Seller

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 Haymes 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, as 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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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-08

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“Flick, Flick, wait! Hold on!” Miranda was on her feet in front of me, stopping me from sprinting out of the room. Her eyes were wide as she held her hands up. “Where do you think you’re going?”

My mind was racing. After hearing that recording and realizing what had happened, it was all I could do not to shove the other girl out of the way to keep going. “They killed Professor Pericles,” I blurted. “Now, the person they meant to kill is right here. I helped bring Wyatt here, to Eden’s Garden.”

Miranda’s head shook back and forth. “Wyatt, that security guy? You’re not making sense. Flick, just slow down for a second. What happened? Are you saying he’s the guy that—he’s that Zedekiah guy?”

“I–” Taking a deep breath, I exhaled before nodding. “I can’t explain all of it. Like, literally can’t. I could try, but I’d be wasting my breath because there’s still that spell I told you about that stops you from remembering even if I do explain it. Trust me, it’s really freaking annoying. But the point is, his real name is Zedekiah. That’s his birth name, and he’s really damn good with security magic. So he’s gotta be the one they’re after. He’s the guy they were trying to get rid of when they killed Professor Pericles.”

Nodding once, Miranda continued to meet my gaze while patiently pointing out, “But they don’t know that.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “I know you’re freaked out right now, especially after everything that happened. But there’s no reason they should know who he is just because you do. As far as they’re concerned, he’s just Wyatt, remember? Besides,” she added then, “Being here isn’t necessarily any more dangerous for him than being back at Crossroads. I mean…” Trailing off, she looked at me silently.

Letting out a breath again, I lowered my head before nodding. “You’re right. He’d be in just as much danger there as here if they knew who he was. Maybe more, I don’t know. I–” Working my mouth, I looked at the other girl. “I really wanna explain this to you. I wish I could just tell you the whole story. But all I can say is that I can’t lose him. I can’t lose Wyatt, Randi. I can’t let anything happen to him.”

“I get it,” Randi assured me. “I mean, I don’t get all of it, but I understand what you mean. There’s no reason to think he’s in any more danger right now though. And if you go running off to find him, that’ll probably make things worse.” She hesitated then before offering, “I think your best move is to wait.”

“Wait,” I echoed with a nod, reluctant as it was. “You’re right. I just—kinda freaked out for a second there.” Smiling faintly in spite of myself, I put my hand over hers. “Thanks for talking me down.”

She returned my smile and shrugged. “Hey, what are friends for?”

Shaking myself, I abruptly blurted, “Okay, hold on. Before we do anything else, can you send that recording to my phone? Like, right now. Then e-mail it to me. Then upload it to some kind of storage site. And while you’re doing that, I’ll make another e-mail address and copy it over.”

“Wow,” Miranda laughed. “You really don’t wanna lose this recording, do you?”

“Let’s just say I’d rather avoid that particular problem,” I muttered before getting to work.

Once we had done that, Miranda nudged me with her fist. “Now why don’t we see how much you can tell me about the–” In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by the sound of a commotion just outside. There was a sudden crashing noise, followed by three different voices talking loudly at the same time. And one of those voices I immediately recognized.

“Oh shit,” I blurted out loud as my eyes widened. I grimaced a bit, spinning around before practically throwing myself toward the doorway. “Damn it, damn it, damn it, this is a different world, isn’t it?”

Miranda was right behind me. “Err, yeah? I mean, of course it is. Why? What’s going on out there?”

Instead of taking the time to explain it to her, I lunged for the exit. Yanking it open, I blurted before even taking the time to see what was going on, “Don’t hurt him! He’s not a spy, it’s my fault he’s here!”

Just as I’d expected, just as I’d known in that moment as soon as I recognized his voice, there was a single, blond figure facing off against Croc and the rest of the Unset who had been standing guard. Tristan. Of course. The boy was linked to me. I was his anchor, the thing keeping him on Earth. So when that magic registered that I wasn’t on Earth anymore, it yanked him toward where I was. Whoops.

He was also soaking wet and wearing little more than swim trunks, which immediately made me freeze as my brain briefly blue screened. It was obvious that the boy had been out in the ocean when he’d been pulled right into the middle of Eden’s Garden. Which was nice to see, but now was not the time, Flick.

The Unset had stopped moving as soon as I spoke, their reactions good enough that they stopped any hostile motion. But Tristan either hadn’t heard me or he was too focused on what he saw as a threat. The boy was already yanking the silver chain necklace (the only other thing he was wearing besides the swim trunks) off his neck and was throwing it toward the ground. In mid-fall, the silver chain transformed. It grew a hell of a lot bigger, expanding into a massive fifteen foot long mechanical snake. The thing was coiled partway around Tristan, and its eyes were like little glowing green emeralds.

Heaving itself up so that the top third of its body was off the ground, the snake-robot dropped itself onto Tristan’s waiting, outstretched arm. His arm disappeared up into the snake’s body, with the head sticking out a little bit past his hand. Then the snake’s mouth opened wide, before a large barrel extended.

“Tristan!” I blurted out even louder that time, waving a hand. “Stop, stop! It’s okay, don’t start a fight!”

Stopping short, Tristan’s head tilted. At the same time, the head of his snake (cannon barrel included) did the same. Both looked curious. “Flick?” He was clearly confused. “What’s—uh what’s going on?”

“Yes,” Croc spoke from nearby, his hand on his pike-weapon. “What exactly is happening here?”

Biting my lip, I looked from Unset to Tristan and back again before starting. “Okay, it’s a long story… on both sides. But what you guys need to know is that someone bad put a curse on Tristan that made it so he couldn’t go back to Earth. Someone else fixed it by using different magic to anchor him to me so he could go to Earth and stay there. But since I came here, and this place is on a different world…”

“He was brought here as well,” Croc finished for me, straightening a little while stowing his weapon. He spoke a single word to the rest of his people, and they all relaxed somewhat as well. “I understand. But there are others who may not look very kindly on his unannounced arrival. You should go back inside the room until you’re called by Seller. You can explain things to the boy in there, out of sight.”

Nodding quickly, I gestured with my head. “Come on, Tristan. I’ll explain in a minute. But Croc’s right, we can’t just stand out here in the open. Someone’s gonna… see… you…” I trailed off toward the end as my head turned and I finally had a second to take in the sight around me. The view made my jaw drop.

Yes, Avalon had told me a little bit about Eden’s Garden. So had Miranda. But neither of their descriptions did the place justice. We were standing on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to drive several big trucks on next to each other. And this was just one, one branch of many. Most of those other branches had literal buildings built on them, along with little playgrounds, a few roads, and more stuff that shouldn’t have been able to be in a freaking tree. There was an entire city built in this tree, with people of all ages running back and forth, training, shopping, or just living.

There was also green pretty much everywhere. No matter where my eyes moved, I saw more lush vegetation. More giant trees (though this one was clearly the biggest) stretched out as far as my eyes could see, and below them, I could make out an unbelievable amount of other plants, including beautiful flowers of every conceivable color. No wonder they called this place Eden’s Garden.

Apparently I stood there and stared for awhile, because the next thing I knew, Miranda was tugging my arm. “I’ll show you around as soon as there’s a chance,” she promised. “But we need to move now.”

Shaking myself, I nodded. By that point, Tristan had already retracted his snake-cannon back into its necklace form and was wearing it again. He gave the Unset a curious look before jogging over to us.

After giving one last look at the incredible vista, I stepped back through the doorway with the other two. As soon as the door had shut, I pivoted toward the boy. “Tristan, I am so sorry. I didn’t even think about what it was going to do to you when I came here. I completely forgot about our anchor thing.”

“Hey, hey, don’t worry about it.” Rubbing his hand over one ear and then back through his wet hair, Tristan gave me a charming grin that made my heart flip over once more. Why, why did he have to be wearing so little when he was pulled along? “I guess that’s what Gaia was trying to tell me before.”

I blinked at that, glancing toward Miranda before asking, “Wait, Gaia was there? What happened?”

“One sec.” Holding up a finger, he focused on the other girl while giving her an easy, disarming smile. “Sorry, there wasn’t really a chance for introductions out there. I’m Tristan.” He held a hand out to her.

For her part, Miranda blinked at the offered hand before shaking it. “Miranda. Flick mentioned you. You’re that one who used to be a kid because you were turned into a statue for a few years, then you came back in time as the right age.” Pausing, she turned to look at me. “Your school is fucking weird.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before focusing. “Right, so, Randi, that’s Tristan. Tristan, that’s Randi. You guys know each other now. So, Gaia?” I pressed, looking at the boy.

“Yeah, I was out on the water with Roxa,” he explained. “She was teaching me how to windsurf.”

Hearing that, an unwanted flash of jealousy shot through me that I tried to quash. Shut up, stupid brain.

If Tristan’s smile was any indication, he noticed. But he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he just continued. “We were out there and I saw Gaia come out to the beach. She was doing that thing where she talks and you hear her just fine even if she’s nowhere near you. Which is really cool, for the record. Anyway, she was saying something about you, but I didn’t catch all of it before I was suddenly right in front of those scary guys in the armor. Guess she wasn’t fast enough to get the whole warning out.”

“Seller must’ve contacted her,” I murmured to myself. “Or maybe Professor Dare or one of the others. Either way, she came to tell you that you were about to be yanked along with us. Which, um, sorry.”

Tristan shrugged at that, still grinning. “You know, the day I complain about being teleported to a couple pretty girls is the day that you know I’ve been taken over by an evil mind-controlling Stranger.”

