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.”