Month: December 2016

A Learning Experience 17-04

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Just a quick note. There was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t read it yet, feel free to click the previous chapter button above. 🙂

“You are so lucky, I can’t decide if I wanna hug you and jump up and down or punch you in the arm.”

In response to Sands’ words, I winked at her from the other side of the couch in the lounge where the two of us were watching Columbus and Sean go after each other in an increasingly erratic and intense game of pool. “If you hug tight enough, maybe it’ll be just like being punched. So you get the best of both worlds.” Pausing, I amended, “I mean, no, go for the nice hug. I don’t deserve to be punched.”

It was Wednesday afternoon, the day after my first lesson with Gaia. Which, obviously, was what Sands was talking about. Now she shook her head. “Maybe not, but seriously, dude. Do you have any idea how cool it is? Special tutoring sessions with Baroness Sinclaire. That’s like… like… Columbus, help!”

Without looking away from where he was lining up his next shot, Columbus asked, “Help with what?”

Sands scooted on the couch, leaning up to look that way. “I need a really important Bystander sports star that it would be amazing to learn from. You know, to match Flick’s thing with the headmistress.”

In response, Columbus finally turned his head to peer over his shoulder at the girl. “And exactly what part of my room full of comic books and honestly probably disturbingly complete knowledge of Star Wars trivia makes you think I’d have the slightest idea of a good example of a current sports hero?”

Snorting in spite of myself, I waved a hand for him to go back to his game. “I get the point, believe me.” Pausing then, I resisted the urge to lower my voice. There was still no reason to go shouting about what was going on, but for once, my meetings with Gaia didn’t actually have to be a complete secret. After all, people generally knew that a lot of stuff had happened involving me. They knew that some important Stranger had invaded the school grounds in an attempt to attack me. So we didn’t have to keep the fact that I was meeting with Gaia as completely secret as some of the other things.

So, instead of hushing everyone like my paranoid mind wanted to right then, I cleared my throat and shrugged. “It’s not that big of a deal. I haven’t even managed to make the spell thing work yet.”

From the other side of the room, a voice spoke up. “What spell thing?” Erin Redcliffe, Vanessa’s roommate, was walking our way with Rudolph and Tristan on either side of her. Vanessa herself was bringing up the rear, her nose buried in a thick leather-bound book with weird symbols on the front.

Sands hesitated, but I shrugged and answered, “The headmistress is giving me a little um, help. You know, so maybe even if things keep going wrong, they don’t have to call in the cavalry so much.”

“Sweet!” The electric-blue haired girl pumped her fist with a grin. “Extra tutoring from the Baronness?”

“You mean you’re not jealous?” I asked after a momentary hesitation, looking at her curiously.

“Are you kidding?” Erin retorted. “I’m so jealous, I almost wish I could stuff you in a closet and borrow a masker to go out and take your place. But I’m pretty sure the headmistress would figure it out.” Pausing then, she added with a sheepish smile, “Oh, and also because it would be bad. Very bad.”

There was a pause as she seemed to think about it for another moment before shrugging. “But you know, the way I see it, at least someone gets to learn from her. I can be jealous of you without being, like, mad or pissed off about it. I wish I had the chance, but I’m not gonna rip your head off for it.”

“Maybe you should be her teammate then,” Sands teased while nudging me with her foot. “Cuz I’m still seriously considering that whole ‘take a masker after stuffing her in a closet’ thing. That sounds like a good plan.” Brightening, she added, “And hey, I could blame the whole thing on you if it comes out.”

Good, this was good. It helped distract me from the fact that I was temporarily weaponless. Well, okay, I still had the knife from my mother of course. But not my staff. Avalon had taken it early that morning, shortly before our daily workout. She’d said something about upgrades, promising that I’d get it back soon and that it’d be worth it in the end. Then the girl had gone into great detail about how she’d kill me herself if I managed to get myself in any actual trouble while my weapon was out of my hands.

Tristan put a hand on Erin’s back, grinning. “Hey, no making our team look bad. We’re already losing Rudolph.” His grin faltered as he glanced to the boy himself. “You really didn’t have to do that, man.”

“Do what?” I asked, blinking back and forth between hefty boy with white-blonde hair and Tristan.

Rudolph gave an embarrassed shrug. “It’s not a big deal. Since our team had seven people with Tristan and Paul’s team’s down to five with Roxa gone, they said we needed to move someone over there. They were gonna move Tristan since he’s the newest, but I said I’d go instead so he could stay with Vanessa.”

“Aww.” Hopping to my feet, I gave the boy a hug. “That’s amazing, Rudolph.” Even as a pang of guilt about not being able to help Roxa yet so she could come back (not to mention the fact that the whole reason she had to stay away in the first place was because of my inability to think ahead and warn Tristan about what was about to happen) struck me, I forced it aside and tried to focus on the positive. Releasing the uncomfortable looking Rudolph, I gave him an easy smile and teased, “I hope you’re not stepping into Roxa’s position everywhere. I think Jazz might object to having you as a roommate.”

Vanessa giggled a little bit, finally pulling her nose out of her book to look at me. The girl didn’t say anything, though she did step a little bit closer to Tristan while giving me a quick nod of thanks.

I wondered if she had any clue just how much I kept checking out her twin brother in spite of myself.

Rudolph, for his part, blushed deeply before giving one of his trademark languid shrugs. “No big.”

That was Rudolph. Nothing was ‘big.’ He did all the work that he had to do, but he never really showed much excitement or enthusiasm toward anything. He did the bare minimum in the easiest possible way.

Unfortunately, that was the moment that the worst member of Vanessa’s team made his own appearance. Zeke stepped into the room and immediately made a beeline toward us. “Good,” the boy with the wildly tousled brown hair announced as soon as he was close. “You’re not hiding somewhere.”

After looking both ways, I put my hand to my chest and blinked at him. “Me? Why would I be hiding?”

“Yeah, Zeke,” Erin put in. “Why would she be hiding? And try to not to be racist with your answer.”

“We’re both white, it can’t be ra–” the boy started to retort before heaving a sigh that I had a feeling came a lot when he interacted with his team. “Whatever. I just meant I’m glad it was easy to find you.”

Grinning at him, I asked, “Was that so hard to say? You came about the project for Carfried, right?”

Still standing stiffly, Zeke gave a short, quick nod. “You heard what he said today. We’ve got until Friday to make it work. So if you’re not too busy being kidnapped or wandering into danger, it’d be nice if we could go practice.” As he finished talking, the boy reached up to take off his glasses and cleaned them with a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket. If I hadn’t known any better, I would’ve guessed that he was parodying something incredibly British. But no, that was just Zeke.

He did have a point though, we needed to get that done. So rather than snark, I just gave him a thumbs up. “Sure, let’s get this thing done.” Glancing back to Sands, I added, “Lemme know who wins?”

Even as the other girl was nodding, Sean called out from the pool table. “Spoilers, it’s gonna be me.”

“Well, whoever it is,” Tristan put in, “they’ll only be reigning champion for about five minutes or so.”

Sands raised an eyebrow at that, looking interested. “Why, you gonna challenge them or something?”

“Me?” Tristan smirked, shaking his head. “No.” Reaching back, he caught hold of his sister’s arm and tugged her out in front of him as the girl gave a soft yelp of surprise. “Nessa. She’ll take on the winner.”

Poor Vanessa blinked rapidly, still catching up with what was going on and exactly what her brother was volunteering her for. Then a soft pink blush crossed her face. “I—what? I—I’m not—that’s not…”

“Dude, yeah!” Erin blurted, her own smile widening. “We’ve seen you play around with all that stuff. All that stuff you were going on about with the whole angle and momentum thing. You’ll kick ass!”

While poor Vanessa was clearly trying to figure out how to deal with both her roommate and her brother pushing her to ‘kick the ass’ of whoever won Sean and Columbus’s match, I glanced toward Zeke. I expected to find the boy looking annoyed, as usual. Instead, his gaze was fixed past me with a weird sort of wistful expression, and I turned my head slightly to see what, exactly, he was looking at.

Sands. His gaze was fixed on Sands, who was laughing as she helped try to coax Vanessa into accepting the invitation to play pool. As the petite brunette loudly pointed out that Vanessa needed to ‘remind the boys who was in charge’, Zeke was watching her with a look that screamed twitterpated.

As that realization struck me, my mouth opened. But before I could say anything (not that I knew exactly what I was going to say anyway), a new voice called out from the doorway. “Hey, Flickster!”

Blinking, I turned to find Nevada by the door. She gave me a quick wave. “Mind if we talk for a sec?”

Ignoring Zeke’s mumble about how we were never gonna get to work, I nodded. “Oh, sure, Prof—Nevada.” To my project partner, I added, “Sorry, it’ll just take a second. Then we can work, I promise.”

Nevada led me out of the lounge and past the doors that led into the cafeteria, to the exit. Meanwhile, I kept trying to tell myself to stop noticing exactly how much bounce there was whenever the blonde woman moved. Not that it actually helped very much, because my brain was a dirty, dirty traitor.

Once we were out on the grass behind the building, she finally turned and reached down to the silver bracelet on her wrist. Tossing it aside, she waited while the bracelet reshaped itself into its tall metal crate form before clearing her throat as she looked back to me. “So like, Avalon and Columbus were asking about upgrades for your staff,” Nevada explained. “I assume you already knew about all that.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “They’ve been trying to help since… you know, all that stuff.” I flinched at the thought of everything that had happened in such a short period of time. Then I blinked up, my eyes widening a bit. “They didn’t do anything wrong, did they? Because it’s totally all my-”

Nevada laughed, head shaking. “Relax, Flick, no one’s in trouble. You knew Avalon had your staff?”

Again, I nodded. “She was borrowing it to do some work. She said she had an idea about how to make it better in case–” Coughing, I amended that in mid-sentence. “I mean, when something else happens.”

“Yeah, good point,” Nevada agreed before reaching into her storage bin. “Anyway, they had ideas, but they’re still learning and they didn’t wanna make you wait for years before you got that upgrade. Besides, Avalon’s been busy upgrading her own weapons, and Columbus… well, he’s got some super-duper secret project of his own. So–” She tugged out my staff and held it up. “They asked me to help out a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” I stared at her. “You went out of your way to help, and you think I’d mind? You’re crazy.”

Laughing at that, Nevada offered a shrug. “You’d be surprised. Some Heretics get really touchy about who handles their weapons. It’s kind of a personal thing. But Avalon insisted you’d be okay with it.”

“I am, totally,” I confirmed quickly before looking at the staff in her hand. “But you already managed to do something with it? I mean damn, Valley just took the staff this morning. You work fast.”

Nevada gave me a dazzling Barbie smile. “Well, I am totally awesome. But like, that’s not how it works. See, they talked to me like two weeks ago, and I’ve been working on other kinetic-burst staffs. You know, figuring out what would work and what wouldn’t. So then, like, once it was all done and I had the plans fixed up, all I needed was your actual staff to put it all together. That’s how we do it.”

“Oh.” I coughed, flushing. “I guess that makes sense, doing all the steps of the upgrade ahead of time and then just putting it together. Heretics probably really don’t like losing access to their weapons.”

She nodded. “Exactly. There’s not a living Heretic out there that would agree to hand over their weapon for days at a time. So we just get used to tinkering with copies until we know exactly what we’re doing, then take the weapon for as short a time as possible. Which, for you, was just a few hours.” She lifted the staff, waving it at me before holding the weapon out. “Take it, see how different it feels. The weight might be a little bit more than it used to be, but it shouldn’t be too bad once you swing it a few times.”

Curiously, I took the staff and hefted it, passing the thing from one hand to the other before giving it an experimental spin. “Yeah,” I nodded slowly. “I guess it does feel a tiny bit heavier, but it’s not too bad.”

The woman’s grin brightened even more, dazzling me. “Awesome! So, two different upgrades for this thing.”

“Two?” I echoed, blinking in surprise before looking down at the weapon in my hand. “It still looks the same.”

Nevada winked at me. “It’s supposed to.” Coughing, she pointed to the case clipped to my belt. “That’s the thing for the sand that Columbus and Avalon finished back in track training, right?” When I nodded, she moved her hand to point to the staff. “See that tiny button right there?”

Curious, I turned the weapon over to find where she was pointing. Sure enough, there was a little spot where my left thumb generally went that could be pushed in with a little bit of pressure. “Got it.”

“Press it,” Nevada instructed with an eager smile, clearly anxious for me to see what she’d done.

So, I did. As I pressed the button, the staff hummed a little in my hands and a small dark red spot of energy appeared at the end of it. And through that glowing spot, I could feel… sand? Blinking, I extended my focus and gave an experimental tug. Sure enough, as I did, a cloud of the stuff burst out of the end of the staff, where the glowing red spot was.

“It’s a short-distance portal,” the Development Track advisor informed me. “It links directly to that thing on your belt. So when that runs out of sand, so does the staff. I just thought it’d be good for you to have quick access to it without letting go of your weapon. Plus, now you can incorporate all that sand flying around into your fighting style.”

Unable to help the gleeful noise that escaped me, I experimented a little by spinning the staff and pulling sand in and out through the tiny portal. It was glorious, and I could already think of ways to use my sand now that I didn’t have to let go of the staff and reach down to my belt to do it.

“Nevada, this is—this is… you didn’t have to—I mean, you’re amazing.”

“Aww, you don’t have to butter me up,” the woman teased. “I’ll show you the other thing.”

I blinked once. “Other—oh! You said there was something else? Wait, there’s more?”

“Of course there’s more.” Nevada scoffed at me. “Hold both ends up near the tips. Yeah, like that. Now push in, then pull out again real quick.”

After following her directions, I felt the staff shift in my grip. Yelping a little, I held it up while the ends bent backward and flared a little bit. Meanwhile, the center slid around while a small indent appeared at about the mid-point. Once the staff was done shifting around into a curved shape, a slender strand of glowing string-like energy extended from the one tip down to the other. it wasn’t a staff anymore. Now it was a–

“Bow!” Nevada announced. She was grinning again, laughter clearly right on the tip of her tongue as she gave me the punchline. “Get it? It’s a Bowstaff. Bowstaff!

Eyes widening, I touched the glowing energy strand that functioned as the bowstring. It hummed under my touch.

“The string’s made out of the same kinetic energy that you use when you make your mines or whatever,” Nevada explained with obvious eagerness. “Now pinch the string right there where an arrow should be.”

Slowly, I followed her instructions. As I pinched the string, another glowing energy construct appeared. An arrow made out of the same glowing kinetic energy. I gasped, slowly pulling back at the arrow along with the string.

It was a bow. It worked just like a bow. Not that I’d had a lot of experience with them, but still.

The older blonde continued quickly. “It uses the same charging system as the staff part, so you can only fire a few at a time before it needs to recharge. Or you can charge up one really powerful shot instead. But your friends said that you really could use some kind of ranged option, so this seemed like the best way to go.”

“It’s… it’s great,” I managed, staring at the energy arrow that I’d pulled back. “Though I don’t really know how to use a bow very much…”

“You’ll just need to get some tutoring help to use it right.” Nevada agreed while helping me ease the string back down until the arrow disappeared. “Hey, Rudolph uses a bow. Maybe he’ll help you out.”

“I’ll um, I’ll ask him,” I agreed quietly, staring at that weapon. At the older woman’s suggestion, I gave it a quick shake up and down, and the bow reshaped itself back into my familiar staff.

“Nevada, I–” Something caught in my throat, and I quickly hugged the woman. “I wish I knew how to repay you.”

For a second, she stiffened under the hug. Then I felt her relax, her voice soft. “It’s no problem, Flick. I don’t want anything to happen to you. But if you really want to pay me back, do me a favor.

“Never use the word ‘wish’ around me again.”

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Mini-Interlude 13 – Shiori and Asenath

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Shiori and Asenath during Thanksgiving break.

“I should’ve gone with her, I should’ve gone with her, I should’ve gone with her.” As she walked down the sidewalk with her hands shaped into tight fists at her side, Shiori knew she was repeating herself, but the words kept coming. And no matter how many times she said them, it didn’t feel like enough. Her heart was racing and it felt like she couldn’t breathe. She felt cold, but she was also sweating. A dull ache had settled in her heart and her stomach kept flipping over.

Columbus, walking along the sidewalk to her left, shook his head. “Easy, Shy. Deveron said she’s fine. I mean–” His face turned into an awkward sort-of apologetic expression. “As fine as she could be.”

Pivoting on her heel to walk backward, Shiori fastened her stare onto the boy. “I know what he said,” she blurted. “He said that Seller guy took Flick, Koren, and Wyatt to Eden’s Garden with Koren’s mom because she… because she’d… die without help. Because it was a trap, a trap f-for… for–”

“A trap for Koren,” a level voice finished for her. Asenath, the one who had insisted on taking both Shiori and Columbus out of the house to go for a walk in order to stop them from acting distraught and worried in front of Flick’s father, was walking along the side of the road. Her gaze was focused off in the distance as she continued. “Not for Flick. From the sound of things, Flick, Wyatt, and Deveron showing up is what saved Koren and her mother.”

