Interlude 27A – Virginia Dare

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She should have seen it coming. She should’ve been ready for it. Ready for the monster that was puppeting Columbus Porter to make her move.

But she had gotten complacent. In the weeks since they had discovered the truth about the Seosten that was possessing the boy, Virginia Dare had been almost constantly on edge. The thought of letting that creature continue to control any one of her students, let alone one of…

It was almost impossible. She wanted pretty much nothing more than to imprison ‘Columbus’  and use that spell to force that thing out of him.

Over time, however, she had forced herself to settle down somewhat. The fact was, Charmeine had no reason to make any overt moves that would reveal herself. They needed to keep an eye out for other things, but the Seosten woman should have been relatively docile, particularly with Dare sitting practically right on top of her, and another Heretic directly in front of her. She had been very subtle so far, and since she didn’t know that her cover was blown, there should have been no reason for her to expose herself with an open attack.

Except they were wrong. Something had changed. Either the Seosten knew that she had been exposed, or she didn’t care. Either way, she wasn’t being subtle at all anymore. A fact that was driven home with the brutal, sudden murder of Josiah Carfried and ejection of Dare from the car.

Even though she had not been expecting any overt action like that, a direct attack still should have set off at least one of the danger sense powers that Dare had collected over the years.

Which was clearly why the Seosten hadn’t directly attacked her. She had simply turned the car insubstantial around her so that Dare fell out. And with her powers, that wouldn’t have been enough to really hurt her, even if she had been completely asleep.

That was sometimes the danger of mixing certain danger senses with other powers. They worked off of what would actually hurt the person. So if an action wouldn’t hurt them, it didn’t register to the danger sense.

It all happened too quickly, and took the woman too much by surprise for her to activate the power that allowed her to create the time-stop bubble before the cab had disappeared. Not simply ahead into traffic, but disappeared entirely.

“No!” the blonde woman gasped while staring at the spot where the cab had just been. It was only for a brief second before her mind started working again. But that brief second was enough time for her danger sense to actually go off.

She felt it then, the rush of air, the sudden presence of more mass than had been there before, the sound of a fast heartbeat, and more all exposed the presence and exact location of her attacker. She could also hear the whistle of his blade as it cut through the air, and sensed its metal content nearing her neck.

Spinning, Dare caught the hilt of her sword with one hand and gave it a quick toss straight up out of the sheath without holding onto it. At the same time she raised her other hand into position, so that when the enemy’s blade slammed into hers, as it floated in the air from the toss, her sword was knocked backwards into her waiting hand before starting, her own strength halting the enemy’s sword.

And it was a massive sword indeed, the blade stretching over six feet in length, and as wide as Dare herself was. Her own slight blade and slender form stopping it in mid-swing appeared almost comical, a result only of her enhanced strength and the quality of her weapon.

The figure before her, holding the weapon, was a match for its size. He stood over nine feet tall, with a body that was covered in short, dark, coarse fur. Yet, beneath that fur, she knew that the skin was as hard as solid rock. His face was twisted and leathery, some mixture between a human and a gorilla.

“Kariwase,” Dare announced the figure’s name while their blades remained locked. Her voice was dark. “I don’t have time for you right now.”

Kariwase had been an Iroquois warrior centuries earlier, before his own arrogance had resulted in the death of his entire hunting party, including his young son.

Torn apart by grief, yet still unable to accept his own responsibility and grow from it, the man had sought the help of a witch in order to gain the power to not only kill the man behind the slaughter, but to entirely wipe out their whole tribe, his goal to make it as though they had never existed.

He’d gained the power he needed, becoming a creature known as a Genoskwa, often seen as the larger, much more aggressive cousin of the Sasquatch. And with that power, Kariwase had killed hundreds before a young Dare and her then-mentor, Tiras, had stopped his rampage long enough for a few of the tribe to escape, scattering to the wilds. And from that point on, he had seen the two as his mortal enemies, repeatedly appearing at the most inopportune times.

“Still no papa figure, huh?” he taunted while pulling his sword away from hers. “That’s too bad, I would’ve liked to make the old man swim in your blood and see if he could resist taking a little sip.”

“I dunno,” a new voice spoke as Dare felt, heard, and smelled another arrival. “ I don’t think she’s going to have much blood left when this is over.”

The newcomer stood only slightly taller than Dare herself, and looked fairly normal, all things considered. Except, of course, for his four arms, each of them holding a different weapon. Two held swords, one a hammer, and the fourth held a whip. From experience, Dare knew that the man was scarily proficient with each of them, particularly when using them all together.

“Roscoe,” she almost snarled the name. Another vicious man from her past, this one she had met after arriving in England and being taken by Gaia as an apprentice.

“You two don’t normally work together,” she announced while letting her eyes flickered back-and-forth between them, “which means this isn’t a coincidence.”

She didn’t have time for this. Felicity and Rudolph were in trouble. And Columbus too, if the Seosten was so willing to expose her infiltration of him. And yet, Dare could not simply ignore them. The two were deadly enough separately, let alone together, that the moment she let her guard down to summon a portal or make a call, they would have been all over her.

“Coincidence?” Roscoe echoed, showing her a thin smile beneath his mop of shaggy blonde hair. “No, see… when we heard that you were gonna be out here, all lonely and stuff… well, we had to come keep you company. Just the kind of nice gentleman we are. Ain’t that right, Chewie?”

“Not my name,” the fur covered rock man grunted in his gravelly voice.

Roscoe sighed. “I know it’s not your name. I was… you know, the big furry alien, plus you kind of eat people, so…” he sighed, shaking his head while gesturing toward Dare with one of his weapons. “Never mind, she gets it.”

Using her thumb to flick one of her spell cylinders into place with the switch on the hilt of her sword, Dare spoke flatly. “You need to leave. You have no idea how little time I have for this right now.”

Roscoe mocked her words. “Oh, you don’t have time? Well, I guess we’ll make this quick then, won’t we?”

He suited action to words by jerking his lower right hand up to make the whip lash out. Fortunately, his whip wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as Gaia’s, which Dare had seen extend to the length of a football stadium with a single snap. It was still dangerous, of course, but she had been ready for the move. As the whip lashed out toward her wrist, she triggered the spell that she had readied in her sword’s hilt. A nova cloud of frost expanded out from the sword, catching the incoming whip and freezing it in place.

Spinning simultaneously on one foot, she kicked out with the other, catching Kariwase’s wrist as the big man grabbed for her. She also used it as a boost to push herself into the air, twisting around so that her other foot could kick out and hit the furry rock man in the face. Strong as she was, it was still like kicking a brick wall would have been if she didn’t have any powers. The big guy barely noticed it. Yet it was still enough to knock him back a step and buy her a little space.

Still in the air, she glanced back and pointed one finger at the ground between herself and Roscoe even as he swung that big warhammer of his. A two-foot thick pillar of concrete six feet tall erupted from the ground directly in the weapon’s path.

The concrete itself was no match for the strike. The warhammer pulverized it in that single blow, crashing right through the raised concrete and sending dust and chunks of it flying in every direction.

