Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Haiden and Sariel posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. 

“Two months!” Professor Carfried’s excitable voice filled the Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom two days later. Friday. Like most schools, Crossroads came back from break with only a couple days of classes to go before the weekend so that students could ease back into the workload.

“For two months,” the man continued while standing in the center of our circle of tables, “you’ve been able to practice the spell that we started back in November. I gave you that extra time because the spell itself is hard to pull off. But by this point, you all should have been able to manage it. So.” Clapping his hands together, he smiled broadly. “How many of you think you’ve got the hang of the Kevlar spell?”

About half the class raised their hands, including me. I’d had plenty of other things to do, of course. But a spell to turn clothes bulletproof was too useful to ignore. Knowing that Carfried was going to bring it up, I spent some of the day before working on it before class today. The first two times, it pretty much fizzled, but after the third, I managed to pull it off. Repeating the success twice more convinced me.

Sitting there with my hand up, I snuck a look toward Avalon. We still hadn’t talked that much over the past couple days. Not about—well, what had happened before the winter break, anyway. I had the feeling that she wanted to talk about it a couple times, but always brought up something else instead.

Yeah, we needed to talk about it. And I needed to talk to Shiori, to both of them. Preferably together, because that was the only fair way to do it. I wanted all of us to be on the same page. Tonight was the first Hunter track meeting. But tomorrow was Saturday. Tomorrow, I’d get them together and talk then.

“Only half of you?” Carfried shook his head with obvious disappointment, looking around at the class. “Are you sure? You can pull it off, right? Just a little spell, not that hard.” He watched with open eagerness and encouragement, gesturing for more people to raise their hands.

However, once a few people gave in to the encouragement and lifted their hands, the man slammed his hand down hard on the nearest table. The resulting bang made everyone jump, as he bellowed, “No!”

Straightening, he strode around the circle, eyes watching all of us as we jolted in our seats and stared at him. “No,” he repeated, a bit quieter but with just as much force. “Do not do that. Never do that. If you don’t think you’re ready for something, don’t let me or anyone else guilt or pressure you into it. This is magic class, not Crocheting 101. Magic. It is dangerous. If you’re not ready, speak up and say so.”

Stopping with his back to where my table was, the man slowly turned in a circle to take all of us in once more before continuing. “That goes for many other things, not just magic. If you’re not ready, speak up. I don’t care if it’s a classmate, an older student, an adult Heretic, or another teacher. If they ask you to do something dangerous and you’re not ready, say something. Your lives are valuable. You are valuable. And there is no shame in saying you’re not ready. There is shame in endangering your lives and the lives of people around you just because you let yourself be pressured into something.”

After letting that sit for a few moments, Carfried spoke again in a much calmer and more gentle voice. “Now, one more time. Which of you are sure that you are ready to try this spell?” He watched as some of our hands returned to the air, smiling faintly that time. “Good. Okay, let’s start with… Rebecca?”

The tiny, dark-haired girl (who at full height still stood a couple inches less than five feet tall) straightened up in her seat while lowering her hand along with the rest of us. “Yes, sir?”

Carfried stepped back to his own table in the very middle of the circle, gesturing. “Come on down here. Don’t worry, I’ll walk through it with you and we’ll see how it goes. Everyone else pay close attention.”

Rebecca hopped out of her seat and squeezed through one of the openings between tables, joining Carfried as the man began to lay out an old army jacket. From a pocket, he produced a black marker identical to the one that Dare had given me before the winter break. “Do you know what this is?”

Her head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir. It’s a field-engraver. It lets you write on things that are hard to write on, or if you don’t want it to be permanent. Once the spell activates, the writing disappears.”

“Correct!” the young teacher grinned, holding it up. “Or, if you turn the part at the top, it will turn the engraver into erase mode, so that you can take off the spell. Or to fix a mistake.” To demonstrate, he put his fingers at the top of the marker. “Twist to the left and it’s in writing mode. Draw any spell you’d like. Twist just a little to the right and it’s in erase mode. It will erase any mark it’s made on anything.

“Now,” he added while holding the field-engraver out to to the small girl. “Would you be so kind, Rebecca, as to draw the Kevlar spell onto this jacket? Do you remember the exact way it goes?”

Taking the engraver, Rebecca hesitated. For a moment, it looked like she was about to go for it, but then she shook her head. “Can I… get the book from my bag and look at it again, sir? Just to be sure.”

Carfried’s smile broadened, and he gestured for her to go ahead. “Yes. Remember, spells are complicated. If you need to look them up just to be sure, don’t hesitate. Most Heretics who use spells carry around cheat sheets of their most-used spells. There’s no shame in being careful with magic.”

Using her notebook, Rebecca etched the design of the spell onto the back of the jacket that Carfried had provided. It took about ten minutes for her to get the whole thing just right and to put enough energy into it. In the end, she put her hands against the spellform and murmured the trigger for the spell. As she finished speaking, the runes that she had drawn briefly glowed bright red before fading entirely.

Carfried thanked her profusely before plucking the jacket off the table. Walking it across the room, he waved for us to get up from our seats and follow as he led the class to the other end of the room.

Glancing toward Sean as we got up, I whispered, “Speaking of this spell, if we run into too many bulletproof things out there, your little buddy’s gonna need some more tricks up his sleeves. Err, paws.”

“Ehh,” Sean replied with a grin while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “Don’t you worry about that. He’s already got special bullets to get around stuff like that. Plus, we’ve got plans. Don’t we, boy?”

Vulcan gave a little woof of agreement before trotting along beside his master as we joined the others.

“Now,” Carfried announced while hanging the jacket on a mannequin that stood there. “Let’s see how well she did, shall we?” As he spoke, the man reached into his own jacket, producing what looked like a simple nine millimeter pistol. “This is a Bystander weapon. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.” He held it up, turning so that we could all see, before turning back to face the mannequin while taking up a shooting stance. “The only difference with this weapon from anything a Bystander would use,” Carfried explained, “is that I’ve used a spell on the barrel to make it much quieter. Other than that, it will fire with just as much force and destructive capability as an ordinary gun. But, before we go any further, can anyone tell me how this spell is supposed to work? Will the bullets just ricochet off and go shooting into one of you, or any other innocent bystander? Capital b or lower case.”

He nodded toward Vanessa, who shook her head before reciting, “If performed correctly, the so-called Kevlar spell will drain the kinetic energy from the bullets or any other fast moving object that reaches the enchanted item. Essentially, they’ll lose all their momentum and bounce off as if they were just tossed gently. The previous version of the spell did what you said, make the bullets ricochet like, um–”

“Like Superman!” Tristan cut in. “Or Colossus when he’s got his metal skin, or the Thing, or–”

“Yes, thank you, Tristan,” Carfried interrupted with a chuckle. “And thank you, Vanessa. Correct. The old version of the spell simply made things bulletproof by repelling the incoming objects. Unfortunately, that proved to be too dangerous to civilians and other Heretics. So it was updated.”

He asked a couple more questions about the way the spell worked, focusing not just on Vanessa, but on everyone else as well. As young and new at this as he may have been, Carfried was a decent teacher.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Well, that’s enough talk, don’t you think? Let’s see how this works.”

Taking careful aim, the man fired six shots, one after another. Thanks to the muting spell he’d used, each one sounded more like a handclap than the terrifying bang that would have left us all deafened.

Once he was finished, the man holstered the gun before walking over to the jacket. Once he reached it, Carfried turned to face us while gesturing to the floor. “Would everyone take a close look down here?”

We didn’t have to look that close. All six bullets were lying scattered around the floor at the feet of the mannequin. And as the man tugged the jacket off the dummy, he turned it around to show that there was no damage either to the jacket itself, or to the mannequin. “As you can see, Rebecca performed the spell just right. Anyone shot in the jacket with the spell active would be just fine. Well done, Rebecca. Very well done.” Setting the jacket back in place, he grinned and clapped a couple times encouragingly.

Once that was done, however, the man paused. “Now, of course, this spell won’t last forever. Rebecca here put enough power into it to make it last… oh, probably about ten minutes. Naturally, the longer you work and the more power you put into it, the longer the spell will remain active. But ten minutes should be enough for most normal encounters, so there’s no need to kill yourself by preparing a version that’ll last an entire hour. Just use the trigger spell when when you’re about to get into trouble. Then, of course,” he added, “there are other ways to extend the time of the spell. But we’ll get into those later. For now, let’s split up into groups. If you think you can cast this spell, group up with one or two people who don’t. We’ll have you work together until everyone can pull it off. Then we’ll shoot some more rounds and see just how much metal we can cover the floor with, all right? All right, let’s do it.”

******

Several hours later, as I was walking across the lawn, Shiori caught up with me. “Hey, Flick!” she called happily before lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Did you get to talk to you-know-who yet?”

With a set-up like that, I couldn’t help it. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, Voldemort’s still obsessed with that other magic school. He hasn’t even bothered to return my letters. Can you believe that?”

Rewarding me with a giggle that made me shiver (and reminded me of my promise to myself that I would talk to her and Avalon the next day), Shiori shook her head. “Yeah, he’s a jerk. But the other you-know-who. You know, a certain older student that might know something about a certain ring?”

Chuckling softly, I snapped my fingers. In my pocket, I carefully touched one of the privacy coins. We were alone, but it never hurt to be extra-careful. “Ohhh, you mean Namid. No, I haven’t. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find an excuse to walk up to a third-year and say, ‘oh hey, can I talk to you about an ancient magical artifact that your ancestor might’ve had before your other ancestor, who happens to be on the Committee, betrayed him and got him killed? Oh, but don’t tell her about any of this, kay?’”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Shiori coughed. “How are you gonna talk to her about it?”

Shrugging helplessly, I admitted, “I’m not sure yet. But something’ll come to me. It has to.” Glancing around carefully, I lowered my voice. Yeah, we had the coin, but still. “Roxa needs that necklace, or the ring, or whatever it is now. And Namid’s the only actual lead we have about it besides Pace herself.”

“Yeah…” Shiori murmured, looking down briefly before glancing to me. “If you wanna talk to her together, we can. I mean, at least there’s a slightly better chance of getting her to stand still and listen?”

“I can’t just tell her everything,” I pointed out. “I’ve gotten really lucky so far. I’d rather not push that by expecting a third-year student to suddenly believe everything I say that happens to completely destroy their world-view. Especially when she’s got a great-great-grandmother or whatever on the Committee. I need an excuse to ask her about it. Maybe… an assignment? Hey, maybe we can get Professor Dare to give a project for ancient magic items and I can make up a trail leading to that thing.”

“Do you think Professor Dare would do that?” Shiori asked, head tilting. “And can you make up a believable trail that could lead you to Namid and that ring when there’s nothing in the library about it?”

I thought about it for another moment before nodding. “I’m pretty sure Dare’ll do it if I ask her, as long as I tell her why. She wants to help Roxa too. And it’s not like making an excuse to talk to Namid is that dangerous. You know, compared to other things I could be doing. As for the rest of it… yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. It’ll take time to set up, and I’ll probably need help, but I can make a trail leading to her.”

Shiori’s head bobbed. “If you need help talking to her, I’m there. I could be the muscle to your brains.”

“I think I’ll need your brain too,” I pointed out. “Maybe we can take turns being muscle and brains.”

She gave me a thumbs up, then grinned that familiar Shiori-grin. “Whatever happens, we should take her to the bank when we talk to her. That way, she won’t ignore us and go running off.”

“The bank?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. “How would taking her to a bank make her pay attention?”

“Because it’ll be sure to keep her interest!” Shiori blurted before doubling over on herself, snickering.

It was terrible. And yet somehow, I still giggled. Just hearing the other girl laugh at her own corny joke, as bad as it was, made me want to laugh too.

Finally, I shook my head. “Okay, okay. We’ll see. But now, uhh–” I paused, looking down at my new uniform with its green trim before looking back up to Shiori’s own matching one. “Think you could show me where we’re supposed to meet up for the track class?”

“Oh!” Shiori straightened, glancing to my uniform as if just noticing the color and what it meant. “Right, we’re in the same track now. We–” She paused, glancing to me briefly as if trying to figure out if I’d done that on purpose.

I hadn’t. I’d forgotten that Shiori was in the Hunter track, honestly. But I also wasn’t going to complain.

She shook that off without comment, though her smile did brighten a little. “Yeah, c’mon. I’ll show you.”

As she started to walk, the girl added, “I wonder what Professor Hisao is like.”