Coughing a little as my blush spread, I gave the boy a look. Which was a mistake, because it just made me blush even more. “Oookay, maybe we should find you a shirt or something to wear. Miranda?”

“Actually, I kinda like him the way he is.” Beside me, Miranda smirked while looking him up and down.

I was spared from having to respond to that by the door opening. Seller stepped inside and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the boy there. He took a second before speaking. “Croc said you had a friend show up. He neglected to mention that your friend wasn’t wearing any clothes.”

“Abigail,” I pressed while stepping that way. “Is she—did they agree to…” I couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in my throat, all of my thoughts jumbled up. And that time, it wasn’t because of Tristan.

In response, Seller nodded to me. “The Victors have agreed to give Abigail one of the apples. Wasn’t exactly easy, but when it comes down to it, I’ve got a few allotted to me that are mine to give out unless they can come up with a compelling reason against it. Some of them didn’t like it, but they couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to convince the others to overrule me. So, she got the apple.”

I sagged with relief at that. “So, she’s okay then? They gave her the apple and she’s gonna be all right?”

“Well,” Seller cautioned me gently, “it’s still going to take a little time. That Fomorian really messed her up. Whatever he did to her—we’ve got people fixing her, but she’s gonna have to stay under for a day or two while they do it. This isn’t normal damage, those guys are nasty. He threw in some kind of little biological traps while he was opening her up back there.” He shook his head, looking disgusted and even a little bit disturbed. “Like I said, they’ll fix her, but give it a couple days. They’re keeping her unconscious while they do their work. I asked, and they said you could see her in a few hours.”

“A few hours?” I echoed, trying to tell myself to calm down. It made sense. Abigail had been opened up with Koren’s hand literally on her heart, pumping it for her. The fact that they’d let me see her in a few hours and that she should be okay in a couple days was pretty amazing.

That thought made me straighten again. “Wait, Koren. Is she–”

“I’m okay,” the girl in question murmured as she stepped into the room. Despite her words, she didn’t exactly look that good. She was a little pale and shuddered a bit even standing there.

Turning his head a bit, Seller looked at something in his hand. “Excuse me a second, apparently your headmistress just sent another message.”

He stepped out of the room, and Koren watched him go before talking in a bit of a daze. “I was up with my mom, but they told me they needed space to work on her, so… h-here I am, I guess. I don’t… I don’t really know what to. Wyatt’s still there, he refused to leave and they said he could help them make sure none of the… the traps that the… the monster left in her body go off. He’s… he’s helping with… that…”

She trailed off then while still looking dazed and out of it, and I stepped that way to hug the girl. “Koren,” I managed a little weakly, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Her head shook at that. “Remember what he said? It wasn’t about you. It was about me. It was all about me. He didn’t even know about you. He was after me. That whole time, even back then, all those people he kidnapped to make it look like a real Stranger attack? Showing up in my house and scaring me? Even letting me get away. It was all part of his plan. All of it. And now he-he killed my… my…”

In mid-sentence, Koren turned away, falling to her knees as she threw up. I went down with her, trying my best to tug the girl’s hair away from her face while wincing. Through the next few moments, I rubbed her back and held her hair out of the way while she emptied her stomach.

Eventually, she sagged against me, so obviously exhausted that she was fighting to stay awake. “I… I have to tell you… Mom… she said something when she ate the apple. Her… her vision. She said something just before they knocked her out, something about what she saw.” Another pause then, before, “It was about your mom… and you.”

“Me?” I blinked in surprise. “What do you mean? What did she say?”

Still looking at the floor, Koren replied in a blank monotone. “She said… ‘she gave up for her. She let him take her to save her, to save Felicity. She saved Felicity. She went with him for Felicity.’”

It was my turn to settle roughly onto the floor, almost falling. Abigail’s vision had been of Mom. She’d seen Mom surrender herself to Fossor, trade herself for my life. She saw… oh god.

I had to talk to her. I had to… had to say something. What, I had no idea. But I had to be there when she woke up.

Tristan and Miranda, who had been silent the whole time up to that point, finally came closer. They sat down nearby, and the four of us were just sitting there quietly when the door opened again.

Seller entered, but he wasn’t alone. Croc was with him. The Unset man didn’t look that happy, and neither did Seller.

“Sard them! You know this is insanity. They can’t just write the girl off like that!” My ancestor ranted. “Damn your orders.”

“I may disagree with the orders,” Croc spoke quietly. “But I may not disobey them. That would bring our entire system down. The Victors have spoken.”

“What?” I blurted, my eyes wide. “What’s wrong? Did something happen to–”

“Abigail’s fine,” Seller assured me. “Well, as fine as can be expected. No, this isn’t about her. It’s about the girl he was with when he was dragged over here.” He looked toward Tristan.

Tristan, meanwhile, blinked. “Roxa? What about her?”

Seller muttered something angrily under his breath before answering. “Let me guess. You two were touching each other when you were dragged here.”

“Uhhh, yeah?” Tristan spoke slowly, uncertainly. “She was teaching me how to wind surf. We were sort of—you know, her hands were on me.”

Cursing again, Seller nodded. “Well, turns out, when you were teleported away, so was the girl.”

My eyes widened at that. “Oh god, is she okay? Wait—oh… oh shit, did she land on another branch or something?”

“If only,” Seller grumbled before looking at me. “No. Apparently she let go somewhere along the way. She didn’t make it all the way to the tree.”

Beside me, Miranda made a noise of shock. “Wh—what do you mean? You don’t mean—she couldn’t be…”

“Yeah,” the man confirmed. “She’s out there…. somewhere” He pointed off into the wilds beyond the tree.

“They have to go find her!” Miranda insisted, practically leaping to her feet. “You don’t understand, Flick. That place is dangerous! There’s monsters all over the place, thousands of them. The ones beyond the barrier aren’t domesticated. She can’t survive out there by herself. They’ve gotta send a rescue party!”

“Yeah,” Seller’s voice was dark. “The Victors nipped that one right in the bud. They said with the pack movements out there and everything else going on, it’s too dangerous to send a rescue party out to save one Crossroads student.”

Well. Any desire I might’ve had to be an exchange student with this place completely fucking vanished in that instant. I was on my feet, staring at the man in disbelief. “What the fuck?! That’s ridiculous. That’s insane! That’s—that’s—bullshit! They can’t just leave her out there to die!”

“Believe me, I’ve tried to tell them that,” Seller assured me with an exasperated sigh. “I did. That’s what I’ve been doing out there. But they’re not listening. They’ve made up their minds.”

“Well then screw them,” Miranda said sharply, her hands squeezing into fists. “If they won’t do what’s right, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.”

Turning that way quickly, I stared at the girl. “You… you’ll go out there with me?”

“With us,” Tristan spoke up before shrugging at me with a little smile. “Can’t let a couple pretty girls run out into the nasty forest alone. Especially since the whole reason Roxa’s trapped out there is because she happened to be touching me.”

“You can’t possibly understand how dangerous it really is in that forest,” Seller started.

I turned that way, snapping, “No. You know what I can’t do? I can’t leave an innocent girl out there to die. It’s not who I am and it’s sure as hell not anyone I want to become. So either help as much as you can, or just tell us how to get down to the ground. Because we’re going to save Roxa.”

On the heels of that announcement, Tristan raised his hand. “Uh. Before we do that though, maybe I should put some pants on…”

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A Strange Thanksgiving 13-07

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Honestly, I’d wanted to see Eden’s Garden for awhile by that point. I’d wanted to know more about the place since I’d first heard that Avalon had been a student there, and finding out that Miranda still was one had only increased that desire. It wasn’t that I thought they were the perfect solution to all of Crossroads’ problems, considering they let people like Trice and his groupies stick around. Plus, Miranda had made it clear that though they didn’t always kill Strangers on sight, they still weren’t exactly pals with them. They were willing to use Strangers, even work with them in some rare cases. But the non-humans were still always second class citizens at the very best, and more akin to slaves.

Still, I still wanted to know more about the ‘other Heretic school.’ The fact that they were willing to work with Strangers at all might mean that they could be reasoned with more easily than Crossroads.

And, to be completely honest, I kind of wanted to see some of the special creatures they kept around. I might have spent a not-inconsiderable amount of my free time during the nights drawing up incredibly elaborate Ocean’s 11 style plans about how to get into Eden’s Garden to see the unicorns and pegasi.

So yeah, I wanted to see Eden’s Garden. But not like this. Kneeling next to my niece while she kept frantically pumping her own mother’s, my sister’s, heart because some psychopath alien monster decided to play a little game? No. God, no. I just wanted this night to be over. I wanted to restart and have a chance to just come visit for the nice, calm Thanksgiving evening it was supposed to have been.

I wanted Koren to stop crying. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to proudly introduce me to her dad, alive and well. I wanted to see the man who had married my sister. I wanted them to maybe notice that there was something familiar about me. I wanted to see Koren’s life, her real, ordinary life that maybe wasn’t perfect (just like the girl herself), but was hers. I wanted… I wanted this to be a dream.

But it wasn’t. And I wouldn’t meet Koren’s dad. He was gone. The Fomorian had discarded him like so much trash. It was a waste, and the thought made me want to cry. My eyes burned with unshed tears while I fought to hold it together. I couldn’t fall apart. Not right now. Koren needed me to keep it together. She needed me to be there so she could keep pumping her own mother’s heart. Because if I lost it, if I let myself go, she wouldn’t last much longer. Even then, I saw the hysterics in her eyes.

