Month: June 2016

Begin Again 10-08

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It was Friday evening, not long before track courses were supposed to start. I was standing on the beach with Columbus, the twins, and Sean. The five of us were staying well away from Avalon and Shiori, because, well… things were just a little bit intense between the two of them right then. Slightly.

Shiori landed hard on her back, sending sand from the beach flying in every direction from the impact. A second later, she jerked her body to the side, a bare instant before Avalon’s gauntlet-covered fist hit right where she had just been. Before my roommate could recover from the miss, the dhampyr girl shoved herself up with one arm, kicking both legs out to clip Avalon’s face before throwing herself into an expert back flip that brought her out of her prone position and into the air, landing easily on her feet.

Moving faster than I could easily follow, Shiori launched both of her discs with two quick throws, sending them flying at the other girl while she was recoiling from being kicked in the face. The electricity crackled as the discs flew through the air, straight toward their seemingly helpless target.

Avalon, however, recovered almost instantly. One of her gauntlets lashed out, a solid-light energy shield manifesting just in time to smack the closest of the discs out of the way. At almost the same time and pretty much in the same motion, the girl leapt and twisted in the air, doing a sideways flip that sent the second disc flying past beneath her. During this mid-air twist, she lashed out with her other gauntlet, creating a hammer that crashed into Shiori. The force sent the Asian girl back to the ground.

But Shiori didn’t simply fall. She caught herself, turning the crash into a roll while holding both hands out to summon her discs back, creating the lines of electricity between both of her gloves and the two discs, which had their own line between themselves. She made a triangle of crackling, powerful lightning, catching Avalon in the middle before closing the trap by calling her discs to return. They began to fly back to her, rapidly shrinking the triangle that Avalon was caught in the middle of.

Avalon didn’t freeze up, naturally. Instead, she abruptly ran straight at Shiori. Ever since she’d killed that hyena-figure with two heads (a Prevenkuat, apparently), we clocked her top speed around thirty miles per hour. Not exactly what most people thought of as super speed, but still pretty damn fast. And in the middle of a close range fight like this, a thirty mile per hour run really was obscenely fast. She sprinted that way, jumping at the last second to avoid the incoming discs and their lightning-lines before turning all that speed into a flying roundhouse kick that caught the other girl in the arm.

Reeling from the blow, Shiori turned her motion into a spin that put her directly beside Avalon when the other girl landed. She threw a backhanded punch that my roommate caught with one arm, as well as a low kick that went unnoticed. Avalon took the kick on the back of one leg, stumbling sideways with a slight grunt. She caught herself quickly, however, smoothly twisting herself around into a pivot that gave her the momentum she needed to throw a hard elbow back toward the side of Shiori’s head.

For her part, the other girl managed to jerk backward just enough to take the elbow as a glancing blow. At the same time, she did a quick three-step motion. First her knee came up to smack Avalon’s stomach, the force doubling her over a bit and knocking her backward a step. Then she extended her leg fully in a kick that took the other girl hard in the chest, knocking her backward one more step. Finally, before her opponent could recover, Shiori snapped her extended leg back into a quick hook kick at her face.

It was that third hit that Avalon avoided, hand snapping up suddenly to catch Shiori’s leg before she stepped in close to smack her in the chest, using her grip on the leg to hold the other girl off balance.

Shiori, on the other hand, was ready for that. As she reeled from the punch to her chest, the girl was swinging her hand up and around. She released one of her discs, straight toward Avalon’s face. The taller girl had to jerk her head back to avoid the weapon, releasing her opponent’s leg in the process.

With a hum of power, one of Avalon’s gauntlets conjured a long, glowing blade just in time to deflect the second disc the instant that it left Shiori’s hand. In the same motion, she twisted around to bring her other gauntlet up. A second blade flared into existence before swinging toward the other girl.

Catching her first disc as it returned to her hand, Shiori used the weapon to smack Avalon’s energy blade out of the way, then flipped up and around into a twist that narrowly avoided the other girl’s follow-up strike with the second blade. Still in mid-air, she caught her second disc on its return flight, simultaneously lashing out with a kick toward Avalon’s face that was only extremely narrowly avoided.

She landed, and both girls were face to face with each other, weapons in hand. Avalon reacted first, the blade from her left hand coming up and around toward Shiori’s lower right side. The dhampyr swung her right arm down, smacking the blade down and out of the way with her disc before giving it a quick toss up and to the side to catch the follow-up swing from Avalon’s right-hand blade. She caught the disc on its rebound, already throwing the second disc toward the other girl’s face. Avalon deflected that one with her left blade, and Shiori caught that rebound as well before lunging forward into a punch with the disc held tightly in her hand. Electricity crackled in the air as the disc was caught by one of the blades.

They continued that way, Shiori throwing her discs very short distances, generally only a couple feet before calling them back to her gloves (or simply catching the rebounds as they were deflected by the other girl.) Avalon went on the offensive occasionally, alternating between blades, hammers, shields, and other solid-light constructs as each of the two girls fought hard to gain some kind of advantage.

In the end, however, neither could pull out a win over the other. Oh, sure, they took some serious blows, and both bled now and then before their healing took over and fixed up their wounds (just in time to take more of them). But when it came down to it, Avalon and Shiori were just too evenly matched. Avalon had the long years of training, but Shiori’s dhampyr nature made up for that.

“Damn,” Columbus remarked from beside me. “Remind me not to piss those two off, huh?”

Obviously Shiori and Avalon weren’t actually trying to kill each other. They were sparring. Their match was pretty intense, sure. But that was much easier to safely pull off when everyone involved had regeneration and the school nurse could use legitimate magic to heal you up if anything actually went wrong. It allowed sparring matches, even unsupervised ones, to get pretty intense. Still, this was pretty much the most elaborate and fast-paced one I’d seen from anyone at our grade level, supervised or not.

And of course, the fact that it just happened to make my heart have a freaking conniption fit as I watched the two girls that I actually liked go after each other so violently made it even more insane. Because it wasn’t enough that I really, seriously needed to talk to both of them about how I felt, we needed to add in violent sparring matches between them just for the hell of it. I bet Archie never had to deal with Betty and Veronica conjuring laser swords and throwing taser-discs at each other.

Then again, he at least knew for a fact that they were both interested in him. I, on the other hand, was just guessing based on some interactions we’d had. I didn’t know how to take it any further, what to say, or how to even go about trying to talk about any of it. I was as lost on that front as I was about what I was supposed to do about the millennia-old alien necromancer that was holding my mother prisoner.

Anyway, the sparring match just helped to further cement the fact that Shiori and Avalon were probably both the best fighters in our class. The only classmate I’d seen that might be able to match them one on one on a good day was actually Malcolm Harkess. The boy was Bystander-born, but he had obviously been trained to fight long before coming here. He was big, built like a jock and wicked fast in spite of his size. And that sledgehammer of his let him teleport instantly to any of the last few places it struck, which worked together with his surprising speed to make him almost impossible to predict.

Professor Katarin tended to pair Malcolm and Avalon together during exercises, since he had been the only one of our class besides Shiori that seemed fast and skilled enough to keep up with her. I didn’t know the boy well enough to judge him. In fact, we’d barely spoken a couple words directly to each other the whole time I’d been at Crossroads. But I did know that Avalon didn’t seem to like him. She seemed to get just a little bit too much satisfaction from beating the boy when they sparred, and I’d heard Malcolm himself talking to one of his friends about how much he wanted to beat her, just once.

By that point, Avalon and Shiori had each taken a step away from each other. They were panting for breath, each watching the other for some kind of opening to get back in there. Before they could start up again, however, Sean whistled. “Okay, okay, you’re both awesome. Can we get back to talking about how Gabriel Ruthers was an Alter sympathizer? Cuz as hot as it is to watch you two—oww.” He rubbed his shoulder where Columbus had punched him. “as cool as it is to watch you two kick ass, I’d kind of like to discuss that a little more before we have to head into our track courses. Which I refuse to be late for. Professor Kohaku’s letting the Security kids make our own remote viewer tools tonight.”

After brushing her hands off, Avalon extended one toward Shiori. The two shook firmly, both breathing hard as they came back over to where we were. Columbus caught his sister by the arm, pulling her into a hug before whispering quiet encouragement and praise into one ear. Shiori, for her part, was blushing.

“What is there to talk about?” Avalon asked after taking a long pull of water from the bottle that I handed her (while maybe staring just a little more than strictly required at the way her chest heaved with each heavy breath). She took another drink, then underhand tossed it toward Shiori before continuing. “He fucked up, trusted the wrong guy. Now since he was burned by one Alter, he thinks they’re all evil.”

I saw Scout lean over to whisper something into her sister’s ear. Sands gave a quick nod before speaking up. “Hey, yeah, Scout’s right. What if someone just tells Ruthers that Fossor’s the one who has Flick’s mom prisoner. Don’t you think that might make him feel a little more sympathetic? I mean, he’s gotta hate that son of a bitch a hell of a lot more than he hates Joselyn, doesn’t he? It might help.”

“I asked Gaia about it,” Avalon revealed calmly, wiping sweat off her forehead. “She said that finding out about Fossor would probably make him act even more irrationally. He hates Joselyn and he hates Fossor. Finding out they’re together won’t make him sympathize with Joselyn. He’ll just become more convinced that they’re working together. Well, actually she said he might kind of sympathize and think that Fossor tricked her like he was tricked. But it won’t make him hesitate. At best he’ll think that it compromises Chambers too much and take her out of play ‘for her own good.’” She looked at me. “That’s best case scenario: imprisonment in protective custody to keep you out of the way.”

I coughed weakly. “Sure he wouldn’t use me as bait to lure Fossor into the open to get his revenge?”

Avalon didn’t smile. “I said protective custody was best case. Bait was one of the other options.”

Wincing, I leaned back. “Right. Well, at least we know why the guy hates Alters so much. I mean, he’s still a dickhead who needs to figure out that you can’t declare all of humanity irredeemably evil just because of what Hitler did. But still. I get where he’s coming from now. I don’t agree, but I get it.”

Sands hesitated, looking indecisive for a moment before she spoke. “That’s probably why he went after your mom so hard in the first place, Flick. She was allying with Alters and he saw what happened the last time he did that. He trusted one wrong Alter and it wiped out almost half of Western civilization.”

I nodded. “Yeah, he’s probably seeing something of himself in her. I dunno. Maybe he started out trying to save her from herself, in his mind, and it eventually transitioned into hate. Or maybe he hates the mistakes he made so much it somehow transferred onto her from the start. He might be transplanting his rage and grief about what happened from his memory of his younger self to my mother.”

Avalon made a noise of agreement. “Whichever it is, Gaia says he’s pretty much openly irrational when it comes to Joselyn. They’ve tried to talk reason to him, but he just hates her so much it’s impossible.”

“Did you talk to her about Tangle?” Shiori asked quickly. “I mean, that whole thing… she helped set you up to kill that guy. Maybe they could give the phone to Eden’s Garden to get you pardoned? I… I don’t want you to go back there permanently or anything. I really like sparring with you. But if you’ve got friends there, maybe it could help you visit without being murdered? And they could show that Trice guy that he’s being manipulated into these attacks, that it really wasn’t your fault.”

Avalon regarded the other girl for a second before bowing her head in acknowledgment. “Thanks, Porter. You’re not bad to spar with either, especially since you started taking this stuff seriously.”

She was right. Shiori had always been good, even without really trying. But ever since the visit to the Meregan world, she had actually started throwing herself into the training a lot more than she had before. She went from moping around and barely contributing, to working her ass off. I’d talked to her about it a bit, and Shiori had said that she wanted to prove that half-Alters like her belonged here at Crossroads. She said that if Gaia wanted to get hybrids into positions of power and show that they could be trusted, then she was going to do everything she could to make sure that happened.

“But,” Avalon continued. “it wouldn’t help. They’d just say the phone was fake evidence. It’s just text messages, after all. It’s not like we have proof. And showing them messages on the phone of a Crossroads teacher isn’t exactly the best way to make Garden people believe my side of the story.”

“What about Seller?” I asked. “He could probably start trying to figure out who Tangle was working with over there. You know, her secret romance. And what about Tangle herself? Is Gaia going to get answers from that crazy bitch or what?”

Avalon’s head shook. “Tangle’s still in the Eduard Jenner Center For Strange Maladies.”

Before I could say anything to that, Sean put in, “Okay, once and for all, what kind of shark was she attacked by that put her in the damn Heretic Hospital for months? She’s got regeneration and they have other ways to heal her. So what the hell?”

The other girl just shrugged at that. “We don’t know. She was swimming in the ocean and something attacked her. She lost a leg and had a big chunk taken out of her side. Yeah, usually that wouldn’t be too bad for Heretics. But it wasn’t an ordinary shark, and the wound isn’t healing. It’s resisting every attempt to fix it, and her regeneration doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Plus, she’s in some kind of coma, so they can’t ask her anything about it.”

I sighed. “So the woman who probably knows everything about who’s trying to kill you and what this whole situation is about is just lying there in a coma in some hospital bed because some magical shark almost ate her? Is the timing on that just a little suspicious to anyone else?”

Columbus spoke up. “Sure. But uhh, there’s sort of a few easier ways for someone to take themselves off the suspect list than nearly being eaten. Plus, not being around made it easier to check up on her, not harder. You’d think it’d be easier for her to control things if she was actually around.”

“Could she be faking the lack of healing?” I asked Avalon. “Maybe one of the doctors over there is helping out. Could be a shapeshifting power to make herself look injured at the right times, then she leaves whenever she needs to.”

“Even if she did that,” Sands pointed out, “Headmistress Sinclaire, Professor Kohaku, and the rest of the security team would know if she ever stepped on the school grounds. I think they’d notice something like that.”

“I still think the next step is to get there somehow and see her for ourselves,” I insisted. “Tangle’s the best lead we’ve got. If she is working with someone in that place, maybe we can figure out who they are. And how she’s doing it.”

“I’ll talk to Gaia,” Avalon promised quietly. “We’ll see if there’s a way to arrange a trip.”

Nodding slowly, I looked back to the others. “I guess in the meantime, we just go to our track classes?”

Shiori was actually smiling at that. “Professor Katarin said we were going into the jungle tonight.” Her eyes were shining with excitement that was more than a little adorable. “There’s supposed to be wild Jekern out there, and we’re going to find them.”

“Jekern?” I asked with a frown. “What’re those?”

It was Sean who answered. “You know what a warthog looks like? Picture one of those, except as tall as a grown man, and the ability to breathe lightning. Oh, they’re like Russian nesting dolls. Every time you kill one or cut it open, there’s another smaller one inside, all the way down until they can fit in the palm of your hand.”

I stared at him. “Okay, are you fucking with me right now?”

He grinned back at me. “Kinda hard to tell, isn’t it?” Laughing then, he shook his head. “Hand to the heavens, that’s what they are.  Uncle Sebastian talked about fighting one once. Or fighting… a bunch. I’m not sure what the right term is. Anyway, trust me, it’s weird.”

“Be careful, Shiori.”

The words came from both me and Columbus, and I saw the other girl’s cheeks turn pink before her head bobbed in agreement. “S-sure. I mean, Katarin’s there, so we’ll be okay.”

We started to disperse then, separating for our individual track classes. Sands and Scout walked alongside me, the three of us heading for the front of the Pathmaker building.

Professor Dare and the rest of our track-mates were waiting for us. Once we were there, the blonde instructor began. “Today we’re going to try something a little bit different.” She held stack of thick manila folders under one arm. “I’m going to assign each of you a partner. Together, you will take one of these folders. Each is a different case of a Stranger attacking a civilian. These cases have already been solved and settled. But you will start with only the information that our investigators had at the start of the case. You’ll be able to read everything, and you can use the PAWS system to walk through replicas of the crime scenes and even see the testimonies that are given. Working with your partner, you will work out what the Stranger was and how it should best be eliminated.”

She passed out assignments, and I found myself paired with Koren again. The other girl rolled her eyes at the announcement, muttering, “It’s almost like she’s planning this shit or something.”

I shrugged, waving the folder at her. “Hey, at least we get to solve a mystery?”

Her gaze settled on me, seeming to evaluate what I was saying before she sighed. “Yeah. At least there’s that. Fine, whatever. What’d we get, anyway?”

“Lessee,” I replied, opening the folder to glance through it. “It looks like… a bunch of people in a neighborhood went missing, and the only clue the regular police found was some black flowers inside their homes. It doesn’t–” The folder was snatched out of my hand abruptly, and I looked up to see that Koren’s eyes had practically bulged out of her head. “Err, did I say something wr–”

“Shut up,” the other girl ordered tersely, her eyes scanning the folder frantically. “No. No, that’s impossible. That’s impossible.”

“What?” I asked after another second. “Koren, what happened? What are you so–”

“This was my neighborhood, Chambers!” she blurted at me. “These were my neighbors, my friends. It happened when I was a little girl, I barely remember it, but it happened.

“And I’m pretty sure whatever did it was actually trying to get me.”

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Begin Again 10-07

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Approximately three hundred and forty-seven thousand showers later, I was relatively free of the stink. Even that was partly due to the special soap that Sands had provided. Apparently whatever she and Scout had made that nasty smelling stuff in the balloons out of, it reacted badly with most other normal cleaning agents. So anyone trying to scrub it off that didn’t have the special soap was in for a bad time.

Yeah, the twins and the boys had detention. They had all of the detention. A month worth, not counting the week of Thanksgiving. The headmistress had graciously agreed to a pause in their punishment for that week before it would continue. Partly because the twins had provided more of that special soap.

Gaia had to know what we were actually doing, of course, even if she wouldn’t be sure of the specifics until Avalon found a chance to talk to her in private. But she also had to keep up appearances, and being punished was something the other four had gone into the situation expecting to happen. Even then, however, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Shiori, Avalon, and I had gotten out of the whole thing scot free. It felt more than a little bit wrong. But when I brought it up, they’d mostly dismissed it. Apparently Sands and Columbus had already worked out a plan together to make it not that bad.

