Seth

The Third Degree 21-05

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“Oh, sure, the angel fuckwads. Those fuckknobs are sticking their noses into this thing?”

For a moment after Seth finished speaking, I simply sat there on Quint’s back, holding the phone to my ear while staring across the water at Shiori. From the look on her face, she’d heard.

It was a bit after the whole conversation with the other two girls. Avalon had gone inside to tell Gaia what was going on, while I stayed out with Shiori to call Seth. And yeah, I told the vampire about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. Which might have been a bad idea, but honestly, he was one of the very, very few people that I could be absolutely sure wasn’t possessed. After all, if he had been, the Seosten would’ve already known about the Fahsteth thing from the start. And I wanted him to know what he was dealing with if he ran into them. It was only fair.

Besides, I didn’t tell him the truth about how I knew about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. I wasn’t quite that naive. Instead, I’d told Seth that Gaia had informed me that the Seosten had ‘somehow found out about the meeting, likely from spying on us when we met him and the others in that park in Nebraska’. I left things vague enough to make it sound like Gaia had found out that the Seosten were involved through some kind of magic or inherited power, but that she didn’t know everything. Hopefully, if any Seosten heard about this particular conversation, they’d assume that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion about when they’d found out about the meeting, and that would throw them off.

And I definitely left out any mention of the fact that someone in my circle was compromised. I wanted the Seosten to think that one of my friends being possessed was completely out of my mind. The only way we were going to identify them was if they were more complacent, not less.

Finally, I found my voice and managed a somewhat weak, “Uhhh, you’ve heard of them?”

“Sure,” the reply came. “Had a run-in with couple of the bastards awhile back. Let me tell ya, they were a couple of the most pretentious sons-of-bitches I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of pretentious sons-of-bitches. So I did a little more looking into it, found out they’re all dicks. Now you’re saying there’s more of those assholes trying to shut up that merc you wanted to talk to?”

“That’s what Gaia said,” I confirmed. “So be careful, okay? And change the meeting, please?”  

“Yeah, kid, I’ll see what I can do.” Seth paused then before giving a soft sigh that I could barely hear. “And listen, you take care of yourself too. These fucks are dangerous, and if anything bad happens to you, I’ll never hear the end of it from Senny. She will make my life a total hell, and I ain’t in the mood for that. So don’t go getting yourself killed or possessed like an idiot, got it? And while you’re at it, keep my other sister out of trouble. Senny’d have a cow about that too.”

“I’ll do my best.” Shrugging, I glanced toward Shiori before hesitating for a moment. Finally, I added, “Don’t worry, Shiori and I will both do our best not to get possessed by an angel.”

The reply surprised me. “Well since you’re the only one that really needs to worry about that, I’d focus on keeping yourself free of infestation.”

Blinking, I looked at Shiori again. The other girl was staring back at me with a look that was just as confused as I felt. “Wait, what do you mean, I’m the only one that has to worry about it?”

There was a brief pause before Seth’s voice came back slowly. “Wait, you mean I know something you don’t? Well, isn’t that just a little interesting? Sounds like something else we can bargain for, huh? How much cash can you squeeze outta that headmistress of yours for it?”

Grimacing, I gripped the phone tighter. “Seth,” I half-snapped while trying to keep my voice as even as possible. “Please. We can deal with all that later. But it’s Shiori. It’s Shiori, Seth. I don’t know if you really give a shit about her and Senny, or if you’re just fucking around. But please.”

“Oh, all right, don’t get your panties in a twist,” the vampire retorted with an almost audible roll of his eyes. “We’ll deal with compensation later. But I promise, I’ll expect something good for this.”

“If it’s something good about the angels, you’ll get it,” I assured him while crossing my fingers on my free hand. It was probably nothing good. But on the off-chance that it was actually useful…

“All righty then.” I could hear the smirk in the vampire’s voice. It was pretty obvious that he enjoyed having information that others needed, even if he happened to like them. Or at least tolerated them. “Miss Shiori over there isn’t gonna get possessed because she’s a hybrid.”

“A hybrid?” I echoed his words, eyes locked onto where Shiori herself was staring back at me.

“Sure,” he started, “half-human and half-Alter?” There was amusement in his voice as he continued. “Need me to start at the beginning? When a human and an Alter love each other ver–”

“I know what a hybrid is,” I cut in. “What does it have to do with the angels not possessing her?”

“Well…” he drawled slowly, his enjoyment at dragging it out almost palpable. “They can’t do it.”

Almost falling off of my shark while jerking upright, I blurted, “They can’t possess hybrids?!”

I could hear the laugh in his voice at my reaction. “Well, now I’ve got your attention, huh?” After chuckling, he added, “I guess to put it right, they can possess them, but it’s not the best idea.”  

“Not the best idea,” I murmured, eyes wide. “Why? Why is it a bad idea to possess a hybrid?”

“Cuz it kills ‘em,” his flat response came. “In a pretty agonizing way, from what I saw with the one that tried it with one of my ahhh, acquaintances, Jae. He and I were about to kill the body the angel-fuck was possessing, so he jumped ship. Tried to possess Jae. Next thing we knew, the shit-head was on the ground, pretty much turned inside out. Screamed his head off until we put ‘im out of his misery. Put a little research into it, turns out something about humans mixed with Alters fucks with the angel possession. Gets them all torn up inside just like that.”

“Research?” I echoed, barely able to keep myself calm enough to sit on the shark, let alone talk. “What kind of research? And why didn’t anyone else I talked to know anything about this?”

“My guess,” Seth replied easily, “these fucks don’t advertise their weaknesses. Only found out about it myself cuz Jae goes out of his way to make it look like he’s a full-blooded Alter, not half. Something about how he was treated as a kid or whatever. Dunno. Point is, he keeps quiet about it, so this angel fucknugget didn’t know. He tried to possess him, poof. Angel-roadkill. So I found another one and uhh… let’s just say I persuaded him to tell me just why that happened.”

“So they won’t possess Shiori because they’ll die if they do,” I murmured slowly, blinking up at the other girl. “That’s umm, that really helps, Seth. That really, really helps. Just don’t let any–”

“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted. “Like I said, I know these dicks. Don’t go bragging about all that great info I just passed to you, I get it. But like I said, you still owe me for this stuff. I think you’re an all right kid, and Senny’s pretty fond of ya, but I’m not running a charity over here.”

“I promise, we’ll take care of it. Somehow. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” After repeating that, I disconnected and stared at the phone in my hand for a few seconds. “You’re… you’re immune.”

“I’m immune,” the other girl echoed, voice sounding as awed as I felt. “They can’t possess me?”

Slowly, I nodded. “That’s what it sounds like. They can’t possess you. Or they’re too scared to.”

Her face brightened a little before falling again. “I’m immune. Columbus isn’t. It could be him.”

“Maybe,” I reluctantly agreed. “But it might not be. It could be any of the others. We don’t know.”

Shiori looked to me then. “If it’s Columbus, if they took Columbus… I’m gonna make that angel wish she possessed me instead, so that it’d be over fast.”

“Hey.” Reaching across the water from my shark, I trailed a hand over her arm briefly. “Whoever it is, we’ll deal with it, okay? They’re all our friends, all… important. We’ll make the bitch pay. For now, let’s focus on what we know. Which is that you’re immune. And that… makes sense.”

She blinked over at me then, staring in confusion while absently patting Brody’s back. “It does?”

“Sure.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “I guess that’s sort of why I thought it was safe enough to tell you and Avalon about it. I mean, I didn’t know you were immune, but I figured there was something stopping them from possessing both of you. After all, that Seosten said that we trust her host. That’s how they’re getting information out of us, by possessing someone we trust. Not by possessing us. If they could just possess us any time they wanted to, why would us trusting their host even be an issue? If it was as easy as just jumping into us to find out what we knew, she wouldn’t even have mentioned us trusting her host, she’d just say she’d jump into one of us and find out for herself. The only reason she wouldn’t even mention it as an option is–”

“Is if it wasn’t one,” Shiori finished for me, her own eyes wide. “But that explains me, what about you and Avalon? Uh, you guys aren’t–I mean as far as I know, you’re not really a–”

My head shook. “Not an Alter. Unless Mom’s one, but I think that would be one secret too many for my sanity. Oh wait, she couldn’t be anyway. They didn’t change the Edge to accept hybrids until relatively recently. So it wouldn’t have worked on her. Which means I’m not a hybrid.”

“And Avalon probably isn’t either,” the other girl pointed out. “Cuz she became a Heretic at Eden’s Garden, not here, and they didn’t change the tree to accept hybrids, did they?”

My head shook. “Not that I know of. And–” My fingers snapped. “That explains why they didn’t want the Edge to accept hybrids in the first place. They don’t want half-human Heretics because if they possess them, they go splat. That’s why the Edge wasn’t meant to accept them.”

“Whoa.” Shiori slumped, hand trailing through the water as she thought about that. “That’s… big.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered. “So yeah, it explains why you’re immune, but not me or Avalon. Assuming we are, and…well I think it’s pretty safe to say that Avalon is. Because if they could possess her, they definitely would’ve by now. Think about it, their plan this entire time has been to kill her, even when she was a baby. Why would they do that if they could just possess her and get into the vault that way? Maybe being related to Bosch makes her immune or… or something? Maybe his family set up some protection against possession for themselves.”

“If they did,” Shiori murmured under her breath, “I’d sure like to know what it is.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Shaking my head, I looked out over the water while thinking for a minute. “And why I’m not possessed. I mean, I’m Avalon’s roommate, and uhh…” I blushed a little bit. “And more than that. Which we haven’t exactly hidden. So why didn’t they just possess me?”

Shiori made a face at that. “So we know why I’m immune, but not you guys. As usual, it’s several questions for every answer. That’s getting really obnoxious at this point, you know?”

“Oh, I know.” My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Trust me, I know just how obnoxious it is.

“In a sea of endless questions, we’re barely treading water.”

******

“Flick. Ohhh Flick. Flickster. Hey.” A finger poked me in the side. “Yo, Flick.”

Jumping a bit, I blinked and looked around. The rec room. I was in the rec room. Once I remembered that much and got myself together, I turned to find Sands staring at me. “You okay over there? You zoned out for a bit. Thought you were in some kind of trance or something.”

It was all I could do not to openly stare at the other girl’s eyes. The urge to hold her by the shoulders and keep staring as if looking long enough would show me if she was possessed or not was almost overwhelming. Like it was that easy. At best, I’d make Sands think that I had some kind of thing for her, and at worst, she’d actually be possessed and realize what I was doing. The former would just be embarrassing for us both, the latter potentially devastating.

It had been a few days since I’d overheard that Seosten bombshell, and the time since then had been… well, not-fun. Walking around thinking that almost any one of the people that I trusted might actually be enslaved within their own head, puppeted against their will by a would-be angel was… let’s just say that even for me, I wasn’t getting a lot of rest. I had no idea how Shiori was holding it together, considering the fear that Columbus was the one who had been taken over.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that we could do about it for the moment. Not until we had our meeting with Gabriel Prosser and started learning how to make that spell, anyway. In the meantime, the best we could do was keep our eyes open and try to come up with a plan to expose not just the Seosten I had overheard, but her companions as well. It was… slow-going.

Which meant that we all just had to act as normal as possible. And considering there was another scheduled hunt coming up soon… well, I really hoped we found out who was possessed by then, because those things were already stressful enough (especially considering how they’d been going so far) without worrying that someone who was supposed to have my back was actually a Seosten spy.  

Shaking that all off, I forced myself to smile faintly. “Hey, Sands. Sorry, I guess I was daydreaming for a minute. What’s up?”

Raising an eyebrow at that, the other girl remarked, “Daydreamed, huh? Thinking about someone in particular?” Her fingers poked me teasingly before she added, “Or someones, I guess.”

