dust-Striders tribe, a group that Miranda had mentioned awhile back had originated in Egypt. Hence the name.

It turned out that Abigail’s room was at the far end of the medical wing, as far from the entrance as possible. I wondered if they did that on purpose, to make it harder for anyone to notice her presence, or to find her if someone decided they wanted to see the woman (for ill purposes or just out of curiosity).

Either way, as we approached the end of the hall I saw Koren pacing back and forth. She pivoted quickly at the sound of our footsteps, and came to us. “I can hear her in there,” she blurted. “They’ve gotta let me in! Why aren’t they letting me in? Is something wrong with her? What’s going on?”

Tristan stepped out of the way, while Thieter moved to open the door. I heard a voice inside say something to him, and he turned back to us. “Uh, you can go in now. Just family members.”

Together, Koren and I moved that way. Wyatt stalled, looking a little nervous until I took his hand. “It’ll be okay,” I promised him. “We’ll explain everything to her. It might take awhile, but… she’ll get it.”

Then we were in the room. A couple of the other medical personnel gave us brief looks before they left, and my eyes finally settled on the woman who sat in the nearby bed.

Abigail looked even paler than she had before, though her face was flushed with obvious confusion. As soon as she saw her daughter, however, she tried to sit up. “Koren!” Her arms opened, and the girl beside me fairly leapt that way to embrace her mother. “What’s happening? Where are we? These people aren’t explaining anything. They’ve barely said a word to me since I woke up. Is this a hospital?”

“Mom…” Koren hesitated a bit after giving her mother a long, firm hug. “I—how much do you remember?” She asked the question a little awkwardly, glancing back toward the two of us.

“I…” Abigail trailed off, frowning noticeably. “I remember your father… wait… no. No, that man wasn’t–” She sat up abruptly, eyes widening considerably. “That man wasn’t your father! He was… he was…” Her frown deepened and I saw the rush of emotion. “Why can’t I… remember what your father… what… what…” With each word, her voice grew louder, and she was trying to get out of the bed.

“Mom, it’s okay! I—we know, we know, Mom.” Koren winced, holding her hands up to calm her mother down. “It’s… oh god. It’s a long story.” Her voice cut off a little, sounding a bit strangled from emotion. How was she supposed to tell her mother that her husband had been erased from her memory?

Trying to help her, I stepped forward. “Miss… Umm… Abigail?” I started a little awkwardly. God, this was my sister. I had a sister. It was all I could do not to hug her, which probably would have confused the woman even more than she already was. Beside me, I could feel Wyatt tensing up as well, obviously stopping himself from lunging that way.

The woman’s eyes found me and she frowned a little. “Do I know you?”

Swallowing, I put a hand on Koren’s back. “I don’t think so. Not yet. My… my name is Felicity. Felicity Chambers.”

“Felicity,” the woman echoed, her eyes widening even more. “I know that name. I… no, that was a dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream, Mom.” Koren’s voice was quiet. “It was a vision.”

“A vision?” Abigail shook her head. “I don’t—did someone slip something into my food? Did I overdose on something? Is this–”

“Mom, listen,” Koren interrupted. “Please, just… just listen for a minute. I know you’re gonna want to interrupt. I know you’re not gonna believe this at first. I know you’ll think it’s crazy and impossible. So let’s start with the impossible and… and move on from there.” She looked to me then. “Flick, could you…?”

I nodded and stepped a little closer. “Abigail, I—umm, just watch, okay? It’s okay, no one here is gonna hurt you, I promise. We just have to show you some stuff.. and tell you about… the world.”

Abigail opened her mouth to say something then, but I preempted her by focusing on my face-shifting power. At a thought, my features morphed until I looked identical (from the neck up anyway) to Koren.

Well, that got a reaction. Abigail practically jerked off the bed, her eyes wide as she blurted a curse. “How did you—what—wait–wait, you–!”

“Mom, Mom, it’s okay!” Koren stepped closer, catching her mother around the shoulders to hug her tightly. “I know, Mom. I know it’s a lot. I’m sorry. We just had to—I didn’t want to tell you the whole story until you knew that the impossible things really are possible. We needed you to understand that we’re not crazy. You’re not crazy. Look.” She pointed to me, while I changed my face back to myself, then to Abigail’s own face, then back once more.

“What we’re going to tell you is going to sound insane,” I told the woman before gesturing to get her attention down to the clip on my belt. While she was watching, I tugged my staff up and out of the tiny container, showed it to her, then pushed it down again. “But it’s the truth.”