“I know it’s a good thing that they were there,” Shiori insisted, feeling awkward and confused even as the words left her mouth. “I know! But I should’ve been there. I should’ve helped! I should’ve tried to…” She trailed off, unsure of what she was even trying to say. The thoughts were all jumbled up in her head, as they had been ever since the news of just how bad Flick’s attempt at a Thanksgiving with her long-lost sister and niece had gone.

“You couldn’t have done anyth–” Columbus started, but Senny held a hand up to stop him before he could finish the sentence.

“Shiori,” she started in her soft, measured voice. “Do you want to know how I know that Flick is going to be okay now?”

Trying to swallow back the lump in her throat, Shiori met her vampiric half-sister’s gaze. “How?”

“Because she’s with Seller. And not only is he one of the strongest Heretics I know, who happens to be her own ancestor…” Asenath trailed off briefly, giving her a smile that showed her fangs. “But he also wouldn’t dare let anything happen to her, because he knows it would piss me off. And after Texas, well, he knows that’s a bad idea.”

What happened with you two in Texas?” Columbus demanded.

In response, Senny just raised a single shoulder in a shrug. “Let’s just say it started with a guy who thought mixing jackrabbits and rattlesnakes was a good idea.” She paused then, musing, “I still think a couple of those Rattlejacks got away…”

“Okay, one, that absolutely didn’t answer the question.” Columbus held up a finger, followed by another. “And two, I am never, ever, ever going anywhere near Texas. Actually, where are we?”

“Wyoming,” Shiori reminded him.

“That’s probably still too close.”

Despite her worry, Shiori managed a slight smile at that, and told herself that Flick was going to be okay. She still felt awful, worried for Koren’s mother and… and sad about what had obviously happened to her father. But the panic and terror about Flick being hurt or worse was starting to settle down. Asenath was right, Seller wouldn’t let anything happen to his descendant. Not only would Senny kill him, but so would the headmistress.

Being distracted was working. So, as they continued down the dark street in the middle of the small town that was where Flick had grown up, Shiori glanced back toward the other girl. “What’s it like?” she asked quietly.

“Being a vampire, or being this old?” Senny asked, eyes flicking over to meet her gaze.

Shiori bit her lip before clarifying. “Being alive for so long. What’s that like?”

“It’s…” Asenath paused, standing there on the pavement without moving for a few seconds as she collected her thoughts. “It’s wonderful, and sad, and amazing, and…. impossible to describe. Shiori, I have seen so many things, watched so much happen over the past couple hundred years. When the War of 1812 started, I was your age. When Spain ceded Florida and Desoto to the United States, I was twenty-four. When President Monroe declared that the American continent was off limits to European colonization, I was twenty-eight. When Texas declared their independence, I was thirty-one.”

She stopped then, quietly staring off into the distance before turning her attention back to the other two. “That was in 1836. Think about that for a moment. Those are the things that I witnessed within a normal human lifetime. Not even a long one. Age-wise, I was an ordinary adult. Going from 1836 to today, to 2017 is just… I want you to be able to see the things that I’ve seen. I want you to be able to… to travel, to learn, to… to experience the world. I want to take you to Europe. I want to take you to Africa. I want you to see everything that this world has, everything that this world is.”

Once she had found her voice, Shiori stepped off the sidewalk and hesitantly took the other girl’s hand. “Senny, you’re… you’re not upset that I’m not leaving Crossroads, are you?”

The question seemed to make Asenath smile faintly. “No, Shiori,” she answered softly. “I’m not upset. There’ll be plenty of time to show you everything that I want to. Maybe I’m nervous for you, being there when I can’t be. But I’m not upset.” She returned the squeeze against Shiori’s hand and lifted it up while looking at her. “Besides, I wouldn’t dare take you away from Flick.”

As Shiori felt her face go red, Columbus snapped his attention back and forth between the two of them. “I’m sorry, the what from the who now?”

“Oh come on,” Shiori rolled her eyes at him. “We both know I’m not that subtle.”

Asenath stepped up onto the sidewalk then, still holding her hand. Her voice was gentle. “It’s pretty strong, huh?” When Shiori hesitantly nodded, she asked, “Have you talked to her about how you feel?”

Shiori’s head couldn’t shake fast enough. “No, no, no. Not now. Not—no.”

Before Senny could say anything, it was Columbus who spoke up. “Shy, Flick isn’t Gabby.”

The name itself cut deep into Shiori, and she cringed even as Senny asked, “Who’s Gabby?”

Rather than answer right away, Columbus looked questioningly toward Shiori. Feeling that familiar pain, Shiori reluctantly nodded for him to go ahead. Then she lowered her eyes to stare at the sidewalk while he started.

“Gabby was Shiori’s best friend for a few years when we were little. They were basically inseparable all the way through junior high and our first year of high school. Then um—Shy, are you sure it’s okay?”

She made herself nod, despite the ache that his words were bringing back. “Yes,” she answered hollowly. “It’s okay.”

So Columbus continued. “Shiori figured out in our sophomore year, about a year ago, that she liked girls. Gabby in particular. She tried to keep it secret for awhile, but then they um, they went on this trip for Gabby’s birthday. It was a whole two-day thing, shopping, movie, games, everything. And they didn’t just have a sleepover, they stayed in a motel. It was Gabby’s parents in one room, Shiori and Gabby in the one next door. They were supposed to go to Six Flags in the morning.

“It was late, they were watching this movie. It was um–”

Good Will Hunting,” Shiori supplied without looking up. She had released Asenath’s hand and folded her arms against her stomach.

Columbus nodded. “Right, that. They were watching that and it was at the point where Ben Affleck’s character tells Matt Damon’s character that he wants him to leave town and make something of himself, that… even though they’re best friends, he wants him to leave because he knows he’s better than that. So Shiori looks at Gabby and said–”

“I said I must be a bad friend,” Shiori interrupted, voice sounding hoarse to herself. “Because I could never ask her to leave. I said I was selfish because I wanted to stay with her forever and ever. And she said that was okay, because she wanted to be forever and ever too. And I–” Her throat closed up again, and she gestured for Columbus to go on.

“She kissed her,” he finally continued, the words sending a stab of painful memory through Shiori. “She kissed Gabby.”

Asenath’s voice was quiet. “I guess it didn’t go that well?”

“She freaked out,” Columbus confirmed. “Stormed out of the room, slept with her parents. The next day, Gabby wouldn’t even look at her. Gabby’s dad drove Shiori home and talked to our foster parents. He told the Porters that Shiori molested Gabby. There was… more, but they didn’t really tell us all of it. Or even most of it. Gabby’s family were religious and it… um, it was bad. They took Gabby out of that school, transferred her. Shiori tried to talk to her a couple times, but it never went well. She called her–”

“Don’t,” Shiori finally interrupted, head shaking. “Just don’t. Please.”

Relenting immediately, Columbus stepped over to her. “Flick isn’t Gabby, Shy. It’s not going to–”

“I can’t.” Her head shook. “I just—please. Don’t bring it up. I can’t do it. Not now. Gabby was my—she was everything, and she—I can’t.”

Columbus was hugging her, and then Asenath was doing the same. When it stopped, Senny laid a hand on her shoulder. “You’re a beautiful, funny, brilliant girl, Shiori. Just give it time.”

Swallowing once more, Shiori made herself change the subject. “What about Mom? What’s… what’s she like?”

Asenath smiled at the question. “Mom is… how do I describe her? She’s quiet and dignified… and she tells the raunchiest jokes you’ll ever hear. She’s this small Chinese woman that doesn’t shout, doesn’t make a big scene, but she can drink a troll under the table. Seeing her fight, it’s… she uses these two guns, these pistols and it’s… you know the movie Equilibrium? The whole gun-kata thing? Picture that, but coming from this seemingly meek, polite, soft-spoken little Chinese woman. She doesn’t talk while she fights, she doesn’t mock them, she just… she’s a quiet force of nature.”

The description of Jiao made Shiori smile while simultaneously feeling the pain of not knowing the woman. “I… I really want to meet her.”

“I’m sure she wants to meet you,” Asenath assured her. “As soon as we can, as soon as I get a hold of her, I promise. We’ll make it happen.”

“Can I ask you a question?” Columbus put in after a few long seconds of silence had passed. When the vampire nodded to him, he went on. “Flick said you started this whole thing because you were hunting for Ammon, because he killed that girl.”

“Denise,” Asenath supplied. “The girl he killed at the gas station.”

The boy nodded. “Right, yeah. I—whatever happened with that? I mean, you’ve been here for awhile.”

Senny was quiet for a moment before she answered. “I called her mother and told her that the person who killed her daughter was dead and that she needed to stop paying me because the job was done.”

Shiori blinked at that. “You… lied to her?”

“I gave her closure,” Senny corrected gently. “Ammon will pay for what he did. But the fact that it has to wait this long, the fact that he’s a little kid and that what he is now probably isn’t his fault, the fact that… any of these details won’t help her. She can’t even know them because she’s a Bystander.

“If I made her wait, she’d never be able to move on. She’d never be able to focus on remembering her daughter, because she’d spend every single day waiting by the phone, obsessed with the person who killed her. And Ammon doesn’t deserve her attention. Her daughter does. She should be focusing on remembering Denise, on honoring her daughter.

“This way, she can move on. She can put her love and attention where it belongs. And eventually, I will honor my promise. I will get justice for Denise. But until that happens, her mother deserves peace. So I gave it to her.”

Shiori was quiet after Senny finished with that. She hesitated, then slowly reached out and took her sister’s hand, squeezing it. “Can… you tell us about your dad for awhile?”

Asenath’s eyes found hers, and then she smiled faintly. “Sure,” she answered in a quiet voice. “Let’s keep walking, and I’ll tell you everything I know about Tiras, of the Akharu.”

So they did.

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A Learning Experience 17-03

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The benefit of having finally gotten the hang of the privacy spell that Deveron had taught us was that I only had to feel moderately paranoid as I caught hold of Shiori’s arm and pulled her with me into a storage room once we left class. Holding a hand up to stop her from talking, I tugged the pre-prepared coin from my pocket and activated it so that no one would be able to listen in. Then I nodded to her.

“Did you hear?!” she instantly blurted, grabbing both of my hands before proceeding to jump up and down a few times. “Tiras! She said Tiras! And he was a vampire! Well, she said a heretic that took power from a vampire, but course she’d say that! But Tiras! She said—and he—and that was—and-”

Laughing, I tried not to be too distracted by the cute Asian girl bouncing in front of me. “I heard,” I replied once it was possible to get a word in edgewise. “Shh,” I squeezed her hands. “Shiori, it’s okay.”

“Okay?” she echoed in disbelief, head shaking. “It’s better than okay. It’s amazing! No, it’s better than amazing. It’s… it’s… what’s bigger than amazing? Bigger than a maze—labyrinth. It’s A-Labyrinth-ing!”

“Oh, my god.” I didn’t know whether to hang my head and groan, or hug the girl. Eventually, I settled on coughing to (sort of) hide my snicker. “I take it you’re um, happy about Dare knowing Tiras?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “Of course! Do you know how long it’s been since Senny even talked to her father? She was eight years old! She was human. Well, you know, vampeel… but still! It was—hang on—two hundred and fourteen years ago! Two hundred and fourteen, Flick. You know how many times she’s gone over every single memory and story about her dad in those years? It’s like—like–let’s say you were totally alone in a room for two hundred years and you only had ten different movies to watch. Two hundred years of the same ten movies. Hearing about Dare and her father, that’s a brand new movie, Flick. It’s something new! She hasn’t had anything new about her dad for centuries, but this is!”

Her smile and excitement was infectious, and I found myself nodding along with her. “You’re right, it’s a big deal.” Pausing then, I asked, “Think you can hold off on telling her about it for just a few days?”

“Hold off?” Shiori blinked a little, head tilting there in the dim light of the storage room as she stared at me. “Err, why would I need to wait? I mean, other than not talking about it on anything other than your special phone—which if you wanna wait before you share—or don’t share at all—I totally get it!”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I shook my head. “No, no. I don’t mean you have to wait. I just—it’s kind of a big deal, like you said. So I was thinking you might want to wait and talk to her about it in person when you come over and visit during Christmas Break. Wouldn’t that be better than over the phone?”

Eyes widening, the other girl made an adorable little squeaking noise of excitement before actually hugging me. Her arms went around me and suddenly I was being squeezed tight. “Hey, good point! If I wait, I can tell her in person, and then I can… I can…” Her voice trailed off a little before she released me, stepping back against the wall. I thought I could see the pink of her blush. “Um, I mean, thanks.”

“Okay, this is just silly.” I shook my head. “Shiori, we should probably at least try to talk about our–”

The door to the storage room swung open, revealing a pair of older students. The boy had long, shaggy blonde hair with red tips and sort-of a sheepdog look. With the look and the tinted hair tips, he looked a bit like Thieter (the junior medical assistant I’d met back at Eden’s Garden who took us to see Abigail), though his tips had been white rather than red. Meanwhile, the girl looked Native American, like Aylen. Except her hair was cut short, and while Aylen managed to constantly look regal and dignified no matter what she was doing, this girl looked like the stereotypical thug in an after school special.

“Whoa,” the boy blurted as soon as everyone was through jumping in surprise. “Hey, don’t let us inter-”

He made a noise of pain then, though I didn’t actually see the girl move at all. Instead, she made an impatient gesture. “Go experiment somewhere else, Freshmen, we’ve gotta do actual work in here.”

Well, if Shiori had been blushing before, she was beet red by that point. While I quickly disabled the privacy spell, she was already ducking under the girl’s arm to escape the storage room before hurriedly making her way down the hall with a hasty, “See you later, Flick! Good luck with your stuff tonight!”

My mouth opened and shut, and I raised my hand to give her departing form an awkward and pointless wave when the older girl abruptly demanded. “Wait, you’re that Flick girl people keep talking about?”

Damn it, Flick, don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be sarcastic. I repeated the mantra to myself a few more times while forcing my shoulders to shrug. “Why would people talk about me?”

She snorted at that with obvious disbelief. “You’re kidding, right? You’ve been a Heretic all of three months and you’ve already pissed someone off enough that they break onto school grounds and mind control a bunch of people to attack you. And that’s just like, one thing. I mean, this ain’t exactly a boring school, but you’re kind of over-achieving a bit. Slow it down, you’ve got three more years.”

Her words may have been more teasing than confrontational, but I could tell the girl was sizing me up with more than simple casual interest. Finally, I managed a weak, “I’m not doing anything on purpose.”

The girl continued to stare at me contemplatively for a moment before shrugging as she took a single step out of the way, just enough for me to pass. “Just saying, you might wanna prioritize a little better.”

Unsure of what that was supposed to mean, I slipped past the two and kept going. Before moving out of earshot, I managed to overhear the girl turn her attention to the boy. “You know, dude, the last time I checked, the Baykok files weren’t stapled to her ass. So maybe look in the storage room instead?”

“Aww, Namid, don’t be like that,” the boy protested while I fought the urge to turn and walk backwards. “It’s not my fault we ended up on file duty. How was I supposed to know that a place called Colorado City was in god damn Arizona? It was a trick question, and you know it. I was set up.”

I could hear the eye roll in Namid’s retort. “Of course it was a trick question, Hue. When someone asks, ‘Hildale and Colorado City are border towns located in Utah and what other state’, either they think you’re an incompetent moron who shouldn’t be trusted with anything more dangerous than a coloring book, or the answer isn’t actually Colorado. Here’s a tip, try another state that borders Utah!”

Then I managed to make my way far enough that I couldn’t hear the two of them anymore. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Shiori either. She’d disappeared. Looking up and down the hall full of students (though not the one I was looking for), I finally sighed and slumped a little. Figured. I finally decide to try to talk about at least part of what was going on between us, and we get interrupted.

At least I still had Gaia’s tutoring to obsessively count down the minutes toward.

******

Somewhere along the way, the feeling of intense anticipation had morphed into nervousness. By the time I found myself standing in front of the office labeled ‘Headmistress’ in the middle of the night after curfew had started for most of the other students, I was a big bundle of nerves.

In a somewhat detached way, I thought it was a little weird that there was just an ordinary-looking office door with ‘Headmistress’ written on it. Something about the whole magic school of monster hunters thing made it seem like Gaia’s office should be hidden behind a false wall and protected by a fierce guardian, accessible only by passing some kind of great trial of strength and cunning. Or possibly by answering a riddle. Something out of the ordinary and worthy of the level of person she was.

Barring that, I just reached up and knocked three times, rapping my knuckles against the wood.

The door itself dissolved before my eyes, like a waterfall that gradually stopped to reveal the room beyond.

Okay, I guess that fit my desire for the entrance to Gaia’s office to be something out of the ordinary.

