Month: March 2016

Interlude 7B – Asenath

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July 10th, 1964

Fire raged throughout the building. The smoke and heat disoriented Asenath’s senses enough that she could hardly even tell where she was, a situation that was hardly helped by the sounds of those crying out for help that seemed to be coming from every direction at once. Almost every part of her subconscious screamed for her to run straight for the closest exit she could find, to save herself.

Instead, the vampire moved for the nearest sound of screaming, coming from behind a thick wooden door. Her hand found the knob, but it was too hot to touch. With a grimace, feeling the flames creeping closer to her with each passing second, the girl reared back and kicked out hard. The force of the blow blew the door off its hinges. Before it could fly into the room beyond and risk injuring someone else, however, Asenath used her incredible speed to reach in, grab the side of the door, and fling it behind herself into the already burning room. The flames eagerly swallowed it with a roar of approval.

Inside the next room, she could see a little bit better. The smoke wasn’t quite as bad in here, though it was rapidly getting worse. As the girl sped into the room, her eyes found the source of the cries for help: three small children, two alters and one human. One of the alters was a dryad sapling, so small and young that her skin was still a pale, barely noticeable green rather than the much darker shade it would become as she matured. Beside the terrified sapling was a young satyr, his equine ears twitching violently toward every new sound as tears streaked down his face. His hands clutched the human child, a young girl slightly younger than the two alters whose cries of terror were almost painfully loud.

Seeing the children there, Asenath took a step toward them. As she moved, however, her hearing picked up the faintest disturbance in the air. At the same time, the children’s eyes moved from her to some spot just over her shoulder, widening in newfound fear. Twisting around while ducking, she felt the rush of air as a sword blade passed through the spot where her head had just been. Her fist was a blur as she lashed upward toward the figure’s throat, striking with enough force to put it through solid concrete.

Yet her hand was caught by an equally fast grasp, and Asenath found herself being yanked around like one of the children she was in the room to save. Her face hit the nearby wall with enough force to stun her, and she sensed that sword coming straight for her exposed back. At the last second, she managed to kick outward and back, knocking the blade off course so that it stabbed into the wall beside her.

While her opponent was yanking the sword free, Asenath spun away from the wall, planted one foot against it to boost herself up into the air, and lashed out with her other foot to kick the man in the face.

The Heretic recoiled, his expression invisible through the smoke-filled room. If the vampire had needed to breathe at all, she would have been violently coughing. As it was, the smoke all-but destroyed her senses, reducing her sight, smell, and hearing down below what a normal human was capable of.

The man came at her in a blur of motion then, so fast that most would have been cut through three or four times by the time they had even noticed the first strike. Asenath, however, wasn’t most. As the blade swung toward her the first time, she met the man’s incredible speed with her own. Her foot kicked the metal leg off a nearby table, snapping it off its mounting and into her waiting hand just in time to smack the incoming blade out of the way. No less than five additional strikes followed, all in the span of two seconds and all from entirely different angles. Each one she knocked aside, though several were such near-misses that she couldn’t entirely avoid them, taking a few cuts here and there. And with each blow, her table leg was being broken apart. In spite of her care in not letting the sword strike it head on, always smacking the flat of the blade, it was still taking its toll. The leg wouldn’t last.

Worse, the smoke had reached the children. They wouldn’t last much longer, not without help. The flames were working their way into the room as well, but the smoke would have done its job by the time the heat of the fire made it far enough to matter. The flames wouldn’t kill them, but it would erase their small, helpless bodies as thoroughly as the smoke would have extinguished their too-short lives.

Acting quickly, Asenath threw the remains of the table leg at her opponent’s face. He easily ducked away from it, but the move gave her time to turn and lean down. Her hand snatched up a fallen metal folding chair. The next strike came an instant later, and she barely managed to put the chair between herself and the blade. Not that it did much, the sword went straight through the metal chair like it wasn’t there, stabbing directly into Asenath’s torso, filling her body with near-blinding agony.

Giving a snarl of triumph, the Heretic’s grip on his sword tightened, ready to shove upward. His eyes flicked toward hers, clearly expecting to see sudden terror as she realized that she was about to die.

Instead, he found her smiling through the pain. Asenath met his eager, hungry gaze with a toothy grin, letting him see her fangs. Then she returned her formerly limp hands to the metal chair that the blade had stabbed through to get at her. Before the man realized what was happening, she gave the chair a hard twist, spinning it almost all the way around while simultaneously yanking on it. The blade, trapped in the metal of the chair, was spun along with it and yanked out of the man’s grasp. Doing so sent another spasm of agony through Asenath as the blade was turned inside her, yet she ignored it.

As the sword was spun up and away from his grasp, the heretic lunged for it. But Asenath was faster. Not for herself, but for the children she was trying to save. She ignored all of the pain and leapt upward. Her foot lashed out, kicking the man away from the sword while her own hand closed around the hilt. Pain immediately filled her palm and rushed down her arm, leaving it almost impossible to keep hold of the sword. A Heretic defense, preventing Strangers from taking their weapons.

Near-blinded by smoke, the flames already filling the room, pain from her deep stab wound leaving her almost delirious, and now feeling bone-crushing agony inside the hand that was holding this Heretic weapon, Asenath pushed on through all of it. For three torturous seconds, she held that sword. Landing, one second. Turning into a full roundhouse swing, two seconds. Slicing straight through the neck of the man who had been so intent on killing her and most likely two of the innocent children. Three seconds.

His head hit the floor an instant before the rapidly discarded sword did, followed a moment later by his body.

Falling to her knees, Asenath brought her uninjured hand up to the wound in her stomach. It was healing, but she didn’t have time to wait. The flames were taking over the room, and it was already impossible to see further than a foot through the thick smoke. Her senses were no better than a human’s in this burning room, and her injuries meant that she wasn’t that much better physically either.

But it would have to be enough. Pushing herself back to her feet through little more than intense willpower, the vampire went for the children. Their sobs had turned to whimpers that barely reached her ears, and it took her a moment to find them in the burning room. Finally, her groping fingers found the leg of one of the children, who immediately flinched away from her with a little squeal of terror.

Rather than risk any time trying to talk, Asenath wrapped an arm around the squirming figure (the human as it turned out), and drew the child up under her arm, holding her awkwardly but firmly. At the same time, her other grasping hand found the arm of the satyr child, and he too was hauled up under her other arm. By that point, the heat of the flames was burning her skin, and she could hear the children screaming anew, their terror overwhelming the smoke inhalation.

One more… one more… Grimacing, Asenath turned her head toward the satyr child. “Hold onto my neck!” She ordered loudly, forced to repeat herself once more before the boy shifted and wrapped his arms so tightly around her neck that he would have been choking her if she actually needed to breathe, his small body pushing in against her chest as he fought to make himself small to escape the fire.

With the satyr boy latched onto her, Asenath grabbed the remaining child, the dryad, with her free hand. Hauling her up, she forced herself back to her feet. The smoke and flames worked together to disorient and distract her. Three children hung from her, blood continued to spill from her not-yet-healed stomach, and if she’d had a free hand to hold in front of her face, she wouldn’t have been able to see it.

Still, she knew where she was in the room, because she remembered where the children had been. Assuming they hadn’t moved, the doorway should be to her left, the rest of the room straight ahead of her, and a little to the right… she turned that way, running in a blur of motion while the children clung to her, their cries of fear growing louder in those couple of seconds before they reached the window.

Just before they would have hit, Asenath spun around and threw herself at the window backwards while clutching the three children tight against her chest. Her own scream matched theirs as her back crashed through the glass, shattering it on the way through. They then plummeted a couple of stories before landing hard on the ground. It hurt, but she cushioned the children’s fall as much as possible.

They lay there together in the fresh air while Asenath healed. The children clung to her, crying heavily.

A familiar figure appeared, standing over her with a grim expression. Another Heretic, so alike the one whose head she had so recently removed from his shoulders… yet so different as well. “Senny,” the blond man spoke gravely, his voice clearly shaken. “Are you all right? They… they took them.”

Asenath blinked, still disoriented by the fall, as well as her wounds and the smoke. It took a moment to find her voice, and she could barely focus. “Uggnn… Tobias? I’m okay. But, who took who?”

“Ruther’s Heretics,” Tobias spat the words hatefully, his anger obvious. “They took the children.”

“No.” Disoriented as she was, Asenath didn’t understand. “I’ve got them. They’re right here.”

“Not those children,” Tobias shook his head. “Hers. They started the fires up where the kids rooms were on purpose, Senny. They wanted to keep us busy. Then they killed the guards at the nursery and took her children, snatched them right out of their cribs, the fucking cowards. They started these fires near innocent fucking kids just so we’d be too busy to stop them from kidnapping her children.”

His words were sinking in, and Senny found herself groaning. “No. No, not the twins.”

“Yeah,” Tobias snarled, his hand clenching tight. “They took her twins. That’s how they’re going to end the war. They think they can make her surrender by taking her fucking children away. How do these motherfuckers call themselves good guys, huh? How are Ruthers’ people the god damn heroes here?”

“If you ask me, they’re the real fucking monsters.”

******

Present Day

A hand shook her shoulder while a low voice whispered, “Senny? Yo, wake up. Are you okay?”

Opening her eyes, Asenath blinked a couple times, orienting herself. It took a moment to get her brain caught up. Right, she was in Flick’s house, in the girl’s own bedroom actually. “Twister?”

Now she remembered what was going on. The day before, she and that Eden’s Garden Heretic, Miranda, had barely managed to make sure that the girl’s Heretic-teacher didn’t run into Flick’s father and spot his shapeshifter tail. Since Senny couldn’t go out in the sunlight, that had required calling the reporter from a disposable phone, disguising her voice, and distracting him with a false story to keep him busy. Meanwhile, Miranda had run out there, whispering to as many animals as she could see before finally finding the right one. The two of them had then barely managed to get out of sight before Lincoln gave up on listening to Asenath and hung up on her. A moment later, Hisao had found him. If getting Twister out of sight had taken any longer, the man would have seen either her or Miranda. Whichever one it happened to be, there would have been entirely too many questions to answer.

Now, the pooka straightened, the dark fox-like ears giving an agitated twitch. “You were thrashing around,” she whispered. “You said something about about children, about twins, I think. And there was something about a fire.” Frowning with concern as well as something deeper, she added, “You had a dream about a fire didn’t you? A fire in a building full of children.”

The dream (or was it a memory?) was already fading. Senny fought to keep hold of the thoughts and emotions it brought up, but they sifted through her mind like sand through splayed fingers. There was something important in that dream-memory, something that she should have been able to hold onto. She had been alive for a long time, yet she remembered things that happened hundreds of years earlier. So why was it so hard for her to keep these thoughts in her head? Twins, children, Tobias, a fire… something else about… she couldn’t remember. It had been there, but now it was gone, washed away.

Her eyes found Twister’s then, and she realized something. “You’ve had the dream too, haven’t you?”

“Fire in a building, lots of kids, yeah.” The pooka nodded before grimacing. “Had the dream three times now. I keep thinking I’ll remember more of it, but it always goes away. I think I remember something about a basement and these two big guys with rifles that are laughing, but then it’s gone.”

“And a war,” Senny remembered, frowning thoughtfully. “Something about ending a war. But how would…” She shook her head, letting out a long, low sigh. “Damn it, I can’t remember.”

“Magic,” Twister sighed, making an annoyed face. “It’s gotta be magic. Heretic Magic. You think it’s got anything to do with all this stuff?”

“Has to,” Senny replied with a sigh before straightening. “We’re rubbing up against the spell somehow. That’s why it’s weakening, why we’re dreaming about it. As far as I know, the only thing we’ve both done that’s so out of the ordinary is meet Flick. She’s the common denominator.”

Before Twister could say anything else, there was a light tap at the door, a soft rap that was followed by a quiet, “Ahh, Asenath? You all right?”

Standing up quickly, Senny walked to the door while Twister shifted herself into the form of a small cat and scurried under the bed. After glancing back to make sure her companion was out of sight, the vampire girl opened the door and gave the man on the other side an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Mr. Chambers. Was I disturbing you?”

“Disturbing me?” The man laughed. “No, I just thought I’d see if you needed any food since I’m headed out to grab dinner. Then I heard talking and thought you might have company. Not that that’s a problem, I mean, make yourself at home. I ahhh,” he coughed, clearly embarrassed. “Okay, sorry, it’s the dad in me. I know, I know you’re an adult. I just heard voices in my daughter’s room and… ahh, guess the impulse to interrupt was a little too much to ignore.”

Asenath couldn’t help but smile a little at that. “I don’t have company, Mr. Chambers. And if I did, I’d tell you. It is your house after all.” Turning, she indicated the room. “I was just talking to a friend on the phone, and I had it on speaker. But uhh, if you give me a minute to get dressed, I’d love to grab something to eat with you. And uhhhmm, maybe I could keep picking your brain about those old stories of yours?”

The man’s own smile broadened. “You keep flattering me by letting me talk about myself and I’ll buy you all the dinners you need, Asenath.”

“I told you before,” she reminded him, “call me Senny. And give me just a minute, Mr. Chambers. I’ll be right down.”

He obliged by closing the door, and Asenath stepped over to the dresser. Twister sprang into view, jumping up on the bed before reverting to her human shape so that she could stretch out languidly on it. Yawning widely, the pooka waved a hand. “Okay, talking later. Sleeping now. Your turn to watch him.”

“Thanks, Twist,” Senny whispered. “I know it’s hard to spend all day playing babysitter. Especially if we’re both having these… dreams.”

The only response she received was a vague thumbs up from the girl, followed almost immediately by the sound of snoring.

