Month: December 2015

First Hunt 4-04

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“An amarok!?” Sean’s voice blurted out, his voice filled with disbelief as he stared up at the enormous creature standing over us. “They want us to fight a fucking amarok?! Who okayed this shit?!”

“No way,” Sands’ voice came through the pin. “They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Something’s wrong.”

The wolf, or amarok apparently, responded by lunging down with its massive mouth wide open. I yelped out a warning, but Sean was already reacting. He gave that huge gun of his a heave, and Vulcan transformed back into his dog form just in time to crash into the much larger beast’s descending snout. In spite of the size difference, the mechanical canine was able to knock the monster’s lunge off target. The amarok stumbled off to one side, the ground practically shaking beneath its staggering paws as it proceeded to knock over one of the nearby trees that happened to be in its path.

Grabbing my hand to haul me back to my feet, Sean shouted, “We could use some help over here!”

“Scout, covering fire. Buy them a few seconds.” Avalon’s voice was calm and collected, with just a hint of concentration. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have said that she was sitting at home doing the crossword puzzle. Yet through the corner of my eyes, I could see the girl dealing with one of the chamrosh. The thing had knocked Columbus to the ground and had been about to take a bite out of his shoulder before Avalon got its attention, dancing back a bit while it lashed out at her. “Gerardo, Chambers, get into the woods and head back around the lake. Use the trees to slow it down, not the open ground. Mason, meet them halfway. We’ll finish this and catch up.”

By that point, the pants-wettingly huge wolf had recovered from its stumble. Spinning around, it focused on me, and in that second, I could have sworn that the thing smiled.

Then one of Scout’s bullets hit it right in the snout, and the monster’s head jerked a bit to the side. Before it could recover, I spun around the way that Avalon had directed. “Go, go, go!”

Sean whistled while we ran, and Vulcan caught up quickly. The three of us sprinted into the woods, while Scout kept up her shots against the massive wolf. Unfortunately, the thing seemed to have adjusted to the incoming fire, and it didn’t seem to be having much of an effect aside from annoying it.

While running, I held the button to charge my staff. As the sound of trees collapsing under the charging monster drew closer with each passing step, I waited until the staff was as charged as it could be before touching it to the ground near one of the trees that the beast was going to have to crash through.

A handful of seconds later, the whoomph sound of the concussive mine detonating filled the forest, and the giant wolf gave a loud yelp that was followed by a howl of anger. Not enough to really put it down, but I had its attention at least. Somehow, I managed to contain my exultation at that thought.

Sean and I continued to run. I kept charging the staff and leaving various invisible traps for our pursuer, which had actually backed off just a little. The thing managed to avoid a good number of the mines that I was creating, but at least the fact that it was being more cautious meant that we had more of a lead.

Strangely, it was kind of easy to keep running full out. Though I’d been sprinting as hard as I could, through a forest no less, which involved a lot of weaving and jumping, it still felt like an easy jog. I was in better shape than I’d ever been in my life, but this was something different. This was new.

The chamrosh that I had killed. I’d taken regeneration from the poodle-roach back at the school, and this time, whatever I’d gained from this monster was letting me keep running as hard as I could much longer than I should have been capable of without even getting winded.

“Flick, Sean, turn right and jump through the hole in ten seconds.” Sands’ voice spoke in my ear.

I had no idea what hole she was talking about, but followed her instructions anyway. After counting down in my head, I pivoted alongside Sean. We hit a clearing right at that moment, and I saw a large metal wall directly ahead of us. There was a circular hole in the middle, like a big window.

The two of us leapt through the opening, landing on the other side together just before our pursuer reached the same clearing, bare seconds behind us. With a snarl, the bus-sized wolf lunged forward, teeth bared as it came for the same hole that we had gone through.

And then, just as the thing’s head shoved through the hole with its sword-like teeth bared and snapping, Sands appeared at the corner. She pushed her mace against the wall she had created. At a touch from it, the hole closed up instantly, locking the wolf’s head in place before it knew what was happening.

The amarok was trapped, snarling and twisting as it fought to free itself. Sands made a gesture with her construction mace, and a two metal posts rose out of the ground on either side of the thing. They twisted to form an arch together, then clamped down to hold the monster more firmly. “Down, puppy!”

Unfortunately, the wolf wasn’t in the mood to listen to commands. It gave a mighty heave, and I saw the wall trapping it start to bend a little bit, the metal giving a sharp screech of protest.

“I’ll try to hold it as much as I can,” Sands called out while working to form another pillar to bend around the monster. “But you might wanna hit it with everything while you’ve got the chance!”

As if in response to her words, Two of Scout’s shots hit the thing in rapid succession, both aimed for its eyes. Even that much damage wasn’t enough to blind it fully, but did make it scream in pain.

Meanwhile, Sean hoisted Vulcan back into his gun form, opening up with a hail of fire on the monster’s exposed side. The sound of the weapon’s roar joined with that of the amarok itself, both terrifyingly deafening, a rolling explosion of noise that shook me to my core and left me briefly paralyzed.

Shaking it off at the sight of the first metal wall cracking apart while Sands struggled to form more walls around and over the monster, I gripped my staff and started charging it again before lunging forward. With a cry, I swung my weapon up and around as hard as I could. As the end smacked into the amarok’s nose, I triggered the detonation. The concussive force snapped the monster’s head sideways.

It still wasn’t enough. With a snarl, the monster gave a massive heave. The metal that had been holding its shoulders down snapped apart, and the thing whirled, jaws opening wide as it went for Sands.

Sean and I both yelped out warnings, just before a blast of blueish-silver light slammed into the side of the monster’s head, knocking it off course so that its open jaws crashed into the ground to the girl’s left.

“Move!” Columbus called from the opening of the clearing. He was standing there, panting from running. A second later, another blast of concussive force shot from his goggles before slamming into the giant beast like a runaway truck, sending it staggering a couple steps to the side.

Taking advantage of the opening, Sands sprang backwards, giving a hard swipe with her mace. A metal pillar rose up with a sharp spike on the end, aimed for the monster’s underbelly. The spike struck home, but failed to do much more than briefly annoy the thing. There was the sound of tearing, bending metal as it smacked into the beast, but the amarok’s hide was too tough. The spike couldn’t penetrate it.

“This is ridiculous!” Sean called out. “Get Deveron in here, or the staff! We need help with this thing!”

Even Sands, who had been so excited for this chance, seemed to agree. “We can’t beat an amarok, it’s impossible! This can’t be right, they wouldn’t throw us at one of these things!”

“Stop complaining about what you can’t do,” Avalon instructed while sprinting into the clearing. She leapt up, lashing out with her right gauntlet while creating an energy blade as long and wide as a massive sword. “And focus,” she continued as the blade was driven into the monster’s eye. “On what you can.” The giant wolf reeled backwards, bellowing in pain before lashing out with a paw that smacked into Avalon and sent her to the ground hard enough to make me flinch in sympathy.

Yet she was back on her feet immediately, rolling backwards before coming up in a crouch with her arms raised defensively. “Mason, walls around it. Thick ones. Chambers, mine the inside of it. As many as you can. Stick them over every wall she makes. Gerardo, Porter, covering fire. Hit it with everything you’ve got, all of it. I don’t care if you run out, just keep it occupied until they finish. Scout, keep punching that eye, the same one I hit. Focus your shots there until it breaks, then hit the other one.”

Sands focused, standing with her feet apart while pointing with the mace, which she was gripping onto with both hands. Steadily, she made a heaving gesture as if lifting something heavy, grunting with effort as a wall several feet thick was steadily hauled up and into position to the monster’s left side.

It took so much time and focus that Sands would have been torn apart by the beast long before finishing that single wall if she’d been by herself. But she wasn’t. Even as the amarok tried to orient back toward her, Sean and Columbus both opened up on the thing. Their joint fire staggered it once more, and it tried to move back that way just as another shot from Scout’s rifle slammed into its eye.

Sands had the first wall finished by that point, and I forced myself to ignore my terror and trust my team. Sprinting forward, I ran straight at the horrifying beast that could have eaten me in a single gulp.

It spotted me, and started to turn my way. But before it could lunge, Avalon leapt up and landed on its snout. Lashing out with both gauntlets, she drove the energy blades hard into its other eye.

With a terrible scream, the amarok tossed its head to the side, sending the other girl flying once more. But by that point, I had finished my run, laying as many mines as I could against the inside of the wall that Sands had created while the monster was still recovering. It gave a roar of displeasure, head snapping from side to side as though trying to clear its damaged vision just before yet another shot from Scout into the first eye made things worse for it, driving a pained yelp from the thing.

Once Avalon and I were both clear, Columbus and Sean opened up on it again. The hail of bullets and blasts of bright silver and blue energy tore into the damn thing, but it barely seemed to be acknowledging the damage by that point. The amarok roared and tried to lunge for Sands, only stopped at the last second by a particularly powerful shot from Columbus’s goggles that snapped its head back.

“Almost out of shots here!” Sean called out in warning. “Vulcan packs a lot, but he’s running low!”

“Put the second wall up,” Avalon ordered. I saw the pain on her face briefly as she rolled over, but the other girl forced herself back to her feet without complaint. “Mine it. Then bend the walls down around the thing. Enclose the explosion, trap the force in there with the amarok. Everyone else, buy them time to finish the other wall. Hit it with everything you can, everything you have. Use it all.”

Sands and I looked at each other, nodded, and then set to work. While the others put everything they had into maintaining the wolf’s attention, keeping it pinned in place, we did our part. Sands heaved a second thick wall high and into position while I ran along it. Thrusting my staff against the wall while it was still lifting into place, I created as many mines as I could, positioning them all along the thing.

Just as I reached the end to position the last mine, the sound of Vulcan’s ongoing fire faded, leaving with just a few sad sounding clicking noises. Sean shouted a warning, but the monster took instant advantage. It spun, lashing down with its jaws wide while I desperately hurled myself out of the way.

It wasn’t quite enough. One of the monster’s massive teeth clamped down into my arm, sending a blinding flash of pain through me even as an awful scream tore its way out of my throat. The agony was unbearable, and I had only a distant impression of something hard slamming into me from the opposite side with enough force to knock me away from the amarok’s jaws.

I hit the ground with a weight on top of me, realizing belatedly that it was Vulcan. Sean had transformed his gun into its other form and sent it sprinting forward to knock me away from the wolf.

Blood was everywhere. The agony was fresh with every motion of my arm, and I stared down at what looked an awful lot like exposed bone and muscle through the haze of pained disbelief. It was already starting to close before my eyes, the muscle and skin gradually knitting itself together. But it still hurt.

It should have been worse, I realized. The damage to my arm, it should have left me incapable of functioning or even thinking straight. Instead, though it definitely sucked, I could still at least somewhat pay attention to what was going on. The pain was dulled somehow, probably another result of absorbing the power of that cockroach-poodle. Or possibly the bird-wolf. I wasn’t sure which.

“Close it!” Avalon called across the clearing toward Sands. “Trap it now!”

Quickly following the other girl’s instructions, Sands made a heaving gesture with her mace once more. The two thick walls on either side of the monster caved in and down, practically collapsing on it while the ends twisted around to meet one another. They linked, forming a dome over the giant wolf.

“Mines!” Avalon’s focus was on me then. “Trigger the mines now, Chambers! Do it!”

Forcing myself to ignore the still very present pain in my mangled arm, I caught hold of my staff with my other hand and triggered the manual release of the concussive mines that I had planted.

