Month: November 2016

Mini-Interlude 10 – Mateo

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Mateo and Roxa interacting with the pack shortly after he introduced her to them. 

The rhythmic, somehow soothing sound of a basketball bouncing against pavement mixed with the shuffling of sneakers in a sort of orchestra of sounds that also included the occasional grunt, bang of the ball against a backboard or rim, and swish of the net.

And if those sounds were the music of the song, the trash talk was its lyrics.

“C’mon, you ain’t got nothing. Nothing. I’m gonna take the ball, toss it, and then put you through the net, midget.” The words came from an enormous Samoan man who appeared to be patient zero for the stereotype about his people being large. His face was fresh and smooth, his head entirely hairless. His shirtless torso rippled with muscles.

The other figure playing defense alongside the giant was a young black woman with short hair that had been dyed purple to match the color of the lenses in the sunglasses that she wore. She wore an Indiana Pacers jersey and running shorts. “Man, you better put it up!” she taunted their opponent while working for an opening. “Put up the rock! He gonna take it from ya! Strip it from ya like a hooker in a convent!”

The one with the ball wasn’t quite a ‘midget’ as the Samoan teased, though anyone seemed to be next to that giant. He was slightly under average height at five foot six, with red hair and a pale complexion that made him stand out whenever he went out in the South American city of Bogotá where they made their home.

He also gave as good as he got, firing back at the two defenders, “Maybe we could go up to that convent y’all keep talking about and get a couple of those nuns to play some decent D for you.”

The man-mountain took a step forward at that, moving to grab the ball from the small red-headed guy. Before his arm could come down, however, another figure blocked his way. Her dusky skin and long, luxurious dark hair currently tied into a ponytail betrayed her Hispanic heritage. She was, in fact, the only member of their group beyond the leader who had actually been born in Colombia.

“Just cuz they call you a mountain,” she informed the giant of a man after putting herself between him and her teammate with the ball, “doesn’t mean you always gotta move that slow.”

As the game continued that way, the two figures who stood at the edge of the court continued to watch. The male of the pair was clearly older, a thin and unassuming-looking Hispanic man who appeared to be in his early thirties and who would look perfectly at home sitting behind an accountant’s desk. His companion, meanwhile, was a teenage girl with blonde hair and a swimmer’s build.

“Can I ask you… I mean is it rude to ask—I mean is there a good way to…” the little blonde girl trailed off then, biting her lip indecisively as she struggled to find the right way to phrase her question.

Mateo Dias just smiled faintly, thinking back to the time that all her questions had been on the tip of his tongue. The awkwardness, confusion, even the fear. He remembered it all as if it had been yesterday.

Mierda, he still couldn’t believe it had been as long as it had. The memories and scars (even if they were emotional rather than physical ones) were still fresh enough to sting if he paid attention to them, like a physical burn that he couldn’t help but touch just to see if it was still painful.

“How did I get this way?” he offered easily while his eyes followed the path of the ball as it arced up to bounce off the backboard before dropping into the net. The score prompted groans and cheers from each pair of teammates. “How’d I become a wolf-man?”

The girl—Roxa, he reminded himself, flushed a little bit. “I mean, you don’t have to talk about it right now,” she quickly responded. “If it’s… just… rude or whatever.”

Mateo shook his head. “For some it is. Me—well, it was a long time ago. Back when it was a lot harder to find a date if you were…” He paused, glancing sidelong to the girl. “If you were gay,” he finished. “I was a teenager, just a dumb kid who thought I found the right guy to experiment with these new feelings I had. Turned out to be a bad choice. He was part of a super-religious pack of wolves who thought it was their calling to turn kids like me into soldiers for the faith. They called it education. It was torture and reconditioning. They tried to strip away the bits they didn’t like. Made boot camp look like paradise. It wasn’t a school, it was a torture camp.

“People thought they had a good success rate. Turns out, shock a kid’s genitals enough times when you ask him if he’s attracted to the picture of the naked guy you put up on the wall, and it doesn’t take long for him to figure out which answer you wanna hear.”

Roxa was staring at him in horror, her mouth open. “Oh my god. I—I didn’t—I’m sorry, I–”

“Like I said, it was a long time ago.” Mateo put a hand on her shoulder. “After a few weeks of games like that, they thought they had me broken. Say what they wanna hear, convince them you’re serious and you get fed. Even get a blanket to sleep with. Say anything wrong, let them think you’re still a nasty little sinner, and you get electro-therapy, poison food so you throw everything up until it feels like your stomach’s turning inside out, and… shit I’m not gonna tell you about. Point is, I played good little soldier for them, said what they wanted to hear. So they turned me, made me one of their wolf-troops. But as soon as I had a chance, I tore my recruiter’s throat out and took off.”

He gestured behind them at the tiny, unused church building where his pack had made their home. “Maybe that’s why I set up shop in this place. Felt like just another way of giving them the middle finger.” The thought made him smirk to himself before he nodded to the court. “I know you just made introductions yesterday, but you remember everyone?”

“Oh,” Roxa straightened with a nod. “Yeah, I think so. The um, the big guy’s Rangi, but he prefers Fezzik because he loves that one movie–”

The Princess Bride,” Mateo confirmed. “And yeah, might as well stick with Fezzik because he barely responds to the other one. Oh, and don’t even think about getting between him and the TV when Star Trek’s on. He may look like he eats linebackers from the American football teams, but he’s really a giant nerd.

Clearly snickering in spite of herself, Roxa continued. “His partner with the purple hair, she’s ummm…. ummm… Lesedi, right? From South Africa.”

“Right, those two are Fezzik and Lesedi. They usually work together whenever we have to go out in pairs. And the other two?”

“The red-head’s from Texas,” Roxa recited, thinking about it for a second. “His name’s… Corson? Franklin Corson, but it’s mostly just Corson.”

Nodding once again in confirmation, Mateo was about to say something else when the last member of their pack, the Colombian girl, called out to them while holding the ball under one arm. “Yeah, and I’m Hasty. Now you gonna hurry up and get in on this game or what?”

“You see why we call her that,” Mateo muttered an aside toward Roxa even as his own amusement made a smile pull at his lips. Her name wasn’t actually Hasty, of course. But it fit the girl more than her given name of Nicole did. She tended to act without thinking, rushing into things in ways that often got her in trouble. But she was loyal, and fierce.

Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty. Along with Mateo, they had been a pack for the past several years. There had been others, more before them, but between the Heretics, rival packs, and the actual Nocen (otherwise known as Alters who had gone completely dark and evil) that roamed the streets of Bogotá, they lost members more than he liked to think about.

And now they had Roxa. It was going to take the former-Crossroads student time to settle into the situation, he knew. Just like it was going to take the rest of the pack time to get used to sensing a Heretic whenever they saw her. But at least they were trying, on both sides. Which was good, because if this worked out, the girl would be an incredible asset to the pack. Especially considering the fact that she retained her Heretic-abilities.

“What do you think?” Mateo asked her with a little nudge. “Should we show these losers how to play some real BloodBall?”

“BloodBall?” Roxa echoed with a slight frown. “What’s that?”

Hasty smirked from the court. “What’s BloodBall? You know how they say, ‘no blood, no foul’? We take it a step further than that. No foul, period. If you’re not making the other team bleed, you’re not playing hard enough.”

Mateo clarified. “Since we heal everything anyway, we play hard and we hit hard. Full contact. You okay with that?”

For a second, Roxa seemed to be considering it. She shifted her weight a little, biting her lip before giving a short nod. “Okay. Sure. Might as well give it a shot.”

“Cool! Three-on-three!” Corson grinned, his pale face flushed from their work-out so far. “We’ll take the new girl. Shorty and the purple people-eater can take Mateo, since y’all need the help.”

“Shorty?” Fezzik demanded, obviously trying hard not to laugh. “Right, just because I can fold you into–”

That was as far as the big guy got before Hasty threw the ball to literally bounce it off his forehead. As Fezzik reeled from the blow, Corson lunged to catch the ball and did a quick alley-oop behind his back. As the ball neared the backboard, Hasty leapt, her enhanced werewolf strength carrying her high enough to catch the ball. By that point, Lesedi was already jumping to intervene. But Hasty put a foot against the other girl’s chest, kicking her down while tipping the ball through the hoop.

“BloodBall,” Mateo repeated for Roxa. “If it goes too far, hold a fist up. Means you need a second to heal or something’s wrong. Got it?” When the blonde nodded, he gave her a little push. “Great. See? Since you’re here, I actually get to play. You’re making good things happen already.”

His trio took the ball out then, tossing it in before working their way down the court. Mateo kept an eye on their newest recruit, but Roxa seemed to be doing just fine. Especially considering where she’d been. Every once in awhile, he caught either her or one of the pack staring at each other. Obviously, it was going to take some time for them to get used to the Heretic thing. But he trusted his pack. He had to. They weren’t just a family. They were both family and warriors. They depended on each other to survive. Which meant they had to trust every member to have each other’s back no matter what happened.

Thankfully, his pack had spent enough time around Sebastian that sensing Heretics wasn’t completely foreign to them. That helped enormously. He was pretty sure that if they hadn’t had that much familiarity at least, it would have taken much longer to get them to accept Roxa’s recruitment.

Shaking the thought out of his mind, Mateo gave the ball a hard pass straight through Corson’s outstretched arms and into Lesedi’s hands.

Catching the ball, the girl pivoted around on one foot while her other one lashed out to nail the incoming Hasty (who was living up to her name) in the side of the leg. The blow made her stumble with a wolf-like yip, and Lesedi took advantage to rush toward the net.

Roxa was the only one still in her way, and Lesedi smiled at the blonde. “Think I’m gonna take it easy on you just because you’re the rookie, Pup?”

Continuing to back up, giving ground as the black girl came closer, Roxa shook her head. “Nah, if you did, this’d just seem unfair.” As she finished speaking, the blonde girl gave a feint lunge forward before spinning around. She dropped to one knee, her other leg lashing out to sweep Lesedi’s out from under her. As the other girl hit the ground, Roxa caught the ball.

Then she was gone. Wolves were fast runners, even in their human form. But they were still bound by human speeds that way. Roxa, on the other hand, must have hit sixty miles per hour before she even reached the other side of the court. She tossed the ball up and through the hoop while everyone else was still realizing that she’d stolen the ball.

As the ball dropped to the ground, the girl caught it and turned to find the rest of the pack all staring at her. Her mouth opened and then she hesitated, looking unsure of herself. “Err, you did say full contact and power, right? That means… wait, did I… I mean… was that… shit, sorry I–”

Lesedi laughed, doing a quick kip-up to put herself back on her feet. “Good trick, Cub. But it ain’t gonna work again. We’re onto you now.”

Smirking a little, Mateo walked that way, holding his hand out for the ball. “No need to apologize. Like we said. Full power. Full strength. No fouls. You give as good as you get, you’ll fit in here just fine.”

Something damp was in Roxa’s eyes before she blinked it away and cleared her throat. She rolled the basketball over in her hands, then threw it to him. “Okay,” she said simply, though that one single word, ‘okay’ betrayed more emotion than he’d heard in some entire speeches.

Taking the ball out once more, Mateo watched the others. His pack. His people. Roxa would be one of them. He knew that just by looking at her. She belonged here. Belonged with them.

And he was going to make sure she knew that.

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Second Hunt 16-02

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For some totally strange and obviously unexplainable reason, the Crossroads staff apparently didn’t think that sending our team off completely on our own for this hunt was a very good idea. Well, technically they didn’t send any of the teams on their own, but when they announced that fact, everyone else pretty much immediately looked straight at us. So their reasoning wasn’t exactly much of a secret.

Instead, each team was being escorted by two members of the security team and a teacher. In our case, that was Wyatt, one of the other security guys, and Professor Dare. They weren’t supposed to interact with us or actually help at all unless there was something went wrong with the hunt. Instead, they would stand nearby and keep an eye on everything that was happening. That way, they’d be there to intervene in case Trice or anyone else ended up  repeating their attack from the first hunt.

It was probably bad, but personally, I was almost hoping that at least Pace made an appearance. It would be a chance for me to grab the bitch and get that damn necklace away from her for Roxa. I couldn’t really think of any other way we were going to be able to get face to face with that girl again.

