Month: July 2016

Family Reunion 12-01

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“Right, well, you kids have fun,” Koren announced to Shiori and me as we stepped out onto the grounds a minute after our brief meeting with Wyatt. “I’ve got some… things to think about.”

Glancing at Shiori and then back to my niece (which was still weird), I spoke quickly. “I still need to know what you told Gaia about what you saw. I need to know what Ammon did in the lighthouse.”

Koren raised an eyebrow before shrugging at me. “Sure. Why not. Meet me around the back of there after lunch. Then I’ll tell you what I saw. And you can tell me all about my grandmother.” After giving Shiori a quick glance, she added, “And, preferably, let me know who else in this school already knew everything about my family before I–” She stopped in mid-sentence, letting out an audible breath. “Never mind, just… I’ll meet you behind the light house after lunch. Is that good enough for you?”

I nodded, and the other girl took off without another word. Which left Shiori and me alone, since the twins were spending some time with their dad, and the boys were sleeping, apparently. I suppose that’s what happened when they were up late working on Columbus’s super-special telescope thing before spending the rest of the night dealing with Ammon and the aftermath of all that. They needed a nap.

As for Avalon, she was… actually, I wasn’t entirely sure where Avalon was. The last I knew she was with her mother, but that had been awhile ago since I’d spent the past couple hours being interviewed by the actual investigators (rather than my interaction with Ruthers) about what had happened.

Strangely, it wasn’t Kine who spoke to me, but a couple other Runners who seemed much less… personable. They kept sending question after question at me, often before I had time to answer the previous one. And they backtracked, repeating the same questions in different ways or requesting seemingly irrelevant details like what color shirt Ammon was wearing. All different ways, I knew, of figuring out if someone was lying about their story. They were trying really hard to catch me in a lie.

But I kept my story straight, telling them everything I could about what happened. Afterward, Gaia said she would talk to them as well. When I left, she, the Runners, and Ruthers were all talking in her office.

Which meant that I really needed something to take my mind off what kind of discussion they were all having, especially since I hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to Gaia about what Ruthers had said (and what he knew). So spending a little time with Shiori felt just right. Even if I had no idea what we were doing.

“So would you mind telling me where we’re going?” I asked her as soon as I realized we weren’t heading toward any of the buildings. Actually, we were moving past everything. “Or is it a surprise?”

“Uh,” Shiori paused, thinking about it for a moment. “It’s kind of a surprise. But just um, trust me?”

I nodded easily, following after the girl as she led me across the rest of the grounds. After another few seconds, I blinked. “Wait, are we going to the beach? I thought you’d uh, want to stay away from the ocean for awhile. You know, after…” I trailed off uncertainly, thinking about what had happened earlier.

Shiori just shook her head at me. “It’s not the ocean’s fault. I think I’d be more likely to have a phobia of innocent-looking little boys, not the ocean. Besides,” she added then, “we’re not staying on the beach. We’re going to the jungle. I just want their security to think that we’re going down to the beach.”

She had a point. Still, I was confused. Why were we going to the jungle? “Better not let Wyatt find out,” I teased lightly. “He’ll think that I’m not going on that jungle tour with him tomorrow anymore.”

The other girl smiled sidelong at me, though it was a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” she promised. “We’re not going that far. They were only a couple hundred feet past the treeline when I left them.”

“Them?” I asked, as we stepped down onto the always gorgeous beach. But Shiori wouldn’t say anything else about it. Probably because there were about a dozen other students on the beach playing some big volleyball game or swimming out in the water. She remained silent as we walked past them.

Also mostly silent were the other students. Most of them were second years, though there were a few from my own grade mixed in. They all turned to stare as Shiori and I passed, stopping their game to watch and whisper to one another. I picked out a little bit of it, mostly centered around pointing out that I was the one the ‘intruder’ had been after, and that it wasn’t the first time something had happened.

I ignored it. What else could I do or say that wouldn’t just raise more questions? I just looked back at them, then turned away and kept walking. Maybe I should’ve said something, made a joke, or somehow eased their minds. My mother probably could have, knowing what I knew about her. But I had no idea what to say. I was better in smaller, confined and more personal groups. Being stared at and whispered about by people I didn’t really know made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of how people had acted when Mom disappeared. The crowds at school, even as young as I was, had been all but unbearable.

No one said anything directly to me, or stopped us, so we walked on down the beach. Shiori was silent until we had passed far out of their line of sight along the beach. Finally, however, she glanced toward me while biting her lip. After a few seconds of that, the girl asked, “How do you feel, Flick?”

“You mean about the fact that everyone obviously wants to know why some Stranger kid managed to infiltrate the school grounds and mind control a bunch of students for the sole purpose of attacking me?” When the other girl nodded, I let out a long, low sigh. “I dunno. I mean, obviously I wanna beat Ammon’s head in until it collapses for being a psychotic, evil little piece of shit. But other than that, I… I don’t know. Part of me just wants to tell everyone the truth. About Ammon, about Mom, about what the other Heretics did to her to end their little civil war and all the rest. Part of me wants to get all of it out in the open so there’s no more secrets. I mean, I know it’s a bad idea. Especially right now. But I still kind of just want to get all of that out in the open.” Coughing then, I added a little more quietly, “I’ve wanted to be an investigative reporter pretty much my whole life. Just like my dad. This whole keeping secrets from everyone thing, especially secrets that are this big, goes directly against that.”

Shiori flinched slightly at that, shaking her head a bit sadly. “I’m sorry, Flick,” she said quietly while moving her hand to take mine. “I guess I’m one of those secrets, huh? I mean, my whole… situation.”

I quickly interlaced our fingers while shaking my head. “Not like that. I don’t like keeping that secret because I don’t want anyone to think that you must be evil just because of who your mom is. You shouldn’t have to hide like that, and you shouldn’t have to be afraid of anyone finding out. It’s not fair.”

She didn’t say anything to that at first, remaining contemplatively silent for another few steps before finally speaking. “I’m just glad the people I care about know that I’m not evil. And,” she pointed out with a tiny smile, “I even got a new sister out of the deal. That’s—” Stopping in mid-sentence, she gasped. “Oh—oh crap, I should probably call her, huh? Senny, she should, um, know what happened.”

I nodded to that. “Yeah, she’ll probably kill both of us if we don’t let her know what’s going on. As soon as you show me what this big secret is, you can borrow the phone that Gaia gave me and call her.”

After giving a quick, grateful nod, Shiori pointed. “In here, it was right off from that boulder.” She gestured to a large, jagged rock sticking up out of the nearby water. It sort of looked like a tiger’s head.

The two of us left the beach after making sure we were alone. The treeline was thick with gnarled branches and fallen logs, with what looked like a man-made barrier of rocks in a sort-of wall that was clearly meant as a visible division between the safe beach and the more dangerous and wild jungle.

My first impression after stepping over the wall of stones and squeezing between an enormous tree and its fallen neighbor was that there had to be some kind of environment shield over the beach as well, because the jungle was even hotter. Not to mention the humidity. My shirt was almost immediately soaked through. It was almost like walking through the spray of a waterfall. And the sounds… I’d thought the jungle noises were loud before. Once we crossed that knee-high rock wall, the noises were unbelievable. There were insects, birds, monkeys, and every other possible creature (and no doubt impossible ones too) calling back and forth at one another. It was incredible. Everywhere I turned, there were more sounds. Creatures were warning each other about our presence, or alerting their pack to new prey. Or maybe just chatting (as much as animals did that sort of thing). The screams, squeals, and other noises reminded me of seeing movies with those crowded markets where everyone was shouting at each other.

It didn’t go on forever, but seemed to rise and fall now and then. As the two of us made our way quickly but carefully through what appeared to be a very narrow path, the jungle noises came and went, ebbing and flowing. They never really disappeared entirely, but I could definitely tell the difference between the ‘quiet’ times and the much louder ones. One of the main constants was the steady drone of insects.

Whatever Shiori wanted to show me may have been only a couple hundred feet or so away from the beach, but moving that far through the thick jungle foliage (while keeping an admittedly paranoid eye out for snakes either on the ground or hanging from branches because I am sometimes a ninny) made that seem like a much longer distance than it would have been over open ground. Shiori moved more easily than I did, seeming to instinctively know where to step. She flowed ahead like water, or, probably more accurately, some kind of native predator. I doubted she realized what she was doing.

I was just about to ask how much further we had to go when a figure stepped into view from around the tree in front of us. My eyes snapped from staring at the mossy ground for the ever-elusive snakes or other creepy crawly things, and what I saw made me do a quick double-take before blurting, “Avalon?”

My roommate was standing there, watching me briefly before her eyes moved to Shiori. “He’s awake.”

I blinked, confused as I looked back and forth between them. “He who? Wait, you mean Avalon was the one we were meeting? You guys talk to each other?” Somehow, that surprised me, and I blushed.

“Yes, Chambers,” Avalon spoke dryly, “Believe it or not, I am capable of having a conversation that you don’t actually witness.” She was mocking me, but I could see the amusement behind her eyes.

“I needed help with… the thing we’re about to show you, but you were busy with those investigators,” Shiori pointed out. “And Columbus was asleep. So I sort of went to Avalon instead. Actually, she helped a lot.” She gave the other girl a quick, grateful smile that just made me blush a little more.

Then, of course, I focused on the important part. “Okay, so what’s this thing that she helped you with?”

Again, the two of them exchanged brief glances. Then Avalon stepped aside while Shiori led me up and around the tree that the other girl had been waiting behind. I followed, unsure of what I was about to see. “What, did you make some kind of new friend that you can’t bring onto the school grounds?”

Before Shiori could answer, there was a high, tiny squealing noise that sounded an awful lot like a mouse or squirrel’s attempt at mimicking a threatening growl. Something shot out of the hollow at the base of the tree that we had just come around, before stopping in front of Shiori’s feet. The thing positioned itself between the two of us, bouncing on all four legs as it glared up at me and continued to make that adorable little squeaky growl that I belatedly realized was its attempt at being intimidating.

I stared down at the thing, my mouth opening and shutting while no actual words emerged. Inwardly, my Heretic sense was confirming that yes, this was indeed a Stranger. It wasn’t quite screaming at me or anything, but it was definitely making itself known.

Before I could find anything to actually say, Shiori had crouched to pick it up before straightening. The thing nestled in her hands, its growl turning briefly into a slight coo before it looked back at me and hissed. Tiny sparks of electricity came from the thing’s mouth, looking almost like someone testing a stun gun.

“That… that’s…” I stared a little more before managing to continue. “That’s one of those Jekern things.”

Shiori nodded, bringing her cupped hands up to whisper a little soothingly to the thing while it continued to glare at me and make those hissing noises. “Shh, it’s okay, Choo. She’s a friend. Friend.”

“Choo?” I echoed uncertainly, blinking from the tiny, adorable pig-thing to the girl holding him.

She looked briefly embarrassed, shifting her weight. “Well, yeah. See, his name is Porkachu. That’s what I started calling him, anyway. But then I figured that calling him ‘Pork’ might be a bad idea, cuz… well, yeah. So I’ve been abbreviating it to Choo. It’s shorter, and he eats like… a lot, so it fits that way because he’s always, you know, chewing. Plus there’s the way he–” In mid-sentence, the little guy jerked his head back and then forward, giving a loud sneeze that sent sparks of electricity spraying out everywhere. “–sneezes. See? So he’s Choo.”

Choo, for his part, shifted on his little legs while staring at me. The reassuring noises that Shiori was making (I wasn’t sure if he understood her words or not) at least seemed to calm him down, but he still looked a bit wary. At least until Avalon lifted her own hand with some kind of food crumbled up in her palm. The tiny electric-pig thing leaned in to sniff briefly before happily eating out of her hand.

“Something on your mind, Chambers?” Avalon asked, her voice flat as she watched my reaction.

“You um,” I coughed a little. “I just didn’t expect you to get along with something like him so quick.”

She didn’t respond at first, staying quiet while Choo continued happily eating out of her hand. Finally, the girl spoke in a soft voice that was different from her normal tone. “We kept animals at Garden, what they call ‘acceptable Strangers.’ Basically it’s just magical animals that they can use in some way to help the cause or get something out of them. They’re slaves, basically. But I…” She bit her lip visibly before going on. Her voice was a murmur that made me unsure of whether the girl even realized that she was still talking out loud. “There was this little Peryton fawn that I helped raise. His name was… I mean, is Salten. Seller promised he’d take care of him when I had to leave, but…” she paused before shrugging, looking uncomfortable. But she still didn’t move her hand away from the tiny piglet.

“What’s a Peryton?” I asked after a moment, when it was clear that she’d stopped talking.

Avalon glanced up at me briefly before answering. “Sort of like a Pegasus only with a deer instead of a horse. When it’s grown up, it looks like a stag with the wings and plumage of a bird.”

“You had a… a deer Pegasus?” I stared at the other girl in awe for a moment. “That’s… oh my god, that’s–”

“Don’t say it, Chambers,” Avalon warned.

“That is so-”

“Do not even think about it.”

“–freaking adorable!” I all-but squealed, moving to grab my roommate by the arms. “Did you get to fly on it? Did you? Did you? Did you?”

Oh wow, Avalon was actually blushing by that point. She looked at me, lifting her chin while I held onto her arms. The two of us stood there like that for a long few seconds, staring at each other. “Chambers,” she finally said quietly while raising an eyebrow. “First, yes. Second, breathe.”

Exhaling sharply and then inhaling at the reminder, I felt my own blush rise before focusing on the situation at hand, turning my attention to Shiori while somewhat reluctantly letting go of Avalon. “And you have a pet electric-pig thing.”

He sneezed at me, sending sparks into the air.

“Choo,” she confirmed with a little giggle. Then she looked guilty. “I couldn’t kill him. We killed all the other ones, but he was hiding and he was just… scared. He was terrified, Flick. I couldn’t kill him. And I couldn’t let anyone else do it either. I just… I couldn’t.”

“Don’t worry, Porter,” Avalon interrupted before I could speak. “Like I said before, we’ll keep your little pet safe.”

Shiori’s eyes turned to me then, and I didn’t hesitate. “Of course we will.” Reaching my hand out very slowly, I let the little guy sniff them curiously. Once I was sure he was calm enough, I reached into my pocket and produced my own little friend.

“Choo, meet Herbie,” I introduced the two with a smile. “Don’t worry, Choo. He’s the strong and silent type, but I’m sure you guys’ll get along just fine.”

The girl gave a beaming smile then that made my heart flip itself over a few times. “Thanks, you guys, for, you know, keeping it secret. And for helping. I know it’s dumb, I just… I needed to protect him.”

Avalon’s voice was quiet. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was scared and innocent and you saved him. You’re talking about protecting the helpless, Porter. Which, I’m pretty sure, once you strip past all the bullshit that’s built up over the years, is what we’re supposed to be doing here. Protecting the innocent.

“Anyone who says anything against that… fuck them.”

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Interlude 11 – Wyatt

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For most people, opening their eyes upon waking up was a natural response, the first thing they did even before their minds were fully conscious. It was an entirely instinctive action as the brain woke.

Wyatt Rendell was not most people, and he had long since trained himself to keep his eyes closed while waking. That had required some elaborate conditions. Specifically, he had, as a teenager, positioned an enchanted mirror in front of his face at night before going to sleep. If his eyes opened and the mirror caught sight of them, it would trigger an electric shock. It wasn’t too bad, just a reminder to keep his eyes firmly closed until he had worked his way up to cover the mirror with the nearby blanket.

It wasn’t like a mild little shock was the worst thing he’d ever woken up to, after all. Not in his family. Better to give himself just a little bit of pain and than risk letting his parents realize he was awake.

After all, his parents not realizing he was awake was the only reason he ever overheard enough of their conversation to realize that they truly didn’t care if he lived or died. Which was, while upsetting at the time, incredibly useful information to have. It brought sense to their punishments and erased any thought the boy had that if he just did the right thing long enough, his parents would love him.

Realizing that his parents, the people who raised him, were only doing so because some unknown third party that they reported to had ordered them to do it was almost liberating in a way. Once he stopped crying, of course. His parents (though they weren’t really that, another revelation his secret eavesdropping had uncovered) were ready and willing to kill him if they were ordered to. And since his young self had had no idea who they were reporting to, there were no authorities for him to seek help from. It made him constantly afraid of anyone who came to the house. But it also freed him from having to care about what his supposed parents thought of him. He no longer worried about their disapproval or punishments for the most minor of transgressions. He only worried about staying alive.

By this point, many years after he had left home, the enchanted mirror wasn’t necessary. The man never gave a single indication that he had woken up until he was absolutely certain that the room was empty.

Fully awake, but with his eyes still closed, the man first took a few seconds to simply listen. Sometimes that was enough to reveal an unwanted visitor. Throughout the many different jobs he’d held (he never stayed in one place long, lest the mysterious figure whom his parents had reported to stick more spies and potential assassins around him, or simply corrupt those that were already there) he had learned to hear a person’s breathing and subconscious fidgeting even while they were doing their best to be quiet. His hearing was enhanced enough from the Strangers he had killed to pick out most such people.

That very simple trick had been enough to reveal someone spying on him more than once. After which simply searching their room or locker while they were otherwise distracted usually revealed a journal or some other method they had been using to take note of his actions and report them to their superior.

This time, he heard nothing. Not that that by itself was proof that he was actually alone, of course. That was simply the second layer of his multi-step security verification process after keeping his eyes shut.

Once the man was sure that he couldn’t hear anything, and that any potential spy or assassin wasn’t the type to make noise on their own, he began the next step. Shifting his weight as subtly as possible, just enough to be interpreted as normal unconscious movement, he moved his feet together. Pressing each of his big toes against one another through the obnoxiously bright yellow socks that he wore, the man focused on the enchantment he had renewed on them before going to sleep, just as he always did.

As the spell on his socks activated, it sent out an invisible, undetectable pulse through the room to seek out one simple thing: heartbeats. After about three seconds, Wyatt felt his socks vibrate a single time before stopping. One vibration meant one heartbeat, his own. His was the only heartbeat in the room.

