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It was time to go. I’d had my three days with everyone I cared the most about, and even snuck out early to find Professor Dare so I could spend time with her as well. She hadn’t been able to go along with us to the family outing for obvious reasons, but I’d seen her at the party the day before, and we sat in a private room talking for over an hour while I was waiting for the others to wake up. She was about as happy about me leaving as everyone else, but probably understood even better. She gave me some advice, and also a phone number to call if I wanted to talk to her privately.
After that whole thing, I had a last minute family breakfast. That in and of itself was hard to sit through. For some reason I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wouldn’t be seeing these people for a long time. Yes, I had been away from them before. Hell, this was actually one of the better times considering all the advanced warning and how patient Sun was being about it. Which, from what I’d heard about the man, was kind of weird anyway.
I spent that breakfast, and the subsequent moments of hugging everyone I loved, asking myself why I felt like this was going to take so long. Maybe it was just because it felt like being trained by someone like Ehn was a long-term commitment. Or I was just being paranoid because it felt like getting this advance warning and time to say goodbye was going to be matched by an even longer time away than usual. But whatever it was, I couldn’t shake the impression that I needed to make these moments last.
Even with all the powers I’d gained ever since I came into this life, however, I couldn’t stop the passage of time. After three days that felt like they had passed by in a matter of minutes, it was time to leave. Not that I knew exactly how that was going to happen, of course. Sun had been rather evasive about that part, and he certainly hadn’t told Athena any details so she could prepare a ship or a portal or anything. It was like he didn’t want to give her any information that could possibly get back to Gehenna. Though I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have been able to actually stop any of this, judging from what I’d seen. But they would probably at least be somewhat annoying for Ehn.
So, I had no idea how this was going to go. I’d made the deal to say my goodbyes to everyone and promise to keep in touch through Tabbris. Then I was just supposed to meet Sun in one of the departure rooms, one that had been set aside for our use. He had convinced Athena to clear the guards out of it for an hour or so, and told me I needed to show up ‘without a bunch of tagalongs’ as he put it. Obviously, my family didn’t like that very much. But considering he’d agreed to let me have three days with them, I couldn’t complain all that much, or push too hard. Besides, I had an alarm spell on me that would trigger if I said the right word, or simply tapped my fingers together in the right pattern. Wyatt had been insistent on that much.
Taking a breath as I stood outside the room in question, I sent a reassuring feeling toward Tabbris, who was staying with my parents and her mother back at the apartment while they all waited to get word that I had finally left. Then I looked over toward the two figures standing nearby. “Ready for this?”
Persephone gave a quick nod. She was all dressed up in khaki pants, an authentic World War 2 bomber jacket, scarf, and goggles. Yeah, she actually had goggles, though they were resting on top of her head at the moment. “Ready for the trip, Captain Flick!” Her confirmation came complete with an enthusiastic thumbs up.
Meanwhile, Cerberus (in his ‘small’ form) gave a trio of barks from each head, before one of them leaned in to rub against me until I obediently rubbed behind his ears. Which, of course, meant I had to do so for the other two heads as well.
Once that was done, I pushed my hand against the palm reader on the door until it clicked. As the door whooshed open, I stepped through, followed by Percy and Cerberus. The three of us found ourselves in the empty transport room. Empty, that was aside from Sun himself. The monkey-man was sitting in the middle of the room, playing some sort of fighting game on a handheld system someone had given him. Fingers dancing over the controls, he shouted something about how impossible that was and demanded his character do a spinning back kick to the left temple like he was supposed to. He launched into a big technical explanation of why someone of his height and size should’ve been able to get five percent more speed and would totally have avoided that punch before noticing us. Which immediately made him abandon the game, popping upright to grin. “You made it! So glad I didn’t have to go looking for you. That would’ve been boring and annoying. I hate being bored and annoyed.”
“Uh, yeah, glad we could save you from that,” I managed a bit weakly. “So what’re we doing now? You said it’d take an hour to set up the portal or whatever, so if you need any help–”
He laughed a little at that, waving his hand dismissively before replying, “Oh, nah, we can get out of here anytime. I just don’t like feeling rushed. Plus, you know, if you want we could spar a little bit before you leave?” He bounced back-and-forth on his feet like a boxer, punching the air even as he transformed into a perfect copy of me aside from the tail. “Give me a chance to see how you fight. It’ll help me pretend to be you. Except, you know, stronger. Was that rude? People always think telling the truth is rude.”
Oh boy, did that idea ever make me nervous. At least at first, then I realized there was nothing to be nervous about at all. There was absolutely no way in any hell in existence that I could ever come close to presenting the slightest threat to the man in front of me. And with that realization, that I had no expectation of being any more effective than a small child, the pressure was off. He was going to wipe the floor with me, but this was simply a sparring match. Hell, it wasn’t even that. It was nothing more than a way to show him how I moved. So, with all that in mind, I shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”
Sun’s eyes lit up at that. “Really?” He looked and sounded like an excited child who had just been told he could pick out any toy in the store. “Sure, sure, let’s see what you’ve got. Ahh, go full strength, don’t worry about it.” He showed his teeth in a wide smile. “I’ll be okay.”