As for Wyatt, I had tried to make the case that he should stay with Koren instead, after everything that had happened. But he assured me that he had taken ‘measures’ to keep an eye on the other girl even if he wasn’t right there with her. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but he seemed about as confident as Wyatt ever really was. Plus, Professor Katarin was the teacher watching over that team, and one of their security escorts was Reid Rucker. So they were as safe as possible. At least as safe as we were.

My slightly drifting line of thought was interrupted by a elbow in my side before Avalon spoke under her breath in a voice that was so quiet, it barely made it to my ear, “Focus on the mission, Chambers.”

Somehow, I managed to blush twice. First, at the realization that my wandering thoughts had been obvious. And then again at the thought that Avalon had been paying enough attention to me to notice. Of course, if I let myself think about that too much, I’d start thinking about the fact that she’d actually called me Felicity for once. In the days since it had happened, her voice saying my name had never been that far from my mind. Just remembering it then was enough to bring a third blush to my face.

There was no question why my roommate was hyper-focused on this hunt. She’d only gotten off her crutches and been cleared for full action the day before. I was pretty sure she’d spent the rest of the day working out in the training room to catch up, even dragging Shiori along to have a sparring partner.

“Right,” I coughed, forcing myself not to dwell on… any of that. Especially not on how nice it felt for her to whisper to—no, Flick, focus. Shaking it off, I looked around the portal room in the Pathmaker building where the rest of the team and our escorts were waiting to pass through the next door and to our destination. “So what are we going after today? Cyclopses rampaging through Dodger Stadium?”

As soon as the words left my mouth, Wyatt whirled on his heel. The man’s eyes were wide as he demanded, “Why? Did you hear about an attack? Why weren’t we notified? Did you submit the right-”

“Easy, Wyatt,” Professor Dare put a hand gently on his shoulder. “Miss Chambers was simply suggesting a humorous hypothetical. She does not believe that there is any actual attack on the stadium.” To me, she added with a touch of obvious amusement, “It is, however, interesting that you would choose that particular structure at random, out of all that you could have. Interesting indeed.”

“Err, it is?” I blinked, looking around at everyone else. They all looked amused as well. Not just the other security guard, but my teammates as well, even Avalon. At least, as much as Avalon allowed herself to look amused in public with other people around. “Why? What exactly am I missing?”

It was Columbus who answered. “One of the largest Crossroads weapons and technology laboratories in North America is hidden under Dodger Stadium. They make all kinds of awesome things there.”

Nodding, Sean patted Vulcan on the head pointedly. “Yeah, like my buddy here. That’s where he was crea—born,” he amended with a look down at the mechanical dog. “That’s his, you know, birthplace.”

My mouth opened and shut at all that. “Crossroads has a Development lab under a baseball stadium?”

“Why do you think they don’t tear it down or rebuild it?” Sands put in then. “It’s like… the oldest baseball stadium in the western half of the country. Third oldest, period. Crossroads makes sure no one actually does anything to it because of all the ongoing experiments and active weapons that they’re working on.”

“Oh.” Coughing, I looked back to Professor Dare. “What about the other two stadiums that are older?”

“Wrigley Field belongs to Eden’s Garden,” she replied with a thoughtful look. “Though we’re not supposed to know. But as far as I’m aware, Fenway Park, the oldest, is from people being sentimental.”

People, I noticed immediately. She hadn’t called them Bystanders that time, she just called them ‘people.’ Somehow, I found that interesting, and took a moment to study the woman curiously.

The professor noticed me looking and met my gaze evenly. “Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?”

I shook my head quickly at that. “Oh, no. I just—um. So where are we going today, if not a stadium?”

Still, she eyed me for another couple seconds with obvious curiosity before straightening to address everyone. “Your mission this evening will take place on board the Sahara’s Camelot. It’s a cruise ship that went missing two weeks ago. We’ve located it, identified the threats aboard, and believe that they are within your ability to handle. Of course, if anything happens, we will be there to provide any assistance. As will your team mentor,” she nodded toward the corner where Deveron was standing.

“A cruise ship?” I blinked at that, suddenly even more interested than I already had been. “What about the passengers or the crew? I mean, are there, um, any survivors that we should be looking out for?”

The blonde woman shook her head once. “No. If there were innocent civilians still being hunted on that ship, we would not be playing games by waiting like this and sending in first-year trainees, Miss Chambers. The entire reason that we’ve decided to make this ship the location of one of your training hunts is the unique situation it presents. There are no innocents to worry about, and the ship itself is in the middle of the ocean. It’s safely separated from any possible further threat to more living civilians.”

Further threat. More living civilians. I noticed both of those terms, and knew what she was saying. There had been living, innocent people on that ship, but they were all dead by the time it was located. That’s why they didn’t mind sending just us in to deal with the threats, because there was no point to sending fully qualified and trained Heretics at that point. They might as well use it as a training tool.

And despite Professor Dare’s attempt to sound clinical, I could tell that it actually bothered her. There was a certain tightness around her lips and a narrowing of her eyes that proved she was genuinely upset that all of those people on that ship had been killed before the Heretics found it. She obviously hated it.

I’d checked in the history book. Virginia Dare, the first English child born in Americas, had been born in the year 1587. Four hundred and thirty years earlier. And even after all this time, the deaths of random civilians that she didn’t know still bothered her enough that I could notice her reaction.

Something else occurred to me then, and my eyes widened before I looked toward Scout. “Um.” Wincing, I tried to think of the best way to phrase this. “Are you sure this is the right… I mean, is it–”

Professor Dare’s voice was gentle. “Both Sands and Scout were told about this situation earlier and were asked if it would be too much. They declined the offer of an alternative hunting location.” Her gaze flicked that way before she added, “But if either of you have changed your minds on that…?”

The twins whispered briefly before Sands shook her head. “Nope.” She straightened pointedly, hand straying to catch her sister’s. “Scout says that stopping a monster on a boat would help her, not hurt.”

“Even if those civilians have already been killed, and you have no chance of saving them?” Dare asked.

I saw the flinch cross Scout’s face before she gave a single, firm nod. Her chin lifted a little as she set herself. Obviously, she was scared of going back onto a Stranger-filled ship in the middle of the ocean. Considering the memories that it would bring back, even if the ships in question were wildly different, I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d be able to be as brave as she was if our positions had been reversed.

Hell, even without that kind of traumatic memory, I wasn’t exactly doing that well with the idea of walking around a cruise ship full of dead people. It was a bit of a step up from ‘abandoned lake cabins.’

Beside me, Scout raised her hand before turning to whisper into Sands’ ear. The other girl listened and then spoke up. “Scout wants to know where you guys are going to be waiting and watching from.”

“Good question, Miss Mason.” Professor Dare nodded toward Scout before continuing. “The original investigating Heretics left a yacht close to the ship in question. Our transport will take us there. Then we will wait and observe the situation while your team takes the lifeboat over to the cruise ship itself.

“We will also,” she went on immediately before anyone could say anything else about it, “be monitoring your progress through other means as well. Suffice to say, we will have eyes on all of you at all times, and we will be close enough to intervene should the situation grow out of control. For the most part, however, conducting this hunt and handling the threats that present themselves is up to you.”

“What about Deveron?” Columbus asked even as my mouth was opening to do the same thing. He gestured toward the (much) older boy in the corner. “Is he staying back on the Heretic yacht too?”

Before Professor Dare could respond, Deveron shook his head. “No,” he said flatly. “I’ll be on the ship with the rest of you. But I’ll stay out of the way, up near the lifeboat. You’ll get to do the hunt by yourself unless you ask for help.” Smirking just a little bit, he added, “You remember how it works?”

Columbus nodded easily. “Yeah, sure. We get a ten percent bonus for not involving you at all. If we have to ask for help with identifying them or anything else that has to do with knowledge, we lose five percent of the bonus. If we have to ask for you to help physically, then we lose the other five percent.”

“Indeed,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And should you need to ask us what creatures you are facing in the event that Mr. Adams fails to be able to identify them, you will lose ten percent from your final score. But remember, do not let that entirely dissuade you, because if you fail in your hunt specifically because you were unable to identify the threats and refused to request that information, you will lose twenty percent from your final score. In the long run, you will receive a better score if you ask for help and complete your mission, than if you fail to ask for help and thus fail in your mission because of it.”

While we all nodded quickly to that, Wyatt started to hand out the same communication pins that we had used during the first hunt (and also when we had been breaking into the security office at school). “Take them, take them,” he encouraged. “I’ve added my own enchantment to improve the pins.”

Blinking up at that as I took one of them and fixed it to my uniform, I asked, “What enchantment?”

The others looked just as curious as I was, but Wyatt shook his head while lowering his voice. “Shh. It’s a secret improvement. They could be listening. They are listening. So shush.” Raising his voice then, he spoke with the voice of one of the worst actors I had ever heard. “No… I didn’t say… enchantment. I said… encampment. Good luck dispatching this encampment of monsters on that ship. Yes, that’s it.”

Then, as we all stared at him, Wyatt silently gestured toward the pins we had put on. His hand indicated each of us before pointing back to the pin that he wore. He put his fingers close to it and mimed pressing it before quickly stepping over to grab me by the shoulders. The (rightfully) paranoid man tugged me over to him, then did the same to each of the rest of the team. Then he gestured to the pin again and gave us another one of those wide, goofy and incredibly endearing buck-toothed smiles.

It took me a second before I realized what he was saying. Or rather, what he was pantomiming. Then I got it. Apparently, he had included an emergency teleport system into the communicator pins. When he activated it, the spell would transport the other pins (as well as anyone wearing them) straight back to where he was. So if we got in trouble, he could immediately yank us out of it and back to safety.

Well, that was useful. And it made me wonder why that wasn’t just standard practice at this point.

“Come,” Professor Dare instructed, walking past us to put her hand into the black circle next to the door on the other side of the portal room from the entrance. As the door cycled to our destination, she looked back to the rest of us with a somber look. “As I said, you should all be able to handle this situation. But it is dangerous. And I will warn you now that you will see the bodies of the people that we were unable to save. Do not let that discourage you too much. It is not your fault. Instead, let it prompt all of you to learn to fight better, and to eventually graduate so that we have more Heretics available to hunt these monsters before they have time to engage in such vicious and violent attacks.”

Her voice softened. “That said, if any of you need to take a break because of the bodies you find, do not be ashamed of asking for it. There will be no penalty for such a request, and no one will shame you for it. This will, sadly, not be the worst sight you witness as Heretics. But no one can see this kind of thing without being affected. At least,” she amended softly, “No one whom I would wish to associate with.”

By that point, the portal had finished cycling, the air around us growing chillier. She withdrew her hand from the black circle and opened the door, gesturing for us to step through. So, taking a breath, I did so.

Or I started to, anyway. Before I could actually make it through the doorway, Wyatt pretty much pushed his way in front of me and went through first. He was there for a couple seconds before poking his head back through and giving the rest of us the okay sign. “You can come through now!”

On the other side of the doorway, I found myself standing on the deck of the yacht, as if I had just come through the door of the bridge or cockpit or whatever it was called on boats. Again, raised in Wyoming.

For a moment, I took in the sight around me. The sky was dark, and the ocean below the yacht was even darker. It looked sinister the way the ocean around the Crossroads island never really did. Even the chilly wind seemed to be trying to convince us to turn away, to go back.

Slowly, I raised my gaze to take in the sight of our actual destination. A soft gasp escaped me at the sheer size of the ship. To my completely uneducated eyes, the Sahara’s Camelot was freaking enormous. As long as almost three football fields, and with at least eight floors (or decks) above the main deck and who knew how many below. The thing looked positively gigantic. And evil. Maybe in the sunlight on a calm ocean, with laughing and partying guests all over its many decks, the ship would have looked inviting. But right now, I couldn’t think of a more sinister-looking place I’d ever seen.

And we were supposed to search the whole place.

“A ghost ship,” Columbus muttered from beside me after he and the others had come out. “We’re going on a god damn ghost ship.”

“Well,” Avalon spoke up, sounding almost perky for her at the prospect as she headed straight for the side where the lifeboat was waiting. “We better get over there then. Hurry up.”

Sean shook his head woefully. “You see what happens when she gets cooped up for weeks on crutches? Girl gets gung-ho about the first chance she gets to actually kill some bad guys again.”