Most would have taken that as proof that they were alone and that everything was safe. Wyatt, on the other hand, knew that nothing was ever completely safe, and that there were ways to trick that measure. So he moved on to his final layer of security by shifting his hand under the pillow. Pressing his palm up against the underside, the man activated the spell there, the other one he renewed before sleeping.

As soon as the enchantment was activated, Wyatt experienced a brief twisting sensation. Then he was standing upright, catching himself easily. Finally, the man opened his eyes. He was standing in a small, closet-sized space. Directly ahead of him was a window into the room beyond where he had been sleeping. From the other side, the window appeared to be a painting of dogs playing poker. He liked those paintings. On the bed, his escape spell had replaced him with an extremely life-like mannequin.

For a few seconds, Wyatt studied the room. The mirror was enchanted to expose people who were invisible or in shapes other than their own. Still, there was nothing to see. Even checking how many times his door had been opened revealed that it had remained closed since he had gone to bed.

Wyatt still wasn’t sure he completely trusted it, considering how many other times his security had been compromised by someone he made the mistake of trusting for awhile, only to find out they were secretly reporting on him. But this was the best he could do. After giving his room one final once-over, he pressed a hidden button recessed in the wall. The window-painting and part of the wall it was attached to popped open, and he stepped out before allowing it to close behind him. At the same time, his mannequin in the bed disappeared, returning to where it had been in the hidden space before Wyatt had swapped places with it. The room was returned to its normal state, ready for the next morning.

Whistling to himself, the man began to get dressed. No spies so far. Maybe this job would actually last the whole year before he had to disappear and cut everyone out of his life yet again. He hoped so. He liked this job. The Headmistress was kind to him, and so far he had no reason to think she was a spy.

******

“Wyatt, calm down.” Risa Kohaku insisted a short time later, after the man discovered what took place the night before, while he was sleeping. “Listen, it’s all right. It wasn’t your fault. You were asleep.”

“Exactly!” he blurted, feeling that paranoia creeping its way into his brain like a spider. Wyatt knew he had problems, he knew that he didn’t always act right. But there was a difference between understanding that his reactions and thoughts were… to most people, strange or off-putting, and actually doing something about it. Most of the time, he couldn’t help it. Despite every effort he made and all the time he took to tell himself to act ‘normal,’ he inevitably ended up acting like a crazy person.

“I was asleep,” he went on, trying to stop himself from shaking. “I wasn’t doing my job. I should’ve done my job. I should have found a way to stop that boy from controlling anyone. Someone could have died, you could have died, all because I wasn’t doing my job. You and the headmistress hired me because of my security enchantments, but what good were they last night? What good were they?!”

Kohaku’s hands moved to catch him by the shoulders, and the man belatedly realized that he was doing that ‘hysterical’ thing again. “Wyatt,” she spoke firmly while squeezing his shoulders. “Calm down.”

He tried to do so, repeating his three step mantra to himself. Breathe, think, focus. Breathe, think, focus. He took in a breath, let it out, and thought about what he was doing before focusing on what was going on around him. Listen to what someone else said when his paranoia was clearly getting the best of him. Even that was often hard because of how many people had turned out to be working, knowingly or not, with whoever the people calling themselves his parents had been reporting to. He constantly doubted what he was thinking, unable to tell if his distrust was legitimate or brought on by paranoia.

Still, he found himself trusting Headmistress Gaia Sinclaire. And she trusted Risa Kohaku. So Wyatt focused on forcing back his instinctive feelings of doubt and suspicion. Trust Kohaku. Listen to what she said. She wasn’t a traitor. She wasn’t a spy. She wasn’t compromised. She didn’t want to hurt him.

Once he had stopped fidgeting and got his breath under control, the woman slowly released him. She went on without breaking his gaze. “The Headmistress wants to talk to you about how the boy broke in. She has some ideas about what can be done to stop it from happening in the future. But I want you to calm down and take a little walk around the grounds before you report to her office. Get your head on straight, do a quick patrol to clear your mind, then go and see her. Don’t rush, Wyatt. She’s busy right now anyway, so you don’t need to hurry. Meet her in her office in forty-five minutes, all right?”

Wyatt nodded once. “Yes,” he confirmed as sharply and confidently as possible. Stay strong, he told himself. Don’t let her know how scared you are that you’ll lose this job and have to move on again.

It would happen eventually, of course. It always did. Inevitably, the man who had been sending spies after him his entire life, who had corrupted the people calling themselves his parents and made them into Wyatt’s wardens and possible executioners would manage to insert another threat into his life.

“I will do my patrol,” he informed his superior as carefully and firmly as he could. “I won’t let you down this time, Professor. I promise.” At the last, he gave his best approximation of a smart salute.

Kohaku sighed, long and slow. “I told you not to do that anymore, Wyatt. We don’t salute. And call me Risa. You’re not a student, we’re co-workers. I’d like to be friends.” Before he could say anything to that, she held up a hand. “I know. I know how you feel about that. It’s okay. Just… try to take it easy.”

It wasn’t the first time they’d had the same conversation or a similar one, and it wouldn’t be the last. Still, Wyatt nodded, telling himself to just try harder to control his impulses. He knew he was weird, he knew his reactions put people off. But by the time he realized what he was doing, it was often too late.

“Thank you, Wyatt,” Kohaku gave him a slight smile. “Take your patrol, let me know if you find anything. And don’t forget to stop by the cafeteria to get something to eat before you get too involved.”

Wyatt agreed, properly resisting the urge to salute that time before pivoting to walk out of the security office. On the way, he passed Reid Rucker, Kohaku’s second-in-command, along with a couple of the other security guards who were waiting to talk to their boss. Most looked away as Wyatt passed, but Rucker gave him a quick wave to get his attention. “Hey, Wyatt,” the man spoke up. “If you’re heading out on patrol, could you give that spot in the north-east corner of the gym a quick once-over? I think some of the juniors were messing with it again, trying to make a blind spot for their little games.”

Wyatt, for his part, did his best not to notice how attractive Rucker was. The man looked young and fit, with broad shoulders and an equally broad smile. He was competent, quick, and charismatic. And he got along with everyone, making friends equally among both the staff and the students. Normally, that would have brought Wyatt’s hackles up as being too good to be true. But in spite of himself and everything he kept insisting to himself, he just couldn’t help but develop a little bit of a crush.

Not that anything would ever come of it. Rucker was simply everything that Wyatt wished he could be. He had to take a moment to breathe out, reminding himself not to salute (and barely remembering not to remind himself out loud). “Yes, sir,” he confirmed sharply, to prove he could stay on task without allowing himself to get distracted. “I’ll check that spot and make sure those traitors don’t know what-”

“Not traitors, Wyatt,” Rucker reminded him. “Just teenagers trying to be teenagers. No need to do anything too nasty to them. Just make sure their spells don’t stop us from doing our job, all right?” Belatedly, the man added with a casual smile that seemed to light up the room. “And it’s Reid, not sir.”

Once again reminding himself not to salute, Wyatt made his way as quickly as possible away from the security office. He tried to tell himself that this security breach had nothing to do with him or the mysterious man who had been in the background of his entire life, but the voice in the back of his head just kept repeating that he needed to be ready to leave. He had to be prepared for the inevitable time when he was going to have to take off and find a new job once again. As much as he loved this position, as much as he respected the headmistress and his superiors, it couldn’t last. It wouldn’t last. Good things never did. His boogieman always always found another way to infiltrate his life. Maybe it had already happened. Every new student, every co-worker, every visitor, all of them made Wyatt wonder if they were the one who would start reporting on his every action. Every person he met made him question if they were stalking him, writing down everything he did, every conversation he had. No one could be fully and completely trusted. He’d learned that the hard way when he was a child, and the lesson had been hammered home over and over again. Whenever he started to settle too much into one place, whenever he let himself start to think that this time would be different, he was inevitably proven wrong. Don’t get accustomed to places. Don’t get too attached to anyone. It was the only way to be safe.

Making his way to the cafeteria to grab something to eat while doing his rounds, Wyatt had just picked up a bagel and started to spread cream cheese on top of it when a voice from behind called his name.

Pivoting, the man blinked at the sight of two girls standing there. One of them he knew by name. “Chambers,” he spoke aloud to the blonde. “Today isn’t the hike,” Wyatt reminded her. “That’s tomorrow.”

Chambers nodded before gesturing to the girl beside her. “I know. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve got another member. Koren wants to go too. Right, Koren?”

The other girl (Koren Fellows, he reminded himself), shrugged and muttered something under her breath before looking up at him. “Yeah,” she said while meeting his gaze with a squint. There was something else there, something behind her stare that he couldn’t interpret. Another spy, maybe?

If she was, he’d figure it out. He always did. “Aha!” he blurted, going for enthusiasm to hide his suspicion. “Of course, of course, everyone’s welcome to go on our little jungle hike. As long as you come on time and ready to learn.”

“I’ve gone on the hike before,” Fellows muttered. The other girl kicked her foot, and she gave him an obviously forced smile. “I mean, I can’t wait to learn what you know. Eight o’clock, you said?” When he nodded, the girl gave him a thumbs up. “Perfect. See you then.” She turned, looking at Chambers for a moment then before starting off.

“Don’t worry,” Chambers said to him quietly. “She really does want to go. Koren’s just… not really good at the whole ‘talking to people and being personable’ thing. You kind of get used to it.”

Well, he knew how that was. Wyatt finished spreading the cream cheese on his bagel before giving a short, sharp nod. “Just be on time, Chambers. I’m a busy man. Lots to do. Come ready to hike. No whining about being too hot or scared of the Caipora.”

The blonde had just started to nod when one of the other girls came running up. It was that Porter girl, the Asian one. She gave Wyatt a quick look before focusing on Chambers. “Flick,” she called while grabbing the girl’s sleeve. “I really, really need to show you something.”

“Something bad?” Wyatt interrupted sharply. “Something dangerous? Something like–”

“It’s just a little project,” Chambers assured him. “I promise, everything’s fine.” She gave him a reassuring smile, then took the other girl’s hand before leading her away.

He watched them go before taking a bite of his breakfast. There was something going on there. Some reason the Chambers girl had suddenly volunteered to go on a jungle hike with him, and had somehow convinced Koren Fellows to do the same. He didn’t know what it was yet, exactly. But he would get to the bottom of it. If they were traitors or spies, he would figure it out. He’d catch them in the act.

He always did.

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Facing Evil 11-07

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Stepping into the lounge beside Avalon, I saw the others immediately. Shiori and the boys were sitting at one end of the room, on a couch beside one of the pool tables. They seemed to be deep into a whispered discussion. Meanwhile, Koren was sitting by the window at the opposite end of the room, intently staring out at the grounds beyond. She had a pillow from one of the other sofas held against her chest like it was some kind of shield, and both of her weapons were set on the windowsill beside her.

They all looked up when the two of us came in, and Shiori was on her feet immediately. “Flick,” she spoke up in a voice that was near-panicked in a way that made it clear just how unhappy she’d been at the fact that I was alone in a room with Ruthers.. “Are you okay? What did he say? What happened?”

Flushing a little at the attention (specifically her attention), I coughed. “It’s fine. I mean, it’s okay. I think it went about as well as it possibly could. Actually, he didn’t really ask me much about what happened tonight. It was more about, uhh,” I paused briefly before continuing, “what Ammon might actually be. I’ll tell you guys about it later, but I think I convinced him that he’s a real threat, at least.”

It was obvious that Shiori and the others all had questions, but I focused on Koren. The other girl had pushed the pillow aside and was now standing there by the window, her eyes focused intently on me. Before I could actually say anything, however, she spoke up instead. “We need to talk, Chambers.” Gaze flicking toward Avalon briefly, she added, “Without your bodyguard, if that’s okay with you.”

I blinked once, looking toward Avalon. The other girl was tensing up, but I quickly put a hand on her arm (and subsequently tried not to be distracted by how firm and toned it was, I mean jeez). “It’s okay,” I said quietly, without looking away from the girl across the room. “Ammon won’t be back tonight.”

To Koren, I made a nodding gesture toward the nearby door. “Is the hallway private enough for you?”

For a moment, I thought Koren might say something. In the end, however, she just gave a short, curt nod. Collecting her Hunga Munga from the windowsill and hanging them from her belt, she walked past me and into the hall without saying a word to or even looking at any of the others on her way.

Squeezing Avalon’s arm before looking toward the others, I gave them a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, guys. I’ll be right back so I can tell you what happened with Ruthers. Just… give me a few minutes.”

That said, I left the four and moved into the hallway where Koren was waiting. The other girl was standing by the entrance doors, looking out at the grounds once more. When I emerged from the lounge, she glanced back at me for just a second before returning her gaze the other way pointedly.

After taking a breath and letting it out again, I started by stepping forward. “What did Gaia tell you?”

Her response was flat. “Why, are you trying to figure out how much you’ll be able to keep to yourself?”

I blinked at that before shaking my head. “No, Koren, I don’t want to keep any of it to myself. I just–”

“Bullshit,” she retorted, finally turning to face me. “Don’t. Don’t try. You knew.” Lifting a hand, she pointed at me. “You knew already. You knew before tonight. You knew before yesterday. How long?” Her voice turned to a demand. “How long have you known, Chambers? How long have you known?”

Biting my lip, I started to respond before stopping myself. My gaze turned slightly toward the door down the hall where the headmistress and Ruthers were having their own little meeting, and then I stepped past Koren. “Let’s go outside,” I murmured to her under my breath. “I need some fresh air.”

Thankfully, the other girl didn’t object. She looked the same way I had been and paused briefly before giving a single nod. Without talking, she walked through the main doors with me until we were out on the grass. Then she focused again, her eyes narrowing pointedly as she spoke two words. “How long?”

Knowing about how she was probably going to take the answer, I met her gaze anyway. “About two weeks. You remember when the headmistress had my group, uh, do something for her instead of going on the November hunt? There’s a lot more to that story, but that’s when I found out that we’re related.”

“That you’re my aunt, you mean,” Koren shot back immediately. “That’s when you found out that my mother is your mother’s daughter. You’ve known for two weeks, two weeks that we’re related. You knew we were related last night. When I was telling you about what happened to me as a kid, what happened with the Hiding Man and all that shit, you knew. You knew that whole time and you never told me.”

Before I could say anything to that, she went on. “Were you ever gonna tell me? Or was my knowing the truth about my own family just too inconvenient for you? How long were you going to wait before telling me the truth? When it happened to fit into your personal schedule? How many different conversations were you planning on having with me before you let me know, ‘hey, by the way, I’m your fucking aunt’?!” At the end, her voice had risen into a stage-whispered shout, more of a hiss than a yell. Even as angry as she was, Koren at least had the sense not to actually go around shouting that out loud.

My mouth opened and then shut as I took a moment to avoid floundering or babbling. When I spoke, it was as calmly as I could make myself talk. The last thing this situation needed was both of us losing it. “You’re right,” I said quietly, but firmly. “I knew for too long and I should’ve found a way to tell you before now. It wasn’t fair to wait for so long, and I know it must look like I was hiding it from you. I don’t know, maybe it even looks like I was lying to you by omission or using you somehow or… or… I dunno. I don’t know how it looks, exactly. All I know is what I did. I knew you were my niece and I didn’t tell you. It never seemed like the right time. Because, let’s be honest here, Koren, finding the right time to drop a bomb like that is kind of hard. Would you have believed me, or would you just call me crazy? Would you run off and start babbling about it to people that shouldn’t know about any of it?”

“Let me guess,” she retorted, “Everyone you want to know about it is allowed to know. But anyone I want to trust, I need to run it by you and the Official Committee For Flick’s An Awesome Person.”

Wincing at that, I hesitated, looking at her seriously for a second. Various responses ran through my mind. In the end, however, I just shook my head. “That’s not fair.” Her mouth opened to retort, and I pressed on. “I mean it’s not fair to either of us. It’s not fair for me to expect you to just toe the line and never tell anyone anything. And it’s not fair for you to throw something like that at me just because you’re upset. You’re entitled to be upset, Koren. I would be too. But please, just… let’s just talk, okay?”

For a second, I thought she was going to snap at me. Her mouth opened while her eyes narrowed, but she stopped herself. She just stood there like that, squinting at me before heaving a long, heavy sigh.

“Fine,” the girl muttered. “You’re right, okay? I got all pissed off and worked up and I wanted someone to throw it at. You were convenient. You still are. I’m still not happy with you. You should’ve told me. But I get it. Hard to find the right time, hard to be sure I’m not gonna blab because I’m such a stupid gossip—oh shut up, I know what you think. And you’re probably not wrong. I don’t think before I talk. I’m not some perfect little angel. I never claimed to be. But I deserve to know when I’m talking to my own family. I deserve to know when my family has been in danger, before it blows up in their face.”

“I didn’t really think your family was in danger before now,” I started to point out. “And I told Gaia she needed to get someone to take care of them as soon as Ammon left. I’m sure he’s telling Fossor all about it, but up until that point, I don’t think he really knew who you were or what your family was–”

“Not them!” Koren blurted. “You, you fucking idiot. I deserve to know when you’re in danger. I deserve to know that the girl that’s running off after that psychotic piece of shit is my aunt. What if something happened to you and I only found out the truth later, huh? Don’t you think that maybe, maybe I deserve to know that I’m related to you? Or that my grandmother has been in the hands of some evil fucking plague causing bastard? Who, by the way, happens to be the son of a bitch that we were just reading about for our project! Don’t you think you could’ve mentioned that at some point?”

My mouth fell open. “You’re mad because you didn’t know we were related before I was in danger?”

Her arms flailed. “I think I’d rather know the truth before you end up getting kidnapped by some mind-controlling piece of shit or the plague-starting monster that helped spawn him!” Again, she restrained herself from actually shouting, turning it into a hiss. “You could’ve told me at any point last night. I confided in you. I told you the truth about what happened to me, and you just stood there and listened. You could’ve told me we were related. You could have trusted me. But you didn’t. You chose not to.”

