Month: January 2017

Winter Wonderland 18-05

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“Let me see if I understand your claim, Miss, ahhh… Chambers.” The centaur spoke gruffly, his voice sounding like he was auditioning for the role of Batman. Squeezing the back of the chair that he was standing behind, he met my gaze intently. It was like he was trying to stare straight through me. “According to you, for a good portion of this past century, a group of Heretics led by your dam—err, sorry, your mother– and a group of Alters were part of an alliance combating the rest of your Heretic herd in an attempt to change their ideology? And then your mother’s entire identity was completely erased from their—possibly our memories, and with it, all knowledge of this supposed alliance?”

Swallowing, I forced myself to keep meeting his stare. “Yes, sir,” I confirmed. “That’s about the size of it. They were rebelling against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, trying to change things. And they were doing pretty well. The establishment thought they won when they kidnapped–” I stopped, frowning.

The vampire, a pale guy who looked like Sufjan Stevens with longer hair, leaned forward in his seat. “When they kidnapped whom?” His voice was silky smooth, and hearing it combined with the look that he gave me actually made me forget what I was saying for a second. Which, judging by the smirk that immediately crossed his face for a moment before he controlled it, was what he had been going for.

Shaking that off, I turned my attention toward the other Septs. “I—um, I can’t really say,” I admitted before quickly explaining. “There’s a spell protecting it. One of their memory spells. I can’t say who was kidnapped, just that someone important was taken, and they used it to make my mother surrender. So they thought that would be the end of it. But the rebellion kept going on for decades after that. They finally figured that if they erased my mother entirely, since she started the rebellion, it would disappear. And they were right. My mom lived as a normal person and everything in the Heretic world went back to the way the establishment wanted it to be. At least, she lived a normal life until Fossor abducted her.”

That got plenty of attention. I immediately saw all seven of the people up there, Calvin included, stiffen and look around at each other. The short, gnome-like guy was the first to speak up. “Fossor,” he repeated in a high-pitched voice after jumping to his feet to stand on his chair. “Did you say Fossor?”

Swallowing hard, I gave a slight nod to the gnome. “I take it you know him,” I murmured quietly.

“We are well aware of the Nocen Necromancer,” the older, beautiful blue-skinned woman confirmed. Her voice sounded pained, like she was remembering something specific and personally tragic. “He has caused our people a great deal of pain. If he has your mother in his custody, you have my sympathy.”

The Rakshasa female straightened a little, nodding. “He is a monster of the worst kind. And–” she added after a thoughtful pause, “there have been reports that he has been accompanied by an unknown female here and there. Some even claimed this female was a Heretic, though none of those reports were ever truly taken seriously.” Meeting my gaze, she mused softly, “Perhaps they should have been.”

“It was probably her,” I agreed while trying not to think about the kind of stuff that Fossor would have taken my mother onto field trips for. “And he made her… he made her have a son with him. Ammon.”

“We know of the spawn,” the rocky Thing-like man grumbled with as much obvious anger as the Septs had shown at the name of Fossor. “His experiments with his abilities have ended many Alter lives. And those are the ones we consider to be fortunate. Suffice to say, the child is as monstrous as his father.”

“Wait, you’ve actually had Alters around that encountered Ammon enough to know about him?” I was surprised by that. My impression had been that Fossor didn’t let his son out that often, but if these guys knew enough just to recognize him by name, then he must have been more active than I’d thought.

Behind me, Asenath spoke. “How much do you know about him? I have a case that involves the boy.”

“A case, hmm?” the male vampire spoke up, his tone and posture making it clear like he found the whole concept incredibly amusing. “You sound like a real detective when you talk like that, Senny.”

The look that she shot back at him could have frozen magma. “And yet, you still don’t sound like an actual leader, Seth. Also, my friends call me Senny. Which means you will always call me Asenath.”

“Not friends?” the vampire, Seth apparently, lamented with raised arms. “We’re practically family. After your father saved my life at the Battle of Trenton, I might as well be your big, handsome brother.”

Whoa. Apparently there was history between the two of them. Quite a lot, it seemed like. This Seth guy was turned by Asenath’s father during what was probably the American Revolution, from the sound of it. And Asenath herself really didn’t like him very much, despite that connection. I wondered what had happened between them, and what Tiras himself would have thought of it. Hell, why had he chosen to save this single man and turn him into a vampire? What had drawn him to do something like that?

Senny looked like she was going to say something nasty back to Seth, but stopped herself. Instead, she forcibly turned away to focus on the other Septs. Her voice was hard. “You mentioned the boy.”

The centaur spoke up in his rough voice again. “Rumors that would appear to be more substantiated given the information you have already provided. They say that he appears to be a Heretic, but different. Those who have escaped him say that his… mind control ability is stronger than any they have ever encountered. Even those who should be immune to such effects are still vulnerable to it.”

“Yup, sounds like Ammon,” I muttered. “He was even able to affect a high level Heretic. Our security chief, actually. And you’d think if anyone would be stacking up anti-mind control powers, it’d be her.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I paled and felt the sudden urge to smack myself very hard in the forehead. Or possibly lower. “I mean–” I winced, shaking my head. “Sorry. I just—she should have plenty of defense against being controlled, and it still affected her. That’s all I meant.”

From the looks I was getting, the Septs didn’t enjoy being reminded about the fact that Heretics essentially harvested powers from Alters that they killed. But none of them said anything. Not even Calvin, which was odd since I would’ve figured that he’d jump on any excuse to turn the rest of their opinions against us. Actually, he hadn’t really said much of anything since I’d started telling the story.

Finally, the blue woman interrupted the awkward silence that had settled over the room. “Your point is taken, Miss Chambers. It seems that in all of our experiences, the boy’s power is stronger than it should be.” She paused then before looking toward the Rakshasa. “Perhaps there was some truth to the rumor.”

“Rumor?” I blinked, looking back and forth between them. “There’s a rumor about Ammon’s power?”

Asenath suddenly started with obvious realization. “Denuvus,” she blurted. “They think it’s Denuvus.”

“Denuvus?” Shiori finally piped up, looking from her sister to the Septs and back again. “Who’s that?”

The gnome who answered in that high voice. “Denuvus was never more than a rumor. His existence was never, ever confirmed. You’re talking about a rumor about a rumor. It’s utterly unsubstantiated.”

“And yet,” the Rakshasa almost purred, “it would seem to fit quite well, would it not?” To the rest of us, she added, “Denuvus is—or possibly was– supposedly a boogeyman among both Alters and Heretics. Rumor had it that he was both. An Alter who became a Heretic. Or an Alter with the ability to gain powers from other Alters, like a Heretic. But his most powerful ability was the one he began with: his ability to control others through his voice. Even those he really shouldn’t have been able to control.”

“Like Ammon does,” I murmured before looking back over to her with a thoughtful frown. “But what do you mean, an Alter with Heretic powers? How is that possible? I mean, I assume he wasn’t just a Reaper or a Hangman. He wouldn’t be just a rumor then, so it’s gotta be something more than that.”

Seth spoke then, having lounged lazily back into his seat with one foot up on the arm of it. “Got that right. According to the rumors, whatever Denuvus was, it came with the most powerful mind control anyone ever saw. Nobody was safe. He told you to do something, you did it. All he had to do was-”

“Say his name,” I interrupted. “He introduced himself, and then everyone who heard it had to obey.”

There was a series of nods from the whole group, before the rock-guy took over the explanation. “According to the rumors, he had a Djinni under his control. They, ahhh, they say that he made the Djinni use her magic to merge him with a Reaper, so he could have its power. Sort of a homebrewed Heretic. So whatever he was with that mind control that worked on everyone, suddenly he was a hell of a lot more dangerous. And he killed Heretics and Alters alike. Didn’t care who they were as long as they gave him power. Like they said, kind of a boogeyman. Especially since he didn’t register as a Heretic to anyone that looked at him. Normally your kind are—well we know you by sight. Not him.”

Rocking back on my heels, I thought about that. “So now you think that Ammon… that he was…” Swallowing, I pushed on. “You think that Fossor made him a Heretic by taking this Denuvus guy’s blood. Maybe killing him, maybe not. The point is, you think Ammon’s a Heretic based on Denuvus.”

“And no one knows what he was before?” Shiori interrupted. “Denuvus, I mean. You don’t know what um, what species of Alter he is, or where his mind control power came from and why it’s so strong?”

There was a collection of shaking heads before Calvin finally spoke up for the first time. “You know, we’re saying an awful lot to these two when we don’t even know if we can trust them or not.”

“And I’m trusting all of you,” I shot back. “If certain people find out what I’ve told you, it won’t be hard for them to figure out where that information came from. And if that happens, well, we’re pretty screwed. All of us. Me, my friends, and especially Shiori.” Nodding toward the girl, I added, “What do you think the Heretics are going to do as soon as they find out that there are half-Alters among them?”

“The girl has a point,” the centaur allowed with a stomp of one of his hooves. “And these are not the sort of tactics that Heretics normally use. They would have to respect us as a civilization to bother with this kind of underhanded strategy. You don’t send someone to infiltrate an organization with a story that appeals to their compassion unless you believe that the organization you’re infiltrating has compassion. In my experience, Heretics would never even entertain such a notion, let alone build a plan around it.”

Calvin immediately shifted gears. “But the point remains, what do they want from us? And is providing it to them worth the risk that they pose? You heard the girl. Fossor is after her. Having her around attracts his attention and the Heretics. She’s got two different bullseyes on her from two really god damn scary sources. And that’s just the ones we know about. If you ask me, she’s too dangerous.”

The gnome gave Calvin a look before nodding once. “I’m not one to agree with the new Bebarlang, but he raises a fair point. What exactly do these two expect us to do now that they’ve told us their story? Are we expected to start another war against the Heretics, just because she says that her mother led the last one? Or will she instead insist that we aid her in rescuing her mother from the necromancer?”

“I don’t expect you to do anything,” I insisted. “I didn’t even know we were coming here today. But now that we are here, I just… I just want to be able to come and get information that I can’t get other places. Maybe later it can turn into something more. But right now, I’m just trying to be a student. I…” Biting my lip, I paused before going for it. “In less than a year, Fossor’s going to come for me too. I’m training to fight him, but—but I’m still just a teenager. I’ve barely been a Heretic for a few months. When he comes, it’ll be a year. That’s not enough. They’re teaching me, trying to help, but I’m afraid it’s still not enough. I need to learn more. I need to learn from sources that Fossor won’t plan for. I don’t expect you to help me fight him. But I would… I would like it if you could teach me to fight for myself. Teach me things that the Heretics won’t or can’t. Teach me things that Fossor might not know about.”

That made them whisper among themselves for a few seconds before the blue woman held a hand up to stop them while looking at us. “Miss Chambers and Miss Porter, we have been incredibly rude to you both in demanding answers without introducing ourselves. I am called Limnoreia. My people are known as Nereids.”

The rock-man gave a slight nod, clearly agreeing with her decision. “I am Stav, the Granakin.” Lifting his large hand, he indicated the others. “You already know Calvin, the Bebarlang. The Centaur’s name is Fennicus, the Rakshasa is Xi, Kimper is the Gnome. And, of course, the vampire is called Seth.”

Slowly looking down the line of them, I nodded with each name. “Calvin, Stav, Xi, Seth, Fennicus, Limnoreia, and Kimper. It’s a um, surprise to meet you today. But I uh, thanks. Thanks for listening.”

Clearly I didn’t exactly have the charisma of my mother in leading massive groups of both Alters and Heretics to follow her into a war. But at least they were paying attention and considering what we said.

“We would like to discuss what you’ve told us in private,” Limnoreia explained gently. “There are some other considerations to be made, and… well, quite frankly I would prefer you not have to stand there listening to our arguments. If you would like to continue looking around Wonderland while we discuss, you are welcome to do so. Quing will ensure that you are not accosted. Correct, Quing?”

The bird-man stepped forward before giving a sharp nod. He didn’t look happy about it, but he agreed. “Yes, Sept Limnoreia. They’ll be safe.” Pausing then, he added pointedly. “Just like everyone here.”

That bit was clearly meant as a warning to Shiori and me, but I let it roll off my back. I couldn’t blame him for his reaction, or his suspicions. Especially not after finding out about what he’d lost.

“Good,” the Rakshasa, Xi, gave a wave of her paw. “We will send for you after we’ve deliberated.”

So we left. Walking back past all those guards and out into the main mall, Asenath remained quiet until we were out. Then she looked at me. “Sorry. I know that probably felt a bit like an ambush. But I wanted whatever you said to come without sounding rehearsed. The Septs have ways of detecting lying, and sometimes rehearsed speeches come off as lying. It could be explained, but… I thought it was better if it came out completely naturally.”

“I guess I get that…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “But you didn’t know they had any information about Ammon?”