Good. Dare let the dust and bits fly, as the four-armed man moved through it. Then she used another power to reassemble the pillar, repairing the damage that had been done. Only in doing so, she reassembled it directly around the man himself. Roscoe was effectively trapped in a pillar of concrete that had assembled itself around him.  Which had been the point. She couldn’t trap the man in the pillar like that just by pulling it out of the ground, but she could make him destroy it, and then reassemble it as he moved through the space it was in.

Finally landing on her feet, the blonde woman snapped her small sword up in three quick, successive moves, each catching a powerful swing from Kariwase’s massive blade.

Clang, clang, clang. The sound of the weapons clashing together filled the air, even as Bystander vehicles continue to pull around them. Dare had long since stopped thinking very much about what they might be seeing when things like this happened.

With his free hand, the Genoskwa threw an unbelievably fast punch for someone his size. Dare barely managed to twist her head aside far enough to let the punch sail past her. It struck a nearby parked car, and sent the thing flying sideways a good twenty feet to slam into a building.

Before the man could pull his arm back, she flicked the cylinder in her sword over to a new spell, and triggered it. As she did so, her blade turned red hot. She snapped it up, slicing clean through the rock man’s arm at the elbow.

Kariwase gave a loud, terrible bellow at that, reeling backward as the stump of his arm bled profusely.

Blinded by outrage, the big guy took a wild swing with his sword, cleaving through the air like a small airplane wing. but Dare was ready for that. Giving a little hop, she landed on the flat of the wildly swinging sword, and let the motion carry her up into the air, where she did a quick little flip over the man’s head, turning as she landed behind him to put her still heat-enchanted blade through his back. His terrible scream proved that she had hit something important.

But not quite important enough to put him down. The furry rock man spun around, his quick motion snapping the sword out of Dare’s hand, leaving it embedded in his back. In mid-spin, he lashed out with a backhand from his remaining arm that nearly took her in the face. It did, in fact, go right through her head. Fortunately, she had already used her power to turn her body into an insubstantial smoke-like form, making his massive fist pass right through her harmlessly. A single word activated one of the spells on her glove, summoning the sword from its place in the rock man’s back to her hand once more.

By that point, Roscoe had extricated himself from his concrete prison, and was coming up on her from behind as she reformed. As one of his swords drove for her back, Dare pivoted on one foot, parrying the blade aside with her own with a diagonal upward snap of her wrist. In the same motion, she continued her spin, adding a little hop to plant her foot against the man’s upper right arm as he swung at her with his other sword, knocking it out of the way. A slight lessening of gravity allowed her to stay up just long enough to invert herself, planting her other foot into the man’s face with enough force to break his nose, and send him stumbling backward.

Using the force from her kick to the man’s face, Dare pushed off to propel herself the other way, even as Kariwase came charging right in. He had already regenerated the arm that she had cut off, aptly demonstrating just why it was so hard to fully kill the monster.

Still, Dare didn’t mind giving it the old college try. Or she wouldn’t have, if she wasn’t in such a hurry.  As it was, she didn’t have time to waste. All she could do was make sure that the two were down long enough that they could not follow her easily.

To that end, she allowed her brief flight to take her within a hair’s breadth of the rock man’s furry fist. Catching his extended arm at the elbow before she would have passed by him, Dare used her momentum to flip herself up and around, wrapping one leg around the furry monster’s neck, and twisted to take him all the way to the ground. As he collided with the ground in a mighty, thunder-like crash, she caught the back of his furry head and slammed it even harder down into the concrete with enough force to break through, leaving a hole there.

Before the Genoskwa could recover, Dare inverted her grip on her sword, driving the blade straight down into the cement beside him. It would take far more than a single blade to the head to actually kill the monster, but she could make sure that he was too occupied to follow her.

A flick of her finger activated another one of the spell canisters in her sword. This one created a light blue, semi-translucent bubble around the area that the sword had struck. In this case, it enveloped the fallen man.  As Dare threw herself up and off of him, his head rose up, then slammed it down into the concrete once more, seemingly of its own devotion. This repeated again, and then again. Thanks to the bubble that she had trapped him in, his body would continue to repeat its last action until the spell wore off in about ten minutes, or until someone pushed him out of it.

With Kariwase out of the way, Dare could turn her full attention to Roscoe. The four-armed man was already coming at her, while starting to bring that mighty warhammer of his up for a swing. Even as he started to swing it up into position to however, Dare made a quick gesture toward it, lessening the gravity right where the man was swinging. The strength of Roscoe’s swing, once just enough to haul the heavy hammer up into position, was abruptly far too much. The weapon weighed barely a tenth what it once had, making his swing turn wild, as the weapon actually flew out of his hand and arced away.

The blonde woman took advantage of his brief disorientation, launching herself off the ground while snatching her sword up. Even as he snapped his gaze back to her, her foot collided with his stomach, doubling the man over. Pivoting and ducking under the wild, blind swing of his sword, Dare put herself behind him before spinning up into a roundhouse kick that took him in the center of his back. The blow knocked the man forward and down.

Before he could rise, Dare extended her free hand and made a pulling gesture. As she did so, a nearby parked car was yanked over, sliding into place directly over the man. Another quick, simple gesture collapsed the car against the ground with the screaming noise of protesting metal as it was bent and broken, pinning Roscoe there.

Before the man could push the hunk of collapsed metal off of himself, Dare was already there. She slapped her blade against both the concrete and the remains of the car while expending one more spell canister. As she did so, the modified repair spell fused the metal and the pavement together, trapping Roscoe between them for the time being.

Turning, Dare closed her eyes briefly to focus on her own property. Gaia, she sent, Felicity and Rudolph are in trouble. The Seosten made their move. She paused briefly before adding in a slightly subdued tone, Josiah is dead.

I know, the tense reply came. I did not wish to distract you while you were occupied. But the Seosten have done a lot more than take Felicity and Rudolph.

Dare’s head snapped up at that. What? What happened? What’s going on?

It seems, Gaia answered, that a sizable force has descended upon the city. They’ve attacked half a dozen Minutemen outposts and have killed several Heretics already. She paused then before adding, Deveron and Marina were attacked as well. they are dealing with the situation, but it will take time.

Distraction, Dare knew. It’s all a distraction, they’re trying to keep us away from what’s really going on. What about Wyatt, his security measures?

The answer came shortly, and did not make her feel any better.  The spells that he has placed on Felicity have somehow been blocked. Wyatt believes that he can break through it, but it will take time.

We don’t have time, Dare retorted. What about Avalon’s? Are you with her now?

If possible, Gaia’s response was even more tense. No, I find myself also distracted. A spell has been triggered here at the school. If left unchecked, it will engulf the entire island within a soul blaze.

A soul blaze, Dare knew, was magical ghost-like fire that could not be put out by any conventional means. A single touch from one of the flames could incinerate even the strongest metal to ashes.

Distractions upon distractions. The Seosten were making absolutely certain that they had time to complete their objective.

Where is Avalon? She asked finally. I’ll get to her.

At the hotel, the tense answer came. Virginia, if they have poured this much effort into their attack this time, and are willing to go this far…

I’ll get to her, Dare promised before cutting off their connection.