“The truth? How were you… how were doing that thing with your face?” Abigail demanded, clutching her daughter tighter to her. “Who are you? What was that… that dream about… about…” She trailed off, her expression pensive. “And who…?”

Her gaze moved toward Wyatt then, before she froze. “You… I know you. I… I’ve had dreams about you.”

The poor guy seemed to freeze up briefly before shifting a little awkwardly. “I—Uhh, my name is–” He gulped, sending his pronounced Adam’s apple bouncing. “My name is Wyatt. Um, I’m… I’m…”

“We should start from the beginning,” I announced, helping him as much as I could.

“Right,” Koren sat down on the edge of the bed, still holding onto her mother. “Mom, please, just listen okay? Like I said, this is going to… it’s gonna sound insane. But it’s true. It’s all true.”

Then, between the three of us, we started to tell Abigail the truth. All of it.

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Search And Rescue 14-07

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled BONUS chapter (14-06) posted on Wednesday. If you didn’t happen to read that one yet, this chapter isn’t going to make much sense, so you should click the previous chapter button above before moving on. 

“Hey, Flick.” Tristan spoke up as we made the long walk back toward the Garden tree. He had slowed his own pace until it matched mine, his eyes full of concern. “Are you, uh, are you doing all right?”

I didn’t answer at first. Taking a long, deep breath, I asked myself the same question before looking back to him. “I got to talk to my mom,” I answered quietly, emotion still making my voice shake in spite of myself. “I got to talk to my mother, Tristan. That was the first time since I was… since I was seven that I actually got to talk to her. I’m really happy. I’m so happy I… I keep crying. I’m happy and I’m sad because she’s not here anymore, and she’s still in danger. I’m so… I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel. I’m happy and I’m sad and I’m scared and I… I want her to be okay. I want my mom back.”

Swallowing hard, I flinched at a sudden realization. “But I guess you know what that’s like.” Looking back to him once more, I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Tristan. I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean that your–”

But the boy shook his head. “Hey, it’s not a competition. I can be glad that you get a chance to talk to your mom, and still wish that we could find mine. It’s not an either-or thing here, Flick.” He gave me another one of those perfect model-worthy smiles. “My parents are still out there somewhere. We’ll find them. Vanessa’s still in full-on research mode, and when she gets a lead, I’m gonna go get them back.”

Nodding, I poked the boy’s chest (while telling myself I was just doing it as part of a spirit of camaraderie and not because he looked so good without a shirt). “And I’ll be there to help you do it.”

Miranda (or one of her, there were others out scouting ahead to make sure that we didn’t run into any of the other Garden people) joined the two of us. Her hand found mine and squeezed. She didn’t say anything. Nothing really needed to be said out loud. It was enough for then that she was there with me.

For a little bit, we walked in silence. My gaze was focused on Koren. The brown-haired girl was walking up ahead, her head down. I wondered how she was dealing with all this. Her father had been murdered and she couldn’t even remember him enough to grieve. Any actual grief she had was at the idea of her father being dead. She had no real memories of him or what he had been like. That was… a kind of horrific that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Some might have said that not remembering her father after his death spared her. I didn’t believe that for a second. She had no nice memories to fall back on. When most people lost someone they loved, they could at least keep the person alive in their memories. Koren couldn’t do that. Thanks to the Fomorian, she had nothing left of her real father.

On top of that, she had spent hours being forced to pump her own mother’s heart to keep her alive, and now the only reason the woman was still alive was because Koren made the choice to have her turned into a Heretic and brought into this world. And all of it, her mother’s condition and the loss of her father, was because the Fomorian wanted Koren. That… yeah, I had no idea how she was dealing.

Then there was Roxa. My eyes moved back behind us to the other girl, who was walking with Mateo on one side of her and Sean on the other while Vulcan and Gidget brought up the rear. Roxa and the other two were deep in conversation, but even simply looking at her made me feel guilty again. All she had wanted to do was be a part of the school, a part of her team. That was gone now, until and unless we got that necklace away from Pace. Thanks to Mateo, she wouldn’t be on her own. But she also wouldn’t be able to be a part of the school. She couldn’t even let pretty much anyone else from Crossroads see her without letting them realize what she was now. Most of them wouldn’t understand.