Instead of responding to him, I glanced back to the twins. “You guys sure you’re all right? Scout?”

They both hesitated, and I saw the tenseness in the silent girl herself. But she gave a slight nod before pointedly stepping over to join Avalon at the boat.

“Professor,” I spoke quietly to Dare, my eyes trying to convey what I couldn’t say.

“We know,” the woman replied softly. “Trust me, we know. But better this happen now, in a controlled environment that we are right here for. If anything goes wrong or it starts to be too much, we will intervene. I promise.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded before starting over to join the rest of my team. “Well guys, I guess we should get our butts over there, huh?

“Those monsters won’t slay themselves.”

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Second Hunt 16-01

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“You know, a lot of people would be pretty freaked out at the idea of having a bunch of sharks as pets.”

After murmuring those words, Koren looked over at me as the two of us continued to tread water a good distance away from the beach. We’d come out this far so that my ocean-bound friends could visit without freaking out the rest of the students who were trying to swim and enjoy themselves.

It was Friday, the eighth of December, about a week since that little hospital trip. December. In Wyoming, I would’ve been slugging my way through a foot or so of snow, freezing my tookus off. Here, I was swimming in the ocean.

My shiver of sharks had found us immediately, the six them swimming around us, preening and vying for attention. “But you just sort of roll with it,” Koren continued, “like they’re puppies or something.”

“Aww,” I shook my head, reaching out to catch hold of Jabberjaw as the pretty blue and white shark swam close enough. He turned toward my touch, practically nuzzling up against me as I held onto him so that I was pulled around in a circle. “They’re better than puppies, Koren! They’re awesome! And look at this guy.” Using one hand to hold onto Jabberjaw, I indicated his sleek form. “Isn’t he pretty?”

For her part, Koren started to chuckle before giving a soft yelp as the yellow Lemon shark bumped up against her from behind. She turned, only to blink the shark bumped her again. “Uh, are you sure this-”

Letting go of Jabberjaw, I kicked over that way while nodding. “Shh, it’s okay, Simpson. Koren just needs to get to know you.” Stopping there, I put my hand on the shark’s snout before looking back to the other girl. “Simpson’s a cuddly one. She likes to be hugged. Like this, see?” To demonstrate, I let myself slip through the water a bit before wrapping both arms and legs around the yellow-tinted shark. Then I held on while she took me for a quick circuit, dropping under the water, then up again toward the end as we returned to where Koren was watching. Letting go, I gestured. “Go ahead, you try.”

Still, she hesitated for a moment while eyeing Simpson carefully. “You’re really, completely sure it’s safe?” Even as she asked, Koren reached out to put a hand against the shark’s side testingly before giving a soft gasp. “Wow, it feels… rough. Like sandpaper. I thought her skin would be all… smooth.”

“It looks like it should be, huh?” I agreed before swimming closer to pat Simpson reassuringly. “Trust me, it’s perfectly safe. These guys are my friends, they wouldn’t hurt you unless I wanted them to.”

Raising an eyebrow at that, Koren continued to tread water while replying slyly, “Check, no more saying stupid, mean things without thinking about it or Aunt Flick’ll sic her pet sharks on me. Got it.”

Snorting in spite of myself, I put a hand on the Bull shark that had just swum up to me and ran it down over the rough skin with a wink at the other girl. “See, Sherman? She’s already getting the right idea.”

After taking another breath to brace herself, Koren put both arms around Simpson and held on. A strangled squeal escaped the girl as the shark took her for a brief ride, diving under the water to do a languid figure eight that ended with her back up on the other side of me, sucking in long deep breaths.

“You okay?” I asked, smiling a little while waving a hand under the water toward the largest of my sharks, the Great White named Princess Cuddles. “She didn’t keep you down there too long, did she?”

Koren shook her head, still panting a little bit. “No, it was… holy crap. I always wanted to swim with dolphins, but this was—wow. Flick, this is an awesome power.” She released Simpson, slipping away to come closer to me. “I wonder if there’s a limit on how many sharks you can control.” Pausing, she looked at the figures swimming around us before amending, “Or maybe tame is a better word for it.”

By that point, Princess Cuddles had maneuvered herself directly beneath us. “Incoming,” I warned the other girl while gesturing down. As Koren glanced that way, the Great White rose up, lifting the two of us onto her back before she barely breached the surface of the water. Reaching down, Koren and I held onto the shark as she began to slowly swim in a wide circle, moving carefully enough that we could simply sit there on either side of the large fin in the middle of her back, holding onto it with one hand.

“And tame is probably the best word,” I confirmed once we were settled in place, legs sticking off the side of the lazily swimming massive shark. “I don’t feel like I’m outright controlling them. It’s more like they’re really well-trained animals. And I think my power sort of… makes them a little smarter? I’m not sure, exactly.”

Considering that for a moment, I shrugged. “And I’m not sure if I could tame more of them or not. Maybe these six are my limit. I mean, there’s gotta be a limit, right? I’m not Aquaman.”

“Maybe we should test it sometime.” Koren offered with a shrug. “Can you imagine having a hundred sharks like these guys all patrolling the ocean around the island, doing whatever you want them to?”

Coughing at that, I shook my head. “I still can’t imagine having six of these guys. But here we are.”

Leaning back a little, I patted Princess Cuddles before looking toward the other girl. “You wanna see something really cool?” When she gave a hesitant nod, I whistled loudly, two short and one long.

Almost immediately at the sound, my two near-identical sharks, the Makos that I called Brody and Quint, poked their snouts out of the water just ahead of where our enormous ride was taking us.

“Hey, guys!” I called to them, waving the hand that I wasn’t using to hold onto Princess Cuddles’ fin. “Let’s show Koren what you can do, okay? Remember, Brody won last time, so Quint goes first!”

Koren looked to me as the sharks went under the water again. “Quint goes first? What’re they doing?”

Grinning with anticipation, I shook my head and pointed out toward a spot ahead of us. “Just watch.”

The two of us sat there on Princess Cuddles, watching the light waves through the ocean water for a few long, silent seconds. Then, just as Koren was starting to ask how long we needed to wait, the semi-still surface of the water was broken by a figure lunging out of it. Quint breached the surface, the ten-foot long shark leaping a solid fourteen feet into the air before turning over into an impressive flip.

He had just crashed back down into the water before his brother duplicated his maneuver. Brody, however, managed to get up to about seventeen feet before falling back into the ocean with a splash.

“Holy shit!” Koren’s eyes were wide as she stared out there. “They just—they really—that was–”

“Pretty awesome, huh?” I grinning and gave a short whistle of approval before clapping. “Whoo! Good job, you guys! Dolphins eat your hearts out! Go ahead, you two. See if you can beat your old record!”

The two of them dove down to jump again, while I looked to the girl beside me. “So, comfortable enough to do a little diving?” I’d brought her out with me to use the magic air-producing collars that Professor Carfried had taught us to make, now that I was absolutely sure I was doing the spell right.

She started to answer, only to go silent as Brody and Quint did their thing again. That time, Koren clapped as well, cheering them alongside me. Then she looked back and nodded. “Sure, let’s try it.”

“Great!” I grinned, reaching up to the collar that I had worn out to the water. As I activated the spell on it, Koren did the same with her own. The two of us looked at each other before sliding off the massive shark’s back. As we dove under the surface of the ocean, the spell on the collar kicked in and I could breathe just as easily as if we had still above the water. Taking a couple deep breaths just to be sure, I looked toward the other girl to give her a thumbs up. She returned the gesture, and then we turned our attention to the wide open ocean beneath us. My six sharks came swimming in to check us out, and then together, the eight of us began to explore that indescribably beautiful underwater world.

Pretty good for a girl who had grown up in the middle of Wyoming.

******

“Go ahead and call me Santa Claus, Flickster, cuz I’ve got a couple early Christmas presents for you.”

Sitting in one of the extremely comfy armchairs in the lounge a few hours later, I lifted my head to see the grinning Columbus. “Pressies?” I replied with an eager bounce as I made my eyes light up like a little kid. “I get early pressies? Oooh!” Clapping a couple times, I added excitedly, “I hope it’s a pony!”

The boy took the time to lift the goggles from his eyes so I could see him roll them dramatically. “Sorry,” he retorted dryly, “I’m pretty sure you’re gonna have to ask someone else for the pony thing.”

“Nerts.” Smiling anyway, I heaved a dramatic, put-upon sigh. “It was worth a shot. I shall remain forever ponyless. Just me, wandering a wasteland of monsters with narry a four-hoofed friend to call-”

“Flick,” Columbus interrupted, “you have an entire pack of sharks that basically call you Mommy.”

Grinning at that, I gave him a thumbs-up from each hand. “Good point. Water ponies! With big teeth.” Straightening, I added, “Koren came out with me today to go exploring out there. We found a couple underwater caves. I wanna take the rest of you guys out too, so we can check them out a little more.”

The boy looked doubtful for a moment. “You mean go out in the ocean with those sharks? The big ones with the dead eyes and the teeth that go, “Arrgh rar!” He gnashed his teeth together demonstratively.

Scoffing at that, I jabbed him with two fingers. “First of all, they do not go ‘Arrgh rar’, doofus. Sharks don’t roar. I’m pretty sure at least most of them can’t make any sound. They’re not lions. They’re silent, stealthy predators. It’s not like they’re gonna give you this big warning that they’re about to come up–”

“Flick,” Columbus interrupted. “Aren’t you supposed to be talking me into going out there with you?”

Grinning, I shook my head. “Oh, I don’t have to. I’ll just tell Shiori and she’ll bully you into going out.” In demonstration, I gestured to the other side of the lounge, where the girl herself was busy schooling her two male teammates (Gavin and Stephen) at Tekken. You’d think they’d learn better at some point.

The poor boy heaved a sigh at that, shaking his head with clearly mock sadness. “I am so abused.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, you suffer so much.” I poked him again before pushing myself up to my feet. Rubbing my hands together, I pressed, “Now if it’s not a pony, what’d ya bring me? Huh, huh, huh?”

Clearly amused, the boy reached into the bag that he’d brought. “Two things. First, here.” He passed me a small metal cylinder about the size of a cell phone case. It even had a clip to attach to my belt. “I already filled it up for you. There’s two hundred pounds of sand in there, so you should be good for awhile. And for the record,” he added while passing it to me, “next time you get to fill the thing up.”

“Oh!’ Quickly taking it, I examined the thing carefully. Sure enough, when I flipped the lid up with my thumb, I could see the sand inside. And stretching my Arenakinetic (According to Vanessa, that was what my sand-manipulation was called) sense down through it revealed a hell of a lot more inside.

“Holy shit, dude,” I quickly hugged the boy. “That’s awesome! Thanks for making this, seriously.”

Flushing with obvious embarrassment, Columbus returned the hug. “Hey, don’t worry about it. That’s what the Development track is supposed to do. Besides, Avalon helped, and we got to turn it in for a grade from Nevada. So really, it’s not a big deal. Just use it to kick ass the next time you get in trouble.”

“You know it,” I replied easily, smiling as I flicked a finger to make a tendril of sand snake up out of the container. After flicking it around a few times testingly, I slipped the sand back inside before clipping the thing to my belt. Smiling in satisfaction once it was there, I looked back to him. “Thanks.”

Shrugging again, he cleared his throat before reaching to his pack once more. “This is the one that I did by myself. I figured since you keep getting in trouble, you could probably use every little advantage you can get.” From the bag, the boy withdrew… a watch and held it out to me. “Here, put this on.”

“Ooh!” Shiori was making her way over to the two of us. Apparently her teammates had decided enough was enough. Now they were playing the game against each other. Trying to practice, apparently. “Is that the thing?” the Asian girl asked as she approached, her face bright with eagerness.

“Yup,” Columbus confirmed with a broad, proud smile. “Just giving Flick her early Christmas presents. Figured since we’re going out on that hunt tonight, they might actually be useful now rather than later.”

Yeah, we were actually going out on another official, sanctioned training hunt. For once, there hadn’t been an interruption or anything else. Then again, the night was still young and we weren’t there yet.

“Well good,” Shiori bounced on her heels a bit, “Maybe I won’t be so scared of Christmas this year.”

