Month: April 2016

Against The Odds 9-01

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A minute later Gavant led us back through the building—spaceship, I reminded myself. What appeared to be most of the surviving Meregan (and I only saw depressingly few for a group that was supposed to represent their entire living race aside from the children) were cleaning up the bodies, both their own and the others. I gave a weak shudder at the dark and unwanted realization that every Meregan they’d lost in that single battle actually affected the percentage of their surviving race significantly.

As we moved down one of the halls we hadn’t explored, I forced that extremely troublesome thought aside to ask, “What can you tell us about this enemy of yours, the one who stole your children? Do you know where he comes from, what he can do, what he wants, where he set up his base, any of that?”

He gave me a brief glance before returning his attention to the corridor. He sighed. “We are knowing much of this threat, more than we are wishing. He is being one of you, Friends-Flick and Shiori.”

“Wait, what?” Shiori put in, her own eyes widening along with mine. “What do you mean, one of us?”

“I am meaning,” the big man explained, “that he is being one of the People-Heretics. He is being one.”

My mouth worked a couple times and I stopped walking for a second, staring at the man as he turned to look back at us. “This guy that took all your children, you mean he’s a Heretic? Like, one of our Heretics? And he’s got an army of Alters hanging around him, following his orders? Are you serious? ”

“This is not being something we would be making the humor of,” Gavant’s response was solemn.

“Is he part of Eden’s Garden?” I mused with a brief look toward my companion. “I’ve, umm, heard they’re a little more lenient about the whole ‘working with Alters’ thing. Still, an army? And what’s he doing out here all by himself?” I wanted to ask if he was sure, but that felt like a really stupid question.

“I am not understanding ‘Eden’s Garden,’” Gavant answered slowly, a frown creasing his forehead. “We are only knowing that he is being one of the People-Heretics, as Friend-Joselyn Atherby was been.”

“Never mind,” I waved that off with a hand. “We’ll get into that later. Do you know what he wants here, how he made up this army, why they’re listening to him, even what his name is? Anything might help.”

Gavant nodded once, though he didn’t answer right away. It felt like he was gathering himself. “The one who is their master is being called Enemy-Nicholas Petan.” Even saying the name (the first of which which he pronounced Nee-Ko-lah without the S sound) seemed to make the man flinch inwardly.

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” I admitted. When Gavant just looked at me blankly, I amended, “I mean the name isn’t familiar.” Glancing toward the girl beside me, I asked, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?”

Shiori’s head shook. “Um, n-no. But then, I’ve been kind of too… occupied for extra studying. All that broo isn’t going to ding itself. On the plus side,” she added brightly, “Heretic school seems like a place that might actually have a course in that kind of thing. If they do, I am so signing up for the AP class.”

Biting my lip to cover the smile that came then, I looked back to Gavant. “I guess that’s a no from both of us. Sorry, did my mother know about him? Were they, you know, enemies before or something?”

“We are not knowing if Friend-Joselyn Atherby was been knowing Enemy-Nicholas Petan,” Gavant admitted. “She was been the only Friend-Person-Heretic we are knowing who could been help us.”

Before I could say anything else, the big man continued. “We are knowing where Enemy-Nicholas Petan was putting his base before. It maybe been changed since we were starting long-sleep, but we will be go there. If he is being there, we will being fight him to be taking childs back.” His voice was grim, and I had the feeling that he didn’t think they’d actually survive the attempt, let alone succeed.

Swallowing hard, I nudged him with a hand. “Hey, I know it’s not much, but we’re here, all right? We’re gonna help you figure this out. Maybe we can distract this guy long enough for you to take your kids and get out of there. I mean, if he’s a Heretic, maybe he’ll want to talk to us. We could use that.”

“We are not wanting to be putting Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s child and child’s friend in danger,” Gavant protested weakly before shaking his head with another sigh. “But we are being very glad for the help.”

Moving ahead then, the man led us to a large round door that looked bronze. And that meant large for him. For Shiori and me it was positively gigantic. When he pressed his hand against what looked an awful lot like a hieroglyphic beside the enormous circular door, there was a sudden whoosh noise as it separated into sections like a pizza being cut up. The separate wedges all pulled back into the walls, revealing a dark chamber beyond. A second later, some kind of automated lighting system activated.

At a gesture from the man, Shiori and I stepped through the doorway and into what turned out to be a chamber that was even bigger than the one out in front. It stretched out almost twice as long from the look of things, and was probably at least as wide. Throughout the room there were boulders. That was the best way I could describe them. They were these huge, almost perfectly spherical rocks that were about twelve feet in diameter. Dozens of them littered the room, too uniform to be an accident.

As we looked around the boulder-filled room, I tugged Herbie from my pocket once more and held the little guy up. “What do you say, buddy? Recognize any of your big brothers? Maybe an aunt or two?”

Gavant was staring at me, his eyes lit with interest. “I am not recognizing this pet of Friend-Flick.”

“Oh, uhh.” Realizing it was kind of hard to explain, I shrugged. “It’s a long story. But Herbie’s cool.”

“He is pretty quiet though,” Shiori observed before looking back to the man. “What’re we doing here?”

The answer came not from Gavant, but from deeper in the room, behind one of the boulders. “I will being answer that.” The man who emerged with a wave toward us looked vaguely familiar somehow. Unlike Gavant, his hair was cut shorter and was a deep bronze color rather than the other man’s gray. He also seemed younger somehow, despite being bout half a foot taller, and wore a dark green uniform.

And on a sidenote, hanging around these guys too much was going to put a crick in my neck if I had to keep looking up at them like this.

It was Shiori who figured it out first. The other girl’s head tilted sideways before she asked, “Isn’t that the guy you uhh, smacked around?” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, strategically re-positioned?”

“Thanks for that save,” I murmured sidelong at her. She grinned in response, and I shook my head before focusing on the second Meregan. “Uh, yeah, that was my fault. I’m really sorry, I, uhh, I sort of thought you were a real statue, and I was afraid the big door would close and trap us in here, and–”

“It is being well, Friend-Flick,” the new man assured me, a broad smile on his face. “I was been confused to be waking up on the floor. But it is all being good now.” That smile left a moment later and he looked away, his voice softening. “Except being for our new lost.” He lifted his left hand, ring and middle fingers outstretched with the rest tucked into his palm. Pressing his hand sideways against his chest in what looked like a religious motion, the man murmured something in another language quietly.

Then he focused on us once more, blinking his eyes a few times. “I am being Purin, master of explore.”

“Master of explore?” I echoed, squinting slightly before getting it. “Oh, you mean head scout?”

“This is not being right,” the other man replied with a brief frown. “We are not being search for heads.”

Smiling a little, I gestured for him to go on. “Never mind, I get the idea. You explore places. So you’re the one who knows where this asshole’s base is?” When both Purin and Gavant opened their mouths, the confusion written across their faces, I waved them off. “I mean you know where your enemy’s base is.”

“Ah,” Purin’s head bobbed up and down. “Yes, I am knowing this. Lord-March Gavant was being wish that I will being take you to see what the invader was been done while we were been in long-sleep.”

It took me a second to parse all of that, but I got it. “Right, we can scout it out and see what’s changed. For all we know, the big guy himself already left and it’s just some minions left behind to deal with.”

“We will be hope,” Gavant replied with obvious doubt. “But it is not being likely. I will be stay here and gathering resources, preparing our people for our fight. We must being ready to save our childs.”

“All right,” I said quietly, trying to contain my jitters. Okay, it was worse than jitters. I was kind of terrified. But I pushed on anyway, trying to ignore it. “So how are we getting there? Does it have anything to do with these rocks?” I added afterward, looking at the massive boulders curiously.

Purin laid a hand on the nearest one. “This is being Meregan pride of scouting vehicles. They are being called K’lecnahn.” With an innocent smile, he added, “But Friend-Joselyn Atherby called them Elvis.”

“Elvis?” I blinked uncertainly with a glance to the boulder. “Why exactly would she call them Elvis?”

“I am not understanding so much,” Purin replied uncertainly, his hand brushing over the stone with obvious fondness. “But she had been said it is because they are rocks and they are going rolling?”

“Rock and roll,” Shiori announced with a giggle, crossing an arm over her stomach in a failed effort to contain herself. “Your mom named them Elvis because they rock and roll.” She snickered a little more.

“Oh my god.” I couldn’t entirely help the little snicker that came, but I forced it back at the thought of what else we had to do, and the problems that still lay ahead. We still had to rescue those children.

Purin gestured for us to watch, then pushed in on a spot of the boulder that was slightly lighter than the rest of it. The spot, about as big around as his hand, lit up and moved inward. A second later, the whole front half of the boulder split apart, revealing an interior that made me blink in surprise. There was a soft white cushioned spot that looked perfectly formed to let one of the Meregan lean back against it, along with several straps to keep them in place. There were two handles to either side that their hands obviously locked onto, and the front of the boulder, the parts that had opened up, had a pair of large screens on them that were showing the exterior of the boulder. One showed the front, the other the rear.

When I looked closer, I saw that the stand where the Meregan would be positioned was slightly separate from the rock itself. Which meant that as the boulder part turned and rolled, the figure inside along with the screens and the controls he was manipulating would remain upright. The boulder could roll along all it wanted (or all the driver directed it to) without spinning the occupant over and over.

“You are being understanding now?” the younger Meregan asked with a hopeful smile. It was obvious that he loved these things, and was extremely proud of them. I wondered if he’d created them.

“I think so,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not sure either of us will be able to control one of these things, and they don’t really look big enough for passengers. Even,” I added, “if we are a lot smaller than you.”

“That is being all right,” Purin assured us. “That is why we are having Elvis for Meregan cadets. Smaller being than adult Meregan.” Gesturing for us to follow, the bronze-haired man started toward another of the boulders, touching his hand against a spot on it to open the thing up. “This is not being so small for only one you, but two you can make it as Friend-Joselyn Atherby and Partner did.”

“Wait, partner?” I blinked at that, looking up at the Meregan. “What partner are you talking about?”

Gavan was the one who answered. “Friend-Joselyn Atherby had came with other-friend. Good other-friend. But name was been gone. Meregan forget other-friend name, other-friend face, other-friend all except for being. Erased, Meregan all had been forgot. No more memory of other-friend name.”

Now I was even more confused. “So you don’t remember my mom’s partner, but you do remember her? What… does that mean?” Looking helplessly toward Shiori, I shrugged my shoulders. “They erased Mom’s memory… locked specific knowledge about things like her other kids behind more magic, but neither of those things affected people on this world. On the other hand, whatever erased the memory of her partner, did affect them, and still does. Also, if her partner isn’t Deveron I will eat every last ounce of sand in this desert until it’s empty, because that’s just every single level of duh at this point.”

“Deveron,” Gavant frowned. “This name is not being familiar to us. This is more People-Heretic magic?”

I nodded with a sigh. “Definitely more People-Heretic magic. Errr, at least I assume it is.” My frown deepened a little. “Though I definitely don’t understand why it would work so differently than the magic they used on Mom did. Maybe they used a different spell, or gave it different parameters, or something?” Shaking my head, I forcibly shut it out of my mind. It was time to focus on this situation.

“Anyway, let’s go do this scouting thing. How do we drive this big boulder?” To Herbie, I added as an aside, “You hear that, buddy? We’re gonna be riding around inside your big brother.”

Purin looked just as confused about that as Gavant had, but shook it off. He stepped aside then, gesturing at the now-open Elvis. This one was a bit smaller, obviously meant for what were probably teenage Meregan. In other words, people who were closer to seven feet tall instead of nine or ten.

“Friend-Flick, you will be coming in here,” Purin announced while reaching for my hand. When I gave it to him, he hoisted me up and set me down on one side of the spot where the driver was supposed to stand. A moment later, he deposited Shiori beside me. It was kind of a close fit, but even a teenage Meregan was big enough that we mostly fit side by side.

Crouching, Purin showed us where our feet went, into these marks that looked and felt like pedals. “You must be working together,” he informed us. “Push pedal down forward to be going forward, push pedal down backward to be going backward. Friend-Flick be squeezing handle here,” he showed me where my left hand should go. “To be turning left. Friend-Shiori be squeezing handle here,” he moved Shiori’s hand up to the other handle. “To be turning right. Both be squeezing handles and pulling back to be making tunnel underground, then be pushing handles forward to be going back to surface. You are understanding?”

Closing my eyes briefly, I worked it through in my head before nodding while looking toward the other girl. “I think so. We’re gonna have to practice though.”

“That is not being bad idea,” the Meregan replied with a nod. “We are to be taking K’lecnahn to surface and allowing Friends-Flick and Shiori to practice before we are to be going to scout Enemy-Nicholas Petan.”

“All right.” Forcing my nerves to calm, helped by Shiori’s nearness, I nodded. “Let’s do this then.”

Both of the Meregan gave us a brief wave before they started to close front of the boulder again. The screen lit up, showing us the front and back view, and I had to wonder where the cameras were since the surface of the boulder had looked perfectly smooth.

“Oh my god,” Shiori announced before starting to giggle. Honestly giggle. It was kind of adorable. And amazing. “I just thought of something.” She turned her head slightly to look at me, and I found myself lost briefly in her smile.

“Err, sorry,” I managed after a moment. “What? What did you think of?”

With a broad grin, the other girl spoke, her voice full of incorrigible delight. “This thing we’re in right now. It’s a rock that spins around and around to take us places.

“You could say… We’re riding a Ferrous wheel.”

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Interlude 8 -The Girl In The Arcade

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Sunday, May 29th, 1983.

The blonde girl stood in a room full of noise and light. Surrounding her were testaments to mankind’s ingenuity and drive for both innovation and entertainment. These feats of technology, these ‘arcade machines’ with their loud and colorful games had always astounded the girl. For the past five minutes, she had stood staring at one machine in the middle of this busy, crowded room full of similar feats of technology. She wasn’t playing it, she wasn’t even touching it. She was simply watching and admiring.

Unfortunately, not all the arcade’s customers were so enthralled, as a voice from behind the girl heaved a long and clearly annoyed sigh before demanding, “Hey, come on! Are you gonna play it or what?”

The girl turned around, looking toward what turned out to be a collection of half a dozen boys, all them around thirteen or so. Several years below her own apparent age. Most looked doubtful, and the biggest of them, a boy with shockingly red hair, sneered. “She’s a girl, they don’t play video games, stupid.

“We can,” the girl replied quietly, her eyes widening as if in surprise at the sound of her own voice. Speaking up unbidden still felt like a new concept. She wasn’t used to that kind of freedom yet. Openly and audibly disagreeing with someone, that felt even more alien. Not allowed. Harmful. Bad. She had meant to say something else, but instead flinched, expecting a shock of painful punishment that never came. The fact that no chains wrapped around her throat to cut off her oxygen for the transgression was almost almost surprising, and the reflexive urge to discipline herself anyway was hard to resist.

“Hey, are you… okay?” The boys had clearly noticed at least some of her reaction, and one of them spoke up, the concern evident in his young voice. “You don’t like—need help or anything, right?”

“Yeah, are you like, on drugs or something?” Another boy put in. “Is that why you’re dressed funny?”

That boy was immediately elbowed in both sides by two different boys. One of them shook his head. “Idiot, that’s just how high school girls dress.” He looked her up and down with approval. “It’s fresh.”

The girl blinked down at her clothes. She wore white pants that were loose around her legs and a dark blue stomach-baring shirt. The urge to ask if there was something wrong with them was so strong she actually opened her mouth to start talking before catching herself. “I– am quite well. Thank you, sir.”

For some reason, that started a wave of snickers as the boys reacted, slapping and nudging the boy as if it was strange that she would call him sir. They were teasing him more than her, which seemed odd.

The tall, red-haired boy finally rolled his eyes. “Shut up, you dweebs.” To the girl, he demanded, “So are you gonna play, or are you gonna move? Cuz we’ve only got ten minutes til the movie starts.”

“Movie?” The girl’s head tilted, her face blank. “What movie?”

All of the boys stared at her like she’d just come down from Mars. “What movie?” One of them echoed, the shock and disbelief written across his face. “You know, the movie! The only movie that matters!”

Still, the girl just stood there, staring blankly until all of the boys crowed together, “Return of the Jedi!”

She had the feeling that asking what a Jedi was would be met with even more disbelief. Apparently this was something everyone was supposed to know, and not knowing would make her stand out. Which… was a very bad idea, especially at this point. She had to learn to blend in a lot better than she was.

“May I go to this movie with you?” she asked politely. After all, if everyone was supposed to know everything about it, she should probably put in the effort. She needed to learn to be more human.

The boys seemed a little surprised that an older girl wanted to see this important movie with them, but they didn’t object too much. After a brief huddle, they separated and the boy with red hair gave a sharp nod. “Aight, you can go in with us. But you gotta either move or play, cuz we’re running out of time.”

Turning her attention back to the machine, the girl stared at it briefly. Her gaze flicked toward its neighbor, where another boy had a stack of coins sitting on top of the console. As she watched, the boy took one of the coins, shoved it into the slot near the bottom, and then started to play the game.

She duplicated his crouch, leaning down to face the slot. Her empty hand moved toward it, and she stared at her palm. She focused until another coin appeared there, right between her waiting fingers. With a smile, the girl pushed the coin into the slot, then straightened and put her hands on the controls.

The coin wouldn’t last forever. None of the magic that she did for herself ever lasted long. As small and inconsequential as it was, the coin would probably last about an hour, but then it would vanish.

As the game started up, one of the boys sidled in closer. “So what’s your name anyway?”

Name. Her Master had always had many different names for her, none of them all that pleasant. And none suitable for interaction in the real human world. Slowly, the girl looked to the left of the machine, searching for inspiration. Her gaze found a wall full of movie posters. One in particular appeared to star Peter Fonda and Brooke Shields. Peter and Fonda were out. Brooke? That was possible. She looked to the title of the movie. Two words. Wanda? Brooke and Wanda were both possible. But no, not right. Not… her. She wanted something special to be her name, something that really felt like her.

She looked at the second word in the movie’s title, reading it through in her head before nodding. Not Wanda, not the first word of the title. But the second. That one felt right. That one felt like her.

“Nevada,” the girl answered, making one of the first choices of her free life. “My name is Nevada.”

******

Thursday, July 11th, 1984.

A little over a year ago, she had stood blankly in front of this machine. Now, the girl called Nevada confidently worked the controls, guiding the little spaceship back and forth across the screen. More and more alien ships were blasted apart as her score rose even higher. Not that it mattered all that much, considering the high score list was already entirely filled with the letters NEV. She held all the spots.

When her last ship was finally destroyed, she quickly filled in the letters to replace her sixth place score. Not the best she’d ever done, but still in her top ten. Then Nevada turned to the boy who stood open-mouthed next to her. “And that,” she declared with an easy grin, “is how you win twenty bucks.”

The boy sighed, but produced the money, laying it into her expectant hand. “Yeah, yeah, you smoked me. Jeeze, how’d you get so good at this game anyway? Your dad own the arcade or something?”