Oh God, I hated this. I hated it. Even something as innocent as that little bit of teasing made me paranoid. Was she really just teasing, or was she fishing for information? That was what it was like now, any time she or any of the others said pretty much anything. I was always picking it apart in my head, trying to figure out if the Seosten had just given herself away.

But of course, it wasn’t that easy. It wouldn’t be. They were too good at what they did. It wasn’t like one of my friends was suddenly going to start cackling maniacally, or acting like a stereotypical villain just because I happened to know they were possessed.

So, I just shook my head. “Actually,” I claimed, “I was thinking about what the next hunt might be.”

“You too, huh?” Sands gave me a weak smile. “Mostly I’m just hoping it turns out better than the last one. Or… any of them.” Rising, she gestured. “But come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Oh, great. As if I hadn’t already been paranoid enough as it was. “A surprise? What surprise?”

Rolling her eyes, the other girl stepped back and gave another wave. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So c’mon already. It’s important.”

Important because she’d found something I needed to see, or important because she was the one who had been possessed, and the Seosten was ready to ambush me for whatever reason? That, along with a few other paranoid thoughts, bounced around in my head a little as I looked around. “Should we grab the others?”

Sands just shook her head. “No big, we can tell them later. This part’s really only for the two of us. I mean, I was gonna make it me and Scout, but I figured you’d want to be involved.” Clearing her throat then, she stepped back while gesturing impatiently. “Hurry, she’s not gonna wait forever.”


She? Okay, that raised even more questions. But I couldn’t make Sands wait anymore. Taking a breath, I stood up and nodded while slipping a hand into my pocket. Finding the phone there, I pressed the button that would alert Wyatt to start paying attention. If anything happened, he’d be ready to jump in.

“Alright, let’s see this surprise then.”

She let me out of the rec room, past the cafeteria, and out the door onto the grounds. The whole time, I kept my eyes open, scanning for anything that might be wrong while trying to make myself look relaxed.

Thankfully, Sands didn’t head for the beach or anywhere off the grounds. Instead, she led me across the grass to the girls dorm. Wait, the girls dorm?

Sure enough, we headed inside. Instead of going for any of our rooms, however, Sands started for the stairs. Before I could ask what we were doing, the two of us were on the second floor, and I saw one of the older girls giving us a strange look.

“It’s okay,” Sands informed her. “We’re here to talk to Namid. Which room was it again?”

The girl continued to stare for a second before gesturing over her shoulder. “Third one down.”

After she walked away, I blinked over at Sands. “Namid?”

She nodded, glancing around before producing a privacy coin, which she activated. “Sure. I mean, you wanted to talk to her about that… thing, right? The thing to help Roxa.”

“The Ring of Anuk-Ité,” I confirmed. “Yeah, you-know-who said that the last he knew, the ring was in the hands of Namid’s ancestor on the Committee, Litonya.”

“Exactly,” the other girl replied. “So you need to talk to her about it. Which is why I’ve been spending the past week working on her. First I let her see me getting a bunch of Native American books out of the library. Then I made sure she was around when I asked Professor Dare about our extra-credit project.”

“What extra-credit project?” I asked blankly.

She winked at me. “The one you and I are doing on Native American Heretics and their artifacts. Professor Dare was a great actress by the way. Seriously, she’s really good at faking things like that. I thought I was gonna have to carry the whole conversation, but she pulled her weight.”  

While I was still staring at her, she shrugged. “Anyway, the point is, I did all that so that it didn’t come out of nowhere when I finally asked Namid for help. And paid her for it. So now she’s gonna talk to us for a few minutes. If she knows anything about that ring thinger, maybe she’ll talk about it.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–oh. Wow. You did all that?”

“Of course,” Sands replied easily. “We’re a team, right? You wanna help Roxa, this is the best way to do it. We find out what the deal is with that ring, or necklace, or whatever it is now. So come on, let’s go talk to her. And this time, you won’t be in the closet.

“… in more than one way.”

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The Third Degree 21-03

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Two days after finding out a bit more about just how far the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden rivalry went, I was sitting out on the beach a decent distance away from the school with my feet in the water. The sun was setting over the horizon, sending a beautiful array of colors across the ocean’s surface that took my breath away and left me staring in awe for a few seconds whenever I looked up. Even after living on the island for several months, I still couldn’t get over just how gorgeous the scenery could be sometimes.

For a moment, I wondered what my mom had thought of the place when she’d stayed here. Had it been this beautiful to her? When she… left, when she started her rebellion, did she miss these sights? How many times had she sat out here on this same beach–maybe even this same spot, and watched the ocean? The buildings might change, be upgraded, have the furniture moved around, and whatever, but the beach didn’t. Okay, yeah, technically the sand would be all different from being washed in and out. But the point was that this was the same beach she would have stood on. The ocean was the same ocean she would have looked at and swum in. The… this was my mother’s school. Sometimes it just hit me that way, out of nowhere and for no well-explained reason: this was my mother’s school. This had been her home for… for so long. This was a connection to her that I had never known about.

In the present, we were separated by distance, but not time. In the past, we were separated by time, but not distance. Sitting here, looking at the water, I could almost feel my mother sitting in the same place. I could close my eyes and imagine her beside me. Younger than I knew her, but there. I could almost feel her presence, my hand curling through the sand with the half-expectation of finding hers. Just a little more, my fingers slid out slowly. I could feel her. Almost. Almost.

I found empty sand. And as my eyes opened, I had to blink a few times to clear away the wetness.

I wasn’t stupid or crazy. Well, okay, sometimes I could be both. But in this case, I’d known she wasn’t there, obviously. It was just… a nice daydream sometimes. Honestly, what were daydreams other than hope? And if I gave up on hope, well… then I might as well give up on life.

Some might have said that imagining myself sitting next to my mother-as-a-student while the two of us  were separated by around a hundred years was childish. But if it was, I didn’t care. I’d rather be childish than ever really give up on those kind of dreams, that kind of hope.

Shaking those feelings off for the moment, however, I returned my attention to the thing that I was actually working on. The block of wood in my lap was covered in runes. I had spent about half an hour carefully drawing the runes while repeatedly checking each against the book beside me. After that, I’d spent at least another twenty minutes gradually investing power in the thing.

So almost an hour to get this far. Obviously, the theriangelos spell, the one that my mother had used to send that monkey to me and that Gaia had been teaching me, wasn’t meant to be done quickly. The headmistress said I’d get faster with it over time. But even then, like most spells that Heretics used, it was never going to be very fast. The best thing to do would be to do several ahead of time, get them almost done, then carry them around and add the last bit when I actually wanted to use the spell. Which was apparently what most Heretics did with spells they liked.

And hey, at least I’d figured out the best way to gradually invest power in the spell over an extended period so that when I actually cast the spell for real, it only took a little bit to finish.

After checking over the finished product fully for the fifth time, just to make absolutely sure that I hadn’t messed anything up, I was finally satisfied. Turning the page in my notebook to the actual spell,  I took a breath before beginning to recite it. I’d gotten better at the pronunciation and speaking quickly without stumbling over the words (mostly from repeated practice without actually using it on a completed block), but it still took a good forty seconds to say the whole thing even with everything else done. I couldn’t even imagine how many attempts it would take to do that in the middle of an actual stressful situation instead of on a calm beach without any distractions.   

Eventually, I finished without messing anything up. As the last word left my mouth, I felt the spell take the last bit of power that I needed from me. Even with as much as I had primed the spell throughout the past half-hour, I still felt little bit dizzy for just a second before my head cleared.

The wood was already floating off my lap, creating a bright red and gold glow that filled the air. As the glow faded, I could see my newly-created fox sitting there in the sand, looking at me.

And just like the other times that I’d cast the spell (always in Gaia’s presence), I also saw myself through the fox’s eyes. And smelled myself through its nose, along with the nearby ocean. Not to mention how much I could hear. Wow. Doing this outside was a lot different from being inside Gaia’s office. The fox could hear, smell, and see so much that I couldn’t even come close to noticing. The sound of the ocean waves, the smell of the plants and animals in the jungle behind me, even the noise that some of the other students who so far down the beach that they were barely visible were making. Through the fox’s senses, I could pick up all of it and a lot more.

Closing my eyes, I focused on shutting out the input from my own body and on experiencing things through the fox. For a few long seconds, I didn’t make her move or do anything but sit there. I was still just letting myself grow accustomed to everything I could sense out here.

I’d done it. Oh god, I’d actually done it. I’d pulled it off. Yes, it’d taken what was probably over an hour by that point, but I’d actually managed to cast the theriangelos spell without messing up, and without Gaia standing right behind me, supplying her power and watching over the whole thing.

Once I was relatively sure that I’d gotten accustomed enough to experiencing the fox’s senses, I focused on starting to move. First, I made her move from a sitting position to standing on all four feet. Telling myself it was just like when I’d made the fox run around Gaia’s office, I got her to walk around me. The feel of the sand against her paws with each step was just as distracting as all of her other senses, and I found myself lifting one paw, letting the sand run through it, then lifting the other. God, it was just… it was amazing. Ridiculously amazing. I’d used magic to create a fox that I was now controlling. How–just–how could I ever get used to that kind of thing? Honestly, I hoped I didn’t. The wonder that I felt in that moment, as I looked through my fox’s eyes to see the sand running through her raised paw to fall back to the ground, I wanted to feel forever.

Eventually, I managed to focus and started walking the fox around my body. Gradually moving it up into a trot, I got her to run in circles around me, kicking up a small cloud of sand in the process. The wet sand under her paws, the water itself as the waves rose, the wind on her snout as she ran faster, they were all more sensations to get accustomed to while being outside like this.

After letting myself get accustomed to that,  I sent the fox away from me a short distance off the beach and into the jungle. Not far, just enough that we weren’t right next to each other, and so that I could practice depending on her senses in an area that I wasn’t actually in. I wanted to get used to experiencing things purely through the fox without my own body’s normal input.  

It took a bit, since it was a lot like trying to pay attention to one television show while a different one was playing in the same room. But keeping my body’s eyes closed helped. Then it was more like watching one television show while a radio played in the background. Still distracting, but better. And from what Gaia had said, there were some Heretics who actually gained the right powers to be able to control their own animal while simultaneously engaging in actions of their own. Sitting there like that, with my eyes closed tight so that I could focus on what the fox was seeing, I couldn’t even imagine being able to do that. But then, it hadn’t been that long ago that I wouldn’t have been able to imagine using magic to create a fox out of wood to begin with.

I probably would have kept playing around with the fox in the jungle for a lot longer,  but I was interrupted by the sound of a phone ringing. I was so disoriented in that moment that I can’t understand why a phone was ringing in the middle of the jungle. It took me a few seconds, and a couple more rings, to realize that I was hearing the phone in my own pocket, back with my body

Shaking off the disorienting feeling, I opened my own eyes while shutting the fox’s so that I could focus. Digging for the phone, I found that it was actually the other one. It was the private phone, the one that didn’t show up on the Crossroads security logs or in their recordings.

After checking the number, I tapped the button to answer the call. “Seth?”

“Well hey there, my second-favorite Heretic,” his voice drawled casually. “Sorry, you’re right up there, but I kinda gotta give first favorite to the little half-sis. You know how it is with family.”  

“It’s fine,” I assured him, not wanting to get into all that. “Did you get the meeting set up?”

There was a brief pause before he asked, “You sure we can talk about it just like that? From what I hear, that school of yours isn’t exactly super-trusting. I might not be the only Big Brother around.”

“Like I said,” I assured the older vampire, “they can’t hear anything that goes through this phone. It bypasses Crossroads security. We’re good. So like I said, did you get the meeting set up?”

“Hey, it’s me.” His voice was a mixture of smug and teasing. He worked the very edge of the line between confident and arrogant, like he knew just how far to push. “I said I’d get the meeting set up, and now it’s done. You got a piece of paper to write down the nitty-gritty details?”