She had just taken a step when an alert from her danger sense made the woman quickly dodge to the side, just as a bullet went whizzing past the space where her head had been. Snapping her head up, she saw what looked like a grown humanoid lizard in a old-fashioned cowboy outfit. He was holding a glowing revolver. Spedis, another old enemy. And he wasn’t alone, the road ahead of Dare was populated by another half dozen enemies. Enemies that she had made over the centuries, all of whom have been pulled together to stop her, or at least slow her down.

The words escaped Dare in a snarl, even as her form began to grow and shift. “I do not have time for this.”

She grew quickly. Whereas centuries before, the woman’s mastery of her original gift had only permitted her to become a regular sized wolf, things were different now. Within moments, the slender blond woman had been replaced by an enormous, bus-sized wolf, the full power of her Amarok blood.

As the group that had been assembled to stop her took a collective step back, Dare lunged.

*******

She arrived at the base of the hotel just in time to see two figures in the air above the street. Felicity and another. From the girl’s description, Dare knew that it had to be Charmeine.

And Felicity’s staff was currently embedded through the woman’s chest. As Dare watched, shifting back into her normal form, the blonde girl jerked the weapon up through the Seosten’s head.  And a second later, Roxanne appeared on her flying board, catching Felicity while she was caught up in the pleasure from the kill.

Unfortunately, just as relief and joy flooded Dare at the death of the Seosten, a very different glow interrupted the one from Felicity’s aura.

A shout formed itself on the woman’s lips, whether it was a warning, a promise, or anything else, she didn’t know. But it didn’t matter, because before a sound could leave her lips, the light exploded outward, and the girls were gone.

A terrible, soul crushing scream filled the air. For a half second, Dare thought that it was her own. But as she raised her gaze, she saw Avalon standing in the remains of the window on the fourth floor.

Her scream continued.

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New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmiene sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmiene instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmiene gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmiene could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppleganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy constructed emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppleganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-04

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Even with no power causing it, time seemed to stand still as the realization of just why the Seosten couldn’t possess me struck home. I couldn’t speak. Hell, I couldn’t even think. I just stood there, mouth open as a million thoughts rebounded within my head as if they had all been thrown into a pinball machine at the same time. Why, when, how, who, I didn’t know any of it.

Possessed. All this time, I had been possessed. There had been someone living inside of me, watching through my eyes, hearing through my ears. Everything I did, every moment that I had thought was private, it wasn’t. This girl was there. And while she seemed friendly, it still felt like a massive violation. Logically, I knew that having her there had helped more than I would probably ever really know. Without the girl possessing me, the Seosten would’ve taken me the first chance they had. I knew that. I knew that. But it didn’t make the sense of violation disappear.

“Um. Flick?” The little girl… Tabby–no, Tabbris, bit her lip while looking up at me from her crouched position. I saw that she had done something to the symbols there. “I-I’m so-sorry,” she repeated her apology, looking so nervous that I thought she might faint. “I’ll explain, I promise. I will. My momma sent me to help you. But–but your friends are in trouble. You have to–”

My eyes widened then, as I finished for her, “–stop them! I have to stop them!” Reflexively, I moved forward, the back of my mind expecting to hit the wall. Yet… I didn’t. My foot came down a bit awkwardly on the other side of it, and I snapped my eyes down to the girl. The symbols she had scribbled on. Whatever Tabbris had done, it broke the invisible shield. She had let me out.

I was across the room before any other thought had a chance of entering my head. My hands grabbed my weapons and everything else, except for my broken phones. They were shattered into too many pieces, and I didn’t have time to scrape up all the pieces. I had no time at all.

A glance to the monitor showed that the motel room was still empty, but who knew how long that would last. Shoving my weapon container onto my belt, I bolted for the door, only to stop short and turn back. For a second, I looked at the little girl sitting there, watching me fearfully.

I hesitated, just for a moment. Then I lifted my chin. “Well? Are you coming, or staying here?”

Tabbris leapt to her feet, then stopped short. “I–I can’t keep up with you,” she admitted quietly.

There was no time to waste. Every doubt I had needed to be shoved away. Everything that the girl had done up to that point screamed that she was on our side, that she was there to help us.

“You can if you possess me again,” I replied without hesitating for an instant. As her eyes widened and met mine, I added, “I couldn’t have gotten this far without you, right? Why break things up now, just when they’re getting good?” After that slightly flippant remark, I added, a bit more somberly, “I need your help. If they figure out they can possess me, it’s all over. Please.”

Without wasting any more time, the little blonde girl took two steps forward before leaping at me. I reflexively recoiled, but she faded from sight, disappearing inside of my body. It tingled a bit.

Despite what I’d said before, I still felt a momentary rush of fear that sprang up in me as I tried to move my hand. Then my other hand. They worked just fine. Just like they had the whole time that the girl had possessed me. She wasn’t suddenly going to take over and control me.

My eyes dropped toward the unconscious figure of the man, and I hesitated briefly. “You’re still there, right? You can hear me?”

The voice came in my head. I can hear you. You don’t have to speak out loud. Just, umm, just think it.

Right. She could hear my thoughts, which meant– I shoved that thought away. What about the guy there? Won’t he remember you possessing him?

Nuh uh, she answered. I made a few seconds of his memory go away.

Oh, Seosten could erase at least part of their host’s short term memory. Right. Well, that solved that problem.

Then I was running through the doorway. It felt like too much time had already passed, even though it had only been a few seconds. It was too long. Too fucking long. I had to run. I had to get to the motel before it was too late, before… I just had to get there. That’s all there was to it.

Passing through the office doorway, I sprinted out into the narrow aisle that led back through the warehouse toward the loading dock. Instead of taking that long path, however, I immediately twisted to the left, toward the heavy stacks of furniture. A quick lunge and a thought sent me into the wooden table, which I zipped straight through and out the other side, popping into a chair there, then another table. One by one, I ‘swam’ my way through the furniture before finally reaching the far end of the stacks, where I popped out next to the doorway leading into the front.

In the time that it would’ve taken me to cross maybe half the distance of that narrow aisle to the back loading dock, I was already slamming my way through the front of the warehouse. The door there was locked, but a single kick sent it slamming open to reveal the parking lot beyond.

One of the men that I had seen earlier was there. He spun around at the sudden sound, his eyes widening at the sight of me. But before he could do more than open his mouth, my staff was already snapping up and around to slam hard into his throat. A wheezing, terrible gasp escaped the man even as I pivoted, catching him across the face with a backswing from the staff that sent him crashing to the ground.

The second man came into view, probably hearing the thud of the staff or the man hitting the ground. Either way, he snapped some kind of futuristic-looking pistol up, aiming at me for a split-second before my hand snapped out to throw my staff. It rebounded off the man’s temple, snapping his head backward and up. His shot went wide, and by the time he recovered, I’d already taken the quick step that way to catch my staff. Dropping down, I used the long shaft to knock the man’s legs out from under him before spinning back to my feet. As he landed on his back and looked up, he was met with the sight of my foot slamming into his face.

Both of the men were down. Not a threat. Except… I didn’t want them reporting to Charmeine that I was out. She had about a dozen advantages right now, and the only one that I had was surprise. Even that was a maybe. But I wouldn’t have it if these guys called in to report that I had escaped. That and, well, the guys were part of a plot to kill and enslave my friends. They weren’t exactly innocent. Still, the thought that there was a little girl looking through my eyes made me hesitate to actually kill them when they weren’t an immediate threat.

