Month: May 2017

Most Dangerous Game 22-06

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“Flick,” Professor Dare spoke in a quiet, measured voice. “Are you alright?”

It was a few minutes later, and the two of us were in a side-room away from where the Committee was still talking to Avalon and Gaia. They had asked me to step outside while they continued to speak to the others. I’d felt Avalon stiffen beside me, and knew that the girl had been about two seconds from launching into a rant. She obviously didn’t care who the Committee were or how powerful they happened to be. But I did, so I had quickly interjected to say that I’d wait.

Call me crazy, but as freaking badass as Avalon really was, I didn’t think that even she could come back in one piece from the kinds of things that she had obviously wanted to say to those people. So I agreed to leave, stepping out of the room while accompanied by Professor Dare.

“Alright?” I echoed, giving her a brief stare. “Some of the most powerful people on the planet think I might’ve had something to do with trying to kill Avalon and being part of some big conspiracy.”

Her head shook at that, slight blonde locks slipping out of place to fall over her eye before she brushed them back. “Only a couple actually think that. The majority don’t believe that you had anything to do with it.” She sighed. “They’re looking for someone to blame, Flick. It makes them look weak that someone can walk onto the island and completely bypass all of our security repeatedly. So they want to blame someone. You…” She paused, glancing around before reaching into the inner pocket of her suit jacket. Coming out with a small, intricately decorated music box the size of my hand, she set it on a nearby table before popping it open. A figurine of a ballerina popped up into view before slowly turning in circles, as a low, quiet hum filled the room.

“Anyone beyond the two of us will not hear anything from this room,” Dare informed me before continuing. “As I was saying, you know exactly why they would immediately look to you for that.”

Biting my lip, I gave a short nod. “Mom,” I spoke flatly while folding my arms. “They remember what happened with my mother. I guess if you spend the better part of a century with your entire society in the middle of a civil war because of one woman, you might squint a little at her daughter when she shows up pretty much at the same time as something like this starts happening.”  

“Unfortunately,” Dare confirmed with a strange look for a moment before she shook it off. “Your mother… there are those on the Committee who are still… unhappy with how that was resolved.”

Blinking at that, I hesitated before asking, “Unhappy? You mean, unhappy that she survived?”

“That,” the woman answered slowly before continuing, “and unhappy that there wasn’t some grand final battle. You see, the fact that Joselyn was able to fight the Committee members on their own terms was always something of a… sore spot for some of them. They have always been seen as being as far removed in power from normal Heretics as we are from Bystanders. Their power is supposed to be unmatched by any save for perhaps the Victors from Eden’s Garden. But the fact that Joselyn, that anyone,  was able to fight them toe-to-toe and survive was a blow against that. So there are those on the Committee who wanted to end the war by… well, ending Joselyn. They believe that not having that final battle where they could prove that their power was stronger than hers left a permanent mark against them. They never beat her on a level playing field. In the end, they only won by…” Her face twisted, and I saw an anger in the woman that she obviously kept suppressed most of the time. “They only won because she surrendered to them.”

“So they want an actual fight,” I murmured under my breath, grimacing. “They want to have that grand final battle that didn’t happen before, so that they can prove once and for all that they’re stronger than she is. That’s why they’re so convinced that she’s still out there, that she got her memory back and is behind all this. Because they want her to be. They want her to be the one doing this so they can fight her, so they can beat her the way they wanted to a long time ago.”

Nodding slightly, Dare put a hand on my shoulder. “They look at you, and they see the war that they never actually won. They see the woman they could never beat, until she surrendered herself to them.  And even if Ruthers was never completely open about how he convinced her to surrender, they have their suspicions… suspicions that make them feel even worse about it.”

“Because he held children hostage,” I stated flatly, not wanting to put any kind of spin on it. “He took innocent children, babies, and threatened them unless Mom surrendered. They have their–they suspect something like that, so it makes them feel worse. Good. They should feel like shit. They should feel like the lowest fucking scum on the planet for not ejecting that son of a bitch ri–” I cut myself off, closing my mouth while shaking my head violently. I couldn’t talk about that.

“You’re right.” Dare’s voice was soft, barely audible even as close as she was to me. “It’s plausible deniability. They know what he did, or at least suspect it strongly. But as long as he doesn’t confirm it, as long as he’s quiet about it, they can pretend they don’t know. They can shut it out and focus on what they see as the important thing: that Joselyn was captured. But even then, even then there’s that part of them that knows how far they had to go to even do that much. So if they can beat Joselyn in a fair fight, if she’s out there somehow and has all her memories and power back, they can make up for that dark stain. The stain of never really beating her, and the stain of what Ruthers did to end the war. They prove they can beat her now, and they fix all of it.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything. It took me some time to get myself back under control to the point that I could actually think straight. The urge to walk back to that room and scream at the lot of them was almost overwhelming, despite the fact that everything I’d told myself about Avalon losing her temper with them being a being a bad idea went at least triple for me. I still had to take a few deep breaths and force myself to focus, suppressing the anger that tried to boil out of me.

Finally, I made myself say something else. “It still doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “The whole idea that I could be the one behind these attacks. For one thing, why would I stop anyone else from killing her? If I was really working with my mother and we wanted Avalon dead for some… stupid reason, why would I care who actually did the deed as long as she was dead in the end?”

Giving a long, slow sigh, Dare took a moment before answering. “There are… certain benefits, magically-speaking, toward being the one responsible for someone’s death. Or at least having access to the person who was responsible for it. There are rituals, particularly necromantic ones, that require the person casting them be responsible for the death that you’re using in the spell.”

“Fossor,” I almost spat the name. “They think we’re working with Fossor, and he needs the–the whatever, necromantic-death energy from Avalon’s death for some kind of spell or something?”

The woman nodded slightly. “It makes a twisted sort of sense. I mean, it doesn’t, but if you think the way that they do, it does. If you believe that your mother is working with the necromancer, Avalon’s death would be incredibly powerful. After all, her blood relation to Bosch means that there are a lot of potential magical benefits to being able to use her death. There are ritual spells that could do a lot of damage to Crossroads with the blood of our founder mixed in.”

The words made me feel sick, and I folded my arms over my stomach tightly. “So they think there’s two different groups fighting over who gets to kill Avalon… all because of some necromantic spell crap? Which… Yeah, I didn’t even know they knew about Avalon’s history.”

“I would be interested in learning how they found out,” Dare murmured, her voice thoughtful for a moment. “And how long they’ve actually known. Because they obviously didn’t know before she was taken in by Eden’s Garden. They never would have allowed something like that if they knew who she was. It has to have been something they learned fairly recently. But I have no idea how.”

“But what about when Ammon showed up?” I asked quickly while shaking my head. “I mean, why wouldn’t I just let him kill Avalon if we were actually working together? And why wouldn’t I just–” I stopped, catching myself. “Oh. Right, Wyatt’s protection spells. Gaia said that if someone kills Avalon before the spells are removed the right way, they get permanently marked by them?”

“Essentially, yes,” the woman replied with a nod. “Their thought process is likely that Ammon was being rebellious and trying to prove he could do a better job than you could by eliminating Avalon himself. You had to step in to prevent the boy from getting himself marked by the protection spell, which would have led Crossroads straight to Ammon, and subsequently to Fossor himself.”

I started to say something else to that, but Dare held a hand up to stop me. Her other hand closed the music box, and she had just tucked the thing away when there was a knock at the door on the opposite side of the room (away from the door that led into the room where Gaia, Avalon, and the Committee were). The woman gave me a brief nod of reassurance before speaking. “Enter.”

It opened, revealing… Teach. The man stepped in, closing the door after himself. “Well,” he announced with a nod at the door that led into the Committee’s room. “That’s a hell of a meeting.” Giving me another of gold and silver toothed smile, he added, “Hello there, Miss Chambers.”

“I–you–”  My mouth opened and then shut as I glanced over my shoulder at the other door. “Is the meeting over? You weren’t–I mean–” I stopped for a moment, my confusion mounting.

Teach gave a light chuckle at that, head shaking with amusement. “Nah, we’re still rambling on in there. Probably keep going for awhile yet. But ahh, you really think we’d go on for this long without having a way of being in two places at once?” His expression sobered briefly. “That’s some good information there, Chambers. Never think that just because we’re in one place, that we can’t be somewhere else too. Last I heard, your friend over in Eden could testify to that much.”  

“Miranda…” I murmured before shaking that off. “You guys know a lot more than I expected you to.” It was blunt, maybe. But at that point, I really didn’t want to tiptoe around everything. I didn’t know why Teach was standing there, what he wanted, or how much I could trust anything he said.

“And yet,” he replied easily, “I suspect we know less than you do about a great many things.” Before I could say anything to that, he raised a hand. “It’s all right, no need to see how many denials you can spit out. I’m not actually asking. This isn’t an interrogation, Miss Chambers.”

I was trying to find at least a slightly more polite way of asking what this was then, when Professor Dare spoke. “If this isn’t an interrogation, Counselor Teach, then what is it, precisely?” Apparently she cared less about being courteous at that point than I did. “Why are you here right now?”

In response, the man reached into his pocket to pull out a metal flask. Unscrewing the lid, he took a long pull from it before speaking. “There’s things you know about that you can’t say. And things that I know that I can’t say, because if I do, you either have to pretend to be surprised, which is just offensive to all of us, or… give me the kind of trust that I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna give me right now. So I’m gonna save all of us a bit of a headache and not put you in that position.”

He paused a moment, giving us a chance to say something. But I took Dare’s example and just remained silent. So, after a couple seconds of that, the man continued. “But you know, even if we can’t confirm anything because we’re all playing these secret games, I’m still gonna tell you something. You can take it for what it’s worth. Don’t have to say anything else. Just listen.”

His eyes softened then, and the man spoke simply. “What happened to the woman you’re looking for, it’s bullshit. Everything we did, everything we let happen, everything we didn’t stop, it was wrong. Whatever the intentions of it, whatever we thought we were doing, it was wrong. And she, that woman that we can’t talk about, she was the strongest kid I ever met. And I’ve met more people than you’ve seen stars in the sky, so believe that. And if you ever start to think about everything she’s been through, you just remember… she’s gonna be okay. Because she’s strong.” He paused, giving me a brief look up and down. “And she’s got mighty fine motivation to make it.”

My throat had closed up by that point, and I had to swallow a couple times before giving a flat, “I guess I wish I knew what you were talking about.” My voice was hollow, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to convince anyone with it. “Sounds like an important person to know.”

“You will,” Teach replied with the kind of certainty that I wished I could feel. “Give it time.”

The door into the room with the Committee opened then, and Gaia stepped out along with Avalon. If either of them were surprised to see the man standing there, they didn’t show it. Avalon just moved next to me, rather pointedly taking my hand before squeezing it right there in plain view. Which was different for her. She didn’t tend to show much affection in public like that, usually. In this case, however, I supposed that her desire to show the Committee just how little of a shit she gave about what they said drastically outweighed her dislike of public affection.

“Edward,” Gaia greeted the man evenly, giving him a slight nod without saying anything else.

“Evening, Headmistress,” Teach returned the greeting with a sly wave of his hand. “I’ll leave you all alone. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to go over.” Pausing then, he added while looking toward me, “And Chambers, don’t you go letting yourself feel guilty about what happened. That boy made his choices. He had every chance to turn them around. Some people just aren’t worth the tears.”

He disappeared then, seeming to fade from existence while smiling faintly. After he was gone, I looked toward Gaia. “Do, um… do I need to go back in there and talk to them some more?”

“No,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Not today. You’ve been through enough. If they wish to speak with you about any more of their conspiracy theories, they can make an appointment.”  

Biting my lip, I looked at Avalon. “You didn’t try to bite their heads off or anything, did you?”

“I should’ve said a lot more than I did,” she half-snarled, clearly gearing herself up as her hand squeezed mine. “How stu–”

Clearing her throat, Gaia spoke up. “Perhaps we should leave here for now. I’m sure you’re tired of standing around and waiting.” She nodded to the door. “We can discuss everything outside.”

On the way, I glanced toward Avalon. She still hadn’t let go of my hand, obviously deciding that she hadn’t actually made her point yet. Not that I minded. “So they knew about…”

“Yeah,” she replied in a dull voice. “They knew. Tried to tell me about it like it was some grand revelation, like I should be so proud and amazed because of what my ancestor did.”

I coughed at that. “Well, at least you didn’t say anything you shouldn’t have.” Seeing her reaction, I gave her a quick look. “… Valley? What exactly did you say to the obnoxiously powerful people who could probably blow up our entire dorm building by sneezing in its general direction?”  

It was Gaia who spoke, her voice carrying the slightest undercurrent of amusement. “She informed them that they should be happy that her ancestor did not set this society up as a monarchy, because she would have demoted them to muck out the stables, since they were…” She paused then. “How did you put it? Oh yes, since they were ‘so obsessed with shoveling bullshit.”

Choking audibly for a moment, I gave my roommate a wide-eyed look. “Valley! You can’t talk to them like that.”

“Pretty sure I just did,” she replied coolly. “What are they gonna do, try to kill me? There’s a line.”

Dare shook her head slightly. “To change the subject slightly,” she murmured before holding a bag up for me. “I’m afraid protocol means that you’ll have to decide what to do with these.”

Frowning, I took the offered bag, glancing inside to find Doxer’s mechanical mice. They were both staring up at me while huddled together in the bottom of it. “Err, wait, what?” I blinked up then. “Shouldn’t these go back to Eden’s Garden? I thought Heretics were usually buried with their weapons. We… I mean, you are shipping his… his…”

“We are sending his body home, yes,” Gaia confirmed. “But when one Heretic attempts to kill another, their weapon becomes forfeit to the survivor. And now that it’s been officially determined that you were within your right to defend yourself with lethal force,  Doxer’s weapons belong to you. What you do with them is your choice.”

The mice were still staring up at me as we approached the door to leave the building. My hand groped out, grabbing the handle. I felt a slight resistance before it pulled open, but the question of what I was going to do with these little guys was distracting enough that I barely noticed.

Barely noticed, that was, until I stepped through the door and glanced back to find the other three openly watching me, standing where they were. “Err… uh, were we not going…”

It was Gaia who spoke. “When the Committee is all together in the building like this, it’s locked down by several powerful security measures. One of those is that all the doors are remotely locked. That door should not have opened for you.”

“It shouldn’t have– but I didn’t–” I started and stopped, blinking a few times as I looked at the door, then back to them. My head started to shake, before stopping short. There was someone else who had done things like that, who had somehow taken control of plenty of security measures that he shouldn’t have been able to.

“…. I… think we just found out what else I got from Doxer.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-04

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Please note that there was both a bonus chapter posted Wednesday, and a commissioned mini-interlude posted Tuesday. If you missed either or both of those, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above.

Unfortunately, as nice as it really would have been to stick around and start throwing questions at Trice immediately, we couldn’t. The whole point of setting the trap up the way that we had was to make sure that pretty much anyone who could’ve been his contact here at the school saw him escape (or would at the very least hear about it happening from everyone else who was there). He had left, so when they inevitably found out about his subsequent disappearance, they wouldn’t immediately realize that we had him. Which, hopefully, would give us an actual advantage.   

But if we took too long to get back to the others and word got around that we had disappeared right when Trice did… well, then it wouldn’t take a super-genius to put the pieces together. So Avalon and I had to leave the cell almost immediately, through an extra portal that Gaia had set up that took us to the Pathmaker building so that anyone who was paying attention would see us.