“Yeah, hang on.” Picking up my notebook with the spell written in it, I flipped to a blank page and set it back on the sand before taking the pencil. “Okay, go ahead.”

“Meeting’s set for three weeks from now,” Seth began. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You wanted it to be sooner, but he’s a busy man. Well, not a man, but you know what I mean. He’s busy. That was the earliest time I could make him agree to, without raising his suspicions. And I doubt you want his suspicions raised. So three weeks. That’s Friday, February ninth at six p.m. He was trying to push for the morning, but I figured that’d interfere with your schooling. And we do want you to grow up to be a great little Heretic, now don’t we? Gotta get that learning in. So six p.m. it is.”   

“February ninth, six p.m., I got it.” Writing that down, I asked, “Where’re we meeting this guy?”

“Sudsy’s,” the response came. “It’s an old motel in Ashland, Oregon. Little town right off I-5 about fifteen miles north of the California border. It’s a great little place to visit. They’ve got this Shakespeare Festival you should check out. It should be starting about the time you get over there. First time I went was in 1947. That was the first year they had it since the second world war. And let me tell you, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly. And that’s saying a lot.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Are you moonlighting as a tourism director now, Mr. Tiebreaker?”

There was amusement in his voice. “Hey, gotta pay the bills somehow, don’t I? Don’t always have super-special Heretics-in-training offering thirty thousand dollars to set up meetings with nasty shark-mercs. Anyway, Ashland, Oregon. Sudsy’s. Six p.m. February Ninth. Got all that?”  

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I got it. Thanks, Seth. You’re a lifesaver. There was no way someone like Fahsteth was gonna agree to a meeting with a Heretic, and Senny says she and Twister have the kind of reputation that he stays away from. So like I said, thanks. We’ll get the money to you. ”

Pausing then, I bit my lip before asking, “Have you heard anything from Namythiet or Roxa yet?” I was pretty sure that we would’ve heard from the latter long before he did, but still. I was nervous about how long it was taking, and wanted to know what was going on out there. And I really, really wanted to be sure that they weren’t underestimating Pace and her pack. If anything happened to Mateo, Roxa, or…well, any of them, I didn’t know if I’d be able to forgive myself for sending them.

“Sorry, kid,” Seth replied. “Nothing to report. I mean, the plucky pixie’s checked in, sure. But I’m pretty sure I don’t have any news that they didn’t already tell you. They’re still out there looking.”

Sighing in spite of myself, I nodded. “Thanks anyway. And like I said, thanks for setting that up.”

His voice was smooth. “No problem. I mean, just enough of a problem to warrant that cash you promised, but no more than that. Unless you’ve got some kind of bonus in mind if it was just a–”

“Bye, Seth.” Shaking my head, I disconnected the call before picking myself up. Staring down at the notebook with the date and place of the meeting with Fahsteth, I started to wander back up the beach toward the school.

Before I reached the school however, I remembered the whole reason that I’d been out there. The reason that I could still sort-of half feel the dirt and leaves beneath my feet even though I was walking on sand. Right, the fox. I’d left her sitting there with her eyes closed and had been working to tune out everything from her throughout that call to the point that I had briefly forgotten about her.

Focusing briefly, I opened the fox’s eyes and looked around. It was almost tempting to just dismiss the spell. But honestly, I had worked on it for too long. I kind of wanted to bring her back so I could at least keep the wood, even if I had to redo the whole spell all over again. I… felt connected to it.

Not as connected as I was to the trusty rock in my pocket, of course. No piece of wood could replace Herbie. But still, leaving the fox out there in the jungle to just disappear when the spell faded felt wrong. So I kept control of it, guiding the fox back through the trees to the beach. Then I’d just run her up the beach straight to where I was waiting.

Or at least, that was the plan. But when the fox was just passing the last tree before hitting sand, she… I, rather, saw a figure straight ahead. A figure right where I had just been sitting.

Making the fox freeze and crouch down a bit,  I stared at the figure. It was dark enough by that point that I wouldn’t even have been able to see them at all from that distance with my own eyes, or hear them with my own ears. But I wasn’t using my eyes or ears. The fox could see just and hear much better than I could.

It was a woman. I couldn’t make out any real details, but I could tell that much. She had dark skin and short hair that was pale enough to be white. She definitely wasn’t a teacher. I may not have known all the upper-grade instructors that well, but I did know enough that I would’ve recognized her. I’d never seen her before in my life.

“Fahsteth,” the unfamiliar woman muttered. Her voice was distorted, like I was hearing things while my head was underwater. Either I wasn’t used to using the fox’s hearing yet and that was throwing me off,  or she was distorting her voice somehow, magically muffling it in a way that the fox could mostly hear through. Whatever it was, I could barely make out what she was saying.

“She has a meeting with Fahsteth. Find him. No, I don’t care how upset he is. I know he said he wouldn’t take any more calls. I’m not asking you to hire him. I’m telling you to track him down. Make sure he can’t tell them anything. Shut his mouth. Permanently if you need to. Just do it. He’s a lead they can’t be allowed to have.”

She was moving, walking away from where I had been sitting and back toward the school, the same way I had gone. “Find him and kill him, before I have to do something drastic to slow this human bitch down. No more excuses, just get it done. Or you can explain your failure to Manakel.

“That’s what I thought. Deal with him. I have to get back to the body before anyone finds it. No, this doesn’t mean she suspects anything. She didn’t tell anyone about it. Probably to stop them from talking her out of it.  I promise you, the Chambers child trusts me. And so do her little girlfriends. Well, not me.

“But they certainly trust my host.”

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The Third Degree 21-01

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“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”

My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.

Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?

Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”

It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.

We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.

Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.

And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?

“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”

She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”

“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they  just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”

Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”

“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”

“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”  

My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”

Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”

 “Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”

“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”

Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”

“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”

“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”

Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”

“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”  

“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”

Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go.  He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”

“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”

I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”

He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”

My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”

He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”     

“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”

Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”   

The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”  

“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”

“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And  get passed all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”

“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”

His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”

Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”

“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.

“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”

******

“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.

Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”

Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.

“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.

Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”

That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.

“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”

“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”

Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”

Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”

Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”

I started to say something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.

Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”

Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?” 

“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”

“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”

I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”

From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”

“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”

The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”

Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”

Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”

Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.

He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.” 

Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”

“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”

His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”

“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.

Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”

Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.

“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”

Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”

The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.

“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.

“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.

Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”

“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.

I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.

“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”  

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Interlude 18A – Namythiet

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“They shouldn’ta locked the door!” The pint-sized, purple-winged and blue-haired pixie teenager huffed the words with obvious annoyance and agitation. She hovered in front of Seth Dozeran’s face, hands on her hips as she ranted at her mentor. “I coulda helped with those bad dogs. I’d give ’em a poke in the eye with ol’ Cataclysm here.” Her hand moved to pat the tiny sword at her hip pointedly. “I’d poke the eye out and skewer it on my blade, like an olive on a toothpick! An olive on a toothpick!

The vampire arched an eyebrow for a silent moment as he seemed to consider her before replying smoothly. “I’m the one that used the code to lock the store, Shortstop.” It was a nickname that Namythiet had objected to until Seth explained that the shortstop was one of the most important defensive spot in baseball, since they had to field more hit balls than any other position.

Still, his words made her flutter up a bit higher as she blurted, “You? You locked me in here so I couldn’t get out? But why? I thought you trusted me to fight with you! Don’t you… think I could help?” Her wings beat a little slower as she sank a bit in the air, the equivalent of a human hanging their head.

For a moment, it looked like the man was going to say something dismissive. Then he heaved a sigh and muttered something about feelings. “Needed you to be around for back-up, kid, in case there were more of the bastards. You know how tricky wolves can be. They hit us again from behind, we would’ve needed you to play guerrilla tactics and take them by surprise. Better than just being out in plain sight.”

Hovering a little closer to him, Namythiet studied his gaze with the intensity of a teenager valiantly attempting to spot the loopholes in a parent’s unwanted instructions for a few long seconds. Finally, she bobbed up and down in the air a bit before nodding. “I woulda kicked their asses! Me and Clubber both.” Her hand pointed down to the emerald-furred saber-toothed tiger cub that sat studiously licking down his own shoulder until he went so far that he fell over onto his side with a squeak of surprise.

“Yes,” Seth replied dryly, “I’m sure they dodged a number of bullets by avoiding that fight. But look.” He raised his hand, palm up so that the pixie could land on it. “The other Septs need to ask you a favor. They’d be in here themselves to do it, probably Limnoreia or Fennicus, but they’re busy making sure those werecub parents don’t go running off on their own to get their stupid, panicky asses killed.

“So that leaves me to talk to you about the favor. But I want you to think about it before you say yes, you got it? This isn’t a normal favor. It’s important, and it’s dangerous. More dangerous than anything you’ve done before. So don’t just go agreeing just because you think it’ll make you look brave, got it?”

Feeling intensely curious (even more than usual) by that, Namythiet alighted onto his hand and cocked her head to the side. “The Septs wanna ask me for a favor? Really?” She had to stop herself from immediately blurting out an agreement to anything they asked for. “Um, well, what do they want?”

The man who had bypassed every other eligible and eager potential student that longed to be the Tie-Breaker’s protege to instead begin training her, a four and a half-inch tall pixie (a fact that most people in Wonderland insisted was supposed to be his idea of a joke), regarded Namythiet in silence for a moment as though considering how much to tell her. Finally, he sighed. “You know the Heretics that were here? Asenath says she brought them to see you before everything went down. And I can still smell ’em.” His gaze flicked around the small shop where the most of Namythiet’s pixie-kin were still cautiously poking their heads out of their hiding places, or fluttering outside picking up bits of debris.

Bobbing up and down in the air in short, excited hops with a single flap of her wings that brought her off the man’s palm repeatedly, the pixie chirped, “Sure, they visited. They brought a friend for Clubber to play with too, a Jekern! His name’s Choo. Is she really your sorta-sister? The girl I mean, not Choo.” She giggled at the unintentional insinuation, spinning in the air after her latest wing-assisted bounce.

“Shiori, yeah.” The vampire nodded. “More of a sort-of niece than a sort-of sister, I guess. Not really into the whole family thing anyway, so let’s not put a label on it. Besides, you say that too loud and Asenath’s bound to poke her head in and start ranting about how we’re not related, so keep it down.”

Shaking that off, he went on. “Point is, apparently the other one, the blonde, she knows some other werewolf pack that has a problem with the one that attacked us. So they’re gonna go look for the pricks, maybe try to find out where they took the kids they stole. But they’re not a big pack, not like the others. There’s just a few of them. So they’re gonna need a little more muscle when they do track ’em down.”

Perking up, Namythiet drew her sword and flew up off the man’s palm. “I’ll be the muscle!” Her sword swished through the air rapidly. “Cataclysm and me, we’ll teach those wolves the meaning of fear!” Gesturing belatedly downward with the end of the needle-like blade, she added, “Oh, and Clubber too. He’ll make the dumb little puppies pee their furry panties with one mighty roar. Won’t ya, buddy?”

The green saber-toothed tiger yawned so wide he fell over backwards, and then proceeded to spin around rapidly as though trying to figure out what had tipped him over. Settling on the fact that it must have been his own tail, he pounced and turned over in a somersault while letting out a squeaky yowl.

“Oh yeah.” Seth’s voice was as dry as kindling. “I’m sure he’ll strike the fear of God into the bastards.”

Before Namythiet could respond to that, the man’s hand lashed out to catch hold of her. He was clearly careful not to grab her wings, instead letting them flutter about uselessly as he held onto the rest of her body in his fist. It was tight enough to be uncomfortable (and no pixie enjoyed being held like that), but not quite painful. “You listen, got it?” He had his serious voice on, one he hardly ever used. But it combined with the way he was looking at her made the pixie stop squirming and stare with wide eyes. “This isn’t a game. Those wolves, they will kill you like a human swatting a fly. And then I’m gonna be every shade of pissed off, cuz that means I’ve gotta name one of these other losers my apprentice.”