“Tab–” I managed to get only that far before the ghostly figure of the girl slipped out of me, dropped down into the first man, and popped out again a moment later to slip over to the second. Then she emerged and looked up at me.

“D-done,” she announced, squirming on her feet like she was embarrassed. “Th-they won’t wake up for umm, I’m not sure, but maybe an hour? And they won’t remember.”

“Good enough,” I replied, hesitating before gesturing. “Let’s go, partner.”

The girl’s eyes widened, and I saw her fighting some torrent of emotions for a moment. She looked like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just turned ghost-like once more while moving to step into me.  

Spinning on my heel, I hit the button to charge my staff while running along the side of the warehouse, my shoes pounding rhythmically against the pavement with each step. My heart, mind, and feet were competing for which of them could race faster.

Three more steps, and it was enough. I released the charge in my staff, letting it launch me up to the roof of the warehouse. Coming down there, I was already running, letting the staff charge again while sprinting all out toward the far end of the warehouse roof. Step, step, step, I focused on the building across the street, pouring everything I had into running. At the last second, just before I would’ve stepped off the edge of the roof, I leapt, pushing off as hard as my enhanced strength allowed. At the apex of my leap, I triggered the charge in my staff. It propelled me the rest of the way, clearing the street entirely before coming down on the roof of the next building.

Rolling before coming back to my feet, I thought at my little hitchhiker. I need your help. First, you’re a Seosten, right? Which means… do you have a perfect memory, like Vanessa?

Um, y-yes, the response came hesitantly. I’m sorry, I didn’t me–oh. Oh! Yes! I can help you find the nearest Minuteman portal from what we saw in the clock faces yesterday!

You read my mind, I thought dryly, unable to help myself. Where am I going?

Um, um… turn… turn left? I need to see. When I followed her instructions and turned that way, she continued, sounding excited. Yeah! Yeah, go this way! There’s a park. I remember the sign on the side of that motel down the street. It’s in a park across from that.

I could barely make out the sign she was talking about. It was so far away that it was almost out of sight. Somehow, Tabbris could see well enough with my vision to pick out the sign and the scenery surrounding it, invert that in her own mind so that it was the way she would have seen it through the portal clock faces back at Minuteman headquarters, and figure out where the portal was from that. It was, objectively speaking, pretty damn awesome.

But I couldn’t focus on that. There wasn’t time. There wasn’t time for any of this. I had, if what Charmeine had said meant anything, fifteen minutes to get to that hotel room. I wasn’t sure how they were going to get both of our teams away from the zoo and back there, but I believed they could do it. I just had to get back there before it happened. Which meant I had to run. Now.

I heard that Seosten can give their hosts a boost. Can you do that?

Again, I sensed her hesitation and embarrassment. She was still scared that she was going to do or say something wrong. A… a little bit, um, n-not as much as the… the adults. Or as long. I’m s–

I interrupted her pointedly, Every little bit helps. I just need to get back to the hotel. Think you can help out a little?

Y-yes, she started before repeating a little more firmly. Yes.

Then I felt it. I felt a little stronger, a little faster. I felt the boost give me an edge, like a shot of adrenaline (like I needed more of that by then).

“Hope you’re holding on tight,” I informed my passenger out loud, “Because I’m about to break the gas pedal.”

With that, I leapt from the roof of the building. A quick blast from my staff sent me out to the middle of the busy street, where I came down not in the middle of the packed sidewalk (seriously, the people looked like sardines crammed in among each other), but on the roof of a box truck. As I landed with a thud, I heard a confused curse from inside the cab. It swerved a bit, yet through a combination of my training and the werewolf agility enhancements, I kept my feet. The same curse from the driver inside the truck repeated as I ran along the roof to the front of it and leapt off just before my feet would have hit the windshield.

Who? Who was the traitor on Roxa’s old team? Which one of them was working for the Seosten without actually being a Seosten? Which one of them was it?

The second leap carried me forward to the roof of a taxi, and I ran along that for a couple steps. Ran along the roof of a moving car. This was insane. This whole fucking thing was insane. Yet all I could think was that I had to move faster. Had to go, had to get there before it was too late. There wasn’t time for this, there wasn’t time! If I wasn’t faster, if I didn’t move, my friends were going to die, or end up enslaved to a bunch of wannabe angels. Move, Flick. Go!

It wasn’t Rudolph. That was obvious. There was no way that they would have gone as far as knocking him out if he was their spy. There was no reason to hide his identity at that point.

Horns were blaring, and I heard a few people shout. I didn’t care. From the hood of the taxi, I leapt sideways, toward a passing sedan. The leap was almost too short, and I had to catch myself, taking a quick, stumbling step forward while the driver of the sedan slammed on his brakes. The tires squealed, and it came to a screeching halt with the smell of burning rubber.

I would have been pitched forward off the car, but I was already leaping once more, throwing myself forward in a leap that carried me to the back of a delivery truck, where I barely caught hold of the roof. For a second, I hung there while the truck sped on its way, before my feet found purchase against the back doors and I managed to scramble up and onto its roof.

The spy wasn’t Douglas either. The way Charmeine had mentioned him, it was separate from whoever was working with them. So the spy wasn’t Rudolph or Douglas. I had to narrow it down further than that.

Rolling to a standing position, I ran along the truck, keeping my eyes on the motel sign in the distance. Two more steps, and then I leapt once more while hitting the trigger on my staff, which had been charging that entire time. The boost, coupled with my own leap, carried me off the truck, and over the sidewalk. Below, I heard even more people shouting, and saw them pointing.

I wasn’t exactly being subtle about this, that was for damn sure. And I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would do about all this, if anything.  But fuck it. There wasn’t time for subtle.

In mid-leap, I planted my foot against the side of a lamppost and pushed off of it to adjust my direction. The new lunge sent me to the nearby building, where I caught hold of a flagpole that was extending out from one of the windows, using it to swing myself over to a balcony a bit further over. My feet came down on the railing there, and I ran along it to the other end. There was nothing but a blank brick wall there. Still, I kept going. Leaping out and turning slightly, I ran along the side of the wall for a few steps. Not far, of course. I didn’t have the wall-clinging power that Shiori did. But my momentum meant that I could go a few steps that way before pushing off, and another quick boost from my staff carried me the rest of the way to the next balcony.

Boy. It was probably a boy. I’d been thinking earlier that Professor Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he died. If one of the boys had been distracting him… okay, it was a little bit of a stretch, but I didn’t have anything better.

My foot barely touched that balcony before I leapt sideways off of it, flipping over in the air as I came down on the end of the sidewalk. Straight ahead of me was a busy street, and across that was the motel sign that Tabbris had pointed out. Which meant… I turned slightly, looking across the street from the motel. There. A small park, barely big enough to be called such. Mostly it looked like a spot where a couple shops had been torn down and a little bit of grass mixed with weeds had been allowed to grow up in their place. There was a single bench in the middle of it.

Okay, so assuming the spy was a boy, but wasn’t Rudolph or Douglas, that left three possibilities: Paul, Gordon, and Isaac. And I couldn’t figure out how to narrow it down further than that. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Darting across the street at an angle, ignoring all the screams, honking, and squealing tires (aside from paying enough attention to the latter to avoid any oncoming cars), I booked for that tiny, dingy park. As I ran, I let a single thought run through my mind, over the others.