Fingers snapped in front of my face, bringing me back to the present where I outside on the grounds early the next day with each member of my team and Deveron. One guess who was snapping at me.

“Crossroads to Chambers, let’s wake up, huh?” the boy goaded. “You’re the ones that complained about me not training you, so pay attention while I am.” His voice just made me want to punch him. And then maybe keep punching him until he told me what the hell was going on and how much he already knew.

Sean spoke up then, his voice a lazy drawl. “Maybe she’s just still in shock that you’re actually here, buddy. I know I’m tempted to run a quick check for shapeshifters, holograms, or hidden cameras.”

Deveron just gave that cocky smirk of his. “Oh, don’t you worry, Sean. By the time we’re done here, you won’t care if it’s really me or someone pretending. You’ll hate my guts all the same. You guys wanted more actual training, you’re getting it.” His foot moved to kick the box at his side, sending it rolling on wheels across the ground to us. “Everybody reach in there. Should be one for each of you.”

The six of us blinked at each other first before looking at the box. Scout was the first to reach in, coming out with what looked like a simple black metal bracelet without any markings or designs on it.

“Put the bracelets on,” Deveron instructed. “One for each of you. Just snap them onto your wrist.”

“Hey, genius,” Avalon waved her own gauntlet-covered hand at him pointedly. “Won’t fit under them.”

He shrugged at her. “It’ll auto-adjust its size, just move the thing higher and put it over your bicep.”

Deveron was right. As I snapped the bracelet into place, it adjusted itself automatically until it fit snugly without cutting off circulation or being uncomfortable. There was also some kind of padding or cushioning on the thing so that it wouldn’t dig into the skin. All in all, it actually didn’t feel too bad.

“Now what?” Columbus asked, after adjusting his bracelet. “Are we fashion buddies or something?”

In response, Deveron held up a small red ball. It was about the size of a baseball. Tossing it up and down in his hand, he made sure we were all looking at it. After a few seconds, the ball turned blue. An instant after it did, I felt a sudden zap of electricity from the bracelet on my wrist. It wasn’t like a stun gun or anything, more like touching a doorknob and getting hit by a bit of static electricity. It still stung a little though, and was surprising enough that I’m pretty sure every single one of us yelped out loud.

And the glaring began. Deveron ignored it, of course, pushing on. “That tiny little shock is what happens whenever one of these balls,” he tossed the blue orb up and down. “Goes from red to blue without being hit by one of you. Of course, the same thing happens if you hit a ball while it’s blue.”

Releasing the ball, he winked as the thing hovered there rather than falling. “Your job is to hit the ball when it’s red, not when it’s blue. Simple enough? Well, let’s make it a little more fun, shall we?”

With that, the boy reached into the bag he had slung over one shoulder, repeatedly producing one ball after another, heaving them into the air until an even dozen floated in front of him. “There,” he remarked, looking quite pleased with himself. “Here’s the deal. These things are going to fly around in this general area.” He made an encircling motion with one arm. “You guys spread out and watch them. Every once in awhile, one of the balls will turn from blue to red. When that happens, you’ve got… let’s start with ten seconds to hit it before you get a little shock. We’ll adjust the time as we go. And we’ll add a few more balls, widen the area, make them move faster, whatever we need to do to give you all the challenge you’ve been craving. Any questions?” The boy produced a canteen and took a long drink.

“Yeah,” Columbus put in. “I’ve got a question. What about those of us with ranged powers? Ever think about what might happen if we, I dunno, miss and end up hitting the school or someone walking by?”

To my surprise, Deveron raised the canteen as though toasting him. “Fair question, buddy. Yeah, since I don’t fancy getting shot or stabbed or exploded, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the school might frown on you kids for the same thing, we have these.” Stepping back, he kicked a foot against what looked like a small wooden totem. “These things are all around the field here. When we get started, I’ll turn them on. They’ll make a forcefield that should contain any stray shot unless you people make some kind of concerted attack against it. Stay inside the forcefield, hit the balls while they’re red, and don’t kill each other. Keep your eyes open and communicate. You see a ball turn red but you’re too far away to hit it, open your damn mouth and tell someone who can hit the thing. Questions? No? Okay. Do it.”

******

Later that evening, after a long day of being shocked (both by the bracelet and Deveron seeming to actually give a shit about what he was doing) and more classes, I was sitting with Vanessa, Rudolph, and Koren in the library once more, ostensibly to work on our project for Professor Dare’s class.

“Come on, Chambers. You’ve gotta know. Why’d half your team go nuts and stink bomb the faculty?” Koren was leaning forward a bit, her eyes shining with the excitement of someone getting good gossip.

Wait a second. After everything I’d tried, this was the bit that made Koren want to actually talk to me? This was the topic she wanted to bond with me over? A part of me started to flail and sputter inwardly.

Outwardly, I just shrugged at the other girl while replying as dismissively as possible. “I guess Sands and Scout thought they were losing their reputation or something. I dunno. Maybe they were bored?”

“Bored.” Koren echoed the word with sarcastic dismissiveness, her eyes staring at me intently. “In a place like this, with the things we get to do. Listen, if you’re gonna cover for your little friends, come up with a better excuse than ‘they’re bored.’ Make it at least somewhat believable, or everyone’s gonna see right through you. Nah. You know. You know what they were doing, and it wasn’t about being bored. It was about something else. Something…” She squinted at me. “Something in the building.”

Now? Now Koren decided to illustrate why she’d chosen the investigation track? She chose the most inconvenient times to start paying attention to things. Try to subtly hint that she was sort of accidentally insulting or ridiculing someone without meaning to and she was as dense as a freaking boulder. But then she turned around and totally picked apart our ruse about getting into the building. What the hell.

Vanessa interrupted before I could come up with a suitable response to that. “We should start working.” I saw the way she glanced at me, her own expression obviously curious even as she spoke.

“Seriously, bookworm, you’re not even a little curious?” Koren demanded before looking toward the fourth member of our group. “C’mon, Reindeer. You have got to want to know what they’re up to.”

Sighing at the name, Rudolph sat back in his seat before making a single, slow shrugging motion. “Doesn’t seem like she’s in the mood to talk about it right now. Pushing it’s probably a waste of time.”

That was Rudolph. So easy going and slow to anger or even get that excited about anything openly. At first, I’d thought the boy was so lazy that he’d get kicked out or disciplined until he straightened up.

Now, however, I realized that while the boy didn’t go out of his way to get more work, he did do everything that he needed to. He usually worked smarter rather than harder, and he had lots of little shortcuts that let him accomplish as much as he had to without working nearly as hard as others did.

He was, again, a bear. Slow, casual, and outwardly lazy, but fierce when he needed to be.

“Damn it,” Koren muttered under her breath. “You guys are killing me here. I miss my friends.” Though she said it mockingly, I noticed a small hesitation at the end where her expression slipped. It looked like she’d meant to say it dismissively, then realized after it slipped out how true it actually was.

For a moment, I wondered just how Koren probably felt. There didn’t really seem to be that many girls around like her. This wasn’t exactly a good place for gossip queens or the typical high school clique sort of environment. And, I might have been projecting a little, but she seemed kind of lonely.

But damn it, every time I tried to bond with the girl or actually have a real conversation with her, she said something insulting or condescending. Usually it seemed like she didn’t even understand that she’d crossed a line or done anything wrong. The words just blurted out of her unthinkingly, leaving her totally confused when people lashed back at her. She had a surprising lack of self-awareness for someone who was so good at noticing things like the real reason for the stink-bomb prank.

Rather than try to address that then, I just straightened and changed the subject. “Right, so, the Black Death. Plague that killed about a hundred million people. Such a cheerful subject for our project.”

“Yersinia pestis,” Vanessa announced, continuing without looking at any of her books. “That’s the bacterium that causes the plague. There’s three main forms of it. Bubonic is the most common, then Pneumonic, and Stepticemic is the rarest one. And the most deadly. They’re all really bad though.”

“Yeah, they’re… nasty,” I agreed with a sigh. Talking about disease was always depressing. Especially when it was something this awful. “So we know what Bystanders think about it. I mean, generally speaking. What about Heretics? Was there anything… you know, supernatural behind it?”

“They’ve got books about it,” Vanessa replied quickly, her eagerness showing even as she put her hands on the stack in front of her. “I, um, I didn’t read them yet. I waited for you guys.” The way she spoke made it sound like she was a little kid who had managed to resist opening Christmas presents until everyone else was ready. Actually, knowing the other girl as much as I did, it was probably exactly like that. As obsessed as Vanessa was with learning absolutely everything that she possibly could, stopping herself from pushing on without the rest of us must’ve taken an act of supreme willpower.

Koren, on the other hand, just started to blurt, “You mean you could’ve already had the whole–”

I interrupted. “Thanks, Vanessa. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.” Reaching over, I accepted one of the books that she had collected, glancing at the cover. “Hey, this one looks like a journal.”

“I think it is,” the other girl confirmed. “That’s the best part about this place. They’ve got people alive right now that were here through a lot of that history. So they can like, you know, write it down as eyewitness accounts and then actually update the books themselves. Instead of people generations away from the event translating the book into new languages, we have someone who actually there doing it. I mean, it’s… it’s just really neat.” She flushed a little by that point. “It is to me, anyway.”

Smiling a little bit in spite of myself at her enthusiasm, I nodded. “That does sound pretty useful. Who was this one written by?” I asked casually while turning the book around to look for an author.

“That one?” Vanessa leaned in a little to check which one I’d grabbed a bit more closely. “Oh, look inside the back cover. It was someone named Lyell. Lyell Atherby.”

My head snapped up at that, but before I could say anything, Koren spoke first. “Lyell who?” Her hand snatched the book away from me, opening to the back page before she read out loud. “For my family, my descendants and my friends. May the mistakes we have made in the past be the blocks of the walls that shield our future. Lyell Atherby, originally written May 3rd, 1362, last updated October 10th, 1891.”

I stared at the book in the other girl’s hand. Lyell Atherby? Mom’s… ancestor somehow? Except that I was pretty sure that she had been a Bystander when she first came to the school, so what was going on? Was this Lyell the ancestor that Mom had had her own Edge vision about? Obviously, he was related to Seller in some way, another step back along our family line. Was he dead now? I figured I would’ve heard about him by that point if he wasn’t, but still. What had actually happened to him? 1891 wasn’t that far off from when Mom must’ve been born, if she had been twenty years old in 1922. Had he still been alive while she was a student, or even afterward? Or had he died first? My mind was reeling.

“Um, hey, are you all right?” Vanessa spoke hesitantly. When I looked up to respond, however, she wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Koren, who was still staring at the book intently.

“Huh?” the other girl blinked, looking first at Vanessa, then to the rest of us before flushing noticeably. “Fine. Fine. I’m fine. Let’s just do this. Where does this guy talk about the plague?” She started to flip through the book, turning pages quickly while scanning them. “Blah, blah, blah, rambling…” In spite of her dismissive words, I could tell the girl was actually really interested in what she was reading. For whatever reason, she was just pretending it didn’t matter that much.

Had her vision been about this Lyell guy? Was that how she’d recognized the name? Or maybe it was even about my own mother, her grandmother. Would the whole ‘memory erasure’ thing allow the Edge to give a vision of my mom as long as it didn’t involve the rebellion? I had no idea if that was even possible. And I suddenly really, really wanted to just outright ask her.

Rudolph was talking. “Sounds like this guy was one of the old Heretics. Pre-Crossroads. Wonder what happened to him.”

“You uhh, ever heard the name?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as I could.

He shrugged easily, yawning. “Lyell Atherby? Nah. Never heard of any Heretic with that last name. Maybe he didn’t have any kids. Or he only had a daughter that didn’t keep the name.”

Or maybe he had a descendant who pissed off the establishment so much that they used incredibly powerful magic to completely erase her identity from everyone’s memory, I thought to myself with a scowl.

“Here we go,” Koren spoke then, reading from the book. “Finally talking about the plague. It says: ‘The truth of this horrifyingly devastating curse is yet another cautionary tale for those who read this writing in the future. Do not trust those creatures we know as the Strangers. They are vile and will betray such alliances, as in the case here of the brief and tragic truce between our leadership and the creature known as Fossor. There is–”

“Wait, what?” I blurted, sitting up. “What was that last—what did you say?” I demanded, while grabbing the book out of the other girl’s hand.

“Wow, rude,” Koren muttered, ignoring the fact that she had taken the book out of my hands first.

I wasn’t paying attention. My eyes were scanning the page. “Alliance with the creature known as Fossor?”

“That’s the old term for gravedigger,” Vanessa supplied, trying to help.

Nodding absently, I stared at the passage. “It says that there was this council of Heretics. The old kind of Heretics, before Crossroads. There was some kind of monster or something they were trying to hunt down, and this… Fossor came to offer help. He was… charming and charismatic, but none of them trusted him. They thought he was lying, and they would’ve attacked him except one of them stood up for him. One of the old Heretics believed Fossor could help. So they worked together. And… and he unleashed that plague. This… This Fossor betrayed them and created the Black Death.”

“Holy shit,” Rudolph managed eventually. “They worked with a Stranger and it made a plague that almost destroyed Europe? Fuck… me….”

“Who was it?” Koren asked, leaning closer. “Who was the guy that worked with this Fossor creep?”

My head shook. “I dunno, I’m trying to find it, but he doesn’t really say what–” I froze, my finger on the page as my eyes went wide with shock.

“What? What did you see?” Koren demanded, leaning around to see.

The words came out through a hard lump in my throat. “The person who worked with Fossor, the one that trusted him. The Heretic who made that alliance that led to the Black Death.

“It was Ruthers. Gabriel Ruthers.”

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Begin Again 10-06

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Okay. So I liked boys. And I liked girls. I understood that much. I was kind of confused as to why I’d never noticed my attraction to girls before, but maybe that sort of thing happened. It wasn’t like I was some kind of expert at maturing romance feelings. So whatever. Boys, girls, I like them both. Great.

But how exactly was I supposed to tell anyone that? Like right now. I was practically walking arm in arm with both of my female crushes. Both of the girls that I actually liked liked were right next to me and I had less than zero idea of what to do about that. I kind-of-sort-of thought that Avalon might have been purposefully teasing me, and I knew that Shiori saw me as at least a friend. But every time I tried to turn my brain toward whatever the next step should be, it came up blank. I wanted to say something to one of them, wanted to figure out what I was supposed to do next, but I had no idea what.

I liked both of them. Avalon was drop-dead gorgeous, while Shiori was pretty in a quieter, more mysterious and shy way. Avalon was a badass pin-up model while Shiori was essentially a cute ninja. Avalon was smart and brave and snarky, and for all her grumbling, incredibly loyal. Shiori was absolutely freaking adorable, brilliant with her word-play, and just as brave. They were both incredible. And not only did I not know what to say to either of them about how I felt, I was also horrified by the very idea of hurting either of them. As unlikely as it might have been that I would have a chance with both of them, the very thought of choosing one and hurting the other was practically paralyzing me.

“Chambers,” Avalon’s annoyed voice broke through my cloud of distraction as she waved a hand in front of my face to get my attention. “We’re here. What the hell are you thinking about so much?”

Right. We were there, waiting by the building for the twins and the boys to get into position and start their stink-balloon bombardment. And I had just been staring off into space for who knew how long.

Thanks to my new facial shapeshifting power, I didn’t blush. Powers were the best. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an anti-babbling ability yet. “Oh, me? I was just thinking about the, umm… the quest.”

“The quest,” she echoed, her voice so dry you could probably start a forest fire with it.

“Yup!” I chirped in spite of myself, head bobbing. “You know, this whole thing is like an RPG. Dude, we even get actual experience by killing monsters. And now we’re advancing part of the story quest.”

Shiori eagerly put in, “Oh, oh! Investigate Professor Tangle’s apartment. And we even went on a whole character-related sideque—ohh my god! I was the extra unlockable character! You did my sidequest!”

“I know, right?” I grinned back at the other girl, and the two of us literally bounced up and down a bit. “Extra unlockable character and a quest on a whole new world semi-unrelated to the previous plot but that expands the story a bit and gives you both a new character and new, previously unseen abilities!”

“Gabriel shoot me,” Avalon muttered under her breath. “The dorks are multiplying now.”

That, at least, got my attention. I hesitated before asking, “I’ve heard you say that before. Is that like Gabriel the angel? Do Heretics worship him or something? Or is that just an Eden’s Garden thing?”

“Isn’t that the former headmaster’s name?” Shiori was looking back and forth. “Gabriel Ruthers?”

For a second, I wasn’t sure whether the girl was going to answer or not. She regarded me briefly before speaking quietly. “It’s a Vigilant Sons thing. The tribe I was a part of. Seller’s tribe. It doesn’t have anything to do with any angel. And it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with Ruthers. The Gabriel we’re referring to isn’t either of them. It’s the one they call Gabriel Prosser, even if that’s wrong.”

I blinked, thought about it, then just blinked again. “I feel like I should know that name, but I’m not sure. It’s… sort of familiar? I know I’ve heard it somewhere, but it’s not coming to me,” I admitted.

Shiori just shrugged. “Sorry, I dunno either. I kind of wanna say he invented something?”

Shaking her head, Avalon explained, “No, he didn’t invent anything. Gabriel was a slave back in the seventeen hundreds, a literate slave who was also a blacksmith. And brilliant. He tried to lead a slave revolt, but was betrayed and captured. The slavers dragged him back to Richmond and went after him hard, but they couldn’t break him. So they tried to hang him, his two brothers, and twenty or so others.”

“Wait,” I interrupted in spite of myself, fascinated by the story. “They tried to hang him?”