“I thought they might,” the vampire admitted. “But this was the best way to get it out of them without Seth sabotaging things because he thinks it’s amusing.”

Shiori raised a hand. “Um, what’s the deal between you two? Is he really… basically family?”

Asenath shook her head sharply. “No. Not–” She sighed. “Not exactly. He showed up after Papa left, said he was supposed to help take care of us. But he’s not exactly the ‘caretaker’ type. Whatever my father saw in him that made him save his life… I don’t know. He’s not a Nocen or anything, but he just… doesn’t take anything seriously. Everything is one big joke, and his world revolves around whatever amuses him the most at the time.”

I opened my mouth to say something else, but before I could actually speak, a sudden boom reverberated throughout the mall. It was followed almost immediately by another. They felt like earthquakes or small explosions.

“What th–” I got out before a hand abruptly grabbed my arm. Senny yanked me backward, moving so fast she was a blur. An instant later, a chunk of the ceiling slammed into the floor where I had just been standing. It had to weigh a couple hundred pounds, and hit with another boom.

There was a figure on top of the chunk of ceiling. Or rather, a body. What looked like a lizard man lay there, a gaping wound in his stomach and another in his throat.

“Pestel!” Quing took a step there, the horror and grief in his voice hitting me hard. “Our man on the roof. He–”

“Down!” Asenath grabbed me around the waist and leapt backward just before another huge chunk of the ceiling fell in right where I had been standing.

By that point, most of the Alters who had re-emerged were running for cover. I heard one of them scream that the Heretics were there and that it was all a trap. My mouth opened to try to shout something, anything. But before I could, something else fell from the ceiling.

Or rather…dropped. The figure landed easily on the same pile of debris that had just fallen, straightening with a shake of her head.

“Aww,” Pace lamented. “I really thought that one was gonna hit you. How rude.”

“Pace!” Eyes widening, I grabbed the staff from my hip, yanking it free. “What the hell-how did—what?”

Grinning, the crazy werewolf-heretic did a little spin. “Dear old Doxer’s really good at finding people.” She focused on me, her smile growing. “Peekaboo.”

“You made a mistake, Heretic,” Quing informed her, straightening away from the body of his subordinate. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“You’re surrounded, Pace,” I managed through gritted teeth. I was trying not to stare too much at the choker that hid her werewolf status from my Heretic-sense. “I don’t know what you thought you were gonna do here, but–”

“Surrounded?” Pace echoed, as if the thought had only just occurred to her. “Huh. Surrounded. That was dumb. I guess I shouldn’t have come by myself.” Pausing, her head tilted slowly, that manic smile returning. “Oh yeah.”

She snapped her fingers, and an instant later, there were over a dozen more figures falling through the holes in the ceiling, all the way past the railings around the other two floors. They landed all around us, large figures that were growing bigger and hairier by the second. Werewolves. There were over a dozen werewolves surrounding us, while Pace gave that chaotic laugh.

She wasn’t alone. She had brought her pack with her.

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Winter Wonderland 18-04

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff reacting to the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button. 

Somehow, through sheer force of will, I stopped my hand from grabbing my weapon canister. I had a feeling that, regardless of what Asenath had said in our defense to get Shiori and me in here, pulling a weapon on one of their leaders wouldn’t go over that well. I’d ruin the tentative peace that Senny had obviously put a lot of work into preparing before our arrival. And I didn’t want to do that, no matter how much the sight of the drug-pushing slimy little weasel that used to be my boss raised my hackles.

He looked just like he had the night I’d helped Scott bust his side business. Tall, probably about six and a half feet, with shockingly red hair bursting out in every direction from his scalp. He looked like Carrot Top on stilts. With, of course, about a hundred pounds of extra weight. He was not a thin man.

“How?” I demanded in a flat voice while tightening my hand to the point that my nails were digging into my palm. It hurt, but it was a pleasant distraction from my own confusion. “How are you here?”

Apparently the smirk on Calvin’s face could grow bigger. “Well,” he drawled with obvious amusement. “You see, when two adults really like each other, or sometimes when they’re just bored and horny, th-”

“Oh, shut up.” Just because I couldn’t hit him without causing an incident didn’t mean I was going to be passive, especially when he was being gross. I’d put up with enough of that back when he’d been my boss. I wasn’t about to roll over for it now, no matter how important he was suddenly supposed to be.

“Flick?” Shiori looked back and forth between us, uncertainty written over her face. “You know him?”

Before I could say anything to that, Calvin spoke up. “Oh, we know each other all right. Little Flickster here used to be my employee. Not that she was that good at listening to instructions.” Shaking his head lamentingly, he added, “Can’t even tell you how many times I tried to point out that she’d get a lot further in life if she just wore slightly tighter pants.” Calvin shook his head slowly before abruptly snapping his fingers as if he’d forgotten. “Oh, and then she had to go and be an annoying little snitch.”

Asenath was abruptly between the two of us, facing Calvin. “My friend here is playing nice because she doesn’t want to scare everyone that’s already worried about having a Heretic around,” the vampire informed him darkly. “But the thing is, I’m not a Heretic. So I don’t feel the same need to limit myself.”

The man paused, his eyes flicking toward me as that smile of amusement faded just a little before returning. He stepped back, hands raised in surrender. “All right, all right, I can tell when someone’s sense of humor isn’t firing along the same cylinders as mine. Take it easy, I’m not starting anything.”

“Good,” Senny replied coolly, her gaze staying on the man as he stepped back. “Then I won’t finish it.”

In the background, I noticed that most of the pixies had flown away to hide in the corners of the store, getting out of the line of fire. Some had even flown away completely, abandoning the place through a back entrance as well as a couple of holes in the wall that led who knew where. Away from here.

Namythiet, however, just flew up off the emerald saber-toothed kitten, landing on my shoulder. “Wit was the Sept before. Wit was a good Sept. Not like his son.” She gave the man an annoyed scowl.

“Wait,” I interrupted, blinking. “Wit was his father’s name?” Looking to the steadily smirking man, I murmured in realization, “Witson. You used the last name Witson in Laramie Falls. Wit’s Son.”

Without taking my eyes off the red-haired man, I explained to Shiori. “Calvin owned and managed the movie theater I used to work at. And some other places in town. He was a real big-shot. Not big enough to stop the cops from busting him down so hard he had to sell the place and disappear after he got caught slinging his drug crap on the side, though.” Smiling faintly at him, I added, “Isn’t that right?”

“Don’t flatter yourself so much, kiddy,” he retorted. “You think I couldn’t beat a simple drug charge? That’s peanuts. I could pay that fine and be back on top within a month. I left cuz my old man kicked the bucket.” Jerking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the rest of the mall, Calvin continued. “So I had to come back here and take up his old position. Help lead this place into a new and brighter future.”

“Aww,” I managed to sound sickly-sweet. “They must be so relieved to finally have a sleazy, greasy, drug-pushing slumlord around to show them what they’ve been missing with all their more-than-weekly showers and vaguely functioning brain cells. I’m sure you’re showing them just how much you bring to the table. Though they might want to try counting the silverware before they let you leave the table…”

It was probably stupid to antagonize and belittle the man like that. But the fact was, seeing him took me completely by surprise. And when I’m surprised, I tended to say things I shouldn’t. Not that I didn’t say things I shouldn’t when I wasn’t surprised, but it was slightly more prevalent while I was reeling.

He gave me a look of annoyance before masking it with a smile that failed to fully reach his eyes. “Now that you know all about Alters and our world, you should really be thanking me, you know.”

Thanking you,” I echoed in disbelief before staring at the man for a moment. “Why, exactly, do you think I should thank you for… anything? What, I should be grateful that you didn’t use whatever power you’ve got to hurt Scott or me when we caught you? For all I know, you did try something and the Bystander Effect just erased it.” The thought itself made me queasy, even though I was pretty sure things had gone down the way I remembered them happening. I just couldn’t be completely positive.

“Nope.” Calvin paused before waving his hand. “Well yeah, that too, I guess. But what I mean is, you should thank me for the drug thing. You know, the thing you had to play super girl scout and stop.”

Before I could demand to know why the hell I should thank him for that, Asenath spoke up quietly. “He’s a Bebarlang, Flick.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “Better known as a psychic vampire.”

“A psychic vampire?” Shiori repeated, head tilting as she stood beside me. Choo and Clubber had perched themselves on either side of her feet, peering up at us curiously. “Does he use tarot cards?”

Senny shook her head. “Not that kind of psychic. And not exactly a real vampire either. His kind aren’t related to mine at all. They feed off psychic energy instead of actual blood. Whenever someone dreams, they give off a sort of… aura that the Bebarlang can feed off of, if they’ve touched the person recently.”

“That’s why you gave out the drugs yourself,” I realized. “So you could touch the people that were getting them. But I’m still not exactly seeing why I should thank you for feeding off innocent people.”

Calvin spread his arms innocently. “Guy’s gotta eat, you know. And you should thank me because I used drugs. See, most Bebarlang feed by forcing people to have nightmares. Terrible, nasty, awful nightmares. The ahh, terror spices up the psychic energy you give off. It’s really quite delicious. Think of it as flavoring. Otherwise, eating that stuff is just bland and nasty. So we make it better with a little fear. Any emotional energy works, really. Fear is just the most common. So they scare people, give them nightmares and then gorge themselves on the yummy energy they give off when they dream.”

He smiled at me. “But I didn’t wanna scare people. Too much work, too much… chance of attracting attention if a bunch of humans start having nightmares all the time. So I figured out, get people high and hallucinating, and the energy they give off is just… oh, it’s incredible. If you were a Bebarlang, I’d say you’ve gotta try it. But hey, if you happen to kill one of them, maybe you’ll get the chance after all.”

Scowling at his choice of words, I took a moment to consider what he was talking about. “You’re saying you got people high so that you could feed off them, instead of forcing nightmares on them.”

“Just call me an altruist,” Calvin drawled, his smirk widening. “No one really got hurt, and I got to feed without traumatizing them. I’m not a complete monster.” Leaning slightly closer (though Senny was still between us), he added, “You can’t fault a guy for having to eat to survive, would you? After all, you’re supposed to be the kind, understanding Heretic. What do you want me to do, starve to death?”

God, I wanted to snap at him. I wanted to lash out, because he was just so… smug about it. But I stopped myself, and thought about what he was saying. My first instinct was, of course, to point out that he was still feeding off of people’s energy against their will, without their permission. But that was stupid. They couldn’t give permission because of the Bystander Effect. And how much did they need the so-called ‘psychic energy’ they were giving off? Was it just stuff that would fade out anyway?

In the end, I nodded. “You’re right, it is better for you to do it that way instead of terrifying people and feeding off their nightmares.” Before his smile could grow anymore, I held up a hand. “But you know what? You’re still an asshole. Because you dealt to teenagers, kids. I saw the people who came into that theater, the people you dealt to. They weren’t exactly of legal age. You could’ve dealt your shit to people who are at least old enough to make the choice for themselves. But you didn’t. At least, not all the time. You gave that shit to people who were too young to even buy cigarettes. So don’t try acting all benevolent now. You helped get kids hooked on that garbage. Probably because they’re easy targets, and great repeat customers, since they won’t exactly know where else they can go to get their fix.”

Far from looking abashed, Calvin just gave a casual shrug. “Hey, I said I wasn’t a complete monster. Never claimed to be a saint. I doubt you’re Miss Perfect anyway. I mean–” His gaze turned into that familiar leer. “What’d you do for Deputy Boy Scout to get him wrapped around your little finger?”

The disgust I felt at his insinuation right there was enough to nearly make me dry heave. Or worse. And I almost completely forgot my private vow not to hit the guy and cause problems in this place. Honestly, it was probably more my shock that he would imply such a thing that stalled me long enough so I didn’t lash out more than any sense of decorum or diplomacy. I was too surprised to punch him.

Shiori, on the other hand, went to lunge at the man. The little Asian girl’s eyes were wide as she brought her hands up and took a step forward, only to have Asenath catch her around the waist.

“Easy, Reathma,” she murmured. “He wants to get a rise out of you. I heard one of the Septs voted against allowing you in, even after hearing the whole story. I guess we know which one it was now.”

“Ooh, feisty.” Calvin looked intrigued as he watched Shiori. Then he paused, looking back and forth between us for a moment with a curious expression. “And oddly defensive. Wait a sec, are you two–”

Asenath’s hand lashed out, smacking the man in the chest hard enough to make him stumble back into the nearby wall with a grunt. Her head turned to stare at him. “Like I said, I don’t have to be nice.”

“Is there a problem here?” The voice of the bird-man, Quing, interrupted. He was standing in the doorway, his eyes focused not on Calvin, but on Shiori and me, while his hand rested on the hilt of one of his knives. “I was told your Heretic friends knew how to behave themselves in civilized society.”