The sound of the explosion, trapped under the thick metal walls, was deafening as it rang through the forest. Small bits of metal went flying, torn free from the force of the focused blast.

“Did it work?” Sands asked after a second of silence that followed the explosion. “Did we kill–”

She was interrupted. Not by the amarok, but by me. My body arched and I screamed again. This time, however, it wasn’t agony but mind-blowing, indescribable pleasure. It felt so good that my brain literally shut down for a few seconds, leaving me a mumbling wreck on the ground.

Okay, that really had to fucking stop. Seriously, what the hell?

“I… uhh, I think that means it’s dead.” Columbus was standing over me, staring down through his goggles.

“You okay down there, Flick?” Sean piped up. “Or do you need a cigarette after that?”

“Oh shut up,” I managed, flushing at his implication. My tone was light though. Mostly I was just glad we weren’t dead.

Columbus crouched down, wincing a bit. “Seriously, are you all right? Your arm…”

I glanced that way, finding the wound about halfway closed. “It was… ugnn, worse a minute ago, believe me. Doesn’t even hurt as much as it should. I mean it did at first, but then the pain kind of dulled after a couple seconds.”

Sands was there then, head shaking. “You absorbed the amarok. That’s gonna… whatever it gives you, it’ll be a big boost.”

“She’ll need it,” Avalon said flatly while stepping into view. “Something’s wrong. None of the staff are answering calls. They should have stepped in.”

“They never should’ve left us to fight a fucking amarok to begin with!” Sean blurted. “None of this makes sense.”

“Let’s ask our team mentor,” I suggested with bright and obvious sarcasm before letting my expression darken. “Oh, right. Never mind.”

“Scout, is Deveron with you?” Avalon addressed the last member of our team through the pin communicator. She paused at the resulting silence, then tried again. “Scout, is Deveron–”

“Oh, they were a little busy.” A new voice spoke up from the edge of the clearing, and the five of us twisted around to see a handful of figures standing in the shadows. “But don’t worry,” the voice continued. “We brought them to you.”

Scout and Deveron were shoved forward into view before collapsing to the ground. They were both unconscious and lay unmoving in the dirt.

“Scout!” Sands shouted, starting to scramble forward.

Before she could get there, Avalon caught her by the arm to stop her. “Trice,” the other girl snarled the name, hate heavy in her voice.

The figure who had spoken stepped a bit more into the light. It was a slightly older boy, tall and muscular with dark green hair that was cut short and spiked up. He wore a brown trenchcoat and held a heavy looking pike in both hands. “That’s right, you stupid cunt. Did you really think you could run away after you killed my fucking brother? You really think we’d just let you go?

“Time to put you down like the bitch you are.”

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First Hunt 4-03

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“So you grew up around all this stuff,” I whispered to Sean as the two of us picked our way around the lake. We were moving slowly and using the treeline as cover, hopefully avoiding the attention of the creatures inside the cabin in the distance. “Can I ask you something about how all this works?” While speaking, I pressed my finger into the slight depression in the staff where the small button was and held it. The black ends switched to a softly glowing blue as they began to charge up with kinetic energy.

The Hispanic boy turned his gaze away from Vulcan, who was busy sniffing ahead of us. His voice was equally quiet as he nodded to me. “Yeah, sure, what do you wanna know, Flickster?”

I waited another few seconds, scanning the shadows ahead of us before whispering again. “Let’s say someone graduates from this place, does their job for awhile, then decides they want to settle down. Is being a teacher the only way they can do that, or is there like, a retirement type plan or a way to stop?”

His response was to raise an eyebrow at me. “Jeeze, are we that bad to be around?” He teased. “Been here for a month and you’re already planning how you can retire and abandon us forever.”

Rolling my eyes, I shoved my fist against his shoulder. “It’s not like that. I’m just wondering how you guys deal with that kind of thing. I mean, there’s gotta be people who just want to settle down, right?”

“Right,” he agreed before shrugging. “And there’s two kinds that fit that deal. There’s the guys that want to forget about all of this, who want to be done with it completely. And there’s the ones that are still willing to fight if something comes to them, who’ll protect an area or whatever but don’t wanna go actively looking for trouble. My uncle’s one of those last ones. He settled down in Bogotá. That’s–”

“Capital of Colombia,” I replied easily. “See? Some of us paid attention in Freshman geography.”

“Must’ve had a cute teacher,” he shot back. “I can see it now, little fourteen-year old Flickster, sighing dreamily over the dreamboat professor while he meets her eager stare with a smoldering gaze.” He deepened his voice as though speaking as the hypothetical teacher. “’Ms. Chambers, if you remember nothing else from this class, I pray that you retain this simple fact. The capital of Colombia is Bogotá.’”

Feeling a slight flush cross my face, I shoved him. “Jerk. What about the other type you mentioned? The ones that don’t want to have anything to do with any of this. What exactly happens to them?”

Smirking at the shove, Sean nodded. “The other kind go through the process to be released from being a Heretic completely. They give everything up. All the power, all the weapons, even the ability to recognize Strangers. They surrender all of it and go back to being ordinary people. They run away.”

Before I could respond to that choice of words, or ask him anything else, we reached the edge of the treeline before the open yard that surrounded the monster-infested cabin. Crouching down there, the two of us watched as dark shapes continued to move past the curtained windows in the distance. By that point, we were close enough that I could hear noises from inside. The chamrosh were communicating with a series of trills and whistles. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed that there was a flock of birds inside the cabin, except for the fact that the songs were way too deep to come from any avian species I’d ever heard of. They were bird whistles produced by canine lungs.

“Thanks,” I said mostly under my breath. “Really needed that distraction so I wouldn’t pee myself.”

Sean’s hand patted my shoulder briefly. “You’ll be fine. Just try not to get too distracted daydreaming about that cute geography teacher and his soulful gaze. We need your head in the game.”

“I do have this big stick,” I reminded him while giving my staff a shake in his direction. “And thanks to Avalon, I’ve gotten a lot better at using it. You probably shouldn’t give me any reason to think I should practice with it some more.” Then I activated the communication pin that I had attached to my shirt under the jacket, broadcasting to the rest of the group. “Team. Sean and I are in position.”

“Give us one minute,” Avalon’s reply came back a moment later. “We had a brief delay.”

Eyes focused on the cabin, I spoke again. “Team. Delay? Is everything all right?”

It was Columbus who answered. “We’re fine. Just ran into some deer and had to skirt around them so they wouldn’t spook. Figured that might hurt this whole sneak attack thing we’ve got going on.”

Sean and I continued to watch the cabin, listening to the too-deep bird noises while Avalon and Columbus maneuvered themselves into position. While we were waiting, I carefully extended the staff out of the treeline, touching the end of it against the ground while keeping my finger on the button. As I held the tip against the dirt, that faint blue energy bubble appeared before turning almost invisible.

I whispering to Sean. “Don’t let Vulcan run off and hit that thing when this goes down.”

He gave me an easy, charming smile in return. “No worries. When the shit hits the fan, my little buddy’s gonna be right here.” Rubbing the mechanical dog’s back, he asked, “Ain’t that right, pal?” Vulcan gave a soft woof of agreement, and Sean patted his head. “Damn straight.”

Finally, I saw the figures of our two teammates carefully glide through the bushes across the yard from us. They settled into position before Avalon reported that they were ready.

Columbus gave a brief wave our way, then turned his attention toward the cabin itself. I saw his hand move to his face to adjust his special goggles. Then his voice came through. “Okay, I’ve got their heat signatures now. There’s five of them all right. Two in the back near the door there, one up in some kind of loft area or something, one still up by the front window that Scout’s locked onto, and another one below the cabin. It looks like it’s in some kind of basement or cellar area.”

“Team. Any other life signs at all?” I asked. Yeah, we’d been told that there were no civilians here, but it was a good idea to make sure for ourselves instead of just expecting the adults to be perfect.

“Nope, just those five,” Columbus replied. “I can’t see any civilians, or the sixth monst—err, Stranger.”

That was worrying. I wondered where the last one was. According to Professor Kohaku, the last one was the primary target, which meant it was bigger, stronger, faster, and probably smarter than the others. And we still had no idea where or what it was. That was a bad way to start this thing, even if we did manage to take out these five. It still left the main threat both safe and aware of our presence.

From the silence, I guessed that Avalon was thinking along the same lines. I could barely make out her motionless form crouched in the bushes in the distance, head turned a little as she thought it through.

It felt like forever, but in truth, only about five seconds had passed before the other girl spoke through the comm. “We hit them anyway. Better to get rid of these five and then have one to focus on than risk it using them as a distraction or reinforcements. We put them down and whatever’s left is on its own.” After another moment, she continued laying out the specific plan. “Scout, as soon as you see a chance for a shot, take it. Everyone else, when the glass shatters, be ready to move. Porter and I cover this side of the cabin and the front door. Chambers and Gerardo cover that side and the back door.”

It was kind of funny. No one had asked Avalon to be the leader, but no one really questioned it either.

Deveron, on the other hand, hadn’t seemed interested in much of anything thus far. He’d stayed behind with the twins. Which I supposed was good if something came after them before we could get back there. On the other hand, I had my doubts that the jerk would be that much help if it came down to it.

One by one, we agreed with the plan. Sands, of course, spoke for both herself and her sister. I had yet to hear Scout say more than two or three words, save for the occasional whisper I managed to make out.

Then we waited, tense and ready, while the silent girl lined up her shot. The annoying, disconcertingly guttural bird songs from inside continued. It sounded like the creatures were arguing with each other, bitching back and forth across the cabin in their own language. Maybe they were looking for something? That was my best guess, though I had no idea what they could be searching the cabin for.

As ready as I thought I was, a soft yelp still escaped me as the window abruptly shattered under the impact of Scout’s bullet. There was a heavy thud from inside that was almost instantly followed up by the kind of scream that couldn’t be produced by human lungs. It was an awful wail, an evil sound that was quickly joined by more as each of the creatures took up the same cry. My teeth tried to grind reflexively under the horrible noise as it penetrated my brain and made it hard to think straight.

Avalon’s warning came over the comm, louder now that stealth wasn’t a concern. “Here they come!”

Sure enough, I saw one of the half-dog, half-bird figures lunge through the side window. It looked like a combination of a dalmatian and a raven, the last black spot on the neck rising up into the bird’s feathered head. With a horrible screech, eyes locked right on our position, it charged.

Sean was ready. His hand grasped the hidden handle near his mechanical canine’s rear, hauling the thing up while Vulcan’s body shifted and transformed. The head flipped around and locked into position to reveal the six barrels before Sean took a single step out of the bushes, putting himself right on the edge of the kinetic mines that I had laid. Smirking, he pulled the trigger. Those half dozen barrels began to spin up even as the chamrosh ran straight for us, screeching its bloodlust.

That cry was overtaken an instant later as Vulcan roared to life. I had no idea how fast the thing fired, but dozens of shots tore into the approaching creature within seconds. The sheer noise and power of the gun in full firing mode was terrifying to witness. The monster, whose appearance had been so terrifying seconds earlier, was knocked to the ground by the force of the gunfire. Chunks of flesh were torn from the thing while it howled and rolled, bullets ripping into it unrelentingly.

And yet the thing kept coming. With a defiant, furious scream, it launched itself forward through the hail of gunfire. Unfortunately for the monster, that leap put it right on my nearest invisible mine. The force of the concussive explosion blew one of the thing’s legs off while it was hurled backward, and Sean took advantage of the chance to lay waste to it some more, ensuring that it wouldn’t get up again.