With a light cough of amusement, Senny shook her head while reaching out to grab the blanket. She tugged it up and over the slumbering shapeshifter, then moved to quickly dress herself so that she could join Lincoln and keep an eye on the man. Not that she expected Fossor to make a move on him already, and it was far too early for Ammon to have escaped his father’s punishment and made his way back. But it was still a good habit to be in. Flick’s father wasn’t going to end up one of Fossor’s prisoners or petty amusements. Not if she could help it.

Besides, she’d promised to get justice for Denise. And in this case, that justice would come when she ripped Ammon’s head from his shoulders. It would happen. She just had to be patient.

The boy may not even remember the girl whose life he had so callously extinguished for his own petty amusement. But Senny remembered, and she intended to ensure that Denise’s name and face would be the last thing that Ammon thought of before his own life was erased. He would think of that innocent girl and realize that his worst mistake had been in assuming no one would care enough to avenge the life of one girl, that no one would pursue him that far, that he could kill her as easily as any of his other victims.

Senny cared. And eventually, Ammon would find out just how much.

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Interlude 7A – Miranda

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“Well, that was a bit of a surprise, wasn’t it?”

Minutes after watching Flick leave with her blonde instructor, Miranda Wallbern stood on the street of the town she had spent six years of her life in, beside the man who had been most responsible for training her since the moment she’d been taken out of the life she’d had here. “Yeah, pretty surprising.”

Hisao, who seemed to be in a pretty good mood considering the fact that he and the Crossroads instructor apparently hadn’t actually found anything useful, gazed down at her curiously for a second before clearing his throat. “I’ve still got some work to do around here, but you look pretty distracted. You wanna head back and I’ll shoot you a message if I need to ask you anything about this place?”

Miranda’s gaze lifted to look at the man briefly. Did he know anything about what she and Flick had talked about? Hisao was far from a hardliner for the Garden, and she might even be able to get some help from him. But it wasn’t a sure thing, and she had already promised to keep Flick’s secret. Besides, considering the stakes, just thinking that the man might be helpful wasn’t enough to risk including him.

In the end, she kept her expression as passive as possible. In the Garden, one learned very quickly how to maintain a good poker face and avoid showing emotion. Letting people know you were affected by something was too dangerous. “Are you sure you don’t need me to be your guide, Vigile Hisao?”

Vigile. It was the title that the Garden used for their detectives, the Heretics who investigated suspected Stranger situations. The name originated from the Vigiles Urbani that the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus had brought together as the closest thing Rome had to a dedicated city police organization. Miranda had heard that the Crossroads equivalent were actually called Runners, though they were organized differently. For one thing, Vigiles tended to have completely autonomous authority. They didn’t report to any command structure or have everyday oversight. Only the Vigile’s tribal chief or a vote from the combined Council could overrule a judgment that the Vigile made. They acted as not only detectives, but also judge, jury, and executioner for rogue Gardeners as well as Strangers.

“I think I can manage to find my way,” Hisao replied, his tone somewhat bemused. “Considering I could throw a rock from one side of this town and make it reach the opposite side pretty easily.”

“That’s not really fair,” the dark-skinned girl pointed out while giving a little shrug of one shoulder. “I’ve seen how strong you are, Vigile Hisao. You could probably do the same thing in Los Angeles.”

The man gave a loud bark of laughter before nodding. “Fair enough, kid. I’ve got this though. Considering Dare and her student were here, I doubt there’s any more Strangers lurking around. I’ll do a walk through and make sure it looks clear, check out the police station, see if there’s anything to find. If I need you for anything else, I’ll let you know. You go ahead, I’m sure you’ve got plenty on your mind.”

Miranda gave a quick nod. “Yes, sir. I mean, thank you, sir.” Turning on her heel then, she began to walk away while digging into her pocket. A moment later, she came out with a piece of bark. Holding it in one hand, the girl glanced back toward her mentor while walking around a pair of older women who were arguing about which of their grandsons was going to be the first to graduate college. Hisao gave her a brief wave, then turned his attention back to the city. Despite what he’d said, Miranda knew the man wouldn’t leave until he had a better idea of what had happened here. No matter how long that took.

Which meant she had to be fast. As she went around the corner of the building, ostensibly to put herself out of sight of any Bystanders, the girl focused on the power that she had inherited so relatively recently. As usual, there was a brief sense of disorientation, and then she was staring at herself.

“Remember,” she told her duplicate quickly, “You have to be fast. And don’t let Hisao see you.”

“Duh,” the other Miranda told herself while rolling her eyes. “We don’t wanna answer those questions.”

The duplicate peered around the corner of the building carefully, watching to make sure the coast was clear and Hisao wasn’t watching before giving the original Miranda a thumbs up. Then she took off, sprinting away from the building and across the street, heading back into town as fast as she could.

The original Miranda wouldn’t know what her duplicate was up to until she absorbed her again, which would only happen once the other her gave their mental tug to indicate she was ready, or something happened to kill her. The latter was a situation that Miranda had only experienced once before, but it was something she had absolutely no desire to go through again. The disorienting shock that came from the combination of feeling the sharp loss of one of her other selves combined with the flood of memories that filled her mind right up to the point of death had practically been a physical blow.

“Good luck,” she spoke aloud to her departing self, then turned her attention back to the piece of bark in her hand. Flipping it over to put the inside part out, she lifted it while muttering, “Time to go home.”

With that, Miranda shoved the bark upward and out, slapping it against the wall of the building. An instant later, both the girl and the wood vanished, leaving no sign that she had ever been there.

******

Miranda B

Once she was sure the coast was clear, the girl who chose to think of herself as Miranda B (or just B) ran away from the building. Hisao was further down the street, walking purposefully on his way to explore the city. He would be methodical in his search, which meant she still had time to make it.

Considering the years of physical training she’d gone through, it didn’t take long to reach her destination. The sight of Flick’s neighborhood, and the house itself, was instantly familiar. It brought back memories of a far more innocent and simple time, before she’d known about all the creatures that secretly lived alongside humanity. Some evil, others not so much. It reminded her of childhood.

Flick had mentioned that her father was going to be busy doing his job all day considering everything that had happened over the weekend, and sure enough, the driveway was empty. The man was probably at the sheriff’s office, hounding the people there for answers that they had no way of actually having.

Still, considering what was waiting inside the house, B didn’t want to go barging inside. That was a recipe for disaster. Startling a vampire who was in an unfamiliar location and was probably on edge anyway considering everything that was going on would probably end up with her original self experiencing the death of another duplicate. And considering she was that particular duplicate, the girl was going to give that result the hardest and definitive pass she could manage.

So, rather than force her way in and set off a nuclear chain of events, B bent down to pick a small rock out of the grass. Rubbing her left thumb along it, she began to whisper a quick, simple enchantment, the first one she’d learned when magical instruction had begun earlier that year.

Once the rock was glowing with the magic she’d infused it with, the girl held it tightly while whispering into it. “Asenath. I know you’re a vampire. My name is Miranda, Flick’s friend. She said that she told you about me and that you saw a picture of me. I’m a Heretic for Eden’s Garden, but I’m here to help. There’s another Heretic, my teacher, walking through town right now. He’s investigating the city, and if he happens to see you or the other Stranger that you’re working with, things might go bad. Please come to the door and knock, then back away so the sun doesn’t hit you when I open it. I want to help you make sure that Hisao doesn’t find out about you, or your friend. That’s all.”

Once her message was complete, B watched as the rock crumbled to dust in her hand. She gave the dust a toss, and it disappeared under the door jam. The rock would seek the nearest occupant, reassemble itself, and then recite its message several times to make sure the point was made.

After that was done, she only had to wait about two minutes before there was a single knock against the other side of the door, followed by the sound of the deadbolt being unlocked. B waited a few seconds to give the vampire inside time to back away, then opened the door. She stepped quickly inside while closing it behind her to block out the sun as quickly as possible. Once the door was safely shut, she looked up. As soon as she did, that familiar hunger kicked in. Seeing the vampire standing there, safely away from the sun’s reach, Miranda B could feel the adrenaline pump into her system, priming her for a hunt. It was a feeling sort of like being at the start of a race, or an important baseball game. The figure standing there was, without a doubt, a Stranger. Not that that came as a surprise.

Asenath looked her up and down briefly, then gave a curious sniff. “Well, you’re definitely a Heretic. Flick didn’t mention that. She said she didn’t know anything about you after you moved away.”

“We just met again,” B replied. “My mentor and I, we were investigating what happened. We ran into Flick and her teacher, and she told me what’s going on. I know Hisao, he won’t leave here until he’s positive that he’s seen everything he can. And if I know Flick’s dad the way I know I do, the two of them are going to meet at some point. I know, Flick said that your… shapeshifting friend was invisible to her Stranger sense, but Hisao has other ways to test for that sort of thing. He’s a professional.”

Asenath paused, seeming to consider that for a moment before nodding. “Thank you, I’ll warn her. And we’ll make sure to stay out of sight until the Heretic is gone. I have… experience with some of your people. Some good, some bad. Unfortunately, I don’t know which side of the line this Hisao falls on.”

“He’s pretty accepting,” B acknowledged with a tiny smile. “But even so, I figured that him seeing you guys would make things more complicated for Flick, even if he does let you explain. And the last thing this situation needs is even more complications. Besides, from the way Flick talked, the less people know about this situation, the better. Especially if Garden Heretics helped wipe her mom’s memory.”

“And since Seller knew about it, that’s a likely scenario,” Asenath agreed. “Okay. Well, I guess we should figure out how to get Twister away from Lincoln before anything bad happens.”

******

As soon as her hand pressed the bark against the wall of the building, Miranda felt the world spin around her. It was, as always, incredibly disorienting, and she almost stumbled before catching herself.

Once her vision cleared, she saw what looked like a solid wall of tree bark in front of her. The bit of bark that had been carefully cut from the tree was back in its spot, and as she watched, it fused itself into place. The tree was left whole, without so much as a blemish where the piece had been broken.

Stepping back from the spot, Miranda turned, letting her gaze take in the view while trying to imagine how Flick would feel if she saw this place. It was familiar to her by now, but when she’d first arrived, she’d had a hard time believing that it was real, that this majestic view wasn’t a hallucination.

She wasn’t standing on the ground, or even on a floor. No, her feet were planted solidly on a tree branch. A branch that happened to be wide enough to drive three semi trucks side by side along it without bumping into one another, and long enough that those same trucks would run out of gas before they reached the end of it. And this was only one branch of the Tree of Knowledge. One of eight.

Some tribes left the edges of their branches completely open, saying that anyone dumb enough to fall off deserved what they got. Miranda’s tribe was one of those that actually put safety rails up, though there were several open patio-type areas (some used for eating or relaxing and others used for training) extending away from the branch that could be reached for an even better view. Though she didn’t have time to go out there at the moment, Miranda had spent plenty of time gazing down from one of those patio areas, admiring the unbelievably gorgeous sight.

The place they called Eden’s Garden was most beautiful, lush, and vibrant area that she had ever seen. It stretched on for over hundreds of miles in every direction, a forest of giant trees (though the Tree of Knowledge was by far the largest, standing twice as tall as any of its competition). Far below, the area between the giant trees, where the sun reached, was filled with what could only be described as paradise. There were flowers as tall as Miranda herself and in every color she could think of as well as wide fields of grass where normal animals such as deer and wild horses mingled alongside magical creatures such as pegasi, sprites, and even the occasional unicorn (a fact that had made the very young Miranda nearly pee herself in glee). Eden’s Garden cultivated what they called ‘acceptable Strangers’, which were magical creatures that the Victors declared both non-threatening and useful to the Garden’s cause. The denser foliage was full of predators on both sides of the Magical/Mundane scale.

Over time, Miranda had come to realize that most of the tribes didn’t see these creatures as their equals or even as fully sapient. While they didn’t actively kill all of them the way that Crossroads did, the majority of Eden’s Garden treated even the Strangers they accepted like animals and as unfeeling servants, even slaves in some respects. They weren’t afforded equal rights and protections just because they weren’t openly murdered.

Crossroads killed every Stranger they could find. Eden’s Garden enslaved and bred the ones they didn’t kill. No one bothered to ask the Strangers themselves what they wanted. It was an inconsistency that had bothered her for awhile, though always in the back of her mind until today, until she’d spoken with Flick. The news about her mother, that she’d been part of some kind of ‘rebellion’, made Miranda think about how Eden’s Garden treated their own supposed allies, the Strangers that they ‘saved’ from Crossroads. If someone wanted to rebel against Crossroads, her first thought had been that they would join Eden’s Garden. But if that person wanted to be true and equal allies with Strangers… then no, Eden’s Garden would not be a place for them.

Shaking that off, Miranda glanced down the length of her tribe’s branch. There were rules against building anything too near the central trunk (it was supposed to ensure that any tribe that turned hostile and tried to attack the central trunk itself didn’t have any defensive structures or ways to disguise their approach), but in the distance she could see the first of her tribe’s buildings. The branch, wide enough to be a large freeway, became a road with literal and quite expansive houses on either side. There were grass yards, fountains, even a couple of parks for the little ones to run around in, safely enclosed to protect against accidents.

Other tribes kept their own branches far more war-like, she knew. Her tribe was one of those that focused more on the family aspect of the tribe than their wars. But some of them eschewed all of that in exchange for constant battle preparations. They lived and breathed their hunts from the time they were born or brought into the tribe until they finally died. Each branch was a tribute to its tribe’s way of thinking.

Meanwhile, the main trunk of the tree itself was so mind-mindbogglingly enormous that Miranda felt like an ant climbing along its surface. The interior of the tree was mostly hollow, and it functioned essentially like a massive skyscraper. There were offices inside, training rooms, laboratories, meeting halls, and so on. Everything that the eight Garden tribes needed to do as a group took place inside the tree, including their joint ruling body. Known as the Council of Victors, or just the Victors, the sixteen-member group consisted of two representatives from each tribe that were nominated by that tribe’s chief and then confirmed in a vote by the adult members of that tribe. The Victors lived and met within a chamber at the very top of the tree, directly beneath the area where the fruit of knowledge grew. Both the Victors and the fruit were heavily guarded by a group of Gardeners who called themselves the Unset. Essentially, the Unset were Heretics without a tribe, whose loyalty was only to the Council of Victors and who could not be convinced to side with one particular group in the event that one tribe or another tried to take over the tree. Which, considering the way some of the Garden tribes behaved, wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Outwardly, Gardeners were united. But inside, there were always some petty arguments going on, disagreements that often went back centuries.