After hesitating for a second, I slowly stepped through the open doorway and looked around. Behind me, the door returned, fading back into existence in a reverse of how it had disappeared before.

First of all, the place was enormous. Entirely too large for the amount of room it seemed to take up in the school, so obviously there was some kind of extra-dimensional shenanigans going on. Not that that was surprising, since I already knew that they did the same thing for the teachers’ apartments. The ceiling itself stretched up thirty feet above my head, sloping into a dome shape that I couldn’t remember actually seeing in the exterior of the school. Across the dome I could see a holographic globe of the world, rotating at a slow, steady pace. Here and there random flares of green, yellow, or red would pop up at various spots, and once in awhile, the flare would turn gold before disappearing.

Meanwhile, the room itself was divided into two equal levels. On the level I was on, the floor was covered in a thick, soft white carpet. The walls were wood with several paintings that seemed to be an equal mix of brilliant artists that were probably worth thousands if not millions of dollars, and the kind of amateurish stuff that could have come straight from my family’s fridge while I was in preschool.

The upper level was accessible through two different sets of stairs that led to a sort of landing that ran all the way around with a waist-high guard rail and open space in the middle that allowed someone to see the domed ceiling from the lower level. Against the walls of that upper level I could see bookshelves. Lots of bookshelves, all heavily laden with their contents to the point of sagging a bit.

Gaia’s desk sat on the lower level at the back of the room, about sixty feet away. It was directly in front of a series of floor to ceiling windows that stretched the entire eighty foot width of the room. Each window was about four feet wide, and each displayed a completely different view. One showed the middle of a jungle, while the one directly next to it showed a busy street in what looked like New York City. Meanwhile, another showed a quiet suburban neighborhood that… actually looked familiar.

“I know that you already have protection for your father,” Gaia’s voice spoke up from the higher level, and I turned to find the woman standing by the railing as one of the bookshelves steadily slid shut behind her, closing on what looked like another hallway. “But I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I didn’t do what I could to keep an eye on him as well. I… apologize for the intrusion.”

“Intrusion?” I echoed before my head shook rapidly. “No, I mean, it’s okay. My dad… I don’t want anything to happen to him.” The words sounded lame as they came out of my mouth, and I flushed a bit but pressed on anyway. “I’m not going to object to someone else protecting him. Especially you.”

Gaia smiled faintly before walking to the nearest stairs. Making her way down the spiraling steps, the red-haired woman didn’t speak again until she was in front of me. “How are you feeling, Felicity?”

My mouth opened and then shut before I shrugged helplessly. “How do I feel? I feel nervous, scared, excited, angry, terrified, grateful… I could go on for awhile, but it’s probably a waste of time.”

That soft, encouraging smile returned. “It’s never a waste of time to analyze one’s own feelings, contradictory as they may seem to be.” Her hand came up to settle on my shoulder before she squeezed gently. “I was… incredibly glad to hear that you were given the opportunity to speak with your mother.”

Flushing a little, I bit my lip and glanced around nervously before asking, “Should we really be talking this… um, openly about all this stuff? I mean, this was Ruthers’s office, wasn’t it? And he’s kind of a-”

“It is safe,” the headmistress assured me. “I have taken the appropriate precautions for our meeting.”

Relaxing just a little bit then, I let out a breath before glancing up at the woman again. “So you, um, still don’t know anything more about the whole Ring of Anuk-Ité thing that my mom mentioned?”

Regretfully shaking her head, Gaia replied, “As I mentioned to Avalon, I have heard of such a thing, but only in whispers and rumors. There isn’t even a firm description of what it actually does. The rumors vary as wildly as you can imagine. I could ask twenty different experts and receive twenty entirely different answers as to what the Ring of Anuk-Ité actually does. As for how Avalon’s father could be using it to go unrecognized at Eden’s Garden, I couldn’t possibly accurately guess. Some say that the ring allows one to possess others, others say it allows them to be seen as friend or enemy no matter who they appear to, while others say that it allows the wearer to change their appearance at will. And there are even more possibilities. We would need a much firmer understanding of the ring before we make any attempt at a plan to counter it. I have… aid on that front, people who are able to ask questions in areas that I cannot, but it will take them some time to come up with any results.”

She straightened then, hand falling away. “And in the meantime, we should proceed with ensuring your safety. After all,” Gaia added with a knowing look and a teasing tone, “it wouldn’t do to spend all this time protecting Avalon, only to have her never forgive me if something were to happen to you.”

My face went a bit red then and I shifted awkwardly. “Oh—um, well, I… uh, where do we start then?”

Chuckling at my reaction, Gaia turned and walked toward her desk while gesturing for me to follow. “We will alternate night by night. One night we will focus on your physical training, and the next, your mental and magical strengths. I would like to meet Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings like this. Would that be all right with you?” she asked then, turning back toward me once we reached the desk.

“Um.” Coughing, I bobbed my head up and down a few times rapidly. “Y-yeah, I mean, I’m not exactly going to object to extra training, Headmistress. I’m not stupid enough to throw that chance away.”

She chuckled lightly, leaning back against the desk. “Please, while we’re in here, simply call me Gaia.”

“Uh, okay…” Shrugging, I tried it out. “Gaia, can I ask you a question that’s been bugging me?” When the woman gestured for me to go ahead, I asked, “What’s the deal with the whole aura color thing that shows up when we um, when we kill things? What do the different colors mean, exactly?”

Laughing, Gaia eyed me for a moment. “Do you have any guesses about what it might mean?”

Hesitating, I thought about it briefly. “I thought it had something to do with relations, since mine is gold and my mom’s is the same. But um, yours is gold too, so… unless we’re—oh my god are we related?!” The words blurted their way out of me as my eyes widened.

That smile softened, and the woman shook her head. “I feel a great connection to you and your mother, Felicity. But no, we have no genetic relation.”

I bit my lip then while shaking my head. “I don’t know then. Why do we have the same color aura, and what do they all mean?”

She straightened, returning my gaze while explaining, “Each Reaper or Hangman is connected in some way to a… sort of central archive of power and information that they can all draw from. Whenever they gain such power or knowledge, it is sent back along their connection to that archive. In that way, each of them is also connected to one another. When we… when the Heretical Edge is used, or when they partake of one of the apples in Eden’s Garden, we open a connection to that archive. And each person who connects to it is linked in some way to one of those other Reapers or Hangmen.”

Blinking rapidly at that, I blurted, “So each color represents a connection to a different Reaper? I thought we were all just connected to the um, the one in the lighthouse.”

“It would not have nearly enough power to grant every Heretic their abilities,” the headmistress pointed out. “The Hangman connected to the Heretical Edge is simply the one that holds the door open to allow the connection into the central archive that the rest of them use. We… tap along that connection to gain access to one of the other, living Reapers. Then they and the new Heretic are connected in a way similar to the blood mixing of a natural Heretic.”

Thinking about that, I hesitated before managing a weak, “So, I guess family members tend to be connected to the same Reaper and so they have same color aura because it’s… closer to them or something?”

“Correct,” Gaia confirmed with a nod. “You and your mother are both connected to the same Reaper that I was connected to when I was exposed to the Edge. One Reaper or Hangman per color, as there… are not that many of them, for an entire species. They are quite rare, relatively speaking.”

Rocking back on my heels at that, I thought about the implications before giving a little shudder. “Um, Headm—Gaia, I mean. Speaking of the whole aura color thing, could you umm… could you teach me the spell that my mother used to talk to me? The animal projection one. I—I think it would be useful to be able to communicate if anything else goes wrong.”

Gaia watched me for a few seconds in silence then before bowing her head. “Yes, Felicity,” she answered quietly. “I believe that would be a good idea. It is not an easy spell, but if you’re quite sure that you want to put the effort into it.”

“I am—I do.” I nodded firmly, meeting her gaze. “I want to learn it. I’ll work for it.”

She smiled just a little bit at that. “I believe you will, Felicity…

“I believe you will.”

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A Learning Experience 17-02

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In my experience, at history (or any) class in a normal high school there were the usual assortment of students: some paying attention because they didn’t want to flunk out, some who that thought they were too cool to pay attention no matter what that risked, others that were legitimately bored out of their minds and made sure everyone knew it, and then there were a few who were actively, almost obsessively interested in the actual presentation.

Considering my primary extracurricular activity at my old school had been the newspaper, whose motto was basically, ‘Yes, we still exist, turn the lights back on!’, I wasn’t super-high on the popularity scale. Which meant that I didn’t have to care about how it looked, so I was used to being one of the latter group, who actually made the clearly unforgivable mistake of asking the teacher questions that encouraged them to discuss the topic more. Yes, I know, there’s a special place in hell waiting for me.

That said, here in Crossroads, things were a little bit different. Not completely, but people did at least tend to openly pay more attention in Bystander History. I wasn’t exactly sure if it was more because Professor Dare was a complete babe, because she was kind of terrifying, or because the fact that she had actually lived through a lot of that history made her take on it even more fascinating than it would have been. Obviously, it was a combination of all three. I just didn’t know exactly what the ratios were.

Even with that in mind, however, there were still usually people who clearly didn’t care that much about what was said in the class. Probably partly because most of the Heretic-born students reacted to the Bystander understanding of what had happened throughout history a lot like adults listening to a little kid telling a long, rambling, convoluted, and semi-incoherent story about their day: initial amusement followed by a mixture of boredom and bewilderment that the polite ones tried to mask.

In a way, it was almost impossible to avoid that kind of reaction when so many classes was basically ‘Here’s what really happened, and here’s what the Bystanders think happened.’ Not always, of course. There were plenty of things that happened in the normal world (and I would probably always think of it as the ‘normal world’) that had nothing to do with Heretics. Even things that I’d initially thought had to be connected to something in the Heretic world, like the Kennedy assassination. But according to Dare when I’d asked her, there was absolutely nothing abnormal about it. But even then, most Heretic students weren’t that interested. Which I could understand. Given the choice between hearing about fighting monsters in another world, or learning about the New Deal, I knew where my preference was.

Today, however… well, today, not only was everyone paying rapt attention, but we had all shown up early. By the time Professor Dare made it into the room, the entire class was already there and waiting.

If she was surprised by that, the woman gave no sign of it. Instead, she sat at her desk and silently wrote in a little notebook until the clock ticked over to two forty. Standing right on the dot as the seconds hand crossed over, she cleared her throat before speaking up. “I suppose that now would be a bad time to inform you all that there has been a change in schedule and that we will now be taking a pop quiz on the implementation and eventual repeal of alcoholic prohibition in the United States.”

Giving a very faint, almost invisible smile at the reaction to that, Professor Dare raised a hand. “Enough. We will discuss what we were supposed to, of course. As promised, today I will talk about my history, and I will answer your questions. If you wish to have some sort of clarification or don’t understand something, feel free to raise your hand. But if your question concerns parts of the story that we haven’t reached yet, well, be patient. As I’ve told each of you, this is not a story I like to repeat.”

Once we’d all nodded and made noises of agreement and understanding, she tilted her head back to look at the ceiling. The room fell silent. No one was whispering, or even writing anything. Everyone simply stared with rapt attention as the woman finally began to speak.

“My father was Ananias Dare, who had been a bricklayer at a church in London. My mother was Eleanor White. In the year fifteen eighty-seven, they and a hundred and thirteen others, including my mother’s father, were sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to form a colony in the New World of the American continent. The initial plan was to check on a group of fifteen settlers on Roanoke island that had been left in order to maintain both an English presence in the area, and Walter Raleigh’s claim to the island. After checking on them, my parents and the others were intended to settle their own colony on Chesapeake Bay. However, they found nothing but a skeleton—the ahh, non-mobile version. That was the only sign of the group of fifteen settlers who had been left behind to safeguard Raleigh’s claim.”

By that point, Professor Dare had lowered her gaze from the ceiling and was slowly looking over us. “For reasons that are still not understood, Simon Fernandez, the commander of the fleet that brought my parents and the others across the ocean refused to allow them back onto the ship after they discovered that the fifteen men were missing. Rather than taking them to the Chesapeake Bay as formerly planned, he demanded that they stay and establish a new colony there, on Roanoke.

“My mother’s father, John White, had been named expedition leader and was now the governor of the new colony. He had been on several previous trips and had been a part of establishing a line of conversation and trade with the local natives, including the tribe from another nearby island, the Croatoans. This time, however, the natives refused to meet with my grandfather when he tried to reestablish contact, and one of the other colonists was killed by a native while he was alone.”

I knew all of this already from what I had looked up on my own. But even then, hearing it from the mouth of someone who had actually been there was far more engaging than reading it on a screen. I glanced around the room briefly to find that everyone else was just as engaged as Dare continued.

“In the midst of all this, in late August, I came along. The first English child born in the new world. But… things were still not going well. The colonists convinced my grandfather to sail back to England to get help. Unfortunately, due to certain events including the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War, he was unable to return to the colony for almost three years. When he finally arrived on August eighteenth, fifteen ninety, the exact day of my third birthday, he found the colony deserted. There was no sign of attack. All of the buildings had been dismantled and taken, so we obviously hadn’t left in a rush. The only clue he found was the word Croatoan carved into the post of a fence. Of course, he took that to mean that the colonists had moved to the nearby Croatoan Island. But there was a heavy storm coming in and the men he had arrived with refused to investigate any further before leaving.

“And that,” she announced, “is what is already known about the Roanoke Colony. Now,” Dare added with a soft, kind of sad smile, “I suppose you’d like to know the truth behind that particular mystery.”

When the rest of us quickly confirmed that, she swallowed a little before pushing on. “Of course. Some of this, naturally, I was too young to remember and only learned of second-hand. Mostly when my father spoke of it, or when I managed to eavesdrop on other colonists while they didn’t realize I was listening. But here is the true story of what actually happened.

“Three months after my grandfather’s departure, the local natives had steadily stepped up their attacks. There seemed to be a growing, concerted effort to either drive the colonists away or kill them. At the height of these hostilities, some of the natives abducted and killed a baby boy who had been born shortly after I had. This, obviously, enraged the colonists enough to go on the offensive. They killed that group and several others before one of the natives, who had previously worked with Raleigh and therefore spoke English, finally explained what was going on.”

Again, the professor was quiet for a few seconds, lost in her own memories before she went on. “Between the time that first peaceful contact had been made with the local tribes, and when my parents and the other colonists arrived, one of the native shamans had made a prophesy: that a great evil would use the blood of the first English child born on their soil to destroy the world. Desperate to avoid that, the natives had tried to drive the colonists away. When that failed, they attempted to halt the prophesy by killing the first-born child before the great evil could find them. That was why they killed the boy, they didn’t realize that I was born first.

“Obviously, my parents weren’t going to agree to kill me based on some prophesy from a native tribe. In order to halt hostilities, however, they did agree that the colony should be moved away from those lands. The colonists believed that simply getting away from the superstitious natives would be a good thing, and the tribes themselves thought that it would be harder for the ‘great evil’ to find me.

“So, they took the time to dismantle all of their houses and turned them into rafts before carving the word Croatoan into the fence post. The natives had agreed to explain what happened and where we had gone to my grandfather when he eventually returned, so the word was meant to direct him there. Then they left.”

Slowly walking down one of the aisles between our desks, Professor Dare continued in a soft, thoughtful voice. “We traveled for months before finally settling in a place that my parents believed would be safe, far from the paranoid natives whom they believed were the only real threat. And I grew up there.” She sounded… well, wistful. “I spent my childhood in that valley, surrounded by my family. And they were all my family, the colony. I knew them all, I loved… them all.”

She swallowed hard as she passed my desk, trailing her hand over it. “But it ended when I was twelve years old. That was when the great evil… whoever or… whatever it was, found us. It sent… monsters into the colony. Monsters I can’t even describe now. The years and my own… childish terror morphed their features. I remember fire, darkness, and a lot of screaming. I remember monsters of all shapes and sizes, including a creature that we now know as an amarok.”

I straightened at that, eyes widening as Professor Dare met my gaze briefly before she went on. “They were everywhere. I saw my mother disemboweled in front me as she tried to run away with me. I saw my father killed where he stood, along with so many others. But they left me alone. They left me alive. My job was to witness it, not to die. The great evil wanted me to see it all, to see what it had done in order to claim me.

“Of course, the colonists tried to fight back. And they succeeded, somewhat. More than thirty of my… my family fought and killed that giant wolf, the amarok. They paid for it with their lives, but they killed it, ripping a hole in the creature that left its blood and internal organs spilling out over half of the colony. And as that… nightmare continued, I tried to hide from the monsters that had torn my mother apart. That fear, that… blinding, unending terror led me to the body of the giant wolf. I hid under its mortal wound, in the pond of blood that kept… falling onto the ground, onto me.”

There were murmurs all around, and Professor Dare gave a short nod to cut them off. “Yes, that is how I became a Heretic. Before my connection to Crossroads, I was an Amarok-Heretic, a wolf-warrior. I was… empowered by the blood of the creature, not to fight in that case, but to run away. I was a twelve-year-old girl who was traumatized by everything I had seen. So I fled. The power of the Amarok let me run faster and longer than any person ever should have been able to. On that first day, I was able to run faster than a horse could, for most of the day while only pausing to eat and drink.