Belatedly, another sound reminded me that I was supposed to be an active participant in this fight, not just an onlooker. My head snapped up and over just in time to see another of the chamrosh racing toward us, focused on Sean as the boy continued to lay waste to the first creature. This one looked like a really big mastiff mixed with the head of a particularly nasty-looking vulture.

“Okay, Flick,” I whispered to myself. “You can do this. You can do it. Now!” Raising my voice on the last word, I leapt forward and over the mines that I had laid. My staff came flipping around, the motion as reflexive as Avalon had promised it would be after the hours and hours of practice. As the big dog-bird lunged, I put myself in between it and Sean, lashing out with a blow that took the thing right in the side of its head. The force of the blow, aided by putting my body’s motion behind it, staggered the monster very briefly. It had been so focused on getting at the boy with the gun that it hadn’t even noticed me until my staff smacked right into its ugly face.

I expected to be afraid, and part of me was. But mostly I was hyper-focused on every little move that the creature made. There wasn’t enough time to focus on the fear and anxiety. The thing recovered quickly, snapping out with that nasty beak in an attempt to grab the end of the weapon that had hurt it.

Snapping the staff back out of its way, I pivoted around on my foot, snapping the weapon around as I turned so that the full force of my motion was transferred to the staff just in time to smack down onto the top of the chamrosh’s lunging head when my spin brought me back around to the front.

The blow knocked the monster down onto its forelegs a bit, and it made an ugly, whistling growl at me.

Honestly, the thought of what might happen if that monster tore into me was a very distant worry. Strangely, the worry that sprang to mind the most was what Avalon would say if she saw me do something wrong here and fuck up after all the work she’d put into helping me train. It was a weird, completely out of place thought considering the danger of the situation. I was in a fight, possibly for my life, and my brain was worried about impressing my roommate.

Shaking that off, I took a quick step back before faking a quick swing with the left end of my staff. The monster fell for the feint, snapping its beak that way even as I reversed course, lashing out with the other end while holding the trigger to charge up the kinetic force to get it ready for the next blow.

By that point, the monster was practically ignoring the strikes against it. Beyond its initial surprise, the simple fact was that my strength wasn’t enough to do much damage to the same kind of thing that could even somewhat stand up to the kind of punishment that Vulcan was unleashing onto it. I had to do something more impressive if I was going to stop this thing.

With that in mind, I waggled the staff out to one side, teasing the monster shamelessly. “Here, Fido. Here you go, boy. You want the stick, you want the stick? Come get it, boy. Come get it!”

The creature took the bait, lunging at the offered weapon. As it moved, I snapped my staff out of its way before dropping into a roll that moved me out of its way and around to its backside. Once there, I whistled once, then gave a sharp thrust forward with the weapon.

Spinning around almost blindingly quickly, the chamrosh snapped its beak out, catching hold of the end of my staff before holding tightly with a menacing growl.

In response, I smiled. “Now that,” I announced to the thing. “That you shouldn’t have done.” Then, before it could react, I triggered the energy that I’d been saving up in the staff.

The resulting blast, focused down into the monster since it had taken the end of the staff into its beak, blew through its internal organs. The concussive force was centered and directed into the chamrosh, and its body was thrown backwards a dozen feet before crashing to the ground. It didn’t move again.

Immediately, I felt that same embarrassingly good feeling sweep over me that had come when I had killed the peridles. Staggering briefly, I barely contained the murmur of pleasure while shivering. God, was absorbing the power of Strangers always going to feel that good? And speaking of absorbing power, what had I just taken?

Before I could figure that much out, Sean’s voice cried out a warning, “Flick, move!”

Two weeks ago, my reflex would have been to look that way to see what was going on. After the time I’d spent learning from both Avalon and Professor Katarin however, I threw myself as far to the side as possible, hurtling into a roll along the dirt.

It almost wasn’t enough. Something… massive had come right up behind me, lunging down to the spot where I had been crouching. I felt fur and muscle as a leg the size of a tree trunk smacked into me. Pain erupted down my side and I was knocked sprawling to the dirt.

With a yelp, I rolled over to stare up at the thing that had nearly run me down. I looked up… and up… and up, until my eyes finally found the new monster’s head, towering high above me.

It was a wolf. But not just any wolf. This thing was so pants-wettingly enormous that I could have stood upright in its open mouth. It was larger than the cabin the other monsters had been hiding in.

“Guys…” I managed to whimper from my prone position while the monster salivated above me.

“I’m gonna need a bigger stick.”

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Christmas

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone who celebrates them. This is just a quick note that today’s scheduled update will be up tomorrow rather than today, due to the holiday. Hope you all have a fantastic day, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow for the new chapter!

First Hunt 4-02

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“Let’s contain the giggles and gossip for just a few seconds here so I can talk, all right?”

The moment that Deveron said those words, all while continuing to flash that cocky and uncaring smirk, I immediately caught Avalon by the arm before she could throw herself at him. The muscles in her bicep flexed against my grip, and she turned her death glare from the boy to me until I released her. Still, it was enough of a delay that she wasn’t about to lose control completely and choke the prick.

And it gave Sean time to speak up, drawling a casual, “Well fine lil sweetness, if you insist. But only if you promise that we can do our hair up all nice and get some mani-pedis if we do a good job.”

Beside him, the metal dog made a soft little ruff noise of agreement, and Sean added, “Right, and Vulcan wants treats for not biting your ass for being such an unbelievable dick. Personally, I’d go with something jerky based because, let’s face it, your dick level is high enough to warrant the good stuff.”

We were standing outside what was apparently one of the portal rooms of the Pathmaker building, waiting for our turn to go through while Professor Kohaku and the Headmistress spoke quietly with each other a short distance away. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but the word ‘committee’ had been said multiple times, usually by the baroness and in a somewhat raised voice before she quieted.

The area we were in just looked like any ordinary office corridor to me. The floor was lightly carpeted and the walls were an off-white color. The door into the portal room was the only bit that stood out. It was a gleaming silver metallic color, and looked extremely durable. Beside it was was a black circle about half a foot in diameter that I couldn’t figure out the use of.

And speaking of things whose reason for existence I couldn’t fathom, Deveron was spinning his weapon around on one finger. It looked basically like a flintlock pistol, and as far as I could tell, that was his only weapon. Which, even setting aside his attitude, seemed kind of odd for someone whose track was based around exploration. Was a pistol really a good fit for the idea of going onto multiple unknown alien lands to face hostile creatures of any shape, size, and strength? Or did the annoying laziness of our team ‘mentor’ extend all the way into how little he took care of himself too?

Before he could respond to Sean, Deveron was interrupted by Professor Kohaku. She had approached silently before clearing her throat once she was right beside us. “Here are the rules that your team must follow throughout this hunt. First, the quarry that you are facing have been isolated away from bystanders. This will not always be the case, but for a first hunt, it’s more important for you to get the basics down. Later hunts will require you protect civilians from the very creatures you are hunting, even as those very bystanders may mistakenly believe that you are the aggressors. In this case, your hunt will be limited to only these targets, so long as the battle remains within the confines of the safe area. Should any of your quarry escape that space and proceed into bystander occupied territory, you will be notified and full Heretics will step in to ensure the civilian populace remains safe. You will not lose points for such an event, but you will not gain them either. No penalty, no bonus.”

She looked toward Sands, whose hand was up, and nodded. The other girl hesitated before asking, “You said targets, plural. So there’s more than one? Do we get to ask how many or what they are?”

Professor Kohaku, proper as always, gave a very faint smile before responding. “Yes and no. I can tell you that there are five secondary targets and one primary target. You will receive twenty points for each of the secondary targets you dispatch and one hundred for the primary. Each other team has had their points divided accordingly to add up to two hundred total. You may earn both penalties and bonuses to alter that score further. You may at any time ask what creatures you are facing if you cannot identify them, but doing so will detract ten percent from your final score. However, should you fail to eliminate any of your targets specifically because you did not know what you were facing and did not ask after having the opportunity, then twenty percent will be removed from your final score on top of that failure.”

Right. They were trying to encourage us to identify the monsters on our own (particularly on future hunts, thus pushing us to study a lot), but also penalizing the idea of taking that too far. It was worth some extra points to try to identify what the things were, but not worth waiting too long to ask for help.

Beside me, Sands whispered under her breath, “Vanessa’s team probably adores her right now.”

I coughed, realizing how right she was. Thanks to that absurd memory and her habit of reading ahead, the blonde girl could probably immediately identify any Stranger her team ran into.

The Security adviser went on. “You will have one hour from the moment you pass through the portal to eliminate all six targets. The area that you are being dispatched to is a forest surrounding a lake in southern Colorado. There are a half dozen cabins spaced randomly around the lake, along with various other camping and outdoors related buildings. Civilians have already been evacuated from the area, and the territory surrounding the lake will be empty save for wild animals and the Strangers themselves. If at any point you wish to stop, request the Stranger identification, or for any other reason wish to speak with a faculty member, you may simply start talking. We will hear you, as we are monitoring.”

“What about him?” Columbus jerked a thumb toward Deveron. “Is he considered part of our team?”

“He may be a resource if you wish him to be,” Professor Kohaku answered simply. “To start, he will simply accompany you and observe. You will receive no penalty for requesting that he attempt to identify the targets for you, and no penalty for requesting his aid in combat. However, should you not ask for his information, you will gain a five percent bonus upon elimination of the targets. Do not request his physical aid, and you will gain another five percent bonus. As before, should you fail specifically due to a refusal to accept such aid or information, that will become five percent penalties instead. If you are capable of completing this hunt without aid, you will gain more points. But if you need the aid and fail to accept it, you will lose more points than if you had simply asked for help.”

There were no other questions (besides my own worry about whether my heart was going to literally pound its way out of my chest), so Professor Kohaku stepped around us and moved to the door. She pressed her fist against the black circle on the wall and held it there. After a couple of seconds, her hand sank into the black spot like it was tar. The woman allowed her arm to be taken all the way to the elbow before it stopped and held there. Then she explained, “This security system will identify me. If I am not allowed access to this room, it will not release my arm until building security can be dispatched to handle the situation. Most of the time, such an event is a result of either being in the wrong place, or a mix-up in the system, and nothing goes wrong. Occasionally, however, more strict action is required. In such cases, the system may inject my arm with a powerful sedative, remove it entirely, or extract blood to be deposited into a pre-built spell artifact which will allow me to be tracked if I escape this position. In certain cases, the extracted blood from these security devices may even be used as evidence at a trial. It is very difficult to properly claim that you were not the one who attempted to infiltrate the secure facility when your blood and its contained genetics is literally on display.”

The black circle turned white then, and the professor withdrew her arm before reaching out to open the door. “Proceed inside. You may think of the portal room as an airlock. Step in and wait for this door to close and lock itself. Mr. Adams will then initiate the second door. Over the following sixty seconds, the air pressure and temperature within the room will shift to match the area that you will be arriving in. Once it’s done, the second door will open and you may all proceed. When you arrive by the lake, your mission will begin and the timer will count down. After one hour, any remaining targets will be eliminated and your points will be tallied. Should you eliminate all six targets before the hour is up, you will be brought back here to wait for the rest of the teams to complete their missions.”