She gave a slight nod. “Exactly what I said, tried to hang him. Bystanders even think they managed it, actually. Then again, they couldn’t exactly remember what actually happened that day.”

“An Alter attacked them while they were trying to hang him?” I asked hesitantly.

“Not just any Alter, Stranger, whatever,” Avalon corrected me. “A Hangman. It attacked the proceedings, killed a bunch of people in the process, and would have kept going through a whole lot more. Except Gabriel managed to hurt the thing with one of the shovels that the men were going to use to dig his grave. He saved the town that was going to execute him. In return, the Hangman almost ripped him apart. It threw him into a tree, impaled him on one of the branches, and broke his spine. It would have used its rope on him, just to finish the job. But it was hurt. So when the thing heard more people coming to see what was going on, it retreated. Gabriel fell right there on the ground next to the shovel that he tried to kill the thing with. The shovel that had the Hangman’s blood on it.”

My eyes widened at that, and I straightened. “Wait, that sounds sort of like how–”

“–Bosch became the first Crossroads Heretic and started this whole thing,” Shiori finished for me. The two of us glanced to each other, then looked back at Avalon.

“Yup,” Avalon confirmed. “The blood from the Hangman got mixed into Gabriel’s wound. It made him a Heretic, and because it was a direct blood upgrade, some of the Hangman’s own power. It wasn’t like when we get turned into Heretics, the diluted form. This was the full, original, human-connected-to-Alter power upgrade. So the men came up, found everyone dead, thought that Gabriel was dead too, and buried him along with the others. They buried him while he was unconscious. When he woke up after the Hangman’s own healing fixed him up enough to escape. He broke out of the grave and accidentally met up with the Heretic that was investigating the site of the Hangman’s attack.

“After that, he sort of became a legend really fast. He didn’t join either Crossroads or Garden. He just did his own thing, sort of a lone wolf, wandering hero. But a lot of people at Garden, especially my old tribe, think convincing him to join them, to join Garden, is the only way to win what they see as an inevitable war against Crossroads. He’s basically a nuclear missile by now. A nuke that a lot of Garden Heretics spend their whole lives looking for. If he’s still out there, he hasn’t shown himself for decades. There’s rumors of sightings and the aftermath of fights that could be him, but nothing definitive.”

My mouth opened, but before I could find any kind of words to respond to that, an ear-splitting alarm abruptly went off. I practically jumped ten feet into the air despite the fact that I’d been waiting for it, turning to see Scout in the distance lob another stink-balloon. It arced up perfectly before dropping through the slightly open window on the side of the building. In another life, Scout would’ve made an awesome pitcher. And the alarm was still going off. Through the windows, I heard one of the faculty shout some kind of curse that I could only hope wasn’t a spell. Any second now, the grounds were going to be filled with ticked off adults. We had to hurry up and get this show on the road.

To that end, Avalon was already reaching up to the stone wall of the building. Her hands pressed against it, and as I watched, the wall gradually turned into wood. It spread as much as she dared before the girl gave me a quick nod. “Go,” she whispered urgently. “Get in, I’ll be fine. Just hurry up.”

Obliging her, I jumped while pushing my hands against the wood. At a thought, my body merged into the newly-created wood. It felt like… swimming, and I forced myself to go in and out, straight through the other side. The awkward, cramped feeling went away and I fell bodily onto the carpeted floor of Professor Tangle’s apartment. The living room, to be exact, judging from the furniture around me. And it was definitely hers, since I could see several pictures of the dark-skinned woman on the walls. I recognized her from other pictures that I’d seen inside the school over the past few months.

It also stank like hell. God, I nearly threw up right then. The smell was permeating in from under the doorway. Sands had said it would be bad, but uuuggghgnn. Would this scent ever wash out? My eyes were practically watering.

Rather than focus too much on the view just yet (or the stench), I focused on using my sand-control power to reach through the wall to where I knew Shiori was waiting, already transformed. It took some effort considering I couldn’t actually see the sand, but I managed to somewhat blindly grasp onto her with the power and pull the girl up to the nearby vent. She came through faster than I expected, a cloud of sand that briefly filled the room before shrinking back in on itself, turning back into a solid figure just in time for Shiori to come crashing straight into me before I could throw myself out of the way.

We hit the floor and rolled with a pair of embarrassing yelps, and I was really glad that Tangle apparently wasn’t the type to have a bunch of end tables or something all over her living room. The carpet was mostly empty, and surprisingly comfortable to fall onto.

Also comfortable: Shiori. We sort of landed half-tangled in a pile of limbs, and it took the two of us a few seconds to extricate ourselves from one another. Maybe a few more seconds than were strictly necessary, considering the time crunch we were working on, but we managed it in the end.

Shiori was blushing. “Okay,” she spoke while looking absolutely anywhere but at me.”Where first?” Then she made the mistake of sniffing, and I saw her eyes water as she jerked while making a gagging noise. My hand moved quickly to cover her mouth before she could cry out and draw attention to us.

Once she was calm, I nodded. “Just try not to sniff too much.” After the girl nodded while still making a face, I bit my lip, thinking about her question briefly. “You start in that hall closet, I’m gonna check for an office or her bedroom. Just look for anything related to me, Eden’s Garden, or anything that stands out. You’ve got your phone, right?” Really should’ve asked that before we got in here, Flick, I reminded myself.

She waved it at me with a smile. “I shudder to think what we’d do if I had forgotten the camera.”

That smile again. The one I recognized. Mentally running the sentence back through my head with the Shiori-pun filter, I found it after a second. “Shutter. You shutter to think. God, you’re adorable.”

Focus, Flick. Pivoting on my heel, I ran out of the living room and down the short hallway. The doorway on the left led to a bathroom, while the two on the right led to a bedroom and… an office. Yes.

Saving the bedroom for later, I went right into office and looked for the computer. There it was, a rather modern-looking thing. She even had a flat screen and a wireless keyboard with lights on the keys.

Oh my god. There was a stack of video games on the nearby dresser, and two different consoles in a corner next to a large screen television. Whoever Tangle was, she liked to play games. Of the board variety too, considering the large number of them all piled up on one of the bookshelves. So many games of so many types. She had more different games in this room than a lot of toy stores.

After taking in the sight of all the games for a few seconds, I moved to the computer and hit the mouse. The formerly dark screen lit up with a password prompt, and I muttered an ugly curse under my breath. Great, of course there was a password. Why couldn’t the teachers of this ancient magic school write down all their secrets on easily pilfered parchment or something? It would’ve been so much simpler.

Okay, so look around. I opened both of the desk drawers, sorting through random papers and other things to find something that might have the password written on it. Nothing. Nothing at all.

“Hey, Flick, look at these,” Shiori spoke from the doorway. When I glanced that way, she had a large stack of envelopes in one hand while pushing her other arm across her face to block out some of the scent. Waving one at me, she explained, “They’re like… love letters.”

Frowning, I straightened from the desk, taking a step that way. “Love letters?”

She nodded easily, showing me one after another. “Yeah, really mushy love letters with the same person, from what I can tell. But all the envelopes look different, see? They’re all from different locations, and most of them look like they’re junk mail. See, this one says it’s from some library in Minnesota. This one is from one of those online banks. And here’s another one from some college.”

“Right,” I took one of the envelopes, examining it. “So someone was sending love letters to Professor Tangle, only they were disguised as junk mail or just ordinary mail. Obviously, they didn’t want people here to see where the letters were coming from, or how many letters she was getting. But why?”

“Maybe it was someone from Eden’s Garden?” Shiori suggested. “You know, a secret romance that they had to hide.”

Immediately I thought of the looks that I’d seen between Professor Dare and Miranda’s teacher Hisao, and the way the woman had been smiling after spending time with him. Yeah, I could believe that there would be a secret romance between a Garden and Crossroads teachers. “If so, that has to have something to do with what Miranda heard about Tangle being Trice’s contact over here.”

Shiori was shaking her head. “That doesn’t make sense. Tangle hasn’t been here all semester, has she?”

I hesitated, thinking about it. “Maybe she can still give them information, tell them about a secret way into the school grounds or something, ways to beat the security.” I thought of my mother briefly.

While thinking about that, I looked through one of the letters that Shiori had been holding. Like she’d said, it was mostly a lot of lovey dovey stuff. Promises to always take care of each other, oaths of devotion and protection, that kind of stuff. They mentioned dates that they’d been on, most of which had obviously taken place while Tangle was supposed to be doing other things. It was a secret affair.

Then, at the bottom of the letter, I noticed something else. Holding it up, I read aloud, “I can’t use the phone for awhile. Pretty sure the old man’s getting suspicious. I think he’s setting traps for anyone using a phone that bypasses the island’s security. As soon as it’s safe, I’ll call you, my beloved. But right now, I have to hide the phone. After all, the heat of our passion will never cool.”

“So she had a phone like yours,” Shiori pointed out with a frown. “A phone that gets around security. Be nice if we could find that thing.”

Nodding slowly, I squinted at the letter. “You know what? You’re right, it would be nice. Come on.”

Hurrying out of the room, I led Shiori back down the hall and to the small kitchenette, waving the letter back at her, repeating the last words. “Heat of our passion will never cool.” With that explanation, I tugged the freezer door open and rooted around inside through the frozen dinners, ice cream, and other things. I ended up dumping out a couple boxes on the counter to no avail. But just as I thought maybe I was wrong, my grasping fingers moved up and under the slot that the ice tray went into, and I felt plastic.

“Jackpot,” I muttered before yanking. There was the sound of tearing tape, and then my hand came out with a taped up Ziplock bag with a cell phone inside it.

Shiori was staring at it, biting her lip. “Wouldn’t being in the freezer damage it?”

I shrugged back at her. “Magic?” Unzipping the baggie, I fished the phone out and held it up. “It’s not frosted over or anything. Actually, it feels a little warm.”

Hitting the power button, I waited while the phone booted up. Please don’t have a password, please don’t have a password, please don’t have a password.

Okay, the good news was that it didn’t have a password. The bad news was that it had one of those facial recognition unlock systems.

Wait. That wasn’t bad news. Turning to Shiori, I pointed past her. “Quick, grab that picture of Tangle off the wall and bring it here.”

After the other girl had done that, I looked down at the picture. It took me a few seconds to focus enough on my new power (especially since I kept getting distracted by that awful stench), but gradually, I felt my face shift and change, as well as a tingling sensation as the skin darkened. Doing my best to match the image in the picture, I looked up eventually. “How do I look?”

“Like Tangle’s head on Flick’s body,” she answered honestly. “It’s weird.”

“Weird is good,” I replied with a thumbs up before holding the phone up. Hitting the button to unlock it, I stayed still while the camera checked my new face.

It unlocked. Resisting the urge to cheer, I gave it a quick look. We could go more in depth later. Right now, I was mostly interested in what the most recent messages looked like.

There was only one text conversation on the phone. There was no name given, only a phone number. And the majority of the conversation was more of the same from the letters, just texts back and forth. Plus some, ahh, intimate bits I kind of skimmed over quickly while blushing.

Then there was the last message received by Tangle’s phone, which read, ‘It worked. She killed him. Whole place hates her now. Seller got her out before they could lock the bitch down. She won’t have any friends here though.’

And the last reply from Tangle’s phone, ‘Good. Start pushing the brother. Get him ready to kill her. Do it right and they’ll never trace any of it back to us. Then she can rot in hell. I love you, baby.’

For a few seconds, Shiori and I both stared down at the messages. Finally, I managed a weak, “I’m just gonna say it. Some people’s pillow talk is just plain weird.

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Begin Again 10-05

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“Tell me something. When exactly did you decide to turn traitor and destroy our entire civilization?”

Rebecca Jameson, all less than five feet of her, stared with wide eyes at the figure looming over her. Which, to be honest, was really only possible because of her own diminutive form. Wyatt’s (of course it was Wyatt) scrawny figure didn’t really tend to do much in the way of looming most of the time.

“No answer, huh?” the enthusiastic security guard that happened to be my half-brother pushed on in the face of the girl’s utterly bewildered stare. “Didn’t expect old Wyatt to catch onto you so quick, did ya?”

It was the end of dinner that evening. Columbus, Shiori, and Sean were all sitting with me on one side of the cafeteria, finishing up dessert. All of us were watching the action going on two tables away.

“Should we uhh, do something?” Shiori whispered under her breath while leaning a little closer to me.

I tried not to be too distracted by the warmth of the other girl’s body leaning so close. Really, I did. But in the end, Columbus spoke up before I could. “What’re we supposed to do, throw something at him?”

Meanwhile, Rebecca shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she protested earnestly.

“A likely story, knave!” Wyatt retorted. Yeah, he said knave. Seriously. “You weren’t expecting me to notice your chicanery,” he continued dramatically. “But my eyes are always watching.” He pointed two fingers toward his face, then gestured around the room. “They’re everywhere. Watching you. Seeing you. You can’t hide from the gaze of justice, girl. The gaze of justice sees everything. Everything.”

The others were all looking at me pointedly by then, and I waved them off before sliding to my feet to move that way. “Okay, okay, okay. Before this accidentally gets too close to something that might make Chris Hansen start paying attention, maybe you could explain what you think Rebecca did? Uh, sir.”

Wyatt looked to me, then back to Rebecca, his gaze narrowing even further. “You wanna know what she did, Miss Chambers? Oh, I’ll do better than tell you. I’ll show you.” The scrawny man straightened to his most imposing height (which basically put him about an inch taller than I was) before commanding, “Jameson, are you going to empty your pockets right now, or do we have to make you?”

Obviously still confused, Rebecca echoed, “Empty my pockets?” When the man’s mouth opened to bellow again, she hurriedly complied. “Fine, fine. Here, look.” Straightening, the tiny girl started to dig random junk out of her pants. I saw a half-used pack of gum, an unopened thing of Tic Tacs, a wallet with a pink flower on the side, a white cell phone, and a set of keys that included the same kind of red key as the one I had to get into my own dorm. Finally, she produced one final object: a butter knife.

Wyatt grabbed the knife. “Aha! You thought you were gonna sneak this right on out of here, didn’t you? Who were you planning to take out with this, huh? Roommate, teacher, maybe a really perceptive security guard?” He was holding the knife like it was a machete. “Gonna try gutting a classmate?”

Rebecca just stared at him. It took her a second to find her voice (which meant she was doing better than I was on that front). “It’s just a butter knife, sir. My mom sent me crackers and peanut butter, but I don’t have any way to spread it. I didn’t think it’d be a big deal. I’m not—I wasn’t trying to—I mean…”

Before Wyatt or I could respond, there was another voice that spoke up. This one sounded harsh and guttural, with a deep Russian accent. “Vhat iz problem here? Vhy all still in my stolovaya? Is closed.”

Looking up, I found Chef Escalan, the squat, rather rotund man with stringy straw-yellow hair sticking out of his flat chef’s hat. The man was standing there looking at us all with an expectant, annoyed glare.

Coughing, I quickly spoke up. “Uh, Chef Escalan, is it okay if Rebecca borrows one of your butter knives for awhile?” I indicated the utensil that Wyatt was still holding. “She needs it for some peanut-”

“Pah,” the man interrupted dismissively. “I am not caring vhat she is using for, only dzat she is returning eet vhen finished.” His hand lashed out so fast I barely saw him move before he had the utensil. “Is knife for butter, not chainsaw. Vhy need steal little knife for killing when have big guns?”

He had a point there. Rebecca’s weapon was a backpack that turned into a massive mounted cannon. If she wanted to do damage to someone, that would’ve been a hell of a lot easier than a butter knife.

“So, I can take it?” the other girl asked rather hesitantly, looking back and forth between the two men.

In response, the chef produced a small notebook with an attached pen from his pocket, flipping it open before turning the thing around to present to her. “You vill sign out knife, dzhen return vhen finished.”

Rebecca promptly took the pen and signed her name into the notebook, along with the fact that she was borrowing a butter knife. “Is, um, is that it?” she asked with a confused glance toward me.

“Is all,” Escalan confirmed before snapping the notebook shut. He presented the butter knife to her.

“Yeah, that’s all, for now.” Wyatt informed her. “You get off easy this time. But I’m watching. Always-”

Clearing my throat to interrupt, I quickly stepped between them. “Hey, uh, Mr. Rendell. I had some questions about the, um…” I thought fast. “About taking a hike through the jungle. Where do we sign up for it? And do I need to buy insect repellent, or is there some kind of spell that we can do for that?”

Rebecca used the opportunity to beat a hasty retreat, while Escalan muttered something about getting the hell out of his dining room so it could be cleaned. Then he was gone too, back into the kitchen.

Wyatt was staring at me then, eyes narrowed as if trying to figure out whether I was a secret spy or not. And, as usual, he was clearly leaning toward the former. “You’re that one that was late to start school.”

“Uh, yup.” I let my head bob up and down quickly. “That’s me, Flick Chambers. So how about that sign-up list? I sort of just found out about it and I’d really like to get in on one of those jungle hikes.”

As quick as the man was to accuse people of something nefarious, he shifted gears equally fast. “Hikes!” Wyatt blurted, fingers snapping. “Yes, come on then. I’ll show you where the sign-in sheet is.” He started walking to the exit quickly, forcing me into a near-jog to keep up. His words came as fast as his steps. “The next group excursion is Saturday. That’s when they take everyone who wants to go on a guided tour. Or you can look at the list to find one of the approved escorts and ask them to sign you up for a special trip any day that you don’t have anything else going on. That’s either for you or a small group. I,” he added proudly, “am one of those approved guides. Of course, as busy as my days are, I don’t get a chance to run too many hikes. Still, if you insist on it, I suppose I might be able to squeeze–”

“Sure,” I blurted quickly, before I could think too much about it. When the man looked back at me with a confused expression, I clarified, “I mean go ahead and sign me up to go out on a hike with you. When’s a good time? I’ve got detention on Saturday, but maybe after? Or Sunday. Whenever works.”