The branch that Miranda was standing on belonged to her own tribe. Like every other tribe, the name of the tribe had been changed several times as the years passed on. At the moment, they called themselves the Eternal Eye. If she looked up and to the right, she could see the edge of the branch that belonged to her tribe’s nearest neighbors and closest allies, the branch that belonged to the tribe known as the Vigilant Sons. That was the tribe that Flick’s ancestor Seller belonged to, the same one that her new roommate had been a part of, though the females of the tribe called themselves Vigilant Daughters.

Further on around the tree were the remaining six primary branches, belonging to the Dust-Striders, the Children of Bosch, the Reapers, the Remnant Guardians, Fate’s Shepherds, and Lost Scar respectively.

It was that last one that Miranda was focused on. Lost Scar was the tribe that Trice and his friends belonged to. Thinking about those nasty pieces of shit attacking the girl that had been her best friend throughout elementary school almost made Miranda angry enough to reach for the pouch on her belt that held her weapon, the one that she’d chosen just a few months earlier after being trained for several years to handle over a dozen different weapon types. Her weapon.

In the end, however, she forced herself to calm down. Grabbing her weapon and charging up to where Trice was wouldn’t accomplish anything useful. She didn’t know how just yet, but she’d find out who they were working with in Flick’s school. No matter what it took.

“Hey, Randi!” One of her tribe mates called out a greeting as he past her on his way out of the tree interior. “You and Hisao already back from that… uhh, where were you going again?”

“Hey, Noble,” Miranda returned the greeting easily before answering. “We were at Laramie Falls, but Hisao’s still there. He sent me back, said he could handle the rest of it by himself.”

Noble, an incredibly tanned and well-toned guy who knew just how attractive his tendency to run around shirtless (as he was now) made him, flashed her one of his perfect smiles. “You lived there?”

“For a few years,” Miranda replied while starting to walk toward the same entrance that the young man himself come out of, a hole in the enormous wooden wall that was the Tree of Knowledge’s trunk. “I’ll catch you later, got some stuff to do.”

“You know where to find me, babe,” Noble gave her another charming smile that she knew would have affected her much more if she hadn’t been so preoccupied, then turned to jog on his way.

She watched him go for a moment, partly to make sure he didn’t try to follow her and partly because watching Noble walk (or jog) away was a very enjoyable way to pass a few seconds.

Shaking that off, the girl began to head into the tree interior once more. As she passed through the hole, Miranda found herself on the entrance hall. Essentially, it was an enormous room surrounded by three different levels of balconies overlooking a central area. Each balcony was connected via multiple stairways and ladders to one another and to the center of the room. Each balcony was also connected to several different holes that led out to each tribe’s branch.

Meanwhile, in the center of the open room there were several Unset guards that kept their eyes open for any single tribe that might make any untoward moves. The paranoia was real, considering each tribe essentially governed itself save for very important issues that the Victors voted on. And some of those tribes had openly advocated taking over the tree at various points in their history, some not exactly a long time ago. The Eden’s Garden alliance was fragile in some respects.

There were also both stairways and elevators leading up and down throughout the tree, though Miranda only had clearance to go down. Up were the more important rooms, the Victors’ quarters and meeting hall, and the fruit. She’d been up there one time, when she was first brought here and had to eat the fruit to become a Heretic. Other than that, she had only ever gone down the stairs. The watchful Unset made sure of that.

Giving the nearest of those guardians a brief smile, Miranda headed down the stairs. Her next stop would be the main library, a room located near the base of the tree, close to where people were able to go out into the Garden itself, where no one was allowed to build anything for fear of destroying the paradise that existed beyond the Tree of Knowledge (plus the fact that any single tribe being allowed to build at ground level would, in the minds of some, give that tribe an advantage over others).

Eventually, Miranda would have to find out what Trice and his thug friends actually knew. But for now, she would scour the library for any mention of this Fossor.

Surely, between the Crossroads library and the one here at Eden’s Garden, there was some information about the man who had abducted Flick’s mother. There had to be answers about where he came from, what he wanted, and what he was capable of.

And, most importantly, how to stop him.

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Basic Training 7-08

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In the end, it was Sands who spoke up first. “What are we doing in here?” She echoed the question while stepping forward. As everyone’s eyes turned to her, the girl reached up to tug the masker off. Which was fair, since the fact that we were all holding our weapons made the disguises pointless. “You wanna know what we’re doing here? We’re looking for answers, that’s what. Answers about Deveron.”

Professor Kohaku’s eyebrows went up noticeably. Her eyes shifted fractionally toward the silent headmistress before she responded. “Exactly what questions regarding your team mentor did you believe you were going to find inside the security control room, if you wouldn’t mind elaborating?”

“He’s useless,” I put in while taking my own masker off and smoothing out my ponytail with one hand. “He’s a joke, and you guys know it. But you won’t take him off our team. We wanted to know why.”

Yes, my mother’s note had said to trust Gaia. But she hadn’t said a word about trusting Gaia, the security chief, two of her subordinates, the replacement Heretical Magic instructor, and the brand new Stranger Truths teacher. Now wasn’t the time to start confiding. Especially when we still had no idea who had sent those zombies after us.

Columbus, a little bit slower on the uptake, managed to get his own masker off while nodding emphatically. “Seriously, you want us to do all this dangerous stuff, which is hard enough with a real mentor who actually helps out, but with Deveron? You’ve gotta be kidding. He’s the worst mentor ever. Do you wanna know how many times he’s even worked with us outside of your official tests? Zero.”

For the first time, the headmistress spoke. Her voice was calm where Professor Kohaku’s had been suspicious. “Your dissatisfaction with Deveron Adams led you to sneak out of your dorms after hours so that you could break into the security control room? What did you hope to find in there, exactly?”

“The reason for why you won’t demote him or change our mentor,” Sands answered immediately.

I nodded along with Scout (who had already taken her own masker off when her sister had) and Columbus. “Yeah, maybe this was stupid, but what else could we do? Every time we complain about how he doesn’t work with us, it just gets ignored. We thought if we saw his security record, it might explain… why he’s acting this way, or at least why you want him to stay on as our mentor so much.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” one of the security guards muttered under his breath before falling silent as several pairs of eyes looked his way. Closing his mouth, he resorted to staring at us disbelievingly.

Nevada, who had stowed her massive chain-sword by that point and had returned the bracelet to her wrist, bounced up and down a little. “Aww, can you really be that mad at them? Three of them are in the investigation track! They’re supposed to be investigating things that don’t make sense. And you’ve gotta admit, training them to fight monsters and then leaving them with a crappy mentor doesn’t make sense. Are they just supposed to turn off that urge to find answers because it’s inconvenient for us?”

“You have a point,” Gaia conceded with a nod before turning her gaze to us. Her eyes were soft, the concern in her voice obvious. “Before we say anything else, are all of you all right? No one is hurt?”

“Tired,” I replied after glancing toward the others. “Sore. Dirty. But no, we’re not hurt.” The cuts, scrapes, and other minor injuries from the zombies that had gotten hold of me were already clearing up.

The red-haired woman gave a soft smile of genuine relief. “Good. Your safety is more important than any wrong you might have done. Yes, you have violated the rules, but we have failed to maintain your safety the way we should have. That is our fault, one that has been repeated more than once this year. For that, and for the lack of a proper response to your ongoing mentor issues, I am very sorry.”

“The headmistress is correct,” Professor Kohaku agreed. “You were where you should not have been, but the fact that someone was able to summon zombies into the school to attack you is much worse. You could have been hurt or… worse.” Her expression darkened a little bit. “I promise you, we will find the person or people responsible for these attacks. But if you know anything about who they might be, we need you to tell us. We cannot do our jobs properly if the people we are trying to protect lie to us.”

Before I could say anything, Columbus spoke up. “Why were the zombies here?” When everyone’s attention turned to him, the boy went on. “I mean, everyone said that those other attacks were focused on Avalon. The peridles in the training room and those guys from Eden’s Garden, they were after her. But she’s obviously not here, so why were the zombies attacking us? Are there two different people or, you know, groups that can summon monsters past your security screens and all that?”

“You were not the target,” Professor Kohaku answered. “There were six other incursions of zombies throughout the grounds at the same time in addition to this one. We were attending to those areas, which is why it took time to get here. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Or someone wanted to make sure it’d take you awhile to get to us so they summoned a bunch of others to distract you while siccing a group on us,” I pointed out without taking my eyes off of Gaia.

It was Professor Carfried’s turn to finally speak up. The magic instructor had been silent up to that point, but now shook his head. “The method with which these creatures were summoned past the security screens is… without going into detail, complicated. It required a good deal of forethought and preparation, including carefully selecting the locations of the incursions far ahead of time. Hours would have been required, at least. If the zombies were meant to attack any of you directly, they would have appeared in your dorm buildings, not here where no one was supposed to be. As Risa said, you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whoever did this was likely attempting to test our security responses and see how many creatures they could push through our defenses at once.”

“Unfortunately for them,” Gaia spoke again, “they have shown their hand. Our security enchantments will be updated and we will strive to ensure this does not happen again. That, however, does not excuse the fact that the four of you were in real danger due to our failure, both in maintaining your safety and in providing adequate response to your mentor situation. You never should have been put in a position where you believed that this sort of behavior was the only way to properly protect yourselves.”

Professor Kohaku was nodding before she spoke. “However, that does not excuse your actions entirely. You could have come directly to one of us and made your position clear. You could have gone through several other avenues to voice your concern that did not involve this level of rule breaking. We failed to keep you safe, but at least part of that responsibility falls to you as well for being where you should not have been. We have failed, but you have compounded that failure through your own actions.”

The urge to speak up was almost irresistible, but I pushed it back down. Now wasn’t the time to argue. Especially since most of the things I wanted to say weren’t things that should be blurted out in public.

“For being out of your dorms after hours,” the security head continued, “I believe the standard punishment is two weeks of Saturday detention. For extenuating circumstances, one week is probably sufficient. For breaking into the main building, I believe the last offender received one month of Saturday detention. Again, we will halve that for your reasoning which, while not perfect, does provide you with some excuse. Three weeks of detention. Does that sound fair, Headmistress?”

Gaia nodded. “You cannot simply be left without punishment. The rules exist for a reason, and if they are not enforced, others will believe that going around them is in their best interest. We are here to help you, to educate you, and to protect you. But we can’t do that if our students continue to go around us.”

“Then you will all come to the security office at nine in the morning for the next three Saturdays,” Professor Kohaku informed us. “From there you will be assigned your jobs for the rest of that day.”

Obviously we weren’t going to get a better deal than that, so the four of us mumbled our acknowledgment. It wasn’t perfect, but honestly, what amounted to three days of detention wasn’t bad. It did, however, remind me of just how different this school was than any others I knew from the Bystander world. They were so accustomed to having students fight for their lives, kill, and generally be involved with violence that being attacked by zombies in the hallway barely seemed to faze them.

“With that in mind,” Gaia interrupted my thoughts. “We will take your concern about Deveron into advisement. If he is not performing his job properly, then you deserve a mentor who will.”

Well, at least some good had come out of this whole situation, if it would get us a real mentor.

“I’ll take them back to their dorms,” Nevada cut in, still smiling broadly. “I’m sure you’ve got more important things to do, Headmistress, Professor.” She nodded to each of the other women in turn. “I’ll take the maskers back too. Might as well get them back to the lab before any of them get… lost again.”

“Indeed,” Professor Carfried agreed. “You take the girls, I’ll make sure Columbus makes it back to his room.”

“Oh,” Professor Kohaku added as we were starting out. “Flick, Columbus, when you get back to your roommates, tell them that they can join you in detention. We wouldn’t want them to feel left out.”

******

“So it could’ve been worse,” I finished giving Avalon my summary of what had happened a short while later. The two of us were alone in our room, though I hadn’t sat down yet. I wasn’t going to until I had a chance to take a long, thoroughly hot shower to get every trace of zombie stuff off me. “I think your mom’s hands were pretty tied. I mean, with all those other people there, she couldn’t just let us off.”

“We broke the rules,” Avalon acknowledged flatly. “She has to maintain her authority or the Committee will find out about it. Believe me, the last thing you want is to give Ruthers an excuse to shove more of his own stooges in here. I’ve heard about how it was before Gaia took over. You… wouldn’t like it.”

“Oh!” I flinched at a sudden realization. “Damn it, we probably should’ve mentioned that our communications were blocked right when the zombies appeared. I was trying to keep you and Sean out of it. Which was obviously pointless, but we should’ve told them that the pins stopped working.”

“That’s probably relevant information,” the other girl agreed. Her expression softened slightly then more than I was accustomed to seeing from Avalon. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you. I knew it was dangerous, but I never thought someone would actually summon zombies on top of you.”

“Hey,” I shrugged, trying to maintain a casual air. “We killed them pretty good. If you were there, we probably wouldn’t have had a chance to do anything. You would’ve been all, ‘yow chop suey fwapow!’” I mimed a few goofy karate chops. “While the rest of us just stood there basking in your awesome.”

Rolling her eyes, Avalon turned back to the bed. By that point, I knew her well enough to realize that she was using the movement as an excuse to hide her blush until she had her expression under control again. “Take your shower, Chambers. And get some sleep. Even you must need it after all that.”

Grabbing my phone off the desk, I nodded. “I’ll call the security office too. Might as well tell them what happened with the pins. Maybe it’ll help them figure out how assface summoned those monsters.”