Pulling his hand in with her still clasped tightly in it, he stared intently at her. “So don’t die, you got it?”

When she nodded quickly, he released her carefully so she could fly. It wasn’t the kind of point that he made often, but he did make it. As much as he was teaching her, Seth still took the time now and then to illustrate just how vulnerable she really was if he thought she was getting too big for her britches.

“If you agree to go,” he continued once she was hovering once more, “it’s as a scout, not a front-line soldier. You go with these guys, and if they find what they’re looking for, you send a message back so the rest of us can come run the attack. Understand? No charging in, no stupid heroics. You send the message and wait for us to show up. You run off on your own and you’ll never be my apprentice again.”

For once, Namythiet nodded seriously, meeting the man’s intense stare. “Send the ‘help’ message to you once we find the stupid, ugly bastards. You got it, boss!” She saluted him with the blade of her sword.

“Good.” He grunted the single word of approval and paused then before squinting at her. “That… thing you were working on earlier, before the Heretics showed up, is it ready for the road?”

If she had perked up at the thought of going out to help hunt down the Nocen wolves, that question made the pixie positively beam while blurting, “Ready? You mean they might actually use it?!”

“I asked if it was ready,” he reminded her. “Or can you get them ready in–” He checked his watch. “About two hours. That’s how long it’s gonna take this pack to get up here through the foldjumps.”

The foldjumps were areas where two points that were hundreds of miles apart could be briefly connected into a single location. They were created by Alters known as Abeonas, for which the Roman Goddess of Outward Journeys had been named. Basically, the Abeonas would designate one point in one location and then travel hundreds of miles before designating the other point to link the two together. From that point on (until the Abeonas dismissed the connection or died), if someone was in that exact location and gave the proper password (deliberately thinking the password was good enough, since many Alters couldn’t speak normally), the two areas would connect again. Which meant that if someone started in one place, connected the areas with the password and then moved forward before the connection stopped, they would be just past the point of the second area. Usually, Abeonas charged exorbitant rates to use their foldjumps, but Wonderland had a special arrangement with a few of them.

“Yup!” Namythiet nodded confidently. “It’s almost ready now, if I work the whole time, it’ll definitely be ready by the time the good werewolves get here. Do you really think they’ll use it?”

“Well,” Seth replied casually, “they probably won’t want to run around on all fours the whole time they’re wandering over the countryside hunting this pack o’nasties. So I’d say yeah, they’ll use it.”

While she was pumping her fist with excitement, he extended a finger to her. On the end of it was something that, to him was an incredibly tiny thread. To the pixie, it was a normal sized belt. “Take this. After you find the guys and send the message about where you are, snap it. It’ll summon Venice.”

He wasn’t giving the pixie the ability to conjure up an ancient Italian city known for canals and drop it on her enemies, unfortunately. Venice was the name of one of Wonderland’s allied Abeonas, as all of them were named after a city, usually one that was famous in some way. Wonderland’s were Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia (the latter insisted that his chosen city’s contribution of the Philly Cheesesteak sandwich qualified it as at least as important as the former two cities, perhaps even more so).

“Find the bad wolves, summon Venice, help you lay the smack down on the furry assholes. Got it!” Tying the belt around her waist, Namythiet gave him a thumbs up. “Good. I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when we crash their party.” Despite her words, the little pixie’s voice shook with anger as she thought about what the wolves had done to her home, to her friends and the people she lived with.

“Just remember what I said,” Seth warned her flatly. “No stupid heroics. None. Do what you’re told.

“But yeah, maybe if this works out, we can give them a taste of their own medicine.”

******

“We cannot begin to express the extent of our appreciation and gratitude for your actions,” Limnoreia announced quietly a few hours later, as she stood in the middle of the mall parking lot. “This is far beyond the call of anything we could have expected from those who are not fully allied with us.”

Namythiet, perched on the Nereid’s shoulder, turned slightly to look at the group that the Sept was addressing. The pack of werewolves wasn’t that large, only six in number. They were still in their wolf-forms from their run up through the foldjumps. There was a big dark brown one that was almost a head taller than the others, full of muscle. Beside that one was a slightly lighter one that seemed to be the leader. Arrayed behind them were a tawny-furred female who wore a red choker with a green gem in it, a black female, a male with rustic red fur like a fox, and a caramel-colored female that kept pacing back and forth sniffing everything. The choker on the tawny wolf was the only decoration any wore.

The pack all exchanged glances with a few yips before five of them took a couple steps forward and began to shift, changing shape and growing into their human forms. Meanwhile, the tawny female about-faced and trotted over to one of the nearby parked cars, sliding under it and moving out of sight.

While Namythiet was trying to figure out what the sixth wolf was doing, the others finished changing. The lead-wolf was a thin Hispanic man who looked utterly unassuming and unimportant, the kind of man who would almost always be overlooked. Beside him, the enormous wolf had turned into an even more enormous man, a giant Samoan who looked massive even to the pixie’s distorted perspective.

The other three wolves had turned into a black woman with short purple hair, a pale, red-haired man that was even shorter than the lead-wolf, and a Hispanic woman with long dark hair tied into a ponytail.

All five were naked, though none seemed to care that much.

“Our greetings to you, Sept.” The leader started once he had finished the change. “Sorry we couldn’t be here sooner, but… well, even with the foldjumps, Colombia is still pretty far away from San Jose.”

That was where Wonderland was located: San Jose, California. With the foldjumps that Venice, Cusco, and Philadelphia had created and continued to maintain, it was at least semi-connected to enough cities in North and South America that even a trip from as far away as the wolves had started only took a few hours for them to run. The vast majority of that time was spent running from one fold to another.

Limnoreia shook her head. “Please, call me Limnoreia. And there are no apologies necessary, pack-leader. As I said, you have already gone far above and beyond what we could possibly have expected. Your pack owes us no particular favors or effort, yet you have already gone quite far out of your way to assist us. That is…” She paused before shaking her head. “It is more than I can properly express my gratitude for. Though…” Turning her gaze slightly toward the car in the distance, she asked, “Is your pack-mate quite… all right?”

It was the Hispanic woman (still pacing back and forth the same as she had been doing in wolf form) who answered. “That’s just Roxa. She’s not used to being a wolf yet, so she’s still embarrassed by changing. Or, you know, the naked part after. And she’s not as fast at it. So she changes over there.”

“And Hasty’s only saying that because she knows Roxa can hear her and likes teasing her,” the leader announced, giving the woman a look before he turned back and extended a hand. “My name is Mateo, Limnoreia. As I said, that’s Hasty. The big man beside me prefers the name Fezzik. That’s Lesedi and Corson.” He gestured to the black woman and the red-haired man respectively. “And like she said, over there is Roxa. She’s still a little shy.” Shaking that off, he focused on the Sept once again. “Flick said you had a run-in with the pack we’ve been looking for. How’d they even get in here? I would’ve thought that this place would be… well, a pretty tough nut to crack.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment, Limnoreia spoke quietly. “In ordinary cases, yes. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of simply lowering our defenses rather than adding the Heretics into them. The thought was that if anything went wrong, the defenses could be immediately raised to expel them. But when the other pack invaded, the defenses failed to come back. After an inspection, we found that the second Heretic who arrived with the pack, the one that the Chambers girl called Doxer, used some skill he acquired somewhere to take control of the lowered defenses once he was through them. He prevented them from being raised. It was an… unfortunate combination of events. Our lowering the defenses allowed him access to them so that they could not be raised again.”

Mateo’s head shook. “Heretics working with Nocen. Isn’t that just our worst nightmare?” Giving a shudder, he pushed on. “Like I said, we were hoping to find the pack anyway. This is a decent lead. But if they’ve got the numbers we think they do, there’s no way we can take them on ourselves.”

“We never expected you to,” Limnoreia quickly confirmed. “That would be… completely absurd on our part. We’re just afraid that… sending our people out now, as emotional and unstable as they are, would create more problems than it would solve. If they did find the other pack, they would not wait for reinforcements or for any kind of plan. And more likely, they’d simply walk into some other threat in their rush to find their children and other loved ones. It is our hope that by keeping them here and allowing them to train and busy themselves in other ways, they will be ready when the time comes.

“That is what Namythiet here is for.” Lifting her hand, the woman indicated the pixie. “She will accompany you and send a message back that will summon our forces once you have located the pack. With the aid she’s been provided, they will be able to arrive almost immediately. And rest assured, should you require any other assistance at any time, we will provide anything we can.”

“Good.” Mateo nodded. “Going after this Nocen pack, it’ll be good to have some back-up. I can’t even–”

Before he could finish speaking, a blonde teenage girl emerged from behind the car that the tawny wolf had disappeared behind, dressed in shorts and a simple tee shirt. As soon as she saw the girl, Namythiet flew up off of Limnoreia’s shoulder, drawing her needle-sword.

“Heretic!” she blurted in a half-panicked voice. “Run, Sept, I’ll protect you!” Holding the sword in front of herself, she flicked back and forth through the air. “You want to take my Sept, Heretic, you’ll have to go through me and my little friend! Sic her, Clubber!”

The green tiger cub, who had been lounging nearby, lifted his head to look that way for a moment. Then he proceeded to pounce… at a passing butterfly… which he missed entirely.

A blue hand moved up under her feet to catch the pixie gently. “Easy,” Limnoreia softly counseled. “It’s all right, Namythiet. We already knew that one of their wolves used to be a Heretic.” To the girl herself, she added, “Though we had not heard that you possessed the ability to summon clothes for yourself. That must be quite useful.”

Flushing slightly, the Heretic-wolf (Roxa, apparently), shook her head. “It wasn’t me.” To demonstrate, she reached up to the choker that she still wore. As her hand approached the jewel, it literally disappeared from sight. A moment later, she began withdrawing handfuls of clothes, which she tossed to her packmates so that they could start to get dressed.

“My old headmistress sent this to me,” she explained. “It’s like the pocket dimensions that hold our weapons, only it can hold clothes and anything else we can’t carry in wolf form. Oh, and speaking of weapons…” Trailing off, she looked toward Mateo.

“Go ahead, Roxa,” the pack-leader replied with a nod. “Call her down here. It seems safe enough.”

The blonde gave a loud whistle then. A moment later, there was a rush of motion. Namythiet quickly looked up and flew a little higher in time to see some kind of metal hoverboard come flying down out of the air. As it approached, the board shifted and transformed, four legs extending out to catch itself while it finished changing into the shape of a mechanical cougar.

“We thought it’d be good to have some back-up,” Mateo explained while he and the others began to get dressed in the clothes that Roxa tossed them. “You know, just in case.”

Namythiet, however, didn’t hear anything the Sept said in return. She was too busy flying straight up to the robot cat with a squeal of joy. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeee! A real life Heretic animal-weapon! And it’s not gonna eat me! Wait, it’s not gonna eat me, is it?”

The blonde girl blinked, stepping over before laying a hand on the robot cougar’s head. “Gidget won’t eat you. You like robots, umm… Namythiet, was it?”

“That’s me!” the pixie chirped excitedly, unable to help herself. “And do I like robots? Do I like robots?!”

Limnoreia calmly explained, “Namythiet is a Hephaesetical pixie. They’re quite rare. Most pixies are connected or tied to nature in some way, be it to plants, water, the earth itself, or even particular animals. Hephaesetical pixies, however, are connected to technology and… well, artificial constructions.”

“She means I like to build stuff!” the young pixie summarized while inspecting the mechanical cougar. “I always wanted to see what the Heretics built. Can I look, huh, huh, can I? Please?” She gave the blonde her best wide-eyed innocent pleading stare.

“Why don’t you call the van over so they can see what they’re working with?” Limnoreia suggested. “I’m sure you’ll have a chance to ask anything you want later.”

“Van?” Hasty perked up, moving from her pacing to stand beside her pack leader. “What van? There’s a van?”