“Nope,” Nevada replied truthfully before sparing a wink for the boy. “But I have fixed all the machines in here.” She’d spent most of the past year learning exactly how this human technology worked, and how to integrate it with the magic that she already knew. Without a master, her magic was temporary. But it worked enough to get her by until she was able to learn how to work on these machines. After that, she earned money by repairing things. Not just the arcade games here, but cars, televisions, radios, anything that people either brought to her or had her come to them. Over the past year, she had become an expert in that sort of work. Her magic never lasted, but the technology she fixed was permanent.

“I knew it. You hustled me, you fucking hustled me.” In spite of his words, the boy didn’t sound that upset. Instead, he simply shook his head and chuckled. “Well, if you’re gonna hustle me,” he offered with a smile, “could you at least let me buy you lunch too? You didn’t take all my money, after all.”

Her mouth opened to agree. It could be fun, after all. She liked spending time with humans, especially the interesting ones, or the ones that she could learn something from. And this boy seemed interesting.

Unfortunately, just as the agreement started to pass her lips, Nevada’s gaze moved over the boy’s shoulder. They centered on the sight of a tall dark-skinned man standing at the entrance to the arcade, staring directly at her. And even as she met the man’s gaze, the girl felt that cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. The cold feeling that only came for two different reasons. Either she was looking at one of the Reapers of Death, which seemed unlikely since no one here had died. Or she was looking at a Heretic.

Okay, don’t panic, Nevada quickly told herself. If he’s one of the subtle ones, she might still have a chance to slip out before he figured out a way to get across the room to her without attracting attention.

Or not. Instead of waiting, the man simply looked up toward the lights. Almost instantly, they went out, along with all of the machines. The room was plunged into into near-complete darkness, as the familiar and comforting sounds of all the games were replaced with cries of surprise and dismay.

No. He was coming for her. No, no, no, no. Even as the boy in front of her tried to make a joke about the power going out, Nevada was turning away from him. The cold feeling in the pit of her stomach had morphed into terror. She’d been so careful, she’d tried not to stand out, and she hadn’t hurt anyone.

Still, the Heretic was here for her. Whether because he’d been passing by and noticed her or because he’d been openly hunting didn’t matter. He was here now, and he wouldn’t stop until she was dead.

Without hesitation, Nevada immediately called upon her power to teleport, trying to send her body to the parking lot outside of the mall. Unfortunately, she felt the power fail, her fear spiking even more at the realization that whoever this Heretic was, he was capable of blocking teleportation, either through a power of his own or a spell he had activated.

Okay, absent teleportation, she was going to have to escape manually. Spinning, Nevada ran straight through the pitch black room. She still bumped into several people, who shouted their own complaints but were drown out in the sea of similar noise. As quickly as she could, the girl made a beeline for the side door that would lead into the mall’s staff hallway that ran between this arcade hall and the theater next door. With every step she took, Nevada expected to feel the shock of a blade between her ribs or feel the impact of a Heretic gun.

But no. She made it to the door, shoved her way through, and sprinted down the empty hallway, leaving the sound of yelling behind her. Run, Nevada. Just run. Don’t look back, don’t check, don’t check.

She checked. A quick glance backwards as she ran down the hall revealed nothing. The Heretic wasn’t there. With a slight, almost hiccupy breath of relief, she began to plan her escape from the mall itself.

The whistle of a blade caught her attention, and the girl dove for the floor, rolling under the massive sword that the Heretic was swinging. Somehow he’d gotten around in front of her. Teleportation, super-speed, something else? It didn’t matter, and there was no way to tell. Heretics, terrifying as they were, could have any power. With any other creature, you could plan for what you were dealing with. You could prepare. But Heretics? They could have any power at all, and they used both technology and magic on top of that. There was no way to prepare for them, no way to practice, and no way to negotiate. Heretics didn’t even try to negotiate. They didn’t talk. They didn’t listen. They just killed.

Still, she tried. Springing back to her feet as the blade cleaved through the wall beside the spot she’d been running through, Nevada held her hands up. “I didn’t hurt anyone!” she called out, her eyes wide with terror. “Listen to me, listen! I wouldn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t going to. I’m just trying to live!”

“You’re a monster,” the Heretic spat the words as though even saying that much to her made him feel dirty. “You prey on humanity. You really think you can do that forever without paying for it?”

Hands still up defensively, Nevada shook her head. “I’m n-not a monster,” she insisted, her mind already thinking back to everything her former master had called her. Monster had been the least of it. “I’m not hurting anyone. I’ve never hurt anyone. You have to listen to me, I’m not like that. I’m–”

“A vile, disgusting creature,” the Heretic finished, eyes blazing with hate. “And you’ll never hurt anyone again. We aren’t your prey anymore, beast. Now you pay for your crimes against humanity.”

That sword was swinging, and Nevada quickly looked to the wall. At a thought, a small part of it disappeared. She leapt through the opening into what turned out to be the bathroom of the theater. Once there, she didn’t slow down or even hesitate before running for the next wall. Three steps in and the Heretic appeared directly in front of her, that sword of his already swinging. She narrowly avoided having her head taken off, diving sideways through one of the stalls. A quick look at the wall there created an opening, and she dove through it to enter the theater proper. Two teenage boys were standing there, their eyes wide with surprise at the sudden hole in the wall. That lasted a second before the Bystander effect took hold and they forgot that there had been anything strange about her appearance.

She couldn’t fight. Not now, not a Heretic. Where there was one of them, there was usually more. And Nevada didn’t know how to fight. She’d never hurt anyone in her life. She’d obeyed one master after another for many, many years before finally escaping. Then, for the past year she’d simply enjoyed life. She’d spent the time learning, playing, just being free for the first time. And now this Heretic was going to kill her. He would hunt her down remorselessly and inevitably, using his stolen powers to hunt her down for the crime of living, the crime of simply being born something other than human.

So she ran. Putting her feet under herself once more, the girl ran through the crowd, racing to the main hall of the theater. If she could put enough distance between them, if she could just escape for long enough to make the man lose track of her, there was a chance.

The thought occurred to her briefly that hiding in the crowd might work. But no. She had no idea how the Heretic would react to that, or how opposed to friendly fire he was. If she put herself inside a crowd of humans, there was every chance that they might get hurt, and she didn’t want that.

So rather than turning left to join the crowd in front of the snackbar, she turned right, running for the exit. Just a little further, a little bit more and she could be safe, she could stay free.

A hand caught her arm in mid-sprint, flinging her sideways into the wall. She hit hard, rebounding off it before slumping down with a groan.

The Heretic was there. And as he stood in front of her, the man twitched a hand. Fire appeared around them, covering all the walls, as well as the corridor behind and in front of them. She was trapped here, trapped in a small space with nothing between herself and the Heretic’s sword.

She tried one more time. From where she had fallen on the floor, Nevada pleaded. “Please. Please stop. I didn’t hurt anyone, I swear. I’m not like that. I just… I just want to live. Please.”

“Your tricks will not fool me, beast,” the man declared in a hard tone as he stood there imperiously. Flipping that massive sword of his around once, he raised it up high above her head.

Then… he simply stood there, motionless. For a second, the terrified Nevada peeked up at him, heart in her throat as she stared with wide eyes.

“You wanna live, huh?” A voice behind her announced, and she spun her head that way to find herself staring at a handsome man with dark hair, extending a hand toward her. The fire was gone. “Well, then you better come with me.”

Heretic. He was a Heretic. The terror returned, even as Nevada looked back to the first one. Frozen. He was frozen in place.

“Yeah, he’s not gonna move, don’t worry,” the dark-haired young man assured her. “And I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not here to hurt you. I’d explain more, but keeping this guy frozen like this is kind of taking a lot of effort, so if we could just get out of here while we’ve got the chance?”

“Rebellion,” she realized then. “You’re part of the rebellion.”

“Guilty as charged,” the man replied, though his teeth were gritted from apparent strain. “Seriously though, we need to move right now.”

Quickly, Nevada scrambled to her feet. She gave the frozen Heretic one last look before turning to run on down the hall. Her savior joined her a second later, and they ran together to the side exit before pushing their way through and into the lot. Once there, the man led her to a van and hopped behind the wheel before pulling away.

Only then did Nevada let herself breathe. She sat in the passenger seat of the van, exhaling before slowly turning to look at the Heretic who had rescued her. “I thought the rebellion was dead. I thought it died with–”

“Joselyn?” The man shook his head. “She’s not dead, just captured. And it’s not over, just quieter.” His gaze turned toward her. “My name’s Deveron. Pretty sure you call yourself Nevada.”

Suddenly nervous again, Nevada straightened a bit stiffly. “How… how did you know that?”

“Because I’ve been watching you for awhile,” Deveron replied before wincing immediately. “Crap. Sorry, that sounded creepier than I meant it. I don’t mean in a bad way. I mean I’ve been watching you trying to figure out if I should approach you or not. Jackson back there kind of forced my hand.”

“That still sounds kind of creepy,” Nevada informed him carefully.

He nodded acceptingly. “Fair enough. But I really did just want to talk. Well, not just talk. I want to make you an offer. You’re a, uhh, a genie, right?”

“Oh god,” Nevada slumped in her seat once more. “We call ourselves Djinni, not genie. And before you say anything else, our magic is way overblown. Yeah, I can make objects, summon objects, or alter objects. Material possessions. But it’s temporary unless I’m doing it for someone that’s claimed me as a master. And even then, it’s still just material possessions. I can’t change people’s minds, alter ideas, create life, end life, make you an all-powerful god, or anything like that. The only living thing beyond that I can change is myself. Because masters like it when their slaves can change themselves on a whim. Older, younger, look like that movie star, look like that person I saw on the street. Which, I suppose since we’re objects to them anyway, maintains that whole… only affect material possessions rule.”

“I’m sorry, Nevada.” The man’s voice was soft and sincere. “That’s awful. But I promise, that’s not why I need your help.”

Swallowing as she forced back the memories of her long years of servitude, Nevada forced herself to focus. “The point is, I can make you rich, but I can’t make you the Queen of England.”

“That’s a shame,” Deveron deadpanned. “I’d rock those dresses she wears.”

He winked sidelong at her before shaking his head. “That’s still not what I need you for anyway. I just need to make one wish, that’s it. One alteration to an established physical object.” He paused, glancing toward her. “Make that two wishes. But you can refuse the second one if you want to.”

“What are they?” Nevada asked slowly, her curiosity piqued.

Rather than answer right away, Deveron drove on in silence for a few minutes before finally speaking. “First, do you know how the Heretics become… well, Heretics?”

“Some kind of… ummm, light?” Nevada answered a little hesitantly.

The man nodded. “Right, the lighthouse. We call it the Heretical Edge. Well, technically that’s what they call the lighthouse and the ability to absorb Alter powers. They’re both called the Heretical Edge. But the first one is the thing I want you to use your power on. I want you to change the Heretical Edge.”

Nevada promptly choked. “I—wh-what? Okay, first of all, for something that big, I’d have to actually touch it. And… and… second of all, what do you want me to do to it? I couldn’t… destroy it or… or anything like that.”

Deveron smiled. “I can get you inside it, don’t worry. We’ll have to be careful but… we have our ways. And I don’t want you to destroy it. I want you to make one little change to it.”

“What… what little change?” Nevada asked slowly, uncertainly.

The man glanced to her, his arm draped casually over the wheel. “Right now, the Edge only chooses pure humans to work its magic on. Only pure humans get to become Heretics. I want you to change that. I want you to change the Edge so that it chooses human-Alter hybrids too, and makes them Heretics.”

Frowning a little, Nevada shook her head. “But why? Why would you want to do that?”

“Joselyn, she had a plan for if she was ever captured,” Deveron replied. “Call it a long-term vision. This is part of it. If we’re ever gonna change the Heretics, really change them, we need allies. The best way to get allies is to let people with connections to Alters, who could see the good in them, become Heretics too. We need to get those kind of people into positions of power in the Heretic organization.”

“She planned for finding a Djinni?” Nevada asked doubtfully. “I’m pretty sure we don’t grow on trees.”

Deveron chuckled. “It could’ve been anyone with enough magic to change the Edge. But you’re right, I’ve been looking for someone like you for over a decade now. Got close a couple times, but they always fell through. You though, you seem like the real deal.”

“What about the second wish?” Nevada’s voice was careful as she considered what the man was asking.

He met her gaze, stopping the van at a red light. “I want you to change yourself. Wish yourself into not being a Djinni anymore. Make yourself human, so no one can use you for your power again. So no one has any reason to hurt you or chase you. So you can be safe.

“Like I said, you can refuse that wish if you want. Refuse both of them if you want. But we need your help if we’re going to change how the Heretics work. If we’re going to make real, lasting change, we need you.”

Nevada’s hand was covering her mouth. Change herself? She couldn’t use her magic that way of her own volition, but if someone else used it as a wish… “But… if I wasn’t a Djinni, what would I be?”

“Human,” Deveron offered. “You could go and live a normal life, a free life, if you wanted to. Or you could go through the Edge yourself. Become a Heretic and help us change things even more directly.”

She just stared at him. “How would I become a Heretic?”

He shrugged casually. “Let’s just say we have an in with the headmistress. She’ll make it happen. If you want it to.”

“You want me to go from being a Djinni, to being a Heretic? An Alter who hunts other Alters?”

“A Heretic who changes that,” Deveron corrected. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy or anything. But we need help, so I’m asking. Will you please help us?”

She didn’t answer for almost five minutes. They continued driving in silence until Nevada finally exhaled audibly. “I’ll do it. I’ll use my power on the Edge, and… and then turn myself into a human so I can be a Heretic. I’ll help you.. change them.”

Deveron was smiling broadly. “That’s great, Nevada. I can’t promise it’ll be easy, but it will be worth it.

“It’ll just take a lot of hard work.”

******

Present Day

“I can’t remember him,” Nevada spoke slowly while gazing out the window of her office at the rest of the school grounds. In the reflection of the window, she caught sight of her own appearance. Different now, ever since she had turned herself human. Not dramatically so, she still had blonde hair and the same general build, but her face was just altered enough so that no one would recognize her as the Djinni who had hung around that mall thirty years earlier. Particularly a certain Heretic that had tried to kill her.

Behind her, Gaia Sinclaire replied, “The man who brought you into this?”

Nevada nodded at that. “I remember that he existed. I remember what he said to me. But I don’t remember his name, and I can’t remember his face.” Turning, she squinted at the headmistress. “Do you?”

To her dismay, the woman shook her head. “I’m afraid not. Something erased that memory, but clearly did not do as thorough of a job as they did with Joselyn.”

In spite of herself, and the situation, Nevada smiled. It always felt better to smile than to frown. She’d always felt that, even when she was one of the Djinn. Ever since she’d become human, though, her urge to smile had felt almost overwhelming. Maybe it was just the feeling that she would never be someone’s slave again, never be magically bound into being nothing more than a tool. Whatever it was, she always felt like laughing and enjoying life. Even in bad situations, she still tried to find a way to be happy.

“You asked me to come here, to take over for Zedekiah after he was murdered, because you thought I could help you find out who killed him. But you haven’t said much about it since then.”

Gaia nodded faintly. “I asked you here for that, and because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I can trust you, Nevada. That’s… something rather rare right now. I can trust you, Risa, Virginia, and Ulysses. The rest I’m… not entirely positive about. But you are one of the very few that I trust implicitly.”

“And yet,” Nevada pointed out, “still with the not talking about it since you brought me in.”

The headmistress chuckled softly. “I’m sorry. I suppose you just grow accustomed to keeping things to yourself when you do it for long enough.”

Taking in a breath then, she let it out again before continuing. “I also wanted you here because I know that you will help protect the mixed-race students we have in case anything goes wrong. You can help guide them.

“As for Zedekiah’s murderer… I had hoped to have that handled by now. Unfortunately, whoever they are, they’ve hidden their tracks well.”

It was harder to smile. “So we have no idea who killed him… and we still don’t know who the man was that was working with you and Joselyn, the one who brought me here in the first place. There’s no record of him and no one remembers his name.”

Gaia’s voice was quiet. “That does appear to adequately summarize the situation.”

Before Nevada could say anything else, there was a knock at the door. Then Risa Kohaku poked her head in. Her voice was grim. “We have another situation. Shiori and Flick have disappeared from the island.”

“What?!” Nevada yelped. “What—how!?”

“It’s all right,” Gaia raised a hand to calm them both. “I was aware of their disappearance in this particular instance. I allowed it to happen.”

Now Nevada was staring at the woman, her mouth open with shock. By the door, Risa was doing pretty much the same thing. “Wh-what do you mean, you allowed it to happen? Why? What if something happens to them? What if–”

Gaia was smiling a little bit. “Calm yourselves. I am keeping an eye on the situation, but thus far it does not require our interference. As for why I allowed it to happen, let’s just say I believe that this trip will be good for both of them. After all, if the birds are going to fly, you have to let them out of the nest.

“And I’m fairly certain that these particular birds are going to need all opportunities to fly that they can get.”

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The Next Step 8-08

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Gavant ordered Tristan to stay where he was. Then he, Shiori and I raced back through the narrow passage toward the central room. The sounds of fighting were getting louder with each passing second, and by the time we made it (Gavant having a pretty substantial lead due to his size), the battle was well under way.

I had a quick second to take in the scene. On the plus side, the lights had been restored to the room. Unfortunately, that also meant that I could see just how badly things looked. The Meregan were scattered around the room, being attacked by what looked like an entire contingent of various creatures. I saw more of those little sand goblins, along with several of what looked like the same kind of Orc creatures I’d seen during the vision of Gaia and Seller that the Edge had given me. There were also a few humanoid goat figures, a couple large pale men who would have looked gigantic if it wasn’t for the Meregan’s own size, and an obscenely fat man that was as tall as the Meregan themselves and much wider around, with long thick dreadlocks for hair that reached the floor. There were even more than that, but I couldn’t process them all at once.

Oh yeah, and my Heretic sense was helpfully informing me that all of these figures were Alters.

Thanks for that, Heretic sense. Super useful.

Gavant’s rifle was in his hands and up as we came out into the large chamber. He fired twice in quick succession toward one of the goat figures who was holding a makeshift spear high above one of the fallen Meregan. Rather than bullets, a couple short dark blue lasers leapt from the barrel of the rifle. The first missed, but the second hit the goat-man directly, leaving a hole in the middle of his chest that he blinked down at before collapsing. His spear clanged off the floor next to him before rolling away.

Beyond that, it was chaos. Total and complete chaos. Screams, lasers, blood, and more filled the room around us. Pandemonium ruled, and it was obvious that in spite of their size and technology, the Meregan really weren’t warriors. Most of them didn’t look like they knew what they were doing while trying to defend themselves from the smaller, less technologically equipped barbarian-like creatures.

A hand caught mine, fingers interlacing to squeeze briefly, and I looked that way to find Shiori gazing at me silently. No words were exchanged between us. None needed to be. She just squeezed my hand, the promise fully evident in her gaze. She had my back. She was with me, and she wouldn’t let anyone take me by surprise. Whatever came next, however this fight went, we were in it together.

Then the moment was gone and the two of us were running together. I wasn’t even completely sure which of us had moved first. Was one of us leading, or had we both leapt into motion at the same time? We were running across the open chamber, and my staff was in my hand, already charging up.