Avalon turned back to me, hand on the controls for her privacy screen. “I’m glad you’re all right, Chambers. You’re not the worst roommate I could’ve been assigned.”

“Aww,” I held my arms open wide, beckoning with my hands. “That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me. Come on, bring it in. Have a zombie-gunk covered hug, you know you want one.”

To my surprise, Avalon took a step toward me, then another. She crossed the room slowly, never breaking eye contact. As she approached, I felt my own heartbeat start to pick up as heat spread over my skin. She was getting closer with each step, staring directly into my eyes the whole time. My teasing voice faltered, and I felt tongue-tied. Further words died in my throat while my arms remained raised and open mostly because I was too distracted to lower them. My mouth felt dry.

Coming straight up to me, Avalon stopped so close I could smell the peach shampoo that she used in her luxurious hair. She stood there, directly in front of me, and cocked her head to the side a little while regarding me with what looked like a curious expression. “You want me to hug you, Chambers?” Her voice was soft, the tone sending a little thrill through me in spite of myself.

My mouth opened and then shut, words failing me entirely. I saw the slight smile, barely noticeable, appear at the edges of Avalon’s mouth as she lifted a finger very gradually. My eyes followed the finger as she raised it… to push against my forehead. Her tone turned abruptly casual, dropping the… whatever she had been doing with her voice a moment earlier. “Too bad you’re covered in zombie guts.” Winking, she stepped back. “Go take your shower. Some of us actually need a full night’s sleep.”

Feeling like a bucket of cold water had been tossed in my face, I stared as she walked back to her side of the room and flicked on the privacy screen, disappearing into the resulting darkness.

Physically shaking myself, I picked out my bed clothes and walked into the hallway while dialing the number for the security office. I’d memorized it after getting back from my house, considering how much help that would have been while everything with Ammon had been going on.

By the time I reached the showers, Professor Kohaku had answered and took the information about the pins. I had the feeling she was restraining herself from dressing me down for not saying anything earlier, but in the end she promised that they would look into it and thanked me for the information. Then she reminded me to show up for detention on time and not to get into any more trouble before hanging up.

Which left me standing alone in the shower room, thinking about how crazy my life had become in the past couple of months that something like a zombie attack seemed so relatively normal. It was practically just another day at Crossroads Academy, a place where you could have legitimate debates about whether nearly being killed by monsters was a targeted attack or just bad luck.

And then there was my roommate. As I raised my hand toward the shower to turn on the hot water, my thoughts went back to what had happened in the room a couple minutes earlier, and I felt another flush cross over my face. Swallowing hard, I moved my hand from away from the H-labeled knob to its C-labeled neighbor.

I’d take a cold shower first.

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Basic Training 7-07

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A couple of months earlier, I’d thought that the size of the corridors in this school was excessive. As I’d seen it through that portal doorway in the middle of that mostly empty field, a hallway large enough to drive the bus I’d been stranded with through it had seemed totally extravagant. Now I was finding myself wishing that the hallway was even bigger. Preferably the size of an airplane hangar if it meant keeping these things away from us even longer. Bonus if the airplane itself was included.

We’d learned in Nevada’s class that despite the titular ‘slow zombies’ generally being, well, slow, they could still move quickly in very short bursts. They’d shamble gradually toward their targets, then lunge and sprint forward the last couple of yards to take their prey by surprise with the sudden speed.

And the nearest one to us was within that couple of yards. With a sudden screeching noise that came from somewhere in the back of his throat, the upright corpse abruptly flung himself toward me.

In mid-leap, however, a blast of silver-blue concussive energy shot over my shoulder and plowed into the zombie. It was sent hurtling backward down the hall, crashing into the nearest of its companions.

“Thanks!” I called to Columbus while pulling my staff the rest of the way out of its case. Behind me, I could hear Sands free her mace while my finger found the button to start charging the staff’s kinetic energy. “Avalon, Sean, we need help. There’s—hello? Avalon, are you there? Sean, hell—crap.”

There was no response, and the rest of the zombies were approaching. Hearing a thud, I chanced a quick glance back and found that the hallway behind us was covered in a wooden wall, courtesy of Sands’ mace. The girl herself was quickly making a second wall while the zombies pounded at the first.

Scout, meanwhile, had her rifle out and was pointing it toward the ceiling. She pulled the trigger, and the bullet leapt from the gun. Rather than hit the ceiling, however, it vanished and I heard the loud squelch of a zombie on the other side of the wall getting their head blown in. Obviously, the quiet girl had managed to set one of her bullet portals on the other side of the wall before Sands put it up. Now she could shoot at a portal on this side and hit the monsters on the other without exposing herself.

By that point, the nearest of the zombies on this side had come back within leaping range. I glanced toward Columbus and the two of us nodded at each other before moving to meet them. Two months ago I would have frozen in terror at the sight of this. Now, after such a short time, I launched myself forward into a leap that turned into a dive to carry myself beneath the flailing arms of the nearest zombie. An instant later, while it was still turning to try to grab me, Columbus caught it with a blast.

Hitting the floor, I rolled and came to my feet, swinging my staff in a wide arc while triggering the kinetic charge that it had been building. The wide-angle wave of force crashed into the approaching figures. It wasn’t enough to knock them all the way to the floor, but the force did make them all stumble and lose their footing. I used that time to close the distance to the nearest zombie and spun myself around into a wide swing to build up momentum while simultaneously charging up the weapon again.

Generally speaking, attacking the traditional zombie with a blunt weapon is a pretty bad idea, unless you happen to be strong enough to pulverize the head in a swing or two. Being a girl of ordinary physical strength (though in much better shape than I had been at the start of the year, to be fair), me hitting a zombie with a normal staff would have been about as effective as throwing marbles at the Empire State Building in order to knock it over. Thankfully, my staff wasn’t normal. As I came out of the spin, an instant before the weapon connected with the undead monster’s head, I released the charge on the staff. It collided with the zombie with so much force that the head exploded like a watermelon being hit by Gallagher. Blood, bits of skull, and… other stuff went spraying in every direction. Some even splattered across my face even as I was turning my head away, which, god damn it, eww.

On the plus side, at least I wasn’t distracted in the midst of battle by another unbelievable rush of pleasure when I blew that walking corpse’s head off. As we’d learned in Nevada’s class, killing one of the first two types of zombie (the ones like these who were brought back by magic after their death and were generally slow, or the ones that were prepared before their deaths and were generally fast) didn’t transfer any kind of power upgrade to a Heretic. Because the actual power came from the person who raised and controlled them. They were just mindless tools following magical commands. Strangely, they did still give off that mind-clouding Stranger fog, which was a subject I wanted to look into at some future point when a bunch of the damn things weren’t right in the middle of trying to eat me.

So the minus side was that killing these things wasn’t going to make us any stronger. The plus side was that I wasn’t going to end up being that… distracted right in the middle of a horde of monsters.

Another blast from Columbus caught the legs of the next zombie, knocking them out from under it. As the thing fell to the floor, I brought my staff down as hard as possible on its exposed head, triggering another kinetic burst that popped the damn thing like a giant zit. Gross. Just… seriously gross.

Two were down, and Columbus had managed to knock back another one that tried to lunge forward while I was bent over with my staff buried in the collapsed skull of the second. But that was nothing. Lifting my gaze, I saw at least a dozen others and probably more than that. And that was just the ones coming from this direction. Behind us, Sands was working to keep the wooden walls up while Scout fired again and again. Yet they both had to keep backpedaling, because the zombies were breaking through every barrier Sands put up. It was a gradual retreat, but these things were strong enough to punch and claw their way right through those wooden walls within a few seconds of them going up. I could hear them on the other side of the barrier, pounding and tearing violently at the wood.

“I’m fine, help the twins!” I called over my shoulder to Columbus. “Make the horde back off long enough for Sands to find something stronger to make a barrier out of. Buy them some time to think!”

With that said (and hoping that I wouldn’t regret sending away the person watching my back), I pointed my staff behind me and used a burst from it to launch myself up into the air and over the heads of the approaching zombies on this side. The staff-aided leap carried me right into the space between the ones that were already up in this hall and the ones that were still eagerly climbing the stairs to get at us.

As I landed there with my staff already charging up again, I looked to the left at the stair-climbing zombies, then to the right at the ones that were shuffling and turning to face me once more now that I was behind them. “You guys really wanna play, huh?” I asked flatly. “All right then, let’s play.”

Spinning to the stairs, I shoved my staff down, quickly depositing two kinetic mines on the top step. Then I spun back the other way just as the nearest of the zombies that were already up here reached me, swinging out with his hands. The bottom of my staff came up to smack his incoming arms out of the way. While it spent a couple seconds charging up, I did a quick lunge-turn to put myself beside the flailing zombie rather than directly in front of it. Another groping zombie was there, but the front of my staff came up and around with my turn to hit the thing across the face hard enough that it stumbled.

The one behind me was turning back, another one behind the one that I’d just smacked was lunging past his stumbling companion, and two more were coming around his other side. All of them lunged for me.

Swinging backwards with my staff, I felt the blunt end collide with the eye of the creature behind me. As soon as it connected, I triggered the charge. The kinetic force exploded through that end and into the zombie’s eye as if it had been struck point blank by a shotgun. But I wasn’t done. Without slowing down, I set the staff to charge again before lashing out with it. The staff hooked around the back of the stumbling zombie’s neck, and I gave a hard jerk. He was yanked forward and down, throwing himself into the path of the two that were coming in from the side. The three zombies were tangled up with each other. Meanwhile, the remaining one that had been coming in went right up and over the other three, mouth open while he let out a wild moan, mindlessly intent on eating me. Not just my brain, but all of me. These kind of zombies were essentially undead cannibals. According to Nevada, certain ancient necromancers had used them as garbage disposals for corpses, easy ways to simultaneously get rid of all those pesky dead bodies without having to bury them, and provide food for their troops. It was win-win. Every person they killed either became food for their army, or part of the army itself. Apparently the most successful necromancers weren’t necessarily always the most powerful, but the ones who most effectively managed the whole ‘army-food’ balance properly. Most tended to get carried away with making their horde as large as possible, and forgot that they needed to actually feed the resulting army with some of those corpses that they were turning into more soldiers. And a zombie horde that wasn’t fed properly quickly turned into an uncontrolled zombie horde that attacked everyone in sight, even each other. More necromancer armies were taken apart by their own starving forces turning on one another for nourishment than any great army of light and good or whatever.

All of that went through my head in a quick rush while the leaping zombie came at me, a vision that would have terrified me into complete inaction not that long earlier. Now, however, I just sidestepped the mindlesssly flailing monster and smacked his grasping arm away before turning myself in a kick that put my foot against the back of the thing’s knee. He was strong and didn’t feel pain, but the human body was still the human body, and the kick knocked his leg out from under him. He fell into the pile.

In the background, I heard both of my planted mines go off as the zombies on the stairs reached them. At the same time, I raised the staff above my head and brought it down into the pile of fallen figures that were still trying to extricate themselves from each other. As the weapon came down, I triggered the charge that had been building. The staff struck the nearest head and the kinetic force went off like a bomb, propelling the weapon down through the rest of them as easily as a spoon going through ice cream. Which was a mental image and connection that I really, really wished my brain hadn’t made.

Extricating myself from the pile of corpses, I quickly planted three more bombs along the top of the stairs that time. Unfortunately, before I could turn back around, a hand grabbed my arm and nearly yanked it out of socket as the nearest zombie hauled me toward him. I felt his fingers claw into my skin hard enough to draw blood (and thanked every conceivable deity in every conceivable existence that real zombies didn’t ‘transfer’ their condition to people the way the movies portrayed it, real zombies had to be specifically created) before I was yanked off my feet and toward his wide open mouth. He was intent on getting those teeth around my exposed throat so that he could bite and tear through it.

I made him eat my staff instead. Rather than panic, I shoved the weapon into that open mouth. The force knocked him back a bit, and I started charging it up while taking a few running steps. My own momentum shoved the choking zombie backwards and into the one behind him. Just as they collided, the staff had charged enough to go off again. I triggered it while still shoving, and the resulting blast took off not only the head of my attacker, but the one I’d shoved him backwards into as well.

From there, I was right in the middle of the rush of them. I stopped thinking and just reacted. A hand reached for my face and I smacked it aside. Another hand raked sharp claws down my back, sending a spasm of pain through me and I ignored it while putting my staff into the stomach of the offender to double him over, then spun into a wide swing while setting off my charged weapon to take off his head. A face came into view and I smacked it once, twice, three times to drive the mindless creature back while desperately flinging myself out of range of another corpse that tried to latch onto my leg.

Every target I saw, I attacked. Here a face, there a hand, a stomach, a throat. I swung over and over again, triggering the kinetic burst from the staff every time it was ready. More and more gore surrounded and covered me while I was fighting. I was at war, and my enemies were everything I could see. Even then, I took damage. I got hurt. They clawed and scraped at me from all sides, and I couldn’t turn or attack fast enough to keep all of them off me. It was all I could do to keep myself vaguely upright as more and more of them kept coming. Every one I killed seemed to be replaced by two more. Everything I’d learned from Katarin, everything that Avalon had taught me beyond that, all that we’d practiced these past months was on full display in a way that I’d never previously managed in training. I was a whirling dervish of death that literally exploded her enemies into little gooey bits every few seconds, and yet it wasn’t enough. I was going to collapse under the sheer weight of their numbers.

Then, just as I was on the breaking point, bleeding from several open wounds that hadn’t yet had a chance to heal, the head of the zombie nearest to me exploded into a fine mist right on the heels of a gunshot. A second later, a mace crashed into the face of the next zombie, just before a beam of concussive energy plowed into two more of them, clearing out a little space. A hand caught my arm, this time belonging to my friends, and yanked me away from the pile of corpses. Columbus pulled me clear, then fired another wide-angle shot into the monsters while calling out, “Need some help?”