Namythiet flew off my shoulder, hovering directly in front of the security man’s face. “He started it!”

“It’s okay, Quing.” Calvin waved the annoyed bird-man away. “The little one’s right, I had it coming. And it wasn’t the Heretics who did the shoving anyway. They’ve been perfectly behaved little angels.”

Pausing, he looked back to me with narrowed eyes. “For now, anyway. But keep an eye on this one. She likes to think she’s smarter than she is. And she doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone.”

His expression abruptly turned to a smile, and he waved casually at us. “See you soon, Flicker… and friends. The rest of the Septs are really interested in meeting you. Hope you don’t disappoint them.”

Then he was gone, whistling as he walked out into the mall. I watched his big bushy red hair vanish into the crowd before muttering under my breath, “I really don’t like that guy.” Wincing as soon as the words left my mouth, I looked to Quing. “Err, sorry. I guess that was rude for one of your leaders.”

Quing just watched me with those sharp eyes for a few seconds before giving a shake of his head. “You can say whatever you want. We aren’t totalitarian monsters. Criticize as much as you wish. But raise a hand to any of the people under my care, Sept or not, and I’ll make sure you never raise a hand again.”

“I’ll defend myself,” I replied to him without breaking his gaze. “That’s it. I don’t want to cause any problems, but I’m not going to just roll over and be a punching bag either. Respect goes both ways.”

The bird-man gave me a short, sharp nod before pivoting. “Come,” he muttered toward us while starting to walk back out. “He was right about one thing. The rest of the Septs are waiting to meet you.”

Biting my lip, I looked at Namythiet, who was still hovering in the air nearby. “How about we have that tour after this meeting? Assuming we don’t get kicked out on our hindquarters by the time it’s over.”

The little pixie’s head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Good luck!” she chirped. “I’d come with, but I’m not allowed in the Sept Hall.” Visibly pouting then, she added, “Like it’s my fault I had to chase the Zezaflies in there before. What was I supposed to do, just leave them alone? They’re Zezaflies!”

Well, that definitely sounded like a story that I really wanted to hear more of, but Quing was already impatient, so I looked to Shiori. “Ready to meet the leaders of this place and play Heretic Diplomats?”

Nodding, Shiori crouched down to rub Choo’s face before presenting him with a little bag of salted pretzels, which he immediately started to devour. “Stay here, okay? Play with your new friend.” She gestured to Clubber before looking toward Namythiet. “I mean, if that’s okay? I don’t think the little guy’s ready to sit around a meeting room with a bunch of important bigwigs.”

The pixie smiled brightly, landing between Clubber and Choo. “O’course!” she chirped. “We’ll have fun.”

Leaving them to it, Shiori, Asenath, and I followed after Quing. The bird-man led us through the mall, and I got to see dozens more Alters either openly staring at us, or trying to pretend they weren’t. Most hid behind things, making sure there was something between us and them. Others went as far as to quickly shut doors as we passed. Some, mostly little ones, watched us with more curiosity than fear. A couple even tried to approach, only to be quickly yanked back by their parents or guardians. These were people who were accustomed to being hunted by Heretics, and they weren’t exactly ready to believe that we weren’t about to start killing them any second.

Eventually, we arrived in front of one of the mall’s anchor stores. According to the sign above, it had been a Sears. But the ‘a’ and the ‘r’ had been crossed out, and a ‘p’ and ‘t’ had been spray painted above them. Septs.

We walked inside, passing about half a dozen more armed guards that watched us with clear and obvious suspicion before reaching the escalator. Even more guards stood at both the top and bottom, and we had to pass between them to ride the moving stairs all the way to the top. They were not fooling around here.

At the top, in what looked like it had been the entertainment section, we found seven comfortable armchairs set up facing us. Behind and around them, a semi-circle wall of televisions and computer monitors had been set up. Most showed a different view from somewhere in the mall, or the surrounding parking lot, though a few displayed various familiar TV shows and movies.

In those chairs sat seven figures. The one on the far right was Calvin. He lounged there, watching his fellow Septs more than he was watching us.

Beside the man, to his left, sat a rock-like figure. He looked sort of like the Thing from the Fantastic Four, only dull gray instead of orange. And his head had long, gleaming silver hair that looked like strands of metal. Next to him sat a Rakshasa, one of the cat-people. Beyond that, I saw a male that I thought was a vampire, a centaur who was actually standing behind the chair that was supposed to be his, an older, yet still somehow regally beautiful female figure with blue skin and white hair, and a very small (though not as small as Namythiet) guy that looked a bit like a garden gnome.

“Heretics.” The Rakshasa spoke from her seat, cat-eyes watching us intently. “Asenath tells us that we should listen to what you have to say, that we will be interested in your claims of peace and alliance.” She paused, looking left, then right at her fellow Septs before focusing on us again. “Is this true?”

Something caught in my throat. I stopped, biting my lip as a rush of thoughts and doubts ran through my mind. What if I said the wrong thing? What if telling them anything was a bad idea, and it somehow got back to Ruthers? I wasn’t sure how, since he wasn’t the type to listen to Alter rumors anyway. But still… doubts and uncertainty plagued me long enough that the Septs started to whisper to one another, their doubts clearly magnifying.

I had to. Clearing my throat, I straightened as much as I could. “Your—umm… Septs? I’m sorry, I don’t know the… the right term…” Shaking that off, I tried to quell my nerves. Just do it, Flick. Just talk. Tell the truth. “I could tell you about myself, about my friends. But honestly, we’re not the ones you need to hear about.”

“What you need to hear about… is a woman named Joselyn Atherby.”

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Mini-Interlude 16 – Nevada

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff (specifically, Nevada) both before and after dealing with the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving. 

The soothing sound of Dick Haymes’s classic rendition of Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 song ‘Til The End Of Time’ filled the almost-empty Stranger Truths classroom while Nevada lay on her back underneath a motorcycle that was parked just in front of her desk. An open and clearly thoroughly used toolbox lay beside the buxom blonde, and her grease-covered hands were busily working at the bike’s half-assembled engine before she noticed the arrival of a newcomer.

“I’m surprised that you can stomach listening to this kind of music,” Risa Kohaku announced from her place near the doorway. “Wasn’t this the…” She paused, stepping into the room before closing it behind her. Still, before continuing, the security chief went through half a dozen procedures to ensure their privacy. Finally, she finished her thought. “Wasn’t this the kind of music your old Master used to enjoy while you were still… in his employ?”

Pushing herself back before standing up, Nevada smiled reflexively. It was an old defensive measure she’d learned to deal with uncomfortable or upsetting memories. “You mean when I was a Djinn,” she replied flatly while waving her hand. A minor telekinetic touch shut off the music, leaving the room much quieter.

Wincing just a little at her directness, Risa nodded. “I would have thought that his preference for that music would have turned you away from it. Especially given his… proclivities while listening to it.”

Picking up a nearby wrench just to have something to squeeze, Nevada shook her head. “Not like it’s the music’s fault. Besides, he preferred the Perry Como version of the song. Something about Como being a natural born American while Hayes was from Argentina. Which was pretty funny considering dear old Master wasn’t even born on this planet, let alone America.”

“Sorry,” Risa murmured apologetically. “I know you don’t like to think about those times.”

Nevada shrugged. Her mouth opened to ask what the woman was doing there, but before she could say anything more, the door behind Risa opened abruptly, and Virginia Dare appeared.

“Felicity and Koren,” she announced. “They’re in trouble.”

“What kind of–” Risa started.

“Fomorian trouble,” Virginia interrupted. The tension and fear in her expression and voice were far more plain than Nevada remembered seeing them ever before. “There’s a Fomorian at Koren’s house.”

Those words instantly drained all the amusement and casual atmosphere from the room. Nevada dropped the wrench she had been squeezing so tightly and was already halfway to the doorway by the time Risa caught up with her. The security chief was paler than usual, her expression set in a grim line.

No one joked about the Fomorians. Not after what had happened during the last major altercation with them, including the loss of Desoto.

“Gaia?” Risa spoke tersely as the three of them emerged into the corridor.

“Still busy with the Committee,” Virginia replied, her own voice just as tense. “Ulysses is prepping the portal.”

She explained everything that had been in the message from Flick as they made their way through the hall. Their destination wasn’t the Pathmaker, but the enormous mirrors in the main corridor. As promised, Ulysses Katarin was already there, performing the opening enchantment on the mirror that would connect them to Koren’s house.

“Can’t put it inside,” the big man explained without looking up as the women approached. “Fomorian shit’s already blocking it. The closest I can get is the sidewalk at the front.”

“Do it,” Virginia prompted, her face tight with worry. “Deveron Adams and Wyatt are there too, but..” She paused, shaking her head. “We need to be there, now. Before now. Yesterday, if time traveling back into time you’ve already experienced wasn’t out of the question.”

Ulysses was already nodding, throwing the last bit of magic into the mirror before he stepped back. “Hope we can break that blood shield the Fomorian threw up. Cuz the last time I had to deal with one of those, it took a god damn hour to knock it down, and that was with nine of us.”

“We have a secret weapon,” Virginia reminded him before stepping through the mirror.

“Wyatt,” Ulysses finished for the woman, smiling mirthlessly. “Let’s hope the guy’s as good as Gaia says he is.”

Then they were through the portal, emerging through a simple wooden door that had appeared in the middle of the sidewalk. Across the street, an elderly woman walking her dog gave them a wave, and Nevada briefly wondered what exactly the woman had seen. What had the Bystander Effect turned the four of them stepping through a door that had no business being in the middle of sidewalk into? Maybe she saw them stepping out of a van?

Regardless, they had more important things to focus on. Wyatt was there. His wide-eyed gaze snapped around, focusing on them. “Felicity,” he blurted, “Koren, they–”

“We know,” Virginia interrupted before the man could start rambling. “How long will it take you to bring down the shield, Wyatt?”

Not, ‘can you bring it down’, Nevada noticed. For Virginia, it wasn’t even a question of whether the man could pull it off or not. She simply wanted to know how long it would take him to do it.

Swallowing hard, an act that sent his pronounced Adam’s apple bobbing, Wyatt nodded. “I can. I can do it. I’ve been examining the spell, and–”

“Details later, Wyatt,” Risa reminded him. “Right now, focus on smashing that spell down as soon as–”

“No,” Dare corrected her while shaking her head. “Don’t smash it down. He’ll know we’re coming. Wyatt, we need you to get the spell as close as you can to going down without alerting the Fomorian about what’s happening. Can you do that?”

Again, the nervous man fidgeted and seemed to hesitate before nodding. “Um, maybe. Yeah. I mean, normally I’d have to put my own power into it as I went. But if I leave most of the power out of it and just shape the spell, it might work. But I can’t put enough power in fast enough by myself. After I—umm, shape it, we all have to put power into the spell at the same time if you want it to go down fast.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Risa decided, laying a hand on her subordinate’s shoulder. “Be fast, Wyatt. The Fomorian cannot escape. Not with what it already knows.”

“Funny,” a new voice spoke up from the darkness as the man in the green suit came into view. “I would’ve thought that your first words would’ve been, ‘he can’t be allowed to hurt our students.’”

“It’s implied, Seller,” Risa snapped at the man from Eden’s Garden. “What are you doing here?”

It was Dare who answered. “He’s helping. Flick obviously called for his aid. Which is good. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have all the help we can get to deal with a Fomorian who managed to survive the war and escaped being banished. He’s gone unnoticed this entire time. We can’t just let the ridiculous Garden/Crossroads division matter right now.”

Seller gave a brief bow. “Yes,” he murmured in agreement. “Besides, regardless of where they happen to attend school, I prefer not to leave my more promising descendants in danger. Particularly from a Fomorian.”

Nevada’s head snapped around at that, and she felt her own surprise jump. Her mouth opened to question what he meant,but she stopped herself. She had to focus on what was happening, not get distracted. Even if it was an announcement like that. Because if he was related to Flick, that meant that he was related to… Oh.

Virginia stepped away to use a telepathy power to contact Deveron on the inside to let him know what was going on. She also used the same mental discussion to get a report from the boy about the full situation inside.

Deveron. According to Gaia after a discussion the woman had had with the boy, he was the one who had originally recruited Nevada to join the school. He was the one who convinced her to turn herself into a human, and then a Heretic. After, of course, she had altered the Edge to allow hybrid students.

Before then, Nevada had simply… not really thought about who had recruited her. That was the power of the spell that had been used. Even though she’d clearly thought about the fact that she’d been recruited by a Heretic, she simply hadn’t thought about who it had been. And nothing about the fact that she couldn’t remember who he was, this man who had changed her life so much, had actually struck her as odd.

Magic scared her sometimes. And the fact that it frightened even her, a former Djinn, said… well, it said a lot. And at some point, she was going to have to have a discussion with Deveron about everything that she couldn’t remember.

Soon. She’d talk to him soon.