“I only met him once,” I admitted, “But from what I saw, he jokes around a lot and doesn’t take much seriously. But, you know, he’s one of their big investigators, so he’s gotta be really good at his job. Oh,” I paused before adding, “And I’m pretty sure he and Professor Dare are… you know.”

Her eyes went wide as she looked at me. “Are you sure?” When I nodded, she smiled broadly. “Oh my god, that is so… so… Dare and Hisao—wow.”

“Yeah, just… don’t say anything,” I coached her. “Dare really doesn’t want it getting out there. You know, because of the whole Crossroads-Garden rivalry thing.”

Shiori mimed locking her lips with a key before tossing it away. Then she giggled. “Still, it is pretty romantic.”

For a few seconds, the two of us stood there and looked at each other. The word ‘romantic’ lay between us, and I felt myself blush before clearing my throat. “We—um, we’re gonna be late for the track if we…”

Visibly shaking herself, Shiori quickly nodded. “Right, yeah. C’mon, we usually meet down on the beach.”

She set off, and after a moment, I followed.

Yeah, I needed to talk to both her and Avalon. We needed to sort this whole thing out before someone ended up getting hurt. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would deal with it head-on. No more excuses. No more delaying. I was going to talk to Shiori and Avalon.

But tonight, well, tonight it was time to see just how this Hunter track was going to work with Hisao in charge. And how some of the more… loyal Crossroads students would take being taught by a substitute from Eden’s Garden.

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

Mini-Interlude 21 – Sariel and Haiden

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Sariel and Haiden, Tristan and Vanessa’s parents. I hope you enjoy this little flashback.

Wednesday, July 7th, 1999

“You know, I was supposed to be Artemis, the virgin goddess. You know what virgin goddesses generally don’t end up?” Sariel Moon eyed her husband as he came in the door of their small apartment carrying a couple of reusable grocery bags.

Raising an eyebrow at her, Haiden shook his head and guessed, “Making sloppy joes?” Gesturing toward the pan on the nearby stove in their tiny kitchenette, he added, “Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t really seem like a goddess thing.”

Sticking her tongue out pointedly, Sariel took one of the bags from him. “You love my sloppy joes and you know it. Mixing in salsa and onions with it was culinary genius.” As she spoke, the blonde woman moved back to the stove. Setting the bag down, she picked up the wooden spoon and stirred the sizzling concoction in the pan. “So no, that’s not it.”

By that point, Haiden had set down the other bag in the chair next to a stack of well-read comic books and moved up behind her. As his arm snaked around her, he pulled the woman back against him gently, yet firmly. “I can think of a lot of things that don’t apply to a virgin goddess,” he murmured. “Most of which we’ve taken care of more than a few times. And I think you’re pretty genius at those things too.”

Blushing, the Seosten renegade ducked her head a little instinctively before clearing her throat. “Ahem. That’s kind of my point.” Reaching down, she caught hold of his wrist and lifted it to put the man’s hand against her stomach. “Pregnant. Most virgin goddesses don’t end up pregnant.”

Grinning, Haiden leaned his head down to kiss his wife’s neck while gently stroking her stomach. She was nearly eight weeks along by that point, so she wasn’t really showing at all. It would take at least a few more weeks before there was any kind of outward sign. Still, he felt like he could tell. He knew his wife, knew her in every way possible. And loved her in more ways than that.

His voice was soft against her neck as he whispered, “Does the goddess object?”

Shivering a little and swaying just a little bit from the effect he had on her, Sariel’s head shook slowly. “Mmmm, no.” Turning and leaning back slightly so that she could meet his gaze, she whispered, “Never object to you. And I’m not a goddess. I never was, not really. Never a real goddess, never a real angel. Just lies. Manipulative lies.”

Lifting his hand to her chin, then up to cup the side of her face, Haiden spoke with absolute assurance. “Yes, you are. You’re my goddess. My angel.”

She made a weak cooing noise just before his lips found hers. They stayed like that for a few seconds, pressed against one another before the blonde woman pulled back with a gasp. “Food, food. It’ll burn.” Picking up the wooden spoon, she stirred the sloppy joe mix, smiling both at the feel of her husband still half-clinging to her, and the smell of the well-seasoned hamburger. “You brought the rest of the stuff, right?”

Haiden ran a hand down her back tenderly while assuring her, “Of course I did. I wouldn’t let you down. Even if I did have to run to six different New Age stores before they finally had the right crystals.”

Sariel turned to face him with an easy smile. “It’ll be worth it, believe me. That’s the last of the supplies we need.”

“You mean it’s ready?” Haiden couldn’t keep the eagerness out of his voice, despite every attempt to sound cool and collected. With this particular situation, he just couldn’t pull it off.

Smiling at his reaction, Sariel gave a nod while trying just as hard to sound casual. “Sure. It just needed the crystals to focus the spell. But you know, we could wait until after dinner if you prefer. It’s pretty much done, and we could–”

Haiden kissed her, cutting her off as she giggled at his immediate denial. “No,” the man murmured. “Dinner can wait. This can’t.” His hand found hers, and he gave a slight tug. “If it’s ready, let’s do this.”

Obligingly, Sariel turned the stove down to the lowest possible setting so that the food would stay warm, but wouldn’t burn. Then she let her husband pull her across the room to the corner, where she had already laid out a wide wooden board that took up the majority of the living room. Intricate spellforms had been put into the board with a simple wood burning tool, leaving a circle in the middle that was just wide enough for her to stand in.

“Take the crystals and put them in each of those fourteen spots I marked with the Cheerios,” she instructed the former Heretic while stepping into the wider circle on the board. “And remove the Cheerios.”

Grabbing one of the little bits of cereal from what appeared to be a random part of the elaborate design, Haiden replaced it with a small violet crystal he pulled from one of the bags that he’d brought home. Then he popped the Cheerio in his mouth and moved on to the next one.

In the meantime, Sariel focused on performing the last elements of the spell. As she’d told him, it was almost done. She’d spent the past few days gradually working on it so that, once they had the crystals, it wouldn’t take much longer.

Even then, it was a complex enough spell that another ten minutes passed after Haiden finished arranging the crystals before it was finished. Finally, however, Sariel leaned down while staying in her spot in the circle. Her hand touched the nearest crystal, and she triggered the spell.

The crystal lit up with a brilliant purple light that quickly narrowed into a single, focused laser. That laser shot into the second crystal elsewhere on the spellform, and from there into the next one. Over time, with the way the crystals were arranged, all the runes were lit by the laser-focused violet light.

Once the spell was lit up, a glowing, thick violet fog lifted from the wooden board. It slowly grew to encompass Sariel herself, covering her from the neck down without straying a millimeter away from the board itself.

Feeling the tingling sensation as the fog enveloped her entire body save for her head, Sariel restrained a giggle. “Okay, okay… ready?”

Haiden bit his lip hard, managing a nod after a moment. “Ready.”

As he spoke, some of the fog slowly drifted away from the board. It arranged itself in front of them in a small, vaguely humanoid shape. It was like seeing the form of a person in a game of cloud watching. But over the next few seconds, the shape gradually coalesced and began to look more and more realistic. It went from looking like wispy clouds in the vague shape of a child, to looking like an actual child. The skin and hair was purple, but that faded rapidly toward the end into pale white skin and light blonde hair.

Finally, the holographic image of a six or seven-year old blonde boy stood there, staring straight ahead.

“Oh my god.” The exclamation was more noise than actual words, a squeak of joy that escaped Sariel as she touched her lips. “A little boy. Haiden, we’re going to have a little boy. Look at him. Look at how handsome he is. Look… look.”

“I… I see. I see him.” Haiden could barely contain himself. His hand moved to touch the image, though he knew his hand would go right through it. The spell simply examined the baby inside the mother and projected an image of what that child would look like in a few years. “My boy. My boy. He’s my boy.”

Sariel opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, more of the violet fog drifted away from the board.

“Err, what’s this?” Haiden asked, confused as he watched the new fog take up position beside the first. “Did you ask for a second image? Like when he’s older or something? Can you even do that?”

“No, I—I didn’t—what–” Terrified in that moment that something had gone wrong, Sariel almost canceled the spell. There were so many things they didn’t know about a Seosten and human match. What would their child be like? It was one of the many reasons she had wanted to do this spell, just to… make sure everything was fine. In addition to showing an image of their future child, it would let them know if there were any complications.

Before she could stop it, however, the fog began to take shape beside their baby boy. And this… this was no mistake, and no complication. It was a revelation.

“A girl,” Haiden breathed out, genuine and reverent awe in his voice. “It’s a—she’s a… girl. A girl… but it showed us a…” He looked back and forth between the boy and girl, realization dawning on him gradually. “… oh… oh my god… oh my god… we’re not having a baby. We’re not having a baby. We’re… we’re having… oh….”

“Twins,” Sariel finished for him. Tears were streaming down her face. Tears of unbridled, unrestrained joy. It was a happiness that she could never have imagined aside from the moment that she and Haiden had been married. “We’re having twins. Oh… oh Choir… oh… my babies. My babies.”

“Sari, the spell—the spell,” Haiden’s voice shook as he stood at the edge of the wood, staring at the images of his children as if trying to burn them into his memory forever. “Will it—does it–”

“It’s okay,” Sariel assured him, her voice cracking. “It’s okay.” She held her arms up, welcoming the man as he moved instantly onto the board with her.

With a laugh of joy, a triumphant shout that he didn’t care who heard, Haiden lifted his wife off the board and nearly to the ceiling before pulling her back down. Hugging her tight to his chest, he let out another whoop before his laughter turned to tears of delight, then back to laughter again.

“Twins. My babies. My boy, my girl. Mine.” He managed before setting the woman down.

Staring adoringly at the images of the children for a few more seconds, Sariel slowly turned her gaze up to meet his eyes. Her voice was certain, and calm. “Yours,” she breathed out before leaning up to kiss him once more.

“All yours.”

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Study and Scrutiny 20-02

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Judging from the not-so-subtle whispers that immediately started up as soon as people caught sight of Hisao, I was pretty sure his affiliation with Eden’s Garden wasn’t exactly a secret to everyone. Which made sense, especially with the older students. Miranda had said that he was one of Garden’s most impressive and decorated Vigiles, their equivalent to Runners only with even more power. The Vigiles acted as judge, jury, and executioner and didn’t have to report or justify themselves to almost anyone. Only their tribal chief or the full Garden leadership (called Victors) could override their field decisions.

So yeah, it definitely made sense that other students besides me had encountered him in the past. And now those other students were telling their teammates and the whole story was spreading like wildfire.

Sands was looking back and forth, taking in the sight of everyone talking so much before focusing on the rest of us. “Uh,” she started with a squint of confusion. “Did I miss something? Who is that guy?”

Before Avalon or I could answer, Deveron stepped into view. “Hisao. He’s from Eden’s Garden. Pretty important guy over there.” As he spoke, our mentor tugged a chair out with one hand to sit. His other arm was in a cast and sling, which made me do a double-take right alongside the one from Sands.

“Wait, what happened t–” I started to blurt, eyes on his wounded arm. Wounded despite his healing?

“Wait, what do you mean, from Garden?” Sands blurted right alongside my voice, her eyes on Hisao.

Gaia, however, wasn’t exactly done talking. She gave the students a few seconds there to react before her voice took over the room once more. “I understand that a lot of you have many questions concerning this decision. And more will likely have those questions as the rumor mill gets up to speed. But allow me to answer some of them right now. Yes, Professor Hisao is from Eden’s Garden.”

Her gaze moved over the room slowly before she continued. “For those of you younger students who are not fully aware, Eden’s Garden is a… separate school from Crossroads. They have different teachings than we do, but our primary goal remains the same: to protect humanity from the creatures who would enslave, torture, or kill them. Whatever our other differences, that we can all agree on.

“Professor Hisao has been a Heretic for a very long time, since before either Crossroads or Eden’s Garden existed. He predates almost any Heretic you will ever meet in person. So believe me when I tell you that you all can learn a lot from him, if you allow yourselves to. He has graciously agreed to a… trial run as a substitute teacher here at Crossroads as a personal favor. So I would appreciate it if the talk of society politics and spies was kept to a minimum. He is here because I asked him to be, because I believe in allowing all of you to learn from the very best available sources. Regardless of what school or society those sources normally affiliate themselves with. He’s giving you a chance. Give him one.”