I chanced a look back the other way. Sands had used the time to construct another wall. This one was made of some kind of metal that was apparently enough to slow the zombies on that side much more than the wood had. She’d also added some kind of bracer support system to hold it steady against their attacks.

Another shot from Scout exploded the head of the next zombie, and Sands had put herself where I had been. Her mace couldn’t charge up kinetic force and blow them apart the way my weapon could, but the spikes on it meant she could actually do more damage on each normal blow than I’d been able to.

Working together, the four of us cleared out the zombies on this side. Now that I had help, we could herd the ones on the stairs up a bit at a time, use mines to choke off the top of the stairs once more each time a small group had made it up, then deal with those ones before the next group made it. Every time we had a big enough collection of zombies to fight, I simply put more mines down to slow the rest of the group. Slowly, yet inevitably, we took them down.

Unfortunately, by the time we managed that, even I was tired and panting. All of us were doubled over to catch our breath when the barrier that Sands had created simply vanished.

Right. Her walls were temporary. Shit. We were… well, kind of screwed. There were just as many zombies on that side of the wall as had been on this side, and they were coming at us all at the same time. Plus there was the fact that we were exhausted.

“Fuck it,” Sands muttered beside me before readying herself. Her voice betrayed her exhaustion, yet she still shouted, “Come on then, you stupid bastards! Come get me!”

They didn’t have a chance. Before the zombies could take more than a single step closer, a new voice spoke up from behind us. “Oh, Mister Zombies! Excuse me.”

Nevada. She was standing at the top of the stairs, wearing a curious expression along with a pair of pink hotpants and a white shirt with a purple bunny on the front with the word ‘YAY’ written under it in bright glitter. She was also barefoot.

“Yeah, hi there!” She waved at the horde of monsters, smiling perkily. “Here’s the thing. Those are my students you’re trying to eat.” As cheerfully as ever, she asked, “Do ya wanna know why that’s a bad idea?” Abruptly, the cheerful smile dropped and her voice was hard. “Lemme show you.”

She moved so fast in the next instant that she almost seemed to teleport. I could barely track her motion as she closed the distance between herself and the nearest zombie in a single second. Her fist lashed out, punching straight through the monster’s head like it was tissue paper. I’d seen that kind of speed and strength not long before, when I met Asenath.

That was just the start of it. With her left fist still buried in the remains of the collapsing zombie’s skull, Nevada pointed with her right hand. A half dozen small flickering flames appeared in midair before shooting straight at six respective zombies. As each tiny, candle-sized flame connected with its target, they were literally engulfed with fire, going up in a miniature explosion that left nothing but ash behind. Seven zombies were dead, and roughly four seconds had passed. And she hadn’t even drawn her weapon.

Things just got worse for the zombies from there, because Nevada finally did take out her weapon. Her hand moved to the silver bracelet that she wore on her left wrist, and she tugged it off before tossing the thing beside her. As it fell, the bracelet expanded and transformed into a tall metal crate that had a bunch of odds and ends sticking out of it. An entire supply closet worth of equipment, and she had been wearing it on her wrist.

Her hand dipped into the crate while the remaining zombies shambled that way, too stupid to know when they should retreat. And a second later, the perky blonde retrieved what she had been looking for: a massive sword that was so enormous it would have made one of those Japanese RPG characters cry with envy. The blade on its own was almost as tall as the woman herself, and was wide enough to use as a shield.

But it wasn’t even just a normal (if enormous) sword. Rather than a simple blade, the weapon had jagged edges all along its edge. And as Nevada’s hand tightened around the hilt, those jagged teeth began to move, rotating around and around along the massive weapon. It was a giant, ludicrously sized great sword that had been crossed with a literal chainsaw.

“Okay, boys.” Nevada flipped the sword around in a single hand like she was twirling a simple baton. “Now we can dance.”

With the chainsaw-sword combined with a vampire’s speed and strength, the zombies stood literally no chance. Nevada went through them like a wheat thresher. A half dozen more were dead and on the ground by the time they actually started to react. She was a blur of motion, graceful and perfect. Exhausted as I was, all I could do was stand there with the rest of the group and stare at the sight.

“Is it wrong that I’m kind of aroused right now?” Columbus asked in an awed voice.

“If it is, we’re both in reaaaaally deep trouble,” I replied without thinking.

That made the other three turn to look at me, and I realized what I’d said just as Nevada took the head off the last of the zombies, saving me from having to say anything else.

She faced us then, standing over the carnage. “Well then! I guess they get the point now. You guys okay?”

“Ummm…” It took me a few seconds to find my voice, blushing in spite of myself. “Uhh, y-yes…”

Nevada was staring at us. “Thank gods. But what were you doing up here anyway? Why weren’t you in your dorms?”

“Yes,” another voice spoke, and we turned to find Professor Kohaku standing there, along with two of her security personnel, the headmistress, and Professor Carfried.

“I believe we’d all like to know the answer to that.”

Previous Chapter            Next Chapter

Basic Training 7-06

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“Are you sure you still wanna be Cyclops? Because I’m starting to think you’d make a better Q.”

It was the next evening, about twenty minutes after our individual track training classes had finished, and Columbus and Avalon had ushered all of us to the beach with promises of new toys. Upon arrival, the boy had dumped out a dufflebag full of equipment that was supposed to make our mission easier.

“Wrong franchise,” the boy replied to me. “Though I would not object to a Forge comparison.” He paused then, obviously considering. “Actually, you know, he’s got that whole mysticism thing going on besides his inventions. And a cool robot leg. Yeah, I could get used to—oww.” Avalon had silently reached up and flicked him in the forehead with her index finger. “Fine, fine, I get it. Focusing.”

“Hey,” Sean spoke up then from where he’d been poking through the pile of stuff. “Isn’t this one of those communication badges that they let us use during that hunt out at the lake?”

“Seriously?” Sands stepped that way, leaning over to pick it up out of the sand. Sure enough, it looked just like the ones that we had used back then. The thought of that night just reminded me that I wasn’t the only one on the team with problems. Avalon still had people from her old school trying to kill her for the crime of defending herself, and someone here at Crossroads was actually helping them.

Columbus nodded quickly. “Oh, yeah, they’ve got a whole box of those in the lab. You just have to mate them together with this thing they’ve got down there. Thought they might be useful, so I uhh, distracted Nevada and the rest of them with a tiny explosion while Avalon grabbed a few for us.”

Avalon rolled her eyes. “Is that what you call mixing up ounces and grams? Making a distraction?”

“It distracted them, didn’t it?” Columbus pointed out before gesturing with both hands. “Anyway, there’s one for each of us. They’re only connected to each other so we should be able to talk without anyone overhearing. But that’s not even the best part. Here, everyone take one of these babies.”

He tossed something my way. Catching it, I turned the thing over in my hands. “Just a ski mask?”

“Yeah, and a Rolls Royce is just a car,” Columbus retorted while stepping up to take the mask from me with a huff of indignation. “Watch this. Watch my face.” While we all watched, the boy tugged what still looked to me like an ordinary ski mask onto his head and down over his face. The second it was in position, however, the mask vanished and left me looking at Columbus’s—wait, no. That wasn’t Columbus’s face. It was the face of someone else, a complete stranger that I’d never seen before.

“Dude,” Sean blurted in obvious surprise and awe. “You actually got your hands on maskers?”

The not-Columbus face smile. “We did. We’ll have to get them back in the lab as soon as we’re done, but for now… well, even if someone sees us, they won’t actually see us. Are we cool or what?”

Avalon reached out to tug the mask off Columbus, revealing his real face once more. “Don’t get too full of yourself,” she warned flatly. “They still have to get into that room and out without being caught.”

“Hey, that’s what we brought most of the rest of this stuff for,” Columbus pointed out with a gentle kick at the remaining pile. “So that you and chiseled pecs over there can do your whole distraction thing.”

Sean gave a long, contended sigh while spreading his arms to either side in an accepting gesture. “See, you call me that like it’s an insult, but all I hear is that you’ve noticed how very, very pretty I am.” He batted his eyelashes with disorienting effectiveness and skill.

“Oh, go flex at someone else,” Columbus retorted, clearly unimpressed. “I’m immune. If spending two months as your roommate hasn’t made me switch sides, nothing will, Captain Allergic To Shirts.”

Judging by the tingle that particular mental image gave me, I certainly wasn’t immune. And I was pretty sure that Sands and Scout felt the same way, considering the expressions that both of them had.

Avalon, however, just rolled her eyes. “If everyone is quite finished talking about shirtless teammates?”

Columbus raised a hand. “You know, before we change that subject entirely, I wouldn’t object if you were the one whookay, okay, okay!” He took a quick step back with his hands raised defensively as Avalon gave him a clearly threatening look. “Got it, not finishing that sentence. Ever.”

And that gave me a little mental tingle too. Huh… Slowly, I looked from Sean to Avalon and back again. The mental images were… well, they were pleasant. They both made me feel…

Before I could examine that thought too closely, Sands interrupted. “Okay, so what else you got in there? Anything useful?” She was crouched there by the pile, poking at a couple things curiously.

“Oh, we’ve got lots of useful things,” Columbus assured her. “Have you heard of Blinder Fog?”

“Nope. But you, sir,” Sands informed him, “have my full and undivided attention.”

******

“You ready for this, Chambers?”

A few hours later, Avalon and I were sitting in our room. I’d been watching the clock tick silently toward two-twenty in the morning, our agreed upon start time, when the other girl broke the silence.

“One thing’s for sure,” I replied after thinking about it for a second. “I am absolutely beyond ready to get a few answers about my mom. If this is the only way to get those answers, then so be it.”

For a second, I thought Avalon was going to say something else. Before she could, however, the sound of Sean’s voice came from the communication pins that we were both wearing. “You guys all set?”

Sands was the first to respond. “Yup. Hall’s clear, we’re good to go. See you guys in two minutes.”

Pushing myself up, I grabbed the masker that I’d left beside me on the bed while trying to contain my nervousness. I wasn’t very successful, and it took me a minute to fumble my feet into my shoes.

Avalon’s hand caught my arm. “Chambers,” she spoke quietly, yet firmly. “Calm down. Breathe. Look at me.” Her other hand moved up to my chin, forcing me to meet her gaze. “You want to help your mother? Then take in a breath and hold it. Hold it. Now let it out. Again. Okay, put your shoes on.”

There was a light, almost inaudible tap at the door, and we opened it to find the twins waiting there. Together, the four of us moved as quietly as possible down the hall, past all the closed doors. The maskers stayed in our hands. We didn’t want to actually use them until we were out of the dorm, since getting caught coming out of our rooms with them on would kind of defeat the entire purpose.

As promised, the boys were crouched down in the space behind the girl’s dorm. Columbus had the dufflebag with him, though he was already passing it to Sean when the rest of us arrived. Above in the upper grade’s dorms, I could still hear music and loud conversations coming from a few open windows. Even as late as it was, Friday night was Friday night, and apparently some of the partying hadn’t finished yet. That was okay though. As long as it stayed in the dorms, it shouldn’t affect our plan at all.

“Okay,” Avalon announced. “Gerardo and I will head for the athletics building. That should be far enough from the security office to give you a chance if things go sideways. If anything goes wrong, abort.” Her eyes found me. “I mean it, Chambers. If we have to go back later, we can. As long as they don’t figure out what the person who broke in was looking for, the files should still be there if we have to try again. You got it? This is not a one-chance thing. If it looks dangerous or someone shows up early, you abort and get out of there. We’ll just do it again once things calm down. You got it?”

I swallowed before giving a short nod. “I got it.” I did. As much as I wanted to know the truth about my mom (or any clue that would get us a little closer to that truth), I didn’t want to risk my friends to get it.

“Maskers on.” Avalon suited action to word, sliding it over her own head to change her appearance into an unremarkable looking red-head. It did not, however, do a lot to alter her… ahh… general shape. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be all that hard to pick her out of a line-up later if things went that far.

The rest of us had our own maskers on a moment later, and then we were moving. At the front of the building, the other two split off to head the long way around toward the athletics hall while Sands, Scout, Columbus, and I made our way to the main building. Once we were away from the dorm building, the sound of partying died down quickly (probably another enchantment), and we were left moving through near-silent darkness. It was obvious that none of us wanted to risk even as much as a whisper, and there wasn’t much reason to anyway since we knew where we were going.

A minute later, we reached one of the side doors. The main entrance was entirely too exposed, so we’d chosen this one on the far end. It was further from the security office, but much safer to use. We’d talked about it and figured it was worth the trade-off. Especially after Sands pointed out that there were two of those ‘hidden rooms’ on the way to the office that we could use if we had to get out of sight.

At the door, Columbus knelt while adjusting his goggles with one hand. “All right, I’ve got this. Hold on a second.” Playing with the lense with one hand, he pointed with the other. “Okay, just one alert line here. Looks like it’s connected from the door here to the wall there. Open it, break the line, and… well, whatever it is goes off. An alert, I guess, but probably just a little one. I mean, people have to go in and out of this door even at night, right? So it probably just tells security someone went through.”

“Which is a bad thing if none of them are the ones doing it and they don’t know who is,” I pointed out.

Sands nodded. “That’s why we’re here. Just hold on. There?” She pointed to the spot beside the door frame and waited for Columbus to nod before digging a bottle of clear nail polish out of a pocket.

“Nail polish?” I whispered with a raised eyebrow. “Are you serious?”

Holding up a finger to forestall me, Sands passed the bottle to her sister, who used it to begin very carefully dabbing at the spot that Columbus had pointed out. Meanwhile, Sands produced something else from her pocket: a stun gun. She waggled the instrument at me. “Juuuust trust us, Flick.”