Roxa and Koren had both lost a lot today. It felt… well, it felt wrong for me to be happy at all. The joy of actually being able to talk to my mother wasn’t just tainted by the fact that she was still trapped by Fossor. It was also dampened because I felt like any happiness I had was betraying the other two.

So, we walked on, spirits not exactly jumping for joy. Occasionally, I would glance up through the giant trees and catch a glimpse of one of the even more gigantic branches of the Eden’s Garden tree. Yeah, the damn thing was so huge that it took us hours to walk back toward the base of the tree even though we could see the branches above us. It was mindbogglingly huge. Technically, if we could’ve gone straight up high enough, we’d be in the tree just by getting to the branch. But Miranda had explained that the branches were all owned by different tribes, most of whom wouldn’t take kindly to our little invasion, no matter how we explained it.

Which meant we needed to keep walking all the way back to where we’d left from. Or close enough that Seller could get involved again without breaking the orders from the Victors. Most of us were lost in our own thoughts, until one of the other Mirandas eventually came jogging back to join us. Waving for us to stop, she explained, “We’re getting close to the tree. You guys should probably wait here while one of us goes in and gets Seller out here to send you uh, where you need to go.” Her eyes glanced toward Roxa briefly.

Nodding, Mateo stepped closer. “Yeah, I’d really prefer not to get into a fight with any Garden Heretics today, if we can avoid it. Besides,” he put a hand down on Roxa’s shoulder, “before we go anywhere, the kid and I still need to talk a bit more about what’s gonna happen when we meet the pack.”

That version of Miranda went off to find Seller, while I hesitated before moving closer to Mateo and Roxa. “Sorry, I know you’re still talking, but I um… I just wanted to say I’m sorry again.” Swallowing hard, I focused on meeting Roxa’s gaze. “I’m really sorry that I… that I helped bring you here. I wasn’t thinking straight, and I forgot about the connection to Tristan. I know you didn’t ask for any of this, and it’s not what you wanted. And you don’t have to forgive me or anything like that. Especially not right now. It’s too soon and too…” Trailing off, I sighed. This was too awkward. “I’m really sorry, Roxa.”

The other girl didn’t say anything for a moment. She just stood there, biting her lip before giving a short, sort of jerky nod. “I know you didn’t mean to,” she said quietly. “And I know you’re sorry.”

Another moment of silence passed before I spoke up, still feeling awkward in spite of myself. “Good luck. And… and like I said, we’ll get the necklace from Pace. We’re not gonna give up on that. Miranda’s gonna keep an eye on her, and as soon as we get a chance, we’ll take it away from her.”

Looking back at me, Roxa was quiet for a few seconds. Finally, she let out a visible sigh, head bowing briefly before speaking in a voice that was barely audible. “Yeah. And if you need help dealing with any of these other problems you’ve got, especially the son of a bitch that’s actually responsible for this, or any of his people, let me know.” Her eyes were hard. “You don’t deserve to have me be as angry at you as I am. I know that. I know, Flick. I just can’t help it. I’m trying, I swear. But those guys, the freak that hurt Koren’s mom and any of his friends, they do deserve it. So if you get a chance to hurt them…”

“We’ll let you know,” I promised. Knowing that was the best I was going to get (and more than I deserved), I added a simple, “I hope things with the pack go okay.” Glancing to Mateo, I exchanged nods with the man before stepping back out of the way so that the two of them could continue talking.

Sean stepped away with me as well, with Gidget and Vulcan trotting over to join us as well. The mechanical cougar gave me a look and a slight whine of confusion until I hesitantly reached out to give her gentle pet. When I stopped after a moment, she bumped her head against my leg until I did it again.

Of course, that meant that Vulcan needed equal treatment. But that was okay, it let me clear my head. Eventually, I looked up to Sean while rubbing both of the robot animals. “Thanks for coming,” I murmured quietly. “I know it’s gotta be really late for you.” Pausing then, I amended, “Or really early. I’ve sort of lost–” In mid-sentence, I yawned wide, surprising myself. “Sorry, lost track, I mean.”

So much had happened since… god, was the last time I had slept really before I’d had Thanksgiving dinner at the buffet with my dad and the others? How was that even possible? It felt like this day had been going on forever. Even with the Amarok’s power, I was pretty much running on just fumes.

Chuckling, Sean shrugged at me. “No problem. We’re teammates, right? You’d be there if I needed you.” He hesitated, eyes glancing over my shoulder and toward Roxa. “Besides, she needed help too.”