Blinking in confusion at that as I held the watch, I asked hesitantly, “You’re scared of Christmas?”

Behind me, I heard Columbus groan while Shiori lit up adorably. “Sure!” she chirped, not sounding afraid whatsoever. “It’s a problem with the whole Santa thing. I’m–” She coughed. “Claustrophobic.”

“Claustro—oh god.” My own groan matched Columbus’s while I shook my head. “Damn it, Shiori!”

If the girl’s bright laugh was any indication, she wasn’t in the least bit ashamed of herself. Instead, she pushed at my hand eagerly. “Go on, put it on, put it on,” Shiori urged. “Trust me, Flick, this is so cool! He made me practice with it before, just to make sure it wasn’t gonna cut your hand off or anything.”

My hand shot into the air then. “Uh, two questions. One, that could happen?! And uh, second…” Turning my attention toward Columbus, I stared at the boy. “If it could, you made Shiori test it out?!”

Flushing and coughing, he made a few vague gestures. “It’s fine, it’s just fine, I promise. Trust me, Flick. I just had to make sure it was calibrated right and all that. Please, just put it on. Oh, but you have to put it so the face is on the inside of your wrist, not the outside. You know, like fancy people do.”

“Fancy people…” I echoed before shaking my head as I put the watch on as instructed, with the band outward and the face itself on the inside of my wrist. “Like this? Hey, it is a nice watch.” It was one of those old watches with the actual hands rather than a digital face. “But I do have a phone, you know.”

“Your phone can’t do this,” Columbus assured me. “You still have that knife? The one your–” He paused, catching himself just in time before accidentally mentioning my mother. “–friend gave you?”

“Sure.” Nodding easily, I bent down to tug the silver knife out of the sheathe that was attached to my ankle, showing it to him. “I wanted to keep it as close as possible, because…” Pausing, I shrugged. “You know.”

Both of them murmured agreement while Columbus took the knife. “Okay, here, turn your hand over.” He adjusted my wrist and pushed down and in against the watch face. As he did so, the thing popped out a couple inches and opened up on the side facing my palm. With a wink at me, the boy carefully pushed the knife inside the opening, handle first until it seemed to click into place. Then he gave the watch face another gentle push until it closed back up again.

“Okay, now…” Columbus instructed after releasing my wrist. “Hold your hand out like this.” He demonstrated by holding his own hand down with his fingers in a loose approximation of a grip. “Then snap your fingers twice and put your hand back the way it was.”

Shrugging, I followed his lead. Holding my hand down in the same position, I snapped twice before putting it back.

A second later, the watch reopened and the knife shot out of it to land in my loose grip. Catching it, my eyes widened. “Whoa! You—damn, Columbus. You made this?”

He nodded, grinning at me.

“See?” Shiori nudged my arm. “Told you it was cool.”

“Like I said,” Columbus put in with another shrug, “I figured it might come in handy someday. Besides, it was… from your friend, so it’s kinda special.”

Biting my lip, I gave him another hug. “Thanks.” Then Shiori got a hug as well. “And thank you for testing it.”

She started to say something, but before she could, another voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Columbus, Flick!”

It was Deveron. He leaned around the door, looking toward us expectantly. “You guys ready to go?”

“Oh, right.” Looking toward Shiori, I gave the girl a thumbs up. “Good luck with your team tonight.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Oh, sure, yeah. Good um, good luck with you too. Your team, I mean. With the hunting and all that.”

The two of us just sort of stood there for a second until Columbus nudged me. Shaking myself out of it, I started over with him to head out with Deveron so we could join the rest of the team for our second hunt.

God, I hoped there were no more wolves.

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Interlude 15 – Nicholas Petan

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Five Years From Now, In An Alternate Dimension

“My Lord?” the soft voice of a young female with teal skin and bright white hair spoke up tentatively.

Nicholas Petan turned away from the window of the ship where he had been studying the green and brown planet that they were approaching. He took in the sight of the Nereid, pausing for a moment to remember her name. At one time, it wouldn’t even have taken him that long. But, as the years and centuries passed, the number of those he was responsible for had grown beyond what he could have imagined when he was still young. Even then, however, it often felt as though he had done too little.

After that brief pause that actually only lasted a couple of seconds, he had it. “Yes, Dexamene?”

“Um, I was just… I was wondering, sir…” Dexamene hesitated. She looked nervous, and Petan recalled that this was the first time the sea nymph had addressed him directly. She was the daughter of one of the ship’s top navigators and a marine, but she herself had only graduated from their shipboard academy a month earlier. Shortly before they had sent Tristan back in time, actually. Now that he thought about it, she and his descendant had been friendly with one another. Which probably meant…

“You would like to know if Tristan arrived at his destination correctly and safely?” he guessed.

Judging from the way the nymph flushed, she was embarrassed. Yet her head bobbed up and down quickly even as she fidgeted there. “Y-yes, my Lord. I-if it’s not too much trouble, I mean. I was just—um, w-worried about him. I know we can’t—umm, that we can’t contact him or anything because of the um—the time travel. But do we—umm, can we know if he’s—umm–” She stopped, swallowing hard.

Lifting his hand, Petan settled it on the girl’s shoulder. He felt her cringe a little, and shook his head in wonder at just how shy and easily embarrassed she was. “Dexamene,” he assured her. “He is all right.” When she looked up at him, eyes hopeful, the man gave her the slightest smile in an attempt to be at least a little bit reassuring. It felt strange on his face, especially after he’d had to send Tristan away.

The boy had been a breath of fresh air around the ship, particularly once they had worked out the way to have the boy on the ship with them by anchoring him to Nicholas himself. That particular anchor had been enough to allow him to leave the Meregan’s world, but not enough to take him to their home dimension and planet. The Seosten magic barring him from that dimension was entirely too strong.

So, in between their battles with the Seosten and other enemies, Nicholas’s army (including their new Meregan allies) had searched for another solution. It wasn’t their primary task, of course. There were far too many other things commanding their attention. But they had tried several things over the years.

In the end, the best solution had been an alternative to the one they had used to allow the boy to leave the planet and stay with Nicholas: the anchor. But they had needed a better anchor, since Petan’s connection to his former homeworld had faded too much over the centuries that he had been away.

The magic barely recognized him as being from there at all. So, they had needed to anchor the boy to someone from there, who still lived there and whom he had at least a somewhat close connection with. And since Tristan couldn’t remember anything about his family (Nicholas’s stories about them didn’t seem to be able to jog the boy’s memory) that left pretty much only two choices: Felicity Chambers or Shiori Porter. Tristan had chosen Felicity. Unfortunately, so much had changed in those years that there was no connection between Tristan and the Felicity of the current time. So, they had anchored the boy to the Felicity from five years in the past, when she was still the way that the boy remembered her. And now, well, now he was there. And then. As Dexamene had said, it was impossible to contact him.

“I miss him too,” he told the young nymph in a confidential tone that made her blink up at him with wide eyes. “But yes, as far as I am aware, Tristan arrived safely. That is the best we could hope for.”

The teal-skinned girl bobbed her head quickly once more. “Good! I mean, I—h-he’s good. He’s home. I–” She shifted again, looking away for a moment as a very brief look of shame crossed her face.

Raising an eyebrow, Petan paused to consider her for a moment. “Is there something else wrong?”

“N-no, I–” Dexamene stopped, still looking embarrassed and ashamed as she admitted, “I kn-know he had to go home, b-but I… I w-wish I’d told him that I… that I umm…” She went silent once more.

“You cared for him a lot,” Petan realized, straightening a little then. “As far more than simply friends.”

The sea nymph looked stricken for a second before she caught herself. Swallowing hard, she gave one more nod. “I—w-wanted to tell him, but… but I knew he didn’t feel the same way. W-we were friends, sir. I didn’t wa-want to ruin that, and I didn’t… I didn’t want to say anything that would m-make him feel guilty about leaving. Now I… w-wish I did. But I’m g-glad I didn’t. But I’m sad. It’s… hard.”

Remaining silent to gather his thoughts, Nicholas wished that he had any idea of what to say to the girl. She had sent away a boy she cared deeply for, a boy she obviously had a very strong crush on, without telling him how she felt in order to avoid making him choose between staying with her and going home. She had let him go without doing anything that would make him feel guilty about his choice.

Finally, he squeezed her shoulder until she met his gaze once again, her violet eyes wide from the attention. “Dexamene,” the man informed her succinctly, “you are an incredible asset to this crew, this ship, and to me. I am very grateful that people like you are here. Thank you, for continuing to serve.”

“I—I–um–” The poor teal-skinned teenager worked her mouth before quickly stepping back. She gave him a somewhat shaky, but still acceptable salute, which he returned crisply. Then she mumbled an embarrassed thank you followed by an apology as she asked to be dismissed. When he gave that permission, the girl practically fled down the corridor, her embarrassment too much to handle by then.

As he watched her go, Nicholas smiled faintly before turning his attention back to the window. The ship was coming in for a landing by that point, and he could already see the Seosten defensive forces readying themselves. Not that many, if any were actually Seosten themselves, of course. The body-possessing false angels used subjugated races for that kind of grunt work. Besides, there weren’t enough actual Seosten to create entire armies across multiple worlds and hold them. At most, there would be two or three of the creatures on-world to ensure that things continued to run smoothly.

A few of the defense forces that settled into place even took (entirely useless) potshots at the incoming ship before their superiors obviously ordered them to hold fire and wait to concentrate on the doors that the invading troops should have begun pouring out of as soon as the ship settled into place.

“Captain,” he spoke while touched a finger to the communicator on his wrist. “Are the troops ready?”

The crisp response came immediately, confirming that the troops were indeed prepared. Smiling to himself, Nicholas touched the circle that he had already drawn on the wall beside the window. Investing it with power, he activated the spell while pressing his palm against the middle of it.

As soon as the spell triggered, several dozen of the ship’s finest and best trained troops (an eclectic assortment of various Alters, some armed with weapons while others relied on their own innate gifts and abilities) disappeared from where they had been waiting, and immediately reappeared directly behind the defensive position that the Seosten defense troops had set up. The scene dissolved into instant chaos as the troops were taken by surprise when the intruders came at them from behind.

They turned to meet the threat, and as soon as they did, then the doors of the ship opened up. The rest of Nicholas Petan’s army poured out, attacking from that side as well. Trapped in the middle, the Seosten defense forces stood little chance. Most surrendered after only a relatively brief skirmish.

Nodding in satisfaction, Nicholas started to turn away from the window. It was time to free the slaves on this planet, see what kind of supplies they could take from this minor Seosten outpost, and move on.

Unfortunately, just as he began to turn, a shadow darkened the sky and left the troops outside in darkness. His gaze flicked back that way while his communicator popped. “My Lord!” the voice of the ship’s captain came through. “We have three ships on sensors. They came out of nowhere, sir.”

“Seosten?” Petan asked, his voice tense as he prepared to move once they knew what was going on.

“No, my Lord,” the captain denied. “The ships, they’re reading as… alive, sir. They’re biological.”

Straightening at that, Nicholas took a moment before the word escaped him in a hiss that was equal parts anger and worry. Not for himself, but for those he was in command of, those who trusted him.

“Fomorian.”

******

Blood, screams, and worse filled the air. The Fomorians had wasted no time. Before Petan could prepare another spell to withdraw his troops, or even join them, they had already sent their drop-tubes to the surface. Essentially, the drop-tubes were incredibly long tentacles that shot from the bottom of their ships and attached themselves to the planet itself. Once they were hooked in, the various biological horror shows that the Fomorians had created were dropped down through the tube in egg-like structures, which burst upon contact with the ground and allowed the creatures to pour forth.

Both the previously-surrendered Seosten soldiers and Petan’s own troops were almost immediately engulfed by more types of literal monsters than Nicholas had ever seen before, even in his long life. They ranged from an enormous crocodile-like creature that was over sixty feet long and twenty feet high, all the way down to insect-sized bug things which injected a deadly poison into their targets.

His Alters were doing their best to defend themselves, and their efforts were admirable. Yet they hadn’t been expecting that kind of fight, not against those biological horror-shows. The Fomorians deliberately crafted their creatures to combat specific Alter-abilities, tailoring each creation as needed.