“So that’s what I did. For over a year, I ran to stay away from the evil who had… who was responsible for what happened. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t interact. I stayed away from people, because I didn’t want… anything to happen to them. I was just the wild one in the woods, running, always running.”

By that point, Professor Dare had made her way throughout the class and back around to the front where her desk was. “I might have stayed like that forever, except that… someone else found me.”

She turned to face the class, leaning against her desk as her eyes roamed over us. “He was a… natural Heretic, like me. Except his power came from one of the creatures that we now know as vampires. His name was Tiras.”

Wait, that name sounded familia—In mid-thought, a heavy thud interrupted, making me and several others jump. My eyes snapped that way along with the rest of the class, only to find Shiori staring at Professor Dare while the book that she had been holding lay on the floor next to her where it had just fallen.

“Miss Porter?” the professor prompted her with a curious look. “Are you all right?”

Shiori… Tiras… I realized where I had heard the name before. Asenath. Asenath’s father’s name was Tiras. That, coupled with the way Professor Dare had paused before she said the man who encountered her was a natural Heretic, could it mean that he was that Tiras. It would’ve been long before Asenath was born, of course (by almost two hundred years), but other than that… it fit.

“Y-yes.” Shiori’s head bobbed, and she quickly bent down to pick up the book. “Sorry, Pr-professor. Please, um, please go on. You said there was a… a man.”

She and I quickly exchanged looks, and I gave a quick nod to tell her that I had caught it as well. If it was true, if this was the same Tiras… wow. I wondered if Asenath knew about her, even if she didn’t know that it was Professor Dare herself.

“Yes, Tiras,” the blonde teacher confirmed before continuing. “He took me in, convinced me that he was strong enough to protect himself. And that he could also protect me. He… trained me, taught me how to fight instead of simply running away. I learned the art of the sword from Tiras. He honed the wolf’s savagery in me into something more useful. Tiras taught me everything. He was a second father to me, and I spent the next ten years growing up under his tutelage.

“But the attacks didn’t stop. Every now and then, one of the agents of the evil that had been hunting me for so long would catch up with us. We always killed them, but… but during one attack, Tiras was injured. I was twenty-three years old then, and I couldn’t let that go on. I couldn’t stand to see my second father killed too, just because of me. So, once I knew he was going to recover, I… left a note explaining what I was doing, and I went away.” She blinked rapidly a few times, her voice a little hoarse. “I left him.”

Clearing her throat, Professor Dare looked to me briefly before continuing. “I did it to protect him. I didn’t want anyone else to suffer because of me. As much as it hurt, I decided it would hurt more if he was killed by the monsters hunting me.

“Of course, just running around forever wasn’t going to work. Whoever was after me, whatever evil was behind these attacks wasn’t just going to give up. It would just keep sending things to catch me, and they would keep killing everyone who got in their way. The prophesy had said that the great evil would use my blood specifically because I was the first English child born on the soil of Americas. So, I decided the best thing to do was to leave the American continent entirely. Hoping that, well, being on a completely different continent halfway across the world would put a stop to it, I booked passage on a ship and sailed back to England, to the land of my parents. I wanted to feel some connection to them, see where they had come from. And I wanted to say goodbye the way I was never able to before. Maybe even see my grandfather. But when I got there, I… couldn’t do it. The fear that connecting with my grandfather would lead the evil to him was too much. I stayed away, though I did explore my parents’ hometown.

“There, I eventually met the woman you know as Gaia Sinclaire, the headmistress. She recognized what I was and took me under her wing. She introduced me to Hieronymus Bosch, and his machine. Under her recommendation, I became a Crossroads Heretic.

“And the rest, as they say, is history. Any questions?”

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A Learning Experience 17-01

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“There are Heretics who leave this school and never again cast a single spell for the entirety of their careers.” Professor Carfried (who I swore still looked like he should be attending the school rather than teaching at it) spoke loudly over the sound of the ocean waves and a flock of tropical birds that were screeching while flying overhead as our Introduction to Heretical Magic class stood out on the beach.

It was Monday, the eleventh of December. A few days had passed since Gaia offered to train me. I hadn’t actually had any special sessions with her just yet, since she said that there were things that she needed to prepare. But it was supposed to start the next evening, which obviously had me nervous and a bit distracted. I had to keep telling myself to focus on the classes I was actually in. Which shouldn’t have been hard, because… well, duh. Magic. But if anything had the right to distract me from the things that we were learning at this place, it was the idea of Gaia Sinclaire personally teaching me.

Carfried was slightly in front of the class, standing about shin deep in the water while his gaze moved over the entire class one student at a time before he continued. “Either they find the act of magic too difficult and slow for the benefit it provides, or they simply believe the powers they’ve taken from the things that they’ve killed are enough. Either way, what do we call these kind of people, Miss Fellows?”

A few feet away, Koren looked up and hesitated only for a second before offering a simple, “Idiots?”

“Of course not,” Carfried retorted, prompting a few snickers. “They’re fully-trained Heretics, you lunatic. They’ll take your head off if you call them idiots. Call them sir or ma’am as they require.”

Straightening, he cleared his throat before pressing on pointedly. “You don’t call them anything. It’s their choice. It may be short-sighted and they may be cutting themselves off from a powerful resource, but that is their prerogative. We are here to ensure that as many of you as possible don’t end up with that same opinion. Which means you will come to understand magic rather than fear its complexity.”

“Professor?” Another voice spoke up, and I glanced that way to see one of Roxa’s old teammates, Gordon. As usual, his expression was flat. I was pretty sure I’d never actually seen the dark-skinned boy smile since we’d arrived at this school. Which wasn’t to say he moped around or anything. He seemed to be… well, happy enough. It was just that he was always serious about absolutely everything.

When Carfried nodded to him, he asked in a careful, measured tone, “Why exactly are we out here?”

“A fine question, Mr. Kuhn!” Smiling broadly, the young teacher reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a bag… which was larger than the pocket itself and just kept emerging as he pulled. And the fact that someone managing to haul what was essentially a full garbage bag out of a jacket pocket wasn’t even on the top… hundred list of weird things I’d seen that semester said a lot about this school.

“Last time we met,” the man continued while reaching into the bag to pull out a round metal disc about the size of a dinner plate, “I had each of you make one of these.” Leaning down, he touched his own disc to the water he was standing in, and murmured the words to activate the spell. A second later, the water turned a bright neon green for several feet around him. It was the same thing he’d done in the classroom when he showed us what to do, except then it had been in an aquarium instead of the ocean.

“Now,” Carfried held the bag out to us. “I’ve checked everyone’s work and they should be just fine so far. Which means we can move on to the next part. So, everyone come up and find your disc. Your names should be on them, so just grab the right one and go back to where you were. Let’s try to hurry.”

One by one, we all made our way up there and found the discs that we had enchanted before going back to where we were. Sands nudged me with her disc on the way. “What color did you make yours?”

“Purple,” I replied while looking down at the disc to trace my fingers over the symbol that I had drawn on the disc. It looked like two equals signs side by side with a very thin diamond-like shape in between them, while a parentheses-like half-circle lay on the opposite side of each equals sign, facing outward.

I could understand, in some ways, why there were Heretics that would avoid using magic. Powers were quicker, and you didn’t have to remember (or carry around a book reminding you of)  the different spells that you could use and exactly how to make them. Apparently it wasn’t easy to just use the directed or shapeless magic to get any effect you wanted. Even making up the effect, you still had to know the basics. It was sort of like trying to do trigonometry without understanding addition. If you didn’t know what the established magic phrase, gesture, and symbol was for making fire appear, you couldn’t just use shapeless magic to make a stick give off a fireball. It was a lot to remember and keep track of. Some Heretics carried books with reminders of the different spells, while others simply remembered everything they could. And then there were those like Carfried had mentioned, who didn’t bother at all.

“Now,” Carfried continued once we all had our discs, “You all know how this works. Touch the enchanted disc to any liquid and activate the spell to turn the liquid the color you prepared it for. Simple enough. But we want to move beyond simple. Because sometimes, you don’t have time to consciously activate a spell. It may only take a couple of seconds once everything’s prepared, but with Strangers, those couple of seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Or lots of deaths.”

Looking around at us, the man paused before asking, “So, who can give me an example of a Heretic enchantment whose effect is not consciously triggered? Besides Vanessa,” he added with a smile.

The brilliant girl’s hand went down while her brother and a couple others snickered. Then Koren’s hand went up. Once Carfried nodded to her, she glanced sidelong at Vanessa before answering, “The um, the line around the Pathmaker building. It triggers if you pass it, no manual activation needed.” Even as she was reciting that, the brunette’s face was reddening a little, obviously thinking back to that first day.

“Yes, indeed!” Carfried grinned, head bobbing. “An excellent example. The defensive line surrounding the Pathmaker building is activated by a person without permission crossing it. Very good, Miss Fellows. And today, we are going to learn how to adjust enchantments so that they are triggered by a specific criteria rather than by manual activation. In this case,” he reached into the bag and took out another disc. “The activation will be contact with water.” To demonstrate, the young teacher tossed the disc into the ocean a few feet away. That time, the water turned hot pink the second the disc touched it.

“Yes,” Carfried went on once everyone reacted, “making an enchantment that activates from outside stimuli rather than doing so manually is more complicated than the other way. But it is also incredibly useful. So, let’s get started. Once everyone has a chance to make their disc react to the water, we’ll split up into partners, and each pair will research another spell that can be given an outside trigger.

“And just to shake things up, we’ll use assigned partners from outside your teams. Won’t that be fun?”

******

The answer to Carfried’s question was no. No, it was not fun to be assigned partners from outside the team. Not in this particular case, anyway. Because as it turned out, the person I was assigned as a partner for this little ‘external stimulus magic’ project was none other than Zeke Leven. Yeah, lucky me.

Not that he seemed any happier about it. I’d seen him arguing with the teacher just after class ended, but Carfried wouldn’t budge. He wanted us to work together, and nothing would change his mind.

Now it was later that afternoon, shortly after our last class of the day (trig, in my case), and I had just met up with the boy himself down in one of those shielded magical training rooms where spells could be thrown around without worrying about accidentally hitting anyone or causing any actual damage.

“Great,” the boy announced as I came through the heavily reinforced metal door. “You made it. Now let’s get this over with. I already know what spell we should work on, so we can jump right into it and be done with this crap. So go stand over there and I’ll show you how this thing is supposed to work.”

“Aw, that’s adorable,” I retorted in spite of myself, annoyed at his trying to take charge and give orders. “You think you’ve traveled back in time to when you get to make all the decisions.” Clearing my throat, I asked pointedly, “What spell do you think we should work on? And do you know how to make it?”

Zeke squinted, clearly also annoyed. “You’re a Silverstone.” He said the word the way certain people used derogatory terms for people who weren’t Caucasian. “Just let me get us a good grade, all right?”

“That’s funny,” I pretended to muse with confusion, “I don’t remember hearing about any rule that said students who were born into this automatically get to be in charge.” Straightening, I faced the boy. “Look, I’m not saying that your idea isn’t good. Maybe it is. But I don’t know because you haven’t told me anything about it. Maybe that’s the one we should use. But just tell me what it is so I can give input and we can decide together whether we should use that spell. You know, together, like actual partners?”

Heaving a sigh, Zeke took a moment before waving his hand dismissively. “Fine, whatever. You’re the one that wants to stretch this whole thing out.” From his pocket, the boy withdrew a leather-bound book with a blank cover and waved it at me. “This is my mother’s. So, you know, kind of important.”

“It is?” I asked, a little blankly at that. “I mean, I’m sure it’s great and all, but who’s your mother?”

“You know, my mother?” The boy squinted at me before realizing. “Oh, right, newbie. My mom’s on the Committee.” Taking on a tone that was only slightly patronizing, he started to explain, “That’s the-”

“I know what the Committee is,” I interrupted, trying not to sound annoyed. “Your mom’s a part of it?”

Zeke gave a quick nod, clearly supremely proud. “She’s the one that’s in charge of the tourist-busters.”

Blinking uncertainly, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so what exactly does ‘tourist-buster’ mean?”

He looked like his eagerness to brag was at war with his annoyance about how little I knew. “You know, Heretics assigned to train stations, airports, that kind of thing?” When I gave him nothing but a blank look, he rolled his eyes. “Okay, so Strangers like to lurk around places where a lot of Bystanders are. Plus they have to travel too, and not all of them have magic teleportation powers. So: airports, bus and train stations, places like that are all hotbeds for lots of Strangers. My mom’s in charge of assigning Heretics to protect those places.” He grinned. “She says it’s like shooting fish in a barrel sometimes.”

Translation: Heretics lurk around airports watching for Alters were just trying to travel, then hunt them down and slaughter them. The thought made me sick to my stomach. Sure, there were obviously bad ones that were stalking innocent humans. And stopping them was important. But the Heretics obviously didn’t care if the non-humans they found were actually hurting anyone or not. They just killed them.

Apparently, Zeke took my silence as invitation to continue explaining. “Thing is, Strangers recognize Heretics too. And we don’t always get to see them first. So we can’t just stand around the airport or wherever looking for them, because as soon as one of the little bastards notices a Heretic, they’ll spread the word and all the rats’ll flee back to their holes.” He sounded annoyed about Alters wanting to live.

Coughing, I forced myself to keep my expression flat rather than letting Zeke know exactly what I thought of all that. Instead, I just asked in as mild a tone as I could, “So what do they do about it?”

That cocky smirk of his grew. “That’s the spell we’re gonna work on. It’s the one my mother invented.”

Waving the book at me again, he went on. “It’s a proximity spell, like the one by the Pathmaker building. Basically, it detects any Stranger that comes near it. When it notices them, it does two things. First, it sends an alert to the Heretic that made it. And it makes the Strangers uh, need to evacuate their bowels. So they go to the restroom. And there is where the Heretics wait, just out of sight. When they get the signal that the spell was tripped, they move out and watch the entrance to the restroom until the Stranger shows up. Then they head in and take care of the threat nice and quietly, so no one notices.”

Honestly, it sounded more like horror movie stalker-type tactics than heroic guardians, but I wasn’t going to tell Zeke that. Instead, I swallowed back the bitter vitriol I desperately wanted to spit at him. “Wow.” My voice managed to avoid cracking. “Sounds like your mom’s really figured out how to protect all those travelers.” As long as they’re suitably human, I heroically resisted the urge to add.

“Of course, that’s her job.” The boy lifted his chin with obvious pride before pushing on. “So, I figured maybe ‘make have to go to the bathroom’ is probably a bit… gross. But Mom made a weaker version for testing purposes that just makes the person who triggers it have to sneeze. That good, or do you… have a better idea?”

His tone could not have sounded more doubtful, which instinctively made me want to refuse his plan right out of the gate. Never mind the fact that I thought anything to do with a spell that made Alters walk to their doom like sheep when they were just trying to get through the airport like anyone else was utterly barbaric and sick. But saying anything to that effect to him was a flat out terrible idea. Plus, knowing the spell was obviously going to be important, even if I didn’t like how they happened to use it.

So, I made myself nod. “Sure. Let’s work on your mom’s spell then, if you think we can pull it off.”

His answering smirk was infuriating. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get up to the level to use it.”

Okay, would it really be so wrong of me to use my enhanced strength to see if I could make the spoiled ass fit inside the container for my staff?

******

The next day in Stranger Truths, Nevada was teaching us about goblins. She had drawn a picture of a short, ugly creature with a long, fat nose that covered most of the bottom half of its face, and warts over yellow-green skin.

“This,” she announced, “is a type of goblin that we call a Trow. Most of them are—well, probably about the same size as this picture. Maybe even smaller. They’re little things, and really shy most of the time.”

“Shy?” Jazz echoed. “Don’t you mean sneaky and devious cowards? They don’t fight fair, they hide and kill people that can’t fight back. Just like most Strangers.”

Nevada just gave the dazzling smile, like a cheerleader about to welcome someone onto the team. “What I mean,” she replied, “is that while there are Strangers who stalk and kill humans for anything from food to sport, most Trow don’t outright attack humans. There are exceptions, of course. First of all, the Trow are… well, pranksters is sort of like a… mild term for it. They might not outright kill people usually, but they love to humiliate them. Their pranks are like… you know, kinda mean-spirited. They’ll do anything from screw up a big presentation so the victim looks stupid in front of everyone, to making the victim end up naked in front of a big group. Some people think the Trow live off that kind of shame and embarrassment, but they just enjoy it

“They’re also obsessed with music,” Nevada went on. “So sometimes a group of the Trow will get it into their head to go out and kidnap a singer or a musician and take them back to their burrows to uh, perform for them. They keep them down there for day, a week, or even a year or so. If the performer does good, they usually let them go once they’ve had enough. Not always. Like I said, there’s some nasty ones out there. But usually as long as the ahh, singer or whatever does what they’re told, they’ll be released.”