Her eyes were blazing with emotion. “You chose not to tell me. I could’ve lost—I mean—you could’ve disappeared before I even knew we were related. So yes! Yes, I’m mad about that. I’m mad because I have family here and they didn’t tell me. You didn’t tell me. And now, because you didn’t tell me the truth, my parents might be in danger. I exposed myself to that bastard. Now he’ll know there’s someone else that’s immune to his power, and when he tells his daddy about it, he’ll figure it out. And when he does, my parents are gonna end up right on that piece of shit necromancer’s fucking ‘to-do’ list!”

Ouch. Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but Ammon finding out about her was at least a little bit my fault. The fact that she didn’t know why she was immune, that she hadn’t known any of it, meant that she had exposed herself to Ammon without knowing how bad that could be. And Koren’s immunity being revealed put her mother, my own sister, right into Fossor’s crosshairs.

“You’re right,” I said quietly. “I should have found a way to tell you about it. Especially last night. I was waiting for the right time, but I don’t think there was going to be a better one. You confided in me, you told me about the monster. I should’ve found a way to just tell you the truth about our family.”

“But?” she prompted, still meeting my gaze with her hands clenched into tight fists at her sides.

I shook my head. “But nothing. I should have found a way to tell you, a way to bring it up. You do deserve to know the truth. I just didn’t know how to bring it up in a way that you would believe without running off. I didn’t know if I could trust you, Koren. That’s the truth. I don’t know you that well, and what I do know is that you like to gossip. I’m not trying to attack you or anything, that’s just the truth. You like gossip and you don’t really think about what you’re saying before it comes out. I didn’t know if I should tell you the truth, because if other people find out, it could put all of us in real danger. Do you understand that? Do you know what Ruthers will do if he finds out you know the truth? That we all know the truth? Do you really understand how bad that would be, Koren? Because this isn’t a game.”

I saw the way her expression twisted up defensively, mouth opening to spit out a retort. But she stopped herself. Visibly and audibly breathing out, the girl took a moment before giving a single, short nod. “Yes,” she said shortly. “I know it’s not a game. I know how bad it would be. The headmistress made it really clear, believe me. I just…” She heaved a sigh, deflating a little. “I wanted someone to blame. I wanted someone to be mad at. Don’t get me wrong, I still think you should’ve told me. But I guess I overreacted a little. Like I said before, I wanted someone to be mad at and you were convenient.”

I hesitated, then slowly nodded. “Can we just say that we both screwed up a little and leave it at that?”

“Okay,” Koren agreed in a quiet voice before squinting at me a little. “So, what do we do now?”

After thinking about that for a minute, I offered, “Why don’t we start with you telling me exactly what Gaia told you, and I’ll fill in the blanks.” Before she could say anything, I added, “I promise, I won’t leave anything out. What you do with the truth is up to you. I have to trust you. I owe you that much.”

******

So we talked it through. Afterward, Koren said that she needed time to think about everything. She also said that she was going to call her parents as soon as it was late enough and make sure they were okay. I resisted the urge to ask to talk to her mother. That was a conversation that would have to wait.

At the moment, Gaia and Professor Kohaku were escorting me back to the dorms to make sure everything was clear while the others stayed in the lounge. On the way, Kohaku had taken me aside to apologize rather stiffly for what happened. Apparently she had been checking the beach to make sure there weren’t any underage students down there having midnight make out sessions when Ammon took her by surprise. Her first hint that anyone was behind her was the boy’s voice. Which, considering all the powers that Kohaku had, said some pretty scary things about Ammon.

The grounds were being pored over with a fine-toothed comb by not only the security team, but the rest of the staff as well. That amounted to a lot more teachers than I had ever interacted with, considering there were different instructors for the higher grade levels. They were all looking over every inch of the grounds to make sure there were no more surprises. And they were also interviewing everyone who had ever even possibly been within range of Ammon’s voice. Just to be safe, everyone that the staff hadn’t personally seen unconscious since then were being made to sleep temporarily to make sure that any possible commands would (hopefully) disappear. They weren’t taking any chances with this stuff.

Professor Mason was emerging from the building with his daughters as we approached. Sands and Scout both took one look and broke away from their father to come running toward us. Scout was out ahead at first, but as she got close, the girl slowed before coming to a stop. Her expression dropped visibly, and the quiet girl squirmed there on her feet. I could read the shame and worry in her eyes.

“Scout,” I said softly, my gaze meeting hers. “It’s okay. It wasn’t you. It was him. You weren’t the one pulling the trigger, he was. I’m.. I’m sorry. I’m sorry he took control of you. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him from… from violating you like that. I’m really sorr–” My words turned into a yelp as Scout lunged to hug me. Her arms wrapped around me before squeezing tightly while her head shook violently.

She was upset. More than just upset. I could actually see the way Scout was physically shaking. Being controlled like that, being made to hurt someone, made to hurt a friend, she was taking all of it really hard.

Sands latched on as well, both of them hugging as tight as they could. “You’re okay? I mean, really?” the girl asked, and I could see the same question in Scout’s expression as they finally released me.

“Good enough, I guess,” I answered honestly. “Though I’m not sure what they’re going to say to… everyone else…” My gaze lifted, and I watched as more of the students that Gaia had put to sleep slowly emerged from the building. They were all staring at us… at me. They remembered. They remembered the voice telling them to hurt me specifically.

Gaia was the one who spoke. Her voice rose to fill the whole area even though she still seemed to be speaking in a conversational tone. “Yes, we have had a breach. A Stranger who has taken a specific interest in Miss Chambers, the same as could happen to any of you. But he’s gone now. Do any of you still wish to inflict harm upon Felicity here?”

When no one raised their hand, the headmistress nodded in satisfaction. “Good. I believe Chef Escalan is preparing a special very early breakfast. Would all of you please go there now while we return your dorm to its normal state. Then you may return and sleep, or remain up, whichever you prefer. We will relax curfew, detentions, and all other scheduled events for the rest of the day. If you have questions or concerns about what happened and what we are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again, speak with your track adviser. Is there anything else?”

There were more questions, lots of them. Gaia answered a few before repeating that they should see their track advisers. She sent them on their way then. They went, but most of them continued to stare at me on the way.

Sighing, I looked toward the headmistress. “Can you really fix the dorm that fast?”

She smiled at me. “Felicity, do you believe this is the first instance of people losing control and damaging part of the dorm? Considering the powers we work with, not having a method of easily and quickly rebuilding would be grossly incompetent.”

That said, she gestured for me to follow. The twins came after, followed by their father. Gaia led us to a corner of the girls’ dorm, crouching there before laying her hand against it. “This,” she announced, “is the keystone. Do you see this inscription here?”

I leaned close before nodding. “Uh huh.” The inscription was written in some old language. Latin, I thought.

Carefully, Gaia ran her finger through each of the grooves in the inscription while murmuring under her breath. I could feel the power in the air as the letters started to glow with soft red light.

Once she reached the end of the inscription, Gaia slapped her hand against the stone. The power I’d been feeling turned from a slight trickle to a massive flowing river, and I heard the building itself move.

Stepping back to look up, I watched with wide eyes as various windows that had been broken magically repaired themselves. Bits of wall that my classmates had shattered in their attempts to find me were replaced and looked as good as new. It was like time was rewinding itself to put the building back to the way it had been.

Finally, Gaia lowered her hand away from the building. Her voice was light as she explained. “Every evening, each building is… I suppose the best explanation would be that it is recorded. We record it and if anything happens, we simply reset the building back to the state it was in at the time of the recording. It is–”

“Oh my god,” I interrupted. “It’s like a computer’s restore point. You do back up and restore with buildings!

Professor Mason chuckled behind me, and Gaia smiled as well. “Yes,” she confirmed. “I suppose that is an apt comparison.” Looking to me and the twins, she gestured. “Now that we know you are safe among your peers, you should go to the cafeteria as well. Eat something. They will stare, but the best thing you can do is endure it. Believe me when I say that you are not the first and will not be the last to be singled out like this.”

Swallowing, I nodded. The twins and I started to walk back after they each gave their father another hug.

“You sure you’re okay?” Sands asked, making a face. “Fuck, I know you said that kid could control people, but… I guess I just sort of figured I’d be able to resist, you know? But… when he said to hurt you, there was just no… I couldn’t think about anything else. I wanted to make you suffer.

Noticing Scout’s cringe, I nodded. “It’s okay, guys. Like I said, it was him, not you. Hell, the only reason I’m immune is because he’s–” I stopped talking.

“Uh, you were saying?” Sands prompted, looking toward me. When she noticed my squint, the girl frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“Because he’s my brother…” I said slowly. “Ruthers was asking why Ammon claimed to be my brother, so I told him it was probably because some splinter group turned my mother into a Heretic after she abandoned us and he’s their failed experiment or something.”

“Good thinking,” Sands complimented, but I could already see Scout’s frown start to match my own.

“That’s not the point,” I replied while shaking my head. “The point is, he brought it up. Ruthers is the one who asked why Ammon was claiming that. Only I didn’t say that in my report when I got back from my birthday. I never said anything in the official report about Ammon calling himself my brother. And tonight, there wasn’t time. Kohaku was unconscious after Ammon used her. Everyone who could have heard him say something was. There wasn’t anyone who could tell him the truth and was conscious.

“So how did he know? How did Ruthers know that Ammon calls himself my brother?”

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Mini-Interlude 4 – Scout

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude that takes place several days before the current events in this arc. It is unconnected from what is going on right now in the story. 

******************

Saaaaaraaaaaah! Come out, Sarah. Please. Please, Sarah. Please, baby, please. Don’t you love Mommy anymore? Why do you hate me, Sarah? Why do you hate Mommy? Why do you want to hurt Mommy? Please stop hiding. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill Mommy if you don’t come out. All you have to do is come out. Don’t you care? Why don’t you care about Mommy? Why don’t you love me? I’m scared, Sarah. I’m so scared. Please, he’s going to kill me. All you have to do is come out and then we’ll be safe. Please, Sarah. Sarah, please. Please, he’s going to kill me. Please. I love you, baby.”

A horrible squishing, ugly sound of organs being pierced turned the desperate pleading into a scream of agony and loss. That same scream tore its way out of Scout Mason’s throat as she jerked herself upward, half-flailing. A brief sensation of falling came then, before she hit the floor with a grunt.

Scout opened her eyes. Her floor. The floor of her dorm. She’d fallen out of bed again. From her place on the ground, she breathed in, then out. In. Then out. Again. Breathe. She wasn’t on the boat. She wasn’t back there, hiding under that cot, in the corner behind the extra propane. She wasn’t curled up into that corner while her mother’s voice begged her to come out, pleaded to know why Sarah didn’t love her anymore, why she wanted her to get hurt, why she wanted her to die. All those things and more, they weren’t just a bad dream, not an invention of her psyche. They were things her mother’s voice had said in between her screams while the Stranger had been stalking Sarah through the boat.

She wasn’t there. She wasn’t back there. Closing her eyes briefly, Scout pushed herself to her feet. Her head tilted to one side to pop her neck, then to the other side while she pushed her hands up over her face. They came away wet from her tears, and the small, petite brunette shuddered before wiping them on her red pajama pants.

Her head turned to the nearby clock, and Scout sighed inwardly. It was only two in the morning. She should go back to bed. But it wouldn’t help. More sleep wasn’t going to happen. Not tonight. Not after she’d had the nightmare again, the memory again. Sometimes it was more vivid than others. This had been one of those times. Her mother’s voice, pleading for her so desperately, was still right there in her mind. All she had to do was climb out, show herself, and her mother would be saved. How selfish could she be? What kind of selfish, stupid, hateful little girl could hide while their mother was hurt?

No. She shoved the thought away. If she had shown herself, she’d be gone too, leaving Sands and their father even more alone. No. As awful as the dreams were, as horrifying as the memories remained, she had done the right thing. That hadn’t been her mother. Her mother wouldn’t have wanted her to show herself. It had to be the monster imitating her voice. It had to be. Her mother loved her. She wouldn’t have said those things at the end, the things about Sarah being evil, selfish, ugly… it wasn’t her.

Still, those were the last things that Scout had heard her mother’s voice say. The desperate, ugly pleading for help, and the reprimands, the vicious insults. That and the screaming. The awful, terrifying screams of agony.

Those, Scout was pretty sure, had not been fake.

Despite the fact that the twins didn’t sleep with their privacy screens on, Sands was still asleep somehow. Scout’s scream and subsequent fall to the floor had failed to rouse her. Sometimes the girl wondered if her sister would be able to sleep through an actual alarm.

Some very small part of her wanted to resent her twin for being sound asleep and perfectly content. It wasn’t a loud voice, but it was there, a whisper in the back of her mind that she guiltily shoved away. Let Sands sleep. There was no reason she needed to be up just because Scout’s memory kept reminding her… kept making her think about…

Shaking off the thought, the girl moved to the closet. Carefully sliding open the door, she reached into the corner before tugging out a simple-looking blue backpack that was clearly fairly full.

After slipping the pack onto her shoulders, Scout made her way to the nearby window. Glancing over the the other side of the room to make sure her sister was still sound asleep, she slid it open as quietly as possible. Sound sleeper or not, she didn’t want to wake Sands up.

Once she was certain the other girl hadn’t been disturbed, Scout slipped through the open window. Stepping onto the grass, still in her pajamas and bare feet, she paused to look around. The grounds were dark and empty at that time of night, though she could see figures moving in the distance. A couple security guards were walking away from her, barely visible through the darkness. Thanks to the enhanced hearing she’d picked up from the prevenkuat, she could hear their conversation as they went on about Professor Kohaku rearranging the security patrols.

Turning back to her room, Scout carefully closed the window so that it wouldn’t stand out if anyone came by. That done, the girl hurriedly made her way around the back of the building, where there was a ladder that ran all the way up the side of the building. She quickly and quietly climbed it, passing several windows where the lights were still on, particularly the higher she went. In a couple of the rooms, she could hear voices talking. She tried, however, not to pay attention. Especially when it came to the far more private moments.

Reaching the roof, Scout was surprised to find that it wasn’t empty. There was a familiar blonde figure sitting there, poring over a thick book as intently as she always did in the library.

Her arrival must have made some noise, because Vanessa jolted, scrambling up and turning with a gasp. “O-oh. Oh. Um. Uh. Scout?” The blonde breathed out. “Sorry, you scared me. I was just… I was umm…” She trailed off before shrugging awkwardly. “I’m not really that good at lying like this, so can I just say that I don’t want to tell you what I was doing, but that it wasn’t anything bad?”

Scout paused to consider that before nodding.

“Oh, thanks.” Vanessa gave an obviously relieved sigh before hesitating. “Um, you’re not doing anything bad either, right?” When Scout shook her head, the other girl smiled. “Great. So um, I’ll go sit over there and keep doing my… not bad thing. Let me know if you need me to move?”

Scout nodded again, watching as the blonde moved to the corner of the roof. Then she slid the backpack off her shoulders and unzipped it before setting down the bag. Then she knelt to reach inside. Her hands found a familiar old wooden box that was a couple feet across, its edges well worn by time and use. Tugging it out, the girl ran her fingers over the logo painted on the top. The logo was of an old Bystander professional baseball team. The Minnesota Twins.

Sands didn’t remember much about the time they had gone in to visit the Bystander city for some shopping and sight seeing. The girls had been too young. But Scout remembered. Specifically, she remembered seeing that logo on a shirt and being ecstatic. Sarah called to their mother, excitedly telling her that there was a shirt for them. Twins. It said Twins, Mommy. It was their shirt. Could she have it, please? Please, Mommy, could she have their shirt? It said Twins.

Even once her mother had explained what the logo was, that it was just a team name, Sarah had still wanted it. After all, a team named the Twins? It was perfect. So they bought it, and her mother taught her about baseball.

Sands had never been that interested. But Sarah had spent ages listening to their mother talk about the game, about the great people that had played it. Her mother had taught her how to use a bat, how to catch a ball, and most of all, how to pitch.

Sarah… before the loss of her mother, had wanted to be a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. Nothing would stop her. The silly ‘boys only’ rule wouldn’t be a problem. Not for Sarah. She’d worked long and hard, practicing night after night while Sands was playing. Her mother worked with her. She never discouraged Sarah, never told her she couldn’t do it or that it was impossible. She just worked with her, helped and guided her.

Then the boat had happened, and baseball disappeared. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing had seemed to matter for a long time. She’d picked up the ball again eventually, but… it wasn’t the same. It had never been the same.

Sliding the lid off the box after running her hand over the logo, Scout reached inside. Her mother had made it, so the box was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Her grasping fingers found one object after another, and she tugged them out. There was an old, worn wooden bat. There were two mitts. There were a couple shirts, including the one that had started her entire fascination with the sport. And there were about a dozen baseballs.

Turning the box over to dump them out, Scout carefully arranged the balls along the length of the bat, using it and the extra mitt to stop them from rolling away. Then she picked up the empty box and walked over to the opposite end of the roof where there was a waist-high wall. Turning the box onto its side with the lid open, she positioned it carefully before walking back to where she had left everything else.

From the corner of the roof where she had moved to read, Vanessa spoke up. “Baseball?”

Nodding, Scout looked to her and managed to, after some effort, find her voice. “Bother?”

Thankfully, Vanessa realized what she meant after that single word and shook her head. “No, it won’t bother me. I mean, the security people might object, but um, I don’t think they tend to pay much attention up here.”

Scout gave another silent nod. Ignoring the baseball supplies for the moment, the girl reached into the backpack once more, coming out with a pair of earbuds attached to an MP3 player. It, like everything else in the bag, had belonged to her mother.

Slipping the earbuds in, Scout hit the button to make it play. What came wasn’t music, but a boisterous announcer hyping people up for the very start of the first game that the actual Minnesota Twins had played after Sarah had made her interest known. Her mother had recorded every game they played for the rest of that year and the next, and had put them all on that MP3 player.