In response, Namythiet turned in the air and put her fingers to her mouth to give a piecing whistle that was quite loud considering her small size.

Immediately, a dark green van that was parked across the parking lot started up. Its headlights turned on, and the vehicle roared over the lot before skidding to a stop nearby, engine idling.

“We thought that, considering your search may take you anywhere, something more subtle than a pack of wolves would be better,” Limnoreia began. “And as Namythiet has been working on this for the past several weeks to indulge her Hephaesetical urges, it was already prepared.”

“You uhh, built a van?” Roxa asked, her tone curious.

“Not just a van,” Namythiet blurted excitedly. “The van!” Flying over to the side of it, she raised her arms and gestured the way she had seen human models do. “See, it’s got armor that’s hard enough to take most human gunfire without even scratching it. And it’s got stabilizers to keep it upright even if an Amarok or a Nemean crashes into it. It’s got all kinds of surveillance stuff in it, both human technology and magic. It can get up a hundred and thirty miles an hour. It can change colors or turn invisible, and it has these…”

Whistling a short, complicated song, she waited until two ballistae rose out of the top of the van. One faced forward, the other backward. Both could rotate all the way around, allowing a full three hundred and sixty degree firing arc.

“A couple of really big crossbows?” the black girl, Lesedi, asked curiously.

“Ballistae,” Namythiet corrected. “And they can fire three different things. EMP bolts to shut down electrical things like if you’re chasing a car, explosive bolts to do boom damage, and bolts that spray out this knock-out gas to put them to sleep. Pretty cool, huh?” She was beaming with pride.

Smiling, Mateo nodded. “Very… cool indeed. And you’re right, spending time in a van’ll be a lot better than running across the country on all fours. Even if it is a little cramped.”
“Cramped?” Namythiet echoed, her broad smile widening even more. “Wanna bet?”

With that, she flew around to the back and landed on the handle before giving one more whistle. In response, the handle dropped out from under her feet before the door opened, revealing the van interior.

The pack of werewolves stood there and stared. “Okay,” Corson started as the first to find his voice. “What the hell?”

Instead of looking like the ordinary back interior of a van, what they saw through the open door was more like an entire apartment. There was a living room ahead of them with a couch, recliners, and a television on plush blue carpet, an open doorway to the side with a visible bathroom, a connected kitchenette just off from the living area, and another couple doors further in.

“It’s like the Heretic pocket dimension stuff,” Roxa blurted while the rest stared. “Like the stuff for our, I mean their weapons, or the apartments that the teachers use that are bigger on the inside.”

“It’s a freaking TARDIS,” the big Samoan announced, sounding utterly overjoyed. “It’s a TARDIS!” Turning, he carefully took Namythiet in his massive hands and began to literally jump up and down with her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Giggling, the little pixie squirmed her way free eventually before turning on Roxa. “And it’s not Heretic pocket dimension stuff. They stole it from pixies. We made it first.”

The blonde flushed. “Oh, uh, sorry. I didn’t… umm… I didn’t know.”

Mateo stepped forward then, laying a hand on Roxa’s shoulder. “Are you sure you want us to take something this important….?”

“Finding the kids is important!” Namythiet insisted. “You need all the help you can get. And besides, like Sept Limnoreia said, Clubber and me are going with you!”

The Nereid herself gave a slight nod. “Indeed. As I said, you’ll have every bit of assistance we can provide. I know you’ll want to leave soon, but would you mind coming inside for a few minutes first? We’d like to introduce your pack to the parents of the children who were taken, so that they can see who will be leading the search. And we have supplies we’d like to give you.”

Glancing to his pack to make sure they were all right with it, Mateo nodded. “Sure. Yeah, let’s go in for a bit. But we’ll have to get on the road soon. Because I have a feeling, wherever Lemuel’s pack took those kids, we need to find them as soon as we can.

“Before it’s too late.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to give it a look with the Previous Chapter button. 

The aftermath of the werewolf attack made the mall that was Wonderland look like it had been hit by a tornado. Or even a bomb. There were holes in the walls, stands tipped over, glass from broken windows spread everywhere, and more debris than I could process. Worse, however, were the bodies lying on the floor. Some were being tended to by others, but far too many were lying still and empty with sightless gazes, their broken forms torn apart too much to even try to save. And… not all of them were adults.

I had heard of massacres before, had seen reports on the news about what happened in war or during terrorist attacks. I wasn’t that naive. I knew that innocent people died a lot, even children. I knew it, logically in my head. And finding out that not all Alters/Strangers were evil had made it clear that this kind of thing could happen even to them. Hell, hearing about what happened to the Meregan was heartbreaking. And yet… this… seeing it in person, seeing these innocent people who hadn’t done anything wrong lying there, broken or dead was… it made me want to throw up. Everywhere my eyes turned, another sight of blood, of ripped organs or exposed bone made my heart want to shrivel up and die. I saw a little girl, no older than five or so with a pair of small blue horns on her head sitting in a corner with her obviously dead mother’s head in her lap. The girl herself was covered in blood, and I couldn’t even tell if it was hers or not. She was just sitting there with dust and bodily fluids covering her, a shell-shocked look on her young face as she stared at nothing, stroking her dead mother’s face.

I must have stopped walking, my gaze centered on that little girl with the body of her mother, because Shiori squeezed my hand to get my attention. “Flick,” she whispered under her breath, “are you okay?”

I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t. Because that little girl was just one of many sights that tore my heart out when I saw them. And I couldn’t just walk past. Releasing Shiori’s hand, I slowly moved that way, putting one foot in front of the other before I consciously realized what I was doing. In a moment, I was standing near the girl. My mouth opened to say something, but I had no idea what. I’m sorry? How stupid and trite was that? What could I possibly say that would make any of this even a little bit better?

In the end, I said nothing. No sound would come out of my mouth through the confusion in my brain and the lump in my throat. But I must have made some kind of sound, because the blankly staring girl turned her head. Her amber eyes found me, and I heard a squeak of wordless terror. Her arms went down, and I realized belatedly that the girl was covering her mother’s body as much as she could. All without ever taking her gaze off me, while big, thick tears of indescribable fear flooded her eyes.

Then Asenath was between us. Her hand found my shoulder and she gave me a brief sympathetic look before turning to the girl. “Ylena,” she whispered, kneeling for a moment to give the terrified, grieving girl a hug. Those terrified eyes stayed on me for another second before the girl let herself be embraced.

Turning away, I moved back to Shiori. “They know,” I murmured softly, my voice dull. “They know to be afraid of us. Even that girl, her mom was—and she was… even then, she was scared of us, of me.”

“They teach ’em young.” It was Seth, leaning against a nearby decorative pillar that had managed to remain standing. “Recognize the Heretics and run away. Hide. Run and hide, because the monsters are gonna get you.” Pausing, he took a cigarette out and stuck it between his lips before flicking open a lighter. Giving the lit cigarette a couple puffs, he finished with, “In this case, you’re the monsters.”

The words were harsh, but they were nothing I hadn’t already been thinking before he said anything. Heretics were the monsters to Alters. They had us and the actual evil Alters to worry about, the Nocen.

For a few moments, Shiori and I stood there in silence. Eventually, Asenath joined us once more. From the corner of my eye, I saw another adult Alter kneeling with the little girl, Ylena. Senny looked to me, her expression soft. “She didn’t mean it like that. She’s just—her aunt was the only family she had left.”

I winced, but it was Shiori who spoke. “Aunt?” she asked, her voice making it clear that she was afraid of the response even though she couldn’t stop herself from continuing. “I thought that was her mother.”

Shaking her head, Senny explained, “Her parents were killed about a year ago, by–” In the midst of her sentence, she stopped abruptly. Her eyes flicked over to us and I saw the truth in her brief hesitation.

“Heretics,” I finished for her. “Her parents were killed by Heretics.” I wanted to ask if it was Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretics, or even natural ones. But in the end, it didn’t really matter at all.

“Yes,” the vampire girl confirmed softly before letting out a low sigh. “That’s why this is important.”

“I know.” Swallowing hard, I forced myself to nod. “I get it. The war that my mom started, the rebellion, it was… it brought Heretics and Alters together. We can’t let that just be forgotten forever.”

With that clearly on all of our minds, we started back toward the Septs place once more. My eyes kept wandering, taking in even more of the destructive scene. I’d thought that the little girl, Ylena, with her dead aunt would be the worst thing that I saw. But that was just one of many examples that were all warring for the top position. Or, to be more accurate, the bottom position in this endless sea of tragedy.

Still, they all seemed to be pulling themselves together more quickly than I would have thought. Shiori clearly noticed that too, since she murmured, “It’s like they’re all…” She stopped talking for a second, and I saw realization dawn in her eyes even as the last few words escaped her weakly. “… used to it.”

Asenath hesitated before nodding. “They are. We are. This isn’t the first place Wonderland has been, and it won’t be the last. These people, they deal with potential attacks from Heretics and Nocen all the time. They grow up learning to watch out for Heretics, to keep their eyes open and avoid leading any of the hunters back to their homes. But it doesn’t always work. Attacks happen. They pick up the pieces and move on.” Her gaze found mine briefly. “Most of them have spent their whole lives like this.”

Their whole lives, spent dealing with one attack after another. The thought made me physically ill. That girl, Ylena, most of these Alters had grown up just like her. They’d lost parents, other family members, friends. All because of what they were born as, not anything they had actually done. The Heretics, we… we hunted them down and made their lives miserable, made them hide, because they weren’t human.

Of course, it was more complicated than that. There were a lot of bad Alters that did horrifying things to humans. Look at what happened to Koren’s father. And I knew that a lot of the Heretics, even the hardliner ones, genuinely thought they were doing the right thing. It wasn’t all black and white, and if I fell into the trap of assuming that all Alters were good and innocent and all Heretics were vicious killers, it would be no better than the hardliner Heretics who thought the opposite. There was nuance. Good Alters, bad Alters. Good Heretics, Bad Heretics. And somehow, Mom had been able to convince a large enough group of each of that fact to start a rebellion that had lasted more than half a century.

Walking back into the former Sears where the Septs were located, we found the group already waiting aside from the empty chair that Seth casually strolled over to and dropped himself in. None of the faces looked happy, though I couldn’t tell how much was directed at us and how much was at the situation.

Fennicus, the centaur, spoke first. “You’ll forgive us,” he began in a low voice, “if we hurry this along. We have things to do. People to take care of.” There was a brief pause before, “Loved ones to bury.”

Flinching, I nodded. “I’m sorry. We can come back another day if you… if you want. I just—I didn’t want to just walk away, not after…” Unable to find the right words, I finished with a weak, “I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them from killing anyone. I’m sorry that they were here, that they followed us to Wonderland. I tried to stop her. Pace. She’s a Heretic, but she’s also a werewolf, like the others. And she came to take me because… because she and her friends want to hurt my friend, someone I care about.”

“They fought another Heretic to save Alters,” the rock-man, Stav, pointed out. “That aids their claim.”

Unfortunately, the little gnome guy, Kimper, shook his head. “It does nothing of the sort. We already know the hybrid was of the ilk that call themselves Eden’s Garden, while these two are from their Crossroads. And those two groups fight and hate each other almost as much as they fight and hate us.”

Xi, the Rakshasa, inclined her head. “That is true. However, in any case I could think of, Heretics from both organizations will put aside their differences to focus on what they see as the much larger threat: us. They may hate each other quite a bit, but they hate us far more than that. Generally speaking.”

“I don’t hate any of you,” I interrupted in spite of myself. Then I hesitated before nodding toward Calvin. “Well, okay, I’m not his biggest fan. But to be fair, I didn’t like him back when I thought he was human, so that shouldn’t count. The point is, I know that Pace and her pack came here because of us, because of me. They were here for me, and I can’t—I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them from killing anyone.” It was repeating myself, I knew, but no other words would come to mind. I just felt… numb.