Poor Wyatt was staring at me like I’d just grown two heads. “You want to sign up for–” he started with a baffled tone before covering it, straightening proudly. “Well. Of course you do. Let’s see… I’ll have to clear some time, look over my schedule. You understand how it is. But maybe… yes. I think I can squeeze in a little hike somewhere. I’ll give it a look, call off a few other plans, and let you know.”

“Let you know what?” The voice, coming from almost directly behind me, drew a yelp as I turned.

Deveron stood there, giving me that lazy, casual smirk. Like there was some kind of joke that only he was in on. Like the whole world was just one big game that he could ignore or just sleep through. “Hey there, Chambers,” he drawled easily while giving me a quick two fingered salute. “You getting in trouble with security again? Figured you would’ve learned your lesson after all the zombies.”

The words made me squint at him suspiciously. “How did you know about that?” Sure, there’d been zombies everywhere, but most of the students had been safe in their dorms, not fighting. Plus, there was the way he said it as if our being around zombies had something to do with breaking the rules.

He just smiled, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “Got a little talk from Kohaku. Apparently I’m such a terrible mentor that you had to find out if I had blackmail material or something to keep my position?”

Flushing slightly at the reminder of what Sands had used for our cover story, I lifted my chin. “Well, you’re definitely not winning any awards. When was the last time you actually helped train us? Actually, scratch that. When was the first time you helped train us? Because I can’t remember any.”

Before Deveron could say anything, Wyatt had a finger in his face. “Hey! Is that true? You’re a mentor who doesn’t mentor? What’s that about? Do you have any idea how much of an honor it is to be selected as a team mentor? Any idea at all? You’re supposed to be the best. You’re supposed to help them. These kids are learning to fight for their lives out there! If you can’t help them, if you can’t be there, if you can’t do your job, then you quit and let someone else do it. If you don’t help, they’ll get hurt. They’ll die, and that’s on you. You understand me, pretty boy?”

He went on before the other boy could respond, and while I was still doing a double-take. “I’ve got eyes on you. My eyes on you. Eyes. You. One of these kids gets hurt, just one gets a hair on their head hurt and I find out it’s because you weren’t training them, I will be on your ass. You can smile, you can laugh it off now, but if they die because you were too lazy to teach them, I will make it my life’s work to pin you for it. That is my promise to you. If something happens to your team because you didn’t teach them, you won’t just get drubbed out of this school faster than you can make one of those stupid smirks, I’ll make sure your cocky little ass ends up serving time. You understand me, Adams? I said, do you understand me?”

For a second, Deveron didn’t respond. His eyes moved from the security guard to me and back again before he gave a slight nod. “Actually, you’re right. Why don’t we make that jungle hike a group thing? We can get all three of us out there, really hash out just how we should fix this whole team thing.”

Shit. My mouth opened to say something about how he wasn’t invited. Unfortunately, before I could get the words out, Wyatt gave an excited nod. Just like that, his mood shifted again. “That’s a great idea! Then you can see how to be a good—no, a great role model. Fantastic initiative, Adams. Truly a turn-around. You keep that up.” Eyes narrowing again, he pointed. “But don’t think you’re getting off easy. I will be watching. You do your job with this team of yours. You teach them, you pay attention, you work. If I think you’re slacking off again…” His voice trailed off threateningly.

Deveron made a quick little bowing motion. “Absolutely. I’ll be there… Sunday? That good for you?”

“Sunday!” Cheerfully, Wyatt pointed at both of us. “Sunday, jungle tour. Be in the cafeteria at nine in the morning. No, make it eight so we have time to go over your survival packs. Bring anyone else that wants to come, we’ll make a whole day of it! Believe me, you’re going to learn so much! It’ll be great!”

With that, he walked off, whistling happily. The man was clearly giddy about the whole concept of taking us out on a jungle hike, and I took a second to picture him bringing the same level of enthusiasm to that as he normally brought to being a security guard. Wow. Just… wow.

Then my eyes moved back to Deveron, and I found the older boy gazing after Wyatt with a weird expression. It wasn’t his usual cocky smirk or disinterested gaze. It looked like he was… sad? What? Had Wyatt’s threat to expel him or whatever else he’d gone on about actually hit home for him or something? That didn’t sound right, didn’t feel right. Not with that kind of look. The expression on his face, I couldn’t really understand it, but it reminded me of something else. Something familiar.

It was my look, I realized a second later. It was the look I had when I thought about my mom. Deveron was thinking about someone he lost, someone who wasn’t there anymore. He was missing someone.

The doors to the cafeteria opened then, and Shiori, Columbus, and Sean emerged with Escalan shouting after them that the place wasn’t a lounge to lay around in. The second they appeared, that look vanished from Deveron’s face. He turned, giving me a quick, casual wink. “Well, guess I got told off, huh? See you tomorrow, little Flickster and friends.”

“Wait, tomorrow?” Columbus asked, looking just as confused as I felt.

“Sure,” the boy gave us a thumbs up before turning to walk away. “You wanted to train. We’ll train. Let’s call it five o’clock, soon as the gym opens in the morning. That’ll give us the whole two hours. Tell the others! I’ll expect to see all of you there. Wouldn’t wanna piss off Captain Security, would we?”

Then he was gone, wandering off through the halls while whistling casually. Columbus looked at me. “What just happened?”

“And,” Shiori put in while rubbing Vulcan’s head fondly. “Does he realize I’m not actually a part of your team?”

All I could do was give a helpless shrug of confusion. “You know what, at this point, I don’t even know anymore. But I’m pretty sure I’m going on the world’s most awkward jungle hike this week.”

Sean slung an arm around my shoulders. “Hey, don’t feel bad. It can’t be any worse than what you’re doing tonight.”

Shuddering in spite of myself, I gave him a fake-sweet smile. “Sure you don’t want to come with and keep me company?”

He just smirked back at me, snapping his fingers in mock disappointment. “Damn, you know, I just don’t have any kind of power that’ll let me get in there. Shoot.”

“I do,” Shiori put in, waving a hand a little shyly.

Blinking back at her, I found myself blushing pink. “Oh, I wasn’t serious. It’s okay, you don’t have to go through this with me. It’s… not gonna be fun. Plus, I mean, don’t you have enhanced senses? That’d really suck.”

“That’s okay,” the other girl assured me. “You really shouldn’t go in all by yourself.

“And besides, if you can put up with the smell, I don’t mind it either.”

******

“Oh. Oh god, I changed my mind,” Shiori groaned a couple hours later while holding her nose. “That is nasty. I know you said it was gonna be bad, but not that bad. Gaaaah.” she made a weak little retching noise.

We were out behind the faculty building, mostly hidden by some trees and bushes. It was my whole team, plus Shiori. The seven of us had gradually made our way out here one or two at a time until all of us made it by the time the sun had set. I could hear other students running around and calling to each other over on the main part of the grounds, but we were alone here.

Sands and Scout were each holding the source of the overpowering stench that Shiori was complaining about (and I couldn’t blame her). It was a large bucket full of what looked like water balloons. But from the look of the sludge inside, not to mention the smell, they weren’t filled with water.

“Don’t worry,” I assured the other girl. “You don’t have to come in with me. It’s okay.”

Still, she shook her head a bit stubbornly. “No, it’s all right. I can deal. I’m coming with you. You should have someone watching your back, helping you search, keeping an eye out. You can’t do all of it.”

Avalon stood behind me, her gaze on the building. “You sure these things are going to be enough, Mason?”

Sands just grinned, reaching in to take one of the balloons into her hand. “Oh, it’ll be enough.” Cringing at the smell of the thing, she turned her head away while holding it out. “Wanna get a better sniff?”

“I’m fine,” Avalon retorted dryly. “I just want to make sure it’s enough to drive them out of the building. A lot of the faculty have powers that could detect someone going through Tangle’s apartment. This stuff has to make sure they all leave and explain any alarms that go off.”

Trust us, Avalon,” Sands pressed. “You may be the goddess of combat and aloof snark, but Scout and I know how to prank people. It’s simple. See those open windows? Those are the halls. We opened them this morning. So the two of us and the boys spread out and throw the balloons in through the windows. Hit every floor that you can. The balloons pop, spread their stench everywhere and sets off the alarms. It pisses off the faculty, they come out to catch us. We try to run, we get caught, we get lectured, we get punished. No big deal, happens all the time. Just kids being kids.”

“Meanwhile,” I added, “Shiori, Avalon, and I go to the other side of the building, right under Tangle’s apartment. Avalon turns it into wood so I can use my power to get inside, while Shiori turns into sand and follows me through the vent.”

“And when you two are done,” Avalon confirmed, “Shiori comes out to let me know so I can I turn the wall wood again and let you out, Chambers.”

“Like I said,” Sands put in then, “That smell is gonna be everywhere. That’s the whole point. If it doesn’t get into the rooms, it won’t get the staff out of there. You think it’s bad now, it’s gonna be worse when the stuff is out of the balloons.”

“Yeah,” Sean snorted. “You two have fun with that. We’ll just be over here getting more detention.”

I flinched. “Sorry guys. Look, if there’s a way to do this without anyone getting in trouble… Maybe you throw them and then run? You should be able to–”

“No,” Sands shook her head. “They need someone to lecture. Trust me, we know adults. Let them lecture us and they’ll stay way more distracted. It’s cool, Flick. We’ve been in trouble for much less important things than this. It’s just detention.”

“She’s right,” Columbus agreed. “You need to get in there and see if there’s anything in Tangle’s place.”

“Stop second guessing it, Chambers,” Avalon instructed, taking me by the arm. “Let’s get busy.”

On the opposite side, Shiori attached her own hand to my other arm. “Yeah, before someone notices us over here.”

So I went on toward the building, Avalon on one side and Shiori on the other. Behind me, I heard Sean whisper toward Columbus.

“Why do I get the feeling that, stink or no stink, she’s making out like a freaking bandit right now?”

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Begin Again 10-04

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“Oh man, if that’s the plan we’re going with, I hope you’ve got some clothes you don’t mind losing.”

It was the next day, and I was out on the grounds with Sean. We were both drinking ice water while we played with Vulcan. The boy was shaking his head at me while he continued. “Cuz I’ve smelled that stuff, and it ain’t gonna come out without some help.” He raised his glass to me before taking sip as ice cubes clinged together.

“And getting help from the staff would mean admitting I was there,” I confirmed. “Don’t worry, Sands made that part really clear. Unfortunately, she also said it’s the best idea she’s got, and I don’t have a better one.” Shrugging, I added, “Besides, if it gets us real information about Tangle, it’ll be worth it.”

The boy glanced to me before his head bobbed. “Yeah, point. Not like we’ve got a lot of other leads.” Shrugging, he added, “But hey, at least there’s not—“ He stopped himself. “Actually, never mind.”

“Smart man,” I commended with a little smile. “Keep any ‘at least there’s not’ comments to yourself.”

With the sound of clanging metal and gears, Vulcan came galloping back across the grass with a thick rubber ball in his mouth. Depositing it at my feet, he proceeded to dance around me excitedly, his metal tongue hanging out of his mouth. He was even wagging his hindquarters and bouncing as he waited.

Obligingly, I leaned down and grabbed the ball off the grass. “Oooh, thank you. I’ll keep it forever and ever and love it and not let it out of my sight,” I teased while the mechanical canine made a weak little whining noise, his eyes fixated on the ball. How the metal dog designed for battle that could turn into a minigun managed to look forlorn was beyond me, but somehow he accomplished the feat. I couldn’t hope to hold out against those puppy dog eyes. “Aww, okay, okay. Just teasing. Here, go get it, boy!”

Rearing back, I threw the ball as hard as I could. As it arced up and away from us, Vulcan gave a quick, excited bark before taking off like a shot. He chased that ball, a silver blur racing across the grass.

Watching him go, I took a sip from my water before speaking. “You know, I’ve been wondering something.”

“How could a guy as brilliant as I am end up looking this damn good?” Sean grinned. “Hard work.”

Outwardly, I rolled my eyes. But he had a point about the looking good part. The boy was wearing this dark red muscle shirt that clung to his chest rather well, with just enough sweat from playing with his canine partner to make him look like some kind of fitness model in a commercial. It was… distracting.

Still, there was no sense letting his head swell even further. So rather than engage him, I just coughed and moved on. “Actually, I was thinking that you’ve taken this whole…” Trailing off, I glanced around slightly before lowering my voice. “Strangers not being completely evil monsters thing pretty well.”

“You mean for someone raised in the Knowledge,” he clarified while stooping to take the ball from the returned Vulcan. “You’re wondering why this whole thing isn’t messing me up a bit, like Sands.”

I nodded while the boy took his turn to throw the ball, sending the mechanical dog bounding after it once more. “She’s been doing a lot better, but, yeah. You just seem to roll with the whole thing a lot better. I don’t know if it’s because you really don’t mind as much, or you think you shouldn’t react. If it’s the latter, I want you to know that you can talk about any problems you have. You don’t have to hide your reaction or anything.” It felt awkward to put that way, but I still had to say it, just in case.

Sean just shook his head. “I’m not exactly the type to hide when I’ve got a problem with something, Flickster. Trust me, if the time comes that you say something I disagree with, you’ll know about it.”

Turning to face the boy fully, I spread my arms out in a gesture of confusion. “So why are you taking this so easily? Like you said, you grew up in this society like Sands did. But you’ve barely reacted.”

He didn’t react at first, seeming to be taking the time to collect his thoughts. Meanwhile, Vulcan returned, this time depositing his ball back at my feet. I smiled, taking it back up again and teasing the dog with it a little before giving the thing another hard chuck. With an excited woof, he was gone.

Eventually, Sean spoke. “You remember what I said about Uncle Sebastian, the one from Colombia.”

“Sure,” I confirmed without needing to think about it. I remembered our conversation during that first hunt. “He’s the one that settled down and retired. You said he was one of the Heretics that didn’t want to go out hunting anymore, but he’d protect that specific area if anything happened to cause trouble.”

Nodding, Sean glanced to me. “Yeah, well, one thing I left out was that he didn’t exactly pick that spot to retire on a whim. He’s got this friend that lives there. When I was growing up, I just called him Uncle Mateo. No relation, but he was around Uncle Sebastian’s so often he might as well have been part of the family. In hindsight, I’m sure they’re more than just friends. Not that I noticed at the time.

“Anyway,” he went on, “I think it was about five years ago when I was visiting over the summer. Some of the Bystander kids from Uncle Seb’s neighborhood and me were playing football while he was out at work. Just passing the time, getting my ass handed to me by kids that live and breathe that shit. It was ahh, not my finest hour.” He shuddered, though his smile remained. “I got out of there and came home early. I don’t even remember why… think it had something to do with this girl that lived next door.”

Shaking his head with a heavy sigh, Sean smiled. “Seriously, you should’ve seen the way her whole–”

“Sean,” I interrupted while flushing a little. “Your uncle and his more-than-just-a friend, remember?”

Looking completely unapologetic, he winked at me. “Right, you wouldn’t be interested in hearing about that, would you?” After holding that silent pause just long enough to make me blush, the boy finally continued. “The point is, I came home early. It was a couple hours before Uncle Seb was supposed to be back from work. Except when I got there, the door into his apartment was standing wide open.”

“Mateo?” I guessed while watching Vulcan race back with the ball. That time, the dog went running all the way around us a few times before dropping his toy. He danced from side to side, panting happily.

“That’s what I thought at the time,” Sean agreed while stooping to grab the ball. He turned, throwing it the other direction that time to let Vulcan run somewhere else. “I figured he’d just come over early. He did that sometimes, especially when he was gonna make dinner. Seriously, the man’s a culinary god. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced one of Mateo’s Carimañolas, with Torta de nata for dessert.”

“Sorry,” I admitted, “my culinary experience isn’t nearly varied enough to know what any of that is.”

Making an exaggerated face of horror, Sean slowly shook his head in dismay. “Don’t you worry, poor little forgotten Flick’s tummy and sense of taste, we’ll save you from that bland old American food. What did you grow up on?” he added with a suspicious squint, “Cheeseburgers and fish sticks?”

“Of course not,” I sniffed pointedly. “You forgot macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, and pancakes.”

Heaving a long, heavily put-upon sigh at that, Sean stared at me. “We are definitely expanding your tastes.” Shaking his head then, he finally continued. “Anyway, Mateo wasn’t the one in the apartment.”

Taking my turn to throw the ball, I winced. “I don’t suppose it was another of your uncle’s friends?”

The boy snorted. “If only. No, it was these guys from one of the gangs around there. They broke in looking for some kind of stash for some guy that thought he could steal from them. Turns out they had the wrong apartment, not that they knew that at the time. So when I got there, they thought I was the… you know, brother of the guy that ripped them off. It, uh, it wasn’t pretty.” He grimaced in spite of the obvious attempt to keep the details as light as possible. “Long story short, they were gonna carve me up to send a message to the guy they thought was my brother. I tried to tell them I didn’t know who they were talking about. Hell, I’m not too manly to admit there was a certain amount of tears involved. But it didn’t matter. They were dead set on turning me into some kind of example. Sadistic fucks.”

His expression twisted a little before the boy crouched to rub at the waiting Vulcan’s metal body absently. He picked up the ball, turned it over in his free hand, and then threw it. “A couple of the guys held me down. I was trying to scream, but they shoved this slipper thing that Uncle Seb had lying around in my mouth. Then the leader, he had this curved knife, and he was talking about…” He trailed off, frowning before glancing toward me. “You don’t need details. It was bad, and he was gonna have fun doing it. That guy, he was my first real indication that humans can be just as evil as Strangers.”

Part of me felt like I should say something, but I knew it was a bad idea. Not only did it feel wrong to interrupt, but Dad had drilled it into my head over and over that you’d get more information out of someone just by letting them keep talking than by asking all the questions in the world. Just be patient.