When she listened to the games, which she had memorized by that point, Scout liked to imagine her mother listening through the same earbuds, carefully transferring and checking the recordings after each game.

With the game playing in her ears, Scout finally reached for the equipment. Slipping her hand into one of the mitts, she bent to pick up the first ball.

And as the first pitch of the game was announced, she reared back and let the ball launch from her hand. It curved just the way her mother had taught her, before arcing back into the strike zone to fly straight into the open box that she had set up.

“Strike one,” she whispered before bending to pick up the second ball. On the recording, the umpire called the same. Not that she needed to hear the call, or even the announcements themselves. Or any of it. She had listened to each of these games so much, especially the first ones, that she knew how they went.

Steadying herself for the second throw, Scout listened, waited for the announcement to come, then let it fly once more.

She continued that until there was only one ball left. Then she squinted down at the last one. Normally, she would throw it, then go over and pick up the box to bring the balls back over before doing the whole thing over again. Instead, this time, she hesitated. Biting her lip, the girl looked over toward her fellow roof occupant. Vanessa was studiously staring at the book, mouth moving silently as she ran her finger along the page.

Coming to a decision, Scout took the earbuds out, turned off the MP3 player, and set it aside. Then she picked up the second mitt and walked across the roof. Reaching Vanessa, she carefully poked the other girl with the mitt.

Vanessa jumped, blinking up in surprise. “Huh?” She looked at the offered glove before flushing. “Oh, um, I don’t really… play.”

Scout shrugged at that. Her voice was a whisper, a single word once more. “Catch.” She demonstrated by throwing the ball up and then catching it in her own mitt before offering the other one to the blonde once more.

Again, Vanessa hesitated. “But I don’t… umm, that is, I should probably… umm…” She blinked up at Scout, biting her lip before slowly taking the glove. “I guess it wouldn’t hurt. My brother used to play baseball.”

Scout’s head turned quizzically, though she didn’t speak. She didn’t know Vanessa had a brother.

“Yeah, he umm, he’s not here.” Vanessa murmured, looking at the mitt in her hand before standing up. “But he liked to play catch and stuff, with our dad.”

Liked. Scout caught the past tense, but said nothing. She simply held the ball out until the other girl took it. Then she turned and walked back to the other side of the roof.

Vanessa was looking at the ball in her hand. Her eventual throw was awkward and stiff, the genius girl’s nerves and uncertainty working against her so that it fell far short. Still, Scout took a few steps forward and bent to catch the ball as it rolled. Saying nothing, she threw it back as easily as possible.

Vanessa fumbled slightly, but caught the ball. That time, her throw was a little better. Scout only had to move a couple steps and bend slightly to catch it.

Again, she threw it back. They continued that way, Vanessa getting better each time until they were throwing the ball back and forth in a smooth rhythm.

Scout didn’t have her mother anymore. She had been taken away from her. But she still had this. And she could share it with other people. Like Vanessa. The other girl might not want to talk about why she was on the roof, or what had happened to her brother. But Scout was good at not talking. They didn’t need to talk. They could just… act. And maybe, eventually Vanessa would feel safe enough to explain what was wrong, what obvious secret she was keeping. It would just take time.

Even if she couldn’t actually be a real baseball player, Scout could keep practicing. She could keep listening to the games that her mother had recorded for her. These were memories that no one, Stranger, Heretic, or anything else, was going to take away from her.

But they did attack memories, didn’t they? Not only Strangers, but Heretics too. How many lives had been uprooted, how many entire personalities had been rewritten and changed, how many families were now living lies all because of the choices that the adult Heretics had made?

Joselyn Atherby’s war had gone on for decades after she was captured. To erase that was to rewrite more than half a century of actions. It was clearly impossible to do that without completely, fundamentally changing who people were and what route their lives had taken.

She didn’t think the others thought about that too often, about just how different the world must have been before that spell was done. Or about how many people would be changed if it went away.

And it should go away. She was sure of that. She treasured her memories of her mother, and abhorred the thought of someone tampering with them. The thought of entire decades disappearing from her memory, of her fundamental self being changed against her will, made Scout sick to her stomach.

No. As she threw the ball in a lazy arc toward Vanessa and waited for it to come back, Scout knew it had to be done. Whatever else happened, that memory spell had to be undone. It was for the good of… everything. If that restarted the war, if it broke up people, if it brought back old violence, it was worth it.

Because to take away people’s memories, to actually physically change their minds and force them to be the people you wanted them to be was wrong. It was wrong on a fundamental level. The truth had to come out. And, as quiet as she always was, as nervous as the idea of simply talking to anyone made her, this was different. This was far more important than her own shyness. Scout want to scream at the top of her lungs in the middle of the school grounds until everyone knew everything. She wanted to get it all out in the open and let people make their own decisions. She wanted them to know the truth.

They deserved that. They all deserved to know the truth. No matter what happened.

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Facing Evil 11-06

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“Mr–” I stopped, making a show of frowning slightly at him. “Err, sorry, I’m not sure what honorific I’m supposed to to use for someone that’s on the Crossroads Committee. Is there a special title or…”

The man’s eyes watched me carefully, which gave me an easy excuse to meet his gaze without looking away. He looked like one of those old heavyweight prize fighters, a big, beefy guy who had put on just a little more weight than he’d had in his youth (whenever that had been, considering he was old enough to have witnessed the Black Death). His nose had been broken so often it was permanently crooked.

“Counselor, Miss Chambers,” he finally answered after the silence had carried on for a few seconds. “When referring to a member of the Committee, we use the title of Counselor. After all,” the man added with a very slight smile. “What is the purpose of the leaders of Crossroads if not to counsel?”

I really didn’t think he’d appreciate a truthful answer to that from my point of view. “Counselor Ruthers. I knew this was pretty bad, but I didn’t realize it was bad enough to bring someone like you.”

“You know who I am.” He said the words as if they were some kind of challenge. “I’m surprised.”

Shrugging, I glanced toward Peterson, who was busy pretending we didn’t exist. “Well, you know. Your picture is up all over the school, Counselor. I’d be pretty bad at my track if I didn’t recognize you.”

“That is fair,” he conceded before gesturing to the nearby door. “Why don’t we step into the commissary while you explain what exactly happened. It should be private enough for our purposes.”

Thinking fast, I let my head bob. “Oh, sure thing. One sec.” Pivoting, I faced the door that I’d just come out of. Peterson was standing close enough to stop it from opening. But I didn’t need to open it. Instead, I just took a step that way and shoved my head right through it while focusing on that wood merging power. Sure enough, my head popped through to the lounge where the other three still were. Keeping my voice loud enough for the two outside to hear exactly what I was saying, I called, “Hey guys, when Koren gets here, could you just tell her I’m over in the cafeteria with Counselor Ruthers?”

I saw the widening eyes just before pulling my head back, turning to face the two men with a bright smile. “Sorry, but you know, she did kind of save my life tonight. I’d kinda like to thank her for that.”

If Ruthers was annoyed, he hid his reaction well. The man just smiled. “Of course. I’d like to commend her for her actions as well, in that case.” Turning then, he began to walk to the other doors, clearly expecting me to follow. Peterson stayed where he was, simply folding his arms while watching me.

Since there was no better option, I trailed after the man who was basically the face of everything my mother had been fighting a war to oppose. Briefly, I wondered if putting his back to me while he walked away was supposed to be some kind of statement about how little of a threat I actually was.

In the cafeteria, Ruthers stepped to the nearest table. His big, meaty hand slid a chair back with a scraping noise before he gestured for me to take a seat. “Would you like anything, Miss Chambers?”

Shrugging while sitting down, I lifted the mug of hot chocolate in demonstration. “I’m good, thanks.”

For a moment, the man just stood behind me. I couldn’t see him, and it felt like he was waiting to see if I’d twist my head around to check what he was doing. I resisted the urge, not wanting to give the man that kind of power. Instead, I just took a sip of the drink. “I have a confession to make, Counselor.”

That got him to walk around to take a seat as well, his eyebrows raised curiously. “A confession, Miss Chambers?” As casual as his tone was, I could see the intensity in his gaze as he stared through me.

Meeting his stare while using the shapeshifting ability to keep my expression as neutral as possible, I nodded. “Yes. I sort of know who you are because of something else too. Not just your picture.”

His chin raised a little, and I saw the way his lip twitched a bit into the barest hint of a smile. “What would that be, Miss Chambers? I assure you, any confession you’d like to make right now would-”

“We’re doing a project,” I interrupted rather than let him go on. When he stopped talking and blinked at me, I continued. “Koren and I, actually. Oh, and Vanessa and Rudolph too. Professor Dare put us in groups and assigned projects to report on some big event in history and to show the difference between what Bystanders know about it and what Heretics know. We chose to do ours on the Black Death.”

Either he had the same kind of power I did (well, he probably had every power I did, only much stronger), or the guy was naturally good at concealing his reactions. He barely blinked, shifting his weight in the chair. “Ah.” His eyes took me in briefly before he nodded. “And what have you found?”

I continued to meet his gaze. “You were there. That… Stranger, he pretended to be an ally. But he wasn’t. He tricked you and the other Heretics, and a lot of people died.” After letting that hang in the air for a second or two, just long enough to make the point, I added with all possible sincerity, “I’m sorry.”

Ruthers’ eyes squinted as he reached into the pocket of his perfectly tailored suit, plucking out an embroidered violet handkerchief before laying it flat on the table with his hand over it. “You’re sorry?”

This part, I didn’t have to fake. As angry and upset as I was with this man, I was completely honest. “Yes, Counselor. Of course. I… when that… boy, Ammon, when he attacked the police station back home, I was trying to save everyone. But I couldn’t. People still died. I tried to help them, and they died anyway. I feel…” Swallowing hard, I glanced away before continuing. “I feel like shit about it. I try not to think about it, but if I’d been faster, if I’d been smarter, if I’d been stronger, maybe those people would still be alive. They’re not, because I wasn’t good enough to save them. I… can’t even imagine how it would feel if I was in your shoes. If I ever made an alliance with a Stranger, and that many people died… I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know how I’d go on living. It would destroy me every single time I looked in the mirror. So yes, Counselor Ruthers, I am very sorry that happened to you.”

The man was completely motionless and silent for a few seconds. His gaze seemed to stare right through me with an intensity that was disconcerting. Finally, he sat back in the chair, leaving his finger pressed against the handkerchief. I saw the tiniest bit of focus in his eyes before he lifted it off the table. As the cloth came up, it revealed a shot glass sitting there with some kind of amber liquid inside.

He took the shot in a single pull, setting the glass on the table again before speaking carefully. “Tell me what you know about this boy who came here tonight, Miss Chambers. Tell me about this… Ammon.”

“They told you what he said,” I replied as flatly as possible. “What he said both times I’ve seen him.”

His reply was terse. “The report says the boy claims to be your brother. Why do you think he believes something like that?” Even as he asked the question, the man was laying his handkerchief over the glass. His hand pressed down on it, and the cloth went flat against the table as the glass disappeared.

I let my eyes lift from the table to meet his gaze again before answering simply. “Maybe he really is.”

“Excuse me?” Ruthers squinted, lifting the cloth after obviously taking the time to invest more power in it. He didn’t say any actual words. His magic was strong enough that all he needed to renew the spell on his handkerchief was a brief second of invested energy. Then he lifted the cloth to reveal another full shotglass before he downed it as well. “Perhaps you should explain why you think this creature could possibly be related to you, Miss Chambers. After all, the last time I checked, you were not a Stranger.”

I coughed at that, managing a slight smile. “I’m pretty sure I’d be the dumbest Stranger in the world if I came to be a student in this place. There’s overconfidence, and then there’s just plain suicidal stupidity.”

He said nothing, so I went on. “My point is, maybe he’s really my brother because he’s not a Stranger.”

I felt the man’s heavy sigh as much as I heard it. “If you are going to start babbling about half-breed–”

“Maybe he’s a Heretic,” I interrupted him again. I’d been doing that a lot, and it felt good every single time.

Ruthers gave me a look like I’d just sprouted—like I’d suddenly turned into—like I—okay coming up with a suitably absurd event was suddenly a lot harder when you knew about Strangers and magic. He stared at me like I was insane, and possibly a little dangerous. And stupid. “Would you explain that?”

“Well,” I started with a shrug. “I don’t know how much you’ve read about me, but my mother left when I was little. She abandoned us, my dad and me.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound bitter about that still. I just made myself think about how I had felt before learning the truth. And knowing that the man sitting across from me was a very big reason for why my mother had been in trouble to begin with made it even easier. “She took off with some guy, and you know, dropped off the face of the planet.”

When the man replied to that, his voice was even gruffer than usual. “It’s hard to lose a family member. Harder when you don’t understand why it happened.” Shifting in his seat, he cleared his throat roughly. “But what, exactly, does that have to do with this ridiculous claim that the boy could be a Heretic?”

“I’m a Heretic,” I pointed out. “So obviously my mother must’ve had the potential too. Isn’t that how it works?” When the man reluctantly and silently nodded, I continued. “So what if my mother didn’t just disappear on her own? What if she was recruited, and never came back. What if she was taken by that other Heretic school, Eden’s Garden? Or some other group. There’s supposed to be other Heretic groups out there too, right? So one of them, maybe. What if they recruited her, and she had a son with some other guy? That son isn’t right in the head, they screw up his training or something because they don’t know what they’re doing, and he ends up killing something with a mind control power. So this crazy, half-trained son goes off on his own and starts trying to track down the sister that his mom mentioned.”

There was no response at first. The man just sat there, brow furrowed as he watched me in silence while he absorbed that. “You believe this little boy was some kind of… broken, half-trained Heretic?”

“It fits, doesn’t it, Counselor?” I pointed out. “I mean, which makes more sense, that or the idea that there’s some Stranger out there who has that kind of power, doesn’t register as a Stranger to anyone, claims he’s my brother, and everything else? It explains his power and the whole brother thing. And if some other group screwed up his training, it might explain why he became so psychotic. Maybe it was a splinter group from Eden’s Garden or something. Whatever it is, being a Heretic makes more sense.”

“And how,” Ruthers finally asked after processing that, “would you explain his entrance here? How did this eight-year-old boy make his way onto the school grounds and compromise the head of security?”

“Maybe he had help,” I pointed out. “Someone did kill Professor Pericles, and those guys from Eden’s Garden did come after us on that hunt. Maybe it’s connected and someone else is using this kid’s particular brand of psycho to throw another problem at the school. Maybe he’s just a pawn.”

Yet again, Ruthers was quiet. He seemed to be thinking intently while staring at me. Once or twice, his mouth opened, but he kept stopping himself. Finally, the man found his voice again. “Miss Chambers-”

Whatever the man had been about to say just then was interrupted as the cafeteria door opened. Rather than Peterson Neal or even Koren, it was Gaia who stepped into the room. “Good evening, Counselor,” the woman greeted him with a polite nod before stepping aside to let someone else come into view.

“Avalon,” I blurted, rising reflexively to my feet. I took a step that way before stopping myself at the thought of the man behind me. Still, I didn’t care all that much. My focus was on my roommate, who stood there with her arms folded tightly over her stomach. But she wasn’t looking at me. Her gaze was focused with laser-like precision on Ruthers. It was like she was trying to stare a hole through him.

“Thank you for keeping Miss Chambers safe and in good company, Counselor.” Gaia’s voice was calm, yet firm. “I think you and I should talk about what happened here tonight and how we’re going to avoid any future incidents. Risa and Ulysses are waiting in my office while some of the other teachers look after the girls back in the dorm. I took the liberty of telling Peterson he could return to his apartment.”

“My conversation with Miss Chambers was just getting interesting,” Ruthers commented flatly.

Gaia’s response was a smile. “I’m sure you’ll have many more opportunities to speak with her. After all, she’ll be around for a long time.” To me, she added with a gesture to the door, “I’m sure you have questions, but Counselor Ruthers and I need to discuss some things first. We’ll talk later, I promise.”

Looking back to the man, I extended a hand toward him, “Thanks for talking to me, Counselor Ruthers. I’m glad Crossroads is taking what happened tonight seriously enough to send someone like you. Whatever the deal with Ammon is, I’m sure we all want to make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

He looked at my hand for a moment, then rose to accept it. But just before our hands would’ve touched, I snapped my fingers. “Oh, right. There is one other thing I wanted to say. If I’m right about Ammon, there would have to be a really powerful person or group behind him, wouldn’t there? A Heretic that could hide like from you guys for so long without you knowing, and get Ammon a power that strong?”

The man squinted at me briefly before nodding once. “Yes. If you are correct, that would be true.”

“Before, when you mentioned losing a family member, it sounded like you knew it personally.” I met the man’s stare while pressing on. “If the person that hurt someone you cared about that much, someone that hurt your family, was more powerful than you were, would it matter to you? Even if the person who hurt your family was so powerful that they made you look like a measly little ant in comparison, would you let that stop you from making them pay for what they did to the person you loved?”

“I have not met such a person in a very long time, Miss Chambers,” Ruthers replied softly without looking away from me. “But no, I don’t suppose that I would let something like that stop me.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I guess I won’t either.” Letting that hang for a moment, I added, “Whoever’s behind Ammon, I’m going to figure it out and stop them.”

Pivoting on my heel, I walked away then, my attention focused entirely on my roommate as she nodded to Gaia before stepping out of the room. I was right behind her.

The door closed behind us, leaving Gaia and Ruthers in there alone. I waited just long enough to hear it click shut, then turned toward the other girl.

“Chambers, I–” Avalon started.

That was about as far as I let her get before I lunged at her. She made a strangled noise of surprise, but I didn’t care. I embraced the girl, wrapping my arms around her before holding on as tight as I could. “Valley,” I managed after a few seconds. “You’re okay. You’re all right.” Somehow, I was shivering in spite of myself.