Meanwhile, Risa and Seller took a moment to put aside their initial hostility and talked about exactly what they were going to do once the spell went down. Then the Eden’s Garden Heretic stepped away to do something of his own that would apparently mask his own presence from the shield.

Of course, since he was apparently related to Flick and Koren, the spell would let him through anyway. But it would also alert the Fomorian to his arrival, so the man was doing something that would hide him from the spell once he passed through it.

Eventually, they were ready. Seller gave a quick salute before moving through the spell to cause a distraction. The man had enchanted a couple of stones, placing one in his pocket while leaving the other with Nevada and the others so that they could all hear what was going on.

“Tell me you’re ready, Wyatt,” Virginia urged, clearly not wanting to wait any longer.

“Ready,” the man confirmed.

Dare sent the message through to Seller, and the rest of them took a moment to gather their energy for the last push to break the blood shield. Meanwhile, they listened as the emerald-suited man announced his arrival to interrupt the Fomorian, who was apparently trying to convince Flick or Koren to choose which of them would go with him. Nevada tightened her fist, snarling under her breath while focusing on her own power.

Then Seller’s voice announced that if Dare was going to do it, she should do it right then. And on cue, Nevada, Ulysses, Risa, and Virginia all helped Wyatt by pouring their power into the spell that the enchantment expert had created. The invisible wall vanished, and they were through. Through and ready to make sure the Fomorian didn’t escape, and never hurt one of their students again.

******

“Where are they?” The booming demand came from the doorway that led into Koren’s house, and Nevada looked up from her slumped over position to find Gabriel Ruthers standing there, flanked by Gaia.

“The Fomorian, Chambers, and Fellows,” the man demanded before Nevada or any of the other exhausted and clearly bloodied figures could respond. “Where are they? If you let them escape–”

“Felicity and Koren are fine,” Virginia snapped. The woman was busy holding her hand tight against a deep wound in her own stomach until it could heal. “Physically, anyway. And the Fomorian’s body is in there.” She nodded over her shoulder to the kitchen. “He’s dead. But he got off a message. We’re not sure what it said, but… probably too much.”

“If they’re fine, then where are they?” Ruthers’s voice was dark.

“Eden’s Garden,” Risa answered without looking toward the man. The woman’s vision would take awhile to return after the fog that the Fomorian had released into her face had eaten away most of her eyes. “Koren’s mother was… critically injured. They took her to Eden’s Garden to have her turned into a Heretic so that–”

What?!” Ruthers’s voice turned into a bellow. His fury was palpable. “You allowed them to—what kind of failur–”

“Gabriel,” Gaia snapped. “Leave. The situation is handled. You and I can discuss it further later.”

At first, Nevada thought the man was going to blow his gasket and start screaming at Gaia right there. His face reddened and he glared at the woman for a few seconds before taking a visible breath. “You, I, and the rest of the Committee. We will all discuss this. And everything else.”

“I can’t possibly contain my excitement at the prospect, Gabriel.” Gaia replied flatly. “Now leave, and let me attend to my staff. There’s clearly no need for your presence here.”

“We’ll see where my presence is required, Gaia,” the man retorted.

“We will most certainly see.”

Then the man was gone, just as abruptly as he had arrived. Gaia let out a visible breath before stepping further into the building. Her attention was on the rest of them, her voice soft. “Are all of you all right?”

“We’ll be okay,” Ulysses replied for them, shifting his half-mangled form with a grunt. “Can’t say that tangling with a Fomorian is any more fun than it used to be, though.”

“No, I can’t imagine it would be,” Gaia murmured before stepping over to lay a hand on Nevada’s arm. “I’m going to discuss things with Seller, and find out how the others are. Tristan was pulled along with Felicity’s travel to Eden’s Garden.” She paused briefly. “And so was Roxanne.”

“Pittman?” Ulysses blurted. “How—oh damn it, she was touching him, wasn’t she?”

“They were surfing,” Gaia confirmed. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach them in time to prevent it. And now… now I fear what might have happened if she wasn’t pulled the entire distance. If she–” The woman stopped, obviously not wanting to put voice to the fear.

“Go,” Virginia urged. “Make sure they’re okay.”

“I have to ask,” Gaia started first, focusing on Nevada. “You… you were the one who killed him, weren’t you?”

Nevada nodded. “Yeah. Well, we all killed him, but that last hit, that was me.”

“And did you… gain anything from it?” the headmistress asked carefully.

Risa interrupted. “Why would you even have to ask that? Heretics don’t get powers from killing Fomorians. That’s one of the things that makes them such a pain in the ass. We all know that.”

“Normally, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But I thought perhaps… Nevada’s uniqueness would be different.”

“You mean the fact that I used to be a Djinn, and that it’s magic that made me human,” Nevada realized before shaking her head. “No. No, I didn’t get anything from it. At least, I don’t think I did. I don’t feel any different.”

Gaia met her gaze intently for a few seconds before nodding. “If that changes… tell me. If our hybrids are going to react to Fomorian kills any differently than a normal Heretic, we need to know about it.

“The last thing we need, at this point, is another surprise.”

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Winter Wonderland 18-03

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A sneezing sound interrupted before I could say anything in response to Senny’s announcement. A familiar sneezing sound, that immediately made my head snap over toward Shiori.

Sure enough, Choo was sticking his head up out of a container on her hip that she had just opened. The little warthog-like Jerkern was looking around with obvious interest, head turning this way and that.

“You brought Choo?” I asked, surprised at the appearance of the little guy. “How?”

Shiori blushed, rubbing a couple fingers over his head. “I couldn’t just leave him alone for three weeks. Even if Avalon visited him, he’d get lonely. So… she talked to Gaia and found out that as long as he’s in one of these containers like they give us for our weapons, he’s technically not on school grounds because of the whole extra-dimensional pocket thing. If it stays closed and he never pops out, the security spells won’t detect him. So I put him in there and it let me take him through the grounds to the portal to go home. I was about to tell you about it, but then Senny talked about her big surprise with bringing us here, and I sort of got distracted.”

After hesitating slightly, I smiled and reached out to rub under the Jekern’s pig-like snout. “I get it. Wouldn’t want to make you think Shiori abandoned you, would we, little guy?”

In response, Choo sneezed sparks of electricity over my hand, then gave it a quick, curious lick.

“I think he’s hungry,” I informed the other girl as the little lightning-warthog continued licking my palm.

Shiori snorted, reaching into her pocket. “He’s always hungry.” Pulling out a raw carrot, she offered it to him. “Here you go, buddy.” Her smile grew as Choo proceeded to start chomping happily at the thing.

While the other girl was busy feeding her pet, I focused on looking around once more. “So this whole place is just, like, one big hiding place for Alters?” I murmured quietly, marveling even more as I looked around at all the little stores again. Everything looked simultaneously incredible and normal. The Alters here may have looked strange to me, but the things they were doing were just ordinary, like they were normal people trying to live their lives. Of course there were things I wouldn’t see in the Bystander world. They were selling magic, I saw one silver-skinned figure literally step through a solid wall before continuing on their way, and those pixies were still flying around. But at the heart of it, when you looked past all the uniqueness, they were just… people, people trying to live.

“It’s more than a hiding place,” Senny replied, watching the same people that I was. Her voice was soft and contemplative. “It’s a home. Like I said, it’s a place they don’t have to worry about being hunted.”

I felt the approach of someone with a gun and plethora of bladed weapons, along with a notepad, radio, and some jingling coins. Turning that way, I found tall (though not nearly as tall as Buddy) humanoid-bird figure with dark blue feathers and a beak. He looked like Falco from Starfox, and he was wearing what looked like a more official security outfit than Buddy. He did not, however, look quite as friendly.

“She’s right,” he spoke up flatly, in a voice that sounded far more gravelly than I would’ve expected it to. And whenever his beak closed far enough while he was talking, there was a sharp clacking noise. “People don’t have to worry about being hunted here. So you endanger that, and I’ll make sure you-”

Then Senny was there, hand on the bird-man’s chest to stop him from stalking closer. “Easy, Quing. You heard the Septs. Felicity and Reathma are allowed to be here. I already told you, I trust them.”

The bird-man, Quing, apparently, stared over her shoulder at the two of us. “Never said they weren’t,” he ground out with obvious annoyance. “Wouldn’t dream of going against the Septs’ decision. Nope.”

He gave us another look that clearly screamed that he wasn’t going to stop watching us before stalking past. As he did, I noticed that he had a pair of wings separate from his arms. They were folded tight against his back, but rustled with annoyance as if he could barely control himself from lashing out.

Once he was far enough away, I looked to Senny. “That man is not happy about us being here, is he?”

“Quing was the most outspoken voice against it,” the vampire explained quietly, her eyes focused on the pixie shop. “He sees himself as responsible for everyone’s safety. Buddy is the physical and visible deterrent, and Quing is the… subtle one, the one who watches threats and points Buddy at them.”

The big troll himself spoke up then, sounding just as pleased and optimistic as before. “Quing is laser. I am missile. Quing point, I blow up.” Grinning happily, he put his hands together before moving them apart like an explosion while mimicking the sound. “Boom. No more of dze bad guys. Buddy System.”

“Like the military,” Shiori put in. “He paints the target like a laser, then you fly in like a missile and… well, you destroy them.” She glanced toward me before adding, “Makes sense. Isn’t he a Lavinsi?”

“He’s a what?” I blinked, trying to remember if I’d heard that name before. It didn’t sound familiar.

Shiori blushed. “Oh, right, sorry. We learned about them in the Hunter’s track. They’re bird-men with all kinds of vision powers. X-Ray, telescopic, heat, all that stuff. And they’re really, really good at reading body language. A lot of powerful Alters use them as bodyguards because they can tell if someone’s about to attack or even if they’re doing something subtle, like about to use poison. Or even if people are lying. They’re so good at reading body language and facial expressions that a lot of people used to think they were telepathic. Until…” She trailed off, cringing as her expression fell from eager to ashamed. “Until Heretics killed enough of them to figure out what kind of powers they were getting.”

“He is a Lavinsi,” Asenath confirmed. “And Heretics killed most of his family, including his son. That’s why Quing hates them so much. It’s why he doesn’t trust you. I’m sorry, it’s just… the way things are.”

“It shouldn’t be,” I replied flatly while looking after the the way the bird-man had gone. I wondered if he had been a part of Mom’s rebellion. Or would he not have trusted her that much? How different would his life be if Ruthers and his ilk hadn’t erased everyone’s memory? How different would this entire place and everyone in it be if the rebellion had continued, if they hadn’t had their minds wiped?

A heavy hand settled over my shoulder, large enough to practically encircle my entire torso. When I glanced that way, I found Buddy giving me another smile of encouragement. “You are not dze same as dze odzer Heretics. I have seen dzem. Fought dzem. Lost some. Von some. You are not like dzem.”

Taking in a long, deep breath before putting my hand over one of the troll’s fingers to squeeze, I nodded. “I’m trying not to be. Thanks, big guy. Sorry your partner isn’t happy about us being here.”

“Quing will feel better soon,” the big troll assured me while moving his hand. “You vill change mind, not for arguing, but for not doing dze bad sings dzat he sinks you vill do. Dzat is how to change mind.”

Smiling, I gave him a quick pat on the arm. “You’re a smart guy, Buddy. They’re lucky to have you here.” Then I glanced to Asenath. “He mentioned the Septs. Isn’t a Sept like a clan or something?”

“Yes, but not in this case,” Senny replied. “The name Septs comes from the Latin word Septem, or Seven. There’s, you know, seven of them and they’re basically the leadership for this place. Actually, they’re kind of the leadership for a few different places, but this is the biggest one. The rest are all little settlements scattered around here and there. The Septs mediate disputes, pass judgments, establish and interpret the rules, and all the rest of that stuff. They’re the judges and the leaders, and their territory covers… hmm, maybe about a quarter of the United States? A little less. Mostly in the North-West.”

“Does that include Wyoming?” I asked, curious about how this whole thing was set up. “And how do they decide who the Septs are. Is it an inherited title like royalty, or do they fight for it, or… what?”

Senny nodded again. “It covers most of Wyoming, yeah. The edge of their territory is right around the south-eastern area of the state. It comes down around most of Utah, then up through Nevada and cuts through down through most of California. For the most part, they control Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. But there’s obviously disputes. You know, some groups just don’t like following the Septs’ rules, yet they want to live there. It gets violent sometimes.”

She trailed off then, looking away like she was remembering something before shaking it off. “Anyway, like I said, there’s seven of them. As for how they’re chosen, it’s a mixture. Three of the positions are sort-of inherited. Basically, the last person in that position designates a successor. It’s usually one of their relatives, but sometimes it’s a friend or a student. Then the next three are voted in by every ‘member in good-standing’ every ten years. Basically, if you live in this area, follow the rules and aren’t considered an enemy, you get to vote. So three and three, half inherited, half voted on.”

