Month: January 2016

Visitations 5-06

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“You don’t have to go after that piece of shit all by yourself,” Asenath spoke up as the two of us went back into Dad’s motel room once I had briefly summarized the call with Ammon.

I shook my head at that. “I kind of do. If you go after him, he’ll use his mind control on you. You said yourself that you’re pretty sure I’m the only one that’s immune to it. If he gets you, you’re not backup anymore, you’re the primary threat.” Softening my voice, I added, “I’m pretty sure you’d cream me.”

“I would,” she agreed with a sympathetic nod. “But don’t you have some kind of way to contact your teachers? I’m pretty sure not letting a kid mind control a bunch of cops into mass murder is their job.”

Snorting in spite of myself, I nodded. “I do have a way of contacting them. It’s an emergency beacon. I squeeze it in an SOS pattern once and they come running. The problem is that it’s attached to my phone. That’s why I have to go after Ammon. Once I get my phone back, I can get the cavalry here.”

Her head cocked a little to the side. “You think you can get it away from him long enough to do that?”

“I sure as hell can’t just sit here on my hands waiting for Ammon to murder everyone in town,” I replied while reaching down to yank the phone cord out of the wall and then out of the back of the motel telephone. Tossing the cord to her, I instructed, “Quick, tie up my dad.”

Catching the cord with one hand, the vampire looked at me like I’d grown two heads. “Excuse me?”

“We don’t know what other orders Ammon gave him, or how long the ‘kill Rose’ order will last,” I pointed out while gently easing the woman herself to her feet. “Tie him up before he comes to.”

To Rose, I spoke gently. “Ma’am? We don’t know what Ammon said to you either, and we don’t have time to go over it. So I need you to come over into the bathroom so I can lock you in, okay? You’ll have water in there and the maid can let you out in the morning.”

“Let me… out?” The woman sounded dazed, like she wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. “Where is that nice boy? He, I think I need to find him.” She spoke dreamily, clearly completely out of it. I wasn’t sure how much of that was Ammon’s power and how much was the Bystander inability to remember magic. According to the teachers at Crossroads, a Bystander witnessing magic will either not notice it at all, or will rapidly forget it happened seconds after it stops affecting them directly.

Wincing, I led the woman to the bathroom and sat her down on the toilet seat. “Rose, I need you to stay here, okay? Just stay here until someone comes for you. I’m sorry I can’t do more. Just wait.”

By the time I came out and shoved the nearby chair in front of the door to hold it shut and lock her inside, Asenath had my father’s hands tied behind his back, while his feet were bound by strips torn from a sheet that she had liberated off of the nearby bed. He was still out cold, thankfully.

“You really want to help?” I asked the vampire girl straight out, watching her carefully.

“It’s what I do,” she replied easily after checking the knots again. “As hard as that may be to believe.”

My head shook at that. “I don’t know what I believe anymore. Except that you did come in to save me, and I do need help. You can’t go after Ammon, but you can help stop those cops. Without killing them.”

“You’re right, I can do that. It’s a lot of cops though, they’ll be spread out. It’s probably too late to stop all of it. All I could do is drive around looking for those cop cars and stop them as I find them.”

“Please just do the best you can,” I pleaded. “They’re good cops, they don’t deserve this. And neither do the people Ammon’s sending them to kill. I don’t… I don’t know how much they’ll remember afterward or what they’ll do. But please, please stop them. And take my dad with you. Just put him in the back of your truck. He probably shouldn’t wake up here if that order from Ammon is still in effect, and I don’t want to take him anywhere near that evil son of a bitch again.”

I saw curiosity in her eyes. “You trust me to stay with your father without you around? Even after everything that the Heretics have taught you about people like me?”

Pausing slightly, I met her gaze before responding. “I can think for myself. I make my own choices. And right now, I choose to trust the person that helped me stop my dad from becoming a murderer.”

Her head inclined in acknowledgment. “I’ll do the best I can to help those people. I promise, Felicity.”

“Flick,” I corrected automatically. “Call me Flick. That’s what I prefer.”

“Flick then,” Asenath agreed. “In that case, you should call me Senny. That’s what my friends call me.” Immediately after saying that, she raised both eyebrows. “Unless you can’t be friends with a vampire.”

“Lady,” I informed her while reaching down to pick up the motel provided bible from the table, “I don’t care if you’re Cthulhu’s midwife. If you save those people, I’ll be the best friend you ever had.”

“Okay, future best friend,” Senny replied while nodding to the book in my hand. “What’s that for?”

“This?” I gave the book a wave. “I’m just gonna share the voice of God with someone who needs it.”


I took Dad’s car back into the city and headed straight for the police station. Ammon would be there. He wasn’t trying to hide from me, not now. He wanted me to come back to him. He wanted to play.

The thought made me push the accelerator harder against the floor as I gritted my teeth. Who the fuck was this kid? What the hell did he want with me? Why was I immune to his power? Could it be a Heretic thing? I didn’t think so, but what the hell did I know? Clearly there was a lot I hadn’t been told.

Asenath—Senny was a vampire that wasn’t evil. Were there others? How much of the Crossroads ‘Strangers are all evil so kill them on sight’ teaching was bullshit? And why had Ammon failed to set off either my ‘evil Stranger kill it’ sense or Seller’s? I’d felt uneasy around him, but nothing like what had happened when I looked at Senny. And Seller hadn’t reacted at all. So why didn’t we sense him?

I had far more questions than answers. Fortunately, I also had a way of getting them. I was going to pin that arrogant, evil little shit down and force him to tell me the truth about everything that was going on.

The sheriff’s office loomed up ahead of me at the end of the street. I could see the brick wall surrounding it, and the lamp that illuminated the main entrance into the parking lot.

I remembered going there with my mother, back before everything had changed. Most of the memories were fuzzy, but I could see myself as a little kid, not even tall enough to see over the front counter. Mom would bend down, pick me up and put me on top of it so that I could chatter at the desk officer on duty while carefully sneaking handfuls of M&M’s from the nearby candy dish. Mom pretended not to notice, yet somehow always managed to pick me up again before I took too many.

My mom had been one of the most amazing women I’d met. As a child, I had adored her. I had worshiped the ground she walked on. Seeing my mommy in her uniform had made me so proud.

Then she left. She had abandoned us, and all of those memories had become awful. Thinking of them during those years had actually made my stomach hurt. Witnessing how miserable my father had been after she left had twisted those memories in my head and made me associate them with pain. It had gotten so I didn’t even like passing the sheriff’s office for a long time because of how it made me feel.

Now I didn’t know what to think anymore. Seeing the building looming ahead of me, I felt that familiar tug of emotion, the memories of time spent with my mother stirring up in me just beneath the surface.

But in the end, the thought of what Ammon was making the deputies do to those innocent people was enough for me to shut the rest of it out. I had to focus. This wasn’t about Mom. It was about Ammon.

I had to assume that Ammon had taken control of everyone I saw. He probably hadn’t gotten to everyone, but assuming every single person was under his influence was safer in the long run. I had to get in, get past anyone he put in my way without hurting anyone too badly, and get that phone back.

Okay, Flick. You can do this. Just remember what Avalon and Professor Katarin taught you.

Stopping the car a block away from the station, I shoved my door open and got out. Without taking my eyes off the building, I tugged my staff from its container and pressed the button to charge it up.

Rather than head straight for the front door, I cut around the side through a nearby alley. Once I was behind the station, I looked at the staff in my hand, then up to the roof and let out a breath. “All right,” I spoke quietly to nobody in particular. “I always wanted to try something like this. Here goes nothing.”

With that, I pointed the staff to the ground and held it with both hands while triggering the kinetic charge that I had built up in it. Instantly, I was catapulted off of the ground, barely managing to restrain my squeal in the process. The kinetic blast threw me into the air about halfway toward the top of the two story building. As I started to fall back once more, I quickly adjusted the staff so that it was still pointed mostly downward, but also slightly toward the wall of the building that was behind me.

The good news was that the subsequent second blast of kinetic force hit that wall and propelled me the rest of the way up and over the edge of the roof. The bad news was that I didn’t make the most graceful of landings. With a yelped curse, I came down on the roof in a painful roll, nearly sliding off one side before finally stopping myself. Then I just laid there on my back for a second, catching my breath. Or, more accurately, letting my brain catch up with what I had just done.

After a very brief pause, I forced myself to roll over and get back to my feet. Grabbing my staff back up from where it had fallen from my grasp as I tumbled, I walked across the roof to a waiting doorway.

Ever since before my mother had been sheriff, the roof had been where the deputies smoked so that they were out of sight of any civilians that didn’t like it. Sure, it was a nasty habit that I would never ever want any part of. But in that second, I wanted to kiss every single smoking deputy on the force.

Pausing at the door, I turned my gaze to the nearby security keypad. In spite of myself, I smiled. My friendship with Scott Utell, former babysitter and current mind controlled deputy sheriff, had been a complicated thing. Mostly it consisted of me repeatedly talking Scott into telling me things he really wasn’t supposed to, or getting him to help me out with things like that situation with Cal at the theater.

And, in other cases, it consisted of me getting the code that unlocked the door onto smoker’s roof so that I could get out there from the inside to talk to him in private about the latest favor I needed.

Keying in the six digit code, I pushed the door open after the light turned green and stepped inside. Once in the stairwell, I quickly closed the door as quietly as I could while listening for anyone nearby.

Nothing. The hall was silent. Which in and of itself freaked me out, because the station was never silent. Even when nothing in particular was happening, there should’ve been televisions blaring, reports coming in from other cities, the clank of coffee cups, and muffled conversation. Silence was wrong.

God, I hoped I wasn’t wrong. Please don’t let that evil little shit have gone somewhere else. If he wasn’t here in the station waiting for me, I didn’t know what else I could do. I had to get that phone back.

Shutting that worry out of my mind, I walked as quickly and quietly as I could down the stairs to the second floor. Poking my head out the door there, I took in the sight of the desks all the way back to the office that had once belonged to my mother. The glass surrounding the office was frosted to stop people from seeing what was going on inside, but I could make out four distinct shapes. The three larger shapes were standing on one side of the desk, clearly waiting at attention. Meanwhile, the smaller shape was obviously sitting at the desk itself, sliding drawers open and tossing things out.

Taking a careful step that way, I paused as something else caught my eye. Turning that way, I saw another figure standing near the top of the stairs that led down to the first floor. Edgar, the janitor who had been around forever. He was crouched low, staring intently toward the front door with one of those beanbag loaded shotguns in his hands. Beyond him if I looked into the glass of the windows above the door, I could see the reflection of three more people, all civilians, hidden behind the front desk down there. Each of them was armed as well, two with stun guns and one with a canister of riot mace. Several pairs of handcuffs were waiting nearby.

Okay, clearly Ammon had told them to ambush me, take me alive, and bring me to him. And now he was just waiting for me to be delivered. What did he think I was, a pizza?

Carefully and quietly, I moved across the large desk-filled room, staying low enough to avoid attracting attention from the sheriff’s office. Every step left me convinced that I was about to hear a shout of warning or a command. Yet aside from a few muffled mumbles of what sounded like Ammon complaining, everything else remained silent. No one spoke. They had obviously been ordered not to.

Crouching just under the large frosted glass window, I took in a deep breath before letting it out again. This was it. This was going to be over one way or another within a few seconds. Time to go for it.

One more breath as I slipped my hand into my pocket and then I was standing. Lifting my staff with one hand, I aimed it toward the glass, directly at the three taller figures. With a whispered apology, I triggered the kinetic blast.

The window exploded inward, spraying glass while the trio of waiting adults were caught by the blast and hurled into the far wall. One, the only woman that I could see, slammed into the awards case.

Ammon was on his feet by the time I leapt through the shattered window and into the office. His mouth opened to say something, to give an order, but my hand was already withdrawing the borrowed motel bible from my pocket.

“Sorry,” I interrupted while throwing the bible at the floor. “This particular god talks louder than you.”

As the book hit the carpet, the flash-bang enchantment that I had spent the drive from the motel instilling into it exploded, filling the whole office with blinding light and deafening sound.

At least, it did for the mind controlled civilians. I was fine. And, from the look on his face, so was Ammon. The flash bang hadn’t affected him at all, just like his power didn’t affect me. But why?

Rather than dwell on that, I forced myself to move. Tucking my staff back into its slot, I ran straight for Ammon. The kid stood there, looking surprised as I came for him. Before he could react, I caught him up, hauling the boy off the floor. Ugh, he was heavier than he looked. Two months of working out with Avalon and Professor Katarin was the only reason I could actually get him off the floor and move.

He didn’t take my abducting him laying down, of course. Ammon was shouting for the others to stop me, to grab me, and for me to let him go. He was screaming his head off.

Still, I managed to haul him up in spite of his yelling, and ran right back through the same opening I had come through. The mind-controlled civilians were still shaking off the flash-bang effect, and the ones downstairs were too far away. The only one I had to worry about at all was Edgar, and the bang part of the flash had been so loud that he couldn’t hear anything Ammon was trying to shout at him.

“Good thing you’re pretty invulnerable, kid,” I informed him while running straight at the nearest window. “Or this might actually make me feel a little guilty.”

With that, and while he was still demanding to know what that meant, I threw the kid straight at the window. It shattered as he crashed into it, and I had the satisfaction of hearing him yelp as he plummeted to the ground.

I leapt out right after him, already yanking my staff back out now that my hands were free. As I jumped from the window, I pointed the staff down, waited a second while falling, then triggered it to catch my fall. Two more gentle, quick uses of the staff and then I hit the ground in what was almost a good landing, only stumbling a little bit.

Ammon, meanwhile, had face-planted directly into the concrete.

Before he could recover, I kicked the kid over onto his back and shoved my hands into his pockets. Where, where, where… there!

Triumphantly, I tugged my phone out of Ammon’s pocket and straightened up. He was still healing as I began to squeeze the phone to send the SOS message. It worked. I had my phone back. I could get the Heretics here and let them deal with this whole situation.

Except not. After the second squeeze, the phone crumbled in my hand, turning into dust that fell to the ground under my disbelieving, confused gaze. “Wh-what?” I stammered.

Only then did I notice the limousine parked at the curb, its windows tinted as black as paint. As I stared at the dust in my hand, the back door of the limo popped open. A pale hand holding some kind of canteen was stuck out, shaking a bit to dump what looked like ashes onto the sidewalk. After that was done, the man that the hand belonged to emerged from the car, stepping where the ashes had fallen.

The man looked… normal. He was a few inches under six feet in height, his skin pale but not unsettlingly so. His average brown hair was average length, parted to one side, and his eyes were hazel. He wore a dark red polo shirt with a pair of black jeans, and dark loafers. He was even a tiny bit overweight, with a noticeable paunch around his stomach. Nothing about him looked dangerous. At first glance, I might have pegged him as a doctor or a dentist. A successful children’s dentist. He looked soft, inviting, and nonthreatening.

Except that, from the very second he appeared, my brain was shrieking about him being a Stranger. If it had been loud about Asenath, with him it was almost painful for those first few moments.

“My apologies for the mess,” he spoke in a soft, polite voice. His hand shook out more of that ash in front of him, and the man took another step to move closer. “Ancient curses trump decorum, I’m afraid. Can only step on the ashes of my enemies, and all that.”

My eyes moved down to the ash on the ground, then back up to him while I took a step back and lifted my staff. “What if you run out?”

He smiled as if I’d told a fantastic joke, chuckling softly. His voice was as welcoming as any family pediatrician. “Well, that’s not really a problem.”

I lifted my staff quickly, trying to take him by surprise. Instead, the man just gave a lazy flick of his hand. As he did so, something cold rushed through me. Simultaneously, I experienced a second of extreme vertigo and nausea, as some kind of fog appeared in front of my face, and a cold hand yanked the staff from my hand.

The fog flew away with my staff before turning. Then I saw that it wasn’t fog at all. It was a person. A translucent figure that floated there next to the limousine with my staff in one mostly see-through hand.