For a few seconds, Avalon just stood there, stiff as a statue. I thought she might push me away, or just stand completely still until I let go like some kind of weird attempt at playing possum. Eventually, however, I felt her hands somewhat awkwardly pat my shoulders, then my back. Finally, she returned the hug.

“Chambers,” she spoke in a somewhat halting voice. “I’m fine. It’s fine. Pull…” She cleared her throat. “Pull yourself together.”

Without letting go, I retorted, “Considering what’s been happening, I’m doing just peachy.” Still, I let go eventually, releasing the girl before stepping back. “Are you…” Hesitating, I searched for the right words to say. “I mean, did he…”

Avalon’s voice was still quiet. “I told you, I’m fine. I’m not made out of glass, Chambers.”

My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I know. It’s just… it was Ammon. He was here, and… and if he’d… if he tried to—if you were…” Breathing in and out a little shakily, I forced myself to stop.

We just stood there for a moment like that, facing each other. The other girl finally broke the silence by reaching behind herself to the nearby wall. When she turned back, my staff was in her hand as she held it out to me. “You really should hold onto this, Chambers. How are you supposed to protect yourself without it?”

“Yeah, I guess I’ve got a lot to learn,” I replied while taking the staff. “How do you put up with me?”

One of her shoulders raised in a half shrug while she answered dryly. “I am a very patient person.”

Smiling in spite of myself, I took another breath before tucking the staff away. “Sands and Scout?”

“Still asleep,” she informed me. “But Fellows is in there with the others. She looked… well, you should probably talk to her.”

“Right.” Biting my lip, I stepped that way. “Time to talk to Koren then.

“And I thought being alone in a room with Ruthers made me nervous.”

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Facing Evil 11-05

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“Koren!” I blurted in spite of myself. As worn out (not so much tired as… emotionally and mentally exhausted) as I was after the events of the past half hour, my anger shot to the surface. “You can’t do that. Don’t you get it? That piece of shit knows how to get past the shield. Everyone but us is vulnerable. You can’t just leave everyone else in danger by withholding crucial information like that.”

A guilty flush crossed the girl’s face before she retorted, “I—of course I know that! But my parents—what do you think I’m supposed to do when you people are keeping secrets from me that have to do with some mind controlling psychopath that might go after my parents? Seeing what that piece of shit did when he went in the lighthouse, it’s the only thing I’ve got to make you tell me the fucking truth!”

I realized what she was doing then. She was scared. Koren was terrified, and doing the only thing she could think of to try to keep her family safe, with her usual… personality. What I’d reflexively thought was a callous threat to get gossip out of the situation was actually her fear-fueled desperation talking. She hadn’t thought through the threat at all. She’d just seen that she had information we wanted, and were withholding information about the danger her family was in. She wasn’t that callous, just scared.

Still, I half-expected Gaia to chew her out. This wasn’t the right situation to withhold information like that, or even to threaten to do so. Yes, Koren had reason to be angry and frightened about what was going on, and why it involved her family somehow. But threatening the safety of the school was wrong.

Not that, to be fair, I had a lot of room to talk. I couldn’t begin to guess how I would react in the same situation. Hell, was I that different? I already knew I’d place finding my mother over obeying Crossroads rules. Maybe I shouldn’t judge so quickly. Especially when it came to something like this.

Instead of disciplining her, however, the headmistress just spoke her name quietly. “Koren.” When the girl reluctantly looked at her, Gaia continued. “You are correct. We ask too much of you to turn around and hide something this important. The danger that we put you in even at the best of times is too much for us to keep secrets from you that pertain to your family. If you can be trusted to put your life in danger to protect others, then you can certainly be trusted to know the truth about those closest to you. So I will tell you. I give you my word on that. But first, you must explain what you saw in there.”

Given that promise and the opportunity to back down without losing face, Koren swallowed hard. “I—okay, I’ll tell you. But it’s probably easier if I show you. He did, um, something with the light thing.”

I started to step that way, to go to the lighthouse with her. But the headmistress raised a hand to stop me. “Felicity,” she said quietly. “There will be an investigation. You cannot be seen as part of it.”

My eyes widened at that, and I blurted, “What—but–what are you talking about? He was here for–”

“I know,” she interrupted, her voice soft, yet regretful. “And I will share everything that I can with you, as soon as possible. You have my word on that. But our security personnel already contacted the BSR as soon as they realized something was wrong and that they had been deliberately sent away by Professor Kohaku. They are on their way, and the investigators they send will not see things as you and I do. You are witnesses and intended victims. The Runners will insist on thoroughly debriefing you. Which means that you and Shiori should take this time to rest, recover, and… organize your thoughts.”

Right, she didn’t want the Runners coming in and finding their ‘witness’ investigating the same thing they were. If that ended up on the report that made it to Ruthers’ desk, and he was given any kind of proof that I actually knew what was going on, that I knew this was about my mother’s true history and all the hidden secrets that entailed… well, it’d give him even more ammunition to use against Gaia.

Flinching, I glanced toward the other girl. Shiori was still shivering in spite of the temperature shield, her eyes open, yet downcast. I could see something in her gaze, obvious horror at her complete inability to stop herself from following Ammon’s orders. Her eyes were haunted and wet from unshed tears.

Gaia went on. “Go to the underclassmen lounge. I already sent Columbus there with fresh clothes and blankets for you both. Mr. Gerardo,” she added toward Sean. “Would you please accompany them, then visit the kitchens for some hot chocolate?” Finally, she added, “Once I finish speaking with Miss Fellows, I will send her along so that you may have your own conversation. She can tell you everything that she shows me. There will be no secrets from you, I promise. Not when it comes to this situation.”

I didn’t like it, but for Shiori’s sake, I nodded. Taking the other girl by the hand, I started to walk that way with Sean on my other side. Vulcan trotted next to the other girl, letting her rest a hand on his back for support. We walked, and the I looked toward the boy once we were halfway to the other building. “How’d you know what was going on? I mean, you sent Vulcan ahead, so you knew it was Ammon.”

He nodded. “Yeah, Columbus was working on this telescope… thing. Trust me, it’s better if he shows you. Anyway, we sort of snuck out to get up to the roof so we could test it and saw you come running out of the other dorm. Figured out who the kid you were chasing had to be from what happened with Koren. So I sent Vulcan out there after you while Columbus and I went to make sure Avalon was okay. The headmistress was there, having this… let’s just say pissing off her or Kohaku is a really god damn bad idea, okay? I’m talking, given the choice between going mano a mano with another Amarok or fighting one of those two, bring on the big bad wolf.” Belatedly, he added, “Oh, and your uh, room is gonna need to be rebuilt. And, uh, several other rooms. And the hallway. And the… It’s a real mess.”

“But Avalon’s okay?” The question didn’t come from me, but from Shiori. Her head had snapped up at that. “Nothing… bad happened to her, right? And… what about Rebecca?” Her expression was guilty again, as if her not being in the room might have had anything to her roommate possibly getting hurt.

Even hearing the question made me want to go sprinting off to check for myself. The memory of Avalon… Avalon of all people being under Ammon’s control, of the fact that he had been alone with her, that they’d had a conversation (one in which she had apparently been ‘rude’ to him), made me sick. It made me want to scream, made me want to go after Ammon again and just… just beat the evil little piece of shit into the ground for everything he’d done. I wanted to make him pay for everyone he hurt.

In the end, only two things stopped me from going off to find Avalon to make sure she was safe for myself. The first was the fact that I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if I showed up there and any of the girls woke up and wasn’t cleared of Ammon’s mind control. Yeah, it seemed to clear up after people were unconscious, but testing it right then seemed like a bad idea. And the second thing stopping me from leaving was that Avalon was asleep, while Shiori was awake. After what Ammon had done to her, what he almost made her do, leaving Shiori alone was probably the absolute worst idea.

“Oh yeah, they’re all fine,” Sean assured her. “Gaia was holding off Professor Kohaku, and protecting all the girls. While, you know, making sure they didn’t leave the building. They were looking for you, Flick. Being really damn insistent about it too. The baroness, she uh, she was pretty amazing. Kept switching her attention between protecting and containing everyone else, and dealing with Kohaku.”

We reached the lounge by then, and I went in with Shiori while Sean moved on to pick up the hot chocolate. As soon as we entered, Columbus turned away from the television and stepped over quickly. “Shiori!” he blurted, sounding terrified. “What the hell happened? I went to look for you, but you weren’t in the hall with the others. I thought—I didn’t know what—I mean… what—how–” The poor guy was trying to ask so many questions all at once that they kept getting jammed up on one another.

“She’s okay,” I told him. “Physically anyway. There’s no—it’s a long story. Ammon told her to drown herself. We had a little incident in the ocean. But she’s okay. You’re okay, Shiori. He’s gone now.”

“Drown herself?” For a moment, I thought the boy was actually going to storm out of the building and go after Ammon himself somehow. His face contorted in anger, and he made a few frustrated noises before turning around and lashing out to punch the nearby wall with his closed fist. “Son of a bitch!”

As soon as the words left his mouth, he seemed to realize what he’d said and flushed guiltily. “I mean–” He cringed a bit, head shaking rapidly. “Sorry. Sorry. That was a really bad choice of words.”

“It’s okay,” I managed a bit weakly, my throat painfully dry as I fought to find the right words, words that would make him feel even a little bit better. “I know what you meant. Trust me, I’m pissed off too.”

Together, Columbus and I led Shiori past the enormous tropical fish tank that took up most of one of the walls. On the way, I glanced toward the occupants, thinking about the sharks that had saved our lives. I’d promised to go back soon and visit them. And I would, as soon as I had the chance. Something about the way they had all acted more like loyal puppies than perfectly evolved killing machines made me feel not quite as scared of them as I had been before. They were almost cute, in a really deadly way.

And to be fair, as a Heretic, my house was made of a bit too much glass for me to start throwing stones when it came to things that were supposed to be perfect killing machines. At least they did it to eat.

We sat down on one of the couches, and I let the other girl slump against me. Yeah, we were still soaked through. But at that point, I didn’t really care about getting the couch wet. It would dry. Or they could replace it. Or use magic. Whatever. After everything that had happened, they could spare a couch.

A few seconds of silence passed before Shiori spoke up quietly. “I’m sorry.” Her voice shook as she repeated herself. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. If I hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t given him a target to use against you, you could’ve stopped him. You almost had him. I didn’t know what was going on, and he… he was there. He… I’m sorry.” Her voice broke, cracking a bit as she shook her head. “I screwed up, and he escaped because you were too busy saving me to stop him. He got away because of me.”

Flinching, I glanced to Columbus before looking back to her. “Shiori, look at me. I don’t care. I’d let a thousand Ammons walk away before I’d abandon you. Ammon will show up somewhere again. He can’t help himself. There will be other chances to stop him, to catch him. But there’s only one Shiori.”

The two of us locked eyes then, and in that exact moment I remembered what had happened under the water. She had been close to gone, no air and no chance to get more in time. I’d panicked, desperately needing to give her oxygen. And then I’d… my face turned pink at almost the same time as hers.

“Clothes!” Columbus abruptly blurted, straightening to move to a nearby table where a bundle sat. “Gaia had me bring over dry clothes for you guys. I—huh. I wonder how she knew you’d be so wet.”

He brought over our clothes, as well as a few towels, then stepped out of the room for a couple of minutes while the two of us hurriedly dried off and changed. Being in dry clothes actually helped me feel a lot better. Even it was technically just a little thing, the fact that I wasn’t wearing stuff that was soaked through in ocean water made me feel like that whole horrible situation really was over.

Once we were changed, I looked toward Shiori. “I meant what I said before. I know you feel guilty, that you feel bad now. But don’t. Because the fact that I have people that I care about, people like you? That’s what makes me different from Ammon. Empathy. Friends. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Her mouth opened and shut again before she managed, “But everyone he hurts now, everyone he kills because I was in the way… because I let him use me as a hostage so he could escape, that’s all my–”

“Don’t.” I warned her, stepping that way. “It’s not your fault. If Ammon hurts anyone else, that’s his fault. His and his father’s, not yours. You can’t try to shoulder that burden, Shiori. I won’t let you.”

Before the other girl could say anything else, the door opened, and Columbus came back in. He held the door open for Sean, who came through with a tray of not just mugs full of piping hot deliciousness, but also what looked like little cinnamon rolls. “Thought you guys might be hungry after your… swim.”

Taking one of the mugs, I blew on it like the little wuss I was before taking a sip. The hot liquid felt unbelievably good just then, and I shuddered a little. Then I focused on the boys. “When you guys were over there, did you see the twins? Sands and Scout, the… she was shooting, and I sort of sent Koren in to make her stop before she did anything too bad. I hope she didn’t—I mean, Scout’s okay, right?”

“Uh, yeah. I hope so.” Columbus looked guilty. “It wasn’t Koren that stopped her. I did. I mean, she was working on it, but I sort of shot them both with these things.” He gestured to the goggles. “It was the fastest way to stop them before they did something they’d regret. Then the headmistress did something to make them stay down, and I made sure they were comfortable. I just hope they’re back to themselves when they wake up, because I do not want those two pissed at me for blasting them.”

“Anyway,” he finished, “Koren took off as soon as Scout wasn’t shooting at anyone anymore.”

Sean nodded. “I guess that’s how she had time to catch up with Ammon and see what he did in the lighthouse.” When Columbus started to demand to know what that meant, the boy shook his head in mock resignation. “I’m sorry, man. But if you hang out in the game room all day, you’ll miss stuff.”

That left Columbus sputtering about Gaia and towels and clean clothes for a moment. And, I noticed, had the obviously intended effect of making Shiori smile just a little bit. It looked adorable, as she held the hot chocolate against her mouth and smiled with her front teeth slightly biting the lip of the mug.

I gave the Hispanic boy a quick smile of my own before clearing my throat. “I hope Koren gets here soon. I uh, I guess I get to tell her she’s my niece now? That’s gonna be an interesting conversation.”

The door opened then, and I thought it was pretty good timing on Koren’s part at first. Instead, however, the man who stood in the doorway was one of the staff that I didn’t have much experience with. He was just under six feet, a man with a face that was handsome and rugged in sort of a distinguished middle aged sort of way. The guy looked like Liam Neeson in those Taken movies.

I had to think for a minute before remembering his name. Peterson. Peterson Neal, the head of ‘student affairs’, whatever that meant. I’d never seen the man do anything other than stand around, and occasionally take a phone call or tell a student to hurry up and get to class. He wasn’t a conversationalist.

“Chambers,” he addressed me directly. “They’re ready to talk to you.” Beckoning with two fingers, he pivoted and left the room again, letting the door shut behind him.

Shit. I sighed, then looked to the others. “When Koren gets here, just… promise her I’ll explain when I get back. And wish me luck?”

Shiori caught my hand. “Thanks,” she murmured. “Thanks for saving me. I… I know what it cost you.”

After bracing myself to explain to the Runners what had happened, without telling them more than I had to, I made my way into the hall. “So who am I meeting this time? Is it Runner Kine again?”

Peterson just shook his head, gesturing the other way while another voice spoke. “No, Miss Chambers. I thought I’d get my information straight from the source this time.”

I looked that way, and found myself looking at a face I’d seen in several pictures already, a face that made me freeze up, quips disappearing.

“So I thought we could chat,” Gabriel Ruthers announced. “Just you and me.

“One on one.”

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Facing Evil 11-04

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Eleven years ago

“But Mommy, what if there’s sharks?”

I was six years old, squinting up at my mother as the two of us stood on the edge of the lake. Me in my awkward little blue one-piece and her looking as beautiful as ever in a pristine white two piece with black piping. Her short hair was already wet, slicked back over her head as she smiled down at me.

“Well, sweetie,” she replied in a casual voice, “I know you’ve had some bad luck with animals lately.”

I lifted my arm to show the band-aid on my bicep while intoning flatly. “Mr. Raphardy’s cat is mean.”

“Well, you know what they say.” Chuckling, my mother leaned in a little closer, her voice lowering to a confidential whisper, as if her words were a secret just between the two of us. “Like owner like pet.”

As I giggled, Mom’s hand brushed over my hair fondly. “There’s no sharks, baby. See?” She walked ahead of me, stepping into the cold lake water and moving until she was up to her waist before turning back around. Her arms stretched out to me. “C’mere, Lissy. You can see some fish from here.”

“Fish?” I started to take a step that way before catching myself with a gasp. “Oh! I almost forgot!” While my mother tilted her head curiously, I pivoted and ran back to the stack of supplies that we had brought out of the cabin that our family was staying in for the week. Digging down, I shoved a paperback novel and a massive bottle of suntan lotion out of the way before coming out with my prize: a ratty, worn little stuffed raccoon. My constant companion throughout my entire life. Literally, my mother had bought him before I was born, while she was pregnant. The raccoon was the first actual baby thing she’d bought after getting the news. He had always been my constant sleep companion.

“I promised Taddy he could watch,” I announced while dragging the smallest of the beach chairs closer to the water. Positioning it in full view of the lake, I set the stuffed raccoon in the seat, adjusted him so he wouldn’t fall over or get wet, and then backed away with a determined nod. “But he can’t swim.”

Turning back, I found my mother gazing at me with a fond little smile. Her hand was still raised toward me, and I walked back that way. As soon as my bare feet touched the water, I gave a little yelp, jumping. “It’s cold!” I announced. “How come the lake’s so cold, Mommy? Don’t the fishes get sick?”

Chuckling, my mother considered the question for a few seconds. “Well, maybe they wear coats.”

Six year old me scoffed at that. “Mom, fish can’t wear coats. They don’t have arms or legs!”

“Well, how would you know, miss smarty pants?” she asked, moving closer through the water. “You can’t even see the fish from all the way up there. For all you know, they’ve got mittens and scarves too.”

That time, I giggled. “They can’t have mittens either! Fishes don’t have any hands, Mommy.”

Rising up from the water, my mother reached out to pluck me off the rocky beach. She spun around with me while I squealed. “Is that right? Are you a professor of fishology now, my little Felicity?”