One of the big Orc figures, a massive double-sided axe in his meaty hands, turned toward us. Just as he bellowed in warning, Shiori threw both of her discs past the figure on either side of his head. As they went by, a chain of electricity formed between the discs to briefly electrocute him. The eight-foot tall figure recoiled back a step, giving an angry, pained howl that sounded like the squeal of a large pig.

The electric chains wrapped around the Orc’s neck just long enough to change the discs’ directions. They came snapping around before the chain disappeared, flying off perpendicular to their original course. One smacked off the face of one of those sand goblins, briefly shocking it, while the other rebounded off a wall. Both returned to Shiori’s outstretched hands as her gloves summoned them.

Two more steps of my own, and I pointed the staff behind me at the ground before triggering just enough of the charge to send myself flying up into the air and forward. The Orc had just started to recover, shaking off the electric shock and turning back to us as both of my feet took him in the face.

The force of the blow knocked the big creature over onto his back with a bellow of both anger and pain. I saw several of his teeth go flying, even as I rolled forward off his face before he could grab me.

Normally, getting up would’ve taken a second. But I still had enough charge built up in my staff to point it at the floor as I rolled, triggering it to shoot myself into the air, twisting to land on my feet.

The Orc was (rather impressively given his size) up as well, his face bleeding and bruised from my (essentially) jet-propelled kick. He was screaming something I couldn’t understand while clutching that double-sided axe. Before I could move, he lashed out, swinging one of those blades for my head.

Except I wasn’t alone. Even as the axe came swinging down, Shiori’s discs flew past the weapon. Again, she triggered the electrical chain between them. It caught the handle of the axe, yanking it off course to hit the floor a bit to the left of me while simultaneously shocking the big, ugly figure.

I didn’t give him a chance to recover. Stepping in, I kept my staff charging while spinning around to build up momentum. Then my weapon lashed out in a two-handed swing that took the Orc in the chest.

Normally, a little girl like me wouldn’t be able to hit something as big as this Orc hard enough to actually matter very much, even with a big stick like mine. But with the kinetic-charge, the blow hit the big guy so hard I actually heard the air rush out of his lungs in a long, sustained squeal. He was lifted off his feet and thrown backwards, much like the Meregan that I had thought was a statue had been.

As the Orc landed hard on his back once more, Shiori was there, standing behind his head. She had her discs back, the chain of electricity sharp between them as she charged it up. The Orc had time to let out a weak, strangled bellow before the other girl dropped to her knees while bringing the discs down with her, straight to the floor on either side of the creature’s head. With a sickening sound, the electricity chain cut right through his exposed throat, thoroughly severing the Orc’s head from his body.

A second later, Shiori’s back arched as a bright red aura appeared around her. She gave a thoroughly distracting moan that almost made me drop my staff before remembering where we were. Bad idea.

It also served to attract more attention, and I threw myself that way in time to bring my staff up, intercepting the spear from one of the goat-men as he stabbed it toward Shiori’s back.

No wonder Heretics were taught to fight in teams. Every time we killed something, we were distracted for a few seconds by a rush of pleasure that was almost orgasmic. Sure, the older Heretics got used to it, but without partners and teamwork, I doubted most of us would survive many long, involved fights.

Still, I managed to block the goat-man’s spear, knocking it out of the way before placing myself between Shiori and her attacker. He bleated angrily at me once before coming in for another stab.

Again, I blocked with my staff, knocking the blade of the spear aside with one end before smacking the goat-man in the face with the other. Then I snapped the staff up and around to hit him even harder with the opposite end that had deflected his weapon. As it was knocked aside, I shoved the staff up to his neck to get his attention. “I don’t want to kill you!” I shouted over the din of battle. “Just surrender!”

I didn’t know if it would work. I didn’t even know if the creatures could understand me. But I had to try.

For his part, the goat-man just stared at me with his beady little black eyes for a second. In the end, it wasn’t he that spoke, but Shiori. The other girl shouted a warning, and I caught a glimpse of one of the sand-goblins leaping up toward me out of the corner of my eye. I snapped my head backwards, but my classmate was already there. Her hands caught hold of the goblin in mid-leap before she threw it away.

The goat-man had recovered by that point. He lashed out quickly and repeatedly with his spear, but I was ready, deflecting each blow one after the other while inwardly thanking Avalon for the intensive training she had put me through. Every swing and thrust from his weapon was met with one from mine. One blow after another, I blocked before catching my breath long enough to make a sharp gesture with a hand that sent a pile of sand up off the floor and straight into his eyes. While he was recoiling, I spun myself into a kick that took him hard in the stomach, doubling him over. Left open like that, I came back around with my thoroughly charged staff, triggering it just as the weapon connected with his head.

The goat-man’s head basically exploded, sending goo and bits of skull in every direction while I jerked backwards with a yelp that morphed quickly into a gasp as my own golden aura rose up. The pleasure from my own kill overwhelmed me for a second in spite of my best efforts to the contrary.

Thankfully, Shiori was there to cover me. She sent one of her discs to crash into not just one, but two of the sand-goblins, bouncing it between them and electrifying both before it returned to her waiting hand.

“I don’t think they’re in the mood to surrender,” the other girl informed me with a quick glance my way.

“I had to try,” I replied quietly, watching the rest of the battle going on. She was right. They weren’t here to play nice. They weren’t playing at all. I saw one of the big Meregans on the ground, crying out for mercy as one of the Orcs stood over him with a massive, jagged sword raised. At the last second, a trio of shots from Gavant’s rifle took him in the chest, knocking the Orc backwards with a cry.

That one was saved, but others hadn’t been so lucky. Several of the Meregan lay dead on the floor, and the sight sobered me considerably. Tightening my grip on the staff, I nodded to Shiori. “You good?”

She returned the nod, placing her back close to mine while confirming, “I’m good.”

“Great,” I put my back against hers and faced the rest of the room. “Because here they come.”

Two of the goblins came for me, flying in on a whirlwind of sand. A flick of my hand sent both flying sideways out of control. As it turned out, I could control their bodies when they were turned to sand. I took advantage of that by yanking them toward me. They got the idea and switched back to their flesh and blood forms, but it was too late, as my own charged up staff slammed into them with enough force that both goblins were taken to the floor, their bodies broken. The brief, resulting wave of pleasure almost made me drop the staff, but I tightened my grip on it and rode the wave with gritted teeth.

That was followed up by what looked like an ugly, five foot tall figure whose skin was covered in rough bark. He had a sword in one hand and some kind of thin dagger in the other, and he was screaming a terrifying war cry while rushing forward. I met the stab of his sword with my staff, side-stepped the blow from the knife, and smacked the staff across his wooden face to very little effect.

In response, the wood-man made another quick slashing motion with his knife, catching the edge of my arm enough to draw a thin line of blood. Thankfully, the Peridle’s regeneration not only would take care of it, but also dulled the actual pain itself enough that I barely noticed, already bringing my staff up and around in a second blow. This one was aided by a burst of kinetic energy, enough to knock the wood man sideways, and I used the opening to kick the knife from his hand before spinning the staff up over my head and back around again. The brief helicopter spin made it quickly charge up enough of energy that the next blow tore the sword out of his hand. Without wasting any time, I put the point of the staff right into his eye while triggering the last of the built up charge. He didn’t survive the impact.

Once again, I spent a few seconds struggling not to bask in the pleasure that killing the wooden-man had provided. The glow of my aura was bright in the dark room, alerting Shiori to my distraction almost as well as my gasp probably did, and I wondered if that was part of an intentional design. The aura could apparently only be seen by other Heretics. Was it meant as a warning that the Heretic experiencing it would be distracted for a couple seconds, so that others would watch their back?

By the time I recovered, Shiori had already dealt with another of the goat-men. Her red aura flared up, reminding me to watch her back, and I turned in time to see two cloaked figures on the other end of the room with bows drawn and arrows nocked. Just before they let loose, I summoned the sand that was around me, gathering it with a quick gesture while praying I was fast enough. Then the arrows were flying. They came entirely too close before my frantically summoned sand knock them out of the air.

I didn’t stop there though. Shoving my hand forward, I sent the sand that I had gathered straight under their hoods, aiming for where their eyes should be while calling out for Shiori, “Get the archers!”

The other girl reacted instantly, sending her discs flying at the hooded figures as they reeled.

Unfortunately, another threat decided to take advantage of her temporarily disarmed state. One of those big, pale figures came running our way with a long knife in each of his hands. When he opened his mouth, I saw multiple rows of jagged teeth, like a shark. I immediately thought of the creature that Avalon had described, the one that had attacked her and her father. Fahsteth. Which probably meant this creature’s blades were just as poisoned as his had been, and while I was pretty sure the Peridle healing could handle it, I didn’t want to take the chance. Besides, even just being poisoned for a few seconds would probably put us down long enough for the rest of the invading Alters to finish the job.

Turning on my heel, I called, “Shiori, sand!” Then I swung the staff, praying that she’d understood, because the big guy was almost right on top of us.

She had. Her body turned to sand just before my staff would have crashed into the back of her head. Instead, the weapon went right through her, scattering some of her sand in the process before it slammed into the big shark-toothed man’s stomach just as I triggered the charge. The blow doubled the man over, and Shiori did this quick backward flip thing, turning solid long enough to kick him in the face in mid-flip before she landed beside me.

“Sand,” I repeated simply. I’d felt the connection to her shifted state, and after killing the two additional goblins, I wanted to try something.

Shiori promptly turned to sand once more, and I made a thrusting gesture with one hand while focusing my effort into her. Sure enough, the other girl was sent flying up into the air, high over the shark-man’s head just as he began to recover from the blow to the stomach and kick to the face. She flipped over in the air, then turned solid before actually sticking to the ceiling. Huh. I didn’t know she’d gained that power.

The shark-man’s focus was on me, as he sniffed. “Oh, I’m gonna have fun eating you, Blondie.”

“Eh,” I replied casually. “I may be Blondie, but you look like a Dagwood to me. I’m pretty sure you’ve got the same taste in sandwiches.”

With a roar, the man leapt at me then. Before he could take more than a step, however, Shiori sent her recovered discs flying. They shot down toward us, rebounding off the man long enough to send a jolt of electricity that stopped him in mid-charge, making his mouth open in a bellow of surprised pain.

I met his bellow by… sending as much sand as I could into his open mouth. He choked, reeling backwards while I kept shoving more and more of it into him.

“Get it?” I asked while the shark-man stumbled and fell, choking as more and more of the stuff filled his mouth and poured down his throat. “Sandwiches?”

Somehow, I didn’t think he appreciated the nuances of my humor.

Shiori dropped beside me, just as the shark-man stopped struggling. I braced myself, but that time the pleasure was so much it actually dropped me to one knee. Dear god, it wasn’t as big as the Amarok had been, but still.

“How… many more…?” I asked after working my way through that.

“None,” Shiori replied, and I looked up to see the rest of the invading army had taken the hint. They were retreating. A few of the Meregan were giving chase, but the battle appeared to be over. Losing several of their big guys like that must have changed their minds. I even saw that massive fat figure squeeze his way through the doorway on his way out.

“I guess they don’t want to play anymore,” I muttered while watching the departing creatures flee from the room.

“They will be returning to the one who is their master.” Gavant appeared beside us while speaking a bit morosely. “He will already be using our childs. We must be saving them. We must be trying. Even without the aid of Friend-Joselyn Atherby.”

His eyes met mine, and he spoke gently. “We would never choose to be endangering one of Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs. She was been done much for the Meregan people. We cannot ask your aid in this. Give us time to be preparing, and we will be sending you back to the home of school to be safe. Then we will be saving our childs.”

Not wanting to speak for both of us, I looked toward Shiori questioningly. She met my gaze for a moment before straightening and turning her attention back to Gavant. “I just spent a long time thinking that I was a monster, sir. With all due respect, I’m not going to let myself turn into one now by leaving when you’ve got children in danger. I’m staying to help.”

Smiling a little bit, I nodded while sliding my staff back into its case. My hand found Shiori’s without really thinking about it. “She’s right,” I said quietly. “We’re not leaving you alone, not with your children in trouble.”

Gavant swallowed noticeably, blinking a few times before he spoke. “Standing with dhampyr, helping the Meregan. Saving our childs. You are… more like Mother-Joselyn Atherby than you were appeared.”

“Gavant, sir,” I replied in a low voice. “I’m just started to learn the truth about my mom, about who she was and what she meant to people.

“But I’m pretty sure that’s the best thing you could ever say to me.”

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The Next Step 8-07

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I was so taken aback in that moment that I completely lost track of the floating throne that was carrying poor Herbie. The sand fell apart, and my little buddy started to drop toward the floor. He would’ve fallen all the way without the help of Shiori and her reflexes as she snapped her hand out to catch him in mid-drop. It seriously almost looked like a cobra lashing out at some unsuspecting prey.

“Okay, one, thanks.” I took Herbie back from her offering hand. “Two, you are like some kind of mutant ninja cat or something. I mean, damn. Good catch.”

The other girl shrugged, not taking her eyes off the big man. “Wh-what can I say? I like having the little guy around. I guess holding onto him makes me feel a little boulder.”

“Holding onto him makes you feel a little boul-” In spite of everything, I laughed abruptly. “Okay, mopey Shiori can stay locked in her room for awhile. You, I really wanna keep.”

Shiori blushed while I looked back to the tall man (while questioning my priorities), and finished with, “Anyway, glorious puns aside… three, you know Joselyn Atherby? I—she’s my mom, my mother.”

Well that certainly got the people behind the gray-haired man whispering among themselves. The man let it go on for a second, his own eyes showing surprise before he raised a hand to stop them. The group immediately fell silent, and he focused on me again. “You are one of Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs?”

It hadn’t escaped me that these people hadn’t set off my Stranger sense either, just like Twister. And a quick, questioning glance toward Shiori confirmed the same thing for her. Just how common was that?

Biting my lip while rubbing a thumb over Herbie reflexively, I slowly nodded. “Yeah, that’s right.”

The man regarded me for a few seconds in silence, clearly trying to decide if he believed me. The rifle didn’t waver. Clearly these people weren’t real big on immediate trust. “You are not both Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s childs. They were one boy, one girl. This we know truth from lie. Where is the boy-child?”

Realizing what he was talking about, I shook my head quickly. “No, not the twins. I’m her younger daughter, the one she had after she… I mean…” Hesitating as I tried to work out how to explain all of this quickly, I sighed. “It’s a long story. You know what she was? You know she was a Heretic.”

“Was?” The man’s head tilted, a frown creasing his face. “Past tense. Previous. Why do you not say is? Present tense. Alive. Safe. Friend-Joselyn Atherby must be is, not was. You are misspeaking.”

“No, no, she’s alive,” I said quickly, praying that I was right. “She’s alive, she’s just… the Heretics took her power away. They used a spell to make her a normal human again, you know, a um, a Bystander?”

The man turned his head and spat. “Friend-Joselyn Atherby was taken? It is answered why our distress beacon did not locate her for so long. It would fail to see one changed so much from our memory.”

“Why did it pick up us though?” I asked carefully. “We were just sitting on the beach by Crossroads-”

The name of the school made several of the tall figures make angry muttering noises, and I could see the way they held their weapons more prominently. Apparently they knew the place after all.

The gray-haired man stopped them with a hand, his eyes still on me for a few seconds before slowly looking toward Shiori. Scanning the other girl up and down in a blatantly appraising fashion that made me want to step in front of her protectively, he finally nodded. “You are not just Heretic or Bystander.”

Flinching, Shiori nonetheless gave a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. “No, sir. My umm…” She trailed off, obviously having a hard time getting the words out before managing, “My mother is a vampire.”

“Dhampyr,” he replied. “One parent vampire one parent not. Vampeel two parents vampires.”

“So a dhampyr is a half-vampire who has one human parent, and a vampeel is a half-vampire whose parents are both vampires?” I wondered just how common that was. Maybe Asenath would know.

“Not only human parent,” the man corrected. By that time, he had finally lowered his rifle. I had the feeling he was more comfortable explaining things, teaching things than he was as a soldier. He seemed to fall into it naturally. “Dhampyr half-vampire, half-anything. Vampeel only both vampire parents.”

“So if my mother’s a vampire, my father could be a human, or… anything else?” Shiori put in hesitantly.

The man nodded once more. “You were knowing this,” he guessed, turning his attention to me. “You were knowing this dhampyr and you were not killing her, were not threatening her, were helping.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered promptly after glancing toward Shiori once more. “I—she was having some problems. I was trying to help, trying to help her see that she’s not evil just because she’s part-vampire.”

Turning his head a little, the man spoke a few words in another language to the people behind him. They quickly dispersed, starting to head back through the narrow corridor. Then he looked back to us, once it was just him and the little boy, who had been silent up through all this. “That is why,” the man announced with a nod of understanding. “That is why the emergency beacon has brought you here.”

“Uhh, if you know why, could you fill us in?” I asked with a confused shrug. “Because I’m still lost.”

“I have not been polite,” the tall man announced then. “Please be accepting of apologies. Our signal was meant to alert our ally of our plight. We did not expect one of her childs to be brought to us. But I am not understanding. How is Friend-Joselyn Atherby’s child at the Crossroads if she is not Heretic?”

Oh boy. “This is a pretty long story, uhhh, Mister…” I trailed off, squinting a little before extending a hand to him. “Why don’t we start with actual introductions? My name is Flick. This is Shiori. Hey wait, new question. How are you speaking English right now? I mean, mostly English.”

The man looked at my hand like he was confused for a moment before realization dawned. Slowly, he put out his own massive hand, engulfing my own before shaking with obvious special care not to crush it in his powerful grip. “Friend-Flick, Friend-Shiori. I am called Gavant, of the Meregan people. And we have been knowing the language of your people from Friend-Joselyn Atherby and Friend-Tristan.”

“Gavant,” I tried out the name. “Nice to meet you, Gavant. I mean, really confusing to be here, but nice. You were, uhh, saying something about why the beacon brought us?”

Gavant slung his rifle over his shoulder while explaining, “The beacon is working by connecting our thoughts of Friend-Joselyn Atherby with other tests. Blood tests. Being tests. Thought tests. Action tests. It is working by sending test until it has found match. Blood match. Action match. Person match. You helping dhampyr triggered match when beacon scanned. Not Joselyn-Friend, but close. Daughter, helps Dhampyr, compassion for not-humans. Beacon thinks you are correct and brings you here.”

“What about me though?” Shiori put in quickly. “Why would it bring me with her, just because I was there?”

He shook his head then. “You are being very similar to another who was with Friend-Joselyn. One of her allies.”

“Asenath,” I realized belatedly, eyes widening. “Asenath’s her half-sister. She must’ve… I dunno, she must’ve been one of my mother’s friends? And then the spell made her forget.”

Shaking off that little revelation and setting it aside for later, I focused on the current situation. “But your place was buried,” I pointed out. “Buried under sand. And my mother’s been… not a Heretic for a long time, and she was imprisoned before that. So how long have you guys been waiting?”