Seller had already pulled a piece of wood from his pocket. It looked like a chunk out of a tree, including the bark. Before I could say anything, he broke off several smaller bits from it and pushed one into my hand, another into Wyatt’s hand, and the other two into Koren and Abigail’s pockets. “Okay, hold onto those and brace yourselves.” To Koren, he added, “You’re about to get really dizzy. I’m told it’s like going over the loop in a roller coaster. So stop pumping when I say three and pump again as soon as we land. Got it? Right. Remember, no one moves or says anything. One, two, three.”

At the last number, Seller slapped the larger portion of the wood he was holding against the ground, and the world spun wildly around us. He was right, and the warning didn’t help. Unlike when I had been transported by Crossroads, the Eden’s Garden teleportation left me feeling briefly nauseous. My stomach flipped over on its end and I physically reeled backwards while a choked yelp escaped me.

Apparently Wyatt was either more accustomed to that sort of thing, or had some kind of power that helped deal with nausea, because he was on his feet much faster than I was. I sensed someone moving and dragged my attention up to see him standing up and turning toward a group of figures that still looked like blurry outlines for another few seconds. Finally, I blinked it away and focused on what turned out to be a handful of scary looking men in dark red armor. Half of them were carrying what looked like shotguns, while the other half had these pike-things with blades at one end and what looked like a tennis racket at the other, though rather than string, the grid part was made out of tiny lasers.

They also didn’t exactly look all that happy to see us. Seller was already standing in front of them. His voice was a low whisper as he murmured to the man who appeared to be in charge. That one’s armor had what looked like a large, jagged bear print across the chest in black marking. His eyes were just as hard as the the rest of them as he stood there staring at us while Seller continued to talk to him rapidly.

Now that my eyes were focused, I saw that we had ended up in a room about twenty feet across on all sides, with a ceiling that was about twice as high on one half of the room as it was on the other, going up at a slant. There was only one door out of the room, and it was being blocked by the armored men.

Meanwhile, Wyatt had positioned himself directly between the scary guys in their armor and Koren, Abigail, and me. The juxtaposition between those big red-armored men and scrawny little Wyatt with his too-big nose and overly-pronounced Adam’s apple was striking. And yet, after everything that had happened so far, I was pretty sure I’d rather be protected by Wyatt than any of those guys. The me from several months earlier when I first met the man would have been incredibly surprised, to say the least.

My attention finally made it to Koren herself, and Abigail. Neither looked like they were doing that well. Koren was breathing hard, tears staining her face as she pumped her mother’s heart. Abigail, meanwhile, looked like she was barely hanging on. She wasn’t focusing on anything. When I waved my hand in front of her eyes, it looked like she was trying to follow it, but gave up or forgot about it after a few seconds. She was clearly drifting, conscious but in some kind of heavy, possibly drugged, daze.

Now that I was looking at her up close, I could see the resemblance to Wyatt. It wasn’t completely obvious. Abigail was around the same height and had similar facial features in several respects. She looked kind of like a shorter, brown-haired Shelley Duvall from The Shining. God, I wanted to touch her. I wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her everything about her mother, our mother. I’d wanted a sister for so long, more than I had ever really consciously acknowledged after Mom disappeared. And now, now she was lying there so helpless and broken. It felt like if I touched her, she’d shatter entirely.

I tried to talk to Koren, tried to say anything that might help her focus or at least freak out a little less. But by the time I managed to get any actual words to come out, Seller was already done with his conversation. He was standing over us again, lowering his sunglasses with a finger to look over them at me. “Okay. I’m taking Abigail and Koren here up to show the Victors what’s going on. With any luck, they’ll approve the emergency apple. These guys,” he indicated the red-armored men, “are called the Unset. They’re not allied with any tribe, and hold no loyalty to any but the Victors themselves, who have agreed to allow you safe passage for the time being. So stay with these guys, do what they say, and don’t go wandering off. They’ll watch over you right here until we know what’s going on.”

Poor Wyatt looked completely torn, glancing between me and Abigail. I took pity on him, touching his arm gently while addressing Seller. “Take Wyatt with you. She’s his sister, even if they’ve never actually met. He deserves to be there, no matter what… ends up happening. I’ll be fine with these guys.”

Wyatt actually looked like he was about to object in spite of himself, but I shook my head at him firmly, repeating, “I’m fine. I’ll just stay with these upstanding slabs of muscular meat and be a good little guest. This isn’t about me, anyway. She’s your twin sister, Wyatt. You really do need to be there.”

“Right then, come on.” Seller crouched next to Koren and Abigail, gesturing for Wyatt to join him. “We’ve got special dispensation to transport directly into the medical lobby, and a couple of the Victors will meet us there to… discuss the situation. But I need you to scooch in close if you’re coming.”

Hurriedly, Wyatt stepped over to me. He pressed a glass ball into my hand. “Anything bad happens,” he instructed, “you break this, okay? You break it, and it’ll bring me. It’ll bring me right to you. You’ll be safe. I won’t let anything happen to you, little sister. You break it and I’ll be there. I promise. Promise.”

Smiling as much as I could, I took the ball and nodded. “Go. Go with them. I’ll be fine.”

The poor guy still looked torn, but he stepped over to join the others, crouching down close to them. Seller did something, and all four disappeared, apparently off to whatever the medical lobby was.

I watched the spot where they’d been briefly, then straightened while turning to face the Unset. “Hi, guys.” I waved. “I’m Flick. I know this is a weird situation, but I don’t suppose you can talk to me?”

The one that Seller had been talking to looked at me severely for a moment. He was an enormous guy, as big as Professor Katarin. He looked Native American, with arms that were as big around as tree trunks. When he spoke, it was in a serious, gravelly tone. “We aren’t mute. Or deaf.”

The one behind him added in a voice that sounded just as serious at first. “Or eunuchs. If you were wondering.” He paused for a three count then, before adding dryly. “The new ones always wonder.”

That set the rest of the group actually chuckling a little bit, before the first one gave me a quick bow of his head after his lips quirked in a very short, quickly muted smile. “You can call me Croc. The eunuch behind me there is Price. And those three are Kimmer, Isosceles, and Truant. ” Raising an eyebrow after introducing all of them, he added with a very slight smile, “You look a little surprised.”

Flushing, I shook my head a little. “I dunno. I guess… I guess you’re not exactly what I expected.”

Croc actually chuckled a little at that. “That’s fair. We’re not silent, mindless automatons, Flick. We take our jobs seriously, and we obey our Victors. But we’re also not heartless. From what Seller said, you’ve had an awful night. I’m sorry about that. We all are. And for what it’s worth, I hope the Victors agree to save the woman.”

Swallowing hard at that, I nodded while murmuring, “So do I.” Pausing then, I blinked away the tears that threatened to take over my eyes again, forcing myself to focus on the now rather than the ‘what-if.’ When I spoke, my voice shook a little in spite of my efforts otherwise. “Y-you saw her. Do you think they’ll… they’ll make it in time? The Victors, how long will it take them to make a decision? I mean, I mean… Koren’s literally pumping her heart for her. And she wasn’t responding, she’s drugged or, or… magically cursed or something, I don’t know. But if they wait too long, if the Victors can’t decided in time, she might… might…” I couldn’t get the words out past the thick knot that had settled in my throat.

A heavy hand settled gently on my shoulder, and I glanced up to find Croc giving me a smile that looked almost too gentle and soft for his face. “I don’t know what they teach you about us over at that school of yours, but most of us aren’t actually monsters. And that goes for the Victors too. They won’t wait too long. Besides, the doctors we have down there are top of the line. They’ll make sure she’s taken care of until the time comes. I know you’re worried about her, but believe me, she’s in good hands.”

I nodded, and Croc paused before speaking again. “If you have any questions, I can try to answer them. Assuming, of course, that you don’t ask for any secret information. It might take your mind off everything for a few minutes.” He started to say something else then before pausing. Stepping past me, the big guy crouched down to pick up something from the wooden floor before holding it out. “Was this yours?”

Glancing that way, my eyes widened. “Herbie!” Hurriedly, I reached out to take the little rock. “Sorry, he must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we teleported here.” Holding my buddy in one hand, I checked on his sword. Columbus had fixed it so that the weapon could raise up or lower against the side of the stone so that it wouldn’t stick me when it was in my pocket. It didn’t seem to have gotten bent or damaged, so I quickly put him away again before looking up to find the Unset all watching me.

Their stares made me flush a little. “Sorry,” I murmured. “It’s—he’s… the rock I threw through the portal when I first found out about… magic and all this stuff. It’s probably dumb, but I just… it feels like… I mean…” I trailed off, unable to find the right words.

Croc shook his head. “The last thing you need to worry about now is justifying yourself to us, Flick.”

My mouth opened to say something else, but before I could find the words, there was a brief knock at the door. It was just two taps, and then the door opened. Another of the Unset, female this time, poked her head in. She focused on Croc before twitching two fingers at him. When he walked that way, the woman leaned close and whispered something too low for me to make out.

Croc murmured something back before turning to me. “This girl says she knows you.” Stepping back then, he moved his big arm just far enough out of the way to allow someone’s face to come into view.

“Miranda!” I blurted, surprised at the sight of the girl. I hadn’t expected her to be able to show herself, especially not this soon. “What are you–” Hurriedly, I nodded to the Unset. “Yes, I—we were friends before she was recruited here, and we met again awhile ago back in our home town. It’s okay.”

At least, I hoped it was okay that they knew about that. But then, Croc seemed pretty cool. And apparently the Unset didn’t pay attention to Tribe rivalries or politics, only to what the Victors said. Maybe that would help. But how had Miranda known I was here?