A ghost. A ghost had just stolen my weapon.

“Ammon,” the man with the canteen spoke casually, as if he hadn’t just summoned a dead spirit to disarm me. “Get in the car.

“Your sister and I need to have a chat.”

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Visitations 5-05

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In the end, I made the only reasonable choice, the only one that made sense in that moment. I chose to do absolutely everything I could to make sure that my dad was safe, regardless of other consequences.

“Then where are we going?” I asked the vampire. Part of me was frantically screaming about everything the Crossroads teachers had told me about how Strangers will try anything to ingratiate themselves and appear more human so that they can catch you in a moment of weakness. But quite frankly, I had been in a moment of weakness back at my house, and the vampire had saved me.

And I cared more about my father’s safety than I did about what Crossroads was teaching.

The look the vampire gave me then made it clear that she hadn’t been very certain that I would agree. She arched an eyebrow briefly, then turned and strode to a nearby pick-up truck. “We’ll drive there.”

“That’s Mr. Raphardy’s truck,” I pointed out reflexively, though the thought of my dad on his way to murder someone prompted me to move around the other side anyway. There were times to respect and obey the law, and then there were times when your father was magically mind controlled by some kind of evil little psycho brat to commit murder. As far as I was concerned, the two were mutually exclusive.

“You mean it was his truck” the vampire replied while opening the door. “Now it’s mine.”

That time, I had my staff out of its container and in my hand, pointed at her before she said anything else. “What did you do to Mr. Raphardy?” I demanded flatly, though my voice quivered just a little. Sue me, she was a vampire, and I’d just been attacked, held down, and threatened with torture by some kind of mind-controlling little boy that I happened to have been babysitting all day long. At the moment, the fact that I wasn’t on my knees throwing up in the gutter was pretty damn near miraculous.

Yeah, I wanted to save my father. But if she’d done something to an innocent old man, it kind of spoke toward how much I could trust her not to kick me to the curb the second whatever she was actually after showed itself. I still wasn’t totally ready to just believe that the vampire my senses kept repeatedly screaming ‘danger, danger, danger’ about was actually on my side. Something about that was too easy.

The vampire’s eyes dropped to the staff, then moved up to me. Her hand was still on the door. “This is gonna be an awfully short partnership if you keep pointing weapons at me. Breathe. I didn’t do anything to the guy except buy his truck.” Stepping up into the driver’s side, she leaned over to push open the other door, dangling keys in my direction while jingling them. “For a pretty damn high markup too, by the way. Either he’s racist, sexist or both, because he charged about three times what this piece of shit is worth. Jerk. But I needed something a bit more subtle than my normal ride around this place. Now do you still want to come save your dad, or not?”

I was already getting in the truck before she finished talking, my staff back in its container. Closing the door after me, I buckled up quickly while gesturing down the street. “Okay, okay. Go then, go, go!”

As the truck roared to life and pulled away from the curb, the vampire looked toward me. “Do you need a barf bag? Because I’m pretty sure that Raphardy guy left a baseball cap in the back that you could toss your cookies into. It’s a Phillies hat, so you know, might even improve the value.”

I couldn’t stop staring at her. I’d been right in my first impression. She was definitely half-Asian. The other half I still wasn’t sure about. I was trying to remember what they’d said about vampires so far. It wasn’t much, we hadn’t focused on them yet. All I knew was what I’d read or chatted with people like the twins about. I knew that some vampires were allergic to the sun, but not all of them. They all drank blood, but the more powerful ones, the ones that tended to be the leaders, were fine in the sunlight.

“Okay, Miyu,” I made my voice as steady as possible. “How did you just happen to show up then? Why are you here? What do you want? What does Ammon want? What the hell is he? Why didn’t I know he was a Stranger? Why did he choose me to come after? What the hell is going on?”

She held a hand up, glancing my way as the truck continued to tear down the street. “First, Miyu?”

I gave a short nod. “Yeah. You know, as in vampire princess? Never mind, what should I call you?”

“My name is Asenath,” she informed me, cranking the wheel to take a sharp turn before accelerating so hard I was thrust back against the seat. “As for the rest of it, I don’t know what he is or what he wants with you exactly. I know he’s obsessed with you and he’s been traveling cross-country to get here, leaving a huge mess behind him. You may have noticed this, but he’s not exactly subtle.”

“Okay, Asenath then. Got it.” I started to nod a little hesitantly, still keeping my eyes on her. “And you’re involved because…? Don’t tell me you were in the neighborhood buying old trucks and just happened to hear the disturbance with your vampire super-hearing. Do you have super-hearing?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed before continuing with a dry voice. “But I can’t fly or outrun a train.” Belatedly, she amended, “Well, maybe for a few seconds on that last one, but the super speed only lasts for short bursts unless I want to get really hungry. And trust me, it’s a bad thing when I get too peckish.”

Blanching at that, I gave a little nod. The thought of a hungry vampire was kind of terrifying, even if she was (at least portraying herself as) on my side. Still, she hadn’t answered the rest, so I waited.

Asenath was silent for a moment, focused as she was on maneuvering the truck around the nearly blind corner and up onto the empty highway at speeds that tempted me to look for Rick Moranis wearing a piece of absurd headgear. “As for the rest of it,” she continued, “I was in the area because I’ve been hunting that psychotic piece of shit. He killed an innocent girl, and her mother asked for my help.”

I blinked at that. “Her mother—wait, what? What do you mean, how do you know this woman?”

“I don’t,” Asenath replied. “I’ve never met her or her daughter. She called and asked for help because she couldn’t go to the police and someone else gave her my number. It’s what I do.”

My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at her. “What, did someone curse you with a soul as punishment for your evil deeds?”

The grin that the female vampire turned on me at that point was feral. “Nah,” she replied. “And there’s no chip in my head prohibiting violence against mortals either, if you were wondering.”

I needed the distraction away from worrying about my dad. So I focused on this one. “I don’t get it. You’re a vampire, a real vampire, but you… help people? As in people call up your phone and hire you to, to fix problems for them?” It sounded absurd when I compared it to what Crossroads was teaching.

Turning her head to lift an eyebrow at me once more, Asenath asked, “You think all humans are totally pacifistic and morally upstanding?” When I shook my head, she continued. “You think all humans are totally evil, violent psychopaths?” Again, I shook my head, and she nodded. “Does that confuse you?”

“No,” I replied slowly. “Some humans are good, some are bad. Mostly it’s just their choice.”

“Then I think you pretty much answered your own question,” Asenath informed me. She paused then before heaving a long sigh “Okay, look. I know what they teach you up there. And sometimes it’s true. There’s plenty of outright evil shit out there. But the problem with making sweeping generalizations is that you miss all the nuance and specifics. Think about it this way, does it make any sense to you that everything that happens to be ‘not human’ is a chaotic evil race bent on dominating all humanity?”

Hesitating, I looked away, squinting at the window beside me before shaking my head. “I guess not.”

She nodded. “That’s because it’s a hell of a lot more complicated. Your people call all of us Strangers. Do you ever wonder why they use that term? It’s because they don’t bother to get to know us. They don’t want to. It’s easier to assume everything that isn’t human is bad, and teach your students to hate and kill on sight.” She lifted a hand off the wheel to gesture. “I understand why they do it.”

Frowning at that, I shook my head. “You do? If, I mean If you’re telling the truth, how can you ‘understand’ them teaching all of us to kill you on sight? It seems… unfair. And wrong.”

“I didn’t say it was fair or right,” Asenath replied. “And I didn’t say I agreed with it. I said I understand why they do it, and I do. It’s like…” She paused, taking a second to gather her thoughts. “Imagine you have a room full of people who all look like normal people. Some are human, others are impostors. Now, not all the impostors are bad. Three quarters are, but about a quarter are just hiding what they are. Now you have these bells that ring every time they get near one of the impostors. It doesn’t tell you anything else. It can’t tell you if they’re good or bad, only that they’re not human. And the second that the bell goes off, the impostor knows they’ve been discovered, and who’s discovered them. If the impostor is good, then everything’s fine. But if they’re bad, they know they’ve just been found out, and the person who caught them is standing right in front of them, in arms reach.”

Turning her attention back to me, the vampire girl continued in a calm voice. “If you were handing these bells out to people that you care about, people that you wanted to stay safe, and sending them out to check everyone in the room, would you tell them about some of the impostors being good and take the risk that they might hesitate when their bell rings, giving an evil impostor time to kill them? Or would you decide to tell them that they were all evil in order to spare the people you care about. Spare them psychologically, protecting them from the guilt of what they’re doing, and spare them physically. If their students think that some of the people they’re killing aren’t evil, they might hesitate at the wrong time. There is no other way for this ‘Stranger Sense’ you’ve got to operate. It tells you I’m not human. That’s it. The people who set up that school of yours decided that it was better if their students didn’t hesitate. Whether they were right to do that or not, it’s what they did. Not out of malice, but to protect their students. They chose not to risk their own people getting killed by hesitating at the wrong time.”

Squirming in my seat as I thought about what she was saying, I started to look at my phone to check the time before cursing. “Damn it, I left my phone back there in my house.”

“We’ve still got seven minutes,” she replied over the sound of the engine roaring as she pressed the pedal to the floor. “And we’re five minutes away from the motel. We’ll get there. Just be ready.”

Trying to focus on anything other than my father, I asked, “You said you were there for Ammon. You’ve found him, but that knife you threw didn’t actually kill him. So now what?”

“Now,” Asenath heaved a long sigh before looking at me as she admitted, “Now I need your help.”

“My help?” I blinked. “What do you need–” Then I got it. “The library. The Heretic library. You’re hoping one of the books they’ve got will have some idea of what Ammon is, and how to kill him.”

“Your people do kind of specialize in killing every kind of non-human on the planet,” she pointed out. “If any group is going to have details on how to wipe that piece of shit out of existence, it’s Heretics.”

“But you can’t go in there, you’ve got no access.” I reasoned. “You can’t even set foot on the island, and if you somehow managed it, every single person there would know what you really were. One glance and they’d all know you were a vampire. So you need someone else, me, to look it up for you.”

She nodded “You want to take this freak down, don’t you? Before he comes after your Dad again.”

Flinching, I swallowed hard. “I want to know why he came after me, why he’s been camped out next door for weeks waiting for me to get home. Why didn’t his power work on me? That is what he was trying to do, right? All that ‘My name is Ammon’ stuff. I thought he was just weird, but he was using his power. That’s his mind control. He kept trying to use it on me but it never worked. And I still want to know why he didn’t set off my Stranger sense, or Seller’s.”

“Seller?” Asenath looked at me, then waved that off. “Never mind, tell me about him later. The point is, I don’t know why it didn’t work. Whatever this kid is, it’s not any kind of Alter that I’ve ever heard of.” Belatedly, she added, “That’s our catch-all term for not-human, by the way. Alter, with an e. As in ‘alternative from human.’ Which, for the record, includes you Heretics.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but we were already turning (or more accurately, sliding) into the parking lot. I saw the large motel stretched out in front of us. “Fuck, how do we find the right room?!” Turning a pleading gaze to the girl, I pressed, “Please, Asenath, save my dad. He can’t be a murderer, please. I’ll help you figure out what Ammon is, I promise. Just save my father.”

She met my gaze. “I would have done it without your promise,” she informed me before leaning in. “Hold still,” the girl instructed as she bent her head close to me and inhaled sharply, sniffing me.

That lasted for a handful of seconds before she shoved her door open, hopped out, and gave another sharp sniff. Cocking her head to the side, Asenath sniffed again before focusing on one end of the motel. She started jogging. “This way. I can wait for you or–”

“Just go!” I called while jumping to the ground. “Leave the doors open, I’ll get there. Don’t worry about me, just stop my dad!”

Without further acknowledgment, Asenath moved. There was a blur of motion, and then all I could see was the open door into the motel that she left in her wake.

I followed at a run, telling myself not to panic. She’d get there in time. She would. She had to. My dad couldn’t be a murderer. He couldn’t be. Please, please, let the vampire girl get there. I didn’t care what Crossroads said about vampires being evil. If she saved my Dad, I’d believe anything.

Sprinting through the open door and into the dingy motel hallway, I spotted a second open door leading into the motel room itself about six rooms down. Without slowing down, I ran straight for it, skidding at the doorway itself before all-but throwing myself inside.

Rose was on the floor with blood around her, and my heart seized up briefly before I realized that the woman was moaning in pain. She was alive. A quick glance confirmed that she’d only been cut on her arm, which she was holding cradled against herself.

My father, meanwhile, was lying in a crumpled heap a few feet away, the knife he had been using haphazardly discarded on the bed.

“Close one,” Asenath informed me. “Sorry, couldn’t stop him from hitting her without taking his arm off completely. But he was aiming for her throat, so be happy he only got the bicep. She should be fine with some stitches. And he’ll be okay when he wakes up. At least I think he will, though you might want to keep him away from her, just in case.”

Before I could respond to that, my father’s phone rang on the nearby table. It was the ringtone he used for me.

“That’s my phone calling him,” I said quietly, looking down at it.

“Ammon,” she replied simply.

I nodded, reaching out to pick the phone up before noticing that it was a video call. Grimacing, I gestured for Asenath to stay where she was before taking it out into the hall and then to the parking lot before accepting the call once I was sure no one else was around. “You’re too late, Ammon.”

“Hi!” Ammon waved at me cheerfully. He didn’t really look upset to find out I was the one answering my father’s phone. From the background, he wasn’t in our house anymore. The wall pattern looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it before he continued. “That’s okay. You’re the one I wanted to talk to anyway, Flick.” The boy sounded happy.

“Who are you?” I demanded. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”

“Well,” his too-innocent voice replied while the boy made an exaggeratedly thoughtful expression. Then his eyes narrowed at me. “What I want right now is to hurt you. Because you deserve to be punished, Flick. You stole two of my pets from me. That’s bad. You’re bad. Stealing things that belong to other people is wrong. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that? You stole from me, so I’m going to punish you. Then we can talk about other things.”

“My father’s with me, Ammon,” I informed him sharply. “You’re not getting anywhere near him again.”

“Okay.” From the sound of his voice and the uncaring shrug that he gave, the boy wasn’t at all upset by that announcement. “That’s not your punishment anyway. You can have your stinky old father. He’s boring. I only like interesting things. Like this!”

The phone turned, and I finally realized why the wall behind the boy had looked familiar. He was in the sheriff’s office. I could see a dozen deputies, including Scott Utell, the guy that had helped me take down my boss at the theater. They were all standing at attention, like toy soldiers.

“Ammon,” I started slowly. “Whatever you think you’re doing–”

“Shush, I’m busy now,” Ammon lectured. Then he addressed the deputies. “Okay, guys. We’re gonna play a game. My name is Ammon, and you should all go find everybody you can. Go into homes, pull people over, whatever you’ve gotta do.

“And every time you find someone, every single time you see any living person, you shoot them in the head. First person to twenty kills wins! Won’t that be a fun game?”

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Visitations 5-04

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Hours later, I stood on the porch, gazing at the empty driveway. The space where my father’s car belonged, where its presence had always reassured me when I needed it to, was devoid of any such comfort. After my mother had left, being able to see my father’s car whenever I woke up had become… important. I used to bolt out of bed in the middle of the night and run to the window, just to show myself that I still had a parent, that one of them still cared enough to stay.

Sometimes, it wasn’t enough. Some nights, I had to go to Dad’s room and sleep in his bed. I had to touch him, had to know he was there for myself. The only way I could rest on those nights was to put my hand on his cheek, feel his beard under my fingers. Then, only then, could I relax enough to sleep.

Tonight, I was having that feeling again. That feeling of being abandoned. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t. Dad had to help Rose with her father. I knew that. I would never try to feel upset about that fact. And yet that feeling of worry, like I wouldn’t see him again, kept rising up in me, like bile in my throat.

It made me anxious. I wanted to call him, wanted to chat and find out where he was and how it was going. But I’d already done that twice throughout the afternoon, and I didn’t want to drive Dad crazy. God, I needed to get rid of this selfish feeling. Why did I hate the idea of him being out there so much? Sure, tomorrow was my birthday. But a woman’s father might be dying. Have some perspective, Flick.

