Month: April 2017

The Third Degree 21-02

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Please note, if you haven’t seen it yet, there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday that started off this arc. You may want to use the Previous Chapter button to check that out if you happened to miss it. 

“Have you ever wondered why they’re all first-year teachers?”

Blinking across the library table at Vanessa as the blonde girl finished speaking, I asked hesitantly, “Wondered why who are all first-year teachers?”

It was Tuesday, January 16th, a couple days after Avalon, Shiori, and I had met with Seth and Calvin (and Buddy, of course). They had promised to get in touch once they actually had a meeting set with Fahsteth. So on that front, all I could do was wait as patiently as possible.

In this particular case, waiting patiently partly involved working on a project for Heretical Geography that Vanessa and I had been assigned to do together by Professor Vandel. He’d said something about me being one of the few people outside of her own team that he could believe wouldn’t just rely on Vanessa to do all of the work. Which was either flattering for me or really disparaging toward the rest of the class. Probably both.

Looking around briefly, the blonde girl leaned closer while lowering her voice. She had already put a special privacy coin between us (apparently Scout had taught her how to use it). Yet, like Koren, she was still smart enough to be cautious. “Headmistress Sinclaire, all the teachers she said we can trust, the ones in her inner circle, they’re all first-year teachers. What about the ones that teach the older grades? Does she… not really trust any of them?”

Lowering my own voice, I shrugged. “I thought about that, and I’ve got a couple options. First, maybe she just plays her cards close to her chest. You know, like she doesn’t tell us everyone she trusts. We are students, after all. She told us people in the first-year staff that she trusts because those are the teachers that we actually interact with. Why would she tell us about someone we hardly ever see, let alone talk to? How many of the upper-year teachers could you even name?”

The other girl’s mouth opened, but I stopped her with a raised hand. “Sorry, I forgot who I was talking to. All of them, obviously. My point is, how many of the upper year teachers could the average first-year student name? Someone without a perfect memory.”

After the other girl conceded that point with a nod, I added, “It’s, um, compartmentalization. If someone like Ruthers finds out something from us that they shouldn’t find out, her entire network isn’t taken apart. It makes sense that she wouldn’t tell us everything. Especially if they believe that those are the only people firmly on Gaia’s side in the whole thing. There’s a better chance they’ll slip up and someone else that’s loyal to her, someone she didn’t tell us about, can warn her.”

“That… yeah, that makes sense.” Vanessa agreed. “What about the other option you mentioned?”

I looked at the table for a moment before answering. “The other option is that the teachers she trusts are all at the first-year level because it’s easier to hire new teachers, people she can personally vet or already knows, for the younger grades. It makes sense, doesn’t it? A new teacher comes in and they go for the younger students while the more experienced faculty move up to teach the older students. So if Gaia wanted to hire more people, they’d be at this level.”  

Vanessa tilted her head, clearly considering that for a second before slowly nodding. Her voice was quiet and thoughtful. “It makes sense for another reason too. Maybe she was preparing.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Preparing for what?”

“For new students like–” The other girl paused before gesturing back and forth. “Like you and me. Like Shiori. Like Tristan. Like Koren. Students who need extra… guidance. Extra help, from people who understand, people who can tell them–us the truth. Maybe that’s why she stacked the deck for the first-years. Because from second year on, we can still talk to the first-year teachers. They can still help. But you said it yourself, most of us don’t even know who the upper-class teachers are, let alone have any idea of how to get advice from them. She puts the people she trusts in the younger years and lets us bond with them earlier instead of spreading them out.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “That does make sense. So… I guess the answer is probably a little bit of all of the above. Gaia has her reasons for not telling us about everyone she might trust, but she also puts most of them in the first year staffing positions because it gives us people to talk to.”

“I guess so.” Vanessa looked thoughtful for a moment before focusing. “But umm, changing the subject, Scout said you guys were trying to find out everything you could about Avalon’s mom.”

Surprised that Scout had said anything at all about that, I hesitated. “Oh, uh, I guess, but it’s–”

“A secret,” she finished for me. “I know. Don’t worry, Scout said she talked to your roommate first and got the okay to ask me.”

Well that was also a little surprising. “Avalon gave the okay to talk to you about her mom?”

She nodded. “I just had to promise not to tell anyone about it. Not even Tristan. Which…” Pausing, Vanessa made a face. “It feels weird, but I get it. My brother’s not… subtle.”

“Yeah, he has a lot of good qualities,” I agreed. “But keeping things quiet isn’t his strongest suit.”

Shrugging, the girl pointed out, “He’s kept the whole hybrid thing quiet so far. And your secrets.”

Quickly nodding in agreement, I pointed out, “Sure, but there’s a difference between not blabbing secrets and being subtle. Tristan stands out. He loves standing out. He’s um, how do I put this?”

“He’s a show-off,” Vanessa finished for me. “I know. Not subtle. But that’s not why I didn’t tell him anything about how you guys are looking into Avalon’s mom. I didn’t tell him about it because Avalon and Scout asked me not to. I owe you guys. I… you helped get my brother back. So you ask me for help, you ask me to keep a secret, ask me for anything and I… I’m there. Promise.”  

Swallowing, I met her brown-eyed gaze. “And I promise that I’ll find a way to help get your mom and dad back, Vanessa. We’re not done with just your brother. We’re gonna find your family.”

There was a look in her eyes for a moment before she glanced away. Her voice was even quieter than it had been the whole time, to the point that I could barely hear her. “I’m not used to having anyone to talk to about this stuff. The whole time  I was growing up, no one believed what I told them about what happened… until I realized that I had to keep quiet about it or they’d keep sending me to…” She paused, biting her lip as she finished a little hoarsely. “Special homes. So having Headmistress Sinclaire, you, Scout, Tristan, I… I don’t know how to deal with it.”

That was why she came off as so shy most of the time, why she didn’t tend to interact much with people. Besides the fact that she had been busy desperately looking up anything she could to find her parents and brother, she’d also conditioned herself to keep quiet about what she knew so that the people who were supposed to take care of her wouldn’t think she was crazy and lock her up.

“Well,” I coughed, shifting in my seat. “I know we’re not like, best friends or anything. But any time you wanna talk about… anything, I wouldn’t mind. Even if Tristan isn’t magically glued to me anymore.” I said the last bit with a tiny smile, since Gaia had finally succeeded in switching the anchor spell from me to Vanessa just the other day. “Doesn’t mean you have to be a stranger.”

Her brow knitted as she looked at me. “Was that last part a joke?”    

“Was what a–” I stopped, flushing a little. “Right, don’t have to be a stranger. Uh, no, just a coincidence. But can I take credit for it anyway?” Giving the other girl a smile, I added, “Sorry, you were saying something about Scout telling you about looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom.”  

Nodding at that, Vanessa reached down into the bag on the chair beside her. “Yeah, so I um, I looked into it too. I wanted to help, especially since Scout was already helping Tristan and me by looking into anything she could find about the… um, my mom’s people while they were in Europe.”

Raising an eyebrow, I asked curiously, “Did she find anything important?”

“Maybe,” the other girl replied slowly, frowning thoughtfully. “She found some books and journals and stuff that mention beings that can possess others. I’ve gotta read all of them and compare it to the stuff we have in this library. You know, Strangers that were already identified and catalogued.”

Squinting then, Vanessa muttered, “I would’ve been through all of them already, but Tristan and the others keep distracting me. And,” she looked back up while pulling a folder out of her bag. “I wanted to keep looking for stuff about Avalon’s mom. You know, because I sort of have experience with…” She trailed off briefly before amending herself. “I know what it’s like to try to hunt down information about your parents and have everything end up being a dead end. Before I came here, I couldn’t find anything about mine.”

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I nodded. “A lot of us seem to have at least one missing parent. I guess it makes us part of the cool club or something.” The words sounded hollow even to me, and I shook it off before gesturing for her to go on. “I take it you actually found something? Wait, are you sure you shouldn’t tell Avalon about it?”

“You can tell her,” Vanessa quickly replied while blushing slightly. “She um, she kinda scares me.”  

I coughed. “I guess she can have that effect on people. But she wouldn’t hurt you or anything.”

“I know, but um, still. You can talk to her better than I can. I get nervous and um, then I start to babble and she gets impatient and it’s a whole thing.” Laying her hand on the folder, she opened it to show me the first page. “Her name was Ophelia Penn. Before she was married to Avalon’s dad, I mean. And before that, her name was Adelind Jaspers. That lasted about two years, and before that one, she was Francesca Dumont. And–”

Holding up a hand, I frowned. “She kept changing her name? How far back does that go?”

“As far as I can tell?” Vanessa hesitated before flipping through some papers in the folder. “The earliest name for her I can find is Giselle Meyer, when she was sixteen. That’s when it was changed to Kaia Pierce. Before that, I dunno. There’s some school records, but they’re spotty, like someone went through and started getting rid of them, but didn’t finish.”

“She was hiding,” I murmured under my breath. “She and her family, I guess. It doesn’t go any further back than that? What about her mom and dad?”

Flinching, the other girl shook her head. “Sorry. All I’ve got for them is a couple names that popped up on her school records. Kinsley and Brennan. Last name Meyer, just like the name she used when she was sixteen. If it was anything else before that, I dunno. There’s no birth certificate, nothing like that. The earliest thing I could find was a note in her freshman year of high school about being excused from gym for the semester because of a broken leg. Before that, there’s nothing. It’s like she just poofed into existence.”

“Or like whoever went back and erased her identity did a really good job up to that point,” I muttered under my breath. “It sounds like they were working on scrubbing everything about her and just didn’t finish.” Thinking about it for another moment, I added, “Maybe it was her. Maybe she was the one erasing her past and it stopped when she… when she died.”

“There’s something big about her, isn’t there?” Vanessa asked, her eyes squinting at me. “Someone’s trying to kill Avalon. And now you guys are looking into her mom’s history and there’s all this stuff?” Before I could say anything, she held up a hand. “I know, it’s secret. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tell me. I just…be careful, okay? It sounds like they were trying really hard to hide from someone. If it’s the same someone that’s after Avalon now, that means it was Heretics the whole time. And if Heretics were after Avalon’s family for that long… it’s something big.”

Swallowing hard, I nodded. It took me a second to find my voice. “Trust me, we know. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got enough to focus on. I’ll umm, I’ll look through this stuff you found and see if anything jumps out. Did you notice anything else?”

“There was one big thing,” Vanessa started slowly. Glancing at me, she reached out to shuffle through the papers before coming to a single page. It was blank, but I could tell there was something on the other side, from the colors that bled through. “She visited the high school counselor a few times. Most of the file’s gone, but this was in there. It’s a watercolor she made when he told her to draw what she was dreaming about.”

Watching my expression, she turned the paper over, and I found myself staring at Avalon’s mom’s painting.

It was the lighthouse, the one here on the island. That much was obvious. But surrounding the lighthouse there was a pair of folded, half-visible angel wings. And above it, there was a face topped by a halo. It was like there was a giant, mostly invisible angel guarding the lighthouse. Yet the expression of the angel was… dangerous. It looked menacing.

Seosten. Avalon’s mother had made a painting of the Seosten and the lighthouse when her counselor told her to draw what she dreamed about. But she hadn’t been a Heretic, had she? I had to believe that if she was, Gaia would’ve said something.

Unless that part was erased from her memory too, of course. But that was just… we needed to know more. Maybe one of her parents was here and told her stories about it. If it was… I started to talk out loud to work it out. “Maybe whichever one of her parents wasn’t being… chased originally used to go here. Maybe they were part of the group looking for the other parent, and they found them. But instead of bringing them in, they… fell in love and started running away. Then the parent that went here told Avalon’s mom stories about this place.”

It was little more than a guess, really. But I had to believe that Gaia would know if Avalon’s mom had gone here. But if one of that woman’s parents had gone here before leaving, that might have been enough for Gaia to not make the connection. I’d have to see if she recognized the names Kinsley or Brennan, though I doubted either were their real names by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked up again. “Vanessa, thanks for this. You didn’t have to do all this work. It couldn’t have been easy.”

She shrugged. “It’s like I said, I’m used to digging into people’s pasts. And you–you helped bring my brother back. I owe you.”

My head shook at that. “No, you don’t. We don’t have to get into the ‘who owes who what’ game. But helping each other because we can? That I’m good with.”

The other girl watched me for a moment before nodding. “Okay. But um, we should probably help each other by doing that project so we don’t fail Professor Vandel’s course.

“Because that would be really embarrassing.”


“Revolutions,” Professor Ross began the next morning. “There’s been a lot of them throughout human history. Some the Bystanders know about, others they don’t. But one in particular stands out both within the Bystander world and our own. The American Revolution.”

Standing in front of her desk, the elderly woman watched us for a moment before continuing. “Can anyone tell me why the American Revolution is important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

Vanessa’s hand went up immediately, of course. And in this case, so did most of the other Heretic-born students. On the other hand, my fellow Bystander-kin looked as confused as I felt.

“Mr. Gerardo,” Professor Ross nodded toward Sean. “Why is the American Revolution important to both Bystanders and Heretics?”

The boy shifted in his seat and straightened while laying his hand on Vulcan’s head. “Because what the Bystanders call the American Revolution, we call the Splinter-Rebellion.”

Before my brain could finish summoning the image of a giant mutated rat directing his turtle pupils to wage war for independence, Professor Ross continued. “Very good. Yes, and what was formed from the Splinter-Rebellion, Mr. Leven?”

Zeke all-but snarled the answer. “Eden’s Garden.” He was pointedly looking in Avalon’s direction.

That brought my head up and around, as I blurted, “Wait, what?”

“If you have a question, Miss Chambers, raise your hand,” Professor Ross admonished before answering anyway. “But Mr. Leven is correct. What began as a war between Crossroads and those who splintered off to create what eventually became Eden’s Garden bled into the Bystander world. However, where the Bystander war was about the American colonies fighting for independence from Great Britain, the Splinter-Rebellion centered around a… violent disagreement over which Heretic group should control the territory of the new world.

“Small and young as they were, Eden’s Garden possessed a good deal of influence over the British Parliament and leadership. They had begun to use that influence to immediately begin giving themselves advantages in the colonies. Crossroads could not directly combat those kind of connections. So, we went for a different tactic.”

Raising my hand until she nodded to me, I managed a slightly weak, “… Revolution. Crossroads pushed for the American Revolution to separate the colonies from Great Britain so that all that influence Eden’s Garden had wouldn’t mean anything.”

The woman smiled a little at me. “Yes, very good, Miss Chambers. Exactly. It’s slightly amusing if you think about it that way. Eden’s Garden staged their own revolution in order to be independent from Crossroads. Then, in order to combat their new political power that would have given them a great deal of influence over the shape and direction of the new continent, Crossroads helped to stage a revolution in the Bystander world. That revolution resulted in the formation of the United States, and helped cut a good deal of the power away from Great Britain.

“Of course,” she added then, “There were other wars going on at the same time with the same intention. Eden’s Garden had firm control over Great Britain, which meant that Crossroads had to attack them from multiple fronts, using different proxy countries.

“You might say that without Crossroads working to neuter Great Britain’s power, and thus the power of Eden’s Garden, the United States never would have been formed.

“And wouldn’t that have been a very different world to live in?”

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The Third Degree 21-01

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“I’m sorry, what the fuck do you mean, Ruthers wants to start a war?”

My voice, as the words blurted their way out of me, was much higher-pitched than I was used to. It sounded like Alvin or one of the other Chipmunks was the one demanding answers.

Wait, why didn’t my brain conjure up one of the Chipettes? What the hell, brain?

Despite the fact that we were out on the beach, and using one of the privacy coins, Koren still shushed me, putting both index fingers to her mouth and making a hissing noise before looking around. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “He doesn’t actually want to start a war. Not really, he just wants it to look like he does.”

It had been about a week since what had happened with Hyde and his partner. In the aftermath, I’d found out that Dare and Hisao had killed the other man right after he ambushed Russell and Harper. The other students had been injured, but they recovered soon enough.

We don’t know what those black stones were that both Aswang had used to trigger their own change even though it had still been daytime. Nor did anyone have the slightest idea how they’d learned Heretic spells, or who would teach them. Well, Sands had floated Eden’s Garden as a possibility, but after a prolonged glare from Avalon, admitted that she didn’t actually know. The point was, we really had no idea who their mysterious ‘backer’ was or what was going on there.

Personally, I was just kind of glad that we’d run into a problem that didn’t actually have anything to do with either me or anyone on my team. It was kind of refreshing, despite the confusion. Partly because it meant that I didn’t have to feel that bad about letting the regular Heretics handle it. I had enough problems to deal with as it was. Passing that off to the adults was just fine with me.

And now here I was, standing on the beach, staring at Koren like she was a crazy person. Was this how people felt when I said stuff they thought was insane?

“Okay,” I started after breathing out. “Maybe you should start from the beginning. What happened?”

She shrugged then, voice still barely a whisper. Clearly, Wyatt had taken her under his wing as far as paranoia went. Which, to be fair, probably wasn’t a bad idea. Better to be safe than sorry. “Okay, so you remember how we sort-of put that magic listening bug on Ruthers’ buttmonkey?”

“Peterson Neal,” I replied while nodding. “I remember. So you heard something about a war with Eden’s Garden. Which, for the record, sounds like the stupidest thing in the world, considering they  just allowed Gaia to hire Hisao. How the hell is that gonna go over?”

Snorting, Koren nodded. “No kidding.” Taking a breath then, she explained. “Neal and Ruthers were talking. First it was about this vote thing that the Committee was going through about demanding that Eden’s Garden hand over my mom. Apparently they’re going to make up some excuse for the other Crossroads Heretics about how the Fomorian might’ve infected her with something that Eden’s Garden can’t or won’t catch, and that’s why they need to get her back. You know, if the whole thing actually went that far.”

“Because they’re sure as hell not going to tell them the real reasons they want her,” I murmured under my breath before looking back to the other girl. “But you don’t think it’ll actually go that far.”

“I know it won’t,” she confirmed. “Like I said, he was talking to Peterson. Apparently he trusts that guy a lot. Don’t ask me why, he’s obviously a buttkissing douche. Anyway, Neal wanted to know what was gonna happen if they started this whole war with Eden’s Garden. Because, you know, the whole point of erasing Joselyn was to stop the Heretics from being divided. Kind of ruins the whole point if they turn around and start fighting Garden over this to divide everyone again.”  

My head shook at that. “I can’t believe I actually agree with Peterson Neal. That’s a stupid idea.”

Koren nodded. “Yeah, so did Ruthers. He told him that he didn’t want the war either. Not really. He just wants Eden’s Garden to think that he does. He wants them to think that he’s crazy enough to push for this war, so that they give up and hand over my mom. That’s all he wants. He wants Mom so he’s willing to push enough to make the leaders over there believe that he’ll go that far.”