Sean stayed quiet for a minute, clearly lost in his own memories before finally going on. “They would’ve done it. But just before the guy, uh, started his fun, something hit the apartment door so hard the thing went off its hinges. The guys fought back, but there was this… guy, or I thought it was a guy, tearing them apart. I was… confused for a long time, because it was Mateo, but he was just so… savage. They kept shooting, but it wasn’t doing anything. They kept missing every shot, even in those close quarters. It was so… fucking loud. I was screaming and crying and one of the guys hit me in the face so hard that I passed out for awhile. When I came to, Uncle Seb was there. He was talking to me, telling me everything was gonna be all right, that the cops came and they’d take care of everything.”

Kicking at the grass a little, he squinted thoughtfully. “We didn’t really talk a lot about it, but it didn’t make sense for a long time. Mateo wasn’t a Heretic, he was just a guy. I mean, I thought he was.

“Then I had my Edge vision. It was of my uncle, that day. He came back while I was unconscious and helped Mateo deal with the last of those malparidos. Except Mateo wasn’t human, he was this… big… furry thing.” Looking toward me, he clarified. “He was a werewolf. Mateo was a werewolf. That’s how he took those guys out. He was a giant fuck-off werewolf that just ripped those fuckers apart.”

My chin lifted as the realization came. “That’s why you were so quiet the first night, why you didn’t say much. It’s because you were dealing with that vision, with finding out that your uncle’s boyfriend is a werewolf. You’d just realized that the man who saved your life is a Stranger.”

Sean coughed while reaching down absently to play with Vulcan’s head. “Yeah. For awhile I was trying to figure out how that could fit. I thought maybe it was just a one-off. You know, that one in a million, Stranger with a soul sort of thing. I dunno.” Shrugging, the boy bit his lip before meeting my gaze. “The point is, you coming out with that whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ thing just filled in a lot of blanks. It answered a lot of questions. That’s why I didn’t get all freaked about it. I figure if my uncle’s boyfriend can save my life and be a Stranger, why not others? So you see, for me, it helped more than it hurt.”

“Are you gonna talk to your uncle about it?” I asked, lifting my chin curiously. “I mean, maybe he had this leaning toward accepting Mateo because he… I mean maybe there was something that he…”

“You mean maybe he used to run around with your mom,” Sean finished for me. “And maybe he knows something still, even with that spell they used. Maybe he can tell us something.”

“Yeah,” I nodded while taking another sip of water. “All of those maybes. Which is a lot, but if there’s a chance…”

He took Vulcan’s ball, tossing it up and down a couple times. “I’ll ask him over Thanksgiving break. Which isn’t really a thing in Colombia, but you know… he and Mateo go nuts on my behalf.”

“What about your parents?” I asked then, realizing that he hadn’t really mentioned them much.

His response was a dismissive shrug. “They’re around, but they don’t really have much to do with me. Papa’s always exploring other worlds, and mi madre’s usually busy running her company. They don’t spend much time around each other, let alone their kid. I was raised between a bunch of servants during the school year and my uncle in the summer and over holidays.”

“You were raised by servants?” I laughed, faking a bow. “Sorry, Senor Gerardo, clearly we have offended your sense of entitlement. No wonder you’ve got such an ego.”

He gave an exaggerated sniff at that. “Well. As long as you understand how I should be treated in the future, I suppose I shall have to forgive you.”

“Oh, trust me, I know exactly how you should be treated from now on,” I confirmed while surreptitiously slipping my hand into my glass to find an ice cube. Faking a yawn and stretch, I quickly side-stepped and deposited the ice down the back of the boy’s shirt.

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna need a lot more ice.”

******

“This is so unfair,” Koren complained later that evening. Those were the first words out of her mouth after our project group had all met up in the library. “Hasn’t Dare ever heard of team unity or whatever? Isn’t doing this kind of project with our own teams kind of the point of having one? Shoving us all together like this is just… dumb.”

Vanessa was just sitting at the opposite end of the table, engrossed in reading one of the many books that surrounded her (I was pretty sure she’d deliberately built up a miniature wall out of them), but Rudolph actually spoke up. “If they only have you work with your team, you’ll never figure out how to work with people that aren’t in your team. Which is kind of a bad thing when you get out in the real world. It’s not like the teams last forever.”

“What he said,” I agreed with a gesture. “Besides, Koren, don’t you think it’d be nice to get to know new people? People you don’t always interact with.”

She looked at me for a few seconds, eyes squinting thoughtfully before she finally nodded. “You’re right, Chambers. We should get to know other people.”

The girl held my gaze briefly, then turned directly toward Vanessa. “So, nerd-girl…”

“Koren…” Rudolph started with a sigh, clearly about to stick up for his own teammate. I hadn’t really had much interaction with the boy, but from what I could tell he was kind of like a lazy bear. He didn’t really tend to act out that much, and usually looked for ways to avoid work or conflict. But when it came to people he cared about, he could get downright vicious if he needed to.

She blinked back at him, seeing both of our expressions. “What? I meant it as a compliment.” Rolling her eyes at us, the girl turned back the other way. “Fine. Vanessa, why do you spend all your time in here? Don’t you have any friends, or, you know, a life?”

“Ooookay then,” I announced while grabbing my chair. I moved it over, interceding myself between the two of them. “Koren, has it occurred to you that you can be a little… uh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Indecorous comes to mind.”

“It’s okay,” Vanessa interrupted. “It’s um, it’s not a big deal.” Leaning around to see Koren, she added, “But I don’t spend all my time here. Erin makes me go out and do other things.”

“Why does she have to make you, though?” Koren demanded. “Why do you like this place so much?”

In response, Vanessa shrugged. “The books are all about magic and monsters. Only they’re real stories, real history. Why isn’t it everyone else’s favorite place?”

I thought there seemed to be something else behind what Vanessa was saying, something she was leaving out. But I figured it was probably just paranoia talking. Or the fact that I always had ulterior motives for coming here, mostly in trying to dig up something about my psychotic younger brother or the bastard that had my mother.

Speaking of relatives, I looked back to Koren. “Where do you like to spend your time if it’s not here?”

She blinked at me, looking like she was trying to figure out if she should take the question seriously or not. When I just sat and waited, she finally shrugged. “The ocean. Or the jungle. I didn’t used to like hiking, but it’s amazing around here.”

Okay, that wasn’t so bad… I pushed on. “You mean you actually walk into the jungle?”

“No, Chambers,” she shot back mockingly. “Hiking means I put on one of those little propeller hats and fly over the jungle.”

Snorting at that in spite of myself, I asked, “Okay, fine. I just didn’t know we were allowed to go in there without company.”

“You’re not,” she confirmed. “You have to have a third year escort. But you can sign up for them.”

“Oh.” I considered that. This wasn’t so bad. A little conversation and I was learning. “But what made you start going out there? You said you didn’t like hiking before.”

Koren started to answer reflexively before stopping herself. “It was just something I saw in–” She went silent, lips pursed for a moment before turning back to Vanessa. “Don’t we have a project to do? What ‘special event’ are we going to look at, anyway?”

“One of the big wars?” Rudolph suggested. “Those are easy to make interesting, and there’s always Heretical stuff behind the scenes.”

“You mean like Pearl Harbor or the battle of Stalingrad?” I asked. “Those could work.”

“Maybe the first world war.” That was Koren. “There were already three different groups asking about things in the second one yesterday. We need something new.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “Something new. How about we go further back? Like the Crusades or the American expansion into the west, the gold rush or… I dunno, something like that.”

“The Black Death?” Vanessa suggested.

We all looked at each other. Koren’s head tilted. “You think that’s something Heretics could answer?”

Rudolph, the only Heretic-born among us, shrugged. “I think so?”

“It’s definitely world changing,” I added thoughtfully. “Anyone have a problem with that one?”

There were no objections. So that was it, we were going to research the Black Death and try to find out just what it had meant for Heretical society and whether they knew things that the regular world didn’t about what had really happened to cause the deaths of about half of Europe’s entire population.

And wasn’t that just a positively cheerful subject to bond with my niece over?

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Mini-Interlude 2 – Avalon

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(The following is another mini-interlude. For information about what that is and how they are commissioned, please see the mini-interlude section of the donations page here)

“I miss the tree.”

Avalon Sinclaire stood on the balcony of her adopted mother’s apartment, looking out over the jungle in the distance. Her voice was soft, barely loud enough to reach her own ears, let alone anyone else’s.

And yet, as she finished whispering, the young woman heard movement behind her. Gaia stepped out onto the balcony as well, putting her hands down to lean against it while casting her own gaze out into the dense foliage. “It must take some time to grow accustomed to living among such heights. I’m not entirely certain that I could adjust to living in a city built at the top of a tree.” Turning her head slightly toward Avalon, she added in a gentle voice. “But it must have been very beautiful.”

Avalon didn’t respond at first, her gaze remaining fixed on a flock of birds flying just above the jungle. “It was. It is. And it’s dangerous. You know how many of their students make it from initiation to graduation? Fifty percent. Everyone else is just… they don’t make it out of the crucible. That’s half. Flip a coin when you start out. Heads you make it, tails you die before graduation.

“I was almost one of the failures, really early on. I was too small, too weak, too scared. Fuck. I was scared of everything, Gaia. Terrified. My father—my dad, his… his bullshit left me so fucking terrified of my own shadow. I couldn’t speak up for myself, I couldn’t even talk without stammering. I would’ve died as soon as the real trials started. I would’ve been one of the failures. The wrong side of the coin flip. I was too broken. I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for…” she trailed off, biting her lip.

Rather than prompt her, Gaia simply stood by, her expression calm as she waited for the girl to go on. Which she did, after a few more seconds of silence. “My dad. My father saved my life.”

Beside her, she felt Gaia move before the woman laid a hand on her shoulder. “How?”

The answer came easily. “By surviving.” Looking up from the jungle finally, she turned to the woman. “I found out he was alive, that he was a vampire. You know how I found out? Because he came after me again while we were on a trip. I don’t know how he found me, but he was there. And I was…” She looked away, back to the jungle. “I was useless. Seller had to save me from him, had to drive him off.”

She made a face at the memory before forcing herself to continue telling the story. “You know what I did after that? I literally hid under my bed. Yeah. I took my blanket and I cowered under there for a long time. I stayed there. I just hid and cried a lot. My dad was going to kill me. He was a monster.  He was one of the real monsters now. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was pathetic.”

Gaia started to say something, hand squeezing her shoulder, but Avalon pushed on. “Then, while I was hiding and crying, I realized something. I had a choice. I could stay under my bed, keep crying and then die whenever the people that were better than me didn’t happen to be around to save me anymore. I could just be afraid for the rest of my life until Dad or something else killed me like the sniveling little coward that I was.

“Or I could change. Or I could make myself better, make myself stronger. So I did. I… got out from under the bed and I went to the gym and I started training. By myself at first, but then Seller started helping me. Between him and our normal training, I was… I was pushing myself as hard as I could. Seller’s the one that taught me the most about… everything. Not just about how to fight or make myself stronger, but how to take care of myself in other ways. He taught me how to groom myself, how to clean, even how to put on make-up.

“He’s the one that helped me with my first period, poor guy. But he did it. You should’ve seen him drag me through that store trying to explain to the bystanders what we needed. There was a lot of confusing sign language.”

She smiled at the memory before sighing. “The point is, he helped me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. And if I hadn’t made the choice to be stronger. It’s like… it’s like he was always willing and ready to help me, but he was just waiting for me to make the first step. Once I started trying to work out on my own, he was right there. But he didn’t make the first step. He waited for me to be ready. Maybe so he wouldn’t be wasting his time.”

Falling silent for a few seconds, Avalon finally shrugged. “Like I said, my dad being alive, becoming a real monster and coming after me was the thing that spurred me to either die or make myself stronger. So in a way, he kind of saved my life.”

“You saved your life,” Gaia corrected her gently. “And one thing you are mistaken about. Your father was a monster long before he became a vampire. Giving a serial killer a gun does not turn them into a monster. The only thing turning that child abusing alcoholic piece of human excrement into a vampire did was arm him. The monster part was always there.”

For a few minutes after that, the two of them simply stood in silence, the proximity comfort enough. Finally, Avalon spoke in a low voice. “I still miss the tree. But… I suppose this place isn’t so bad.”

There was mischief in Gaia’s voice then. “Not so bad? Hm, well, how can we make it better? Maybe I was wrong and you would prefer a different roommate? Or a solo room, I believe we have one available.”

Turning her head slightly to squint at the woman before looking away, Avalon’s tone turned as indifferent as she could make it. “No need, I can put up with the situation as it is.”

“Oh, I don’t want you to have to put up with a situation if you’re not enjoying it,” Gaia’s teasing continued. “If I was wrong and Felicity isn’t working out as a roommate, all you have to do is say so and we’ll amend the situation immediately. You don’t have to spend another night in that room if you don’t want to.”

In spite of herself, and despite all the tricks that Seller had taught her about how to control her reaction, Avalon still felt her face heating up. She cleared her throat. “No, it’s fine. It’s okay. She uhh…” Another cough came. “She’s not that bad.”

“Oh, well, that’s good to hear,” Gaia was giving her that infuriatingly knowing smile. “But if you ever change your mind, we’ll adjust your roommate situation.”

Squinting at the woman, Avalon asked, “Can I change my adopted mother situation? Because that’s the one giving me the most shit right now.”

“I’m afraid that’s one thing you’re pretty much stuck with,” Gaia promised her, hand slipping from Avalon’s shoulder to her arm as she pulled the girl around and into an embrace. “Can you survive the disappointment?”

Slowly, Avalon lifted her arms to wrap them around the other woman. She lowered her head to Gaia’s shoulder and let out a long, low breath.

“I’ll try.”

******

Some time later, Avalon stepped quietly into her dorm room. Closing the door behind her, she moved her gaze over to the nearby occupied bed.

Felicity hadn’t turned on the privacy screen, even though it was the middle of the day. Apparently she’d been too tired to even take the time to make her side of the room suitably dark. She’d just collapsed in the bed, face down against the pillow while a tangled birds nest of dirty blonde hair spread out in every direction.

Standing there for a moment, the girl watched her sleeping roommate. A variety of emotions warred for her attention before she finally turned away, first moving to her own bed. Glancing down at the box that Gaia had given her for Felicity, she set it on the floor before straightening up. After a short, indecisive pause, she stepped over to the nearby window. Carefully, with a look back to make sure that the blonde girl hadn’t woken up, she picked up the decorated rock that sat there.

Herbie. Gods, her roommate was a dork. Taking the rock, she moved over to her own bed and lay down on it, placing the toy sword-toting stone on the blanket nearby. Tenderly, Avalon brushed her finger over it.

The damn thing still had those eyes. She wasn’t even sure what had prompted her to get the things in the first place. But at least Scout was staying mum about who she’d gotten them from. If Felicity ever found out that Avalon had been the one who provided them, she’d never shut up about it.

“Hey, little guy,” she whispered under her breath. It felt absurd, but she continued in spite of herself after giving the other bed a quick glance. “Your friend over there is a gigantic nerd, you know that?”

Voice dropping even further, she lifted her gaze to stare at the blonde. “How do you put up with her? Why is she so important to you?”

Sighing, annoyed at herself, Avalon turned to lay on her back before placing the damn rock on her stomach. She continued to brush a finger over the thing absently. As she lay there, another memory came to mind. Felicity asking for training, wanting to become stronger. Willing to work harder to make herself better.

She’d almost refused. Almost told the girl to find someone else that could work with her. It wasn’t like there was a lack of options. To that moment, even now, she couldn’t explain exactly what had made her agree to it. Thoughts, feelings, emotions all kept trying to come up in her in spite of every attempt she made to push them back down.

Then her damn roommate and the rest of the team had to go and stand up for her when Trice tried his little attack. She’d tried to tell them to just get the fuck out of there, but no. No, they’d stayed. They’d risked their lives to help her, even though… Avalon sighed, eyes closing.

Sands and the boys had willingly stayed too. All willing to fight, all willing to risk themselves just for her, in spite of Trice’s offer to let them leave safely. They stayed, all of them. And yet, thinking of Felicity’s choice to stay was… it was just different than the others. It made her feel… it made her feel…

And then she found out about Felicity’s mother, about the necromancer. The necromancer who thought he was going to take Felicity away once she was eighteen. The thought, the idea of losing her roommate, of the girl going through what that monster would put her through made Avalon’s free hand clench so tightly she very nearly drew blood from her own palm.

No. She wouldn’t let it happen. No matter what. No matter who she had to go after, no matter what she had to do, she would not let that piece of shit take away the girl who… the girl that she…

Sitting up, Avalon let the rock fall into her hand. She looked down at it, forehead knitting into a frown. “We have to protect her,” she said quietly. “You understand? Even if she is a dork.”

Picking herself off the bed, she stepped over to carefully place the decorated stone back on the windowsill. Another sigh escaped her as she looked out at the grounds before returning to her bed. She sat there, eyes on the sleeping girl.

And of course, there was the fact that her literal trouble-magnet of a roommate had gotten herself abducted by actual aliens. Because why not, it wasn’t like she already had enough things to deal with, just add that as well. Maybe toss in a few demons and a serial killer clown while they were at it.

Sure, the aliens that took her turned out to be good, and the whole situation there a big misunderstanding or mistake. But still, just the idea that Felicity could be taken away that easily made her feel… angry. It was an undirected anger, a confused fury that had no real outlet. Especially since she couldn’t even make herself think about the fact that she felt…

Okay, this was ridiculous. She could do this. She could think it. When she looked at Felicity, when she thought about her, she felt…

Felicity moved. Her hand shifted to wipe away the bit of drool under her mouth before she sat up, yawning. Her eyes found Avalon’s own.

“Wha—oh, um, hey. What’s up?”

“I…” Avalon coughed, forcing down all those other thoughts with a shake of her head.

“I was just wondering how long you were going to sleep for.”