An hour. I’d give it another hour and then call to see how things were going. I could wait that long, right? Hell, make it an hour and a half so the kid and I could watch another movie.

Not that he’d seemed all that interested in the ones we’d already watched. Most of the boy’s attention had been devoted toward getting me to essentially recite my life story to him. He wanted to know everything, from the name of my fifth grade teacher (Mr. Bisby) to my first crush (also Mr. Bisby), and more. Every question I answered just seemed to make a dozen more spring up in the kid’s head.

I’d excused myself to come outside while he was finishing up his dinner, some spaghetti I’d put together. For some reason, I’d felt like the walls of the house had been closing all day long. This house, my home, felt very different without my father in it. It felt dark, and smaller than I remembered.

The gate past the driveway that led into our backyard squeaked. My eyes turned that way, and I frowned. Through the darkness, it felt like there was something on the other side of that gate, something watching me through the tiny crack between it and the attached fence. If I squinted just right, it seemed like I could just sort of make out a pale face gazing back at me contemplatively.

A trick of the light. Really, it had to be my mind playing tricks on me. Still, I glanced at the door behind me to make sure I wasn’t being watched before stepping off the porch. My hand strayed to the weapon sheath at my belt automatically as I walked to the gate. With each step, my brain kept telling my heart that we were jumping at shadows and being ridiculous. My heart’s response was mostly a lot of pictures of decapitated girls and wild gestures toward the stacks upon stacks of books about Stranger attacks that were in the Crossroads library. My bladder was anxiously waiting its turn to weigh in on the situation.

At the gate, I hesitated. For a long moment, I simply stood there, facing the wooden barrier. Slowly, ever so gradually, I reached up to unlatch the tiny hook that held the gate closed. My other hand touched the canister that held my staff, and I held my breath while giving the gate a firm shove.

Nothing. The space between our house that led into the backyard was empty save for the enormous pile of firewood that had sat there for as long as I could remember. Other than that, there was nothing in sight. Nothing to jump out at me, nothing to be afraid of. I had been jumping at shadows after all.

Shaking my head, I turned around and almost ran directly into a small figure standing directly behind me, silent and motionless, staring. A startled yelp escaped me, and I jerked backwards reflexively, my heart in my throat, pounding furiously. It took me a second to recognize the figure. “Jeeze, Ammon!”

“That’s my name,” the boy announced, head tilting to gaze up at me. “What’re you doing out here?”

“I was just…” Feeling embarrassed, I shook my head. “I thought I saw a cat or something. I thought it might belong to you or your aunt. Do you guys have any pets?” I tried to move the conversation onto him. As interested as he had seemed in my life, the kid had been equally tight-lipped about his own.

“I used to have a lot of pets,” Ammon confirmed easily. “But I had to leave them to come here.”

Blinking at that, I relatched the gate once more. “You had to leave them?” My mouth started to open to ask if they were renting the house next door or something, but I remembered what my Dad had said about interviewing someone. Don’t supply the answer for them. Ask the question and see where it goes.

His small blond head bobbed up and down earnestly. “It was a really long trip. I couldn’t keep track of them all. And I didn’t want to choose which ones to bring, so I left them behind.”

“Aww, I’m sorry you had to do that. Losing your pets can be hard.” Wincing at the thought of the ill-fated rabbit I’d had once, I tried to make him feel better. “So what kind of animals were they?”

His gaze met mine evenly, his expression blank. “I don’t understand the question.”

My mouth opened to respond to that, but a chill ran through me. “I uhh, let’s go inside, kid. It’s getting cold out here.” Ushering the boy back into the house, I trailed after. At the door, I looked around once more, unable to shake the feeling of unease. If anything, it kept getting worse. With a sigh, I locked the door, twisting the deadbolt before turning to face Ammon. “So, what movie should we watch next?”


Midnight. I was officially seventeen years old. As the near-scalding hot shower water pounded down on my back, I gazed at the drain and let my thoughts wander. I daydreamed absently while giving my hair a thorough scrubbing. The anxiety from the day, the confusion over finding out that Seller was my ancestor and wondering what connection he had to my mother, the concern for my father, all of it and more just swirled through my brain without rhyme or reason. I was thinking about Seller, and that somehow turned into thinking about the twins, which turned into thoughts about Ammon and his curiosity. Everything, every thought just competed for attention in my mind. I tried to let it go, tried to relax and just enjoy the shower. Yet something just kept nagging at me. Something in the corner of my mind would not let up its cries for attention. I’d thought that taking a long, hot shower after getting Ammon tucked into bed would help, but if anything I felt even more anxious. I was nervous, almost scared even. The tension in my back and arms was getting worse under the hot water, not better.

Finally, after almost an hour, I gave up. This wasn’t working. Twisting the knob off, I stepped out of the shower and grabbed a nearby towel. As I dried myself off, my eyes lifted to the door and I paused.

Didn’t I lock that?

After dressing in what I admit was a bit of a rush, I opened the bathroom door and eased my head out to look down the hall toward the guest room where I’d left Ammon. His door was shut, and I couldn’t hear anything aside from the sound of a couple cars driving by outside. Probably some people heading home from the bar that was across the street from the bowling alley.

Shaking my head at my own imagination, I walked past the guest room, moving quietly to avoid waking up the poor kid inside. Bypassing my own room, I started downstairs. Even if I hadn’t recently gained the ability to stay up roughly twenty-three hours a day, I still wouldn’t have been able to sleep while Dad was still out with Rose. I’d watch some television for awhile, maybe poke through the kitchen and see if we still had that brownie mix that had been in the cupboard before I went to school.

All of the lights were off as I made my way downstairs. It was very nearly pitch black, though that hardly mattered. I knew this house perfectly. I knew everything in it. I could literally navigate it with my eyes closed, so the tiny amount of light coming through the closed curtains was more than enough.

At the bottom of the stairs, I turned to the living room, walking straight in with a quick left to avoid the coffee table in front of the couch. Circling back that way, I found the familiar fuzzy sofa itself with one hand before plopping myself down into it. My questing fingers found the remote, and I sat back while lifting it to stab at the power button with my thumb.

The television came to life, illuminating the room to reveal half a dozen people standing around me.

Jump scares in movies and games fucking suck. They’re awful. Believe me, jump scares in real life are about a thousand times worse. A not-so-tiny yelp escaped me as I jerked, my hand dropping to my belt.

It was too late. They were on me. Strong, firm hands caught each of my arms, shoving me back against the couch. A man for each side, their figures appearing massive in the faint and distorted light from the television that cast their features in terrible and mysterious shadows.

Another caught hold of my legs as I kicked out, dragging them up onto the coffee table. As my mouth opened to shout, the guy holding my left arm in a vice-like grip put his other hand over my mouth.

The remote was pulled from my hand by another figure, and the television was shut off. Darkness returned briefly before the light switch was flicked on, illuminating the room so suddenly I had to close my eyes momentarily.

Opening them once more, I found myself staring at the person holding the remote. Ammon.

Wait. The people holding me down, I knew them. They were my coworkers from the theater over the summer. The one using both arms to hold my right arm against the couch was Pete, the senior from my old high school who had helped me clean one last time before I had confronted our boss. The guy whose right hand was covering my mouth while his left held my other arm trapped was Rosco, the grumpy old projectionist. Bradley Joseph, the would-be film critic that manned the ticket booth, was holding my legs. Other co-workers, other people I had spent the summer with, crowded in close. There were even more people than I’d originally thought. It looked like all my co-workers were here.

“I’m not tired,” Ammon informed me, his voice strangely calm considering everything that was happening. I thrashed against the grip of those holding me down, my shouts for them to get the hell off me muffled by the hand that still covered my mouth, making it harder to breathe. And through all of this, Ammon simply stood there and continued. “So I want to play another game. A better game.”

I was lost. Confused. Scared. Horrified. All of it, everything. I was still struggling to get free, but there wasn’t a lot that the power of ‘never get tired’ could do against three full-sized men practically sitting on me.

Ammon stepped closer, setting the remote down. His eyes were bright with enthusiasm. “See, I think I might like you. Maybe. But I’ve gotta be sure. I have to find out if I really do, if I care. I wanna know what that feels like. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to feel things.”

How long he’d waited to feel things? What the fuck? What was going on? Why were my coworkers here? Why were they holding me down? What was Ammon doing? Why did it seem like they were listening to him? What the hell?! All of that and more prodded me to fight harder against the hands holding me in place. Not that it accomplished anything, but at least I could keep struggling futilely a lot longer than they could hold me. These guys were strong, but I knew for a fact that I could outlast them.

Ammon smiled humorlessly. His small hand reached out to pat Rosco’s, and the man removed it from my mouth. As soon as the obstruction was gone, I demanded, “Ammon, what the hell do you–”

My words were cut off by a hard slap. Ammon’s hand had shot out, connecting with the side of my face so hard I briefly saw stars.

When my gaze cleared up, the boy was frowning as he shook his head, looking at his hand in disappointment. “Nope. Darn. I was really hoping I’d feel sad about that.” Making an annoyed face, he finally heaved a sigh. “Oh well, I guess we have to try something worse.” Tenderly patting my arm, the kid added, “Maybe if you get really hurt, then it’ll turn on. Maybe if you’re crying. Do you think you’ll cry if they hurt you? You spent a lot of time with them. Would being hurt by them make you sad? Will seeing you be hurt by them make me sad? Is that how it works?”

“Ammon, what… damn it, let me go!” I raised my voice, trying to snap my former coworkers out of whatever spell they’d been put under. Because at that point, that was was all it could be. A spell or some Stranger ability. Nothing else made sense. Nothing about Ammon made sense.

And I was in very deep trouble.

“My name is Ammon,” the kid announced to the room before pausing. His gaze met mine. “You should all make her cry.”

In the corner of the room, the window behind Dad’s recliner abruptly shattered as a figure leapt through it. I barely caught a glimpse of movement before a spray of blood suddenly appeared in the middle of Ammon’s chest. A knife had embedded itself there, and the boy stared down at it in surprise before slumping down.

As he collapsed, the hands holding me loosened. The figure in the corner moved again, so fast that it was barely a blur. They caught hold of poor Rosco and shoved him away from me one direction to knock down several people there before planting a hand against both Pete and Bradley, shoving each of them so hard even one-handed that each flew back a good dozen feet, plowing into the people there as well.

I was yanked to my feet by a firm grasp, and before I knew what was happening, we were halfway to the front door.

“Wait!” I jerked back around, stumbling as my eyes took in the sight on the floor of my family’s living room, looking for the dead boy with the knife in his chest.

He wasn’t dead, and the knife was no longer in his chest. Ammon was sitting up, staring at the bloody blade in his hand. His shirt was torn, and I could see the wound in his body already sealing itself up. He raised his gaze our way, eyes narrowing as he began to speak. “My name is–”

Strong hands grabbed me off the floor, and then the world blurred around me as I was carried out of the house and all the way down the street within the span of a few seconds.

Then we stopped almost two blocks away, and I was released. Stumbling a little, I took in a breath before letting it out again. “Thanks, Sell–” I started while turning toward what I thought was the man who had come back to check on me.

It wasn’t him. It was a girl. She stood a few feet from me, face illuminated by the nearby streetlight. She was clearly at least half-Asian and partly something else. Native American, probably. Or maybe French. I wasn’t entirely sure. I guessed her age at maybe a few years older than me.

What I was sure about was the feeling that my brain was screaming at me about. She was a Stranger. With a capital S. I knew it. Instinctively, I just knew she wasn’t human.

Taking an immediate step back, I grabbed for the weapon canister at my belt. “You’re a—you’re–”

“A vampire,” the girl replied evenly. “Yeah. And you’re a Heretic. But you have bigger problems than me right now.”

Distractedly, I glanced down the street. “Ammon… what—I don’t understand. What did he do to them? Mind control or something? But how? I mean, he’s not… that’s like a… a Stranger power. But he’s not, I didn’t sense…” I paused. Hadn’t I? I’d been uneasy around Ammon the whole time. He was a thoroughly creepy kid. Had that sense of unease been something more?

But that didn’t make sense, because one glance at this girl and my brain wasn’t subtle at all about things. It screamed Stranger at me, blaring every possible alarm.

And what had Ammon been talking about? Why would he care if I was hurt? What did that–

My brain stopped. I realized the worst part of what was going on. “Dad.”

The girl—vampire in front of me gave a single nod. “That’s your bigger problem. Come with me. I will get you to him. Trust me, you don’t have time to lose right now. I know what that school told you. I know what they think, what they’re teaching you. Now I’m asking you to forget it. Because your dad needs you to. You cannot get to him in time without help. I want to help you. I want to get you to him. But you have to let me. You have to trust me, at least long enough to save your father.”

“Save him…” My heart pounded. “What—what did Ammon do?”

“It’s not about what Ammon did,” the vampire informed me. “It’s about what he told your father to do.”

“What he told Dad to do?” I echoed slowly, staring at her. Scenario after scenario kept playing its way through my brain.

She nodded once. “He wanted you all to himself. He wanted to get rid of your dad. So he used his power and told him to drive that woman out to a motel. There he was supposed to wait until one in the morning, kill her, and then call the police and turn himself in.

“It’s twelve-forty now. We’ve got twenty minutes to stop your father from being arrested for murder. So either trust me and let me get you there in time, or drive yourself. Either way, choose.”

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Visitations 5-03

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In the end, it was Ammon who brought me out of my momentary shock. The boy bumped up against me, pushing past a little bit to look out the door as well. “Who is it?” His voice was cranky.

For a couple of seconds, both he and the man in the emerald suit looked at one another. Then Seller raised his hand, extending it to the boy with an easy smile. “Ah, I didn’t know Flick had a brother.”

“He’s not my brother,” I replied automatically. Ammon sent me a clearly annoyed look at that. Was he offended or something? Eh, who knew what went on in the mind of a little boy. Dad had said that he kept asking about me, so maybe he thought my denying any kind of relation so fast meant that I didn’t like him or something. Which… No, Flick, be fair. You don’t even know the kid. I kept telling myself not to judge so quickly. The kid came off as creepy, but he was probably just raised that way.

Shaking that feeling off, I continued. “Ammon lives next door. We–” I hesitated, then stepped around the boy. “Give me a minute, Ammon, I’ll be right back. The gentleman here and I need to talk.”

“But my nam–” The boy got that far before I firmly closed the door behind me, leaving him inside.

“All right,” I started while motioning for the man to join me on the sidewalk in front of the house. After giving a quick glance toward the home next door where my father was, I continued. “Look, there’s some things we need to talk about. It’s more than just this year book. Maybe a lot more.”

I saw his eyebrows raise behind the dark shades that he had returned to his face. “Is that right?” His voice was neutral. “You wouldn’t be angling for an invitation to the Garden, would you? Because I’d normally be all for that, but Hannah—ahh, Avalon doesn’t seem to hate you nearly as much as she hates most people. So that ain’t–”

“It’s not about that,” I interrupted firmly. “It’s about you, and my vision. The one the Edge gave me.”

The man’s head turned a little, clearly absorbing that. His voice was quiet. “What exactly did you see?”

I started to answer, but then glanced toward the neighbor’s house and changed my mind. “Not here. Not right now. Look, uhh, meet me at the…” I tried to think of a decent place to talk to Seller in the middle of town. “The bowling alley about four blocks that way.” Pointing, I added, “I’ll be there in an hour.”

“I dunno,” the man sounded doubtful. “Deal with Avalon was to pick up the book, fix it, return it. That’s all. I’m not usually in the business of charity, so if you’ve got some kind of extra problem…”

“Just meet me there!” I insisted, lowering my voice to a hiss to avoid attracting attention. This was a quiet neighborhood. “Please, Seller. You care about Avalon, I know you do. Trust me, she’d want you to do this. It’s important. I just don’t want to get into it right here in the middle of the street.”