And honestly, thinking about it, the fact that Gaia could hijack the Pathmaker to send us in and out like that without anyone noticing was probably one of the more impressive feats I’d seen from a woman who, at that point, seemed to be completely made out of impressive feats.

Gaia had been the one to think of almost every part of that little counter-ambush, including the extra trap at the end. Originally we’d intended  to grab both of the boys (or Pace as a priority if she had shown up, but we’d had our doubts on that one from the start). One of them would be linked to me while the other one would be linked to Avalon. But when I had… when I had killed Doxer, that left Trice as the only one left, so Avalon being linked to Doxer didn’t really matter.

After that, all Gaia had to do was add in a trigger on the spell that made it not take effect until the moment I changed worlds for the first time. That allowed Trice to use his bark-thing to escape back to Eden’s Garden, thus making it even less likely that his contact would realize we had him. Plus, we figured that they wouldn’t want people at Garden to be able to easily track their coming and going when news of the attack went public. So wherever they teleported back to, it wouldn’t be right out where anyone could easily see. They’d probably teleport somewhere private first.

That was the idea at least. It had been the best one we had. And, in the end, it had resulted in a captured Trice. We’d have to see if that actually led to any useful information. But even if it didn’t, at the very least, it took one of the Seosten spy’s pieces off of the chess board.

No… two pieces.   

Before we left the cell (the actual location of which even I didn’t actually know, since I’d always gone in and out through the portal that Gaia created), Avalon had pointed out that Doxer’s death would likely make Trice disappearing even more believable. Whoever his contact was would probably think that he’d gotten cold feet after seeing what happened to his partner, and took off. Or that he had to bail to avoid dealing with the fallout with the rest of Eden’s Garden, since covering up Doxer’s death and the reason behind it would be pretty damn hard. Either way, it made it easier to believe that he’d just take off. Or at least believable long enough to work for us.

It was a good thing that we made a point of actually leaving through the Pathmaker, since as Avalon and I stepped out through the doors, there was a whole crowd waiting for us on the other side of the security line. And not just our team either. No. I saw a bunch of people milling around, some of them from older grades. Hell, I thought I saw a couple of seniors near the back, and I pretty much never saw senior students unless they happened to be passing by in a hurry. Since fourth-year students were basically full-fledged Heretics in their own right, just apprenticed to actual Heretics, they didn’t really spend that much time around the school.

Now, however, there were definitely a few of them back there, visible through the crowd. Not to mention the dozens of first, second, and third years who were all standing there, murmuring back and forth. All that murmuring stopped, however, as Avalon and I stepped out of the building to come into view. Once they caught sight of us, everyone pretty much collectively stopped talking and stared. There were a few whispers that I couldn’t make out. But mostly it was a lot of staring, which continued as the two of us walked away from the entrance and crossed the security line.

“Hey!” someone called out, using some kind of voice-amplification power or spell to be heard over everyone. “Did you really kill an Eden’s Garden Heretic, Freshman?”

Beside me, Avalon stiffened. I could tell she was about to go off on everyone staring at us, so I quickly touched her arm gently. The last thing we needed right now was to make a bigger scene.

A second-year cut in then. “It was one of their teachers, he came to convince Hisao to go back!”

And just like that, the weird spell of silence that had fallen over everyone was broken, and they all started talking at once again. Some of it was directed to us, though a lot was just yelling at one another. They were arguing about what had happened. I heard the word ‘war’ mentioned a lot.

“No, morons,” another older student made herself heard over the commotion. “She killed a Stranger who shapeshifted into a Heretic and tried to pose as one of us.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” someone scoffed. “Strangers can’t pose as Heretics. Even they’re not that stupid.”   

That set off a whole new round of arguments, while the most I could do was marvel at how quickly the Crossroads rumor mill worked. Yes, they were wrong about most of the specifics, but the fact that they knew anything had happened (let got that close), and had time to make so many different variations of the rumor was… frankly kind of impressive. Honestly, it had only been a few minutes. Clearly, that was one side-effect of living in a place where so many people had what amounted to superpowers: rumors traveled quickly. Particularly rumors that resulted in so many teachers calling off the rest of the hunts so they could run off to deal with the aftermath of ours.

After a moment of trying to figure out how to head this off, my eyes caught sight of a group standing on the outskirts of the crowd. Roxa’s old team. They were all standing there, staring. While everyone else started arguing loudly over all those rumors, Douglas and the rest of the team just stared. Their expressions were… well, not happy would be the most optimistic way of putting it. Whatever rumor had reached their ears, they weren’t exactly giddy with joy over it.

I needed to deal with that, but how? I knew what they wanted. They wanted to know more about what had happened to Roxa, and what I’d had to do with it. But I couldn’t tell them the truth. I had no idea how they’d all react, if they’d even believe me. And if they believed what had happened, there was no guarantee that they’d go as far as believing the whole ‘Strangers aren’t all evil’ thing.

No, there wasn’t any way to actually tell them what had happened without risking everything. I had to just let this play out for now. Once Roxa had that necklace, we could come up with another story and let them see her so they’d know she wasn’t dead or anything. For the moment, however, I was just going to have to let them look at me like they were, uncomfortable as it was.

Sands, Columbus and Sean had already started to engage with the crowd, trying to cut off the worst of the rumors while insisting that what happened was self-defense. But barely anyone was listening. They were too busy shouting questions of their own or holding arguments with one another, mostly about whether or not killing an Eden’s Garden Heretic meant that we were at war again.

In the end, the first person who actually approached us would probably have been seen as the least likely one to willingly put herself under that kind of intense scrutiny. Scout, breaking away from her sister, walked straight up to where we were standing. Without a word, she hugged me tightly, holding on for a few seconds before doing the same to Avalon.

As she was releasing the other girl, a voice spoke up over the sound the crowd. “Excuse me.”

Everyone looked that way, only to see one of the older-year teachers. He was an elderly looking man with expressive, bushy eyebrows and hair that could only be described as ‘Einstein-esque’.

When he had everyone’s attention, the man spoke calmly. “I was told that a reincarnated Sinatra had been spotted here. Obviously, seeing a group this size only raised my hopes as to such a rumor’s authenticity. But now, standing here, I see no sign of the Chairman. Which is disappointing. And when I become disappointed, I tend to reflexively pass extra homework and detentions out to everyone I see. It’s a bit of a problem.”

His point was made, and everyone quickly dispersed, though not without a few glances our way.

“Thanks, Professor Carver,” Sands put in once the crowd was gone. “Those guys wouldn’t listen.”

The man, Professor Carver, nodded. But he didn’t look that way. His gaze was on me. “It’s Miss Chambers, correct?” When I nodded, he continued. “You’re making quite a name for yourself, Miss Chambers. It’s not often that a Freshman student attracts the attention of her older peers. And yet, this is not the first time that I have heard your name work its way through my students.”

Flushing a little in spite of myself, I managed a little shrug. “I’m not doing it on purpose,” I muttered. “It just sort of happens. Believe me, I’d go back to being someone no one ever heard about if I could.”

“Oh no,” the man disagreed while shaking his head. “Don’t ever wish for that, Miss Chambers. It’s the people who stand out the most who make the biggest changes to the world. And something tells me, we could do worse than for you to be one of those who directs such changes.”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare arrived. She took a moment to say something quietly to Carver, and Sands quickly caught my arm while the teachers were busy. “Hey, hey, you killed that son of a bitch! What was it like? Did you get any–”

Scout interrupted, putting her hand up to tug Sands away before looking at me. For once, she actually spoke loud enough to be heard by more than one person. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?” Sands echoed. “What are you sorry for? She kicked his ass. She put him right–”

It was Sean’s turn to interrupt, clearing his throat. “Pretty sure killing a human, even a sick bastard like Doxer, is a little different. Or at least, it probably feels different.”

“Indeed.” That was Professor Dare, who was focused on us now as Professor Carver walked away. “It’s very… different. Flick, Avalon, are you both… are you alright?”

Biting my lip while glancing to the other girl, I managed a little shrug. “I… I had to kill him,” I murmured. “I didn’t have a choice. He was standing over me, he had his sword, I had to–”

Dare’s hand caught mine before I could go on. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “Don’t feel bad for defending yourself. You did the right thing. And don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Letting that sit until I nodded, she finally continued. “They are going to have to talk to you though, about what happened. And it won’t just be one Runner this time, not for something like this. But you won’t be alone. Whatever they ask you, whatever they say, just tell them what happened. You were attacked by the boys, not even for the first time. They assaulted you, you defended yourself.”

My head bobbed up and down reflexively. “Yeah, I kind of figured we’d have to answer some questions.” Even as I said it, I couldn’t help but wonder if Dare was really trying to reassure me and give decent advice, or if she was possessed and the Seosten inside her was fishing for information because one of the assassins that she had sent to kill Avalon was dead.

That went for everyone there, really. No matter who I looked at there aside from my roommate, I had to wonder if, behind the sympathetic eyes, there was something far more sinister.

Biting my lip before forcing myself to shake that off, I hesitated before swallowing. “So, uh. How’d the rest of the hunt go? I hope you guys managed to take care of the rest of those spinnevurrs.

“Cuz we didn’t get any of them.”

******

“I guess,” Deveron spoke awhile later, “if anyone else asks if you’re alright, you might scream?”

He was sitting across from Avalon and me, as the three of us waited in one of the side-rooms of the Pathmaker building. We’d been brought back there to wait for whoever was sent to ask what the hell had just happened to lead to the death of an Eden’s Garden student.

Gaia and Professor Dare were already in there, giving their part of the story, while Deveron had been allowed to stay with us as our team mentor. Usually, he probably wouldn’t have, in order to keep up appearances. But I had the feeling he didn’t want to leave my side after what happened.

Or maybe he was possessed, and the Seosten was afraid that they’d miss something. Paranoia sucked ass. Especially since I really would’ve liked to talk to him about how it felt. Something told me that, given his history, Deveron had a lot of experience with the whole ‘killing other Heretics’ thing.

Yeah, we really had to deal with this spy thing. I was really tired of not being able to talk to everyone that I was supposed to be able to trust the way I wanted to.

“I might,” I finally confirmed with a shrug. “Or maybe I’ll just pick up a chair and throw it. Think that’d convince whoever’s waiting to talk to me that I’m completely sane and in control?”

Grimacing, Deveron shook his head. “Probably not. So let’s change the subject a little bit.” He paused, obviously thinking about it for a moment. “Have you checked to see how many of his powers you… inherited?”

Right, check how many I’d inherited. Because unlike the way killing a Stranger only granted a single, random one of their abilities, apparently when a Heretic killed another Heretic, they had a chance of gaining multiple powers. If they got really lucky, they could even gain every power the other guy had. Which seemed to me like it would put a target on the back of every other Heretic whenever someone wanted to gain a lot of power quickly. 

It was a thought that made me flush a little bit, while Avalon spoke up for me. “She can’t teleport.”

I nodded then. “Yeah, his little elemental teleport thing. We tried that one while we were out there with the others. Sands wanted me to check, so I did, more than once. Didn’t work.”

“Okay,” the (much) older boy replied easily. “So what else did he have?”

Thinking about that, I started slowly. “He was stronger than me. Not by a massive amount or anything, but definitely stronger. I’m not sure how to check that while we’re sitting here.”

“Like this.” Deveron reached into his pocket, producing what looked like a little stress ball, which he tossed to me. “Try it. The thing measures strength output. We know how strong you were before this, so let’s see if it changed.” As I stared at him, he added, “What? You didn’t think we’d go all this time without having ways of measuring power increases like that, did you?”

He had a point, so I shrugged and carefully squeezed the ball. Once I was sure it wouldn’t explode on me, I squeezed harder, tightening my grip until I couldn’t tighten it any more. Then I released it at a gesture from Deveron.

He took the ball from me, turning it over so I could see the number that had appeared. “Twelve hundred pounds. Looks like you’re a bit stronger than you were. Which probably means you’re a little tougher too, since those things tend to go together.”

Nodding, I offered, “He had a couple new powers too, just for dealing with me. That sand control, he went out and got his own, stronger version. I guess I can check that out on the beach later, after we’re done with this.”

“And you said he absorbed the power from your staff and threw it back at you,” Deveron prompted. “Have you checked that yet?”

“I’m not sure how we could—” I stopped abruptly, dropping my head before sighing at myself. “Oh, right. Uh, here.” Taking the staff from my belt, I started to pass it to him, before changing my mind and handing it to Avalon instead. “Would you mind?”

Getting me to stand up and move across the room, the other girl took a moment to power up the staff. She charged it just enough to send a blast of energy that would have knocked me to the floor.

Would have. But didn’t, because as I focused on the incoming wave of kinetic force, I felt a tingling sensation. When the wave hit me, it didn’t even knock me back a step. Instead, I felt the energy fill me up, coursing through me. It was hard to describe, except that the feeling was somewhat close to needing to use the bathroom. I felt it in there, needing to get out. So, I pointed my hand at a chair on the other side of the room before urging the energy to leave.

It did. The wave re-emerged from my hand and knocked the chair over onto its side.

“Oh,” I managed after a moment. “That’s… umm…”

“Useful,” Deveron finished for me. “If you can absorb and redirect energy like that, it’ll synergize really well with your fighting style.”

Avalon was already nodding in agreement. “We’ll work it into your training, make you learn to react fast enough to use it in combat without someone telling you ahead of time when it’s coming.”


“Oh, great.” I gave her a thumbs up. “Can’t wait for you to beat me up some more.” And yet, despite the sarcasm of my actual words, I kind of meant it. It was a chance to spend more time with Avalon, even if it did involve getting thrown around the mat like a ragdoll.  

The two of us just smiled at each other for a second before I remembered where we were. Coughing, I glanced at the guy who had been married to my mother. He was just giving me a knowing look that made me flush. “Ah, right. Doxer’s powers. Um. Yeah. Then there was that thing he did to…” I paused, even though Deveron had already used his own privacy coin to assure that we weren’t being spied on. Of course, that assumed that he wasn’t the one doing the spying.

Shaking it off, I finished, “That thing he did to track me to Wonderland, and take control of the security measures so the Septs couldn’t bring them back up once the pack was inside. But was that magic or some kind of ability?”

Before we could come up with an answer to that, the door opened. Dare stuck her head in, pausing before giving a short gesture. “Flick, Avalon, they’re ready to talk to you. Deveron–”

“I’ll wait here,” he agreed, clearly having already dismissed the coin spell. “Doubt a bunch of Runners want to talk to me anyway, since they got everything from you.”

There was a brief hesitation from Dare, like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just gestured for the two of us to follow.

“What was that?” I asked once Avalon and I were in the hallway with her. “You were about to say something, but you didn’t.”

“I was going to correct Mr. Adams,” the woman replied. “But if I had, he probably would have insisted on coming with you. And that would have complicated things even further.”

“Correct him?” I echoed, looking toward Avalon before shaking my head. “Correct him about what? The Runners didn’t get everything they needed out of you, or… wait–”

“It’s not Runners,” Avalon realized aloud. “Is it?”

Dare shook her head. “No, it’s not. This situation has attracted much higher attention than that.”

“A Committee member,” I guessed. “Oh. Ruthers is back? I kinda figured he’d want to be part of this.”

“Ruthers,” Dare confirmed. “And the others.”

“The… others?” I echoed uncertainly.

“The Committee.” She looked to me, expression unreadable. “They’re waiting to talk to you.

“All of them.”  

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Most Dangerous Game 22-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on the creation of the Ring of Anuk--Ité. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thanks! 