The Unset stepped out of the way then, allowing the other girl into the room. She came straight to me, and we hugged briefly. Part of me still wondered if we should be more subtle about the whole thing, but after everything that had happened, the rest of me didn’t really care that much. I hugged my friend tight before stepping back. “Randi, how did you—I mean… what… what did…?”

Croc cleared his throat from nearby. “The room’s been secured and if anyone else enters or leaves, we’ll know. Stay here and we’ll give you some privacy for a few minutes.” Looking back and forth between us, he waited until we both nodded before gesturing for his men to step out of the room with him.

As soon as they were gone, I blurted, “How did you know I was here? What’s going on?”

“Seller,” she answered softly. “He sent me a message, told me where to find you and what was going on. He thought you could use a friend.”

I blinked at that. “I didn’t… know he knew about you.”

Miranda flushed a little. “I—uh, yeah, he came to me awhile ago and gave me some advice about following Trice without being noticed. I guess he’s been watching over me a bit.”

Hugging her again, even tighter that time, I fought past the lump in my throat once more. “There’s… there’s so much to… I can’t even… he… he told you what happened?”

“His message did,” she confirmed quietly. “I’m so sorry, Flick. Your friend’s mother? Do… do you really think the Victors will let her join?”

I started to point out that Koren and Abigail were more than my sister and niece before remembering that Miranda wouldn’t remember it even if I told her. Sighing, I instead just said, “There’s more to the story, but there’s a magic curse thing stopping me from telling you.”

She blinked at me before taking that in stride. “Well, I’m really sorry. I hope, um, I hope she’ll be okay.”

Glancing around then as though making sure the room was empty, the other girl added, “But I really need to show you something. I was going to call you tonight anyway, after I heard it.”

“After you heard what?” I was grateful for a chance to think about anything but what was happening with Abigail.

“This,” Miranda answered while taking out a phone. “I noticed Trice and his group skulking away earlier, so I slipped this into his bag with the recorder app on.” Noticing the look I gave her, she added, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s not my phone, it’s a disposable one, and it won’t lead back to me. I wiped it clean. Anyway, listen. There’s more before all this about them talking to each other, but this is where it gets interesting.”

She hit the button, and I heard a voice that I recognized as Trice’s. “Fuck, there you are. How long were you planning on making us wa–” His voice choked off abruptly.

“Shut up,” another voice hissed in a whisper, too low for me to make out anything else about it through the recording. And yet, listening to it, I swore there was something familiar about the voice. “I don’t have time to listen to your complaints. She’s sleeping right now, but if I’m not there when she wakes up, you know what’ll happen.”

“Hey, hey, we get it.” That time I recognized Doxer’s voice. “We all get it. Right, Pacer?”

The response was a high giggle before the girl’s voice replied easily, “Keep choking him. He’s turning funny colors. I wanna see if he can go fuchsia. I like fuchsia. It’s a funny word.”

But the other person, the one with the familiar voice that I couldn’t place, must’ve stopped choking Trice because I heard a sudden, loud gasp of breath. That went on a couple times before the boy himself muttered, “Fuck, we got it. But we’re running risks here too. So why ain’t you sent that bitch over here yet?”

The voice shot back, “I told you, I’m working on it. First we have to find out where they’re hiding that stupid old man.”

“Pericles?” Doxer put in. “I thought he was six feet under already.”

“He should’ve been,” the voice snapped. “Especially considering everything I did to make sure of it. But the Headmistress’s little bitch still has whatever protection thing he put on her. Which means I can’t do anything to her without blowing my cover and ending up with half of Sinclaire’s lapdogs falling on top of me. Whatever he enchanted, it’s invisible and intangible. Even she probably doesn’t know it’s on her. But it’s there, and until it’s gone, I can’t fucking touch her. Which means there’s two fucking choices. Either strip her down and do a full on search–”

Doxer’s voice was lecherous. “I volunteer for that job.”

“Or,” the familiar-yet-distorted voice pressed on with obvious annoyance, “we make sure Pericles is dead so that his magic fades, then get dear, not-so-sweet Hannah before they have time to fix the problem. Like I said, I can get her through the shield, but not with whatever extra protection the old man stuck on her.”

“What if it wasn’t him?” Trice demanded. “I mean, you said you’re pretty sure you killed him.”

“It was him,” the voice snapped with obvious irritation. “Believe me, I may not have been able to do the entire identification spell, but I got the first name, and there’s only one person on that island named Zedekiah. It’s the old man. He’s alive, and they–”

My hand snapped out to stop the recording, my eyes wide. “No… he’s not…”

“What?” Miranda blinked up at me.

“Professor Pericles… they killed him to get at Avalon, because they thought he put some kind of protective artifact on her,” I spoke slowly. “Because, whoever that was heard the name Zedekiah connected with the spell. But Professor Pericles wasn’t the only person named Zedekiah. Or, not the only person that an identification spell would think of as Zedekiah.”

Wyatt, I thought, remembering what Deveron had told me just that evening about his son’s real name.

Professor Pericles was a mistake. The person they really wanted to kill to achieve their little goal… was Wyatt.

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Getting Some Answers 6-02

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I was three steps from the bowling alley when a realization struck me so suddenly that it was almost a physical blow. I literally tripped over my own feet, catching myself against the door as my eyes widened with the abrupt thought that, quite frankly, should have occurred to me ten minutes earlier.

Twister hadn’t set off my Stranger-awareness sense.

There had been no sense of alarm, no screaming alert in my head. I had seen her shapeshift, and yet there was nothing. No alarm in my head, no sense telling me that she wasn’t human, nothing at all.

How? Why? What the hell was going on? Why wouldn’t my Heretic sense go off when I saw her? It went off with everyone else, didn’t it? So why was it sleeping on the job when it came to Twister?

Ammon didn’t set off my alarm either. Which I had thought might be because of our apparent blood relation, similar to how our other abilities clearly didn’t work on each other. But that wasn’t right, because Seller hadn’t been alerted when he saw Ammon either. Unless he didn’t care about warning me, which I was at least going to give him the benefit of the doubt that he would have said something.

Except he was my ancestor. Which meant he was Ammon’s ancestor. So the blood relation was still there. Could that be why the kid didn’t set off Seller’s sense too? I didn’t know, but it seemed dangerous to assume that anyone else would have been able to sense him. If they could and I assumed they couldn’t, I would be wrong in a good way. But if they couldn’t and I assumed they could, the surprise would be… much less pleasant.

So I had to go with the assumption that Ammon didn’t set off anyone’s Heretical sense (which was kind of terrifying in whole new ways) because he was… what, because he was half-human? Maybe? But if that was the case, why wouldn’t Twister have set it off? Was it for the same reason? Was she half-human too or something? Or was her apparent Stranger radar (Strang-dar?) immunity something else?

“Yo, Barbie! You gonna go in, or just stand there like an idiot all day?” A teenage boy standing behind me tapped his foot impatiently, waving a hand for me to hurry up. “You need help figuring out how to work those complicated door handles? Or were the four letters on that Pull sign just too hard to read?”

Smiling as I turned to look over my shoulder, I adopted a cheerful tone. “Ohh, is that what it says?” Laughing lightly, I gestured toward the door. “That’s my bad. See, I thought it said, ‘wait here for impatient douche.’” Letting a shocked expression cross my face then, I pointed at the boy, then back to the door, then back to the boy with my mouth open. “What do you know? We were both right!”

The annoyed boy’s response was to shove past me and through the door, muttering, “Bitch.”

And that was apparently the end of our witty repartee, since I was interrupted by a hand catching my arm to pull me away from the door. When I jerked, the hand tightened almost painfully and Seller spoke in a low, terse voice. “Keep walking. Don’t say a word until I tell you to. Just be quiet and walk.”

The funny thing is, in that sort of situation, the urge to talk right after you’ve been told not to becomes almost unbearable. Or, it does for me anyway. I was practically biting my tongue off as we strolled around the back of the bowling alley to an alley between it and the liquor store. From there, we continued down the alley, past a couple more cross streets and through a parking lot. Whenever I glanced toward the man, he was always scanning in every direction. The sunglasses that he wore made it impossible to tell where his eyes were, but his head was in constant motion, taking in everything.

Finally, several blocks away from where we’d started, the man stopped. He stepped around in front of me while giving one last suspicious look around before speaking sharply. “What happened last night?”

“Uhhhh…” I trailed off, thinking through everything he might be referring to. “A lot of stuff?”

“No kidding.” His voice was flat. “Tell me about it. All of it.”

“First, answer a question,” I countered. “Did you notice anything suspicious yesterday when we met? Anything stand out to you? Anything that might’ve set off a screaming stranger alert in your head?”

“First, we don’t get the screaming alert,” the man replied simply. “That’s a Crossroads thing. Garden Heretics mostly get a feeling that’s kind of like uhh, hunger is the best thing I could compare it to. Hunger and adrenaline, like the sudden knowledge that a good hunt is about to happen.”

That derailed me into a totally different avenue of curiosity. “Wait, it’s a different feeling for you guys? You don’t feel the ‘danger, danger, danger’ thing? Well, which came first, your policy and attitude about Strangers, or the way your Strangedar works? Which one influenced the other?”

“Why don’t we focus on you answering the question first,” Seller replied tersely. “What happened?”

So I told him about Ammon. I told him all of it, actually. Yeah, part of me wanted to hold back things like what the son of a bitch that kidnapped my mother had said about all that. I didn’t want it getting back to Crossroads somehow so that they would try even harder to bury everything I needed to know.

But honestly, if he was going to do that, Seller could already tell them more than enough. At this point, I had to trust that he wasn’t going to blab. So I told him everything. In for a penny, in for a pound.