He hesitated, but in the end the man in the emerald suit bowed his head. “Bowling alley, one hour. Fine.” Raising a hand, he pointed at me. “But don’t be late, Miss Chambers. I may care about Avalon, but that doesn’t mean I’ll give you more than one chance with this. If you’re not there, I will leave.”

“I’ll be there,” I promised, then turned to head back into the house. “And I’ll bring the book.”


Fifty-seven minutes later, I stepped into the bowling alley. Lunch had passed quickly, particularly after I insisted that we take the pizza over to my dad and Ammon’s aunt. Knowing that I was about to duck out on my father left me less willing to wait for him to come back, so I had brought the food over there with Ammon insisting the whole way that we didn’t have to do that because his aunt hated pizza.

Which was weird, considering how quickly she had gone after it when the food was presented. She had eaten like a starving woman, putting away half a pizza all on her own. Clearly the boy was wrong.

With another sharp pain at the act of lying, I’d told my father that I was going to go take a walk around the town, that I missed it and wanted to see things again. He’d been fine with it, though he made me promise to be back in a couple hours so we could go shopping to prepare for my birthday the next day.

Ammon was a different story. It took work to extricate myself from the boy. I had to promise that we’d watch a movie and play a game or something when I got back. That poor kid, I couldn’t imagine how lonely he had to be to become so obsessed with spending time with a girl almost twice his age.

Finally, however, I’d made my way out of the house and to the meeting point pretty much just in time. As I came into the bowling alley, it took only a handful of seconds to spot Seller sitting at one of the tables on the other end of the room. His suit stood out in stark contrast compared to what the rest of the relatively few people in the place were wearing, though he didn’t really seem to mind. Most of his attention, from what I could tell, was centered on the enormous plate of nachos in front of him.

“These,” he announced when I drew nearer to pull out a chair, “are fucking amazing. Why didn’t anyone tell me bystanders made such good food? They’re rubbish at a lot of things, but this…” Making a noise of approval, the man lifted a large chip that was thoroughly smothered in cheese and took a bite.

“So glad you approve,” I replied dryly before setting my bag next to me on the floor. Unzipping it, I took out the yearbook. “Here,” Passing the book to him, I added, “Try not to get cheese all over it.”

Wiping his hand with a napkin, Seller took the book, snapping it open to the first page. While he was examining it, making little thoughtful noises under his breath, I couldn’t help but stare.

It was him. I’d only seen the man once in that vision, but his face was burned into my memory. This was my ancestor, the one my Heretical vision had been centered on. He looked different now, of course. More confident, more capable, not to mention more fashionable. But it was definitely him.

“Are you gonna say something, or just keep staring?” He asked without looking up from the book. “If you’re looking for a conversation piece, why don’t you start with what role I played in this vision of yours?” He finally glanced up to meet my gaze, but I couldn’t read his expression past the sunglasses.

There were ways I could take this. I could be evasive. I could wait until I had more information. I could do any number of things. Hell, I’d seen so many movies and read so many books that went to great lengths to avoid being completely straight forward with something like this. It was like there was some kind of universal rule against just telling someone what you knew or suspected right off the bat. No, there had to be a huge lack of communication that led to horrible misunderstandings first.

Well fuck that, I don’t intend to live my life by narrative convention. Instead, I met the man’s gaze as much as I could and spoke plainly. “You’re my ancestor.” Watching his reaction, I added, “You’re the one my vision focused on. You and the headmistress, back with the trolls or orcs or whatever they were. The monsters that had you in the cage. You abandoned them. You ran away. You were a coward.”

At first, he said nothing in response to that. The man simply sat there, forehead creased ever so slightly with thought. A single strand of otherwise immaculate black hair stood out from the rest, catching my attention as the silence continued on for several long seconds before he finally spoke. “Yes. I was.”

Before I could say anything else in response to that, Seller continued. “Luckily, people aren’t locked into one choice for their entire lifetime. It’d be a pretty bad fucking tragedy if they were, especially people like us. Our lifetimes are a hell of a lot longer than Bystanders, unless you get horribly murdered. Point is, you get a lot more chances to choose. Choose right, choose wrong, whatever. Things change. I made some bad choices, did some bad things. Still do. But I ain’t the man now that I was in that vision. I’m not gonna say I’m good, cuz there’s some shady shit in my past. Hell, probably got just as shady shit coming up in my future. But I’m not that guy. Just like you won’t be this same girl you are now in fifty years, a hundred years, two hundred years. We change. That’s life. Change or die.”

“I know you’re not the same,” I replied. “Or the headmistress would’ve killed you like she promised.”

He chuckled low. “Yeah, we had a few run-ins before things settled down a bit. Still not exactly friends, but we can talk to each other, even exchange favors. Especially when it comes to Avalon. I guess it’s sort of like being her divorced parents, except that Gaia and I never actually did anything that close.”

The next question hung in the air between us. He knew I was going to ask it, but he waited patiently. Finally, I spoke the words we both knew were coming. “What do you know about my Mom?”

“I can’t say much,” he started. My mouth opened to object, but he held up a hand to stop me. “Just stop for a second, okay? Let me explain. You know about magic, the whole enchantment thing?” When I nodded slowly, the man continued. “Let’s just say it’s possible, very difficult, but possible, for a sufficiently powerful spell to actually enchant an idea, an explanation, a story, that sort of thing.”

My head shook in confusion. “I don’t get it. What do you mean, enchant an idea?”

“Not really an idea,” he amended. “More like the words. Specific words, specific conversations. Like, let’s say I really wanted to stop everyone in the world from singing any more fucking Bieber songs. I get a bunch of other powerful people who think the same way I do, and I put an enchantment on those songs. From that point on, no one who wasn’t a part of the spell or excluded from it would remember the lyrics. And anyone who was excluded or a part of it who did remember them would be incapable of telling them to anyone who wasn’t. I don’t mean it would be hard, I mean it would be physically impossible. Even if the other person knew that little Canadian fuck was a singer and that I knew all the songs, I wouldn’t be able to tell him anything. As long as the spell was active, it would be impossible for me to actually tell anyone who wasn’t excluded from it what the lyrics were.”

I stared at the man. “So you know my mother, you know what happened. But there’s some spell that stops you from explaining any of it to me directly because I wasn’t excluded from it?” When he gave a single nod, I let out a long, low sigh. “Okay, fine. What if you and someone else who already knew everything were to talk about it and someone like me just happened to be close enough to overhear?”

“Good try,” he replied with a shake of his head. “But it’s not that easy. If you were close by while two of us were talking about it, you wouldn’t actually hear anything. The magic wouldn’t let you.”

Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I muttered, “Of course, because clearly that would’ve been too damn easy.” Then I took a moment to think. “Someone else got around that, I think. He said he couldn’t talk about it directly. He didn’t explain it like you did, but he did get around it by giving me an idea of where to look. That’s how I found the picture in the first place, the one with my mother in it. Is there anything like that you can say? Anything that might lead me to answers without violating the spell?”

Seller considered that for a few seconds. His head turned away, a slight frown creasing his forehead as he thought. “Anything I can tell you that would help…” He murmured the words before nodding. “All right, let’s see. Generally speaking, if a student at that school of yours were to get into trouble, especially if they had a habit of it, there’d be records of it in the Security office. Records that, for obvious reasons, are secured against tampering. You know, just in case Johnny B. Rebel learns enough magic to try changing his record while he’s in school. If someone was looking for unaltered records about disciplinary actions against some troublemaker, that’d be a good place to check.”

“The security office?” I blanched a little. “I doubt they have an open door policy for students.”

Seller shrugged. “I didn’t say it was gonna be easy, kid. You asked for possibilities. That’s one.”

“Thanks, I… I’ll figure it out.” I managed to reply without sighing too much. “What about the book?”

He waved it at me. “Now this I can help with. I can’t explain anything you see in it, but this is extra magic, some spell that was done later to alter the records. It’s not part of the big one. Give me about twenty-four hours and I’ll get it undone for you. Like I said, I can’t explain what you’ll see, but I can undo the alterations and give you the book back.”

“Twenty-four hours?” I echoed before resisting the urge to sigh yet again. That was longer than Avalon had thought it would be. “All right, I’ll meet you back here tomorrow at this time. I’ll probably have more questions. Especially about you, and this Garden, and… everything.” I had plenty of those questions now, but I wanted to take the time to plan out what I was going to ask. Plus, I felt kind of weird about leaving my father alone with Ammon. Which was just ridiculous. He was a little boy, and he’d been alone with Dad for weeks now. My brain was doing weird things to me.

“Right,” Seller tucked the book under his suit jacket, where it disappeared from sight without leaving a bulge. “Right here tomorrow at this time. I’ll bring the book, and see what I can do about answering those questions.”

Stealing one of his nachos, I munched on it briefly while staring at the man. It really was weird seeing him like this, when my first impression had been so… different. Had he been close to my mother? How distantly related were we? Did he know Professor Pericles, the man who had supposedly delivered my mother at birth? How much did he actually know about any of this? All of it? Pieces? Hardly any? It was impossible to tell, since he was apparently prevented from talking about it.

Magic clearly had as much potential to be annoying as it did to be amazing.


I was still thinking about that whole magic thing as I strolled up the street a short time later toward my house. The hamster on the wheel of my brain was running himself ragged trying to think of ways that I could safely get into that security office and see what was in there without anyone finding out. So far, I was coming up blank.

As I approached the house, Dad emerged at a quick walk. He had Ammon’s aunt with him, the two of them heading for our car. I raised a hand. “Hey, what’s the rush? Where’re you guys going?”

“Sorry,” Dad’s voice sounded weird. “We have to go. Rose’s father is in the hospital.”

“Oh, oh, the hospital. I’m sorry,” I stared at the older woman, whose face looked fairly blank for someone whose father was in the hospital. Maybe she was in shock. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“We have to go,” Dad repeated. “Her father is really sick. We’ll probably be gone most of the night.”

“Oh…” Disappointment reared up in me, and I immediately felt ashamed of myself. The woman’s father was obviously in bad shape. “I get it. Go ahead, I’ll uhh, I’ll watch the kid.”

“You watch Ammon,” Rose agreed. “You’re a good babysitter. We’ll check in.”

The two of them got in the car, Dad barely taking the time to hug me rather distractedly before they set off.

Well, that was… weird. Not that I blamed my father for being distracted. If the poor woman’s dad was in such bad shape, obviously she needed help to get there. And maybe there was no one else who could possibly stay with her through it.

Still, it had been awfully abrupt. I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit upset that my father was going to be gone through one of the two nights that I was home. But every time I let myself think that way, the guilt rose up and I pushed the thought away.

Finally, I turned, only to find Ammon himself standing on the porch, staring at me again. “Oh, hey there, kid. Guess it’s just you and me tonight, huh?”

He smiled faintly. “Yes, Flick.” His voice was chipper. “Just you and me.

“I’m gonna have fun.”

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Visitations 5-02

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Stepping back into the real world, a world where the crowd of people (Well, if you counted a family of three and a couple teenagers skateboarding as a crowd. It was still Wyoming) who bustled around me were all completely normal human beings had been an odd sensation. Even after such a short time away, the world away from Crossroads already felt less familiar. Even the cracked pavement beneath my feet seemed awkward and different to walk on. The smells especially, god, the smells. Everywhere I turned, new smells that I had never noticed before being away from any city for over a month stood out. The garbage lying next to the can, the rotting sandwich abandoned near the drainage ditch, everything stood out more than it had before. I noticed so much more that had previously been lost in the background. All of it crowded my brain for attention, almost overwhelming me at first.

That and the temperature. I noticed the cold a lot more than I had before. After spending a couple months on the island where it was either the perfect temperature under the shield or very warm outside of it, stepping into Wyoming weather in late October was a real wake-up call.

Thanks to the portal created by Professor Dare, I had emerged from the restroom of the bus station about forty miles away from my hometown. All I had to do was take the ticket that the professor had given me, step up onto the bus that had been steadily making its way cross-country along with the rest of the sleepy passengers while showing my ticket, and take an empty seat. If anyone noticed that I hadn’t been on the bus before this leg, they didn’t say anything, and if my father looked at my ticket, it would look as though I had just traveled over a thousand miles on this bus. As far as he would know, I had been traveling all night long. More lies. The necessity of it wasn’t lost on me, but it still hurt.

“Flick!” Forty miles later, the voice of my father called over the sound of the bus’s loud engine settling as we pulled up to the stop nearest my house. Turning my head, I saw the man himself standing outside of the bus, clearly too impatient to wait for me to get off before getting my attention. He waved, and I couldn’t help the laugh that came as I waved back. God, he was so… enthusiastic. His boundless energy and optimism in spite of everything that had happened, everything he had seen, was infectious. My father was a big bear of a man with a thick somewhat graying beard and hair that was almost as long as mine. He looked like a mountain man, yet his face was kind, his eyes intelligent and bright with obvious curiosity and love of life.

He was my dad, and it took until I was seeing him in person again to realize how much I missed him.

After gathering my bag and making my way to the front of the bus, I waited my turn before stepping down to the pavement. That, apparently, was as far as my father’s patience extended, because I barely had time to start to lift a hand in greeting before he was right there reaching for me, intent on snatching my body up into a tight hug that would crush me against his chest.

Without conscious thought, I sidestepped the rising arms, turned to catch one wrist in my hand, and applied pressure while twisting it. Simultaneously, my other hand moved to grab the false cell phone case at my belt that held my staff. My fingers got as far as unsnapping it before my brain caught up.

“Oh!” Quickly, my eyes wide, I released my father’s wrist and took a quick step back. My face burned as I pushed the snap of the case back down. “Crap, Dad! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, are you okay?”

Grimacing, my father rubbed his wrist, eyeing me ruefully. “Jeeze, kid,” he teased. “If I’d known you were gonna learn Kung Fu, I would’ve tried harder to get you the birthday presents you wanted.”

Relieved that he didn’t seem hurt, though still feeling horrified about what had just happened, I stepped in to hug him tightly. Only once we had embraced did I retort, “Lucky I didn’t take up archery then.”

I felt more than heard his light chuckle through the hug that he refused to let go of. “You didn’t mention you were taking any self-defense courses, kid. Not that I’m complaining, but what brought that on?”

The question made me flinch a little. And so the lying to my father’s face began. At least I could tell as much of the truth as possible. “It’s mandatory at the school. Everyone learns self-defense.” There, that was absolutely true. No lie in the statement at all. Now all I had to do was hope that Dad didn’t ask–

“Huh, that sounds different. Why would they make that a requirement?” His tone was gently curious, without any hint of disbelief or accusation. Even then, however, I couldn’t help the slight flinch that came. Damn the infamous Lincoln Chambers curiosity. Not that I had much room to talk, considering I’d inherited all of it.

“You know, the Headmistress is just really into health, exercise, and being able to take care of ourselves,” I tried to answer a little evasively. “She wants us to be safe.” Yeah, as safe as possible while hunting down the evil monsters that secretly preyed on humanity itself. Simple, Dad.

“Well, good,” he announced before finally releasing me from his embrace. His hand came up to rub through my hair. “Sounds like they’ve got the right idea. I should’ve had you start taking courses a long time ago. Your mother wanted you to, you know.” There was a slight hint of pain in his voice in spite of his effort to hide it, and I noticed the way that he subconsciously rubbed the finger where he still wore his wedding ring. The ring he steadfastly refused to take off even now, a decade after his wife had left.

“She did?” I asked, looking up at the man while trying to sound more surprised than I was. If Mom really had been part of the Heretics, then maybe it was instinct that she would want her daughter to know how to fight. Or maybe it was just the sheriff in her.

Dad nodded easily, his eyes lost in the past for a moment. “Joselyn wanted you to enroll in all these courses. She had flyers and…” He shook his head then, a long sigh escaping him. “I dropped the ball there. Sorry, kid. Your mom, she’d be… pretty pissed off that I never got you into any of that.”