I could already see some of the students, particularly the older ones, shaking their heads. In the back, a few of the teachers were doing the same. Sands’ and Scout’s dad leaned over to whisper something to Peterson Neal, and the man just shook his head with a grimace that looked like he’d tasted something incredibly foul. It made me wish that one of the many abilities I’d picked up included super-hearing.

Wait. Didn’t someone actually get that? But who… Crap. My eyes scanned the rest of my team briefly as I tried to remember. Then I had it. “Scout,” I whispered, leaning closer to the table while keeping my voice as low as possible. “Can you hear what your dad and that Neal guy are talking about up there?”

Her eyes flicked to me, then up to where the two men were still whispering. I saw a frown of concentration knit her brow for a few seconds before she shook her head while mouthing, ‘spell.’

Right. So they were using a spell to make sure they weren’t overheard. Which made sense. If they were really criticizing Gaia while standing barely ten feet away from her, they’d use something to cover it up.

Gaia continued, silencing the whispers by moving on to other subjects. She welcomed back a couple of the third year students who had been in the hospital after a failed hunt a couple weeks before the winter break, mentioned that the weight room would be off-limits until they finished cleaning up some kind of goo from something that had exploded in there, and reminded everyone that if we wanted to change tracks for the new semester, we had to make a note of it on the sheet that would be passed around.

Something about sitting here, listening to the headmistress talk was tickling at my memory. There was something… something that I could almost half-remember, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

And then the menus appeared on all the tables as Gaia finished talking. All around us, the discussions seemed split between talking about what people were going to eat, and what Hisao was doing here.

I, on the other hand, turned to Deveron. “What,” I demanded while pointing at his cast, “is that?”

Oh lord. From the smirk that immediately touched his face, I knew what he was gonna say before his mouth even opened. “Well, Flick,” the man-in-a-boy’s-body drawled, “That’s what we call a cast, and-”

I kicked him under the table, scowling. “Why do you have one? Did your super-healing go kaput?”

From the other side of the table, Columbus added, “Or did you get hit by the same thing that hit Avalon back when she couldn’t heal it?”

It was a good point. Deveron, however, shook his head. “Neither. Nothing’s kaput, and I wasn’t poisoned like Avalon was. I just—I had a little altercation with a Thelesican.” Before I could ask, he added, “Kind of a cross between a bat and a giant leech. It latches onto your body and has these sharp hollow teeth that dig straight down to the bone. Then it sort of… grinds up and slurps bits of your bone through the teeth like dozens of miniature straws.” Lifting his injured arm, he explained, “Like I said, had an altercation. I killed it, but the damn thing messed up my arm pretty bad. It’ll heal soon enough.”

In the face of my horrified look at that, he gave me a wink that was obviously meant to make me feel better. “See, you’re not the only one who gets in trouble when you’re supposed to be on vacation.”

There were so many more questions I wanted to ask. Starting with where the hell he’d been to get attacked by some kind of bat-leech that ate liquefied bones. But before I could get any of it out, Sands cut in while looking straight at Avalon. “That’s what you were doing with Gaia, wasn’t it? Someone said that you guys haven’t been around very much. They wanted to know if me or Scout knew what was going on. You were helping convince that Hisao guy to come here.” She frowned. “But why would they listen to you? I mean, aren’t you persona non grata at that place ever since the—you know, incident?”

“With most of the tribes, yes,” Avalon replied a little stiffly. From her expression, it was obvious that the trip back to Garden hadn’t been all that fun for her. It probably brought up… well, memories. Before saying anything else, she gave Deveron a significant look until he took one of his own privacy coins out and flicked the thing onto the table after activating it so that we weren’t overheard. Not that it seemed like anyone was paying attention to us. Everyone was talking about the new teacher from Eden’s Garden. But I knew better than to take that for granted.

Once privacy was ensured, Avalon went on. “But Hisao is part of the Eternal Eye tribe. They… apparently they were the only tribe who ever spoke up for me. Not even my own tribe did that.” Her eyes dropped a bit to stare at the menu. “Not most of them, anyway.”

I shook my head in disgust, unable to help myself. “I can’t believe they like that Torv guy so much they’d all turn against you. I mean, why didn’t they believe you when you told them what happened?”

That was something that had been bothering me for a long time, tickling at the back of my mind. Yes, Avalon had killed another student. But from everything I’d heard, almost no one had even bothered to hear her side of things. They just walked in to find her—well, beating him to death and never listened to what actually happened. If Seller had gone so far as to send her away to Gaia, he had to know that she wasn’t going to be given a fair trial or hearing or whatever they’d have. He had already known that it would go against her, right from the beginning. But why? There had to be more to it than we’d heard.

“Order your food, Chambers,” Avalon instructed flatly without looking up at me. She was focused on circling the items on her own menu that she wanted. Finally, she dropped it on the table. A few seconds later, it vanished and its spot was replaced with a plate of what a quick glance at my own menu revealed was likely the Greek-style lamb with lemon and thyme, along with a salad on the side.

“But I–” Stopping myself, I hurriedly used the menu to order chicken and rice before setting it down. My attention was on my roommate. “You said that he was sending you messages for a long time, that he was… harassing you. And going by the messages on Tangle’s phone, whoever she was working with probably pushed him to do it. Or even used magic or some other power to make it happen. Did Torv ever say anything, give you any indication of why he thought you’d–” I stopped talking, because even the implication was making me feel sick deep in my stomach.

At first, I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. But after a few long seconds of silence, Avalon finally murmured, “He was my friend. His brother was always a jackass that belonged in Lost Scar. But Torv was one of the Vigilant Sons. His big brother basically raised him since their parents died, but Torv wasn’t like Trice. He was… kind of sweet. Poetic. Sometimes he said really stupid things, but it wasn’t because he was a dick, it was because he didn’t think about what he was saying. And he daydreamed a lot. He used to tell me stories about the monsters we’d kill when we were… partners. Not that way, just—Stranger hunting partners. He was nice. Maybe a little thick sometimes, but still, nice.”

Cutting into her lamb, the other girl’s expression darkened considerably. “It changed two months before—before that all happened. Someone started leaving notes in my bedroom, in my books, in the bathroom just before I got in there. They were–” A distant look came to her eyes then. “–graphic descriptions of what they’d like to do. More graphic as time went on. I tried to ignore them for awhile but they just got more… descriptive. I had to talk to someone, so I told Torv about it. I wanted help.

“He laughed. He asked if I liked them. I didn’t get what he was laughing about at first. I thought maybe he thought I was joking or—or something. But he made it clear. It was him. My friend was the one leaving those disgusting notes. I told him I never wanted to talk to him again. I tried to switch teams. Nothing worked. No one listened. They just thought I was overreacting to him having a crush or something. He wouldn’t let up. Every time I saw him, he kept saying worse things. Then that night…”

It was the most I’d heard Avalon talk about what had happened. Something about going back to Eden’s Garden must have made her want to explain her side of things to people who would listen. Even then, however, she didn’t go any further. Trailing off, she shook her head firmly and went back to eating.

It was Deveron who reached out to her first, before anyone else could. Silently, the man moved his uninjured hand across the table to touched hers. He didn’t say anything at first. He just rested his hand there, squeezing lightly before changing the subject. “I think we’ve gotten a bit off track here. You were saying that the Eternal Eye tribe, the one Hisao’s part of, were the only ones who actually stood up for you. Why would they do that? I mean, why would they be the ones who did it and not your own tribe?”

Shaking her head, Avalon replied flatly, “I don’t know. I know why my own tribe went against me, because they’re pissed that I killed my own teammate and they don’t believe me. I know why Lost Scar went against me, because Trice is Torv’s brother and he’s their golden boy. I know why the rest of the tribes sat everything out, because it’s an internal tribe thing and they don’t want to be involved. But I don’t know why the Eternal Eyes actively involved themselves on my side. I wasn’t close to any of them, I didn’t ask for their help, I didn’t… ask for any of it. All I know is that Seller said a couple months ago, they started speaking up for me at the meetings whenever someone from Lost Scar or Vigilant Sons brought me up.”

“Oh,” I realized aloud. “Ohhh. Wait, a couple months ago? Wouldn’t that be around the time that I started talking to Miranda? And she probably talked about you to Hisao, because he’s her Obi-Wan.”

“Her what?” Sands’ expression was completely blank as she stared at me. “What does OB-1 stand for?”

Making an exaggerated noise of exasperation at the other girl, I blurted, “You know all about baseball and all that stuff, but not—you don’t even know wh—pffft.” Shaking my head, I muttered, “Philistine.”

Huffing a bit while looking away from my utterly uncultured teammate, I focused on Avalon again. “The point is, Miranda probably talked to Hisao, and he has some big pull with his tribe. So they started speaking up for you. The timing works out. I’m just not sure why she didn’t mention that she was gonna talk to him, or that he was actually listening to her.”

“Hey,” Sean cut in then, head shaking. “Let’s just be glad we don’t have to throw the Mystery Of Why The Eternal Eye Tribe Likes Avalon on top of the pile. Because the pile is about to collapse on itself.”

Columbus gave a rapid nod. “Yeah, our Encyclopedia Brown book already looks like War and Peace.

“Encyclopedia Br–” Leaning closer to her sister, Sands stage-whispered, “They’re making this stuff up to mess with us.”

“A: no we’re not,” I retorted. “And B: now you know how we feel half the time when you’re talking about stuff.”

Turning back to Avalon then, I added, “The boys are right though. It’s probably a good thing if that explains why Hisao’s tribe was speaking up for you. I bet there’s others that believe you, but it’s just not politically viable or… worthwhile for them to speak up. They don’t get anything out of it.”

Snorting, the other girl nodded. “That’s why Gaia took me with her to talk to Hisao and his tribe, to ask for his help. I…. I don’t think she has very many people left that she trusts around here. She doesn’t know who Ruthers has gotten to, or who might be… compromised in other ways. They might’ve anticipated anyone she picked to take over for Katarin. So she went outside of Crossroads entirely and picked someone that they couldn’t possibly have predicted.”

“Yeah,” Sean put in. “And from the look on Neal’s face, Ruthers probably wasn’t exactly happy about it.”

Straightening up then, I took a bite of my food. “Speaking of things Ruthers would be pissed about and things on our ever-expanding to-do list, have you heard anything from Mateo?”

His head shook. “Just something about some pixie that’s the best mechanic in the world. They’re still looking for the other wolves.”

“Other wolves?” Sands echoed. “Pixies? Mateo? What the hell are you guys talking about? What did we miss this time?”

Before I could answer, one of the students from the next table over passed us the clipboard for people who were signing up for different tracks. You were supposed to sign your name to it and then write what you wanted your new track to be. Columbus was the first one to take it, giving the sheet a look before shaking his head. “I like Development. Anyone else?”

Sands looked to her sister before both shook their heads.

Sean accepted it, scribbling his name onto the sheet before explaining, “Security’s interesting and all, but I wanna see what the Explorers are like. Had enough of barricading and protecting a place. Vulcan and I need to get out there and see new things. Plus,” he added with a wink, “I look good in red.”

“Not as good as I look in green,” I pointed out before focusing. My hair lengthened out a little bit and turned a dark forest color. “See?”

Sean blinked at me, then blinked again before coughing. “Crap. I forgot you had that power. That’s… cheating.”

Avalon was the next to reach out to take the offered clipboard. “I’m taking Kohaku’s offer to learn security things from her. It might help.”

Exhaling at that, I took my turn with the clipboard. “Oh good. I don’t have to feel guilty about not taking her offer myself.”

Deveron raised an eyebrow at me. “You’re not changing to Security?”

Shaking my head, I wrote on the sheet. “Nope. I was going back and forth on it, but with Hisao here, I think the Hunters are a better fit.”

“Hunters?” Sands cut in, sounding skeptical. “You mean the ones that go out and actively hunt down Strangers? You don’t see that conflicting with any of your… beliefs?”

Wincing, I met her gaze. “I have to believe that Hisao is gonna be careful about the kind of hunts he sets up. I just—I can learn security spells from Wyatt. I can learn other magic from Gaia. I can learn fighting from lots of people, like Deveron and Avalon. The one thing that’s harder to do is put Strangers in front of me so I can…” I paused, feeling a bit sick about putting it the way I was about to.

Deveron did it for me. “So you can kill them and take their power. Don’t feel bad about it. You need the power they can give you, if you’re gonna… if you’re gonna stand up against Fossor.”