“Our records are saying we have slept five revolutions,” the man answered after a moment of silence.

The boy, Tristan apparently, spoke up then. “That’s five years! I was a rock-guy for five years? Man, I wish I could’ve moved, I would’ve been like the Thing. Raaaaaar, it’s clobberin’ time, screw you Reed!”

“Wait, Thing?” Shiori did a quick double take from her place beside me. “You know—you’re human.”

“Friend-Tristan is part-human,” Gavant corrected. “Part-other. We are not knowing which other.”

“But how did you get here?” I asked in confusion, looking at the little boy. If they’d been frozen for five years, that would mean that he should be about my age, shouldn’t it? Would he have been a classmate? Also, for something that was supposed to be impossible, I was sure running into a lot of half-Alters.

The boy shrugged, and I could see the frustration on his face. “I dunno. I remember being in a house, with my mom, my dad, and my sister. Then it kinda goes blank, and I was just here, on this world. Oh, if you didn’t know, this is a new world.” Leaning closer to me, he stage-whispered, “It’s really cool.”

Then his face fell. “But I’m lost. I can’t get home, and I don’t remember who my parents are. I don’t even remember my sister’s name. It’s always right on the tip of my tongue, but… but I can’t remember.”

Stricken by that, I reached out to grab the boy’s hand, tugging him into a hug that he accepted. “I don’t understand, why don’t they just send you back to Earth? I mean, our Earth. They brought us here.”

“We have attempted such a thing,” Gavant explained, the sadness at their apparent failure easily readable on his face. “We have three times sent Friend-Tristan to his home world. The Banish crystal has cursed him to always return here, no matter other steps we take to send him away. He has been affected by magics to be sent here and to stay here. We are not knowing how to undo what it has done.”

“They tried for a long time.” Tristan confirmed. “I was um, seven when I first came here, I think. They keep trying, but nothing works. They send me home and a few seconds later, I show up here again.”

“Who the hell magically banished a seven-year old?” Shiori demanded, the anger in her voice apparent.

Praying that the answer wasn’t Crossroads for once, I shook my head before looking toward the gray-haired man. “Is that why you sent the beacon to look for my mother, to get her help with Tristan?”

“It is not why,” the man denied. “That is for a much greater threat. But I am still not understanding. Friend-Joselyn Atherby was removed from her power. This is sad for all. But where is she being now?”

Flinching at the question, I let out a long sigh before starting to explain. “The Crossroads Heretics captured her, imprisoned her, and… they made her a Bystander again, like I said. They sent her out into the world without her memory. She met my dad, fell in love, and they had me. Then someone found her. One of the really, really bad guys. He gave some of her memories back somehow, I don’t know how, but he gave her enough of her memories to understand who he was. Then he said he was going to take me. I was just a little kid and he was going to take me away. Mom…” Closing my eyes as I felt the tears well up again, I forced myself to finish. “Mom traded herself for me. She went with Fossor.”

“Threat-Fossor?” The anger in Gavant’s voice made me look at him quickly. His eyes were blazing, and I saw the way his fists clenched hard. “He is the one who has taken Friend-Joselyn Atherby?”

“I uhh, I take it you know him,” I managed a bit weakly. “How do you know Fossor?”

Gavant scowled, the anger never leaving his gaze. “Threat-Fossor has being responsible for the deaths of many of our people. What you are seeing of us here, in this place, Friend-Flick, are all that are remaining of the Meregan. We had being many, spread of the world like your humans. Now we are this, because of Threat-Fossor. We are all who survive, and we only because we were not here for fighting.”

“Not here?” I asked, confused as I looked around. “You mean not on this world? Where did you–”

“It’s a spaceship!” Tristan interrupted, his eyes wide with delight. “We’re on a spaceship! They said they could take me up in it if they ever get the supplies they need to fix it, and um, if I get unbanished.”

Gavant nodded. “The Meregan were being explorers. We searched the stars, but returned when our people sent their distress beacon, like the one we sent for Friend-Joselyn Atherby. When we returned, our people, all but those on this ship, were no-more living. Dead. Gone. Taken. Threat-Fossor is using them for his powers, his control over the dead. They are being no more than weapons now. More weapons.” His voice shook with each word, the distress obvious as he failed to contain his emotion.

“Oh god,” Shiori’s hand found her mouth as she gaped in horror. “You mean he killed a-all your people on this world? All of them? Then he—but…” She looked at me. “How do you beat someone like that?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly, forcing the words out through the thick knot in my throat. “But I have to. I have to figure it out, because he has my mom. I have to save her. I… I won’t give up on her.”

Not this time, I reminded myself. This time I couldn’t give up on my mother. Not after everything she did to protect me. Not after everything I’d learned about the kind of person she’d been. Especially now.

“If Threat-Fossor has taken Friend-Joselyn Atherby,” Gavant announced, “then you will be having our aid.” His face fell a bit then, the sorrow even more apparent. “Not that we can be providing much.”

“Trust me, I’ll take all the help I can get,” I assured the tall man. “If there’s a way to beat Fossor, any chance at all, you’re welcome to join in. You deserve that much at least, after what he did to you.”

Shiori spoke up slowly then, a frown creasing her forehead. “But if you didn’t send the beacon thing for Flick’s mom because of Tristan, why did you send it then? And why were you guys all statues?”

“Statues?” Gavant echoed before nodding. “Ah. You are calling our long-sleep as statues. That is how the Meregan do safely travel through space for very long times. It is a technology, a learning that we make and use to seal ourselves so that are not aging through the years that we are going in space.”

That reminded me, and I gave a little yelp. “Oh god! I knocked one of your people over and shoved him under the front entrance.” I stared at the big man. “I’m sorry, I thought it was a real statue and I was afraid the door would slam shut or something like in all those movies, but I really didn’t mean–”

The big man chuckled, a loud rumbling noise of amusement. “That is being why Purin was woken there. It is being well, Friend-Flick. You were not knowing. Purin was being very confused.”

Flushing a little at that, I asked, “What about the statue out front? The one that looks like my mom.”

“A message-stone,” the man replied easily. “It will take the shape of the one it is meant for, and when that person is touching it, the message-stone will collapse, imparting its message and knowledge into the one it is meant for. We had left Friend-Joselyn a message stone to revive us from our long-sleep.”

“Guess it’s a good thing you did it accidentally anyway,” Shiori pointed out quietly.

Nodding, I asked the man, “So you guys froze yourselves as stones and sent out an emergency beacon for my mother, asking for her help. Was it about Fossor? Was that why you sent the beacon?”

“No.” Gavant shook his head, his eyes downcast for a moment. “We had called for the help of Friend-Joselyn Atherby because of another threat. Another has appeared on our world, with an army of his own. He has assaulted our home here, and did steal our childs. He and his forces had taken our childs. We are needing her help in returning them.” Now his distress was even worse. I could see the frustration, fear, and loss in his sad gaze. “They are all of the Meregan future. We are not knowing how to save them. We only protect them while waiting for Friend-Joselyn Atherby by using long-sleep.”

“Wait,” I started. “So that thing you did, it made them all statues too? Are you sure he wouldn’t just… umm, hurt the statues?”

“He cannot be doing this,” Gavant answered solemnly. “The long-sleep is being protecting from all damage. A Meregan in long-sleep would be safe in the heart of the sky-light.”

Sky-ligh—sun, I realized belatedly. “So they’re protected. Or they were protected. But what about now? If you guys all woke up… does that mean–”

“Our childs will be awake,” Gavant confirmed, his eyes widening a bit. “You Friend-Flick did not use the careful instructions of waking only our beings and not our childs beings.”

“If they’re awake,” Shiori started. “And this bad guy kept them around, then he probably…”

“Knows that you guys are awake too,” I finished. “Quick, we need to–”

That was as far as I got before the shouts of warning and fear started. They were accompanied by screams of pain, of challenge, and by the sound of a massive, terror-inducing battle cry.

The bad guys were here.

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The Next Step 8-06

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Before we went anywhere, I stopped. “Wait. We uhh, should probably make sure we’re not about to be trapped in here the second we touch anything. Not that you’re bad company to have, but I’m pretty sure neither of us wants to play a thousand bottles of beer on the wall until we kill each other.”

She reflexively flinched even at that minor of a comment. Then she frowned, lifting her head to squint at me with a curious look. “You’re… really not afraid of me, are you? I’m related to a vampire, I’m part-vampire myself, and you’re still making jokes about us killing each other from boredom. Jokes.”

Obviously, helping Shiori cope with this was going to take more than just a pep talk or two.

I shrugged back at her. “Like I said, Asenath is my friend. She’s a full vampire. Why would I be afraid of you? You’ve never given me any reason to think you want to do anything bad. Now come on.”

“Wait.” Her hand caught my arm and squeezed a little. She gave me a grateful look, opening her mouth to say something before it caught in her throat. It looked like she was lost on finding the actual words.

Rather than make the other girl figure out the right thing to say all by herself, I caught her hand and interlaced our fingers briefly while squeezing. “I know,” I teased with a wink. “I’m pretty damn cool, huh? You’re gonna have to wait for autographs though, I seem to have misplaced my pen.”

Her response was a disbelieving snort that turned into a cute giggle. “Okay, okay, I get it. No more evil vampire dwelling.” She glanced at me mischievously. “Unless this is an evil vampire dwelling.”

“Evil vampire dwe–” I couldn’t help it, the laugh escaped me before I could cover my mouth while staring at her with a bit of disbelief. “Word play, Shiori? If I didn’t like you already, I sure do now.”

The smile she gave me in return was, for once, not hidden or worried, and it wasn’t followed immediately by a look of intense guilt. It was just a smile, the kind she must have had all the time before coming to Crossroads and being told that she was an evil monster that should be killed.

Moving back to the entrance, I gave it a quick look over. Sure enough, there was about an inch wide gap near the top of the doorway. When I moved Herbie closer and squinted, I could just barely make out a the edge of a slab of stone set just a little above the gap. Clearly, the entrance could be blocked by dropping that slab down across the doorway. If that happened, we’d be trapped inside this place.

“How much do you think that statue weighs?” I asked, gesturing toward the nearest figure while walking that way. As I glanced toward Shiori, my hand slipped the staff up and out of its container.

Shiori frowned thoughtfully before shrugging. “Eight hundred pounds, maybe? I’m not a statue-expert.”

Walking around the back of the statue, I pressed my still-charging staff point up against it and considered. “Let’s see. This should do it.” Taking a step back, I swung, smacking the statue with the staff. The resulting blow lifted the statue off the floor and sent it flying a good six or seven feet before it crashed down to the floor on its side with a terrifyingly loud bang that echoed through the chamber.

“Well,” Shiori cracked once the final echo of the crash had finally died away a few seconds later. “At least if there is anyone else still left in this place that could’ve heard that, we’ll know pretty soon.”

Flushing at that, I shrugged. “Sorry. Precautions.” Aiming my staff at the fallen statue, I used another charged burst to knock the heavy thing across the floor and toward the doorway. It was like golfing, if you replaced the ball with, well, a statue that probably weighed pretty close to a thousand pounds.

After a couple more shots like that, I had the statue positioned just under the doorway. It was wide enough that, even if that slab came falling down, there would still be enough of a gap to squeeze out.

“There,” I announced once it was set up. “Now we can check out the rest of this place.”

We investigated the throne first, of course. Up close, I realized that it was larger than I’d thought it was when we were still all the way on the other end of the enormous room. From the looks of it, the elaborate seat had been made with someone almost twice the size of a normal human in mind. Which, come to think of it, kind of matched the general size of the statues we were seeing all over the place. They were all around nine feet tall on average, give or take. I’d thought that was just an impressive statue sort of thing, but maybe that was just the general scale of the people who had built this place?

Crouching down beside the throne, I ran my hand along the bottom of it while moving Herbie closer to get a better look with the light that the helpful little guy was giving off. I was searching for any crack or seam that would indicate that it could be tipped backward, slid away, or otherwise moved. Yeah, maybe I’ve seen too many movies or whatever, but hey, I was practically living one by that point. It wouldn’t be that surprising if there was some kind of secret passage under the throne. Or at least a treasure chest.

But no, at least as far as I could tell, the throne wasn’t hiding any kind of surprise under it. Straightening up, I looked toward Shiori, who was standing on the opposite side of the throne, running her hand along the stupidly large diamond that was embedded in the back. The gem, which was about as big as a softball, was still glowing. From here, it almost looked like a tiny, very faint light bulb that was almost dead, and when I peered closer with the help of Herbie’s own light, I could see what looked like a tiny glowing gem that was right in the middle of the larger diamond. That’s what was glowing.

Shiori opened her mouth to say something, then blanched in the middle of it. “I kinda wish we could–” She stopped talking abruptly and looked away while a shamed expression crossed her face.

“Take it with us?” I finished for her easily, coughing when she looked at me. “Dude, that’s not some evil vampire impulse whispering in the back of your head. It’s a completely understandable impulse. Look at the size of that thing and how pretty it is. If you weren’t tempted to take it, that’d be weird.”

The guilty look turned contemplative for a moment before the girl shrugged. “It still feels wrong.”

“Let’s look around a bit more.” I glanced toward the diamond, starting to turn away from the throne before something on it else caught my eye. “Wait, here, look down at this part.” Moving Herbie lower, toward the nearest armrest, I showed Shiori where there seemed to be five small indentations. A tentative, curious press of my finger against one of them showed that they could be pushed down further, almost like buttons. Five buttons made for whoever was sitting in the throne. Pushing that single button didn’t seem to do anything from what I could tell, but there were five of them…

“They’re a little too big to be for human fingers,” I said slowly. “But they’d fit someone as tall as those statues. Just like the rest of this massive thing. What about over there, are there more on that side?”

Shiori glanced down before nodding. “Uhh, yeah. Why does it matter? It’s probably just decorative.”

“This is why I get to be Indy,” I informed her before pressing my fingers into the provided spaces. Gesturing for Shiori to do the same on her side, I added, “On three, push down. One, two, three.”

We pushed all ten buttons together, and there was an immediate reaction. The diamond in the back of the throne began to glow a bit brighter, and abruptly shot what looked like a laser into the middle of the room. Both of us yelped and fell backwards. Well, I fell. Shiori did this spring backwards motion with her hand on one of her weapons as she landed in a crouch. It looked pretty cool while I was sprawling.

Luckily for my less than graceful reaction, the light from the diamond wasn’t an attack or anything. Instead, as the two of us stared, point where the light had stopped gradually expanded into a large holographic image of Earth that slowly rotated around. Or at least, it was mostly Earth. The landmasses looked a little weird. North America was fatter than it should have been, with room for a couple more states about where Florida should have been that left the former beach state completely landlocked. Australia was also missing entirely, replaced by a collection of islands. Where most of Russia should have been, there was more ocean, like it had completely sunk or something. Finally, Africa was turned almost ninety degrees from the position it should have had, like it had been put on the map wrong.

Below the steadily rotating globe, there were words. At least, I assumed they were words. It was all written in some alien language. From the way they kept changing while the globe rotated, I was betting that they were some kind of information about what we were seeing. Too bad we couldn’t read it.

“Why would aliens have a globe of Earth?” Shiori asked, brow furrowed uncertainly. “And why would it be a wrong globe?” She looked at me. “Maybe they’ve got the faulty information or something?”

Frowning, I shook my head. “I’m not sure. Something seems wrong, like we’re missing something obvious.” Continuing to squint at the hologram for a moment, I coughed. “What if it’s not Earth? I mean, not our Earth. What if it’s this planet? What if, instead of just being an alien world, this is like… Earth in another reality or something? Another dimension. An alternate Earth that happens to have two moons, different land masses, and a race of people that are twice as tall as the humans we know.”

For a moment, the other girl looked a bit stunned by that before slowly nodding. “I guess it’s not any more impossible than anything else. But what does that mean? We still don’t know how we got here.”

Before I could say anything in response to that, some of the words on the hologram began to flash red.

“What—what does that mean?” Shiori stepped closer, pointing to the flashing words a bit worriedly.

“I’m not–” That was all I was able to get out before the hologram abruptly vanished. The laser that had been projected from the diamond disappeared too, and as I looked back, the tiny light that had been in the gem faded entirely, like a dying light-bulb. “I’m guessing those words meant ‘out of batteries.’”

Shiori winced. “Can we, umm, replace it or something?”

Shaking my head while giving the now-dull diamond another quick glance, I admitted, “I’m not sure. Let’s look around and find out.” I turned to look at the three different doorways that were spread around the chamber. There was one toward the back of the left side, one in the center behind the throne, and one around the middle of the right wall. “Which one do you think we should take first?”

“Ummm….” Shiori looked uncertain, glancing from one doorway for a few seconds to the next before pointing to the center door. “Almighty God Moe of the Eenie Meenie pantheon says we go that way.”

“Good enough,” I replied before tugging my phone out. “One sec. Even if we can’t get service,” I spoke while holding the phone up in front of the throne. “That doesn’t mean the camera doesn’t work.”

I took several pictures of the throne from all sides, as well as one of the pillars, the diamond up close, and a few of the statues. I wanted to record as much of this place as possible, just in case we needed it. And because, damn it, I was on an alien world (or an alien dimension), I wanted to take some pictures!

After that, the two of us went to the center doorway. The corridor beyond was, just like the rest of this place, oversized. Even then, it looked like it would still be a bit of a cramped fit for the people the size of those statues. Not impassably so or anything, but still, this corridor was clearly not built for comfort.

It was also dark. I started to hold up Herbie, then paused and took the time to redo the spell. Better to do it now than run out of light down there in the middle of the dark corridor full of who knew what.

After that, I turned toward the far end of the room and pointed at a pile of sand that had collected near the entrance. I could just barely make it out in the moonslight there. A moment after I stretched my hand out, a pile of large sand came floating obediently over to us. I let most of it fall, then shaped the rest into a miniature version of the actual throne, adding a slight hole that Herbie fit into snugly.

“There,” I announced while letting go of it and stepping away. The sand throne floated there with the steadily glowing Herbie surveying his domain. “Now that’s what I call a once and future king.”

Shiori snickered a little bit, reaching a hand up to brush over the throne. “Nice craftsmanship.”

“Whoa.” I blinked, tilting my head. “Do that again. Wait, don’t.” I turned away from the sand throne while focusing on making it continue floating. “Touch it, but don’t tell me when you’re going to.”

After a few seconds, I felt it again. A sort of… minor pressure from that direction. “Whoa,” I repeated. “I felt that. Well, not really felt so much as just knew you were touching it. Try pressing different fingers against it, but don’t tell me how many you’re gonna use.” Waiting another moment, I felt the distant pressure again, and closed my eyes to focus on it. “Two… no wait, three fingers. One near the top and the other two on the bottom.” The pressure changed. “Now just the two on the bottom. Right?”

“Holy crap, Flick,” Shiori was shaking her head at me when I looked back, lowering her hands away from Herbie’s throne. “So you don’t just move sand, you can actually feel stuff through it?”

Shrugging, I nodded. “Guess so. Pretty cool, huh?” Gesturing with one hand, I made more sand rise off the floor and added little wings to Herbie’s throne. “Let’s see if we can find another diamond battery.”