You said your mom sent you to help me. Who is she? Who is your mom, and why would she help a human? Why did she pick me? What’s going on? How long have you been… with me?

There was a brief hesitation to that before she responded slowly. Um. My mom… my mother is… Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Sariel. My mother is Sariel.

“What?!” I actually blurted out loud, very nearly stopping right there in the middle of the street. “Your mom is–” I stopped, making myself think it instead. Your mom is Sariel?! But-but-how…

Y-you were right, she quickly responded then. Momma and um, Miss Larissa were working together. They w-were friends. A-and umm… umm… my momma found out that someone took your mom, and she knew th-the other Seosten would, umm, she knew they’d come for you.

Running up over the sidewalk and into the so-called ‘park’, I went for the bench. It was the only thing that stood out, so the portal had to be around there somewhere. As I moved, I thought at my passenger, I don’t understand. She knew the Seosten would come for me, so she sent her daughter to me… somehow? What–how–I don’t get it. I mean–wait, you mean Larissa–

I sensed something like a nod, an affirmation. Uh huh, the girl replied. Miss Larissa brought me to you while you were asleep. She and Mama said I had to be really quiet and hide.

Shaking my head, I looked at the bench, staring for a moment while trying to think. Focus, Flick. First things first. “Felicity Chambers,” I announced out loud. “Um, Crossroads student? If it mat-”

That was as far as I got before a glowing blue portal opened up right in front of the bench. Through it, I could see the interior of the clocktower, the room that Josiah had shown us.

He was dead now. Murdered by Charmeine in Columbus’s body. Even if–when we got the bitch out of him, how was he going to deal w–no. I shut the thought aside and took a quick step forward, through the portal. There would be time to think, and to grieve, later. As soon as I made sure that Josiah was the only one we would be grieving for. No one else, damn it. No one else.

But that was almost eight years ago, I thought to distract myself while jumping through the portal. Are you saying, I mean, have you been… have we… were you always

That time, I felt the equivalent of a head-shake, a denial. I wa-wasn’t always spying on you, I promise. Wh-when you were umm, when it was… um, p-private, I went to sleep. Mama taught me how t-to do that when she put some of her m-memories in my head. She p-put memories in my head, only th-they come out slow. Like, um, delayed? She’s still, um, teaching me stuff.

Moving through the Clocktower room to the door that led downstairs, I called. “Hey! Hey, I need help! Help! Damn it, is anyone here?! Hello?! Well,” I added then when there was no response, “what fucking good are you?!” Yeah, the tension and fear might’ve been getting to me a little bit.

Right. They were all gone. There was no one here. I was still–well, not alone. But there were no Heretics who could help. I had to keep going. I couldn’t waste time trying to find anyone else. I couldn’t look for a phone, I couldn’t do anything. I had to keep going, or… or…

Spinning, I ran back to the nearest clock face while thinking, Right, so your mom basically uploaded a bunch of lessons and stuff into your head and they come to you slowly over time?

I felt her confirmation, sort of like a nod that I couldn’t see. But my focus wasn’t there. It was on the clock faces around the room. All of them showed a different part of the city, yet all of the views were similar. They all showed people fighting. Heretics and Alters, locked in combat. And from the look of things, the Heretics had been taken by surprise. I saw several dead, unmoving on the ground.

“Oh my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening. “It’s the Seosten. They’re going all-out. This is why the Minutemen can’t help. They’re being taken apart. Charmeine and her people probably gave the Nocen all the info they needed to ambush them. I…” Swallowing hard, I told myself to focus. Keep moving.

Stopping in front of the nearest clock face, I quickly recited the address and name of the hotel where we had been staying, whispering a quick thank you to Dare for making us all memorize it.

Then a thought occurred to me. “You–” I blinked. “You’re my magic intuition. Back when I thought–the thing about Larissa and Sariel being together. That wasn’t a blind guess on my part. You were–you were whispering to me, or whatever.”

Um. Y-yes? I’m sorry, I was trying to help. Mama said I had to keep hiding, th-that it wouldn’t be safe until l-later. I’m sorry, I… I j-just wanted to help.

As the clock face finished changing, I assured her, “You have helped. You’ve helped a lot, Tabbris. I wanna hear more. I’ve got… so many questions. Seriously. And I want you to meet your brother and sister. But right now, what do you say we go save our friends?”  

There was another feeling of agreement, and a lot of embarrassment when I said ‘our friends’.

Stepping up to the portal, I saw the hotel in question. Wherever this thing was generated from, it was pretty much perfectly aligned to see the rooms where we were staying. Hell, maybe that was why Josiah had chosen it. Or maybe they shifted one of the portals to keep an eye on it. It was a chicken and egg situation.

Through the portal, my eyes found the room that I shared with Avalon. Figures were moving around inside. They were there. They were there!

No more time to waste. No more questions, no hesitation. Taking a few steps back, I ran at the portal and leapt through. There was some kind of ledge below me that the portal opened out onto, but I ignored it, leaping out over the street before using my staff to propel myself that way. I expended the whole charge, blasting myself across the street and straight at same window that I had been looking out of earlier.

I hit feet-first, shattering the glass as I crashed straight through and into the room. They were all there. All of them, everyone was there. Even Charmeine.

“Hey, bitch!” I snarled even as she spun Columbus’s body toward me on one heel.

My staff slammed into his face, knocking Columbus–Charmeine backwards across the nearby table and into the wall. As Columbus’s body slumped to the floor, I informed her,

“We weren’t done talking.”

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Mini-Interlude 42 – Elisabet

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Of all the places that one might have expected to find the Crossroads Committee Counselor known as Elisabet spending her very valuable free time, one would have to know her quite well to guess that it would be a simple, quaint children’s play at a junior high school. Most people, even many of her co-counselors, would have run through quite an extensive list of other possibilities before ever getting close to that possibility.

The Spanish woman sat in the rear-most row of seats, despite the fact that the auditorium was barely half full. Half a dozen rows sat between her and the nearest other observers, all of whom were either proud parents or bored siblings, raptly watching or studiously ignoring the events on stage as the pint sized performers carried on with their own rendition of Beauty and the Beast.

Most would also have completely missed the arrival of the new figure who stepped into the darkened auditorium. For one thing, the figure simply stepped through the closed doors rather than opening them to admit any of the light from the outside hall. That coupled with the figure’s almost eerily silent movement within the near pitch-black room meant that they were all-but impossible to notice.

Elisabet, however, noticed. There were a wide assortment of powers that made that possible, from the three-hundred and sixty degree vision that gave her a full view of the entire auditorium and everyone within it at all times, coupled with more than a dozen different powers raising her ability to see in the dark or other vision enhancements, to her senses of smell and hearing being so refined that she could have noticed the arrival even if they had been invisible. Then there were the powers that allowed her to sense air being disturbed, the contents of the figure’s pockets, the calcium in their bones,  even the electrical impulses within their brain. It was all-but impossible to sneak up on a member of the Crossroads Committee, no matter what methods one used. Even teleportation was out, considering not only their multiple danger-warning powers, but also the ones that were able to detect most forms of energy teleportation created.