My head shook until she stopped spinning. “Nooo, but there’s no fishes with hands. Everybody knows that, Mommy. Everybody.” Even after saying that, I paused, a little frown of thought creasing my forehead before I amended myself. “Squiddies and octopussies have arms though. But no hands.”

“They don’t have hands, huh? No fingers?” Mom had that deliberately thoughtful tone as she spoke , the sneaky voice that told me she was up to something. Her eyes shone with mischief as she waited.

Still, I shook my head, watching mother with obvious suspicion. “Nuh uh. No hands, no fingers.”

“Oh.” Mom shrugged a bit too innocently, adjusting her grip on me while oh-so-casually continuing. “Well, in that case, I guess the poor little fish mommies can’t do… this!” Her fingers found my stomach and she started to tickle while I kicked and squirmed, squealing for her to stop in between my laughter.

“Mo-mo-mommy! No, no-aahhh! Ahhh, st-stop!” I called, squirming while my laughing uncontrollably. “I ca-can’t breathe, I can’t breathe—Mo-Mommy!” My protests became incoherent.

Finally, she stopped, smiling down at me while I caught my breath. Belatedly, my eyes looked around and I noticed that we were deeper out into the lake, far enough that mom was up to her stomach and I could feel the water on my feet. Mom whispered softly, “Do you want to see the fishes now, Lissy?”

Without breaking my mother’s gaze, I nodded. “Uh huh. You promise there’s no sharks though?”

Her head bowed sagely. “I promise. Besides,” she added while leaning down to kiss my forehead gently. “Even if there was, I wouldn’t let any mean old shark take my good luck charm away.”

“I’m your good luck charm?” I asked, feeling proud as a bright smile found its way to my face.

“Baby,” Mom whispered softly while holding me against herself. “You are my luck. All of it.”

She kissed my forehead again, brushing my hair away before speaking again. “Ready?” When I nodded, my mother turned me toward the water. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ve got you. Take a breath.”

I took a deep one, holding it while Mom did the same. The two of us looked at each other and smiled before she dropped with me in her arms. Together, we plunged toward the water. The cold took my breath away. But that was okay. I was in my mother’s arms. I was safe. I was loved. She would never let anything hurt me. Not today, not ever. As the water washed up around me, I knew one thing for sure, one thing that I could count on beyond all else.

My mother would always be there for me.

******

Present Day

Water was all around me. As my legs kicked futilely, Shiori and I continued to sink even deeper. I was unwilling to let her go, no matter how much she struggled, and I didn’t have the experience I needed to actually get her fighting, scrambling, kicking form back to the surface. All around us, the already dark, cold and remorseless ocean seemed to grow even more tenebrous with each passing second.

Somehow, Shiori maneuvered herself in front of me. As we hit floated there deep under the water, I could barely see her face. It was hardly more than an outline through the heavy, murky shadows.

She wasn’t holding her breath, I realized. Ammon’s power wouldn’t let her. She was trying to drown, her form already starting to go limp against me. Even if we reached the surface, she hadn’t held her breath at all the whole time we’d been down here. She wouldn’t make it. She couldn’t go that long without oxygen, not when her body refused to fight. I was going to lose her. I was going to lose Shiori.

No. No, no, no. Not now. Not now. My own grasp against her was weak by that point. Which way was up? Which way were we facing? There was no light, there was nothing. No chance. Nothing.

She didn’t have any air. I did. Not much, but I had taken a breath before we went under. Without thinking, I moved my hands to find her head, putting one hand against her face and the other behind her neck. While Shiori made a noise through the water that sounded equal parts desperate and terrified, I leaned in. My mouth pressed against hers, and I breathed into her, pushing my own air into Shiori.

She made a noise of protest, but I didn’t care. She needed the oxygen more than I did. Even as the other girl tried to pull away, I took her back in my arms and kicked out. Please. Please find the surface. I had to try. I had to get there before it was too late. The cold ocean water was the same on all sides. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do. Which way was the surface? Which way was safe?

I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell. My lungs were screaming at me even as I struggled to keep moving. That had to be the right way, didn’t it? I would know where the surface was. Just go up. Just… keep… going.

Something bumped up against me then, just as my vision started to fade. It came again, pushing up insistently against my back. A second later, even as I twisted to try to see what it was, something else came up from underneath. I felt rough, sandpaper-like skin push against me. Between the two unknown figures, Shiori and I were pushed rapidly toward the surface, far faster than I could have gone. The other girl wasn’t struggling anymore. She was mostly still, though I heard her weak whimpers.

Finally, both of our heads broke the surface of the water. I coughed, sucking in air frantically. Beside me, Shiori was doing the same. She wasn’t struggling any more. She was just lying there against whatever had pushed us up from the ocean depths. Her entire body was shaking, as was mine.

Air. Beautiful, glorious, wonderful air. I breathed it in, coughed several times, and then breathed again. Only then, after assuring myself that the magnificent oxygen wasn’t going to disappear again, did I look down to see what exactly had come to save us. I looked toward our silent saviors.

The flat, dead-eyed stared of a massive shark returned my gaze. I let out a yelp of surprise and jerked backward in the water even as my hands came up reflexively. The panic was instinctive, coming before my brain fully caught up with what was going on. My thoughts instantly went toward Professor Tangle’s injury, while a panicked noise escaped me. Immediately, I began to sink again, before another rough body came up to push against my backside, hoisting me out of the water once more.

Another shark. It was another one. There were several all around Shiori and me, pushing up right underneath the two of us to keep us up on the surface of the water. They didn’t attack, they weren’t trying to bite us or anything. They were acting… well, almost like dolphins, really. Or at least, the dolphins I’d seen shows and movies about. The pack (or whatever a group was called) of enormous sharks was simply floating around us, helping to keep our heads out of the water so we could breathe.

“F… F… Flick…” Shiori’s weak, soft voice came then, and I snapped my attention that way to find the other girl shivering as she stared openly at me. The moonlight and stars were bright enough to let me see her expression of equal parts wonder and confusion. “Did… did you summon sharks to save us?”

Oh. Right. The power from the shark-man, the one I hadn’t actually figured out yet. It was… making friends with sharks? Summoning them for aid, somehow? Still breathing hard, panting for air, I made myself nod. “I… I think so.” Then I focused on her. “Are you… are you…” My voice was tentative.

“I’m okay.” The sound of her voice made it clear that she wasn’t really. And how could she be, after something like that? But she wasn’t trying to drown herself anymore. Breathing hard, she added, “I-umm, it went away. I… I think I p-passed out while they were bringing us up o-out of the water.”

Swallowing and shuddering, I looked toward the nearest shark. It continued to stare at me. At this angle though, its eyes didn’t look quite as soulless. In fact, I thought maybe the thing looked a little bit… sad?

“Um, thanks.” I managed a bit weakly, putting a hand out to touch the shark’s nose as gingerly as possible. My instincts were screaming for me to get the hell away from the thing. But I touched its nose, praying that whatever power this was wouldn’t disappear and let Toothy here bite my arm off.

“Thanks, guys,” I patted the shark gently on its rough, sandpaper-like skin, only to feel another one bump up against my arm. It was… it was like a dog, trying to get a pat for itself. All of them were. I leaned back, taking my weight off the shark that had been holding me up so that it could swim up and around to get its own pat of appreciation. “We need t-to go now though. Thanks, really. I’ll visit you later, okay? I need to go now. I need…” My gaze flicked toward Shiori, who had gone quiet in the meantime. Her eyes were focused off into the distance, and her face looked pale even in the moonlight.

The sharks had brought us to the shallows by that point, before they slowly withdrew. I watched briefly as their sleek forms cut through the water, fading rapidly into the darkness as soon as I dismissed them. Then they were gone, leaving as unbelievably silently as they had arrived. Four, five, six sharks, each at least as long as I was tall, disappearing into the ocean depths until it was like they’d never been there.

“Shiori,” I whispered under my breath, turning my attention back to the girl. Even as I did, I felt her pull away. But she wasn’t throwing herself back into the ocean or anything. She was simply falling to her knees right there on the very edge of the beach, her hands pressed into the ankle-deep water. She was panting for breath, head down as a noticeable, almost violent shudder ran through her body.

“I couldn’t,” the girl started, her voice rough with emotion. “I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t stop it. He said to do it. He said to do it, and I couldn’t stop. He said to kill myself, and I was g-going to… going to..” Clearly unable to finish the sentence, she turned a little and threw up into the ocean. She was crying.

The anger and hatred that I felt toward Ammon had never been greater than it was in that moment. Seeing that, hearing it, was practically a physical blow. I cringed backward a little before touching her shoulder. “Shiori,” I spoke quietly, my voice cracking a little. “I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry. If I’d caught up to him, if I’d stopped him before he got there, you wouldn’t have… you wouldn’t have almost…”

Trailing off, I started to correct myself toward saying something else. Anything else. But the sound of running, trampling feet caught our attention. The two of us both looked up in time to see Sean, accompanied by Vulcan, come running down the hill onto the beach. He skidded to a stop, staring at us.

“Shiori?” the boy blinked in confusion. “What’re you—are you guys… what happened?” Belatedly, he added, “He’s gone, right? Vulcan made it seem like the little shit was gone, so I tracked your blood this way.”

“Ammon got away?” I groaned in spite of myself. Of course he did. He’d fled into the… wait…

“The lighthouse,” I spoke quickly. “He went into the lighthouse. You mean he left it?”

Sean shrugged. “Vulcan isn’t exactly much of a conversationalist.” The mechanical dog whined a little, and the boy gave him a quick rub. “Sorry, boy. He couldn’t really explain much. But from what I understand, yeah. He was in the lighthouse, then he just… wasn’t anymore. He wasn’t anywhere. He was gone.”

The Edge had something to do with the way Mom had come and gone from the school grounds so easily, I realized. That was obviously it. But how? And why was it something that she had found out, but no one else, not even Gaia or any of the Committee members knew about?

Sean had gone down to one knee by that point. “Hey, LaBeouf. You okay?” he asked Shiori gently while Vulcan added his own concern by nosing up against her cheek.

Blinking up at that, the other girl managed a weak, somewhat shaky, “Don’t call me that.” Her arms moved, however, to wrap around Vulcan’s neck. She hugged the robot dog tightly while taking in a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” The girl was clearly trying to convince herself.

The cold air after the freezing water was getting to me by that point, and I shivered while shaking my head. “W-we need to get back under the t-t-temperature sh-shield.”

Sean reached out to help Shiori up before reaching down to tug me to my feet. “Where’re all the security people?” he demanded. “Or the other staff, or… anyone?”

“Sent away.” The answer came from Gaia, who was descending the hill. “That boy took control of our head of security, and forced her to send her people to the far side of the island to look for a supposed intrusion. He sent them in three different groups, each to different locations at different times, so that none realized they were leaving the school with no security.”

She took a single glance at us, then made a gesture with both hands as if showing just how big an enormous fish was. A second later, space twisted around us, and we were sitting on the grass near the main building, back under the magical temperature shield that instantly made me feel warm again. At least physically. Inside, I couldn’t stop shivering.

“Avalon,” I managed, lifting my head. “Is she… and the other girls… they’re…”

“Fine,” the woman answered softly. “Well enough, anyway. A brief nap seems to be enough to escape the boy’s control, so I ensured that they all took one.”

“Wh-what do we do now?” Shiori asked hesitantly. “H-he’s gone now, but he’ll be back. A-and you still don’t know how he got in. H-h-he can go right past your fancy shield, and yo-you can’t stop him. He took over the head of security. H-he almost made me… a-almost… “ she gave a weak whimper.

My hand caught the other girl’s and squeezed as I felt my stomach twist itself into knots. “You have to do something,” I demanded, my eyes focusing on the headmistress. “Shiori’s right, he can come back. And…” Something else occurred to me, and I blurted. “And now he knows that Koren’s immune to him. You have to warn her family. You have to move them, you have to get them away before he… before they…”

“I will,” Gaia promised quietly. “The issue will be dealt with immediately.” Her head turned a little then, as she added toward the pitch black area near the edge of the main building that lay completely out of her line of sight. “Your parents will be protected, Koren.”

“Protected from what?” The girl’s voice demanded. Koren emerged from the darkness, her face set in a scowl. “Who was that? What does it have to do with my family? What the hell is going on?

“Tell me the truth, and maybe I’ll tell you what I saw when that little brat went into the lighthouse.”

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Facing Evil 11-03

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I hit the hallway already facing the exit. Ahead, I could see Ammon just disappearing through the inner set of doors that led to where the exit door and the stairs were. He paused just long enough to smile back at me before shouting at the top of his lungs. “My name is Ammon! Hurt Flick Chambers!”

The first of many curses just had time to spill from my mouth as something slammed into the door directly beside me. Doorknobs up and down the hall were shaking, jiggling back and forth as the occupants tried to join us in the corridor. But they weren’t opening. Gaia’s work? I hoped so.

Unfortunately, they couldn’t hold everyone. Just down the hall, I saw a metal-covered fist literally punch through the door and start to tear a larger hole. A little bit away from that, one of the other doors was engulfed in flames. And even as I took those in, my eyes were drawn to a bit of light red smoke that blew out from underneath one of the doorways. The crimson mist stuff billowed up and grew before solidifying into a human figure: Jazz Rhodes. The tall, dark-skinned girl was in her pajamas, her hair mussed from lying in bed. Her expression was blank as she hefted that falchion of hers. The blade had already split apart to reveal the barrel near the hilt, and I saw the flames starting to erupt from it.

By that point, I was up to my fifth or sixth curse in the running tally. As the fire shot down the hall toward me, I did the only thing I could: I dove for the floor. Rather than just hitting the ground though, I literally went through it. The floor was hard wood, and I was already merging with it as the flames shot through the space I had just been in. It was so close that I could feel the heat singe my hair.

Propelling myself through the wooden floor, I ignored Jazz. She wouldn’t try to hurt anyone except me, and the best way for me to stop that from happening was to get out of her sight. Not to mention avoiding every other person who had just been controlled into attacking me. Yeah, leaving was good.

Ammon was already sprinting again. The boy hit the exit door full tilt, slamming it open before landing on the outside. My brief hope that the security statue that was supposed to stop underage boys from entering our dorm would intervene was dashed as the damn thing remained motionless. Which, I suppose made sense. He had controlled the head of security, so it couldn’t have been that hard for him to make her disable measures like that. Hell, controlling Kohaku was probably the reason none of the security people had already descended upon the scene. Because of course they didn’t. That would be too damn easy.

I was right behind Ammon, and threw myself out of the wood just in time to crash into the psychotic little kid. The impact took my breath away, and the two of us went rolling wildly across the grass.

I tried to bring my staff around while grabbing for his arm. But Ammon managed to twist himself up enough to lash out with both feet, kicking me in the face so hard that I saw stars for a moment while falling backwards on the damp ground. While I was stunned, Ammon eeled his way free before rising.

“No,” I managed to get out while rolling over to lash out with my staff. It took the kid against the legs, dumping him back onto the ground once more. Then I tilted the staff slightly, triggering just a bit of the force that I had stored up. It was enough to throw my body into the air, and I twisted around to kick out, planting my foot hard against Ammon’s chin as he tried to sit up. He fell back, and I landed hard before stumbling. But, miracle of miracles, I managed to stay on my feet. I was up, he was down.

There we were. I was standing while Ammon was on his back. He was panting, I was fine. My staff, still almost fully charged, was pointed down at him. Part of me wanted to stop there, wanted to give him the chance to surrender. Wasn’t that what good people were supposed to do? He was helpless. There was no one close enough for him to control. Not yet anyway. And his powers didn’t work on me.

That was what the typical hero would do. Let him surrender. But, well…. fuck that. I flipped the staff around without a single word of warning, bringing it down while starting to trigger the kinetic bomb. He’d survive. After all, he’d survived falling out of the police station with little damage to show for it. But it’d hurt. It would slow him down. And most important of all, it would be just a little therapeutic.

Except that my staff never reached its target. An instant before both it and the kinetic blast would have slammed into Ammon’s prone form, pain abruptly erupted in one of my hands as something hit the staff so hard that it was torn from my grasp to go flying off into the grass. The agony drove me to one knee while a squeal escaped me in spite of myself, and I stared at the hole full of blood through the middle of my palm. Shot. I had been shot, the staff blown from my grasp just before I could hit Ammon. But there was no one in sight. Which, even through the haze of pain in my hand, told me one thing.

“Scout,” I managed before hurtling myself to the side. The instant I did, my ears caught the sound of one of her bullets tearing through the ground where I had just been. My best guess was that it would have hit my leg if I hadn’t moved. Per Ammon’s instructions, she was aiming not to kill, but to hurt.

A cold fear washed over me briefly. I had no idea where the shots would come from. Thanks to the invisible portals that Scout’s rifle could set up, the attack could come from any direction, any angle.

You know what? Fighting Heretics was awful. No wonder a lot of Alters were so damn terrified of us.

I barely processed that before hurtling myself into a forward roll. Don’t stand still. Don’t give Scout a good shot. Keep moving. Even if I didn’t know where the shots were coming from, I could make myself hard to hit. I had to hope that, even if she was controlled into doing this, the other girl wasn’t giving it her all. Any resistance, any hesitation, would help me avoid getting myself shot again.

Two bullets hit the ground about an inch from the spot where I had thrown myself. Shit, shit, shit. I rolled over as fast as I could, reaching for my staff with the hand that wasn’t busy healing. Unfortunately, it was still too far away. Worse, Ammon was already back on his feet, my momentary advantage lost. And, as if that wasn’t enough, I heard the nearby door slam open as someone emerged.

My head snapped that way, even as I threw myself backwards to avoid the next shot. Falling into an awkward roll, I spotted the person who had come out of the girl’s dorm, twin weapons in her hands. Koren. It was Koren. “What the hell is going on, Chambers?” she demanded, stepping down past the frustratingly motionless statue. “Why the fuck is everyone tearing the dorms apart looking for you?”

“My name is Ammon!” the kid shouted. “You, hurt Flick! Hold her, make her stop, make her bleed!”