She went on then, while the rest of us were still trying to comprehend the idea that there were creatures like that out there. Alters that wanted to kill and eat humans I understood, but just humiliating them for the fun of it? Why? What was the point? Could it just be simple amusement?

As I was thinking about that, the feeling of being watched came over me. My eyes blinked up and around, and I barely caught sight of Douglas turning his attention back to the front. He’d obviously been staring again. I’d caught the boy doing that several times already, but he never said what he wanted. He’d just quickly turn away and pretend nothing happened.

At some point, he and I were going to have to have a talk. Too much had happened already to let me think his staring was just a coincidence.

Before long, however, class was over and Nevada was telling us what to read in our books before we came back on Thursday. Which meant I had one more class to go to (Professor Dare’s Bystander History). Shortly after that, I would be attending my very first private tutoring session with Gaia.

I could hardly wait. Not just for my time with Gaia, but for Dare’s class too. In the latter case, I wasn’t alone. Most of our class was actually hurrying to get to the room.

Why were we so eager today? Simple, today was the day that we’d been waiting for a long time, the day that Dare had promised was coming every time someone asked about who she was.

Today was the day that Professor Dare was going to tell us about her history, and what had actually happened to the missing colony.

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Interlude 16 – Tribald Kine

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There was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago that focused on Seller and Abigail. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 🙂

February 4th, 1919

“But Professor, is he still… you know… is he still him?” Seventeen-year-old Tribald Kine stared down at Gaia Sinclaire. Somehow, that seemed wrong. His whole life, the rust-haired boy been tall for his age. Now, there wasn’t a person in the school that he didn’t practically tower over. But something about Professor Sinclaire made it seem like he should naturally be looking up to see her. Her aura, her… stature was enormous in a way his tall, yet rail-thin frame shouldn’t have been able to look down to see.

“And why would he not be, Tribald?” the woman asked gently, her tone more curious than reproachful. “Did you become an entirely different person when you killed the Visikin and gained its poison quills?”

Wincing, Tribald shook his head quickly. “Well, no. But Deveron, he’s… different now. That thing he killed, it didn’t just give him a power, it changed how he looks. He doesn’t look like himself anymore.”

The woman reached up to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Permanent physical alterations are rare, but not unheard of. I assure you, your roommate is still the same person as he always was. Killing the Incubus may have physically changed him, but there has been no actual change to his mind, or his personality.”

Tribald was quiet for a few seconds. He thought of the gawky, hook-nosed boy that he’d spent the past half-year sharing a room with. Then he looked through the window into the room where the tall, classically handsome new version of Deveron Adams stood talking to Headmaster Ruthers. The differences were night and day. Hell, the new version of his roommate looked slightly Asian. Another connection to the Japanese Incubus he’d managed to kill after a long and incredibly drawn-out fight.

If he squinted enough, he could see his roommate in this boy, but with all the flaws gone. He was taller, stood straighter, his body was more openly muscled. He looked like a perfect version of himself.

And then Tribald slumped enough that he was almost eye-level with the teacher. “Sorry, Professor,” he mumbled quietly as his face turned red with embarrassment. “I guess I’m really acting stupid, huh?”

The woman’s voice was as gentle as always. “No, Tribald. Acting stupid would be refusing to accept the answers you’re given, not simply asking the questions. Your friend has changed a lot on the outside. It’s easy to assume that he would have changed on the inside as well. And perhaps he will, in time. The kind of physical alteration the Incubus’s power has given him may make him more confident, among any other changes. But they will not be supernatural in nature. And in the end, he will still be himself.”

Still flushing a little, Tribald thought about that for a moment before starting hesitantly. “So… I guess the best way to make sure he doesn’t get carried away with his new look is to… just… be normal?”

“Yes,” Gaia confirmed. “Be there for him. Be his friend, just as you have been this whole year. He still enjoys everything he always has. His hobbies, his likes and dislikes, those are the same as they ever were. You were friends before the Incubus, and this should change nothing, unless you allow it to.”

Letting out a long breath, Tribald gave a quick nod. “I—thanks, Professor. You’re really, um–” He glanced down again, shifting nervously as he brought up something that he’d wondered for awhile. “You’re really good at this kind of thing. Were you really a Baroness before you became a teacher?”

He saw her face go still for a moment and thought that he’d made a terrible mistake. But as an apology formed on his lips, the woman spoke quietly. “Yes, and no. I was Baroness of the lost state of Desoto. Yet even in that role and before it, I would say that I was still a teacher. Taking this position in this school only made official what I saw as my most important duty for much of my life. Especially now.”

Tribald hadn’t been alive when Desoto had been lost in the Fomorian invasion, but it hadn’t been that long before his birth. He’d grown up hearing the stories about how Gaia Sinclaire had violated the secrecy rules and had her Heretics reveal themselves to Bystanders in order to evacuate them before the entire state was annihilated. Most of the people he’d heard talk about it hated the woman for that. They called her a coward, claiming that the Heretics should have stood to fight the invasion, and that revealing themselves to normal humans (even if those people would forget afterward anyway) was tantamount to treason. Between that and the destruction of the entire state, most had thought that Gaia would never hold any position of power in Crossroads society again, and would likely die in infamy.

Except that hadn’t happened. Within a few years of the incident, Headmaster Ruthers had brought the woman on as a teacher at his school. The man took a hit on his popularity, but he was apparently too stubborn to care. His focus, as always, was on protecting humanity at all costs. Which meant he was one of the few who actually agreed with Gaia’s choice to temporarily reveal Heretics to the Bystanders in order to save them. And he was just pig-headed enough to tell her detractors to jump off a bridge.

Whatever her reason for being here, Tribald was just glad she was. And that Headmaster Ruthers had given her a chance when no one else would. The man may have been hard to talk to sometimes, and extremely stubborn about his way being the right way. But at least he’d recognized that Gaia Sinclaire would be good for the school.

And who knew? Maybe in time, her influence would temper even the crotchety Headmaster.

******

October 15th, 1929

Walking along the edge of the school grounds, Tribald watched the placid ocean in the distance. The water looked so peaceful from up where he was, it was easy to get lost in thought while staring at it.

He couldn’t loiter here for long. He may not have been a student anymore, but he still had responsibilities. Hell, as part of the security team, he probably had less free time than he had as an actual student. In fifteen minutes, he needed to be back in the office so that Thompson could go on break.

As he was about to turn away from the sight of the ocean, a soft hand covered his mouth while another caught his arm. He jerked, and was about to retaliate when a familiar voice whispered, “Bang, bang.”

“Hggmm?” Eyes widening, Tribald pulled his head free and turned, his own voice a whisper, “Joselyn?” he hissed. “What are you—how are you here? What—I didn’t hear the alarm, did you just-”

The beautiful blonde grinned, stepping back as she released him. She’d had to make herself float about a foot off the ground in order to reach his mouth to cover it. Now, she sank back down and stretched while waving a hand at him. “There’s no alarm, Trib. Don’t worry, no one else knows I’m within a thousand miles of this place. And no one’s going to know. Right?” She added with a raised eyebrow.

“Not from me,” he confirmed, still whispering hoarsely even as he looked around with a deep sense of paranoia. “But how? How can you be on the grounds right now without anyone knowing? Jos, you’re like–” Lowering his voice even further until it was barely audible, he hissed, “You’re a criminal now. You being on the grounds should be sending off every alert we have. They should be dogpiling you.”

“Ooh, dogpiling,” the blonde woman gave that incorrigible grin once more before nudging him. “Should I be flattered? How’s the security crop this year, any good sheiks? Besides you, I mean.”

She laughed at his expression. “Okay, okay. The truth is, I can’t tell you how I got here. A girl’s gotta have her secrets, Trib. And what you don’t know, they can’t get out of you if anything goes wrong.” At the last bit, she sobered noticeably, laying a hand on his shoulder. “And I don’t want anything to go wrong. That’s why you should know as little as possible. Plausible deniability. You’re safer that way.”

Tribald finally focused on her rather than letting his eyes dart around so much. Instead, he squinted at his former classmate. “Safer? I don’t want to be safe, I want to help you with… you know what. I should be out there with you, not playing security for this place.” He waved a hand around vaguely.

“No, Tribald.” Joselyn shook her head. “I already told you, being with me is a bad idea.” Her voice softened then. “Deveron trusts you more than anything, so I trust you more than anything. You’re our friend, but the others don’t know that. They can’t know that. No one can. They have to think that you’re loyal to Crossroads, that you hate us. That’s how you can help, by being our ace in the hole. If anything goes wrong, we’ll need people like you on the inside more than we need you fighting right beside us.”

It took him a moment, but finally the man swallowed hard and nodded. “Whatever I can do to help. You know that. You, me, and Deveron, we go way back. Back to the beginning. So yeah, I’m with you. You need me to play security in this place for another fifty years, I’ll do it. Anything you need, Jos.”

“Great,” Joselyn replied with an impish wink and smile. “Because I need you to quit your job.”

His mouth opened and shut at that, and he gaped for a moment before managing a weak, “Err, what?”

Chuckling, the woman squeezed his arm. “Okay, not just quit. We need to get someone into the Bow Street Runners, Trib. It’s too dangerous not to have any eyes on that group, if we’re going to pull any of this off. You’ve already got the scores to make it, and being part of the security team here will help.”

“The Runners?” Tribald echoed in disbelief. “You really think they’d take someone like me?”

She shot him a hard look at that. “Stop it. You’re brilliant, Trib. If you don’t belong with the Runners, no one does. You’re a great security guard, but you’ll be an even better detective. And I’m not just saying that. If I didn’t think you could do some real good there, I wouldn’t ask you. And I am asking. If you don’t want to do it, just say so. We’ll find someone else. But like I said, it’s not just about having someone in that group. I think you can really help people as one of the Runners. If you want to do it.”

In spite of himself, Tribald swallowed nervously. “Apply to the Runners, I mean… they’re a—that’s really–” He took a breath, buoyed by her encouragement. “Yeah. I’ll do it. I’ll apply to the Runners.”

The relief on Joselyn’s face was obvious, despite her attempt to try to make him think it would be okay if he refused. “Thank you.” Floating up off the ground once more, she kissed his cheek before giving him a brief hug. “Now I really need to go before one of your coworkers comes looking for you. Besides,” she added while looking pointedly over her shoulder. “I think my friend’s getting impatient.”

He blinked blankly, looking up past her. “What fri-” He stopped short, eyes widening at the sight of the black man standing half-hidden in the shadows. The figure wasn’t tall in comparison to him, topping out at only a couple inches over six feet. But just like with Gaia, something about the silent man made Tribald feel tiny in comparison. Except this was even more apparent. The power and strength that radiated out from the dark-skinned man somehow made him feel like he was a child again, standing in the shadow of his father. He felt at once protected and also intimidated by this invincible sentinel.

“Is–” His voice cracked in spite of himself before he pushed on. “Is that… is that Gabriel Pro–”

“Shh.” Joselyn touched her finger to her lips, eyes sparkling with mischief and amusement. “Don’t say it. Next time I’ll try to have time to let you guys talk. I’m sure he’ll want to hear all your stories.”

He’ll want to hear my stories?” Tribald echoed in disbelief. But Joselyn was already retreating back to the shadows to join her companion. Before she disappeared entirely, he quickly added, “Do you think we can pull this off? You really believe we can actually win this thing?”

By that point, Joselyn herself was almost entirely enveloped by the shadows. Her face was mostly hidden as she looked back to him, though he could see the white of her smile. “Don’t you understand? It’s not about whether we win or lose at some eventual end-point. It’s about everything we do. Every time we save someone they would have killed, we win. Every time we make one of them think, even for a second, that what they’re doing is wrong, we win. Every person we convince, every life we save, every family we help, that’s when we win. Every father, mother, and child who does not have their right to exist taken away just because of how they were born, we win.

“So don’t look at me and ask if we’re going to win. Look at every single person who will die if we don’t try, and ask yourself if they deserve to lose.”

******

September 7th, 2017

As Joselyn’s daughter left the room where he’d been questioning her about Zedekiah’s death, Tribald sat back for a moment. She looked… so much like her mother. The resemblance and family connection was obvious from the very first second that he’d seen her. The sight of the blonde girl sitting there when he’d come into the room had surprised him so much that he’d almost blurted Joselyn’s name before catching himself.

The girl had noticed. He knew that much. She’d noticed enough to ask about it, about why she had almost been refused entry to the school. Something about the way he’d looked at her had convinced the girl that he had answers. And he did, even if that damned spell prevented him from actually giving them to her. Given the choice, he’d take the girl aside and tell her everything. All of it. He owed her mother that much and far more.

He’d wanted to damn the consequences and break Joselyn out of prison the entire time that she’d been locked up in there. He had been willing to risk everything if it meant getting his friend out of her cell. But Joselyn had stopped him, had convinced him to look to the future. She made him promise to keep his position and use it to both look for and protect her children. Especially if they came to Crossroads.

So he had done what he could without tipping his hand. He tried to protect the boy, Wyatt by that point, from Ruthers’ manipulations and spies throughout his schooling. It wasn’t much, but he made sure that the kid always had a job to fall back on and that he received enough training to protect himself. He made sure that books detailing various security enchantments found their way into the boy’s hands, acting as a secret, hands-off tutor.

It was harder to keep an eye on Abigail without being noticed by his contemporaries, but he did what he could while out in the regular world. As far as he could tell, she had grown up happy enough with her Bystander family. He’d even made certain that she met one of his distant relatives, the grandson of one of his cousins. Abigail and Kenneth had hit it off, and now their child was coming to the same school as Joselyn’s daughter.

Shaking off those thoughts, Tribald pushed himself away from the chair and stood. In the same motion, he called on one of the teleportation powers he’d gained over the years.

Then he was standing in front of the trophy case, the same one he’d directed Flick toward. Turning, the man’s eyes immediately found someone else waiting there.

“I figured you’d come down here,” Klassin Roe, the school therapist, remarked. “She looks like her mother, doesn’t she?”

Tribald nodded once, a lump catching in his throat at the thought. “She does.” He nodded to the picture behind the glass. “She also deserves to know the truth.”

Klassin glanced that way as well, his voice quiet. “You’re taking the spell down?”

Putting his hand up against the glass, Tribald gave another nod, his eyes focusing on the photograph of their graduating class. It was one of the only existing photographs of Joselyn that he’d managed to protect from the spell. He’d left it in the case here so that nothing would happen to it, leaving a protective enchantment that stopped most people from noticing it. Then, between himself and Klassin, they managed to keep the enchantment up.

“She’s a good kid,” Tribald murmured while keeping his hand against the glass in front of the picture. “Joselyn would be proud of her.”

Klassin gave a soft chuckle. “Of course she would, the kid’s already finding ways to buck the system and it’s been like three days.”

Both of their heads turned slightly then at the sound of approaching footsteps. Flick and her roommate. Apparently his partner was done with her interrogation too.

Before the two girls came into view, Tribald silently dismissed the enchantment on the picture, allowing it to be seen so that they could find it. Then he met Klassin’s gaze briefly before both men teleported out of sight at the last second.

Maybe the spell prevented him from outright telling the girl the truth. But he could damn well make sure she found enough clues to put it together. It was the least he could do after everything that had happened. Like so many others, whether they admitted it or not, he was the man he was because of Joselyn Atherby.

And that went double for his companion. Not only would the school therapist not be the kind of man that he was without Joselyn’s influence, he would literally be a different person.

After all, without Joselyn, Klassin Roe never would have rebelled against his father and changed his name from Jonathan Ruthers.

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Mini-Interlude 12 – Seller and Abigail

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Seller and Abigail talking about their family. 

Against the background of the giant forest, its trees like the skyline of office towers in the middle of New York or Hong Kong, a lone man in a pristine emerald suit and matching sunglasses stood out. Despite the superficial similarity in coloration between his apparel and the surrounding foliage, there could be no mistaking such vestments for camouflage. They were far too bright and clearly artificial against the simple earthy greens of leaves and bushes. The man stood out like a brightly polished ruby set against the fur of a red squirrel. Both ostensibly of the same shade, yet clearly very different.

“So I have another question for you.”

The voice came from behind the man in question, but he didn’t turn to look. There was no need to. The sunglasses that he wore provided him with full three hundred and sixty degree vision all the way around himself. They also amplified light so that he could see perfectly in near-total darkness, protected him from most harmful vision effects, and included various telescopic and X-Ray vision capabilities.

Some of those same skills weren’t exactly necessary due to other powers that he’d gained over the years from various creatures. But he kept the glasses anyway. Not only out of sentimental value (which there was plenty of), but also because an enemy believing they had stripped those abilities from him by taking away the glasses would be in for a surprise.

“I would be very surprised if you went too long without one, Abigail,” he replied easily to the woman who was picking her way carefully through the giant bush that he had been waiting in front of. “It’s a lot to take in. If possible, I’ll try to answer.”