Watching the expression on his face for a moment before glancing back toward the other blonde, I realized that he’d come out of more than just obligation. Sean obviously had feelings for Roxa. The realization made me cringe a little bit even as I tried to push that incessant feeling of guilt aside.

Yawning again, I made myself focus. “Mateo, he’ll take care of her, right? Him and his pack, I mean.”

“I haven’t met his pack,” Sean admitted. “I only just let him and my uncle know that that I knew what he was. But I know Mateo. And yes, he’ll take care of her. You can trust him, Flick. He’s not gonna let anything bad happen. Not as long as she’s with him. And Uncle Sebastian’ll be there with her too.”

Before I could say anything to that, Koren joined us. She approached quickly, her gaze focused on the boy beside me. “You talked to Seller, right? Did he say anything about what happened back at my house?” Biting her lip, she added, “I mean, did he say if Dare and the others killed that piece of shit?”

Wincing, Sean’s head shook. “Sorry, we didn’t really get that far. He just gave us the basic stuff.”

“I’m sure they got him,” I started to assure the other girl. “I mean, they had plenty of power there.”

Rather than being reassured, however, Koren just gave me a brief squint before speaking in a thick voice. “I know you’re trying to help,” she said firmly, “but don’t say you’re sure when you’re not.”

“Fair enough,” I admitted. “What I should say is, even if he did get away, it won’t be for long. Gaia and the others won’t let him get away with what he did, Koren. Whether they killed him at the house, or have to hunt him down later, they’ll put him down. After all, killing monsters is what they do.”

Looking away from me, Koren’s shoulders hunched a little, her voice small and quiet. “Part of me wants him to be alive so I can kill him myself. But another part is…” She hesitated, her voice going even quieter than it already was. “… scared. Part of me is scared of him. After everything he did, I… I’m mad, so mad I want to rip his fucking throat out. But he’s just… I’m scared, Flick. I’m scared of him.”

After hesitating a second, I reached out to take the other girl’s hand. Squeezing it, I spoke quietly, my own voice cracking a little. “I know what you mean. I swore that I was going to save my mother from Fossor. But just thinking about him terrifies me. I hate him. I hate him more than anything. But I’m also… I’m also really scared of him. So trust me, I know exactly how you feel. It seems contradictory, like… like if you’re so afraid of someone, you shouldn’t be able to fantasize about killing them.”

Letting out a long, low sigh, Koren nodded. “I guess you would understand.” Her hand squeezed mine in return as she straightened up. “I’m glad you were there. I—if you and Deveron hadn’t shown up…”

“I’m glad we did too.” Smiling a bit in spite of myself, I added, “And at least you were here so Mom could meet you. I know a lot of this sucks, but I’m glad you got to talk to her.” My expression fell. “I just wish there was some way that I could actually tell my dad about…” I trailed off, my eyes widening.

“Flick?” Koren and Sean spoke at the same time. She glanced at him before adding, “Are you okay?”

My head was already shaking as I slapped my head. “Oh damn, oh damn, oh damn. Dad is gonna kill me! I was supposed to go over there for dinner, for dinner. And now it’s—fuck, I don’t even know what time it is there. He’s gotta be losing his mind! He probably called the National Guard by now, and–”

Sean caught me by the shoulders. “Flick, Flick calm down. It’s okay. Seller may not have explained much, but he did mention that Gaia took care of any problem with your dad being worried about you.”

Blinking at that, I stopped my panic, but the worry only switched gears. “Stopped him from being worried? Oh god, please tell me they didn’t fuck with his memory again.” I was really getting to the point of hating memory magic with a passion, even if it was done with good intentions. If they absolutely had to do it, I understood. Better that my dad not remember than get himself into trouble. But even then, I still kind of wanted to tell everyone to leave my family’s memories the hell alone.

Fortunately, Sean shook his head. “No, according to Seller, Gaia figured a simpler option was better than using memory magic to solve everything. So she impersonated your voice, called your dad, and told him that you were going to stay there overnight because of some nasty storm that rolled in.”

Koren looked to me. “Good thing there happened to be a bad enough storm to justify th….” In mid-word, she trailed off, looking at both of our expressions before getting it herself. “There didn’t just happen to be a storm, did there?” When we shook our heads, she swallowed. “And there really was a storm, because she wouldn’t take the chance of your dad checking. Which means Gaia actually made… oh.” Her last word was quieter and softer, mouth working a few times before she added, “Wow.”