“How did they get past your security so easily?” Shiori put in. “I mean, shouldn’t it have been harder for them to get as far as they did? Or at least, shouldn’t there have been an alert sooner?”

Kimper nodded, arms folded over his tiny chest. “Yes. But we lowered a number of the security spells in order to allow your entrance.”

That hit me hard, and I paled. “So… it was our fault they were able to get in here.”

Limnoreia, the blue-skinned Nereid shook her head. “No, Heretic-child. It is not your fault. We had the choice of either lowering our defenses entirely, or adding both of you into their exceptions. We chose the former because we did not trust you enough to risk giving you specific access through those spells. The thought was that if you caused trouble, the defenses could easily be raised and they would target you immediately. It was our mistake. Unfortunately, it is not one that we have paid for.”

Cringing, I thought about Ylena’s dead aunt. “I know. The… the people who died, the ones who were hurt, I’m sorry there’s nothing we can… nothing we can do…”

To my surprise, it was Calvin who spoke. “Oh gods, would you just tell her the truth? She’s either not falling for your little test, or she didn’t have anything to do with it. Probably the latter. I don’t like the little self-righteous snoop, but she’s too much of a damn goody good to be into the whole abducting children thing.

Confused by that, I stared at the man before looking toward the others. “Wait, what’s he talking about?”

“Yes,” Senny agreed with a voice that sounded just as confused as I felt. “What is he talking about?”

The rest of the Septs looked at each other, but it was Seth who spoke after linking his arms behind his head. “Turns out, the fleabags weren’t just here for you after all. Well, maybe they came for that and just took advantage of the situation. Whatever it was, they didn’t end up taking off empty-handed.”

Limnoreia explained in a pained voice. “While we were distracted by the primary attack, several other wolves, accompanied by another Heretic, infiltrated the areas where our nursery and daycare are located. They took several of the children there before they could be stopped.”

More of Pace’s pack—Lemuel’s pack, I reminded myself. Twelve attacked directly. Three more had been keeping the back clear until Seth killed them. And others, apparently, had gone after the children.

A hard, heavy weight seemed to slam itself deep into the pit of my stomach at that. “W-wait,” I blurted, eyes wide. “What do you mean, they took several children? Why—why would they take… take kids?”

“Weres,” Asenath said quietly, sounding pained. “They took were-children, didn’t they?” When the group of Septs nodded, she cursed. “Damn it! Of course they did.” To Shiori and me, she explained, “That’s how a lot of Nocen were-packs expand their numbers. They either turn humans that they think have potential, which has its own risk of failure if the subject doesn’t survive the first change. Or they take the children of weres. Those have… a much higher survival rate because the change is natural.”

While I was reeling from that, something else struck me, and I looked back to the Septs. “Wait, you said there was another Heretic with them. Do you have a picture of them, or a description or anything?”

“He was tall,” Xi explained after exchanging looks with the rest of them. “And he was of the Moors.”

I started to ask what ‘of the Moors’ meant, but Asenath quietly murmured, “She means he was black.”

“Doxer,” I muttered aloud. “It had to be Doxer. Pace, she said something about him helping them find us—me, but I didn’t think he was actually here. Why would he help the pack abduct were-children?”

Senny shrugged a bit. “Maybe he was trying to impress Pace, or owed her. Whichever, the point is-”

“The point,” Fennicus interrupted with a heavy and obviously irritated stomp of his hoof against the floor, “is that we shouldn’t be sitting around in here. We should be working to find those children.”

Kimper was standing in his seat, head bobbing up and down. “We need to send teams out after them!”

“We do that,” Seth pointed out idly from his place, “and we leave Wonderland vulnerable. We already lost enough as it is. If we send enough to challenge this other pack and get the kids back, we leave the people that are left here vulnerable to another attack.” He glanced to me while flicking a switchblade open and shut. “And if we don’t send enough, we’re just handing the pack more victims to play with.”

“What would you have us do, then?” Fennicus demanded. “If we do nothing, the parents and guardians of the were-children will go off on their own. Some of them might do that anyway, regardless. They’ll spread out and get themselves killed, or taken. We must be seen to take action on this, immediately.”

That started a whole new round of arguments between them, some arguing for rescue teams while others continued to point out that lowering their numbers more was going to leave Wonderland weak.

In the midst of all of that, I interrupted. “Hey! Hey, I think we can help. Let us help find the kids.”

All of their eyes turned to me, and Stav spoke in a rumble. “I think you underestimate how long such as search will take. This is not a short or small endeavor, and from what you have said, there is more than enough on your… how do humans say… bowl already.” Beside him, Xi leaned closer to whisper, and the rock-man corrected himself. “Plate. Enough on your plate. How will you spend the time to search for the children, particularly without arousing the confusion and suspicion of your school teachers?”

Wincing at that, I admitted, “Not us, exactly. You’re right, we already have a lot to deal with. And it’s not like we can just wander all over the place searching the country for wherever the pack is holed up. But we do know others that can search. And they’d have sort of a… sort of personal stake in the matter.”

Clearly surprised, Shiori glanced to me. “Wait,” she blurted quickly. “You’re talking about asking–”

I nodded. “There’s another werewolf pack. A smaller one, but… capable. One of them was another Heretic until she was turned by Lemuel, the leader of the pack that attacked you. He didn’t do it to recruit her, he did it to make her die. But she survived, and she was taken in by this other pack. And they want to deal with Pace and the rest of them as much as you do. When they hear that Lemuel’s pack took were-children, I think they’ll want to be involved.”

“A pack of werewolves…” Limnoreia murmured thoughtfully. “Their senses would give them a better chance of tracking the abductors, assuming they could arrive soon enough…”

They conferred quietly for a moment before Xi spoke up for them. “Contact them, Miss Chambers. See what they can do. And for the time being, you may consider us… not quite allied. Not yet. That is something we will have to explore further, preferably without interruptions. But we are not enemies either. We shall see where this goes. Particularly if your contact is able to save the children.”

Taking a breath, I nodded and turned to take the phone from my pocket. Going through the contacts briefly, I hit one of them and brought the phone to my ear.

“Sean? Yeah. Um, listen… is Mateo there?

“I have a really, really big favor to ask.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-07

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For once, Pace seemed to be stunned into silence. She hadn’t moved by the time Shiori reached the spot where I was still kneeling and put out a hand to pull me up to my feet. “Are you okay?” the Asian girl asked quickly, her tone and wide-eyed expression making it clear that she couldn’t decide whether to be worried or seriously impressed. Belatedly, she added in a cute little whisper, “That was really badass.

“I’m okay,” I promised while accepting the hand up. Despite my flippant remark while shoving my knife into the wolf, I was actually shaking. My mouth and throat felt dry, and I kept seeing the dead wolf at my feet from the corner of my eyes. Not wolf, I reminded myself. Werewolf. Dead werewolf.

Pace had apparently recovered by that point. Not only mentally, but she’d also physically recovered the weapon that I’d shot out of her hand. She was holding both, staring at the two of us like we were particularly interesting toys that had somehow managed to start moving and talking. “Well… well… well,” the girl muttered audibly in a tone that was more surprised and vaguely curious than it was outraged or grieving. Which, frankly, was a weird reaction to me killing one of her pack-mates. It made me wonder if she even actually cared about them at all, considering how she’d been acting. Hell, she’d even made a holiday joke about Valentine, the first of her supposed pack that I’d ended up killing.

Shiori turned slightly to face the girl, hands tightly clutching her discs. “Oh right, still one left.”

“One?” Pace echoed before giggling with obvious amusement. Which, again, seemed strange given what I had just done. Dancing from one foot to the other almost like a child that really needed to use the bathroom, she remarked with suspicious casualness, “Sooomeone should learn how to count.”

My mouth opened to ask what she meant by that, but before I could say anything, the slightest squeak of movement on the floor somewhere behind us caught my attention. Shiori had obviously heard it too, because she spun that way at the same time that I did, both of us with our weapons raised defensively.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t have mattered how many weapons we had. Because as I turned, my eyes took in the sight of six werewolves coming straight at us. Half were in full wolf form while the others were in that large half-wolf shape. And every last one of them were in a blind, frothing-at-the-mouth rage. They weren’t in any mood to capture us. No, going by the looks in those eyes and the bloodcurdling chorus of snarls and howls filling the air, they were going to quite literally rip us apart.

They were almost on top of us. Shiori was reacting already, but she was trying to grab me instead of taking care of herself. My hand snapped up to give her a hard shove out of the way. It wasn’t quite full strength, but it was enough to send her flying several feet and take her out of the wolves’ path. Which left me standing directly in front of the bloodthirsty, enraged beasts as they lunged, spittle flying.

My brain shut off, and I simply reacted. The nearest wolf was basically on top of me as I gave a quick lunge forward while ducking my head away from his jaws as they snapped shut where my throat would have been an instant earlier. Directly past him, one of the wolf-men was swiping down with his massive claws. But at the last second, I pivoted abruptly on my left foot. It was just enough to make him miss tearing a big chunk out of my side. Then the second full wolf was there, trying to grab for my leg to tear me to the ground. Just before its powerful jaws would’ve closed around my throat, I pushed off into a flip that carried me over him. Which brought me directly in front of the second wolf-man.

He was slamming both of his arms together to catch hold of me in a bear hug (wolf hug?) that probably would’ve crushed my ribs into powder if he’d managed to actually get hold of me with it. But even as I landed, my body was dropping into a sudden roll that took me between his legs. Which took me right to the third full wolf, whose blinding rage looked briefly overtaken by surprise at my sudden appearance before he lunged for me, clearly thinking that my position rolling on the floor had left me vulnerable.

He was wrong. Even as the wolf leapt with his mouth open and teeth bared, I managed to somehow get a foot underneath myself. Kicking off with it, I did this side-flip off the floor, barely clearing the wolf.

That side-flip took me directly in front of the last wolf-man, who was just starting to react to the fact that I was there. His claws came for me as I landed, but I twisted first one way, then the other. My body dipped, evading both of his rapid swipes before I dove into a low somersault under his third, even more enraged attempt. There was no skill or thought to his attack, just like there hadn’t been for any of the others. They were attacking blindly, without planning anything they were doing. All they cared about was murdering me as quickly (and preferably painfully) as possible in revenge for their pack-mate.

Even enraged, however, they should have been able to utterly destroy me. Honestly, six of them versus one of me, even in a blind rage they should’ve torn me apart in about two seconds. And yet somehow… somehow I had just basically danced my way through all six of them without even being touched once.

As I rolled to my knees and spun back, only one thought came to mind. How the hell had I done that?

“How the hell did you do that?!” Shiori blurted my own thoughts as she skidded to a stop next to me.

“I… I… I…” My mouth worked a few times while I crouched there before admitting, “I don’t know.”

The wolf I’d killed. That had to be it. Instead of improving the enhanced strength that I’d already gotten from killing Valentine, apparently this one had given me… what, super-enhanced reflexes and agility?

By that point, the half dozen wolves that I had worked my way through had managed to collect themselves and recover. They spun back to us, and I could tell that while they were still furious, their initial uncontrollable rage was ebbing a bit. Which wasn’t good, since it meant that they wouldn’t be blindly attacking next time. And six werewolves plus Pace versus Shiori and me would be a massacre.

“Oh boy, oh boy.” Speaking of Pace, the crazy girl had already worked her way to the front of the pack of furious werewolves. “You really ticked them off there, Present.” Her tone turned to a stage-whisper as she leaned forward, cupping a hand to the side of her mouth. “I think you’re off their Christmas list.”

Somehow, through all of that, Shiori had managed to grab my staff. She passed it back to me while keeping her eyes on the wolves, who were starting to spread out a little bit. “I think we’ll survive.”