It’s a strange sensation, coming out of an extended moment of orgasmic pleasure only to immediately find bile rising up in your throat. The ultimate high followed by the ultimate low, and the only thing that stopped me from succumbing to the urge to vomit then was the soul-shivering scream from across the makeshift arena. It was a scream that made me shudder despite myself, eyes darting that way to find Doxer’s still-living partner staring at me with an untempered rage that easily could have ignited a hundred different suns before being even slightly diminished.

Well, Avalon and I had one thing in common now: Trice obviously wanted to murder the living fuck out of both of us. He made that much abundantly clear as his pike shifted into its rifle form. Without even bothering to lift the thing to his shoulder, he fired off a shot directly at me as I knelt there, prone and entirely too out of it to raise a finger in my own defense.

But I wasn’t alone. Avalon flung a hand out, and I saw a strange ripple appear in the air just in front of my face. It was like a thick bubble about a foot across, a bubble that caught the bullet from Trice’s gun and held it motionless for a brief second before the bullet turned into dirt that matched the ground we were standing on. A moment later, the bubble disappeared.

Just as I was trying to figure out what the hell that was, Trice turned on her. “His power?!” he screamed, his rage turned onto Avalon once more in its entirety. With a bellow, he lunged that way, clearly abandoning any thought of going after me again. His rifle shifted back to a pike, and the older boy went after my roommate with a fury unlike anything he had shown so far.

Which was the point, I realized. Torv. Avalon had used a power from Torv, a power that she had never actually shown any of us before, and had obviously resisted using in combat up to that point. And in the heat of the moment, she had only finally used it because she had known that it would be the one thing that drew Trice’s attention back to her… and away from me. She was protecting me by enraging Trice even further. Now all of his rage was directed solely onto her.

All I could do, with my leg (not to mention the rest of my bruised and battered body) still taking its time to heal was pray that she survived the fury that she had unleashed upon herself.

And somehow… she did. Trice came at her with everything he had, battering away at all of Avalon’s defenses. He was stronger than her, had more practice than she did, and he was angry enough to ignore any damage that she managed to do. Yet, through a combination of her own skill and the variety of weapons that her gauntlets could call up, Avalon barely managed to hang on. Trice was driving her back with each relentless attack, forcing the other girl closer and closer to the shield that trapped all of us inside, to a spot where she would be unable to maneuver.

I had improved a vast amount over the past few months. I knew that much. And yet, those two were barely more than a blur. I couldn’t even really follow what they were doing. Their weapons and bodies were simply impossible to keep track of from where I was. I felt like… I felt like I would have felt before this school year had begun if I had seen myself just a few moments earlier.

God, Avalon was beautiful.

The thought had just struck me (for about the seven billionth time), as the other girl gracefully caught Trice’s pike on the end of a blade that her right gauntlet had created, sliding it out of the way before putting her knee in his stomach. Her elbow found the boy’s face, barely drawing any reaction at all from him before he backhanded her across the face. The blow would have knocked Avalon against the shield, but she twisted instead, planting her back against his front.

Trice brought his pike up, the long handle pressing against the girl’s throat to choke her even as she quickly put her own hands on it. I could see the strain on both of their faces as the boy fought to shove the pike handle harder against her exposed, vulnerable throat while Avalon used all of her strength to keep that from happening. It was a battle that, like the rest of their fight, went one way first, then the other. They were equally skilled, and in this, they were equally determined.

“You murdered my brother, you bitch!” Trice snarled, straining to haul the pike harder against her throat. “You murdered him, and you think you can get away with it? You think I’d just let you go?!”

Avalon, fingers white-knuckled against the shaft of the pike as she barely kept it from crushing her windpipe, grimaced. Her voice came out slow and strained from effort. “You…. know what… Trice…?” Abruptly, she used the pike to swing herself up, planting both feet against the shield. The resulting shock tore a terrible cry from the other girl as the energy tore into her. But it also passed through her and into Trice. And while Avalon had been prepared for it, he wasn’t. With a strangled bellow of surprised pain, the boy stumbled backward, reflexively releasing Avalon.

Spinning, the other girl launched herself after him. As he brought the pike up, her raised foot knocked it aside a bare second before her gauntlet-covered fist struck him in the face, snapping his head back. “I’m done–” she started while simultaneously backhanding him with her other fist. “–apologizing–” Her right foot went up, lashing out with blinding speed to hit the boy in the stomach, then the chest, then the face all in rapid succession. “–for defending–” Whirling, she brought her right gauntlet around, conjuring a solid-energy mace that slammed into the boy’s arm. I saw bits of bone appear as the limb was snapped the completely wrong direction. “–myself!”

Before she could follow that up, and before the boy could retort, there was a shout from The top of the same hill that Avalon and I had descended to get down here. My gaze snapped that way, and I saw the rest of our team, plus Deveron and Professor Dare. They were all there, and then, as quick as I could blink, there was a blur of motion and Dare was standing just outside the shield.  

Snarling at that, Trice pushed himself up. “We’re not done,” he blurted, holding his broken arm even as it healed in front of our eyes. His finger pointed first at Avalon, then at me. “You–you’re both gonna die screaming. I’m gonna make you beg. Beg me to kill you. Beg me to–”

A second later, two things happened. First, the shield itself vanished, fading from existence. Then, I saw a door appear in the middle of nowhere, obviously created by the Pathmaker. Gaia, Hisao, Professor Kohaku, Nevada, and several more teachers emerged, along with a few security guards.

Trice took one look, muttered a curse, and then produced a small bit of bark. Even as a shout went up from everyone else, he dropped while slamming the bark into the ground. An instant later, he was gone.

Dare, moving an instant too slow, got there in time to grab for the spot where he had been. Cursing, she looked at me first. “Flick,” the woman blurted before her gaze snapped to the other girl. “Avalon, you’re–”

There was a rush of activity then. Half the teachers in our grade level descended on us, trying to make sure we were all right, checking on Doxer’s… body, and examining the surrounding area to check for more traps. I was pulled away from the body, wincing as my not-yet-fully-healed leg protested.

Deveron was there too, along with the rest of our team. He and Sands both tried to say something about how they had all realized something was wrong, but all of it was one long noisy blur. A blur I wasn’t paying attention to, because now that the fight was over, my gaze centered on one thing: Doxer. Or what was left of him.

For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. The rush of the fight, the adrenaline, all of it was gone.

With little warning, what seemed like everything I had eaten over the past day came rushing up from my stomach. Turning my head, I gave a soft, muffled cry while throwing up into the dirt.

Dead. I… I hadn’t set out with the intention of killing Doxer. That wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. But in that moment, when he had been standing over my body and it was either him or me, I had made the choice. I chose to live. I chose to kill. Just like I had chosen to kill Hyde, or the werewolf back in Wonderland, or the other werewolf, Valentine, or… many more examples.

Yet, somehow, despite my brain knowing that Doxer had been just as inhumane as any of them (he’d been helping to abduct Alter children to be raised as werewolves, after all), there was a part of me that stubbornly noted this as my first human kill. My first… my first…

Apparently I had been wrong. What had torn itself out of me before wasn’t everything that had been in my stomach. Because it found more to hurl up, forcing my face back toward the dirt again.

Dare was there, her hand on my back as she gently rubbed it. “Felicity,” she spoke quietly. “Are you alright?”

Spitting a bit, I wiped my mouth off before shuddering. “I… he–I had to… I had to–”

“Shh.” Dare pulled me around so that my head was against her shoulder. “It’s all right. It will be okay, Flick. You had to defend yourself. You had every right to protect yourself.”

“His… his mice, his weapons,” I pointed out the spot where the two had turned back into their animal forms. They sat there, looking lost and alone, huddled in the space right beside their master’s lifeless body.

Reaching down, Dare picked up the mice. Turning them over, she nodded before slipping them into a pocket. “We’ll handle them later,” she assured me before looking down once more. “Are you… how do you feel? Did he–”

My head shook, and I slowly extended my injured leg while grimacing. “It was broken,” I murmured. “I think it’s getting better though. I can move it… and… um.” Gesturing for help, I tried to rise.

Dare helped me up, then supported me for a moment until the rest of my team managed to work their way over.

Columbus reached out, hand clasping my shoulder. “Hey, found a way to get in trouble again, huh?” His voice was a little shaken, and he was pointedly avoiding looking at Doxer’s body.

Sands interrupted then. “Flick, did you–was that–” She kept glancing that way.

Scout and Sean were both there too, all of them clearly clamoring to know what the hell had happened. And yet, all I could do was wonder which of them, if any, were pissed off because one of their minions had been killed while yet another attempt to kill Avalon had failed.

My leg wasn’t fully healed yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. It still hurt, but I could almost stand on it. Keeping most of my weight off the leg, I shook my head. “Guys, I really–I really think we should talk about it back at the school. Not–” Turning my head away from Doxer, I restrained the urge to find out if there was still anything left in my stomach. “–not here. Just not here, please.”


“Yes,” Gaia announced while approaching alongside Avalon. “I believe it’s safe to say that this exercise is over. The others can clean up here.” She gestured to where the rest of the staff were already taking care of the surrounding area before looking at Dare and Deveron to ask, “Would you take the rest of the team ahead, please? I’d like to have a word with Miss Chambers and Avalon privately.”

I could tell that they both wanted to argue the point and stay with us. But in the end, they nodded. Dare ushered a still-protesting Sands along with the rest of the team to the summoned doorway, while Deveron gave me a long, searching look before following.

Yeah, he wanted to say something about Doxer. I could tell that much. He’d wanted to comfort me, try to make me feel better about it. But he couldn’t do that in front of everyone.

I’d find him later. Talk to him. Who knew, maybe he could make me feel better about what I’d had to do. Because as much as my brain told myself it wasn’t that different from the other people I’d killed, somehow… my body wasn’t convinced.

Then they were gone, and I looked to Avalon. My hand quickly took hers. “You–you’re all right?” I asked, unable to keep the worry out of my voice.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. Her gaze softened then, as she looked at me. “But you–”

“Yeah,” I muttered, looking away for a moment. “I had to. I couldn’t–I know it wasn’t part of the plan, I know they were both supposed to…” Wincing, I swallowed hard while repeating, “I had to.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” the other girl assured me as her hand gently touched my face. “He was going to…” Pausing, she leaned in, her lips gently touching mine in a moment that made my eyes widen. “You had to protect yourself,” she finished softly. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it, okay? I should know.” The last bit was added in an even quieter voice.

Oh. Oh. That was the first time that she had–that we had… in front of Gaia and… and… my brain stopped working for a moment, as I stared at my beautiful roommate. “Uh…. uh huh…”

She would know, after all. She probably knew what I was feeling even better than I did. She’d had to kill Torv to protect herself, and she had been dealing with the fallout from that (both her own feelings and the rage from Trice) ever since.

“You’re both certain that you’re all right?” Gaia carefully asked then. Her eyes moved back and forth over us as she laid a hand on each of our shoulders. “Because we should… return. So if you’re ready for this…” Trailing off, she  glanced pointedly toward the summoned doorway, gesturing at it.

Ready for this. Ready to go back to… My hand found Avalon’s as I nodded. “Yeah, we’re ready. Let’s get out of here. Right, roomie?” My attempt to sound casual wasn’t nearly as convincing as I wanted it to be. But that was okay. Who could blame me for being a little shaken up at this point?

Rather than pull her hand away, the other girl squeezed it. She was obviously still worn from the fight, her bruises and other injuries fading from the healing, yet still visible. “Uh huh,” she muttered while matching my nod. “Ready.”

Turning, Gaia told the rest of the staff there to spread out and make sure that the boys hadn’t left anything behind, and to collect Doxer’s body to be returned to Eden’s Garden along with an explanation of what had happened. Then she nodded to the two of us. “All right, let’s go. I’ll come back after you’re settled.”

Avalon went through the doorway first. As she disappeared, Gaia gave me a gentle nudge and a reassuring smile. Taking a breath before letting it out, I walked that way, glancing back to give the headmistress a thumbs up before stepping through.

I appeared… in a dark room that was obviously nowhere near the Pathmaker building. Behind me, there was a grunt of surprise, followed by a muffled curse. A hand from in front of me grabbed my wrist almost painfully, yanking me forward an instant before I heard the sudden, unmistakeable clang of a prison cell door slamming shut.

The lights came on then, and I found myself facing Avalon. “I–I…” I started, before flushing a little at how close we were. “Um. Did…” Breathing out, I slowly asked. “… did it work?”

“Yes,” Gaia announced from her place a few feet away. “There was enough time during your fight to complete the spell.”

From behind me, a familiar voice blurted, “The fuck is this?!”

Turning slowly, I looked toward the figure trapped in the cage that Avalon had just quickly hauled me out of before the door had been closed. “What’s this?” I echoed. “Well, see, a friend of mine was magically anchored to me awhile ago. It meant that every time I went to a different world, he’d be, uhh, yanked along with me. Gaia here, she took the spell off me. Which is nice, because now he’s not pulled with any time I get teleported around. But–” I smiled slowly. “It also gave Gaia plenty of time to understand the spell, and how to cast it. All she needed was enough time where both of us were in the same general place. And, thanks to you guys being completely predictable assholes, she had plenty of that time. And, well, completely coincidentally, we happened to have that hunt you interrupted on a different world. Funny, that.”

Trice, standing there in the cell, took a step forward with a snarl. But even as he raised his hand, the pike he held was torn away. It flew out of his grip, passed between the bars, and into Gaia’s hand.

“You will find,” she murmured softly, “that none of your abilities will function within the cell. Nor will you be capable of using magic to escape or communicate. It is heavily warded. And, as we took great pains to ensure that almost anyone who could possibly have been your contact here saw your escape, they will not have any idea that you have been captured. As far as they will be concerned, you left and then disappeared.”

“Well,” I put in with a shrug. “I guess that means you’re gonna be here for awhile, huh? Can you think of any way we could help him pass the time, Valley?”

Beside me, the other girl nodded. “Yes.

“I have a few questions for him.”

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Mini-Interlude 25 – Liwanu

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the backstory behind the creation of the Ring of Anuk-Ité. Please enjoy.

Roughly five hundred years ago.

“Father. Father, stop.”

The strained voice came from the smaller of two figures who stood at the very end of a winding dirt path lined and half-hidden by gnarled old trees. In front of them lay the murky, mist-filled confines of a swamp, the stench from which gave both figures pause.

“No, Sonoma.” The taller figure, his body lean and muscled from years of hunting and war, shook his head. A face hard with the same fierce determination that had led him to the leadership of his tribe, yet lined with worry from the care that drew that tribe’s love and loyalty, stared down toward his beloved daughter as he put a hand on her shoulder. “There is no stopping. Not until you are made well.”

The girl, barely old enough to have seen eleven winters, took her father’s arm. “But the witch. Seeing the witch, it is… very bad. You cannot pay her price.”

A slight smile touched the face of the warrior chief, whose name was Liwanu, a name which meant ‘growling bear’. In this case, however, he could not have looked less like his namesake. His hand carefully took his daughter’s. “Sonoma,” he murmured, the love he felt for her palpable in the air between them. “For you, I will pay any price. If the witch-woman asks that I strip the skin from my body to fashion into a rope that will reach the moon, I will do so. You will be safe.”

Sonoma opened her mouth to speak, but before any words could come out, a visible shudder ran through the girl. Her head twisted sharply, and she made a pained sound as part of her face bulged out unnaturally. The skin stretched, her nose noticeably hardening and lengthening briefly before she caught it. With visible effort, the girl forced herself back to normal, though the effort left her drained and sweating.

“It is getting worse,” the man declared, staring down at his daughter. “You will not be able to stop the change should it come again.” With that realization, he bent to scoop the girl into his arms. As she protested, Liwanu began to jog into the swamp.