We started down the corridor then, and I brought along the rest of the sand I’d grabbed, just in case. When we got home, I was going to see if I could get another extra-dimensional storage container like the one for my staff, just so I could fill it with as much sand as possible. It never hurt to be prepared.

The corridor went on for about three hundred feet. Every hundred feet or so, there was an open doorway on the left and right sides, and each of the rooms beyond looked identical. There were four statues in each, along with what looked like an array of weaponry set against the walls. Mostly oversized rifles, but there was the occasional gigantic sword or spear as well.

“I’m getting a weird feeling,” Shiori confided after we’d looked at the sixth such room. “Why would they have this place set up like this? So many statues… are you sure it’s not like, a Medusa thing or something?”

I winced at the thought. “Uhh, I hope not, considering how much I smacked that statue by the entrance around.”

That’s why you hope it’s not true?” she asked, disbelieving. “Not the part where there’s a monster running around that’ll turn us to stone if we look at it?”

“Actually, that part pretty much terrifies me,” I admitted before shrugging. “But if there is, we’ll just have to deal with it when the time comes. It’s obviously not anywhere near here, or it would’ve come running by now.”

We moved on to the end of the corridor then. It was a T junction, the way curving left and right. I looked both ways, then held my hand up and sent some of my sand flying down the left corridor, focusing on making it continue to fly even after it left my sight. It took a lot more concentration that way, and I was glad that Shiori was around to watch my back.

“Done,” I announced a few seconds later. “I think that hall’s about half the size of this one.” After quick repeat of the same motion to the right I added, “And that one’s twice as long. Best guess.”

“Short one first?” Shiori suggested.

“Short one first,” I agreed before starting that way. Herbie continued to float alongside us on his new throne, his light casting away the darkness like the proud and powerful champion that he was.

The short corridor was even narrower than the first. Someone the size of those statues would almost have to squeeze to get through it. There were no doorways until the very end, when we finally found one that led into a remarkably modern looking room. Actually, scratch modern, this place looked downright futuristic. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all this pale blue metal, perfectly smooth. There was an odd, ongoing humming throughout the room. There were what looked like computer monitors all along the far wall with more of that alien script running across them.

Plus, the moment we stepped into the room, lights along the edges of the ceiling lit up, illuminating the whole room for us, was another stone figure. This one, however, was much smaller than the others. Smaller than Shiori and I were, actually. It looked like the statue of a young boy, maybe twelve years old.

While Shiori investigated the small statue, I stepped over to the row of computer monitors. There was an icon in the middle of one of the screens. It was a glowing purple symbol that looked a bit like a four-leaf clover with a thick stem in the middle. One at a time, each of the four ‘leafs’ pulsed a little brighter than the others.

“I’m about to do something that might be stupid,” I informed Shiori. “Keep an eye on the doorway, okay?”

With that, I reached up to touch the screen. When I pressed my fingers against one of the leafs in the symbol, the pulsing stopped and the symbol itself seemed to grow a little bit larger, attaching itself to my finger. I pulled it up and away, and that part of the ‘clover’ vanished.

I repeated that three more times, dismissing each of the four leaves. Then the purple stem in the middle turned blue. I touched that and it seemed to be able to slide upward, so I did just that, pushing it up and away.

The monitors went black. A moment later, there was a rumble throughout the entire building.

“Uhhhh,” Shiori looked back at me from the entrance. “What’s going on?”

“I wish I knew,” I admitted, stepping over to join her. “Maybe we should head back to the front and see if–”

“A-are you Joselyn?”

The voice was coming from behind us. Shiori and I spun around, hands going for our weapons.

It was the boy. He was standing there, blinking a bit sleepily. The stone was gone entirely, leaving him looking like… well like an ordinary human kid. He had blonde hair and a sweet, cherubic face that I might have cooed over before my experience with Ammon.

Then I remembered what he’d said. “Joselyn?”

The boy started to nod, before another voice spoke up from the corridor where we had just been. “No, Friend-Tristan,” the voice rumbled loudly. “They are neither Friend-Joselyn Atherby.”

Turning slowly, I stared up at the nine-foot tall gray haired man who held a rifle pointed at us. He was flanked by four more of his friends, and I could see more in the corridor.

“So why has our emergency alert beacon brought you to us instead, Unknown-Humans?”

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The Next Step 8-05

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I was inspecting the statue, impressed by the incredibly detailed likeness (or at least, as much of the detail as I could make out in the light from the stars and the dual moons), while Shiori stared at me for a solid thirty seconds or so. When she spoke, her voice was dull with surprise. “Um, new question. What exactly did your mother do that made someone build a statue of her on another world?”

Shrugging at her while glancing that way, I replied, “Like I said, she was part of some big rebellion. As far as I can tell, she was fighting for the rights of Alters, trying to prove they weren’t all evil monsters.”

Something caught my eye then, and I stooped to find my phone where it had apparently fallen when I went tumbling down in here. Brushing the sand off it, I started to put the phone away before reconsidering. Sure, the SOS signal wasn’t supposed to work across worlds, but there was no harm in at least trying, was there? I took the time to trigger the alert, just in case it might help, before looking back to the other girl. “Are you okay?”

A slight frown had furrowed itself onto Shiori’s brow. “Alters are—oh, right, you said that’s what they call themselves instead of Strangers.” She fell silent, shifting herself from foot to foot with a hesitant look.

“Technically, the term includes Heretics too,” I pointed out while brushing my hand over the statue. It felt like polished metal. “They consider us to be Alters. Just, you know, incredibly violent ones. Not that,” I amended, “there’s a lack of incredibly violent Alters already. They just see us as another set.”

Another thought struck me then, and I flinched, closing my eyes for a moment. “Like those sand-goblins. What if… I don’t know, what if they were just protecting this place? What if we could have talked things out with them somehow, explained things to them? I mean, they saw Heretics and attacked, but we don’t know if that’s because they were evil or because they were scared of us.”

The other girl was silent at first before speaking up. “They attacked us first. We protected ourselves.”

My head nodded quickly. “I know, I get it. We have to protect ourselves. And just because some Alters are good, doesn’t mean they all are. Asenath made that pretty clear. But if there was any way to talk to them, any way to… to actually communicate and tell them that we weren’t here to fight…”

When Shiori spoke, her voice was thoughtful. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you? You really don’t think Strangers—Alters, whatever, you don’t think they’re evil. You’re not just saying that.”

“Of course I mean it,” I replied quickly. “My mother believed it. She thought it was worth going to war over. I… I guess I just wish I knew more. I wish I knew how Mom talked to them, how she pulled them together into some big rebellion. I feel like there’s this whole person I never knew about until now, a person who fought other Heretics to protect the… people that she thought of as innocent.”

Shiori approached then, pressing her hand against the statue of my mother. There was still a hesitant, uncertain look in her eyes while she gazed upward. “But why did your mom do all that? Why did she fight them? They were her… classmates, her teachers, her friends. There’s no way that everyone she cared about actually joined her. Turning against them, fighting a war? That would’ve meant fighting a lot of those people, even killing them. How could she do that without… without going insane?”

I shook my head at that. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know enough about her to say. I wanna say she did it because it was the right thing to do, but I don’t know what led her to it. I wish I did. I wish there was some book I could read that would tell me what made my mom start leading a rebellion.”

She looked away, clearly thinking about something briefly before turning back. “Us showing up here, it has to have something to do with her, right? There… this can’t be a coincidence.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “The odds of us just happening to be teleported to another world right on top of a place that has a statue of my mother in front of it… I don’t think there’s a word for how unlikely of a coincidence that would be. Someone wanted us to show up here. Which, okay, but where are they?”

Shiori shrugged helplessly at that. “Maybe something happened? Or maybe someone wants to show you something here.”

“Well good,” I acknowledged. “Because I really want to know more about my Mom. But you didn’t ask to be dragged along with me. Hell, the last time I went looking for information, my team did ask to go with and I nearly got half of them eaten by zombies just so I could find out Mom’s got a couple other kids running around out there somewhere. Not that you’ll even remember me saying that, because–”

“Your mom’s got other kids? You mean besides that… that Ammon freak that you were talking about?” Shiori interrupted, her eyes snapping from the statue to me. “You didn’t mention that part before.”

Blinking, I opened my mouth and then shut it. “Err… you remember me saying that? Hold on. My mother had two other children, twins, a boy and a girl. They were taken in by the Heretics after she was imprisoned.” Staring at the girl with wide eyes, I pressed, “You actually heard me say all that?”

Shiori was looking at me like I was crazy. Which was probably fair. “Yes? What’s wrong with you?”

I slumped sideways against the statue, thinking about that. “Remember how I said that there’s a spell that erased my mother from people’s memories? It also takes certain details, like what I just said, and makes anyone who doesn’t hear about them inside a protected area like the security room immediately forget as soon as they hear it. Which means either this place is protected, or the spell doesn’t reach across worlds. We couldn’t even tell Avalon or Sean about Mom’s other children, since they weren’t in the security room when we read the files. Every time we tried, the memory was just erased instantly.”

“Does that mean my memory’s going to be era–” Shiori stopped, shaking her head. “I guess not. You remember it. So the spell only works if you learn the information within the area it’s affecting?”

Nodding, I pushed away from the statue. “That’s the way I understand it, anyway.” Turning, I looked at the entrance into the formerly buried building. “There’s gotta be more information about my mom in there.” Part of me wanted to rush inside immediately, but I glanced back to my companion. “I’m going to check it out, see if I can find anything. But if you want to stay out here, just in case, I get it.”

For a few seconds, Shiori didn’t say anything. She just stood there, biting her lip as a plethora of emotions played out across her face. I could see the turbulent thoughts going on behind her eyes as she debated inwardly with herself before finally letting out a long breath. “No.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “I–” She trailed off, searching for the right words before finally managing a weak, “I’m tired of being scared. You… I dunno if you’re right, but…” The other girl trailed off, mouth working a few times as she tried to express what she was trying to say. In the end, she just shrugged. “I’ll stay with you.”

She looked embarrassed about her inability to put her thoughts into words and say what she felt, but I just nodded and gave her the best encouraging smile I could. “Okay, but I get to be Indiana Jones. I called it. You can be–” My head tilted curiously. “Wait, would calling you Short Round be racist?”

Looking down at herself and then back up again, Shiori actually managed a tiny little smile. It really made her face look even prettier when she wasn’t so scared and nervous. “Maybe. Are you sure you don’t want to be called Lara? This place does sort of look like it might be a tomb, after all. Then I could be Samantha.”

“Ain’t neither of us got the boobs for that,” I retorted. “We need the Queen of Cleavage.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed easily, though her voice was still a little shaky. “It’d be nice if Avalon was here too. She’s a badass. Or Aylen and Sovereign. Or Gavin. Even Koren. I–” She looked a little stricken then, for just a second. “They’ve been trying to help me, but I haven’t listened. I think… I’m pretty sure they think I don’t like them. But I do, it’s just that, every time I started to think about being friends–”

“I get it,” I said quietly, fuming inwardly about what this girl had been going through, how much the teachings from Crossroads had messed her up. And the odds of her being the only one like this, the only half-Alter who was turned into a Heretic were pretty low. How many students had gone through the whole four years feeling the same way Shiori had for just a few months? How many had gotten themselves killed, or even done the job themselves, just because Crossroads told them they were evil?

Forcing that anger down so that I could focus on what was important right this moment, I reached out and caught the other girl’s hand. The right words wouldn’t come, so all I could do was squeeze a little.

We stood there like that for a few seconds before Shiori turned to point at the doorway. “If we’re going in there, you should probably move that.” There was still a pile of sand in the way. There were gaps here and there that we could see through into what looked like a wide room, but they were too small to actually fit through. We were going to have to clear the path a little more before we could get inside.

I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you killed some, didn’t you? So you should be able to do it too.”

She blinked at me. “You mean you didn’t—oh, right, you didn’t see.” Stepping back a bit, she explained, “I umm, I got a different upgrade than you.” While I watched, she bit her lip in concentration. After about ten seconds or so, I saw her figure blur a bit, before her skin turned rough. Before long, it looked like a sand-statue of Shiori was standing there. She looked at me, brought her hand up and waved it around, then shifted back into her own self. “See? Not the same thing.”

“Same or not, it’s pretty damn impressive,” I pointed out with a laugh. “God, you turn your body into sand, Shiori. I’m controlling sand. How? Because we both just killed a few sand-goblin creatures after being transported away from our Island School to a new world. How absurd are our lives right now?”

I was rewarded with another tiny smile before Shiori coughed. “You should move the sand now.”

It took me a minute to get all of it out of the way. There was a lot of sand piled up in front of that doorway, and it seemed like I could only lift about fifty pounds at a time. Which was still freaking amazing, and I might have spent some of that time making the sand do loops in the air just to show off. Because seriously, come on, I was making sand move with my mind. It was insane, and awesome.

It was the thought of actually finding out more about my mother inside that building that made me focus in the end. Pushing the last of the sand out of the way, I took a breath, glanced toward Shiori to give the other girl an encouraging thumbs up, and then stepped through the uncovered entrance.

Shiori joined me, and the two of us found ourselves standing in what appeared to be an enormous room. I had to guess a bit at the scale, since the small bit of moonlight (moonslight?) that was coming in through the doorway wasn’t nearly enough to reveal all of it. The cavernous space in front of us was still mostly engulfed in shadows, leaving a single line of light from the entrance that revealed a pristine floor that looked like it was made out of polished crystal or something. Even with the small amount of light hitting it, the floor gleamed. Throughout the parts of the room that the light strove to illuminate, I could see the shapes of what looked like pillars. And far off in the distance, so far the moonslight couldn’t hope to reach it, there was something glittering, another tiny source of light in the pitch darkness. It almost looked like a single star set against an otherwise totally empty night sky.

Beside me, Shiori shivered, her hesitant voice breaking the silence. “This place looks creepy.” Her voice echoed through the room, the effect making it sound like there were whispers all around us.

Glancing toward the other girl, I quickly asked, “How much can you see? I mean, you heard those sand-goblins a long time before I did, so I’m guessing your night vision is better than mine too.”

Even now, I saw the way she flinched. Calling attention to her exceptional senses still made the girl at least somewhat reflexively panic. Her mouth opened with what would obviously be a quick denial before she caught herself. I watched quietly while she fought back the urge, still looking worried.

“Hey,” I put a hand on her arm. “Your senses are amazing. That helps us now, Shiori. Are we alone?”

Biting her lip, the Asian girl steeled herself for a second before looking around once more. I saw her eyes scan over the entire room before she nodded. “As far as I can tell. I mean, it’s not perfectly light for me either. There’s still shadows and stuff, but… I think it’s clear. For now anyway. I’m pretty sure there’s doorways over that way, that way, and that way.” She pointed three different directions.

I nodded. “As long as we’ve got a little time to work with. Because,” Digging into my pocket, I felt around before producing Herbie. “There’s more than one way to see what’s going on in this room.”

I could see Shiori’s eyebrow raise in the dim light that cast shadows over her face. “Your pet rock?”

Smiling, I gave the rock a little pat with a couple fingers. “Remember the light spell we’ve been learning? There’s no reason it shouldn’t work on my little buddy.” Closing my eyes then, I focused.

The words that directed the spell came easily. “Ilecus duven seran.” I had no idea what the words actually meant, since they were apparently from some alien language. But even as I spoke them, I could feel the power tug its way out of me, searching for a target. I directed it into the rock in my palm.

Saying the words, starting the spell, that was only the start of it. Enchanting something meant opening a connection between yourself and an object. In this case, me and Herbie. The spell itself determined the effect that the target was being enchanted with. In this case, I wanted Herbie to glow. From that point, the brightness of the light would depend on how much power I put into it, and the duration would depend on how long I kept charging it. If I only let out a little bit of power, a trickle from the hose, the light would be dim.

On the other hand, if I kept that trickle going for several minutes, that dim light would last for hours. If I invested a lot of power all at once, turning the hose up to full blast, the light would be very bright. But I only had so much energy that I could put into enchanting things, especially as new as I was.

Which meant that it was a balancing act between making the light bright enough to see, and making it last long enough to matter. I settled on making it about as bright as a normal flashlight, and made it last about twenty minutes. If we weren’t done looking around by then, I could redo the spell. This was a good enough for a start.

Eventually, I finished the spell and triggered it with a thought. Herbie immediately began to glow like a lantern, and I smiled while holding him up over my head. “There we go. Now let’s see what we’ve got.”

My impression had been right. The room, itself so enormous it was probably bigger than an actual football field, was lined with floor to ceiling pillars that divided the room into thirds, with the middle part being some kind of walkway that led straight from the doorway to the back of the room, where something that looked an awful lot like a throne sat.

“We’re in some kind of royal court or something,” I announced slowly, listening as my words were bounced around by the room’s acoustics, creating that whispering effect from both sides.

It really was a royal court, or the equivalent. The whole room, dim as it might have been even in the light from Herbie, radiated wealth and power. The pillars looked like they were made out of some kind of highly polished jade, and the ceiling that stretched high above our heads reflected the light from Herbie back down at us. All throughout the room, I saw various statues of people I didn’t recognize, though they looked human.

And in the back of the room, there was that throne. The tiny twinkling light I’d seen earlier was even more apparent now. The throne itself had some kind of diamond embedded in the back of it that seemed to produce a little bit of its own light.

“Well,” I started, looking around the room a bit more to see the various doorways that Shiori had mentioned. “I guess the only way we’re gonna find out what brought us here and how to get home is by exploring this place. Ready, Short Round?”

“Sure thing, Dr. Jones,” Shiori shot back in a decent impersonation of the character.

“But if we run into a guy ripping people’s hearts out of their chests, I am leaving.

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The Next Step 8-04

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“I’d say this is impossible,” I managed after a solid thirty seconds of staring through the darkness at the sand that surrounded us, “but after the past few months, I’m pretty sure that phrase has become utterly meaningless.” Sighing then, I dug my phone out of my pocket. “Hold on, I’ll call… nobody, apparently. I’ve got no bars. You?” She looked, but shook her head. “Right, guess we’re using the SOS then.”

“It’s not going to work,” Shiori’s voice was quiet, but full of dread. “We’re too far away from them.”

I shook my head at that. “What? No, the emergency signal works from everywhere on the planet.”

“Flick,” she replied weakly, “look at the moon.”

Unsure of where she was going with that, I looked up and found it. Wow, it was big. “Whoa. Wow. Okay, yeah, that’s a big moon. I guess we’re far enough away from pollution and stuff that–”

“Not that moon,” she interrupted, moving her hand over to turn my head ninety degrees. “That moon.”

I gaped, and I’m pretty sure a whine that sounded like a terrified puppy escaped me. For a few seconds, I could do nothing but stare open-mouthed at the beautiful, yet terrifying sight. There was a second moon in the sky. This one was more of a blue color, with a silver ring around it. There was no mistaking it. Shiori was right. There were two moons in the sky. Which meant… “We’re not on Earth.”