“She won’t do it by herself,” Avalon snapped immediately. “She won’t be alone.”

Before they could argue, I cut in while scribbling my chosen track onto the sheet. “Of course you guys won’t abandon me. And I won’t abandon you. Believe me, I’m not stupid or suicidal. But I’d also rather have every advantage I can get. I don’t want to let everyone else fight my battles for me, but I also don’t want to run off by myself out of some stupid ‘oh I need to protect you’ bullshit. If any of you guys want out, you can leave. Believe me, I won’t blame you. Ask for a new team. I promise, I get it. But I’m not gonna walk away from you just because I think I have to do it all by myself.”

Since we were done by that point, I held the clipboard out to the next table. It was Vanessa and Tristan’s team, and the blonde girl was the one who stepped over to take the sheet. Before leaving, however, she dropped a paper in my lap. Then she moved back to her own table.

Blinking, I unfolded the paper and read it aloud. “If you guys are going to use privacy spells to hide what you’re saying, try not to use them when you’re talking about normal things. Because waving the track sheet around and signing it while you sound like you’re talking about your favorite kind of soda makes you all look like crazy people.”

I’m pretty sure even Vulcan managed to blush at that. Deveron straightened up a little. “Yeah, we should probably go back to normal discussion.”

“Wait, not yet.” Holding up a hand, I shook my head. “You guys are probably gonna want the privacy spell up when I tell you what happened while we were gone.”

“Oh yeah,” Columbus agreed. “Especially these ones.” He used both thumbs to gesture toward Sands and Avalon. “Total fangirls.”

“I’m a what?” Sands demanded, while Avalon just gave him the dirtiest of looks.

“Hey, hey,” I cut in. “Before you kill him, maybe you should listen. He’s got a point. Cuz… a lot of stuff happened. But the biggest part is probably… the fact that I met Gabriel Prosser. I guess he’s sort of like… a surrogate god-father or something?”

Sands’ eyes widened, and the girl looked completely surprised by that. But it was Avalon who made a sound like a tea kettle that had been left on the stove to boil. Her hands went up, then down, then up again. She shifted in her seat, leaning back and forward almost like she was on a rocking chair. Finally, one of her hands settled over her own mouth to stop the whistle while the other clutched the table before sliding up and through her own hair.

“What happened?” she demanded, trying and failing in every conceivable way to sound only vaguely interested. Squirming in her seat, she ran her hand through her hair, then down again. “What did he say? How did you meet him? Where was he? What did he sound like? Did he talk to you? Why was he there? What did–”

Snickering despite myself, I leaned closer to Deveron. “See what I mean? It’s probably a good thing you left that privacy spell up, since anyone hearing this would think we were screwing with them anyway.

“Because nobody would ever believe that Avalon could actually sound like that.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-01

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Please note that there was a donation-fueled bonus chapter (the interlude for the previous arc, focusing on Nevada) posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I’m sorry, Professor Katarin is what?!”

It was January third. The winter break was over, and tomorrow the new set of classes would start for the second semester. Tonight was the welcome back dinner where we’d get our new schedules and those of us who were going to change what track we were in would be able to sign up for it.

Avalon had been nowhere to be found when I took my stuff to our room. Plus, Sands and Scout wouldn’t be back from their trip until later that night, and Sean was still with his uncle. Which meant that my entire team aside from Columbus was MIA at least for the rest of the day. So, I had decided to visit Wyatt at his apartment. Call me crazy, but I missed the guy over vacation. As an added bonus, Koren had already been there when I arrived (and believe me, the fact that I considered her presence a bonus would have flabbergasted the me from several months earlier). Unfortunately, they weren’t talking about fun things.

“Missing,” Koren repeated while sitting on Wyatt’s couch with her legs up under herself. She had Wyatt’s new pet cat, Corporal Kickwhiskers, perched on her lap as she scratched behind her ears. “Apparently he didn’t check in three days ago when he was supposed to, and they still can’t find him.”

Wyatt was pacing back and forth, obsessively muttering out loud to himself about all the bad things that could’ve happened to Katarin. The list was, unsurprisingly, exceedingly long and disturbingly detailed.

“But—but I don’t understand,” I stammered in spite of myself. “How could Professor Katarin go missing? He’s—I mean he’s a huge guy and he’s this awesome combat teacher. What could’ve happened to him that he couldn’t even get a message off about it? Where– where was he when he went missing?”

Koren looked toward Wyatt for help with that, and he shook his head while stopping in mid-pace to reply. “It wasn’t here, wasn’t on school grounds. Definitely not on the island. Other than that, they haven’t told us, won’t tell us. It’s all secretive, hush-hush. So we’re not supposed to know. But…”

“But?” I echoed curiously, my mind still racing. Could this have to do with the murder of Professor Pericles? Did they think that Katarin had had something to do with the protection on Avalon? It wasn’t necessarily that. There were, after all, plenty of other threats that the teachers had to deal with. And there was more going on than just the stuff happening to my team. Still, I didn’t like the timing at all.

“We bugged that Peterson Neal schmuck awhile back,” Koren put in before Wyatt could explain. There was undeniable pride in her voice as she explained, “Put listening spells on him so Wyatt can hear any time your name, my name, Deveron’s name, or uh, your mom’s name is said anywhere around him.”

My mouth opened and then shut before I coughed. “Oh. Uh, right then. I take it you heard something?”

Wyatt nodded, fidgeting back and forth. He produced some kind of pocket watch and looked at it before walking quickly to the door to peer out the peephole. Then he crossed back to where we were and checked something in what looked like a dictionary that had been sitting on the end table there.

Finally satisfied with whatever he had been checking through that, Wyatt answered. “Peterson was talking to his boss. Ruthers, not Gaia. He was talking to Ruthers and they mentioned your name.”

“They probably talk about me a fair bit,” I admitted. “But what does that have to do with Katarin?”

Wyatt fidgeted, his overly-pronounced Adams apple bobbing up and down a little as he swallowed hard. “Ruthers asked Peterson if he thought it had anything to do with you or your—I mean our mom. Anything to do with her. But Peterson said that Katarin ‘wasn’t on Chambers duty, he took a personal day.’ When Ruthers asked what that meant, Peterson told him that all he knew was that Katarin said he was going to be in Chicago for the week up until three days ago, when he was supposed to check in.”

“Chicago?” I frowned to myself. “I know that place. Why do I know that place?” Holding up my hand to stop Koren, I added, “Yes, I know it’s a big city. I mean I’ve heard of it recently. But when was it?”

“Deveron,” the other girl replied before I could think of it. “His fake family was from near there. Remember, he mentioned that he had a house all set up there for it and everything. But–” She frowned uncertainly. “You don’t think it’s connected, do you? I mean, Chicago’s a big place. There’s millions of people there for him to be visiting or checking on. And why would Professor Katarin be going to check out Deveron’s fake family’s house? He already knows the truth because he’s part of Gaia’s inner circle.”

I shrugged. “You’re probably right. Chicago is a huge place. He could’ve been going for anything. And if he was going to check on Deveron’s house, Gaia would know about it and probably would’ve said something to one of us. At least to you,” I added with a nod to Wyatt before frowning. “She didn’t?”

His head shook. “Gaia hasn’t been here very much since Ulysses was reported missing. She’s been gone most of the time. I saw her in the hall with Virginia and Risa, but they said there wasn’t anything new.” Pausing, he added, “Oh, and she was arguing with Ruthers on the lawn by the Pathmaker yesterday.”

That made me blink. “She was arguing with Ruthers? I don’t suppose you heard what it was about?”

“No,” Wyatt replied with a shamed sigh. “I couldn’t get close enough. They were using a privacy bubble. But they were definitely arguing. Ruthers looked really angry when they went into the building. And I don’t think they went anywhere together, because he came back out and went to talk to Peterson a minute later. But Gaia didn’t come back until really late. And she left early in the morning.”

“So what has she been doing?” I murmured. “Where’s she been? And what does it have to do with Professor Katarin? Maybe she’s looking for him and Ruthers thinks she’s wasting time or something?”

That didn’t sound right even as I said it, but I had no idea what else it could be. We needed to know more. Katarin was missing? For days, by this point. Was he… was he hurt or… or worse? Please, no. We couldn’t lose a second teacher in the same year. Losing Pericles had been bad enough, and I barely knew the man. If we lost Katarin too, after he helped train us for the past few months, it’d be… bad.

Koren was already shaking her head. “Who knows? I tried to ask your lovely roommate about it, but she’s been gone almost as much as Gaia has. And when she is here, she’s not exactly in a chatty mood.”

“Yeah, I haven’t seen her since I got back either,” I murmured under my breath, trying to focus on what was important without getting caught up with remembering what happened between the two of us back before I left for the holidays. Our first kiss. The very thought of it made me blush a little before I cleared my throat and looked back up. “But they both have to be here for the dinner tonight, right?”

Wyatt nodded. “The headmistress wouldn’t miss it, and I don’t think Avalon would either. They’ll be there.” He paused before reaching out to pick up the cat, which had been stretching up toward him. Tucking the fluffy gray animal under one arm, he began to pace again while absently petting it. “Maybe Gaia’s been looking for someone to take over for Katarin while he’s missing, and the argument she had with Ruthers was him trying to pass one of his handpicked choices onto her. He’s done that before.”

“I still can’t believe Professor Katarin’s really in trouble,” I murmured, slumping back against the chair as I stared at the floor. “He’s a big guy and—I mean, he’s a badass. What could’ve happened to him?”

There was silence for a minute as the three of us thought about all the many possibilities. Finally, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything else until Gaia got back. So I broke the quiet by trying to switch to a better subject. “Um, you guys went over to Garden for awhile to spend time with Abigail?”

Wyatt gave a quick nod. “Yes, Risa approved my time off. I tried to suggest that I could work extra hours all this month to make up for it, but she wouldn’t hear of it. We went there for an entire week.”

Koren smiled just a little bit then, nudging the man with her foot. “It was almost longer than a week.”

“I have far more loyalty to Gaia than that!” Wyatt insisted, face as red as an apple. He made another huffing noise of disbelief before noticing my look of confusion. With a sigh, he explained, “That Unset man, Croc. He’s been trying to recruit me ever since we met at Thanksgiving. Especially last week.”

“He obviously recognizes talent when he sees it,” I murmured with a smile in spite of myself before teasing, “Maybe you should let Professor Kohaku know about his interest. Leverage it into a raise.”

Snickering at the look on Wyatt’s face, Koren stood up. “Hey, it’d give you a chance to spend more time with my mom—your sister, Uncle Wyatt. You had fun spending time together last week, didn’t you?”

Nodding, Wyatt gave the cat a few extra scratches. “It was nice to spend time with her. I…” He paused before giving a pained sigh. “I wish we could’ve grown up together. I wish I knew both of you a long time ago.” Looking away from us, he added in a quieter voice. “I wish a lot of things were different.”

Stepping over that way, I took his hand. “We’ll make them different, Wyatt. We can’t change the past, but we can save Mom. We can get her away from that piece of shit and… and fix things. Yeah, it’s not gonna be easy. Actually, even when we get her away from Fossor, there’s still Ruthers and all the crap that goes along with him. So yeah, it’s definitely gonna be hard. But we’ll figure it all out. Somehow.”

“Speaking of figuring stuff out,” Koren put in then, “can you please explain what happened back at your house? First there’s some kind of problem with your emergency beacon and we find out you’re in some kind of great big fight with a bunch of werewolves. Then everything’s fine. But then—then we get word on Christmas Eve that something horrible happened and one of your friends was—was dead and you might need some help, but then Professor Dare said that it was gonna be okay. She didn’t say much else, just that you’d explain when you were ready to and that we had to keep it secret. So?”

“Right… right…” Nodding along with that slowly, I looked at Wyatt. “I assume you told her some of the stuff about Wonderland?”

He shrugged. “I told her what I could see. Mostly that you were incredibly brave. I wanted to take the footage for her to see, but Gaia thought it would be better if it stayed with her and didn’t get out.”

“Yeah,” I agreed with a wince. “I’m pretty sure we don’t want Ruthers or his fanclub seeing exactly what happened back there. Something tells me they’d ask questions I really don’t want to answer.”

“But what’s a Wonderland?” Koren pressed. “And what—what about the rest of that stuff?”