Anything I might have said stuck in my throat. My opinion of my mother was so messed up at the moment that I couldn’t find the right words. There was obviously something heretic involved with why she disappeared to begin with. Not knowing exactly what happened was messing with my emotions. I wanted to continue hating her as much as I had for the past ten years, but the uncertainty made that hard. Was it her fault? Had something happened to force her away? Did she leave out of some attempt to protect us? Did a Stranger recognize her and do something awful? I didn’t know, and not knowing was horrible, because it meant that I had no closure. Every time I got mad about her leaving, I imagined her being attacked and hurt by monsters that she couldn’t protect herself from and the guilt that rose up completely overwhelmed the anger. There was just too much that I didn’t know. I felt lost.

Dad was frowning as he touched my chin, clearly noticing my hesitation. “You okay there, Flickster?”

Forcing a smile, I nodded. “Sure, I’m fine. It was just a long trip, you know.” Shrugging, I added, “And don’t worry about the self-defense thing, Dad. I’m learning plenty right now.”

“You sure are!” He announced with a loud belly laugh that attracted the attention of the few people who were passing by. “You’re pretty damn quick for someone that just started taking lessons this year.”

“I’ve got good teachers,” I murmured quietly before prodding him. “Come on, can we go? I sort of didn’t bother to pick up anything for breakfast.” On the heels of that confession, my stomach growled.

“Why does that not surprise me?” Shaking his head in obvious exasperation, Dad nodded while waving his hand toward the waiting car. “Come on, let’s get you fed. While we’re at it, you can tell me all about this bad ass teacher that’s showing my little girl how to be a real life Ninja Turtle.”

“Uhh, wouldn’t that require being an actual turtle too?” I questioned with a raised eyebrow.

“Hey, you’ve been gone for two months!” He retorted. “I dunno what they’re doing with you out there.”


We stopped by the pizza place on the way home and picked up a couple large pies. Dad kept asking if I’d gotten enough sleep on the bus, mentioning that I could take a nap if I needed to. Telling him I’d slept plenty was another reminder that I would have to figure out what to do to make him think I was actually sleeping through the night for the next couple of days. The last thing I wanted him to do was worry that my not sleeping meant something was wrong. And I couldn’t exactly tell him the real reason.

At least my appetite hadn’t been reduced. It was all I could do not to open the boxes up and start eating in the car on the way to the house. The smell was just so good. It was that familiar scent that made me fully realize that, for the next couple days at least, I was home. I was really home. Things were normal.

Once Dad got the car parked, I stepped out of the car, holding both of the boxes high above my head while striding to the familiar front door. “I got my lunch, what’re you planning to eat?”

“Oh, that’s your lunch, huh?” Dad chuckled, crossing around the back of the car while hitting the button to lock it. “Ammon might have something to say about that.”

Blinking over my shoulder at him while crossing the grass, I echoed, “Ammon? Who—oh the kid.” Remembering what he’d said about the new neighbor, I shrugged. “You got him mowing the lawn yet?”

“Ammon doesn’t mow the lawn,” Dad replied, sounding a little odd. “He’s special.”

“Special?” I stopped by the door while looking back at him again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Before he could answer, the door behind me opened with a creak, and an unfamiliar voice spoke, “Hi!”

Startled, I turned that way so quickly I almost dropped the pizzas. I hadn’t been expecting anyone to be inside our house. “What–” I started before my eyes caught sight of the kid standing in the doorway.

He looked weird. Okay, well no, not exactly weird. At first glance, there was absolutely nothing strange about the kid. He had a wild nest of blonde hair not all that different from my own, he was thin and maybe a little dirty. But nothing too unusual for a young boy that looked like he was about nine or ten. His clothes were perfectly ordinary, and his eyes seemed earnest with a hint of mischievousness.

And yet, even as my eyes cataloged everything that was normal about the kid, my brain refused to completely believe it. I couldn’t explain it aside from comparing the situation to looking at one of those magic eye pictures, where you don’t quite see whatever the special image is, but you can tell it’s there.

Before I could figure out what was wrong, or if I was just being paranoid after spending so much time at Crossroads, the boy piped up, “You must be Flick!” The grin on his face was infectious. The kid was like one of those adorable little child actors from the movies. He radiated so much innocence and charisma it was almost unnatural. “My name is Ammon! You should come inside with me.”

I proceeded into the house, still holding the pizzas. “You want a couple pieces of this, Ammon?” I asked while heading for the kitchen, where I set down the boxes before grabbing a few plates. When I turned back, only the kid was standing there in the doorway. “Oh, hey, where’d my Dad go?”

“He had to talk to my aunt,” the boy replied easily. “They’ll probably be busy for awhile.”

“Your aunt, huh?” I echoed while stepping back into the living room to put my bag on the nearby armchair. “That who you’re staying with?” I was curious about where his parents were, but I restrained myself from asking, considering my own parental history. Still, I couldn’t completely shake the strange feeling that looking at him gave me. It was a sort of tingle under the skin that wouldn’t go away.

When I looked back at him, the kid was just sort of standing there, staring at me. It made me feel even more creeped out. But he wasn’t technically doing anything wrong. Just… staring with this weird sort of smile, like he didn’t know that he was doing anything strange. When the boy finally did speak, his tone was dismissive. “Yes, I’m staying with my Aunt Rose. You should come into the kitchen with me.”

Turning on my heel, I walked back into the kitchen with the boy before moving to put pizza on the plates that I had taken down. “You like pizza, Ammon? Three-meat or Hawaiian? Just so you know, the second one’s mine so we’ll have to thumb wrestle for it if you take too much.”

“I’ll have whatever you have,” the boy replied simply, still not taking his eyes away from me. I wondered if he had blinked at all since I’d seen him. Trying to remember, I continued putting food on the plates. “Dad likes the meat one, so we’ll leave that for him. You think your aunt will want some?”

“Who cares?” As dismissive as the words were, his tone was clearly curious. It was like he honestly wanted to know who would care whether his aunt was hungry or not. But that was… no, that couldn’t be what he meant. My paranoia after everything I’d seen at Crossroads was clearly getting out of hand.

“I think your aunt might care,” I pointed out mildly. “We’ll save a little for her.”

“Maybe,” he replied doubtfully before gesturing to the seat next to him. “You should sit down with me.”

I did so, bringing both of our plates. “Do you know what my dad wanted to talk to your aunt about?” It was kind of weird that he hadn’t said a word to me before stepping over there, but maybe he wanted to give me a chance to talk to Ammon. He had said that the kid had been kind of obsessed with meeting me. Knowing my father, he might just want me to meet the boy so he could ask me if Ammon was really as creepy as he thought he was. That sounded like the sort of thing Dad would do. He liked to get my unspoiled opinion. Hell, this aura of creepiness and somewhat spoiled attitude might have been what he meant when he said the kid was ‘special.’

In response, the boy just shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But they’ll be awhile.”

Before I could ask how he knew that they were going to be busy if he didn’t know what they were talking about, the doorbell rang.

“Whoops, hold that thought,” I set my plate down and straightened up.

“You should ignore that,” the boy stated flatly.

I stopped, looking at him. “I should ignore that?”

He nodded. “You should sit back down and talk to me. They can wait.”

“They can wait,” I replied… before shaking my head. “Dude, that’s not how things work.”

Ammon blinked (so he did blink after all!), looking confused for the first time. “Uh, what?”

Shaking my head, I straightened from the table. “You can’t just leave people standing at the door ringing the bell. What’s your aunt been teaching you?”

“My name is Ammon.” He spoke the words sharply, like it was some kind of mantra. “You should sit down again.”

“Don’t worry, kid, I’ll be right back.” Giving his plate a nudge toward him, I added, “You should eat. Lemme just see who’s there.” Turning, I started for the front room.

“But my name is Ammon!” The boy’s voice was louder, his confusion more apparent. “You should stay!”

“Don’t yell in the house, Ammon,” I advised. “It’s bad manners. Now just eat your food, I’ll be back in a second, I promise.”

Leaving the strangely confused boy behind, I walked into the living room and opened the front door, blinking at the sight on the steps. “Uhh…”

“Flick?” The man standing there on the porch wore an emerald green suit over a black dress shirt. His sunglasses were so dark I wondered how he could see out of them. “The name’s Seller. I saw your pops go next door, so I thought I’d get that book off you while we had the chance. Should take me a couple hours to–” He stopped himself, frowning at me. “Are you all right?”

“Could you take off your glasses?” I asked quietly.

Raising an eyebrow, the man obliged, taking his shades off before looking back at me. “Is everything all right then? Han—Avalon said you were quirky, but she didn’t say anything about you having a thing against sunglasses.”

I was silent. My eyes wouldn’t leave his, even as I struggled in vain to speak, to find the right words. Nothing came. My brain had completely locked up.

The man on the porch was the man I had seen in my Heretical Edge vision, the man who had run away and abandoned the headmistress.

Seller… was my ancestor.

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Visitations 5-01

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Like a light snapping on, the darkness that had surrounded Avalon’s side of the dorm room all night long vanished. The girl herself stood there, yawning as she squinted toward me with bleary eyes.

“Good, you’re up. Come look at this.” I beckoned the girl over to my desk, where a half dozen books from the library had been scattered, matching the equal number littering my bed. “I found something.”

Avalon’s yawn continued while she stepped toward the closet for a fresh set of clothes. When she spoke, it was a somewhat groggy mumble, her voice was thick from sleep, “Is it an emergency?”

Fully aware of how bad overstating it would go, no matter how much I wanted to show the girl what I had found, I was forced to shake my head. “No, it’s important, but it’s not an emergency.”

Cracking her neck to one side, the busty brunette stepped back from the closet with her clothes in hand. “Good. Then don’t talk to me until I get back. I need a shower before I can deal with any conspiracies.”

With that, she stalked from the room on her way to the restroom, grumbling not-so-quietly under her breath the whole way about crazy roommates who never went to sleep anymore. Which totally wasn’t fair. I still slept. Granted, it was only about an hour a night, but it was still sleeping!

Yeah, in the two weeks that had passed since our encounter with the Eden’s Garden students, I had averaged an hour of sleep a night. I honestly didn’t need any more than that. Even working myself hard throughout the day, doing all of my work, exercising twice as much as I had been, and doing all that training with Avalon still wasn’t enough to make me all that tired. I had the feeling I could have gotten away with even less sleep, maybe an hour every couple of nights, if I had been less active.

Honestly, after two weeks of this… it was still absolutely amazing. Seriously, not needing to sleep gave me another third of the day to use. What the hell kind of crazy person would ever complain about that? Yeah, I was stuck in my room for the extra time, since I still had to follow the school rules, which meant staying in my room during curfew. No matter how awake and incapable of sleeping I happened to be, I was trapped inside these four walls. But so what? I could still get things done. It just meant that I could do all my schoolwork and other studying during that time, saving my hours outside the room for more active activities. It let me get a jump on all my classes while also spending an almost absurd amount of time scanning through those library books looking for any mention of my mother or Deveron, or anything related to either of them. I did all of that during the time I should have been sleeping, while doing my training and team bonding things during the day. I made it work.

According to Professor Dare, they had a system for dealing with things like this, where powers that were inherited by a student changed how the rules affected them. Obviously, curfew was meant to ensure that students received enough sleep. Yet I physically did not need as much any more. There were other students like me (though all of them were older), who for whatever reason required less sleep. They had different night schedules to follow, dependent on their specific needs. I just had to be added to that list, which meant sending the request through that school committee, which took time. Supposedly, it just took awhile because there were some on the council that wanted to forbid any exceptions to the rules, no matter how little sense they made. Each and every exception had to be debated about and voted on. Which reminded me that these were the same stubborn people who had needed the Headmistress to break the tie on whether I should even be allowed in the school or not, so maybe I shouldn’t actually hold my breath for a ruling in my favor after all. I’d read way too many of my father’s old articles to end up surprised if the people who didn’t want me in the school to begin with held it against me by voting against bending the rules about when I had to stay in my room.

And speaking of things that weren’t settled yet, we still hadn’t heard anything about what they were going to do about the Eden’s Garden students attacking us. Which, to be fair, didn’t mean that they weren’t doing anything about it, only that they weren’t sharing those actions with us.

We did have some answers at least. Apparently, there had been some kind of sabotage against the Pathmaker. As soon as our group had gone through, its connection to that area was severed. Someone had entered the Pathmaker building at any of the locations it existed within and had left some kind of enchanted item that blocked the building from reestablishing that connection. The people inside, including our teachers, had had to locate that item and destroy it before they could make the building create a portal anywhere within a few hundred miles. Even then, a couple of the teachers had transported that far before using their own abilities to get to our location as quickly as possible. But it had been too late. By the time they arrived, the fight had been over for a couple of minutes.

I’d already waited almost two hours since finding the thing I wanted to show Avalon, so waiting another forty-five minutes shouldn’t have been that big of a deal. Still, by the time the other girl finally returned, her worn and half-exhausted look turned into the goddess of perfection and cleavage that everyone else knew, I was practically bouncing up and down in my chair. Any longer and I swear I probably would have been scratching at the door, whining like a puppy for her to pay attention to me.

“Okay!” I stood up, unable to sit any longer once she was ready. “Look at this yearbook from 1918.”

Avalon obliged, taking the book from me to flip through it. “Okay, what am I looking for?”

Scooting over beside her, I used my finger to point. “So this yearbook is so old, they do things a little different. Each page has just a few student pictures along the left page, with their names and a little paragraph about them on the right page. See, Julius Markin, Penselvi Kresh, and so on.”

The other girl was nodding. “Right, seven students every two pages. What’s your point?”

I shook my head. “That’s the thing, it’s not quite four students each. See, it goes seven students, seven students, six students. Every third set of pages has six instead of seven because of this floral design banner that comes up over that empty space. See how it goes over each page, low on two of them, then up higher on the third to reduce the number of student pictures that can be there? Weird design choice.”

Avalon took a second, flipping through it for herself before nodding. “Right, what does it mean?”

“By itself? Nothing,” I replied. “Except for the fact that the designer had a weird thing for flowers. But look at the first page of student pictures again, then the second page, then the third.”

Flipping back to the front of the book, Avalon looked at them, changing the page over. “Six, six, six?”

I nodded. “They tried to cover it up by spacing those ones further apart so that it looks like there’s the same amount as the pages that have seven pictures on them. You have to pay attention. But just look at the names that are left on that first page. The first name and then the name after it.”

Running her finger down the page, Avalon read aloud. “Aaronson, Frederick and Bonwerth, David.”

“Yup. Guess which two names fit right in those two spaces that should’ve been where the flowers are,” I put my finger in that spot. “Adams, Deveron and Atherby, Joselyn. They should be right there. They took two people off the first page, and to make it fit they restructured the first two pages to have six each instead of the seven they should have had. They re-spaced these first couple of pages to try to make it look as normal as they could, but they couldn’t just redo the whole book for some reason.”

“Enchantment,” Avalon replied. “The magic that it would have taken to redo each yearbook, even the ones that aren’t here would be very taxing. The more pages that needed to be altered, the harder it would be, because they would have had to make the enchantment specifically to alter those pages. The more it had to alter, the harder it would be. So they just set it to take away those two pictures and set up the ones that were left to try to hide it by putting six on each of the first three pages.”

“When you point it out like that, it seems obvious,” Avalon frowned. “Why did it take so long to find?”

“Because they did a much better job of hiding it in the later yearbooks,” I pointed out. “This was my mother’s first year here. The other three books have more pictures per page, and are structured more like a normal yearbook like you and I would know. This is the only one that’s that different.”

“So what you need is an unaltered yearbook,” the other girl frowned in consideration. “Or a way to undo the enchantment that’s been put onto this one so you can see what was there before.”

I nodded. “See how they list more than the student’s name? Each student wrote something about themselves. Like this David Bonwerth guy said that his goal was to explore the bottom of the ocean. If we can get what my mother and the old Deveron wrote, it might tell us something about them.”

Avalon was silent for a few seconds, letting out a long breath before looking toward me. “I may have someone that can help erase the enchantment on this. But he’s not part of this school.”