Not on Earth. Even as the words escaped me, I couldn’t believe that I was serious. Three months ago, I had been working my ordinary job at the theater, getting ready to go back to school while planning out the bust that put my own boss away for dealing drugs. Okay, so not perfectly normal. But my life had at least been rather firmly set in the ordinary world. Now? Now I was standing somewhere that had two moons. Two. Moons. I wasn’t just part of another world metaphorically at this point, I was literally standing on another world. A world different from the one that I’d been born on. Neil Armstrong was a national hero because he’d walked on the moon. We were… a hell of a lot further away than that.

Shiori’s quiet voice spoke up again, the awe in it matching what I felt. “We’re not on Earth any more.”

The two of us continued to stare at that moon for over a minute, neither of us speaking. We just stared, until I slowly lowered my gaze to the sand beneath our feet. Gradually, I sank down to my knees, pushing my hand into that sand. Turning my hand over, I brought it out with some of the sand cupped into my palm before just staring at it. Sand. It was just sand. And yet it was so much more than that. It was sand from another world. Sand from some alien planet God knew how far away from Earth. Part of me was terrified, screaming in the back of my mind about how much danger we were in. But the larger, far louder part of me was utterly fascinated. And the tears that sprang to my eyes as I looked at that sand, that little part of an alien world, weren’t tears of fear or worry. They weren’t tears of terror about what might happen. No. They were tears of joy. The wonder that I felt, the sheer elation that came from the thought that I was kneeling in the sand of an alien world was stronger than any fear.

I should have been afraid. But right then, all I could do was bring the sand to my face. It felt like any other sand, and made me sneeze when I inhaled some. But I didn’t care. The sneeze was followed by a laugh. I actually laughed out loud, even as tears continued to fall. It probably made me look hysterical or something, but I didn’t care. Why should I care how silly I looked? We were on another world!

Shiori had joined me on her knees, her own hands buried in the sand. She pulled them out, gazing at the sand in her palms as well with a look that was probably similar to my own. When she spoke, the awe in her voice was even more apparent. “Flick, is this real? Are we… I mean, are we on another planet?”

Blinking a few times to clear the dampness out of my eyes, I nodded slowly, my voice weak. “Uh huh. W-we have to be. Look at the sky. There’s no other explanation. We… we’re on another world.” Just saying it out loud, no matter how many times it came, made me want to scream. What kind of scream? Joy, terror, elation? All of the above and more. The emotion I felt was as confusing as it was overwhelming. I was happy, but I was also afraid. I was ecstatic, but I was also worried and confused.

Letting the alien sand seep back through my spread open fingers, I watched it drift to the ground like any other sand. Whatever else happened, whoever or whatever had brought us here, they had shown me at least one thing. I needed to join the Explorer track at least for a little while. Yes, I had always wanted to be an investigative reporter, and being in the Investigation track was still the best way to see that through. But this feeling I had right now while I was kneeling in the sand of another planet, that was something I’d never, ever felt before. The pure joy was almost overwhelming. The thrill of discovery, of being somewhere completely new, I’d never really thought that much about how it would feel.

Swallowing, I continued in a quiet voice while continuing to suppress that urge to scream out loud. “I don’t know how we got here, or who brought us, but yeah. We are definitely not on Earth anymore.”

Shiori’s head snapped in my direction then, her awe replaced with panic. “What if they heard us? What if the teachers overheard what we were talking about and now they’re getting rid of us? What if they—”

I put both hands up to stop her. “Shiori, wait. Just stop. I don’t think so. I mean, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want to hold hands and sing Kumbaya if they did hear what we were saying, but think about it. Do you really think their reaction to hearing that would be to send us away? I’m still figuring this stuff out, but I’m fairly confident that ‘teleport the enemy away’ isn’t high up in the Heretic playbook.”

There was, of course, what they’d apparently done to try to keep Fossor off of Earth (not that it had actually worked), but I was under the impression that that had been less Plan A and more Plan Z.

“But if it wasn’t them,” Shiori objected, “then who was it? Where are we? How did we get here?”

“Well,” I pointed at myself, then at her. “I don’t know, and you don’t know. So asking each other is pretty pointless. We need more information, and we can’t call home to get it. And the SOS signal–”

“Doesn’t work on other worlds,” the other girl confirmed quietly. “Aylen’s in the Explorer track. She talked a lot about all the special gear they need to communicate back and forth from other worlds.”

Wincing inwardly, I forced down the urge to panic. Shiori was already close to freaking out. Me losing my cool wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Right. If we can’t depend on anyone finding us, I guess the only way to get out of here is by getting more information. Only way to do that is by looking around.”

Shiori turned in a circle, then took in a long breath before letting it out. I saw her shaking hands gradually settle as she forced herself to calm down. “Okay. I… I wish Aylen was here though.” Glancing toward me, she explained, “Sovereign can let her see what he sees when he’s flying.”

Grimacing, I nodded. “You’re right, that would’ve been pretty useful. As it is…” I turned around, looking one way, then another. “I think we just have to pick a direction and hope it leads somewhere.”

“What if it’s the wrong way?” the other girl pointed out with a doubtful look. “And what happened to whoever… or whatever brought us here in the first place? This didn’t just happen for no reason.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Someone brought us here for a reason. But I don’t see them here, and we don’t know if they’re friendly or not. Our best move is to get more information. To do that, we have to move away from here. Look, it’s dark right now, which means it’s probably going to get really cold, really fast. We need to figure out what’s going on before we sit out here in the desert and freeze to death.”

It was good reasoning, and I tried to convince myself that my choice to start moving was all about that and had nothing to do with how badly I really wanted to explore this place. Frightened as I was, as worried about how we’d gotten here and what was going on as I still felt, this was an alien world. I wanted to look around and find out everything about this place, especially if there was an actual civilization. I wanted to know what had brought us here, but I also wanted to know more about ‘here’ itself. Maybe that was crazy. Maybe I was being really stupid. But I couldn’t help it. I was curious.

“And if we pick the wrong way?” Shiori pressed. “What if we go that way, but it’s three thousand miles to anything that might help us, but if we went that way, it’s only two miles? How do we choose?”

It was a good question. I frowned, looking around for any sign of light in the darkness. The air was already getting chilly, and I knew we needed to pick a direction and get moving. But the other girl was right. How should we choose which way to go when there weren’t any obvious markers or signs? Salvation and rescue could be a twenty minute walk away, or weeks of walking until we died.

“Okay,” I started after thinking about it for a minute. “Those moons are bright enough that we can see pretty well. I think if we set up some kind of beacon or something with the enchantments that we–”

“Shh,” Shiori interrupted, putting a hand up to stop me as her head turned a bit to the side. Her voice dropped to a barely audible whisper as she stared intently off into the shadows. “Don’t you hear that?”

I listened, but shook my head silently after a few more seconds. I couldn’t hear anything out there.

She glanced at me before making a face as she tried to explain in a quiet voice. “It’s like a whirring noise, almost like a fan or something. But it’s moving. It’s coming closer.” She pointed. “Right the–”

That was as far as she got before the girl abruptly caught my arm and yanked me out of the way with a cry of warning. The two of us went tumbling over one another while something shot through the air right where we had been, coming so fast that I never would have been able to dodge it on my own.

Now I could hear what she meant. The ‘fan’ noise was probably the best way to describe the sound. As for what it looked like, the best way I could describe it was a tornado made of sand that was horizontal rather than vertical. It was sand, completely separate from the ground beneath it, whirling in an angry sideways funnel cloud that shot into the area where the two of us had been a second earlier.

Picking myself up from where Shiori had dragged me out of the way, I stared at the thing as my stranger-sense began to scream at me. So this wasn’t just an attack or some kind of weapon, it was a Stranger itself?

The thing, whatever or whoever it was, took a second to orient back on us before shooting forward again. That whirring fan noise was even louder and more violent. I still had no idea what the thing was, but its intentions were clear. As fast as the thing was spinning, the sand would probably rip the flesh off our bones if we gave it a chance to hit either of us. At the very least, it would do a lot of damage.

This time, however, I was ready. My staff came right out of the canister on my belt, and I pointed at the incoming sand cloud while charging it up. An instant before the sand tornado would have struck us, I triggered the kinetic blast. It tore into the tornado, sending pieces of it flying in every direction.

“Okay,” I started. “I think that–” Before I got any more words out, the sand tornado reformed, pulling itself together. I was pretty sure it was spinning even more angrily at that point. But rather than shoot toward us again, the thing spun faster and faster, gathering more sand into itself before a distinct shape began to form. Even as I charged the staff again, the form became less tornado and more… creature.

After another second or two of that, the tornado of sand was gone, and a living, flesh and blood (I was assuming on that part) being was standing there. It was only about four feet tall, and looked sort of like a sickly yellow-red goblin with four arms instead of two. Its face looked like rough leather, with wide, incredibly intense amber and obsidian eyes that looked like they belonged to an owl. A very angry owl.

Before any of us could say anything, the goblin-creature, whatever it was, opened its mouth and howled like a wolf. The almost painfully loud howl echoed out over the desert. And a moment later, there was a return howl. Then another, and another. Six, seven, eight howls replied to the first.

I swear the damn goblin-sand-thing smiled at us then. It had called in reinforcements, and they were on their way. Worse, the howls had been coming from every direction, so there was no best way to run.

“Son of a bitch,” I muttered under my breath before glancing toward Shiori. The other girl already had those discs of hers in both hands, which were also now covered by the gloves that were part of her weapon set. She looked nervous, but still ready as I met her gaze. “We can do this,” I assured her. I hit the button to charge my staff before starting to spin it to build it up faster.

Shiori nodded, flipping the discs in her hands once. “We can do this.” There was obvious nervousness in her voice, a clear sense of fear. But there was also certainty. She was afraid, but she was also ready.

Which was a good thing, since three more of those sand-tornados shot into view, joining the first as they shifted into their goblin-state. Together, the four of them gave a combined, almost deafening howl to the rest of their incoming pack, tribe, or whatever they were. Then they attacked together, springing straight at us. In mid-leap, they shifted back into their tornado-forms, shooting in our direction.

Shiori moved first. Taking a quick step forward, the Asian girl threw both of her discs. They shot out, whistling as they flew through the air. Just as they crossed into the path of the two funnel clouds that were furthest apart, Shiori held her gloved hands out. A line of electricity shot out of the crystals in the palms of both gloves, toward the flying discs. At the same time, more electricity shot from the discs to one another and back to the gloves, forming three separate arc lines that all crackled with power, capturing all four of the sand-tornados in at least one arc. The discs landed somewhere in the sand, but the damage was still being done. The tornados shifted form back into goblins, howling as they twisted and writhed.

Behind us, more of the sand-goblins had arrived. They gave a scream of rage at the sight of what was happening, and began to launch themselves our way.

But I was ready by that point. Pointing my staff at the ground, I expended enough power to shoot myself straight up into the air. Flipping over at the apex of my arc, I looked down at the creatures beneath me, which had stopped their lunges to look up. The poor bastards were all clustered together.

“Hi, boys,” I called before starting to plummet. While falling, I brought the staff straight down in a hard swing. At the last second, I triggered the last of the charge I’d built up.

It was like a bomb going off. The concussive force blew not only through the gathered goblins, but through the sand itself. My vision went wild as sand went everywhere. I was falling, tumbling into a hole beneath blown-apart sand even as a rush of embarrassing euphoria filled me, that familiar gold glow illuminating the darkness. I landed hard on my side and made a noise that was half-pain and half-unbelievable pleasure. Landing hurt, but killing those Strangers still made me feel deliriously good.

I was just starting to recover as Shiori slid down into view. She was still wobbly, her skin just starting to fade from her own crimson glow. I wondered, briefly as I lay there in the hole I’d made, what the different glow colors meant, if anything. Mine was gold, Shiori’s was red, Avalon’s was green…

“Are you okay?” the other girl scrambled over to me, breathing hard.

I nodded faintly, picking myself up with a groan. “Are they dead? I…” I turned my head to look up, eyes widening. “Holy crap, that’s a big hole.” I hadn’t meant to make a crater this deep. The slope went up a good twenty feet to the top. Though it was angled, I’d tumbled all the way down, slipping and sliding end over end. No wonder I felt dizzy. “Whoops.”

“They’re dead,” Shiori informed me, pointing the other way. “But look.”

I turned, blinking at the sight in front of us. There was a building there, clear as day. It was obviously made of some kind of chiseled stone, and had been buried in the sand until my overcharged kinetic blast had blown part of it away, leaving this massive hole and half of the building’s entrance uncovered.

“Look,” the other girl added a bit breathlessly. “Just beside the entrance. It’s a… statue?”

She was right. There was a large statue of some kind just beside the building entrance. Most of it was covered by more sand, but there was enough exposed to tell that it was a deliberate figure of some kind.

I felt something then, a connection to the sand around us. An urge. Slowly lifting my hand, I pointed at the half-buried statue and concentrated on what I wanted. I felt my own will reach out, a foreign sensation that almost made me stop. Yet something kept me focused. I forced my will into that sand… and moved it.

That was all it took. I pointed and thought about it, and the sand tore away from the building, exposing the rest of the entrance, as well as the statue beside it. That all by itself, moving the sand just by willing it to move, should have been my last surprise for the day. It wasn’t.

“That looks like a human,” Shiori breathed, staring as it was revealed.

She was right. A statue of a figure was standing there, weapons raised against an unseen incoming threat. It was a protective statue, I realized a second later. The kind of statue that you give to a hero, a champion.

“That’s not just a human,” I said quietly, staring at the uncovered stone figure that had been buried in the sand on this alien world.

“That’s my mother.”

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The Next Step 8-03

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This was totally unfair. I had just revealed that a vampire was my friend. By all rights, Shiori should be the one staring at me with her mouth open in shock. Instead, I was the one catching flies as I gaped at the other girl. A noise that was mostly incoherent confusion gradually morphed into, “Wh-what?”

Shiori, who had been watching me with a guarded expression, finally lowered her eyes and looked away. Her voice was quiet, and full of so much despair it was almost palpable. “You heard what I said.”

“You–” Still reeling, I sat back, staring at her. My mouth opened and shut, but no sound came out. I couldn’t even think. And with every passing second, I could see the other girl shrink more into herself. There was utter misery on what I could see of her face, an expression of surrender, like she just knew that I was going to turn her in and she would be killed for being a monster. It was seeing that expression, that look on the face of a completely innocent girl who had done absolutely nothing wrong, that made me realize once and for all the kind of damage that the Heretic teachings were doing.

Shiori wasn’t a monster. She wasn’t evil. I knew that there were good Strangers out there. I knew it, but it still hadn’t quite sunk in exactly what the Heretic teachings did, until I saw the look of anguish on this innocent girl’s face. A girl who had done nothing wrong would be murdered by the same people that I was now living with. These people, my classmates, were being taught to go out and kill. Some of the beings they would be sent to kill would, obviously, be evil. But what about the others? What about the innocent beings who were just trying to survive and live in peace? What about the ones like Asenath who actively helped people, but would still be brutally murdered by a Heretic for the crime of existing?

Fuck. Oh god. Heretics… we were the monsters for Alters. We were the things they were afraid of. They probably warned their children about us. Alter parents probably taught their children who had never done anything wrong to watch out for us, to always be careful in case a Heretic spotted them.

Our teachers taught us to kill on first sight because a Stranger would attack us as soon as we were recognized. But how many of them attacked first because they knew we would if they didn’t? How many Alters had leapt to attack a Heretic because they were trying to protect themselves? How many would still be alive today on both sides if anyone, anywhere, just fucking talked to each other?

Through the silence that had stretched on as realization and actual understanding finally dawned on me, Shiori had continually shrunk further and further into herself, clearly trying to disappear as she sat there. Her legs were pulled so tightly to her chest that I was afraid she was going to break something.

Finally, I let out a long breath and reached out. My hand settled on the other girl’s arm. She flinched at the contact, but I kept it there while speaking quietly. “Shiori, look at me, please.” I kept my voice as firm, yet gentle as possible, and waited until she hesitantly raised her gaze, eyes glistening with tears.

Seeing that, I didn’t say another word. Instead, I scooted over beside the other girl. Before she could react, I wrapped both arms around the girl and pulled her against me, embracing her tightly. She struggled reflexively, making a noise that sounded like a choked sob, but I refused to let her go.

“You are not a monster,” I said firmly while holding Shiori’s balled up form against me. “You’re not evil.” Keeping one arm around her back, I raised the other hand to the girl’s hair and gently stroked it.

She remained stiff with resistance at first, her shoulders bunched up. When my hand found her hair, the girl gave another noise that sounded like a limp protest, eventually managing a weak, “I…. I….”

For a few moments as we sat there, I didn’t have the right words. I honestly had no idea what to say just then, if there were even words in existence that could have helped. All I could do, all I managed, was to sit there and stroke the girl’s hair, holding her to me. Eventually, her shoulders relaxed marginally, just enough that she was able to turn slightly in my direction. Her head lowered until her face was against my shoulder, though she kept her arms wrapped around her own legs tightly. A moment later, I felt the dampness from her tears start to soak through the simple red tee-shirt that I’d been wearing since classes had ended and I didn’t have to walk around in full uniform anymore. Her own shoulders shook heavily with each ragged breath she took, and it was obvious that she was crying without restraint.

We sat there in the sand for a couple minutes in relative silence, Shiori continuing to hug her knees to her chest while her quiet tears left my shirt wet. She made no other noise, and a disturbed part of me wondered just how much practice she’d had lately at crying quietly so that no one else would notice.

When the other girl finally spoke, her voice was a wet, miserable sound. “I don’t wanna be a monster.”

I tightened my grip around her, wincing inwardly before repeating my earlier words. “You are not a monster, Shiori. It doesn’t matter how you were born. If you don’t want to be evil, then don’t be.”

Her head shook against my shoulder, tears renewing themselves. “You don’t know,” she protested. “You don’t know what I saw, what—what the Edge showed me.” Her voice was almost a wail.

The Edge? I was confused about what that had to do with Asenath, unless… had the vampire been in her vision? “What about the Edge? Tell me what it showed you, Shiori. It’s okay. You can tell me.”

She resisted at first, and I could tell she was still terrified to say it out loud, even after what we’d both already said. But slowly, over the next few minutes, the other girl gave a quiet, halting explanation.

I felt sick in my stomach. This girl had been tearing herself up inside for months, terrified that her friends, her own brother were being taught to kill her. Worse, she was being taught that she should kill her own mother and sister, her own family. And with each passing day, she’d felt even more alone and more convinced that if anyone found out her secret, she’d be murdered where she stood. And the worst part was, sitting there, I couldn’t even say that she’d be wrong about that assumption in most cases.

“Shiori,” I finally spoke a few moments after she had finished. “Hey, look at me for a second, okay?”

Her head lifted a bit, her bloodshot eyes staring at me. Her tears had stopped, though obviously not through any raised spirits, but because she was physically incapable of crying anymore. “Wh-what?”

I let out a breath, meeting her tired, drained gaze. I had to say the right thing, I had to make her understand that she wasn’t evil. “If I told you that Hitler was a good person, would you believe me?”

Her eyes clouded a bit with obvious confusion while she shook her head quickly. “What? No.”