“You’re right, I need to tell you all of it.” Sighing, I folded my arms. “I’ll tell you about the troll and the faeries and all that. First, I should probably start with the fact that Fossor and Ammon tried to get my old babysitter to kill himself to prove they can still hurt me. But it turns out, he’s a pooka.”

“A pooka?” Koren echoed, frowning. “Like the one that’s watching over your dad with the vampire?”

“Yup,” I confirmed, peeking at Wyatt while nonchalantly adding, “Oh, and I also met Gabriel Prosser.”

Honestly, the noise that came out of my poor brother at that point would have sounded more at home coming from a preteen girl who had just been informed that Justin Bieber was coming over for dinner. And the utterly bewildered look that Corporal Kickwhiskers gave him afterward was just icing.

Laughing in spite of myself, and using that to try to push away the confusion about what could have happened to Professor Katarin (praying to any power out there that would listen that he was okay), I waved a hand. “Okay, okay, settle down. I’ll tell you what happened. I’ll tell you all of it. But when I’m done, you guys have to tell me everything you did over at Garden, and all about how Abigail’s doing.

“Because to tell you guys the truth, I could really use some good news right about now.”

******

“Valley, Valley, wait.”

It was time for the welcome back dinner, and I had been on my way when I spotted my roommate right outside the doors to the building that the dining hall was in. So I took a few quick steps that way, calling her name before stepping into her path. I got as far as putting myself in front of her before stopping short. The words had been on the tip of my tongue all day, but actually being there, seeing her in person again after what happened, it made every thought drain right out of me, until all I could do was stand there open-mouthed, realizing vaguely that I should probably actually be saying something.

To her credit, there was a slight sign of amusement on Avalon’s face as she watched me silently for a few seconds before clearing her throat pointedly. “Were you going to say something, Chambers?” Her voice was dry. “Not that I’m not accustomed to being stared at, but you usually stand out more than that.”

“Was that–” I stopped, cocking my head a bit. “Was that a compliment?” From my pocket, I produced my special little rock buddy. “Herbie, mark the date and time. Avalon said I stand out more than most of the people who stare at her all day long. Which, between you and me, is a lot of freaking people.

“Did you–” Avalon started, squinting at the rock in my hand for a moment. “You gave him a hat.”

I straightened proudly while nodding. “It was Christmas, I had to get him something. It’s a newsboy cap. You know, for when he’s writing. After all, even the bravest monster slayer can have a poetic side.”

That was Herbie right now. A very handsome rock with googly eyes, a nice sword courtesy of Columbus, and a tiny newsboy cap that had belonged to a doll before I appropriated it for better use.

Shaking her head while clearly hiding her smile, Avalon looked up to me. “Did you need something?”

“I–” Suddenly I felt awkward again, shifting from foot to foot. Everything had felt so clear earlier. I wanted to see Valley. It had been a few weeks since we… since we had… My face heated up at the thought, and my tongue somehow managed to tie itself in even more knots. “I just—you were gone when I got back and so I thought you were—that after what—that we sort of—I thought you were–”

“I wasn’t avoiding you, Chambers,” Avalon replied, her voice softening. “I was with Gaia, at Garden.”

Well, that threw me. My mouth opened and shut. “With Gaia at Garden? What the hell were you doing with Gaia at Garden? Did something happen? Are they trying to–”

Before she could respond, one of the third year teachers approached and nodded toward the doors. “Inside, girls.” His face was suspicious, and his eyes didn’t leave Avalon until we walked all the way inside. Unlike other people who stared at her, however, I had the feeling this guy wasn’t doing so for his own entertainment. His eyes were riveted to her arm, where the Garden tattoo was.

Silently, Valley and I walked into the cafeteria together. Immediately, I spotted the rest of our team sitting at a table together. When they saw us, Sands and Sean both waved to get our attention, so we crossed the room to join them.

Exchanging a quick hug of greeting with the twins and Sean, I nodded to Columbus before taking a seat. Immediately, Vulcan pushed his way up by my leg and I reached down to give him all the scratches and nuzzles the silly metal dog wanted. “Hey guys, how were your trips?”

Sands was beaming. “Oh god, you guys. We saw so much. Heretics in Europe are insane. Seriously, there was this clocktower, and–”

“Hey, look.” Sean interrupted, nodding past us toward the door. “The headmistress is here.” Glancing to me, he added, “You heard about that?”

“That she’s been gone a lot, yeah.” I confirmed before frowning as I looked that way. “And that Professor Katarin’s missing. Did… did you guys know anything about that?”

Gaia, meanwhile, had entered the room and stopped to say something quietly to one of the other teachers. Peterson Neal approached, but she waved him off with a stern look before heading for the front.

“Dad mentioned it,” Sands confirmed quietly. “He said Katarin missed his check-in. They sent someone out to find him, but there was just… nothing. It’s like he dropped off the face of the known worlds.”

“Speaking as someone who actually did that a couple months ago,” I put in, “I hope he’s okay.”

Gaia, by that point, had reached the front of the room. She waited a moment before starting to speak. Her words, as usual, somehow reached every corner without her seeming to actually raise her voice at all. And she’d barely started before all other conversation stopped.

“First, I’d like to extend my hope that all of you had a fine vacation and that those of you who celebrate them had some wonderful holidays.” She paused then, looking down for a moment before raising her gaze to look over the room. “And I promise, I won’t speak for very long. I’m sure you’re all very hungry and you’d like to get through the important parts of the evening. But… there is something important that I need to say.

“As most of you have probably already heard, one of our very dear and esteemed teachers, Professor Katarin, is… missing. I assure you all, there are many extremely qualified investigators searching for him as we speak. Believe me when I say, whatever happened to Professor Katarin, he will be found. And if anything bad has happened, the perpetrator… well, they will be found as well.”

Straightening then, the woman focused on me briefly before her gaze moved on. “However, until that happens, we cannot simply leave his place empty. There must be a combat teacher, and someone to act as track adviser for the first year Hunter students. Thankfully, a very special man has volunteered to fill that position for the time being. A man whose… unique perspective on many things will be a boon to all of you, if you choose to embrace the opportunity.”

Back where the rest of the teachers and staff were, I could see Peterson Neal shaking his head with a barely disguised expression of disgust and annoyance. That confused me. Who could Gaia be bringing in to substitute for Katarin that pissed Ruthers’ stooge off that much?

“I’m sure you’ll all have a lot of questions,” Gaia continued while lifting a hand to the door. “But for now, please join me in welcoming our temporary Hunter Track Advisor and Combat Instructor–”

She said the name, but she didn’t need to. Not for me. Because I knew the man that stepped through the door and into the cafeteria then. I’d met him before. I also knew why Gaia had been at Garden with Avalon, and why Peterson was so openly annoyed.

It was the guy from Eden’s Garden, Miranda’s teacher. Hisao. Our substitute teacher… was Hisao.

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Interlude 19 – Nevada

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August 20th, 1615

The blonde girl’s lifeless body lay naked upon the rough stone table which sat in the middle of the forest clearing. While she had obviously been beautiful and vivacious in life, her skin was now pallid and cold. Her arms were spread to both sides, the table itself large enough that her fingers barely reached the edges despite the fact that the girl had been in her late teens before her untimely death.

A half-melted candle sat in both of her open hands, their wax pooling in her half-cupped palms. Bits of that melted wax had been drawn up carefully over her wrists before giving way to flower petals, which decorated both arms up to her shoulders. Those, in turn, were replaced with sticky lines of blood which formed intricate designs running over each breast, down over her stomach, and lower. Both of her legs were marked with the pelts of various animals that had been sacrificed specifically for this endeavor.

The dead girl’s body was positioned by the compass, her head facing east for the rising sun. On the edge of the small forest clearing, at each of the other three compass points, a crucified body could be seen, limbs nailed to the carefully constructed wooden crosses. Blood had dripped from multiple wounds, falling into a pool at their feet before being carefully drawn along the ground to meet in a central location. The blood from the three crucified victims had then been combined into a single line that ran up to the end of the table to become the blood that now decorated the dead girl’s upper body.

For miles throughout the forest, rain fell in torrents while thunder provided its own roaring displeasure. However, no drops penetrated the clearing despite its open connection to the sky. Lightning flashed so close that the explosion of sound it created was deafening. Yet, it too never touched the clearing itself.

A woman, identical in appearance to the one on the table (save for being alive), walked along the trail of blood that led from the crucified victims to the deceased figure who so resembled her. As naked as all of the dead figures, she stopped by the side of the stone table. Her hand slowly ran up the torso of the decorated corpse, carefully avoiding smudging any of the blood designs. There was a fondness in her eyes, yet a madness as well. As her hand found the other girl’s mouth, she carefully pulled it open.

“They’re almost done,” she murmured softly, voice almost drowned out by the crack of thunder that came immediately on their heels. “Do you feel it? Do you feel the power they’re using to banish him?”

There was no answer, of course. The living girl reached to the side to pick up a wooden cup that had been filled with the blood of every creature, human and otherwise who had been sacrificed for this endeavor. Carefully, she placed the cup at the lips of her dead doppelganger before beginning to pour the blood into her mouth and down her throat. Steadily, she drained the cup until nothing was left.

“Just a little more time,” the girl murmured with a soft smile which still somehow managed to betray her damaged psyche even more than the ritualistic surroundings did. “They’re nearly finished with it.”

Turning her gaze to the sky, the girl watched in silence for another minute. She made no other motion, her form completely still. As she had promised, it wasn’t long before the dark evening sky turned a dull red color. It lasted only for a few seconds, but it was enough for the girl to know that the time had come. Before the brief glow in the sky had faded, she began to chant. The words were an ancient, dead language from a world that had been dead and gone since before sapient creatures existed on Earth.

The chant filled the air, almost soothing if the current of power they carried hadn’t been so ominous. With each word, that power grew more apparent, sizzling audibly throughout the air of the clearing.

Four words left of the chant. With the first, a bolt of red lightning shot from the sky to strike the first of the crucified corpses at the edge of the clearing. That lightning, however, failed to fade away as normal bolts did. It remained exactly where it was, crackling with power in a display that would remain unheard of by mundane humans for several more centuries. Two more words each attracted identical bolts of crimson lightning to the remaining pair of crucified victims, the same as the first. Each of the three jagged crimson lines of power connected the sky to the crosses and the bodies nailed upon them.

One final word. As it left the girl’s lips, a final bolt of lightning tore its way out of the sky and entered the clearing. This one was a pale, almost white blue, like the smallest inner flames of a fire. And it burned as bright and with as much power as the other three bolts combined. Its target was the stone table, striking the blonde corpse that lay upon it directly where her heart was. And as the living figure stepped quickly out of the way with a look of indescribable glee upon her face, those other three bolts connected themselves to the fourth through several tendrils of electricity that forked out to join it.

The central, azure bolt grew brighter, while the connected crimson bolts began to steadily fade as they fed their energy to it. Meanwhile, the body on the table shook violently. The stench of burning flesh filled the air. Not from the target of the central bolt, but from the crucified bodies attached to the remaining three. Their forms were burnt beyond recognition throughout those few seconds, until nothing remained but the blackened ashes, which drifted away from the crosses they had been nailed to.

Finally, the blue lightning faded out of the sky until only a small portion remained. That portion seemed to pour itself over the body of the girl on the table. The sharp, powerful electricity crackled and sizzled up and down her figure, down to her toes and then back up once more. Gathering near her open mouth, it fed itself through the opening. More and more of the blue current filled her up that way as the corpse inadvertently swallowed the power that had been called down from the sky and channeled through the arranged crucifixion victims, until no sign of that sky-fire remained, leaving the clearing eerily silent.

Three seconds later, the corpse’s eyelids rose to reveal eyes that seemed to be made entirely of that azure lightning. It crackled audibly throughout the small orbs, leaving no trace of white for a moment until gradually fading into slightly more normal blue eyes. They blinked once, then again before sight seemed to return to the figure. Her skin turned a healthy pink rather than its previous deathly pale, and she jerked upward before half-falling off the table. The previous silence was broken by harsh coughing.

The already standing figure, identical to the one who lay over the edge of the table, watched in silent awe for a brief moment before stepping closer. “It worked,” she murmured. “It really… really worked.”

As her coughing gradually faded, the newly risen former corpse blinked upward in confusion. Seeing the figure standing there, she made a soft gasping sound before speaking in a voice that was cracked from a combination of long disuse and her own uncertainty at making the words. “I… I know you.”

“No.” The standing girl shook her head at that. “You’re wrong. You don’t know me. She knew me.”