I opened my mouth, then hesitated. “You mean he’s from your old school, don’t you?”

Her head dipped into a slight nod. “Seller. He’s, uh…” For once, the other girl actually looked a little nervous, bringing a hand up to brush through her own hair. “He’s one of the teachers there. He’s the only reason I survived, the reason I escaped after everything that went down. I trust him. If we give him the book and tell him it’s important, he’ll get the enchantment off. We just have to get it to him.”

Realizing where she was going with that, I breathed out. “Just how far does this trust extend?”

She met my gaze, knowing what I was asking. “I would put my life in his hands. If he knows that it’s important to me, he’ll take care of it and keep the whole thing quiet. Even from Gaia.”

I flinched. “Sorry. I… it’s not fair for me to ask you to keep things from your mother. Even your adopted mother. It’s asking too much, I know. I get it. I’m really sorry.”

Looking away briefly, Avalon remained quiet. “I care about Gaia. She’s just trying to protect us. But in this case, fuck that. We need to know. You deserve to know about your family, Chambers. So we’ll do this, then talk to her about it. She’ll understand… I hope.” There was a slight dip in her voice at the end before she cleared her throat. “Whatever, I told you I’d help you figure this out, and you haven’t pissed me off enough to take it back yet. So either be more annoying or shut up about how sorry you are.”

Smiling faintly, I poked her. “See? I knew we were friends.” Before she could object, I pressed on. “I’ll take care of getting the book to Seller. As long as you think you can actually get a message to him.”

“I will,” she answered flatly. “There are ways of contacting him. Most of them involve dead birds. But I’ll only do it if you’re sure. You have to be absolutely positive that you’re okay involving him in this.”

Nodding emphatically, I stood up. “More than sure. I want to know the truth. This is the next step to that. If you say you trust him, that’s good enough for me. As long as he’s not going to drag his feet.”

“He’ll take care of it. Just give him the book. And try not to look so vulnerable, Chambers,” she sighed.

“You are eventually going to use my first name,” I declared, pointing at the other girl. “With Herbie as my witness,” I declared while grabbing my aforementioned buddy from his spot on my desk to tuck him into my pocket, “You will call me Flick before this semester is over. You already use Scout’s preferred name.”

“Go get an identical twin with the same last name,” Avalon replied dryly. “So that using your last name for both of you would just confuse everyone.”

“Then you’d use my first name?”

She couldn’t hide the slight smirk entirely as she shrugged at me. “No, I’d still call you Chambers. I’d just use your twin’s first name instead.”

Sighing dramatically, I put my hand against my forehead. “And lo, I am jealous of a sister I’ve never had.” Straightening then, I added, “That reminds me. You told me about your whole umm, your life before.” When the other girl stiffened, I pressed on quickly. “I know, I know, I know. Not pushing things, not trying to drag up bad memories or anything. I just have a serious question, and it’s one you sort of already talked about so I hope it’s okay to ask for clarification.”

She was still stiff, but at she wasn’t running away. “What is it?”

Speaking carefully, I asked, “You said that you hoped your father wasn’t dead, because you want to kill him. But later you said that… well the story you told me left your father dying on the floor, alone.”

Avalon was silent for a few seconds, looking away from me. When she spoke, her voice was as hard as I’d ever heard it. “He was found by a vampire, who turned him into one of them. That’s what he is now. And he’s tried to kill me a couple of times since then. It’s kind of our idea of a family reunion. We try to kill each other every year or so. Eventually, I’ll get it right.” Turning toward me, she glared. “Happy now? Go away. I’ve got work to do.”

Obliging her, I headed out to take my own shower rather than push things. By this point, I knew well enough when to leave the girl alone and stop pushing things. She was a lot more open with me than she had been when we first met, but sometimes I still had to back off. Especially after pushing her more than usual. But today was pretty much the best time for me to do that.

After cleaning up, I emerged from the restroom to find Sands and Scout waiting. Both embraced me quickly, hugging tightly while Sands lamented, “I can’t believe you’re leaving for a whole weekend.”

“Pretty sure my dad would object if I missed spending my birthday with him,” I pointed out to her, chuckling. “Besides, you guys’ll be fine. Just don’t let the boys slack off while I’m gone, okay? And try to get Avalon to spend time with the team. I know it’s hard but… she really does need it.”

“Don’t worry,” Sands promised. “Scout’s got this. You just focus on having a good time.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled a little weakly. “Having a good time while lying constantly to my own father all weekend.” The reality of it still hurt. I didn’t want to lie to my dad. I hated the very idea of it so much it almost hurt. I kind of didn’t want to go back if it meant having to lie to his face, but that would have made everything even worse. Mom had abandoned him. I wasn’t going to do the same thing just to avoid feeling a little uncomfortable.

“Miss Chambers,” the voice of Professor Dare spoke up from down the hall. “Are you ready to go? We should get you sent on your way before morning exercises begin.” She nodded then to the twins. “Speaking of which, girls…”

“On our way!” Sands chirped, saluting quickly before starting off with her sister. “We’ll just grab Avalon and head down there.”

“I’m ready,” I confirmed with a nod. “I just have to grab my bag, then uhh, we teleport, I guess?” I hoped that my obvious nervousness would look like it stemmed from the idea of using the portal again, rather than the fact that one of the things that I would be taking in my bag was the 1919 yearbook.

Yeah. Not only was I about to meet and talk to my father face to face for the first time since all of this had started, I was also going to take a yearbook from the school so I could meet one of the teachers from the school whose students had tried to kill us and ask him to please undo the magic enchantment that was covering up the history of my mother. Oh yeah, and I was still incapable of sleeping more than an hour a night. All of which I had to get through without my father the super-reporter realizing that anything weird was going on at all.

But at least I wouldn’t have to deal with any Strangers while I was there.

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Interlude 4 – Shiori

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“Stephen, get down!” Shiori Porter shouted the warning to her teammate while throwing her right arm forward. One of the two frisbee-like discs that served as her chosen Heretic weapons went flying through the corridor of the condemned motel that they had been fighting in for their first Stranger hunt.

The disc whistled as it sliced through the air, narrowly missing the red-haired boy when he dropped to one knee. The ugly green-furred monkey thing that had been leaping toward him was struck by the disc. As the weapon made contact with the creature (Andrew, their team mentor, had called them daesimalo), a shock of electricity was triggered, knocking the thing backwards with an awful screech.

The disc rebounded off of the monster, the enchantment magic within attracting it to the nearby wall where it stuck itself flat against the surface, like a magnet snapping into place against a refrigerator.

The daesimalo was blind with fury by that point. Picking its small (the thing was only about the size of a toddler) body off the floor, it took a quick bounding run forward before leaping up. No longer interested in the still kneeling boy that had been its first target, the primate-demon flung itself at Shiori.

In response, she held her now-empty right hand up and out. The gloves that she wore had a small blue crystal embedded in the palms, almost unnoticeable unless her hand was opened the way it was now.

The blue gem in her right palm began to glow as she opened her hand and held it out. In the distance, past the incoming monster, the disc that was stuck to the wall began to glow as well. In the next instant and with a crack almost like thunder, a jagged line of electricity shot from the disc to the gem in her raised hand as the current was established between them. It caught the daesimalo in mid-leap, the beam of electric death tearing right through the beast’s chest while its scream of rage became one of agony for a brief second before stopping. The thing was dead, and it would never hurt anyone else again.

Remembering how killing the peridle had felt, Shiori tried to brace herself. It wasn’t enough. The shock of pleasure that filled her in the next second made the girl yelp, back straightening while her skin glowed briefly with the same pale red light that had come the first time she had killed a Stranger.

Stephen, who had rolled out of the way, came up and pointed beyond her. “Sh-sh-shiori!” His voice was stammering so much that he didn’t have time to get anything else out. She had the gist though. Turning her head, the Asian-American girl saw two more of the monkey-demons rushing toward her down the motel hallway. One ran against the right wall, while the other loped along the ceiling. Both had their nasty fangs bared and were making that obnoxiously awful wail that was their battle cry.

Snapping her other discus off its place on her hip with her free hand, Shiori turned slightly and gave it a hard toss toward the monster on the wall. This time, the arc of electricity between the gem in that hand and the weapon itself was there from the start. As she threw the disc, the electricity lengthened into a crackling line of power that linked her glove to the weapon while it spun through the air away from her.

The discus smacked off of the wall monkey’s face, stunning it briefly. More to the point, it rebounded, the magic within the disc attracting it to the opposite wall. In the process, the line of electricity caught the daesimalo that had been running along the ceiling, cutting straight through the monster.

Shiori stood there, arms pointed in opposite directions down the corridor while the two lines of electricity connected her gloves to the discs that were flat against their respective walls.

Unfortunately, that third demon-monkey was still coming. And just before it leapt, the death of the second Stranger caught up with Shiori. The girl arched her back, giving a sharp gasp of pleasure while her red aura shot back to life. Throughout those precious seconds, she frantically told herself to ignore it. The monster was coming, the monster was still there, it was jumping at her! It was there!

Stephen’s spear snapped across her vision, catching the daesimalo in mid-leap as the thing flung itself at her face. The monkey-demon shrieked in agony, sounding surprised as the blade of the spear cut through its stomach and out the other side. It hung there, suspended on the shaft while it beat its arms and legs, shrieking horribly for a few more seconds before collapsing, the body empty.

The nervous boy sagged in relief for a second before giving a sharp gasp of unmistakable pleasure. His own aura, a dark yellow color, flared up as the now-dead daesimalo’s energy and power jumped to him.

While he was recovering, Shiori took a step back and made a sharp motion with both hands. The lines of electricity shut off, and both of her discs snapped themselves off of the walls they had been stuck to, flying back through the air to her. She caught them easily, sliding each disc back down to clip onto their proper spots on her belt, just under the jacket of her green-trimmed school uniform.

Stephen had recovered by that point, his murmur of pleasure turning into a yelp as the weight of the monkey-demon embedded on his spear dragged him forward and down. The body made a sick little squelching noise as it slid down the shaft, slipping off before hitting the floor with a wet thunk.

“A-are you okay?” Stephen managed to ask, eyes wide as he stared at her. His breath was coming in short little gasps, panting a bit as he obviously focused very hard on not looking at the body.

Bobbing her head quickly, Shiori felt her nerves start to take over again now that the fight was over. She looked away and flushed a little while murmuring, “I’m fine. Are… are you all right?”

“Thanks to you,” the boy gushed, still staring in that uncomfortable way. “I mean jeeze, are you sure you’re bystander-kin, Shiori? I’m Heretic-born, I grew up with this stuff. But you—you’re amazing. You just killed both of those th-things like—like you’d been doing it your whole life! How-I mean, what kind of fighting did you do before this?” The amazement in his voice only grew with each word.

Blushing even more, Shiori shook her head quickly. “Nothing,” she mumbled a little bit. “I just—it was just luck, I guess.” Her blush was deepening, both from self-consciousness and from guilt.

Because she was lying. She had been ever since that moment a month earlier when Professor Dare had activated the Heretical Edge, giving all of them the visions that had turned them into Heretics. With every day, every hour that passed, Shiori felt the guilt at her own deception gradually becoming worse.

There was more to it, more to her aptitude in that fight, her skill throughout these weeks of training. Even the hand-eye coordination and reflexes that had allowed her to become an expert at every video game she had touched since she was six made more sense now the Edge had been used on her.

As far as she could tell, it had worked exactly as advertised for everyone else. The lighthouse was supposed to give them a vision of their nearest ancestor who had encountered a Stranger. That’s what it had done for Columbus, for all of her teammates, and for everyone else she talked to. It worked.

Except for Shiori, things had been a little different. The vision she’d gotten had been… wrong. It hadn’t gone the way that Professor Dare had said that it would, or the way that everyone else said theirs had.

What she had always previously dismissed as just a simple talent had become so much worse. And there was no one she could talk to about it. She was lying to her team, to her teachers, to her brother.

Because she was too terrified of what would happen if they found out the truth. Especially now. She had been working up the nerve to tell one of her teachers about what she’d seen, what her vision had shown her. The man had seemed reasonable and she thought she might be able to trust him.

Then he had been murdered. Professor Pericles had been killed on the same morning that Shiori had been planning to talk to him. That thought had kept her silent these past few weeks, even as her fear of being discovered continued to mount with each passing day. Every bit of praise from a teammate or teacher, every remark on how well she was progressing and how rapidly she had taken to the training made her feel worse. The paranoia was a physical thing, a beast growing within her stomach.

A voice called out to them, interrupting Shiori’s internal contemplation. “Hey! You guys okay?” Andrew Bruhn, their team mentor, came jogging down the hallway. The rest of the team was with him, Gavin’s nearly seven-foot tall, rail-thin figure towering over the others. His height and skinny frame reminded Shiori of Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Stephen was nodding rapidly. “We’re good. Shiori killed two of them!” He still sounded both amazed, and incredibly proud of his teammate in a way that just made the girl feel worse for her deception.

“Two?” Koren, twin Hunga Munga held in her slightly shaking hands, sounded doubtful. “How?”

Stephen started to explain, but before he could say anything else, one of the nearby motel room doors opened. The whole team jerked that way reflexively, weapons raised. Rebecca Jameson, Shiori’s diminutive Heretic-born roommate, spoke a single word. At her command, the sides of her backpack opened up with the sound of running gears. Two metal bars with various shapes of metal hanging off of them pushed out from the sides of the bottom half of the backpack, turned around to face forward, and then extended themselves in front of the tiny girl, parts whirring and dinging as the rose into position.

The twin bars extended fully, sticking a good four feet out in front of Rebecca on either side. Then each deployed three smaller bars along their inner side that extended toward each other before locking into place to hold the two larger bars in position, and provide a trio of braces along their length.

At the same time, the top half of the backpack slid up on small mechanical arms, passing over the girl’s pixie-cut black hair before settling down onto the first of the three metal braces between the main poles. The shape of the so-called ‘backpack’ distorted and extended to cover the entire width between the two poles. Once that portion of the pack was locked in place, the front of it opened up, and a massive, unbelievably enormous gun barrel extended out along the length of the bars. Clamps latched onto the bracers as the cannon settled itself into place, nearly large enough to cut off its owner’s vision.

This was Rebecca’s weapon. Her backpack deployed itself into a literal cannon and attached system of bracers that were the only reason the tiny, less-than-five feet tall girl was capable of using it.

As unique and amazing as the weapons that Shiori and the rest of her classmates used were, most were at least hand-held. Rebecca used a literal weapons platform. A single shot from the absolutely cavernous barrel had evaporated all of the targets that Professor Katarin had them practice on. Shiori was pretty sure that it would have done the same to the wall behind it, and most of the rest of the building that it passed through if the training room’s walls weren’t heavily protected by enchantments.

The cannon, as well as every other weapon that the team held, were all pointed at the opening door.

“Stand down.” A voice spoke firmly, before the familiar figure stepped into view. It wasn’t one of monkey-demons that they had been sent to kill emerging from the room, but Professor Kohaku.

“Professor?” Andrew sounded as confused as Shiori felt. “Is something wrong? They haven’t finished off the last of the daesimalo yet, but I thought they were doing pretty–”

“The lesson is canceled,” the woman informed them. “The rest of the targets will be dealt with, but we are pulling everyone else in. There has been a…” She looked toward Shiori. “… situation.”

Feeling her blood run cold, dread settled hard into the girl’s stomach. They knew. They knew what her vision had showed her, the truth. Somehow, something had happened. Of course they had to have a way of figuring it out. She should have told someone. She should have run away. She should have–

“It is your adopted sibling, Miss Porter,” Kohaku continued. “His team has met with difficulties.”

Just like that, Shiori’s panic about her own problems shifted to worry for the boy she had grown up with. They had each been adopted by the Porters in the same year, and had considered each other siblings for most of their lives. Shiori had only vague memories of other foster families that she had temporarily lived with in the years before being taken in by her new family, and none of her parents.

Until the Heretical Edge.