 “Of course he wants her,” I muttered flatly. “He’s afraid all his bullshit secrets about how far he went to stop Mom to begin with are about to come out. You think people’ll react well to that shit?”

“Some of them would,” the other girl retorted with a scowl before sighing. “But yeah, he’s definitely worried. About that, and about another Fomorian getting their hands on her.”

Before I could say anything else to that, someone’s approach caught my eye. Stiffening at first, I glanced that way before relaxing. Rubbing the coin in my pocket, I dismissed the spell while giving Koren a nod before speaking. “Hey, Columbus.”

“Girls,” he greeted us with an easy smile. “What’s up? You look so serious. Tell me everything’s okay. Please, I don’t think I could take more problems right now. Not with Creed deciding now is the best time ever to drop a metric crap-ton of trig homework.” He paused then, head tilting. “Actually, is it considered homework when we never actually go home? Dormwork?”

“It’s…” I started, pausing a little before sighing. “I’ll tell you about it later. It’s not an emergency.” With a brief wink, I added, “Besides, shouldn’t you be good at trigonometry? It is part of Cyclops’s whole thing, after all. Angles and all that.”

Blinking at me once before giving a light chuckle, the boy nodded. “Well sure, when you put it that way.”

“Just think of it as character research,” I teased before sighing in spite of myself. “Besides, I wish a lot of homework was our biggest problem right now.”  

“Hey.” Reaching out, Columbus put a hand on my arm gently. “I know you guys are worried about the whole Fossor thing. We’ll find a way to get your mom out of there, alive, safe, and everything else.” His eyes flicked toward Koren briefly. “Your grandmother, I guess. God, that sounds weird.”

Coughing, the other girl nodded. “Tell me about it.” Glancing to me, she added, “I’m gonna go.  He’s right, Professor Creed’s way too work-happy right now to blow it off. Some of us can’t stay up all night doing work. It’s like he thinks everyone’s got your bullshit power.”

“Speaking of bullshit power,” Columbus started pointedly while looking at me as Koren started back up the beach to the school, “what happened with that thing with Gaia? Did she actually…”

I nodded. “We tested it. She was right, I umm, I don’t set off the warning sense that Alters usually have when they see Heretics. At least, until I use one of my active powers. Then it goes off for them. But as long as I’m not really doing anything, they just see me as a normal human.”

He whistled low. “So they’re completely blind to you during the daytime, like the Aswang.”

My head shook then. “Not just during the day. Period. As long as I don’t use any kind of power or magic or anything, nothing active that they can notice, they see me as human. Oh,” I added, “and they don’t notice if I change my face. I mean, if I’ve changed my face before they see me, they don’t notice it then either. It only goes off for them if they actually see me change it. Like, if they see me use any kind of power, it breaks the effect and they see me as a Heretic.”

He was staring at me, eyebrows raised. “All the time? So as long as they don’t actually see you use any power, you could change your face to look like someone else and walk right up to them, and they wouldn’t even know you were a Heretic until it was too late.” Squinting then, he mused, “Sounds to me like the Heretics would be searching these Aswang out a lot more if they give that kind of advantage.” Belatedly, the boy added, “I mean, obviously they shouldn’t just kill them for that. But you know, they would because… duh. So why don’t they?”     

“Gaia says Aswangs are rare,” I answered slowly. “And this power is even more rare. Dare killed the other one, and she didn’t get it. I talked to both of them and they said they’ve never seen anyone inherit this power. It’s normally shapeshifting, or growing extra arms, or manifesting that exoskeleton armor, or anything like that. I think Dare said one person even got the ability to control bugs from an Aswang. Which is kinda weird, but whatever. Anyway, the point is, they haven’t seen this before. That’s why it took so long to figure it out. They kept trying to prompt me into using one of those other powers. But once nothing happened and I told them how I got that big… uhh, you know…” Coughing with a little blush, I gestured. “… that big pleasure rush, Gaia said she thought it might be something a lot more rare. So… she tested it. And here we are.”

Columbus was shaking his head at me. “So unfair. You’re like, a super-spy assassin or something. Strangers not noticing that you’re a Heretic until you use a power? That’s gotta be useful.”

Shrugging, I replied, “Might make it easier to at least get close enough to talk to them without making a big scene. Cuz, for some silly reason, they tend to freak out when they see Heretics.”   

The boy snorted a bit derisively at that. “Yeah, can’t imagine why they’d react that way.”  

“It’s a mystery,” I agreed, shaking my head. “But it could cause issues too. Especially if they start to think that I’m hiding what I am or–I dunno. Point is, I don’t set off their Heretic-sense anymore.”

“Maybe you can use that against Fossor,” he pointed out thoughtfully. “If he doesn’t see you coming, it might help you get close enough to get to your mom. You know, if you can find out where she is. And get past all his other security. And…” Pausing then, he made a face. “You know, I guess it really doesn’t help all that much. At least as far as that goes.”

“I’ll find a way to make it useful,” I promised him. “I’ll find a way to make all of it useful. Because I’m not gonna give up on Mom. I’m gonna get her away from that psychopath.”

His hand found my back, resting there lightly. “You know you don’t have to do it by yourself, right?”

Nodding slowly, I turned to look out at the ocean in the distance. “I know. I couldn’t anyway. I’m gonna need all you guys.”

“Well,” Columbus replied easily while leaving his hand on my back. “Good. Because you’ve got us.

“And I, for one, am not going anywhere.”


“You know the others would say this is incredibly stupid, right?” Shiori asked the next evening.

Glancing to her on my left side, then to Avalon on my right, I nodded. “Why do you think I didn’t tell them about it yet? They’d want to come, and this is already gonna be a hard enough sell as it is. It’s enough that Gaia, Dare, and Wyatt know about it. If anything goes down, they’ll be right here.”

Yeah, we weren’t at the school. Not at the moment. Instead, the three of us were standing in the middle of a park somewhere in Nebraska. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and I could see our breath when we spoke. Overall, definitely not the island.

“You didn’t tell Columbus, did you?” Avalon asked the other girl, squinting at her a little bit.

Shiori shook her adorably beanie-covered head at that. “Of course not. You think he’d let me come out here without him if I’d said what we were up to? I told him we were… um.” She glanced to me before blushing a little. “I told him we were going on a date. Me and Flick, I mean.”

That made me feel guilty. She and I still hadn’t been on an actual date. Actually, I hadn’t been on a date with either of them. Not a real one, with eating and privacy and… yeah.

“We need to work on that,” I admitted. “You know, maybe after we deal with this whole issue.”

“Yeah,” Shiori managed a weak little smile. “If this works out and doesn’t blow up in our faces, we could probably use a reward.”

Sounding curious, Avalon asked, “What did he say when you told him?”

Shiori blinked at that, then realized, “Oh, the-umm, Flick thing. Uh, he basically said that it was about time we actually did something about it instead of beating around the bush. And there was some other stuff. You know, brother stuff.”

Taking a second to glance toward the nearby security camera on the traffic light of the nearby road where I knew Gaia was watching from, I nodded slowly. “Yeah, he told me that if I made you as sad as you were back when school started, he’d find a way to give me even more problems than I already have. Which, kudos to him for the effort that would take.”

I started to add something to that, but the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow distracted me. Looking that way, we all watched as three figures approached. Two were about normal-sized, while the third… well, the third was pretty much a small, mobile mountain.

Lifting a hand, I waved at the third figure, smiling despite myself. “Hey, Buddy!”

Sure enough, the massive troll returned my smile and wave. “It is the Flicking person.” He frowned then. “Flicking person is not Heretic?” 

“Just Flick,” I corrected while shaking my head. “And it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic though, I promise. How’re you doing?”

“Buddy is doing good,” he replied, settling his gigantic form nearby. His eyes scanned all three of us up and down before settling on Avalon. “But Buddy System is not knowing that one.”

I gestured to the other girl. “It’s okay, this is Avalon. She’s good.”

From the shadows, one of the other figures spoke up. “I’ll say she’s good.” Calvin stepped into view, giving Avalon an appraising look up and down that took about twice as long as most people who stared at the other girl managed before they realized they should show some decorum. “What school did you say you go to again?”

“One for Heretics,” I snapped at him. “You know, the same people that’d kill you in about three seconds flat if you showed up there?”

The red-haired man gave me a shrug. “Might be worth it, if there’s chicks like that one around.”

Before I could say anything to that, the final figure spoke up. “You keep that up and they’re gonna fight over which of them gets to skewer your stupid ass.”

Focusing on the rest of us then, Seth added casually, “And speaking of people who would take him apart given half a chance, you guys seen my little sister lately?” To Shiori, he amended, “Other little sister, I mean.”

Before Shiori could retort that she wasn’t his sister and neither was Asenath, I shook my head. “Not since Christmas break ended. It’s kind of been crazy. But I’ve talked to her and everything’s fine. Or as fine as it really gets.” Actually, I’d talked to her just to set this whole thing up, but I supposed she hadn’t actually called Seth about it.

He gave me a nod that seemed serious, at least for him. “Good. I heard Jiao was back in the neighborhood, so to speak.” His eyes drifted to Shiori before he added, “Tell her I said, hey.” 

Focusing on me again, he raised an eyebrow. “Buddy’s right, you know. I’m not getting the Heretic heebee-jeebies from you. From those two, yeah, but not from you.”

“It’s a power thing,” I informed him. “Like I said, long story. If I don’t use my power, you won’t see me as a Heretic.”

His eyes narrowed a little at that. “That right? Well, ain’t that a bitch if that kind of power ends up with someone who doesn’t have your temperament?”

“It’s rare, don’t worry,” I replied flatly.

Stretching his arms up over his head lazily, the vampire continued. “Fair enough. Now, far be it from me to be the one to focus on work. But you did ask for this meeting for a reason, right?”

Slowly, I breathed out. This was it, this was my next big plan for how to get to the bottom of what was going on with Avalon. If they couldn’t help, I wasn’t sure where to go next.

“First,” I started before holding out an envelope. “For meeting with us.”

Seth took the envelope before tossing it to Calvin. The red-haired man looked in it, counting out the cash inside briefly. “Twenty grand, just like she said.”

The money was from Gaia. I didn’t exactly feel good about taking cash from her, but apparently she had more than she could use in a dozen lifetimes. Even her lifetimes. And this was about Avalon.

“There’s twice that waiting for you if you do this for us,” I promised.

“Do what, exactly?” From the look he had, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Seth already knew the answer even before he asked. Or maybe he just liked holding that expression so that people would always think that he knew more than he really did.

Glancing to the other two briefly, then up to the traffic camera, I finally focused on Seth and Calvin. “We need you to hire someone and then tell us where we can find him. We’d do it, but I’m pretty sure you can get in touch with him easier than we can.”

“You have a certain someone in mind, then?” Seth lazily drawled.

I nodded. “Yeah. The mercenary, Fahsteth. I want you to hire Fahsteth.

“There’s a few things we want to talk to him about.”  

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Interlude 20B – Blackbeard

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Early March, 1718

Smoke, shouts, and the terrifying boom of cannonfire filled the salty sea air as the man colloquially known as the pirate captain Blackbeard stood on the very edge of his ship. The Queen Anne’s Revenge shook under the force of another round of cannon shots as several struck home. Almost simultaneously, a shout went up from the opposite end of the ship, where a second opponent had come close enough for its soldiers to toss their grapple-lines over and began pulling themselves aboard.

“Boarded, Cap’n!” one of the crew shouted near his captain’s ear. “The Bastion’s got men coming aboard. We’d best be breaking off pursuit, yeah? Let the prize go for another day.”

In response, the man they called Blackbeard turned and pulled one of five different pistols he wore strapped across his broad chest that were already cocked and primed. Pointing it at the man, he ordered, “Break off pursuit, and I break your dear mother from having a living son. Keep on!” The last words he thundered loudly above the sound of gunfire and swordplay. “If the Steady Swallow escapes,” he named the merchant vessel that they had been attacking when the Bastion arrived to interrupt, “I’ll personally make sure all you lot dance the hempen jig! Stay on that ship!”

A second crewman, since the first was too cowardly to actually speak up a second time, blurted, “But Cap’n, the Bastion’s right on top of us! They’ve got lines across. We can’t catch up with the Swallow, not when we’re towing a whole other ship behind us!”

Grinning dangerously (and some would say a bit maniacally), Blackbeard replied, “You let me worry about the Bastion and those lines. Just stay on the cannons and sails. Give me full pursuit. Stay on the Swallow, it doesn’t escape or it’s all your heads. All your heads!”

With that said, the man raised a hand to wave under his expansive beard. At the gesture, the beard literally turned to fire. A moment later, the rest of his hair did the same. His head was engulfed by flames, leaving his face only partially exposed.

It was a trick that the vast majority who saw attributed to fuses and tiny candles tied into his hair. Despite the fact that every hair on his head and face had actually turned into fire, they never saw it that way. What they saw, what they remembered, was still terrifying, yet explainable.

From where he stood, Blackbeard took three steps forward before launching himself into a leap that carried him clear over the heads of his crew and to the far end of the ship. What they saw him doing, what their brains thought it was, he didn’t know. Maybe they saw him holding a rope to swing. Whatever the lie their minds made up to explain the unexplainable, he didn’t care.

Landing at the aft end of the ship, he brought one gun up and fired off a shot that took one of the soldiers clambering aboard straight in the center of his forehead. The man pitched backward off the ship, crashing into one of his companions as he plummeted to take the other soldier with him.

Without bothering to drop the pistol, he turned to take aim at the next man that dared to climb aboard his ship. When he pulled the trigger, it should, by all rights, have done nothing.

For Blackbeard, however, the pistol was little more than a prop. It was a way of allowing those who saw him to explain away the unexplainable. And as he pulled the trigger of the empty pistol, a white-hot ball of flame summoned by the man himself shot from the end of the barrel to take the second man in the throat. He was killed instantly, a gaping hole left where his neck had been.

At the same time, another man who had already managed to clamber aboard lunged for the dreaded pirate captain, sword coming down in a wild swing that was accompanied by an equally wild scream. The thought of being the man to claim the reward by killing the one known as Blackbeard was too much to pass up. He could obviously already see himself accepting the accolades that would come with such a feat.

It was, however, a feat he would never claim. Without looking at the man, Blackbeard took a step forward and stuck his foot back while dropping the pistol he was holding. The foot caught the charging man across the ankle, sending him crashing to the deck while the pirate captain himself turned quickly to strip his cutlass away smoothly.

Before the fallen man could pick himself up, Blackbeard pivoted. From his own belt, he drew one of the two swords that he himself wore, flipping it around in his hand to drive down through the man’s back, pinning him to the deck. A quick flick of his wrist brought the sword up through the man’s neck, separating his head from his body.

Simultaneously, he gave the soldier’s own blade what looked like a careless toss, sending it flying through the air to collide with the chest of the next threat who thought to charge straight at the most infamous pirate on the seas.

It had all taken only a few seconds. Landing. Shot to the forehead of one man to kill him. Shot to the throat of a second man to kill him. Spinning to trip the incoming third man before skewering and beheading him. Toss of the third man’s sword through the chest of the fourth man. Through it all, less than six full seconds had passed.

Finally turning back to face the grapple lines that had been thrown onto his ship, he raised a hand. At his simple gesture, a wave pulled itself free of the ocean, crashing straight between the two linked ships in order to tear the lines (as well as the men clambering across them) away.

Fire and water; the man currently known as Blackbeard controlled both. His men and those who faced him in battle attributed the former to pistols and strategically-placed candles or gunpowder, and the latter to the seas smiling upon him. Freak storms carried his ships where they needed to be much faster than should have been possible, or slowed and sank pursuers. Yet even the men who witnessed the most unnatural of those events with their own eyes believed there was a truly rational explanation. Their eyes saw it, but by the time the sight reached their minds, it had become something else. They never truly comprehended just what their captain was capable of.

With the lines torn down by the ‘freak wave’, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was free. Pivoting back to the front, Blackbeard shouted orders to bring up the sails to catch the wind. Even then, however, he barely waited for his men to hop to follow instruction before focusing on the water itself once more. Summoning another wave, this one far more controlled, he used it to shove the ship forward in a boost that gave them a head-start at catching up with the fleeing merchant vessel. Then the sails caught the wind, and they were off.

It was a tense thirty minutes, with the Steady Swallow ahead of them trying desperately to stay ahead, while the Bastion fought to catch up. Yet between his skilled crew and the pirate captain’s own semi-subtle manipulation of the ocean itself, they steadily pulled away from their pursuers and caught up with their prey.

“Bring her alongside the lily-livered milk maids!” Blackbeard boomed, already standing atop the railing while using one hand to hold himself steady with a nearby rope. In his other hand, he held one of his pistols. “Tear right into her, the old girl’ll take it for certain!”

Following his order, the crew took the ship straight up alongside the merchant vessel. They came so close that the two ships actually collided, scraping along their sides. Most of his men were shaken to the deck, falling into one another. But Blackbeard himself remained steady, bracing himself before leaping out to land on the deck of the Swallow.

Even as he landed, the man was already pointing his pistol. Again, his finger pulled the trigger of the empty, unprimed weapon as he summoned one of those tiny, white-hot balls of heat. As the unfortunate target had his sword halfway pulled, the heat-ball tore straight through his chest. The way it seared the body in the process might have made some think that it would never be passed off as an actual gunshot wound. Yet somehow, that would be what witnesses described it as.

Beard and hair burning wildly, drawing everyone’s attention to his demonic-seeming presence, the dreaded pirate legend drew his sword and bellowed, “I be searching for one man! Owen Patrick Lock. Lock be my target. Stand aside and live for all your days, or stay in place and burn beside the coward himself!”

Dramatic, yes. But it was one way to convince those that weren’t loyal to the man named Lock to retreat, and hopefully force Owen himself into the open so that he could be dealt with before the Bastion caught up and made this entire thing far more complicated than it already was.

A sudden commotion toward the rear of the deck drew his attention that way. The sight of the man who was shoving his way past two of his mates to escape up the short set of stairs there drew a smile to the old pirate’s flame-framed face. “Ahoy, if it ain’t be the man o’the hour!”

He began to stalk that way, his heavy footsteps clomping against the wet wooden deck. The other men, terrified of his visage, scrambled to get out of the way. By that point, the target had reach the top of the short flight of stairs and was trying to rush toward the aft end up the ship in order to throw himself off. Though before he could take more than a couple steps, the pirate made a subtle gesture to summon a new wave, which rocked the ship. Unprepared, the fleeing man was knocked to the deck with a grunt.

Clomping his way to a stop by the fallen man, Blackbeard reached down to grab the back of his neck before hauling the man up so that the two of them were face to face.