Abigail Fellows, who at one point in her very early childhood had been known as Koren Atherby before eventually giving that forename to her own daughter out of some not-entirely lost memory, straightened up and dusted herself off before focusing on him. “Why do they call you Seller? I mean, is it—wait, is it safe to talk?”

“It is,” he confirmed, reaching out to tap the watch that he wore. Among the Bystanders, it was known as a Louis Moinet Magistralis, a watch brand which sold for roughly eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It also held enchantments remarkably well. “As long as you stay within a few yards of me, we’re safe from eavesdroppers for the time being.”

“Right, then why?” Abigail folded her thin arms, staring down her nose at him. “And is it Seller Atherby? Because no one I’ve seen ever uses a last name with you.”

“People of Eden’s Garden don’t usually stick with our birth names,” he answered carefully. “When trainees turn eighteen, they’re given a new name either by their closest mentor and teacher, or by a committee of leaders, depending on the tribe. A couple tribes even let people choose their own names. And, to be honest, even some of the ones that assign them mostly do that as a formality. If the trainee requests a specific name, they’ll probably get it.”

“So that’s why that boy that I saw Miranda with was named… Noble?” Abigail mused aloud. “And then the werewolf girl with the green hair, she was… Pace?”

“And her partners are Doxer and Trice, yeah.” Seller nodded. “Miranda explained the first one to me, but I didn’t follow most of it. Something about how finding out everything about a person or a company is called doxing, and he fancies himself good at finding that sort of thing, so he calls himself Doxer.”

“And Trice?” she asked, sounding annoyed at the very mention of their names.

“It’s an old Middle English word,” he replied. “It means either an instant or a very brief time. You know how people say ‘I’ll get that done in a jiffy?’ Well, same thing. ‘I’ll get that done in a trice.’”

“Well their names should be ‘pawn, stooge, and patsy.’” Abigail’s voice was a huff. “I cannot believe that there’s nothing we can do to make them–” She stopped herself through visible effort, muttering under her breath before focusing again. “Distract me, why the name?”

Shrugging, Seller started to walk again, leading the woman through the forest. “I wasn’t always part of Eden’s Garden. When I first started interacting with them, I was a mercenary. They called me Sellsword for awhile. Somehow that got shortened to Seller. I guess after I officially joined them, they wanted to sound more polite or something.”

After a moment of silence as they picked their way through more enormous bushes, he continued. “And I don’t use the name Atherby because it’s not mine anyway. My family married into that one after me. Not that I’ve had much to do with my bloodline in the past. I guess I ahh, kind of feel guilty about that sometimes, but another part of me figures most of them—you–are better off without any of my enemies knowing about you. Believe me, there’s people out there that wouldn’t rest until all of you were dead if they knew you were related to me.”

“Yeah,” Abigail retorted, “Because our family is doing so well already.”

He winced, just a little bit. “Fair. But my own problems would still add onto those threats. And as you just managed to point out, that’s the last thing you need.”

The woman turned, squinting at him intently. “And just how many other ‘family members’ do you have out there? How many generations separate us? Two, three, four? Should I call you Grandpa, Great-grandpa?”

“Call me Seller,” he insisted with a quick shake of his head. “Just Seller.” After a moment of letting that hang, he sighed. “But fine, if you insist. You know your mother. The one I can’t talk about that much because of the damn enchantment.”

“Joselyn—wait, why can I talk about her but you can’t?”

He chuckled darkly. “Part of the spell. You weren’t a target of it. I was. Anyway, some of the other stuff I can talk about. Her parents. Her father was Joshua, and his father was Lyell. Lyell’s wife was named Edeva. She was my daughter.”

Abigail blinked at that. “So you’re Wyatt’s, Flick’s, and my… great, great-grandfather. That’s… less than I thought there would be. Flick said that you didn’t know she was your descendant.”

He coughed. “Yes, but that’s not so much a matter of losing track as not knowing that the woman even had another daughter. Part of the deal with Crossroads was not tracking her down after all that happened.”

Abigail was quiet then, frowning thoughtfully. Before she managed to speak again, Seller stopped in front of another one of the giant trees. To anyone else, it would have looked like any other tree in this forest aside from the much larger one that the Heretics lived on.

Yet, to Seller’s eye, it stood out almost as much. “Here,” he announced, tapping his hand against the wood in a distinct rhythm. A moment later, part of the tree itself lifted up and turned, revealing a large opening. He gestured for the woman to precede him, then stepped in after her.

Abigail blinked in the darkness. “Well? What now?” The two of them were standing inside the tree.

In response, the man tapped the wood again in another distinct pattern. As he finished, the tree began to lower itself once more with the two of them in it.

“A—a hidden elevator?” Abigail demanded as the tree sank back into the ground before revealing a cave in front of them.

Seller nodded, gesturing for her to accompany him into the cave. “Over the years, I’ve found it beneficial to have a few places that even other Gardeners aren’t aware of. This is one of them.”

The cave itself was about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide on average, though there were spots that were much narrower and others that were slightly wider. Here and there he had placed chests of supplies or other things he thought he might need in case of emergency. And at the back of the cavern was the only living creature besides himself, Abigail, and Hannah who had ever been in the place.

“Oh… my… god.” Abigail’s eyes were wide as she stared at the thing even as it cautiously eyed them from as far away as possible. “Is that a… is that a Pegasus?”

“Of course not,” Seller retorted. “A Pegasus is a horse with wings. You see the antlers? This is a Peryton. It’s a stag with wings. His name is Salten, and he belongs to Han—Avalon. Obviously, she couldn’t take him with her to Crossroads, and she was afraid that Trice and his cronies would do something to him. So she asked me to take care of him. I take him out with me for exercise and fresh air. While you’re here, you can help out.”

He watched then as Abigail slowly stepped forward, staring at the majestic animal. It was slightly larger than an elk, yet smaller than a moose. Most of the Peryton’s body was white, while its antlers were a gleaming silver. Meanwhile, both its wing feathers and tail feathers were blue save for the ones along the edges, which were black with silver tips.

“Who would… hurt such a beautiful creature?” the woman asked breathlessly while taking another step that way. “Is it okay to touch him?”

“If he’ll let you,” Seller replied. “He and Hannah basically grew up together. They were more like siblings than mistress and steed, though he let her ride him. They wrestled a lot.”

She looked over her shoulder at him quizzically. “Wrestled?”

Seller smiled faintly at the memory. “Well, as much as a thirteen-year-old girl and a Peryton fawn can wrestle, yes.”

Abigail turned away from him then, looking back to the squinting creature. “… you miss her, don’t you?” she asked quietly, lifting her hand to show him her palm. “You miss Ava… Hannah.”

At the sound of the name, Salten took a quick step forward. His big head leaned around to peek behind Abigail as though searching for the girl in question. He seemed to sniff the air, then let out a slightly shuddering snort before focusing. Seller could see the eagerness fade into sadness when there was no sign of his long-time companion.

“Ohhh…” the woman shivered visibly before reaching up to put her hand against the side of the Peryton’s nose. “You do miss her. I know. My…” She swallowed. “I lost my husband recently, and I’m not… I can’t remember him. I remember… loving someone, and thinking about losing that makes me sad. But I can’t remember anything about the man himself. I don’t… I can’t feel what I’m supposed to feel. I can’t mourn him because I don’t remember him at all. I don’t know anything about our life together. And my daughter is… my daughter is off in the same place your Hannah is, and I can’t help her. I’m supposed to be okay with that but—but I don’t know how I can be.”

Salten went still for a moment, then lowered his head against the woman’s shoulder, stepping closer in what Seller realized was as close to a hug as the animal could get.

The two of them stood like that for a few minutes before Abigail collected herself, looking back toward Seller as something else obviously occurred to her. “You said Joshua, Joshua’s father Lyell, and Lyell’s wife Edeva, your daughter. What about Joshua’s wife? According to Flick, both of them sacrificed themselves to drive the Fomorians out of the world.”

Seller didn’t respond at first. He looked away silently for a few seconds before murmuring, “Not exactly.”

“What? What do you mean, not exactly?” the woman demanded while reaching out to gently run her hand down Salten’s side.

He sighed. “Both of them sacrificed themselves in a way. The magic they were doing, it required two kinds of sacrifice. One literal, one metaphorical. Joshua sacrificed his life literally. His wife sacrificed hers metaphorically. She sacrificed her identity as Joshua’s wife and her connection to that family. It was erased from everyone’s memory. Even I don’t know who she was. Every bit of her as connected to the Atherby line was erased, both physical and mental. When I think of her now, it’s just a black spot where her face and name should be.”

Abigail’s eyes were wide. “That’s—what—that’s vile. Can’t it be… undone?”

“If it was,” the man replied softly, “It would weaken the spell keeping the Fomorians away. There has to be a living component of the spell for it to stay as strong as it is. That’s part of the whole point of there being two sides of the sacrifice that banished them.”

“So this… woman, she’s still alive?”

He nodded. “I would assume so. Probably staying with Gabriel Prosser. He wouldn’t have wanted to leave Joshua’s wife all on her own, so I imagine he made arrangements beforehand, even if he wouldn’t remember afterward who she really was or about her connection to the Atherby’s.”

“So you’re telling me that we have a mother out there whom no one remembers… and a grandmother?” Abigail demanded. “What the–” she launched into possibly the longest single string of curse words Seller could remember emerging from an adult.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that your mother got the idea for her own erasure from her mother’s,” Seller replied once she had finally run out of breath. “But yes, self-sacrifice does seem to be an ongoing theme of the Atherby line. Particularly since my own family was connected to it.”

“Well, it needs to stop,” Abigail stated flatly. “And you need to involve yourself more. Don’t start on the whole enemies thing. There’s already enemies, so your excuses don’t hold water. Look at what’s happening. Look at what’s been happening ever since… well, it seems like it started back with the Fomorian… invasion. But it’s still going on. We need to work together, or we’re going to lose more of our family.”

Sighing, Seller gave a slight nod. “You have a point. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot we can do about it right now.”

The woman was silent for a few long seconds while she ran her hand along the animal’s side. When she spoke, her tone was thoughtful. “Actually… maybe there is…

“Tell me more about Edeva and Lyell.”

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Second Hunt 16-06

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Scout made it to the room just as Avalon was starting to come to. My eyes snapped from the quiet girl coming around the corner, to my roommate as she gave a quiet groan and began trying to sit up.

Gaia was already there. She was still kneeling next to her adopted daughter with a hand on her face. The woman’s voice was soft as she said something quietly in a language I didn’t understand, but sounded quite tender. Then she added in English. “It’s all right. Take it slow, the threat is over now.”

“What–” Blinking a couple times, Avalon pushed herself into a slight sitting position. Her eyes went from me to Gaia and then back again before she muttered in an annoyed tone, “They tried again.” It wasn’t the kind of voice of a person terrified that some kind of conspiracy had attempted to kill her for what had to be the fifty-third time. Instead, it was the same sort of tone that I’d expect to come from someone who was annoyed that their roommate had taken the last of the milk. Exasperation. Annoyance. If Avalon was actually afraid of what was going on, she wasn’t really showing any of it.

I had to stop myself from rushing up to her. She’d been pretty much point-blank in front of an explosion that had knocked her unconscious for a decent length of time. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to… But no. Gaia was there. She deserved to be the one to check on the girl that mattered enough to her to adopt her, to do all of this for her. I cared about Avalon, but interrupting that right then would’ve been selfish.

It also reminded me of just how much the girl had to mean to Gaia. As old as the headmistress was and as much as she had seen over those centuries, she had to have lost a lot of people. But I had seen her expression when she came in to find Avalon unconscious after yet another attempt to kill the girl, and I saw her expression as she knelt with a hand on her face. I’d seen the anger and the relief. If Gaia wasn’t Avalon’s mother, it was pure semantics. She clearly cared about the girl just as much as if she was.

Moving up to my side, Scout looked at me questioningly. So, I whispered a quick explanation, “Bad guy fought Deveron for awhile and then got away just before Gaia showed up. She dismantled the bomb and fixed the hole.” Glancing to her and the blood on her uniform, I added, “Are you okay?”

She gave a quick nod at that, making a face before lifting her rifle pointedly. Then she focused on the wound in my arm and the blood there, and her face fell a bit before the girl whispered a weak, “Sorry.”

“Hey, no.” Shaking my head, I lifted my arm and showed her. “Healing already, see?” Restraining a grimace of pain as much as I could, I instead tried to smile. “It wasn’t your fault. I mean, deflecting bullets with a knife, who saw that coming? You were helping. I just… I’m glad Deveron showed up when he did.” My eyes glanced that way, and found the boy (or man) in question already talking to someone on his own communication pin. “He was… really bad ass. If he hadn’t shown up when he did…” Trailing off, I couldn’t help the shudder that passed through me. “It would’ve been really bad.”

Before Scout could respond to that, Gaia was standing up. She took hold of Avalon’s hand and helped her up as well. I could tell that the woman wanted to do more than that, but she stopped herself for the other girl’s sake. Then she was looking toward me. “Thank you, Felicity,” she spoke quietly, obviously more in control of herself by that point than she had been when she first arrived and actually called me Flick. “You have, as usual now, gone above and beyond what we should expect of our… our students.”

“Hey,” I tried to shake that off even as I cradled my broken and still healing wrist. “I didn’t do anything that Avalon wouldn’t have done for me. Except her way probably would’ve been a lot more competent.”

A slight, knowing smile touched the headmistress’s face then as she looked from Avalon to me and back again before speaking in an easy tone. “It’s very important that roommates and… partners be able to trust each other that much. I’m glad that you two are willing to go that far to protect one another.”

“She shouldn’t have had to,” Avalon spoke sharply then. “The bomb shouldn’t have gone off. We’re su-”

“We’ll discuss it away from this place,” Gaia interrupted, her tone gentle but firm. “For now, this exercise is over. We’ll go back to the island and have a… discussion with your entire team, together.”

“Um,” I hesitated before raising a hand. “Headmistress, what about the rest of the skeleblineists?”

The red-haired woman just blinked at me, head tilting a little. “I’m sorry, what about the what, now?”

My face pinked at that as I remembered that wasn’t their real name. “Err, sorry, I mean the… Strangers. I couldn’t remember the name, so I just—you know, skeleton-goblin-poltergeists. Skeleblineists.”

For a long, silent moment, Gaia just looked at me. Then she gave the faintest smile of amusement, almost undetectable before murmuring, “Fair enough. Now, as for what should be done about them…”

The woman trailed off, pausing as she looked away. I saw a momentary frown of concentration cross her face, and felt some kind of invisible yet almost tangible power pass through me. It was a little bit like feeling static electricity, and lasted for five seconds or so. Abruptly, the feeling cut out and there was a loud squealing noise from all around us. About five feet from Avalon, one of the skeleblineists popped out of the wall. On the opposite side of the room, another one appeared from the floor. And a third came out of the engine itself. None of them were attacking, however. They just popped half-way out, screaming in pain. Meanwhile, further off in the ship I could hear the cries of others echoing.

The terrible squeals only lasted for a second or two, until all of them were visible. Then all three of the ones I could see were reduced to literal ashes that fell to the floor. And considering the way the screams cut off everywhere else as well, I was pretty sure the exact same thing happened to the rest of them.

Gaia straightened, the by-then-familiar golden aura (the same color as my own, I noticed) briefly flaring up around the headmistress as she cracked her neck to the side. Then the woman nodded in satisfaction. “There. Now it’s finished.”

Okay, yeah. I’m pretty sure my gulp at that was audible from clear across the room. Or possibly even from the other side of the ship. “Oh, um. Thanks,” I managed weakly, my wide eyes darting to the girl beside me. For her part, Scout looked just as taken aback by the display of power. Which made me feel a little bit better. If she wasn’t used to it, having grown up around all this stuff, then it wasn’t just me.

By that point, Gaia was already gesturing toward the nearby hatch. At her motion, the broken doorway lifted up and set itself back into place before closing. Then the headmistress just stepped that way and opened it once more. Except rather than seeing the corridor of the ship, the open doorway revealed one of the Pathmaker portal rooms. She gestured for us to go. “You’ll find the rest of your team already waiting, I promise. As I said, we will discuss things once everyone is together and accounted for.”

So, Scout, Avalon, and I passed through the portal together. I resisted the urge to try to help Avalon. Not only was I really not feeling up to it considering the pain in my arm, wrist, and… well, pretty much everywhere, but I was pretty sure that if I had even tried to steady Avalon, she would’ve flattened me.

As promised, Columbus, Sands, and Sean were already waiting in the portal room. Wyatt was there too, standing beside the other security guy. When we came into the room, Sands went running up to embrace her sister, while Wyatt took a step my way before stopping himself. The poor guy looked like he wanted to tell the entire concept of secrets to go screw themselves as he stared at me intently for a moment before managing a slightly strained, “Oh—oh good, good, you’re all okay. No one d-died?”