Moving to a sitting position, the formerly dead girl looked down at herself and the runes that had been drawn in blood, then to the animal skins that had fallen from her legs as she moved. Frowning, her gaze rose again to the standing figure. She stared for a moment before raising her hands to touch her own face, her own hair. “We are the same,” the girl started uncertainly. “Identical.” She paused. “Sister.”

Crack, the standing girl slapped her, hard. “No,” she snapped with obvious impatience. “Never say that again. We are not sisters. Theda was my sister, my twin sister. You are not Theda, and never will be.”

“Who am I?” The girl paused, looking at her own hands briefly before looking up again. “What am I?”

Smiling faintly, the standing figure answered with obvious pride. “A djinn. That’s what you are. You’re a being of pure magical power.” Met by a blank stare, she sighed. “When a spell is cast, there is residual power. Most of the time that power fades away without impact. But when the spell is powerful enough, it affects the physical world. Usually it just creates terrible storms or other events. When the mountains spew fire and smoke, those sometimes come from the residual effects of powerful spells.”

Not-Theda tilted her head curiously at that. Her tone was innocent. “I am not a fire-mountain.”

“No,” the other girl agreed flatly. “You’re not. You see, sometimes, if you know just when a suitably powerful spell is about to be cast and you… prepare properly,” she indicated the clearing around them including the crosses where the crucified bodies had been, “you can harness the residual magic and channel it into the creation of… you. A djinn. That’s where all your kind come from. You’re not real, you’re not human beings. You’re creatures formed entirely from magic. Extraordinary, but not human.”

“Not human,” the newly risen figure echoed, her voice thoughtful and quiet. “But Theda was human.”

Nodding, the standing girl spoke softly. “Yes. Theda was human. But a djinn requires a body to inhabit. And the greater the sacrifice of that body, the greater chance that the spell to create the djinn succeeds.” Her unhinged smile returned as she shrugged. “What greater sacrifice is there than one’s own twin?”

“You killed your twin sister,” Not-Theda realized, straightening once more while staring at the girl.

“As I said,” the standing figure replied, “a great sacrifice was needed. The Heretics cast their spell to banish the necromancer from this world. I just… latched onto the residual power from their magic to create you. Otherwise all that power would have just created another earthquake or fire-mountain. And what a waste would that have been?” She shook her head in disgust at the very thought of such a thing.

“Anyway,” she added while clapping her hands together. “Let’s get started. This,” she picked up the wooden cup that had held the blood, “is your vessel. Think of it as your anchor to this world. Usually they use oil lamps for this. It’s supposed to be easy to pour the blood out. But—well, I didn’t have one. And whoever holds your anchor controls you. They’re your master. So what does that make me?”

Not-Theda paused, eyes looking at the wooden cup briefly before she answered quietly. “My master.”

The standing girl smiled at that, clearly happy. “Yes,” she confirmed. “That’s exactly what I am. And you are a djinn, the living embodiment of magic. Which means you exist to grant wishes. My wishes.”

Glancing down at herself, she made a face. “To begin with, I need clothes. Not the same ones as before. I deserve better ones. Clothes befitting a lady of my stature. Or the stature I’ll soon have.” Snapping her fingers, she gestured to herself. “I wish for the clothes of a noblewoman, made of the finest materials.”

At those words, Not-Theda felt a tug at her core, an irresistible urge that was almost like a subconscious bodily function. Obey. Grant the wish. Use her magic. It all rose up in her until she focused on what what her master had requested. Clothes. Fine clothes. Her blue eyes glowed with power, and she lifted a hand into a gesture. That rising power flowed out of her, until her master was suitably attired in a dress that would have been perfectly at home on any woman of royal standing.

The newly-dressed woman giggled upon seeing what she had been draped in. Lifting her hands, she spun in a slow circle to make the dress rise briefly. “Good,” she announced with child-like delight. “Very good. Now dress yourself too. Not like this, but… servant clothes. Because that’s what you are.

“Because I have a lot of plans, and you… you’re going to help me get everything I could ever want.”

******

Wednesday, July 18th, 1984

“So this is the thing that makes new Heretics, huh?” The girl who had at one point simply referred to herself as ‘Not-Theda’ had a name now. A name drawn from the title on a movie poster starring Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields, Wanda Nevada. At some point, she should actually see the movie itself.

“Yes, Nevada,” the red-haired woman standing beside her in front of the Heretical Edge confirmed. “This is what allows us to create more Heretics so easily.” She glanced to her, “Are you going to change your appearance before you surrender your powers? It wouldn’t do for Jackson to notice you.”

Nevada gave a swift nod, face flushed at the terrifying memory of the relentless Heretic chasing her through the mall before Deveron had intervened. “Yes, I’ll change. But I still want to look like me. Close to me. Just different enough that he won’t recognize me. I… I don’t want to change that much.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s hand found her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to. I doubt he paid enough attention to recognize you at all. You were just another target for him to eliminate. But still, better safe than sorry.”

Nodding silently, Nevada took a step forward. Feeling the power coming off of the light, she put a hand on it. “Are you sure about this?” she asked the headmistress. “I’m pretty sure I can change it to accept hybrids, but if I make myself human after that, I won’t be able to change it back. And that’s a pretty big step. Half-human Heretics? What if your—uh, what do you call your leaders? What if they find out?”

“The Committee,” Gaia answered easily. “And things have to change. This is the most effective way to make that happen right now. After Joselyn’s rebellion and what happened with her, we can’t simply let it go on. We need to show that Alters and Heretics can live alongside each other, can work with one another. It’s going to be a long journey to get there, but this… this is an important step along the way.

“Besides,” she added a little more quietly, “It was her plan, and it should be put into play even if she can’t do it herself.”

Nevada was quiet for a moment then, looking at the lighthouse lamp. Her hand trailed along the side of it before she looked to the other woman. “You have to say the words. And it’ll probably help if you hold my anchor while you’re doing it.” She nodded to the wooden cup that sat nearby.

With a soft, knowing smile, Gaia picked up the cup and held it carefully. “I wish you would change the Heretical Edge so that it can turn half-human Alters into Heretics as well.”

Nevada felt the familiar tug at her power. Over the past several hundred years, she had felt it many times. This one was different somehow. It was a wish that she truly wanted to grant. Yet it would also be one of the most powerful wishes she had ever granted. Not simply in initial effect, but also along the line, throughout the future. Allowing non-pureblood humans to become Heretics? The very thought of the things that it could change, that it would change was staggering.

She gave another glance to her anchor, to the wooden cup that allowed whoever held it to command her. It had passed through several hands over the centuries, for one reason or another. Usually because after a powerful enough ‘wish’, the hold that her master at the time had over her was lessened. She herself became less powerful as she recharged, but she was also able to disobey and escape until her power inevitably returned and she became tied once more to whoever held her anchor.

Yet her creator, the twin sister of the girl who had been sacrificed to give her life, had always taken back possession eventually. She would pass into the hands of one man, then be sold to another, only to be lost in a brutal attack that left her master dead. Her anchor would change hands again and again. Sometimes she would be owned for only a few short hours, while other times, her current master would be smarter about keeping the anchor safe. But it never lasted forever. And eventually, her creator would show up to take the cup back. And with it, she would regain control of what she called her property. Despite all the magic she already had, despite all the power she had already taken for herself, she wouldn’t let her djinn creation go. Not for good. Nevada, or the girl who eventually became known as Nevada, was her trophy. She was her greatest symbol of power, a living djinn. And perhaps some small part of her felt connected to the body of the twin that she had sacrificed to gain all that power.

Either way, whatever the reasoning, she always found Nevada and always took control of her again.

Not this time, however. This time would be different. As she focused on fulfilling that one final wish, the last wish she would ever grant before she turned herself into a human, Nevada knew one thing for certain. Her creator would never take that freedom away from her again. She wouldn’t be a slave to her, or to anyone else. Never. She would live her own life, be her own person, make her own choices. Now and forever.

Theda’s sister, Denuvus, would never own Nevada again.

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Tis The Season 19-07

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Explaining to my dad why I’d run out like that had been easier than I’d thought. And, at the same time, harder. I was tired of lying to him, tired of… all that. So, when I got back to the house, I was as honest as I could possibly be. I told him that there was something bothering me, but that I had to work it out on my own. I promised that if there was anything he could do to help, I’d tell him. And that when I could tell him about it, I would. All of that was true. If there was the slightest chance of my father remembering the things that I told him, I’d bring him in on things in a heartbeat, without hesitation.

I could tell that Dad wanted to talk more about it, especially about why the whole Scott thing made me run out like that. But he let it go. At least, on the surface. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started looking into everyone named Scott who ever went to my old school, had any interaction with me, or even went to Crossroads. Gaia getting a call from him asking about any Scotts there wouldn’t surprise me at all.

So Shiori, Columbus, and I spent most of the day trying to relax while talking about serious subjects whenever my father was out of the room. We tried to play some board games, and actually managed to get through a little bit here and there. I couldn’t ever quite forget about what Fossor and Ammon had done (or tried to do), but the other two gave it their best shot. And they even made me smile a little bit.

Eventually, it got late enough for Asenath to join us. Which meant it was time to exchange gifts. Dad and I had done ours, of course. But the three of us had been waiting for Senny to get up (apparently she and Dare had spent the rest of the previous night at a bar drinking the locals under the table while hustling them at pool so bad there might not have been an actual table left for them to be drunk under).

“Great,” I announced as Shiori and Columbus exchanged hugs with her. “You’re up. We thought we’d go for a walk and, you know… talk while we deal with the presents thing. Just missing one more.”

“Need one more?” Senny echoed while raising an eyebrow at me curiously. “One more person?”

Winking, I nodded upstairs while heading out of the room. “Don’t worry, they’ll fill you in.”

Columbus and Shiori told her what was going on while I poked my head in the kitchen to let Dad know that we were going out for a few minutes. Then I jogged upstairs, ostensibly to grab my coat. On the way, I poked my head in my room. “Twist,” I whispered in the direction of my bed, “You still awake?”

There was a brief pause before a dark-furred fox emerged from beneath the bed. She yawned before hopping up onto the mattress, transforming into the girl once more. “Whatsamatter?” she drawled lazily. “Your pops going out again? Need someone to tail him that isn’t spending quality sister time?”

My head shook at that. “Nope. Dad’s fine. I don’t think he’s going anywhere tonight. But you are.”

Her eyebrows raised, even as those cute fuzzy ears pricked with curiosity. “I am? And where’s that?”

“Out with us,” I informed her easily, gesturing. “It’s still Christmas, after all. And Christmas means presents. So c’mon, let’s go. I’ve never kept a vampire waiting for presents before, but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea. Do you wanna deal with a cranky, present-less vampire princess? Because I sure don’t.”

For a moment, the Pooka just sat there and looked at me. “You just want me to… exchange presents?”

Breathing out, I met her gaze. “I was thinking about what you said earlier, about Scott. I spent all day thinking about how unfair it was that all of Scott’s family and friends forget him, about how… about how much it must hurt him. But you’re a Pooka too. You’ve been through it. You even said that’s why you don’t interact with humans very much anymore, because they always forget you when you die.”

When Twister nodded silently, I coughed. “So, I mean… I know it’s not much. And maybe you think it’s dumb. But Asenath’s a vampire, and the rest of us are Heretics. The Bystander Effect doesn’t work on us. Which means we’re not gonna forget you. So come on.” I nodded over my shoulder. “Presents.”

Holding my hand out to make it clear that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, I waited until Twister transformed into a mouse and scurried up my leg to hide in my pocket for the trip back downstairs.

So we joined the others. Twister went back into her human form and pretty much immediately latched onto poor Columbus. “Why in the dozen hells did you bother wasting so much breath talking me into coming along with this when you could’ve just told me this tall slice of chocolate cake was going?”

“Uhhh…” The boy himself coughed, squirming a little with an obviously flushed face. “Hey, Twister.”

“Hey yourself, big guy,” Twister all but purred at him. I was half-afraid she actually would turn into a cat in order to do just that. And between her and Shiori, the puns if she did might have just killed me.

Eventually, my poor teammate managed to extricate himself and we all walked down the street together. Columbus and Shiori had already grabbed the bag they’d brought with them, and I stopped long enough to get the one that I had set up earlier while we were waiting for night to fall. It was dark and cold by that point (beyond cold, considering what I was used to), but I didn’t really care. I was with my friends. The only thing that could have made it better was if Avalon was there. And that was a thought that made me glance sidelong toward Shiori as a somewhat guilty feeling bubbled up in me.