There it was. The man’s face was wrong. His skin was a pale green, with hard reptilian scales, while his amber eyes were slitted vertically like a snake or a lizard. The ordinary humans in the ship’s crew couldn’t see it, didn’t recognize it for what it was. But Blackbeard recognized it. He knew what it meant, just as he’d known since before he’d begun to chase the Steady Swallow.

“Heretic,” Owen Patrick Lock hissed, showing his thin snake-like tongue as it briefly flicked through the air to taste it. “You think this changes anything? You think it’ll bring those girls back?”

“I imagine,” Blackbeard began in a low, dangerous tone that rolled like distant thunder back over the ship, “that wherever their spirits be resting, they’ll have to content themselves with knowing that your damned soul burns for an eternity for what you done to them.”

“Burn–” the reptilian-creature started, before Blackbeard simply drew his saber and ran the not-man through the chest. Super-heating the blade until it literally cooked the figure’s insides, he drew it down and out before easily heaving the dead body over the deck.

There, the man–the creature who had so brutalized and destroyed those girls in port was gone. They had their justice, for what it was worth.

Turning back, he saw the rest of the ship’s crew staring at him. Fear was live in their eyes. Yet, after taking a brief moment to scan the people, he was assured that no more hidden monsters lurked among them. The rest were innocent.

Yet, even then, he couldn’t be sure that it was safe to leave them. Not yet. They had to pass one more test.

From his belt, the man withdrew a wineskin. Giving it a shake, he tossed the thing to the nearest sailor. “Take a sip,” he instructed, “And then be passing it around. All of ya drink up, steady yer nerves.”

It wasn’t the real reason he wanted them to drink, but the excuse worked well enough. Especially after he doused the flames in his hair and beard enough that only glowing embers remained. It left him a frightening sight still, yet not quite the full-blown terror that his flame-engulfed head normally invoked.

Still, he was frightening enough that none of the men dared argue. The wineskin was passed around, each man taking a gulp from it until all had drank some.

He watched, his careful eyes studying each of them for a reaction. The truth was that there were necromancers and other sorcerers among both the New World lands and those of the Old World. Some of those foul magical creatures were attempting to send their diseases and curses to the other continent or neighboring lands to spread their power. They did so by infecting various sailors, hoping that one would make it through and begin spreading the malady to new people.

That was the truth of why the dreaded pirate Blackbeard sometimes killed entire crews while other times letting them go. When he found a ship infected by one of the curses or magical diseases, the only option was destroying the entire crew to ensure that their infection didn’t spread. Killing the crew of a ship was better than seeing one of those creatures manage to spread their power to a new population.

That was the duty that the one now known as Blackbeard had assigned himself. He stalked the seas, searching for the non-human monsters who preyed upon the weak. And for curse-afflicted crews who were being used to spread disease to an unsuspecting populace.

In this case however, none of the crew showed a reaction to the magic-laced wine. Satisfied that they were safe enough, the pirate captain bid them a good journey and returned to his ship. Not, however, before sending his men aboard to loot the hold of half its contents.

After all, the only way he could maintain the crew that he needed to continue these operations was by ensuring that they were well-fed and given enough loot to keep them happy.

Stepping aboard his own ship once more, he paused before slowly turning. His eyes found the figure standing at the back.

“Yer not one of mine,” he rumbled in a low voice. “If ya were, the crew’d be a lot happier.”

The pale, auburn-haired beauty stepped forward with a soft smile. “Correct,” she announced. “But I had to come and see your deeds for myself before we extended our invitation.”

“I don’t need no invitation,” the man dismissed her words flatly. “And I don’t need you or whoever you represent.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” the woman allowed. “Yet I believe we can all help one another. My name is Sophronia. And I represent… a collection of people not unlike yourself. We see monsters as you do. And we have worked to contain them, just as you have.”

“That right?” the heavily bearded figure replied slowly after giving the beautiful woman another brief look. How had his men not seen her? “What do you want?”

“What we want,” the one called Sophronia began patiently, “is for you to join us.”

His rough, coarse chuckle filled the air. “I ain’t been much for the joining type, of late.”

Her smile returned, brightening just a little. “Of course. We are very aware that you’ve spent… shall we say, many years laying low and not exposing yourself. You were content to live a quiet life for so long since your… initial adventures. The adventures which resulted in your…” She coughed. “… abilities.”

Lifting his chin, the man stared at her with dark eyes. “You are well-informed,” he allowed while giving her another examination. “You’re right. I found a sea monster, some volcanic beast that controlled water and fire. It killed a dozen men before I put it to the blade. Not that the blade did much before it skewered me. Suppose it left me to die then. But when I woke up, I was… like this. I had the same power it had. And I put that power to use.”

“Its blood mixed with yours,” Sophronia explained softly. “You awakened as a Heretic because its blood and yours were mixed and you survived the process.”

“Heretic,” the man repeated thoughtfully. “That’s what the monsters call me, aye.” His eyes continued to squint at her. “But the question is, how do you know so much about me? No one else does.”

She chuckled softly at that. “You’re right, they don’t. You’ve done a good job of hiding your lack of a true past. The Standers-By have no idea just how old you actually are.”

Frowning, Blackbeard looked at his crew on the other ship for a moment before turning back. “Standers-By?”

“What we call humans who don’t see as we do,” Sophronia explained patiently. “The innocents that we fight to protect, just as you do. They know nothing of your true past. The last I heard, they believe you were born in the year 1680.”

He laughed aloud at that, his large form shaking a bit. “Aye, they be off slightly in their estimates.”

“By about three thousand years,” the woman replied quietly.

“About that, aye,” the pirate captain confirmed after taking a moment to consider. His head shook. “Don’t seem like it’s been that long.”

Lifting her chin, Sophronia continued. “As I said, you were content to live a quiet life for so long after the end of your previous adventures. Why suddenly show yourself once more? Why build yourself into such a legendary figure when you showed no desire to do anything more than live your long life for the past several millennia?”

After giving the woman a long, careful look, the bearded man shrugged. “I’ve done more than you think. Sometimes I get involved, sometimes I don’t. Figure I get bored after enough time living alone. A man needs some adventure. But yer right, mostly I just… keep to myself. I earned my retirement.” Pausing then, he heaved a sigh. “But I suppose the real reason I’m out doing this now is that damned necromancer.”

“Fossor.” Sophronia spoke the name in a low, hateful voice. “I assure you, we have been doing all we can to oppose him.”

Curling his lips in a snarl, the one called Blackbeard shook his head. “I had a run-in with the monster. Found out he was one of the ones trying to send his damned blood curses into other parts of the world, spreading them over these ships. So I involved myself. But to do that, I needed a ship. I needed a crew. I needed a reputation.”

“So you built one,” the woman finished for him.

“So I built one,” he confirmed. Looking back to her, he started slowly, “If the people you represent are truly going after that necromancer, you can count on my aid. But I’ll be wanting to know more about it.”

Sophronia nodded. “Anything you want to know, of course. But first, what do I call you? Blackbeard seems a little… dramatic. The Standers-By believe your name is Edward Teach.”

“Teach, Thatch, suppose I couldn’t make up my mind when I was telling ‘em who I was to start with,” the man replied dismissively. “Teach is good enough. It’s a fine name. Edward Teach.”

“I suppose that means you don’t wish to be known by your birth name?” the woman asked with a raised eyebrow.

His head shook then. “Nay. It’s been far too long since I was that man.” Pausing then, he gave her another look. “But you don’t ask for my convenience. You ask because you don’t know which one I am. Not for sure.”

She nodded then, echoing his words. “Not for sure. We know that you’re one of them, just not which one precisely. Are you–”

“It doesn’t matter,” he interrupted. “They’re all gone now. I’m the only one left. The only one who survived.

“I am the last of the Argonauts.”


Present Day

“You seem distracted, Edward.” Sophronia Leven stood beside the man she had helped to recruit so long ago. The two of them were alone (for the moment) in the Committee’s meeting room. “Are you thinking about the past, or the future?”

He paused, gazing out the window for a moment before replying, “A bit of both, I suppose. Remembering the past, dreading the future.” Turning slightly, he eyed her while adding, “We can’t stop this vote, you realize. They’re going to push it through.”

“Maniacs,” she retorted, her expression cross before the woman sighed. “But you’re right. They’ll be here any minute. The vote itself is a formality. The warmongers have the numbers.”

Head shaking, Teach asked, “I don’t suppose the Garden people might acquiesce.”

Snorting in disbelief, Sophronia replied, “No, they won’t. They’re not going to give up just like that. They’ll go to war first.”

The man made an annoyed growling sound deep in his throat. “That’s gonna complicate… everything.”

“They’re all stubborn asses,” Sophronia confirmed. “Every last one of them, on both sides. Some of them wanted this excuse, any reason to lay out a demand. Gaia pulling in that Garden Heretic to teach classes just made the hardliners think they had to do something to make this confrontation happen.”

“They voted to allow that,” Teach pointed out with an annoyed growl. “We voted on it, majority ruled in favor of letting Gaia hire him.”

Sophronia nodded. “But you saw how close the vote was. Some of our… colleagues think that with Hisao here, Eden’s Garden can be… bullied more easily.” Pausing, she amended, “Maybe bullied is too harsh. They believe that with a closer connection, we have to establish ourselves as the dominant party, not an equal partnership. So, they want to use this excuse of Ruthers’ to make the demand and hope that Garden blinks first.”

Her expression darkened then. “Of course, there’s others who were afraid we were all starting to get along too much. Can’t have that, so they have to manufacture a new reason to fight.”

Pressing his hand against the window, Teach breathed in long and slow before letting it out. “They’ve got their excuse now, flimsy as it is.”

“Maybe we can delay them,” the woman suggested. “Try to make them give Garden more time to comply. Or give someone more time to find a way to stop this whole thing.”

Shrugging then, Teach replied, “We can delay as much as we want. But eventually,  Ruthers and the others are gonna decide the only way to get what they want is to get nasty.”

Sophronia sighed once more. “How are they going to explain why she’s important?”

Head shaking, the man lowered his gaze while muttering, “They’ll make something up. They’re good at that. But whatever they tell people, the fact remains, Ruthers has convinced enough of the others that it’s too dangerous to leave her out there, out of our custody.

“So if Eden’s Garden doesn’t hand over Abigail Fellows, there’s gonna be a war.”

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Interlude 20A – Larissa

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Please note, there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on Avalon and Shiori’s conversation after Avalon and Flick’s first kiss. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

About Seven Years Ago

“Hey, babies.” Sitting on the edge of the bed that her beautiful little girls were sleeping in, Larissa Mason gently reached out to brush the hair away from Sarah’s face. The ten-year-old shifted and blinked her eyes open, yawning briefly before blurting, “Mom, what–”

“Shh.” Smiling still, Larissa held a finger to her lips. “We don’t wanna wake up Daddy. Let him sleep.”

“What about us?” Sarah’s twin sister had rolled over by that point, burying her face against the pillow. Her words came out as a muffled protest. “Can we sleep?”

Of course, both of the girls had their own beds to sleep in. But more often than not, even if they started in different beds, one of them would migrate to her sister before the end of the night. That or Sarah would succeed at talking Sandoval into exploring and they’d find the girls sleeping somewhere completely random, often not even in the same building as their apartment. Larissa swore, one day Sarah was going to end up getting into trouble that she couldn’t talk her way out of. Though she’d probably exhaust every word in the English language trying.   

Moving her hand from Sarah’s hair to touch the back of Sandoval’s head, Larissa whispered, “There’s a nice pod of whales not too far out. I thought we could take out the boat and see them.”

The response from the ten-year-old Sandoval was a groan. “Not now, Mom,” she mumbled, burying her face in the pillow a little harder. “Sleep. Whales later.”

Sarah, meanwhile, sat up. “Whales?” she asked, with obvious interest. “Big ones? I like the really big ones, like the one who ate Pinocchio. Are they like the ones that–”

Groaning, Sandoval took hold of the pillow, lifted her head, and then shoved the pillow down on top of it. “Jeeze, if you guys wanna go see the whales, go see the whales. Like, out on the ocean. Away from the bed.” She made a few vague shooing motions with her hand before settling.

Larissa almost tried to push a little harder. There was more to this trip than whales, after all. She wanted… well, she wanted both of her children to meet the person who had influenced her life so much. But if she pushed Sands too hard now, she might make a fuss and that would wake up their father. And–well, she had a feeling talking to him about the situation would be a lot harder.

And in any case, maybe it would be easier to discuss this with one of them at a time. Yes. She could work with just one of her girls for now.

So, finger to her lips to keep Sarah quiet, she straightened up and beckoned for the girl to follow. Once they were out of the bedroom, she pointed to a couple sets of clothes she had already set out for them. “Hurry and get dressed, okay? I’ll grab some food from the kitchen for breakfast and leave your dad a message.”

Rather than going anywhere while her daughter quickly stripped out of her pajamas and pulled on the clothes, Larissa instead reached up to take hold of one of her own hairs before giving it a swift yank. The short, stinging pain as she yanked the hair out of her scalp vanished quickly, and she tossed the hair toward the ground while summoning a very different power.

Before the hair had finished drifting its way to the floor, the power had taken hold of it. The hair grew incredibly rapidly, shifting and changing shape until it became something much more than a single hair: a lot of hair. A lot of hair, in fact, that happened to be attached to a squirrel.

That particular power allowed Larissa to take bits of her own body (such as her hair, in that case), and use them to create temporary animals. The size of the animal depended on how much of her own body she used. The hair would create tiny things like mice and squirrels, while something as large as her arm would allow her to create an elephant. Not that she tended to employ that level of the power very often, no matter how good Heretic healing happened to be.

But a squirrel was perfectly fine for what she had in mind. Reaching down, Larissa picked up the summoned animal and whispered a short message for Liam in its ear. She explained that she had taken Sarah out on the boat to see the whale pod and that they would be back later.

That done, she put the squirrel back down before quietly opening the bedroom door. The small, furry creature slipped through the crack before disappearing into the darkness. It would follow her instructions, sitting on the nearby end table until Liam woke up before repeating her message for him. Then it would disappear, its purpose completed.

After a quick trip through the kitchen to grab the cooler of food that she’d already prepared, Larissa joined Sarah at the door of the apartment. Together, the two of them slipped out and made their way across the island. On the way, they passed a couple of the school’s security guards, who waved as soon as they realized who it was.

Taking the controls of the boat, Larissa guided it away from the island out into the open water. The whole time, Sarah continued to talk about whales so much that she actually felt a little bad that they weren’t actually going out to look at them.

But this–well, it was more important.

Eventually, she stepped away from the controls, turning to face her daughter. “Sarah,” she started quietly, “We need to talk about something serious, okay?”

Blinking, the young girl asked, “Who’d you talk to? What’d they say I did?”

Despite herself, Larissa chuckled. “No, no, nothing like that. Though I’m sure you did a lot of things.” Smiling, she touched the girl’s chin. “Mommy just needs you to keep a secret, okay?”

“Keep a secret?” Sarah’s head tilted curiously. “From who?”

As bad as she felt about this part, it was too important to leave to chance. Larissa carefully brushed her fingers up her daughter’s face to her hair. “From everyone, Sarah. Even Sands, at least for now. I need you to keep this part secret between just you and me until we can get your sister out here.”

“You mean lie?” Sarah’s eyes were wide. “You and Da said we’re not supposed to lie.”

Rather than point out that she was well aware that Sarah had lied plenty of times, Larissa nodded. “I know. And most of the time, you shouldn’t. But sometimes… well, there are some things that are really important. You see, Mommy has a… friend, and we don’t want Dad to know about her yet.”

“A friend?” Tilting her head, Sarah looked like she was thinking about that for a moment. “How come Da can’t know about your friend? Is she a bad friend?”

“No.” Moving her hand down to squeeze her daughter’s shoulder, Larissa shook her head. “Mommy would be… in big trouble if it wasn’t for her friend. She helped Mommy when she really needed it, back when I was about your age.”

Clearly uncertain about the entire situation, Sarah tentatively asked, “Why wouldn’t Da like her?”

This was it. Taking a breath, Larissa quietly answered, “Because Mommy’s friend isn’t human.”

It took a moment for Sarah to comprehend what she was saying. Eventually, however, the girl’s eyes went wide. “Y-your friend is a monster?”

“Not a monster, baby,” Larissa corrected quickly. “But she is what everyone would call a Stranger. She’s… it’s a long story. But she won’t hurt you. She’d never hurt you. You trust Mommy, right?” When the girl’s head bobbed up and down quickly, she smiled. “And Mommy trusts her. But we have to keep her a secret until Mommy finds a way to explain things to Sands and Da, all right?”

There was a brief pause before Sarah nodded again. “Okay, Mommy. Our secret.”

As her daughter watched, Larissa closed her eyes and focused and focused inward. Okay, Sariel. It’s safe now.

Once she had the impression that the woman who was so connected to her had heard, Larissa opened her eyes and watched. In the corner of the deck, near the ladder, a soft golden light had already appeared. Beside her, Scout made a sound as if to ask what was going on, but Larissa quieted and reassured her with a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder.

Before long, the light resolved itself into a blonde woman, who straightened up and looked around until her gaze fell on the two of them. “Larissa,” she murmured before stepping that way.

The first time that Larissa had witnessed this was a year earlier. First she had heard the woman’s voice in her head. Being contacted telepathically was obviously nothing new. After all, she had been a fully-trained Heretic for years. Mental communication might be somewhat rare, but it wasn’t unheard of.

But that particular instance had been a lot more than simple telepathy. The voice in her head had explained her story. Obviously and understandably freaked out and distrustful at first, Larissa had found herself jumped by a few monstrous Strangers who had recognized her as a Heretic.

She would have died, except that the voice in her head manifested as a physical figure, much like she was doing now. Sariel projected herself fully, killing the Strangers who had attacked Larissa in short order.

After that–well, Larissa kind of had to listen. Even then, it had taken a good bit of time to come around to the truth. But eventually, she listened. And what Sariel had explained to her, about the Seosten and their secret control of Heretic society, as well as her own history, had changed… well, everything.

As it turned out, Sariel couldn’t manifest herself for very long. Especially at first. She was projecting herself from another world and could only attach herself to the person that she had most recently possessed. In that case, it was Larissa herself, since the Seosten woman had stopped possessing people entirely back when Larissa was a young girl. But the curse that had banished her from Earth was still strong enough even then that Sariel could only manifest for a couple minutes at a time.

Over the past year, that had gotten a bit longer as Sariel grew stronger. Still, she only projected herself when it was safe to do so. Which was when Larissa was away from Crossroads and their security, and not accompanied by any other Heretics.

The two of them had bonded over that year, particularly as Sariel confided that she couldn’t remember her own children and husband. She knew they existed. She could almost see their faces in her memory. And certain specific events around them were almost completely clear in her mind. She loved her family, and she knew that they had been taken away from her.