When no one else asked anything, the professor withdrew a box from her pocket that looked entirely too large for where it had come from. Popping it open, she held the box out, allowing us to see the handful of small dark blue pins inside. They were about the size of my thumbnail, each perfectly circular with a small white dot in the middle of a blue background. “Each of you take one pin and secure it somewhere to your clothing. It will allow you to communicate with your team. Say ‘team’ and they will all hear what you say. Speak specific members names before your message, and only those members will hear it. The system will not update who you are sending your message to if you speak a name in the middle of a message. If Sands is speaking to Flick and asks ‘where is Columbus’, the message will continue to be sent to Flick. If Sands wishes to add Columbus to their conversation, she must stop speaking for a moment, then say ‘Flick and Columbus’ separately before continuing her message. The pins will allow only their wearer to hear what is sent. Another person may be standing directly beside you, and they will not hear the given message unless they are wearing their own pin and were included as a recipient.”

She waited for each of us to take a pin, then gestured for us to head in with a simple, “Good luck.”

After taking in a long, nervous breath, I accompanied the rest of my team through the doorway and into what looked an awful lot like a doctor’s waiting room. There were a couple of couches and chairs, a table full of old magazines and a few paperback books, and soft classical music was playing in the background. Across the room, I could see the second door with its own black circle waiting.

“So the upshot here is that we have no idea what we’re facing yet,” Columbus spoke up while carefully attaching the pin to the underside of his rumpled uniform lapel. “But if we want to sacrifice points, we could just ask and start with the advantage of knowing what we’re walking into. Wouldn’t that be better than stumbling in blind, even if we do end up losing the chance at maximum points?”

“Not yet,” Avalon replied in a firm voice. “We see if we can identify them first, then go from there.”

Columbus blinked. “Really? I didn’t take you for someone that cares about how many points we get.”

“I don’t. Fuck the points,” she shot back. “The only way I could physically care less about the points is if they were being handed out by people whom I find so utterly pointless that I have erased all memory of their existence from my brain in order to spare myself from all the time I would have spent trying to understand why they were ever born to begin with.” She finished with, “So no, I don’t care about the points. But I do care about what the point of this exercise is, and that’s to prepare us. We try to identify these Strangers on the fly. If we can’t, I don’t give a shit if we need to ask for help. Full Heretics do that all the time. But only after we give it a shot and attempt to identify them ourselves.”

“As long as you princesses have that worked out,” Deveron put in while stepping to the other door. “I’ll just go ahead and…” He had raised his hand by that point and held it close to the black circle, but didn’t move further. For several long seconds, the boy just stood there doing nothing but staring at it.

“You’ll go ahead and… what?” Sands gestured for him to continue. “Stand there some more?”

It didn’t seem like he’d heard her at first. He gave no response beyond the slightest lift his chin. I saw his hand tremble just a bit, almost like he was afraid of what was going to happen when he touched that circle. But before I could say anything, Deveron gave a full-body shudder as if shaking it off before pushing his fist up against it. His tone was as uncaring as ever as he replied to Sands, “In a rush, babe?”

Before Sands could retort, her twin caught hold of her hand and tugged her away with a shake of her head. Apparently Scout had caught the brief look of fear before the boy could disguise it as well.

Over the next minute, no one said much. I don’t know about everyone else on the team, but I was too nervous to do much chatting. I had no idea how this was going to go, but I’d never so much as hunted deer before, let alone actual monsters who could actually hunt us back. Yeah, the real Heretics would be watching to make sure nothing went wrong, but there were always accidents. And who could say that things wouldn’t go wrong too quickly for the faculty to intervene? They were good, but I doubted they were perfect. This, as much as the danger was downplayed, was not something to take lightly.

Throughout the portal’s cycling time, the air had grown a bit more chilly. By the time the second door opened, I was glad that we were going to be moving around a lot. A lakeside cabin in October wasn’t exactly the warmest place in the world to take an evening stroll around, even with our uniform jackets.

I felt worse for Avalon and Scout, since they were both wearing the skirt version of the uniform. Neither complained though, and a minute later we had all passed through the open doorway and were standing on the edge of the lake that Professor Kohaku had mentioned. Behind us, the doorway we had just come through led into what looked like an outhouse, making my nose wrinkle.

“Your show now, ladies and less lady-like ladies.” Deveron informed us while stepping aside. He was still spinning that simple-looking pistol on one finger. “Give a shout when you need me to save you from yourselves.”

Avalon pointedly ignored him. Instead, she focused on the quiet twin. “Scout, can you get us a view from up high so we can see what the layout looks like?” For once, her voice was actually more gentle than I remembered her talking to anyone.

Scout nodded silently before hoisting her enormous sniper rifle into position. She held the gun to her shoulder and leaned back to aim up high over the lake, sighting in through the scope. Her left hand moved to flick a switch near the front of the weapon, and then moved to a dial a little further back, adjusting it by a few turns. Finally, she pulled the trigger.

I barely saw the puff of nearly-invisible energy leave the barrel, and I had been watching for it. In the distance, there was the slightest flicker of light in the air far above the middle of the lake that lasted for a split second. Then there was nothing to indicate that anything had happened.

I knew better by that point, however, and stepped back a few feet behind Scout along with the others. We watched for a second before the quiet girl pressed another switch on her weapon. The butt of the rifle began to glow faintly, and then a small screen was projected into the air behind it, like a hologram. The image showed a view of us from the point of view of that spot above the lake that had been shot, where that flicker of light had very briefly been.

Scout, who was seeing the same thing we were through her scope, slowly turned one of the weapon’s dials. The view gradually rotated, moving away from where we were to give a birds-eye view of the surrounding area. We could see every cabin, all the grounds surrounding the cabins, the few boats that had been left on the water or tied up at various small docks, all of it.

Essentially, one of several things that Scout’s rifle was able to do was create small portals in the air, exactly where it was targeted. Those portals could only be traveled through by the gun’s own projectiles. They could also only be seen through the weapon’s scope, or through the hologram the gun projected so that others besides the shooter could watch. For everyone else, the air looked as normal as ever beyond that initial slight flicker of light.

“Wait,” I spoke up quickly as the view continued to rotate. “Go back to that last cabin, the one on the opposite side of the lake.”

The other girl obliged, and the view was centered back on the building where I thought I’d seen a hint of movement through the curtains. Sure enough, something moved past again, just a hint of motion.

“Closer,” Avalon ordered. “We need to see what that is.”

Again, Scout did as she was instructed. Her fingers worked the controls of the rifle, and the view through the projected hologram moved a bit to show the area a few yards away from the window. I saw a small yellow dot appear as the girl touched the dial she had used earlier, and as she adjusted it, the dot moved on the screen without moving the scope view. She was sighting in exactly where she wanted the shot to go.

Then the quiet girl pulled the trigger once more. This time, the shot left the gun, traveled to the first spot in the air where she had created that small portal that was allowing us to see out over the lake, traveled through that portal, and ended up on the other side of the lake right where she had placed the yellow dot.

If she wanted to, Scout could lay on the roof of one building and aim through the window of another building across the street, creating a scope-portal inside the room there. Then she could aim through that first scope-portal, turn her view to face an open doorway within the room and shoot a second scope-portal into the attached corridor. From there, she could attach several more line-of-sight scope-portals until she reached a man in his office on a completely different floor. Once she had them all lined up, she could switch to lethal shots, aim through the various connected portals, and fire. As long as nothing happened to step into its path while it was traveling, her bullet would pass through each linked scope-portal before finally embedding itself in her target.

Yeah, the things that Heretics could do kind of scared me sometimes.

Through the second scope-portal, we were able to see the window a bit more clearly. This time, it was obvious that there were things inside. Hulking figures that moved back and forth, obviously agitated.

“That’s… definitely not humanoid,” Columbus put in, squinting as what looked like a wing smacked against the window. “A really big bird? But… I think there’s a tail…”

“Zoom in a little more.” Avalon instructed. Scout complied, and we all leaned closer, trying to make out what it was that we were seeing.

Abruptly, the figure that had been pushing its way back and forth leapt fully into view, lunging up against the glass of the window with such suddenness that Columbus, Sean, and I all yelped and flinched.

“What the fuck is that thing?” Columbus demanded. “It looks like a… dog with a bird head and really big wings.”

It was Sands who answered. “The Persians called them Chamrosh. You know how the Greeks had their Griffin with the whole half-eagle, half-lion thing? Think of these things as like… their little cousins. They come in all different shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Like part chihuahua, part cockatoo. Or a doberman with the head and wings of an owl. Whatever works.”

“They usually hunt in packs,” Avalon added. “So these are probably the five that were mentioned. The sixth thing… I’m not sure.”

“Well, let’s deal with these ones since we know where they are, then go from there,” Sean suggested. “One step at a time?”

“Right…” Avalon waited a moment, then straightened. “Mason, you stay here and cover your sister just in case. Let us know if anything happens.”

Sands looked like she wanted to object to being left behind, but forced it down and gave a reluctant nod.

“Meanwhile,” my raven-haired roommate continued, “the rest of us will circle around from both sides. Porter, you’re with me. Gerardo, stay with Chambers. One melee focus alongside one ranged focus. Once we’re close enough to cut off their escape or counter-attack, Scout will take the first good shot she gets. As soon as she does, we move in because they’ll come tearing out of there to look for what’s attacking them.”

There was a general murmur of agreement, and we broke apart. Sean snapped his fingers, grinning down at his metallic companion. “Hey, boy, you ready to go show these wannabes what a real monster dog can do?” Vulcan gave a proud woof, and Sean patted his head. “That’s what I thought. Let’s do it.”

He gestured to make sure I was ready, and then the two of us started to walk around the side of the lake. I moved alongside the boy, eyes moving constantly. Every shadow made me almost jump, and I couldn’t help but wonder what other thing was here besides these bird-dog monsters.

Whatever it was, I just hoped we would see it before it saw us.

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First Hunt 4-01

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“So, I know you’re a Silverstone and all, but you do know that tonight is kind of a big deal, right?”

I blinked once at the boy who was talking. He was one of the other students in my year, a thin and aristocratic looking guy with hawkish features and a thin nose with a golden stud in it that was shaped like a heart. I hadn’t interacted with him much over the last few weeks, but I knew his name was Zeke, and he was on a team with Vanessa and Erin. That team consisted of those three, Zeke’s roommate Malcolm, as well as Travis and Rudolph, the two guys that Columbus and Sean hung out with.

“Yeah, sure,” I replied to him after a second. “Some kind of once a month team exercise thing.” Belatedly, after letting my eyes move over the crowded patch of grass near the Pathmaker building where all the first years had been gathered, I added, “Everyone seems pretty amped up.”

That was an understatement. There was a current of anticipation running through the students who knew what was going on that reminded me of being a kid at school right before Christmas vacation. This was obviously something they’d really been waiting for and looking forward to for a long time.

Zeke nodded, eyes never leaving me. Or rather, never leaving a particular spot a few inches above my eyes. “Right, and the ‘team exercise thing’ is a big deal. Most of us, those of us who grew up waiting for our chance to be here, have been dreaming about how these events would go since we were toddlers.”

I smiled at that, giving him a thumbs up while being careful not to move too much. “Hey, good to know. Hope it lives up to the hype. Good luck to your team and everything.”

“Uh huh.” His eyes hadn’t moved. “So you know this is a big deal. Great. So I have to ask, why aren’t you taking it seriously, exactly? Do you think it’s funny to mock the things that we like?”

“Mock?” I echoed blankly. “How am I mocking it?”

