Needless to say, we were all very confused. Sands, Sarah, Felix, Triss, Tabbris, December, Dare, and I all stared at one another in wordless bafflement while Vanessa was clung to by the little girl who apparently knew her well enough to go for an immediate hug despite all her very understandable trauma. A girl she herself couldn’t remember at all. Which really should have been practically impossible given her memory powers, so what in the living hell?
Eventually, Dare stepped more fully into the room. “Dakota,” she started carefully. “How do you know Vanessa, exactly?” As she asked that, the woman glanced at the girl in question with an expression that clearly asked for her to wait until Dakota actually answered before speaking up.
For her part, Dakota stepped back, suddenly looking a lot more uncertain when she realized how many people were watching her. She actually half-hid behind Vanessa, which just made it more clear how much she trusted and looked up to the other girl. “Um. She visited the hospital where I was. She visited a lot of the kids, but she… she…” Biting her lip, Dakota glanced to the blonde girl. “She believed me,” the girl murmured in a quiet, hesitant voice. “When I told her what happened, she believed I wasn’t crazy. She… she’s the one who sent the doctor to me.”
Vanessa still looked pretty clueless. Considering that for a moment, she slowly nodded. “I did visit the hospital a few times to see people that I knew from before… but…” Focusing on Dakota, she continued. “What doctor are you talking about? Because…” She seemed to be considering her words very carefully to avoid upsetting the girl or dismissing her. “I think something happened to my memory. I don’t remember talking to you, and I really should.”
For a second, it was clear that the dark-haired girl felt reflexively hurt by not being remembered. But she pushed that down, shifting a bit on her feet before slowly asking, “Does… does that mean someone used magic on you? But you said you never forget anything. You said you’d always remember me because you have a magic memory. How can someone take that away?”
“There are always checks and balances,” Dare spoke up, drawing the attention of both girls. “Nothing is one hundred percent perfect and foolproof. Even a memory as protected as a full Seosten’s… or someone with that same gift, such as Vanessa, can be tampered with given enough power or skill. Remember, even Sariel’s memory was affected by the Seosten banishment orb. The real question right now is who changed her memory. And why.”
Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. That was definitely the most important question at the moment. But before we went further with that, something else seemed important too. And that something was introductions. So, I looked to the poor, clearly very skittish girl. “Hi, Dakota. I’m Flick. This is Tabbris.” I gently pulled my little sister up in front of myself, as she gave a short wave.
“Hi!” Tabbris piped up, her own hand moving to grab December (who still seemed surprised that anyone would willingly touch her), pulling the girl up beside us. “This is December! She’s cool.”
December’s mouth opened, then she stopped short. Turning to the girl beside her, she quickly asked, “Waitasec. Wasthatapun? YouknowcuzcoolandDecember. December’swinterandcold.”
Tabbris, in response, simply grinned and giggled a little bit. She said something very quick in Latin. I’d been learning a lot, but I wasn’t perfect yet. Plus, she said it at December speed.
So, instead of trying to follow that, I glanced to the others and asked, “Could the person who erased Vanessa’s memory have been the… you know, plant guy himself? Or one of the minions he took over, trying to isolate her from anyone who could help?” Belatedly, I added, “Or who could bring help.” Cool as she was, of course, I really doubted pre-Heretic Vanessa would have been much of an issue for someone like Kwur. Or any of those people, really.
Sarah spoke up then, taking a step closer with a look that made it clear that she was very much sympathizing with the girl who had witnessed (and been a part of) such horrific trauma as a child. Trauma that she couldn’t talk about very much. “Maybe the doctor Vanessa asked about?”
Before anyone else could say anything, Dakota shook her head quickly. “Nuh uh. Doctor Folgers is really nice and really cool and he helped seal the bad plant so no one could find it. Vanessa said she’d send someone who could help me and Doctor Folgers came and helped.”
“Doctor Folgers,” Dare echoed, looking over to Vanessa. “How about it, you remember them?”
A slight frown touched the other girl’s face, as she squinted off into the distance while murmuring, “Folgers. I…” Now she looked even more troubled while her head shook. “I don’t remember. No, I don’t remember hearing that name before.” Even as she said it, there was a slight hitch to her voice. It was obvious that she was very close to freaking out. Which I couldn’t blame her for, given how she’d relied on her perfect memory through literally her entire life. The idea that someone had actually messed with it after all had to be hitting pretty hard right then.