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Begin Again 10-03

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“Can anyone tell me when the unification of Germany officially took place?” Professor Dare spoke while standing beside her pristine white board. Her eyes moved over the class, and I saw the small smile cross her face as she focused on the single hand that was in the air. “Besides Miss Moon, that is.”

Two seats in front of me and one over, Vanessa lowered her hand. As usual, it had shot into the air the very instant the professor (almost any professor really, not just this one) finished her question. It had gotten to the point where they had to give the rest of us a chance to answer something before letting her do it. Because when it came to anything academic or from a book, Vanessa Moon knew it. She remembered everything she read like it was still right in front of her, and she read freaking everything.

It was Tuesday, the fourteenth of November, about a week after our little adventure. We still hadn’t figured out how we were going to break into Professor Tangle’s room. Yeah, we could ask Gaia for help, but I wanted to avoid involving her as much as possible unless we absolutely had to. She had gone out on way too many limbs as it was. Especially if Ruthers was really paying as much attention to what was going on in the school as I figured he was.

Basically, she told people that she had taken us on a special excursion of her own as our monthly hunt, to make up for the fact that the last one had been sort of waylaid by Trice and his friends. Shiori, supposedly, came along by accident since she and Columbus had been together at the time. It was supposed to help explain why we had those new Stranger gifts so that we could actually use them in school without confusing everyone about where the hell they’d come from. Plus, there was the not-so-subtle hint that the headmistress had been trying to protect us in case anything like that happened again.

So no, if we got in trouble, we’d see if she could help. But I wasn’t going to let us start relying on having the headmistress take care of everything for us. No, there had to be another way into that room.

I was absently playing with a small wooden block that I’d brought in. Focusing, I could push my hand all the way into it, making my fingers effectively disappear. Or I could push them through and out the other side. It made my skin tingle, and I’d forgotten that I was doing it before starting to raise my hand.

There were giggles around me, and I looked up, belatedly realizing that I hadn’t pulled my fingers out of the block first. It was sort of fused into several of my fingers as I held my hand in the air. Blushing a little bit, I lowered my hand and shook it to make the block fall off, hurriedly tucking it into my bag with the other hand. Then I looked back to where Professor Dare was watching me with a raised eyebrow. When I kept my hand up while giving her a sheepish shrug, she nodded for me to go on.

Coughing, I started. “Um, I think it was… eighteen seventy… tw—wait, one. Eighteen seventy one? I don’t know the whole date, sorry.”

“No apologies necessary, Miss Chambers,” the woman replied with a shake of her head. “Eighteen seventy-one is correct. January eighteenth, to be absolutely precise. Very good. Now, here’s an easy one for you guys. First hand up gets to answer. What was the name of the first German Emperor?”

A few rows away, Zeke Leven raised a hand before asking, “You mean the real leader or the guy all the Silverstones think was in charge?” His tone made it pretty clear how little he thought of those people.

Professor Dare regarded him before clearing her throat. “I’m afraid that I must apologize, Mr. Leven.”

That threw him. The boy blinked, shifting in his seat as his hand lowered. “Err, apologize, Professor?”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before gesturing with a hand. The red marker nearby lifted off its perch and floated there in the air before starting to write on the white board while she continued. “Clearly, I made the very terrible mistake of beginning this class three months ago without even providing its name.”

On the board, the marker wrote, ‘Bystander History’ before capping itself. Professor Dare nodded in satisfaction before returning her gaze to Zeke. “Mistake rectified. Do you need more clarification?”

The boy’s mouth opened and shut before he shook his head, clearly struggling to maintain a completely civil voice. “No, Professor Dare. I know what class this is.” His teeth were clenched as he spoke.

“Excellent,” the woman replied simply, still smiling. “I’d hate to think that I’ve failed so spectacularly that you still have no idea what the very subject of this class is. That would be unconscionable.”

She looked toward one of the other students who had their hand up then, Travis. “Yes, Mr. Colby?”

The boy, another of my fellow Bystander-kin, gave Zeke a long look before replying. “Yeah, wasn’t it that Kaiser… uhh.. Kaiser Wilhelm dude? The guy that looks like Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica only with the epic sideburns and mustache. They’ve got a picture of him in the hall outside my room.”

“Hey, yeah, that guy,” one of the other boys put in. “There’s a picture in the library too. Dude looks mad strict. Jazz made me cover it up cuz she thought the guy was staring at us while we were–” Cutting himself off, the boy glanced toward Professor Dare. “Uh, you know, while we were studying.”

Shaking her head in obvious amusement, the professor simply moved on. “Yes, thank you. The first official leader of the German Empire was Wilhelm Friedrich Ludwig. Or William Frederick Louis if you prefer the English version. And he did, indeed, possess some rather impressive facial hair.”

Stepping away from the wall then, she tapped her fingers against Zeke’s desk a few times. “I also have to thank Mr. Leven for providing me with a very impressive segue into our next group project.”

She smiled through the groans that prompted before speaking up over them to make everyone quiet down. “He’s right, there are certain aspects of history that are remembered one way by Heretics and another way by the majority of the world’s population. Can anyone provide another example of this?”

A few rows back, Malcolm Harkess sat up abruptly, his well-muscled arm rising. “Vampires,” he quickly answered after Professor Dare turned her attention to him. “They were helping the British during the American Revolution. Which should, you know, sort of prove who the good guys were.”

Oh, right. He was the one I’d heard talking about seeing his ancestor fight those very same vampire redcoats during his Edge vision. I had to bite my lip to avoid arguing with his latter point. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that there were people who would take anything I said to that effect right back to Ruthers and his contingent of people who were convinced that I was spying for my mom.

Still, my eyes glanced toward Shiori. The other girl was staring intently down at a paper on her desk, hand clutching her pen. Apparently feeling my eyes on her, she looked up. Our gazes met, and I gave her a thumbs up. She smiled a little bit, a soft pink blush touching her face.

“That is one example, yes,” Professor Dare confirmed before looking for another. They came in here and there from a few other students, until she eventually waved off any more. “Thank you, everyone. Yes, there are many examples of this contradiction between Bystander and Heretic histories. Those of you who were raised by Heretics will witness that fact more in this class, while those of you raised out of the knowledge will have already seen several such differences in your classes with Professor Ross.”

There was some general noises of agreement before she continued. “With that in mind, she and I have decided to have you each work in small groups on a little project. With your group, you will choose an event from history and give a short oral presentation detailing that event from the perspective of Heretics and from the perspective of Bystanders. It should be five to ten minutes long. You will compare and contrast how that event affected both societies. These presentations will be given in front of both myself and Professor Ross Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday next week before the Thanksgiving break. The order will be decided by depositing the names of each group into a hat and choosing one at random each time a new presentation is needed. So I suggest that you be prepared on the very first day, just in case. You may, of course, get lucky and be able to wait until the last day, but I doubt any of you have had the opportunity to absorb any kind of fortune manipulation gift yet.”

There were some groans about doing a project just before a holiday vacation, but I was actually pretty intrigued. There was obviously so much different between Heretical history and the history that I had grown up with, and this sounded like an easy way to get a quick overview of some of those differences. Along with, of course, a more in depth bit of knowledge of whatever event my eventual group chose. Hell, I was already thinking through some famous bits of history that I’d kind of like to get a Heretical take on.

Yeah, I liked learning things, so sue me. Hearing a bit about a various points in Heretical history sounded like pretty much the best way to finish out the semester before going home for Thanksgiving.

Sands had her hand up and was called on. “How are we gonna make up our groups, Professor?”

Dare nodded to her. “Good question. I know you usually do this sort of thing by roommates, but we’re going to do something a little different this time.” Turning back to her desk, she reached into a drawer, producing a pretty snazzy looking green top hat. “This,” she explained, “is the same hat that we’ll be producing the order of your presentations from. Each of your names is already in it. I’m going to select one name. That person will then come up and select three more. Those four will be a group. Then I’ll select another name, and we’ll continue. Does anyone have any other questions before we get started?”

There were none, and she drew the first name. It ended up being Travis, and he chose Erin Redcliffe, one of the other boys that I didn’t have much experience with whose name was apparently Douglas, and Zeke. After him, the next person to draw names was Aylen. She got Shiori, Scout, and Malcolm.

The third name that Dare drew was mine. She nodded for me to come up, then held the hat out. When I got up there and glanced in it, I saw a pile of folded papers. Shrugging, I reached in to grab one before reading it out loud. “Ah, Rudolph?” Glancing toward the pale, somewhat heavy-set boy, I found him giving me a quick, nervous nod.

The next name that I drew was Vanessa. The second I read the note out loud, the entire class that wasn’t part of a group yet let out a long, low groan. Clearly, they wanted the genius girl for their own team. Vanessa, for her part, seemed fairly oblivious to the reaction. She just gave me a faint, distracted smile.

Finally, I reached for another paper for the last member of our group. However, this time, the paper that my fingers moved to touch actually slipped out of my grasp and literally flew to the other side of the hat. A second later, another paper lifted slowly into my hand, pressing into my palm until I took it.

When I looked up, confused, I saw Professor Dare meeting my gaze evenly. Then she winked before her expression returned to normal. “Having any trouble picking that last name, Miss Chambers?”

“Um,” I hesitated, then shook my head before straightening. “No, Ma’am.” Still uncertain about what was going on, I unfolded the paper and looked at it with a frown before my eyes abruptly widened.

My gaze flicked back to the professor before I coughed and read the note out loud. “Koren Fellows.”

The girl in question looked up from where she’d been whispering something to Rebecca. “Huh, what?”

The professor ignored my stare. “Congratulations, Miss Fellows. You’re part of a group with Mr. Parsons, Miss Moon, and Miss Chambers. I’m sure the four of you will put together a good project.”

******

“So she put you in a group with Koren on purpose?” Sands asked later that day. She and Scout had come to find me on my way out of the cafeteria after dinner. Now they were leading me out of the main building and over the grounds. Apparently they had an idea about how to get into Tangle’s apartment.

I nodded, keeping my voice low. “Yeah, I mean, the first paper moved. Not just a little bit, like, completely. It flew away. And the new paper just picked itself up and went into my hand. Then she winked at me. It was totally purposeful. She set it up to put Koren and me in the same group together.”

“So obviously she knows about the,” Sands started before dropping her voice to a whisper, “relation.”

Scout, who was playing with a borrowed Herbie by flipping him back and forth between her hands (obviously to scare off any extra-dimensional kidnappers with the threat of tasting our stony savior’s sharp steel), looked up at that. Her eyes met mine before the girl nodded, speaking a single word quietly, “Helping.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Definitely trying to help by getting us together. Which means the headmistress has been talking to her. They probably noticed my… umm, less than fantastic attempts to strike up a conversation so far.” I’d tried a few more times since that first, none of which were more successful.

“So basically,” Sands put in with a tiny snicker, “they’ve set you up with the cue ball of friendships.”

I blinked sidelong toward the girl at that, suddenly confused. “Wait, what? Cue ball of friendships?”

“Sure, you know,” she replied with a gesture. “Like that game Bystanders play that’s basically baseball only with all the challenge gone. Where they put the ball on the stick and cue the player to hit it?”

In spite of myself, I giggled. “Oh. Oh, no. You mean tee-ball. The thing the ball sits on is called a tee. Just like a golf tee, where they put the ball on that little thing so it’s not just sitting on the ground.”

Sands squinted at me. “If that’s tee-ball, then what the hell is a cue-ball?”

Still trying to hold back even more giggles, I explained. Through it all, Sands gradually blushed more with each word. When I was done, she shook her head, eyes rolling. “Okay, yeah, I’d laugh too.”

“Don’t feel bad,” I replied casually. “That’s pretty much how I feel every time we find out more about this whole true history of the world and Heretics thing. Every time I think I’ve got a handle on this stuff, you guys surprise me again. And with that in mind, why are we at the faculty building?” I had belatedly realized where the twins were leading me just before we cut across the path toward the back entrance. “Wait a second, we’re not going for Tangle’s apartment right now, are we?”

“Course not,” Sands replied while Scout shook her head. “We’re just going in to show you around. Trust us,” she added while grabbing the door to pull it open. “It’s cool. Go on in.”

I don’t know what I expected to see inside, but a simple hall way with blank doors on either side wasn’t it. The place kind of looked boring and utilitarian. And it was definitely… smaller than I’d thought faculty apartments would be. The doors leading into each weren’t even that far apart from each other. “Eesh,” I muttered, “don’t become a Crossroads teacher for the living space.”

“Tell me about it, right?” a voice spoke up from a little to the right, where a stairway led up.

I yelped, turning to find Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s dad, standing there with a tiny smirk. “Girls, you weren’t working your way toward any more trouble, were you?”

“Working our way toward, old man? We swim in trouble and you know it,” Sands shot back before shrugging. “But right now we’re just showing Flick our old room.”

“Oh right,” Professor Mason snapped his fingers. “You mean the place where I keep all my fishing stuff now.”

Sands made a face at him. “You do not.”

“Oh yeah, yeah.” The man was nodding seriously. “Had to put up an anti-stench enchantment and everything. You’d be surprised how nasty some of that bait smells. Whoooeeeeee, it’s some awful stuff.”

“You’re a jerk,” Sands informed her father before sticking her tongue out at him while trying to talk at the same time. “Toal ‘erk.”

“Toal Erk, huh?” Professor Mason smirked, reaching out to ruffle both their hair at the same time. “Well, okay then, Erk one and Erk two. Fight amongst yourselves about which one is which, and show off our place to your friend. You know the rules. Don’t go anywhere but our apartment. Got it?”

Each of them gave him a thumbs up, and he headed out the nearby backdoor to cross the grounds, apparently on his way to his own dinner.

Through it all, I had been staring at the man who had gone through so much effort to retrieve my mother’s weapons. Why? Was he one of her friends or silent allies, or had he just wanted a trophy? Maybe he hadn’t been able to stand the idea of her weapons being among Alters.

“Okay, come on,” Sands started by heading for the same stairs that their dad had come down. They led me up to the second floor and to one of the other blank doors in that seemingly too-small hallway. “This is our place. Err, Dad’s place now, I guess. Anyway, come on in.”

When I stepped through the door, I found myself standing in a living room that was clearly much too large considering how close the other doors were. Seeing that, I coughed. “You know, at a certain point I’m going to get used to the Heretic love of TARDIS technology.”

“Tar-what now?” Sands asked blankly.

I gave her a wide eyed, wide mouthed, appalled look. “Okay, well. You guys have unbelievable magical abilities, the ability to inherit special powers from things normal humans can’t see, and the technology to instantly transport anywhere in the world. Bystanders have Doctor Who. So we’ll call it a tie.”

Sands stared openly at me, then turned to stare at her sister before speaking. “She’s crazy.” Turning back to me, she repeated the point. “You’re crazy. Anyway, we can talk about your favorite hospital shows later. Right now, you wanna know how we’re gonna get you into Tangle’s apartment, right?”

“Maybe,” I replied. “On a scale of one to ten, how much am I gonna hate this plan?”

Sands cocked her head to the side to consider the question. “That depends. How long can you hold your breath? Oh, and how sensitive is your sense of smell? I mean, you don’t pass out around, say, manure or anything, do you?”

“Right,” I muttered, “So eleven then. Fan-freaking-tastic.”

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Mini-Interlude 1 – Shiori and Columbus

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“So, um, I… sort of have something I need to tell you,” Shiori carefully began while leading her adopted brother over toward a corner of the building. She could see Flick talking to the headmistress, and felt her heart seem to bounce a few times in her chest, buoying her for what she needed to do now.

Columbus, for his part, came willingly with a curious expression. “What’s up, Shy? You seem, you know, better. Did something happen? I mean, other than the obvious that you already talked about.”

Stopping a short distance away from where Asenath was, Shiori bit her lip. This was hard. Even knowing what she knew now, even after everything that Flick and Gaia had said, it was still difficult. Her mother had given her up. For good reasons, yes, but she had still given her up. Throughout her life, she’d had no one to count on until she finally met Columbus. From that point on, he had been her constant. He was, in every respect, her brother.

She felt better about what she was, but the idea of losing Columbus because of it still made her want to throw up. It didn’t matter how reassured she’d been or how unlikely it was that he would cast her aside. The possibility itself was utterly terrifying, no matter how remote it may have been. Her brain kept coming up with worst case scenarios, and then refused to stop obsessively dwelling on them.

“Y-yeah,” she managed then after realizing that the boy was staring at her, waiting for a response. “Yeah, something happened. But it sort of… started back when we first came to Crossroads. Back when we looked into the Edge.”

“Your vision,” Columbus realized then, his brow knitting in a frown. “I knew it. I knew you saw something bad. You were just so—sorry.” Realizing he was interrupting, the boy reached up to tug his goggles off before shoving them in a pocket. Looking at her with his bare eyes, the boy nodded for her to go on.

“I um…” Shifting from one foot to the other uncertainly, Shiori let her gaze shift first toward the corner where Asenath was calmly and silently waiting, then to the other side of the room where Flick and Gaia were. Both sights made her feel better, and she straightened a little bit. “I saw my mom. I saw her… umm, with me, when she gave me up to the adoption place.”

“Oh my god,” Columbus’s eyes widened noticeably. “You saw your mom? Crap. No wonder you’ve been bummed. Seeing your mom give you up must’ve been… but… there’s more, isn’t there?”

Forcing back the reflex to hide or evade the question, Shiori made herself nod. “Yes. My mom, she umm, she made the guy at the adoption place take me. She made him change my identity, change everything to hide me.”

Columbus looked even more confused by that. “Hide you? Why would she need to—wait, what do you mean, she made him? And why would she need to hide you? Wait, is your mom a spy?”

“No,” Shiori started before muttering an amendment under her breath, “I mean probably at some point, but that’s not…” She trailed off, blushing a little bit before looking back up to meet the boy’s gaze. Just like taking off a band-aid, just like taking off a band-aid. “My mom isn’t a normal human.”