His eyes dropped a bit to squint at me. “This is our first big Heretic fight, you know? The first time we get a chance to fight as teams and actually go after real bad guys. Sure, it’s a fight with the training wheels on and the staff is right there to grab us if anything happens, but still. Big fight. Big chance to look like heroes, to be heroes. It’s a big deal, Felicity. You could at least pretend to take it seriously.”

“One, it’s Flick.” I reminded him. “And two, how am I not taking it seriously?”

By that point, Zeke was speaking through gritted teeth, unable to mask his annoyance any further. “If you’re taking it seriously, then why is there a rock on your head with a plastic sword taped to it?”

It was Columbus who spoke up from beside me. “Hey, I’m working on the little guy’s real weapon, but it took longer to get time in the metal shop than I thought, okay? The plastic’s just a placeholder.”

Grinning, I reached up to pat Herbie while remaining careful not to move my head too much so that he would remain perched a few inches in front of my ponytail. “Yeah, you just said everyone around here really looks forward to this. Can you blame the little guy for wanting to get in on the action too?”

To Sean, who was standing behind Columbus, I added, “Oh, thanks for the sword by the way. Herbie loves his new weapon, even if it is temporary. It really suits his debonair swashbuckler style.”

The other boy returned my easy smile while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “No problem. I’m gonna need He-Man’s weapon back once Columbo finishes up the metal one, but I don’t mind sharing with Herbie for now. Least this way the little guy gets to feel like he’s contributing.”

“Contributing?” Zeke was looking at us like we were all certifiably insane. “It’s a stupid rock with a couple googly eyes glued on and a plastic sword taped to it. It’s not a–” He started while lashing out as if to smack Herbie right off the top of my head, his annoyance apparently getting the better of him.

It was a move he regretted, since his hand had barely gotten within a few inches of my little buddy before Avalon seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Her hand closed around the boy’s wrist, and she gave a slight twist that made him abruptly turn sideways and drop to one knee with a yelp of pain.

“Funny,” my roommate stated flatly, her voice cold. “I’m pretty sure you don’t usually get a chance to make the whole ‘don’t touch a hair on my teammate’s head’ thing quite this literal. So I’m going to make this one count.” Leaning in a bit closer, she made sure the boy was looking at her from his kneeling position before speaking again. “The rock wasn’t bothering you. Neither was Chambers. You’re nervous that you’re going to fuck this up, so you’re looking for something to pick a fight about. Stop it. Shut up, stand up, and walk away. Quit spending so much time and energy obsessing over why someone else is doing something you think is stupid and focus on your own shit. Got it?” When the boy gave a single nod, Avalon released him and watched as he picked himself up. He scowled briefly, but said nothing before turning to slip away, pointedly ignoring the people who were staring.

Briefly meeting my roommate’s gaze, I gave her as much of a nod as possible. She ignored me and returned her attention to her gauntlets, obsessively going over them for any possible imperfection with the same meticulousness that I’d seen her use on her own face in the mirror.

I understood that urge a little bit more now that she’d told me her story. The need to be perfect, the drive to make herself look good extended through both her physical training and the time she spent on her appearance. Avalon had a drive to be as close to perfect as possible, all to prove her father wrong. She worked her ass off constantly to avoid being the helpless little girl that had been abused for so long. This image she’d made of herself, of this untouchable, beautiful badass was something she desperately needed so that she never had to think about the girl she’d been before. Avalon had basically created this almost mythological figure for herself and she worked almost constantly to maintain it.

Over the past week and a half, she and I had been investigating Deveron. We still hadn’t had a chance to get his roommate alone yet, but Avalon said she had an idea for that. I just had to wait to see what it was. In the meantime, I had been going through the library looking for any mention of either him or my mother. It was slow going since I couldn’t ask any of the staff about it, but so far nothing had turned up.

At least my father’s old advice about this sort of work was proving true. Detective work was turning out to involve a lot of reading boring file after boring file until it felt like my eyes were going to bleed.

But it was worth it. I had to know what Deveron’s connection to my mother was, what the hell his deal was in general, and what had happened to both of them. It was all just… insane, and I wanted answers.

Before I could say anything else, Sands and Scout moved up on either side of me, the former slipping right between Columbus so that she could pluck Herbie off my head, giving him a quick peck right above his eyes. “For luck,” she said before grinning my way. “You guys ready to kick ass and take a whole lotta names? Or, you know, as many names as we can take while kicking literally all of the ass.”

I took Herbie back from her, admiring the sword briefly before giving Sands a hip bump. “Actually, I’m kind of freaking out and trying not to show it. Guess that’s why I need my buddy so close.”

Sands met my gaze seriously. “Hey, it’ll be fine. Yeah, I guess it’s kind of scary. We go off as a team to deal with some Strangers and all that. But it’s okay. They’ve got staff monitoring everything the whole time. If something goes wrong, they’ll jump right in. This is just a way of getting our feet wet. After all, they can’t really let us out in four years with just book knowledge and a few classroom battles.”

Scout nodded, though I noticed that the girl was already holding her rifle in front of herself rather than leaving it inside the camera case where it usually was. She was obviously more nervous than her sister.

“Hey, Scout.” I offered my hand to her with the rock in it. “You wanna hold onto Herbie for me? He likes you, and since you’ve got the long distance weapon, he’ll probably be safer with you anyway.”

Smiling, the other girl accepted the little guy, holding him carefully while nodding to me.

“Eyes front, first years!” A voice bellowed, drawing everyone’s attention to where four teachers and the headmistress herself were standing. Professor Katarin was the one speaking, and he had Sands’ and Scout’s father Professor Mason on his left side, as well as Professor Kohaku the art teacher and security track head on his right. Headmistress Sinclaire and Nevada, the cheerleader-looking young woman who had taken over for poor Professor Pericles, were standing near the back, quietly conversing.

“Let’s have some quiet here, huh?” Professor Katarin ordered, the big man’s eyes moving over the crowd of excited (and obviously nervous) teenagers for a few more seconds before he spoke again. “Now here’s the thing, I know this is a big deal for you guys. But it’s a big deal for us too. This is your first hunt. It may be a training wheels hunt since we’ll be setting you down where we know the bad guys are and you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for the whole time. Plus we’ll be watching. But it’s still a real hunt, and there are some real consequences if you fuck up too badly. So if any of you look like you’re going to cause problems or not follow instructions, you’ll sit this out. No warnings, no second chances. That includes anyone we see trying to talk while we’re talking. You don’t pay attention, you’re done for the day. That’s it. You will stay here and you will not participate in any further hunts until we are satisfied that you are ready to take this seriously. Is that understood?”

Katarin waited until there was a chorus of agreement before continuing. “Now, it should also go without saying that if any of you are not comfortable with this hunt and do not think that you are ready, you should absolutely say so. Speak up, and you will not be forced to participate. No one will give you a hard time about sitting it out and waiting until you’re ready, or they’ll answer to me. So, would any of you like to wait until next time to give this a shot? Anyone at all?”

There were no takers. A few people (mostly bystander-kin like me) looked tempted, but no hands went up. Katarin looked around, giving enough time for someone to work up the nerve to be the first to say they wanted to sit out, but when none came, he nodded. “All right then. Headmistress Sinclaire has some things she’d like to say to you. Remember what I said, you talk while she’s talking, you’re done.”

Then it was the headmistress’s turn to speak. She took a moment to look out at everyone, a smile touching her expression before she finally began. “Good evening, everyone. I’m glad to see all of you here, ready for your first live hunt.” Briefly, the woman’s eyes looked toward me while she added, “Each and every one of you was told before accepting your invitation to enroll within Crossroads Academy that this is not a normal school. Over the past month that you have been students here, I hope that fact has been sufficiently impressed upon you so that this evening’s activities do not surprise you.

“We have identified and tracked a different target or small group of targets for each of your teams. These targets have been painstakingly cataloged to ensure that your team is ready to attempt a capture or kill. If you fail, do not be discouraged. Many fail their first attempt. That’s why we do these things rather than simply make you read books on the subject and then expect you to know what to do in a live combat situation. While it is true that many of you will go on to duties that do not involve chase and eliminate, being capable of such live combat is a necessary skill for every Heretic. Make no mistake, even in the less directly violent professions that you may aim for, you will always be a target for the Strangers. You will know them and they will know you. Therefore, you must be prepared to fight, and to kill when it comes down to it. Because they will not hesitate to kill you.”

Inwardly, I noted the second bird that stone happened to kill. Namely, that directing trainees to deal with the less powerful threats also allowed the full Heretics to focus on the more dangerous Strangers.

After letting her words sink in for a few seconds, the baroness spoke again. “Your teams will be sent through the Pathmaker one at a time to your destination, alongside your team mentor and a faculty aid. Both will remain close while you hunt, though the hunt itself will be up to you as much as possible. You will be told what creatures you are hunting, as well as as much information as you require to find them. Be warned, however. In future hunts, your faculty aid may choose to make you rely on what you actually know rather than provide answers, so you will want to be caught up on your studying.”

I rolled my eyes while looking toward the empty spot where—wait, where Deveron was standing? Where the fuck had he come from? Blinking up at the boy, who had somehow managed to position himself right nearby without me noticing until just then, I was so surprised that I actually opened my mouth to say something. At the last instant, I caught myself and halted my voice in its tracks, swallowing back the words that had started to spring out. A glance toward Katarin showed the man eyeing me pointedly, nodding to show that he had been paying attention before making a gesturing motion with his head toward the headmistress to tell me where my own eyes should be.

I obliged, though it was hard not to immediately demand to know what Deveron was doing. Was he just pretending to be a mentor now because the staff were watching? That had to be it, right?

Meanwhile, the headmistress assured us a few more times that we would be safe and that there would always be several staff members watching everything that was going on. Finally, she nodded toward the security chief while finishing with, “Professor Kohaku will be taking each group one at a time into the Pathmaker building once it’s their turn to start. Each of you will stay with her, and follow first her instructions and then that of your faculty guide when the time comes to start the hunt. Until Professor Kohaku takes your group, you may feel free to speak among yourselves, but do not leave this area.”

With that, she and every other teacher aside from the small Japanese woman moved into the nearby building. Nevada briefly gave us a thumbs up before skipping to catch up with the other teachers.

As soon as they were gone, I whirled toward Deveron and hissed, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Lazily linking his arms behind his head, the boy arched an eyebrow at me. “Jeeze, Chambers, make up your mind. First you can’t stop bitching because I’m not spending enough time with the team. And now you’re bitching because I am?”

My eyes rolled. “Let me guess, not showing up here and at least pretending you give a damn is grounds for a lot more punishment than you want, so you’re just gonna stand two feet away and be completely useless instead of standing as far away as possible and being useless.”

“Ouch, she bites.” In spite of his words, Deveron didn’t sound bothered. As usual, he didn’t really sound like he cared about much at all. That and his lazy smirk made me want to smack him.

“Is there a problem here?” Professor Kohaku had silently approached, her eyes moving between me and our team ‘mentor.’

I opened my mouth to respond, but Sands stepped on my foot. “Nope,” she replied firmly. “No problem. Right, Flick?” Looking my way, she made it clear with her expression that she really, really wanted me to go along with it and not complain about Deveron. Obviously, she was afraid that saying anything might end up getting us removed from the hunt. Her mouth moved silently to form the words, “We can do it without him.”

Resisting the urge to sigh, I nodded. “We’re all good.”

“Good,” Professor Kohaku replied quietly. “Because your team is up. Let’s go.”