The point was, ambushing a member of the Crossroads Committee would only be possible by someone of equivalent or greater power. And those were exceedingly few and far between. There were the Eden’s Garden Victors, of course. Unlike the Committee, who all shared all of their powers with one another, each Victor (every tribe had two of them) gained a little bit of the power that each member of their tribe gained when killing a Stranger. That made them roughly equivalent to the power of a Committee member.

But the new arrival was not one of the Victors, or anyone anywhere near powerful enough to take Elisabet by surprise. She’d known that they were coming since even before the figure had come through the closed doors.

Still, she didn’t move. Remaining in her seat, the woman waited as the figure crossed the darkened auditorium to join her. Only once the new arrival had taken the next seat over did Elisabet speak. “You’re going to make your move against the Chambers girl.”

Charmeine, temporarily removed from her host, spoke flatly. “They know who I am. She has the choker, and I didn’t figure it out before…” A look of annoyance crossed her face before she spoke again. “I need authorization to use the spell sealers, Jophiel.”

Elisabet… or rather, the Seosten Jophiel, finally turned slightly to look at the woman. “Spell sealers won’t help you against the protection that was put on Liesje Aken’s heir. We already told you, if the girl dies before you remove that spell, all of us will be exposed. We have all ordered her death. We are responsible for your actions. If she dies by your order or hand, the spell will snake its way up through all of us. We will be revealed to the caster, permanently. That, as you have been reminded of repeatedly, cannot be allowed to happen.”

It obviously took Charmeine a moment to collect herself. Jophiel could tell that much even without the assortment of emotion-sensing powers that she had access to. Finally, the dark-skinned Seosten straightened before speaking. “I don’t need them for her. I need the spell sealers for the Chambers girl. She has the same protection spell, along with about half a dozen others. And that’s just the ones that we’ve been able to find without a thorough search.”

She continued before Jophiel could point out the obvious. “And yes, I know that if the Chambers girl dies, we’ll have the same problem. The energy from her death will trigger the spell that points them straight toward all of us. Even if we leave our bodies and get new hosts, it’ll keep leading them right to us. That’s why we’re not going to kill her. I need the spell sealers to block all the other spells on her long enough to take her in and do what we need to do. Before they wear off, I will send her to our space. The humans have no way of getting anywhere near her out there. After that, all we have to do is wait for the spell to wear off while our people work out why we can’t possess her at their leisure.”

She continued, telling the other Seosten the rest of her plan. At the end, Jophiel lifted her chin, considering for a moment. “You come to me rather than to Manakel because…”

“Manakel referred me to you,” Charmeine replied flatly. “You are the one who controls access to the spell sealers. And if this fails, he wants me to be blamed instead of himself. So he made me come to ask you. That way, if it goes wrong, he wasn’t the one who asked you. I was.”

A slight smile crossed the other woman’s face briefly, before she gave a slight nod. “We need this situation to be attended to. You have permission to use one spell sealer. It should be enough for your purposes. Just remember, they do not, as the humans say, grow on trees.” That was putting it lightly. One spell sealer, of the kind that the woman was asking for, required almost a hundred years to gather enough energy to be useful. They were also exceedingly hard to make, which was why their use had to be approved. Turning slightly, she faced Charmeine. “It should also go without saying–”

“Last chance,” Charmeine finished for her, already standing up. “Yes, I am aware. It won’t be a problem this time.”

Turning, she started to leave before pausing to look back. “… why come here?”

Jophiel nodded to the children on stage. “The girl there, she is my host’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.” Her chin rose. “One must, of course, maintain illusions. It also allows me time to think, and plan.” Slowly, she looked that way, her voice turning pointed, “In privacy.”  

The black woman squinted at her for a moment, but clearly didn’t want to risk challenging her superior on that. Turning on a heel, she strode away without another word.

For almost three full minutes, the woman sat there in relative silence, aside from the voices on stage. She watched the play, just as she had been doing with half her attention while the other Seosten had been there.

Finally, she was certain that Charmeine wasn’t coming back any time soon. Letting out a breath, she straightened up, standing from the seat while announcing softly, “She seems confident.”

From the seat that she had just vacated, a voice replied, “Of course she does. Between her arrogance and the fact that her failure will lead to her… punishment, it would be far more surprising if she didn’t project confidence.”

Jophiel turned, looking down at the woman who had spoken. Elisabet. The real Elisabet, now that she had vacated her body while standing up, leaving her host sitting there.

While Elisabet was a Spanish woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, Jophiel looked like a very… buxom brunette Caucasian who was barely in her twenties. She appeared to have more in common with Avalon Sinclaire than she did with her host. She was, in every sense of the word, utterly gorgeous, even for a Seosten.

There was a reason that she had been chosen to take the role of Aphrodite while the Seosten had been playing gods amongst the humans, after all.

For a moment, Jophiel and Elisabet stared at one another, both women remaining utterly motionless and silent. Then the Seosten took a step to the side before taking the seat next to the Spanish woman. “I’m sorry she had to interrupt,” she announced, “I promised that we’d watch Daniela’s play without distractions.”

Elisabet shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault,” she replied. “You could hardly send her away without addressing her. That might make her suspicious. And we don’t want that, do we?” She turned away from the play for a moment, looking toward her.

Jophiel continued to meet her gaze briefly before a very slight smile touched her beautiful face. “No,” she replied quietly while taking the other woman’s hand, “we certainly don’t… my love.”

Yes, Elisabet was far more than Jophiel’s host. She wasn’t enslaved, nor was her mind wiped. She wasn’t actually being controlled against her will in any way. No, the truth was that the two were partners, in every sense of the word. Partners in business, partners in combat, partners in all of their endeavors. And partners in love. As they had been for many, many years, since before Elisabet had actually been a part of the so-called Crossroads Committee.

It hadn’t started out that way. Jophiel’s assigned duty at the time of their meeting had been to assess the then-young Heretic for possible infiltration and recruitment into the just-formed Crossroads Academy. Jophiel had originally appeared to her as a young girl who had to be saved from monsters. Over the course of the next several months, she was supposed to determine whether the Spanish girl was worth recruitment.

Instead, the two gradually fell in love with one another, to the point that Jophiel revealed the truth of herself, and her people. And, to her surprise and joy, Elisabet had accepted her.

From that time on, they were partners in every way. Elisabet knew what the Seosten were truly doing, but she also knew about the war that they were fighting against the Fomorians. She knew what the Fomorians intended for humanity, and believed that fighting alongside the Seosten was their best chance for survival.

She did feel some guilt, at times, about the fate of the non-humans who were killed. But the truth was that, guilty as she might feel, her first loyalty was to humanity. And Elisabet believed that if humans didn’t grow stronger, if Heretics weren’t strong enough, that the Fomorians would enslave and destroy all of them. Human, Seosten, or any other race. The creatures that they called Fomorians (even the Seosten didn’t understand what they really called themselves, so Fomorian was a good enough term) would annihilate entire civilizations, just as they had for millennia. Very few were powerful enough to stand in their way. The Seosten stood the best chance of putting an end to the Fomorians. But they couldn’t do it without help.

And that help would be the humans, the Heretics. Once they were strong enough. But to get there… certain eggs had to be broken. Sacrifices had to be made. If that meant allowing certain innocents to die now so that everyone didn’t die later, then… that was something she could live with.