“Tell me about it,” Sean muttered before looking off to the bushes. “I wonder how far your…” He looked toward one of the Mirandas that was close enough to hear. “… other self had to go.”

She started to answer, but before she could, I spoke up. Without thinking about what I was saying, I replied, “A little over a quarter mile. One thousand four hundred and ten feet.”

They all looked at me, until I realized what I had said. “I mean… wait.”

“Wow, I didn’t know you knew this place that well already,” Tristan had joined us, whistling. “You almost sounded like Vanessa there.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I don’t know it at all. But I know that Eden’s Garden, the tree, is exactly one thousand, four hundred and ten feet from where we’re standing.” My mouth opened and shut and then I got it. “Oh. Wait, is this what I got from the… what did you call that ugly thing?”

“A Blemmye,” Randi answered. “And I dunno. All I got was a little enhanced strength. Barely noticeable.”

“Same here,” Tristan confirmed.

Koren just shrugged. “I killed one, but I’m pretty sure I just improved the healing the Peridle gave me before. I got hit by one of their spears and it healed faster than it should’ve.”

“Try it with something else,” Sean suggested. “How far is your house from here, or the island?”

I thought about it before shrugging. “I’ve got nothing. It’s just blank. Probably because we’re on a different world.”

“What about the spot where we talked to your mom?” Koren put in curiously.

That one came up immediately. “Twenty-four thousand, six hundred and thirty-two feet that way.” I pointed back the direction we had come from. “About four and three quarter miles.”

“Well, that’s pretty useful to avoid getting lost,” Tristan pointed out with a chuckle. “Even if you do have to be on the same world as whatever you’re trying to find. I wonder if you have to know where it is.”

“Can you tell me how far away my room is?” Miranda asked curiously. “You’ve never seen it.”

I thought for a second, then shook my head. “Nope. I guess I need to know where it is first.”

We experimented a little more with it, but before long, there were sounds approaching. One of the Mirandas came back to wave that it was okay, just before Seller and another Miranda appeared.

“My mom?” Koren immediately asked the man in the fancy green suit.

“Still sleeping, still as okay as could be expected,” he answered before his eyes took in Roxa. “So this is the new wolf, huh?” he asked while using a finger to push his sunglasses down a bit so he could watch her over the top of them. “Sorry, kid. Sounds like you’ve got a place to go, at least.”

“Seller,” I spoke up after Roxa had a chance to mutter her response. “What happened back at the house, do you know yet?”

He looked to me first, then toward Koren, who was watching him intently. “Good news and bad news on that front. The good news is, the bubbly one that teaches your class on Strangers killed him.”

“Nevada,” I breathed out while letting that sink in. “Nevada killed him, Koren. She killed the bastard.”

“The bad news?” the other girl insisted, still staring at Seller.

The man sighed. “The bad news is he got off some kind of message first. They don’t know what he said or who it went to. Probably to another one of his people.”

Well that sounded horrifying. At least the one that had hurt Koren so much was dead, though. I didn’t know how much that would help the girl, if at all. But I was glad the one that had done… all that to her family was gone for good.

“Anyway,” Seller gestured. “Lemme send the wolves on their way, then I’ve been told to make sure the rest of you get some actual sleep before anything else happens.” Before Koren could say anything, he added, “And if your mom wakes up, I’ll let you know.”

Turning to Sean, who would be going back with Mateo and Roxa, I hugged the boy. “Thanks again, Sean. Thanks for coming. And thank Mateo.”

“Heard that,” Mateo spoke up, flicking a finger against his ear while winking at me.

“Roxa!” I called, meeting the other girl’s gaze.

Neither of us said anything for a few seconds. We just looked at each other until she gave me a slight nod. “Remember what I said. If you need help, ask for it. I may not be happy, but you’re dealing with some pretty heavy shit. That’s more important. So you need me, I’ll be there. Even if I do kind of want to use my teeth to shake you around a little.” She gave me a weak smile. “But that’s probably the wolf talking.”

Seller went to send them off, and I turned to the others, another yawn escaping me. “I guess he’s got a point. It’s… it’s time to crash.”

Because one thing was for sure. I wasn’t leaving this place until Abigail woke up. I wanted to talk to my sister. I wanted to be there for her as she took all this in. I wanted to help explain things, get her adjusted to the truth.

But first, it was time to sleep for about a bazillion years.