Deveron winked at me, and then we were heading for the building. Heading to our first real hunt, our first real… kill. No matter how they dressed it up, that’s what it was. We were supposed to be hunting and killing monsters, and now they were about to have us do that for the first time, in as controlled circumstances as possible.

God, I really hoped I wouldn’t fuck this up.

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Interlude 3 – Hannah

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Six Years Ago.

I said Black Forest!” The sound of the shout filled the living room of the small apartment, echoing throughout the tight confines just before a glass bottle punctuated the bellow by shattering noisily against the far wall, “Not this fucking Asp’s light shit! It’s the green god damn bottle! The green one! Are you so stupid you don’t even know what the hell the color green is, you retarded little fuckstain?”

Standing before her drunken, towering father, eleven-year-old Hannah Owens quivered a little, reflexively cowering from the man’s glare. “I… I… I…” She was too frightened to force the words out.

“I, I, I.” The man repeated mockingly before making a noise of disgust before his fist lashed out, striking the girl across the face with enough force to knock her to the floor. “Shut the fuck up, brat.”

Hannah had seen the blow coming. Her father was too drunk for anything even approaching subtlety. The young girl, whose dark hair was drawn into a simple ponytail held by a scavenged rubber band, wanted to pull away from the incoming punch. Being hit by Daddy hurt, even when he was too drunk to put much thought into his blows. But she knew through plenty of personal experience that avoiding one blow, tempting as it was, would just infuriate the man and spur him on to much worse things. It was better to take the single hit and drop to the floor than risk giving him any reason to follow up the attack. It hurt to get hit. It hurt worse when Daddy was mad enough to get creative.

So she made herself stand still, taking the back-handed blow that knocked her to the floor with a cry. She had to yelp, had to make the physical sound or her father would think that he hadn’t hit her hard enough. It was a tricky thing to judge. If she didn’t make enough noise, Daddy would think that his first strike hadn’t done the job and would follow it up. If she made too much noise, it would annoy him further and he’d make her shut up the only way he knew how. There was almost an art to making just enough of a scene that he would be satisfied that a single punch had gotten his point across sufficiently.

Luckily, in a manner of speaking, Hannah had plenty of practice at that sort of thing.

Reginald, Reggie to his friends at the bars and the bowling alley where he led the league in score, stood over the fallen girl. His face was twisted and ugly as he jabbed a finger down at her. “I told you to get me a fucking Black Forest out of the fridge, you waste of sperm. Not the Asp’s Light. One of em’s got the green bottle, the other’s that piss-stain yellow one. I always knew the only thing you’d ever be good for was an example of why going bareback on some dumb bitch ain’t worth the trouble, but I thought you at least knew the difference between green and yellow. Ain’t that what you go to school for?!”

He waited half a second before raising his voice back into a bellow, “Answer the fucking question, you retarded little condom-tear! Don’t you know the difference between green and yellow, huh?!”

“Y-y-yes, daddy,” Hannah stammered, her eyes wide as she stared up at the furious man. “I… I kn-know. B-but, but… we-we-w-we’re out of the green one. They’re all gone a-a-and I didn’t wanna give you no beer, a-a-and that one was still there f-from the other night when you had your p-poker night.”

“Out?!” If anything, Reggie was even angrier at that point. He reared back his foot and kicked the girl. “What the fuck do you mean, we’re out?! I had six left this morning! Six of ’em! I had one with lunch, one this afternoon, and three more this evening! One, one, three. That’s fucking five, you worthless little shit! Where the–” He brought back his foot once more, sending it forward to kick the child with enough force to knock her several feet away. “–hell is my last beer! Where the fuck is it?! You steal it, huh? Where’d you fucking put it, shitstain?! Where’d you hide it?! You tell me where it is right now!”

Curling into a ball, tears falling freely from her clenched shut eyes, Hannah finally managed to answer the man when he paused to take a breath. “You drank it! You drank it, you drank it, you drank it!”

Letting out a snarl of anger, Reggie leaned down and grabbed the girl by her hair. Yanking the eleven-year old back to her feet, he gave her a hard, open-palm slap across the face. “You’re a fucking liar, you know that? You’re a moron and you’re a liar. I just told you how many beers I had. Five, not six. You already killed your mommy when you were born, you stupid shit. Wasn’t that enough for you?”

It was one of Hannah’s father’s favorite topics. Her mother had died due to complications while giving birth to the girl. In the eyes of Reginald Owens, that meant that Hannah had killed his wife. He had never gotten over the loss, and had never forgiven the girl, not for one minute. On his best days, he tolerated her presence and gave gruff orders to stay out of his way. On the worst, he made sure she knew just how worthless, unloved, unwanted, and pathetic she was. He made absolutely certain that the girl never forgot that she was a murderer, that she had killed her own mother while being born.

“You killed your mommy, you evil shit, and now you steal my beer?” The man spat the words hatefully.

Blinded by the tears that continued soaking her small face, Hannah had to fight for breath so that she could stammer a response. “Y-y-you had… had… the other one last n-night. You had it last night.”

“Bullshit!” Reggie’s anger boiled over, and he drew back his hand to smack her once again. In mid-swing, however, a noise from outside the apartment drew the attention of both father and daughter. It was the sound of shouting, running footsteps, and heavy crashes as something repeatedly crashed into the walls with so much force that they shook heavily from each impact.

“What… the….” Releasing his daughter, Reggie strode to the entrance of the apartment. Shoving the door open to step into the hall, he bellowed, “What the fuck is going on out here, you inconsiderate–”

His complaint was cut off as a larger man, pale and wild-eyed, slammed into Reggie and knocked him to the floor so hard the air was knocked out of him. The massive figure then continued to barrel into the newly revealed apartment, setting his eyes on Hannah herself, who was suddenly paralyzed with fear.

“Good.” The big man announced, drooling on himself as he staggered toward the girl. “Fresh meat.”

Hannah opened her mouth, a high-pitched scream barely escaping her before the enormous, ugly man was suddenly in front of her. He crossed the entire room so quickly she hadn’t even seen him move before he was abruptly right there. Her scream was cut off as his hand closed around her throat, and Hannah found herself being lifted up from the floor. He brought her right up to his face, and when he spoke, the stench of rotted meat on his breath nearly make the girl throw up. “Wish I had time to take this slow and really enjoy my meal,” he lamented with a sad shake of his head. “Especially when they look as tasty as you. But I need a recharge before those fucks catch up, and I think you’ll do just fine.”

He opened his mouth, revealing, to the girl’s horror, several rows of teeth that were more akin to that of a shark than a human being. Her renewed shriek joined the monster’s laugh as he began to lunge in.

An instant before those teeth would have torn into the child, a glowing red whip wrapped around the massive man’s thick neck from behind, halting the lunge of his head toward her tender flesh.

For a second, Hannah continued to stare into those hungry eyes. Then the man was yanked backward by the whip around his neck. The force of it forced him to drop her, and Hannah rolled out of the way, bumping against the television before her wild gaze found the terrible man with all the teeth once more.

He was standing over her father, who hadn’t managed to pick himself up yet. The monster’s eyes weren’t on the man that he’d casually knocked aside, but on the doorway of the apartment. When he spoke, the words were full of such vehemence that Hannah briefly thought it was her father’s voice.

“Baroness,” the monster spat the title like it was a curse. “To what do I owe this personal attention?”

In the doorway, holding onto the handle of the whip that had saved Hannah’s life, stood the most beautiful woman that the small brunette had ever seen. Tall, regal, with red hair that was cut short, she was stunning in a way that the child had never thought possible outside of movies. The glowing crimson whip that she had used to haul the man away from Hannah hung loosely from one hand.

When the woman spoke, it was with utter confidence and power. Real power, not Reginald’s tantrums. “You’re not killing anyone else, Fahsteth,” she announced flatly. “Not again.”

“Really?” The big man asked while lifting both hands as if to show that they were empty and that he was surrendering. “ Well, in that case, I suppose I’ll just have to–”

Reacting to some sign that Hannah hadn’t noticed, the so-called Baroness spun around suddenly, narrowly avoiding the lunge of the man that Fahsteth had been trying to distract her from.

A sword, the young girl realized belatedly while staring at what was happening in the doorway. The man who had attacked was swinging a sword around, taking chunks out of the wall. They struggled in a fight that was over so fast that the girl didn’t have time to follow anything that had happened. There was just a flurry of swings and the sound of that blade cutting into the wall, and then his sword was on the ground and the man himself was caught in the woman’s grip, her arms around his throat.

“Hey, Baroness!” the first man, Fahsteth, bellowed to get her attention. “You know that thing you said about me not killing anyone else?” His hands were still raised, but when he turned them the other way, there was a long-bladed knife in each of them that had appeared out of nowhere. “You might wanna think about throwing an asterisk onto that if you write this stuff down.”

With that, as the beautiful woman let out a cry of warning and tried to release the man that she had been struggling with, Fahsteth threw a single blade to each side. One struck struck Hannah’s father, who still hadn’t managed to pick himself up from the floor where he’d been knocked.

The other struck Hannah herself, embedding itself into the girl’s stomach with a suddenness that was almost as shocking as the utterly blinding pain that coursed through her.

“Got anymore predictions, Headmistress?” Fahsteth asked before spinning on his heel. With a shout of exuberance, he threw himself at the nearby window, crashing through the glass to escape.

In the next instant, the red-haired woman snapped the neck of the man that she had been struggling with, throwing the body aside before rushing forward. She dropped to one knee beside Hannah, freeing the blade from her stomach with a quick pull before pressing a hand over the wound. “No, no, no,” she murmured rapidly, head shaking. “Damn it! Listen to me, child, do not close your eyes. Look at me. Look at me, Hannah. Don’t close your eyes, okay? Keep them on me, keep looking at me.”

“How—how do you know my… my name?” The little girl asked, her voice thick with pain.

“I know a lot of things about you, Hannah,” the woman informed her. “In fact, I was just on my way to talk to you today when that… creature chose to make an appearance. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Hannah. I thought we’d have more time. I thought I could make your father stop, take you somewhere that people would care about you, and you could have a chance to be a little girl for a bit longer.”

“I—I… d-don’t… d-don’t… wanna… d-die…” The little girl’s tears flowed freely, almost blinding her as she stared up at the woman, terrified of what she was saying. “Please, please, I’ll be good, I promise.” Her sobs had taken on a ragged, pained quality as each word grew harder to speak. “Please…”

“Hannah, listen to me. Listen.” The woman tilted her chin up with a finger. “You are not going to die, do you understand me? My name is Gaia Sinclaire, and I promise you that you will not die today. We just… have to do things a little different. I’m not sad because you might die, Hannah. I’m sad because I was looking forward to getting to know you, and now I’m not going to get that chance.”

“But… but you said–” Hannah tried to protest, though the effort to speak even that much cost her.

“Shh,” Gaia’s head shook. “I said you weren’t going to die, and you’re not. Of that, you have my word.”

From her pocket, the woman produced what looked like a small chicken bone. Taking it in both hands, she snapped the bone and tossed it aside while continuing to smile at the girl. “It’s okay. It’s all right.”

No more than twenty seconds after the bone had been broken, another figure stepped through the doorway. This one was a man, tall and handsome, dressed in an emerald suit. The shirt beneath the suit jacket was black, and the sunglasses he wore were tinted so dark that they appeared opaque.

“You broke the bone,” the newcomer announced, sounding vaguely surprised. “On purpose? I was half-expecting to find it discarded in a dumpster, with you back at your school laughing at the image of me rooting through the trash, trying to figure out what you wanted.”