“What happened to Columbus?” She asked quickly, forgetting her fear. “Is he okay? Are they okay?”

“Your brother suffered a slight injury that rendered him unconscious, but he will recover.” Professor Kohaku promised. “He is already being looked after, and we are halting the exercise until we understand exactly what happened. Everyone is being recalled to the school. Come.” Stepping aside, she lifted a hand to gesture back to the doorway she had come through. Beyond, Shiori could see not the broken down, ruined motel room that the door should have led to, but the portal room within the Pathmaker building.

One by one, the rest of her team went through the door. Shiori proceeded last, except for Andrew. Their mentor gave her an encouraging smile. “Hey, if Professor Kohaku says Columbus’ll be fine, he will be.”

“But… but what happened?” Shiori directed the repeated question not to the boy, but to the security track adviser. “What do you mean they met with ‘difficulties?’ I don’t understand. Where is he? Where’s my brother? I thought you guys said this was safe, that this whole thing was just routine!” In spite of the fear that had remained just below the surface ever since her vision, Shiori felt her voice growing louder with each word. She was much more worried about her brother’s safety than her own secrets at the moment.

“This situation was unforeseen, and unique.” Professor Kohaku’s voice was calm in the face of Shiori’s rising tone. “And as I said, he is being looked after. His own peridle-fueled regeneration has already handled most of the injury, but Doctor Krisbee is examining him and the rest of his team just to be certain. I will take you to the medical wing so that you can see for yourself, Miss Porter.”

Swallowing, telling herself to be quiet rather than succumbing to hysterics, Shiori nodded. Average. Normal. Be a normal student. Well, a normal Heretic student, whatever that meant. Don’t stand out. Don’t give them any reason to look closer at her. Blend in, until she figured out what to do, what else she could possibly do.

Biting her lip while hoping that the professor would see her nerves as simple concern for Columbus, Shiori quietly passed through the portal. Whatever had happened to her brother and his team, it couldn’t have been as bad as the secret that she had been hiding, the secret that had made the past month a living nightmare.

With each passing moment over these long weeks, and every idle question from a teammate, a teacher, or even her own adopted brother, the girl had found herself feeling more alone, and more worried that her secret would somehow be exposed. She tried to behave as normally as possible, but her fear of being discovered was getting worse. And if that happened, if the truth about what she had seen in the vision provided by the Heretical Edge came to light, she was terrified of what would happen, of what the staff would do. What her own teammates would do.

From the very start of it, the vision had been different from anyone else’s that she had subsequently heard of. Everyone else saw people several generations removed from them. Shiori had seen herself. Herself as a baby, but still definitely her.

But even that, even the fact that her Heretical-awakening vision had included her much younger self was at least understandable. Different from the rest she had heard of, but still explainable. That wasn’t what terrified her, what left her a complete wreck whenever she thought of anyone, even Columbus, finding out about it.

No, her fear of discovery stemmed from the rest of the vision. Because it hadn’t been focused on the baby Shiori herself, but her mother. Her real mother, the one she had no memory of.

Everyone else that she had talked to spoke of seeing their ancestor’s either fighting or being hurt or killed in some way by Strangers. That connection to the Strangers was what allowed the Edge to do its job and turn their descendants into Heretics. That was the entire point.

But Shiori’s mother hadn’t been the victim.

She was the Stranger.

Shiori had watched through her vision as her mother had forced a human to take the baby Shiori and put her into the foster system, creating a fake identity for the infant.

Stranger. Monster. That was the secret she had been hiding. Her vision, provided by the Heretical Edge, had shown Shiori the truth. She wasn’t a real Heretic. She couldn’t be. Her birth mother was a Stranger. One of the monsters that the Heretics killed. Just like they would kill her if they ever found out the truth.

Still, she couldn’t go on like this. Something was going to break. Her teachers were going to notice that something was different about her. Then they’d look into her past, and they’d figure it out.

Somehow, she had to beat them to it. She had to look into her own past without anyone finding out what she was doing. It would be difficult, considering she only knew one name. One name that her mother had spoken into the cell phone while leaving the building. The name of someone else that she had called her daughter after leaving the baby Shiori behind. One singular name that was all that the girl had to go on for clues to her true family.


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First Hunt 4-06

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Using the staff to push myself up, I kept a wary eye on the far-too-casual Doxer. The older boy was simply popping the knuckles of one hand all in a line, then the other while watching me stand up. He wasn’t concerned in the least. In the background, I saw Columbus and Sean having a pretty bad time trying to lay a finger on Pace, who evaded them with perfect ease. She was giggling like it was a game.

“It’s funny,” Doxer began, his tone calm and even. “They go on and on about how dangerous you Crossroads kiddies are and how we shouldn’t underestimate you. Gotta say, right now? Not impressed.”

“That’s funny,” I replied while moving to the left away from Sands. Hopefully we could make this guy focus on just one of us. Not that it was likely to make that big of a difference, but every little bit helped. “Because I was just thinking pretty much the same thing about you guys. The unimpressed part.”

The big guy’s response was a sneer. “We’re kicking your asses pretty thoroughly, little girl.”

Nodding, I took another step to the left, forcing him to turn slightly as his eyes continued following me. “Yeah, that’s the part I’m talking about. Or was I supposed to be in awe of your stunning ability to win a fight against a few teenagers that’ve been training for all of a month? That’s so unremarkable, they don’t even make a trophy for it, and they have trophies for coin flip event participation. Fifty-fifty shot, lose, get a trophy anyway. Still a more genuine victory than you assholes throwing your weight around.”

His chuckle was low, dangerous and without humor. “I like you. I think I’ll make this one last.”

At the last second, with a look straight into my eyes that was as mocking as any I had ever seen, the boy pivoted away from Sands’s strike that would have nailed the back of his head. His hand lashed out, snatched the length of the mace, and then he yanked her forward off balance while bringing his knee up. A cry of pain escaped the other girl even as I leapt that way, the air driven out of her by the blow.

She hit the ground hard, mace falling beside her as Doxer dismissively dropped it. His foot lifted to kick at her, but he pulled back to avoid my staff as I lashed out at him. “You know what I really hate?” I asked while using a wide swing of the weapon to force the boy to step back quickly. “You know what really pisses me off? People who think they can do whatever they want to. People who think they have all the power, so they can get away with hurting others that don’t have as much power as they do. Like you. You’re not avenging anything. You’re not protecting anyone. You’re not a warrior. You’re not a hero. You’re no better than the Strangers they’ve been teaching us about. Only in this case, you don’t have the excuse of the whole monster thing being part of your DNA. You’re just a dick.”

“Aww, your opinion makes me so sad,” he retorted before pantomiming writing in his palm. “Mental note, be sure to reevaluate my life after I’m finished beating this bitch to within an inch of hers.”

Flipping the staff around in my hand, I aimed it out and down toward at an angle toward the ground. “Start now,” I suggested flatly while triggering the concussive blast. It shot out of the staff and into the ground, spraying a thick cloud of dirt and light debris into the air directly toward the boy’s face.

Doxer reeled, grabbing at his eyes with a cry while I followed up with a quick strike toward his unguarded stomach, twisting my body into the swing to put more force behind it as I swung.

The blow took the boy hard in the gut, but it hardly seemed to matter. It was like hitting a boulder. I probably did more damage to my own hands than to myself. Christ, what was this asshole made of?

Blinded but still quick, he grabbed for the staff. I reversed it, spinning away from his grasp just in time. Before he could recover from the lunge, I lashed out with a quick series of blows, running it the way that Avalon had taught me. Two quick jabs at his face with the right end of the staff, then a low strike on his left side toward the knee with the opposite end. Quick step back, reverse the staff, and bring it up in a rising blow toward his exposed wrist as hard as I could. Each move, by that point, was quick and effortless. They came without conscious thought, the way Avalon had insisted they would. That was why we had drilled through them over and over so many times, so that they would be instinctive. Two strikes at the face to distract and make them reel back, hit the knee to hopefully disable or at least make move their guard that way, then use that exposed guard to hit their wrist hard enough that they can’t hit you back. One, two, three. The second that I stopped thinking and just acted, the motions were easy.

Except I was pretty sure that I’d gotten more of a reaction out of the training dummies that Avalon had made me practice with. At least the reinforced wood there had reacted as if my hitting it repeatedly actually did something. With this guy, I might as well have been attacking a chunk of granite.

I kept going anyway, hoping that I’d hit something weaker than a brick wall before he recovered. With a grunt, I twisted around into a spin to put the full weight and strength of my body behind the next blow.

The staff whiffed through empty air. Wait, no, not empty air. Water. Where the big guy had been before, water in the shape of his body remained. It stayed in place and retained that shape for a split second after my staff had passed through it, before collapsing into a puddle at my feet.

Abruptly, before I could finish looking around, a voice from nearby whispered urgently, “Drop!”

I didn’t know why. Maybe it was the tone, similar to the way Avalon instructed me when we were training. Whatever it was, I listened to the voice, instantly dropping into a roll. As I did so, Doxer’s hands swept by overhead, narrowly missing his grab for me. If I had waited a second longer, he would have had his arms around my throat. Given his size, I was positive that the fight would have been over.

Instead, I was able to escape, rolling back to my feet and lashing out with my staff before my brain had time to catch up with what had just happened. Whose voice was that? It didn’t seem to belong to anyone that I could see. The whisper had just come from nowhere. Was this the Amarok’s ability? Wait, did that even make sense? What kind of inherited super power was ‘voice in my head?’

He might have followed up the attack before I could recover, but Sands was back up. Her mace swung out, colliding with his shoulder with enough force to finally draw a grunt from the boy. In retaliation, he grabbed for her with speed that seemed at odds with his size. Still, Sands managed (barely), to escape by conjuring a wall directly between them that slowed the big guy down for a couple seconds.

Don’t just sit there and gawk, get up and help her.” That voice in my head, somehow familiar yet not at all, ordered. “Keep him turning back and forth. Don’t let him deal with only one of you at a time.”

I still had no idea where this voice was coming from, but it had the right idea. Before Doxer could corner Sands, I came in at his back, dropping low so I could plant the full weight and force of my staff in the back of his knees as hard as possible. At the last second, I triggered the staff’s concussive blast.

That, finally, was enough to knock the son of a bitch down. He stumbled, grunting in pain. Before hitting the ground, however, flames erupted where he had been in the shape of the asshole himself.

Okay, it was fire instead of water this time. Still, I knew what was coming. Even as the voice in my head whispered an urgent warning, I was already throwing myself in a (still somewhat awkward and ungraceful, but hey) dive out of the way. I half-rolled and half-sprawled, rolling in the dirt to escape.

“Well now,” Doxer announced while looking from Sands to me and then back again. “Looks like I might have to put a tiny bit of effort into this after all. Unless, you know, you girls just wanna call it quits.” His grin widened. “I’m a fair guy, easy to please. Tell you what, we’ll have a little contest. Each of you make me a sandwich. The babe that makes the best one, well, I won’t hit her anymore. Sound good?”

It took everything I had not to throw myself at the son of a bitch in a blind rage, swinging wildly. That’s what he wanted. He was trying to piss us off, make us stop thinking and just go at him in a rush. If we did that, I had no doubt that he’d knock us both on our asses in about two and a half seconds. He wanted us to fight on his terms, so he could end the fight on his terms. Quickly and decisively.

Instead, I glanced toward Sands, lifting my chin. “The boy wants a sandwich.”

She nodded, breathing hard. “Yup. Think we should give it to him?”

“Oh yeah,” I nodded. Unlike Sands, I was breathing easily. Mostly I just felt pissed off. “We should.”

“Now girls,” that infuriating smirk was back. “There’s lots of things you could both give me that I wouldn’t object to. Especially if you work together. But before you do anything rash right now, I–”

Before he could say anything else, I pointed my recharged staff back at the ground and triggered it. The force, as I had been warned, nearly tore the weapon out of my hand. Somehow, I managed to retain my grip on it as I was launched into the air, flying up a good ten feet and forward to pass over the big guy’s head. Just beyond him, I dropped, spun in the process, and swung that staff at the back of his neck.

An outline of dirt appeared in the air where he had been, my staff whiffing through it even as I landed. Rather than remain standing, I continued my fall, dropping down while the large figure reappeared behind me. His foot was raised into a vicious kick. My quick roll meant that he only barely clipped my arm. Even that was enough to send spasms of pain down it. It felt like something had cracked.

Before he could follow that up, Sands was on him. His focus on me had taken his eyes off of her. She came in at him with another wide swing that made the boy jerk his head back away from the mace.

Unfortunately for him, he moved it directly into the path of my own swinging weapon. The staff collided with the dickface’s recoiling head so hard I thought that one of them was going to break.

Duck to your left, then jump right and swing at his leg the second you land. Wait for it… now.”

Still failing to understand why, I instantly followed the voice’s instructions. Ducking left, I saw Doxer’s vicious backhanded swing narrowly miss me. He was turning defensively, but my quick jump put me right at his blindspot, and gave me a brief second of opening. I took advantage, lashing out with my staff at the side of his leg as hard as I could. I was gratified to hear the hard thunk of my weapon striking home, followed by a grunt of actual pain from the arrogant piece of shit himself.

Sands was already moving to take advantage of the very slight stumble even before I’d finished hitting him. Her mace came up and around, bashing into the side of the boy’s shoulder so hard that she actually managed to draw some blood, as well as a genuinely surprised gasp. She’d hurt him. We had hurt him.

A sudden blast of air in my face replaced the boy. I saw him appear behind Sands, grabbing for her with a look of rage that had replaced his former cocky and dismissive expression. Before I could yelp a warning, she was already reacting somehow. Dropping into a side-roll, she barely escaped his grasp.

That voice returned. “Count to five, then swing as hard as you can six feet to the left of his head.”

Shrugging inwardly, I did so. After reaching five in my head, I lunged up and forward, lashing out with my staff at what still looked like empty air to me. In the meantime, Sands had been lashing out with a quick series of strikes mixed with wall construction to slow his counter-attacks. She struck hard and fast, not letting up for a second to give him any chance to regroup. It didn’t seem to do much damage, but she had been steadily driving him back a couple of steps through sheer ferocity.

Those few steps made all the difference. Just as I swung at what had been empty air, Doxer took that last step back that put himself directly in my path. The staff collided with the side of his head, and he bellowed in pain, staggering to the side while lashing out blindly and fruitlessly.

In retaliation, the big guy spun toward me while grasping with his hand. He caught my shoulder, squeezing so hard that I couldn’t help the cry of pain that escaped me. It hurt. His fingers dug into my muscle, and I heard something else crack while he tried to jerk me toward him.

But Sands was there. She brought her mace down hard into Doxer’s back, and he bellowed in pain once again. When she tried to follow up that blow, another statue of water briefly replaced him before collapsing with a splash, sending water everywhere.

That particular teleportation or… whatever he was doing carried Doxer behind Sands. But it was a trick he’d done too many times already, and I didn’t need the voice in my head to warn me before I was already leaping forward. Sands dropped the instant she realized the guy had disappeared again, giving me a clear path over her. I was already swinging, the staff connecting solidly with Doxer as he reached for Sands.

We continued that way. Sands and I did our best to keep the son of a bitch between us. We’d manage to hit him and he would disappear, but because she and I were both facing each other, one of us always knew where he teleported to and would press the attack while the other evaded his counter. A couple of times, the voice in my head whispered advice, warning me when the guy was out of my line of sight. We never let up. We never gave him a chance to recover or press any kind of advantage.

Finally, Sands all but collapsed. She doubled over, gasping for air almost desperately. She was openly panting, glaring at the bloodied, bruised guy between us. “I’m gonna…” She breathed in and then out heavily between her words. “Shove this… mace… up your… urethra.”

“Keep… wasting your breath… babe.” Doxer retorted in between pants of his own. He spat a bit of blood onto the ground before sneering. “You two can wear yourselves out with this pointless shit all you want. But you can’t keep going forever. You’ll slow down. And when you do, you’re mine.”