“And the last one?” I asked, even more curious by that point. This was obviously a lot more thought out and civilized than people at Crossroads or even Eden’s Garden would’ve given them credit for.

“Tie-Breaker,” Senny explained. “That’s what the seventh member of the Septs is called, it’s their title. That’s the one that’s earned through battle. One day a year, the Tie-Breaker can be challenged to a fight. If the challenger wins, they become the new Tie-Breaker, the new seventh member of the Septs.”

Shiori whistled low. “And here I thought you guys just sort-of all ran around doing your own thing.”

Chuckling, Senny shrugged. “For the most part, we do. The ones who don’t live here or in one of the smaller settlements mostly do our own thing. Especially those of us who don’t really stay in one place that often. I move in and out of the Septs’ territory a lot. But there has to be some kind of organization. It can’t all just be complete anarchy, even if there’s some who would actually prefer it that way.”

Shaking her head, she gestured before starting off. “Come on, we’ve been standing here long enough. Let me show you around before we meet the Septs. They’ve been wanting to talk to you for awhile.”

I blinked, glancing toward Shiori before starting to follow. “They want to talk to us? Um. How much do they know? I mean, you called Shiori your sister, so… did you tell them about, you know, me?”

Senny paused before looking over her shoulder. Her face was serious. “Not all of it. I didn’t tell them about your mother or any of that. I figured that was yours to share if you want to. It’s kind of a big deal. But I did tell them that you were different, that you had a connection to a group of Heretics that don’t think that all of us are evil, and that there’s more to it. If you want to tell them the rest, that’s up to you.”

I hesitated, thinking about it. From what Avalon had explained (after learning from Gaia), since I wasn’t actually targeted directly by the original memory spell, I could tell them about my mother and their little rebellion. The mnemosyne magic wouldn’t stop me, because I was just sharing a story rather than a specific memory. I had learned about Mom’s rebellion myself, which meant there was a rather big loophole. If I chose to, I could tell these Septs that there had been a major Heretic-Alter alliance against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden before their memories were erased. But was telling them that the best idea? My instinct said it was, but I didn’t want to jump into it without considering the consequences.

So I thought long and hard about it, while Asenath began to show us around the place they called Wonderland. We started by going into the store where the pixies were flying around, doing their little shows. Most of them immediately flew away, pretty much hiding behind safety screens or completely disappearing from sight. But a few actually fluttered up a bit closer, clearly curious to see Shiori and me, even if they were still obviously nervous and incredibly skittish about the whole situation.

Well, most of them were obviously nervous. One, however, came flying straight up to hover in front of my face. She was a tiny thing, with bright violet wings and dark blue hair. She was wearing what looked like leather armor, and she had a needle-like sword sheathed at her side. When she spoke, her voice was high-pitched and excitable. “Hello!” She waved with both hands. “Hi, I’m Namythiet!”

“Oh, uh, hi.” Leaning back a little to see the winged figure a little more clearly (she was hovering very close), I examined her. All of them were tiny, of course. But somehow, this one looked even smaller. Going by her face and build, my guess was that she was still a young pixie, maybe in her early teens. Assuming pixies had ‘teenagers’ of course. The point was, most of the others I had seen in the store looked like women (albeit incredibly small ones), and this one looked like barely more than a child.

“Namythut, you said your name was?” I asked, hesitantly holding my hand up with a couple fingers out for her to perch on if she wanted to. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette for that sort of thing was, so I hoped it wasn’t rude.

If she was offended, the tiny pixie didn’t show it. She just landed on my fingers before straightening up. Now that I had a close look at her, I estimated her size at about four and a half inches. Meanwhile, the adult pixies that were hovering in the background, watching us with obvious uncertainty, mostly topped out at about six inches or so. It looked like human heights, except with inches instead of feet.

“It’s Namythiet,” the little pixie corrected me. “Nah-Mee-Thee-It. Namythiet. And you’re a Heretic.”

There was a collective gasp from the other pixies, as if they were afraid that having it stated flat out was going to send me into some kind of murderous rage, or like they thought I’d somehow forgotten about being a Heretic, and reminding me would make me suddenly realize I was supposed to kill them.

“Oh, don’t be such big babies,” Namythiet snapped over her shoulder at the rest of the pixies. “Senny says they’re nice, so they’re nice. You think Senny’s stupid or something? She wouldn’t bring bad Heretics here.” Turning back to me, she puffed herself up a bit proudly, hand settling onto the hilt of her little sword. “Besides, if you guys cause any trouble, you’ll have to deal with me and Clubber.”

Shiori piped up from beside me, “Is that Clubber?” She nodded to the sword at the pixie’s hip.

Giggling, Namythiet shook her head. “Nope. That’s Clubber.” She lifted a hand to point off to the side.

The two of us looked that way, only to find what looked like the world’s smallest, greenest saber-toothed tiger. The thing was obviously still a kitten, its emerald fur bright against the white cushion it was sitting on. It yawned at us, showing off impressive fangs for its size.

Choo had popped out again, and after making sure it was all right, Shiori carefully took him out of her little container and set him down on the cushion beside Clubber. The Jekern and the tiny saber-toothed tiger proceeded to sniff and investigate one another.

“So you and Clubber protect this place, huh?” I asked Namythiet.

The little pixie bobbed her head rapidly. “Yup! Dozeran’s teaching me how to fight. I’m his apprentice!”

“The tie-breaker,” Asenath explained. “Dozeran’s the current tie-breaker of the Septs.” To Namythiet, she added, “You wanna help me show them around? You spend more time here than I do.”

Perking up, Namythiet hovered up off my finger, hands on her hips. “You mean it? You want me to come with?”

I had to smile at her enthusiasm. “Sure, if you’re not too busy keeping the riffraff out of here.”

“Eh,” she waved a hand dismissively. “They can get along on their own for awhile. Clubber!” Whistling, the little pixie flew that way before landing on the saber-toothed kitten’s back. “Let’s go, boy!”

With that, Clubber hopped to the floor with the pixie on his back and pranced to the doorway, with Choo following along behind. Shiori and I looked at each other, giggling in spite of ourselves before we trailed after them.

“So!” Namythiet called up from her mount once we were all back in the mall proper. “Whattaya wanna see first, huh? What’re you interested in, big-Heretic-people?”

“Yeah,” a strangely familiar voice spoke up from nearby. “I’m kind of interested in that too. What are you interested in… Heretics?”

I turned that way. My Stranger-sense, which had been quiet for awhile after giving me the initial screaming warning about all the Alters around me, kicked in again to inform me that the figure standing a few feet away was, in fact, also not human.

“Septer,” Asenath greeted the figure with obvious surprise. “We didn’t expect to see any of you until I brought them to the meeting hall.” To us, she added, “Septer is the title for any member of the Septs. This is one of the inherited positions. His name is–”

“I know his name,” I retorted flatly. I hadn’t looked away from the man, had barely blinked. “And he knows me.”

Calvin. The man who had been my boss at the theater, the one whose little drug ring I had helped dismantle as one of the last things I’d done before being recruited by Crossroads. The man who had pretty much run or had heavy investments in half the businesses in Laramie Falls before I helped Scott take him down so that he had to sell off almost all his holdings.

My drug-dealing, skeevy old boss was one of the Septs. He was one of the people in charge here. He was an Alter.

Well…. shit.

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Winter Wonderland 18-02

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago focusing on Flick and Avalon. There were some… important developments in that chapter, so if you missed it, you may wish to click the ‘previous chapter’ button above. 

“Miss Chambers.” A hand waved in front of my face as the voice repeated louder, “Miss Chambers.”

Snapping out of my daze, I blinked a couple times and looked around. Bus. I was on the bus that was bringing me back home. Hours had passed since… since that… since Avalon and I had… since we had…

“Miss Chambers.” Again, the hand was back while another shook my shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Oh, oh! Bus, right, yes. I straightened, face flushed while looking toward the woman who was speaking. Professor Kohaku. She had accompanied me for the trip. Apparently the plan was for her to stay on the bus after I got off, just watching over me long enough to make sure I made it to my father.

I wasn’t entirely sure what difference it made if I was with my father or not, since if anyone was going to come after me, Dad’s presence wasn’t going to stop them. But I wasn’t in the position to argue. So, I’d taken the little bus ride next to Kohaku and ended up zoning out a bit while thinking about that… that…

“I’m okay,” I quickly blurted before the woman shook me again. My blush was deeper, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Hadn’t stopped smiling throughout the entire trip, ever since… Crap, focus, focus. Don’t zone out. “I’m okay.”

The Asian woman continued to eye me for a moment before speaking carefully. “If something happened at the school that you wish to talk about… something between you and Miss Sinclaire…”

Eyes widening, I blurted, “No. No, nothing. I mean, it’s fine. It’s all good. Really good.” Okay, now I was outright blushing. Stupid traitor blood vessels. “I mean, nothing happened. I’m just… thinking.”

Yeah, just thinking about how that kiss had felt. And about how Avalon had looked at me afterward, how her hand had lingered on my face, and how… how… Okay, Flick, don’t zone out again. Focus.

“I, um.” Clearing my throat, I tried to change the subject by looking at Kohaku. “How are you?”

Rather than answer the admittedly lame question, the professor nodded toward the front of the bus. “We are almost at your stop.” After a brief pause, she added, “If it would make you would feel more comfortable, I can step off with you and find a reason to escort you and your father to your home.”

My head shook a bit at that. “No, it’s—I mean, if anything happens, I’ll let you guys know. Wyatt gave me a couple…” Pausing, I looked around the bus briefly. There was almost no one on it, and the seats surrounding us were empty. Still, I lowered my voice. “He gave me a couple emergency alert things in case anything goes wrong. If any of the you-know-who’s decide to come visit, I’ll set them off.”

“As you wish.” Kohaku put her hand lightly on my wrist. “But if anything happens, promise that you aren’t going to try to play hero, Miss Chambers. Now is not the time to prove how capable you are.”

Meeting the woman’s intense stare, I nodded quickly. “I know. I promise, Professor. I’m not going to do anything stupid. The second anything bad happens, I’ll throw up every alert and alarm that I can. Hell, if it comes down to it, I’ll start a fire and throw up smoke signals. I’m not about to take that risk.”

“Good.” Kohaku took her hand off my wrist. “Make sure that Miss Porter understands the seriousness of the situation as well when she arrives, as well as Mr. Porter. They are both visiting, correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I confirmed. “Well, Shiori’s coming in a couple days, and Columbus is visiting late on Christmas. I mean—she’s going back to her adopted parents’ place on Christmas Eve to do the actual holiday stuff, then they’re both coming late on Christmas day.” I didn’t add that it made the most sense that way since night would be when Asenath could be the most active. Nor did I mention the frankly almost predatorily interested sound of Twister’s voice when she had asked if Columbus was coming.

The woman smiled. “Good,” she repeated. “The more people you have with you, the less likely that anyone will make a move.” Pausing, she looked to me. “I know it may sound as though we’re being paranoid, Miss Chambers. But in the case of this particular threat, it’s much better to be safe than sorry.”

My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “I know, I know. I get it, I promise. No being stupid. No problem.”

She continued to study me for another few seconds before her smile returned. “I’m glad that you know better, Miss Chambers. And as I said, put a little thought into my offer. You would do well in Security.”

The bus had stopped by then, and I promised to think about it before thanking her again for the escort. Then I straightened up, grabbed my bag, and shrugged into my coat before stepping off the bus. As I entered the cold Wyoming winter air, my eyes looked around for my father.

It wasn’t hard to find him. He was the one standing all by himself near the bus, holding a sign up over his head as though he was in a busy airport waiting for some arrival he barely knew. I blinked up toward the sign, and didn’t bother suppressing my groan.

The sign read, ‘Mrs. Felicity Depp.’

Quickly moving across the snowy ground, I reached up to grab the sign out of his hand, face flushed. “Jerk,” I informed my oh-so-hilarious dad. “I haven’t had a crush on Johnny Depp in years.”

Dad continued to smirk while letting me yank the sign away and crumple it up. “I’m sure he’ll be devastated to hear that. Ten-year-old you did send that letter swearing your undying love.”

Red-faced, I gave him a light kick, careful to watch my strength. “I was ten. I also thought The Last Airbender was gonna be a great movie, so I was naive and my tastes sucked. Also, you’re a jerk, jerk. A jerky jerk jerkington.”

Even as I said it, however, my arms were wrapping around my father and I held him tight while repeating one last, “Jerk.”

He chuckled before hugging me tight enough to lift me off the ground. “Love you too, Cubby.”

We stayed there like that for a few moments, clutching onto each other. I’d missed my father more than I realized while everything was going on. Yes, I’d seen him not that long ago at Thanksgiving. But still, weeks apart was a long time for the two of us.