Some of the general facts, like a husband who was a Heretic, her children being twins, and other things that the Seosten woman was able to pull out out of the fog of her damaged memory, had felt entirely too close to home for Larissa. She had thought about how she would feel in that situation. And seeing a mother who had been torn away from her husband and twin children, well, that was a lot easier to sympathize with than she had expected. Even if the woman was a Stranger. Or Alter, as she called herself.

All of which meant that Larissa had decided that it was her obligation to help the other woman  regain her memory and find her children. But to do that, she needed to be able to talk to her more often. And that meant getting her children at least to understand that the woman was not a threat.

That’s what this trip had been about. But it was working well enough. They’d start with Sarah, then bring Sandoval out the next time.

The two women embraced, and then Sariel turned her attention to the younger girl, her voice quiet and gentle. “And you must be Sarah.”

For a moment, Sarah didn’t say anything. She just stood there and looked at the woman a bit apprehensively before eventually lifting her chin. “Y-you’re not human?”

Sariel smiled just a little, head giving a slight shake. “I’m afraid not. Does that scare you?”

Straightening up at that a little defiantly, the ten-year-old girl crossed her arms over her chest and squinted at the woman. “Nuh-uh,” she declared. “I’m not scared of you. I’m not scared of anything.”

Chuckling softly, Sariel nodded. “Well, I’m glad you’re not afraid of me, at least. I’d never want to scare you, Sarah. I promise, if we can–”

She stopped talking abruptly, head tilted as though listening to something. A second later, the woman spun back, eyes wide. “Take Sarah and get off the boat,” she ordered. “Go, go, right n–”

In mid-sentence, a slimy brown-green tentacle shot into view. It wrapped around the woman’s throat, tearing Sariel off her feet before flinging her to crash against the deck hard enough to splinter it.

There was a man there–no, a creature. He looked like the Swamp Thing from the comics that Larissa liked so much. But an instant later, she realized that most of his form was covered in various fungus, moss, and other things from the sea. His true form was hidden underneath all of that.

His voice was grating, like nails on a chalkboard. “I knew I smelled one of you on the Heretic. I knew if I waited, I’d find her. I’d find you. Tasty.”

Larissa’s first priority was to her daughter. Spinning, she caught hold of the girl, who was standing there frozen in terror. Hoisting her up, she threw Sarah across the deck and to the cabin. “Hide!” she ordered before spinning back. Her hand grabbed for her weapon in its case at her hip, but one of the creature’s whip-arms caught hold of her wrist and yanked it up so hard she felt the bone snap in the process.

“Fomorian!” Sariel shouted, catching the creature’s attention. “Leave her alone. You want me? You’ve got me.”

Grimacing, Larissa jerked her hand free of the creature–the Fomorian’s grasp. “Save Sarah,” she shot back before lashing out with a kick that took the intruder right in the gut. Through the coverings of slimy weeds, moss, and even barnacles, she felt her foot connect with actual flesh and bone. Not that it seemed to do much other than making him grunt.

“Please!” She pleaded not with the Fomorian, but with the Seosten. “Make sure she’s safe! She–”

That was all she could get out before the creature was on top of her again. It was all Larissa could do to block him. She felt his blows raining down on her, his fists and tentacles like sledgehammers. And through it all, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was simply toying with her.

Sariel had vanished through the opening in the cabin, following Sarah. In the distance, Larissa could hear an argument between the two, as Sariel ordered the girl to hide despite her clear intention of trying to save her mother.

Focusing on one of her powers, Larissa was abruptly slammed backward against the wall of the boat cabin. One of the creature’s tentacles had shoved its way against her face. She felt it practically envelop her head as the Fomorian let out a groan of what sounded like pleasure.

Then a dozen needles from the tentacle pierced her face and neck, and Larissa felt her entire body go numb. Her brain did the same, thoughts slowing down. Drugged. He… drugged her, somehow. Whatever the needles in his tentacle had injected her with, it left her unable to stand, let alone fight. She felt like her body was floating, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t hold onto her anger.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, the woman recognized the terror and horror of what was happening. But she couldn’t do anything about it. Even as she heard the Fomorian copying her voice to call out for her daughter, taunting the girl while trying to coax her into coming out, the actual fury that she felt at the threat to her child was muted. All she knew was that she was being dragged along to the cabin, those needles still piercing her as the Fomorian searched for both Sariel and Sarah.

Sarah. Sandoval. Sariel. Sarah. Sariel. Sariel. Sandoval. Sarah. Sandoval. Sariel.

She knew. Somewhere deep in her memory, far buried in her subconscious, she had known the name Sariel. It had almost, almost manifested in the names that she had given her children. Sarah, Sandoval. Sariel.

In the end, Sariel exposed herself. Before the creature could taunt Sarah into revealing herself from wherever she had hidden her, the Seosten stepped into view. “Larissa,” she murmured, face ashen. “I am so sorry.”

“You should be,” the Fomorian snarled. “I’m going to have so much fun playing with all three of you. And it’s all your fault. You left your stink on the Heretic. I knew you’d show up again.”

Slowly, Sariel straightened. “That’s not the only thing I’m sorry about,” she announced quietly. Her eyes locked with Larissa’s. “I can’t think of any other way to stop him. I’m sorry.”

Larissa’s drugged mind was still trying to figure out what she meant by that, even as Sariel launched herself forward. The Seosten leapt at both of them, colliding with Larissa and the Fomorian.

Later, Larissa would come to understand what the woman had done. Sariel grabbed onto them both and then pointedly released the hold that she had that was keeping her on Earth. More to the point, she stopped fighting against the anchor that was trying to yank her away from it.

The force of the magic that was hauling Sariel back to another world also caught Larissa and the Fomorian. All three were torn away from the planet.

The whole thing felt like… like Larissa was falling a very long ways. Stars flashed by in blinding white lines as she was torn through space alongside the other two. Every second that passed, they traveled hundreds of thousands of miles.  

In the end, the force pulling Sariel back wasn’t strong enough to take all three of them the entire way. The Fomorian disappeared partway through, landing on some other planet. Sariel and Larissa then had a chance to look at each other for what seemed like a split-second. The other woman’s mouth opened to say something, but before any sound could come out, Larissa felt herself start falling away. There was a scream that filled the air, a scream that could have come from either or both of them.

Then she was hitting the ground somewhere, landing hard enough to break several bones as she rolled to a stop.

Groaning a little, she rolled over and sat up. Before she managed to do anything else, however, a foot caught her in the back and shoved her back down. Her head turned, only to see half a dozen figures in gleaming golden armor that looked a bit like high-tech chainmail, along with sleek helmets complete with pitch-black visors that obscured their faces. All of them held rifles that were pointed at her, and were barking orders in some other language that she didn’t understand.

Slowly, the realization came. The Fomorian was gone. Sariel was gone. And Larissa… Larissa was trapped on some distant planet, far from anything she knew. She was alone, surrounded by enemies.

And she had absolutely no idea how she was going to get home.


Present Day

The thud of a body being slammed hard into the wall was followed immediately by the sound of a massive sword being driven into that wall barely an inch from the body itself.

“Try again,” Haiden Moon ordered, twisting his sword just a little so that the blade moved slightly closer to the neck of the man that he was still holding in place a foot off the ground. “And this time, tell me something that I want to hear.”

The creature with the pale-green skin and straggly yellow hair shook his head frantically. Or at least as frantically as he could while being held off the ground by the furious Heretic. “I told ya! I don’t know where your damn wife is! I don’t know, okay? I don’t know!”

Larissa watched from her place at the doorway, where she was keeping an eye out for any reinforcements.

She had spent years as a prisoner of the Seosten. As it turned out, they had found the Fomorian, and thought that she had purposefully allied with him to bring the creature into their space. For years, they alternated between forcing her to work in their slave pits, and demanding to know about the extent of the cooperation between her and the Fomorians, as well as what other Heretics were involved.

They also wanted to know why they couldn’t possess her to find out that way. Which must have been something that Sariel had done, but Larissa refused to tell them that much. No matter how much they had… insisted.

It had not been a fun time, to say the least. But eventually, she had been rescued by one of the least likely people she ever would have guessed. Sariel’s husband, Haiden. Even though his exact memories of his wife and children were locked away or erased, he did remember Larissa.

The two of them had bonded over the past couple of years, as they searched Seosten space for the pieces of the orb that had been shattered when it banished the Moons and the Seosten known as Puriel away from the Earth. With each piece, they grew closer to finding Sariel herself. And considering how much Larissa owed the woman, she was going to help find her. And then all of them would find a way to go home again, home to their families.

“Sariel, right?” the creature stammered. His name was Ivak, and he was one of the Seosten’s higher ranked, important allies. At least as far as the Seosten allowed themselves to have allies. Which meant he was still mostly a slave, beholden to his ‘angel’ masters, but otherwise given most of his freedom to do as he wished. Slimy and untrustworthy as he was, Ivak was a whiz at bureaucracy. He was, essentially, a super-accountant.

“Yes.” Haiden’s voice was dangerous. “I know that you handled her case, Ivak. We tracked her all the way to you. So tell me where you sent her, now.

Ivak’s head shook rapidly. “Nowhere! I didn’t send her–” His voice choked off into a desperate plea as Haiden’s hand went to his throat. “Lemme explain, lemme explain!”

Given a slight reprieve, Ivak quickly stammered that the imprisoned Sariel had been sent to him, but that an actual Seosten had taken over her case.

“I never saw where he sent her, I swear. I swear!”

Clearly trying to restrain his mixture of fury and disappointment after all the effort they had spent to get that far, Haiden managed a terse, “Which Seosten? Who was it? Was it Puriel?”

Ivak’s head shook. “No, no, it was Manakel. Manakel, that’s his name. And you won’t find him here. H-he’s on Earth, on that assignment.”

Eyes widening, Larissa blurted, “What assignment?”

“You heard the lady,” Haiden ordered while giving their prisoner a shove. “What assignment are you talking about?”

Ivak looked eager to explain, desperate with the hope that telling them the truth would spare his life. “Y-you don’t know? The mission to get into that human’s blood vault. Bosch, that’s his name. He’s got something in that vault, something that’ll screw up the Seosten plans, so they sent a couple of the Seosten bigwigs to get it back.”

Working her mouth in confusion, Larissa slowly asked, “Did they… get it yet? What is it?”

“I don’t know, I swear!” Ivak claimed. “All I know is it’s really important, and they’re losing their minds at the idea of anyone from your group finding it. Heretics, I mean. So they’re trying to get it without, you know, letting any of your types know what they’re doing. Which means–”

“They’re possessing people,” Haiden muttered. “Who? Who are they possessing?”

Swallowing hard, Ivak’s head shook. “I don’t–” When Haiden gave him a dangerous look, he hurriedly amended, “I don’t know both of them, okay? I heard one name. Just one name. The one that Manakel’s partner, Charmeine, the one that she’s possessing. That’s all I know, just that. But you gotta promise to lemme go.”

“You’ll help us figure out where Manakel sent Sariel,” Haiden ordered with a flat voice. “Then we’ll let you go. But first, give us the name.”

“Porter, okay?” Ivak blurted.

“She’s possessing some kid named Columbus Porter.”

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Mini-Interlude 23 – Shiori And Avalon

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude detailing the conversation between Shiori and Avalon just after Flick and Avalon kissed for the first time. It takes place shortly before Shiori and Columbus left for Christmas vacation.

“You like Chambers.”

Of all the possible things that Shiori had expected Avalon to say to her when the girl had tracked her down in the room that she shared with Rebecca, that definitely wasn’t one of them. Although maybe it should have been, considering how unsubtle she was pretty sure she’d ended up being.

Her mouth opened to voice… she wasn’t sure. Confusion, maybe. Or denial. But when her eyes found Avalon’s, she saw the serious expression there and the words died in her throat.

Instead, all she actually managed at first was a somewhat weak, “Um.”

Yeah, Shiori, the girl thought to herself, that’ll convince Commander Busty McNinja you don’t have the hots for her roommate. GG.

She wasn’t sure why she’d arbitrarily assigned Avalon a military rank in her own private, internal nickname for the girl. It just… fit.

For her part, the other girl waited few seconds before coughing. She actually looked… nervous? But why? What did she have to be nervous abo–

“I kissed her,” Avalon blurted then, interrupting Shiori’s thoughts. “I kissed Chambers.” For a moment after the words came out of her mouth, the girl looked surprised that she had actually said them. And that itself was kind of surprising, considering how little emotion she tended to show. Hell, even at that point she wasn’t exactly advertising how she felt. The girl was just… slightly more possible to read.

Shiori, on the other hand, was pretty sure that the emotions she felt were written plainly across her face. “I–oh. I mean, you um.”

Flick. The girl that Shiori… she… the girl that had helped her feel sane again for the first time since they arrived at this place. The girl who had convinced Shiori that she wasn’t a monster. The girl who had listened, who actually made her laugh in what had felt like forever. The girl who she… she had desperately wanted to explain her feelings for, but kept chickening out.

And now? Now it was too late.

Her mind immediately tried to flash to anger, but she forced that down. She didn’t own Flick. She hadn’t even really made it clear how she felt about the blonde girl. So all those immediate, reflexively nasty thoughts that popped into her head, well, those could just go away. Avalon didn’t do anything wrong. She didn’t.

No. No. Don’t, Shiori. Don’t do it. Don’t be upset. Don’t think it. Don’t be mad.

Her stomach hurt. Something in her chest felt twisted, and there seemed to be an ache in her lungs every time she took a breath.

Through the hard lump in her throat, Shiori slowly tried talking again. Her voice was too quiet at first, and then she overcompensated, her voice going briefly high-pitched and cracking a little bit. “I understand. I get it. Y-you don’t have to say anything. I’m not gonna–I’m not gonna ruin your… thing. I won’t–”

“Shut up for a second, Porter.” Avalon’s voice was flat. “I didn’t come to threaten you, or warn you away. And I didn’t come to brag either, if that’s what you were thinking.”

Actually, the thought that she had maybe been bragging had immediately leapt to Shiori’s mind. But it had also been tied up in the thought that the girl was trying to warn her away from Flick.

“Then–” She blinked in confusion and uncertainty. Her stomach still hurt, and it was hard to focus. “Why did you–I mean… what….”

Sighing audibly, Avalon folded her arms over her stomach and met Shiori’s gaze. “Like I said, you like Chambers. And I know how I’d feel if… if I found out that you two kissed before she knew how I… felt. If I found out from someone else, I mean.”

Huh. She wasn’t just nervous, Shiori slowly realized. There was that too, of course. But she was also… happy. It was hard to see, considering the way Avalon tended to keep her emotions buttoned up. But in this case, she was obviously a great big bundle of emotions that she was barely keeping a lid on through the thin veneer of her outward appearance.

“You came because you thought someone might have seen you guys kiss and you didn’t want me to hear… rumors about it?” she asked slowly, hugging her own stomach in a vain attempt to make it stop rolling.

“I knew how it would make me feel,” Avalon repeated quietly without looking away. “Because I felt it before.”

Before she could think better of it, Shiori blurted, “You did? Who did–”

“We’re not talking about that.” The other girl’s voice was firm as she interrupted. “We’re just–” She visibly took a breath to calm herself. “I just wanted you to hear it from me, since Chambers already left with Professor Kohaku. I…” She trailed off for a few seconds before pushing on. “Like I said, I didn’t bring it up to hurt you, Porter, or to brag. But I thought you should know.”

Slowly sitting down on her bed beside the bag that she’d been packing, Shiori found herself murmuring, “I was gonna ask her out. I just kept… putting it off. I like her, and I was afraid that…”

“That you’d ruin it by bringing it out in the open.” Avalon grunted the words, pausing briefly before moving to sit on the edge of Rebecca’s desk chair. “I know. That’s why I put it off for so long. Well, part of the reason.”

Trying to force a smile that she didn’t feel, Shiori looked to the other girl. Her rival? That’s how it should’ve been, anyway. It’s how dozens if not hundreds of TV shows had conditioned her to think of Avalon as. And yet… really, all she could think was that as unhappy as she was, she also didn’t want Avalon to be unhappy either.

I want to be with Flick, but I don’t want to take Flick away from Avalon to do it.

The other girl was already talking again. “I like Chambers. I want her to be happy. And I don’t…” She sighed slowly. “I don’t relish the idea of making you unhappy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t… feel that way about–”

“Oh, me neither,” Shiori quickly interrupted with a slight blush while her head shook rapidly. “I mean, you’re–yeah.” Gesturing up and down at the girl’s unbelievably fine figure, she coughed before forcing herself to finish. “You’re great-looking. But you’re not my type.”

“Same to you.” Avalon’s voice was dry again. “But Chambers clearly likes you.”

Despite herself and the entire confusing situation, Shiori felt herself blush. “She–I mean, that doesn’t really matter, does it? I don’t want you to be unhappy either, Avalon. And you… you made a move first. I’m not gonna try to ruin that.”

For a few seconds, Avalon didn’t say anything. She just looked at Shiori and seemed to be debating something inwardly with herself. Finally, she shifted forward in the chair and spoke up. “It doesn’t… have to be a one-or-the-other thing.”

“What…” Shiori squinted, confused. “What does that mean?”

“Heretics aren’t like Bystanders,” the other girl replied. “For a lot of reasons, obviously. But also as far as relationships go. People can date more than one person, even be serious with them. Hell, a lot of them get married to more than one person. Dating multiple people separately when everyone involved knows what’s going on, it’s nothing new.”

Okay, if she’d been blushing before, now Shiori was bright red. “Wh-what?” she stammered while her eyes widened. “How does that work?”

Avalon shrugged. “Like I said, everyone involved understands what’s going on. You can spend time with one friend and then spend other time with a different friend, right? It’s the same thing.”

“It’s really not the same thing,” Shiori pointed out a little weakly. “I… sorry, I just–I don’t know what to say about it. I mean, with most people–I mean Bystanders, that’d be… it’d probably fall apart because someone would get jealous or–or something. Also, everyone would say it was really creepy.”

“Bystanders would say that most things Heretics do are creepy,” Avalon pointed out dryly, a fact that Shiori couldn’t really argue with. “But I didn’t ask their opinion. I’m just saying, it’s not seen as anything that weird here.”

For a few moments, Shiori didn’t say anything. She just sat there on her bed, looking at the floor as she thought that through. “I don’t know how I feel about that,” she finally ventured. “But I want Flick to be happy. And… I like her. You like her. She likes… you.”

“She likes you too,” the other girl insisted. “She likes both of us. That’s why she hasn’t brought it up, because she’s afraid of hurting one of us.”

Sighing, Shiori muttered, “Boy, do I know that feeling.”

Looking up then, she shrugged. “Maybe we should just wait and see how she feels about it?”