Smiling faintly, I shook my head at him. “Nope, not… not this time. We’re fine, Mr. Rendell. Thanks.”

Vulcan had no such compulsions against showing how much he cared. The robot dog came bounding right up to me, barking until I obediently reached down to pet him. “Hey, boy. Did you take care of your partner? You keep him out of trouble, huh?” Smiling, I rubbed over his metal head vigorously.

My eyes moved up then toward Columbus. The boy was still soaked from his little swim when he’d been knocked out of the ship by the bomb, but otherwise he didn’t really look hurt. “You okay?”

In the back of my mind, that new power that I’d picked up was still cataloging every inanimate object that got close enough to me. I could sense what was in Sands’s pockets, as well as Scout’s and Avalon’s. As far as I could tell, it didn’t actually tell me what was in the extradimensional storage space like our weapon sheathes. It probably had something to do with the items technically being in another world.

“Yeah,” Columbus nodded to the security guy who’d saved him. “Thanks to Bennet. Think I swallowed about half the ocean when I got knocked out there, but I’m good. What about you? You look… bad.”

“Gee thanks,” I mumbled before sighing. “We’re alive. Despite their best efforts. That’s what matters.”

Professor Dare came through into the portal room then, followed by Gaia and Deveron. The blonde teacher looked more worn out than I had ever actually seen her. I could see a few cuts and bruises, her normally immaculate uniform had a couple holes in it here and there, and her hair had come loose so that there were random strands sticking out. There was even a bit of blood under the woman’s nose.

“Bennet,” she addressed the other security guy, who was staring at her with probably as much surprise as I was. “Please go and find Risa. Ask her to join us here, assuming nothing else has gone wrong.”

The man glanced to the headmistress, who nodded. Then his eyes darted toward both me and Avalon for a second before he spun on his heel and hurried out the other way with a quick, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Once he was gone, Wyatt didn’t wait any more. He practically sprinted to cross the distance before he was hugging me. Actually, the poor guy was literally lifting me off the ground. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled. “I didn’t want to turn off the escape-port, I wanted to use it, but she was still in trouble and the escape-port wouldn’t work with her and I was trying to fix it, but if I let you go then she wouldn’t have anyone and I couldn’t do that to you or her and I didn’t want to do any of it, but I had t-”

“Wyatt, Wyatt,” I quickly interrupted while he continued to babble. “I’m okay! We’re okay, listen, I can’t—Wyatt, I can’t understand you. What do you mean, escape-port? What happened? Talk slower.”

Visibly taking a moment to calm himself, the man swallowed hard. His pronounced Adam’s apple bobbed a couple times before he pushed on. “I provided security measures for your mission that would have pulled you out of danger. Somehow, they… they blocked the effect on Avalon’s. Yours was still working, but I deactivated it. I left you in danger so that you could protect her, all because my measure failed.” His voice was getting higher by the end, and he turned abruptly toward Gaia. “Headmistress, I accept any punishment you give me for the unacceptable failure. I’ll… I’ll resign right now if you wish.”

“No, Wyatt.” Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you understand? We owe you our thanks, not condemnation. If it wasn’t for your security efforts, Avalon would already be… The assassins would have succeeded.”

The poor guy looked taken aback, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I—they would have?”

“Yes,” the headmistress nodded. “And Felicity here most likely would have been killed as well.” Her gaze softened. “You are correct, the person who attacked Avalon was able to block the spell that would have brought her out of danger. But even then, they were not able to take her anywhere. I detected several attempts in that room to leave with her. Obviously, their primary intention was to leave with Avalon, most likely so that they could… eliminate her in private without any of us to stop them.”

Gaia had a hand on Avalon’s shoulder, her voice soft as she continued. “Because of your security enchantment, none of those efforts worked. Which meant that they had to attempt to…” she swallowed just a little. “… kill her right there. That also required breaking through enough of your enchantments to even make the attempt. Between those efforts and their ongoing focus on preventing your retrieval spell from simply whisking Avalon away from them, the attacker’s attention was split enough that they were unable to put their full effort on the fight with Felicity. If they had, I believe she would be dead now.”

Well, that made me cringe. I’d thought fighting that masked assassin had been hard enough. But knowing that their attention had been split multiple ways and they hadn’t been fighting at near their full ability? Yeah, that thought made me want to whimper. Clearly whoever these people were, they were far over the level of a few first year students. Looking to Wyatt then, I managed a weak, “Thanks.”

“Does… does that mean they screwed with my bombs too?” Columbus put in. The poor guy looked about as guilty and stressed out as Wyatt had. “Because I swear I checked them before I put them in my pack. They should’ve been fine. The timers worked when I was testing them before the mission.”

I checked them as well, Mr. Porter,” Professor Dare assured him. “I would not have allowed you to go out on a mission like that with active explosives unless I was confident that they had been assembled correctly and were safe. When I looked them over, they were. Someone interfered between the time that I did my inspection, and when you attempted to use them. Which indicates a disturbing level of access, as well as enough knowledge of what your mission was to assume that they would be used.”

Before anyone could say anything to that, the door into the rest of the building opened once more and Professor Kohaku entered. Her gaze took all of us in, clearly inspecting for any lasting injury before she gave a long sigh. “Again?”

“Again.” Gaia sounded just as annoyed before turning her attention to us. “We will talk more of this later. For now, I must ask you to excuse us while we… discuss what has happened and what we are going to do to prevent it in the future. As for your grade for this mission…” She looked to Professor Dare.

The blonde woman smiled just a little. Her injuries had already healed, though there was still the blood on her clothes and the rips through them that showed just how much she had been through. “I would say you all scored quite well, if we discount the… interference. Had things continued the way they were progressing, you would have sunk the ship, as we hoped you would. You displayed admirable teamwork both before and after the interruption. So I would say you’ve earned top marks, given everything that happened.”

The headmistress squeezed Avalon’s shoulder, looking like what she wanted to do was pull her back into a hug right there. “Yes. Very good indeed.” Clearing her throat, she nodded to Wyatt. “Mr. Rendell, if you could ensure that they arrive safely back at their dorms?”

So, we trudged out of the portal room together. Everyone else looked utterly exhausted. In my case, most of the pain had faded, and I wasn’t even tired. Mostly I felt numb. I wanted to hug Avalon and not let go. I wanted to know who the hell had tried to kill her again. We knew why they were trying so hard, but not who. I wanted her to be safe, and happy.

And I wanted to talk to my father.

******

So I did. After spending some time with Avalon in our room and making sure the girl was really okay (hopefully without pushing her too far), I eventually left. Thanks to my new pendant, I didn’t have to obey the curfew anymore. Which meant that I could wander the grounds after hours, talking to my dad on the phone. Not that I told him that I was out, and especially not why. As far as he knew, I was in my room, and just needed to talk.

Eventually, he had to go to bed, so I switched to the private phone and talked to Asenath. Finding my way out behind the main building, I took a seat on the grass and watched the jungle in the distance while I told the vampire girl all about what had actually happened that day, and how worried I was. She listened while I vented about how angry I was that our security and safety had been compromised again, and how worried I was about Avalon.

There wasn’t much that the girl could do, obviously. But she was a really good listener, and didn’t try to cut in. She let me say what I needed to without interrupting, which let me get my head on straighter than it had been pretty much since the attack started.

Finally, I sat back and looked at the sky with the phone to my ear. “Thanks, Senny. Sorry for talking your ear off. I just…”

“Needed to talk to someone,” she finished. “I get it. Don’t worry. I just wish there was more I could do.”

“Trust me, you’re doing enough,” I assured her. “Just… don’t let anything happen to my dad, okay? I… I couldn’t take that. Not now.”

Her voice was serious. “You have my word.” Lightening her tone a bit, she added, “And hey, could you ask Shiori what her favorite kind of pie is before Christmas break?”

Chuckling in spite of myself, I nodded absently. “Yeah, I’ll find out. But I thought you didn’t cook.”

“I don’t,” she retorted. “But Twister does.”

We talked a little bit more. Now that I had the ranting out of my system, I was able to laugh a little bit and just enjoy the conversation. Eventually, I let the other girl get back to what she was doing and hung up. Then I just sat there under the moonlight, watching the jungle and the stars.

About ten minutes passed like that before a shadow fell over me. Opening my eyes, I turned slightly to find Gaia standing just above me. “Err, sorry, Headmistress.” I quickly started to get up.

“It’s all right, Felicity.” Gaia extended a hand down to help me. “I hope I wasn’t interrupting?”

My head shook. “No, ma’am. I was just… thinking.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly. “I’ve been doing a lot of that as well. And I believe it’s time that I began taking your training more seriously.”

I blinked at that. “Err, ma’am?”

The woman’s voice was somber. “We both know and understand how much… pressure you are under, Felicity. We know what you’re facing, what you have already faced. Between those threats and the ones you have put yourself in to protect my… Avalon, I would be a failure if I did not come to you now and offer… if you would accept it, additional training and schooling, during some of the hours that you now have available after curfew.”

My mouth opened and shut. “You… you mean you want to give me extra lessons, extra training… yourself?”

“Would that be acceptable?” she asked in a quiet voice, watching my reaction.

It took a moment to find my voice, but I finally bobbed my head up and down rapidly. “Y-yes, ma’am. Really, anything you can do, any… any training you can give me, I swear, I’ll do the best I can.

“God knows I need the help.”

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Second Hunt 16-05

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focused on Fossor posted yesterday. If you haven’t been properly traumatized by that yet, please feel free to click the previous chapter button above to read it. 

Scout and I went down the stairs just outside the bridge a bit faster than we had come up them. And by ‘a bit faster’, I mean that I grabbed hold of the other girl with one arm and leapt off the side with her. Together, the two of us plummeted toward the deck far below until I used a burst from the staff in my other hand to slow us down just enough that we were able to land without breaking anything important.

Once we hit the deck (literally) and recovered, I spun in a circle to look for the nearest entrance to the below-decks area. I knew exactly how far away the room itself was from where we were, thanks to the Blemmye’s power. But I wasn’t sure exactly how to get there, since it was just a direct distance thing.

While my eyes were still scanning frantically, Scout grabbed my arm and gave a tug. Without hesitation, I let her pull me while already starting to turn that way. My eyes spotted the same thing the other girl had seen: a sign over a metal door (or hatch, or whatever they were called on a cruise ship) that announced it was for staff only and that dangerous machinery was beyond. It was also standing partway open. Obviously, that was the same way that the others had taken to get down there.

Shoving the hatch open the rest of the way, I started to beckon for Scout to go on, but she was already passing me. The two of us practically flew down the small corridor beyond toward a tight, incredibly narrow set of stairs leading downward into the bowels of the ship. It was all I could do to stop myself from panicking completely at the thought of that engine compartment rapidly filling with water if Professor Dare lost hold of the time-stop. To say nothing of the literal bomb that Avalon was laying on.

It’s pretty bad when you have to distract yourself from the thought of someone you care about being blown up by focusing on the thought of them drowning. This clearly wasn’t exactly a healthy lifestyle.

As Scout and I stampeded down the stairs side-by-side (there was just barely enough room for us to pull that off), my foot lashed out to kick a small box out of the way without looking at it. Apparently the whole time-stop thing was interrupted when we actually touched things, because the box went flying. Immediately, the loud clanging sound of seventeen screws, four metal washers, a half-dozen nails, a Phillips head screwdriver, and a ball-peen hammer scattering across the floor filled the room it landed.

… hold on a second.

In spite of myself and the really, really bad situation, I cast a quick look that way as we reached the bottom of the stairs. I had time to see the screwdriver, the hammer, and what looked like everything I had instinctively thought of a second earlier. But how the hell had I known what was in the box before-

Snapping myself out of it, I twisted back the other way to find Scout staring at me with wide eyes, clearly wondering what the hell was wrong and why I had slowed down while Avalon was still in trouble. Rather than answer, I waved both hands for her to keep going and started running once more.

Between my own memory of directing the others through this maze of rooms and hallways, and the Blemmye gift letting me know how far away we were from the engine compartment, we were making good time. Still, I kept pushing myself to go faster. For all we knew, Professor Dare could only hold the time-stop for another twenty seconds. Or five. I didn’t know! All I knew was that we had to hurry.

And yet, as we raced through the corridor, more objects kept popping into my head. There was a coffee can on that workbench that we were passing with a hundred and twelve screws in it. That gym bag that my foot brushed against had three pairs of shorts, a tee-shirt, and a bag of M&M’s in it. More and more inventories popped into my head as we kept going. Hell, I instinctively knew that Scout had a small bag of Jolly Ranchers in one pocket of her uniform jacket and her cell phone and room key in another one.

It had to be a result of killing the skeleblineist. Instead of being able to possess inanimate objects, I was being given a constant update of every object that was within a certain distance of me. Maybe that was what the little monsters used to know what objects were within range to be jumped into or something?

Whatever it came from, it was distracting. I had to focus to force the thoughts of every object out of my mind so I could pay attention to where we were going, and even then Scout had to correct me twice.

Be careful. The voice spoke directly in my mind, and it took me a second to realize that it wasn’t my own thoughts. Then I thought it was Deveron, using the same power that he’d used to direct Sands and me back when we’d been fighting Doxer. But as the thought-speech continued, I realized it was Professor Dare. Her voice (such as it was) was even more strained than before. The effort of holding the entire ship in this time-stop was obviously taking even more of a toll on her than I’d thought it was.

Someone is not happy about my interference. They’ve sent forces of their own to make that displeasure clear. Which means that they’re powerful enough to disrupt the time-stop bubble, even if they can’t collapse it entirely. So they’ve chosen to attempt to distract me enough to make me lose control of it.

My eyes widened and I blurted out loud, “Wait, are you fighting right now? While you hold the–”

Less distractions, Felicity, Dare urged me. Not more, please. I only mean to warn you that you may face intruders of your own. Or they may send those intruders to finish the original job. So please, just-

“Hurry, got it.” With a quick nod, I pushed myself into an all-out sprint. Scout fell behind after a few steps, but when I glanced back, she waved for me to keep going rather than wait for her. So I booked it.

For what was far from the first time, I thanked that Amarok for showing up. Yeah, it had almost killed us. But thanks to its power, I could run at full speed through the hallway without tiring myself out at all. That combined with the Blemmye’s gift for letting me know how far I was from my destination and the new skeleblineist’s knowledge of every item that was in my path meant that not only could I full-on sprint the entire way there without getting lost or being tired when I got there, but I also didn’t have to worry about tripping over anything. My body instinctively knew where objects were as I got near enough for them to be an issue, and I easily stepped over or around them without even breaking stride.

How my brain was processing all this information was kind of beyond me, but it was working. The explosion from that first bomb (or perhaps the original infestation and attacks) had left tons of random crap lying around down here, and I probably would’ve broken my neck if I ran that fast through the corridor without looking where I was going or slowing down to pick my way through the stuff. Instead, even on a floor completely covered with boxes, tools, and other obstacles, I kept running full out.

The room I needed to get to was just ahead. Less than a dozen more steps and I’d be there. Unfortunately, I’d only crossed slightly less than half of that before something hit me hard from behind. I went sprawling across the floor with a yelp of surprise while whatever it was clung to the back of my head. Claws or hard nails dug into my shoulders and dragged their way down through the muscle in my biceps, cutting through the jacket and shirt underneath while a hiss of pain escaped me.

Wincing, I scrambled to get my feet beneath me and threw myself backward against the wall to smash the thing. Of course, the creature clinging to me immediately disappeared into that wall, so I only ended up hurting myself in the process. But at least it was off me. And I knew it had to be another skeleblineist. Clearly whoever was trying to interfere with Dare’s time-stop had unfrozen the thing.

Then, with no warning or even the courtesy of a violent violin scratch, the creature was launching itself out of the floor at me, like a shark leaping out of the previously placid water. The damn thing’s teeth were bared, and it made a loud screeching sound as it leapt toward my throat, rotted hands up with claws extended.

Then the creature blew apart in mid-leap. Its head literally popped open before the rest of it crashed to the ground lifelessly, pieces of its skull and brain littering the floor like a thoroughly smashed pumpkin.

Without hesitating or even bothering to look for what I knew would be an invisible shot-portal, I blurted, “Thanks, Scout!” Then I kicked off the wall and back to my feet before spinning to run for the engine compartment once more. Every second counted, and I’d already wasted too many as it was.

Three steps, four, and then I was at the doorway. As I skidded around the last corner and into the room, my eyes immediately spotted Avalon’s unconscious body as well as the hole in the wall where water would have been pouring in if Dare’s time-stop bubble hadn’t been up. And I saw something else: a hooded and cloaked figure crouched over her, hand raised high with a wicked-looking knife about to come down.

A scream tore its way from my throat. Anything, any noise or distraction to stall the assassin for those precious handful of seconds as I launched myself that way with a quick boost from my staff. Between that and the enhanced strength I’d inherited from the werewolf, I was literally hurtling across the distance like I’d been shot out of a cannon. The crouched, hooded figure had barely started to react to my scream before I collided with them, and the two of us went tumbling across the hard metal floor.

