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 artist 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.”

 

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 Rucker 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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