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “You really think she’ll talk about it?”

Shiori nodded quickly. “Flick doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Now that you kissed her–I mean–I–umm… “ She cleared her throat. “What I mean is, she’ll bring it up on her own. She’ll talk to us about it, I know she will.”

“Does that mean you’re not going to talk to her about it when you’re there at Christmas?” Avalon was clearly taking care to phrase her question diplomatically.

“No–I mean yes, that’s what it means,” Shiori quickly corrected herself. “I won’t bring it up. I won’t–I mean, I won’t use the whole… time at Christmas to steal her away or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. I won’t poison the well, I promise. And when we get back…”

“We’ll all talk about it,” Avalon finished. “Whether she brings it up on her own or not.”

“But we give her the time to bring it up,” Shiori insisted.

They sat there for a few seconds in silence before she snuck a look at the other girl. “When you kissed her, was it–”

“We’re done here.” Avalon’s three words had barely hit the air before she was already at the door, pushing out to the hallway. Pausing there, she looked back a little stiffly. “Have a good vacation, Porter.”

“You–” The door closed, leaving Shiori alone. “–too?”

Falling back onto the bed, she stared at the ceiling for a few seconds, letting everything that had just happened wash over her. A dozen thoughts went through her mind over that time. Some were good, some were bad. But in the end, one thought suddenly took precedence over all of the others, one thought that made her sit up suddenly, eyes widening as the words blurted their way out of her mouth.

“Oh my god, we’re at a magical school and Flick just started a harem.

“This is a fucking anime.”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-10

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The last major fight that I’d gotten into had been at the Wonderland mall. In that case, there had been a lot more room to maneuver than there was in this little classroom, crowded as it was with so many desks and tables. It might have been a good place to learn in (as far as learning from a genocidal psychopath could be good), but it pretty much sucked as far as gladiatorial arenas went.

But I was learning how to improvise.

Hyde was fast. Wicked fast. Not so long ago, he would have taken me completely by surprise as he lunged clear across the classroom in a single leap. But now… well, now I had the reflexes of a werewolf.

He was still at the start of his leap when I began to react. Pivoting on one foot, I hooked the end of my staff around the leg of the nearest desk and hoisted off the ground while continuing the turn. The werewolf strength meant that I didn’t even notice the weight of the desk as it came off the floor and into the air. As I finished the turn, the desk hung loosely off the end of the staff, which was pointed straight at the incoming monster. With a grimace, I triggered the kinetic charge that I had been building up in the staff ever since I took it out. The blast sent the desk careening off my staff as if it had been shot out of a cannon. It collided with Hyde, slamming into his chest hard enough that the forward momentum from his lunge was entirely negated and he was sent flying backward.

He was still in mid-crash when my follow-up leap planted my foot against the desk. The kick was so hard that my foot went through the desk, shattering it into several pieces before colliding with his chest. A second later, his back hit the wall hard enough to send several cracks through it, while I landed in a crouch.

He recovered quickly, that long, nasty proboscis lashing out towards me like a snake. But I was ready for it, my staff spinning up and around to smack it out of the way. Unfortunately, while I was prepared for that, I hadn’t been prepared for the scorpion-like tail with attached stinger that the Aswang produced. It lashed out and down, cutting through the air while I was still slightly off-balance from knocking the proboscis out of the way.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. Doug was there. Even as that scorpion stinger came lashing down towards me, he stepped up and put his shield in place right over my head to intercept it. His sword cut at the thing, but it withdrew just as fast as it had extended.

By that point, a protective, bug-like exoskeleton had extended over the man’s entire body. I could still see some of the hair that he had sprouted sticking out from between the narrow gaps in the plates. At a quick guess, I would’ve said that the hair served the purpose of providing sensory feedback that the plates themselves took away. At the same time, the Aswang grew a second set of arms from the lower part of his torso. They ended in a deadly-looking set of pincers.

Doug followed up his defense with a fast offense. He threw himself at the Aswang, sword arcing up in a wide, diagonal swing that Hyde parried with his tail. One of the monster’s lower pincer arms lashed out before being caught by Doug’s shield. Unfortunately, the pincer closed around the shield itself and tore it away from the boy. Hyde cast it aside, but the shield simply vanished a second after it was away from its creator.

Meanwhile, the other pincer-hand came in on Doug’s other side. But I was already there, catching the flat part of the open pincers with my staff before using It to shove the arm aside. In the same motion, I brought my right foot up to kick against his chest before pushing off with that same foot to turn myself into a spin that brought my other foot up and around to smack into his face.

Doug went for the kill while the Aswang was recovering, shoving his sword up to the guy’s chest. But the blade just clanged off of the hard scales of that exoskeleton, and Doug had to quickly pivot to catch the descending tail once again. It recoiled before striking out a couple more times, forcing him to parry each one while backing up a couple steps from the ferocity of the counter-attack.

Between the Aswang’s four limbs, tail, and proboscis, Doug was about to be quickly overwhelmed. But like hell would I let that happen. I was already there, catching one of Hyde’s grasping hands with one end of my staff before smacking the other end up into the bottom of his jaw with every ounce of my newly considerable strength. It was enough to make his mouth clang shut while rocking his head backward.

It wasn’t enough to put him down though. Not even close. If anything, he got even angrier and more ferocious. I think Doug and I had managed to cross the point from simply being a couple of nameless Heretics among so many that he wanted to kill, to being very specific targets for him.

Well, honestly, if he wanted to kill me, he was gonna have to get in line or take a number.

But that was a line that he clearly wasn’t ready to wait for, as he came after both of us with a noise that sounded like a cross between a roar and a scream. One of his normal hands tried to shove my staff out of the way, while a pincer hand grabbed for my throat. I barely managed to duck aside before the pincer shut with a vicious, violent snap right where my neck had been. If I hadn’t moved, it probably would’ve taken my head off. Or at least cut deep into my throat.

At the same time, his other pincer actually did manage to get hold of Doug’s sword. Shoving it aside, he sent that proboscis shooting out again. But I threw my staff up, setting off a quick blast of kinetic force that sent the searching mouth-tongue-thing off course.

That scorpion-tail came down, but Doug had already recovered. The boy released his grip on the sword and let it disappear while he lunged backward to avoid the blade on the descending tail. It slammed into the floor before pulling back up, tearing a long, jagged hole through it in the process.

Do not let up. Don’t let up. It was like Avalon had said. The biggest benefit I had was that I could go harder a lot longer than most people could. They got tired. They had to rest and recover. I didn’t. I could go at full speed a hell of a lot more than others.

With that in mind, I went after him hard. Throwing myself forward, I parried his lashing claw out of the way before driving my foot into his lower stomach, then his upper chest, then back to his lower stomach in a quick three-point kick before snapping my leg back out of the way. Even as the Aswang grabbed for it, I was already spinning around to put myself out of the way while my staff swung up to knock his grasping pincer away.

Meanwhile, Doug wasn’t resting on his laurels. The pen, which hung from a strap around his wrist, flicked up into his hand and he clicked it a few times quickly. On the third click, a glowing energy-chain appeared in the air. Catching the chain, he swung it up and around, catching Hyde’s tail before giving a sharp yank to tug it down into range. At the same time, he clicked the pen once more before letting it fall back down on its strap as another copy of his sword appeared for him to snatch out of the air. A shout escaped the boy as he drove his sword up and around, cutting into that tail a few inches from the tip with enough force to cleave through it completely. The pointed tail-blade fell to the floor, writhing around a little while the Aswang screamed.

It still wasn’t enough to stop him though, or even really slow him down that much. Which Doug found out quickly when he was back-handed across the face by one of those pincers with enough force to send him crashing backwards into one of the desks.

He lunged for me then, all four of his arms moving to grab me while his proboscis went for my throat. At the last second, I threw myself up and backward in a jump that brought me to land on the top of the table that he had been trying to drive me into. Unfortunately for him, my item-sense had warned me about how close it was.

Landing on the table, I brought my staff up and triggered a blast that simultaneously knocked the man a step or two away from me while sending myself sliding backwards along the top of the table before I landed on the floor on the opposite side.

Without wasting a second, I brought my foot up to kick hard against the end of the table, sending it careening forward into the man, who was just recovering from the kinetic blast to the face. The force doubled him over. It also nearly pinned him to the wall, but he brought his pincer arms up and his regular arms down, slamming them into the table with enough strength to shatter it into several pieces to free himself.

Grabbing four of those pieces with his hands and pincers, he hurled them at me, forcing me to bat them aside with a quick flurry of motion from my staff.

Doug had recovered by that point, and was back on his feet. He’d also used that pen of his to conjure a long trident, a fact that Hyde discovered when Doug drove the trident right into his arm with a scream (from both of them, actually), pinning it to the wall. With the Aswang’s arm trapped, Doug put both hands on the handle of his sword and reared back to drive it forward through the man’s face. He was clearly intent on putting an end to this once and for all.

Hyde, however, clearly didn’t agree. An instant before Doug would have driven the point of the sword through his eye, the Aswang transformed. He suddenly went from being a man with some extra bug-like features to being a wolf with some bug-like features. Yeah, he looked like a big wolf that was covered in exoskeleton scales and had face that looked more like a beetle than a canine. Plus, not only did he have those pincer arms still (they came out of the wolf’s shoulders), he’d also fixed his tail during the change to give himself the blade on the end once more. So he actually looked like a cross between a wolf and a scorpion.

The sword was driven most of the way through the wall, penetrating nearly to the hilt. And before Doug could pull it back, the transformed Hyde struck with that reformed tail-blade. It went right through the boy’s arm nearly to the bone, drawing a rushing torrent of blood. Doug grabbed his arm with a cry then, leaving his throat open for the tail-blade to take his head from his shoulders.

Or it would have, if I hadn’t opened the portals on the ends of my staff to send a rush of sand into the Aswang’s eyes. He reared back with a cry, his tail narrowly missing its intended target. Instead, the tail struck Doug upside the head, drawing a line of blood across his temple and knocking him hard against the wall beside his own sword.

With a howl of frustration, Hyde jerked his head from side to side while blinking rapidly to clear the sand out of his eyes. Except this wasn’t normal sand. I was still controlling it, shoving the grains up into anything vulnerable I could see. Mostly that meant gouging his eyes with it as if he was walking through a blistering sandstorm. Or rubbing them with sandpaper.

But it didn’t stop him. Spitting a curse (which itself looked weird coming from the scorpion-dog’s body), he came for me. The four legs that Hyde now had propelled him right up to me in a split-second, his mouth opening wide to reveal a frankly obscene number of teeth, while his newly reformed tail lashed up and out.

A quick lunge backwards took me out of range of his first strike, and put my back right against one of the student’s desks. He kept coming, and I used the desk as a brief cover, slipping around to the other side of it just as his tail struck out at me, cobra-quick before it was caught by the side of the desk. Not that that slowed him down very much, he grabbed the desk with one claw and hurled it aside while lunging forward at me with the other claw, narrowly missing my arm before I brought my staff up to smack it aside. And judging from how it felt when my staff hit that claw, if I didn’t have the werewolf strength backing me up, he easily would have overpowered me and knocked the staff from my hand. He was strong, fast, and incredibly intent on killing me.

But hey, at least this time it wasn’t personal. He just hated me because I was a Heretic, not for anything particularly unique. Although the fact that that was kind of an upgrade was a bit sad.

We continued a winding route through the classroom that way. He kept trying to pen me in with the desks, or at least use them to take me by surprise, lunging whenever he thought I was about to stumble into or trip over one of them. But I always knew where they were, I knew where everything around me was. With that combined with my reflexes, I was able to work my way through the jumble of desks, chairs, and tables even as they continued to get knocked around.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually gain an advantage that way either. He was too fast, and his shape-shifting meant that he could continually choose to go under or over any of the obstacles. Plus, any damage I did seemed to heal pretty quickly. Not that it was easy to do damage to him in the first place with those hard scales.

But I had to do this. Wyatt was busy stopping that spell from killing all those people. And Doug was still recovering. He had been knocked into that wall pretty hard. Which meant that I needed to deal with this bastard myself. No matter what that took.

Fortunately, I already had a plan for that. And I’d been working on it bit by bit the entire time.

Shifting into his humanoid form, Hyde leapt up and over the nearest overturned desk in his path. His lower right arm came up toward me. This time, rather than using pincers, he’d formed his extra hands into long blades that had serrated edges like a couple of saws.

What followed went so quick, I could barely follow it myself, even with my enhanced reflexes. He came at me with his two arm blades, two hands, tail, and proboscis. Meanwhile, I was left to block with my staff or simply evade. One after another, his attacks kept coming.

My staff whipped up and to the left to catch his arm-blade there, while I pivoted away from his lashing tail. In the same spin, my foot kicked over one of the desks and sent it crashing into one of the others.

He was grabbing for my shoulder with one hand while trying to drive the other arm-blade into my stomach. I caught the blade against the staff, turning it aside while stepping in closer. Even as his hand caught my shoulder (sharp talon-like claws digging hard into the muscle there), I put my foot in his leg to knock him back a step. His claws tore my shirt, drawing a line of blood.

It hurt. I didn’t care. It didn’t distract me. Not now. Not anymore. Between Avalon, Professor Katarin (and now Hisao), and all the rest of the training I’d been going through, pain didn’t distract me nearly as much as it used to.  

More. He kept coming. Blow from the top – block. Blow from the side – quick step backward. Three rapid strikes from alternating arm-blades, one after another. Block, twist aside, step in and parry to knock his arm out of the way so I could put my fist into his face. Repeat. Again. He was so fast. So furious. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t take the time to do anything other than keep moving. He nailed me a couple times, drawing more blood with each blow. Somewhere deep inside my subconscious, I felt the pain and realized he was doing damage to me. But I shut that part away and stayed focused. There would be time to deal with all of that later. Later.

Block, strike, twist, step forward, retreat a step, catch his tail, flick it aside while driving forward with one foot to keep him off-balance. Turn, flip the staff up and over my back to stop him from catching me there. Side-step, turn, flip up and over the same tail as he swept it around, trying to go in low. Land. Kick. Twist. Put a knee in him. Stumble.

Breathe. Most of all, keep breathing.

It felt like hours had passed. Not because I was tired or anything, but because of how much my brain had been working to keep up with everything that was going on. It was furious, frantic, deadly work. And I couldn’t let up for a second, not for an instant.

Sometime through that, Doug had mostly recovered. But rather than jumping in, he stood there staring at what was going on. I could see his eyes widening with each passing second, and it seemed like he had frozen up.

Still, he shook it off fairly quickly. Clicking that pen of his, he created another sword and went up and over one of the desks to go at Hyde. The Aswang turned partway, smacking the sword out of the way with the flat of his tail.

But that gave me a brief opening. Taking advantage of it, I quickly drove the tip of my staff up into throat. He still had that armor plating protecting it, but the force of it at least knocked him back a step. And he was knocked back even more when I followed that up with a leaping kick that put my foot into his chest.

Hyde stumbled, catching himself with a grunt.

“It won’t matter,” he insisted through a voice that was filled with rage and disgust. “Even if you kill me, it means nothing. The cause continues. Heretics are going to pay for everything you’ve done. He’ll make sure of it. He’ll tear your society down, all of it.” 

“Who?” I demanded, not really believing that he’d give that much away. But it was worth a shot. Sometimes people got braggy. “The other guy you’re working with? Karl Ulsun? Who is he, your brother? Your wife’s brother? I don’t think he’s going to get much further than you have.”

The smile that he gave me then was as predatory as it was unhinged. “Oh, you’ll find out exactly who our friend is when the time comes. When he shows himself to burn all Heretics down.”

“Stop talking to it,” Douglas insisted, readying his sword while casting me a brief, annoyed glance. “It’s just trying to get under your skin, and screw with you.”

It. Not him. Some small part of my brain noticed that particular distinction. The Aswang was a monster, that was for sure. He’d killed innocent children. And yet, using the term ‘it’ felt like taking some of the responsibility away from him. If something was an ‘it’, there was less personal responsibility for their own actions. Calling Hyde an ‘it’ made him seem like a robot, something that could only do what it was programmed to do.

No matter his reasoning, Hyde was a monster. There was no doubt about that. But he was also responsible for his actions. He was a he, not an it.

Rather than getting into any of that however, I simply smiled slightly. “Actually, there is a benefit to getting him to talk, Doug.”

Both of them voiced questions of what I meant by that, with relatively similar levels of disbelief. So at least they had that in common.

Shrugging, I took a breath while putting my foot up on one of the fallen desks. “See, talking to him helped make sure he didn’t realize what I noticed awhile back.

“All these desks are made out of wood.”

With that, I dropped straight into the desk that I’d had my foot on. From there, I passed through to the next desk. And then the next one.

Yeah, I’d spent the last few minutes not just evading Hyde’s attacks, but actually setting this whole thing up. One by one, I had knocked over, kicked, nudged, or otherwise moved more than half-a-dozen desks until they formed a sort-of semicircle. All of them were touching at one spot or another, allowing me to keep passing all the way through them.

I popped up and out of the last desk… directly behind Hyde. Before he knew what was going on, or had even had a chance to react to my disappearance, I wrapped my staff around his throat and jerked backward. He made a strangled noise of confusion and horror.

A plea, a threat, a promise? I didn’t know. And at that point, I didn’t care. Not after all the death he’d been responsible for. His wife and daughter deserved justice. But so did all the kids he’d killed trying to lure Heretics out for his revenge.

He’d crossed the line, and there would be no going back.

Jerking backward on the staff, I twisted while simultaneously triggering the enormous kinetic charge that it had built up by that point. There was a screech from the Aswang, followed by a sickening crunch of snapping bone and tearing muscle.

The resistance vanished. With a final crack followed by a sick slurping noise, Hyde’s head was torn free from his neck, along with part of his spinal cord.

His body fell, collapsing to the ground to leave me standing there with his head tucked under one arm.

I had the sense of mind to throw the head away from me before the pleasure took over. Doubling over, I let out a gasp as my aura flared up. That incredible rush swept over me, and I barely resisted the urge to moan. It was the strongest reaction like that I’d felt since the shark-man. Or possibly since the Amarok. Wow.

Also, there was a disturbing amount of blood and other bodily fluids (or head fluids) that had leaked out over my clothes. I was basically soaked in the… stuff.

“Wyatt,” I managed after catching myself on my staff like a walking stick. Looking up that way, I pleaded, “Tell me you disabled that spell.”

He looked about as exhausted as I would have felt if it wasn’t for the Amarok’s stamina. Eying me, Wyatt nodded. “Yes,” he announced. “I had to wait to disable the last part until he was dead. But… you took care of that.”

“No shit she did.” Douglas’s voice was filled with awe and… well, what sounded like a little bit of fear. “You just–what did you just… how did…”

“She finished the fight,” Wyatt informed him, pride in his own voice. “And she did a very good job.”