The path, which had always been narrow and hard to find, all but vanished the moment they entered the evil place. And what little light there had been seemed to flee from the very second that they crossed that border. Dingy water crept up to the man’s ankles, then to his calves as he sloshed his way onward.

For hours, the man forced his way onward, his desperate hope to save his child spurring him to ignore his own fatigue and inevitable, growing doubt.  He continued despite his daughter’s weak protests, each little spasm of her body as she fought off the change urging him to move faster. As the animals of the swamp circled, their interests piqued by the strange intruders, he continued deep into the unfamiliar territory.

Finally, as the man felt that he could take no more steps, he realized something. The sounds that he had been hearing, the noises every animal made as they fluttered through the trees or worked their way through murky water, were gone. The snakes, crocodiles, birds, frogs, and other creatures that had been a steady accompaniment throughout his wet, cold, dark journey had all become mysteriously silent. Darkness and dampness were now his only companions. And even their presence seemed somehow muted, as though those very basic elements were hesitant to be seen in this place.

No sooner had Liwanu noticed this unnatural silence, than it was interrupted by a familiar sound. It was a sound that had been at his side from the moment he arrived in the swamp: footsteps sloshing through water.

And yet, in this case, his own feet were still, his gently whimpering daughter still held in his arms. Neither were the source of this familiar sound, which drew closer even as he noted the strangeness of it.

Carefully, the man set his daughter down on her feet directly behind him. Her arms wrapped their way around his waist as he drew the spear from its place at his back. Holding the end pointed toward the incoming sound, he waited, eyes straining to see through the gloomy darkness.

The water-filled steps continued to approach. Even in the dim light, the figure would come into view within ten more paces. Nine more steps… eight more… seven…six… he felt his daughter cling to him even more tightly… five… he crouched slightly, bracing himself to make a sudden move if he needed to. Four more steps… three more… two…

“You have come very far out of your way, Liwanu.”

The voice came not from ahead, where the approaching footsteps had suddenly fallen silent, but from behind. Even as little Sonoma gave a surprised yelp, the man spun back that way. His arm went down to ensure that his daughter was swept along to stay behind him, and he raised that spear threateningly. Then he stopped, staring through the shadows.

The figure who stood there had come far closer than she should have been able to, considering he had not heard her approach at all. And for a man who could hear the water-snakes winding their way just below the surface of the swamp, that was a chilling realization.

She wore a dark cloak, with a hood that left her face in shadows. Her eyes, barely visible, were azure blue, with a faint glow like some of the night-beasts.

And as she took a single step forward, the man realized something else. She was not standing in the water, but atop it. Her feet walked upon the top of the swamp as easily and steadily as his own stepped on solid ground. The cloak she wore spread out along the surface without getting even slightly damp, as though it too treated water as earth.

“You–” he started before stopping. “You are the shaman, the Lady of the Swamp.”

“Lady, are they calling me now?” the hooded figure remarked. “It is better than Creature of the Swamp, at least.”

Were he alone, Liwanu might have fled then. He might have run from the swamp and never spoken of it again. But the presence of his daughter, and her desperate need, drove him to stand his ground. Tightening his grip on the spear, yet lowering it so that the figure before him would not interpret it as a threat (as if such a thing could threaten her), he managed to speak again after a moment. “You… know my name.”

“I know a great deal more than that, Liwanu,” the cloaked woman confirmed. “As I said, I know how far you have come. And I know what you are looking for.”

“A cure.” The man quickly spoke, his head nodding as he pulled Sonoma around in front of him. “A cure for my daughter, so that she can be human once more.”

For a long moment, the figure in front of him, the Lady of the Swamp, stood silent. Finally, she turned to walk back the way she had come. “I have nothing for you here. You have wasted your time.”

Eyes widening, Liwanu fairly leapt forward through the swamp. He resisted the urge to grab for the woman’s arm, but only just. “No,” he blurted, “you are her last chance!”

“Her last,” the cloaked figure asked, “or yours?”

Abruptly, he was standing where she had been. Turning, he found the hooded figure crouching (still atop the water) beside his daughter. A hand, far paler than any of his people’s, reached out to touch Sonoma’s shoulder as the young girl shrank away from the figure.

Despite his fear and trepidation, Liwanu gave a shout that filled the swamp. Lunging forward, he drove his spear at the woman who would dare reach for his child.

It struck a tree. A tree that had not been there before, yet now stood in the same place that the figure had been, gnarled and aged as though it had grown in the swamp over the course of decades.

“You fight for your child,” the voice of the hooded woman spoke from behind the man once more, where she stood a few feet away from both him and his daughter. “Why? Is she not a burden, she and her… affliction that you wish me to cure?”

Giving up on yanking his solidly planted spear from the tree, the man turned once more to the figure. His hand found the knife at his waist as he pulled it free. “My daughter is no burden,” he snapped.

“She is a monster, yes?” the figure half-taunted him from her place in the shadows.

A low growl escaped the man, like the wild cats of the mountains. “My daughter is no monster.”

“Then why do you tell her to resist her change, when doing so harms her so much?” the woman asked. “Why do you travel so far out of your way to seek a way to cure her of what you call an affliction? You wish her to be human so that she will no longer be a monster.”

“I wish her to be human so that she will no longer be hunted!” Liwanu shot back, his desperation making him forget his own fear. “If it was only my people, I would take us both away from them. But anywhere she goes, the seers will know what she is. They will find her, hunt her, kill her.”

Again, silence returned to the swamp for several long seconds before the hooded figure spoke. “You wish her to be human not because you believe she is a monster, but because you fear for her safety.”

Slumping a little, Liwanu managed a weak, “Sonoma would never harm any innocents. I know that. But other people are… not so trusting. They do not know her. She would be hunted for all of her life. I wanted… I wish to spare her that. I want to protect her.” He spared a glance to his daughter, who was half-curled up on herself, doubled over from the strain of holding back her change.

“First,” the hooded woman spoke after a moment, “you must accept two things.” She moved a step forward, a step that carried her much further than it should have, putting her beside his daughter. Her hand found the girl’s shoulder, and she leaned closer to whisper something that Liwanu couldn’t hear.

Yet as she heard the words, Sonoma straightened. She gave a soft gasp of relief, before her body abruptly shrank. It contorted, bones shifting and cracking with painful sounds that seemed to draw no actual displeasure from the girl herself. Patterns appeared on her skin as she shrank, patterns that emerged a few seconds later as dark feathers.

Within a minute or so, the child had been replaced by a crow that flapped up to land on the tree that had mysteriously appeared so recently. It gave a sharp squawk, then another, looking at Liwanu.

“The first thing you must accept,” the woman informed him, “is that your daughter must change at times. It is a reflex that cannot be ignored. The longer she restrains herself, the worse she will feel.”

Holding out his hand, Liwanu waited until the crow flew down to land on his arm. “But you will–”

The figure interrupted. “And the second thing you must accept is that there is no cure. Your daughter will be this way until the day she dies.”

Even as his despair rose once more, she added, “However, if it is safety you wish for her… that is not so impossible.” Her softly glowing blue eyes stared into his. “It is not a cure. But if you wish it, if you are truly the man you claim to be, there may be a way of… disguising the child so that no one will know her true nature. They will believe that she is human. Even those seers.”

Quickly, Liwanu nodded. “Yes,” he blurted. “As long as she is safe, as long as she can live without being hunted. I will do anything, give you anything you ask for.”

“Do not make such a promise lightly,” the figure warned him. As she spoke, the air around them spun. The man felt briefly nauseous, before finding himself standing somewhere unfamiliar, with his transformed daughter still perched on his arm.

The floor was hard, like rock. Yet it was smooth to the touch. So smooth the man could almost see his face in it. The walls were similar, though blue to the floor’s polished white. And the air… the air felt… gentle, like a soft breeze was constantly running through it, a breeze that carried unfamiliar scents. A low hum, barely audible yet impossible for him to ignore, carried on constantly through the background. Light came from… not torches or any other fire, but from glowing… rocks running along the ceiling.

“Come,” the hooded figure instructed before turning to walk toward what looked like a wall in this strange, polished cave. “If you wish to help your daughter, if you really want her to have this safety, follow me.” Pausing then, she added, “And for all our sakes, do not try to lick anything.”

As she approached the wall, it slid aside with a soft whooshing sound, leaving Liwanu’s eyes to widen at her power of sorcery. She hadn’t made a motion, or even spoken a word. All she had done was approach, and the wall had opened for her.

He followed, Sonoma carefully perched on his shoulder, as the woman led them through a long tunnel just like the cave they had just emerged from. Together, the three moved through what seemed like a maze of these bright polished tunnels, until they reached another, slightly larger cave.

In that cave stood a man, a man… far different than any Liwanu had ever seen before. His face was more angular than a human, with grayish-green skin that was altogether… unsettling.

The silence held like that for only a moment before the figure abruptly dashed forward wish such speed that the two had barely blinked before he was suddenly in front of them. “Oh!” the gray-green man blurted. “Oh, yes, yes, perfect. You made it. You made it, you brought them. You really brought them.” His hand grabbed one of Liwanu’s, and the figure carefully, yet quickly seemed to count his fingers. “All present and accounted for then, yes? Yes. Thirteen fingers–no–wait. Ten.” A shocked gasp escaped him. “Did you lose them in a great bat–no, wait, we settled on ten, didn’t we? I always thought thirteen would be better, but the others wanted you to be just like so many other–”

Shaking that off, the figure lamented, “Oh, but now I’m being rude. I haven’t even finished counting your toes. Would you mind taking your shoes off so I can do that?”

Finally catching himself after standing there flat-footed staring at this strange demon of a man, Liwanu quickly jerked away while drawing his knife once more. “Who–what are you?” he demanded.

Despite his dangerous appearance, the strange green-gray figure gave a smile that seemed… charming, even goofy. “Oh, right, you’re one of the warriors. Yes, my fault, entirely my fault. Introductions are important. You, of course, are Liwanu and Sonoma. And I am…” He paused, clearly thinking about his answer. “… I suppose, ‘Grandfather’ would be the most appropriate term, in this case.”

“You are not my family,” Liwanu objected, eyes darting between the green-gray figure and the hooded woman.

“No, no, you are right,” the strange man confirmed. “We’re not… technically family. And yet, Grandfather is still probably the closest thing to a word that you would understand.”

Rather than object, Liwanu took a step back while using one arm to shield his daughter in her crow-form. “I do not consort with demons.”

“Yet you would consort with what you call a shaman, or a witch, or the Lady of the Swamp?” the hooded figure reminded him of her presence. “If you wish to protect your daughter, you need both of our help.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” the figure who called himself Grandfather confirmed. “Of course. If you want to hide your daughter’s true nature, you will need my knowledge of umm… “ He paused, looking toward the woman. “What term would they understand?”

“Blood and bones,” she answered flatly. “You will need his knowledge of blood and bones, and my knowledge of magic.” Lifting her chin so that her face was nearly uncovered from its place in the shadows of the hood, she added, “Do you wish to continue, or shall I send you on your way?”

It wasn’t even a question. If it meant protecting his daughter… Liwanu nodded. “If it means that she can live her life without being hunted by every seer, I will do anything.”

“Excellent,” Grandfather announced. And with that, the gray-green man lifted his hand, reached up with a knife in the other, and severed one of his own fingers as smoothly as someone snipping a branch from a tree.

Hearing the squawk of surprise from Sonoma, and seeing the look of shock on Liwanu’s face, Grandfather’s head shook. “Oh. Oh, I’m sorry. No.” Waving his hand, which had already stopped bleeding, he explained, “this is nothing. I removed any–” Pausing, he finished with a simple, “It didn’t hurt. I’m quite all right, I assure you. And you need this,” stripping the flesh and skin smoothly, he held up the bone, “to provide a base for the ring.”

“The ring…” Liwanu echoed, staring at the bone.

“Oh yes, your daughter will need to wear it.” Grandfather smiled then as he continued. “Between my bone and the stone that dear Bastet provides–”

“Bastet,” Liwanu echoed, looking toward the hooded figure.

“A name that I provided,” Grandfather explained when the woman herself remained silent. “I’m afraid that we aren’t aware of what her true parents would have named her, given the opportunity.”

“She is… not human?” Liwanu spoke slowly, looking at the figure once more.

A slight chuckle, dark and humorless, emerged from the woman. Finally, she lowered the hood of the cloak to reveal skin that was so pale it was almost as white as snow. Her hair was as blue as her eyes.

“No,” Bastet announced. “I am not human. Well,” she amended, “my mother was. My father…” Pausing, the woman shrugged. “My father is nothing you would understand.”


“I understand none of this,” Liwanu pointed out. “Yet if you say this will help my daughter…” He looked toward Sonoma briefly before nodding. “Then I will believe you. But,” the man added, “if she… if she dies from this magic you are doing, I do not care what kind of gods you might be. I will find a way to destroy you.”

Bastet said nothing to that, while Grandfather seemed to brighten. “I love it!” he blurted. “I love how much they care for their young, for their own. Do you know that the others thought that they should just–with a hive and…” He made a few vague gestures before shaking his head. “Never mind, it’s depressing. And they’re long gone anyway.”

Focusing on the even-more confused Liwanu then, the green-gray man sobered. “I assure you, your daughter will be perfectly safe. If anything we were going to would endanger her life, Bastet would know.”

“Because she sees the future?” the tribal chieftain, who was far out of his comfort zone, guessed.

“Oh no, well… in a way.” Grandfather smiled. “She would know because, if anyone was close to dying anywhere around here, she would… smell it, in a way. And probably drool a little bit. She does get famished from time to time. You see, Bastet’s father… is what we call a Reaper.”

Over the long, heavy silence that followed that pronouncement, Grandfather abruptly clapped his hands. “So, who’s ready to make a magic ring?”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-02

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There was no question about what happened next. Even as Trice abandoned his own partner with a scream of the kind of bottomless rage I would’ve felt if anything happened to any of the people that I loved, Avalon left my side to meet him with a clash of an energy-blade summoned from her gauntlet against his pike.

And as much as I wanted to, I didn’t move to help her. That was part of our deal. Avalon wanted Trice. That much hadn’t been up for debate while we had been planning this. If all three of them had shown up, we’d had a slightly different plan that we would’ve gone with. But in this case, with two of them, the plan was clear. I was supposed to keep Doxer busy while she and Trice… had it out. That was my job. If things went wrong, there were contingencies. But the truth was, our plan really depended on me being able to pull this off. Fight Doxer, keep him busy. Keep him off-balance so he couldn’t work on the shield. And so that he didn’t notice… anything else.

Two things quickly let me know that Doxer wasn’t playing around this time, that he wasn’t going to let the fight go on as long as he had back during our first encounter when he’d mostly been playing with his food. First, there was the look in his eyes. It was a look that said he was going to finish this as soon as possible. Probably because he figured we’d have back-up coming. Plus, he probably remembered the last fight. So he knew he couldn’t outlast my stamina. The longer the fight went on, the better off I’d be, because I wouldn’t be getting tired like he would.

Meanwhile, the second reason I knew he was actually taking it seriously came as he stalked toward me. After the third step, he reached into the pockets of his jacket and withdrew two small, silver-white… mice. They sat in the palms of his hands long enough for me to see that both were made of metal. They were robots, like Sean’s Vulcan, Aylen’s Sovereign, or Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi.  

“What do you say, boys?” Doxer announced with a smirk, “should we show our cute little blonde friend here that she should’ve just made us a sandwich while she had the chance?”