The boy wasn’t panting as heavily as Sands, but his breathing was clearly heavier than it had been. We were wearing him down. If we weren’t, he would have pressed the advantage already rather than taunt Sands about being tired.

Taunt… Sands about being tired. That was my first thought even though he’d clearly meant both of us simply because I wasn’t tired. At all. We had been at this for several intense minutes by that point, so much that Sands was almost dead on her feet, and even Doxer was panting. Both had slowed down over the course of this. I’d thought that avoiding his blows and countering was getting easier because I was getting the timing down. But the truth was that Doxer was getting tired…. and I wasn’t.

I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t even breathing hard. I felt absolutely fine, as if I hadn’t been exerting myself at all.

“Cover me,” I murmured. “Try to keep him off my back if he teleports. I’ve got this.”

With that, I pointed the staff at the ground and used it to launch myself forward without warning. My feet plowed into the boy’s chest. As before, it was like hitting a wall. This one, however, felt more like wood than stone. There was give to it as the piece of shit staggered backwards with a reluctant yelp of pain.

I didn’t wait. Dropping back to my feet, I lashed out as quickly as I could into a rapid series of blows with my staff. Right side low toward his leg, left side up at his wrist, left side higher at his face, reverse and flip the staff around, use the momentum to come all the way up on the opposite side to crack the weapon against his other bicep, jump back and jab inward with the staff to smack off his face.

It wasn’t perfect. He countered, a mixture of flailing and pointed strikes that would have done much worse damage if they had been more patient and collected. Instead, two things were happening. The first was that he was getting more and more frustrated as I refused to fall down and stay there.

The second thing that was happening was that he was getting more tired with each passing moment. And I… wasn’t. At all. The difference was becoming more and more profound. He was clearly stronger, faster, and more skilled than I was. But he was getting tired, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t tired at all. For all my body had reacted, I might as well have been taking a casual stroll to the fridge.

Even then it wouldn’t have been enough without Sands. The boy could have teleported behind me and ended it completely with one quick blow. But the other girl was there, constantly jumping in whenever he tried to do that. And when she wasn’t quite fast enough, the voice in my head warned me in time.

In the end, however, it wasn’t my sudden inexhaustible energy that finished the fight. It was a gunshot, followed by a squeal of pain.

Heads snapped that way, and I saw the girl, Pace. She was on one knee, holding a hand against her shoulder where the bullet had gone through. In front of her, Columbus was on the ground, clearly unconscious, while Sean half-lay and half-crouched in front of him. Vulcan was between them and the bitch herself, growling menacingly in spite of half a dozen dents spread over his metallic body.

And behind them, Scout stood with her rifle raised. She waited another half-second, then pulled the trigger again.

Doxer vanished with a puff of fire, reappearing next to Pacer before both of them vanished, leaving twin clouds of dirt behind that time.

“Trice!” Doxer bellowed. “Time to get out of here!”

“Not… yet.” Trice retorted. Blood covered the right half of his face from a deep cut, and he couldn’t quite stand up straight. “We’re not finished.”

Avalon, meanwhile, wasn’t doing so hot either. She was holding her arm at an odd angle, which considering how much I knew about the regeneration, and how many more of those peridles she had killed compared to me, said a lot about how much damage she’d taken.

“Sniper’s up!” Doxer retorted, vanishing in another puff of air along with the injured girl. “And Pacer’s in trouble! If the shooter’s up, the blocking spells are gonna fail soon. You-know-who can’t distract the staff for long.” He looked back toward Sands and me. “I’ll be back for that sandwich.”

“Way I see it,” I retorted, “You still haven’t finished the one we were trying to give you.”

Growling in anger, Trice pointed at Avalon. “This isn’t over. I will kill you, cunt. I’ll listen to you beg me to stop. Just like my brother did. But I won’t. I’ll listen to you die over and over again, just for the hell of it..

“Bring it,” she spat the words, hands held up defensively while she glared.

“Later,” Trice shot back. “Just know that you aren’t safe. None of you. With a little help from our friend, we can get you any time, any place.

Then they were gone. With a rush of wind and fire together, the three figures vanished.

Sands collapsed. Sean let himself fall the rest of the way before turning to check on Columbus. Scout ran to check on her sister. Even Avalon slowly sank to one knee, then slipped onto her side with a grunt of pain, breathing hard and shuddering. Her arm hung useless and loose to one side, the bones in it broken almost beyond recognition. I could see it start to knit back together.

Embracing her sister tightly when Scout reached her, Sands looked to me. “Thanks. Good thing that Amarok had some kind of telepathic communication, huh? Couldn’t have have gotten through that without your help. And how did you fight and keep giving instructions at the same time?”

I stared at her for a moment. “You heard a voice too?”

“Of course I—wait, it wasn’t you?”

The two of us stared at one another for a second. Then I shook it off and moved to check on Avalon and the boys. As before, I wasn’t tired at all. None of what had happened even made me yawn.

That was the power that the Amarok had given me. A seemingly endless amount of stamina. I could have kept fighting all night without a single break. That was the ability I’d inherited from the giant wolf.

… so where had that voice in not just my head, but Sands’s too come from? Who had been helping us? Who had been directing us through that fight?

And most of all, which of my new teachers had helped those three make this whole thing happen?

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First Hunt 4-05

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“Does Seller know you guys are pulling this shit?” Avalon’s voice was even as she stared down the guy with the heavy pike, Trice. “Do the Victors? You and I both know they wouldn’t approve it.”

“Fuck them!” Trice shouted back at her. Behind him, the handful of figures that were still in shadows muttered agreement. “You killed my brother. Torv is dead because of you. Because you’re a cunt. Now you’re gonna pay for it, and hiding behind your new bitch mommy isn’t gonna save you. You’re dead.”

“What’d you do to Scout, you son of a–” Sands was trying to yank herself free from Avalon’s grip, the mace in her hand raised threateningly as she glared at the boy who stood over her twin. “Let go!”

Trice glanced to the pair of crumpled figures on the ground before shaking his head. “The girl’s fine. They both are. Or they will be. And they’ll stay that way as long as they don’t get in the way again. We’ve got no beef with them, or with anyone else here except her.” He used two fingers to point at Avalon. “The rest of you little students can run right along home. In fact, you turn around and go back to that cabin where you found the chamrosh and you’ll find the way back to your safe little island.”

The green-haired boy’s eyes were narrow slits as he continued to stare at my roommate, his voice dark. “Only one person needs to die here tonight. And trust me, she’s had it coming for a long time.”

“Fuck you,” Sands shot back, finally wrestling herself free of Avalon’s grip. “You think we’re gonna abandon our teammate? Just because you Garden fuck-ups can’t even spell loyal, let alone define it.”

One of Trice’s companions that was still obscured by shadows pointed a dark-skinned hand while snapping, “You watch your mouth, little girl. Least we’ve got an actual fucking garden. You spoiled little Crossroads Academy shits live on a gods damn island. There ain’t no fucking roads to cross!”

“Shut it, Doxer.” Trice ordered the boy. “We’re not here for that, and we’re not trying to start shit with untrained children. We’re not here to fight or hurt anyone except for little Hannah Owens. That’s it.”

Somewhere behind me, Columbus blurted, “Wait a second, who the hell is Hannah Owens?”

Ignoring him, Trice kept his attention on Avalon. “Torv didn’t deserve to go like that. Not from you. Christ, do you even remember how much shit he put up with for you? He stuck up for you. He went out of his way to get you food, to take care of you, teach you how to fight. If it wasn’t for Torv, you’d still be that scared little runt that couldn’t even raise her voice. He brought you up outta nothing. So what if he wanted a little something for it in the end? You fucking owed him, you selfish cunt. Just cuz you’d rather munch rug than polish the chrome doesn’t mean you can’t pay a guy back for everything he did.”

Anger boiled up in me, but before either I or Avalon could say anything, Sean stepped in. “Okay, look, uhhh, Assface. Can I call you Assface? I’m gonna call you Assface. Mostly because every word that comes out of your mouth just reminds me of one massive flatulence problem. So here’s the thing, Assface. Being nice is not a god damn currency exchange. You don’t get to trade being a decent fucking person for future fun times. You earn one thing from being a relatively good person, just one. And that’s help from other relatively good people when you need it. That’s all you get. Anything else is just blind fucking stupidity, and if your brother thought treating a girl with a little respect meant she owed him anything more than friendship, then he was a piece of shit who got what he deserved.”

“You watch your fucking mouth, you ignorant shit.” Trice pointed the heavy pike toward the boy, while Vulcan growled from beside Sean. “We’re doing you a favor by giving you a chance to walk away.”

The partially-hidden figure on the opposite side of Trice, the one next to Doxer, spoke up for the first time, revealing a high, excited female voice. “Told ya they’d throw it back in our faces, Trice! C’mon, lemme play with ’em! You never let me play! C’mon!” The figure was all-but dancing with eagerness.

“One more chance,” Trice informed us. “I’m gonna count to ten. Then I’m coming after Hannah. Anyone else that gets in the way, Doxer and Pace get to play with. And they tend to break their toys.”

“Take the offer,” Avalon instructed the rest of us, her gaze still not leaving the boy. “Like he said, they don’t care about you. None of you are trained. You can’t match any of them. You’re not ready for this kind of fight, so take Scout and the prick and walk away. This doesn’t involve any of you.”

“Yeeeeaaah see, I could do that,” I conceded with an absent wave of my hand. “But it would involve getting a whole new roommate and well, that’s just not a hassle I need right now. So I think we’ll probably just help you smack these pricks around a little instead and see how that goes.” As I spoke, my eyes glanced down toward my formerly mangled arm. By that point, bare minutes after it had been practically torn to shreds, my arm was just fine again. It was like… well, it was like magic. Duh.

Trice counted slowly, in no apparent hurry to rush things. Each gradually drawled number was followed by a couple seconds of silence. His gaze was locked onto Avalon, the hate and desire for revenge clear in his murderous eyes. There was no nuance there, no sympathy, regret, or doubt about what he was doing. He didn’t just want to kill the girl, he wanted her to suffer as much as possible.

Avalon, for her part, was glaring openly at me. “Chambers, leave. All of you, leave. This isn’t about you. Take Scout. Take Adams. And get the fuck out of here, now. This is not a god damn game.”

“See, you’re right,” I replied. “It’s not a game. Which means we don’t have to follow any rules.”

With that, I shoved the staff that I had been charging ever since the trio had shown up and triggered the blast of kinetic energy. It shot out from the staff in an invisible wave, slamming into the three figures.

Or it should have. Unfortunately, two of the three were no longer there. Only Trice still stood in place, that pike of his twisted at an angle. As the wave of force came at him, he stepped toward it, catching the wave on his weapon somehow. A small tornado appeared around the blade of the pike as the force that I had sent at him was captured, before he gave it a flick. The force shot off of his weapon, slamming into the already-leaping Vulcan to send the mechanical dog flying off to crash into the dirt.

Sands was there, swinging her mace up and around with a two-handed blow. Trice gave a casual flick of his pike, catching the end of it on the handle of the mace to knock it off course before stepping out and around the girl. His weapon snapped back sharply, the long handle smacking into Sands’ shoulder to knock her stumbling past him. A second later, he twisted a little to the side, a motion as casual as if he was simply cracking his neck. The blue-silver beam of concussive force that Columbus had shot from his goggles sailed past the spot where the boy’s head had been an instant earlier.

Then he was in front of me. The blunt end of his pike lashed up and over, and I barely caught it on my own weapon, snapping it up into place just in time to avoid taking the blow to my throat. The force of his attack sent painful vibrations through my hands, nearly knocking the weapon from my grasp.

Before I could even start to recover from that, Trice had reversed the course of his pike, and the pointy end was abruptly coming straight up toward my eye, while my staff remained horribly out of position.

At the last instant, a glowing energy sword interposed itself between my face and the incoming pike. Avalon smacked the blade out of the way before lashing out with a kick that forced the boy to take a step back. Rather than give him a chance to recover, my roommate went after him fast and hard. She lashed out with the blade of energy from her right gauntlet, forcing him to deflect it with his pike. While he was still out of position and recoiling, Avalon lunged in on the other side, her left hand snapping out with a second blade of energy already forming as she lashed out at him.

He stepped in, evading the blade with a quick twist of his body before smacking the other girl in the face with his elbow. She reeled just enough to give him an opening, which he took advantage of by shoving the blade of his pike down toward the girl’s knee. Avalon managed to twist away from it fast enough to deck him across the face with the flat of her fist, back-handing the boy hard.

In the same moment, however, Trice kicked Avalon’s legs out from under her, sending my roommate down hard onto her back. He followed that up by trying to shove his weapon straight down into her briefly prone form. He might even have managed it within the extremely brief second before Avalon recovered, except that she wasn’t alone. Lunging that way, I lashed out with my own weapon, colliding it with his just in time to knock the descending pike off-course so that it struck the ground beside the other girl.

Before he could yank the weapon out of the ground, Columbus shot another beam of force at him, careful to avoid hitting anyone else. But Trice dropped into a backwards roll, letting the blast of concussive energy fly past above him while his foot kicked out to knock his own pike up and over.

The weapon fell neatly into the boy’s hand, and he twisted around while rolling to his knees, bringing it up just in time to catch Sands’s descending mace. Shoving her out of the way with a quick motion of his arms, Trice flipped himself up into a kick that struck Sean across the face, knocking him sprawling right into Columbus’s path before the other boy could fire another shot.

Avalon, back on her feet by that point, had read the incoming situation perfectly. She positioned herself where Trice would have to move, catching him with nowhere else to go and seemingly no time to react or change course. Her gauntlet swung, the energy sword cutting through the air to literally disarm him.

Trice disappeared. As Avalon’s blade cut through the air where his arm had been, the boy completely and unexpectedly vanished for about half a second before reappearing directly behind the girl. The blade of his weapon was aimed straight for her back, and there was a twisted sneer on his face as he shoved it forward.

Then Vulcan was there. The mechanical dog leapt, jaws closing around the long shaft of the pike, tearing it out of Trice’s grip half of an instant before the blade would have hit Avalon.

Sands took the chance to attack the boy from the left while he was left weaponless, while I hit him from the other side. She went high toward his face, and I swung my staff for his knee.

He leapt over my attack, twisting to avoid the swing of Sands’ mace. In the end, he might have evaded both of our attacks entirely. Might have. Except Sands wasn’t just swinging her mace. She also created a circular wall right beside the boy, just in time for my staff to smack into it as I triggered the button that deposited a mine against the magically constructed wall. Then both Sands and I smacked our weapons against the spot where the mine was before simultaneously throwing ourselves in opposite directions.

The mine exploded against the wall directly beside Trice before he could recoil. The boy was knocked to the ground with a cry, sprawling there for a moment before he rolled over.

Sands and I both started to move, knowing that we had to take the chance we had before Trice could recover. Unfortunately, before we could go more than a step, a new figure appeared directly in front of us. “Uh uh,” the tall, dark-skinned guy that was obviously Doxer announced. “Time to let those two sort things out on their own. Trice gets to deal with Hannah. You girls can play with me.”

Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the girl, Pace, interposing herself between Columbus and Sean. And a little bit ahead of us, Trice had gotten back to his feet to face Avalon.

Three of them. With Avalon’s help, we had barely been holding against just Trice. Now we were split up. Avalon was left to face Trice on her own, while Sands and I had Doxer to deal with, and the boys had Pace. When it had been five-on-one, we had just barely managed to knock him down.

“Don’t worry, little girls,” the big guy informed us while cracking his neck to the side. “This won’t take long. Unless I start having fun. Then we might be here awhile.”

With that, his fist lashed out. I barely had the chance to notice the blur of motion before the blow took me in the face so hard I hit the ground before I knew what was happening. His punch was like a freight train. I was in the dirt, pain filling my face while Sands yelped my name. A second later, she went sprawling over me to hit the ground as well.

“Oh yeah,” Doxer chuckled, cracking his knuckles as he stood over us.

“This is gonna be fun.”

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