“Indeed.” The new voice came from the doorway, where Professor Dare stood. She stepped in, looking at the body on the floor, then to the head on the other side of the room. Moving to me, she asked quietly, “Flick, Wyatt, Douglas, are you all right?”

“We’re good.” I looked around at the others before focusing. “Wh… what about…”

“Harper and Russell are fine,” she assured us. “Hisao is with them. And the other Aswang has been killed. I was hunting the other one and tracked him here. I see you were forced to get involved.”

“He was going to kill a lot more people,” I replied softly. “A lot more kids.”  

“With Heretic magic, Professor,” Doug put in quickly. “How is that possible? How could that creature know magic from Heretics?”

Her head dipped in a bow of acknowledgment. “That is a question to be looked into later, Douglas. By qualified experts. For now, your part is over. Relax. You all did well. Very well.

“Now let’s go home before we have to find a way to explain this mess.”  

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Study And Scrutiny 20-09

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Barely a few seconds after I activated the emergency alert stone that Hisao had given us, it crumbled into dust in my hand. Stopping short for just a moment in the middle of the sidewalk just outside of the school, I stared at the dust while a thousand thoughts went through my head. Most of them centered around wondering what the hell had gone wrong this time.

I looked toward Doug, about to tell the boy to try his own alert stone just in case, while I used my phone to call someone. Before I could get the words out, however, the dust in my hand swirled up into the air, forming a cloud that expanded and grew. The dust cloud reshaped itself over the next couple of seconds, turning into the shape of a man. A moment later, the cloud solidified and Hisao was standing there.

Oh. Well, that was a new kind of emergency response that I’ve never seen before. Maybe it was an Eden’s Garden thing? And the people passing by didn’t even glance that way. The Bystander Effect at work. I didn’t know if they didn’t see Hisao at all, thought he’d been standing there the whole time, or if their brains registered him walking up to us.

Either way, Doug and I were still standing there realizing what had just happened while Hisao glanced around as though looking for the threat. Then he focused on me, just as I remembered to shift back to my actual face. “You know, they said that you were really good at finding trouble, but I thought they were exaggerating just a little bit.”

Flushing despite myself, I shook my head. “It’s not me this time, it’s the others, Russell and Harper.”

I started to go on, but my item-sense abruptly poked me with the arrival of two more people. Turning that way, I saw Dare and Wyatt step out of a nearby doorway that should’ve led into the school. Before it shut behind them, I saw the inside of the Pathmaker building.

“You two responded fast,” Hisao remarked. I saw him give some kind of brief hand signal to Dare, though I didn’t know what it could mean. Maybe he was telling her that we didn’t seem to be in immediate danger? Which made sense, because Dare had looked awfully tense coming through that door.

“Wyatt found me,” Dare replied, her eyes scanning me up and down before she added, “He said there was a problem.”

The security measures that Wyatt had placed on me, I realized. Apparently my stress levels or something like that had alerted him, and he’d run to get Dare. Or maybe she’d been waiting. I mean, I did have that kind of reputation by that point.

“How’d he know about it?” Douglas cut into my thoughts while looking at Wyatt. Obviously, to him, the guy was still a goofy, borderline incompetent and paranoid security guard with no sense of boundaries.

“I sent him a message,” I put in while Wyatt was still opening his mouth to respond. “Thought we could use as much help as possible.”

Staring at me, Doug demanded, “When? When did you have a chance to do that?”

“Magic,” I replied before shrugging. “More important things to worry about, Doug.”

Hurriedly, I explained the situation in as few words as possible, with Doug interjecting now and then to add his own two cents. I showed him what we’d found, and explained how we thought the Strangers couldn’t be identified during the daytime, and that the whole thing seemed to be a trap for Heretics because these Aswang were pissed off about their family being killed.

With Doug around I had to sound less sympathetic about that part, which was easier when I thought about the fact that these guys had actually killed innocent children in order to set their trap. I still felt bad for the guy’s wife and child, but those other kids didn’t do anything either. No matter how much right he had to be pissed off and vengeful, there was no justification for that. None. A woman and child being killed just because of what they were was monstrous, no doubt about it. But these guys had crossed the line. My sympathy for them evaporated when they murdered innocent children.

Apparently Dare agreed, because there was anger in her eyes as she straightened up when I finished talking. “Wyatt,” she announced, “stay here with Flick and Douglas. Hisao and I will get the others.” Glancing to the other man, she added, “Their alert stones?”

“Still active,” he confirmed after tilting his head to focus for a moment. “They haven’t gone off, which means the kids haven’t called for help, their stress levels are still normal, and they haven’t taken any kind of damage. Proximity’s still within a few feet of them, so they haven’t lost the stones either. We can jump straight to them.”

“Do it.” Looking to me, Dare added, “Stay with Wyatt. Don’t go anywhere unless you have to. We’ll get the others. Be safe. Be smart. Got it?” When I nodded, she glanced to Douglas. “Same for you.”

Hisao offered his hand to her then. A second after she took it, both of them turned into dust and then disappeared.

Exhaling, I slumped over to put my hands on my knees, muttering, “God, I hope they make it in time. They’re going to make it in time, they’re going to make it.” Muttering those reassurances to myself, I glanced up to see Doug squinting at me thoughtfully. Meanwhile, Wyatt had taken up what was clearly a protective position nearby and was busily scowling at everyone who walked past.

“Pretty smart, for monsters,” Doug remarked thoughtfully while looking away for a moment. “Luring Heretics out here, setting up an ambush like that. Seems like they know what they’re doing.”

Wyatt snorted in disbelief, head-shaking. “Not that smart,” he muttered. “If it was me, I’d pretend to be a different kind of Stranger. I’d kill the victims some other way, make it look like a vampire or something. That way, the Heretics wouldn’t know I could be out in the daylight, so their guard would be down. See, you both figured out that your Stranger-Sense wouldn’t work on them in the daytime, but they could identify you. So you were careful. But if they’d just pretended to be a different kind of Stranger, you wouldn’t have had that warning. They threw away an advantage like that for no reason. Stupid. Never give an enemy more information that he needs to have, especially if you can give him fake information.”

Well, Doug had stopped staring at me, and was now staring at Wyatt instead. His mouth open and shut, and it was obvious that he was trying to come up with the right words to say to the man that up until a couple of seconds ago, he had obviously dismissed as a goofy little nobody, just like the rest of the school.

Finally, he started with a weak, “You’re really not–”

Then it was my turn to interrupt. My roaming gaze had spotted something, and my eyes widened before I blurted in a quick half-whisper, “Hey, hey, over there!” I was pointing clear across the lawn of the school toward the far parking lot where the teacher’s cars were obviously kept.

It was Hyde. The pseudo-teacher was walking away from a jeep. Actually, he was half-running. It was obvious that he was trying to rush, without attracting too much attention or questions. A couple of people who were walking past called out greetings to him, and he gave them a distracted wave before hurrying on through the nearby door into the school.

“What the hell is he doing here?” Doug demanded. “He’s supposed to be off getting himself killed by Professor Dare and the Garden guy. What’s going on?”

My head shook. “I don’t know, but he’s definitely up to something. You saw the look on his face. Something’s wrong. Maybe he escaped, or…” I was already moving, my hands digging my phone out of my pocket so I could send a text to Dare. But somehow, I knew we couldn’t wait for them to catch up. And for all we knew, they were busy with the other guy. No, whatever Hyde was up to, it couldn’t’ wait. We had to see what was going on in there.

As I hit send on the text, Wyatt caught my arm. “It could be dangerous,” he pointed out tensely, his eyes staring through me. Obviously, there were things he wanted to say, that he couldn’t actually get out with Douglas standing right there.

“I know,” I replied. “But whatever is going on in there might be more dangerous than that. We can’t just wait out here. What if he’s got more victims in there? What if he’s trying to go out with some kind of big statement? He could be desperate, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know anything about what’s happening in there. Or who he’s about to kill.”

Wyatt look like he wanted to argue with that for a minute, but in the end all he could do was sigh. “Fine, but both of you stay with me, and take these.” He handed us each what looked like a couple of arrowheads. Pressing them into our palms, he touched a finger against each and activated the spell on them. As soon as he did, I felt a tingle and my hand turned partially transparent, like I was a ghost. Not just my hand either, I realized belatedly, but my whole body. Looking up, I saw set the same thing had happened to Doug and Wyatt.

“We’re invisible,” my half-brother announced carefully. “Just don’t touch anybody else or get too close, or it’ll break the effect.”

The three of us hurried inside then, and Doug and I led Wyatt to Hyde’s classroom. We got to the closed-door just in time to hear a crash from inside that was followed by a muffled curse. Clearly, the man had figured out that we had been in there. He was probably pissed off that we’d taken his stuff.

After glancing toward Wyatt, I stepped to the door and through it with my wood-walking power, emerging into the classroom on the other side. Coming out of the door, I saw Hyde on the other side of the room, next to his desk. Or rather, where his desk had been. At the moment, it was several feet away and turned askew, as if he had kicked it in anger. One of the drawers that I had set aside earlier was laying on the floor, with it contents spilled all over. Meanwhile, the man himself was muttering something out loud in a language that I didn’t understand while he scribbled something on the whiteboard. But he wasn’t using a marker. Instead, he was dipping a small paintbrush in a bucket of what looked suspiciously like blood, and using that to scrawl runes on the board.

Magic, I realized immediately. He was doing some kind of magic. Which meant we probably didn’t want him to finish the job. Before I could really think about what I was doing, I was already across the room. My hands grabbed the guy’s arm and shoulder, and I bodily hurled him away from the board before he could scrawl more runes. I would have drawn my weapon, or done anything else to put the guy down, but I had no idea how much time I had before he would’ve finished that spell. All I could think about at the time was to stop him from writing anything else as fast as possible.

At the sound of the guy cursing as he crashed into the far wall, the door came off its hinges. Wyatt and Doug were right inside. All three of our invisibility spells had faded.

Hyde was already back on his feet. He glared, first at the other two in the doorway, and then at me as I stood between him and his spell. “More of you,” he snarled, hate and loathing filling his voice. “I don’t care. I don’t care how many of you ignorant, vile freaks there are. You won’t take this away from me. Not this time. You. Will. Lose.”

Wyatt took a step forward, but Hyde made a tutting sound while holding up a finger. “I wouldn’t do that,” he warned flatly. “The spell might not be complete, but it’s far enough to do some damage.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, but Wyatt looked to the spell on the board and grimaced before shaking his head. “Heretic magic. How did you learn–” He stopped then, focusing on the man. “It’s not enough, you don’t have the energy built up for the spell to get anywhere.”

“Don’t I?” Hyde snarled the words. Then he spoke a single other word, and all around the room, The various posters advertising lab safety, or whatnot fell to the floor, revealing more runes scrawled on the walls in long-dried blood.

“Uhh,” Doug started turning in a circle while pulling a pen out of his pocket. “What the hell do those mean? What’s going on?”

Wyatt answered without looking at him. His attention was focused on Hyde. “The spell on the board targets a small object and makes it burn up. It makes a small, really hot fire for about ten seconds. About this big,” he held his hands together in the shape of a ball about half a foot across. “It’ll melt through steel.”

“Small fire,” Doug muttered. “Could be worse, right?”

“That,” Wyatt replied while pointing to the last part of the board that the man had gotten to, “That’s a multiplier. It means the spell will affect more than one object, probably dozens.”

“Six hundred and twenty one, actually,” Hyde interjected. “Give or take a few. Can’t guarantee that all the students ate their special treats.”

My eyes widened at that. “You got every student in this school to swallow something that’s gonna blow up?”

“Not blow up,” the crazed man retorted. “Just make a little fire this big in their stomachs. Just enough to give them a bit of a tummy ache. Or, you know, burn them from the inside out.”

My staff was out of my belt and in my hand as the man went on quickly. “And those,” he indicated the spellforms that had been hidden behind the posters, “are battery spells needed to make sure that each and every one of those kids gets a real nasty surprise.”

“You’re insane,” I blurted. “Those kids didn’t do anything. They didn’t kill your family, Hyde. Or whatever your real name is.”

“Of course he’s insane,” Doug interjected. “He’s a monster. Why are you acting surprised?” Even as he spoke, the boy clicked the pen in his hand. In front of him, a glowing sword made out of energy appeared, hovering in the air. He clicked it again, and a shield appeared beside the weapon. He took both, one for each hand. 

Ignoring his words, I focused on Hyde himself. “What is this going to prove?”

“Prove?” he echoed before giving a harsh laugh. “You wanna know what it’s gonna prove? It’s gonna prove that you cocksuckers can’t just kill us with impunity anymore. You kill one of us, we’ll find a hundred humans and kill them in retaliation. You murder our families, we’ll wipe out twenty of yours. It’s war, you bitch. We win by making it cost too much for you to keep fighting. You fucks have gotta learn your lesson.”

Raising my staff, I shook my head. “You’re not setting that thing off. I’m sorry your wife and kid died–”

“Murdered!” he interrupted, a crazed look in his eyes. “They didn’t just die, they were murdered, by you motherfuckers!”

Ignoring the look from Doug, I pressed on. “But you’re not going to kill any more innocent people. That won’t prove anything. It won’t help anything.”

“Help? I don’t care about helping,” he snapped. “I care about revenge. And you can’t do anything about it.” His hand angrily gestured to the board. “The only thing you managed to stop me from putting in was the amplify effect. Turns the little fires into big ones. Ten feet instead of half a foot. They’d take out a hell of a lot more people that way. Anyone standing by my little walking bombs… poof. Ashes. Think that’ll be enough to teach you assholes to mind your own business?”

There are so many things I wanted to say to that, but I said none of them. It wouldn’t have done any good.

Meanwhile, the man himself sneered a little when there was no response to his question. “The spell’s automatic now. You can’t stop it. Either it goes off and kills all those kids with the little fires, or I get past you and make one last mark so the bigger fires kill a hell of a lot more.”

“Wyatt,” I quickly asked, “can you stop it?”

He spun on his heel, running to the board while calling back, “Stop him from getting to the board.”

“Oh, we’ll stop him,” I replied while glancing to Doug. “You heard the man. Keep him away from the board.”

“My spell,” Hyde snarled angrily. “You think you can undo my spell? You can’t. No one can. Not this spell. Either it kills six hundred, or it kills a lot more than that, but you can’t stop it.”

“You don’t know Wyatt,” I replied flatly. “And you don’t know us.”

From his pocket, the Aswang produced a small black stone. Grimacing as he held the stone up, he glared at us before crushing the thing in his hand.

My Stranger-Sense immediately kicked on and started shouting at me. But… it wasn’t night yet. Well, not late enough for Hyde to change, anyway. He should still be a normal human for a couple hours, unless that… stone… did something to make his body think it was late enough to change.

As those thoughts ran through my mind, the man’s body shifted. He grew half a foot immediately, hair sprouting on his body. His hands formed long, dangerous looking claws. At the same time, his mouth contorted, expanding a bit before opening both horizontally and vertically, almost like one of those movie Predators. Worse, a thin, tube-shaped proboscis with teeth on the end shot out a foot or so from the open mouth.

The thing the Aswang used to suck the unborn fetus out of a pregnant woman, I realized belatedly. The thought sobered me, and I narrowed my eyes. This fucker had killed innocent people. Whether or not he had good reason to hate Heretics, that was going too far. He had to be stopped. He had to be put down.

“Doug,” I muttered, “I hope you’re ready. Because we can’t let him interrupt Wyatt. Which means this just got a lot more–”

The monster lunged at us.

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Study And Scrutiny 20-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Croc from Eden’s Garden posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Have I mentioned,” Doug asked while the two of us jogged down the mostly empty street toward the school, “how weird it is that they’re sending first-year students to check out an active threat? I mean, isn’t it? This guy, if it’s him, he’s killing people. He’s killed people. And they’re trusting a couple first year nobodies to try and deal with it? What—why? Is it just how this Hisao guy does things or what?”

Well, I supposed that actually asking if this was Hisao’s ‘thing’ or a regular Crossroads plan was progress toward the Eden’s Garden substitute’s being accepted. At least Doug didn’t immediately jump to the whole thing being some psychotic plan on the man’s part to kill off some Crossroads students.

“I guess it could be either,” I admitted while shaking my head. “Maybe they think this thing isn’t that much of a threat if we can identify him? And Hisao is right nearby when shit does go down, so it’s not like we’re completely on our own. I guess either way, we’re gonna have to deal with these things eventually, so it’s better if it’s in a semi-controlled environment like this? You know, small town, one clear threat, badass teacher waiting to jump in if we need it. Honestly it could be a lot worse than this.”

I left out the part where I was so used to being randomly jumped by threats that actually weren’t controlled by this point that the thought of how dangerous this would look in the sense of a normal school hadn’t even crossed my mind. But of course, that kind of thing wouldn’t be normal for Douglas.

We reached the parking lot of the combination junior and high school a few minutes later, crossing a small park to approach the back where the football field and track were. There were still a few cars in the parking lot, and we could see a couple guys on the snow-covered field throwing a ball back and forth to each other. Overall, the place looked fairly quiet considering it wasn’t quite five o’clock yet.

“So how do we find the guy’s office?” Doug asked while the two of us stood there staring at the school.

Shrugging, I replied, “I was thinking about that, and I doubt he has an actual office. It’s a small public school, so he’s probably just got a classroom to work in. As for how we find it, if this town wasn’t so small I’d say we ask someone. But, you know, the way it is, they’ll know we don’t belong in there. So they’d probably just call him.”

“And that’d be bad.” Doug frowned. “Wait, Strangers recognize Heretics, right? Shit, does that mean-”

“That if he’s this Aswang guy, our senses won’t ping him until later tonight, but he’ll recognize us immediately?” I finished for him before grimacing. “Yeah, I think so. Safer to work under that assumption, at least. Figure if he sees us, he’ll know what we are immediately. Which means that–”

“We can’t let him see us.” Doug took his turn to finish my sentence, sighing out loud. “That’s just great. I don’t suppose that article had a picture of the damn guy so we don’t go stumbling right into him?”

My head shook. “Nope, sorry. But hang on.” Producing my phone from my pocket, I quickly looked up the school’s website. Even a little place like this had a school website in this day and age, even if it did look like something out of the late nineties. Still, after figuring out the positively archaic website navigation, I managed to get to the teacher directory. And thankfully, that was actually kept up to date.

“Here he is,” I announced, holding the phone out for Doug to see the picture of the slightly balding guy who appeared to be in his late forties. Really, he looked pretty much like the exact image that came into my mind the second I thought of ‘middle-aged junior high science teacher in a small town.’ Which might have been the point, come to think of it. What better way for him to blend in than just like that?

