Xi

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 18-05

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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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