Dare seemed to consider for a moment before asking, “Dakota, what can you tell us about this Doctor Folgers? How did he meet with you, what did he look like? How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Did he tell you anything specific about how he sealed up that basement?”
“Why didn’t he take the plant or destroy it?” Sands quickly put in. “That seems pretty important.”
“Hey, yeah,” Triss put in from a bit further back where she and her own sister were standing (Felix was being pretty quiet at the moment). “How come this helpful magic doctor guy didn’t just destroy the stupid evil plant if he believed what you said and knew how dangerous it was?”
“He couldn’t!” Dakota put in quickly and a bit defensively before flushing a little as everyone looked at her. Once more, she seemed to instinctively shrink behind Vanessa for protection. Her voice was a bit quieter. “He said he tried to destroy it, but he could sense the… the voice trying to get to him. So he sealed it off. He said he was going to research more ways to safely get rid of it. He said he had some friends who knew magic better than he did and they could help.”
Reading something in her voice, I hesitated before asking, “You never saw him again, did you?”
“No,” the young girl confirmed quietly and with obvious sadness, shrinking in on herself a bit. “He never came back after that. I asked about him and they said there wasn’t a doctor by that name. I asked about Vanessa, and they said she was too busy to come see me anymore.”
Flinching noticeably, Vanessa went down to one knee and embraced the girl tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while holding her. “I’m sorry I… I’m sorry something happened and I couldn’t remember you. We’re going to help you now, I swear. We’ll figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. You’re safe here, Dakota. Can… can you answer Professor Dare’s question about what Doctor Folgers looked like? Maybe that will help me remember him.” She sounded doubtful about that, but was clearly ready to try just about anything that might work.
So, Dakota described the man. Apparently he was rather rotund, shaped basically like a large beach ball. She said he was maybe about my height, and wore a doctor coat over a ruffled lime green shirt with some flowers on it. His stethoscope was purple, and he was always chewing a lot of bubblegum. Oh, and he apparently had very dark green, almost black eyes, along with a very friendly smile that made her feel safe when he talked to her.
The more the girl talked about him, the more obvious it became that she really missed him. He’d obviously made a very strong impression on her for the limited time they’d interacted. It made me feel even worse about the thought that she’d been alone for so long after something as traumatizing and soul-crushing as what she’d been through. This kid needed a lot of help.
Unfortunately, getting the description didn’t seem to help Vanessa at all. She squinted, clearly focusing very hard on trying to remember before sighing almost explosively. “Not remembering something is awful,” she declared. “Is this what everyone else feels like all the time when they can’t remember? Gotta say, not a fan.”
“Yeah, pretty much,” I confirmed. “Maybe someone shapeshifted into you to talk to her because you went to the hospital and could be someone she trusted? But… why? And who?” My head shook. Too much speculation. “If your memory was messed with, maybe your mom can help? She’s basically the best expert we have at that kind of thing, isn’t she?”
As Vanessa nodded, Dare was already moving. “I’ll see if we can bring her down. You guys talk to Dakota a bit. Maybe she remembers some other things that could be useful.” To the girl in question, she asked, “Are you going to be okay here?”
Dakota gave a short nod, though she was staying very close to Vanessa. “I’m… yes, I’m okay.”
“Don’t worry, kid,” Felix declared. “We’re in a space station in the middle of the sun. Definitely don’t have to worry about that psycho monster plant dude finding you up here.”
“She’s right,” I agreed. “Plus you’re surrounded by people who would kick his ass.” Offering her a small smile, I added, “Do you mind if we take a few samples from you for the spell so we can go back out there and find this plant guy before he hurts more people? I swear it won’t hurt.”
“I don’t care if it does,” Dakota informed me solemnly. “You can hurt me to find him. I deserve it.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like… like it was a universal certainty that she deserved pain. That, more than anything I’d heard so far, showed me just how messed up this kid really was.
Vanessa, thankfully, was right there. Still on one knee, she shook her head while putting both hands on Dakota’s shoulders. But she didn’t say ‘you’re wrong’ or anything like that. Instead, she asked in a very calm, collected voice, “Why do you feel like you deserve to be hurt?”
Dakota stared at her, mouth opening before she swallowed hard and looked away. An expression of deep, lingering shame crossed her face. When she spoke, it was in a broken, halting voice while tears filled her eyes. “I did bad things.” For such a simple statement, there was a lot behind those few words. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I… I didn’t want to hear more details. My own imagination was plenty bad enough as far as thinking about what had happened that terrible day. The last thing I wanted was to know for certain.