“Not a normal human?” The boy’s head tilted a little, an uncertain frown crossing his face before a look of realization came over him. “Oh. Oh shit. I get it now.”

“You do?” Her voice was weak and uncertain.

He was nodding then. “Yeah, I mean… your mom’s a Heretic.”

Shiori’s brain stuttered a bit as she mentally flailed. “Wait, wait, a Heret–”

“Of course. It makes sense now,” Columbus continued. “The reason you’ve been all freaked out. She’s a Heretic for Eden’s Garden. You found out that your mom’s part of Eden’s Garden and freaked out because they’re supposed to be our like… rivals or whatever. And the reason you feel better about things now, ready to talk about them, is because Flick told you that they’re not really that bad.”

“Oh man,” Shiori mumbled while staring at him. “How can you be so close and yet so far at the same time?”

“So far?” The boy blinked. “I don’t get it. Wait, is she a Heretic for another group?”

She shook her head quickly, trying to push on before she ended up losing her nerve. “No, she’s not a Heretic at all. She’s—she’s a—she’s a…” Closing her eyes, she let out a breath before opening them to look at him. “She’s a vampire.”

“Oh.” Columbus took that in with a wince. “Oh shit. Was that… why she gave you up? Because someone turned her into a vampire after she had you?”

“No, you d-don’t understand.” Shiori tightened her fists. “She was a vampire before she had me.”

It took a few seconds for that to sink in before he reacted. “Before she had you? But that would mean you… that would make…”

“Half,” the girl whispered under her breath, just barely loud enough for him to hear. “I’m a h-ha-half… vampire. I mean, I d-don’t drink blood or anything like that, but I’m still—M-my mother is a vampire. And that makes me a half-vampire.” Realizing she was rambling, trying to fill the resulting silence, Shiori closed her mouth with a sudden snap.

There was no response at first. The boy simply stood there, staring at her while his mouth opened and shut a few times before any noise came out. “…. y-you… you’re… half… vampire?” he managed in a weak voice. “That’s… holy shit.”

Cringing, Shiori made herself not look away, though her own voice was weak as well, a plaintive little mewl. “Please don’t hate me. Please.”

“Don’t hate you?” Columbus echoed, chin lifting a little. “You just said that you’re half-Heretic, half-vampire. This is… I mean it’s… awesome!”

The violin screech inside Shiori’s head must have been audible. “Wait. W-what?”

“You’re half-vampire! Dude, that’s cool as hell.” Columbus was raving. “You’re like Blade. Only better because you’re Shiori.”

She stared at him. “B-bu-but the—Crossroads was talking about how every St-Stranger is evil and all that. And vampires are… you know.”

Columbus just raised an eyebrow before slowly shaking his head. “Shy, they can say anything they want. They could get every single person who has ever gone to that school, every Heretic who has ever existed to line up and tell me about how evil vampires are, all of them repeating over and over in one hundred percent agreement.”

His voice softened then, hand coming up to gently cup the side of her face, just under her chin. “And I’d tell every last one to screw themselves. Because you’re my sister. And I love you.”

A tidal wave of emotion rushed through Shiori as she stood there, trying to force the words to come out. “I… Columbus, you—I… I…” Failing to force the right response through the lump in her throat, she instead flung herself forward and wrapped both arms around the boy as tightly as she could. Her face was pressed to his chest while she clung to him.

The two of them stood like that for a several long seconds, Columbus eventually lowering his hands to hold onto her. “It’s okay, Shy.”

“You… you think being a half-vampire is cool?” she finally managed without releasing him.

“Cool? It’s amazing. Shy, you’re like a superhero! I mean, even more than we are already. After meeting Asenath, do you really think I’d believe you were—wait.” In mid-sentence, the boy blinked, turning a bit. “Your mother, you said she was—and Asenath was–”

While Shiori fought to collect herself, the vampire in question stepped forward. Her voice was low. “I’m not her mother. I’m her sister.”

Poor Columbus did a quick double-take. “Her si-sister?”

Smiling a little, clearly enjoying the act of surprising the boy, Asenath nodded. “Yes. Well, half-sister. We share the same mother.”

“That means you’re—she’s–” Columbus looked to Shiori, who was actually giggling a little bit in spite of herself.

“Yup,” Asenath stepped closer, opening her arms. “If you’re her brother, you’re my brother too. Do I get some of that?” she teased.

Looking from one girl to the other, Columbus finally shrugged. Pivoting on his foot, he lifted Shiori off the ground. As the girl yelped in surprise, he took two quick steps before accepting Asenath’s offered hug. Shiori was squeezed between them, giving a short squeal that quickly became a laugh.

“So basically,”she heard him say after a few seconds of that, “I have a half-vampire sister training to be an evil monster hunter, and a full vampire sister that’s already a superhero detective bodyguard.

“It’s official. This is basically the best day of my life.”

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Begin Again 10-02

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Hard as it was to believe, even after everything that had happened, it was only around noon when we got back to Crossroads. Something about that seemed absurd. We’d visited another world, befriended an alien race, helped them prevent their own genocide, invaded a fortress stronghold, and discovered part of the secret behind the Bystander Effect itself. And now, after all of that, it was just barely lunchtime?

Apparently Gaia had covered for us by saying that she was going to be taking us on a little field trip. I wasn’t sure how many details she provided, but in the end what it amounted to was that we weren’t in trouble for missing classes. She also made sure we had the rest of the day off to recuperate. Which was good, because even with my enhanced stamina, I was wiped by that point. I ended up crashing hard and slept for longer than I had ever since I’d gained this power. So, about four hours or so. Hey, to me at that point, it was practically like sleeping sixteen hours straight. My body was utterly exhausted.

Finally coming to around mid-afternoon, I wiped away the drool that had accumulated on my pillow before sitting up with a yawn. My eyes blinked a few times before focusing on the figure sitting on her own bed across from me. Avalon. She was just sitting there, staring without talking. “Wha—oh, um, hey,” I managed to get out through the blush that threatened to take over my entire face. “What’s up?”

For a very brief moment, there was a mixture of uncertain emotions on the other girl’s face. It was immediately clear that she was about to say one thing, but thought better of it. “I–” Coughing, she shook her head before straightening. “I was just wondering how long you were going to sleep for.”

Stretching, I rolled off the bed, stumbling a little from a cramp as I came to my feet. “Sorry, I guess even the Energizer Bunny needs to recharge.” Yawning, I added, “Did I miss anything important?”

“No,” Avalon answered coolly while turned away from me to walk around the other side of her bed where she leaned down to grab a box off the floor. My eyes dropped down reflexively before going back up quickly as my blush renewed itself guiltily. Bad thoughts, bad thoughts. Focus, Flick.

“Gaia wanted you to have this,” the other girl announced calmly while tossing the box toward me.

“Gaia?” I echoed after catching the box far more smoothly than the old me would’ve. Turning it over in my hands, I examined it. The box was only about eight inches long by four inches wide. “What is it?”

Rather than answer right away, Avalon just waited until I opened the thing. Inside there was a pale blue cell phone with a red crystal design along the back. I blinked and held it up. “Another new phone?”

“She says it’ll bypass the security restrictions,” the other girl explained. “In other words, you can talk to that vampire girl or anyone else you need to off of the island without security recording or overhearing your conversation. Obviously, keep it secret or we’ll all be in a lot of trouble. Don’t let the security personnel see you using it or they might figure out they don’t have that conversation recorded. Get it?”

I nodded quickly. “Right, secret phone, don’t run through the halls blabbing about it. Totally understood.” This was big, actually. If I could talk to Asenath and Miranda both without using a bunch of double-speak and coded conversation, it would be an enormous boost toward staying in contact.

“Good,” Avalon allowed before pointing to the nearby dresser. “Now get dressed. We’re getting something to eat and then meeting the others on the field for some exercises. They’ve been waiting.”

“Exercises?” I coughed before tilting my head at her. “Damn, you really are into this whole working out thing, huh? Most people would’ve considered everything we did this morning to be, you know, exercise enough,” I teased her a little while quickly changing clothes. “But no, Avalon needs more.”

Avalon’s response was to roll her eyes at me. “Not that kind of exercise,” she retorted. “We just killed a lot of Strangers. I assumed you might be interested in going through some tests to see what abilities you inherited. But if not, I can always go without you while you sit up here and snore some more.”

Flushing at that, I shook my head while hurriedly dressing the rest of the way. “No, no, you’re right. Testing for new powers and all that, good idea.” Grabbing my brush off the desk, I ran it through my hair a few times to work out the knots before taking a black rubber band. After twisting my dirty-blonde hair into a quick ponytail, I held my arms out to either side and did a spin. “So, how do I look?”

That time, it was Avalon’s turn to blush. It was only a little, and she hid the reaction almost immediately. But it was there, and I had to resist the urge to do a quick victorious fist pump. Tempting as it was, that probably would’ve ruined the effect that I was going for. Still, I was gratified to see the girl take a moment to collect herself before turning toward the door. “You’re fine, Chambers. Let’s go.”

“Yup, yup,” I chirped, collecting Herbie from his place on the windowsill before following Avalon out of the room. “I wonder if I have laser eyes now. Or the ability to talk to birds. No, no, cocokinesis!”

Ahead of me, Avalon stopped walking. Her head dropped and shook a little as if bracing herself before she turned to look over her shoulder at me with a raised eyebrow. “What, exactly, is cocokinesis?”

I grinned brightly at her. “You know, the ability to summon and mentally control chocolate! Tell me that wouldn’t be the coolest super power ever.” Adopting a heroic tone and pose, I pointed at the empty hallway ahead of us. “Aha, Mr. Rabid Werewolf, you think you can rampage through this city and kill these people? I think not! Eat hot fudge, you vile beast!” My hands shot forward, fingers wiggling as if I was blasting the imaginary monster with streams of melted dessert topping. Then I lifted my hand, blowing at my finger like imaginary gun before giving it a quick lick. “Mmm, justice is delicious.”

For a few seconds, Avalon just stared at me. Her mouth opened and shut a few times before she managed a single word. “Dork.” Turning on her heel, she strode away, muttering the whole time. “Impossible, unbelievable, indescribable dork. How the hell did I become roommates with the living incarnation of dork-kind? The avatar of geek sleeps in my room. What am I supposed to do with her?”

Snickering a little in spite of myself, I hurried to catch up. “You know you love it, you gigantic faker. You wouldn’t want anyone else. I bet you’d fight anyone that tried to make us switch roommates.”

Avalon didn’t respond. Not verbally, anyway. But she did slow down and turn her head a little until I caught up. Then she kept going, and we walked on to meet the others, side by side.

******

Testing which Alter-gifts we had inherited took most of the rest of the afternoon and early evening. As it turned out, I’d been wrong about getting that blood sensing power from the shark-man, because Sean had gained the same ability without ever killing one of them. We’d narrowed it down to the harpies. We had each killed one of them, and their blood-magic stuff meant the tracking bit actually made sense.

Beyond that, the cat-person that I’d killed had apparently given me the ability to somewhat alter my facial appearance. I could change my eye color as well as the length and color of my hair. I was able to reshape the general contours of my face, though my general build and all that remained the same.

And I still hadn’t figured out what the shark person had given me. Even submerging myself in water didn’t help. After hours of testing and suggestions, we were no closer to figuring out what it was. I wondered I’d gotten anything at all. Maybe I had just gotten a crappy draw and ended up with nothing.

Besides the same blood power I’d gotten, Sean was now also able to hold his breath for a long time. At last count, he was up around eight minutes. Plus he’d killed one of the Harabeold sand goblin things. Rather than turning into or controlling sand like Shiori and I had gained, he was able to touch solid, non-living material and transform it into sand. We were already talking about ways to work together.

Like his sister, Columbus was able to manipulate about twenty pounds or so of metal. Unlike Shiori, however, he wasn’t able to hear or see through it, only control it. Plus the orc that he’d killed had made him a hell of a lot tougher than he’d been before. I smacked him with my staff a few times to no effect.

Then there were the twins. Sands was now incredibly dexterous. She had been showing off by working a silver coin through her fingers like some kind of expert magician, and then topped that by working four separate coins, two in each hand going in opposite directions. It was really cool. Plus she was now strong enough to manage a bench press of about four hundred pounds. It wasn’t quite outright super-strength, but still. She could now hit with that mace of hers a heck of a lot harder than she could before.

Scout, meanwhile, had ears like a freaking wolf now. The girl could hear an entire conversation from a hundred feet away. And like Sean, she could hold her breath for a long time. Five minutes in her case.

On the other hand, Avalon had also gained a power that would mesh well with my own. In her case, it was the ability to turn solid material into wood by touching it. Added to my own apparent power to meld with and transfer myself through wood made for a potentially potent combination. Beyond that, she could now run much faster than she could before (Sean timed her at about thirty miles an hour down on the beach). There was also another Alter that she’d killed, a big guy with three heads facing in different directions that, like my shark guy, we had no idea what she’d inherited from. Not yet anyway.

As for Shiori herself (she’d shown up a couple hours after we started, since she had a lot more sleep to catch up on), beyond the metal control and senses along with her sand form, she had also developed the ability to make some kind of pretty whistle noise, almost like wind chimes. Anyone she directed it at just sort of stood there dumbly listening to it. She’d tried it on me, and I’d just zoned out, thinking about how the sound was so pretty. That thought had quickly shifted toward how pretty Shiori herself was. Shifting back and forth, I’d felt my mind drifting until Sean snapped his fingers in front of my face.

At least now we all had a basic idea of what sort of powers we’d gained from our little excursion. Which meant that it was now time for me to focus a little on the other thing I’d gained. Namely, family.

Obviously, I wasn’t just going to run up to Koren and Wyatt and blurt out that they were actually my secret blood relatives. I wasn’t sure how that would go over, but I was guessing the answer started with Not and ended with Well, with an assortment of possible curse words sprinkled into the middle.

No, I had to take this gradually and carefully. Gaia had left it up to me to decide what to do with the information she’d given me, while noting that caution was likely the better way to go about it.

So, I was going to start by simply trying to spend a little time with them. Sure, I’d gotten a fairly… not good impression of Koren (and still thought Wyatt was kind of insane), but still. I was pretty confident that if certain people judged me by initial impressions and let it stick forever, I’d look pretty bad too.

The biggest question was, which one of them should I try to talk to first? Koren and I clearly weren’t in the best of places, but it was a little weird to try and track down one of the security team members. Especially if I couldn’t actually tell the guy why I really wanted to get to know him. Not yet at least.

In the end, Koren made the most sense to start with. She was easy to track down since we were generally allowed into the same places, and though we weren’t friends, having a chat with her would look a lot less weird than randomly striking up a conversation with a member of the security team.

It was almost eight in the evening by the time I made up my mind and found the girl I was looking for. As it turned out, Koren was in the cafeteria, enjoying a bowl of ice cream while watching videos on her phone. I didn’t know what the videos were of since she was listening through earbuds, but they were apparently pretty amusing because the girl kept snickering the whole time she was watching. Occasionally she laughed so much she’d miss her mouth with the spoon and end up shoving ice cream against her cheek. Then she’d quickly wipe her face off and look around. The first time, I was able to lower my gaze to my own phone quickly enough to avoid attention. But the next time, she noticed.

“You got a problem, Chambers?” She demanded from two tables away, having tugged the earbuds out. Her gaze was locked on me, and I couldn’t help but take a second to examine the other girl. My niece. I had a niece, and she happened to be Koren freaking Fellows. My sister (I had a sister!) had a daughter, and that daughter was Koren Fellows. God, it was a lot to take in. Every time I thought I had a handle on the news, it seemed to strike me for the first time all over again. A niece. Koren was my niece.

“Hey, what–” Looking a little disturbed, the girl in question stood up then. Her eyes were narrowed suspiciously. “What are you staring at me for, you freak? Don’t you have something better to do?”

Freak. Right, there was that whole ‘not having the best relationship’ thing rearing its head already. I coughed twice before shrugging. “No, I mean, I was just… wondering if you might wanna… I dunno, do something?” Wow. Okay, that sounded lame even to me. “You know, for fun.” Not. Any. Better. Brain.

“Fun,” Koren echoed in a flat, disbelieving voice. She continued to stare at me while putting her phone and earbuds in her pocket. Taking a step away from me to, she gave a little shake of her head while putting away her ice cream bowl. Then she turned to walk out of the room while I was still trying to figure out what I should say next.

Aaand she was gone. Well, that had gone swimmingly. Clearly, I was the best at connecting with long lost family.

My sigh was interrupted by a sharp buzz from the phone that I had been pretending to pay attention to while secretly (or not-so-secretly, apparently) staring at Koren. When I glanced down at it, I saw a new text message from Miranda, asking me to give her a call. It was phrased casually enough, but reading it through our little code made it clear that this was one step shy of an outright emergency. She needed me to call her as soon as physically possible. Which meant she’d found something.

Shaking off my total whiff at connecting with Koren, I picked myself up and headed back outside. Despite the urge to immediately start dialing, I waited until I was all the way out on the beach. There were a bunch of second and third year students out there playing some kind of night time volleyball tournament, so I steered around them, as well as the three students I could see practicing with some kind of ice generation power out on the waves.

Eventually, my route took me far enough away from everyone to avoid being overheard (I gave it as much extra space as possible, just for anyone else with enhanced hearing like Scout had gotten), and I took out the phone that Gaia had sent me. Looking between each of the two phones quickly, I transferred Miranda’s number to the new phone. Then I sent her a text from it in our code, telling her to call me at that number as soon as she got it.

Two minutes later, the phone lit up and buzzed in my hand. I quickly flipped it open, looking out at the waves while answering with, “Hey, Randy-Pandy, what’s up?”

“What’s with the new phone?” she asked quickly. “Did you, uhh, lose the other one again?” As casual as she tried to sound, the tension in her voice was obvious.