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Search And Rescue 14-01

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“Not only am I your ancestor and thus have something of an interest in keeping you alive, but I also kind of like you, kid.” Seller was squinting at me over his sunglasses. “Besides, even if I didn’t, you dying isn’t exactly conducive to me having a long and healthy lifestyle. Cuz if you wander off out there and die, Gaia’ll rip my tongue out, skin me alive, and string up what’s left as a birthday party pinata.”

Despite myself and the horrible situation, I gave the man a brief look at that. “You’d never even tasted nachos before that day back at the bowling alley, but you already know what a pinata is?”

The man shrugged. “What can I say? I enjoy making my own food, but I still love a birthday party.” Clearing his throat, he added, “The point is, I don’t want you getting killed out there. And the Victors aren’t going to let me violate their direct orders and go with you. They won’t care what you do. Hell, they probably won’t even care what Miranda here does. Not enough to step in anyway. But if I tried to go out with you, they’d put a stop to it. Which means they’d stop you too. That’s just the way it is.”

My mouth opened to sarcastically ask if he cared more about pleasing some so-called leaders than saving the life of an innocent girl. But I stopped myself in time. He’d just explained that they’d stop all of us if he tried to go with. And while I had obviously improved over the past few months, I wasn’t nearly stupid and arrogant enough to think that I could do anything against the entire Eden’s Garden leadership. If they intended to stop us, there would be nothing that I or anyone else here could do.

Instead, I just bit back that comment before saying, “So we’ll go ourselves, the three of us. We’ll find Roxa and get her back here. Then you can send her home while we… we wait for Abigail to wake up.”

Before Seller could respond to that, Koren spoke up. “You said three. You mean four. I’m going with.”

“What?” I looked to her. “But you… I mean… Koren, your mom was almost killed. She’s basically in intensive surgery right now. And your dad…” I trailed off for a few seconds, flinching at the sight of the other girl’s expression then. “You’ve been through enough. You don’t have to go out there with us.”

“Have to?” the brunette echoed before shaking her head. “No, I don’t. But you’re not the only one who doesn’t want Roxa to die out there. And besides,” she added darkly, “after the night I’ve had, I’d kind of like to kill something that deserves it, and anything out in that forest that attacks us is fair game.”

I was still worried about Koren going out there. She had just found out that her father was dead, and her mother had been inches from the same fate. I didn’t trust that she was thinking clearly. But I also knew that trying to stop her was a bad idea. I’d just have to keep an eye on the other girl. I’d take care of her, I promised myself. Nothing else was going to happen to Koren today. Not as long as I could help it.

“What about Wyatt?” Tristan put in. “He’s gonna be upset if you go out there without him, you know.”

“I know,” I confirmed quietly. “But he’s helping them save Abigail. This is where he needs to be. No, we’ll go out by ourselves, grab her, and get back here. I’m just… not sure how we can find her, because that’s a pretty freaking huge forest out there. And I mean that both geographically and arborally.”

Sighing a little, Seller took a second before coming to a decision. “Well, they can stop me from going with you, but they can’t stop me from giving you a little help. First, take this.” Reaching into the inner pocket of his suit, he produced what looked like a weird compass. The thing was about the size and shape of a baseball that had been chopped in half. It was gold, with strange red runic designs adorning it. All along the flat top was glass, and through that, I could see what looked like the arrow of a compass without any other markings. When the man handed it to me, it made a soft humming noise.

“Each of you hold it for a few seconds,” Seller instructed. “Then get out in the forest and it should point you to the nearest Heretic who isn’t here in the base itself and isn’t someone who just held it. That should be good enough for you to get close. And this,” he took what looked like a red metal tube about the size of a cardboard toilet paper roll and handed it to Koren. “Hold that to your mouth and say the name of the person you want to talk to. After that, everything you say through the tube will only be heard by that person, no matter how loud you shout. You’ve still gotta get close enough for her to be able to hear it, but at least you can shout as loud as you want into it without attracting more attention.”

Koren looked at the thing in her hand, then held it up to her mouth. A second later, I heard her voice say, “I’m really scared about my mom. And after my dad… after he… I don’t even know where he is. I don’t know who he is. I feel… wrong, because I know I should be grieving for Dad, but I don’t even know who he was. I can’t remember him, Flick. I can’t remember him enough to grieve for him. I just… I know the idea of my dad. I know the idea of not seeing him again makes me sad. But I don’t know why. The specifics are… they’re just… gone. I can’t remember my own father. The Fomorian, he… he took that away. My dad is dead and I might not ever remember anything about him. I… I just need this, okay? I need to try to help someone, anyone. I need to help you save Roxa. I just… I need to.”