Eventually, however, Dad pulled back and smiled down at me. “Wanna grab chicken for lunch on the way back? You’ve gotta be starving after that bus ride.”

“Sure, Dad,” I replied, unable to resist returning his smile. Being around my father just made me… happier. Between that and what had happened back on the island with Avalon when we…

Dad’s fingers snapped in front of my face. “Hey, yo. You okay, kid?”

Well, if I’d been blushing before, now it was practically a five-alarm fire. My head jerked up and down rapidly. “I’m good,” I squeaked. “All good. Hungry. Let’s eat. Eating’s good.”

From the look on his face, Dad knew there was something else going on (I mean, obviously, he wasn’t blind and deaf). Still, he didn’t push. Instead, he led the way to the car.

As we went, I glanced up to see the bus pulling away with Professor Kohaku. Watching the exhaust as it disappeared down the road for just a moment, I shook myself and continued after my father.

It was time for a vacation. And I definitely, undeniably needed it.

******

“So, um, what exactly does the name Reathma mean, anyway? And where does it come from?”

It was a few days later, about a week before Christmas itself. Asenath had said from the beginning of my vacation that she wanted to take Shiori and me somewhere special. And now that Shiori had actually arrived, Senny had insisted on having us come with her to whatever the surprise was. So, while Twister stayed with my dad to make sure nothing happened to him, the three of us took off.

I didn’t know where we were going, since Senny had insisted that we blindfold ourselves and sit in the back seat of the car while she drove. Which, honestly, I could always use the Blemmye’s power to know exactly where we were in relation to home. But that felt like cheating, so I avoided it for the time being.

Senny had been driving and taking more twists and turns than were probably absolutely necessary. She’d said something about taking magical ‘shortcuts’ that would get us much further a lot faster, and apologized for taking the roundabout way. Apparently, however, it was one of the conditions for her bringing us to… wherever she was bringing us. All I knew was that it was apparently a pretty big deal.

Shiori, beside me in the seat and equally blind, continued. “I mean, I tried to look it up, but I wasn’t sure how to spell it. Is it Wraith, like ghost? Wraith-Ma. Like Wraith-Mom. Am I a ghost-mom?”

I could hear the amusement in Asenath’s voice. “Nope. It’s R-E-A-T-H-M-A. Reathma. It just sounds like Wraith-muh. And it’s a word from my father’s homeworld that means oath or promise, basically. A reathma is essentially a blood oath, a um, a promise not for anything specific but just to be there for the other person. If you and someone else have a reathma, you’ll back them them up no matter what happens. If they need protection, food, a place to stay, anything. And they’ll do the same for you.”

She paused then, clearly hesitating before adding in a soft voice. “I hope you don’t mind being named after something from my dad’s world. I know he doesn’t really—he’s not really related to you or any-”

“It’s great,” Shiori interrupted quickly, her voice making it obvious that she was sincere. “It sounds beautiful, really. And… Senny, maybe he’s not my dad, but he’s—he’s yours and that’s good enough for me. Besides, it sounds like the name means a lot. ” After another hesitation, she added in a quieter voice. “I guess I was just kind of wondering if the name had anything to do with my real dad.”

That was kind of a good question, actually. Why had Shiori’s mother named her after a word from Senny’s father’s world instead of giving her a name that had something to do with Shiori’s father? What did that name have to do with Shiori herself other than the fact that Jiao obviously loved her husband. Did she not care as much about Shiori’s father, whoever he was? Or was I reading too much into it?

Asenath was quiet for a few moments before her voice returned. “Mom will tell you everything about your father and… and the rest of it, I promise. She sent a message saying she’d be here by Christmas.”

We continued on that way for another hour before the car finally parked. Asenath got out and helped the two of us out without taking the blindfolds off. Carefully, she led us across what felt and sounded like a vast, mostly empty parking garage considering the echo in the vampire’s voice as she directed us.

We entered what was obviously an elevator, and ascended a ways until a ding announced our arrival. Senny ushered us off, then reached up and removed the blindfolds. “All right, here we go.”

Blinking at the sudden bright fluorescent lights, I looked around, squinting uncertainly. “A hallway?” From what I could see from where I stood, we were in some kind of plain corridor. There was linoleum on the floor, plain, unremarkable walls, and a simple door in front of us. It looked incredibly mundane.

Shiori looked just as uncertain and unimpressed, but Senny just smiled at us before starting to explain. “I can’t exactly tell you where we are. I mean, you wouldn’t believe how hard it was just to get permission to bring you both here to begin with. Lots of favors and promises, and you’re going to have to meet the big guy so he can chat with you before you go anywhere else. But still, here we are.”

She continued to hold the doorknob, and I paused while glancing to Shiori to find out if she had any idea what her sister was talking about. Getting nothing but a shrug in response, I coughed. “Okay, got it. Big secret place. But uh, exactly what kind of secret place are we talking about? What’s going on?”

Asenath smiled at us, as if that was the question she had been waiting for. Rather than answer verbally, she pushed the door open and stepped aside, gesturing for us to go ahead. So, after giving Shiori another uncertain look, I took a step forward and moved through the doorway to see what lay beyond.

A mall. We were in a mall, stepping out of one of the service corridors. But it wasn’t an ordinary mall. Even as my eyes took in the semi-familiar layout that immediately screamed ‘mall’, I was recognizing some of the differences. For one thing, I was pretty sure that no actual mall I’d ever heard of would have had an eight and a half foot tall troll wearing a comically undersized security hat on his massive head standing in the middle of the aisle.

It wasn’t just a hat the troll was wearing. He also wore a shirt that probably would have been too big for Shaquille O’Neal. But on the troll, it was tiny and stretched impossibly tight over his huge form. On the front of the shirt, the words, ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’ were written.

My Stranger-sense started screaming at me (obviously), as soon as my eyes spotted the enormous troll. But he wasn’t the only Alter in sight. No. Everywhere I looked there was another non-human. The entire mall was full of them. Looking left, I saw a group of blue-skinned figures that were about three feet tall with bald heads and enormous yellow eyes that took up most of their faces. They were walking quickly past a Menmeran (that was what the bodybuilder frogmen that Scout and Sean had killed on the Meregan planet had been called, I’d eventually found out), who was studying the window display of one of the stores. A window display that didn’t actually have any mannequins. Instead, about a dozen of what I swore were actual flying pixies fluttered about performing some kind of show for the Menmeran and a few other figures who had slowed or stopped to watch. It involved ribbons and really intricate flying sequences. Further in the same store, I caught a glimpse of more elaborate shows going on.

Looking right, my eyes spotted one of the Relukun wood people walking alongside a couple Satyrs as the trio moved into another store that appeared to be selling every movie from the past hundred years or so, if the window display was any indication. And further on, there was an actual clothing store that a group of teenage Alters of half a dozen different species were all loitering in front of, while the proprietor (a humanoid lion whose mane was graying with age) barked angrily at them to come in and buy something or move the hell away from the entrance so that actual customers could get through.

There was more and more to see. Everywhere I looked, there were other Alters going about their day. It was like we’d stepped through a portal into some kind of alternate universe where the whole world was Alters. The entire mall was full of them. Some of the stores I looked at seemed fairly normal and close to what you’d see in the human world, such as the clothing store or the place that was selling movies. Then there were the clearly abnormal ones, such as the place where the pixies were giving their flying shows, or a magic shop that appeared to be selling actual magic things rather than tricks and illusions.

And that was all before I looked up. Because when I did, I realized that this was only the first floor. There were two more floors above that one, with open space clear to the ceiling so that we could see the railings that surrounded the upper landings. In those upper floors, there weren’t stores. Instead, I caught glimpses of actual homes that had been built into what had been the rest of the mall’s shops, tiny apartments here and there, and even what looked like over-sized birdhouses where more pixies fluttered about. I saw wet clothing hanging from lines to dry, children of every shape and size running around, old women gossiping, and even what had to be a teacher leading her students on a field trip. There was an ugly old Harpy perched on the top railing, cackling to herself while watching something that was happening further back on the third floor where I couldn’t see. And more, so much more.

By that point, Shiori had moved up to join me. She looked just as taken aback as I was, her eyes wandering back and forth while she made noises of surprise and fascination. Together, we stared.

“It’s pretty impressive, huh?” Asenath spoke up, moving up on Shiori’s other side while watching us, wearing an amused expression on her face. “Twister and I figured you guys might like to see this.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, the big troll took two lumbering steps our way. Now, I noticed that he carried a gigantic club in one hand. The thing looked like a broken part of a telephone pole that had some railroad spikes driven through it to make a sort-of oversized nailbat.

“Dzese are dzem?” the troll asked in what sounded like an awfully chipper and upbeat voice considering his size and the weapon he was carrying. “Dzese are dze Heretics, Senny? Huh, huh?”

“Easy, Buddy, easy.” Asenath chuckled, smiling as she nodded. “Yes, this is my friend. And my sister.”

I blinked, but it was Shiori who realized how Senny had said it and blurted, “Your name is Buddy?”

The troll grinned and thumped his free hand against the words on his shirt. “I am Buddy System. Using Buddy System for being safe. Funny, yes?” He had what sounded like a heavy Russian accent.

Shiori was clearly delighted by it going by her face, and I had to chuckle too as I eyed his massive spiked club. “Buddy System. Yeah, I guess you would be pretty damn effective at protecting people.”

Buddy gave a clearly proud and delighted smile, thumping his chest again. “Buddy System keep safe.”

Senny spoke up again. “Buddy’s pretty much the first line of defense in this place. I mean, besides the magic keeping people away from it to begin with, of course. He’s kind of the most visible deterrent to stop anyone from starting trouble once they’re in here. And he does a really great job at it.”

“But what is this place?” I asked, looking around at the Alters again. Some of them had stopped short, staring and whispering to one another as they watched us with obviously worried expressions. At least no one had panicked yet, probably because of who we were standing with. That and they had probably been warned about our arrival. Even then, however, I could tell that a lot weren’t very comfortable.

Smiling at the question, Senny replied, “This? On the outside, it’s just some rundown mall in some random city that never gets worked on, yet the humans all somehow leave alone. But in here, on the inside, it’s a place for Alters to go and relax. It’s a place for us to be safe from prying eyes and the wild world out there. There’s no fighting in here, no violence unless the aggressor wants to be banned for life. It’s a place for Alter children to run around without worrying about Heretic boogeymen jumping out of the woodwork, or Nocen monsters snatching them. Basically, it’s home for a lot of Alters.

“Flick, Reathma… welcome to Wonderland.”

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Mini-Interlude 15 – Flick and Avalon

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on interaction between Flick and Avalon. I hope you enjoy. 

“So I guess this is it,” I announced a bit later while watching Avalon. “Almost a full month you’re gonna have that room all to yourself.” Smiling a little, I asked innocently, “Are you gonna miss me?”

The girl gave me a look. “Stop changing the subject. We’re here to squeeze a little more training in before you run off and find a way to drag even more trouble down on yourself than you already have.”

“Yeah, but still.” My smile broadened as I showed her my teeth. “Really, are you gonna miss me?” I bobbed my head a little toward the spot nearby where a familiar rock with googly eyes and a sword was perched. “Herbie told me he’s gonna miss you.” Dropping my voice to a whisper, I added, “I think he just really needs to hear you say it. He’s sorta sensitive about that kind of thing.”

“Sure,” the other girl replied. “I’ll miss your little pet rock. It’s the only thing in the room with a harder head than you.”

Giving a fake gasp, I brought my hand to my chest as if I couldn’t believe she’d say such a thing. “I am insulted. How dare you claim that anything in this known universe has a harder head than me. I mean, I still haven’t given up on my vow to make you call me Flick, and there’s only like… twenty minutes left before the semester is totally and officially done.”

Snorting, Avalon responded by coming after me with her staff. I brought my own up to block quickly, and we exchanged a short flurry of blows. I was getting better about noticing where she was attacking. Part of that was the skeleblineist power, of course. But it was also my own reflexes and the training that they had been drilling into me over and over again.

“Faster, Chambers.” The other girl’s staff slammed into mine hard enough to almost knock it out of my hands. “Get your guard up faster, and retaliate harder. You’re stronger than me, and you can keep going longer. Use that. A lot of people that you fight are going to have to pace themselves a lot more than you. They can’t go full strength, full speed as long as you can. So use that against them. You can hit harder, faster, longer. So don’t hold back. If you see the opening, go for it. If you don’t see it, force one to happen. If nothing else, let them wear themselves out against you, then hit them three times as hard.”

Taking a quick step back to gain some room, I flipped my staff around thoughtfully while watching her. It was nothing she and Deveron hadn’t already said a few times. I had the feeling that Avalon was trying to drill as many of these instructions and tips into my head as she could before I left for the holidays. It was almost like she didn’t really trust me to have a completely normal and safe vacation or something.