As he spoke, the robot mice transformed, growing into his actual weapons. One became a short-sword with a wicked blade that was jagged on both edges. Meanwhile, the other mouse turned into some kind of gauntlet that covered his left hand. There was a small blade sticking out of the end of the thing with three slightly curved pointed ends, like a grappling hook.

The purpose of that latter weapon became clear an instant later, as the boy extended his left hand. The hook, connected by some kind of energy wire, shot out at me so fast that it would have gone right through me if it hadn’t been for the enhanced reflexes from that second werewolf kill. As it was, I just narrowly managed to jerk myself aside, letting the hook shoot past. Not that it completely saved me. The hook seemed to ‘catch’ on nothing but air, and an instant later, that energy-wire retracted. Doxer was yanked forward off the ground and came hurtling toward me like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He closed the distance between us almost instantly. Even as I realized that he was suddenly there, that jagged shortsword of his was already lashing out at my head with the speed and decisiveness of a snake lunging for the living version of one of those mice.

And yet, I was ready. Not that I’d known about the grapple, but I’d seen the teleportation trick that he’d used in the last fight enough that I’d been prepared for him to abruptly erase the distance. Which meant that even as his sword went for my head, my staff was already snapping up to intercept. Our weapons met with a terrible crash, and the force actually sent me backward.

That was why he hadn’t bothered with the teleportation, because he wanted the additional force that being yanked toward me that fast would create. And it very nearly worked. Between the boy’s own strength and the momentum that he’d built up with the grapple-lunge, I was almost knocked off my feet. As it was, I stumbled a bit, barely stopping myself from falling into the dirt.

Even as I recovered, Doxer pressed his advantage, sweeping my staff down and to the side with a swift motion before driving the hilt of his sword up against my chin in a blow that snapped my head backwards. At the same time, the sense that let me know where every object in my immediate area was gave me a short warning that the grapple was coming back my way from behind. Which probably meant that he was trying to wrap that energy-cord around me.

Before that could happen, I triggered a quick blast from my staff. The end of it was pointed down and to the right from Doxer smacking it out of the way, so the blast knocked me to the left.

Sure enough, I just managed to avoid the energy-cord from the grapple as it tried to snake its way around my blast-propelled body. Doxer had meant to stun me with a quick blow to the chin before wrapping me up in the solid-light cord from his grappling hook. Which would have ended the fight. And probably would’ve ended me as well.

Even as I landed, catching myself on one foot, Doxer’s body was replaced by what looked like a statue made of dirt and rocks. Which could only mean one thing: he teleported. I remembered that shit. Whenever the bastard teleported, he left behind a brief earth, fire, air, or water copy of himself for a second or two. And if he teleported, that meant he was– The thought came to me in time to twist, catching the incoming blade on my staff just before it would have run me through.

Unfortunately, just as I caught the teleporting dick-head’s sword and tried to follow-up, something interrupted by slamming hard into my shoulder with enough force to knock me forward a step.

It was his earth-duplicate, the one that had been left behind when he teleported. Even as I swept my staff back that way, it fell apart. Yet the thing had lasted several seconds longer than the things had when we had fought before. Which either meant he had killed more of whatever gave him that power to begin with, enough to actually hold onto them longer. Or he was just better at using it. Either way, now I had to worry about the son of a bitch making copies that could actually get off an attack or two. Which was just… perfect. Because this whole fight wasn’t hard enough already.

Luckily, it took the earth-duplicate long enough to reach me that the only thing it had been able to do was hit me with a glancing blow before falling apart. And now, at least, I knew about the threat.

And yet, brief as the distraction was, Doxer took advantage of it. He’d already retracted the line on his grapple, and as my staff whiffed through the air where his earth-clone had been, he shoved his gauntlet-covered fist at me. I twisted desperately aside, but grapple blades still drew blood as they sliced along my stomach. An inch closer or a second slower and I would’ve been skewered.

Smiling at my hiss of pain, Doxer taunted, “So, you ready to fall down and beg for a little mercy?”

“Depends,” I retorted. “You ready to fight, or would you like to play some more cheap tricks?”

His response was a swift stab of his short-sword at my already-bleeding stomach. But I managed (barely) to bring my staff vertically into its path, smacking the blade out of the way. Before he could recover, I gave the high end of the staff a quick thrust up toward his chin. His head snapped back out of the way, however, leaving the staff to whiff up an inch from his face. A face which abruptly disappeared.

No, I realized a nanosecond later. He didn’t disappear. He just teleported again, leaving behind an air copy of himself that time. Reacting instantly, I hit the button to trigger the blast from the end of my staff that I had been trying to hit him with, while releasing my hold on the weapon itself. The force of the blast threw the staff backward over my shoulder, and I twisted around even as I was rewarded with the sound of a grunt. The flying staff had smacked into Doxer’s face as he had appeared behind me. It rebounded, and I quickly caught hold of it before hitting the button that would fill the air with sand. I wanted him blind, and preferably choking.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Even as the sand filled the air, the dark-skinned older boy gave a quick wave of his hand. As he did so, all of that sand that I’d propelled at him abruptly flew sideways. I felt my control of it yanked away as the boy exerted his own, apparently stronger power.

“You really think we wouldn’t know what your powers are and be ready for ‘em?” he taunted me before whipping that grapple-line at my face from the side. I narrowly managed to duck as his foot went right up into the spot where I had moved, nailing me in the stomach.

He tried to follow up with a forward stab from that short-sword, but at the last second I yanked my staff into the way. It was a bit awkward, and I felt pain from the strength of his blow reverberate back through my arm while nearly tearing the weapon from my hand. But I managed to hang onto it, and the blade itself was narrowly deflected.

Right. He was clearly stronger than I was, even if it wasn’t by as much of a margin as it had been before. He could control sand as well, taking away from my own control. So I couldn’t use that for an advantage. Which meant I was going to have to try something else.

With that in mind, I gave a quick feint with my right foot toward his side, drawing his attention that way. Then I spun in the opposite direction to build up a little momentum.  Gripping the staff in both hands, I brought it around into a swing at his side while the boy was still catching himself from going for the feint. As it got close, I triggered all the power that it had left, sending a massive blast of kinetic force right into the bastard.

At the last second, he saw it coming. Rather than teleport away, however, he took the blast of energy right into his… wait. The kinetic blast had nearly hit him. It should have hit him. But just before it would’ve, the energy had simply… disappeared, vanishing into nothing.

I’d just had time for the W part of the WTF to appear in my head before the boy made a sharp gesture. Suddenly, I was the one hit by a wave of kinetic force. It smacked into me like a runaway train, driving the air out of me as I was thrown backward and into the air like a ragdoll, coming down hard on the ground. That time I couldn’t quite catch myself, rolling in the dirt with a pained grunt. Oww. Okay, that hurt. That hurt a lot.

On the other side of the domed arena that we had set up, I caught a glimpse of Avalon and Trice. Like their fight before, it was obvious that Avalon had to work hard to keep up. There was a deep cut in her left arm from the boy’s pike, and her face was smeared with blood from another cut along her forehead. It obviously wasn’t that deep, but cuts along the head bled so much that seeing her face smeared that way immediately made my heart reflexively drop into my stomach.

This time, however, Avalon was giving about as good as she took. While she had those two cuts, Trice was bleeding from a blow to the nose that had already darkened the area under his left eye. Plus, I could see more blood dripping down one of the boy’s legs through a cut in his pants.

As I hit the ground, Avalon pulled free of Trice, driving the boy back with a quick kick at his face that made him fall back a pace. She followed up not by attacking, but by backing up two or three quick steps herself before sparing a quick glance toward me. She’d heard me fall and took the time to buy herself a little distance before checking on me. Even as her eyes met mine, I gave her a quick shake of my head. No, I thought. Focus on Trice. I’ve got this. I didn’t want her to try to intercede on my behalf. That would just get her caught between both of them. I could do this. If this was going to work, if she was going to have a chance against Trice, I had to do it.

“Oh,” Doxer’s voice was mocking. “Sorry, did I forget to mention that new trick? C’mon, I did say ‘ready for every power you’ve got’. You’d think even a silly little blonde like you could work that much out.”

His amusement was positively grating. “You wanna see it again? Throw some more of that staff energy at me. I’ll give you a better look.” As he spoke, the boy lazily came toward me, clearly stepping more heavily than he normally would just to taunt me with the sound of his approach. “Or you could just lay there and let me have a–”

Once again, I sent a cloud of sand from my staff up and toward his face. Again I was treated to his mocking laughter as he easily tossed the sand out of the way. But that wasn’t the point, the point was to distract him for a second. While he was distracted, my hand moved. With a grunt, I slapped it down on the ground, where a small, almost invisible circle of wood poked very slightly out of the dirt. As soon as my hand touched the wood, I used the Relukun’s power to throw myself into it.

Because we hadn’t just prepared this place with the spell to keep these guys trapped here. Gaia had also created an intricate network of wooden pipe-like structures underground that were connected via various small bits that stuck out, bits that were almost impossible to see unless you knew what you were looking for. They blended very well into the ground. But as a result, I could touch any of the exposed parts and zip through the underground wooden pipes in order to pop out anywhere else.

I used that right then, sending myself into the wood just as Doxer finished throwing the sand out of his face. His eyes had time to see that I wasn’t where he expected me to be, just as I popped up out of one of the exposed wooden bits a couple steps behind him. Before he could do more than curse, my staff slammed into his back as hard as I could swing it.

Yeah, it was still like hitting a brick wall. But that time, the wall gave a little bit. With a grunt, he stumbled forward, before his body was suddenly replaced by a figure made of water. The figure threw its hands up, spraying me in the face with a torrent like a firehose.

It blinded me momentarily, but I didn’t need to see to know what to do. This was an old trick by that point, and he really needed to learn some new ones. Spinning, I barely managed to knock Doxer’s incoming sword out of the way with one end of the staff before snapping the other end up toward his face. His head jerked out of the way, and I quickly followed up by triggering another kinetic-blast from the end of my weapon. That time, however, I didn’t direct it at the boy himself. Instead, I used the blast to launch myself up and forward, providing momentum and force as my feet lashed out to slam into his chest.

The essentially rocket-propelled kick staggered the bastard, making him stumble back. Before I could press the advantage, however, the energy coil from his grapple shot out to wrap around my legs. A second later, my back screamed out in pain as I was slammed into the ground so hard I swore I could feel bones crack. Far worse than that pain, however, was what I felt as the energy-coil crushed one of my legs. The femur  in my right leg snapped, sending a wave of blinding agony through me.

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move, especially my leg. But move I did. Rolling to the side, I narrowly avoided the sword that Doxer drove into the ground where I had just been. He was mad now, not playing anymore. Standing over me, he retracted the grapple before launching it down. It shot out, straight down at my stomach. But I managed to ignore the pain long enough to jerk my staff up and into the way, catching the grapple against the end of it just before the thing could skewer me.

“Okay, bitch,” Doxer panted a little bit. His foot came down on my stomach hard enough to drive the air out of me, and he raised his sword. “No more tricks. No more games. You’re done.”

“You,” I retorted despite the pain spread throughout… pretty much my entire body, “should really learn…” I coughed, spitting blood. “… to put your toys away.”

He blinked once, sword held high above me even as I brought my staff back up. The end was pointed at his face. And yet… it wasn’t alone. When I had smacked the grapple out of the way, it had gotten tangled up with my staff, until the grapple sat haphazardly on the end of it, almost like a three-pronged blade that had been lazily and poorly fastened to it.

“Wh–” the boy managed to get out before I triggered the last of the charge the staff had. The kinetic blast burst out of the end, shooting the grapple up and forward… straight through the bastard’s throat.

Doxer had time to look surprised, staggering back as his own weapon nearly took his head off. Blood poured from his throat as he clutched at the grapple, trying to tear it free even as he made a  terrible sound that would haunt me forever.

But I was on my feet. Well, on one foot. Ignoring the pain in my other leg, I brought my staff up and around as hard as I could. It slammed into the back of the grapple just as the boy was trying to yank it free of his throat. The force of that blow sent the thing forward, knocking it from his already-limp hands as the blades tore the rest of the way through his already horrifically injured throat.

He fell. Hands dropping to his sides, the boy collapsed, his head barely still attached. He was on the ground, blood pooling all around him as the light left his eyes.

In the background, I heard a scream from Trice. But I was already collapsing. Pain filled my body, and I couldn’t stand any longer. My staff fell from limp fingers to roll away along the ground.

But it was pain that was abruptly replaced by the greatest, most unbelievable pleasure I had ever felt, as the glow of my golden aura flooded the surrounding area, brighter than I had ever seen it. And in the end, the glow and the pleasure only reinforced one thing, one thought that rose above all others. 

Doxer… was… dead.  

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Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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“I’m sorry,” I announced later, “Our new hunt is gonna take place where, exactly?”

Yeah, it was time for the hunt. Which meant that the whole team was here. Not just the team, but Deveron as well, and Professor Dare. Which meant that, since finding out that Seosten couldn’t possess hybrids had cleared Vanessa and Tristan, there was about a ninety percent certainty that whoever that Seosten had possessed was actually in this room right now. Someone I trusted. It had to be someone I trusted, and there weren’t many candidates other than these people.

I just had to keep it together, knowing that one of the people around me was most likely plotting the murder of Avalon and enslavement of me and everyone I cared about. Right, no problem.

“Suarilia,” Professor Dare repeated, standing there with her hands behind her back in the portal room of the Pathmaker building. “It’s a small outpost world that was set–”

Columbus interrupted. “Okay, wait. Outpost world? As in, ‘not Earth’? You’re sending us to a different world for this hunt? I mean…” He gestured slightly. “Yeah, sure, living up to my namesake and all. But still.”

“Please,” I urged him, “don’t live up to your namesake. We’ve got enough evil people to deal with.”

Clearing her throat while giving us both a look, Sands asked, “Suarilia, I know that name. Wasn’t that the place where that outpost got wiped out by the Hangman a couple years ago?”

Professor Dare gave a slight nod. “Yes. The outpost was manned by roughly twenty Heretics and their assorted families, until they were attacked by a single Hangman. There were no survivors.”  

If he had been surprised before, now Columbus’s eyes widened even more. “Wait, what? You mean one Hangman killed… killed twenty Heretics? As in full Heretics, not just students?”

“Correct, Mr. Porter,” Dare confirmed. “It killed twenty full Heretics and their families, who were no slouches of their own. Hangmen,” she added flatly while frowning, “are no laughing matter.”

“But…”  Beside me, Sean swallowed hard, continuing. “You’re not sending us out to find the Hangman, right? I mean, yeah, we’re a pretty badass team, and I know Gaia wants to challenge us and all, but…” He trailed off, looking pale even as Vulcan nudged against him reassuringly.

It was Deveron who spoke up. “The Hangman’s dead already, don’t worry.” His face was serious as he added, “They sent enough Heretics to put the thing in the ground four or five times over. Hunted it right to the edge of the world and finished the damn thing off. Pericles was part of it.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in her sister’s ear then, and Sands spoke up for her after nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s a good point. Scout wants to know what we’re doing if there’s no more outpost and the thing that wiped it out is already dead. Did they bring the outpost back or something?”

Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, Deveron, and Professor Dare. Any of them could have been possessed by the Seosten. Any of them could actually be a threat. The thought was… well, it was really, really depressing. We had to get that damn choker away from Pace so that we could identify who was possessed and be done with this whole stupid paranoia bullshit.