Yeah, we definitely needed to talk about that. Among every other situation that needed to be dealt with, at least that one I could actually affect. Coming clean with both of them about… about my feelings, it needed to happen before someone ended up getting their feelings hurt or there was a misunderstanding.

It didn’t take long to reach the nearest park. We went up to the pavilion and exchanged gifts there.

I gave Columbus a graphic novel collection and Senny a tan trenchcoat and deerstalker cap (so she could be a real detective). For Shiori, I had several Terry Pratchett books. They seemed right up her alley with her goofy sense of humor, and I’d made sure with Columbus that she didn’t have them.

Finally, it came time for Twister. Taking a breath, I focused on her. “I um, I called Professor Dare and asked for her help with this one, because I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be anywhere near here. At least, nowhere close enough for me to get to and back without access to teleportation. Or, y’know, a car.”

With that said, I reached into my pocket and produced a necklace (well, mostly it was a leather cord with a pendant attached to it), holding it out for the other girl to take. The pendant itself was green, and looked a bit like an infinity symbol with a third loop above the second one, or like a rope that had been twisted a couple times. It was bigger on the bottom and smaller as it went up, twisting around itself.

“Lemme guess,” Twister remarked dryly while taking it. “You saw the Twists and just thought of me.”

“It’s called a Pikorua,” I replied. “Apparently it’s a Maori thing, from New Zealand. It’s um, supposed to represent the strength and… you know, endurance of good friendship. The twisting thing is the whole… winding paths of two friends who keep crossing paths and how they’ll always be connected.”

For a few seconds, the Pooka didn’t say anything. She closed her hand around the pendant before clearing her throat as she put it on. There was a slight strain in her voice as she tried to play it off. “Gods damn it, you are bound and determined to make me feel bad about not getting you anything.”

“Are you kidding?” I retorted while giving the smaller figure a little push. “You watch my dad every single day. You keep him safe. You’ve gotten me… pretty much everything. I’m just sorry I don’t have anything better for you. It was just—kind of a rush and… and it felt like something you should have.”

There was more that I wanted to say. But before I could, Senny abruptly turned. She was sniffing, and my hackles immediately went up. As my hand wandered reflexively toward my belt, however, she touched my arm while shaking her head. “It’s not a problem,” she announced quietly. “It’s our–”

A woman stepped into the light of the pavilion. I swore she hadn’t been anywhere near there a second earlier when my searching gaze had passed over it. Yet she didn’t look like she had been running. She was just… there, stepping quietly and gracefully into view with both hands in the pockets of her coat.

She was Asian, her long hair tied into a braid. Besides the long coat, the woman also wore black slacks and a white shirt with an elegant flower design going up one side, culminating around the left breast. Over a shoulder, she carried a plain-looking leather satchel with a strange symbol that I couldn’t make out from where I was standing. But I did know that according to the power that let me know every item in my vicinity, there was nothing in it. Which meant the satchel was either actually empty, or it was magic like the storage devices that Heretics kept their weapons in. I knew which way I was guessing.

When I’d met Gabriel Prosser, his power and overall aura had filled the room completely despite the man doing nothing to play it up. Being in the same room with that man, watching as he did something as ordinary as filling up a glass of water at the sink, had still somehow been an amazing experience.

By contrast, the woman in front of us looked like she could disappear within a second and leave all of us completely unsure of whether she had ever actually been there at all. Her movement was silent, and the shadows themselves almost seemed eager to swallow her up again, clinging to her almost lovingly.

She looked older than Senny, but not by that much. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties rather than a woman who could have given birth to the eighteen-year-old that Senny looked like. There was a sort of fragile china-doll type appearance to the woman everywhere but her eyes, which were a golden amber color that looked both unnatural and beautiful.

Oh, and naturally, my Heretic-sense was kindly screaming in my ear about the woman being an Alter. Thanks, Heretic-sense. Where would I be without you?

“Mother.” The word itself might have sounded stiff and formal. But in that moment, coming from Asenath as she took a single step that way before stopping herself, there was nothing standoffish about it. Her voice portrayed the unbelievable affection and connection she obviously had with the woman, a connection that had obviously lasted for centuries by that point. Their daily lives may have drifted apart so that they spent months or even years without crossing paths. But Senny obviously loved her mother. And from the brief look that I saw flash across the woman’s eyes, the sentiment was definitely mutual.

“Hello, Sunny,” Jiao spoke in a quiet voice that, like the rest of her, seemed to fade away immediately.

“Sunny?” Columbus put in, somehow finding his voice before I did. “Isn’t it Senny? Like Asenath.”

The woman smiled a bit. “That is what others call her, Columbus. But she has always been my sun.”

“Oh, you–” he coughed a little awkwardly. “You know my name. Uh, of course you do.” Glancing sidelong toward his sister, he looked like he was going to say something, but stopped at her expression.

“I do,” Jiao confirmed, her soft smile returning. “Thank you for being such a good brother. I could not have asked for more.” Her attention turned to me then. “And thank you, Felicity, for helping my daughter so much. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.”

For her part, Shiori had been standing there open-mouthed. I’d seen more emotion cross the girl’s face in those few seconds than a lot of people demonstrated in an entire week. She was happy, elated, scared, angry, terrified, hopeful, and more. And all those emotions kept flicking through her expression as she stared at her mother. Behind all of it, however, there was an obviously incredibly deep longing.

Her voice, when she spoke to break the silence that had fallen, cracked a little bit. “I don’t know you.” The words were simultaneously a plea and an accusation, and I saw the tears in her eyes. “You’re my mother.” She repeated herself, voice dull with an indescribable pain that had clearly been there for such a long time yet was only now being allowed to show itself. “You’re my mother, and I don’t know you.”

From Jiao’s expression, the words clearly struck home, drawing more pain than any kind of Heretic power or weapon could have. “I know,” she replied in a voice that was somehow even softer than before. “Reathma, my daughter. My child. I wanted so much, so badly to be there for you, with you.”

I could tell that the words mattered to the girl. But she was standing rigid, clearly trying to keep herself from crying even more. Her voice sounded brittle. “Why didn’t you? Because there were bad guys after you? I still could’ve stayed with you. You could’ve protected me if you wanted to. Didn’t you want me? Was I just too much to take care of? Was it too hard to watch me, so you just had to get rid of me?”

Jiao swayed back as if physically rocked by the words. “No,” she answered in a voice that was soft, yet as firm as any monarch’s decree. “I wanted you, Reathma. Never doubt that. I love your father and you as much as I love Sunny and her father. You were never a burden, and surrendering your care to others was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. But I wanted you to be safe, and you weren’t. Not after…” She went silent.

“You said love,” Shiori managed after giving me a brief glance. One of her hands found mine, and I saw her take Senny’s hand with the other to get reassurance from both sides. “Love. Present tense. So he’s around. He’s alive. But where is he?”

Jiao’s expression fell, her gaze moving to the ground for a moment before she looked up. “He would be here if he could. I can promise you that much. If it was possible for him to be here, he would not hesitate.” She swallowed before continuing. “Your father’s name is Liang. I… I have been searching for him. I wanted to bring him to you, let him see how you have grown. That is why I was in Africa for so long. I wanted to give you that much. But he has gone missing and… and I’m afraid his enemies finally made their move against him.”

Shiori’s head shook rapidly, and I heard her breath catch. “But what enemies? The same ones that made you both give me up? Who’s my father? What enemies does he have? Where—what really happened?”

She sounded so desperate for the truth in that moment that it made me wish I could answer her. Instead, all I could do was squeeze her hand while trying not to interrupt. Now really wasn’t my time to talk.

Jiao, for her part, looked just as affected. And also like she really wanted to be the one holding her daughter’s hand (and probably more than that). She took a moment to steady herself before answering. “The short version is that your father is a member of the Ba Xian, the Eight Immortals. In human Chinese mythology, the original members are eight originally ordinary humans who gained immortality and great power. The myths vary on how this happened, but the truth was that the Eight Immortals were actually–”

“Heretics,” Shiori interrupted with a gasp. “The Eight Immortals were Heretics, weren’t they?”

Jiao inclined her head in acknowledgment. “Yes,” she confirmed. “Or at least the Ancient Chinese equivalent. They worked together, the Ba Xian. And they took on both followers and what you would call apprentices, those who could see the monsters that they did and who would take up their places. Because the Eight Immortals, while long-lived as any Heretic, were not truly immortal. They could be killed. And they knew that it would happen eventually. So they set each of themselves up as a position rather than a specific person, allowing their place, their identity to be taken up by another, and then another after that. Crossroads has their Committee, and their Chinese equivalent has their Eight Immortals, their Ba Xian.”

“Like a bunch of Chinese Dread Pirate Roberts,” Shiori murmured under her breath. “And… my father, he was—is–was–one of them?”

Jiao nodded. “He was potentially one of them, a student of theirs. And he was very loved, so loved that it was obvious he would be chosen as a successor. But not all of his fellow students liked that. There were those who saw him as a threat to their own advancement, and would use any leverage they could gain against him.”

“Including me,” Shiori finished softly, working her mouth a few times. “That’s why you had to hide me, because these… these Chinese Heretics would have taken me. Not because they’d think I was evil, but because… because it would help them become one of the official Eight Immortals.”

Jiao’s voice was barely audible. “Yes,” she confirmed with a pained expression. “We hid you, not because we didn’t want you, but because you deserved to be safe. When we found out that they knew about your existence, that they would hunt for you… I had to make sure you were safe. That meant getting you as far away from both of us as possible.”

“And now he’s missing,” Shiori muttered. “So they probably just cut out the middle man… errr, girl and went right after him.”

“I believe that is the case, yes.” Jiao hesitated then before continuing. “I haven’t given up on searching for him, Reathma. If he is still alive, I will find him. And I will bring him to meet you. That, I promise.”

Silence returned to the park. No one moved or spoke for several long seconds. Finally, I felt a tug at my hand as Shiori pulled free from both Senny and me. She took another moment to collect herself, then stepped over that way, stopping in front of the woman.

“Mother,” she spoke in a cracked, somewhat broken voice. Then the girl’s shoulders heaved a little, and I heard the tears as she spoke again, a single word that came out as a desperate plea. “Mom.”

Jiao said nothing. No other words needed to be said. The only thing left was action. One action in particular. She took her daughter into her arms, crushing the girl against her chest as tightly as possible.

And for the first time since she had been a baby, Shiori was held by her mother.

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Tis The Season 19-06

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As a quick note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Scout posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to click the ‘previous chapter’ button above. 

Later that night, I was laying on the roof of the house, staring at the sky. There was snow around me, but I didn’t really care. I’d thought about making an angel in it, but the very concept of angels was pissing me off at the moment, so it didn’t sound like fun. Instead, I just lay there watching the stars.

It had taken awhile to tell my teacher everything that had happened while she was gone. Dare was… well, to say she was surprised was putting it lightly. Plus, I think she was a little bit jealous about my interacting with Prosser. There was a certain wistfulness to her reactions that made me think that she wanted to have been there. I wondered if she had ever met the man, or if her reaction simply came from spending so much time around the Heretics that practically worshiped him (without knowing him).

Eventually, she promised not to tell anyone about it other than Gaia. Then Jeremiah had come back in with Suttle to erase my father’s memory about seeing Scott. The baron had left me a card with his phone number if I ever wanted to contact him again, adding a note on the back with an e-mail address as well. It was different from the one that was already on the card. A more private one, he’d said.

I wasn’t really planning on using it. The man seemed friendly enough, and his reasoning for helping made sense. I just… wasn’t sure about how much I trusted him, or how much I wanted to push that trust, even if Professor Dare said it was okay. Call me crazy, but I thought it was better to be more discreet.

It took effort after that, but I finally convinced her and Senny to spend some time together while they had the chance, insisting that I’d be fine. Fossor had had his fun, showing that he could still hurt the people I cared about. At this point, he probably didn’t even know that Scott was a Pooka. If he had, he’d never have used him as an object lesson. Which meant that he’d probably leave me alone to stew in my misery, having (in his mind) made his point. So, after extensive discussion, I eventually got the two of them to go by promising that I wasn’t going to go anywhere. And technically that was the truth. Laying on the roof wasn’t actually going anywhere, and I had desperately needed to get out of the house for a little bit.