Yeah, somehow I wasn’t too worried about that. So, after telling Percy and Cerberus to hang back and pulling my staff out, I hesitated for just a moment before using a kinetic burst from one end to launch myself that way. Time to see just how badly this was going to go.
Aaaand the answer was just about as bad as I had assumed. I obviously hadn’t stood the slightest chance from the beginning. That much wasn’t a surprise in the least. I ended up helpless on the floor about ten times over the course of the next sixty seconds, and that was absolutely with him taking it easy on me. He let me make moves he clearly could have countered much faster and more effectively than he actually did, and held back most of his strength. He was like a grown adult ‘wrestling’ with a toddler, aside from the fact that he never even pretended to let me win.
That was just the first sixty seconds. After that, he went even slower, focusing mainly on evading or blocking my attacks. That initial minute had been more of a game for him, but then he was very clearly studying me. He hadn’t just been saying that bit about learning how I moved as an excuse, he really did pay attention. And not just to beat me. He didn’t need to study me for that. After about ten minutes, I realized he was starting to move more like I did. He put his motions more in line with mine, copied the way I held my staff with his own, and just in general made himself more believable as me. Again, aside from the tail. I still had no idea how he was going to pretend to be me while that was out. When I asked about it, however, he just said that I would be surprised how easily people overlooked that sort of thing. Which didn’t seem like much of an answer.
So, after another few minutes of completely getting my butt kicked all over this room, I waved a hand to call it quits, sitting there on the floor while shaking my head. “Okay, okay, I think I’m convinced you’ll be able to protect my friends better than I could.” With a small, self-conscious smile, I reached out to hold onto the intensely curious Cerberus while adding, “Just don’t be surprised when some powerful enemy shows up and tries to kidnap you if you’re pretending to be me.”
Again, the man showed his teeth. Or rather, my teeth, considering we still looked identical. “Oh, don’t worry,” he assured me. “I’m looking forward to that part.”
Yeah, I was sure he was. Honestly, the part of me that wasn’t busy obsessing over what I was going to end up doing while I was gone was pretty interested in seeing the look on the faces of anyone who came after him thinking he was me. It made me feel a little tingle inside. Or maybe that was still just nerves. Either way, if anyone was stupid enough to come after him-me, I was going to want to see the memories of it from every possible angle.
For now, I just used Cerberus to pick myself off the floor and brushed the imaginary dust off my legs. Then I retrieved my staff and stowed it. “If you’re satisfied, I think we’re ready to get out of here.” I really wasn’t, but I had to tell myself I was, and doing so out loud helped somewhat. It was time to actually meet this Ehn guy and find out how training with him was going to go. And I swore to myself, if I had to go anywhere near Kwur, he was going to regret it. I didn’t know that much about the rest of Ehn’s entourage, but I did know that I didn’t like that guy. Or whatever you’d call him. Plant-infesting bacteria stuff.
Sun, by that point, had produced several small circular metal plates about as wide as a fifty cent piece. He flipped it to Persephone and me. “Push those against your palms with your other thumb and repeat after me. Oh and uhh, push it against Spot’s back or something.”
Right, here went nothing. Shoving all my doubts and worries out of my head as much as possible, I followed his instructions. Persephone did the same for herself and Cerberus. The small metal plate grew warm against my thumb and palm as I began to chant the words he was saying, but not painfully so. Just enough that I could tell it was doing something. And boy wouldn’t it be embarrassing if this whole thing turned out to be a trap after all and I was literally reciting a spell to disintegrate myself? I was sure someone out there would find that hilarious.
Thankfully, I didn’t disintegrate, or die in any other way. At the last second, as the plate was warm enough to almost hurt, Sun shouted for us to throw it as hard as I could at the floor right by our feet. I did so, and the metal piece exploded in a flash of light and smoke, both of which briefly blinded me. I reeled, coughing a bit while waving a hand in front of my face. Even as I did so, I felt everything change around me. Through my item-sense, I could tell that Sun was no longer there. And the walls and floor were different. Much softer, for one. There was carpet under my feet, the room itself was somewhat smaller (to the point of being fairly cramped with Cerberus included). There were several plush armchairs, a fireplace, shelves full of books, and more all around us. We had been transported, unsurprisingly.
Sure enough, as my eyes adjusted, I found myself standing in what looked like a small, cozy study. The fireplace was lit and a leatherbound book lay on the arm of the nearest chair. Other than that, however, there was no sign of anyone being here. The room was devoid of people aside from the three of us. I did, however, see a door next to the fireplace. For a second, I debated whether it would be better to sit down and wait or walk out and look around. Before deciding either way, however, I tested something. Tabbris, are you there? After all, it wouldn’t have been completely shocking for someone as powerful as Ehn (or Sun for that matter) to do something that could potentially have blocked our connection.