“What if we had a class that was all about how Hitler was a hero and how right he was?” I pressed. “Would that make everything he did suddenly be good, just because we had a class saying it was?”

Again, her head shook a bit warily. “No.” Her voice was very soft, an almost inaudible whisper.

I moved my hand to the side of her face, using my thumb to gently brush the last tear away from her eye. My response came slowly, a bit haltingly as I fought to find just the right words. “Just because you say that someone is good when they’re obviously evil doesn’t make them good. Just like saying someone is an evil monster when they haven’t done anything wrong doesn’t make that true either.”

“But… but my mother…” Shiori gave an emotional shudder. “She’s a—a vampire. They eat people.”

“Well,” I managed a weak little shrug. “Drink their blood more than eat, but… listen, remember what I said about Asenath being my friend? I meant that. You know why she’s my friend? Because she saved my father’s life, Shiori. He was in trouble and she saved him and another woman just because it was the right thing to do. And she saved me too. She saved us because she’s a good person. She’s a good person who just happens to be a vampire, just like Hitler was a monster who just happened to be a human.”

Shiori didn’t say anything for a few seconds. I could see her working that through in her head. Her eyes still looked sad and lost, like she was too afraid and broken to actually hope that I was right. It would take more than a few pretty words to fix the damage that had been done over the past couple of months. Saying something nice wasn’t going to suddenly make the girl turn around and feel perfectly fine again. I guess this kind of thing didn’t work that way. She might feel a little better, she might have a chance, but she wasn’t magically fixed. A few words, no matter how well I meant them, weren’t enough.

“Shiori,” I spoke again after the silence had pressed on. “Do you want to hurt me?” Reaching down, I caught her hand and lifted it to my neck. Her arm was stiff and I saw the protest in her eyes and on her lips as I pushed her hand around my throat. Holding it there, I met her gaze. “Do you wanna squeeze? Do you feel like jamming your nails into my throat and choking me? Do you want to hurt me?”

The girl’s head shook violently. “No!” She all but shouted at me, her emotions suddenly flaring up. “I don’t want to hurt you! That’s my whole point! I don’t want to hurt anyone, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t!”

Waiting until she had stopped talking, I replied in a quiet voice. “Then you’re not evil. To be evil, you have to do something evil, Shiori. If a human being can be evil or good, then so can anyone else.”

“But they said—but I don’t…” Trailing off, the other girl shook her head. She still looked pretty miserable, but there was at least something in her eyes that wasn’t total surrender. As I’d already known, it was going to take more than a few words, probably a lot more, to make her actually feel better.

“Let me tell you about your sister,” I said quietly, watching her gaze. “Let me tell you what happened when I went home, and how I met her. Then you can tell me if you still think she has to be evil.”

Shiori didn’t protest. She didn’t speak at all. Her voice was silent, her eyes locked on me as she waited.

So I told her. I took the time to explain everything, starting with the fact that I’d already arranged to meet someone from Eden’s Garden. That took a bit of a side explanation, but I wanted to tell the girl the truth about it all. The last thing I wanted was to fall into the cliche trap of leaving out something that important, then having the fact that I’d met with Seller somehow come up later at the worst time and make Shiori suddenly decide that keeping that secret meant I’d been dishonest about the rest of it.

Instead, I told her everything. I was honest. I told her about finding my mother’s picture and why that had sent me looking for more answers, and what I’d found out since then. I gave her all of the context, and then I explained what had happened when I got home. I told her about Ammon, about Fossor, and what I now knew about my mother’s disappearance. But most importantly, I told her about Asenath.

By the time I finished, Shiori was openly staring at me. She’d sat back a bit, gradually lowering her legs as she watched me in wordless shock. When she spoke, her voice was cracked and hesitant. “You… I… but you’re really… I didn’t…” Taking a breath and then letting it out again, she shook her head. “Wow.”

“I know, right?” Smiling in spite of myself, I reached out to take the girl’s hand, interlacing our fingers for a moment. “Listen, Shiori, the most important part of all this is… you’re not alone. Asenath, she was like you once. She was the daughter of a vampire—two vampires really, and she still chose what she wanted to be. She chose to become a vampire too, and then she chose to keep helping people. And her friend, that doctor guy, he chose not to be a vampire. He could have been, but he chose not to. If that doesn’t prove that you have a choice, nothing will. Being a vampire didn’t make her evil, and being the daughter of a vampire doesn’t make you evil either. It’s your choice. It always has been. If it’s not, if you’re just evil because you were born, then being ‘evil’ doesn’t mean anything anymore. The second you make ‘evil’ a condition of birth with no choice, the term becomes completely meaningless.”

“I… I don’t know,” Shiori responded hesitantly, her voice uncertain. “I need to think. I want to believe you. I do. But they said—I mean, everything they teach us… they’ve been around for a long time.”

“People can be around for a long time, and even do a lot of really good things, and still be wrong,” I assured her. “They learn the same things that we’ve been taught, going back… god knows how long. They learn about Strangers being evil, and then those people teach it to the next people, and so on. They teach us that Strangers attack on sight, but what if Strangers attack on sight because they know that we’ll attack them? Who actually started this war?” I shook my head. “I’m not saying there aren’t evil Strangers. There are. But that doesn’t make them all evil. Especially your sister. Especially you.”

Again, Shiori was quiet for a few moments. She looked away briefly, biting her lip before turning back to me. “Can I talk to her?” she asked quietly, her voice trembling a little bit. “Asenath, I mean.”

I wanted to say yes, dial Senny immediately, and hand her the phone. I almost did just that. But common sense stopped me. “Yes,” I replied. “I swear, we’ll find a way for you to talk to her. But if you do it over the phone, the faculty might find out. They monitor that sort of thing to make sure that students, especially first year Bystander-kin like us, aren’t saying too much to our friends or families.”

Her face fell a little bit at that. Which… actually I took as a good sign. If she wanted to talk to Asenath badly enough that not talking to her immediately made her feel bad, it meant she was at least listening.

I tightened my grip on her hand, squeezing to get her attention. “Listen, Shiori, I will find a way for you to talk to her in person. I promise. I swear, I will get you to her. I’ll put in a request for a weekend trip and ask if you can come with. Maybe I’ll invite you and your brother just to make it look less strange. Ask if my own teammate can come to my house over the weekend to meet my dad shouldn’t look that weird, and inviting his sister too is just polite.”

“C-columbus?” Shiori flinched at that. “We can’t tell him. Please, please, promise you won’t tell Columbus about me, about wh-what happened.” Her expression looked miserable and panicked again, the fears that she’d let build up over the last few months boiling over once more at the thought of Columbus finding out the truth.

This, above everything else, was proof that helping Shiori was going to take time. Even after what I’d said, her first instinct was to hide things. She panicked at the thought of Columbus, her own brother, knowing who and what her mother was. This was the kind of damage that Crossroads was doing.

No wonder my mother had apparently spearheaded a fucking revolution against this place.

“Shiori, look at me.” I used a hand to gently but firmly tilt her chin up. “No. That… that lying, that keeping secrets, that not trusting people you love is what makes these things worse. If we keep this secret, he’ll just find out later, there’ll be some big misunderstanding, and everything will just get worse because none of us actually talked to each other. Columbus is your brother. He loves you. He believed me about Asenath, so he’ll believe that you aren’t evil.”

At some point, I was really going to have to remind myself about this whole resolution to avoid the keeping secrets from everyone thing and actually talk to people when the subject of telling Gaia what was going on came up again. Because seriously, it was past time to talk to her.

Shiori’s mouth opened and then shut again, a look of tremulous fear crossing her face still before the girl gave a tiny nod. “I—okay. Okay. We can tell him.”

Standing up, I extended a hand down to help the other girl to her feet before looking off toward the water. Or… where the water should’ve been. There was sand… sand… and more sand. Somehow, I’d missed the sound of birds and monkeys in the background completely fading out. How long had the air been silent aside from our voices?

“Errr… where… did the ocean go?” I asked, confused.

“B-better question,” Shiori replied, her own voice full of shock. As I turned, I saw that the sand stretched on that way in every direction as well, even as the other girl finished speaking.

“Where did the school go?”

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The Next Step 8-02

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“You seem a little distracted, Flick.”

The words made me want to laugh out loud, though I was afraid it would sound more hysterical than amused. Distracted? Gee, Mister Therapist sir, I can’t imagine why I’d be distracted. I’m just sitting inside a literal magical school full of monster hunters and hunters-in-training, trying to figure out who keeps trying to kill my roommate, who succeeded at killing one of the most powerful teachers here, why my team mentor went from Captain America overachiever to someone so lazy he’d make Garfield look active and also happens to have been a student here almost a hundred years ago, who was involved in banishing my mother from this world and why she was banished to begin with, who my newfound older half-siblings are and if they know about me, how to save my mother from the evil son of a bitch necromancer she sacrificed herself to in order to save me, how to save myself from the same evil son of a bitch when he comes looking for me again, what to do about an evil younger half-brother, and now why my teammate’s adopted sister is doing the full ‘all work and no play’ over the name of the vampire that I currently have babysitting my father just in case the evil necromancer or my psychotic little brother pay another visit. So no, I have no idea why you’d think I’m distracted, no idea at all.

The sad part was, I was probably still forgetting something in that mental spiel.

“Sorry, sir,” I spoke aloud with a shrug while forcing myself to look at the man from where I was sitting in that armchair. He’d said from the beginning of our first session that I could sit anywhere I wanted, but the chair felt better than the couch for this situation, “I guess I’m just worried about Shiori.” That much was true enough, and I hardly had to explain why I would be.

“Are you?” the man asked, putting an immediate lie to my assumption. He said nothing else, prompted nothing. He didn’t move on, he didn’t actually press for that much clarification. He definitely didn’t ask inane questions like how Shiori’s actions made me feel. He simply spoke those two words and waited.

I took a moment, looking away while gathering my thoughts. I hadn’t blurted out anything about the name on the paper to Columbus. Instead, I’d just tucked the paper back into the notebook, made sure it was secure, and handed it to him. Part of me had wanted to keep it, but I was afraid of what Shiori would do if she found it missing and had some kind of panic attack. Considering the state I’d seen in her in last, I definitely didn’t want to give her any reason to freak out again before I could talk to her.

As for why I didn’t tell Columbus… well, I thought it would be safer if I talked to her first. Columbus was her brother, but she, for whatever reason, hadn’t said anything to him about it yet. Considering the secrets I was keeping, I kind of wanted to respect that enough to not blab about it right off the bat.

I had absolutely no idea why she would have Asenath’s name, or even if it was the same Asenath. I couldn’t figure out why they’d know each other. But considering how stressed the girl had been and how… crazy my life had become, I wasn’t going to rule it out. It was a pretty unique name, as far as I knew. The odds that there was no relation whatsoever between my Asenath and hers were pretty slim.

Obviously, I couldn’t say any of that. Instead, I nodded. “Columbus is her brother. I mean, adopted, but… they’re pretty much the same thing at this point. He’s my teammate, she’s his sister. He’s worried about her. She hasn’t been sleeping, she’s always tired, she’s stressed and… jumpy. Really jumpy. Columbus thinks that all this monster talk is getting to her. You guys run into that problem a lot, don’t you? Students who freak out about the monsters, and the whole… idea that they’re everywhere.”

Klassin gave a slight nod. “We do. Obviously we try to tailor our choices of bystander-kin recruits to people we believe can handle the stress, but that’s not a one hundred percent thing. When we do run into problems, every case is handled individually. Usually the person can be helped through it, and they grow into being a perfectly upstanding Heretic. Sometimes, we have to put them into less combat intensive environments. Not every Heretic is a front-line fighter, after all. Some go their whole lives without seeing an actual wild Stranger outside of controlled conditions once they leave this school.”

“What about Shiori?” I asked with a frown. “She’s been, umm, doing really well in Professor Katarin’s class.” That was an understatement. The man consistently praised how well the Asian girl seemed to be taking to combat, and aside from Avalon, she was clearly the best overall combatant in the class, and possibly even in our grade. Yet every time Katarin mentioned how well she was doing, Shiori didn’t look happy about it. Instead, she tended to either ignore it or look even more stressed than usual. Once, Columbus asked if she had any tips, and she had literally burst into tears before leaving the room.

“Yup,” Klassin confirmed. “She could end up being a phenomenal hunter. And from what I hear,” he added then, pointed to me with one hand, “you aren’t exactly far behind. How many zombies was it?”

I flushed a little. “Not as many as you’ve heard. Besides, I would’ve been dead without the others. And Nevada. If she didn’t show up, they’d still be scrubbing bits of us out of the Little Zombie’s Room.”

“If you had to do it again,” the man started before holding up a hand. “Ignoring the rules and everything else, for some reason you have to do the same thing again and end up in the same situation, what do you think you’d do different? How would you prepare to face something like that again?”

I opened my mouth and then shut it before coughing. “I was gonna make a crack about bringing a minigun, but we actually have one of those.” Shrugging then, I added, “I guess I’d want to have some kind of distraction ready, something that could keep the zombies off us long enough for Sands to set up a good defense from one side right away. Then all four of us could have focused on dealing with the zombies on one side together before focusing on the other side. Maybe Sands could even make up some kind of corridor thing out of multiple walls. That way instead of the zombies just all pounding against the wall until it collapsed, they’d funnel down one opening in a single file line so we could deal with them that way. If I’d had time to think about it, or if… if I hadn’t freaked out so much…”

“Hindsight can be a curse, or a gift,” Klassin replied. “If you use it to lament what you didn’t do, it’s a curse. But if you use it to prepare for the future, then it’s probably one of the most potent gifts you can possibly have. It’s definitely one of our biggest assets. We live so long and have such powerful healing abilities that we can learn from our mistakes in ways that Bystanders rarely have the chance to.”

“Yeah…” I started slowly before letting out a long breath. “Well, if these past couple of months have been any indication, I’m gonna have a lot of chances to exercise that gift.”

******

About an hour later, I was standing out on the grass, trying to think through what I needed to do next. My first instinct was to find Shiori and try to talk to her, yet there was something else I could do first.

With that in mind, I tugged the phone from my pocket, considering it briefly before glancing up. It was late enough that the sun would definitely be down over there, so Asenath should be awake.

Wait. Wait just a damn minute. My mouth opened and then shut again as I looked back to the sky. Night time. It had been morning when I left the island for my birthday, and relatively the same time of day when I arrived in Wyoming, within an hour or two. But Wyoming was pretty much as far away from either ocean as you could possibly get. And as far as I knew, Crossroads Island (or whatever they called it) wasn’t anywhere near the mainland anyway. We were clear out in the middle of the ocean, as far from everything as possible. So why, exactly, was the island still operating on United States time? And it wasn’t just a matter of them making the clocks follow a certain schedule. How the hell was the sun where it was? If I left in the morning here, I should have arrived in Wyoming at like… mid-afternoon or something. I wasn’t exactly sure since I didn’t know where in the ocean we were supposed to be (or even which ocean it was). But I knew for sure that there should have been more than a one or two hour difference. Yet as far as I could tell, the island and the mainland were pretty much in sync.

Just… how? And why hadn’t it occurred to me to wonder about that before? Because seriously, that seemed like a pretty obvious thing to have not even thought about. Was it part of the magic that protected this place? I already knew for a fact that Heretics played fast and loose with memory spells.

Yet another thing I needed to look for answers to. Shaking my head, I hit the button on the phone and raised it to my ear. It rang about seven times before I heard Asenath’s voice on the other end. “Yeah.”

We knew from the start that we’d have to be careful about any conversations we had. I didn’t know how closely my outward calls and e-mails were being monitored, but I wasn’t going to risk saying too much.

“Hey, Sarah,” I started. We’d decided that the incredibly common Sarah was a better name for anyone to overhear than Asenath or Senny. “I had a question. This is probably gonna sound pretty weird, but do you happen to know anyone named Shiori Porter? It’s just that I swear I heard her say your name. Might be a coincidence, but I thought I’d check. You know, small world and all that.”

“Shiori Porter?” Asenath replied, sounding thoughtful. “No, the name doesn’t ring a bell. Do you have a picture or anything? That might help. Did she say anything about how she might know me?”

“Nope,” I tried to keep my voice sounding as casual as possible. No reason to let anyone who heard this conversation think it was anything but idle curiosity that made me call. “It’s probably a whole lot of nothing.” That was a code we’d come up with that meant this was probably very important. “But I’ll see if I can get a picture and send it to you. Maybe you guys met at summer camp one year or something.”

I could hear the amusement in Senny’s voice. “I bet that’s it. I swear I’ve met so many people at those things. That’s probably how she knows me. So get a picture and I’ll let you know if she looks familiar.”

I promised to do that, and we chatted about a few inconsequential things just to throw of anyone that might listen to the conversation. I could tell there was something else that the vampire wanted to talk about, but she apparently wasn’t willing to risk being overheard. Obviously, we were going to have to find some other way to communicate. Maybe I could get back home and we could work out an actual code the same way Miranda and I had. Or maybe there was some actually secure method of communication. That would be nice. I really needed a bird that could carry letters for me or something.

Eventually, I disconnected and made a face. I’d really been hoping that Asenath would immediately know who Shiori was. Even if she couldn’t have given me too much information, anything at all would have been nice. As it stood, I was right back where I’d started. All I knew was that Shiori was freaking out and that she was obviously obsessed with someone named Asenath. Anything else was guesswork.

Well. I may not have been able to get a lot of answers to the questions that kept piling up, but this one I could deal with right now. No lying, now subterfuge, no guesswork. I was going to deal with this now.

******

It was easier said than done, of course. Actually finding Shiori turned out to be harder than I’d thought it would be. Especially since I didn’t want to tell Columbus why I wanted to talk to her so much. Part of me felt guilty about that. After all, he wasn’t just my teammate and friend, he was also her brother. But Shiori deserved the benefit of the doubt. There had to be a reason she hadn’t confided in her brother about whatever was bothering her, to the point of not even saying Asenath’s name despite how much she was obsessing over it. If she’d mentioned it, he would have said something as soon as I told the team about Asenath saving my dad. So there was no way she’d ever said the name in his presence.

In the end, I walked all the way around the school ground at least twice. I checked the dorms, the library, the rec room, the hallways, a few different classrooms, and more. It was getting pretty close to the time that I’d need to meet up with the twins to head for track training by the time I finally found Shiori. She was on the beach, which I’d checked once before, but the second time I went that way, I finally spotted the other girl a hundred yards down the beach, throwing rocks against the waves.

H’okay. Here went nothing. Bracing myself, I looked over my shoulder to make sure we were alone, then walked that way. Mentally rehearsing and throwing away possible things that I could say, I walked all the way down the beach without ever coming up with anything good. I should’ve practiced earlier.

She saw me coming, glanced my way, then turned back to the water to throw another rock. I saw her ears pink a little. “Columbus isn’t here,” she stated flatly as soon as I was within easy earshot.

A sarcastic quip jumped to mind, but I shut it aside. There were probably worse times to make jokes, but this was definitely pretty far up the list. “I didn’t come to find Columbus. I was looking for you.”