Biting my lip, I met the other girl’s gaze. Thanks to the tube, I was the only one who had heard what she said. After watching her for a few seconds, I gave a little nod, reaching out to squeeze her arm.

Finally, Seller gave us each a piece of bark from the tree itself. They were similar to the one that he’d broken smaller bits off of to bring us all here in the first place. Apparently, the tree constantly tried to call pieces of itself back to it. But the Garden Heretics put a magic shield around these pieces of bark that stopped the tree from recalling them. When we wanted to go back, all we had to do was slam the wood into something to break the shield and we’d instantly be teleported back to the tree when it called the wood back to itself. Technically we only needed one since it would also transport anyone who was touching the person who broke it. But Seller wasn’t going to send us out into that giant forest with only one way back. In case we got separated or anything bad happened, we were each given a piece.

I knew we were going as fast as we could without rushing headlong into certain death without a plan or any way to help, but it still felt like this was taking too long. Roxa was out there, and who knew what was happening to her? She was barely dressed, had no weapon, and probably had no idea where she was. She was in trouble, and we had to hurry. But we also had to be ready and not be stupid about it.

Paradoxically, even though I felt like every last second we were taking was too long, when we actually started out of the room to leave the tree and actually start looking, it felt like we were rushing too much. It didn’t make any sense at all, but I still felt like we were forgetting something important.

Oh, right. Telling the others to hold up for a second, I took the tube from Koren before tugging Seller with me out of the way. Then I held the tube up to my mouth, said his name, and started. “Can you contact Gaia completely privately? I mean so that no one else can hear what you’re saying to her.”

Raising an eyebrow, Seller nodded. “Sure, there are ways to make sure of it. What’s the big secret?”

Pausing briefly to take a steadying breath, I explained as succinctly as I could. “The people who killed Professor Pericles back at Crossroads, the person they meant to kill was Wyatt. They just don’t know yet. They were trying to kill the person who put the protection spell on Avalon, and their magic told them that the person was named Zedekiah. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only Zedekiah out there. That’s Wyatt’s real name, the name his parents gave him. He’s the one who put the protective spell on Avalon. You need to tell Gaia so she knows, just in case… just in case anything happens out there.”

Clearly reeling a bit from that, Seller took a second to collect himself before nodding. “I’ll take care of it. But you be careful out there. You understand? You get in there, find your classmate, and get out. And if it gets too dangerous, use the bark and we’ll find another way. It’s better that you make it back here so we can regroup and plan than to push things too far just because you want to save the girl, and end up getting killed yourself. I mean it. If it’s too dangerous, you all get your asses back here. Got it?”

I nodded, and he waited until the rest of us had all agreed to the same before stepping out of the way. Miranda took the lead, showing us across the breathtakingly enormous branch at a jog. As we moved, I took in the sight of all the other people moving along the other branches. The whole place was busy, like a literal city built in the branches of a tree. It almost felt as if we were bugs scurrying along a normal-sized oak. Bugs that built literal houses on the branches rather than burrowing into holes, but bugs nonetheless. Only the thought of Roxa being out there and alone was enough to make me focus.

Except one thing was bothering me, and the thought made me slow down. “There’s a time difference between here and our world?” I asked Miranda. “I mean, when we left Florida, it was late at night. But it’s obviously late morning here. Maybe even later than that.” I gestured around us to demonstrate.

The other girl started to nod, but before she could say anything, Tristan spoke up, blurting. “Oh, I know this one! Vanessa was talking about it. Something about how Crossroads is synced to be on the same time-frame as North America because that’s where the majority of the students are from. It lets them, you know, keep a normal schedule for when they go home or whatever. But Eden’s Garden’s timescale makes it day for them while it’s night for North America. That way while the worst of the Strangers are out and prowling around, it’s their daytime, so most of them are already awake and ready to go.”

Miranda blinked before nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s right. But why would Vanessa know that?”

Tristan just winked at her. “If my sister knowing random crap like that surprises you at all, you clearly don’t know her. If it wasn’t for me and her roommate, she’d probably study twenty-four/seven.”

“And speaking of going out and doing things,” I added with a glance toward Tristan, “You and Roxa were night-surfing?”

He nodded. “Sure. It’s fun, you should try it. Especially since that little shark pack of yours keeps pretty much everything else away from the beach.”