It was something they both lived with. Jophiel lied to her people, and Elisabet lied to hers. They were both lying to everyone except each other. They would never lie to one another. They were each all the other truly had. And if it came down to it, each would choose the other over everyone else in the known universe.

They were, after all…

Partners.

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?.”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmiene around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmiene.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmiene in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmiene wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmiene. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmiene had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmiene. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmiene had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmiene announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmiene wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmiene made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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New York Minutemen 27-01

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“You sure keep yourself busy, don’t you, Miss Chambers?”

Turning away from the weight machine that I had been working on (having twelve hundred pounds stacked on it was still enough to make me do a double take whenever I look at the thing), I replied, “I only need an hour of sleep a day, Mr. Atrean. Gotta keep myself entertained through all my extra time. And I told you, it’s just Flick. Especially in the middle of the night.”

Not only was it the middle of the night, about 12:30 in the morning, but it was also Saturday night. Or Sunday morning, depending on how you looked at it. It had been about two weeks since we found out that Columbus was the one who was possessed, and it had been a completely torturous two weeks. I had absolutely no idea how Shiori was lasting this long, though she said having people to talk to about it made it a little easier than when she had been keeping her vampire mother secret. Still, having to act normal while knowing that her brother had been enslaved by that bitch was obviously awful. I had been trying to make it so that she didn’t have to spend that much time with him by monopolizing her time myself. Which, to be fair, I actually enjoyed. Or at least, we enjoyed it whenever we could stop thinking about why I was monopolizing her time. Sometimes we spent as much as an hour forgetting the specifics of our situation.Then one of us would inevitably start thinking about it again and go quiet.

Now, the Committee’s stooge raised an eyebrow at me before clearing his throat. “And I believe I told you, it’s October. Maybe we can make a deal and both try to be a little less formal.”

“Are you sure your partner’ll be okay with that?” I asked idly while picking myself up from the machine. Stretching my arm out, I rubbed my bicep while watching him. I knew he wasn’t possessed now (or hadn’t been, at least), but I still didn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw–you know what, that wasn’t a very good figure of speech anymore. I didn’t trust them.

“Eh,” October gave a shrug, stepping back to take a towel off the nearby rack before tossing it to me so I could wipe off. “If Patrick ever eased up, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.”

“I feel like a broken record,” I admitted with a look at the blonde man, “but do you know anything about my dad yet? I mean, I don’t suppose you were coming in here to tell me that you guys finally found him and there’s a squad of Heretics on their way to rescue him as we speak.”

He had the grace to wince a little before shaking his head. “Would’ve opened with that, I promise.” The man met my gaze. “Just like you’d tell us if you ever hear from your dad?”

“I’d say you’d be the second to know after me,” I replied flatly, “but quite frankly, I’d probably tell my team first, and Gaia, and… maybe someone else. You’re probably in the top ten though.”

October squinted at me briefly before his head tilted as he considered. “Well, at least you’re honest about it. Yeah, I can’t blame you for that. But seriously, if you hear from your father, please don’t try to handle the situation yourself, all right? Whatever or whoever took him, they might have done it so that they could use him to get at you. There are–” He paused, seeming to take a moment to consider his words. “There are people out there who would love to get hold of a promising young Heretic student and twist them. I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Now see, that I could actually believe. I just didn’t think that my idea of ‘twisting a student toward bad things’ and his were in the same ballpark. Because quite frankly, ‘make sure that the person you’re killing has actually done something to deserve it beyond being born’ didn’t exactly sound like evil brainwashing to me. But what did I know? I wasn’t a Committee Representative.

“Believe me,” I replied with total and one hundred percent complete honesty, “I have no intention of running off by myself to go attack whoever has my dad without telling you about it first.”

“Good to hear.” The man watched me for another moment, probably trying to test if I was lying (which, thanks to Gaia’s ring, he wouldn’t be able to) before inclining his head in a nod of satisfaction. “I know you probably don’t like us being here that much. Honestly, I’d probably feel the same if I was you. But we really are trying to help, if you let us. Just… think about it.”

He left, heading heading out of the room. I let him go, waiting a minute to make sure he was actually gone before tapping a finger on the water bottle beside the weight machine. “Okay.”

An instant later, Sands appeared next to me, popping out of the bottle as she stopped possessing it. Shaking herself off, the brunette looked to me. “That was kind of close, huh?”

We’d barely gotten the alert that the man coming in time for Sands to hide and leave it looking like I was the only one in the room when October came in. Luckily, the other girl had actually worked out a pretty neat little alert spell and placed it in the corridor outside. It wasn’t anything big that would attract attention. It just had a very simple effect of changing a little ball that we had set up from red to blue whenever someone passed near it. Apparently she and Scout had had a noisy alarm variant of the spell used to keep them out of the treats when they were little.

I coughed at that, nodding emphatically. “Yeah, which is one reason why you staying out to work with me is a bad idea. Plus, there’s that thing where you need a lot more sleep than I do.”

For the past couple of weeks, Sands had insisted on spending at least part of several nights a week doing extra workouts with me, whenever I wasn’t with Gaia. Not only that, she was also now training with Avalon, Deveron, and me early in the morning and in the afternoon. Before all of this had come out, Sands had mostly slept in until the last possible moment. But now? Now she was like a woman possess–shit. A lot of old phrases had been ruined lately, apparently.

Still, Sands shook her head. “I can’t sleep anyway. I just lay there and look at the ceiling, Flick. I might as well do something useful with it. I… “ She paused, biting her lip before looking at me imploringly. “I have to do something. If we’re right and–you know, then just sitting here feels…” She cringed. “I just have to get out of there. Doing this stuff helps get me tired enough to sleep.”

“Trust me,” I replied after wincing, “I understand. I get it. But right now,” I glanced to the clock on the wall, “it’s almost one o’clock. If you’re gonna get enough sleep to function, it’s time.”

“Yeah…” Sands straightened. “Plus, Scout gets worried if she wakes up and I’m gone. Thanks.”

She jumped back into possessing the water bottle then, which I picked up before making my way out of the room and back across the grounds to the dorms. Passing a couple of the security guards on the way, I gave them a wave. They knew me by then and simply waved back before continuing on their patrol. No one was really going to question why I was carrying water around.

After dropping Sands off at the room she shared with Scout and paying a quick visit to my own, I found myself back outside. But I didn’t go anywhere else. Instead, I stood there in the space between and slightly in front of the two dorm buildings. This, right in the spot I was standing, was where Professor Pericles had been murdered in cold blood, his body eventually found by security more than an hour later.

Opening my special notebook that I’d retrieved from its hiding place, I scribbled in it while looking at the ground where Pericles’ body had been found.

We knew a lot more than we had at the start of this whole thing. We knew why Pericles had been killed: because the murderers thought that killing him would undo the spell that protected Avalon. And they thought that because when they used a spell to determine the identity of the spellcaster, it returned the name ‘Zedekiah’, which they thought referred to Zedekiah Pericles.