Koren just blinked at him, her expression dubious. “What the hell are you talking about, kid?”

While Ammon was still recovering from his obvious surprise and confusion, I managed to shout, “Mind control! It’s mind control! Stop Scout! Koren, go stop Scout, she’s shooting at me!” Yeah, I’d have a lot more to explain later, but as long as Koren wasn’t an idiot, that should tell her enough.

And, thankfully, regardless of how difficult of a person my niece could be to actually get along with, she wasn’t stupid. As soon as she processed the words, the other girl was sprinting back into the dorm.

Praying that it would be enough, I took a step toward my staff, only to scream as a shot tore through my shoulder. God. Fuck. Fuck. It hurt. Even with the way the Peridle healing ability had already taken care of most of the damage in my hand, the two injuries together were still enough to make me want to curl up into a little ball and cry a little. It hurt so much. Yes, the injuries were healing, especially the one in my hand. And I was still lucky that Ammon had told Scout to hurt me. She was doing that rather than just finishing the fight the way she probably could have. If he’d told her to kill me, I might be down already. But of course, he wouldn’t do that. Even if he’d wanted to, I doubted that the kid would risk pissing off his father that much. After all, Fossor wanted to use me for his own sick little games.

Ammon had frozen as well, briefly paralyzed by confusion as he stared after the other girl. I could see the uncertainty on his face as he tried to work out why someone else was immune to his power.

Praying that Koren would be able to stop Scout from shooting again, I ignored my fallen staff and forced myself to run at the kid. He saw me coming, pivoted, and started to book it. The two of us ran across the grounds. I should have been faster than he was, but my injuries slowed me down. It hurt. Fuck, fuck, it hurt so much. But I kept going. I made myself keep going, refusing to allow Ammon the chance to escape. Not now, not after everything he’d already done. I had to grab him, had to hold him. If there was even the slightest, tiny chance that he’d be able to tell us where Mom was, I had to take it.

So, through the pain in both my hand and shoulder, I sprinted after my half-brother. My feet pounded through the grass, one step after another. I let the burning ache where I’d been shot motivate me to keep going. Stay on him. Catch up. Grab him. Stop him. The mantra worked its way through my mind, even as the pain tried its damnedest to make me stop. I ignored it and kept going, kept running, kept chasing.

It didn’t take long for me to realize, even through the haze of anger and agony, that we weren’t heading for the beach, or even the jungle. No. Our destination was becoming more clear with each passing step. Ammon was heading for the lighthouse where the Heretical Edge was. Why? Why was he going there?

The question was still working its way through my mind, with no clear answer, as we neared the building. However, just before he would’ve reached the doors, another figure came around the side. In this case, it was pretty much the last person I wanted to see standing so near my psychotic half-brother.

It was Shiori. I had no idea what she was doing there, why she was all the way over here after everyone was supposed to be in our rooms for curfew, but there she was. She looked surprised, stopping short at the sight of the two of us running almost directly toward her. Her confusion was written across her face.

“Shiori!” I shouted desperately at the girl while simultaneously trying even more desperately to lunge close enough to grab Ammon before he had a chance to speak. “Cover your ears! Cover your ea–”

It was too late on both counts. Ammon shouted over my own voice, “My name is Ammon, freeze!”

The other girl went completely still, just in time for the boy to dive and roll under my outstretched arm. He came up, hand going to his pocket before he withdrew an object that I barely managed to process before he was throwing it toward Shiori while calling out, “Catch this and hold it to your throat!”

It was a switchblade, I realized belatedly. She had it in her hand and to her throat by the time I managed to catch on to what was going on. My eyes went wide and I blurted in horror, “No, stop! Stop!”

“Freeze!” Ammon repeated, and I realized he was talking to both of us. The kid was already back on his feet, panting heavily as he added to Shiori. “If Flick moves from that spot, cut your own throat.”

Needless to say, I didn’t move. The pain in my shoulder and hand was almost forgotten as I focused entirely on the look of terror in the other girl’s eyes. The switchblade was held close to her throat, and I knew there was no way for me to get it from her before Ammon’s power would force her to cut deep.

Panting there, Ammon took a second to catch his breath while glaring angrily at me. “You… see… what… happens…” he snarled in between deep breaths, “when… you… break… the… rules?”

I ignored him, focusing on Shiori. The terror in her gaze was obvious, and I flinched at the idea of how horrified I would be if our positions were reversed. But it was worse for Shiori. She’d already been terrified at the idea of losing control over herself just because of what she was. This had to be reawakening all of that fear and disgust. As she held that blade close to her own throat, I saw a single tear in one of her eyes. She looked at me, mouthing a single word, a silent, desperate plea: Help.

“Ammon!” I shouted. “Let her go! Let her go, and I’ll come play with you. I’ll go with you, I promise.”

Before the kid could respond to that, it was Shiori who spoke. “No!” Her voice was shaking, but she managed it. “You can’t!” The tears in her eyes were worse, somehow. “You can’t go with him. If you try to, I’ll cut myself anyway.” The promise came as she stared at me. “Then you won’t have a reason to.”

My mouth opened, but Ammon spoke first. “Aww. This is like a movie or something. See? I knew my birthday would be fun.” He sounded genuinely excited and happy. This, all of it, was still just a game.

“But,” he went on then. “You really can’t. Stand still, don’t move a muscle unless Flick doesn’t do what I tell her to. If she disobeys, cut your own throat as deep as you can.” With that instruction, the boy turned his attention back to me, his expression triumphant. “See? I can control you, sis. I just have to control someone you care about. Then you have to do what I say. Check it out. Touch your nose.”

My eyes flicked toward Shiori before I slowly lifted my hand to follow Ammon’s instructions. “I swear, Ammon, if you do anything to her…” I warned through even as I tried in vain to think of a way to get that knife away from Shiori long enough to stop Ammon. Nothing came to mind. I didn’t have my staff, none of the abilities I had would do anything from this range, and I didn’t have any kind of magic prepared that would actually help in this case. Nothing to stop Shiori from cutting her own throat.

Ammon rolled his eyes. “That’s the point, ya know. I don’t do anything, you do what I say. You don’t do what I say, and she kills herself. That’s the new rules, and I’m gonna make sure you follow them from now on. Now bend over and touch your toes, big sis. Then we’ll all go on a trip, and we’ll play–”

That was as far as he got before a streak of motion went racing past me. My eyes snapped that way just in time to see the metallic figure leap toward Shiori. And just as the warning cry escaped my throat, Vulcan’s jaws closed tight around the girl’s arm. He tore her to the ground, somehow managing to avoid letting the blade cut her in the process. Then the knife was in the mechanical dog’s mouth as he yanked it free of Shiori’s grasp before swallowing the damn thing whole.

Then Vulcan whirled toward Ammon. Belatedly, I realized that Sean wasn’t here. Somehow, he had figured out what was going on and sent Vulcan on ahead to help. Because while Sean himself was vulnerable to Ammon’s mind control, his mechanical dog wasn’t.

“Good boy!” I called, already moving. “Vulcan, sic him!”

The robotic canine gave a loud bark of agreement, then started to lunge that way. Ammon, for his part, was already spinning to run. Unfortunately, just as he reached the door of the lighthouse with us hot on his heels, the kid shouted toward Shiori. “Go drown yourself!”

I froze in mid-step, while Vulcan kept going, tearing into the lighthouse after the boy. My eyes snapped the other way, and I saw Shiori already running for the edge of the grounds. She was heading for the ocean.

I didn’t stop. I didn’t even pause to think about it. Pivoting on my heel, I ran after her. I didn’t even consider doing anything else. There was no question. Saving Shiori mattered more than anything else, even catching Ammon.

She had a head start, and she was faster than I was. Still, I was motivated, and I wasn’t tired. Together, the two of us ran across the dark grounds, past silent buildings. I needed help, I needed someone, but no one was around. No one was there. It was just us.

Shiori hit the beach ahead of me, but I threw up a cloud of sand to slow her down. It tore into her eyes, blinding the other girl. Anything to delay her, to make her hesitate, to give myself just a little more time.

She was at the waves and diving under them just barely ahead of me. Without thinking, I threw myself into the ocean after her. The cold was like a physical blow that took my breath away, leaving me disoriented for a second.

Then I focused. My eyes opened, and I barely saw the girl sinking ahead of me, slipping away through the dark water. Lunging forward, I caught her ankle. She kicked, struggling to free herself, to do what Ammon had ordered her to do.

Clawing my way up the other girl’s leg, I latched onto Shiori. Wrapping one arm around her, I tried to kick for the surface. She continued to struggle, fighting against me in spite of herself. She fought, screaming through the water for me to let her go, to not risk myself.

I ignored her even as I struggled to maintain my grip. It was dark, cold, and disorienting. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know which way was up anymore. I was just clinging to Shiori, holding onto her, trying to help her, trying to save her.

My head lifted enough to see the moonlight just above us, as we sank down deep into the cold, remorseless ocean.

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Facing Evil 11-02

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Confession time. I’ve been a babysitter before, and some of the kids I’ve looked after made me want to strangle them. Not that I ever had, or would, but the fact is that there are kids out there that are so intensely and purposefully annoying that the urge to smack them can be really strong. And yet, I held out. Through gum in my hair, dead flies in my soda, and being kicked repeatedly in the shin (and that was all just one kid), I restrained myself. I showed patience and didn’t lash out. I made gum-storing, fly-sharing, shin-hating boy stay in his room after taking the power cord for his computer and television. I didn’t hurt him. I didn’t think, up until a short time ago, that I was capable of hitting a kid.

But if Ammon hurt Avalon, I swore to every power great and small that had ever or would ever exist, I was going to shove my staff so far down his throat, I’d poke myself in the foot when I kicked his ass. And then I’d detonate the damn thing.

Get-” I started, freeing my weapon and charging it as the words erupted from me. “–away from her!

Ammon shook his head. “You don’t want me to do that, sis. Trust me, it’s a bad idea.” He nodded to the other girl. “She’s really rude, so I told her to shut up. But if she could talk, she’d say the same thing.”

Still charging my staff, I glared, resisting the urge to lunge at him (though it was a near thing). “What the hell are you talking about? Why are you here? What do you want? Didn’t you get in enough trouble the last time you came after me? Because I’m pretty sure your dad made it clear. I’m free for a year.”

My mind was racing. I needed help—but wait, I couldn’t get help. I couldn’t involve anyone else. As far as I knew, I was the only one who was immune to Ammon’s control. Maybe Koren or Wyatt, but this really wasn’t the right time to involve them. Not when I wasn’t absolutely sure they would be immune, and without being able to explain any of this to them. Besides, involving one of them meant possibly exposing Ammon to more people who definitely weren’t immune to him. And the thought of this kid having complete control of a bunch of Heretics was even more terrifying than seeing him near Avalon.

“You ask too many questions,” Ammon complained. “And you talk too fast. Shouldn’t you be happy to see me? You’re my sister. Family’s supposed to care about family. That’s what Mother says. Don’t you believe her? She misses you. She wants to know if you’re okay. Do you want me to tell her anything?”

My hand tightened painfully around the staff. I had to keep myself under control. I knew that. I knew it. But he was sitting there, so close to a motionless Avalon. It was hard to think straight. “What I want is for you to give me one reason why I shouldn’t find out just how good that regeneration of yours is.”

If the boy was intimidated at all, he didn’t show it. Instead, he just smiled at me. “Oh, that one’s easy. It’s because that would make me go away from your friend.” He patted Avalon on the head, a move that made me bristle. “And I told her that as soon as either one of us isn’t sitting on this bed, she should use one of those neat glove things to make a blade and cut her own throat as soon as she gets a chance.”

Announcing that as simply and matter-of-factually as someone describing an order they had placed at a restaurant, the kid actually smiled at me. “See? Pretty smart, huh? You could fight me, or you could rescue her, but either one would make us go off the bed. And then she cuts herself, and that would make you sad.” Slowly, his head tilted sideways, his expression turning curious. “It would make you sad, right? It’s hard to tell sometimes. But that sounds like something that would make you feel bad.”

I stared at him. Honestly, words failed me for a few seconds. I had no idea what to say to that. Would it make me feel bad? Just how fucked up was this kid? What the hell had his father done to him? And worse, what was he doing to my mother? The thought made me cringe inwardly, a sharp sort of shudder escaping me before I focused on the problem right in front of me. “Yes,” I said simply. “It would.”

“See?” He was positively beaming by that point. “I knew I did it right. Father says I do things without thinking, but I had a plan this time. Aren’t you proud of me, sis?” He was honestly, genuinely staring at me as though I should compliment him. There was no hint of shame or mockery in his words or his expression. The kid was absolutely asking if I was proud of him for coming up with a plan to confront me in a way that made sure I couldn’t fight back against him in spite of being immune to his power. He thought threatening someone I cared about was worth a pat on the head for thinking outside the box.

This kid was insane. He was broken. And I completely believed him when he said that Avalon would cut her own throat if either of them were removed from that bed. Nor did I think he’d actually let me call for help, even if there was someone I could contact that could get here in time to do something.

Gaia. She could help. I fully believed that she and probably some of the other teachers had countermeasures to protect against the kind of control that Ammon could manage, particularly if they were aware of it. At the very least, they could hit him hard enough to stop him from being able to give orders. After all, he did have to introduce himself to use his power. And I was sure they could find some creative ways to stop him from opening his mouth to give any actual commands. But that would involve taking the time to contact them and explain things, which Ammon wasn’t going to allow.

“Why are you here?” I managed through gritted teeth. Letting him talk would give me time to think, to come up with something to stop Avalon from hurting herself long enough to take care of Ammon.

“Man, you don’t listen very good,” he complained. “I told you, it’s my birthday. Don’t you know what happens on my birthday?” The boy asked as though it was common knowledge, as if someone not being aware of every nuance of his life was strange. “On my birthday, I get no consequences day.”

I frowned, my gaze shifting from Avalon to the boy and back again. “No consequences day? What?”

“No consequences day,” he replied as though the concept was just that simple and obvious. “I get to do anything I want, and Father won’t stop me or get at me. I don’t get in trouble for it. It’s my present.”

His present, his birthday present from his sick piece of shit of a father, was a day where he was allowed to do anything he wanted with no consequences. I felt sick. “But the day’s almost over. You’re late.”

The kid giggled at that, head shaking. “No, silly. My birthday starts twenty minutes ago. That’s when I was born. And I get twenty-four hours after that to do anything I want to. Isn’t that great?”

Swallowing, I glanced to Avalon, then back again, trying to think. “And you decided to come here?”

Ammon shrugged absently, his voice disturbingly calm. “I wanted to talk to you. But I knew you’d be all silly and try to fight or something, so I made sure you wouldn’t do that. See? I’m pretty smart, huh?”

My staff felt hot in my grip. “Ammon,” I managed to get out, my voice hard. “I don’t care what your psychopath of a father says about no consequences. If you hurt my… anyone here, I am going to–”

“What?” he interrupted, his voice genuinely curious. “Would you hurt me? Would you hurting me make me sad? If I hurt your friend and made you really sad, would you try to make me sad too? Would you try to share your sad with me? Is that what happens if you care what about happens to someone?”

There it was again, that complete lack of understanding when it came to feelings. What the hell had been done to this kid? He couldn’t have been born that way. No. Something awful had been done to him. Something that made him this way, but what was it? And what was I supposed to do about it?

Finally finding my voice, I took a breath before forcing the words out. “You said you wanted to talk to me, right?” When the boy nodded, I went on. “So talk. You could be doing anything right now, no consequences. But you came here. You broke into the school and came to my room. You went through all this just to talk to me. So tell me what you want to talk about. Say what you came here to say.”

Ammon shifted on the bed, absently petting Avalon’s hair in a way that made me want to forget everything I said and take his damn head off, brother or no brother. When he spoke, his tone was as innocent as ever. “I wanted to tell you that I’m not mad at you anymore. Even if you were rude when I came to visit you before. You were mean and you ruined my game. But mother says we’re supposed to forgive family.” Spreading his arms, he gave me that bright, disturbing smile again. “So, I forgive you.”

“You… forgive… me?” Something in my head snapped. “You came here, broke into my school, attacked my roommate, and threatened to have her kill herself, all to tell me that… you… forgive… me?”

“Boy,” he muttered. “You must not be doing good in school if they’ve gotta repeat things so much.”

One thing and one thing only stopped me from losing it right then: the knowledge that it might mean losing Avalon as well. And that was something I just wasn’t willing to accept. So I forced myself to keep it under control, as much as the kid made me want scream at him (at the very least). “Look, Ammon. You’re not the one who needs to forgive me. You’re the one who tried to frame my father for murder. You’re the one that tried to kill a bunch of other people. You’re the one who killed that innocent girl at that gas station, and I’m sure you did a lot of other evil, fucked up things. So you don’t get to forgive me. You are the one who did something wrong—everything wrong. You don’t get to forgive me for stopping you from hurting and killing people.”

He just blinked at that, totally clueless. “But I wanted to do those things. And you stopped me. You were mean and you messed up my game. And I forgive you. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?”

“What about them?” I demanded, resisting the urge to flail as I stared at the kid who was supposed to share half my genetics. “What about the innocent people you hurt and kill? You destroy lives, Ammon.”

If he was hurt by that, or even felt anything at all, the kid didn’t show it. He just blinked at me once, those eyes bright with curiosity and false innocence. “They’re not me,” the boy answered, as though that explained everything. They weren’t him, so they didn’t matter. They were just toys, just amusements that were there for him to play with and discard. It wasn’t even malevolence on his part. Not really. He literally could not comprehend the idea that other people’s lives mattered at all. He wasn’t a villain trying to take over the world or anything. He was just a fucked up, psychopathic kid.

That didn’t make what he did any less evil, of course. Not in the least. Whatever his motivation, the things he had done were disgusting and vile. But it did remind me of who the true villain was throughout this. Fossor. His father. I knew without at doubt in my mind that Fossor was the one who had destroyed this kid’s mind so much that he ended up like this. It wasn’t his birth. I’d seen too much evidence to believe that any kid, let alone a half-human one, could just be born evil without help.