She waited until Scout had painted over the whole spot with the nail polish, then pressed the prongs of the stun gun up against it before pushing the trigger. There was a jolt of electricity, and she tugged the gun back. “Once more,” she informed us while Scout started dabbing with the polish again. “It fizzled a little, then came back, right?” When Columbus nodded, she smiled. “See, those goggles make this a hell of a lot easier. I wish we had a pair of those back when we spent a month tracking down all the spells that Professor Pericles put over those gliders they had on the roof a couple years ago.”

As soon as Scout was done with the nail polish, Sands gave the spot another jolt with the stun gun.

“That’s it,” Columbus announced. “The spell just disappeared. Wait, that won’t alert them, will it?”

Sands was shaking her head even as she tugged the door open. She kept her voice low. “Nope. It’ll come back in about an hour, so we’ve gotta get out of here before then or we’ll have to do it again.”

We made our way through the door and into the English and History wing. The hall was dark save for a few individual lights here and there along the ceiling, and the silence felt almost stifling in its entirety.

Once we were sure that no one was around, the four of us hurried down the hall toward the stairs that would lead up to the security office. The fact that we were trying to move quickly while simultaneously remaining as quiet as possible meant that we probably looked like a small herd of tiptoeing gazelles.

On the way, Columbus had us stop twice more when he spotted random alarm spells, and the twins took the time to disable them. By the the time we reached the top of the stairs, with the security office in sight, Avalon and Sean had already reported that they were in position and ready to play distraction.

The security room wasn’t empty yet, however, so rather than go straight there and end up walking right into the guys we were avoiding, we ducked into one of the empty classrooms nearby (once Columbus verified that it wasn’t alarmed, obviously). From there, the four of us crouched down out of sight and waited with what I was choosing to call patience since it sounded better than ‘near-crippling anxiety.’

Crouched there, with an eye on the hall and our ears alert for the sound of any of the security personnel heading out, we began to whisper under our breath to each other. Sands started. “Remind me again why we can’t just take pictures of the stuff in there and look through it later? I mean, I get not taking the stuff itself. They’d probably notice that. But it’d be a lot faster to just take pictures and leave.”

I nodded emphatically. “I know. I’d love to. But as far as I understand the secrecy spell they’ve got going on, if we take the records out of that protected room, they’ll be subject to the spell that stops people from learning anything about whatever the deal with my mom was. So we have to read them in there, where the spell can’t affect it. Apparently once you actually know the stuff, the spell doesn’t take that knowledge out of your head. Though it obviously did when they first cast it so… I dunno, probably some kind of energy limitation? When they first cast it, it had the energy to remove those memories from everyone’s head, but now it just acts like a wall to stop anyone from getting them?”

“There’s another simple explanation,” Columbus pointed out. “They wanted to protect their own memories. Shielding people from the effect has gotta be pretty draining too. So if they didn’t want to constantly devote part of their energy to that, they’d want the spell to stop actively targeting the memories of people who already, uhh, you know, actually knew what it was trying to hide.”

Scout leaned over to whisper something to Sands, who spoke up then. “Scout wants to know what about the yearbook then, or that picture you found, or the one that Deveron has. If we can’t take documents out of here without the spell stopping us from reading them, why can we see the pictures and read the book? Even after that… ummm, Merchant?”

“Seller,” I corrected with a slight smile.

“Seller, right. Even after that Seller guy ‘fixed’ the book, shouldn’t the spell stop us from actually seeing what it says?”

I made a face briefly. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. My best guess is that the spell has a specific target. It’s stopping us from reading information about specific things my mother did, like this rebellion thing. The fact that she existed isn’t that level of top secret. Like I said, conservation of effort and energy.”

Before we could say anything else, Scout held a hand up to stop us. In the hall, the sound of an opening door and a voice explained her response. We froze, but the two voices we could hear sounded relaxed and casual. The two security guards obviously weren’t stressed, and they strolled easily down the hall in the opposite direction from the back stairs that we’d come up. They were headed for the main entrance.

It made sense. Most of the actual security work was done by the shield surrounding the school grounds. As long as that was up, the guards themselves mainly had to deal with students sneaking out after curfew.

Or it had been that way, before a professor had been murdered on school grounds with no one having any clue who had done it.

Shaking off that thought, I nodded to the others before quietly opening the door. We slipped into the hall, and I moved quickly past the security room to keep an eye out on the way that guards had gone while the other three worked on the door itself.

“Avalon and Sean. Two guards on their way out the front door,” I used the pin to contact the others.

“We see them,” Sean’s casual reply came back. “Don’t worry, if they start to head back early, we’ll get their attention nice and quick.”

The alarm spells set up around the security room were obviously a bit trickier than the previous ones. Even with Columbus pointing out where each bit of enchantment originated, it took the twins almost ten minutes to disable them. The whole time, I kept stressing about how long it was taking. Every minute that took us to get in was another minute that we couldn’t spend actually reading the files. But, of course, they were working as fast as they could. The fact that I had nothing to contribute and no way to help was just making me antsy.

Finally, after what felt like hours, Sands pushed the door open and we hurried inside. Avalon and Sean were giving us constant updates about what the security guys were up to, and it sounded like we still had plenty of time. Still, I had no idea how long it was going to take to find what we needed. For a school this old, how many hundreds and hundreds of files must they…

“Errr…” I paused, frowning at the single small filing cabinet sitting in the corner. Seriously, there were only three drawers on the thing. “Wait, are we screwed now? There’s no way they keep all the files in that little thing.” As soon as I said it, my own hand went up to smack my forehead. “Wait, never mind. I’m an idiot. Big thing, little space, big thing, little space. Like the staff. How do we get what we want though?”

Scout giggled, hiding it a bit behind one hand while Sands shook her head mournfully. “Man, being a Bystander must make things take forever. Watch this.” As I watched, she stepped to the cabinet and then looked back toward me. “What was your mom’s name again?”

“Joselyn,” I answered quietly. “Joselyn Atherby.”

Laying one hand on the filing cabinet, Sands spoke clearly. “All records related to Atherby, Joselyn.”

There was a hum from the cabinet, and then it jolted somewhat. Both drawers sprang open, revealing hundreds of folders. There were too many to actually fit inside the cabinet.

“Crap,” I muttered. There was too much to read. “Uhh, just grab anything that looks important. Try to scan them quick. If we get out of here without getting caught, we can come back for details later. Right now, just look at as much as possible.”

Taking my own advice, I grabbed the nearest of the folders and looked through it quickly. “Detention records. Eesh, Mom sure earned a lot of those. Headmaster Ruthers?”

“He was the head guy before Headmistress Sinclaire took over about seventy years ago,” Sands replied while quickly scanning through a folder of her own. “Now he’s part of the Committee that makes all the rules about everything Crossroads Heretics do. And wow, he did not like your mom. This is a request he sent the Committee before he was part of it to have her expelled when she was in her third year. And it says it’s the fourth request. Second one that year.”

“I guess we know which way he voted on the whole ‘should I be allowed to come here or not’ thing,” I muttered under my breath before setting the folder aside for another one.

“Okay, wait,” I quickly realized this one was more important. “Listen to this. It’s dated six years after Mom graduated. ‘Joselyn Atherby and her band of malcontents raided a Crossroads safehouse yesterday. They stole research data and supplies. Worse, the woman was able to convince one of our own men to join her, bringing their ranks up to nine. Nine fully trained Heretics who have turned their back on their own kind and now seek some kind of alliance with the very beasts we have sworn to kill.’”

“I guess this one happens after that then,” Columbus said quietly, gesturing to the folder he was looking at. “It says that Joselyn and a dozen of her strongest troops attacked the Pathmaker building. They had Strangers with them.”

“She brought Strangers into the Pathmaker building?” Sands was bristling with indignation.

Columbus read quickly. “Apparently they got far enough to reach one of the portal rooms and took it over. It uhh, it sounds like they were using the portal to get into some kind of… prison? It says they freed a bunch of ‘research specimen’ and escaped with them, and then it has a list of Strangers.”

“Research specimen?” Sands frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. Eden’s Garden does Stranger experiments. We just kill them.”

Rather than get into that debate, I grabbed another folder at random. “Okay, okay. More attacks. More raids. This was a full blown war. It went on for decades, damn. Look at this, Mom came… wait, that doesn’t…” I frowned.

“What?” Columbus asked, while he and the other two watched me.

“This says that my mother broke onto the school grounds ‘again’. It’s dated umm, in the fifties. It says that she comes and goes as she pleases and that no one can figure out why she doesn’t set off the shield.” Looking up at the others, I stared at them with my mouth open. “Mom knew how to get past the shield without setting it off. It says they even brought in experts. Ruthers sent in his own men to examine it, even stationed them here, and she still got in and out. He thought the Headmistress was helping her, but even his experts couldn’t figure it out. Gaia wasn’t doing anything. Mom just… knew a way to beat the shield.”

“The same way someone managed to beat it to kill Professor Pericles,” Sands said quietly. “I bet they think you’re involved somehow.”

I was busy blanching at that thought when Scout poked me with a folder before handing it over. I glanced at it, then did a double-take. “Wait, hold on. This mentions Joselyn’s daughter.”

“Uhh, yeah?” Sands pointed. “That would be you.”

My head shook. “It’s dated in the sixties. Plus it mentions a son. Twins. A boy and a girl. Mom had a boy and a girl while she was still a Heretic. After she was umm, captured, they took the twins in.”

“Whatever happened to them?” Columbus was frowning thoughtfully. “Did they keep them, or banish them along with her?”

“I dunno, it doesn’t say.” My mind was reeling. A brother and a sister? Actually, another brother and a sister? Hopefully less murderous and psychotic than Ammon.

“Guys,” Sean’s voice broke in. “You need to get out of there. We’re about to set off the distraction, but you need to move. Something just spooked these guys.”

“Was it us?” Columbus asked quickly.
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “We need to go. Hurry, put it away.” We scrambled a bit, shoving folders back into the cabinet before manhandling it closed. As soon as the drawers shut, the cabinet stopped sagging as the files were transported… wherever they were transported.

I really wanted to stay and read more, but we’d pushed our luck too far as it was. Especially if Sean was right about something spooking the security guards.

“Distraction’s on,” Avalon’s voice announced. From the sound of it, I could tell she was running. In the background I could hear what sounded like loud voices and banging doors. “Get out of there, now.”

We moved to the door, and I stepped out, turning back to whisper to the others. “Okay, if we go back the… what?” They were staring past me, and I turned to see a single figure standing there a bit down the hall. They were mostly obscured by shadow, leaving it impossible to make out any details.

“Crap,” I said aloud while thinking quickly. Should we run back the other way? Would that do any good? “Uhh… wait…” Something was wrong. The figure wasn’t moving. It was just standing there, motionless and silent.

The hair on the back of my neck was starting to stand up when the figure took a single step forward, putting itself into the light.

Immediately, I realized that whoever this was, they wouldn’t be answering questions any time soon. Half of the guy’s head was caved in. His body was clearly rotting. A zombie. He was a zombie. And apparently one with a Master that was conscientious enough to mask the scent of the literal dead body, explaining why we hadn’t smelled the thing.

I had seen dead bodies before, mostly from looking at Dad’s files when I wasn’t supposed to. Plus we’d done an entire unit on zombies in Nevada’s class. Still, seeing one standing there in front of us… it would have freaked me out even if my Stranger sense hadn’t started screaming at me the very second the thing stepped into the light. As soon as I got a decent look at the figure, it started blaring alarms.

Columbus cursed. “Oh fuck me, a Stranger.”

“Yeah, dude, we kind of see it,” Sands replied tersely. “H-how the fuck did it get in here?”

“No, not that one,” Columbus raised his voice. “That one.”

Turning the way he was looking, I saw another of the motionless figures standing behind us. Another zombie.

“This is wrong,” Sands was saying. “They can’t be here. They can’t. How? How… how?” Even as she spoke, I could see more figures walking into view to join the formerly solitary Strangers on either side of us.They moved slowly, but with purpose until they were in sight, then went completely still, standing motionless just within our view. Like whoever was controlling them was intentionally trying to freak us out.

My mind was screaming about how impossible this should have been, how none of this was right. Part of me was terrified that Fossor had managed to find a way past both the deal he made with my mother and the shield that should have kept him away from the island. Inwardly, I was freaking out. Outwardly, I grabbed for my staff. “Avalon, Sean, get help. We’re being att–”

The zombies stopped being motionless.

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Basic Training 7-05

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“Come on, Chambers, move it, move it!” Professor Katarin bellowed at the top of his lungs (I hoped), his voice echoing over the grounds from the top of the hill near the main building. “Don’t tell me you’re tired, cuz we all know that’s a damn lie! Pick up the pace, let’s go! Moon, you too, keep running!”

It was Thursday morning, and today’s Introduction to Combat class had started out with a brisk jog around the school grounds, just to warm everyone up. From there, Katarin had led us to the bottom of the hill, pointed to the top, and told us that we were going to be running wind sprints. Only in this case, it would be up the hill and back down again, over and over until he thought we’d had enough.

Knowing Katarin as we did by that point, most of us figured that things wouldn’t be nearly that simple, so even as we started out, there were a lot of cautious glances. The man had a reputation for starting what seemed like a relatively mundane exercise, and then transforming it partway through into something that could only be described as completely insane. He called it keeping things interesting.

Still, it was good exercise, and the man was great at his job. Maybe just a little enthusiastic in his creativity. He was definitely making every effort to both get us in shape and teach us how to fight.

Columbus was a little behind me, panting as we made our fifth trip up the hill. I was deliberately slowing myself down so that he could keep up, and apparently Professor Katarin had noticed.

“So… damn…. jealous.” Columbus complained just as we reached the top and leaned over to touch the red tape that Katarin had laid down across the width of our running area. Somehow, the tape registered whose fingers touched it and how many times. That way, Katarin could make absolutely sure he knew exactly how many repetitions each person had done, and call them over when they’d done enough. Plus it stopped anyone from being able to cheat while the man’s attention was on a different part of the hill.