We also knew who had done the killing, or at least who was responsible for it: the Seosten and whoever they were possessing. This Manakel guy, he was probably the one who had done the job. He-or she depending on who he was possessing- had walked right up behind Pericles and-

Huh. According to everything I’d heard, Professor Pericles had been killed by being stabbed in the back, literally. But how could someone– I turned slightly, positioning myself the way that Pericles had apparently been before he was stabbed. According to what everyone said, based on the position of the body and the fact that, as far as they could tell, he hadn’t been moved, Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he was murdered. He was standing here, facing the boy’s dorm. From that position, the front of the girl’s dorm would still be in his peripheral.

The fact that he had been stabbed in the back… Yes, Manakel was obviously possessing someone, clearly someone that Pericles wouldn’t have reason to suspect. And yet, they had stabbed the man in the back. That kind of said that Manakel wasn’t confident in his ability to take Pericles in a one-on-one fight. Or at least, not quickly enough to avoid attracting attention.

And yet, how would someone, even a Seosten possessing an adult Heretic, sneak up on someone like Pericles and avoid being seen? Would they rely entirely on their own stealth, or…

Again, I looked over toward the boy’s dorm, frowning a little. Pericles had been facing that way when he died. Would Columbus have been possessed back then? God, I really hoped not.

I was speculating too much. It could’ve been nothing. Maybe Pericles was just distracted by something else. Or maybe whoever Manakel was possessing was just that good at avoiding detection. Or maybe… any number of things. I kept half-expecting the same magical intuition that had made me realize that Sands’ and Scout’s mom had been friends with Tristan and Vanessa’s mother to pop up again to give me the answer to this. But nothing happened. I thought there might be something to the fact that Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm, but maybe there wasn’t. I just… didn’t know. With a sigh, I closed my notebook.

What I did know, was that I had missed out on a lot by not getting the chance to have Zedekiah Pericles as a teacher. Manakel and Charmeine had taken away a lot when they killed him. And I was pretty sure they’d also taken away a lot when they put Tangle in that coma. I had the cure for it, but the second I actually used it, they’d know that we knew more than we should. Given that we had no idea who in the hospital might be working with them, it… felt safer to wait. Even if it was yet another reminder of how much the Seosten had taken from us.

I just hoped that, one day, we’d have a chance to take a lot away from them in return.

******

“So let me make sure I’ve got this right,” Columbus’s voice intoned skeptically. “You guys went out in the regular world for almost an entire day, and nothing bad happened? Nothing at all?”

It was about a week after I’d had that conversation with October in the middle of the night, making it late February. We still had no idea who Manakel was possessing, and it was all I could do not to sarcastically retort that ‘Columbus’ would’ve known if anything had happened.

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since we started looking for Manakel and there was still no sign of who he had possessed. I’d even had some of the others test people when it made more sense for them to do it. Hell, even Gaia had done a couple, working her way through her staff. Though she did say that she didn’t want to tell anyone else what was going on. Not even people she trusted. There was too much chance of them being possessed at some point in the future. She wanted to keep this as small as possible until we’d actually identified Manakel.

But again, it wasn’t like we were having any luck at that. Which was why we had to sit here and keep pretending that we didn’t know that Columbus was being puppeted by that Seosten bitch.

Thankfully, it was Avalon who spoke up while I was still swallowing back that comment. “Yes, Porter,” she answered simply, “six whole hours in the Bystander world and nothing went wrong.”

We were standing out on the grass near the Pathmaker building. And by we, that was the entire team, Deveron included. The seven of us were waiting for Dare to show up with Paul, Rudolph, and the rest of Roxa’s former team. Because it was finally time for that trip to New York. Yeah, wouldn’t that be fun? A whole weekend with people who were convinced that I was somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance (okay, I kind of was, but not in the way they were thinking) sharing a hotel, transportation, and everything else with us. That wouldn’t be awkward at all.

Thankfully, we already had a plan for that. Once we were up there and were given free time, Roxa was going to join us. I’d meet up her privately, pass her the choker so she’d be safe, and let her come visit with her old team. Then they’d see that the girl was okay, that I wasn’t some psychopath that had her trussed up in my basement or something, and it’d all be hunky dory.

Shut up, I could pretend to be optimistic for a little while.

Deveron was smiling, arms folded over his chest as he watched us. “So you guys actually went on a real date, huh?” he asked, in a way that made me feel like he was just barely suppressing the urge to reach over and ruffle my hair or something equally embarrassing and weird.

‘Columbus’ spoke up then. “So, how did it go? I mean, you two and Shiori out on a date together? Didn’t that get… you know, weird?” If I hadn’t already known that Charmeine was the one pulling his strings, it would’ve sounded like the boy was just being a protective brother. As it was, the question just made me feel nauseous. She was obviously poking for sore points and seeing if there were ways that she could get Columbus to screw with us if need be. Probably so that they could cause a problem and isolate Avalon in the future whenever they needed to.

Somehow, I made myself smile, winking at ‘him’. “Sure, but it was more like two separate dates. Gaia sent us out in the middle of some city in California. She and Professor Dare were the only ones who knew where we were. They picked the city at random. We didn’t even know where we were going until we got there. And we had Wyatt and Dare shadowing us, playing bodyguards, just in case. They were pretty good about staying out of the way though.”

Sean, kneeling next to Vulcan while letting the mechanical dog munch metal nuts out of his hand, raised an eyebrow. “Two separate dates?” he asked curiously. “How’d that work?”

I shrugged. “Shiori and I spent a couple hours together first. We went to play laser tag, visited this cool little train museum, and did some shopping. Avalon did uh, whatever she did, with Professor Dare watching. Then we switched. Professor Dare and Shiori went out to do something while Avalon and I went and did our thing. Mostly we took this boat out on this lake in the park and did some fishing. It was pretty cool. Plus, we actually caught some fish.

“Then we all went to dinner together, and saw a movie.” I smiled, glancing toward Avalon, who was blushing while looking away from all of us. Obviously, she was thinking about other things that had happened during that movie and immediately afterward. “It was pretty great,” I finished.  

“Good,” Deveron announced. “You all deserved a break, and a real date. Or two real dates.”

Sands reached out to poke me in the forehead. “Yeah, we all deserve that kind of break. But some of us aren’t lucky enough to have one person that likes us like that. Let alone two.”

From his kneeling position, Sean teased, “I dunno, I’m sure Zeke would love to take you out.”

The other girl made a face at that, leaning over to kick lightly at him. “Don’t even start with that. Our parents used to make us play together as kids and he was a selfish jerk then too. Now he thinks I should be his girlfriend or something just because we spent some time in the sandbox when we were five. I ate worms back then too, and you don’t see me doing that anymore.”

Snickering despite myself, I reached out to pat the girl on the shoulder. “At least he actually likes you. Even if he’s got a weird way of showing it. I’m pretty sure he still thinks I’m crazy.” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock, letting him perch on my palm. “Doesn’t he, little buddy?” Pausing for a moment to listen, I nodded. “You’re right, you’re right. We shouldn’t talk about people behind their backs. Truly, you are the most noble of us all, Sir Herbie.”

“Believe me, Flick,” Sands informed me then, “I’d rather date your rock than that jerk.”

Before we could say anything else about the (amazing) date that Shiori, Avalon, and I had gone on, Scout nodded past us. I turned, to see Dare heading our way with the other team. Right. It was time, I guessed. Time for our trip to New York.

This was going to be… interesting.

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