“Nah, it was a gift,” I replied. “We can talk safely on my end at least. I… have it on good authority that this phone bypasses the security restrictions. They aren’t recording.” While talking, I couldn’t resist making my hair grow and then shrink repeatedly, extending it down to my waist, then retracting it all the way into a near-buzz cut and back out again. It felt funny.

“Are… you sure?” Miranda sounded uncertain for a second before clearly shaking that off. “I mean, if you say so… good, I… are you okay? Because it sounds like you’ve been attracting attention again.”

“I do have a habit of that,” I admitted. “Trust me, I’ll tell you all about it as soon as you tell me what’s going on. What happened over there, did you find something?” The next time I extended my hair out, I started changing the color, cycling it through blonde, brown, black, red, then back to blonde again before starting in on more exotic colors like green and purple.

“Well,” she replied hesitantly. “I was looking for info about that Fossor guy. And um, I didn’t actually find anything yet. But while I was looking in the archives, err, that’s what we call the library. Anyway, while I was in there, I saw Doxer and Pace. They were talking in the corner, really involved. I managed to get close enough to overhear some of what they were saying.”

“Should you be talking about this?” I asked quickly. “I mean, do they monitor your calls at the… wherever that garden thing is?”

“Probably,” she acknowledged. “But I’m not at the Garden right now. I’m with Hisao. Well, not with him. I’m watching the backdoor of this warehouse while he goes in the front. Long story, not relevant to the current situation. Plus there’s another me doing the actual watching, so we’re good.”

Smiling at that, I shook my head in wonder. “Okay, Riot Girl, what’d you overhear?”

“Do you know a teacher out there named Tangle?” she asked then, sounding tentative.

“Uh, I haven’t met her, but I’ve heard of her,” I replied. “She’s been out all semester because of some shark attack or something. Which sounds really weird considering the healing abilities we’ve got, but I figured it was some kind of magic super-poisonous shark or something. Why?”

The answer came quickly. “Doxor and Pace were talking about a Professor Tangle, and I knew she wasn’t one of ours. It… um, it sounded like she was their in over there at Crossroads.”

I shook my head needlessly. “That doesn’t make sense. She hasn’t been here all semester.”

“How much do you know about that shark attack, or her situation?”

Frowning a little at the question, I thought about it. “Not much, honestly. They’ve been pretty… vague.”

“Well,” she replied, “maybe you should fix that.”

My head nodded absently as I watched the ocean. “Yeah… I think you’re right.

“And I’m pretty sure the best place to start is in Professor Tangle’s faculty apartment.”

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Begin Again 10-01

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“Well,” Columbus announced a few minutes later as our group stood in the room that we’d been directed to wait in while Gaia sorted out a truce between Nicholas and the Meregan. “That just happened.”

“Yuuup,” I drawled absently, keeping my eyes on the opposite wall as I thought about what the man had said. My mind was reeling, hadn’t stopped reeling since Nicholas had finished his pronouncement.

Not that he’d had much more to explain beyond that, only that these Seosten had, for some unknown reason, created the effect that made most of humanity incapable of recognizing or remembering Alters.

After that very brief exchange, we continued standing there in the room in relative silence for another minute or two, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I couldn’t begin to understand what Sands, Scout, and Sean might be thinking. They’d been raised in Heretical society, so the idea that the Bystander effect was some kind of artificial thing forced on humanity had to be hitting them harder than me.

With that thought, I looked toward the twins to see how they were doing. Scout was sitting cross-legged on the floor, chin in her hands and elbows on her legs as she looked off into space with an unfocused gaze. Whatever she was thinking about, the quiet girl clearly wasn’t in the mood to share.

Sands, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in front of her sister. She was chewing worriedly at her fingernails while muttering intently under her breath. I couldn’t actually hear most of it, but the few words I managed to pick up sounded an awful lot like she was reciting the story that Professor Ross had told us about Hieronymus Bosch’s encounter with the Hangman demon. She didn’t sound happy.

My mouth opened to ask the other girl what she was thinking, but before I could say anything, she turned abruptly. Her gaze flicked over me before focusing on the figure a little bit to the side: Asenath. The vampire was currently crouched down on one knee, petting an eager and very happy Vulcan (who didn’t seem to mind the fact that she wasn’t human one tiny bit as long as she gave him belly rubs).

“Hey,” Sands spoke up to get her attention. “Va…” Trailing off, her expression changed to a slight wince before she forced a correction. “I mean, what was it… Asen… Asenad—I don’t remember what–”

“Asenath,” the vampire calmly informed her with an even expression, looking up from the mechanical dog without stopping her gentle rubbing. “A-S-E-N-A-T-H. The name’s from the bible. You know, wife of Joseph, he who wore the coat of many colors, among other fables.” Her eyes moved to Columbus, who was opening his mouth. “And no, that’s not me. I’m not quite that old. Centuries, not millennia.”

He shrugged. “Hey, when Bystander history class is taught by the Virginia Dare, you never know.”

Sands pressed on, clearly trying to do so before she lost her nerve. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of the vampire girl. “Asenath. Sorry, I’ve got it. Asenath. I was just… you’re a… I mean you’re a St—Alter.”

“That’s right,” Senny confirmed, looking very slightly amused as she gave a single nod. “A vampire, like you said before. It’s okay to say the word. Vampire. It’s what I am. Though I do prefer my name.”

Sands went silent, biting her lip worriedly for a second. Then she let out a long breath and straightened, looking directly at Asenath once more. “Well, have you ever heard of these Seosten assholes then?”

“Would you believe the answer if I gave one to you?” Senny asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dropping her gaze briefly before looking up again, Sands met her gaze in silence for almost half a minute, just staring into Asenath’s eyes before she finally spoke. Her voice was tentative, though it grew stronger with each passing word. “I really wanted you to be evil. Not just you, all of you. Strangers, Alters, whatever. I really, really wanted you to be evil. I wanted you to be monsters. Part of me kind of… still does. Sort of. It was just… it would’ve made everything so much easier, you know?”

“It was easier to think you were just hunting evil creatures with no morality,” Senny replied in a quiet voice. “Easier to think that your family, your friends, everyone you know were only killing bad guys.”

I saw the way Sands swallowed hard before nodding. “Yeah, that’s… I don’t want my Dad to have killed good—I love my dad. I love my family. I want them to be the good guys. I really, really want them to be the good guys.” Her words trailed off into a whisper before she looked away with a visible flinch.

Senny stood and took a couple steps that way, voice quiet. “Sandoval, there’s nothing wrong with wanting your father to be a hero. Nothing. You have nothing to be ashamed of, do you hear me? I am not offended. I understand. And your father, he’s… obviously saved a lot of people’s lives. Knowing that there are good Alters out there doesn’t change that. It doesn’t take away from the good he’s done.”

“But it’s not just that,” Sands insisted, glancing down at her sister before sighing. “He’s killed a lot of Strang—Alters. And he’s taught so many other Heretics that went on to kill even more of them. It’s exponential. And our mother, and—she was—I don’t… I can’t—It was just easier if you were all evil.”

Asenath lifted a hand, gently laying it on Sands’ shoulder. The other girl flinched a little and stiffened, but didn’t pull back. “You can’t judge yourself by what you do with the wrong information, only by what you do when that information is corrected. You’re right, it’s easier when everything is black and white. So I guess the question you have to answer now is, what are you going to do now that it’s not?”

The answer came after only a second of hesitation. “I don’t know,” Sands admitted with a little shrug. “But mostly, right now, I just want to repeat my question. Have you ever heard of the Seosten?”

Senny’s head shook. “No. Maybe under a different name. There’s a few different Alter species that specialize in possession, but nothing that’s ringing a bell right now. They’d have to be very old and very powerful. Old enough that my father didn’t know anything about them. He just thought the Bystander effect—he didn’t call it that of course, but he just thought it was something you Heretics did to them.”

While Sands sputtered, I was the first to find my voice. “Something Heretics did to humanity?”

It was Shiori who spoke, her voice interrupting before Senny could reply. “Sure. Heretics keep so many secrets anyway. Why wouldn’t Alters think that hiding the supernatural from humanity to ‘protect’ them from it was a Heretic plan. Sounds pretty in line with some of the other things we’ve heard about.”

I quickly spoke up while Sands’s eyes moved to squint at the other girl. “I think the point is that none of us knew that the Bystander Effect was something made by some other group, whatever their reasons were. Which means we’re probably not going to find any information about them back in Crossroads.”

“So…” Sean started uncertainly while looking first to me, then to the others. “What do we do about it?”

Avalon, who had been silent up to that point, finally spoke up. “Nothing. We don’t do anything about it.” Once everyone was looking at her, she continued. “One, Chambers said it herself. There won’t be any information at Crossroads about it, and that’s where we’re going. And two, we have got more than enough to worry about as it is. There’s just nothing for us to go on, and if we spread ourselves too thin looking into everything, we’ll never get anywhere. So, we focus on the issues we already have and leave this whole Seosten thing for later. If more information presents itself, we’ll worry about it then.”

Rolling my eyes in spite of myself, I nodded. “She’s got a point. We’ve got entirely too many problems to deal with as it is to go throwing world-spanning mysteries on top of them. Whatever these Seosten are up to, I doubt their millennia-long plans are going to come to a head in the next few months.”

“So we focus on the mysteries we’ve got,” Columbus agreed. “Like who killed Professor Pericles.”

“Or who wants Avalon dead so badly they’re working with people from Eden’s Garden to get it,” Sands added after taking a seat next to her sister. “Which might be the same people. And are probably the same ones that summoned the zombies into the school, even if the teachers don’t think it’s connected.”

“Don’t forget Flick’s mom,” Shiori put in quickly. When the others looked at her, she shifted back a bit with a slight blush of embarrassment. Her voice turned to a mumble. “What? I know about stuff now.”

Smiling in spite of myself, I reached a foot out to poke the other girl’s leg. “Don’t worry, we’re not forgetting about my mom. Which reminds me, we still need to see if there’s any information in the school about whatever Ammon is. I mean, I know Crossroads teaches that Alter-Stranger hybrids are impossible, but there’s gotta be something in there, even if it’s purely theoretical or whatever.”

While the others were agreeing with that, I snapped my fingers, looking toward Avalon and Sean. “And that reminds me. I can tell you guys about what we found in the security room now.” Coughing, I hesitated before plowing ahead. I told them about my having two older half-siblings, and everything that Gaia had added about that, including the fact that she’d been close to telling me their names but kept getting interrupted. At some point, I was going to corner that woman and make her spit out the information before anything else happened.

“So Flick’s got older siblings too,” Sean announced, head tilted curiously. “That’s what you guys kept trying to tell us back at school?”

Columbus rolled his eyes. “Dude, you have no idea how many different ways I tried to make you remember it. It’s written on pretty much every wall of our room. Also on the ceiling. And there’s post-it notes all over your text books with the—you get the idea.”

“Oh, and while we’re on the subject of things we shouldn’t be forgetting again, there was that voice you guys heard,” Sean pointed out while nodding toward Sands and me. “The one that helped you fight that annoying son of a bitch from Eden’s Garden. You think that’s related to all this?”

I shrugged. “I think it has to be, at this point. And we still don’t know why Deveron’s in the school after he graduated a hundred years ago, why his attitude has changed so much since last year, or why no one remembers him. Even the headmistress doesn’t remember him being a student, apparently. So someone else erased him. Or he’s just–” I blinked, frowning thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s been possessed?”

“It seems to me,” Avalon pointed out, “that one of these Seosten would do a better job of blending in and behaving the same way he did last year if it was a simple case of possession. And it still wouldn’t explain much. Why use him at all when they could just possess one of the other students? They’d have to erase everyone’s memory, reduce his age, possess him, then act completely different from one year to the next. It just gets too complicated. Like I said, we should focus on what we have already.”

“Right, focus. If the world will let us,” I muttered before brightening. “At least we’re all on the same page now. And we have a fresh set of eyes to help. One that’s separate from our team, just in case.”

“Oh, that’s me!” Shiori piped up, lifting her hand and bouncing a little adorably. She cleared her throat, trying and failing to sound serious. “And I know just where we can go to find everything we want.”

“You do?” Sean asked, before Columbus’s flailing arm could slap the boy hard enough to stop him.

“Yup!” Shiori was grinning. “We just have to go to the Satisfactory.”

Columbus was pointing at me. “You. I blame you for the puns starting up again.” Despite his words, he seemed genuinely happy about that. I was about to tease him, before he spoke again and cut off any rational thought I had. “You turned her on, didn’t you?”

My only solace for the fact that it took me a solid minute to stop coughing and choking was that Shiori was in the exact same position.

******

Not very long after that, I was back on the Meregan ship, in the portal room embracing Gavant as well as I could. It felt like hugging onto my dad back when I’d been a very little girl. “Thanks for everything. You were my first, um, straight up aliens. Maybe next time we can go out into space.”

His massive hand patted my head gently. “We are being the grateful for you, Friend-Flick. You and Friend-Shiori, and Other-Friends have been done more for us than we can being thank any for doing.”

Purin spoke up. “We are being sorry that we have been brought you here to fight which is not yours.”

I shook my head quickly, releasing Gavant to hug Purin while Shiori took her turn. “Don’t be silly. You needed help to find your kids. Now you’ve got them. Plus you don’t have to fight Nicholas anymore.”

“Yes,” Gavant smiled while giving Shiori a head pat as well. “We are being have our children. That is been very good. And,” he added while looking at me. “It is something we will not been forgetting. When Friend-Flick or others need help, Meregan people will been there. Only need calling for us.”

Swallowing, I stepped back, glancing across the room to the portal. Most of my team was already heading through under the watchful eye of Gaia. They hadn’t spent as much time directly interacting with the Meregan. Only Columbus was staying back, waiting for his sister to finish saying her goodbyes. At least, that’s what he thought he was waiting for. In reality, Shiori wanted a chance to talk to him about what she really was without anyone else listening in, and Gaia was making sure she got it.

To that end, I turned my attention to the nearby boy, setting my fist against his shoulder before pushing. “Hey, Tristan. You’re heading out with your great, great, however many greats grandfather, huh?”

The kid nodded up and down quickly. “Yup. He’s already got some clues about where the rest of my family is. Plus he’s gonna teach me how to keep all his monster-people in line. You know, just in case.”

“I think the first step is to not call them monster-people,” I pointed out with a little smile, glancing toward the corner of the room where Asenath was standing. She gave me a slight nod while chuckling.

“I’m gonna see you again, right?” the boy pressed, his eyes intent on mine while he caught my hand.

“Yeah,” I promised. “After all, the Meregan still owe me a trip in space, and I plan to collect it.”

By that point, Shiori had taken Columbus by the hand and was leading him away from the group and into the same corner of the room that Asenath was waiting at. I could read the confusion on the boy’s face about what his sister wanted to tell him, but turned my attention away to give them privacy.

Instead, I gave Tristan a quick hug before stepping over to where Gaia stood. “Let me guess, when we’re back at Crossroads, we can’t talk about this stuff openly anymore.”

Her head dipped in a nod. “I’m sorry, but we do have to be more discreet. It’s impossible to say who might be listening at the wrong time. You and your friends should mostly be safe as long as you exercise caution, but as the headmistress, there are far more eyes on me most of the time. I would like to say that you should visit as much as possible, but I’m afraid the people who believe that you are a spy for your mother would see that as evidence that we are conspiring.”

“Which we are,” I pointed out mildly.

She smiled a little bit, bowing her head in amused acknowledgment. “Yes, which we are. But we hardly need to give them even more ammunition. At least until some of this settles down, it is probably better if we aren’t seen as cooperating that directly. If you need to send a message, you may do so through Avalon. Her visits will not be seen as anything strange.”

“I’ll do that,” I promised before taking a breath to steady myself. “You know what I’m gonna ask now though, right?”

She met my gaze. “You wish to know the identities of your older half-siblings.”

“Yes,” I confirmed emphatically. “We kinda figured out that we just keep adding new mysteries and issues. I’d like to solve at least this one while we have the chance. You said you knew them back before we were… interrupted.”

“I do.” Gaia nodded, a slight smile touching her face. “Though I’m not actually supposed to. Ruthers did his very best to hide them so that no one would know where they came from. But… I have my ways.”

She let me stand there like that, staring at her pleadingly for a few seconds before relenting with a chuckle. “All right, all right. Your older siblings were separated. Ruthers believed that was the best way to keep any of the rebellion from locating them, particularly their father, whoever he was. And no, that is something I do not know. The identity of Joselyn Atherby’s husband was a closely guarded secret.

“As I said, the twins were separated. Your brother was raised by a Heretic family. Knowing you were going to be here this year, I hired him to perform… security functions.”

I blinked once, then again before straightening. “Wait… Wyatt? You mean… you mean Wyatt is my…”

“Your half-brother, yes,” she confirmed. “I must caution you to be careful. Very few know of his relation to you. Not even Wyatt does, yet.”

I was trying to comprehend the idea that the ‘crazy’ security guard, the… enthusiastic guy who had thought that I was skipping class my first day on the island, was my older brother. It was… a lot to take in.

Gaia, however, had more surprises in store. “Your sister, meanwhile, was raised by a Bystander family. She’s still out there. But her daughter was brought to school just this year as well.”

“Her daughter…” I trailed off, frowning thoughtfully before my eyes snapped to the other woman’s. “Koren. Back when we picked out our weapons, I almost took the Hunga Munga because I felt drawn to them. But Koren did take them. Which means Wyatt is my brother and Koren is my… niece?” Boy did that ever feel weird to say. I reeled backward a step, trying to wrap my mind around that.

“That is… correct,” Gaia nodded after a momentary pause. “What do you plan to do with this information?”

I hesitated before shrugging a bit helplessly. “I guess I’ll do what Mom would want me to.

“I’ll get to know my family.”

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