“Hey,” I called back pivoting around. “Just be glad you guys got the upgrade from those chamrosh. Imagine how tired you’d be if you didn’t have that.” While the bird-dog things hadn’t given my teammates quite as much of a stamina gift as I’d gotten from the amarok, they still seemed to help a lot.

“Well then!” Katarin called out from what sounded like an inch from my ear, as loud as he was. “If you people are feeling bored enough to chatter, I guess it’s time to make this a little more interesting!”

His words were met by groans combined with a few scowls in our direction. Whoops. Not that I felt too bad. Katarin would have upped the ante on the exercise any minute any way. It was what he did.

“All right, people,” the man went on, the smirk obvious in his tone. “You showed me you can hustle. Now let’s see you keep that hustle and pay attention to your surroundings. Sinclaire, your left!”

An instant after he spoke, something popped up out of the ground near Avalon. It looked like almost like a tetherball pole, about seven feet tall. One second it wasn’t there, and in the next second, fwoosh, it shot up into place. A second after that, two horizontal wooden sticks about four feet long popped out of opposite the sides of the post. One was around five feet and the other around one foot. As soon as they appeared, the post spun around several times in a row, the wooden sticks making whistling noises.

Avalon reacted by doing this little side flip that brought her over the lower stick, while keeping herself low enough that the higher stick didn’t smack her in the face as it whipped around into position. The flip put her just barely out of its range before she turned to watch the spinning thing with the rest of us.

“My little friends here are stationed all over this hill,” Katarin announced. “You will keep running. When they pop out, they will give you a second to react and then they will spin. When you get hit, and you will get hit, you will keep moving. Do you understand? We are not keeping score, we are not even counting the hits, not this time. What I am counting is how many of you give up because you get a little hurt. Remember, the peridles will heal anything these little sticks can do, so keep running.”

As a group, we all looked at one another just long enough for Katarin to bellow, “Let’s go, move it!”

So we did. The uphill wind sprints continued, this time with the added fun of being randomly attacked by spinning sticks popping up out of the ground without warning. We dodged where we could, some more effective than others, but everyone was hit eventually. The sticks stung, but as Katarin had said, the healing from the peridles made sure it didn’t last that long. It was bad enough to want to avoid being hit by them, but not so bad that it would actually do real, lasting damage.

Just another gym class on an island full of monster hunters-in-training.

******

A few hours later, once classes had ended for the day, the whole team was sitting out on the grass, near to the beach but still within range of the temperature shield. I could see tropical birds flying overhead, and heard vague hints of the heavily muted jungle sounds coming from the nearby trees. Herbie sat on the grass beside me, his little plastic toy sword replaced with the metal one that Columbus had made. The little guy was keeping a wary eye out, and I was sure he’d let us know if anyone approached.

In the distance, we could see Shiori’s team being put through some kind of training drill by Andrew. At the moment, Aylen was dueling Stephen. The Native American girl was fighting hand to hand while Stephen had his spear, though we’d watched Andrew work some kind of spell over the end of it to dull the blade before they’d started. Almost like he was an actually competent mentor. I’m sure it was a real treat.

Sovereign, Aylen’s mechanical hawk, was circling over head, but thus far hadn’t actually contributed other than to make loud screeing noises now and again as if he was giving advice.

As we watched, Stephen whipped his spear around. Aylen stepped in close, ducked the spear, and popped him in the face with a quick jab that barely connected. She tried to follow it up with a more solid hit, but Stephen’s spear suddenly whipped through the same space it had already passed through, knocking the girl down. She hit the grass and rolled back to her feet.

Wait. No, Stephen was still holding his spear outstretched. The one that had swung through the air disappeared a second after it had finished the swing. What?

As if in answer to my silent question, the boy took a step back, swinging his spear in a complicated maneuver while Aylen danced in and out, looking for an opening. The spear spun up and then around, twirling in a brief protective move before he stopped, pulling the spear back to his chest.

A moment later, a different spear appeared out of nowhere, copying that same maneuver. Before it had finished, another one appeared, and so on. Apparently Stephen’s spear was able to duplicate itself performing its own maneuvers. He swung it once, recorded the move, and then his spear could manifest new versions of itself swinging in that same spot over and over again. Which meant that while you were fighting him, you didn’t just have to watch for where his spear was currently swinging. You had to watch everywhere it had already been.

Aylen was still moving, watching for an opening while Sovereign flew overhead, calling down his own guidance. Yet no matter where the girl stepped, Stephen’s spear was there. He added a protective swipe here and there to cut her off, which kept repeating themselves whenever she tried to get close.

Finally, Aylen gave a sharp whistle. Sovereign came swooping down, talons extended. Yet instead of attacking Stephen the way I figured he would, the hawk seemed to practically plow directly into his owner’s back. Aylen was knocked forward a step as the mechanical bird attached himself to her. His wings folded in under her arms to cross in front of her chest, while his body was flat against her back with his beak upright pointed to the sky directly behind her head.

For a second, it looked like the girl was wearing a special backpack or something. Then the hawk reshaped itself. Metal plates slid out of its body and wings, more than I thought could actually fit inside the animal. They continued to slide and rotate, locking themselves into position until most of the actual bird shape was gone, and Aylen herself was completely covered in a metal suit that hugged her figure. Only her face was left exposed. And a second later, the birds head slid up over the top of hers while more metal plates slid down from the beak, forming a protective helmet over every spot except her eyes. Finally, the birds own eyes lowered into place over Aylen’s before they widened to form lenses for the helmet.

Stephen tried to use his spear, but he’d hesitated too long. The blow glanced off the metal armor, and Aylen was able to push right through the duplicated spears that kept trying to knock her back, easily catching Stephen by the arm before taking him to the ground.

“Dude,” I nudged Columbus with my foot. “I think you just found your Colossus.”

“I can totally live with that,” the boy replied, still staring in awe for a few more seconds before forcing himself to look back toward the rest of us. “Anyway, uhh, right. Let’s go through it one thing at a time. What’s everything we already know we need to do? I mean, besides dealing with a psychopathic necromancer with a Flick obsession.”

“We need to find out if Sands’ and Scout’s father has my mother’s weapons stored away,” I pointed out with a glance toward the twins. I still wasn’t sure how they felt about sneaking behind their dad’s back.

“We’ll take care of it,” Sands replied with an unhappy sigh. “If they’re anywhere in our place, we’ll find them. But I still don’t think he’d have them. Why wouldn’t he just turn them over after he got them?”

I nodded. “He might’ve. But we need to be sure. And even if he did, he went out of his way to get them back. So he might have some other record or something. Maybe a picture with my mother, maybe a note, maybe… anything. So you’ll have to be thorough. Can you do it without letting him know?”

This time, Sands snorted. A slight smile played at her mouth in spite of her obvious uncertainty about the general situation. “You clearly don’t know us well enough, Flick. I may not totally agree with all of this, but if there’s one thing Scout and I know how to do, it’s sneaking around without Dad finding out about it. Let’s just say we spent our childhood figuring out how to get even with all the people who thought they were so much better than us because they were students and we weren’t allowed to be yet. You know, glue here, dye in the shower there. Silly stuff. But we did learn how to get around most of the alarm spells and other things that they stick up around here. Especially the ones that Dad makes.”

Sean spoke up then while rolling a metal ball around in his hand as Vulcan watched intently. “You said you wanted to talk to Deveron’s roommate, didn’t you? “ He reared back and threw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it. “Did you ever get around to that? Anything come out of it?”

It was Avalon’s turn to look just a little bit embarrassed, shifting her weight slightly. “Ah, no. Not really. Turns out you’re gonna have to be the one to talk to him if we want any information.”

Vulcan came running back with the metal ball in his mouth. He dropped it into Sean’s hand, and the boy reared back before throwing it again as he replied with a raised eyebrow. “Me? Why me?”

Avalon gave him a look. “Let’s just say I managed to get him alone, but my method of persuasion was ineffective. Judging from his reaction, I’m pretty sure that you’d have more luck.”

Scout got it first, hiding a giggle behind her hand just before Sean barked out a single laugh. “You think—oh, right.” Without a hint of shame, the boy heaved a put-upon sigh. “Well, if I must, I guess I’ll gussy myself up and see what I can find out. Honestly, you people only keep me around for my body.”

“That’s not true,” I argued. “You’re the one that brings Vulcan. We’ve gotta keep you to have him.” At the sound of his name, Vulcan came over with the metal ball in his mouth, sniffing at me a little eagerly. With a smile, I accepted the ball from him and gave it a toss. The mechanical dog gave a loud bark of excitement, leaned up to lick my face with a cold metallic tongue before bounding off again.

“Uh, should I even ask why his tongue’s actually wet?” I asked while rubbing a palm over my face. “Or what it’s wet with?” I looked at my hand briefly before drying it off on the grass.

“Guess they want him to be realistic,” Sean replied with an easy shrug. “You know, except for that whole folding up into a minigun thing. Pretty sure there’s not a lot of dogs that do that.”

Avalon was shaking her head. “Fine, you’ve got the lazy asshole’s roommate. Let us know what you can get out of him. But there’s also that whole security room thing.” Her eyes moved to me then.

I groaned, nodding as I resisted the urge to fall onto my back. “Like I said, that’s not gonna be easy. I’ve walked past there a few times already and someone’s always in there. Plus, you know, there’s all those alarms on the place. If anyone goes in there that they don’t know about, I don’t think we’d be able to take two steps before half the faculty came down on our heads. For some silly reason they actually take security seriously around here. Which I’m sure is a good thing, but it’s kind of annoying right now.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “If you go out at night, the security guys go on patrol once every two hours. Should give you at least fifteen minutes in the room without company. And uh, we could teach you how to disable the alarm spells so you don’t attract attention, but you’d have to know where they were for that to do any good. See, Scout and I used to spend weeks tracking down the exact spots where the alarm enchantments were cast so we could disable them. You’ll have minutes, not weeks. And I don’t know any way to find them any quicker.”

“Actually, uhh, I might be able to help with that.” It was Columbus’s turn to speak up as he raised a hand. “I was messing with my goggle settings in the lab on Monday night during track class, and I sort of found a setting that highlights magic stuff. It uhh, took me awhile to figure out what it was, but yeah, it makes all these glowing line things where magic is. It’s kind of cool. I should be able to point the alarm lines out to you pretty quick. You know, assuming we actually get there without getting caught.”

“Maybe we should go too,” Sands pointed out. “Instead of just teaching you how to do it. Scout and me, we know how to take the alarm spells down quick, once we know where they are.”

I hesitated, but nodded in the end. “Okay, if you’re sure. You don’t have to. This thing is sort of my big issue. You guys sure you wanna take the risk of getting caught sneaking into the security room?”

Sands shook her head. “Hey, you’re our teammate. And our friend. Plus, Deveron’s a jerk and I wanna know why. Like I said, we’ve been waiting a long time for this. Getting a pathetic, lazy mentor wasn’t part of the plan. I want someone that’ll actually help us, damn it. So figuring out what the hell’s wrong with him and why he keeps acting that way now? That’s definitely something we want to be part of.”

“Did you know him last year?” I suddenly asked, tilting my head. “Back when they said he was this amazing student. Top of his class, all that stuff. Did you guys see him around? Was he… that different?”

The twins exchanged glances before nodding emphatically. Sands scowled. “You have no idea, dude. Seriously. That guy was the top of practically everything. He was amazing. I Thought… you know, when I found out he was gonna be our mentor, I was kind of happy. Hell, that’s why Scout and I went out to the lighthouse that first day, cuz we wanted to see what he was doing.” Her scowl darkened a little further. “Turns out his Hyde stuffed his Jekyll in a closet over the summer and we ended up standing around with you guys while that lazy jerk took off. Would you believe I actually thought he was trying to teach something?”

Wincing, I cleared my throat. “Okay, so, the four of us? I hope we can get in and out before they get back. Especially since we’ve gotta read everything we find in the room. Can’t take anything out of there or that damn spell will just make sure we can’t read what’s on them anymore, so they’ll be useless.”

It was Avalon’s turn to speak. “Sean and I will make sure you have enough time.” When the boy looked at her, she gave him a humorless smile. “Assuming you’re not afraid of being a distraction, of course. If being chased by security scares you too much, I’ll just do it all by myself.”

“Me?” Sean gave an exaggerated gasp of offense. “Afraid? Why, I never.” Lifting his chin, the boy added, “You sure your mom won’t be upset if you end up in detention for being out after hours?”

He was kidding, but I saw the way Avalon flinched a little bit before resuming her stoic expression. “She’ll be okay. I’ll tell her the truth as soon as we can, and well, we’ll talk it out. Right now, what’s important is getting into that room and finding out what’s on those records as soon as we can.”

“Scout and I can show you some places you can hide if you need to,” Sands put in. “We used them to hide from security whenever we wanted to go where we weren’t supposed to. Or, you know, whenever someone we were pranking happened to come back early and get all upset or whatever. They’re these, uhh, hidden room things. I dunno what they’re for, but they’re really useful when you’re being chased.”

“Hidden rooms that even security doesn’t know about?” I asked with a blink. “Is that possible? Wait, how did you guys find them then?”

The twins shrugged, and Sands replied, “All I know is they never found us when we hid in there. As to how we found them, well, when you’re bored and wandering around this place for years, you tend to touch a lot of things. You find stuff you’re not supposed to. Stuff other people don’t know about. Like those hidden rooms.”

“Either way, it’s convenient for us,” Avalon announced, which I was pretty sure was her way of congratulating the twins for being incredibly useful. “The question is, when do we do it?”

Aww, she was totally softening up! It hadn’t been that long since she would have just flat out told us when we should be there and what we were going to do.