Fortunately, I got an immediate response. I’m here! Are you okay? I mean I’m still back with your parents and Mama, but I can come over there as soon as you–
No, it’s okay, I quickly sent back. I’m fine, I think. All three of us are. I mean we’re in some sort of study or something. I’m gonna look around. I’ll check in as soon as I know what’s going on. Hug my parents for me, tell them I’m okay.
I could feel the distance between us, the strain and our connection. Which had to mean I was a long way from the Earth and that whole solar system. And yet, despite the distance I’d transported, I didn’t feel any sort of disorientation or anything. Whatever that teleportation spell was, it had been crafted by an expert. Which made me briefly wonder if it had been made by Sun, Ehn, or someone else. Not that it was particularly important considering everything else that was going on, but the thought wouldn’t leave my mind.
Shaking that off as much as possible, I looked to the other two. “Sorry, you guys okay?”
“A-okay,” Persephone informed me. “But I think we traveled really far.”
“I’m starting to get that impression too,” I agreed while starting to walk to the door. But first I paused and focused on the book lying on that chair. After a second of consideration, I picked the thing up to look at it. As I’d expected, it was an Earth book. Specifically, the Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Except this one seemed longer than the one I knew, so it had to include other stories too. Maybe more Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens stuff like Huckleberry Finn.
Except no. As I flipped through the book, I saw the entire thing was Tom Sawyer stuff. But not the stuff I remembered. There was all sorts of new stuff, and it had to do with Alters and Heretics. Chapter after chapter was about Tom meeting various magical people, interacting with people from Crossroads, and more. I’d intended to walk out of the room and go investigate, but I found myself slowly sitting down in that chair just to read. Which I did so out loud so Cerberus and Persephone could hear as well. Seriously, Clemens had written about Tom Sawyer interacting with the non-Bystander world? What was–it was… unbelievable. Straight up incredible. My mind was blown. And it only got more so once I finished a chapter about Sawyer helping a couple werewolf kids/pups find their way past a one-eyed ogre and back to their pack, turning the page to find the title of the next chapter written plainly as, ‘Tom Meets The Atherbys.’
Yeah, that made me drop the book in surprise, to say the least. Was–was this some sort of joke? Or a trick or something? Obviously, whoever left this book here (absolutely certainly Ehn himself) had intended for me to find it and start reading the thing. But still, even knowing that, I didn’t care that I was being manipulated that way. I just wanted to know more. So, I picked the book up once more and found that spot again before starting to read quickly.
It wasn’t a mistake, or a coincidence. The chapter was about Tom seeing a caravan of interesting (obvious Alter) people traveling through town. The book had already established that he could see through the Bystander Effect, though it didn’t explain how. It did note that no one else could see the things he saw, so clearly Clemens had known how that worked. Or at least enough to write that much.
Whatever the reasoning for his immunity (was Clemens immune? was he a hybrid, or a natural something Heretic?) Tom Sawyer saw that caravan of Alters and decided to climb into the back of one of the wagons. It was a completely impulsive decision without any thought behind it other than, ‘they look neat, I wanna know where they’re going.’ so he climbed in and rode in the back with their food supplies. From there, he ended up meeting Joshua Atherby, my Grandfather. Joshua found him in the wagon and took him on a tour of the camp, a different one than where I had met them. There was a minor attack by some Nocen (evil Alter) bandits that Tom got to witness, and he even ended up helping to evacuate one of the cabins where children were hunkered down. He had a heart to heart with Joshua after that before being portaled home again.
Reading all that, seeing how it fit into the Tom Sawyer story, it was all… yeah. I found myself staring at the last page of that chapter in disbelief. My grandfather had appeared in Tom Sawyer. Not just appeared, but had actually given Tom advice. He was a major character, albeit one who only appeared in a single chapter.
“Pretty incredible, isn’t it?” The voice came from the doorway, even though I hadn’t heard the door open, or sensed anyone come in. My gaze snapped up, taking in the view in front of me. The man who stood there certainly didn’t look outwardly impressive, standing a few inches under six feet, with brownish-rust colored hair that fell to his shoulders and a neatly-trimmed beard. He kind of looked like one of those too-cool tech start-up guys, aside from his muscular-yet-slim build. And even that didn’t exactly clash with the image completely. He wore loose green pants secured with a drawstring, and a black long-sleeved shirt. But even though his appearance by itself wasn’t at all impressive, the power I could somehow feel coming off of him was staggering. And there was something intensely familiar about him that was tugging at my memory, though I was so overwhelmed in the moment of looking at him that my brain couldn’t communicate with itself. This was not an ordinary man. This was like looking at a nuclear reaction held tightly within the body of a person, that could explode at any time.
Or, I supposed, like looking at the power of a dragon held within a man.
“Good morning, Felicity Chambers,” he greeted me once I’d had a chance to take in that sight. “And a good morning to you as well, Persephone and Cerberus.” Then he focused on me once more after giving both of them a simple nod. “So glad you agreed to meet with me.
“I think it’s safe to say that a lot of people have been waiting a very long time for this moment.”