Yeah, the choker. Unfortunately, Sands had heard the exact same thing I had from Namid. Which meant that there was no way for me to say that we should keep it secret from the others without, at the very least, drastically raising her suspicions if she was the one who was possessed. I’d had no way to suggest keeping quiet about it, so now the whole team knew what the choker could supposedly do. They’d all acted excited about the possibility, of course. And yet, there were good odds that, even if we did get to Pace, one of them was going to try to get rid of the thing before we could actually use it.

Oh well, we were just going to have to deal with that when the time came. I’d keep my eyes open and watch for any of them trying to make a move for it.

It did raise another question though. Why? We knew that Pace, Doxer, and Trice were working with the people who were trying to kill Avalon. And now we knew that at least a couple of those people were actually Seosten. So why would the Seosten allow Pace to walk around with some kind of magical artifact that allowed her to identify when they were possessing someone? How had that come about and why were they letting it continue in the first place?

It was just one of a few dozen questions I wanted to ask the crazy girl when the time came.

Meanwhile, Dare was explaining. “No, the outpost has not been resettled yet. But, we have been looking into it. And in the time the place was…” She paused, wincing a little before settling on, “abandoned, a few smaller threats have settled into the remains. They aren’t anywhere near the level of danger that the Hangman was, but they are still a potential problem. A problem that needs to be dealt with. Originally, the Committee was going to send a couple of regular hoplites in, but, well, they were convinced to allow this to be one of our normal training exercises instead.”

Normal, right. Because any of this ever turned out to be normal. Still, something else made me blink and raise a hand. “Uh, hoplites? You mean like the old Greek soldier guys with the spears?”

It was Deveron who explained. “You know how Runners are basically detectives or investigators? Hoplites are… uh, basically foot soldier-level Heretics. Usually, their recent graduates who haven’t really made a big name for themselves yet. They tend to get deployed onto new worlds that need a heavy Heretic presence to maintain our foothold in, but aren’t quite dangerous enough to warrant one of the more powerful people. Numbers, they’re basically about numbers. Plus,” he added thoughtfully, “It’s a way of letting younger, newer Heretics gain more power faster.”

I didn’t miss the fact that it also put the more easily expendable people out on the front lines. But he wasn’t wrong either. It was a good way of letting them gain power. Plus, he had said that they were used on worlds that didn’t actually need the more experienced Heretics. So I supposed there were both good and bad things about the system. Maybe I should wait on the whole judging thing.  

“Yes,” Dare was saying, “as I said, the Committee was convinced to allow students to investigate and handle the situation. Which means that you’ll have the opportunity to see an Outpost world.”

“Plus,” Sands put in, “going to a whole new world should make it harder for those assholes to come after Avalon again. Or at least make it easier to track them down if they do.”

Yeah, I thought to myself without speaking, but are you happy about that because it means your teammate is safer, or upset because it makes your job of trying to kill her that much harder?

Yup, I was gonna go ahead and make a firm declaration. Paranoia sucked. It really, really sucked.

******

As it turned out, Suarilia, or at least the part that the former Crossroads outpost had been located at, was dull and drab. The sky was gray, with wispy, sickly yellow clouds, and the single sun was a slightly blueish color that cast a tint over everything. Meanwhile, the soil was brownish-green, and the local equivalent of grass (which basically had a thin stalk similar to grass, only with a wider, circular top about a half inch across that made it more like clover) was rather bright orange. Which stood out pretty well against the otherwise gray landscape, but there wasn’t more than a few patches of the stuff here and there. Mostly it was the dull, off-green dirt.

The outpost itself, which Dare had informed us had been called Chantli, after the Aztec word for house, was almost like one of those old forts from the classic American West. Basically, the whole place was surrounded by ten foot tall metal walls that were about a foot thick. The walls were arranged in an octagon formation, with a guard tower at each of the eight corners that rose another ten feet higher. Meanwhile, there were about a dozen more buildings within the enclosure of the walls. One was placed directly in the center of the area and was obviously some kind of command post, while the one next to it looked like an infirmary of some kind. A third building closer to the entrance looked like an armory and supply center. And at the opposite side of the fort, furthest from the entrance, there was a place that had obviously been a combination cafeteria and entertainment lounge for people to relax and try not to go crazy out here.

Finally, the remaining eight buildings were set up with four near the western side of the fort and four near the eastern side. They were taller than the other structures, and were apparently living quarters for the twenty Heretics and their families that had been here. Apartments, basically.

Twenty Heretics, all of them wiped out by a single Hangman. That would have been basically one fifth of my entire class. Almost four entire teams. Basically everyone I even semi-regularly interacted with, all murdered by a single Hangman. That was… that… yeah, maybe that explained why we could have a graduating class of a hundred or so Heretics each year without completely overrunning everything. These outposts were dangerous places, and considering how many worlds were probably out there… yeah, I could see now why, even with a much longer general lifespan, they still needed to recruit and train as many students as they did.

Especially since Crossroads considered everything not-human to be a threat. Exactly how many worlds had we invaded? How many worlds were out there where the Alters who lived on it saw us the same way that we saw those alien monsters in all those sci-fi invasion movies? Or worse, how many worlds saw us as more like demons, who came from another dimension to destroy and kill everyone they loved? How many families, cities, entire civilizations had we destroyed?

“Uh, Flick?” Sean interrupted my musing as the six of us stood in the middle of the outpost grounds. “You alright over there? You look kind of… annoyed, I guess?”

“What’s wrong?” Deveron’s voice came through the communication button from where he and Dare had set up, close enough to intervene if anything happened. “Did you see something, or–”

“Down, boy,” I tried teasing to make him calm down. “I was just thinking about something else. Never mind, it’s okay.” Shaking it off, I focused. “So what are we looking for here?”

Before anyone could answer, Vulcan whined and trotted away from us. He was heading for the cafeteria. With a collective shrug, the rest of us followed after while keeping a wary eye out for the Strangers that had apparently taken up residence around this place. Or any other… interruptions.

In the cafeteria, which basically looked like a small cafe with an attached entertainment room, I immediately caught the scent of what smelled like burnt meat. A closer inspection of the corner revealed a pile of dark blue, circular excrement that had what I swore was tiny sparks dancing through it. The sparks came and went, almost like the poop itself was an almost-dead sparkler.

Sands groaned at the sight of the stuff, putting a hand to her head. “Oh, great, these things.”

“Hey, it could be worse,” Sean pointed out. “At least the assholes can’t fly.”

Avalon’s head shook as she sighed. “No, but they jump pretty well.”

Raising a hand to wave around, I gestured. “Anyone wanna help those of us who are still lost?”

Sands explained. “The uh, crap’s from something called a spinnevurr. Basically, think of a furry spider about as big as a Great Dane that can spin or spit webs that it can spontaneously ignite into flames any time it wants to. Oh, and they’re immune to any kind of fire or heat damage. Plus, they always know when one of their own kind is in trouble, even from far away. And… what else?” She looked curiously toward her sister, Avalon, and Sean to see if they added anything.

“Like Avalon said, they jump really far, really fast,” Sean put in. “Like, from one end of a basketball court to the other in one leap. And they like to throw out a lot of webs when they do. Webs that pretty much immediately catch fire and stick to whatever they’re attacking.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Right, so all the fun in the world, then. Marvelous.” Looking toward Columbus, I added, “Sounds like we’re dealing with Spider-Man and the Human Torch’s mutant love-child. Or children, whatever.”  

He nodded, making a face. “Sounds like a bad fanfic. So let’s find the things and wipe them out.”

We kept looking, finding more signs of the fire-spiders (mostly in the form of literal flaming poop), but none of the actual creatures themselves. However, our search eventually led to a hole in the south-eastern wall, near the tower there. The hole itself had obviously been burned through the metal, and there were several pieces of dark green, sticky webbing that smelled like kerosene.

“Guess this is where they came in and out,” Avalon murmured thoughtfully. She crouched near one of the bits of flammable webbing, careful not to touch it. “And they went that way.” Raising a hand, she pointed off through the drab gray landscape, where we could see a trail of the stuff.  

“Not just that way,” Sands put in, nodding toward Scout, who was pointing off in a different direction. “There’s stuff over there too.”

“And there,” Sean added with a grimace as he gestured yet a third way. “So we’ve got three different groups.”

“Attack one at a time?” Columbus asked, his hand moving to gently pat Vulcan on the head.

Avalon spoke up then. “No. We need to find these things and get rid of them, as efficiently as possible.” Her eyes glanced to me then as she explained, “It’s like Mason said, all spinnevurrs in a given… hive, tribe, group, whatever, are in constant contact with each other. Some kind of telepathic link. Or maybe it’s just empathic. The point is, they know when one of their own kind is in trouble, and they come running. Which means if we hit one group of them, the rest’ll come crawling out of the woodwork. And they’ll know exactly how to ambush us.”

“So we split up,” I murmured. “Two people for each group. Watch them, see what’s going on and make sure it’s safe to attack. Then we all jump them at the same time.”

There was a bit of discussion (and some argument) over the issue of splitting up. But in the end, it was the best way to handle the situation. We had to hit all the fire-spiders at the same time.

To that end, we split into partners. The twins went together, as did the boys. Which left Avalon and me to work our way along the first path that we had found. Together, the two of us followed the signs of the spinnevurrs over the dull brownish-green ground with patches of bright orange clover-grass.  Out here, I could also see what looked like the local equivalent of trees. They were really tall (for Earth standards, still tiny as far as Eden’s Garden was concerned), standing about forty feet high. Instead of a single solid trunk, they had what looked like dozens of thin vines all wrapped around each other tightly, forming a sort-of rope-like trunk. More vine-structures emerged at various heights like branches, with bright purple bits sticking out of them that were shaped like triangles. They looked like the ‘tree’s’ version of leaves, except several times thicker. Maybe a combination of leaves and fruit. I wasn’t sure.

Either way, we followed the path while keeping in contact with the rest of the team as well as Dare and Deveron. Gradually, the two of us worked our way to the top of a slight hill. As soon as we were up there, Avalon yanked me down while ducking herself.

“There,” she announced, pointing to a spot in a small field below. I could see four of the things there. Sure enough, they looked like fuzzy tarantulas that happened to be as big as Vulcan. They were an eclectic assortment of color combinations. One was bright orange with violet stripes along its back. Another one, the largest, was neon blue with red polka dots. Meanwhile, the third and forth were basically mirror images of each other. One was lime green and had black diagonal stripes going down both sides, while the other was black with lime green stripes.

Using the communication badge, I contacted the others. “We’ve got ours,” I murmured. “Four right below us.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the team to report that they’d found their own targets. Together, we waited until everyone had announced that they were ready. Finally, Avalon counted down so that we could all hit them simultaneously.

Then, it was time. Avalon announced, “Go,” and we were moving. She simply leapt off the hill, while I used a burst from my staff to throw myself into the air in order to come down on the spider-things from above.

And yet… in the end, it didn’t matter. As we both landed, ready to deal with the spiders, there was a sudden gunshot. No, four gunshots. Instantly, all four of the spinnevurrs simply… disintegrated

Avalon and I both spun toward the source of the gunshots, and found ourselves staring at two figures.

“Well,” Trice announced, flipping the rifle he was holding around until it transformed back into the pike that I had already seen. “That was a fun appetizer. How about the main course?” His chin lifted. “Of course, I’ll feel worse about putting down the spiders than you, you murdering cunt.”

Doxer, beside him, added, “Oh, and don’t worry about calling in or anything.” He tossed a small silver orb up and down once. “You won’t get through the jamming. But don’t worry, we already set up some pre-recorded messages to go off so they’ll think everything’s fine. As far as everyone else is concerned, you guys are just fighting the spinnevurrs, just like them.”

“Honestly,” he added, clearly far more amused by this whole situation than Trice was. Torv’s brother was just pissed off and lashing out with that hate and anger. Doxer was actually having fun. “You guys made this whole thing too easy. You think it’s hard for us to get to another world with you? With our contact? Pfft.”

“You’re here,” I spoke dully, feeling Avalon tense beside me. “You actually came all the way out here.”     

“Aww, don’t tell us you’re surprised,” the dark-skinned boy mocked us with a smirk. “We RSVP’d and everything.”

“Surprised?” I echoed, slowly turning my gaze to look at the girl beside me. “Were you surprised?”

Without glancing my way, Avalon kept her eyes leveled evenly at Trice. Her words were flat. “No.”

Shrugging, I looked back to the older boys. “See, she wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised. But there was…” Slowly, I tapped my finger against my head while speaking thoughtfully. “… someone, there was someone who was about to be surprised. Now who was–” Abruptly, I stopped. “Oh, right. You. You were the ones who were about to be surprised. Cantaloupe.”

“Cantaloupe?” Doxer started to snort. “What the fuck kind of last word is that supposed to–”   

And yet, as I said the word, a pale-blue, semi-translucent wall of energy rose up all around us, closing into a dome about a hundred feet across, with a ceiling that was twenty feet up. The result of a spell, a spell that had been prepared by Wyatt several hours earlier, long before any of us had come here.

“The hell?” Doxer muttered aloud while reaching out. As his hand touched the shield, there was a zap of energy and he stumbled back with a curse. His gaze snapped to his partner before he cursed again, adding, “Those two didn’t make this shit. It’s gonna take some time to get through.”

Tilting my head thoughtfully, I cut in. “You guys were right about one thing. This is a trap. Just not exactly the kind you thought it was.”

Because the truth was, acting surprised about where we were going earlier had been just that: an act. I knew. Gaia, Wyatt, Avalon, and I had planned it, had planned for all of this. Gaia sent us to this separate world to ensure that there was no easy way for any innocent civilians to get caught in the middle, no hostages for them to take. Nothing to distract from what was about to happen.  Wyatt had set up the shield spell ahead of time to make sure we wouldn’t be interrupted. And we made sure to separate from the rest of the team to draw in our would-be ambushers, as well as making sure that whoever the Seosten spy was, they wouldn’t see what was going on. Not only would the magical shield trap them here so they couldn’t run away, but it would also ensure that any listening devices or other ways of keeping in touch with their contact wouldn’t be able to give any kind of warning. They were cut off entirely from outside assistance.

“No one leaves,” Avalon drew their attention back to her. “No one comes in. It’s just you and us.”

“You and us, huh?” Trice snorted. He cracked his neck by turning his head from one side and then to the other. “Sounds like you’re finally gonna get what’s coming to you, bitch.”

Doxer’s head shook. “Nah, you know what it sounds like to me?” He winked. “Two helpless little girls. Sounds like a party.”  

“You think we’re helpless?” My staff slid down in my grip a bit, and I snapped it out to the side.

“Come find out.”

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Interlude 21 – Roxa

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For as long as she could remember, Roxanne ‘Roxa’ Pittman had been accustomed to eyes following her whenever she entered a room. As a child, she had been judged by the other orphans. With her pretty blonde hair and bright blue eyes, there had been plenty of others in the foster system who saw her as a threat to their own ability to be adopted. And of course, there were the parents themselves, people who were basically auditioning kids to be part of their family. Everything she said, everything she did, everything she was had constantly been judged.

Once she’d run away from her last foster family at the age of nine (after stabbing the abusive father with a knife when he tried to touch her), people had started watching Roxa for a variety of other reasons. She was a blonde girl out on the street. Some people watched her for… less than savory reasons, while others simply wanted to help. But their way of ‘helping’ was usually to call the cops. And the police would just take her back to the system that she’d already given up on.

Then there were the people who watched her not for either of those reasons, but because they saw a thief, a ratty, dirty girl out on the streets who stole from them. They saw her as something less than human because she had no roof over her head, no family to live with, no school to go to. They saw her as something to kick out of their stores, away from their paying customers and out from under their roofs. They watched her, judged her, and wanted to make her disappear.