Inside, Dad was doing his thing, and I didn’t want to be there for that. I didn’t want to look him in the eyes while he sat there with no idea of what was coming the next day. I knew that probably before the morning was over, Dad was going to find out about the discovery of Scott’s body. And that was going to destroy him about as much as it had destroyed me when I’d thought that Scott was dead. He’d been around for so long that my father clearly practically saw him as nearly a surrogate son in a lot of ways. What was he going to do when he was forced to think that the boy was gone forever, that he was dead?

And how could I look my father in the eye and react normally without telling him that Scott was okay? How could I look myself in the mirror with the knowledge of what kind of pain my dad was going through? Or his parents. Oh God, the people who had been Scott’s adopted mother and father, how could I let them feel the way they were going to feel when the news about their son came in? I knew them, I’d spent time at their house growing up. How could I let them think that he was dead forever?

And yet, what else could I do? Tell the truth? They’d either think I was insane, or if they did believe me (or if I told them too much), they’d completely forget it. The Bystander Effect would make sure of that.

A dark shape blotted out the moon that I was staring at as I lay on my back on the roof of the house. The raven flew in a lazy circle before coming back around to land nearby, shifting into Twister’s form.

“Hey,” I gave a wave without looking that way. “Kinda late for you to be up, isn’t it? Couldn’t sleep?”

Instead of making a crack like she normally would, the Pooka girl just watched me for a few seconds before taking an obvious breath to steady herself. “So, uh, there was a lot of stuff going on back there with all the Heretics being around and everything else, but… there’s probably something I should talk to you about before it blindsides you. Something about your dad and this whole Pooka revival thing.”

Confused (and honestly a little trepidatious about how bad it could possibly be), I asked, “What?”

“Your dad,” she started, looking like this was basically the last thing in the world she actually wanted to talk about, but was forcing herself to. “He’s not going to remember Scott after this. Like, at all.”

The words fell like a bomb. And like a bomb, it felt like a concussive wave had punched through my gut. For a moment after she spoke, I just stared at her while trying to comprehend. “What—what?!”

“It’s a Pooka thing,” she elaborated. “You know how the Bystander Effect erases all the supernatural stuff from human memories? They see something completely inexplicable and it just ‘poof’, disappears?” When I nodded, she gestured. “That’s what happens when Pooka die. Anyone that’s not immune to the Bystander Effect just… poof, we disappear from their minds. We’re erased. That’s why I don’t spend a lot of time around normal humans, because every time I die, they completely forget who I am. It sucks, so I stopped doing it. But it’s been awhile, so I didn’t even think about it last night when… when everything happened. It was all going so fast and there were Heretics here and–” She sighed. “Sorry.”

“You—he–” My mouth worked while my head shook. “That doesn’t even… how? You mean my dad just—forgot everything about Scott? Everything? All of it? What about his parents? Do they just forget they had a son? They have pictures! And his mom still had his room with some of his stuff that he didn’t take with him. What about all that? What about his job? Do they just forget about him? What about cases he’s supposed to testify in, or tickets he’s written, or anything else he did as a deputy?”

“Bystander Effect,” she answered. “They’ll look at the pictures and not see him. They’ll see his room and stuff and think it belongs to someone else, like a friend that stayed for awhile, or a nephew, or anything else other than the truth. People will suddenly remember the cases being taken by someone else. Everything in the Bystander world gets rewritten as if he was never there.” Her expression darkened a bit then as she looked away from me, voice dropping to a mutter. “Like I said, it sucks ass.”

“No, but—that’s not–” My stomach was sinking. His parents would just forget he existed? That was—that was just… wrong. Sure, I hadn’t known how I was going to help my dad and Scott’s parents get through losing him, but I didn’t want them to forget him. That was sick. It was awful. “That’s not fair.”

“Tell me about it,” Twister muttered. Her voice made it clear that she’d been personally burned by that. She looked over at me, brow twisted into a frown. “You said those angel fucks were behind that shit?”

“Seosten,” I muttered quietly while nodding. “Yeah. They created the Bystander Effect, apparently.”

“Yeah, well…” Twister went silent briefly, her emotions playing over her face far more than they usually did. “I’d like to get them in a room somewhere and let them know just what I think about that.”

Closing my eyes, I thought about Scott’s parents, coworkers, and friends just forgetting he ever existed. I thought about his entire life in the Bystander world being completely erased, of him being erased.

“So would I,” I muttered so quietly that the words were carried away by the breeze. “So would I.”

******

Christmas Day. It had always been important to my dad and me, a way of showing that we were still a family even though Mom wasn’t there anymore. When I was still young, he always went completely out of his way to make it special, obviously feeling like he had to make up for her absence. Not just as far as presents went, but with food and everything else too. He’d have holiday movies playing through the whole day, and the entire house would be filled with the smell of all the food he picked up from the restaurant and bakery the day before. Not to mention the lengths he went to as far as decorations went.

He’d always done everything he could to make sure that I didn’t feel like we were missing anything for the holiday. But we were. We were missing my mother, and no amount of cookies, music, bright lights, or Ralphie finally getting that BB gun could fill the void that her absence had left for all these years.

This year was worse in that regard. A hollow sort of empty feeling had settled over the proceedings throughout the morning, despite my (admittedly fairly pitiful) attempts to show enthusiasm. How could I, when the thought of Scott being completely erased dominated every moment that passed? Thinking about everyone grieving Scott’s death had been bad enough, but the idea that they forgot him? It made me feel sick. My stomach had twisted up inside throughout the morning, leaving me unable to eat.

“Hey kid,” Dad interrupted my thoughts, stepping in front of my chair while shaking a carton at me. “You want some of these pineapple cookies before I eat all of them? You didn’t take much breakfast.”

My mouth was already opening to speak even as I took the carton. The words came out automatically, before my brain had a chance to actually think about what I was saying. “Pineapple, Scott’s favorite.”

Even as I said the words, I was berating myself. No, no, no. I didn’t want to hear what came next.

Sure enough, Dad just chuckled as he stepped over to pick up the TV remote. Flipping through channels to find a Christmas movie we hadn’t already watched, he asked, “One of your classmates?”

It was a good thing that he wasn’t looking at me, because it took a few seconds for me to blink away the tears that tried to flood my eyes. And if he’d seen that, there was no way Dad wouldn’t push me on it.

“N-no,” I managed a bit weakly, the painful lump in my throat making it hard to breathe, let alone speak. “Just a…” I closed my eyes tightly for a moment before opening them. “Just a… good friend.”

“A good friend, huh?” Dad looked over at me slyly. “Should I be concerned about this ‘good friend’?”

No. I wanted to grab my dad and shake him. I wanted to shout Scott’s name into his face until it sank in. I wanted to scream at him that Scott had been taking care of me since I was a baby, that he himself had helped coach Scott’s Little League team, that… that he saw the boy as practically an honorary son.

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do any of that. Because if I did, at the very best, he’d just think that I was crazy. At worst, the Bystander Effect would erase what I told him. Twister was right, this sucked ass.

Finally stopping on a station for longer than a few seconds, Dad smiled. “There we go, Earnest Saves Christmas. You used to love this movie. You begged so much for me to let you stay up to see it when you were ten.” Smiling at that memory, he glanced to me. “So, this Scott. He’s not from that school?”

Words almost failed me. Thought almost failed me. All that was left was emotion. And not very good emotion. Stumbling to my feet, I shook my head. “I—I need some air. I’ll be back later.” The words croaked their way out of me even as I went for the door, grabbing my coat and fleeing before he could ask more questions.

I was going to have to explain that later, or at least tell my father something. But I wasn’t thinking about that just then. All I could think about was how hard it was to breathe in the house and that I needed to leave before I blurted out something that I really shouldn’t. I had to go, had to get outside and just walk.

So that’s what I did. Pulling my coat on, I all but ran down the sidewalk. I had to get away, had to leave before my dad asked me any more questions, or looked at me with that completely blank expression whenever I brought up Scott. Seeing his total lack of memory about someone that important killed me.

I had no idea where I was planning on going, but it didn’t matter. I’d only barely made it to the end of our property, stepping into the neighbor’s driveway before a voice called out my name. Not Dad. Shiori.

Turning that way, I saw both her and Columbus trotting my way, the latter carrying a brightly wrapped present under one arm. They were also both grinning until they got close enough to see my expression.

“Flick?” Shiori blurted, eyes widening as she took a step my way. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

My mouth opened and shut, then I moved. Before I knew what I was doing, my arms were already around the girl. I hugged her tightly, drawing a squeak of surprise before she returned the embrace.

For a few long seconds, I didn’t say anything. I just hugged Shiori and tried not to cry. It was all I could do to remain standing. Which seemed stupid. Scott wasn’t dead. Things could have been a lot worse. Yet somehow, the thought of my father forgetting him, of his own parents forgetting him… it ruined me.

Finally, I got enough control over myself to release Shiori. Stepping back, I sniffed once before blushing with embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “I just… I…” My shoulders shrugged helplessly and I nodded my head back the way I’d been going. “Do you guys mind… umm, walking with me?”

Both of them agreed quickly, and we started to walk. Shiori and Columbus kept giving me looks that were as curious as they were sympathetic. They obviously wanted to know what had happened. But they didn’t ask, didn’t push me to explain. Obviously, they were going to let me tell it on my time.

So, eventually, I did. As we walked fairly aimlessly down the streets, I quietly explained everything that had happened. I told them about the phone call, about Scott ‘dying’, about finding out he was alive, Prosser’s visit, meeting with the baron, and what Twister had told me. I explained everything, trying to keep my voice as steady as possible even as the two of them reacted with horror through a lot of it.

“But… but how does that—how?” Columbus stammered once I finished talking. “What about all the records, the physical records about his existence? Not just papers, but videos. And stuff in the computer, and… and all of it. What about all that stuff? Does the Bystander Effect just erase all that?”

I gave a helpless, equally annoyed shrug. “According to Twister, it’s more simple than that. People affected by it just don’t see things like that. If they look at a paper that mentions the person, their brains won’t comprehend it. The memory of what they read disappears immediately. It’s like back when we were trying to tell Sean and Avalon about Koren and Wyatt. The memory doesn’t stick in their head. If Scott’s parents look at a picture with both of them and little Scott, all they’ll see is the two of them. It doesn’t physically change documents or anything, it just makes it so they can’t retain that information long enough for their brain to do anything with it. It’s automatically erased before they consciously acknowledge it.”

“That’s… that’s…” Shiori stammered, face red as she stared at me. “That’s just… wrong.

“I know,” I acknowledged quietly, feeling even more helpless than I had before. “But what can we do? My dad, his co-workers, his friends, even his family all forgot him. I saw it with my dad, he had no idea who I was talking about.”

“Bystander Effect,” Columbus muttered darkly. “You know, the more I hear about that thing, the more I hate it. Those wannabe angels really screwed us over.”

Shiori and I both nodded in silent agreement. After a moment, I murmured, “Can you imagine how different the world would be without it?”

“In good and bad ways,” Columbus pointed out. “I mean, if humans knew they could get superpowers by putting Alter blood in their blood? A lot of people would hunt innocent Alters down just for that.”

“And a lot wouldn’t,” I replied. “I mean, sure, there’s bad people like that. But if it was all in the open, Alters could have… you know, rights and people who did that could be held accountable.”

“Would they be?” Columbus countered. “I’m just saying, humans don’t have the best track record of being able to get along with each other, let alone whole new races. Some of whom actually do prey on humans. It’s all… muddled.”

I nodded, acknowledging that. “It wouldn’t be perfect. It’s not like erasing the Bystander Effect would make everything into paradise. But still… the Seosten magic isn’t right. It’s not the way things should be.”

We continued walking then, each of us silent for a few minutes, clearly lost in our own thoughts.

Eventually, Shiori’s hand found mine and squeezed it a little. Her voice was quiet. “What about Fossor and Ammon?”

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I managed to respond, “They’ll pay. Everyone they hurt, everyone they killed, everything… everything they’ve done. My mom, They’ll pay for it. That Denise from the gas station, Scott, everyone. They’ll pay for everyone they hurt, everyone they killed.

“Fossor wanted to remind me that he’s still a threat. He wanted me to take him seriously. Well, I’m going to. Everyone he’s ever hurt or killed, every life he’s ruined, every person he’s destroyed, I’m going to take it incredibly seriously.

“And when the time comes… I’m going to make him choke on it. All of it.”

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