By that point, Miranda had led us to a cordoned off part of the branch where a short fence surrounded a platform that stuck out away from the tree. There was a man standing guard there, but he moved away after she said something to him, and Miranda opened the fence before gesturing for us to go through.

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked while stepping out onto the platform. The only thing out here was a stack of what looked like wooden boards that were about two feet across and three feet long.

She shrugged. “I just said that you were the visitors and that Seller sent me to take you down there.”

Nodding, I leaned out to look down… down… down the tree. A sense of near-vertigo overcame me and I quickly leaned back before getting too dizzy. “Ah, how exactly do we get down there, anyway?”

“Watch.” Reaching down, Miranda picked up one of the boards from the pile before giving it a light toss off the platform. The board fell… right to the edge of the platform itself before stopping short like it had hit something. It then just floated there in mid-air, even after the other girl stepped out onto it and proceeded to jump up and down a couple times. It floated there as solidly as if it had been attached.

“See that right there?” Miranda gestured to a black marking on the edge of the platform. When I leaned closer, I saw that there was a rune etched into it. “See, this wood here,” she tapped her foot against the plank that she was standing on, “won’t go any lower than that mark unless you tell it to with the command. And when you give the command, it’ll slowly sink down to the other mark at the bottom of the tree. When you want to come back up, you just step on the board and give the command to rise.”

“It’s an elevator,” I murmured, fascinated despite myself. “Every board is a really dangerous elevator. What if you slip or something? Or, you know, get dizzy because you’re up so high on a little board.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty useful. There are other, more normal elevators in the tree itself, but these are the easiest to get to out here. And if you don’t want to fall off, just say ‘lock feet,’” she instructed. “Toss a board out and step on it, then say that. You’ll see.”

The three of us shrugged at each other before doing as she instructed. As I stepped carefully onto my own board, I looked down at it while saying firmly, “Lock feet.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt something like a powerful suction effect against my shoes briefly before it faded. It felt weird, and when I tried to lift my foot up, it wouldn’t come. Both of my feet were locked tight against the board.

“Whoa,” Tristan laughed. “Now this would be a useful spell to know. So how do we unstick it?”

“Just say ‘release feet,’ Miranda answered simply. “Okay, now to go down, say ‘go to the ground.’” As soon as she’d said it, the other girl’s own board began to sink at a steady pace, dropping away from us.

We did the same, and before long, all four of us had dropped on our own personal wooden elevators clear to the bottom of the gigantic tree. From this angle, when I looked back up to where we had been, I couldn’t even clearly see any of it. The tree was so unbelievably enormous that it was all too far away.

“Holy crap,” I murmured under my breath in absolute awe. Hell, the base of the tree was clearly as wide as a city block. The scale of it was almost impossible for me to actually comprehend.

“You said it,” Tristan agreed, staring with me before adding, “It’s as big as the Calicerata tree on Eft.”

“Eft?” I echoed, looking that way before shaking it off. “Never mind, tell me about your adventures another time. We have to find Roxa before anything… fast,” I amended. “We have to find her fast.”

We passed around the compass thing, making sure it had registered all of us before I held it up. The needle pointed off into the giant forest, and I gestured that way before starting off at a run. I had no idea how far away Roxa had been dropped, but I did know that it had taken us way too long to get moving. We had to find her, had to get to the other girl before something horrible happened to her.

“If she’s hurt,” Tristan muttered while jogging alongside me, “I swear I’ll kill whatever did it.” He was easily keeping up, clearly resisting the urge to go sprinting off by himself. As much as the boy joked around, I could tell that this whole situation was eating him up inside.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him after glancing down to check that we were still going the right way. “If anything, it’s mine for not remembering that you’d be dragged along with me. I should’ve found a way to warn you before we did it. I’m sorry.”

The boy shook his head at that. “It’s okay. You had enough to deal with. I… I just… we have to find her, okay? I know what it’s like to suddenly get yanked away onto a dangerous alien world. I got lucky with the Meregan. If something else had found me, if I was…” He trailed off and gave a little shudder. “We just have to find her.”

“We will,” Miranda promised. She had already split into four different versions of herself that were scouting ahead. “We’ll find Roxa, I promise.”

Nodding firmly, I glanced back toward Koren, who was using the magic tube to shout for the girl in question. “Yeah, we’ll find her, Tristan.”

I meant it. No matter what it took or what we had to go through, we would find Roxa.

I just hoped we weren’t already too late.

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