The point was that throughout every ‘phase’ of her life, Roxa had been watched and judged by people who didn’t actually know her. Whether they thought she was a criminal, a potential daughter, a little thug who belonged in prison, or a clueless Silverstone in the case of her recent Heretic classmates, everyone had their opinion based on little more than looking at her.

And now… well, now she was still being watched and judged for several reasons. Some of them just as familiar as they had always been, while others were… somewhat new.

The door of the bar that Roxa stepped into had barely closed behind her when a massive form stepped into her path. Her head tilted up to find a big black guy, a few inches over six feet tall and built like a truck, standing there. He eyed her before rumbling, “Little young, aren’t ya?”  

“It’s my birthday,” she replied, hand smoothly tugging the driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. She held it up for the man to see the date, which proudly proclaimed her to be twenty-one as of that morning. It was a lie, of course. Well, mostly. Her birthday was that day, but she definitely hadn’t turned twenty-one. The fake ID was a few years off. She was actually eighteen.

“Well, happy birthday to you,” the bouncer announced, handing the ID back with a shrug. “But the dog can’t come in.” He jabbed a finger past Roxa, to the animal that entered alongside her.  

Roxa’s gaze followed his, and she glanced down to what looked, for the moment, like a rather large doberman. “Gidget,” she spoke easily, waiting for her hologram-covered robotic cougar to look up at her. “Wait outside, girl.” Gesturing back to the door, she repeated, “Outside.”

Gidget made a noise of disagreement, but turned and plodded back out the door before parking herself next to the entrance.

The bouncer looked like he was going to say something else about it, but in the end, he just grunted and stepped aside to let the girl walk past.

In the background, Roxa’s werewolf hearing picked up the mutter of a man describing what he’d like to do for her birthday. She ignored it, along with the chortles of his companions at the table.

Her attention, instead, was focused on the other end of the bar, where two pool tables were set up. Specifically, on the handful of men whose eyes had been on her since she entered. Like the others in the bar, they were judging her. But their judgment was very… very different.

The bar was busy, yet only those three were at the pool tables. Two-thirds of the bar was taken up by a couple dozen steadily-drinking customers, while the other third was taken up by these three men and the two pool tables. They used one, while their jackets lay over the other. None of the other patrons challenged that fact, or even approached. They knew better.

The pool-playing men’s eyes stayed on her as she approached, gazes never wavering. Three of them, all standing there with pool cues in hand as their lips tightened. Their senses were obviously yelling at them as much as Roxa’s had been shouting its warning in her ear from the moment she’d seen them.

One of the werewolves, a dark-skinned man with the tattoo of a bison on his exposed bicep half-muttered and half-snarled as she drew near enough, “You come in here to start shit, little baby Heretic, you might bite off more than you can chew. Maybe a hell of a lot more.”

“Give it another sniff, Vince,” one of the other men cut in. “She ain’t just a Heretic. Not unless they’ve been getting damn sight more accommodating than they used to be.” He gave her a long look then, eyebrows raised. “Close my eyes and use my nose, I smell a wolf. Open my eyes and ignore my nose, I see a Heretic. So which are ya really, kid? Heretic or wolf?”

For a moment, Roxa just looked at the man. He had red hair that had been fashioned into a simple crew cut, and was very slightly balding in the front. If he was human, she would have put his age at around forty-five. But for a werewolf, she had no idea. They aged slower than humans, that much she knew. But she wasn’t good enough to even make a wild guess.

Finally, as the man’s two companion (the black guy named Vince and another man with long dirty blond hair) pushed away from the pool table with hard looks, she responded. “Last time I checked, ignoring either your nose or your eyes was a bad idea. Why not listen to both of them?”

“A werewolf-Heretic,” the red-haired man muttered, head shaking slowly. “Now I’ve seen everything. Most times one of your kind get turned, his ‘friends’ make it a special a point to get rid of him. Or her. So why’re you special? And the point was, you here as what I can see, or here as what I can smell? Werewolf or Heretic, which one just walked into my favorite bar?”

“I’m not here to start a fight,” Roxa replied simply. “Does it really matter what I am beyond that? I’m just here to ask for information. Information that I can pay for.” From her pocket, she produced a roll of fifty-dollar bills, counting off four of them before putting them on the pool table. “For taking the time to talk to me. The rest of it if you answer my questions.”

The blond man, the only one who hadn’t spoken yet, snatched the money off the table and passed three of the four bills over to his obvious leader. “What do ya wanna know? Maybe then we decide if we wanna talk, or just take the population of Heretic-Wolves back down to zero.”

“A man named Lemuel.” Roxa watched each of their reactions closely. “I’m looking for him.”

The red-haired leader gave an obvious snarl. “You looking to join up with that bastard, pup, and we’ll have more problems than that wad o’bills you’ve got there can get your ass out of. His kind’s less welcome here than yours is. So if he’s the one you’re looking for, go on and piss off.”

Raising a single shoulder in a shrug, Roxa continued to meet the man’s gaze while casually replying, “I’m not looking to join him. I’m looking to kill him.”

That drew a laugh from the blond man, who ran a hand back through his long hair and gave her a mocking smirk. “Got news for you, pup, Lemuel’s pack’ll tear you down to the bones before you get within twenty feet of the old prick. You might think you’re hot shit cuz you’ve got werewolf mixed in with Heretic, but you ain’t nothing but a bug on a windshield to someone like Lemuel.”

“That’s enough, Silas,” the red-haired leader informed his subordinate before looking back to Roxa. “But he ain’t wrong. You go after Lemuel, his pack’ll take you apart. And if you’re looking for him, you came to the wrong bar. Wrong neighborhood. Wrong zip code. His kind ain’t welcome here. This is my territory, and I don’t like people like that fucking up the peace and quiet. Wolves like Lemuel and his kind, they draw attention. Attention we’d rather avoid.”    

Roxa’s head turned slightly, and she sniffed twice. Two more–no, three more werewolves had entered the room. She could smell one standing by the entrance that she had come in, while two others stood by the hall that led to the restroom and the emergency exit. Clearly, all three had been summoned as backup in case she started something. Six werewolves, all watching her every move, several of them itching for any excuse to put her down.

“I dunno, Tomas,” the black guy, Vince, remarked. “She might make a good recruit, if you talk her out of this suicide plan. Heretic-wolf on our side? Could add a lot of muscle to the pack.”

Before the leader, Tomas, could respond to that, Roxa shook her head. “Not interested. Like I said, I’m here for information. I just have one question. And that question is…” Holding up the wad of bills so that every wolf in the crowded room could see it, she finished, “Which one of you is working with Lemuel to kill Tomas and take over so that he can absorb your pack into his?”

Well, if she wanted to get their attention, Roxa sure succeeded then. Silas took a quick step forward. His hand caught her arm, while his other hand took her opposite shoulder. In an instant, Roxa was shoved hard up against the nearby wall with enough force to rattle it. “The fuck did you just say?” he snarled, showing teeth that went from human to sharp canine for a moment.

In the background, she saw a few of the patrons looking over at the disturbance. One stood up and made as though to approach, but the bouncer stopped him. Leaning closer to her would-be rescuer, he whispered something that was too quiet even for her hearing to pick up from across the bar.

The man who had stood up gave Roxa one more look, then made for the door. Around him, most of the other customers did the same. None looked at her, or so much as glanced in that direction. They all left, followed eventually by the bouncer himself. In the end, even the bartender made himself scarce through a door labeled as being for the staff.

Another wolf had entered in the interim. Seven of them. Seven wolves all standing at various parts of the room, and each of them staring at Roxa. One of whom still held her pressed against the wall, the sharp claws of his fingers digging painfully into her skin.

“I think,” Tomas started while moving behind Silas to lay a hand on the man’s shoulder, “that you should leave. Questioning my pack’s loyalty, not your best move, pup. But you walk out now without looking back, and I’ll let you go.” He paused, amending, “We will all let you go.”

Instead, Roxa watched the eyes of the man holding her. The words she spoke, however, were for Tomas. “I wasn’t questioning the loyalty of your pack. Only one of them. The one that’s been talking to Lemuel for the past week, making plans to kill you. Like I said, he kills you, takes over the pack, and Lemuel absorbs them into his own. He gets your territory, your people, and all it costs him are whatever it took to buy off whichever one of these guys is your personal Judas.”

Over the sound of the chorus of growls that came from every werewolf in the room, Tomas carefully, yet dangerously spoke. “Is that what I get for giving you a chance to leave? You’re still trying to make my people doubt each other? You the one working with Lemuel? That the plan? You come in, try to make us all start snapping at each other and then he picks up the pieces?”

Shifting as she was held against that wall, Roxa quietly asked, “Can I say one more thing?”

“Kid,” Tomas replied, “deep as the hole that you keep digging yourself into is, my suggestion is that you stop talking. But if you insist on going on with that shovel, I ain’t gonna stop you. Yet.”

Her head bowed in a nod. “Like I said. I just need to say one more thing. Namy, you done?”

While the wolves were trying to work out what that meant, the pixie in question flew straight down from the overhead light where she had been perched. “Yup! Nice distraction, Roxa.” She hovered down beside the blonde girl’s head, announcing, “We’re a badass, bitchin’ team.”

The other nearest wolf, Vince, grabbed for the pixie. But Roxa quickly slipped free of Silas’s grip. Twisting and ducking under his arm, she put herself between the black wolf and her diminutive partner, raising a hand to stop him. “Wait,” she snapped.

Her attention turned to Tomas. “My friend here did one thing while I was making sure that you called all these guys in to deal with me. She hacked their phones with this.” Holding her hand out, she waited for Namythiet to produce what looked like a simple red orb about the size of a tennis ball. The pixie simply pulled it out of the vastly smaller pouch at her waist, a simple feat for the race that had invented the extradimensional storage spaces that so many Heretics used to store things like their weapons.

Under the watchful, distrustful stares of seven werewolves, Roxa turned the orb over. There was a single button on the side. “See, Namythiet’s a Hephaestetical pixie. In other words, she really likes technology. And she’s really, really good with it. So like I said, she hacked their phones. And this thing,” she continued while tossing the orb up and then catching it. “Is gonna play back a very… special conversation that one of your people had on their phone a few minutes before I walked in here. You hear that conversation, then we’ll see whether I’m still your biggest problem.”

Tomas gave her a long, silent look for a moment before flatly insisting, “I trust my people.”

In response, Roxa’s thumb pressed the button on the orb. As she did, there was an audible click. Silas’s hand lashed out to smack the ball out of her hand, sending it across the room while the blond man himself backhanded her across the face with his other hand.

Yet even as Roxa hit the wall once more, with the other wolves lunging to get their piece of her, a voice filled the room from the orb, which had rolled under the nearby pool table.

“Tonight,” Lemuel’s voice insisted with obvious annoyance. “We’re not waiting around anymore. Get it done, or the deal’s off. You really think you can hold that pack together without my help? No more excuses. No more delays. Kill Tomas tonight, or he won’t be the one you have to worry about. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” a now-familiar voice replied. “I got it. He’ll be dead by morning, you have my word. Just stick to your side of the deal. I don’t wanna be fucked over when this is done.”

The recording stopped, and every eye in the room turned toward the source of that familiar voice.

“Vince,” Tomas spoke in a voice that was far more dangerous than any tone he had used with Roxa. “You wanna explain that one?”

The black werewolf’s head shook rapidly. “It’s a trick. It’s a trap. It’s a–” Abruptly, he spun. His hand lashed out, and Roxa barely had time to see a knife with a silver blade pop into his hand before it tore into Silas’s throat. He gave the suddenly-bleeding man a hard kick straight into Tomas before spinning back to sprint straight for the door that the bartender had gone through.

The rest of the wolves were caught flat-footed, shocked by their packmate’s sudden betrayal. They were so surprised, that Vince was able to make it through the staff door before anyone else moved.

Anyone, that was, except for Roxa. She was already on the fleeing werewolf’s tail, calling back, “Help him, Namy!”

Lunging up and over the bar, she went through the still-swinging door in time to see Vince crashing through another one at the far end that led out into the alley behind the bar.

In the alley, Vince was already yanking a motorcycle around that had been resting against the wall there. He glanced over his shoulder, gave her a dark glare, and then took off with a squeal of tires and the loud roar of the bike’s engine.

For most werewolves, that would have been the end of it. They were fast in human form, but not as fast as a motorcycle. And changing into wolf-form would’ve taken far too long, even for those who were very good at it.

But Roxa wasn’t most werewolves. She was a werewolf-Heretic. And the very first power, aside from the peridle’s healing ability, that she had absorbed during her time at Crossroads had been enhanced speed. It didn’t let her break the sound barrier, or even move as fast as a good car could get up to. But she could reach speeds approaching seventy miles per hour. And she put that speed to work catching up with the man on the motorcycle.

Whistling sharply, she sprinted after the fleeing figure. Vince hit the end of the street and took a sharp left, tires screaming in protest.  

Roxa, meanwhile, pivoted and ran straight for the nearest building. Summoning all the strength that she could, the girl leapt high enough to barely catch hold of the bottom of the fire escape. With a grunt, she hauled herself up and onto the metal railing there. Instead of continuing to climb that way, however, the blonde girl threw herself off the fire escape. Her feet landed on the edge of a windowsill further up, and she jumped from there back to the metal railing on the next landing up.

She continued that way, jumping from window to fire escape to climb much faster than simply using the stairs. With the shortcut combined with her own enhanced speed, the girl was on the roof of the building within a handful of seconds.

Hitting the roof, she took off to the other side, arriving just in time to see Vince far below as the man completed his turn around the corner and began racing away, perpendicular to the way he had been going before.

Roxa didn’t hesitate. Still sprinting, feet kicking up small pebbles from the roof, she leapt out into the open air. Her feet windmilled a few times as she soared across the width of the entire street, before landing on the roof of the building on the opposite side. She stumbled slightly, but caught herself, glanced down at the motorcycle on the street below, and kept running.

Still, despite her enhanced speed and elevated position, Vince was already pulling away. The motorcycle wasn’t stopped by traffic, able to weave in and out as needed, and could even leap onto the sidewalk where it needed to. Other cars, or even pedestrians, weren’t an issue. He was slowly, but steadily, pulling away.

But Roxa wouldn’t let that happen. Taking three more steps to the edge of the last building, she leapt off while giving another sharp whistle. Rather than jumping toward the next roof, she leapt down toward the fleeing motorcycle.

As she plummeted, Roxa saw a small metal figure racing along the road far below. An instant later, Gidget threw herself up, transforming in mid-air. The robot cougar shifted into her hoverboard form, flying straight up at an angle that let her intercept the blonde girl in mid-fall.

Catching herself on the board, Roxa angled to continue the chase. The board streaked down, pulling up a bare foot from the pavement before leveling out.

Now the motorcycle wasn’t nearly as much of an advantage. And despite the time that it had taken for her to join up with Gidget, Roxa had managed to stop Vince from gaining an insurmountable lead. He was only at the other end of the block when she got her board under control. And that distance was about to shrink rapidly.

A car was coming straight for her, horn blaring. Roxa simply angled her board up, flying slightly higher to go up and over. On the far side of the car, which was already screeching to a stop, she kept going without even glancing back.

Another car, weave to the right. Doing so put her right up against a moving truck, so she angled the board to ride along the side of it, even as Gidget put out straps to hold Roxa’s feet to the board so that she could fly along basically sideways without falling off.  

More cars, coming and going. None presented much of an obstacle for the combination of Gidget’s maneuverability and Roxa’s own reflexes. She flew around, over, and in the case of one particular semi-truck, under the vehicles without taking her eyes off of her quarry.