He had to involve himself, and quickly. Rather than taking the time to make it to the actual exit, Nicholas scrawled a quick spell on the floor of the ship, focused on himself. In that moment, he dearly wished that he was actually one of the Heretics whose abilities came from the Reapers or Hangmen, so that he could have absorbed the powers of those he had fought for so long. Instead, he was a natural Heretic, and his gifts had originally come from a troll whose body he had been buried with so long ago. Their blood had mixed, and granted him incredible regeneration and immunity to both disease and aging, strength, an utterly inhuman resistance to damage other than fire, the ability to adapt to his environment so that no temperature variation or even lack of oxygen bothered him, and the ability to induce fear in a target.

And, of course, having the Bystander-effect removed had restored what should have been his natural ability to use magic. All of that combined had made him a formidable opponent to his enemies over the centuries, and it would do the same here and now. But even then, he would have preferred an instant teleportation ability, something that could transport him out there immediately before more of his troops, his people, were killed. Every second he wasted creating and investing energy into the magic to take him out there was another one where the people who swore loyalty to him were suffering.

Finally (after what had honestly only been less than thirty seconds, even if it felt like an eternity), the spell was ready. Nicholas pressed his hand to the runes he had drawn and activated it. The hastily drawn spell lit up, and he was immediately transported from the ship to the middle of the battlefield.

He appeared in front of one of his Dryads, who was laying on the ground, bleeding from a severe stomach injury. A creature that looked like a scorpion with a snake instead of a stinger came lunging forward, tail lashing out with the poisonous serpent’s mouth wide open as it aimed for his arm.

Petan caught the snake, twisting sharply while giving a yank that tore its head from the rest of the body. Even as the scorpion part of the creature made a sharp screaming noise and tried to snatch him with its pincers, he delivered a harsh kick that put his foot through the thing’s face. The scorpion collapsed, and he tossed the snake-head aside before turning back to the injured Dryad.

“Here,” he announced, producing a small metal button from his pocket which he dropped onto her chest. “Hold it and you will be safe until we retrieve you when the battle is finished.”

As the Dryad closed her hand around the button, it activated and her body turned into what looked a lot like stone, but was actually much stronger. One of the advantages of allying with what remained of the Meregan. Considering that the ‘statue’ could have been thrown into the sun without being harmed, nothing the Fomorian horror show could do would be able to penetrate it.

That done, Nicholas straightened and turned his attention to the rest of the creatures. Perhaps someone else would have said something pithy or uplifting about the situation, something that would have lightened the mood. But that wasn’t the sort of man that Nicholas Petan was. He relied on results.

And, as he waded into the battle, delivering single blows that took the creatures apart with as little wasted motion or effort as possible, results were what he delivered. He wasn’t fancy. When he finally drew his sword to cleave the head from a charging tentacle-laden creature, he remained as silent as ever. Not a breath, nor a motion, nor an actual attack was in any way wasted. His style was an economy of motion and energy, even as he picked his way through this army. What took even the strongest of his troops three or four blows to bring down, Nicholas managed with a single swipe of his blade.

He was making his way to the worst, most dangerous threat on the battlefield: that giant crocodile. Now that he was closer, the man could see that it had a slightly smaller, humanoid (vaguely ape-like) torso, head, and arms attached just under its much larger and more prominent reptilian head. The ape arms would grab hold of prey beneath it and pass them up into the mouth of its crocodile-half.

He had to put a stop to this thing, before more of his people were killed. Yet even as Petan took a step that way after killing the last creature that had barred his path, he saw one of the Seosten troops already running toward it. Whatever race the figure was, he appeared to be humanoid, with onyx-black skin and a wiry build under his Seosten uniform.

He was also carrying some kind of double-blade sword, a staff with a blade at each end in one hand. In the other, he held what looked like a grenade launcher.

A handful of other abominations, smaller than the main target, emerged from behind its feet before moving to intercept the Seosten guard. But he spun smoothly, easily avoiding the nearest as it swiped at him with long claws. As he twisted, his bladed staff spun upward and sliced the creature’s head from its shoulders as easily as one would chop a carrot.

In the same motion, the onyx-skinned figure flipped up and around, planting one foot into the face of the next attacker to drive him backward a step. That bladed staff went through the arm and then the upper torso of the third creature, before he used the momentum from kicking off of the second one to flip himself around in the air. Adjusting his blade, he came down hard, cutting that second creature in half lengthwise, straight down the middle from his head to his torso.

The figure was practically poetry in motion, flowing like an unstoppable river to cut through two more creatures that sought to interfere. By that point, only one was left: a monster about the size and general shape of a gorilla, with six arms and hard, rock-like skin.

The thing came at the guard, bellowing a loud challenge. That challenge, however, was erased (along with the creature itself), as the figure simply raised not the double-bladed staff, but the weapon in his other hand: the grenade launcher. He triggered the weapon, and the monster was engulfed by the explosion.

Petan briefly thought the strangely competent Seosten soldier was too close, but even as the explosion itself neared him, he was lifting a hand. Somehow, possibly an ability of of his race, he absorbed the shockwave and heat, then directed it under his feet to boost himself into the air.

The giant monster’s ape-half grabbed for the rising figure. Yet even as Nicholas watched, the Seosten soldier twisted in the air to plant his feet against the nearest of the incoming hands. A quick swipe from that double-bladed sword cut clear through the wrist of the opposite hand, cutting it free. As the beast howled, the figure pushed off that hand, firing a shot from the grenade launcher into the ape-head.

Again, he absorbed and redirected the energy from the explosion to drive himself even higher. Now, the figure was level with the enormous crocodile head. It opened that massive maw and lunged inward, toward its tiny snack.

The soldier, however, was ready. He fired a handful of shots from the grenade launcher into the thing’s face. The monster reeled from the explosions, stumbling a little as it roared.

While it was recovering, the unknown Seosten guard flipped over in the air, coming down on top of the monster’s massive snout. Even as its dull eyes tried to focus on the figure, he was already aiming that grenade launcher essentially straight down before pulling the trigger.

The explosion was unbelievable that time. Nicholas realized that the soldier must have used up the last of the thing’s energy supply in one final blast.

And yet, the thing still wasn’t dead. It had been knocked to the ground, but even then, the giant crocodile was trying to pick itself up, using its ape-half’s remaining hand to push off of the ground.

Neither, apparently, was the Seosten soldier dead. He had clearly absorbed all of that energy from the point-blank explosion. And now, he was running up its snout toward its eyes. The grenade launcher was gone, and the man now held his double-ended blade in both hands. Nicholas heard a distant scream of effort and exhilaration as the guard lashed out. Both ends of the blade lit up, all of the power that the man had absorbed from the explosion filling it even as he drive the blade down into the thing’s skull right between its eyes.

The blade, enhanced and empowered by the captured energy from the explosion, cut straight through the monster’s head, all the way down through its mouth, and out the other side. The head was literally cleaved into two halves that fell away from the main body even as the man himself landed in a crouch on the ground far below where he had been.

It was down. Dead. Gone. The last of the troops that the Fomorians had sent to the ground.

“Who are you?” Nicholas demanded, stepping that way to put himself between his remaining people and this figure. “The Seosten would not have someone of your… skill protecting a backwater outpost.”

The man pushed himself up, breathing hard before focusing on Nicholas. “You’re right,” he said simply. “They wouldn’t.”

With that, the onyx-skinned man fell forward, collapsing even as a second, female figure emerged from within him. The second figure was ghost-like for a moment before solidifying. She wore some kind of environment suit that covered her whole body and face, yet was skintight.

The soldier had been possessed.

“Seosten,” he started to spit the name, bringing his sword up.

But the female figure shook her head. “Not quite,” she replied before reaching up to take off the mask of the suit. “I just killed a couple and stole their power. But trust me, they really had it coming.”

Then the mask was off, and Nicholas found himself staring for a moment before he found his voice. “You do not… appear to be five years older.”

“I’m not,” she replied. “It’s only been about a year for me, since you sent Tristan back. And now I need you to do the same for me. Send me back four years, to when I… when I left.”

“If you don’t,” Felicity Chambers finished, “Fossor is going to use my mother to kill every Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretic in existence.”

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Medical Leave 15-05

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“Okay, okay…” Sands was pacing back and forth, her expression almost hilariously wild. “Okayokayokay… so you’re saying that she’s—that her mom—that she’s related to—that she’s really–”

“Breathe, Mason,” Avalon muttered quietly without looking at the other girl. Her gaze was focused solely on the grass in front of her, expression pretty much completely unreadable. “And calm down.”

“Calm down?” Sands blurted, eyes snapping that way. “Calm down? This is like—it’s like if a Bystander—if–” She stopped, frowning before looking to me. “Help, I need an equivalent Bystander.”

Blinking at the girl, I shrugged. “Uh, maybe George Washington would work? Or Jesus Christ?”

Shaking her head, Sands retorted, “I said Bystander, not—never mind. You get the point. Avalon, you know what this is. You’ve been in our world, you pretty much grew up in it over there in Eden’s Garden. If people find out that you’re related to–” In spite of the magical privacy protection, she still lowered her voice to a stage whisper, “–to the Heironymus Bosch, they’re gonna freak the hell out.”

“Okay…” I raised a finger, pausing a bit. “I have so many questions. But they can wait. Right now, we need to figure out what we’re gonna do. I mean, we should tell Gaia what we found out and see how much she already knew. Then we can figure out where this vault thing is and take care of that little–”

“No,” Avalon interrupted flatly before I could say anything else. When everyone looked at her in surprise, she went on. “I mean yes, I will talk to Gaia and find out what she already knew. I’m not keeping any of this from her. And I want to know how much she was aware of. But we’re not going to open the vault. We’re not going near it, and no one is going to talk to anyone else about any of this.”

“But–” I stopped after that single word, squinting at my roommate for a moment before the realization came. “You’re afraid if you acknowledge any of this, or go to the vault, or do anything that lets them know that you know the truth about your family, you’ll scare them off and they’ll disappear forever.”

“Afraid isn’t the word that I would have used,” Avalon informed me. “But yes. I’m… concerned that if the people who were responsible for all of this find out that the vault has been accessed, they will disappear.” Finally lifting her gaze from the grass, she looked straight at me. “If you’re right, they are responsible for killing Professor Pericles, getting me banished from Eden’s Garden, and killing my mother.” The girl’s voice was as hard and focused as I had ever heard it. “I refuse to let them get away with any of that. So we’re not going to do anything to spook them. We’re going to let them continue to think that they have the upper hand, that we don’t know the truth about any of it. And when they come after me again, because they will, then we’ll make them pay for everything they’ve done. All of it.”

Columbus spoke up before I could find the words. “Well, that sounds nice and all. Very important goal. But it also sounds pretty dangerous. I mean, you’re basically putting yourself out there as a target.”

Avalon nodded. “Yeah. And that’s my choice to make. Whoever is responsible for this, whoever Tangle and Fahsteth were working with, I am going to take them down. It’s–” She stopped, looking back to me once more. “It’s not like your situation, Chambers. I don’t even know my mother. I never met her. But they’re the reason why. They’re the reason for everything. So yeah, it’s dangerous. But I’m doing it.”

Despite her words, it sure as hell felt close enough to my situation. I felt a lump catch itself in my throat before nodding. “You know I’m with you, Valley. Whatever we’ve gotta do to stop these bastards and make them pay for what they did. But when you say don’t tell anyone else, um, what about Deveron?”

The other girl’s mouth opened before she stopped herself. I saw her expression as she took the time to consider before sighing. “Fine, Deveron. He’s supposed to be our mentor, he’s… sort of your step-father or whatever, and he hasn’t been a completely useless asshole lately. So yeah, you can tell him about it.”

“I think we’re getting away from the important point here,” Sands put in then. “Which is, holy freaking crap, dude, Avalon’s related to Heironymus god damn Bosch!” She looked at the other girl then, mouth working a little bit before she managed, “Is it really weird that I kinda want to hug you right now?”

“Don’t,” Avalon warned sharply before folding her arms. “And the point we should be focusing on is that the person in a coma in that bed really is Tangle, as far as every test Gaia gave us can tell. It’s her.”