“Don’t be so sure.” That was from one of the wolves, rather than Pace. He had shifted back into his human shape, looking remarkably like a mild-mannered accountant. Well, except for the whole naked thing. He wasn’t that tall, and his figure was pale with heavily freckled skin and light brown hair. And he was also glaring at me with a hatred that actually made me shiver. “No,” he added darkly. “I don’t think you’ll survive at all. Which still works. Kill one of us, maybe we let the Heretics play with you. Kill two of us…” His face started to shift back a little as he began to resume his man-wolf form.

“We should really be going,” Pace put in idly, looking like she didn’t particularly care much either way.

The man-wolf’s voice was a rough, gravely growl. “Not yet. It won’t take long to kill these bitches. Monty and the other two are still holding the back door, so we’ve got time. Just enough to finish this.”

Other two? There were three more wolves besides the ones that we had already seen? Three more who were apparently holding the back door. Fantastic, so these guys weren’t even in a rush to leave yet.

Beside me, I felt Shiori set herself with her weapons drawn and ready. Swallowing, I did the same. In front of us, the six wolves had finished spreading out to cover the width of the mall corridor. They weren’t blinded by rage anymore. They were going to work together as a pack to take us down.

The tension was rising. The air was thick with it. Any second, they’d lunge. I just didn’t know which one would make the first move. Whoever it was, Shiori and I had to stay together. We had to watch each other’s backs and just try to last as long as we could. Maybe Asenath or Buddy would show up.

And then, just as I saw one of the wolves bracing himself to spring toward us, something came sailing in from the side. My eyes spotted it, widening at the sight of the mangled, broken form of another werewolf in full wolf form. Its head was twisted around the wrong way, it was bleeding from half a dozen wounds, and most importantly: its chest had been ripped open and its heart was missing. Along with what looked like several other very important organs. The thing had basically been butchered.

Every eye turned that way, only to see a single figure walk out of one of the mall’s staff-only corridors. Seth. The vampire that Asenath knew, the one who was one of the Septs. He was strolling casually into view. And he was dragging two more very dead wolves along the floor with him, one in each hand.

Three werewolves. Three combat prepared and trained werewolves on the attack, working together to guard a single point. And Seth had just—he’d killed all of them. With what seemed to have been ease. Hell, he didn’t seem to have a scratch on him. Which, to be fair, could be the vampire healing. But still.

“I wouldn’t really, ahhh…” the vampire drawled while giving both of the wolves a simple toss that put them in the middle of the floor next to the third one, “… count on that ‘watch the back door’ thing.”

Stopping nearby, he cracked his neck to the side and I heard an audible pop. “Hey, kids. You all right?”

Tiebreaker,” the wolf-man who had been talking before snarled, even as all of them took a step back. When they saw me kill one of them, they’d flown into a blind rage and rushed me. But when they saw the vampire kill three of them, they were intimidated into taking a step back. And then another one.

For his part, Seth just smiled almost sleepily while replying, “And bones… and necks… and don’t forget about the occasional heart here and there. But yeah, I break ties too. You know, when I feel like it.”

Instead of rushing us, or making another threat, the wolf-man turned toward Pace. “Exit,” he ordered.

At first I thought he was just telling her to leave. But Pace flipped her kusarigama up, catching them by the handles. Then she hit something, and the weapons shifted in her grip. Some kind of protective sheathe covered the blades, allowing the girl to slip her hands down to use them as grips. At the same time, the very end of what had already been the handles dropped open, revealing a gun barrel hidden inside each. Pointing the weapons over at the nearby wall, Pace pulled a trigger that had appeared on one, then the other. From the first, a white blast emerged, freezing part of the wall. The red blast from the second weapon blew a hole into the exact spot that the first one had weakened by freezing.

Right, not only could Pace freeze (and apparently burn) things with the chains of her weapons, but they could also turn into guns that did the same. Because that’s what she needed: to be more dangerous.

The wolves and Pace retreated through the new hole, all of them keeping wary eyes on us. Well, okay, that was flattering Shiori and me. Ninety percent of their attention was clearly centered solely on Seth.

Once they were gone, I slumped. Shiori did the same, panting as she looked at the vampire. “You… you…” Her mouth was working, eyes flicking down at the three dead werewolves and then back to him.

Before the other girl could finish whatever she had been trying to say, there was a blur of motion. Asenath came skidding to a stop, blood drenching her front. She was carrying two knives that looked somewhat similar to the one I still had in one hand. “Reathma,” she blurted, looking first to her sister, then to me. “You’re… You’re okay.” Dropping her weapons, she moved to embrace Shiori tightly.

Shiori returned the hug while blushing a little. Her voice was hesitant. “You—you’re okay too? Everything else, the wolves, they’re all gone?”

Smiling a little, Asenath nodded. “Dealt with or gone. The survivors took off. And I’m fine. Wrestled tougher wolves than those before.” Exhaling, she paused before glancing to the dead werewolves. Then she looked to Seth, voice neutral. “Those yours?”

“Eh,” the man shrugged with what was by now patented casualness. “A few. Your Heretic there killed one of them.” He nodded toward me, eyebrows raised. “Pretty impressive for a trainee, by the way.”

My mouth opened, but before I could respond, another thought struck me. “Oh!” Shoving the knife away, my hands fumbled into my pocket until I found my phone. “I’ve gotta call Wyatt before he sends in the entire National Guard.” Quickly hitting the speed dial button, I held the phone up, muttering to myself about what would happen if my half-brother finished rounding up a posse and came charging in right then.

“Wyatt,” I blurted as soon as he answered. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. We’re fine. We’re good…ish.”

Surprisingly, he answered far more calmly than I thought he’d be, “I know. We’re watching you.”

I blinked at that, then blinked again. “Who—what?” I asked dully. “What do you mean you’re–” My head moved up and I looked to a security camera in the corner, my eyes wide. “You’re watching us?”

“I came to Gaia,” Wyatt explained. “She did something to make the ceiling in her office show the security footage from where you are. So we watched, just in case you needed help. But you didn’t.”

No wonder he was actually calm. If anyone could make Wyatt slow down and breathe, it was Gaia. And if she’d actually taken over the security cameras (probably similar to the way she had taken over the portal machine on the Meregan ship) to let him see what was going on, it obviously helped. Though I wasn’t really sure how the other Septs would feel about that if they found out about it.

A glance toward the other three confirmed that they had most likely heard all of that. Swallowing, I hesitated before murmuring, “Tell Gaia I’ll call and explain everything as soon as we’re done here.”

As I disconnected, Asenath stepped over to embrace me as well. “Sorry I wasn’t here earlier. Wolf might not have been the strongest one I’ve dealt with, but he was tenacious. Glad you’re okay.”

“Me too,” I agreed, before looking at Seth. “But we wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t shown up.”

The two vampires looked at each other in silence for a moment before Senny quietly spoke. “Thank you.”

In response, Seth just gave a shrug of one shoulder. “Eh, it’s like I said. We’re practically family.”

“How–” My voice caught, and I had to swallow hard before pushing on. “How many did they kill? What—what’s going on back there?” I was afraid to look back to see just how many bodies there were and how much damage had been done.

Sobering, Senny straightened. “I haven’t seen everything,” she admitted quietly. “If… if you want to leave before they blame you for what happened, I understand.”

My head shook at that. “No. If we’re going to make an alliance work, we can’t just run away because it gets hard. We need to show them that we’ll be there, that we’ll stick around even when things go bad. It’s the only way to convince them to trust us.”

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed. “They might be mad now, because the wolves attacked while we were here. But if we leave without talking to them, they’ll never listen to us again. They might not even listen to you anymore.”

After looking back and forth between us for a couple seconds, Senny finally nodded, a small smile touching her face. “Okay.” Turning, she started back the other way.

For a second, I hesitated. Despite my words, I was afraid to go back and see everything that the wolves had done. Not only because of how the Septs and the other Alters might react to seeing us after what happened, but also because… well, because I didn’t really relish seeing the kind of damage that a bunch of werewolves could do to innocent civilians.

Then I felt a touch. Glancing down, I saw Shiori slip her hand into mine before squeezing it. When I looked up, she gave me a slight smile. “It’ll be okay, Flick.”

And somehow… I believed her.

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Winter Wonderland 18-05

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“Let me see if I understand your claim, Miss, ahhh… Chambers.” The centaur spoke gruffly, his voice sounding like he was auditioning for the role of Batman. Squeezing the back of the chair that he was standing behind, he met my gaze intently. It was like he was trying to stare straight through me. “According to you, for a good portion of this past century, a group of Heretics led by your dam—err, sorry, your mother– and a group of Alters were part of an alliance combating the rest of your Heretic herd in an attempt to change their ideology? And then your mother’s entire identity was completely erased from their—possibly our memories, and with it, all knowledge of this supposed alliance?”

Swallowing, I forced myself to keep meeting his stare. “Yes, sir,” I confirmed. “That’s about the size of it. They were rebelling against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, trying to change things. And they were doing pretty well. The establishment thought they won when they kidnapped–” I stopped, frowning.

The vampire, a pale guy who looked like Sufjan Stevens with longer hair, leaned forward in his seat. “When they kidnapped whom?” His voice was silky smooth, and hearing it combined with the look that he gave me actually made me forget what I was saying for a second. Which, judging by the smirk that immediately crossed his face for a moment before he controlled it, was what he had been going for.

Shaking that off, I turned my attention toward the other Septs. “I—um, I can’t really say,” I admitted before quickly explaining. “There’s a spell protecting it. One of their memory spells. I can’t say who was kidnapped, just that someone important was taken, and they used it to make my mother surrender. So they thought that would be the end of it. But the rebellion kept going on for decades after that. They finally figured that if they erased my mother entirely, since she started the rebellion, it would disappear. And they were right. My mom lived as a normal person and everything in the Heretic world went back to the way the establishment wanted it to be. At least, she lived a normal life until Fossor abducted her.”

That got plenty of attention. I immediately saw all seven of the people up there, Calvin included, stiffen and look around at each other. The short, gnome-like guy was the first to speak up. “Fossor,” he repeated in a high-pitched voice after jumping to his feet to stand on his chair. “Did you say Fossor?”

Swallowing hard, I gave a slight nod to the gnome. “I take it you know him,” I murmured quietly.

“We are well aware of the Nocen Necromancer,” the older, beautiful blue-skinned woman confirmed. Her voice sounded pained, like she was remembering something specific and personally tragic. “He has caused our people a great deal of pain. If he has your mother in his custody, you have my sympathy.”

The Rakshasa female straightened a little, nodding. “He is a monster of the worst kind. And–” she added after a thoughtful pause, “there have been reports that he has been accompanied by an unknown female here and there. Some even claimed this female was a Heretic, though none of those reports were ever truly taken seriously.” Meeting my gaze, she mused softly, “Perhaps they should have been.”

“It was probably her,” I agreed while trying not to think about the kind of stuff that Fossor would have taken my mother onto field trips for. “And he made her… he made her have a son with him. Ammon.”

“We know of the spawn,” the rocky Thing-like man grumbled with as much obvious anger as the Septs had shown at the name of Fossor. “His experiments with his abilities have ended many Alter lives. And those are the ones we consider to be fortunate. Suffice to say, the child is as monstrous as his father.”

“Wait, you’ve actually had Alters around that encountered Ammon enough to know about him?” I was surprised by that. My impression had been that Fossor didn’t let his son out that often, but if these guys knew enough just to recognize him by name, then he must have been more active than I’d thought.

Behind me, Asenath spoke. “How much do you know about him? I have a case that involves the boy.”

“A case, hmm?” the male vampire spoke up, his tone and posture making it clear like he found the whole concept incredibly amusing. “You sound like a real detective when you talk like that, Senny.”

The look that she shot back at him could have frozen magma. “And yet, you still don’t sound like an actual leader, Seth. Also, my friends call me Senny. Which means you will always call me Asenath.”

“Not friends?” the vampire, Seth apparently, lamented with raised arms. “We’re practically family. After your father saved my life at the Battle of Trenton, I might as well be your big, handsome brother.”