By the time I was done, when I finished telling the man everything that had happened since we’d separated the day before, his face was noticeably paler, which didn’t do a lot to encourage optimism.

“You know who it was, don’t you?” I stared at my ancestor with realization. “You’d have to. That—his shtick is too specific, and he’s too powerful not to be one of the big names. You know the guy.”

“I’ve heard of him,” Seller confirmed in a quiet, reluctant voice. “Unfortunately, he’s not the kind of creature that lives out a quiet life in the suburbs without bothering anyone. He’s… bad. Real bad.”

“I kind of got that impression already.” I resisted the urge to shudder with fear at the memory of the monster’s threat to return in one year. Terror and helplessness weren’t useful feelings. I had to focus. “What else can you tell me tell me about him? Like a name, for instance. What’s his name?”

Still, Seller hesitated. “Look, this really isn’t the sort of thing a student should be dealing with.”

“Well, I don’t really have a choice!” I snapped, raising my voice before catching myself. “He named me, okay? He wants me. I didn’t pick this fight, I didn’t flip through a book of indescribable evil, point to a random entry, and say, ‘I choose this son of a bitch to ruin my life.’ He came after me. He did it a decade ago and my mother stopped him by letting him take her instead. In a year, he’s gonna do it again. He’ll come after me, and he’ll go through anyone in his way to get what he wants. Which means that I can either spend a year crying about how unfair it is and then curl up and wait for him to play his sick games, or I can spend it trying to beat him. So do me a favor. Stop telling me how much I shouldn’t have to deal with this because I’m just a student, and give me some information I can actually use.”

For a moment after I finished, the man said nothing. He just watched me through those shades of his before letting out a long breath. “You’re telling me that this creature has stolen one of my descendants, forced her to have a half-breed child with him, and is attempting to take you as well. Another of my descendants.”

“That about sums it up,” I confirmed darkly. “And what about this half-breed thing. Is that common?”

He shook his head. “No. That’s… new, coming from him. I’ve heard of a few other Stranger races being able to procreate with humans and make offspring like that, but not like this. Every other half-breed I know of is mostly human except for their immunity to the Bystander Effect. Like a vampire’s child. Whatever this Ammon is, it’s something different. Something I’ve never heard of before.” The man paused then before looking at me. “The responsible part of me thinks you should tell your superiors.”

“I’ll tell them some of it,” I confirmed. “I’ll tell them about Ammon. But not him. Not that I saw him. If I do, they’ll just try even harder to hide what happened with my mother from me. They’ll pay attention to what I’m looking at, they’ll bury it even deeper. Half that council, whatever it is, voted to keep me out of the school, to stop me from being a Heretic at all. I refuse to believe that they went through whatever magical ritual garbage they had to do to erase my mother from everyone’s memory, and then didn’t keep track of her afterward. And if they were keeping track of her, then they know she disappeared. They knew it back then. Which means they probably know why she disappeared. And if they knew why she disappeared, then they knew that leaving me out here, clueless and alone, was a death sentence. They knew it, and half of them still voted for it. They already proved, right then, that they care more about protecting their stupid secrets or holding whatever grudges they have against my mother than they care about what happens to either me or her. So no, I’m not telling them a damn thing about what I already know until I have a better idea of who I can trust and who I can’t.”

“Fair enough,” Seller conceded. “Fine. The man you met last night has a few different names. He’s been around for a long time. But the name most people know him by is Fossor.” In response to my blank look, he spelled it for me and added, “It’s what the early Christian church called gravediggers.”

“Fossor,” I repeated the name quietly, feeling an involuntary shudder run through me. Somehow, giving a name to the monster who had terrified me so much the night before didn’t make me feel much better.

Shaking that off, I refocused my attention. “Why did you want to know what happened last night? How did you know anything happened at all—wait, dumb question. All those deaths. The better question is, why isn’t this place swarming with Heretics right now? Why haven’t I been grabbed and questioned already? Hell, why aren’t my teachers here trying to find out what the hell happened to me?”

“Oh trust me, they would have been,” Seller assured me. “You would’ve had half your school faculty dropped on your head the instant anything happened. They don’t just send out first year students without keeping track of them. Even we don’t do that, and Garden students are generally less… coddled than Crossroads. No, the second you were in danger, it should’ve set off a dozen alarms back there.”

“So why didn’t it?” I asked with a frown. “The same reason they couldn’t step in when Avalon and I were locked in the room with the Peridles? Or when those guys from your school ambushed my team?”

He had the courtesy to at least flinch. “Trice, Doxer, and Pace weren’t working alone. We know that much. Whether those attacks have anything to do with this… I don’t know.”

“Aren’t you a teacher or something out there?” I demanded. “Why don’t you just try asking them?”

“Garden works differently than Crossroads,” he replied. “It’s not so much a school as… an army. Or several armies. We’re a collection of semi-independent groups operating under one banner in public. But in the Garden itself, there’s eight different tribes. Trice and his friends are part of a different tribe than I am. Which means I have no actual authority over what they do or what happens to them.”

The answer made me sigh. Of course it couldn’t be that simple. “Right, fine. Why hasn’t anyone from Crossroads showed up to check out what’s going on yet? And why did you insist on walking all the way out here? That can’t just be because of the people that Ammon murdered. There’s something else.”

“I couldn’t say if there were alarms about what happened to you or not,” Seller replied. “If there were, they were probably overshadowed by every other alarm that was going off last night.”

“Wait,” I had to double-take. “What other alarms? What happened last night?”

“Oh just about everything.” The man sighed. “I couldn’t guess how much your people picked up, but on our end, we had no less than a dozen separate Stranger attacks in high population areas in the country in the same two hour time period. We’ve been running ourselves ragged just to keep things under control. I almost called off our meeting here until I saw the news about all the deaths here and knew it had to have something to do with you. So I ran a test and you had gravewatch markers.”

“Gravewatch markers?” I echoed with a frown. “What the hell are gravewatch markers?”

“Ah, didn’t have that class yet, huh?” Seller shrugged. “Long story short, a necromancer will put gravewatch markers on a person that they want ghosts to keep track of. Then their summoned pets keep track of the person that was marked and report back. There’s other uses, but that’s the one they were using.”

I stared at the man, opening my mouth and then shutting it as I tried to cope. “Let me get this straight. You’re saying I’ve had ghosts following me around, reporting about what I’m doing to this Fossor guy?”

“Sounds like it was him, yeah,” the man confirmed. “There were two of them. So that’s why we took that little walk. I set a little trap in this area. The spirits crossed into it and got burned. So you’re clean now. No more gravewatch markers. You’re welcome for that.”

“How long were they there?” I demanded. “Was this new or have they been-no, they couldn’t have been there already. I may not know who to trust at Crossroads, but they would have noticed that much. He must have stuck them on me last night, to keep track of what I’m doing.”

That had to sit for a minute. The idea of that monster putting any kind of magic on me made me want to throw up again. I had to shudder heavily before forcing myself to focus. “A dozen attacks that you guys noticed. Probably different ones that Crossroads noticed. That has to be related, right?”

Seller nodded. “Someone as big as Fossor is, yeah. That would make sense. He has the clout to pull it off. I’d say he set off those attacks to keep everyone busy so that no one showed up to check on you. If you didn’t personally call for help, they wouldn’t notice one more situation.”

“And he made damn sure I couldn’t call for help,” I murmured under my breath. “Now they’re so busy dealing with all those other attacks that they still don’t know what happened here.”

That answered one question, but I was reminded of the next one. “Hey, speaking of not noticing things, what about other strangers that don’t set off my alarm thing?”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “Other strangers? Besides this… half-breed you mentioned?”

I nodded. “Yeah, like Twister. Asenath’s friend. She’s a umm, pooka? But I didn’t get any kind of alert. She shapeshifted right in front of me and this whole Stranger sense of mine didn’t make a peep.”

“Ah,” he nodded then, adjusting his tie. “Yeah, pooka. That makes sense. ” In response to my blank stare, he shrugged. “There’s a few types of Strangers that even the Heretical Edge, in whatever form it takes, doesn’t pick up. Pooka are one of them. Why do you think mythology about whether they’re good or bad is so convoluted and unclear? They’re one of the Strangers we just can’t pin down.”

“What other kinds are there?” I asked. “And why don’t they tell us about these Strangers we can’t detect? And why would the Edge just completely fail at detecting them?”

Seller shook his head. “I’m not one of your teachers, but my guess is they just haven’t gotten to it yet. As for why, there’s a lot of theories about it, none of which we have time to go over. I have other things to take care of.” He produced the yearbook, holding it out to me. “This is for you, it’s set back to the way it was before it was altered.”

Taking the book, I had to resist the urge to open it right then and there. “I have a lot more questions.”

“So do I,” he replied. “For once, I might even enjoy going back and forth. Unfortunately, duty calls. Like I said, a dozen attacks. I can’t spare anymore time for this.”

His mouth opened to say something else, but then the man paused to frown slightly. “I… look, I haven’t exactly been keeping track of my descendants for a long time, but… I’m glad you’re not dead. And what you said about that creep taking your mother, I… I’ll see what I can do. You need help to deal with it, I’ll do what I can. For now, take this.” He reached into his pocket and then held something out to me.

I looked at the thing in his palm. “Gum?”

“Chew it up and swallow it,” he explained. “Yeah, I know. Just do it. After that, if you get in trouble, real trouble that you don’t have any other help with, say ‘Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Recourse.’ Got that?”

I took the stick of gum. “Buyer’s Remorse, Seller’s Recourse. Got it. Why?”