“So some kind of magic shark attack puts her in a coma for months?” Sean shook his head thoughtfully. “Sounds like she and Fahsteth had a major falling out. Maybe he got tired of waiting years to be paid with whatever’s in that vault? They had an argument and it escalated to—well—that.”

“If they really had a falling out,” I started slowly, “Maybe that means Fahsteth could be reasoned with.” As everyone looked at me like I was crazy, I amended, “Okay, not reasoned with. Even I’m not that optimistic. But, you know, if he put one of them into a coma like that, there’s a chance we could get actual information out of him. At the very least, they’re probably not working with him anymore. So if we can get to him, we might be able to work something out where he tells us what we need to know.”

Scout shifted up onto her knees then, nodding toward me before leaning over to whisper in Sands’ ear.

After listening for a few seconds, Sands nodded as well. “Scout thinks you’re right, that we should focus on finding Fahsteth and get answers from him. Isn’t that basically what your mom said too?”

“Pretty much,” I acknowledged. “That and that we needed to find out what that Ring of Anuk-Ité is. Which I haven’t been able to find out anything about yet. I even asked Vanessa about it and she came up blank. Which, if she’s never heard of it, then I’m pretty sure it’s not listed in that entire library.” I shrugged a bit helplessly. “That or it’s just that obscure. She said she’d look into it, but nothing so far.

“She did however, tell me all about the actual Anuk-Ité. Basically, they were these two-faced monsters that a few Native American tribes told stories about. In some of the stories, they were ogres. But mostly they just look human, except they have a second face on the back of their head, and if anyone makes eye contact with that second face, they end up paralyzed until the Anuk-Ité comes and kills them.”

Sands looked thoughtful then. “That’s useful and all, but there’s really nothing about any kind of ring?”

I shook my head. “No rings, amulets, bracelets, or any other kind of jewelry connected to Anuk-Ité. Trust me, if there was a single fashion accessory in any way related to Anuk-Ité in any of the books that Vanessa read in there, she would’ve remembered it. So either it’s in one of the books she hasn’t read yet and she hasn’t been able to find anything even after looking for it all week, or it’s not there at all.”

Turning to Avalon then, I asked, “What about Gaia? I know you were going to ask her about it.”

She shook her head, looking annoyed at her own lack of information. “Gaia didn’t know very much about any ring either. She’s heard it before, but not enough to have any idea what the hell it actually is.”

Sighing, I leaned back on the grass to look up at the sky. “So even the thousand year old headmistress has barely even heard of this thing, and can’t tell us what it is. But we’ve gotta figure it out. Mom wouldn’t have mentioned it if it wasn’t really important, not with the time limit she had. We’ve just gotta… find some kind of information about the damn thing, and what it has to do with Avalon’s father.”

Scout leaned in to whisper to Sands again, and the other girl translated after a moment. “Scout says that it sounded like your mom was trying to tell you how Avalon’s dad could maybe be at Eden’s Garden without them knowing. So maybe it’s a ring that hides Strangers from the Heretic-sense. Sort of like the collar thing that you saw Pace wearing. Only, like, it even lets him hide from his own daughter?”

Nodding thoughtfully, I mused, “Two faces. It could be, but I’m just… not sure. We really need to find out more about it. Maybe we should look up the legend ourselves, or even better, find someone who actually knows about the real thing, or about whatever Stranger inspired that particular legend.”

Sands coughed at that. “Sounds like a lot more field trips in our future. Hope they all go as well as this one did. Hell, at this point we’re… what, one for two hundred and seventeen as far as outings go?”

Wincing, I put my foot out to jab the girl in the leg. “Stop jinxing it, damn it. We’ve already got enough problems without you sticking both middle fingers up to the sky and telling whoever might be listening to bring it on. If anything bad happens, we’ll deal with it. But we need to find the information first.”

“What did you tell Vanessa about why you needed to find out about this thing, or where you heard it?” Columbus asked. “I mean, I assume you didn’t tell her the truth about your mom and, well, all of it.”

I shook my head. “She knows there’s something going on, but I told her I couldn’t talk about it. She’s um, sort of still really grateful about the whole ‘helping her brother’ thing, so she didn’t ask a lot of questions. Well, she did ask a lot of questions, but they were all about how she could try to find out more about this ring. I sort of feel a little guilty about not telling her the truth about all this stuff.”

“Don’t,” Avalon snapped. “The less she knows, the less danger she’s in.” Pausing, she amended, “Up to a point. There’s a line where if she doesn’t know what’s going on, she could be in worse danger.” She straightened then, her eyes laser-focused on me. “But do not tell her. Right now, it’s safer that way. Besides,” the girl grumbled with annoyance, “Too many people already know more than they should.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied quietly, “I don’t wanna drag anyone else into our problems. Besides, they’ve got their own things to worry about. Vanessa deserves a chance to spend time with Tristan, and focus on trying to find their parents from wherever they ended up. We can—” I paused, frowning as a thought occurred to me. “You know, we have a lot of issues with missing or dead parents at this school.”

“You’re just now noticing this?” Sands retorted. “It’s kind of a requirement to be in our club.” Pausing then, she looked toward Sean before patting him on the shoulder. “Which makes you the odd man out.”

The boy shrugged at that. “Hey, my parents are much too busy making money and exploring brave new worlds to spend time with each other, let alone me. Can I still be an honorary member of the club?”

“Sure thing,” Columbus agreed easily. “And next vacation we get, you take us to see your uncle’s place.” He grinned as the next words came, his teasing obvious. “I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico.”

Sean’s retort came automatically, and I knew it was an ongoing thing between the two of them. “It’s not Mexico, you hijueputa. Colombia’s over two thousand miles from Mexico. That’s like calling a Swedish guy Egyptian. Or finding out a guy lives in New York City and being like, ‘Yee-haw, pardner. Didja hafeta ride yer horse tah school?’” Pausing then, he amended, “Actually, that one’s pretty damn offensive no matter where they live. But you get the point. I’m Colombian, not Mexican. Colombian.

Somehow keeping a straight face, Columbus asked, “But they still have tacos and burritos, right?”

“Oookay!” I quickly put in before Sean could strangle his roommate. “We’re getting a little off track here. Let’s go over it again. We need to find out more about Anuk-Ité and the ring. We need to try to track down Fahsteth and find out what he knows about any of this, especially if we can make him wake up Tangle so that we can make her tell us the truth. And…” I paused then before looking toward Avalon. “I think we need to look into your mother’s past, Valley. We have to find out where she came from, whether she had any interaction with Heretics, any of it that could possibly be even a little bit relevant. It might help us figure out who guessed her relation enough to run that blood test in the first place.”

Avalon looked distracted for a moment before she gave a slight nod. “I’ll… see what I can do,” the other girl murmured before reaching out to pick up her crutches. She used them to push herself up. “If that’s all, I’ve got things to do. Don’t fuck up and start talking about this stuff where people could hear you.”

With that, she was already leaving, making her way quickly across the grass before most of us even fully realized that she had ended the meeting. We all looked at each other and mumbled a few things about what we could do and that we’d meet back if any of us thought of anything else. Then I picked myself off the ground and jogged after my roommate after grabbing the privacy coin. Which, despite her injury, I still had to work at.

Even as I hurried up behind the other girl, Avalon spoke up. “What do you want now, Chambers?”

Her tone made me pause, but I pushed past it and stepped around in front of her, holding up the coin so that she’d know I wasn’t making a big mistake. “I just—I wanted to see how you’re feeling. That was kind of a lot of big news. Not just the whole inheritance thing, but… finding out that the mother you thought died in childbirth was probably… probably murdered for it.”

Avalon squinted at me, though she did stop walking. Probably because I was right in front of her. But hey, at least she didn’t just run me over and keep going. “I never knew my mother, Chambers. I don’t have any feelings about her one way or another. Whether she died because of some normal complications during childbirth or died because she was murdered, it really doesn’t matter that much.”

“No offense, Valley,” I shot back, “But that’s complete bullshit, and you know it. Yeah, I know you don’t really do emotions that much. I get it. But whether your mother was murdered or not does matter. And you care about it too. That’s why you’re so insistent that we have to catch these sons of bitches. It’s not because they’re coming after you. It’s because of what they did to Professor Pericles and to your mother. You care about that. Whether you knew her or not, she’s still your mom. Especially since it’s those pieces of shit who took away your chance to know her. So yeah, you do care, and it does matter.”

“What does it affect right now, Chambers?” Avalon demanded while leaning on her crutches. “How would my being emotional about why my mother, who I never met, died actually affect anything? How would emotions be useful in any way toward making them pay for what they did?”

My head shook at that. “Emotions… they’re part of our humanity…” I winced then. “We really need a better word for that, considering everything. But the point is, our humanity isn’t a weapon for us to hit people with. It’s the floor that holds us up so we don’t sink down to that level. Some people’s floors are higher or lower than others, but all of us who aren’t completely soulless monsters have them. And it’s the humanity, empathy, compassion, and feelings, the floor, that stop us from just falling through and ending up in a pit of… real monsters. Alters, Bystanders, Heretics, whatever the hell anyone is, it’s where they put their floor that determines whether they’re a monster or not.”

Swallowing then, I finished quietly. “And you’re not a monster. Yeah, you didn’t know your mother. But you could have. And they took it away from you. It’s okay to be pissed about that. And it’s okay to be sad, Avalon. That’s what makes us… it’s what makes us better than the monsters.”

The other girl stood there stiffly, her voice brittle. “What am I supposed to do with it?” Deep in her voice, I heard the genuine question, the confusion, the fear and uncertainty beneath her hard exterior.

“You wanna know what to do with it?” I took in a breath and let it out then, stepping forward before I could talk myself out of it. My arms went around Avalon, and I hugged her tightly (though not too tightly, considering the strength that I had inherited). “I’m sorry about your mother, Valley. I’m sorry they took her from you.

“You’ve been there for me when I needed you. So let me be here for you.”

Because that was what you did with that kind of feeling, that kind of loss. You empathized with other people who were going through similar situations. You helped them as much as you could. You lifted them up, held them when their own floor started to sink, until they got it back again.

Something brushed by my leg, and I belatedly realized that it was Avalon’s crutches. She had dropped them to the grass. Then I felt something else: her arms closing around me.

We stood there like that for… I had no idea how long, both of us embracing each other. Then I heard her whisper, voice so quiet I could barely hear her.

“Thank you… Felicity.”

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Mini-Interlude 9 – The Team

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Please note that the following commissioned mini-interlude takes place before the events of the current arc, during the week between Thanksgiving and the trip to the hospital.

“Do we have to do this out here?” Sands groaned the question as she and the rest of their team, plus Shiori, walked along the beach far away from the rest of the school. “I already promised not to say anything about the… you-know-what.”

“He has a name,” the Asian girl pointed out a little primly. “It’s Choo. And trust me, Sands, you are gonna love the little guy if you give him a chance. He’s so adorable.

“Yeah,” Sands grunted. “An adorable little murder–” Stopping herself, she breathed out hard. “Sorry.”

Shiori flinched noticeably, but shook her head. “It’s okay. I know you’re trying. And at least you’ll remember to keep him a secret.”

Ouch. Sands didn’t even have to look toward Sean to know that the boy had flinched. Shiori was pretty pissed off at him for spilling some kind of secret to his uncles without permission. But hey, she’d agreed to have him come out with them, so maybe she was starting to get over it a little bit.

After three more steps, Sands made a face. “You know, guys, I really don’t like this. I think I’m just gonna head back. This is… it’s a bad idea.”

She started to step away, but found one of Avalon’s crutches blocking her path. “That’s the privacy generator talking,” the other girl said simply before nodding toward Shiori.

In response, Shiori practically skipped up a bit past the jungle line, digging around in one of the trees before coming back with a device that looked like a walkie-talkie with an antennae on each of the four corners, and a snowglobe attached to the bottom with three little smoke stacks in it.

Under Avalon’s guidance, Shiori went around pressing the globe part of the device against each of their ears in order to spit some of that produced smoke into them. Once Sands had her turn, the urge to leave the area immediately faded. Mostly, anyway.

Then Shiori pivoted on her heel, calling, “Choo! You awake, little buddy?” Immediately, there was a high-pitched, squirrel-like squealing sound before the bushes rustled. In the next second, the animal in question burst into view, running straight for the girl who had called him.