Whoa. Apparently there was history between the two of them. Quite a lot, it seemed like. This Seth guy was turned by Asenath’s father during what was probably the American Revolution, from the sound of it. And Asenath herself really didn’t like him very much, despite that connection. I wondered what had happened between them, and what Tiras himself would have thought of it. Hell, why had he chosen to save this single man and turn him into a vampire? What had drawn him to do something like that?

Senny looked like she was going to say something nasty back to Seth, but stopped herself. Instead, she forcibly turned away to focus on the other Septs. Her voice was hard. “You mentioned the boy.”

The centaur spoke up in his rough voice again. “Rumors that would appear to be more substantiated given the information you have already provided. They say that he appears to be a Heretic, but different. Those who have escaped him say that his… mind control ability is stronger than any they have ever encountered. Even those who should be immune to such effects are still vulnerable to it.”

“Yup, sounds like Ammon,” I muttered. “He was even able to affect a high level Heretic. Our security chief, actually. And you’d think if anyone would be stacking up anti-mind control powers, it’d be her.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I paled and felt the sudden urge to smack myself very hard in the forehead. Or possibly lower. “I mean–” I winced, shaking my head. “Sorry. I just—she should have plenty of defense against being controlled, and it still affected her. That’s all I meant.”

From the looks I was getting, the Septs didn’t enjoy being reminded about the fact that Heretics essentially harvested powers from Alters that they killed. But none of them said anything. Not even Calvin, which was odd since I would’ve figured that he’d jump on any excuse to turn the rest of their opinions against us. Actually, he hadn’t really said much of anything since I’d started telling the story.

Finally, the blue woman interrupted the awkward silence that had settled over the room. “Your point is taken, Miss Chambers. It seems that in all of our experiences, the boy’s power is stronger than it should be.” She paused then before looking toward the Rakshasa. “Perhaps there was some truth to the rumor.”

“Rumor?” I blinked, looking back and forth between them. “There’s a rumor about Ammon’s power?”

Asenath suddenly started with obvious realization. “Denuvus,” she blurted. “They think it’s Denuvus.”

“Denuvus?” Shiori finally piped up, looking from her sister to the Septs and back again. “Who’s that?”

The gnome who answered in that high voice. “Denuvus was never more than a rumor. His existence was never, ever confirmed. You’re talking about a rumor about a rumor. It’s utterly unsubstantiated.”

“And yet,” the Rakshasa almost purred, “it would seem to fit quite well, would it not?” To the rest of us, she added, “Denuvus is—or possibly was– supposedly a boogeyman among both Alters and Heretics. Rumor had it that he was both. An Alter who became a Heretic. Or an Alter with the ability to gain powers from other Alters, like a Heretic. But his most powerful ability was the one he began with: his ability to control others through his voice. Even those he really shouldn’t have been able to control.”

“Like Ammon does,” I murmured before looking back over to her with a thoughtful frown. “But what do you mean, an Alter with Heretic powers? How is that possible? I mean, I assume he wasn’t just a Reaper or a Hangman. He wouldn’t be just a rumor then, so it’s gotta be something more than that.”

Seth spoke then, having lounged lazily back into his seat with one foot up on the arm of it. “Got that right. According to the rumors, whatever Denuvus was, it came with the most powerful mind control anyone ever saw. Nobody was safe. He told you to do something, you did it. All he had to do was-”

“Say his name,” I interrupted. “He introduced himself, and then everyone who heard it had to obey.”

There was a series of nods from the whole group, before the rock-guy took over the explanation. “According to the rumors, he had a Djinni under his control. They, ahhh, they say that he made the Djinni use her magic to merge him with a Reaper, so he could have its power. Sort of a homebrewed Heretic. So whatever he was with that mind control that worked on everyone, suddenly he was a hell of a lot more dangerous. And he killed Heretics and Alters alike. Didn’t care who they were as long as they gave him power. Like they said, kind of a boogeyman. Especially since he didn’t register as a Heretic to anyone that looked at him. Normally your kind are—well we know you by sight. Not him.”

Rocking back on my heels, I thought about that. “So now you think that Ammon… that he was…” Swallowing, I pushed on. “You think that Fossor made him a Heretic by taking this Denuvus guy’s blood. Maybe killing him, maybe not. The point is, you think Ammon’s a Heretic based on Denuvus.”

“And no one knows what he was before?” Shiori interrupted. “Denuvus, I mean. You don’t know what um, what species of Alter he is, or where his mind control power came from and why it’s so strong?”

There was a collection of shaking heads before Calvin finally spoke up for the first time. “You know, we’re saying an awful lot to these two when we don’t even know if we can trust them or not.”

“And I’m trusting all of you,” I shot back. “If certain people find out what I’ve told you, it won’t be hard for them to figure out where that information came from. And if that happens, well, we’re pretty screwed. All of us. Me, my friends, and especially Shiori.” Nodding toward the girl, I added, “What do you think the Heretics are going to do as soon as they find out that there are half-Alters among them?”

“The girl has a point,” the centaur allowed with a stomp of one of his hooves. “And these are not the sort of tactics that Heretics normally use. They would have to respect us as a civilization to bother with this kind of underhanded strategy. You don’t send someone to infiltrate an organization with a story that appeals to their compassion unless you believe that the organization you’re infiltrating has compassion. In my experience, Heretics would never even entertain such a notion, let alone build a plan around it.”

Calvin immediately shifted gears. “But the point remains, what do they want from us? And is providing it to them worth the risk that they pose? You heard the girl. Fossor is after her. Having her around attracts his attention and the Heretics. She’s got two different bullseyes on her from two really god damn scary sources. And that’s just the ones we know about. If you ask me, she’s too dangerous.”

The gnome gave Calvin a look before nodding once. “I’m not one to agree with the new Bebarlang, but he raises a fair point. What exactly do these two expect us to do now that they’ve told us their story? Are we expected to start another war against the Heretics, just because she says that her mother led the last one? Or will she instead insist that we aid her in rescuing her mother from the necromancer?”

“I don’t expect you to do anything,” I insisted. “I didn’t even know we were coming here today. But now that we are here, I just… I just want to be able to come and get information that I can’t get other places. Maybe later it can turn into something more. But right now, I’m just trying to be a student. I…” Biting my lip, I paused before going for it. “In less than a year, Fossor’s going to come for me too. I’m training to fight him, but—but I’m still just a teenager. I’ve barely been a Heretic for a few months. When he comes, it’ll be a year. That’s not enough. They’re teaching me, trying to help, but I’m afraid it’s still not enough. I need to learn more. I need to learn from sources that Fossor won’t plan for. I don’t expect you to help me fight him. But I would… I would like it if you could teach me to fight for myself. Teach me things that the Heretics won’t or can’t. Teach me things that Fossor might not know about.”

That made them whisper among themselves for a few seconds before the blue woman held a hand up to stop them while looking at us. “Miss Chambers and Miss Porter, we have been incredibly rude to you both in demanding answers without introducing ourselves. I am called Limnoreia. My people are known as Nereids.”

The rock-man gave a slight nod, clearly agreeing with her decision. “I am Stav, the Granakin.” Lifting his large hand, he indicated the others. “You already know Calvin, the Bebarlang. The Centaur’s name is Fennicus, the Rakshasa is Xi, Kimper is the Gnome. And, of course, the vampire is called Seth.”

Slowly looking down the line of them, I nodded with each name. “Calvin, Stav, Xi, Seth, Fennicus, Limnoreia, and Kimper. It’s a um, surprise to meet you today. But I uh, thanks. Thanks for listening.”

Clearly I didn’t exactly have the charisma of my mother in leading massive groups of both Alters and Heretics to follow her into a war. But at least they were paying attention and considering what we said.

“We would like to discuss what you’ve told us in private,” Limnoreia explained gently. “There are some other considerations to be made, and… well, quite frankly I would prefer you not have to stand there listening to our arguments. If you would like to continue looking around Wonderland while we discuss, you are welcome to do so. Quing will ensure that you are not accosted. Correct, Quing?”

The bird-man stepped forward before giving a sharp nod. He didn’t look happy about it, but he agreed. “Yes, Sept Limnoreia. They’ll be safe.” Pausing then, he added pointedly. “Just like everyone here.”

That bit was clearly meant as a warning to Shiori and me, but I let it roll off my back. I couldn’t blame him for his reaction, or his suspicions. Especially not after finding out about what he’d lost.

“Good,” the Rakshasa, Xi, gave a wave of her paw. “We will send for you after we’ve deliberated.”

So we left. Walking back past all those guards and out into the main mall, Asenath remained quiet until we were out. Then she looked at me. “Sorry. I know that probably felt a bit like an ambush. But I wanted whatever you said to come without sounding rehearsed. The Septs have ways of detecting lying, and sometimes rehearsed speeches come off as lying. It could be explained, but… I thought it was better if it came out completely naturally.”

“I guess I get that…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “But you didn’t know they had any information about Ammon?”

“I thought they might,” the vampire admitted. “But this was the best way to get it out of them without Seth sabotaging things because he thinks it’s amusing.”

Shiori raised a hand. “Um, what’s the deal between you two? Is he really… basically family?”

Asenath shook her head sharply. “No. Not–” She sighed. “Not exactly. He showed up after Papa left, said he was supposed to help take care of us. But he’s not exactly the ‘caretaker’ type. Whatever my father saw in him that made him save his life… I don’t know. He’s not a Nocen or anything, but he just… doesn’t take anything seriously. Everything is one big joke, and his world revolves around whatever amuses him the most at the time.”

I opened my mouth to say something else, but before I could actually speak, a sudden boom reverberated throughout the mall. It was followed almost immediately by another. They felt like earthquakes or small explosions.

“What th–” I got out before a hand abruptly grabbed my arm. Senny yanked me backward, moving so fast she was a blur. An instant later, a chunk of the ceiling slammed into the floor where I had just been standing. It had to weigh a couple hundred pounds, and hit with another boom.

There was a figure on top of the chunk of ceiling. Or rather, a body. What looked like a lizard man lay there, a gaping wound in his stomach and another in his throat.

“Pestel!” Quing took a step there, the horror and grief in his voice hitting me hard. “Our man on the roof. He–”

“Down!” Asenath grabbed me around the waist and leapt backward just before another huge chunk of the ceiling fell in right where I had been standing.

By that point, most of the Alters who had re-emerged were running for cover. I heard one of them scream that the Heretics were there and that it was all a trap. My mouth opened to try to shout something, anything. But before I could, something else fell from the ceiling.

Or rather…dropped. The figure landed easily on the same pile of debris that had just fallen, straightening with a shake of her head.

“Aww,” Pace lamented. “I really thought that one was gonna hit you. How rude.”

“Pace!” Eyes widening, I grabbed the staff from my hip, yanking it free. “What the hell-how did—what?”

Grinning, the crazy werewolf-heretic did a little spin. “Dear old Doxer’s really good at finding people.” She focused on me, her smile growing. “Peekaboo.”

“You made a mistake, Heretic,” Quing informed her, straightening away from the body of his subordinate. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“You’re surrounded, Pace,” I managed through gritted teeth. I was trying not to stare too much at the choker that hid her werewolf status from my Heretic-sense. “I don’t know what you thought you were gonna do here, but–”

“Surrounded?” Pace echoed, as if the thought had only just occurred to her. “Huh. Surrounded. That was dumb. I guess I shouldn’t have come by myself.” Pausing, her head tilted slowly, that manic smile returning. “Oh yeah.”

She snapped her fingers, and an instant later, there were over a dozen more figures falling through the holes in the ceiling, all the way past the railings around the other two floors. They landed all around us, large figures that were growing bigger and hairier by the second. Werewolves. There were over a dozen werewolves surrounding us, while Pace gave that chaotic laugh.

She wasn’t alone. She had brought her pack with her.

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