Smiling, I took her advice by taking a quick step forward before bringing my staff up to her shoulder. It was a feint, however, and I quickly reversed it, pivoting to put more force behind my blow as I aimed for the other girl’s leg. A couple months ago, I would’ve been too worried about hurting her to put my strength behind it. Now, however, I had enough faith both in my roommate and in our healing abilities to go for it. Holding back wasn’t going to do either of us any favors when it came time to fight for real.

I didn’t have to worry anyway, since Avalon dropped her staff down to catch mine just before it would’ve struck her shin. That, however, meant that she was in the right position. With my staff aimed almost straight up and down, angled just a little bit toward her face, I hit the button to trigger the tiny portals at the end before pulling at the sand that I could feel through them. A cloud of it flew up into the other girl’s face as she reeled backward, and I quickly took advantage by dropping my staff down to bring it against her other leg. That time, I connected and Avalon stumbled backward. Her hand blindly grabbed onto my arm in the process however, and I was yanked over as well. We collided, crashing to the ground with a pair of yelps even as our weapons slid away to roll across the grass away from us.

When the dust (and sand) cleared, I was lying on top of Avalon, who was on her back. Blinking, I gave her a Cheshire smile once I realized what was going on and what kind of position we were in. “Oh, look. Here we are. Now seems like a really good time to talk about that whole ‘missing me’ thing.”

Yeah, the truth was, being in the position I was in was quite thoroughly distracting. I could feel all sorts of… well, to put it simply, pleasant sensations by lying on top of my roommate. But since she’d been my roommate all semester and we’d been training together so much, I could at least keep my head enough by that point to tease her a little bit. Even if my voice did sound slightly more high pitched than it normally did. The important thing to take away was that I wasn’t a completely tongue-tied dork.

“Chambers.” Avalon’s voice was a quiet murmur that sent a shiver through me and made me start immediately rethinking that whole ‘not as affected by her as I used to be’ thing. “You need to get off.”

The response that immediately came to my mind at her choice of words must have shown very clearly on my face, because the other girl rolled her eyes and gave me a shove. “Don’t even think about saying it. And stop thinking it.”

“Can’t control my thoughts!” I retorted in a sing-song voice while shifting my weight on her. My smile still hadn’t faded. It was… actually kind of nice being in this position, and I wasn’t only referring to our physical situation. It was also nice to sort of be the one who was teasing her for a change. It didn’t happen all that often, and I was relishing it just a little bit. “Trust me, these thoughts, can’t control them. They go off and do whatever they want to. Can’t do a thing about it.”

Avalon’s breath seemed to catch slightly as I shifted, and there was something in her voice. “Get up.”

Grinning still, I sat up, but I didn’t completely get off of her. Not yet, anyway. “That’s okay,” I informed my brunette bombshell of a roommate with a wink. “You’ve already answered the question pretty well.”

She frowned at that, clearly more off-balance than I’d thought before murmuring quietly. “I have?”

“Sure.” Leaning down a bit, I stage-whispered close to the other girl’s ear, “Because we both know that if you weren’t gonna miss me while I’m gone, you would’ve thrown me off of you a long time ago.”

With a laugh, I pushed myself up finally, rising to my feet before offering Avalon a hand to pull her up.

She took it, her blush actually visible (much to my delight) before she got it under control. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff, don’t you?”

“Well,” I replied, “I do have a few great teachers. And they have been working their asses off to make sure I’m not a complete damsel in distress.” Sobering a little then, I added, “Thanks, by the way. Really. Without you, I—well I’d be in a lot worse shape than I am now.”

It took her a moment to respond, and her blush still hadn’t entirely faded. “Just don’t get too cocky. That’s how people get hurt. Or worse.”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Oh, trust me. No cockiness here. I know just how screwed I am if things go wrong. I’m gonna keep my eyes open, and I’m not even gonna tempt fate by talking about how it’s gonna go. It’s a vacation, but I’m not about to be stupid about it. I promise, I’ll be careful.”

Stepping back to bring my staff back up again, I added, “Now, you wanna squeeze in one more little match?”

Checking the back of her left gauntlet where she apparently had a clock installed, Avalon waved a hand for me to stop. “Time’s up,” she announced, her voice quieter than normal. “ Dare’s probably about to come looking for you any minute to take you up to the Pathmaker. Wouldn’t want to keep her waiting.”

“Yeah.” Smiling slightly, I shrugged at the other girl. “I doubt she’d take ‘let my roommate keep beating me up’ as an excuse.” I paused, frowning. “Then again, knowing this place… maybe she would.”

Reaching down to the water bottles at her feet, Avalon plucked them up and tossed one to me before taking a long, deep drink from her own. I tried not to get too distracted by the image, but from her smirk, she probably noticed.

Still, I gratefully gulped down some water (somehow I was pretty sure that I looked like a slobbering dog next to the effortless sexiness that came from everything Avalon did) before wiping my arm over my mouth. Which, if that failed to look dignified, my immediate burp afterward probably didn’t help.

Rolling her eyes, my roommate gave me a long look. “You are as charming and graceful as ever.”

“What can I say?” I asked with a small smile, spreading my arms apart questioningly. “I am who I am.”

For a few seconds, the two of us just stood there. It was obvious that neither of us knew what to say, but neither did we just want to walk away from each other. The silence was almost deafening.

“So this is it. Almost a full month.” I was repeating myself from only a few minutes earlier, I knew that. But I had to say something.

“Don’t get hurt, Chambers.” Avalon gave me an intense look. “I’d hate to have to figure out how to deal with a new roommate, since Gaia already made it very clear that I’m not allowed to have my own room.”

Coughing in spite of myself, I shrugged. “Yeah, well, maybe you could find a new roommate that doesn’t keep stealing half your death threats away from you, so you can have the attention to yourself.”

Her retort was sharp. “Don’t joke about that. Just–” Taking an obvious breath, she caught herself and finished with a simple, “Just be careful. Don’t do anything stupid. I… I don’t want another roommate.”

“What about that whole, having a room all to yourself thing?” I half-heartedly teased, watching her reaction. “Maybe I could pull some strings with Gaia, push for you to have the whole thing after all.”

Her shoulders (among other things) heaved up and then down as she sighed. “Don’t push it. Just go.”

I almost walked away. Almost let it go again. But in the end, I couldn’t just leave. “Avalon,” I spoke up, making her look at me again. “This—this vacation, I know I was kidding about it before, but really… it’s three weeks. Three weeks apart, and I just—I really need to tell you about how I feel about–”

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice had a warning tone to it. “Don’t. I know what you want to say. But you can’t. We can’t. You know it’s complicated, and we can’t just… we can’t just act like it’s not.”

Meeting her gaze, I almost nodded. My head started to move. But then I stopped myself, holding my head still for a moment before shaking it instead. Seeing that, Avalon started to speak, but I interrupted.

“I can’t just keep avoiding it. This isn’t some TV show where we have to pad out time. We’re not about to get canceled if we don’t do the Moonlighting ‘will they/won’t they’ forever. Avalon, this is dumb. Maybe I don’t understand all of my feelings, maybe I don’t know how things are going to end up in a year, a month, or even a week, but who does at this school? All I know is that I really, really like you.”

There was, somewhat surprisingly, no judgment or even annoyance in Avalon’s tone as she replied, “Chambers, I’m not the only one you’ve been looking at. My not being there isn’t the end of the world.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed with a nod. “You’re not the only one. I don’t know how I feel about everything. Suddenly I’m noticing you, I’m noticing other girls, and I’m still noticing boys. It’s… it’s confusing, Valley. It’s so… so god damn confusing. Sometimes it feels like I can’t decide what I want. I feel like a kid in an ice cream shop. And I don’t want to hurt you. I really don’t. But I also don’t want you to feel like it’s impossible. If you don’t want… you know, you and me to go anywhere because you don’t want it, that’s fine. I can deal. But don’t just write it off because you’re trying to protect me.”

Avalon didn’t say anything at first. She just shook her head, looking away before turning back to me, emotion filling her eyes. “How am I supposed to let myself care about anyone like that? What am I supposed to do, Chambers? My father has been trying to kill me since I was taken in by the Garden. He’s not going to stop trying to take everything away from me. And now there’s this whole conspiracy, apparently because of who I’m supposed to be related to? If there was anyone that I cared about like that, why would I let them turn into more targets? What’s the point of letting someone you know you—you think about them that way if all it does is put them in danger? If I let them—if I let you in like that, you’d be another target, another thing for them to—to take away from me. I’d lose you.”

“How can you lose something if you don’t even–” I stopped, lowering my gaze briefly before looking back up to her as I amended myself. “–if you won’t even acknowledge that you want it?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Chambers,” the other girl insisted, arms folded across her stomach protectively. “I just—I don’t want you to be in any more danger than you already are. It’s not fair.”

I nodded once in spite of myself. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s not fair, because I’m already in danger. Avalon, I’ve got just about ten months before Fossor makes good on his promise to come after me.”

Fire flashed in her eyes then as she took a step to me, arms lowering to her sides as her hands closed into fists. “I won’t let him hurt you.” Her words were a snarled promise, with dark rage behind them.

In return, I took a step forward as well, closing the distance between us so that we were within arms reach of each other. Meeting her fiery gaze, I nodded. “And I won’t let anyone hurt you, Valley. But while each of us is so busy not letting anyone hurt the other person, do we have to hurt ourselves? Yeah, I’m in danger. You’re in danger. We’re all in danger. I’m pretty sure that’s never gonna change. But you know what else isn’t going to change? The fact that I think you’re—you’re just… really neat.”

Yeah, okay, the last bit of that came out far more lame than I meant it. I was flushing even as the stupid word ‘neat’ left my mouth, and I could see the smirk on Avalon’s face. Her own mouth opened, but I reached out to cover it with my own hand. While her eyes widened at the audacity, I pushed on.

“Yeah, I said neat. Because I ran out of adjectives in my head. You’re great, you’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, you’re amazing, you’re strong, you’re fast, you’re so—you’re Avalon. You’re Avalon, and I don’t have the words to describe you. I wish I did, but I don’t. You’re just… neat. And I–”

My own words were cut off then, as Avalon raised her hand to press against my mouth. And then we stood there, facing one another with our arms outstretched, hands covering each other’s mouths. Several long, quiet seconds passed while the two of us stared at one another that way. Slowly, Avalon raised her free hand to touch mine as it pressed against her mouth. Our fingers brushed, and I felt a tingle run through me that had nothing to do with static electricity or anything like it. It was something more.

Swallowing, I followed the other girl’s maneuver. Lifting my own free hand, I let my fingers brush over hers that was covering my mouth. Then I slowly slipped my fingers under hers, taking hold of her hand while she did the same with my other hand. Together, we lowered each other’s hands away from our mouths before our fingers seemed to instinctively interlock, our hands clasping one another.

My heart was trying to slam its way out of my chest. I felt sweaty, thirsty, silly. And yet, I couldn’t look away. My voice seemed to pipe up in spite of myself, squeaking a little. “This probably looks pretty–”

“Flick,” Avalon interrupted. “Shut up.”

My eyes widened then, and I looked up. “You called me–”

I felt her hands leave mine, moving up to take my arms instead to yank me toward her.

I felt her hands cup both sides of my head, fingers sliding through my hair.

I felt her breath on my face.

I felt my knees buckle, before her strength held me up as it had so many times already that semester.

I felt her lips on mine.

I felt… magic.

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Winter Wonderland 18-01

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“And after a week in Rome, we’re gonna go up to Germany and see the old nuckelavee massacre memorials.”

Sands, who had been going on for awhile by that point about all the things that she and Scout were going to do with their father over the holiday break, blinked sidelong at me. “Uh, Flick? You okay?”

No. No, I wasn’t. There was so much I wanted to say to both of them about what I had found out. But I still wasn’t willing to put them through that right before they went on vacation. That wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I gave an awkward shrug and smiled apologetically at both Sands and Scout, who was standing nearby while giving me a curious look. “Sorry,” I murmured. “Just thinking about going home.”

It was the next day, Saturday morning. I’d spent most of the previous night walking around the school grounds with Wyatt, talking to him about… well, everything. And now, in a short while, I’d be heading home for the winter break. Which meant three whole weeks away from Crossroads. I honestly wasn’t sure how that was going to go. Part of me had been afraid that Ruthers and the rest of the Committee would swoop in at the last second to tell me that it was too dangerous for me to be away for that long, with the Fomorians out there. Supposedly Gaia and Dare had convinced them that the immediate threat had been dealt with since the Fomorian who had known about us was killed. But I didn’t exactly trust that to last forever. Every noise I heard, I thought it would be someone telling me to stay on the island.