It was a Jekern, and even knowing it was coming, Sands still had to restrain the initial reaction from her Stranger-sense going off. She took a reflexive step back, eyes following the tiny warthog-thing as it raced straight to Shiori and perched there on her foot. Then the thing’s eyes looked around at all the new people, and the soft squeaks of delight it was making turned into growls, while tiny bursts of electricity flickered around its mouth.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” Shiori bent to pick it up, cradling the monst—thing. “These guys are all friends, Choo. Friends. Here, see?” She held it out toward Sands. “You can take him.”

“No,” Sands started to shake her head. “It’s fine, I–”

“It’s all right, Sands.” Flick put a hand on her back and squeezed. On the other side of her, Scout did the same. So, she let out a long, silent sigh before reluctantly accepting the… thing.

Its electricity tickled her hands, almost making her drop the damn thing before she got a better grip on it. “Hey, hey, stop that!” Sands scolded it.

She held the thing up to her face, staring at it. The thing stared right back at her.

Then it sneezed, and electricity shot through the air, making Sands jerk backward with a yelp. She tripped, landing on her backside in the sand.

And something was licking her face. Squinting, Sands realized that as she fell, she had clutched the little… thing to her chest on the way down. Now he was licking her.

“Ugh, stop that, it’s gross.” She scowled at him. “Besides, you made me fall down. I knew you were bad news.”

He just licked her face again, squeaked, and shook his entire back half in a way that looked suspiciously like an attempt to wag his tail.

“You’re supposed to be a vicious monster,” Sands informed him flatly. “A nasty, man-eating beast.”

He proceeded to latch onto the collar of her shirt, tugging at it with a playful growl as he shook his head back and forth like a puppy playing tug-of-war.

Sands’s voice was idle. “See? Now you’re trying to eat me.” She let herself fall fully onto her back, arms spread out above her dramatically. “Woe is me, for the great beast has defeated the mighty huntress. Now he’s going to eat meeeeeeee.”

Choo promptly abandoned her shirt and jumped up to start licking her face enthusiastically, sending tingles of electricity through her in the process that tickled even more than his tongue did.

“Nooo!” Sands squealed, jerking a bit. “I sa–” She laughed, squealing again. “I said eat, damn it, eat! Not l-” Another fit of giggles escaped. “Not lick! Eat, you damn th-aaahhhaaa!”

Finally, she managed to get the little guy off her face, setting him down on the sand before rolling over on her stomach. She held him out at arms reach, panting as she fought to catch her breath. “You… monster…” She panted again in between each word. “You’re… gonna… kill… me…”

The pig looked quite pleased with himself at that, and Sands scoffed. “Oh, you think that’s funny? How about if I get you, huh? What if I get you?”

In response, Choo shook his hindquarters as though getting ready to pounce. Sands deliberately let him slip free, then rolled over as the little pig lunged at her. “Gaaaah, noooo, not the f-aaaahhhh! F-face again!”

It took her another minute or so to extricate herself once more. Straightening with Choo perched on her lap, Sands looked up to find everyone else still standing where they had been, watching with various levels of amusement.

“Aww,” Shiori was smiling. “He likes you.”

Flushing with embarrassment, as well as a few other feelings, Sands cleared her throat. “Right, well… whatever. Like I said, I won’t say anything about him. So are we gonna play cards or what?”

“You guys play,” Shiori gestured. “I’ve gotta feed the little guy, so I’ll just watch.”

She took Choo as well as the bag of food she’d brought and proceeded to do so. Meanwhile, Sean and Columbus produced a card table and folding chairs from the bag they’d brought with them, and Scout brought out three decks of playing cards while everyone was setting themselves up at the table.

“Okay well, you are definitely gonna have to explain how to play this,” Flick remarked while idly shuffling a deck of playing cards. Her gaze was focused on Sands as she raised an eyebrow. “Cuz I’ve never even heard of any game called, uh, what’d you say it was called again? Jahdoozeflug?”

Sands snickered in spite of herself. “Gesundheit. And speaking of German words, so is the name of the game. It’s called Jagdausflug.” She pronounced it slowly and carefully for the others. “It means ‘hunting trip.’ You know, like hunting Strangers. This German Heretic guy made it up about fifty years ago while he and his partners were on some kind of long stake-out, waiting for something called a Nachzehrer to show up.”

Sands and her sister had promised to teach them this new card game, with the added rule that no one was allowed to bring up anything too serious. Everyone had agreed that they needed a break, and since they really couldn’t do anything else until they were able to go to the hospital on Saturday, this was a good time for it.

“Sounds nasty,” Columbus remarked after taking a quick sip from his cola before glancing toward his sister. “You sure you don’t want in on this, Shy?”

“It’s okay,” the other girl assured him as she sat there at the end of the table with Choo perched in front of her, eating enthusiastically from the plate she had produced. “Go ahead, maybe I’ll get in on the next one.”

Shrugging at that, Columbus looked back to Sands. “Okay, so, how do you play?”

Before she replied, Sands found herself half-glancing sidelong toward Avalon. The regally beautiful brunette was seated beside her, eyes ostensibly focused on the table. Except that every once in awhile, the girl would glance up toward the one person in the school that seemed capable of holding her attention: Flick. And whenever Avalon herself looked away, Flick would glance that way. They each seemed to be trying to memorize the other’s features without getting caught looking.

God, they were weird. They were roommates. If they liked each other, why didn’t they just say something already? Avalon obviously didn’t care what anyone at the school thought about her, and Sands was pretty sure that Flick didn’t either. So why were they being so… beat-around-the-bushy about it? She wasn’t into girls, but if she had a chance to be with someone and live in the same room as them, she wouldn’t waste it.

A foot tapped against hers, snapping the girl out of her brief moment of contemplation. Sands’s eyes flicked that way to find Scout watching her pointedly before her eyes moved to indicate the rest of the table. As Sands looked around, she saw that everyone was paying attention to her, waiting expectantly.

Right, maybe that pause hadn’t been quite as brief as she’d thought.

“Sorry.” Clearing her throat, the girl reached out to pluck the cards from Flick before putting her hand on a couple other decks that lay nearby. “So first, you play with one full deck for every two people that are playing, rounded up. There’s six of us, so we need three decks.

After picking up the three decks and indicating them, Sands continued. “Then we take the decks and shuffle them all together. Everyone draws five cards, don’t let anyone else see what they are.”

She waited then while everyone took turns drawing cards until each of them had a hand of five. “All right, red cards are Strangers, black cards are Bystanders, face cards and aces are Heretics. You start by going around the table, beginning in the first round with the person to the dealer’s left. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to in order to have six in their hand.”

She nodded to Avalon, waiting for the girl to take a card from the pile. Then each of the others in turn took one, until it came back to Sands and she picked up her sixth card.

“Right, again starting with the person to the dealer’s left, she points out the person she’s attacking. So, Avalon, who do you wanna target?”

The other girl was silent for a few seconds before nodding across the table. “Gerardo.”

Sean grinning back at her in response. “It’s nice to feel wanted.”

Coughing, Sands gestured. “Okay, each of you lay one card on the table, face down. Wait, not yet. You need to know, it’s basically like a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors. Strangers, the red cards, beat Bystanders, the black cards. Heretics, you know, jack, queen, king, and ace, beat Strangers. Bystanders beat Heretics because, well, something had to.

“So each of you pick a Heretic, a Stranger, or a Bystander and put it on the table face down. Once you’ve both chosen, turn the cards over.”

Sean and Avalon each put down a card, looked at one another, and then turned them over. Avalon had a red six, while Sean had put down a jack.

Sands nodded quickly then. “Okay, Sean wins that round, because he put down a Heretic while Avalon put down a Stranger. So he takes the Stranger card and the Heretic card and puts them in a pile on his side of the table.”

Once the boy had done so, she went on. “Then the next person to the left of the first one targets someone. So, uh, Flick?”

The blonde girl targeted Scout, and each of them put down a card. Once the cards were turned over, Flick’s red four beat Scout’s black nine, and she put both into a pile beside her.

“So we go around like that,” Sands explained. “Until everyone’s had a chance to target someone. Then we start with the person to the left of the person who went first the last time. In this case, Flick. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to get to six in their hand. Then Flick chooses who to target, and we do the whole thing again.

“We keep doing that until there’s no more cards to draw. Then we keep going without drawing until no one has any cards left in their hand. Once that’s all done, everyone takes their piles, the cards they won in the battles. You add up each number. Jacks are worth eleven, queens are worth twelve, kings are thirteen, and aces are fourteen. Add up everything, and the highest total wins the game.”

So they started to play. As the game got underway, Flick nudged Avalon. “See? You can still have fun, even though Katarin won’t let you work out until you’re all healed up.”

In response, the other girl grunted a simple, “Don’t push it, Chambers.”

And yet still, whenever one of them wasn’t looking, the other one would practically stare at them. Not to mention the way Shiori looked at Flick whenever she thought she wasn’t being watched. It was all Sands could do not to tell all three of them to get a room and get it over with, even if they had to take turns.

Her gaze found Choo as the little guy squeaked to get her attention before wagging his tail once more. Sighing, Sands slowly reached across the table, scratching under his chin. “Fine, you big monster. Maybe you aren’t so bad. At least you don’t make things weird like some people.”

“Like who?” Shiori and Flick promptly asked.

Smirking in spite of herself, Sands continued to scratch Choo until the little guy sneezed. “Nobody,” she replied quietly, hiding her smile. “Nobody at all.

“Now are we playing, or do you all surrender to my inevitable win?”

“You mean your inevitable terrible, humiliating loss,” Columbus corrected her. “Cuz it’s my turn, and I’m coming after you.”

“After me, huh?” Sands raised her chin challengingly. “Sure your cards are up to it, little man?”

“Oh, me and my cards are up to it,” Columbus assured her, putting a card face down on the table as he spoke. “So put one down, little girl.

“Let’s see what you’ve got.”

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Medical Leave 15-04

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It seemed to take forever for the doctors to move on. Yeah, it was really only a couple minutes or so. But with the information that I was sitting on, those two minutes felt like several dozen eternities.

I used the time as wisely as I could, quickly checking through the files for what I knew had to be there. Sure enough, now that I knew what to look for, my eyes quickly found the note about a third blood sample that had been taken a year before the first one. It had been taken from a different subject than either of the first two. Three different subjects, three different blood samples, all connected. I knew why they existed, and that realization made me want to tell the doctors in the hall to hurry the hell up and stop blocking Tangle’s room. But I restrained the impulse, since it probably wouldn’t have helped.

I also took the time to type out a text and an e-mail on my phone, just in case anything went wrong. Finally, just after hitting send on the second one, I heard voices and footsteps. Peeking that way, I saw the chatty doctors moving past me, all of them deep in conversation about some kind of miracle fruit.

As soon as they were gone, I slipped back out of the room without ever waking up the elderly guy who was still slumbering away in his bed. Which was good, because on top of everything else that was going on, I really didn’t want to add ‘disturbing the rest of a heavily burned grandfather’ to the list.

Making my way quickly down the hall, I was almost there when Sands and Avalon emerged. Seeing me, the two of them picked up the pace. Avalon was almost as fast on her crutches as she had been without them, and I was briefly distracted by the sight of her motion before managing to snap myself out of it. “What’s going on?” I asked blankly. “What’d you guys find out? Is it really her in there?”

“I found her treatment schedule,” Sands explained, already gesturing for me to keep walking with them. “They’ve got specialists on the way right now, so being here when they show up is a bad idea.”

“And yes,” Avalon added, her voice flat in that way that told me she was doing some pretty heavy thinking. “We attempted every test that Gaia told me about. They all say that the person in the bed is really Giselle Tangle, and that she really is in a coma. She was unresponsive to everything we tried.”

Nodding, I tried to sound as nonchalant as possible. “Well, I just found a whole lot of diddly squat.”

Both of the other girls looked at me briefly. It was code. Using the words ‘diddly squat’ meant that I had found something important. So important, in fact, that I was afraid of anyone overhearing what it was, so I didn’t want to say it until we were sure that it wouldn’t happen. Preferably when we had the use of one of those magic private conversation coins that Deveron had been teaching us to make.