“Did you want to do those bad things?” Vanessa asked her simply, watching the girl’s eyes while still holding her by the shoulders. “Did they make you happy?”
Lip trembling for a few seconds, Dakota’s entire face crumpled in, tears falling freely. “No. No.” She repeated that a couple times, head shaking. Crying openly by that point, she stammered in a horrible, broken voice that hitched and cracked between almost every word. “No, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. I want my Mommy and Daddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna do that. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be here. I want my Mommy and Daddy and everyone. I want to go back. Please, please, I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.”
That was about as much as she could say, collapsing against Vanessa, who held her tight. The older girl’s voice was quiet and soothing. “You didn’t do it,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose it. You’d never hurt your family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dakota. Your mom and dad knew it wasn’t your fault. Your brothers and sisters knew that too. You’re okay.”
The two stayed like that for a couple minutes, Vanessa simply holding her close and soothing her the way I was pretty sure Vanessa herself had needed for quite some time as a child. Finally, Dakota looked up to her, sniffling a little. “You have to find the plant man and make him stop before he makes someone else kill people,” she said in a weak voice. “Please.”
“We will,” Vanessa promised her firmly. “We’re going to find him and stop him. We just have to take a few samples from you so we can do that, okay? It’ll be really easy and really quick.”
The girl agreed once more, and then Vanessa and Tabbris set out taking hair, skin, saliva, and blood samples from her. The last bit was the ‘hardest’, but even that wasn’t bad. All they did was set an enchanted vial against her arm and let it slowly fill up by essentially teleporting her blood the very short distance from her arm into the vial. There wasn’t even any penetration involved.
While they were busy with that, I focused on the others. “What do you guys think? Does this Doctor Folgers sound familiar to anyone?” To December, Triss, and Felix, I added, “You guys have more experience with the non-Heretic side of the world. Maybe he rings a bell?”
Unfortunately, they all shook their heads. As did Sands and Sarah. Triss spoke up with a hesitant, “I don’t think we know anyone who looks like that. I mean, he kind… maybe sounds a little bit like that one guy who used to be part of the Crossroads Committee before he died.”
“Brockett,” Sands put in. “Oliver Brockett. But it’s definitely not him. He wouldn’t need to go get help to deal with this guy. Or at least he wouldn’t admit it. And if the Committee knew that thing was there, they would’ve either destroyed it or blocked the whole house off a lot more than just putting an illusion over the basement. And he was still around until a few months ago. It can’t be him.”
“She’s probably right,” I murmured before offering, “Maybe we can go to the hospital where Dakota was and find the security footage from the last time she saw him? If we got an actual look at him, that might help identify the guy.”
“Not a bad idea, Felicity.” That was Sariel, coming into the room alongside Dare. As she entered, Tabbris and Vanessa both moved to embrace her, and she returned their hugs fondly. Then she looked at me, continuing her thought. “But there are easier ways to share the image of this doctor with you, without going to the hospital. First, however…” She focused on her Vanessa, frowning thoughtfully as she brushed the girl’s hair back and stared into her eyes with the look of a doctor examining a patient.
The rest of us exchanged uncertain looks and waited, while Sariel checked over her eldest daughter with a few prepared spells. Through it all, Vanessa remained quiet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her memory had possibly been altered.
“Something is definitely missing,” Sariel finally declared, straightening a bit. Her voice was tense. “Whoever did it was an expert, a surgeon of memory adjustment. They removed specific memories and carefully connected the remaining pieces so you wouldn’t notice. For example, say you were sitting in a chair in the waiting room, reading a magazine when someone came up and interrupted. The two of you have a ten minute conversation, then get up and walk into an examination room to talk to a doctor together before leaving to ride the elevator back down to the lobby before you finally part ways. Whoever went into your mind erased your memory of the other person entirely. They cut out the entire private conversation, then edited the person out of your memory of speaking with the doctor. Think of it as adjusting your memory of everything the doctor said to the second person as being said to you, with the other person’s questions being moved to you and even adjusted to sound more like something you’d say.”
Vanessa stared at her mother, mouth open. “That… that… who–why–” Her hands covered her mouth and she looked stricken at the thought. And for her part, Sariel didn’t look any happier. If anything, she was clearly even more upset and holding back most of it.