Of course, there was always the fact that some people really were just born broken. That didn’t require any kind of help. Some people were born psychopaths, regardless of their home life. But in this case, I figured it was safe to lay the blame for all of this, for everything that Ammon did, at Fossor’s feet.

But maybe I could at least get some kind of answer. “How did you get in here? You shouldn’t be able to cross onto school grounds, Ammon. What did you do? Who did you hurt?” I demanded, feeling the tension rise in me again at the thought of my blood relative doing anything to the people that lived here.

In response, Ammon just shook his head at me, still smiling. “Our mom used to come and go from this place any time she wanted to. It’s really not very hard to get past the security stuff if you know how.”

“She wouldn’t have told you how to do it,” I insisted, tightening my grip on my staff while glaring at him. “Why would she tell you how to get through the security? That doesn’t make sense.” I didn’t want it to, anyway. The thought of what kind of position my mom might be in that would lead to her giving up that information almost made me launch myself at that little piece of shit. It was a very near thing.

Ammon had little concept of playing coy, because he answered immediately. It was like he couldn’t wait to share. “She didn’t have to tell me. It’s all in the Writing Room. I just had to find the right book.”

Blinking at that, I squinted. “Writing Room? What the hell is the Writing Room?”

Again, the boy seemed eager to tell me. “It’s great! Father made it. When you go in the room and someone asks you a question, you have to write down the answer, no matter what. It has to be really detailed, and you can’t lie about it. There’s all kinds of books in there. Father puts everyone he can in it and asks them all kinds of questions. It’s–” He stopped, considering. “Oh, but you’ll see when you come next year. I’m sure Father wants to ask you lots of questions. And then we can play together.”

Before I could say anything else to that, there was a cracking sound, and a whip abruptly wrapped itself around the boy’s neck. He made a strangled noise of surprise just as the whip jerked, sending him flying off the bed to crash into a nearby wall so hard it left deep cracks along the wood.

Gaia. She withdrew the whip, standing tall in the middle of my room, between the two beds. “You come to my school,” she spoke darkly. “And threaten my daughter’s life? Your father clearly made a mistake in not giving you sufficient warning to stay away from this place, child.”

Avalon was already sitting up, her hand coming up with the gauntlet to create a blade. I shouted a warning and started to move. But Gaia simply glanced that way, cupped a hand around the side of her mouth, and blew hard. I saw a cloud of yellow fog shoot toward my roommate. It caught Avalon full in the face, making her blink once before collapsing, unconscious.

Ammon, by that point, was back on his feet. “You’re mean!” He called, face red. “You’re not supposed to be here! It’s my birthday! You’re not playing by the rules.” He glared, then blurted, “Watermelon!”

Watermelon? I blinked. What was—And then it happened. A geyser of water erupted from the opposite corner, solidifying into a thick ice spear partway before stabbing right toward the headmistress.

But Gaia wasn’t there. She disappeared and reappeared a few feet away, just as that thick ice spear literally tore through the opposite wall. I could hear a scream of surprise from the room next door.

Professor Kohaku was there. Had she been there the whole time, hidden? Whatever the case, she was there now, already launching another attack at… Gaia. Ammon had gotten to her. She was his failsafe, his protection. Watermelon had been some kind of code.

Just as I processed that, I realized that the kid himself was already running for the door. He was gone by the time I started to move.

“Go!” Gaia called to me while struggling with Professor Kohaku, clearly hindered since she didn’t want to seriously injure the woman (who herself had no such problem). “Stop him from talking to anyone else.”

Looking briefly toward the unconscious Avalon, I narrowed my eyes at the thought of that psychopath, my little half-brother, having his way with everyone else in this school.

No. Not now. Not this time. Holding my staff, I went for the door, sprinting through and into the hall.

Ammon!”

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Facing Evil 11-01

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Once Koren finished telling me about her horrifying childhood experience with the flower-leaving abductor, I stared at her, mouth open. My first impulse was to grab and hug her after hearing something that damn traumatizing. But, well, we didn’t exactly have that kind of relationship yet. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t react well to it. Which meant that I was left staring, tamping down my impulses.

There was, however, one reaction that I couldn’t quite avoid. “You mean your mother dismissed it? What the hell? Believe in the supernatural or not, you don’t tell your kid that something that made her run out of her own house and sleep in the backyard because she was so scared was just a damn dream!”

I was even more disturbed than I would have been, since this was my own half-sister we were talking about. It sounded like she’d ignored and dismissed the terror of her own child, which was just… wrong.

“What else was she supposed to do?” Koren demanded. “Even if she believed me, telling a ten-year old that there really was some kind of man in her room wouldn’t exactly help me sleep at night. She and my father went through the motions for about a month with me, checking under the bed, checking the closet, leaving the hallway light on, the usual. My father even put in an extra lock on the window. It was attached to this big red lever that glowed in the dark. All I had to do was look and I could see that the lever was down, which meant the window was locked. They didn’t ignore the fact that I was afraid.”

That was a little bit better, but still. It didn’t stop me from kind of wanting to shake my half-sister. With that option off the table, I just stood there for a moment before finally managing a weak, “But you never, um, said anything to anyone else about what happened, even after your babysitter disappeared?”

Koren gave me a brief dirty look. “I was ten years old, Chambers. Everyone said I was wrong, that she never existed. I let myself believe they were right. Because, again, I was ten years old. Oh, and I didn’t actually want my parents to think I was crazy. So I just,” she shrugged helplessly, “let it go, I guess.”

I hesitated before nodding, having to accept that. She had a point, what could a little girl actually do? “But what about after you learned about Strangers? Did you realize then that it was probably–”

“Probably a Stranger?” the other girl interrupted impatiently. The sarcasm in her voice was so sharp it could have cut steak. “Nooo, that never occurred to me. I guess the fact that I chose the Investigation track after having a childhood Stranger experience that traumatized me was just one big coincidence.”

“Too bad they don’t have an Acrimony track,” I muttered. “You’d be awesome in that one.” Then I shook myself as something else occurred to me. “Wait, your vision from the Edge. Was it about this thing?” I wasn’t exactly sure whether it was possible or not. Did the vision from the Edge have to be an ancestor’s interaction with Strangers, or could it be one of the same person’s? I needed to ask Gaia.

“No,” Koren replied in a short, sharp tone. She wasn’t looking at me. “My vision wasn’t about my damn childhood. It was about…” The girl trailed off before finally shrugging. “It was about something else.”

Something about the way she said it made me want to ask exactly what her Edge vision had been, but I couldn’t think of a way to present the question without crossing some kind of line. Instead, I simply tried a smile. “Hey, at least you’ll get some kind of closure. Professor Dare said the case was solved.”

Her gaze found mine. “Yeah, and I now I just have to wonder why Dare wanted me to take a case that she had to know happened right around me. Probably even knew it involved me. But investigators usually aren’t allowed to take cases that personally involve them. So why’d she make sure I got it?”

Hesitating, I offered her a shrug. “Maybe she thinks letting you go through the steps of how the case was solved will help you? Like I said, it’s a chance for you to get some closure for a childhood trau–”

“Closure for childhood trauma, yeah, yeah.” Koren waved a hand dismissively while pressing on. “My question is, what’s her angle? What does she get out of it? Why does she want me to get closure? Was she part of the case? Does she know something else important? What’s in this thing for her?”

“She could just think that it’s the right thing to do,” I pointed out. “Not everyone has some deep ulterior motive.” Even saying it, I knew it didn’t sound convincing. Particularly since I knew that at least one motive Dare had was for me to spend time alone with Koren in a way that the other girl couldn’t ignore.

And judging from the way she looked at me, Koren didn’t find it at all convincing either. “Right. Sure.” Rolling her eyes, she opened the folder once more. “Fine, whatever, let’s get on with it then. The file says there’s a couple audio-annotated PAWS walkthroughs. We might as well ask if we can see them.”

I followed after her, and we got permission from Dare to go into the Pathmaker building so we could use the PAWS. Which meant that before long, the two of us were standing in a holographic recreation of the house of one of the families that had been hit by this Stranger. According to the file, the family that lived there had been three children living with a divorced mother before this had happened.

Koren and I were standing on either side of another figure, the holographic recreation of the Runner who originally investigated the case. I was pretty sure that I’d never seen him before, though I couldn’t put any actual money on it, considering how utterly and completely average he looked in every conceivable way. He was the kind of person that you could stare at for a solid minute, and later still not be able to pick him out of a lineup. Absolutely everything about the man made him look utterly bland. Brown hair, forgettable face, eyes that were a sort of forest green but in an unremarkable way, and a slim but not too slim build. This was a guy who faded into the background no matter where he was.

“Case Two-Seven-Venus-Four,” the Runner’s hologram announced. “My name is Runner Kyre Templeton, and I’ll be doing a brief walkthrough of the situation for our records. Jackie, if you’re reviewing this, you still owe me for those Dodgers tickets. Which is pretty bad, since the team doesn’t even live in Brooklyn anymore, man.” Despite the man’s light tone, I could see the tension in his eyes. He may have sounded like he wasn’t taking the situation seriously, but I’d seen enough from my dad to know that wasn’t true. Some cops, and Heretics too, I guessed, had to find any way they could to stay sane while spending so much time peering deep into the depths of human (and inhuman) brutality.

Runner Templeton started to walk slowly away from the front door and deeper into the house then. “The family that lived here was the O’Hannity’s. One mother, Harriet, widowed from Richard O’Hannity three years before this happened. Three children. Twins, a boy and a girl, age nine, and a younger boy, age six. Personal note, look into how the husband died. The record says car accident, but you never know. There could be a connection. Also check the grave, make sure he’s still in there.”

By that time, the man had walked up the stairs. We followed him into what looked like the twins’ room, considering the two identical beds on either side of it. As the two of us watched, Runner Templeton put his hand on what was obviously the girl’s bed. When he spoke that time, his voice cracked a little bit. “According to the mother, she put her twins into bed at nine o’clock on September fourth. Two hours later, she heard music coming from the room while walking past. When she opened the door, she found the twins, Dylan and Dinah, sitting together in the girl’s bed. They had a radio with them. Harriet told the children they had to turn off the music and get back in their own beds, and the children informed her that the music made ‘him’ stay away. The mother told the twins that their younger brother, Max, would stay out of their room even if they weren’t playing music, to which Dinah replied that they weren’t talking about him. According to the mother’s testimony, both twins informed her that the music was to keep away what they called, ‘The Hiding Man.’ Note: try to find out what music the twins were listening to. It might end up being relevant to their belief that it kept this creature away from them.”

The man walked to the middle of the room then, turning in a circle to take in the whole thing. “The mother asked them where the man was hiding. Dylan said he was under the bed, while Dinah said he was in the closet. Harriet turned the light on and checked under both beds, then she opened the closet.”

He followed the same motions, crouching to see under the beds before rising. As he stepped toward the closet, I saw Koren get noticeably tense. She stepped back and away from me to give herself room, her hand moving down to one of the Hunga Munga on her belt, even though we were in a simulation.

“Harriet,” the man continued, “opened the door of the closet.” He did the same, revealing a small space full of children’s clothes and a few toys. “According to the mother, the next thing she remembers is waking up in her bed the next morning to the smell of burning toast. Max, the six-year old, was in the kitchen trying to make breakfast. Both of the twins were missing, and neither of them have been heard from in the three days since this happened. Note: find out if Max had any similar experiences.”

Pausing the holographic simulation, I looked toward Koren, who was even more tense by that point. “I know you’ll probably throw something at me for asking this, but are you sure you’re all right?”

Her gaze snapped from the closet to me, then back again. “I’m fine, Chambers. I’m not some shrinking violet pussy little baby you have to take care of. Just shut up so we can get through this. Believe it or not, I’m more interested in finding out what happened to the Stranger that tried to kidnap me when I was a little girl than I am in playing touchy-feely hug time with you. Besides, don’t you have your own issues to handle without grabbing onto mine? Half the school thinks your roommate is the one who killed Professor Pericles because he found out she’s actually some kind of spy from Eden’s Garden.”

“What?” I did a quick double-take. “She’s been attacked several times already. People tried to kill her. Why would anyone think she was the one who killed Pericles? That doesn’t even make sense.”

“That’s how gossip works,” she replied expertly. “It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to incriminate someone and make people feel like they’re smarter than the average person, like they know something they shouldn’t. It’s like a conspiracy theory. Jeez, you have gone to high school, right?”

She had a point. I sighed, glancing toward her. “You said ‘half the school.’ Does that include you?”

Koren met my gaze, her own expression unreadable for a moment before she looked away. “Doesn’t really matter. But for the record, no. You’re right, it doesn’t make sense.” Her shoulders raised in an elaborate shrug. “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like her. I think she’s a bitch. But she’s not a murderer, and she’s not some kind of spy. Arrogant and full of herself, sure, but she didn’t kill Pericles. The evidence isn’t there and the only proof people are using is the Eden’s Garden thing. Which is stupid.”

“You know,” I started, “you’re actually a lot better at this whole investigation thing than I thought you’d be at the start of the year.” I hadn’t expected Koren of all people to keep her personal opinion separate.

“But I have to ask,” I went on, unable to help myself. “Why the thing with the Pathmaker building back on the first day? I mean, you just found out magic was real, the twins warned us about crossing the line in front of this place, and you were just gonna throw Vanessa over the line to test what would happen?”

She squinted at me before just shaking her head. “For god’s sake, it was just a fucking joke. I wasn’t actually gonna shove the little nerd over the line. I’m not an idiot. I was just kidding, Christ. Then that arrogant bi—your oh-so-pleasant roommate showed up and threw me on the fucking ground.”

Before I could find a response to that, Koren started the recording once again. Obviously, she didn’t want to talk anymore. So I shook it off and focused on following along as the scene reset to a different house, and Runner Templeton took us through the next house on the list of this ‘Hiding Man’s’ victims.

******

In the end, there wasn’t enough time to go over all of the evidence that Templeton had recorded. There were over a dozen missing people, and he had detailed walkthroughs of all their homes. Part of me (and I was sure a large part of Koren) wanted to skip to the end to see exactly what this ‘Hiding Man’ had ended up being, how they caught him, and exactly what had been done. That whole closure thing.

But Professor Dare made us go through things one step at a time. We were supposed to watch and listen to all of the recordings of the initial case, then look through the exact same books that Templeton had used to narrow down what the creature was and how to stop it. It would take more than one night to get through everything. So I made plans to hit the library with Koren the next evening (after my detention), and made my way back up to the dorm since it was time for curfew by that point, and I still didn’t have permission to be out and about while everyone else was sleeping.

I had been planning on asking my roommate how her track meeting had gone, and if she’d had a chance to ask Gaia about visiting Tangle’s hospital. Unfortunately, Avalon’s side of the room was shrouded in darkness as I went in. Which wasn’t surprising. The other girl was always up before dawn, and since I didn’t sleep very much, she spent most nights with the privacy screen active.

So I just tugged out the chair in front of my desk and took a seat, clicking the button on the mouse by my computer. Curious, I started to do a search for ugly, humanoid creatures that liked to hide a lot, manipulated memories, and focused on children. Hey, maybe I wouldn’t find anything useful, but it couldn’t hurt.

I’d just started to squint through the results when the phone that Gaia had given me buzzed from its place nearby on the desk. Expecting Asenath or Miranda, or maybe even my dad (though I wasn’t sure why he’d be calling so late), I picked it up and looked at the number.

Unknown.

Shrugging, I started to hit ignore. Then stopped. How would I know what phone Miranda would choose to call from? Even Asenath or Twister might end up needing to contact me from a blocked phone. It was probably nothing, but just in case, I quickly answered. “Hello?”

“Are you going to visit me?”

The voice was muffled somehow, almost distorted. Yet it was still familiar, even though I couldn’t place it just then. “I’m sorry? Who’s this?”

“I asked if you were going to visit me. It’s my birthday, you know. I visited you on your birthday.”

My chair squeaked as I stiffened abruptly. My throat went dry, and I had to swallow a couple times. Now I knew why the voice was familiar. “… Ammon. How did you—what do you want?”

“Duhhhh, Flick, I told you,” his innocent, childish voice insisted. “I wanna know if you were gonna visit me. I visited you on your birthday, shouldn’t you visit me on mine? That’s the polite thing to do.”

I started to interrupt, but he continued. “Our mom talks about politeness a lot. She wants me to be um, respectful? But how can I be respectful when my own sister won’t even visit me on my birthday? It’s mean. Family is supposed to help each other, but you wouldn’t even help me find out if I care about you or not. You’re a really bad sister.”

“Ammon,” I managed through gritted teeth. “I don’t even know when your birthday is, where you live, or how to get there. How could I visit you even if I wanted to?”

He was quiet for a few seconds, long enough to make me think he might’ve hung up. But just as I was about to check the phone to see if we were still connected, the boy made a noise. After a moment, I realized that he was giggling. “What’s so funny?”

The boy continued to giggle for a few more seconds before the laughter stopped abruptly. Yet there was still amusement in his voice as he answered, “See? We really are related. We thought the same thing. You couldn’t visit me, so I visited you.”

“Yeah, I know,” I muttered. “You came to my house, you tried to have my dad murder someone. That’s not something I consider funny, Ammon.”

“No, no, no,” the kid retorted, still giggling. “I didn’t mean then. I meant now.”

“You mean now, what?” I asked, frowning.

“I mean,” the voice came back. Except this time, it wasn’t coming from the phone. I looked at the device. It was already disconnected. Spinning and jumping to my feet so fast I knocked my mouse to the floor and tipped my chair over as my heart leapt into my throat, I found myself staring at the other side of the room.

The privacy screen was off, so I could see Avalon lying there. Her eyes were open, her arms locked to her sides as she lay completely still. And Ammon, sitting beside her, waved while finishing his sentence.

“… I came to visit you, now.”

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