“Oh…” Sands looked a little abashed. “Dude, I’m sorry. Going back and having Christmas with your dad while you know your mom is…” She winced, lowering her head briefly before putting her hand out on my arm. “It sucks. I know that’s a stupid, fucking inadequate way to put it, but it does. I—I’m sorry you can’t tell your dad the truth, Flick. I mean—I’m sorry he wouldn’t remember or believe you. It’s–” She stopped talking, looking ashamed for a moment that she couldn’t find the right words to say.

And that, of course, didn’t help my own feelings of shame for how I felt about her father. She was trying to help, and all I could do was think about how angry the thought of the man she loved most in the world made me. It felt like lying to her. Fuck, was there no way to get through this without hurting her? Either I didn’t tell her about it and hurt her by keeping it secret, or I hurt her relationship with her father by telling her what he had done. Which just felt… vindictive. Fuck, she was right. This sucked.

“Thanks,” I finally managed to get out while meeting her gaze. The next bit I could actually say with complete truthfulness. “I hope you guys have a really good trip. It sounds fun, going all over Europe.”

Sands brightened and started to explain more about all the stuff they were going to do, the moment of awkward seriousness fading. Scout, however, continued to watch me with a somber, yet curious expression that made me think that she knew there was still something I wasn’t telling them about.

Before I could find anything else to say, however, I felt someone approaching. Well, okay, the truth was that I could sense the clothes the person was wearing as it entered the range of the item-sensing power I’d inherited from fighting the skeletblineists. It was something that I’d noticed wasn’t always active. If I wasn’t thinking about it, I wouldn’t constantly know about absolutely everything that was in range. But when something or someone new that I wasn’t expecting entered my range, it tended to warn me. Which was convenient.

At least it seemed like that would make it hard to sneak up on me. Unless the person was completely naked at the time, in which case, ew. And clearly that would mean that I’d have whole new problems.

Turning slightly at the feel of the clothes and shoes approaching, I found myself looking up at the man who was responsible for my conversation with the twins being so awkward and confusing: their father.

Professor Mason stood there. As always, I thought he looked more like a football player than a teacher. He was tall (at least a couple inches past six feet), with a heavy, muscular build and dark blond (almost brown) hair that reached his shoulders. It was normally tied back into a ponytail, but at the moment it was worn loose. He actually looked a lot like Christian Kane if the actor had been a few inches taller.

“Hey, girls,” the man greeted his daughters with a smile before his attention turned to me. Something uncertain crossed his expression then before he nodded. “Morning, Flick. You ready for a vacation?”

Words sprang to mind and inched their way toward the tip of my tongue. None were all that smart or nice, and a few probably would have resulted in a lot more problems for all of us. So I clamped down on it and offered the man as much of a smile as I could. “Sure, though it kinda sounds like you guys are gonna be the ones that have all the fun. I mean, a European trip? I’ve always wanted to see Europe.”

The man gave a slight smile, hand gesturing acceptingly. “Believe me, you’ll get your chance. Hell, if nothing else, maybe you can come with the twins for a couple weeks over the summer if they wanna go back.”

Wait, was he offering to take me with his girls over summer vacation? I was confused. Wasn’t this the same guy who had been working to have Sands and Scout taken off my team and away from me because he was afraid that being around me was too dangerous? Was he just saying this as a completely empty gesture, or… I didn’t know what else. He seemed pretty sincere, but then, what else could it be?

Luckily, Sands interrupted before I had to find a response. “Well, duh! Of course we’ll wanna go back, old man.” Giving her dad a punch in the arm, she grinned at me. “See? Told you Dad was the best.”

Swallowing slightly, I managed something approaching a smile, weak as it was. “You’re pretty lucky.”

For a moment, Professor Mason simply rubbed both his daughters’ heads, smiling faintly down at them. Then he glanced to me before giving the girls a little push. “Listen, could you two give Flick and me a few minutes alone here?” He shrugged easily and stage-whispered, “Just private teacher-type stuff.”

The twins both blinked at each other for a brief moment before looking toward me. “You good, Flick?” Sands asked, sounding somehow strangely uncertain about the idea of leaving me with her father.

In spite of myself and my hesitation (and deep, troubling thoughts about the man), I nodded. “Sure, I’ll try to catch up with you one more time before we all take off, but in case I don’t, have a great trip.”

Both of them moved over to give me a quick hug, Scout holding on longer while leaning up to whisper in my ear very quietly. “It’s okay.” Then she patted my arm before moving away with her sister.

That left me standing in front of Professor Mason. For a few seconds, the man just stood there looking at me, like he was waiting to see if I said anything first. When I just remained silent, he let out a long, low breath. “Flick,” he started slowly as though testing out the words. “I think I owe you an apology.”

Well, that made me blink in confusion. Of all the things I’d expected to hear… “Err, an apology, sir?”

He nodded, his eyes still not leaving mine. “Yeah. I don’t know if you umm… I don’t know what you’ve heard. But I um–” The man paused, looking distinctly uncomfortable for a few seconds before managing to push on, stating as flatly as possible, “I’ve been worried about my daughters being on the same team as you, Flick. Well, the same team as you and Avalon. You two… this whole year you’ve been attracting a lot of trouble, a lot of really dangerous attention. And I know, that’s not exactly rare around here. Believe me, there’s plenty of students besides you guys that have their own problems.”

Before I could say anything in response to that, the man pushed on. “But, somehow, the stuff that’s coming after you two, it just seems…” He breathed in and then let it out again. “It seems more real, more dangerous. And I just—I’ve been trying to get my girls away from that next semester. Not because I don’t care if you’re hurt, or if anyone that replaced them would be hurt, but because… they’re my daughters. I didn’t really focus on anything else. All I could think about was protecting my kids.”

Folding his arms across his chest, the man looked away for a moment while clearly gathering himself. His voice was soft and thoughtful. “I haven’t always made the best decisions, even when I thought it was the right thing to do. Sometimes when you care so much about protecting the people you care about, it–” He stopped talking then, grimacing for a moment before looking straight at me. “The point is, taking Sands and Scout away from your team would be wrong. They’re your friends, and… and I’m not going to ruin that for my own peace of mind. I’m not going to throw someone else into danger just to make myself feel better. You—they’re your team. Just–” Taking in a breath before letting it out, the man looked briefly emotional before managing to control it. “Just be careful, and keep each other safe.”

It took me a second, but I eventually managed to make myself nod. “Yes, sir. Of course I’ll help keep Sands and Scout safe, just like they help keep me safe. They’re my friends. We protect each other.”

Before the man could say anything else in response to that (and before I could manage to work my way through my complete confusion and uncertainty about what was going on), my eyes caught sight of Professor Dare making her way toward us. Her eyes watched me briefly as if checking to make sure I was okay with the conversation before she spoke up. “Liam, Miss Chambers, is everything all right?”

Professor Mason glanced to me before giving me a slight nod. “Yeah,” He murmured. “Everything’s fine.” His hand found my shoulder, squeezing slightly. “I meant what I said before, Miss Chambers. If you want, and if you get your dad’s permission, we’d love to have you come with us this summer.”

“Thank you, sir.” I met his gaze, steadily refusing that quiet voice in the back of my mind that still wanted to see the look on his face if I flat out asked if he thought tattling about my mother’s friendship with Alters was a good idea after all the problems it had caused. “I hope you guys have a great trip.”

Then the man was leaving, jogging to catch up with his daughters. As he left, Professor Dare moved closer to me. Her hand found my arm while she looked after Professor Mason, and she touched something in her pocket (my skeleblineist power told me it was a round, mostly smooth stone) before asking in a low, confidential tone, “Are you really okay, Flick? Did he say anything— do anything-”

“It’s okay,” I assured her, even though I was still mostly confused as to what had prompted all of that. “He just wanted to come tell me that he wasn’t going to take Sands and Scout off my team after all.”

Professor Dare raised an eyebrow at that, her eyes curious as she looked that way briefly. “He’s not?”

“Apparently.” I shrugged helplessly before looking over at the woman. “I mean—um, sorry, Professor, did you need something?” Realizing belatedly, I started a bit. “Oh! I called my dad last night and asked him about having a teacher visit. He-uh-he didn’t actually find it that weird. Which I think says more about me than it does about him or you. But anyway, any time you wanna come over for dinner and meet Asenath, it should be okay. That is—you know, if you still wanted to do that. But if not, I’ll just-”

“Flick,” Professor Dare smiled. “Calm down. Breathe. Of course I’ll visit. I want to meet Tiras’s daughter. I have your phone number. I’ll call and set it up as soon as I see how things are going, okay?”

After I nodded, she went on. “I didn’t come to talk about that. There’s something I want to give you.”

“Give me?” I echoed, blinking at her. “You don’t have to give me a present or anything, Professor.”

Chuckling at that, Dare shook her head. “It’s not exactly a present, Flick. Think of it as… a bit of extra protection. Just in case you need it.” She nodded toward me. “May I see your staff for a moment?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Reaching into my little container, I pulled the staff out and offered it to the woman.

Accepting the weapon with a nod of gratitude, Professor Dare turned it over in her hands. Her expression was curious as she examined the thing. “Nevada upgraded this for you, didn’t she?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I quickly nodded. “She connected it to my sand container. And made it turn into a bow.”

Glancing up to me, Dare paused. Her eyes seemed to search mine for a moment before she smiled faintly. “Good. Every little bit helps. And speaking of little bit.” Sliding the staff down to get at one end, the woman took a black marker from her pocket and showed it to me. “This isn’t a normal marker. It’s something Heretics call a ‘field-engraver.’ Basically, it’ll let you put spells that actually require a written component on your weapons or anything else that might be a bit hard to actually write on. Or when you don’t want the writing to be permanent. Since you probably don’t want a bunch of useless writing filling up your staff after the spell’s used up. Once you activate it, the writing will disappear.”

After explaining that much, she took a minute to carefully draw out an elaborate design toward one end of my staff, showing me as she went. It looked like a circle with a triangle around it, then three squiggly lines leading out from the middle of each side of the triangle. In the spaces between each of those squiggly lines, she drew an angled equals sign, all pointing in the same direction. At the point above and to the right of the whole thing (where the equals signs were all pointing), she drew something that looked like an upside down pitchfork with an infinity symbol drawn around the handle.

Once she had finished, Dare ran her thumb over it before looking at me, her expression somber. “If you touch this here, right on the infinity symbol, and invest enough power into it while saying the words that I’ll give you, your weapon will be able to harm incorporeal creatures for about fifteen minutes.”

I blinked once, then again while my eyes snapped from the spell to Dare. “You mean incorporeal, like-”

“Like ghosts,” she confirmed. “Listen, from what you said, I don’t think Fossor is going to do anything. I don’t think he’ll come after you. Not yet, anyway. But just in case… use it if you have to, all right? When you get back, we’ll make sure you learn how to do it yourself. It’s advanced magic, but you’re already starting to learn that from Gaia anyway. Again, only in an emergency, all right? If something happens and you can get away, don’t stand there and fight just because you have this. Use it to get away.”

Swallowing, I took the staff back as she held it out to me. “I—yes, Professor. I understand. Trust me, I don’t have any intention of being that stupid.”

Dare took a few more minutes to teach me the words to the spell. What she’d done was basically almost exactly what Gaia had done with the animal spell. She did most of it herself and just left the actual last second casting part to me, like preparing the gun in every way except pulling the trigger.

By the time she was satisfied that I had the words down pat, Avalon had joined us, standing off to the side while watching silently. Dare took a few more seconds to remind me that she’d call to see about dinner, then laid her hand on the top of my head. “Flick,” she said my name softly. For a moment, it looked like she was going to say something else. But in the end, she just murmured, “Have a nice holiday. You deserve it.”

Then she left, and Avalon and I stood there for a few seconds in silence. My roommate just waited, arms folded while she stared at me expectantly.

“So,” I finally managed, “Three weeks apart, huh? I bet you’ll be glad to have the room to yourself. Think you’ll be able to resist selling off all my stuff or remodeling everything while I’m gone?”

For what had to be a solid thirty seconds, Avalon didn’t say anything. I trailed off from my awkward teasing, and she just continued to stare at me. Her mouth opened once before shutting, and it looked like she was struggling with something. Finally, however, she pointed to the staff in my hand. “Good, you’re ready.”

“Ready?” I echoed, blinking uncertainly.

“You didn’t think I was going to let you go without one more training session, did you?” The other girl gave me a hard look before pivoting on her heel to walk away. “We’ve still got an hour before you leave. Time to try to whip you into shape one more time.”

My mouth opened, but she interrupted without looking back. “Don’t say it, Chambers. Just follow me.”

Closing my mouth, I smiled just a little bit while I watched Avalon walk ahead of me. Then I followed.

Spending my last hour at Crossroads letting my roommate beat the crap out of me? Yeah, that sounded fun.

And the fact that I wasn’t being in any way sarcastic about that might’ve been one of the strangest parts of the entire semester.

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