“Right,” Doug nodded slowly, giving me a brief look before continuing. “So now we know what he looks like. Still doesn’t answer the question of how we’re gonna get into his classroom to check it out.”

Considering that for a moment, I smiled slowly. “I’ve got an idea. Hold on a second.” My eyes scanned the area around the school, searching slowly before I spotted the right person. “There she is.” I pointed at a girl that was walking out of the school, heading for a small, beat-up sedan in the corner of the lot.

Blinking blankly at the girl, Doug shook his head after a second of appraisal. “Okay, so who is she?”

Still smiling, I shrugged. “No idea. But she’s about to give me a chance to get inside and find the right office.” As I spoke, I focused on changing my face and hair using the Rakshasa’s face-shifting power. Gradually, I went from looking like myself to looking like the girl who just left. She was about my same size and build, as far as I could tell. Close enough, at least, that a quick in-and-out should be safe.

“Okay,” I announced while zipping my coat closed to hide as much of myself other than my face as possible. “I’ll go find the right room, then tell you what side to come to so I can let you in the window. Just give me your number.” I waved the phone at him to make the point.

Doug looked like he wanted to argue with that, but couldn’t figure out how. In the end, he just gave me the number and added, “Fine, but watch out for that guy. Even with that face change, he’ll probably still figure it out if he sees you.”

Nodding, I plugged the number into my phone before starting to make my way across the lot. It would’ve been better if I could’ve matched my clothes (or at least the coat) to the other girl’s, but this was the best I could do. With any luck whatsoever, considering how few people were around the place, no one would pay any attention to me.

“Erin!” A boy raised a hand and called from one of the hallway lockers the second I stepped inside.

Oh, right. I forgot. My luck seemed to run in the complete opposite direction with this sort of thing.

Coughing, I realized belatedly that my voice wouldn’t match this Erin girl’s either. So I just mumbled a faint greeting while giving him a return wave as I walked past the boy. Please don’t be good friends, I thought to myself. Please, please don’t be good friends. Just let her walk by. Just let her keep going.

Again, my luck meant that he pushed away from his locker and fell into step beside me. “Hey, I thought you were heading home. You know what’ll happen if your mom finds out Jack was there alone again.”

My mouth opened, and then I realized the easiest response. Coughing again, I gestured down before giving the perfect awkward shrug. “Bathroom,” I grunted the word before picking up the pace, speed-walking straight for the labeled restroom up ahead. Girl’s room. He was a boy. Easiest way to lose him.

“Oh, right.” The boy slowed down, giving me a curious look. “Didn’t you just go a few minutes ago?”

Because of course Erin had. Resisting the urge to sigh, I gave a helpless gesture toward my stomach as if to say ‘what can you do?’ before waving. Then I ducked inside the restroom. On my way in, the boy called, “And where’d that coat come from? Erin? Uh, okay then. See you tonight, I gotta go.”

I waited a minute inside the restroom, just to be sure to give the guy enough time to actually leave. Finally, I cracked the door and peeked out. After scanning the hallway and finding it empty, I sighed softly before stepping out. Then I walked down the hall, following the signs to the main office. Not that I wanted anything to do with the office itself, but there was probably something there that I could use.

Sure enough, just outside the main office I saw what I was looking for: a framed map of the school behind a glass cover. It was the sort of thing that most students wouldn’t even notice once they knew the place, but was probably there for guests to figure out where they were going. A quick glance at the map showed where I was, and it didn’t take much more to spot the junior high science classrooms. They weren’t too far away, actually. Just ahead through the cafeteria and then down a hallway to the right.

Moving quicker, I made my way there, passing the cafeteria where only a couple people were sitting with books spread out, apparently studying. Turning down the side hall, I watched the classroom doors, hoping for some other kind of sign of which one was the right one. There were three rooms, but none of them had the guy’s name written outside or anything. And peeking through the windows on the doors just revealed normal science classroom stuff. I saw tables for labs, microscopes, formulas on the white boards, homework assignments, even a partially erased hangman game. But there was no neatly-written note that said, ‘Truman Hyde’s classroom is right here, and by the way, for any Heretics that come looking, check my desk.’

So, without that added hint, I had to make do. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard. More time-consuming than I would’ve liked, but not hard. Looking up and down the hall, I tried the first door. It was locked, so I focused on the Relukun’s power and stepped right through, merging with the wood briefly before separating from it inside the classroom. Granted, it would’ve been easy enough to shove the door open, but this way was quieter and didn’t leave any sign that we’d even been there. Yeah, subtle was better.

It didn’t take long to quickly search the desk at the front of the room. A quick glance at the grade book showed some woman’s name in the margin. Definitely not the guy were looking for, so I moved on.

The second room was a bust as well. Which figured. Finally, after a brief search of the third room, I found what I was looking for. The man’s name was written on a few papers spread out on his desk.

This was it. Moving to the window, I glanced outside and then opened it while hitting the button on my phone to call Doug. It took a minute to direct him around to the right side, but I eventually got him in.

“Guess we spread out,” I announced after he finished clambering into the room. “Look for anything important? We’ve still got a few hours before he turns, if he’s actually the guy we’re looking for.”

Shrugging after giving me a brief, appraising look, Doug muttered, “I’ll check the closet. You can take the desk.” Waving vaguely that way, the boy moved to the back of the room without another word.

Okay then. Still wondering what Douglas’s deal was, I shrugged and walked back to the desk. Tugging the chair out, I sat down and started to work my way through the drawers. Not that I looked that closely other than a quick perusal. This guy, if he was what we were looking for, wasn’t going to leave a signed confession or a map to his secret lair sitting in a drawer where anyone could dig through and find it.

On the other hand, however, there could be a secret compartment or something. And I had the perfect way to figure out if there was. First, I pulled both desk drawers all the way out and set them on one of the tables nearby. Then I quickly pulled everything off the top of the desk, the papers, a framed photograph of some kind of volcano, and a plastic apple, setting all of it out of the way as well.

That done, I moved back to the desk and focused on the skeleblineist’s power. If there were any items still in the desk after I’d removed the drawers and moved everything off the top of it, that would prove there was a secret compartment. Then all I had to do was find it, and I had a plan for that too.

Sure enough, as soon as I focused, the power told me that there were three things still in the desk somewhere. I sensed a pad of paper, a silver coin, and a photograph. I didn’t know what was written on the paper or what the picture was of, but I did know they were there. Which meant they were hidden.

But again, I had an answer for that. And it didn’t involve blindly groping around the desk looking for the right spot. Instead, I put my hands on it while focusing on the wood-merging power again. A moment later, I hopped right into the desk. From there, I just worked my way through it, feeling for open spots that shouldn’t have been there. Which, I supposed, was still sort-of blindly searching in some ways, but it was faster than groping around with my hands for a button or a loose panel, at least.

It only took a few seconds for me to find the hidden compartment in the desk. As I popped out the other side, I traced my path back to the right spot. It was just above the top drawer and a little to the right left, inside the area where the man’s legs would have gone if he was sitting behind the desk. Feeling around there, I knocked against it lightly with my knuckles. Yup, definitely a hollow sound. So that was where the hidden compartment was, but how did I open it? I could just break the damn thing, but there was–

Oh. Right, I was being stupid. Taking a breath, I focused on the wood-merging power one more time. Then I shoved my hand through that spot of the desk and into the open space on the other side. It took effort not to fully merge myself with it, as I felt the pressure building. It was like the wood was trying to suck me in. Blindly, I groped around until my fingers found the pad of paper. Whispering a silent plea to no one in particular, I yanked my hand back out again.

It worked. Just like when I held my weapon while merging with wood (or the clothes on my back), the pad came out with my hand. Without taking the time to look at it, I quickly did the same thing for the coin and the photograph. “Hey, I’ve got something,” I stage-whispered over toward Doug before finally looking at what exactly I had. Focusing on the photograph first, I saw the man in question standing with three others. There was another man, a woman, and a young girl. All four were in front of that same volcano that I’d seen in the other picture, the one that had been on top of the desk. His family, maybe? Except no, the paper had listed him as a single man, a bachelor. So who were these other three? Maybe they were a family and he was a friend? Or a brother. One of the adults could be his sibling.

I didn’t know, and there wasn’t enough information on the photograph to be sure. Turning it over, I saw was a date. The picture had been taken three years earlier. Under that, there was a single word: Remember.

Remember. Remember what, exactly? Confused, I quickly looked at the coin. Sure enough, it was a real silver dollar. On one side, I could see a seated woman holding a stick with something on the end of it in one hand, and a shield in the other. On the shield, the word ‘Liberty’ was written. Under the woman was printed the date of 1836. On the opposite side of the coin, there was an eagle in flight, surrounded by a bunch of stars, with United States Of America – One Dollar written around the outside of it.

A silver coin from the eighteen hundreds. Okay then. But what was it doing hidden away? What was the significance?

Shaking that off, I looked at the pad of paper, hoping to find answers there at least. It was actually a full-sized notebook. As I flipped through it, I found… letters. Deeply personal, emotional letters to… his wife and daughter. They were full of vows about how much he loved them, what he’d do for them, how they were everything to him. It kind of made me feel bad to read, because they were incredibly touching. But why hadn’t he given the letters to them? Why were they all just in the notebook without–

Oh. Oh god. Looking back to the photograph, I realized. The woman and the girl were his after all. They were just… dead. That’s why he didn’t send the letters.

Sure enough, scanning through a bit more of the writing made that clear. He was writing to his dead daughter and wife. But who was the other guy in the picture?

“Okay,” Doug announced while coming out of the closet. “This is really freaking me out.”

When I looked that way in confusion, he held up a leather-bound journal. “There’s all kinds of stuff in here about… us.”

“Us?” I echoed, my eyes widening.

“No, no, not us specifically,” he amended. “I mean us as in Heretics. He’s got the names of both schools, details about that tattoo the Eden’s Garden people have, some stuff about what age we start school at Crossroads, more about how our weapons and stuff work. Even some stuff about the Committee and some group called the Victors, which… I assume has something to do with the Eden people.”

“Stuff about Heretics…” I spoke slowly, looking at the notebook. “And a bunch of letters to his dead wife and daughter. I—oh… oh shit, Doug, I think he’s trying to kill Heretics. I’m pretty sure Heretics killed his wife and daughter and now he’s—I don’t know, out for revenge.”

“Revenge?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Can Strangers even have wives and daughters, let alone want revenge when they die?”

Rather than say the first thing that came to mind at that, I snapped, “Even wild animals care about their own kind, Doug. Yes, I’m pretty sure he can be pissed off that his-that his mate and offspring were killed.”

“No wonder his name was so obvious,” the boy muttered then. “Truman Hyde? It was on purpose.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, looking at the photograph again. “I just wish I knew who this other guy was.”

Moving up beside me, Doug took a look. Then he did a quick double-take. “Wait, I know him. Hold on.” Quickly taking out his phone, he searched for the town’s informational website before bringing it up. “Okay, okay, look. Law enforcement. There it is, Deputy Karl Ulsun. He moved here a year ago. I was looking him up in the library, but he got here too long ago for the murders, so I dismissed him.”

“Moved here a year ago,” I muttered under my breath. “Long enough to make it into the police department and blend in before Heretics showed up looking for the Stranger that was killing people. Because most Heretics that came into town probably wouldn’t go to the library to look up information about murders, they’d–”

“Go to the police station,” Doug finished. “Which is–”

I was already spinning toward the door, digging the alert stone for Hisao out of my pocket. “Right where Russell and Harper went.

“They’re walking into a trap.”

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Mini-Interlude 22 – Croc

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“Uh, here’s your order, sir. Will there be anything else?” The scraggly-haired teenager who held the tray full of three cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, two large drinks, and an order of chicken nuggets stared at his customer with wide eyes. He had to tilt his head back to look the man in the eyes.

“No thanks,” the man named Croc replied easily while taking the tray. “This’ll be just fine.” He gave the boy a nod before turning to walk across the mall food court. The boy’s stare was obvious, as were those of several of the people he passed.

It was nothing new. Born a member of the now-extinct Calusa Native American tribe that lived around what was now Florida, Croc had always stood out. He was an enormous man to begin with, which would have drawn people’s attention anyway. But adding in his Native ancestry drew their eyes even more. And of course, he had more than one reason for standing out from his peers.

He’d come to expect the stares, towering over everyone as he did. Such things had long since stopped bothering him, and he’d learned to differentiate the dangerous ones from those who were just curious. After all, correctly identifying danger was a fairly important skill for someone in his line of work.

Walking to a table on the far end of the food court, one that overlooked the ice skating rink below, he set the tray down and took a seat. Taking a handful of fries, he tossed them in his mouth while giving a slow, casual glance around (people tended to stop staring when he looked at them).

Ugh. The fries were cold. Frowning slightly, he gave a long look toward the counter where he’d bought his food. He could go back, but… Shrugging, the big man simply poured the fries out onto the tray and laid his hand over them. A moment of thought made his palm heat up. After that, it only took a few seconds before he took his hand away and tried another fry. There, warm again. That was better.

He’d worked his way through half the fries and one of his burgers by the time he sensed the approach of the man that he’d been waiting for. Which probably meant that the guy had been watching him the entire time and only just then chose to make his presence known.

“They’re watching you,” Wyatt Rendell announced while pulling the opposite chair out so that he could sit down.

“Chicken nuggets,” Croc replied, “As requested.” He slid the box over to the other man along with the second drink. “And an iced tea. Who’s watching? I suppose you already made sure it’s safe to talk.”

“Of course I did.” Wyatt pointed to the railing that the table was near. About six feet away, Croc could see a rune scribbled on it. Turning the other way, he saw a second rune about six feet in the other direction.

“There are six privacy spells protecting us right now,” Wyatt explained. “Those are two that I’m willing to show you. The others are mine.”

“That’s why you were so specific about where to sit.” Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “How long did you spend setting this spot up before you felt safe enough to meet here?”

Wyatt’s head shook. “Not long. Three hours. I was in a hurry.”

While Croc shook his head in wonder at that, the smaller man opened the box of nuggets. Instead of eating any of them immediately, however, he set a smaller box of toothpicks next to them. One by one, he pushed a toothpick into each of the nuggets and left it there. Gradually, each tiny sliver of wood turned a light blue color. Wyatt watched until each of them changed, then collected the picks before putting one of the nuggets into his mouth.

Poison, Croc realized with amazement. The man was testing to make sure the nuggets hadn’t been poisoned. He did the same with the drink before taking a sip.

“Eleven people watched you walk from the counter to this seat,” Wyatt finally answered after eating another nugget. “Starting from the nearest,” he added while reaching into his pocket to take out a driver’s license. “Jessica Wallace, age twenty-four. Local. Organ donor. The one that–”

Croc coughed. “Wyatt, did you steal that woman’s ID just to check up on her because she was looking at me?”

Scoffing, Wyatt shook his head. “Of course not. These,” he produced a pack of blank driver’s license cards, “are enchanted. All I have to do is get close enough to touch someone, and any license they have will copy itself onto one of these. I copied one from everyone who was watching you and ran them through my usual search protocols. They haven’t tripped anything yet, but you never know.”

Unable to help himself, Croc whistled low. “That’s pretty impressive. But trust me, I’m used to people staring. Kinda hard to blend in when you look like I do. You, on the other hand, no one sees you as a threat. They dismiss you. But they really shouldn’t. Because you… like I said, you’re pretty damn impressive. Which, I suppose, is why I wanted to talk to you again.”

“You’re still trying to convince me to betray my people,” Wyatt retorted, his tone affronted. “I told you when we were at Eden’s Garden, I will not betra–”

Wincing, Croc shook his head. It was true that he’d made the pitch to the other man more than once while he’d been at the Garden. And in the intervening time, he’d only become more impressed from the details he’d been able to pick out about the scrawny, unimpressive-seeming security guard. If Crossroads didn’t understand what they had with this guy, he was damned sure going to pick up their slack. Especially since he—well, Wyatt’s skill with security spells wasn’t the only thing that Croc was interested in.

“No, man, not betray. It’s just… you’d be good with the Unset. We treat our people right, and… and you’re the best security enchanter I’ve ever seen. I don’t want you to betray anyone, Wyatt. I’m not asking you to hurt anyone you work with. I just think you’d fit really well with us. You’re brilliant at this stuff, man. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve never seen anyone that can do the stuff you do, as easily as you do it.

“And, you know… it’d let you be near your sister.”

Wyatt paused at that. His mouth opened and shut before he shook his head. “But I’d have to leave my other sister and my niece. They need me. I can’t just abandon them. And I won’t abandon Gaia. She stood up for me. She got me this job, I… I owe her.”

Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “Yeah, from what I hear, Gaia Sinclaire’s pretty good. But what about that Committee? What about Ruthers and his group?”

Meeting his gaze Wyatt announced flatly, “Gabriel Ruthers will pay for his crimes. But I won’t abandon my family to do it.”

“That’s fair.” Croc wanted to push harder. He really thought that Wyatt would be good with the Unset. But the man was right, he had two younger family members at that school. And from what he’d heard, at least one of those family members was really good at finding herself in trouble.

“That’s fair?” Wyatt echoed, frowning with suspicion. “But?”

Croc’s head shook. “But nothing, man. You’re right, the kids need you. The whole reason I want you to join us is because you’re so good at protecting people. If you abandon your niece and sister just like that, what’s the point?” He paused then before adding, “But let me make you this offer.”

“I knew it,” Wyatt retorted, stiffening in his seat. “An offer I can’t refuse, you–”

“Easy,” Croc quietly reassured the man. “I know. I know how easy it is to ruin your trust. I get it. But, that’s not what this is. It’s not a threat. Like I said, an offer.” He pushed on before Wyatt could respond. “If the time comes that you can’t stay there anymore, for whatever reason, you have a place to come. Okay? That’s it. It’s an open offer. We could really use you. Whether it’s after your family graduates and moves on or… anything else. If you can leave or you just… have to. You come to Eden’s Garden and the Unset will take care of you. ”

“An open offer…” Wyatt was clearly chewing that over, searching for the problem with it before he squinted. “I’m not making a promise. I’m not signing anything. I’m not–”

“You don’t have to,” Croc assured him, finishing his last burger. “No promises, no contracts. Just this.” From his pocket, he produced a simple, almost blank card with nothing on it other than the barely visible indent of a robin in flight against a circle with a rose at the bottom.

Taking the card, Wyatt frowned. “What is it? What does it mean? Where is it from? What does it–”

Smiling, Croc shook his head. “It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing. The symbol is completely meaningless. The bird, the circle, the rose, they don’t lead anywhere. But anyone who saw that card would think it did, and they’d waste time trying to work it out. The design is nothing. But if you ever want to reconsider, or you need the Unset, or… anything. You write on that card and I’ll get what you write. And if it’s an emergency, you rip it in half. I’ll come right in.”