“The first time you say those words after you swallow that gum, I’ll know about it. I’ll know you said it and I’ll know where you are.” Seller took his sunglasses off to meet my gaze with his own pale eyes. “It will only work once. So don’t test it, don’t abuse it, and only use it when you have no other choice.”

Putting the gum in my mouth to chew, I nodded. “Okay. Worst case scenario emergency only, I get it.” While chewing, I tilted my head a little. “Does this current emergency thing mean you don’t have time to explain what happened between you and Asenath down in Texas?”

He visibly blanched. “I’ll let her tell the story, if she’s going to. Now I really have to run.”

I wanted to make him stay and answer more questions, but doing so felt selfish. There were dying people out there, people that had only been put into danger as a distraction so that Fossor could have his little chat with me. Making Seller stay here just to answer my questions instead of saving them would have been wrong.

“Okay,” I said. “If I find out anything else, I’ll send word through Avalon.”

“Good,” Seller gave a short nod, then looked awkward for a moment before turning away to walk. “Be careful. You should be clear of gravewatch markers now, but keep an eye out anyway. If you see a ghost, your sense will register it and let you know. But you have to actually see them first.”

“Watch out for ghosts, got it.” I watched the man walk away, then looked down at the book he’d handed over. Time to take it home and see what kind of answers it could give me.

And how many questions those answers led to.

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Visitations 5-03

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In the end, it was Ammon who brought me out of my momentary shock. The boy bumped up against me, pushing past a little bit to look out the door as well. “Who is it?” His voice was cranky.

For a couple of seconds, both he and the man in the emerald suit looked at one another. Then Seller raised his hand, extending it to the boy with an easy smile. “Ah, I didn’t know Flick had a brother.”

“He’s not my brother,” I replied automatically. Ammon sent me a clearly annoyed look at that. Was he offended or something? Eh, who knew what went on in the mind of a little boy. Dad had said that he kept asking about me, so maybe he thought my denying any kind of relation so fast meant that I didn’t like him or something. Which… No, Flick, be fair. You don’t even know the kid. I kept telling myself not to judge so quickly. The kid came off as creepy, but he was probably just raised that way.

Shaking that feeling off, I continued. “Ammon lives next door. We–” I hesitated, then stepped around the boy. “Give me a minute, Ammon, I’ll be right back. The gentleman here and I need to talk.”

“But my nam–” The boy got that far before I firmly closed the door behind me, leaving him inside.

“All right,” I started while motioning for the man to join me on the sidewalk in front of the house. After giving a quick glance toward the home next door where my father was, I continued. “Look, there’s some things we need to talk about. It’s more than just this year book. Maybe a lot more.”

I saw his eyebrows raise behind the dark shades that he had returned to his face. “Is that right?” His voice was neutral. “You wouldn’t be angling for an invitation to the Garden, would you? Because I’d normally be all for that, but Hannah—ahh, Avalon doesn’t seem to hate you nearly as much as she hates most people. So that ain’t–”

“It’s not about that,” I interrupted firmly. “It’s about you, and my vision. The one the Edge gave me.”

The man’s head turned a little, clearly absorbing that. His voice was quiet. “What exactly did you see?”

I started to answer, but then glanced toward the neighbor’s house and changed my mind. “Not here. Not right now. Look, uhh, meet me at the…” I tried to think of a decent place to talk to Seller in the middle of town. “The bowling alley about four blocks that way.” Pointing, I added, “I’ll be there in an hour.”

“I dunno,” the man sounded doubtful. “Deal with Avalon was to pick up the book, fix it, return it. That’s all. I’m not usually in the business of charity, so if you’ve got some kind of extra problem…”

“Just meet me there!” I insisted, lowering my voice to a hiss to avoid attracting attention. This was a quiet neighborhood. “Please, Seller. You care about Avalon, I know you do. Trust me, she’d want you to do this. It’s important. I just don’t want to get into it right here in the middle of the street.”

He hesitated, but in the end the man in the emerald suit bowed his head. “Bowling alley, one hour. Fine.” Raising a hand, he pointed at me. “But don’t be late, Miss Chambers. I may care about Avalon, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give you more than one chance with this. If you’re not there, I will leave.”

“I’ll be there,” I promised, then turned to head back into the house. “And I’ll bring the book.”

******

Fifty-seven minutes later, I stepped into the bowling alley. Lunch had passed quickly, particularly after I insisted that we take the pizza over to my dad and Ammon’s aunt. Knowing that I was about to duck out on my father left me less willing to wait for him to come back, so I had brought the food over there with Ammon insisting the whole way that we didn’t have to do that because his aunt hated pizza.

Which was weird, considering how quickly she had gone after it when the food was presented. She had eaten like a starving woman, putting away half a pizza all on her own. Clearly the boy was wrong.

With another sharp pain at the act of lying, I’d told my father that I was going to go take a walk around the town, that I missed it and wanted to see things again. He’d been fine with it, though he made me promise to be back in a couple hours so we could go shopping to prepare for my birthday the next day.

Ammon was a different story. It took work to extricate myself from the boy. I had to promise that we’d watch a movie and play a game or something when I got back. That poor kid, I couldn’t imagine how lonely he had to be to become so obsessed with spending time with a girl almost twice his age.

Finally, however, I’d made my way out of the house and to the meeting point pretty much just in time. As I came into the bowling alley, it took only a handful of seconds to spot Seller sitting at one of the tables on the other end of the room. His suit stood out in stark contrast compared to what the rest of the relatively few people in the place were wearing, though he didn’t really seem to mind. Most of his attention, from what I could tell, was centered on the enormous plate of nachos in front of him.

“These,” he announced when I drew nearer to pull out a chair, “are fucking amazing. Why didn’t anyone tell me bystanders made such good food? They’re rubbish at a lot of things, but this…” Making a noise of approval, the man lifted a large chip that was thoroughly smothered in cheese and took a bite.

“So glad you approve,” I replied dryly before setting my bag next to me on the floor. Unzipping it, I took out the yearbook. “Here,” Passing the book to him, I added, “Try not to get cheese all over it.”

Wiping his hand with a napkin, Seller took the book, snapping it open to the first page. While he was examining it, making little thoughtful noises under his breath, I couldn’t help but stare.

It was him. I’d only seen the man once in that vision, but his face was burned into my memory. This was my ancestor, the one my Heretical vision had been centered on. He looked different now, of course. More confident, more capable, not to mention more fashionable. But it was definitely him.

“Are you gonna say something, or just keep staring?” He asked without looking up from the book. “If you’re looking for a conversation piece, why don’t you start with what role I played in this vision of yours?” He finally glanced up to meet my gaze, but I couldn’t read his expression past the sunglasses.

There were ways I could take this. I could be evasive. I could wait until I had more information. I could do any number of things. Hell, I’d seen so many movies and read so many books that went to great lengths to avoid being completely straight forward with something like this. It was like there was some kind of universal rule against just telling someone what you knew or suspected right off the bat. No, there had to be a huge lack of communication that led to horrible misunderstandings first.

Well fuck that, I don’t intend to live my life by narrative convention. Instead, I met the man’s gaze as much as I could and spoke plainly. “You’re my ancestor.” Watching his reaction, I added, “You’re the one my vision focused on. You and the headmistress, back with the trolls or orcs or whatever they were. The monsters that had you in the cage. You abandoned them. You ran away. You were a coward.”

At first, he said nothing in response to that. The man simply sat there, forehead creased ever so slightly with thought. A single strand of otherwise immaculate black hair stood out from the rest, catching my attention as the silence continued on for several long seconds before he finally spoke. “Yes. I was.”

Before I could say anything else in response to that, Seller continued. “Luckily, people aren’t locked into one choice for their entire lifetime. It’d be a pretty bad fucking tragedy if they were, especially people like us. Our lifetimes are a hell of a lot longer than Bystanders, unless you get horribly murdered. Point is, you get a lot more chances to choose. Choose right, choose wrong, whatever. Things change. I made some bad choices, did some bad things. Still do. But I ain’t the man now that I was in that vision. I’m not gonna say I’m good, cuz there’s some shady shit in my past. Hell, probably got just as shady shit coming up in my future. But I’m not that guy. Just like you won’t be this same girl you are now in fifty years, a hundred years, two hundred years. We change. That’s life. Change or die.”

“I know you’re not the same,” I replied. “Or the headmistress would’ve killed you like she promised.”

He chuckled low. “Yeah, we had a few run-ins before things settled down a bit. Still not exactly friends, but we can talk to each other, even exchange favors. Especially when it comes to Avalon. I guess it’s sort of like being her divorced parents, except that Gaia and I never actually did anything that close.”

The next question hung in the air between us. He knew I was going to ask it, but he waited patiently. Finally, I spoke the words we both knew were coming. “What do you know about my Mom?”

“I can’t say much,” he started. My mouth opened to object, but he held up a hand to stop me. “Just stop for a second, okay? Let me explain. You know about magic, the whole enchantment thing?” When I nodded slowly, the man continued. “Let’s just say it’s possible, very difficult, but possible, for a sufficiently powerful spell to actually enchant an idea, an explanation, a story, that sort of thing.”

My head shook in confusion. “I don’t get it. What do you mean, enchant an idea?”

“Not really an idea,” he amended. “More like the words. Specific words, specific conversations. Like, let’s say I really wanted to stop everyone in the world from singing any more fucking Bieber songs. I get a bunch of other powerful people who think the same way I do, and I put an enchantment on those songs. From that point on, no one who wasn’t a part of the spell or excluded from it would remember the lyrics. And anyone who was excluded or a part of it who did remember them would be incapable of telling them to anyone who wasn’t. I don’t mean it would be hard, I mean it would be physically impossible. Even if the other person knew that little Canadian fuck was a singer and that I knew all the songs, I wouldn’t be able to tell him anything. As long as the spell was active, it would be impossible for me to actually tell anyone who wasn’t excluded from it what the lyrics were.”