A guarded look crossed the girl’s face, and I didn’t miss the way she turned slightly to put me more in her view, without actually opening herself up at all. “Why?” Her voice was as suspicious as her gaze.

“Asenath,” I said quietly. “I saw it on your notebook. The paper fell out.”

My words were like a physical blow to the girl. I saw her cringe, the guilt obvious in her eyes. For a second, she looked completely lost, like a scared little girl who didn’t know what to do. “I… don’t…”

Swallowing hard, I looked over my shoulder again before turning back to her. This was it. There was absolutely no turning back after this point. If I was wrong… well, then things could get real bad, real fast. But I had to trust Shiori. I had to reach out to her. She was just… having such a hard time. If that had anything to do with Asenath, and there was anything I could do to help… well, I had to try. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t.

When I spoke, my voice was as quiet as I could make it while letting her still hear me. “She’s a vampire. Asenath is a vampire.”

The words had barely left my mouth before Shiori was on me. Her foot kicked my legs out from under me, and I hit the sand on my back a second before the other girl landed top of me. Her voice was a loud cry right next to my ear. “I am not a vampire!” She blurted, sounding hysterical as she repeated herself. “I’m not a vampire!” Her hands grabbed at my face and arm, clearly desperate. She wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t sure she even realized that she was attacking me. She was just… panicked.

“Shiori!” I struggled, but even in a blind panic, the other girl was easily able to stop me from extricating myself. “Listen to me! Lis–”

Okay, enough was enough. I headbutted her. Which I immediately regretted as soon as the moment of blinding pain shot through my own temple. But at least the impact stunned the girl enough to make her stop for a minute.

Before it could wear off, I managed to speak again. “I don’t think you’re a vampire. Why would you think I think that? I said Asenath is a vampire, not you.”

“Oh god, you’re going to tell.” She rolled off me, tucked her legs to her body, and sat there shaking heavily. “I’m sorry.” She murmured as tears coursed down her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I hesitated, then scooted up behind the girl, shaking my head. “Hey, hey, look, I’m not… I’m not telling anyone. That’s why I’m here by myself. I didn’t even bring Columbus, Shiori. But… I need to talk to you. I swear, everything we say is private. You’re scared that I’m going tell them something bad about you? Well let me give you your own ammunition to use against me. I need you to trust me, Shiori. But I know you have no reason to. So… look, you want to know how I know that Asenath is a vampire? Because she’s my friend. She’s a vampire and she’s my friend. And if you told any of the teachers here that, I’d be in a hell of a lot of trouble. So calm down. I’m not turning you in for… for whatever you think I’m turning you in. We’re on the same side.”

Shiori looked thoroughly shocked and even more confused. “Wha… what about… what?”

Moving around in front of the girl, I met her frightened gaze. “Asenath is a vampire,” I repeated, “And she’s my friend. She saved my father’s life. I don’t know why you were recording her name in your notebook, what you think she did to you, or anything else. But I know her name was driving you crazy, and you can’t live like that. So I had to tell you. I had to try. But… why would you think that I thought you were a vampire? What does Asenath being a vampire have to do with you?”

For a long minute, there was no response at all aside from those fearful eyes staring at me. I didn’t think she was going to answer at all. Finally, however, Shiori spoke in a very quiet and slow voice. So quiet, in fact, that I had to lean closer to hear her.

“I… I think… she’s my… sister.”

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The Next Step 8-01

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“Miss Chambers!” The loud voice of Professor Carfried filled the auditorium-like Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom a few days later. “Without consulting your book or any of your peers, can you tell me what the three primary categories of the energy used to create Heretical Magic are?”

The energy used to create Heretical Magic. I knew this one. Considering how much extra time I had for studying in the middle of the night while most people were sleeping, it would have been pretty bad if I didn’t. “Yes, sir, it’s uhh, Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” I recited the names without looking away.

The young teacher, who was still filling in for Professor Tangle (seriously, how badly had she been injured in that giant shark attack?), gave me a broad smile. “Indeed! Shapeless, Directed, and Forged.” Turning his attention away from me and toward Rudolph across the room, he asked, “Mr. Parsons!”

Jolting in his seat, the pale, slightly chubby boy’s eyes widened. “Uhh, yes, sir?” A slightly guilty look crossed his face, and it was obvious that whatever he’d been doing, paying attention wasn’t part of it.

“Honestly, Mr. Parsons,” Professor Carfried shook his head. “I could walk into any Bystander classroom in the world, ask who wants to learn some real magic, and do you think they’d be bored?”

Flushing visibly, the boy sank a little in his seat before shaking his head. “No, sir. I mean, I’m sorry.”

“The three categories of magic,” Professor Carfried pressed on after nodding his acceptance of the apology. “Shapeless, Directed, and Forged. I want you to tell me which one we’re learning this year.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Rudolph seemed obviously uncomfortable, but slowly answered. “Um, the magic you’re teaching us right now is Forged. The second years learn Directed magic, and the third years learn Shapeless magic. Seniors, umm, they pretty much know it all by then and just sort of use every kind.”

“Yes, because seniors are essentially active Heretics by that point, and are far more involved in field work than classroom study,” Professor Carfried agreed before turning his attention to someone else again. Koren this time. “Miss Fellows. What exactly are the differences between the three categories?”

The brunette was obviously ready for the question. She promptly replied, “Forged magic is the easiest kind. They’re the spells where you say the exact same specific, established word everyone else does, make the same established gesture everyone else does, and end up with the same established effect.”

Carfried gave a short, pleased nod. “Precisely! Forged Magic, in this case, is like a dog. You teach the dog a trick, and from then on, if it hears the command, it does the trick. Speak the command, add the power, the magic performs the enchantment. Very good. Now, what about the other two categories?” When Koren started to answer, he shook his head. “Actually, let’s hear from… Mr. Levin.” His gaze moved to Zeke. “Since we’ve heard about Forged magic, can you tell us what Directed magic is?”

The boy gave a thin, humorless smile. Which wasn’t anything new. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen the guy act amused or even happy about anything all semester. “Yes, Professor. Directed magic is not quite as open as Shapeless magic, yet it is still more free than Forged. Essentially, a Directed Spell is simply a category of effect. For example, the spell you taught us that turns rocks into flash-bang grenades is Forged magic. The exact same effect every time you cast it. But if you were to alter that effect, such as… for example, making the rock recite the Gettysburg Address while throwing around strobe lights, that would be a Directed spell. You are taking a Forged spell and altering it for your own purposes.”

“A good answer, Mr. Levin, thank you.” Professor Carfried looked around the room one more time, clearly choosing carefully before his eyes settled on Shiori. “Miss Porter, what is the final category?”

Poor Shiori, who looked even paler than the last time I’d seen her, wasn’t looking at the man. Her gaze was fixed elsewhere, and I could see her lips moving a little as if she was mouthing words to herself.

When it was obvious that no answer was coming, Professor Carfried raised his voice. “Miss Porter!”

The response was instantaneous. Shiori bolted to her feet. Her hands caught hold of the table that her team was seated behind, and she gave it a hard shove that sent the table crashing onto its side loudly. Her voice was raised into a near shriek. “Shut up! Just shut up and leave me alone, leave me alone!”

Only then did Shiori seem to realize where she was and what was going on. Her eyes flicked around the room, and I saw the dawning comprehension and horror on her face. “I—I–I mean…” Tears sprang up.

Mutters had broken out all over the room, and Columbus was already on his feet, but Professor Carfried held a hand up, his voice commanding. “Silence, or detention.” The muttering stopped, and he stepped over to where Shiori was. His voice softened. “Miss Porter, can you look at me, please?”

Clearly reluctantly, Shiori slowly lifted her gaze to the man. I could see her trembling openly. When she spoke, her voice was hesitant and clearly emotional. “I’m sorry, sir. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”

“Everyone makes mistakes,” Professor Carfried’s voice was calm and soothing. “We’re asking a lot of all of you, and if it wasn’t too much sometimes, you wouldn’t be human. Believe me when I say that I have been exactly where you are. You aren’t the first student to yell at a teacher because you were stressed out and you won’t be the last. So take a couple of breaths. Are you all right now?”

Breathing in and then out, Shiori gave a slight, unconvincing nod. She didn’t speak or move otherwise.

“All right, let’s have a little chat in the hall.” Carfried set a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, you are not in that much trouble. As I said, we understand. But I’d still like to talk to you in the hallway.”

The two of them stepped out of the room, while Shiori’s male teammates Stephen and Gavin moved to pick up the table she had knocked over, replacing it back where it had been. They’d just maneuvered the thing into place when Zeke, seated across the way, twirled his finger by his head. “Cuckoo, cuckoo.”

“Hey!” Columbus was back on his feet and halfway around the table in what had to be record time. His hand pointed toward the Heretic-born boy. “You’re gonna want to shut up, right fucking now, Zeke.”

Clearly unimpressed, the other boy shrugged dismissively. “Hey, if she can’t handle the stress, maybe she should just go back home. Maybe get an easier job. I bet she’d fit right in at a laundromat.”

Sean leapt up, hooking an arm around Columbus. “He’s not worth it, man.” He kept his voice low and controlled, easily stopping the other boy from lunging across the room at the jerk. “He’s just an ass.”

“At least I can do the job we were brought here to do,” Zeke retorted derisively. “I don’t freak out like some people.”

Next to me, Sands was already starting to stand up, and I could see Avalon opening her mouth.Before either of them could say anything, however, the boy was interrupted by a sharp, scree-noise as Sovereign, Aylen’s metallic bird, flew across the room to land on the table in front of Zeke. As the boy jerked backward, the bird made a loud, angry noise, puffing itself up to look larger while several metallic ‘feathers’ pointed outward, their sharp ends looking an awful lot like daggers.

“Get this piece of shit away from me, damn it!” Zeke demanded, bolting to his feet.

Aylen was frowning at him. “Then stop pissing him off.”

“Fuck you,” Zeke retorted, his eyes locked on the mechanical bird. “I’m just telling the truth. Some people can’t handle the stuff going on here. Your wuss of a teammate obviously doesn’t belong here.”

That brought the rest of Shiori’s team to their feet, their anger obvious. But the person who actually spoke up was still a surprise.

“Oh my god, would you shut the fuck up?” Koren. It was Koren talking. “They’re teaching us how to hunt and kill monsters. Real monsters, the kind that eat people. If that doesn’t mess you up at least a little bit, if that doesn’t make you wanna freak out, then you’re the one with the problem. Not her.”

The fact that it was Koren of all people saying it seemed to surprise everyone into silence for a few seconds, and I thought about the reaction she’d had when we were examining the murder at that gas station (Ammon’s work, I reminded myself. That much had been clear after I spoke to Asenath about what had actually made her start tracking the little psychopath). She’d been pretty messed up by the sight of what happened there. Even if she tended to talk without thinking about what she was saying, and more times than not came off as a gossiping bitch, apparently even she had her layers and limits.

The door opened again before anyone else could say anything, and Mr. Carfried stepped back inside. His gaze took in everyone in the room before he directed his attention to Columbus. “Mr. Porter, would you mind escorting your sister up to the counselor’s office? I think she could use a chat with Mr. Roe.”

Columbus reached down to grab his bag, then stepped over to take Shiori’s too, as Aylen held it out to him. Then he gave the rest of us a quick look before heading out into the hall where I could see Shiori sitting down against the wall with her face buried in her hands. She still didn’t look very good.

“All right,” Professor Carfried began once the door was closed. “We’ll be moving on now, and if I hear about anyone saying a word against Miss Porter, you’ll have detention every Saturday for a month.” Looking toward Zeke, he added, “Mr. Levin, since I hadn’t actually stated that rule yet before leaving the room, we’ll only make it two weeks, starting tomorrow. You still should have known better.” As Zeke’s mouth fell open to protest, the professor pushed on, ignoring him. “One more time then. Where were we… oh yes, let’s see… Miss Moon, explain the last category of magic, if you would?”

“Yes, sir.” Vanessa answered promptly. “The last category of magic is Shapeless. Those are enchantments that are made up on the spot. The Heretic determines the effect they want, and imbues the item with that effect without using any previously designed spell. Shapeless magic is the most powerful kind, and the most prone to mistakes and backfiring. Only the best spellcasters, usually in the Development track, use Shapeless magic regularly. Most get by using Directed and Forged spells. A Shapeless spell can become Directed and then Forged after being cast the same way often enough.”

“Excellent,” Professor Carfried smiled then. “Now then, with that in mind, let’s chat about the next spell we’re going to be learning. A long time ago it was called the Cloth of Steel spell. But when I was in school… which, to be fair, was about a year ago, we called it the Kevlar spell. You will learn to enchant your clothing with a temporary spell that will allow them to resist most bullet impacts.

“So, let’s get started.”

******

Later that afternoon, after our final class of the day, I was on my way to Mr. Roe’s office. It was time for my own weekly visit to the school therapist, which was supposed to continue for at least for a couple of months. The school staff wanted to make sure that I was getting past what happened back home (or at least, what they knew of it). Sean and Columbus were walking alongside me. Vulcan, of course, was trotting a little bit ahead of us, his mechanical head twisting eagerly this way and that.

“How’s she doing?” I asked the dark-skinned boy, glancing toward him.

Columbus’s response was a long, heavy sigh. “I don’t know. She said she was just tired. I know she’s not sleeping much, but she won’t talk about what’s wrong. I… I don’t know what to do. Part of me wants to sit her down and make her talk to me, but I’m afraid that’ll just make her clam up more. But it’s obvious that this isn’t working, so…” Gesturing vaguely, he shook his head. “Damn it, I don’t know.”

Biting my lip, I offered, “Maybe try making it clear that you’re not going to just let it go, but let her tell it on her own time? Be there for her, show her that you’re there and you’re not leaving, but you’re also going to let her talk when she’s ready to. Try just… doing other things with her. Spend time with her. Be around her. Show her that she’s not alone without outright demanding answers. I mean, maybe that’s the wrong advice, I’m not an expert. But you know, it’s the best I can think of.”

Sean agreed, and the three of us continued on for a few minutes before the other boy changed the subject. “So I think it’s safe to say that Deveron’s roommate doesn’t know a damn thing about what’s up with him,” Sean reported, keeping his voice low as we passed by a couple of senior students in the hall.

I glanced sidelong toward him. “I take it you gave him a, ahh, thorough interrogation?” Try as I might, I couldn’t help the little smirk that came along with the words. Which, of course, was followed by a blush as my brain caught up with what I was implying and transferred the mental image back to me.

From the look on Sean’s face, he knew exactly what I was thinking and winked back at me as we continued to walk. “Let’s just say, if he knew something, he would’ve shared. Well, okay, he did know some stuff, but nothing useful. Just that Deveron’s different this year. Lazy. Stuff we already knew. Apparently he’s put in for a roommate transfer, but they keep refusing. So yeah, not a happy guy.”

“You think Deveron knows something about who your brother and sister are?” Columbus asked.

I shrugged at the boy, feeling helpless. “I dunno. Maybe, but I’m pretty sure he won’t tell us.”

Sean just blinked at me a bit blankly. “Won’t tell us what—oh god damn it, are you talking about the security room stuff again?” He demanded, looking toward Columbus and then back to me.

Yeah, that had been fun to figure out. Since Sean and Avalon hadn’t been in the security room with us when we read those files, we weren’t able to actually talk about anything that was in them with the two of them. They weren’t protected from the secret-keeping magic, or whatever it was called. So when we talked about it, their brains just… skipped over it or something. We’d managed to be vague enough to explain what was going on, but any specifics were out of the question. We’d tried writing it down, and they just saw the paper or the screen as blank. We tried sign language, charades, none of it worked.

“Okay,” I announced. “I have a new plan. Let’s try this. Every twenty seconds, I’m going to say a word. You remember every word, then put them in order when we’re done. All right? First word, I.”

“Right, got it.” Sean nodded once easily. “First word is I. God, I hope this shit works. Avalon says she’s got some kind of plan for getting around this, but seriously, this magic secret stuff is getting old.”

We kept walking, as I counted down the seconds before speaking again. “Have. Second word.”

“I have, got it. Got that much.” Sean brightened a little more, clearly encouraged. “Closest so far.”

After another twenty seconds, and as we neared the school therapist’s office, I spoke again. “More. Third word.”

“More,” Sean repeated dutifully. “So far you’ve said ‘I have more’. Shit, this might actually work.”

Trying not to get ahead of myself, I counted down once more and glanced toward Columbus before speaking again. “One more word. Here it comes. Siblings. The last word is siblings.”

Sean met my gaze, started to nod automatically, then asked, “Okay, what is it?”

My heart sank. “Siblings. I just told you. The last word is siblings. Did you get it? Tell me you got it.”

“Get what?” Sean was shaking his head. “You’ve gotta tell me the last word before you can—wait, what was the first—okay, it was I… I have… wait, it was you have… wait, was the first word I?”

Columbus groaned out loud. “You’ve gotta be kidding me. As soon as the sentence is complete, not only do they not hear the last word, but they forget the part of the sentence they already knew? Damn it!”

“Something wrong, Columbus?” The question came from the doorway, as Klassin Roe poked his head out.

The therapist for Crossroads Academy looked… well, as far as I knew, he didn’t look like any therapist I’d ever seen or heard of. For one thing, he looked like he belonged to one of those 50’s greaser gangs. His black hair was always slicked back, he had those high cheekbones, and he actually wore a dark leather jacket along with jeans and a gray tee shirt. I’d seen a tattoo of a sword on his arm once, during our first discussion in his office.

Jumping a bit at the interruption, Columbus finally managed a shrug after a moment. “Nah, just talking about something else. Uhh, wait, you know who I am?”

“Sure do,” Klassin drawled in that simple, casual way he had. “I try to make it a point to know who all the new kids are. Makes it easier if they ever wanna come chat.”

“You mean all the new bystander-kin?” Columbus asked. “Shiori, she came to see you today, right?”

“She did,” the man confirmed without saying anything else about it. “But nah, I mean every student. Bystander-kin ain’t the only ones with problems. Anyone wants to chat without it being some formal thing, my office is open from six to eight on Tuesday and three to six on Sunday. I don’t make appointments then, so if you drop by and the door isn’t closed, feel free to come in and talk about anything that’s on your mind.”

To me, he gestured. “You wanna head on in? Oh, and grab that notebook off the chair there. Shiori left it. Figure Columbus here can take it back. You don’t mind, right?”

Columbus shook his head, and I moved into the simple office, stepping over to one of the padded armchairs. Sure enough, there was a small black notebook sitting there with a pen in the spiral binding, and Shiori’s name written in marker across the front in neat cursive.

As I picked up the notebook, a piece of loose paper slipped out and fell to the floor. I bent to grab it, and started to slip the paper back into the notebook while straightening up when the words on it caught my eye. Or rather, the word on it. There was only one word, and it was written several dozen times. Sometimes it was printed, other times it was in cursive. Sometimes the letters were small, other times they were large and bold. A couple of times there were underlines under the word. One of them had several circles drawn around it. Over and over again the word was written, all across the paper from every angle. Every inch of space on the page was taken up by the single word.

Except it wasn’t a word. It was a name. A single name.

Asenath.

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