“I don’t know,” the Seosten woman replied in a quiet voice. “But we’ll find out, I promise you that much. Whoever did this was skilled enough that they didn’t leave much in the way of traces. We need to find the person themselves if we want to replace the memories.”
“Finding out who this doctor guy is might help with that,” I put in. “You said you could do something about that without having to go to the hospital to look through security footage?”
“Yes,” Sariel confirmed, clearly taking a second to focus on the issue at hand instead of her daughter’s altered memory. “We only need someone who does remember him.”
“Memory transfer?” Vanessa guessed, looking to Dakota before reaching out to take the nervous girl’s hand reassuringly as she spoke directly to her. “If it’s okay with you, we could project your memories of the guy so everyone can see him. Would you be okay with that?”
Yeah, it was clear that, memory or no memory, Vanessa was very protective of this girl. Maybe that was just her own personality and all. Or maybe some part of her actually did remember her, even if she couldn’t actively recall those memories. Whatever it was, she definitely felt something.
“Okay,” the girl agreed quietly. “Whatever you have to take, I don’t care. Just find him and stop him.”
Sariel moved that way, taking a knee alongside her daughter before gently grasping the traumatized little girl’s hands. “Dakota, my name is Sariel. I’m going to use a spell that’s going to draw out one specific memory and project it for everyone to see. That’s all. It will take the memory you’re thinking about, so I need you to focus on when you saw Doctor Folgers. Think about talking to him, about what he looks like and hold that in your head, okay?”
The girl quickly agreed, and Sariel produced a small pink crystal. Promising that it wouldn’t hurt, she held the crystal up to Dakota’s forehead before murmuring the activation word for the spell. Immediately, the crystal began to glow and give off a soft hum. I heard Dakota gasp, but clearly Sariel had been right about it not hurting. At most, it seemed to tickle her a little bit.
Then the crystal glowed a bit more brightly, a light projecting off of it to reach the middle of the room before resolving into a hologram. As we all stared, the image resolved into a man. Just as Dakota had described, he was about my height, very rotund, with that outlandish outfit. And just as I’d thought, he didn’t look familiar at all. Aside from surface-level description, he didn’t look like Counselor Brockett.
“Ummm….” Slowly, I shook my head. “Nope, I’ve still got nothing. You guys?”
“Oh!” That was Tabbris, whose eyes widened. “We’ve seen him, we have seen him! Or a–I mean a picture, a–Mama, do me before the crystal runs out!”
With a shrug, Sariel did so, moving the crystal over to her daughter’s head. It took another few seconds, then projected another image. This one wasn’t of a person. It was of a hallway. Belatedly, I recognized it as the hallway within the casino in Vegas. It was taken from the moment I was thrown across the corridor and up against the wall by Sarez’s defensive spell, the one that left me stunned for a few seconds while Tabbris took over and made me run after him. In that moment, the image froze, showing a single painting on the wall.
It was a painting of the man we had just seen from Dakota’s memories. A very detailed one too. It looked important, like… like the man himself was important.
“Oh.” Tilting my head as I stared at the image, I said, “that’s from the Vestil casino. I guess we’re going back to Vegas then.”
“We were going back there anyway,” Vanessa pointed out. “Now that we have what we need to make the tracking spells so we can find Kwur.”
“Indeed,” Dare agreed, her own gaze intent on the image hanging in the air. “And I believe it’s time you all had a little more aid in ending this situation.” She looked to the rest of us. “Not all together. We can split into smaller groups and search the city for any trace of these plants. The tracking spells should signal if anyone gets close to them.”
Sands piped up quickly, “Hey, yeah. This time, you guys are totally not leaving without us.”
“I will have a discussion with these… Vestil about who the man in the painting is,” Sariel murmured. “That may lead to who…” It sounded like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “… manipulated my daughter’s memory.”
“I’m going with you,” Vanessa declared flatly.
Looking to Sands and Sarah, I asked, “You guys wanna wander Vegas together?” As they quickly agreed, I glanced back to the image from Dakota’s memories once more. Why was the doctor who had helped that girl and had apparently also been erased from Vanessa’s memory in a painting hung on the wall of the Vestil casino? Did that have anything to do with why Vegas was being targeted now? Unfortunately, my morbid guess was that this guy, whoever he was, had made Vegas a target by getting involved in the situation. But who was he? What exactly was going on?
And at some point in the course of all this, would I end up with an actual answer instead of yet another handful of questions?