I stared at the man. “So you know my mother, you know what happened. But there’s some spell that stops you from explaining any of it to me directly because I wasn’t excluded from it?” When he gave a single nod, I let out a long, low sigh. “Okay, fine. What if you and someone else who already knew everything were to talk about it and someone like me just happened to be close enough to overhear?”

“Good try,” he replied with a shake of his head. “But it’s not that easy. If you were close by while two of us were talking about it, you wouldn’t actually hear anything. The magic wouldn’t let you.”

Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I muttered, “Of course, because clearly that would’ve been too damn easy.” Then I took a moment to think. “Someone else got around that, I think. He said he couldn’t talk about it directly. He didn’t explain it like you did, but he did get around it by giving me an idea of where to look. That’s how I found the picture in the first place, the one with my mother in it. Is there anything like that you can say? Anything that might lead me to answers without violating the spell?”

Seller considered that for a few seconds. His head turned away, a slight frown creasing his forehead as he thought. “Anything I can tell you that would help…” He murmured the words before nodding. “All right, let’s see. Generally speaking, if a student at that school of yours were to get into trouble, especially if they had a habit of it, there’d be records of it in the Security office. Records that, for obvious reasons, are secured against tampering. You know, just in case Johnny B. Rebel learns enough magic to try changing his record while he’s in school. If someone was looking for unaltered records about disciplinary actions against some troublemaker, that’d be a good place to check.”

“The security office?” I blanched a little. “I doubt they have an open door policy for students.”

Seller shrugged. “I didn’t say it was gonna be easy, kid. You asked for possibilities. That’s one.”

“Thanks, I… I’ll figure it out.” I managed to reply without sighing too much. “What about the book?”

He waved it at me. “Now this I can help with. I can’t explain anything you see in it, but this is extra magic, some spell that was done later to alter the records. It’s not part of the big one. Give me about twenty-four hours and I’ll get it undone for you. Like I said, I can’t explain what you’ll see, but I can undo the alterations and give you the book back.”

“Twenty-four hours?” I echoed before resisting the urge to sigh yet again. That was longer than Avalon had thought it would be. “All right, I’ll meet you back here tomorrow at this time. I’ll probably have more questions. Especially about you, and this Garden, and… everything.” I had plenty of those questions now, but I wanted to take the time to plan out what I was going to ask. Plus, I felt kind of weird about leaving my father alone with Ammon. Which was just ridiculous. He was a little boy, and he’d been alone with Dad for weeks now. My brain was doing weird things to me.

“Right,” Seller tucked the book under his suit jacket, where it disappeared from sight without leaving a bulge. “Right here tomorrow at this time. I’ll bring the book, and see what I can do about answering those questions.”

Stealing one of his nachos, I munched on it briefly while staring at the man. It really was weird seeing him like this, when my first impression had been so… different. Had he been close to my mother? How distantly related were we? Did he know Professor Pericles, the man who had supposedly delivered my mother at birth? How much did he actually know about any of this? All of it? Pieces? Hardly any? It was impossible to tell, since he was apparently prevented from talking about it.

Magic clearly had as much potential to be annoying as it did to be amazing.

******

I was still thinking about that whole magic thing as I strolled up the street a short time later toward my house. The hamster on the wheel of my brain was running himself ragged trying to think of ways that I could safely get into that security office and see what was in there without anyone finding out. So far, I was coming up blank.

As I approached the house, Dad emerged at a quick walk. He had Ammon’s aunt with him, the two of them heading for our car. I raised a hand. “Hey, what’s the rush? Where’re you guys going?”

“Sorry,” Dad’s voice sounded weird. “We have to go. Rose’s father is in the hospital.”

“Oh, oh, the hospital. I’m sorry,” I stared at the older woman, whose face looked fairly blank for someone whose father was in the hospital. Maybe she was in shock. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“We have to go,” Dad repeated. “Her father is really sick. We’ll probably be gone most of the night.”

“Oh…” Disappointment reared up in me, and I immediately felt ashamed of myself. The woman’s father was obviously in bad shape. “I get it. Go ahead, I’ll uhh, I’ll watch the kid.”

“You watch Ammon,” Rose agreed. “You’re a good babysitter. We’ll check in.”

The two of them got in the car, Dad barely taking the time to hug me rather distractedly before they set off.

Well, that was… weird. Not that I blamed my father for being distracted. If the poor woman’s dad was in such bad shape, obviously she needed help to get there. And maybe there was no one else who could possibly stay with her through it.

Still, it had been awfully abrupt. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit upset that my father was going to be gone through one of the two nights that I was home. But every time I let myself think that way, the guilt rose up and I pushed the thought away.

Finally, I turned, only to find Ammon himself standing on the porch, staring at me again. “Oh, hey there, kid. Guess it’s just you and me tonight, huh?”

He smiled faintly. “Yes, Flick.” His voice was chipper. “Just you and me.

“I’m gonna have fun.”

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Visitations 5-02

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Stepping back into the real world, a world where the crowd of people (Well, if you counted a family of three and a couple teenagers skateboarding as a crowd. It was still Wyoming) who bustled around me were all completely normal human beings had been an odd sensation. Even after such a short time away, the world away from Crossroads already felt less familiar. Even the cracked pavement beneath my feet seemed awkward and different to walk on. The smells especially, god, the smells. Everywhere I turned, new smells that I had never noticed before being away from any city for over a month stood out. The garbage lying next to the can, the rotting sandwich abandoned near the drainage ditch, everything stood out more than it had before. I noticed so much more that had previously been lost in the background. All of it crowded my brain for attention, almost overwhelming me at first.

That and the temperature. I noticed the cold a lot more than I had before. After spending a couple months on the island where it was either the perfect temperature under the shield or very warm outside of it, stepping into Wyoming weather in late October was a real wake-up call.

Thanks to the portal created by Professor Dare, I had emerged from the restroom of the bus station about forty miles away from my hometown. All I had to do was take the ticket that the professor had given me, step up onto the bus that had been steadily making its way cross-country along with the rest of the sleepy passengers while showing my ticket, and take an empty seat. If anyone noticed that I hadn’t been on the bus before this leg, they didn’t say anything, and if my father looked at my ticket, it would look as though I had just traveled over a thousand miles on this bus. As far as he would know, I had been traveling all night long. More lies. The necessity of it wasn’t lost on me, but it still hurt.

“Flick!” Forty miles later, the voice of my father called over the sound of the bus’s loud engine settling as we pulled up to the stop nearest my house. Turning my head, I saw the man himself standing outside of the bus, clearly too impatient to wait for me to get off before getting my attention. He waved, and I couldn’t help the laugh that came as I waved back. God, he was so… enthusiastic. His boundless energy and optimism in spite of everything that had happened, everything he had seen, was infectious. My father was a big bear of a man with a thick somewhat graying beard and hair that was almost as long as mine. He looked like a mountain man, yet his face was kind, his eyes intelligent and bright with obvious curiosity and love of life.

He was my dad, and it took until I was seeing him in person again to realize how much I missed him.

After gathering my bag and making my way to the front of the bus, I waited my turn before stepping down to the pavement. That, apparently, was as far as my father’s patience extended, because I barely had time to start to lift a hand in greeting before he was right there reaching for me, intent on snatching my body up into a tight hug that would crush me against his chest.

Without conscious thought, I sidestepped the rising arms, turned to catch one wrist in my hand, and applied pressure while twisting it. Simultaneously, my other hand moved to grab the false cell phone case at my belt that held my staff. My fingers got as far as unsnapping it before my brain caught up.

“Oh!” Quickly, my eyes wide, I released my father’s wrist and took a quick step back. My face burned as I pushed the snap of the case back down. “Crap, Dad! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

Grimacing, my father rubbed his wrist, eyeing me ruefully. “Jeeze, kid,” he teased. “If I’d known you were gonna learn Kung Fu, I would’ve tried harder to get you the birthday presents you wanted.”

Relieved that he didn’t seem hurt, though still feeling horrified about what had just happened, I stepped in to hug him tightly. Only once we had embraced did I retort, “Lucky I didn’t take up archery then.”

I felt more than heard his light chuckle through the hug that he refused to let go of. “You didn’t mention you were taking any self-defense courses, kid. Not that I’m complaining, but what brought that on?”

The question made me flinch a little. And so the lying to my father’s face began. At least I could tell as much of the truth as possible. “It’s mandatory at the school. Everyone learns self-defense.” There, that was absolutely true. No lie in the statement at all. Now all I had to do was hope that Dad didn’t ask–

“Huh, that sounds different. Why would they make that a requirement?” His tone was gently curious, without any hint of disbelief or accusation. Even then, however, I couldn’t help the slight flinch that came. Damn the infamous Lincoln Chambers curiosity. Not that I had much room to talk, considering I’d inherited all of it.

“You know, the Headmistress is just really into health, exercise, and being able to take care of ourselves,” I tried to answer a little evasively. “She wants us to be safe.” Yeah, as safe as possible while hunting down the evil monsters that secretly preyed on humanity itself. Simple, Dad.