“Why?” Wyatt squinted at him, still suspicious. “Why would you give me something like this after I told you I wouldn’t join your side?”

“We’re on the same side,” Croc pointed out lightly. “Protecting people. And—well… Like I said, you’re one of the best security people I’ve ever seen. You’re worth the wait, man. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It took the man a moment to move again. He was just squinting off into the distance as though trying to work out how to respond to that. In the end, he shoved the card in a pocket and stood up. “I might throw it away.”

Croc nodded then. “That’s your right. You can throw it away, burn it, do whatever you want. Actually, don’t burn it. That’ll probably set off the emergency alert and I’ll come find you. Point is, do whatever you want with it. I’d like you to keep it, just in case. But that’s just me.”

Pausing then, he cleared his throat before nodding to the seat that the man had just stood up from. “You don’t have to leave so fast.”

Wyatt just blinked at him blankly. “Why would I stay any longer? I told you no, you gave me a way to change my mind, and I already ate the nuggets.”

Because I kind of like your company, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s any chance of you reciprocating that. The thought flashed through the big man’s mind, but he stopped himself from saying it. Skittish as Wyatt was about a simple job offer, expressing any kind of interest in that way would obviously push him too far. “I just thought you might want to sit down for awhile.”

“No.” The other man shook his head, still looking suspicious. “I don’t wait around for them to find me.”

“Them?” Croc echoed, wishing he knew more about this man, and what had happened to make him so suspicious of everyone.

“Anyone who’s looking,” Wyatt explained flatly, his gaze already dubiously studying the people around them. “There’s always someone. I don’t give them that kind of advantage.”

“Fair enough, man.” Croc couldn’t argue with that, as much as he wanted to. He really did enjoy Wyatt’s company, as odd as the man was. And as they’d told the Chambers girl, the Unset weren’t eunuchs. Though in his case, considering the amount of anything even approaching a date he’d been on in the past decade or so meant anything, they might as well be.

“Like I said, you change your mind, you let me know.” He offered his hand for Wyatt to shake. After a brief (for him) pause to skeptically examine the hand, the other man did so. They shook, and the scrawny little Crossroads security guard slipped away.

As Croc watched, the man walked through the crowded food court and moved to the restroom. Rather than going into either of them, however, he stepped into the janitor’s supply closet. The door closed after him. Less than ten seconds later, one of the janitors went to the same door, tugging it open to reveal nothing but mops and cleaning chemicals. Wyatt was gone.

Croc sighed a little, but he hadn’t really expected anything better than that. Hoped, maybe. But honestly, he really would have been incredibly surprised (and probably disappointed) if Wyatt had so easily abandoned his niece and sister. This was just… nice. And the closest thing to a date that he’d had for longer than he cared to admit.

Maybe he’d wait awhile and then see if the other man wanted to get together again. It’d take some doing to make him understand that he didn’t want anything in return, and that it wasn’t a trick or a trap. But… well, if letting Wyatt pick the spot and prepare it for several hours ahead of time just for a fifteen minute meeting was what it took to spend time with the man, then… well, he’d do that.

For a guy like Wyatt Rendell, it was worth the extra effort.

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Study And Scrutiny 20-07

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As it turned out, we couldn’t go visit the town that the Aswang (if we were right) had targeted right away. Not because we weren’t allowed to, of course. Hisao assured us that getting out in the field was kind of the whole point of being a Hunter. Rather, we couldn’t go immediately because the other two, Russell and Harper, also asked to go see the town themselves. Hisao thought we should be on the same footing by all going at the same time, so he set it up for the next evening (Monday) to take the place of our normal Hunter track meeting. That way, no one got an unfair advantage by checking the town first.

That would happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, I had another appointment scheduled with Gaia tonight so that she could work a bit more on getting the anchor spell transferred from me to Vanessa. But that wasn’t for another couple hours, once curfew started up so she could work without being interrupted.

Which meant that, for the moment at least, I had nothing pressing to focus on. Sure, there was figuring out a way to get information out of Namid, continuing to figure out who the traitor at Crossroads could be, dreading what was happening to my mother, worrying about what kind of trouble Dad was getting into with his investigation into Fossor, training to not be completely helpless when that necromancer piece of shit came for me, hoping Roxa and Mateo’s pack (not to mention Namythiet) were all okay and that they’d track down Pace, and probably even more things I wasn’t thinking about at the moment.

Okay, so I had a lot of things to focus on. But in that particular second, my schedule was fairly clear. So I made my way to my dorm room and stepped inside, taking advantage of the moment of downtime.

As I moved into the room, Avalon looked up from her desk. She had homework from Trigonometry spread out over the surface, and The Bee Gees were playing quietly through the computer speakers.

“Oh,” I paused, then reached back to close the door. “Hi.” Blushing. Why was I blushing so much already? Nothing happened. I’d been in the room with Avalon before throughout the entire last semester. So why did it suddenly feel somewhat… awkward to be alone with her? Was it just because–

“It feels awkward because of what we talked about before,” the other girl interrupted my line of thought while also simultaneously confirming it. “We brought it into the open, so now it feels strange.”

“It felt strange already,” I pointed out before coughing as my head bobbed up and down. “But yeah.”

Avalon considered that for a moment before dropping her pencil on the desk. With a squeak of the chair, she slid back and rose to her feet. “I guess that means we need a way to make it not awkward th-”

She hadn’t finished the sentence before I crossed the distance between us. I had the briefest glimpse of her eyes widening with surprise before my hands caught her shoulders pulled her down while I leaned up to find her lips with my own. It was my turn to kiss her, damn it. And I wasn’t gonna waste it feeling awkward or strange about the change in our dynamic. I liked Avalon. She liked me. Good enough.

Finally, one of us pulled back. I wasn’t even sure which. All I knew was that I wasn’t kissing her anymore. I was breathing hard, trembling a little while clinging to the taller girl. “Oh,” I managed in a weak voice after a few seconds of panting. “That’s… that’s really nice. That’s—oh, wow. Holy crap.”

For a moment, it seemed like Avalon was too taken aback to respond. Finally, she shifted while pointing out, “You started it.” Despite her attempt to sound as dry as usual, her voice cracked a little.

My blush deepened, but I managed a shrug. “I’m pretty sure you started it. Back when you–” Stopping, I swallowed at the memory while meeting her gaze. “When you kissed me before Christmas break.”

“You were going away,” the other girl replied, her voice plaintive as she stared down at me. “I… I didn’t want you to go away for three weeks before you knew how—I had to let you know. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t…” She looked away, eyes downcast for a moment as she fought to find the right words.

“I’m not good at this,” she admitted. “I’m not good at needing people. I’m not good at relying on them. It’s not—it’s not who I am. You know why. I’m sorry, but it’s just—opening up like that, it’s… hard.

“But I need you.” Looking up once more, she stared at me with an expression that was partly intense and partly confused over her own feelings. “I’ve only known you for a few months, Chambers. But when I think about anything happening to you, when I think about what could–” Her voice turned hard, expression darkening as her hands tightened on my shoulders. “I’ll kill them. Anyone that hurts you.”

“Valley,” I murmured, shivering a little at her declaration. “You’re so…” Pausing, I swallowed while glancing down. Face flushing, I quickly looked back up (okay, maybe not that quickly). “You’re beautiful. Fuck it, you’re hot. You’re so hot. Why would you be… why would you be interested in me?”

Blinking at me, Avalon opened her mouth and then shut it. “You—you’re…” She shook her head. “You must be kidding.” Staring at me for another moment, she slowly frowned. “You’re not kidding. Chamber—Felicity, you’re…” Pausing, she breathed out long and slow. “Felicity, believe me, you are… look, you’re not exactly hideous yourself. You look… God, how do I put it? Yeah, I’m hot. I know. I work for it. I want to be… unapproachable. I’d rather people dream about me than talk to me. It’s easier. But you—Felicity, you’re intense. You’re smart, you’re funny, you know how to talk to people, and you look… trust me, you’re attractive. You’re more casual. I hate the term, but you’re the girl next door. I look like I just stepped out of a perverted magazine. But you—you’re the cute, smart detective or reporter that they can actually talk to. You’re… you’re real. Just wearing jeans and a hoody and you are…”

Avalon trailed off, head shaking again while she fought to find the right words. Finally, she reached out to put both hands on my face gently, her touch almost electric. “I like you. Shiori likes you. Okay?”

Swallowing, I slowly nodded. My voice wouldn’t work through the lump in my throat. It was all I could do not to latch onto her. I wanted to hold her, wanted to touch her, wanted to kiss her again, more, forever. I wanted to say the right thing, but I had no idea what that was. “Valley, I–” The words choked their way out through my throat while my eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Everyone always leaves.”

A noise of denial escaped the other girl before her arms wrapped around me tightly. I was pressed against her, smelling her incredible, peach-scented hair. “No,” she managed. “I won’t. I won’t leave.”

For a few long seconds, we just stood there like that. I closed my eyes, taking in the sensation before quietly whispering, “Do you have any idea how many people in this school would literally kill to be where I am?” To emphasize my point, I hugged the girl a little tighter while giving her a sly wink.

There it was. I was rewarded by seeing Avalon actually blush noticeably. “You are such a dork.”

Biting my lip then, I shifted my weight a little. I meant my next words to come out teasingly, but there was a seriousness to them instead, a need that surpassed that single moment. “Can I be your dork?”

If she actually said anything in response to that plea, I didn’t hear the words. All I knew was that her lips were on mine. She was kissing me again, and I felt my legs literally give out from under me. I would’ve fallen, but the other girl held me up. Her arms, wrapped tightly around my back, kept me up close against her as she drove every coherent thought and worry completely out of my mind.

Somehow, I wasn’t even sure on the specifics, we ended up lying on Avalon’s bed together. We were both facing the wall. My head was nestled against her shoulder, and she was petting my stomach softly with one hand while her other hand was clasped tightly with one of mine. Meanwhile, my free hand was reaching up and back to gently stroke that beautiful, dark, wonderfully luxurious hair. I felt… safe.

Lazily, contentedly, I glanced over my shoulder at the other girl. “Mmm… Valley, you really need to get some sleep. And I need to go see Gaia. She’ll wonder where I am if I make her wait much longer.”

Smiling faintly at that, Avalon squeezed my hand. “I really don’t think she’ll wonder,” she pointed out dryly before giving me a light, yet tender kiss that lasted only for a second. “She’s pretty perceptive.”

Face reddening, I squirmed a bit. “So I get to be the one to face her? She’s gonna see right through me.”

It was her turn to wink at me. “And you did just say that you should hurry up and get there. I mean–” She adopted a scandalized expression for a moment. “Imagine if she comes in here looking for you.”

“Oh my God.” Flushing even more, I started to sit up. Before I could right myself fully, however, Avalon pulled me down into another kiss. It lingered both for too long and not nearly long enough. Finally, I managed to extricate myself. Standing up, I stared down at the other girl for a few seconds. “Valley,” I spoke quietly, “you know that thing you said about being there for me, about not leaving?”

She nodded silently, and I went on. “That goes for me too. Whatever you need, I’ll be there.”

“Felicity–” When she said my name, Avalon’s voice cracked a little. She shivered, sitting up in bed. “Go,” she pleaded. “You should go now. Because if you don’t, Gaia really will have to come find you.”

Smiling to myself, I went.


“And if anything happens, what do you do?” As laid back as he normally was, Hisao’s voice was serious as he walked alongside Douglas, Russell, Harper, and me the next afternoon right after classes had ended. The five of us were off the island, strolling through a field just outside of Belsen, Kansas, the town where (at least Doug and I thought) the Aswang had been. We were going to be left to look into the situation and try to confirm what happened (and how to kill the thing that did it), but not without a reminder of the rules.

“We call you,” I answered along with the other three, our words an identical chorus that filled the air.

“I’ll be nearby,” the man confirmed. “So if anything, I mean anything pops up, you let me know. I–” He paused then before stepping out in front of us. Dressed in gray jeans and a black turtleneck, he gave all of us a long, silent look. “No games, okay, you four? I know some of you don’t trust me. You don’t know why I agreed to teach you. You think there’s some kind of angle. But this isn’t a game. Not out here. If something happens, you touch those alert stones I gave you. Crossroads or Eden’s Garden, when you’re facing something bad out there, it doesn’t matter. We work together. You all got that?”

That time, our confirmations were a little more staggered. I nodded my own head quickly, not bothering to mention that if anything did happen, Wyatt would probably beat him to wherever I was.

I’d asked Gaia the night before how she felt about me going out in the field again when things tended to… well, go wrong, to put it nicely. She’d told me that as much as she wanted to lock me up in a box until I turned at least thirty, that wasn’t possible. If I was going to get through what Fossor had in mind, I had to get out there. I had to fight, and I had to kill monsters. It was the only way I’d be able to get enough experience, enough power to be able to survive, let alone win. I had to keep going out.

On the other hand, she also made me promise not to leap into any danger that I didn’t have to, and to let Hisao know everything that happened. She said I could trust him as much as I trusted Professor Dare.

After extracting a few more promises about being careful and calling in when and if we found anything, the man let us go.

“Oh, my God, you guys,” Harper perkily announced as we walked. Well, we walked. She skipped. “Isn’t this great?!” She turned, somehow managing to skip backwards (don’t ask me). “I mean, not the evil monster killing people thing. That sucks. But we get to be out here! How cool is this?” Her bubblegum pink pigtails bounced with her movement as the girl’s bright smile spread over her face and seemed to light up the area around her. “Tracking down evil monsters, helping people, it’s awesome!

Before any of us could answer, she reached into her coat pockets (it was Kansas in January, after all) with both hands. “Here, take one, you guys!” As she spoke, the sunny girl produced a chocolate muffin in each hand, holding them out to Doug and me while beaming proudly. “I made them myself! I mean, I had to use the oven in Professor Nimbles’s apartment because Chef Escalan would probably stab me if I got anywhere near his kitchen, but still! They’re yummy, I promise.”

I’d already known the muffins were in her coat pockets, thanks to the power from the skeleblineists. And they weren’t the only treat in there. My power picked up two more muffins, a half-eaten bag of Skittles, and a package of Jolly Ranchers. She had some deep pockets in that coat. Still, I was kind of surprised that she was sharing so readily.

Holding them out to us, the girl paused before her face gave a slightly unnatural (for her) frown. “Oh. Wait. You probably think I put like— some kind of sleep drug or something in them just so Russell and me could win while you’re conked out and snoring. And even if you weren’t, you’re thinking that now. But I didn’t. I swear. I’ll sign something if you want. ‘Russell and I automatically lose if I did anything weird to the muffins. Signed, Harper Hayes.’ I wouldn’t do that. I pinkie promise times a thousand. Times a million and sealed with twinkle stars. I don’t wanna win that. I don’t care who wins, cuz we’re on the same side. Helping people. And they’re the real winners. I mean, the ones that aren’t dead. Should I stop talking?”

My mouth opened and shut as I slowly processed all that. Meanwhile, Douglas asked, “Do you ever?”

If she was offended by the question, Harper didn’t show it. Instead, she beamed brighter. “Not usually!”

Snorting despite myself, I took one of the muffins and made a show of taking a big bite of it. “Thanks, Harper. Mmm, wow, you really do know how to bake. But what about Russell?” I nodded to the boy.

“Ta-da!” With that, the other girl produced the other two muffins that I’d sensed. She held one out to her partner before taking a big bite out of her own. Mouth full of chocolate treat, she messily announced, “You’re right, I’m a great baker!” She then proceeded to nom her way through the entire thing in short order.

We walked further, finally entering the town itself while finishing the (legitimately delicious) muffins. It wasn’t a big place, to say the least. There was only one high school, and it served seventh through twelfth grades, with the younger students on one side of the building and the older students on the other. Even then, there was only a reported school population of about six hundred or so.

Beyond that, the main street held almost everything of interest. As we made our way in, I nodded to the two story building just across the road. “Library,” I announced. “That’s our stop. For now anyway.”

“Oh,” Russell coughed, glancing to his partner before gesturing further down. “Well, we’re headed for the police station. So uhh, good luck, I guess. Help figure out what those monsters are, huh?”

Giving the other two a thumbs up, I split off from them along with Douglas. The two of us continued across the street and up to the library. On the way in, we passed a curious but helpful old woman who pointed us to where they stored the town newspapers going back a year. If we ended up needing anything older than that, she politely informed us, she’d show us how to work the microfiche machine.

Thankfully, unless we were way off, recent newspapers would be fine. After all, the murders had only recently started happening. Which implied that the thing responsible had just moved into town.

Taking a stack of newspapers from the same week that the first murder happened, I handed them to Douglas. Then I took a stack from the week before that. “Remember, look for any reports of children dying from being sick, and any articles about someone who just moved to town. This place is pretty small, so new people would probably generate at least a small mention.”

Giving me a long look, the boy took the papers before nodding. “Right.” Stepping back, he sank into one of the heavily worn armchairs and started to read.

I did the same, and for a few minutes, we were lost in our silent scanning. Everything was quiet, save for the rustling of the newspapers as we turned the pages.

Eventually, Douglas sat up. “Here–” he started before giving a little shudder. “Think I’ve got it. Four days before the first murder, a five-year-old boy named William Oscars died. The doctor said it was some kind of sudden onset pneumonia, but his parents said he felt fine the day before.”

Nodding slowly, I replied, “Sounds like the Aswang sending back one of those fake kids to replace its lunch to me. And I think I’ve got a candidate for that.” Turning the newspaper around, I showed him. “Truman Hyde. Which is… probably the absolute worst pseudonym for a monster ever. Or possibly the best. True Man… Hyde? It works on a couple different levels, but talk about lack of subtlety.”

“Truman Hyde,” Doug echoed while leaning forward to scan the article. “New eighth-grade science teacher?”

I nodded. “And Belsen’s newest eligible bachelor. Students are too old for him, and he probably wouldn’t pick from his own classes anyway considering the Aswang… preference for keeping a distance between their lives and their victims. But it gets him access to their families.”

Picking himself up, Doug folded up his newspaper. “Okay, so what next?”

Pausing, I thought about it for a minute. “It’s almost four-thirty. He’s probably already home by now. But according to the books back at school, the Aswang don’t change form until about eight or nine. So even if we go find him, he won’t set off the Al–” I coughed. “The alarm of our Stranger Sense.”

“And we can’t just go stabbing him,” Douglas agreed. “He might be innocent.”

“Right.” Standing up, I folded my own newspaper and put it back on the stack. “So we should see if we can search his office at the school. That might tell us more. At least until it gets late enough to see if we’re right.”

“What if we are?” the boy asked quietly. “And he attacks someone while we’re checking him out?”

“Then we’ll stop him,” I answered, turning to head back the way we came.

“That’s our job.”

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