“Tomorrow night?” I offered, looking around the team. “It’ll be Friday, so we can stay out late without sleeping through classes.”

“Tomorrow works for me,” Sean agreed. The rest of the group nodded, and I let out a long breath. Tomorrow night. Whatever was in that security room, whatever answers were recorded there, we would find them tomorrow night.

Hold on, Mom, I thought to myself. We’ll find answers.

And then we’ll find you.

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Basic Training 7-04

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“Could I ask you a few questions, Pro—errr, umm, Nevada?”

It was a couple hours later. After our cross-country field trip (and how amazing would it be if every school could just walk through a door and end up on whole new continent for an hourly field trip like it was nothing?), we’d gone on through Introduction to Heretical Magic and Stranger Truths 101. Now that class was over, but I’d told the others to go on to lunch without me while I talked to the teacher.

Nevada, looking as bubbly as ever, perked up even more. “A question? Oooh, I do love answering questions!” She stood from the desk, looking like she could barely restrain the urge to clap. Instead, the woman (who still looked like she was barely older than me), asked, “What can I do for you, Flick?”

I’d spent most of the class hour rehearsing what I wanted to ask her and in what order. “Professor Ross took us to ‘s-Hertogenbosch.” I was careful to pronounce the name of the city the way the teacher had.

Nevada’s thousand watt smile brightened even further at that. “Oh! I bet that was fun and interesting. I remember my first time there. Did you get a chance to have one of the Bossche bollen?” When I shook my head, she gasped. “No? Aww, you have to go back and get one. They’re these chocolate pastry balls with whipped cream inside. Seriously, Flick, they’re almost as big as a baseball. You’ve gotta try them.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I promised before pressing on. “But why do they leave that rope just sitting there? I mean, why do they leave the hangman demon’s rope hanging from that tree like that? It seems kind of morbid, doesn’t it?” I had other questions, but the feeling that rope had given me made it the first on my mind. And I wanted to work my way up to the others after seeing how she reacted to this.

Nevada paused, a slight flinch marring that perfectly cheerful expression for a split second before she let out a long breath. “You wanna know why that rope is still there, huh? Well, because it’s cursed.”

“Cursed?” I echoed, frowning in spite of myself. “What do you mean, cursed? Like an enchantment?”

She cocked her head to the side a bit, considering. “A little, only this one’s permanent. You see—okay, we don’t have time for a full lesson, so I’ll give you the… what do bystanders call it, Clifford’s Notes?”

“Cliff’s notes,” I replied. “Close enough. Thank you, Pro—Nevada, I just really need to know.”

“Aww, darn.” Nevada shook her head slowly. “I thought it was Clifford’s notes and I liked picturing that big red dog telling short versions of all these books.” She gave a brief wistful sigh before shaking it off as she continued. “Okay, so here’s the short truth. The hangman demon is a sub-group of what we call Reapers. You know, as in the Grim? Reapers are these demons that are attracted to death. Like, super-attracted, they basically feed off of death. Most people think they actually absorb part of the dead person’s… soul or essence or whatever. They take in their memories, their past, their whole lives and add all those thoughts to their own collection. They’re like hoarders who collect people’s memories.”

I couldn’t help the slight shudder that came. “So what’s the difference between them and Hangmen?”

Nevada hesitated, drumming her fingers a little before she finally answered me. “The difference is that Reapers are willing to wait. They go where death happens to be and feeding when opportunity presents itself. Hangmen actually make those opportunities happen. See, the way the story goes, it started in Britain back in the fifth century, when the Germanic tribes introduced hanging to them. There was a public execution, and a man tried to stop it from happening. He was killed on the spot, and his death attracted a Reaper, who was feeding off of his, you know, memories while the actual execution happened. According to the story, the combination of seeing bystanders execute a healthy human being and absorbing the already dead man’s memories of, you know, how unjust and wrong that was actually changed the Reaper. It made him understand that he didn’t have to wait for death to happen.

“So the demon took the rope of the man who had been executed and used it to murder the executioner and three others. For the first time, the reaper made his own food. He became the first Hangman. And from there, he made more of it. He went from place to place recreating what had led to his change. Whether it was a personal choice or one magically enforced because of the exact situation that led to his change from Reaper to Hangman, well, people still debate that. But what we know is that he killed a lot of people, and every time he killed someone, that rope of his took in some of the… energy of their deaths, the same way the Hangman himself did. With every death, the rope grew more powerful. And as the Reaper introduced more of his own to these changes and more became Hangmen, they too took the ropes of the execution that they first witnessed and used them as their preferred tools of death.”

I swallowed hard in spite of myself. “Are other Strangers like that? Do they change because of things that humanity does, or concepts that humans introduce them to? Is that a common thing?”

“More common than you’d think,” Nevada admitted before sighing. “Anyway, to the point of your question, a Hangman’s rope is cursed. Anyone who takes it is infused with a completely irresistible urge to kill, to murder everyone they can in order to give the rope more power. No one can resist it.”

I almost exploded at that, “So why the hell is it just sitting out in the middle of nowhere tied to a tree?!”

Rather than chastise me for the outburst, Nevada replied simply, “Because we can’t move it, Flick. Like I said, anyone who takes it becomes a vicious murderer. That includes any method of transportation. Any attempt to move it makes the rope consider that person its new owner, and the urge to kill overwhelms them. Do you want someone like the Headmistress to risk moving it? As powerful as she is, if she was taken over by the rope’s murderous energy, how many of us would it take to stop her? How many of her own students would she kill to appease its hunger? It’s not worth the risk. So Bosch and the old Heretics did the best they could. They erected a magical barrier around the whole area that keeps Bystanders from noticing the rope, and prevents them from building up the land. You might’ve noticed that that whole area is still undeveloped. That’s because of the magic that makes them ignore it. Beyond that, there are the same enchantments around the rope itself that are around the Pathmaker building. So anyone approaching it anyway, like a student who can see through the first spell, or a Heretic that completely loses their mind, shouldn’t make it more than a few steps toward it. And if they do, there are at least two more lines of magic protecting the rope that I won’t detail to you right now.

“No one can move the rope without being seen as its new master and thus end up a murderous psychopath. So they did the best they could by making sure that no one could get close enough to take it.”

I almost asked her about the feeling I’d had, the sensation that had come over me when I looked at the rope back in that grove. But no one else had said anything about it. Avalon had even said that she hadn’t felt anything when she looked at it. Which meant that whatever the feeling was, it wasn’t normal.

“What about Stranger breeding?” I forced myself to change the subject, even as the very thought of the rope made me want to continue talking about it, almost like a compulsion. It took effort to push on to a different subject. “One time Sands said that one of the reasons people hate Eden’s Garden here is that they supposedly experiment in Stranger-Heretic breeding experiments. Why would you need to experiment? I mean, we’re practically Strangers ourselves, aren’t we? The Edge changes our genetics so that we can see Strangers, so that we can absorb their powers, so we can… do everything we do. Why wouldn’t we be able to procreate with certain Strangers anyway, at that point?”

Nevada winced once more, her bubbly expression dampened a bit. “Careful, Flick. Some people are really sensitive about that line of thought. They say that we use the demon magic, but we’re not overtaken by it. The idea that we’re so far not human that a Stranger could breed with us is a… a very harsh topic. There’s dangerous people on both sides of that debate. But the gist of the argument isn’t that breeding a Stranger and a Heretic is impossible, it’s that the offspring won’t be viable. The problem isn’t making an actual genetic match, it’s that, according to one side, any offspring will die shortly after being born. The experiments that Eden’s Garden gets into are to make those offspring live after birth.”

I thought about Ammon, about how dangerous he was, and couldn’t help the little shiver that came. But before I could say anything else, there was a short knock at the door and Professor Carfried poked his head in. “Hey, I was wondering if you had a chance to—oooh, sorry, am I interrupting something?”

Realizing that any other questions I had would have to wait, I shook my head. “No, sir. I should probably get to lunch anyway.” To Nevada, I managed a weak smile. “Thanks, that’s… helpful.”

“Of course, Flick,” she replied. “Let me know if you have any other questions, okay?”

Nodding slowly, I made my way past Professor Carfried and out the door. I had a couple of answers now, though not nearly enough to really do anything with. And I still had no idea why the rope had given me the feeling it had when nobody else had experienced it. Questions were still piling up.

And if I wanted to start really answering them, I needed to get busy.

******

Later that same night, I was making the first step of that effort by standing outside of the twins’ room about an hour before the three of us were supposed to report to track training (I’d missed the last one for my birthday visit). Forcing my nerves down, I raised a hand to knock on the door.

Scout was the one who opened the door. Her eyes flicked up to me and then the girl hesitated before nodding once. She stepped back out of the way a bit, gesturing for me to come into their room.

“Who is–” Sands started to ask before falling silent as I stepped into the room. She was sitting on her bed, looking at a box that was in her lap. When she saw me, the girl closed the lid of the box, setting it aside on the nearby dresser. “Oh, uhh, hi, Flick.” Her voice betrayed her own confused feelings.

“Hi,” I replied, pausing slightly before looking toward her sister. “Scout, umm, could I have a minute?” From my pocket, I produced my favorite little rock. “Herbie can keep you company.”

The quiet girl nodded quickly and shot her sister a brief glance before taking the little guy out of my hand as she stepped out to the hall. She closed the door after herself, leaving Sands and me alone in the suddenly very quiet room.

In the end, it was Sands who broke the silence. Without looking up, she asked, “Are you mad at me?”

The question made me blink. “Wha—mad? Why would—I was going to ask you the same thing.”

That actually made the girl look toward me. Her face was pensive. “I thought you’d be mad because you thought I didn’t care about saving your mother, that my—that I didn’t want to help.”

I was quiet for a moment, thinking that through before stepping over to sit down on the bed beside her. “I guess part of me did hope that you’d just… get over this reaction. But that’s not very fair, is it?”

Emotion twisted the girl’s face before she turned away again, shoulders hunching up. “They’re supposed to be monsters. Vicious, evil, irredeemable monsters. And we’re supposed to be heroes.”

Before I could say anything, she looked back to me. There were tears in her eyes. “You’re asking me to throw away everything I’ve been taught since I was born. You’re asking me to change… to change everything. I’ve been waiting for this year my whole life, Flick. Do you have any idea how many times I had to sit and watch everybody else get to learn this stuff? I grew up here, on this island, with these people. I watched class after class go through, all of them going on to do… amazing things. They went on quests, they saved people, they protected everyone. I just wanted that. I just wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s what I’m asking you to be, Sands.” My voice was soft as I met the girl’s gaze. “Because, as far as I know, being a hero isn’t about killing something because someone tells you it’s bad. It’s about doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is or how many people tell not to. It’s about saving someone, protecting someone, even if everyone you know says it’s wrong, because you know it’s right.”

Her gaze flickered a little, and I went on. “I’m not trying to tell you that every Stranger is good, or that everything you know is wrong. I’m telling you that the vampire I met was not evil. I’m telling you that if it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead, or worse. Without her, my father would be dead, or in prison. Without her, an awful lot of innocent people would have been killed by the deputies that Ammon took control of. She saved me, she saved my father, she saved Rose, and she saved all those people.

“I’m asking you to believe that evil is something we do, not something we are. If someone is evil just because they exist, then what’s the point? How can you judge someone or something that doesn’t have a choice? That’s not evil. That’s just… programming. Real evil requires having a choice. And even if ninety-five percent of them choose evil, that means there are five percent who don’t. Five percent that might be able to help. Five percent who wouldn’t hurt an innocent, who are innocent. Five percent for whom we are the monsters, Sands. Not heroes, not champions, monsters. We are the creatures under the bed that they scare their children with. Children who grow up hating us, who might not have if we gave them a chance. If we could find those five percent, help them, grow with them… well then it might actually turn into more than five percent.

“But for now, for now we’re killing all of them that we find. We are killing them, Sands. No trial, no jury, no chance to defend themselves. And that’s not heroic. That’s murder. And it’s wrong.”

Reaching out then, I took the girl’s limp hand and squeezed it with both of mine. “Listen. I want you to think about this. A human is altered by a Stranger’s blood and becomes a powerful being who can live for a very long time and gains strength by fighting others. Think about that and then tell me if I’m talking about vampires or heretics, Sands. Because I don’t see that much of a difference.

“What I want… is for you to believe that it’s possible for a Stranger to make a choice. Call it mutation, call it random, call it whatever you want. I just want you to… believe that the girl who saved my life and helped me save my father isn’t evil. Don’t look at what she is, look at what she does, what she did.

“I’m not asking you not to be a hero, Sands. I’m asking you to be a real one. Make the hard choice.”

My hands squeezed both of hers. “I need your help, Sands. I need my team. I refuse to be a victim. I will not just sit around and cry for a year until that son of a bitch comes after me again. I will train. I will work my ass off. I will be ready. Most of all, I will save my mother. But if I don’t have you guys… I… I won’t make it. A year isn’t enough time. I need you. Please. If I’m going to have any chance, I need help. I can’t do it by myself.”

For the first time, Sands actually returned the squeeze against my hands. She took a breath and let it out before looking up. I could still see the doubt in her eyes, but she gave a tiny little nod. “I’ll try. I’ll… think about what you said, I promise. All of it. I still think they’re mostly evil, but maybe there’s…” She trailed off before shrugging. “I dunno. But I’ll help you save your mom. Of course I will. We’re teammates. As long as you want to be, I… I’ll be there. I’ll help.”

Letting out the breath that I hadn’t known I was holding, I managed a weak smile. “Oh, good. Because you’re probably not going to like the first thing we need to do.”

“Less than I like everything else you’ve said?” Sands managed an even weaker smile to meet mine. “I find that pretty hard to believe.”

I gave a weak shrug at that. “Well, that depends on how you feel about sneaking around your own father.

“Because I’m pretty sure he’s the one who took my mother’s weapons.”

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