Turning on him, Gaia interrupted before the man could continue. “Shut up and pay attention, Seller. The girl’s been poisoned. It was one of Fahsteth’s blades.”

Wincing noticeably, Seller’s head shook. “Fuck, so why’d you call me in? I know some of those hardliners you run with think this is the sort of thing we Gardeners enjoy, but you fucking know better than that, Sinclaire. I don’t wanna see this. Fahsteth’s blade? You know we can’t fix a Bystander that’s been hit by one of those. It’s impossible.”

“She’s a potential,” Gaia informed him in a low voice. “One of our biggest, actually. If she was a Heretic, we could fix her in a second. This poison would mean nothing. But…”

Seller’s voice was caustic. “But those stick in the ass old timers wouldn’t stand for it. Can’t break tradition, not even for a sick little girl that didn’t do anything wrong.”

The Baroness shook her head. “They believe that using the Edge on someone who is too young creates more problems.”

“I know exactly what they think!” Seller’s voice was raised. “That’s the whole reason the Garden exists! Because those fucks can’t get over themselves and their ‘tradition.’ And god forbid anyone fight against that. We all saw what happened to…” Pursing his lips then, clearly forcing himself to stop talking rather than launch into a much longer argument, the man finally finished with, “And what do you think?”

“I think I want you to take this girl,” Gaia Sinclaire replied softly, “and save her life. Make her a Heretic. Give her the power she needs.”

“You know if we take her,” Seller’s voice was equally quiet. “We don’t give them back. She’ll be one of us. You said she was one of your favorite potentials?”

“I would rather she go with you and live, than die.” Gaia’s voice was hard. “Take care of the girl, Seller. Heal her, keep her safe. Teach her how to fight. Teach her how to take care of herself. Teach her how to survive… and how to win.”

Slowly, Seller reached up to push his sunglasses down so that his pale eyes could look into Hannah’s weak, pain-filled gaze. “What about you, kid? What do you want?”

“I….” Hannah started. “… want… to… live.”

“Good enough for me.” The man crouched, pushing his hands under Hannah before lifting her off of the floor. “I’ll take the kid back to the Garden, Baroness. We’ll fix her up.”

He started for the doorway, the small, weak figure clutched in his arms. Before he reached it, however, another voice spoke up. “Heeeeey. What about me?”

It was Hannah’s father, Reggie. He was still lying in a pool of his blood, hand waving back and forth. “I ain’t… I ain’t dead either, you stupid fucks. What about me?”

Pushing herself up, Gaia Sinclaire stood over the man. “What about you? Well, as it happens, I was on my way here to tell you what I think of how you’ve treated your daughter, Mr. Owens, when that creature so rudely interrupted. And now? With that particular wound and the poison in the blade, you’ll be dead within the hour.” Taking the handle of the knife with one hand, she tore it from his body while straightening up. “Give or take.”

“You shit!” The man blurted. “You can’t just… can’t just leave me here!”

Standing there regally, the Baroness gazed down at Reggie. “There are several things that I am capable of, Mr. Owens. I am capable of understanding what you’ve done to your daughter. I am capable of understanding that you are never likely to change. And, perhaps most importantly for you in this second, I am, in fact, fully capable of leaving you right where you are.”

With that, she pivoted on her heel and left the man to scream useless insults and threats after her.

“All right, kid,” Seller announced while walking deeper into the apartment, toward another door. “Let’s get you fixed up, huh? You know where this door goes?”

Blearily, the poison working its way through her, Hannah lifted her gaze to look that way. “It’s a…. closet…”

The man smiled. “Wanna bet?” Leaning close enough to twist the knob without dropping the girl, he pushed it open, revealing a whole new building on the other side.

Eyes widening in spite of the pain she was in, Hannah stared at the impossible sight. “H-how…?”

“You think that’s cool, munchkin,” Seller announced, “then the rest of this stuff is gonna blow your mind.”

******

Four Months Ago

“They’ll never take me back,” the girl who had grown into a beautiful, powerful young woman over the past six years stood in the middle of the empty street. Rain poured down from above in great sheets, the raging storm making it all but impossible to either see or hear further than a few feet away. “Not after what I did,” she finished.

Beside her, the woman who had saved her life by sending her away all those years ago lay a hand on her shoulder. With her other hand, she clicked the top of a pen. The second the pen was clicked, the water stopped falling on the two of them. It was still raining just as heavily as before, but a space had opened up where the water simply avoided, falling to either side. It was as if an invisible shield had surrounded them.

“It’s going to be all right, Hannah,” Gaia promised the girl.

“All right?” Turning on her, the brunette shook her head. “I killed my teammate. That’s not all right. That’s not something they’ll ever forgive. I killed him. They’ll want payback for that. I have to run.”

“It was self-defense,” Gaia reminded her. “He was trying to–”

“I know what he was trying to do, I was there!” Hannah shot back. “You think it matters? I killed him and everyone saw me with the body. They know I killed him, they know it was me. They don’t know anything else. They don’t know about the harassment. They don’t know about the letters. They don’t know how many times he said he didn’t care that I like girls. Fuck, it was a turn-on for him! He said we could get one of the other babes in and make it a real party. But yesterday he just… he just… he tried to push the issue. I killed him. I just hit him and I hit him again, and then I couldn’t stop hitting him. That’s what they saw. That’s what they walked in on. Me, sitting on his chest, hitting his dead body for so long that his face was just a… a mess. I know what they saw. I know what they were going to do. So I ran away. I would’ve been taken anyway if Seller hadn’t gotten me out and given me your number. Now I… I don’t know what to do.”

“Listen to me, Hannah,” Gaia’s voice was firm. “You are going to be all right. First, the Garden wouldn’t dare attack the daughter of one of Crossroads’ senior staff. It would provoke a war.”

“But I’m not related to anyone from your school,” Hannah pointed out.

“You will be as soon as I finish adopting you,” Gaia replied simply. “You’ll be my daughter, my heir, and no one from that school will dare come after you. They’ll have to go through me first.”

Hannah’s mouth fell open. “You want to adopt me? Don’t you think I’m a little old for that?”

“Actually,” Gaia shrugged. “You happen to be the perfect age to start attending Crossroads.”

“Your school.” Hannah’s disbelief was palpable. “You want to adopt me and send me to your school.”

The Baroness nodded once. “You’ve learned so much from Eden’s Garden already, but I know they don’t start teaching magic until this year, Hannah. The human body can’t handle it until now. So you have a head-start on the physical parts, but you’ll be right with the others when it comes to magic. You’ll come to Crossroads. It will be hard for you to adjust, but I believe that you can manage it. I believe that you will excel, that you can excel at anything. I’ve been keeping an eye on you, Hannah, the whole time you were with the Garden Heretics. I know you. I know you can do this.”

Pursing her lips for a few seconds, the girl finally shrugged. “What the hell, it’s better than being on the run for the rest of my life.”

“Good,” Gaia smiled a bit. “We’ll spend the summer together. And in the fall, Hannah Sinclaire can join Crossroads.”

“No,” the young woman shook her head firmly, turning a bit to face the Headmistress. “Not Hannah. I’m tired of that name. That’s the name my father chose. I’m done with it. You want to adopt me? Fine, but change my whole name then.”

“Very well,” Gaia nodded once. “What shall we call you then, if not Hannah?”

The girl was quiet for a few seconds before she spoke. “I liked being at Eden’s Garden. You know, it’s not as bad as you Crossroads people make it sound. Sure it’s… different, and there’s some nasty people there. Hell, I’ve done some bad things. Things your people would consider bad. But it’s not all evil mustache twirling. They’re not a bunch of monsters. They just think differently than you. Hell, they say a lot of things about you guys that’s not true.”

Gaia’s head inclined into a simple nod. “I am aware of this. I would not have sent you with Seller if I didn’t believe you could be safe there.”

The girl continued, “I don’t want to forget where I came from. I don’t want to abandon it. Eden’s Garden taught me a lot. They taught me how to fight, how to protect myself. I’ll go to your school, I’ll even take your name. But I miss the Garden. I want my new name to help me remember it.”

“There is a possibility,” Gaia informed her. “I have… heard that the apple has a special significance to Garden students.”

“Apples, sure,” Hannah bobbed her head. “Or just fruit in general. The whole bullshit with the apple on the tree? The forbidden fruit? Yeah, that’s real for them. Sort of. That’s how they awaken us. You guys use the lighthouse, Eden’s Garden uses the fruit of knowledge. You eat the fruit, you become a Heretic.”

The Crossroads Headmistress nodded at that. “Of course. If you wish to hold onto your connection to the Garden, there is a name whose source was derived from the Old Welsh word for apple, aball. Or afal, depending on who you speak with. Ynys Afallon, to be specific. The island of apples. Or, in more common terminology… Avalon.”

“Avalon…” The girl considered for a moment before nodding slowly. “I like it.”

“Very well,” Gaia bowed her head in acknowledgment. “Then after today, you need never answer to the name of Hannah Owens again. This is your fresh start. From this point on, you are Avalon Sinclaire.”

“I still think this is all going to blow up in our faces,” the newly dubbed Avalon remarked quietly. “And Eden’s Garden won’t just let it go. They can’t. But…. what the hell, I suppose your Crossroads Academy has a new student. Just one thing though, I don’t do well with roommates. They never last.”

The Headmistress smiled faintly at that. “Never fear. I happen to have the perfect roommate in mind for you.”

“I’ll break her inside of a week. She’ll beg you to move her,” Avalon replied flatly.

Gaia met her gaze, her smile broadening just a bit. “We shall see, my new daughter.

“We shall see.”

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A Little Bit Of Guidance 3-05

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My first temptation, to grab the picture and run after Deveron so I could shove it in his face and demand answers, was almost impossible to resist. I had to physically will myself not to, repeating in my head several times why it would be a bad idea to show my hand so easily. Even then, it almost wasn’t enough. My muscles tensed up, and I stared down at that picture of Deveron beside my mother.

In the end, I carefully spread the photograph on the grass and took out my phone. Lining the screen up just right, I used the camera app to take a picture of it, checking afterward to make sure it looked right.

With that done, I folded the photograph up once more and put it back inside the hole before replacing the brick. After taking a second to make sure it looked like it had when I found it, I picked myself and glanced around to make sure no one was watching before heading back the way I had come.

I needed answers, but blurting out demands to Deveron probably wasn’t the way to get them. No, I needed to talk to someone else about this. The only person who knew as much as I did. My roommate.

Eventually, I found out from another student that Avalon was practicing the newest bit of magic that Professor Carfried had us working on. It was essentially a minor step-up from the whole turning a rock into a firecracker noisemaker thing that Columbus and I had been practicing a couple of weeks earlier. This one was supposed to supposed to work like a flashbang, with the added trick that the person using it could designate people to be immune and only the ones that weren’t would be affected. Apparently many Heretics used it or spells like it to blind a room full of innocents while dealing with a Stranger. They may not be able to see magic or monsters for what they were, but people still tended to object to seeing someone stab, shoot, or abduct what they thought was a normal human being.

I’d asked about civilians recognizing Heretic magic, only to be told that our abilities fell under the same haze effect that stopped Bystanders from understanding it as Stranger’s abilities did. That was… enough to raise some questions in my mind, but I hadn’t yet sorted out exactly what those questions were.