And that fact in and of itself had to tell the two of them just how important what I’d found out was, considering we’d risked talking out loud about running blood tests and such on a comatose professor.

Unfortunately, it also meant getting back to Scout, since she was still the only one who could manage it consistently. I’d made it work a time or two, as had all the others with varying degrees of effectiveness. But Scout was the one who could do it every single time, so we trusted her the most with the spell.

The whole way back down to the cafeteria, I could barely restrain myself from spitting out what I had learned. The words kept almost popping out of me, and I was squirming with each step to the point that it was obvious that both Sands and Avalon had noticed. They kept giving me long, searching looks. Well, Sands did anyway. Avalon mostly just told me to stop acting like an overly excited puppy that needed to use the bathroom. But it was the way she said it. I could tell she was as curious as Sands.

Somehow, despite the secret boiling up inside me, I managed to contain myself and we made it into the cafeteria. The three of us had just managed to get a few drinks and sit down before the others came back, so we made some polite noise about how much better Avalon was feeling. Then the rest of the team moved to get their own drinks while Doctor Therasis went over her muscles a bit with a hand. He asked her questions about what she was doing to exercise them responsibly, and ended up producing a bottle of pills that he told her to take one of every night until it was empty, even if she felt better.

Personally, as competent and trustworthy as the man seemed to be as far as medicine went, I made a note to make sure that Gaia checked them before Avalon took any. At this point, paranoia ruled my life.

Still, we finished out the tour, each minute seeming to take months considering how much I wanted to tell the others about what I had found out. I was pretty sure even the others had figured out that I had something big to talk about, considering the looks that I was getting from Scout, Columbus, and Sean.

But finally, we finished up and went through as brief of a question and answer session as we could manage without coming off as too rude or ungrateful. I really didn’t want Therasis to think that he’d done anything wrong, so I made an effort to show as much interest as I possibly could, considering the situation. Besides, the stuff that he was telling us about really was interesting. It just didn’t hold a candle to what had been in that file. So I asked questions and tried my best to listen to the answers.

Then we were heading back to the receiving room to go through the portal. As we stepped inside, I felt Doctor Thersais put a hand on my shoulder, his voice quiet. “Oh, Miss Chambers? Hold on a moment.”

Well this wasn’t surprising. Clearly everything had been going entirely too well. He knew what we did. There were cameras. He was in on everything. The whole hospital was just an elaborate front for a–

“I was wondering if you would mind taking this to my great, great, great, grandson.” The man was holding out a small present in blue wrapping paper. “Rudolph? I believe he is in your grade level.”

… It’s slightly possible that I may have been just a little bit too paranoid at that particular moment.

Coughing, I accepted the package. “Oh, right. Of course, I know Rudolph. Sure, I’ll give it to him.”

“Excellent,” the man gave me a broad smile with a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m afraid I wasn’t able to make it to his birthday party last night. So much work to do. Please give that to him and let him know that I promise I’ll take him out next weekend, just the two of us. I’ve already scheduled the time off.”

Nodding quickly while tucking the package under one arm, I promised the man, “I’ll make sure he gets it, and tell him about next weekend. Did you, um, was there anything else you wanted to say, sir?”

Doctor Therasis shook his head. “No, I believe that was everything. If you have any more questions, or if you’d like to visit again, feel free to come by. We can always use more healing-oriented Heretics.” The man’s smile was a little sad then as he added in a quiet voice, “It’s not exactly the most glamorous of the possible professions to aim for when you leave school, but I assure you, it is quite important.”

“I believe it.” Nodding, I hesitated before looking up at him. “Thank you for the tour, Doctor Therasis.”

His hand squeezed my shoulder reassuringly for a moment. “You’re a good girl, Felicity Chambers. I really hope you get what you want out of school, even if it’s not to be a healer. Good luck to you.”

Thanking the man again, I stepped through the portal along with the others. As the image of the room inside of the Pathmaker building appeared around us, I let out a low whistle. “Holy crap, you guys.”

The rest of the team’s eyes turned to me, and I managed a weak little smile. “Don’t you get it? We’re back. We made it back. You know what that means? We went through a whole trip and nothing bad happened. There was no sudden interruption, no one was abducted, the whole thing went just fine.”

Columbus cleared his throat. “We’re not out of the building yet, don’t jinx it. And do you mean ‘just fine, absolutely nothing interesting happened,’ or ‘just fine, we found exactly what we needed to?’”

“Tell you later,” I got out just before the opposite door opened, revealing one of the security guys from the school. I didn’t know his name, but he had been with Wyatt and Reid Rucker when we had taken that field trip to visit ‘s-Hertogenbosch. From what I could tell, the guy didn’t tend to talk very much.

He kept up that record by looking us all over for about two seconds before grunting a simple, “All good?” When we nodded, the man pivoted back around and made a gesture with two fingers for us to follow. Then he led us out of the Pathmaker building, escorting us onto school grounds once more. When Sands asked where Professor Kohaku was, he gave the incredibly succinct answer of, “Busy.”

“Well,” Sean remarked idly once the man left us out on the school grounds to return to his normal patrol without a single backward glance or another word to us, “isn’t he a regular Chatty Cathy?”

Avalon grunted before pointing to Scout. “We need the coin spell, as fast as you can make it,” she said simply. Then she looked at me, her curiosity obvious. “And then you explain everything you found.”

“Oh, no problem,” I assured the other girl. “This, you guys are definitely going to want to hear.

“But first, I need to get the other phone back from Koren for awhile. There’s something I’m gonna want to check up on, and I’d rather keep it… quiet.”

******

A short time later, we were all sitting out on the grass at the back of the grounds, as far from everyone as possible. It was an added layer of security on top of the privacy spell that Scout had just finished, though she had put it on a rubber ball rather than a metal coin. Apparently, the object didn’t matter.

Then it was done, and with the added assurance of privacy, everyone was looking at me expectantly. I had already texted Asenath with the secret phone and asked her or Twister to call me back as soon as they could.

“Oh, wait,” Columbus interrupted just as I started to explain. “Are we sure that whatever you’re about to say wasn’t—you know, that your memory wasn’t altered somewhere in there? They do love that.”

I coughed. “Trust me, if they were going to change my memory, they wouldn’t make it anywhere near this interesting. And besides,” I waved my regular, non-secret phone at him. “I texted some of the details to Miranda and e-mailed myself. It’s not a perfect system, but I think we’re pretty much as safe as we could possibly be right now.”

No one else interrupted so I was able to finally get on with my explanation. “Valley,” I addressed the other girl, meeting her gaze. “I know why people have been trying to kill you since you were born.”

A frown touched her face then before her head shook. “The attacks only started this year.” After a brief pause, she amended that with a simple, “I mean, besides my father. But that’s… personal, between us.”

“No, it’s not,” I corrected her as gently as possible, knowing this was going to be a lot to take in. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, I looked through the files.” I produced the scanner that Sands had given me from my jacket pocket before waving it around. “There’s this part about these blood tests that they did.”

Sean raised an eyebrow at that. “Pretty sure they’ve done a lot of blood tests on Tangle by this point.”

“Not on her,” I corrected him. “They were blood samples that she brought to the hospital for them to test. Three different blood samples that were taken about twenty years ago. Well, one taken nineteen years ago, then another one taken eighteen years ago, and the third one about six months after that.”

Columbus frowned uncertainly, glancing toward the others. “I don’t get it. Why would Tangle take them three different blood samples to test over the course of about a year or so? What was she doing?”

“Okay, this part I kinda need help with,” I admitted. “I asked Vanessa, but I think you should explain it, Sands.” When the other girl looked at me with confusion, I asked, “Could you explain blood vaults?”

“Blood vaults?” she blinked once before shifting her position on the grass. “Uh, sure. They’re just these, well, vaults full of money, weapons, supplies, magic stuff, whatever a family’s got stockpiled away. They can only be accessed by the closest living blood relative of the person who set up the vault. It’s magically enforced and there’s no way to break in. It’s pretty much the most secure place in the world. If you’re not the closest living blood relative, you’re not getting in, period. I mean, unless the person who is allowed in takes you. But other than that, it’s completely impenetrable.”

“What does that have to do with people trying to kill me?” Avalon asked with a squint before adding a belated, “And why do you think they’ve been trying for longer than just this year?”

“The blood tests,” I explained. “The first one was taken a little over a year before you were born, and it had a somewhat decent genetic relation to the sample they tested it against. Then they tested the second sample just a few months before you came along, and it had a much closer connection. Like, second cousins versus grandfather and granddaughter difference between the two. Much, much closer. And then, a few months after you were born, there was that last test. It was almost as close as the second one. Just one more generation removed. I’m positive that the last one was you. And the second one–”

“My mother,” Avalon stated flatly, her eyes flicking away thoughtfully. “My birth mother.”

Bobbing my head up and down, I continued. “The sample they were testing the blood against, according to Vanessa, they’ve got a huge blood vault, one that no one’s been able to get into for… for a really long time. They’ve been looking for the closest blood relative, someone who could open it. I think Tangle was working with whoever that first blood sample is from. They tested it and thought they won the genetic lottery. But they couldn’t get in the vault, so they knew there was someone else.”

Glancing to Avalon, I added a little more quietly. “Your mother. I don’t think her dying in the hospital was an accident. I think they meant for both of you to die, to clear the way for whoever that first sample belonged to to become the closest living relative and get access to the vault.”

“But I didn’t die,” Avalon’s voice was even more monotone by that point, her eyes focused somewhere else. “I survived. For years.”

Nodding, I hesitated. “I don’t know what made them back off. Maybe they didn’t want to kill a little kid after you were born, or maybe they were pushing your father to do it and that’s why he was such a… piece of shit to you. I don’t know. But—hold on. Perfect timing.”

The secret phone was buzzing, and I clicked the answer button before holding it up to my ear. “Hey, it’s Flick. Twister? Yeah, I figured Senny’d be asleep. Thanks. I just have one question. In your, umm, line of work, have you ever heard of a shark-toothed guy named Fahsteth?” I paused, listening to her answer. “Right, thanks. That’s what I thought.”

Thanking her again, I disconnected. “Remember how my mom said to check on why Fahsteth was there? Yeah, according to Twister, he’s a mercenary, a hired gun. He’s not just some random spree attacker, he goes places because he’s paid to. And I think he was paid to kill you that night, Avalon, and make it look like a random accident.”

“Why?” Columbus asked the question everyone else was clearly thinking.

“Because Gaia was on her way,” I pointed out. “Remember, she said she was planning on talking to Avalon already. So these guys panicked and hired Fahsteth to kill her before Gaia spent too much time with her and maybe figured out this blood connection. I don’t know, exactly. We’ll have to ask the headmistress exactly how that went down. But I’m pretty sure that’s what they were doing.”

Sands straightened then. “Wait, this is the year that Eden’s Garden starts teaching about magic, isn’t it? You said that before. There was a whole thing about that, like they teach you how to fight before, but this is the year they start magic lessons.” When Avalon nodded, her eyes widened as she got the same connection I had. “That’s why they had to get you out of there. Because when they teach magic, they’ll start teaching blood magic too. That involves taking your blood and testing it. And when they did that…”

“They would have figured out about her blood relation,” I finished. “That’s why they panicked and had to have you kicked out of Garden. And it’s why they’ve been trying so openly to have you either killed off since then, or just driven out of this school too. That’s why they’ve been trying to make everyone else turn against you, to pressure Gaia into taking you out of the school without revealing why they don’t want you here.”

“But why are they going so psycho about this?” Columbus pressed. “What’s in this blood vault that’s so important? Whose blood were they testing all those samples against.”

“I had to ask Vanessa if she knew the name,” I explained. “Let’s just say, she did.” Taking a breath, I looked to Sean and the twins. “Liesje Aken.”

The reaction was instantaneous. Sands jolted upright, Sean cursed under his breath, and even Scout’s eyes widened.

“Holy shit, dude,” Sean muttered again, looking from me to Avalon.

“What?” Columbus demanded. “Who the hell was Liesje Aken?”

“It’s not so much who she was,” I informed him while the others were still staring open-mouthed. “It’s about who her father was. See, Liesje Aken used her father’s real, birth surname. Probably to hold onto some kind of privacy or something. The man was born Jheronimus van Aken.

“But we know him better as Heironymus Bosch.”

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