“Well, good,” he announced before finally releasing me from his embrace. His hand came up to rub through my hair. “Sounds like they’ve got the right idea. I should’ve had you start taking courses a long time ago. Your mother wanted you to, you know.” There was a slight hint of pain in his voice in spite of his effort to hide it, and I noticed the way that he subconsciously rubbed the finger where he still wore his wedding ring. The ring he steadfastly refused to take off even now, a decade after his wife had left.

“She did?” I asked, looking up at the man while trying to sound more surprised than I was. If Mom really had been part of the Heretics, then maybe it was instinct that she would want her daughter to know how to fight. Or maybe it was just the sheriff in her.

Dad nodded easily, his eyes lost in the past for a moment. “Joselyn wanted you to enroll in all these courses. She had flyers and…” He shook his head then, a long sigh escaping him. “I dropped the ball there. Sorry, kid. Your mom, she’d be… pretty pissed off that I never got you into any of that.”

Anything I might have said stuck in my throat. My opinion of my mother was so messed up at the moment that I couldn’t find the right words. There was obviously something heretic involved with why she disappeared to begin with. Not knowing exactly what happened was messing with my emotions. I wanted to continue hating her as much as I had for the past ten years, but the uncertainty made that hard. Was it her fault? Had something happened to force her away? Did she leave out of some attempt to protect us? Did a Stranger recognize her and do something awful? I didn’t know, and not knowing was horrible, because it meant that I had no closure. Every time I got mad about her leaving, I imagined her being attacked and hurt by monsters that she couldn’t protect herself from and the guilt that rose up completely overwhelmed the anger. There was just too much that I didn’t know. I felt lost.

Dad was frowning as he touched my chin, clearly noticing my hesitation. “You okay there, Flickster?”

Forcing a smile, I nodded. “Sure, I’m fine. It was just a long trip, you know.” Shrugging, I added, “And don’t worry about the self-defense thing, Dad. I’m learning plenty right now.”

“You sure are!” He announced with a loud belly laugh that attracted the attention of the few people who were passing by. “You’re pretty damn quick for someone that just started taking lessons this year.”

“I’ve got good teachers,” I murmured quietly before prodding him. “Come on, can we go? I sort of didn’t bother to pick up anything for breakfast.” On the heels of that confession, my stomach growled.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Shaking his head in obvious exasperation, Dad nodded while waving his hand toward the waiting car. “Come on, let’s get you fed. While we’re at it, you can tell me all about this bad ass teacher that’s showing my little girl how to be a real life Ninja Turtle.”

“Uhh, wouldn’t that require being an actual turtle too?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.

“Hey, you’ve been gone for two months!” He retorted. “I dunno what they’re doing with you out there.”

******

We stopped by the pizza place on the way home and picked up a couple large pies. Dad kept asking if I’d gotten enough sleep on the bus, mentioning that I could take a nap if I needed to. Telling him I’d slept plenty was another reminder that I would have to figure out what to do to make him think I was actually sleeping through the night for the next couple of days. The last thing I wanted him to do was worry that my not sleeping meant something was wrong. And I couldn’t exactly tell him the real reason.

At least my appetite hadn’t been reduced. It was all I could do not to open the boxes up and start eating in the car on the way to the house. The smell was just so good. It was that familiar scent that made me fully realize that, for the next couple days at least, I was home. I was really home. Things were normal.

Once Dad got the car parked, I stepped out of the car, holding both of the boxes high above my head while striding to the familiar front door. “I got my lunch, what’re you planning to eat?”

“Oh, that’s your lunch, huh?” Dad chuckled, crossing around the back of the car while hitting the button to lock it. “Ammon might have something to say about that.”

Blinking over my shoulder at him while crossing the grass, I echoed, “Ammon? Who—oh the kid.” Remembering what he’d said about the new neighbor, I shrugged. “You got him mowing the lawn yet?”

“Ammon doesn’t mow the lawn,” Dad replied, sounding a little odd. “He’s special.”

“Special?” I stopped by the door while looking back at him again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Before he could answer, the door behind me opened with a creak, and an unfamiliar voice spoke, “Hi!”

Startled, I turned that way so quickly I almost dropped the pizzas. I hadn’t been expecting anyone to be inside our house. “What–” I started before my eyes caught sight of the kid standing in the doorway.

He looked weird. Okay, well no, not exactly weird. At first glance, there was absolutely nothing strange about the kid. He had a wild nest of blonde hair not all that different from my own, he was thin and maybe a little dirty. But nothing too unusual for a young boy that looked like he was about nine or ten. His clothes were perfectly ordinary, and his eyes seemed earnest with a hint of mischievousness.

And yet, even as my eyes cataloged everything that was normal about the kid, my brain refused to completely believe it. I couldn’t explain it aside from comparing the situation to looking at one of those magic eye pictures, where you don’t quite see whatever the special image is, but you can tell it’s there.

Before I could figure out what was wrong, or if I was just being paranoid after spending so much time at Crossroads, the boy piped up, “You must be Flick!” The grin on his face was infectious. The kid was like one of those adorable little child actors from the movies. He radiated so much innocence and charisma it was almost unnatural. “My name is Ammon! You should come inside with me.”

I proceeded into the house, still holding the pizzas. “You want a couple pieces of this, Ammon?” I asked while heading for the kitchen, where I set down the boxes before grabbing a few plates. When I turned back, only the kid was standing there in the doorway. “Oh, hey, where’d my Dad go?”

“He had to talk to my aunt,” the boy replied easily. “They’ll probably be busy for awhile.”

“Your aunt, huh?” I echoed while stepping back into the living room to put my bag on the nearby armchair. “That who you’re staying with?” I was curious about where his parents were, but I restrained myself from asking, considering my own parental history. Still, I couldn’t completely shake the strange feeling that looking at him gave me. It was a sort of tingle under the skin that wouldn’t go away.

When I looked back at him, the kid was just sort of standing there, staring at me. It made me feel even more creeped out. But he wasn’t technically doing anything wrong. Just… staring with this weird sort of smile, like he didn’t know that he was doing anything strange. When the boy finally did speak, his tone was dismissive. “Yes, I’m staying with my Aunt Rose. You should come into the kitchen with me.”

Turning on my heel, I walked back into the kitchen with the boy before moving to put pizza on the plates that I had taken down. “You like pizza, Ammon? Three-meat or Hawaiian? Just so you know, the second one’s mine so we’ll have to thumb wrestle for it if you take too much.”

“I’ll have whatever you have,” the boy replied simply, still not taking his eyes away from me. I wondered if he had blinked at all since I’d seen him. Trying to remember, I continued putting food on the plates. “Dad likes the meat one, so we’ll leave that for him. You think your aunt will want some?”

“Who cares?” As dismissive as the words were, his tone was clearly curious. It was like he honestly wanted to know who would care whether his aunt was hungry or not. But that was… no, that couldn’t be what he meant. My paranoia after everything I’d seen at Crossroads was clearly getting out of hand.

“I think your aunt might care,” I pointed out mildly. “We’ll save a little for her.”

“Maybe,” he replied doubtfully before gesturing to the seat next to him. “You should sit down with me.”

I did so, bringing both of our plates. “Do you know what my dad wanted to talk to your aunt about?” It was kind of weird that he hadn’t said a word to me before stepping over there, but maybe he wanted to give me a chance to talk to Ammon. He had said that the kid had been kind of obsessed with meeting me. Knowing my father, he might just want me to meet the boy so he could ask me if Ammon was really as creepy as he thought he was. That sounded like the sort of thing Dad would do. He liked to get my unspoiled opinion. Hell, this aura of creepiness and somewhat spoiled attitude might have been what he meant when he said the kid was ‘special.’

In response, the boy just shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But they’ll be awhile.”

Before I could ask how he knew that they were going to be busy if he didn’t know what they were talking about, the doorbell rang.

“Whoops, hold that thought,” I set my plate down and straightened up.

“You should ignore that,” the boy stated flatly.

I stopped, looking at him. “I should ignore that?”

He nodded. “You should sit back down and talk to me. They can wait.”

“They can wait,” I replied… before shaking my head. “Dude, that’s not how things work.”

Ammon blinked (so he did blink after all!), looking confused for the first time. “Uh, what?”

Shaking my head, I straightened from the table. “You can’t just leave people standing at the door ringing the bell. What’s your aunt been teaching you?”

“My name is Ammon.” He spoke the words sharply, like it was some kind of mantra. “You should sit down again.”

“Don’t worry, kid, I’ll be right back.” Giving his plate a nudge toward him, I added, “You should eat. Lemme just see who’s there.” Turning, I started for the front room.

“But my name is Ammon!” The boy’s voice was louder, his confusion more apparent. “You should stay!”

“Don’t yell in the house, Ammon,” I advised. “It’s bad manners. Now just eat your food, I’ll be back in a second, I promise.”

Leaving the strangely confused boy behind, I walked into the living room and opened the front door, blinking at the sight on the steps. “Uhh…”

“Flick?” The man standing there on the porch wore an emerald green suit over a black dress shirt. His sunglasses were so dark I wondered how he could see out of them. “The name’s Seller. I saw your pops go next door, so I thought I’d get that book off you while we had the chance. Should take me a couple hours to–” He stopped himself, frowning at me. “Are you all right?”

“Could you take off your glasses?” I asked quietly.

Raising an eyebrow, the man obliged, taking his shades off before looking back at me. “Is everything all right then? Han—Avalon said you were quirky, but she didn’t say anything about you having a thing against sunglasses.”

I was silent. My eyes wouldn’t leave his, even as I struggled in vain to speak, to find the right words. Nothing came. My brain had completely locked up.

The man on the porch was the man I had seen in my Heretical Edge vision, the man who had run away and abandoned the headmistress.

Seller… was my ancestor.

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