The room that Avalon was in was one of several set aside for magic practice inside the physical training building. These rooms were each about sixteen feet by sixteen feet, with floors and walls that were reinforced metal of some kind that was resistant to most spells and damage that any of the students could manage. The doors were so heavy they were hard to move even when they weren’t barred with the three different locks that were meant to make sure no one blundered into the path of spell practice, and they each had one of those small rectangular view ports at eye level that could be slid open or shut so that the person inside could look out and see who was trying to talk to them.

Stopping by the door, I reached up to press my thumb against the button next to the door. It looked like a doorbell, and essentially worked in a similar way. Instead of making a loud ringing noise, however, which could potentially be devastatingly distracting to someone working dangerous magic within the room, it simply made the ceiling glow in a way that was obvious but less potentially catastrophic.

Even then, it took Avalon a minute or two to answer. Knowing my roommate the way I did already, however, I didn’t bother to press the button again. Instead, I simply waited, trying not to squirm too anxiously. As hard as it had been to avoid running after Deveron, it was even harder not to bang on the door and shout for Avalon’s attention immediately. Patience was hard, especially in this situation.

Finally, the little viewing hatch slid open, and I saw Avalon’s brown eyes staring at me in silence for a second before her irritated voice demanded, “What do you want, Chambers? We’re done for the day.”

“I found something,” I informed her flatly, meeting her hard gaze. “You’ll want to see it, I promise.”

Still, she waited for a few seconds before heaving a sigh. The view window slid shut with a clang, and a moment later the door was hauled open. My roommate stood there, looking me up and down briefly before stepping aside as she gestured for me to enter. “I suppose you want privacy for this then?”

Nodding, I stepped into the training room and glanced around briefly. The walls were covered in scratches and various marks from previous spell training sessions. I knew that they tended to scour the training rooms completely clean every week, so most of these marks had to have been made recently. Obviously, these rooms ended up being used a lot, if the marks all over the place were any indication.

After shoving the door shut heavily and resetting each of the locks, Avalon simply folded her arms over her stomach and stood there, silently waiting for me to explain just what the hell I wanted.

Rather than try to find the words to explain, I took my phone, brought up the picture, and handed it to her. Avalon accepted the phone, glanced for half a second at the screen and then returned her attention to me. “What’s your point? It’s the same fucking picture we’ve looked at for the past two weeks.”

“Keep looking,” I instructed. I wanted to see her reaction when she finally noticed what was different, without warning her or guiding her attention toward it. “There’s something new this time.”

The other girl squinted at me briefly, then returned her gaze to the image. I saw her eyes move over it carefully, scanning the people in it. When she finally spotted what I had seen, it was obvious. Her eyes widened considerably, and her mouth actually dropped open before she let out a strangled curse.

“Yeah,” I informed her as dryly as possible. “That’s pretty much what I said.”

“Where the hell did you get this?” Avalon demanded, returning her stare to me. “Does he know you have it? What happened? How did you find it? Who gave it to you? What the actual fuck?”

Holding up my hands to stem the tide of questions, I explained, “I was following Deveron to bitch him out for being such a useless mentor. I saw him go behind the staff building. When I got there, he was putting that photograph into a little hole in the wall hidden by a brick. I looked at it after he left and that’s what it was. It was that picture. Same as the one in the trophy case except for that little… change.”

After staring at the picture for another minute, Avalon shoved the phone back at me before spinning to start unlocking the door. She was cursing rapidly under her breath, clearly working herself up.

“Wait, wait.” Catching the other girl by the arm, I flinched back a bit when she whirled on me. But I didn’t let go. “We can’t just go stomping up to him and demand he tell us the truth, Avalon. I know you’re good at the whole ‘tell me what I want to know or face damnation to hell’ glare, but I’m pretty sure it won’t work on Deveron. All it’ll do is tip him off that we know something, and he’ll be even more careful than he already is. We’ll get nothing out of it except for appeasing your urge to yell.”

Her eyes narrowed, and for a moment I thought that she might direct some of that aforementioned yelling at me instead of her original target. In the end, however, Avalon let out a long, low breath to take control of herself back. Then she carefully, but firmly yanked her arm free of my grasp. When she spoke, it was obvious that she was making an effort to control her tone. “Then what do you suggest?”

“We investigate him,” I replied without breaking her gaze. “Before this, he was just an annoying, lazy jerk who wasn’t worth the time. Now? Now I want to know everything about him. I want to know where he came from, everything he did here last year, all those awards he won and who his teachers and teammates were. I want to know where he went over the summer and why he’s so different this year. I want to know what kind of fight he had with Professor Pericles, why he shoved the guy, and what else those Runners talked to him about. I want to know who his family is, who his friends are, and most importantly, why the hell he’s standing in that picture with my mother from ninety years ago.”

Swallowing hard, I continued. “He’s the closest thing to an answer we’ve found so far about who my mother really was, or is, or whatever. I don’t want to tip him off until we’ve found out everything we can. I want to know everything we can possibly know before we say anything directly to him. I want answers, but I want to do it the right way, the smart way. So no warning him until we’re ready. Okay?”

She didn’t answer at first, simply regarding me for a few seconds before nodding. Her tense body relaxed somewhat, and Avalon spoke in a quiet tone. “That’s probably the smart move.”

It was pretty much the closest the other girl had ever gotten to actually complimenting me, and I treated it as such. In spite of the situation, I made myself smile brightly at her. “Aww, thanks, roomie. You know, you’re not so bad yourself. We make a good team after all.” Holding my fist out to her, I grinned. “Magical roommate detective friendship power is go?”

Her voice as she responded was as dry as the Sahara. “You have got to be kidding.”

With my free hand, I slapped my forehead. “Crap, sorry, you’re right. What was I thinking?” Reaching into my pocket then, I produced Herbie and set him on top of my outstretched fist. “Can’t forget our other roommate and team mascot! He’d never forgive me.” Still grinning, I waggled my eyebrows at her teasingly. “Now magical roommate detective friendship power is go?”

“Oh my god, Chambers,” Avalon was shaking her head rapidly, but not fast enough to hide the little smirk that had crept over her face in spite of herself. “You must have been born magical.”

Blinking at that, I let my head tilt slightly, curious. “You really think so?”

“I know so,” she informed me. “Because magic is the only conceivable way that anyone could fit that much dork into such a small package.”

Snickering, I continued to hold my fist out. “Do it, do it, do it. You know you want to. Go ahead. Do it. You know you wanna. Fist bump, fist bump, fiiiiist bump! Please? Pretty please with cherries on top?”

Her eyes rolled heavily, but Avalon finally reached out to touch her fist against mine as lightly as possible before dropping her arm back to her side. “There,” she replied. “Are you happy now?”

“Yaaaaaaaay!” I tossed Herbie in the air to celebrate, then caught him while bouncing up and down, smiling as brightly as I could manage. “Best. Roommates. Ever.”

Turning on her heel, Avalon finished unlocking the room while muttering under her breath, “Biggest dork in the world. No, in the universe. What’s bigger than the universe?”

“Multiverse,” I informed her helpfully, still bouncing up and down with my pet rock. “Right, Herbie?”

She spared me a brief glance, then shoved the door open before stepping out into the hall. “Multiverse. Multi-multiverse. Omniverse. Biggest dork that has ever dorked. My roommate is the progenitor from which all dorks have spawned throughout any and all creation, reality, and time.”

Laughing easily, I followed her into the hall. “At least you think I’m the best at something.”

“Speaking of something you’re supposed to be good at,” Avalon changed the subject. “Where do you think we’re going to start with this whole ‘investigate the pile of excrement that is our mentor’ thing?”

I paused to think about that briefly while the two of us stood there in the hall. “We need to find out everything we can without letting Deveron know that we’ve seen the picture or that we suspect anything about it. So whenever we actually talk to anyone about it, we need to make it look like we’re just trying to figure out why he’s such a useless mentor, why he’s so lazy. We don’t ask about ninety years ago, we don’t show anyone the picture, we keep it subtle for as long as we can.”

Nodding slightly, Avalon added, “Shouldn’t be hard to get everything his roommate knows out of him.”

“Really?” I blinked once. “Why, do you know him that well?”

“Nope,” she replied. “I’ve never seen the guy before. Don’t even know who he is.”

Frowning a little, I asked, “Then how do you know it’ll be so easy to get information out of him?”

It was Avalon’s turn to smile knowingly, an expression that was more predatory than happy. “Just trust me, Chambers. We ask him some questions, he’ll answer. You just have to ask in the right way.”

Flushing slightly at the implication, I coughed. “Okay, we’ll get answers then. So we’ve got the roommate, anyone of his team we can talk to, maybe his old adviser—wait, who’s his adviser again?”

“He’s in the Explorer track,” Avalon replied. “So his adviser is Professor Carfried, which means-”

I cursed. “Which means he won’t know anything about Deveron from last year, since he took over for Professor Tangle.” Then I blinked. “Wait, do you think that shark attack had anything to do with this?”

“Would it really surprise you?” The other girl shot back. “Does any of this seem like a coincidence?”

“Point,” I replied. “Do you think there’s any way we could talk to Professor Tangle?”

“Maybe send her a message?” Avalon offered with a shrug. “I doubt any of the teachers here will give you her phone number, but maybe one of her old students has it.”

“Like Deveron’s roommate,” I finished her thought. “Sounds like he’s the first one we should talk to.”

The two of us started to walk down the hall, and I spared a glance toward the other girl. This was pretty much the best we’d ever gotten along openly, and I took a chance by saying, “Thanks for helping me. You know, with this and with everything else.”

“You’re a teammate,” she replied flatly. “Making sure you’re good enough to pull your weight is in my own best interest. I’d rather not lose points because you’re lagging behind.”

“It’s more than that,” I insisted. “You’re going above and beyond, even if you complain about it. So.. thanks. And… and I wanted to ask you something. I’m sorry if it pisses you off, but I’m really not trying to. I’m just curious. If you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to. You don’t even have to respond. You stay silent, and I won’t ask again, I swear.”

For a moment, I thought she might bite my head off. Her glare returned as she looked at me, before stopping herself. I saw a myriad of emotions pass through her gaze before she finally shook her head, voice flat and emotionless. “What do you want to ask, Chambers?”

Even as worked up as I was, as much as I had practiced this in my head, I still faltered. It took me a moment to find my voice. “Your tattoo,” I finally managed quietly. “Is it really–”

“Eden’s Garden.” Avalon’s voice was harder than before. “Yes, I was a student there. They start earlier than this place does. Yes, I did some bad things while I was there. No, I’m not spying for them. Yes, I’m here by my own choice.”

“What… what was it like there?” I asked after a second of bracing myself. “Is it really that different from this place? Do they work with the Strangers? How is that possible? Did you ever talk to any of them? What are they like? What–”

Holding her hand up to stop me, Avalon pursed her lips. Her eyes were glaring at me, but the anger in them didn’t seem to be directed my way. It took her a few seconds to find her voice. “You… look, you want me to answer your questions? I’ll tell you my story once, just so you stop asking me, understand? I’ll tell you where I came from and what happened to me one time. And if any of that story gets out, I’ll know that you’re the one who talked about it. If that happens, I’ll come after you, got it?”

Bobbing my head up and down, I promised, “I won’t tell anyone anything, I swear.”

Still staring at me for another few seconds, Avalon finally let out her breath. “Fine.” Cracking her neck to both sides, she started, “You want to know my story? You want to know why I was at Eden’s Garden, and why I’m here now? You want to know the truth? Well shut up and listen then, because here it is.”

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