The good news was, I’d interrupted the would-be killer before they had a chance to actually hurt Avalon. The bad news was, they recovered faster than I did. Before I’d even managed to orient myself from tumbling head over heels across the floor with the cloaked figure, they were already on their feet. And one of those feet was hitting my stomach hard enough to send me up against the opposite wall.

Up close, the figure was dressed like a ninja or something. They wore a full face-concealing mask underneath the hood, and with the way the cloak covered them, it was hard to tell a lot about their figure. From what I could see, my best guess was that they were either female or a thin and wiry male.

They were also apparently not at all interested in paying any attention to me. After kicking me away from them, they spun back the other way, toward Avalon. The knife came up again, ready to throw.

Desperately, I lifted my staff and expended the last bit of energy that it had stored up. The resulting blast wasn’t enough to knock the figure over or anything, but it did knock the blade out of their hand just before they could throw it. Unfortunately, the knife had only spun a few feet away before the figure thrust their hand out and somehow redirected it so that the blade was flying right for Avalon once more.

An instant before it would’ve hit the unconscious girl, another of Scout’s shots came out of nowhere and slammed into the flying knife, sending it off-course once more. The thing was so sharp, and had been thrown so hard that it literally embedded itself in the metal floor like a shovel going into the dirt.

Scout followed up with two more quick shots from wherever she was, this time directed at the cloaked figure. Yet, somehow the assassin reacted too quickly to be hit. They spun away, hand lashing out with a new knife that they had conjured out of what seemed like nothingness. Both shots ricocheted off that blade, one after the other. Then there was a sudden sharp pain in my arm, and I blinked down to find blood pouring from a wound there. A wound from the bullet. It seemed like it was just a graze, but still. Not only had the assassin actually used a freaking knife to block those bullets, but they’d gone as far as redirecting one of them into me like they were some kind of Jedi or something. Or the bad version.

Then I saw where the second bullet had hit: an inch… inch from Avalon’s face. The bullet actually hit the floor just beside the other girl, practically grazing her nose in the process. It was that close.

“Scout, no more!” I blurted while throwing myself to my feet. I lashed out at the figure with my staff, but they easily evaded. Three more quick thrusts came then as I desperately tried to land a single blow, but the figure danced around it like I was moving at a quarter speed or something. They caught my staff after the last swing, and then I felt it being ripped away from me. Stumbling forward, I ducked a vicious backhand, only to take a foot to my stomach again. I doubled over with a pained yelp, but forced myself to stay upright and keep my head up. Which meant I saw the knife coming for me, and got an arm up in the way to block it. Unfortunately, doing so meant I took a deep cut in my arm, which already wasn’t in fantastic shape from the whole ‘accidentally getting shot by Scout’ thing. My arm was screaming with pain by then, and the healing gift from the peridle wasn’t going to matter soon enough.

This wasn’t going well, to say the least. And it didn’t get any better in the next few seconds. My staff was gone, torn away and tossed aside by the assassin. I took a swing with my good hand, only to have my wrist caught before another sharp pain went through me as the figure easily snapped it backward.

Ignore it, I told myself. Avalon’s life depended on me pretending that both of my limbs weren’t in horrible agony. I didn’t have to beat them, I just had to last long enough for the others to get there, which should have been any second. All I had to do was focus on protecting Avalon, not on the pain.

With that in mind, and the image of failing Avalon filling my head, I looked up to find the figure turning away from me. Their attention clearly back on the unconscious girl as they took a step that way.

“Hey!” I blurted while lashing out with a foot. I barely managed to hit the figure’s leg, making them stumble a single step. It was like kicking a concrete wall or something. “We’re not done here yet!”

That time, the masked assassin let out an angry and clearly frustrated growl. They spun back toward me, lifting a hand. I saw a glowing blue ball of fire appear in their palm before they threw it at my face.

I saw that ball of flame flying directly at me, too fast for me to avoid considering how much pain I was in. It took up all of my vision, like a miniature burning sun, its heat growing worse by the millisecond.

Then a hand appeared, blocking my view of the azure fireball. My vision cleared up slightly, and I saw Deveron. He was standing there, holding the flames that he had intercepted. They crackled around his fingers as he stared at the figure, and a dark, dangerous voice emerged from him. “I don’t think so.”

Abruptly, the blue flames more than tripled in size, going from the size of a baseball to the size of a volleyball. His hand lashed outward, and the fireball became a torrent of flame that shot directly at the masked figure’s face.

Their hand lashed out, batting the flames aside with their own power. But Deveron was only using it as a distraction. While the fire flew toward the figure’s face and forced them to take the time to deflect the flames, he tightened his hand into a fist. Pitch-black armor instantly covered every exposed part of his skin, like some kind of obsidian Colossus.

By the time the masked assassin finished deflecting the flames, Deveron was already armored up and moving that way, following up his appropriated flames with a kick that caught the figure in the side. And unlike when I had kicked them, they definitely felt it.

What followed was the most intense seven or eight seconds of my life up to that point. Both Deveron and the masked figure threw so many punches and kicks that my eyes couldn’t even follow it accurately. It was like something out of The Matrix. A dozen blows traded for a dozen blocks, none landing properly. They just kept smacking each other’s limbs out of the way, trying another attack, and blocking the next one that came their way. It felt like I was watching a sparring session set to some insane speed, yet I could feel the force of their blows even from where I was.

Finally stumbling back a couple steps, the masked figure stopped and tilted their head slightly as though listening to something. I heard that same annoyed growl before they abruptly spun away from Deveron and leapt toward the nearby hole, disappearing into the water.

An instant later, Gaia appeared. She stepped out of nothing, eyes blazing with anger. Deveron and I both pointed to the hole, and the woman glanced that way before shaking her head. “Gone,” she muttered. “Some sort of water-based teleportation or speed.”

Turning back to me, her gaze softened. “Flick,” she spoke quietly. “Are you all right?”

Grimacing, I slumped down a bit, sliding down the wall to sit on the floor beside Avalon before nodding. “I… ngngn… I’ll be okay.” Glancing toward Deveron, I added, “Thanks for the save.”

He nodded, his own voice as quiet and gentle as I’d ever heard it. “Any time, kid.”

“What about the others?” I asked, a bit worried despite myself.

“They’re fine,” he promised before taking a seat next to me as well as he released his armor and went back to normal. “I had to swear to Wyatt that I could get here before him so he’d stay there with them.”

“Virginia,” Gaia spoke then, clearly projecting her voice to Professor Dare. “Lower the time-stop.” As she finished speaking, the red-haired woman gestured absently toward the hole in the wall with one hand, while her other hand motioned at the nearby bomb.

It was like watching the same effect working in opposite directions. The hole in the wall repaired itself, the metal piecing back together until the hull was as good as new. Meanwhile, the bomb literally fell apart into a dozen separate, much less dangerous pieces.

And it hadn’t even taken enough effort for Gaia to break stride as she moved straight over to kneel beside Avalon. Her hand reached past me to cup the girl’s face tenderly, and I held my breath until Avalon murmured softly and leaned into the touch. The sight made me exhale sharply, slumping backward with relief.

Then I opened my eyes once more. “Um, Headmistress?

“What’s this gonna do to our score?”

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Mini-Interlude 11 – Fossor

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude that focuses on Fossor paying a visit to Flick during her childhood. So, you know, be prepared for creepiness. 

Several Years Ago

“You are actually quite fortunate, my dear.” The man, whose utter lack of any intimidating features belied the danger he posed to the world at large, stood in front of the sink, carefully scrubbing his soft hands with liberal amounts of the anti-bacterial soap that sat nearby. “Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t bother extending this much effort with someone as indescribably mundane as yourself.”

Turning off the water with a gentle touch at the handle, he turned to take a couple of white paper towels from their holder. While drying off his hands, the man smiled slightly at the woman who sat on the floor in the corner, her wide eyes regarding him with a kind of terror normally reserved for a small prey animal facing its imminent extinction.

“I would apologize,” he explained simply, “but I’m sure you’re already quite aware of your own prosaic existence. After all, you did choose one of the most unimaginative and dull careers that your people have invented. And if you knew how many years I’ve been around to see such things, you’d understand how impressive that is. In a completely unimpressive way, of course.”

Dropping the paper towels in the nearby trash can, he stepped over to the woman. At his approach, she cowered back into the corner a little more while a noise not unlike a keening mouse or rabbit escaped her. As she lifted her arms defensively in front of her face, various runes and other strange symbols could be seen on her skin.

“Shhh,” the man, who was known to most who were aware of his existence as Fossor, cautioned, reaching down to gently take one of her hands. She quivered and whimpered under the touch while he carefully examined the markings. “You didn’t smudge anything, did you? We wouldn’t want to make that kind of mistake, after all. They’ll be here in a few minutes. Far too soon to call in a replacement.”

Once satisfied that the runes were written correctly and undisturbed, he laid a hand gently against the woman’s face. “Yes, this really is a better fate than an endless parade of days in…” Gesturing dismissively around them, he finished with, “… this.”

As her eyes started to look that way reflexively, mouth open to plead for mercy, his hand closed around her throat. She made a short, sharp sound of protest, hands coming up to grab at him. But his strength was far greater than his form would imply, and he simply tightened his hold. The woman kicked and flailed, tears streaming down her face while she fought to hold onto her breath.

Then, as with so many other times, it was over. He felt her last, desperate spasm before she died. As the woman slumped back against the wall, Fossor straightened and stepped back. His eyes watched her with the patience of one who had been through such things so often they had become routine.

Sure enough, before more than a few seconds had passed, the woman’s eyes opened once more. Her body jerked a little bit, a brief spasm that ended with the woman on all fours. Her head turned up toward her murderer and she gave a brief hiss while showing her teeth.

“None of that.” Fossor’s hand gestured, and the woman stopped. At another gesture, she rose to her feet, eyes still locked on him while her teeth remained bared. While the woman stood there, he reached out to touch her forehead, murmuring a spell under his breath as he focused on the power that had been his for so long. With a little effort, he restored enough of her humanity to allow the woman to function relatively normally. Or well enough, at least. She was more automaton than human being, but it would satisfy his purposes.

No sooner had he finished that, than a chime in the nearby room announced a new arrival. Tilting his head, the man glanced toward a television screen on the wall that showed a view of the room in question. The sight made him smile faintly. “Go,” he instructed the woman. “You know what to do.”

He waited then, while the woman tugged the sleeves of her shirt down to cover the spell-forms before she walked out to greet the newcomers with a voice that managed to sound quite friendly and inviting considering her state as a newly-risen zombie.

Before long, it was his turn. Reaching down, he plucked the surgical/procedure mask off the nearby table and secured it to his face. On his way out of the room, the man stopped and glanced sideways toward a half-open door. Lying beyond were the mutilated and ruined bodies of his new assistant’s former boss and coworkers. Blood covered the walls while their twisted and broken limbs gave testament to the agony they had suffered through their demise.

“Apologies,” Fossor spoke quietly while tugging on a pair of white latex gloves. “I only required the services of one. After all, I could hardly be my own assistant.”

That said, the man stepped out of the room and carefully closed the door after himself. Adjusting the mask, he strolled through the connecting corridor and into another room just down the hall. On his way in, he plucked the waiting clipboard off the wall.

“Well, good afternoon, Felicity.”

The twelve-year-old girl waiting for him in the chair folded her arms over her stomach. “It’s Flick,” she announced shortly. “And where’s Dr. Demmin?”

Smiling slightly behind the procedure mask that covered the lower half of his face, the man stepped closer. “I’m afraid your usual dentist had an… unavoidable personal issue.” Meeting her gaze, he pitched his voice to sound sympathetic. “There was a death in the family.”

It was, after all, technically true.

“Oh…” the preteen was quiet then before offering a weak, “I hope he’ll be okay.”

Interesting. Even years after her mother had supposedly abandoned her, the girl expressed sympathy for the losses of others. Fossor noted it before nodding. “I’ll make certain your condolences are heard. Now, you said you prefer to be called… what was it?”

“Flick,” the girl repeated. “My name is Flick.”

“Hmm, that’s an interesting name.” Stepping around the side of the chair, he touched the button to make it start to move into its proper position. “Lean back, please. Don’t like Felicity?”

“My mom chose it,” the blonde replied while leaning back in the seat. “She’s a bitch.”

“Wow, language.” Fossor gently chided while pleased that the mask allowed him to smile. “Having a fight with her, are you? It’s not about coming in today, is it? Because you know getting those teeth pulled is important.”

Her head shook. “My dad brought me. Mom left.” Her eyes scowled a little bit. “Everybody leaves.”

Positioning himself beside her, Fossor shook his head. “Aww, I hope this isn’t about poor Dr. Demmin. I’m sure he regrets not being able to be here today if you were close.”

“What?” the innocent girl blinked at that. “Oh. No, it’s not about that. I—never mind.”

“Hey,” the man made his eyes twinkle just a little. “If you can’t talk to the man that’s about to pull several of your teeth, who can you talk to?”

“I just–” she started before stopping. Her eyes moved away from him and she seemed to be gazing off at nothing. After a few seconds of that, the twelve-year-old heaved a sigh. “My best friend just moved. My mom left, Randi left… now Dr. Demmin isn’t here… everybody leaves.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He wasn’t. Having the other girl leave hadn’t actually been part of his plan. Not yet, anyway. But it worked to further isolate his prize. And it meant that he didn’t have to expend the effort to either kill or remove the girl in the future. Sometimes life just seemed to work out well.

In time, ‘Flick’ would be ready to reunite with that missing mother, and then… well, then it would be interesting to see how they interacted. Perhaps Ammon would be far enough along in his own… training by that point that they could all have a ‘welcome’ dinner for the girl. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Shaking off the thought, he picked up one of the dental mirrors in one hand and a sickle probe with the other. “Let’s see if we can take a look at what’s going on in there before we put you under, shall we?”

Clearly restraining a groan, the girl leaned back and opened her mouth. Carefully, he pushed the mirror and probe in, taking a look while reminding himself not to chuckle.

So obedient. He would have to commend her mother.

Expertly checking over the teeth in question with only a minimum of poking (he could have done it with none, but making the girl squirm and twitch a couple of times was irresistible), he eventually straightened with a nod of satisfaction. “Looks like we’re ready then.”

On cue, his newly raised zombie-assistant stepped back into the room. Murmuring something about nonexistent patients in the other rooms, she crossed over to the other side of the chair where a tray of waiting syringes sat.

While she prepared the injection, Fossor met Flick’s eyes. “I promise you,” he assured her in a gentle tone, “this won’t take long, and your father will be waiting for you when you wake up. Now, ready?”

The girl gave a slight, clearly nervous nod, and he gestured for the dental assistant to proceed. As the injection went in, he gently touched her shoulder. “Now just count backwards from ten. That’s right… ten… nine… eight…”

She was out. As the girl slumped unconscious in the chair, he dismissed the zombie with a gesture. She fell over as well, leaving him alone with the drugged child.

“Yes…” the man murmured while tugging off the gloves. Hands bare once more, he gently brushed two fingers down the side of the girl’s face. “No harm will come to you. After all, I keep my promises.”

After a moment of silence, he snapped his fingers. “Speaking of which, how could I forget?” A gesture brought the assistant back to consciousness and she scrambled out of the room, only to return a few seconds later with the bag that he had brought.

Taking a camera from the bag before dismissing the woman’s puppeted body once again, he carefully lined up a shot of the unconscious young girl. Snapping first one, then two, and finally a third photograph from various angles, he murmured, “I did tell your mother that I would bring her pictures, after all.”

Finally satisfied that he had enough, the man set the camera aside, patting it carefully. “I’m sure she’ll be eager to know that she’s no longer alone in having utterly abandoned you.”

Pausing, he considered whether it would be worth it to track down the former friend. Having her around might give Joselyn something else to focus on, and wouldn’t it be a delightful treat to share with Felicity when the time came to collect her?

It was something to think about. After all, other than these two, there were only three living connections to the Atherby bloodline. The other two children were out of his reach, while the third connection was so well hidden that even he couldn’t recall what it was. That memory spell that the Heretics enjoyed so much. He remembered that the third connection existed, but no subsequent efforts had managed to retrieve the precise identity.

Knowing it had been done to him once, that he had already lost the identity of that first Atherby blood relative was precisely why he had prepared himself against its subsequent use and thus remembered Joselyn Atherby after others had forgotten.

Fool me once, shame on you, and all that.

Shaking that thought off, the man returned his attention to the unconscious, innocent, untouched child as she lay in the dentist’s chair.

“Well,” he spoke aloud. “I’m sure they’ll present themselves in time, won’t they? For now, let’s see what we can do about getting those teeth out.”

Picking up the tools, he reached for the girl’s mouth.

“You won’t feel a thing.”

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