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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