Through it all, she had no idea what the normal humans were seeing while this was going on. A particularly skilled skateboarder? What the hell was the Bystander Effect showing them?

She had no idea, and no time to worry about it. Angling  around another truck and onto a side street, Roxa barely managed to see the massive, gray-furred figure before it lunged at her. The thing was bigger than a normal human, it looked like what a normal human would call a sasquatch, an enormous furry form with long arms, thick fur, and a combination of nasty claws and teeth. It was clearly a werewolf in his half-wolf, half-man form.

Just as clearly, he had been waiting for Roxa. It wasn’t Vince. Even the fastest-changing werewolf wouldn’t have been able to switch that quickly from the time that she had lost sight of him. This was a different wolf.

Kicking off the board as the furry, overly-muscled figure lunged at her, Roxa threw herself into the air. She sailed over her attacker’s head, while Gidget flew under his outstretched arms.

Both landed on the other side of him. Roxa caught herself on her feet, while Gidget shifted into her cougar form.

The motorcycle had stopped, idling just down the street while Vince himself stepped off and shoved it aside. The man turned, glaring back at Roxa.

Meanwhile, the wolf-man was already facing her. Towering over the blonde, he showed his teeth and gave a chuckle. “Good dodge, girl,” he informed her, his voice thick with mockery.

“Not that it matters,” another voice cut in as a third werewolf stepped into view from the opposite side of the small, narrow side street, cutting off that avenue of escape as well.

“Yeah, what do you think of that, huh, cunt!?” That was Vince. The man stalked back over, his glare hateful and vindictive. “You really think Lemuel would just leave me by myself back there without having a couple watchers? Now you just–”

One of the other two werewolves, the one in human form, just looked at him. Vince immediately fell silent. Then the newcomer spoke. “You can fight if you want. But we outnumber you three to one. In the end, you’ll tell us everything we want to know about what the hell you’re doing here and what you want with Lemuel.” He smiled faintly. “I hope you try fighting. It’s more fun that way.”

“Your math’s a little wrong,” Roxa informed him, standing there with her guard up. “It’s not three on one.”

The man’s eyes flicked down toward Gidget, and he shrugged a bit dismissively. “If you want to count your little metal friend, be my guest. Three on one or three on two, it won’t help.”  

Slowly, Roxa shook her head. “I wasn’t talking about her. And it’s not three on two.”

From both sides of the street, more figures appeared. Wolves. Five of them.

“Actually,” the blonde girl continued almost conversationally as the rest of her pack stalked into view, surrounding the men who had thought that they were surrounding her.

“It’s more like six on three.”

******

“Sorry for giving your little pup there a hard time.”

About an hour after that little fight, Roxa and the rest of her pack were back in the bar. This time, the others were all in human form. The man speaking was Tomas. Beside him sat Silas. The blond man was still injured, since the silver from Vince’s blade wouldn’t regenerate the way most injuries did. But it had been bandaged up, and Namythiet had helped to make sure that the man didn’t bleed out before the man’s packmates could get to him.

“It’s all right,” Mateo replied, speaking up for his own pack. “The whole reason she came in here by herself was to draw attention. We had to give Namythiet over there a chance to get into their phones, and do it publicly so you knew what was going on. After that, we figured your traitor would run right to wherever his handlers from Lemuel’s pack were. Just had to make them believe that she was on her own so they’d show themselves.”

“You get what you needed from them?” Tomas asked before slowly turning to look at the far corner, where the unconscious, heavily injured form of Vince himself was trussed up. “Because I don’t mind asking my old friend a few more questions.”

“We got enough before his men died,” Mateo assured him. “We know where Lemuel’s pack is heading next. Which means we can get ahead of them.”

Tomas shook his head. “Still think you’re crazy, going after that psycho. I’ve got a hard enough time just keeping his bastards out of my territory.” His eyes glanced toward Vince again. “… though maybe I ain’t doing as good of a job on that as I thought.”

“Lemuel and his super-pack are a problem that’s not gonna go away,” Mateo intoned flatly. “They keep getting bigger. He’s snatching Alter and human kids, turning them, building his forces. He’s gonna keep expanding until someone stops him, until that pack gets broken up.”

For a moment, Tomas didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, hand Silas’s shoulder. Finally, he asked, “You asking for help, Mateo? Cuz I don’t have the freedom you’ve got. I can’t go traipsing all over the country hunting these guys down. My pack leaves here, and another one is gonna move into our territory. We live here. This is our home.”

Mateo shook his head. “Not asking you to wander around with us. Just asking you to be ready. If we can get Lemuel’s pack in open ground, find them in a good spot, we’re gonna need help. We’ve got Wonderland backing us up, but having another pack like yours, that’d be good too.”

Tomas was silent again. He seemed to be considering things for several long seconds before eventually letting out a long sigh. “Yeah,” he muttered. “If something ain’t done, that son-of-a-bitch is gonna ruin everything. And he already came after us once. Turned one of my own people, one of my friends.” Grimacing then, he nodded. “You find a good way of hitting them, get to a point where all you need is numbers, you let us know.”

The two pack leaders shook on it, before Tomas glanced to Roxa. “You ever get tired of running around with this guy, you let me know, pup. You’ve earned a place here. Heard you even killed one of those fucks yourself.”

It was true. Roxa had killed the one who had threatened her. And after doing so, she had absorbed some of his power. She was still a Heretic. A Heretic and a werewolf. What did that mean? Absorbing some of a werewolf’s power while she herself already was a werewolf? What would it do? 

Swallowing, she slowly shook her head. “Thanks, but I think I’m okay.”

Her eyes turned, taking in the sight of Fezzik gleefully poring over the jukebox with Namythiet’s help, a still-bloody Lesedi steadily drinking two of Tomas’s pack under the table, Hasty teaching three other wolves to dance while loudly bitching at Fezzik to pick a song and stick to it, and Corson playing cards with another wolf while trying to pretend that he didn’t know what he was doing.

“It’s like Mateo always says,” Roxa murmured mostly under her breath. “Pack isn’t just friends.

“It’s family.”

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The Third Degree 21-06

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When I’d first met Namid, that time back when she and that one guy, Hue, had found Shiori and me talking (and just talking) in the storage room, I’d thought that she looked like the stereotypical thug. Now? Well, now I had pretty much the exact same impression.  

As she opened the door to let us in, I gave the older girl a quick once-over. She wore a white button-up shirt identical to any of the school uniforms, except hers had the sleeves cut off all the way to the shoulders. On her bare arms, I could see what looked like tribal tattoos running all the way down to her wrists. And instead of the normal uniform jacket, Namid wore a sleeveless denim vest with a bunch of patches of various bands that I didn’t recognize all over it.

“Oh,” she announced succinctly upon seeing us, “it’s you guys.” Gesturing as she pivoted to walk back into the room, the girl added, “Come on then, you might as well get in here.”

Sands and I looked at each other briefly before stepping inside. I leaned back to close the door before glancing around the room. It was pretty similar to the first year dorms, except a little big bigger. And in the middle of the room, between the two beds, there was a terrarium (or was it an aquarium? It was sort half-land and half-water) with two turtles in it. One was swimming around in the water portion while the other seemed to be sunning itself on the pebbles under the lamp.

Noticing me looking at the tank, Namid gestured to the turtle in the water, then the one on the rocks. “That’s Laird and that’s Eastman. Say hi, boys.” She made a finger motion, and a plate by the tank flew up and over to me until I caught it out of the air. On the plate there were some green beans and cabbage. “Feed the boys if you want,” the girl added while sitting on her bed. “They’ve been good. Oh, and there’s some worms in the cupboard under the tank. Mix it up.”   

Glancing toward Sands again, I shrugged before stepping over to feed the turtles. “Now, don’t get jealous, Herbie,” I instructed the rock while taking him out of my pocket so he could sit on the edge of the tank. “You know you’ll get fed tonight. Can’t have you going off your diet.”

In the background, I heard Namid ask conversationally, “So uh, your teammate, was she always this fucking crazy, or did the constant ambushes and attacks just finally make her snap?”

The casual shrug in Sands’ voice was obvious even without looking. “She brought the rock with her before the first day even started, so I’m gonna go with ‘she was always like this.’”

“Hey,” I retorted after letting Laird eat a green bean out of my hand, “I might’ve already been a crazy person, but now I’m a superpowered crazy person, with special Kung Fu action.” To demonstrate, I made a few chopping and punching motions vaguely in the air with my free hand.

“Eh,” the older girl shrugged. “At least your crazy is directed toward anthropomorphizing rocks and shit. I’ve seen much worse outlets for the kind of shit you’ve been going through this year.”   

She didn’t know the half of it. Shaking my head, I reached down to get under the tank and found the bucket she had been talking about. It was full of dirt, and I could see the worms squirming around inside. With Namid’s eyes on me, watching curiously, I reached into the dirt and dug through it to find a long one. Taking it out, I looked at the writhing, wiggling thing for a second before feeding it to one of the turtles. “Lots of people go through shit around here,” I muttered.

Before the other girl could say anything to that, Sands cut in. “That’s kinda why we want to get this extra credit thing done. You know, before anything else happens to fuck up our work again.”

“Sure, sure, right.” Raising an eyebrow pointedly, Namid held her hand out and waited expectantly until Sands put what looked like two twenty dollar bills in her palm. Then the older girl glanced at them, rubbed both with her fingers, and slid them away into a pocket with a smile. “Perfect,” she announced with a grin. “If nothing else, you freshmen are always good to make a little pocket change off of. What was it you needed for Project Kiss-The-Teacher’s-Ass again?”

Remembering what Sands had said our excuse was, I replied, “Our project’s on ancient Native American Heretics. Specifically, Native American Heretics and the magic artifacts they used.”  

Gesturing, Namid instructed, “Hey, make sure Laird gets a worm too. Don’t let Eastman hog everything.” Watching for another second to make sure I was feeding both turtles properly, she finally focused on our issue. “Anyway, so you’re going all Indiana Jones, huh? I mean, admit it, Old Indy going after some kind of big Native artifact and getting chased by a Skinwalker or something would’ve been a hell of a lot better than whatever the fuck that alien shit was.”  

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I coughed and nodded. “Sure, but does that mean you know a lot about it? We figured talking to someone like you would be better than digging into a book.”

“Or at least a little less boring,” Sands added while rolling her eyes. “Not all of us are Vanessa.”

“Hey, you paid for it,” Namid replied, clearly defensively. “I might like taking cash out of you adorable little freshmens’ hands, but I earn every fucking penny. I don’t cheat. You paid for good stuff, I’ll give you enough shit to make Dare wanna make you a guest lecturer or something. ”

“You really know that much about that stuff?” I asked hesitantly, making myself sound unsure about all of it. “ We were gonna ask Aylen, but she’s a uh, Bystander-kin, so she doesn’t know.”

Sands nodded. “Yeah, Silverstones aren’t exactly that useful to get extra information out-”

“Hey,” the older girl snapped surprisingly, squinting at her. “Don’t use that word. I don’t like it.”

Blinking, Sands glanced to me before hesitantly asking, “What word? Silverstone? It’s just a–”

“I know what it is,” Namid informed her. “And I also don’t care what anyone dresses it up as. It’s a word they use to separate people who grew up with Heretics from those who didn’t. And we’ve already got one of those. Bystander-Kin. Silverstone started as an insult. Clueless. Doesn’t matter if they don’t mean it that way now. It’s still an insult. So, you use the word again, and we’ve got problems. Problems that forty bucks ain’t gonna get your little twin ass out of, got it?”

Still looking a little surprised by the other girl’s hot retort, Sands quickly nodded. “Uh, sure. Okay. I just uhh–” She coughed, looking toward me for help after failing to find more words.

“She didn’t mean it like that,” I hurriedly put in before gesturing. “All she was saying was that Aylen doesn’t know much about the Heretic side of things because she wasn’t born into it.”

“True,” Namid agreed before adding, “so let’s get into it. You wanna know about artifacts, you came to the right person. You might say that my family has a… certain history with them.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before offering, “You’ve got relatives that collect them?”

The older girl raised an eyebrow at that. “You could say that. My great… great… something great-aunt Litonya collects them. Or she used to, before…”

“Litonya?” Sands jumped on the opportunity. “You mean Litonya from the Committee? She’s your relative?”

“And what do you mean, ‘she used to’?” I added.

Snorting at that, Namid shrugged. “Not that she’s very proud of that fact, but sure, yeah. We’re related. Great-Aunt Litty, she fucking hates it when I call her that, by the way. Like I said, she used to collect all those artifacts. I guess she still does, but she lost most of her collection about a year or so ago.”

“Lost it?” I repeated, trying my best to make it sound like this was just an interesting extra bit, rather than the exact thing we’d come to find out. “How’d that happen?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in then, “Didn’t she keep the important things in a blood-vault?”

Namid shrugged again. “Usually, yeah. But a couple times a year, she had them taken out to be cleaned, examined, and processed. You know, in case any of the artifacts she had could be used to handle any outstanding cases. They’d go through the worst problems the adult Heretics have been dealing with, then look through all those old artifacts and see if any of them could help.”

“That’s… useful,” I murmured before looking at the older girl. “But it didn’t go so well that time?”

Her eyes rolled. “You could say that. Should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty bitch about it. Apparently some pack of werewolves jumped the examiners while they were cleaning everything. Got away with about three-quarters of her collection before she showed up. Of course, they also killed four Heretics in the process, but what Litty actually cared about was her precious fucking treasure.”

Right, so all those items, probably including the Ring of Anuk-Ité, had been stolen by a pack of werewolves. Obviously, it was the same pack that Pace was part of. Lemuel’s pack. But that didn’t explain why the ring was now a choker. And I couldn’t exactly be that open about it.

Instead, I tried to get there from another angle. “Why couldn’t Litonya track the artifacts down again? I mean, you’d think she’d have some kind of magic tracking spell stuck onto them or something if they were that valuable.”

“Sure, of course they did.” Namid nodded. “But apparently the wolves either knew magic or knew someone else who could use it, because they blocked the tracking spells. Erased them somehow. I dunno, but trust me, if Litty had a way of tracking them down, she would’ve by now. Especially that fucking ring.”

Struggling not to verbally leap on that too much, I coughed, looking at Sands and back again before trying to sound casual. “Ring?”

“Ring of Anuk-Ité,” she replied. “Fuck, you should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty go on and on and on about that thing. It’s why she put the extra protection on it. Not that it helped, which just pissed her off more.”

“What–umm, what extra protection?” Sands asked before I could.

Namid sat up on her bed then while answering, “The ring’s one-of-a-kind. I mean literally one-of-a-kind. Nothing else even remotely like it. So Litty put some kind of… fuck, I dunno what it’s called. Some spell that’s supposed to lock onto that identical thing and bring it back to the case that you enchanted it for, no matter how far away it is.”

“So why didn’t it work, if the spell’s so good?” I put in, trying once more to sound like I was only interested academically and not as if it was life-or-death.

“Best guess?” she replied with another shrug, “they changed the ring. The spell focuses on it being identical, right? Unique. The only one of its kind. So the only way the spell wouldn’t work is if–”

“Is if they changed it,” I finished, realizing then. That was why the ring wasn’t a ring anymore. That’s why it was a necklace, a choker. They had changed it to avoid that spell.

While I was still focused on that, Sands asked, “What’s so special about that one ring? What makes it more important than everything else she lost?”

Standing up, Namid moved over to where I was. She reached down into the tank to rub one of her turtles. “What’s so special about it? Well first of all, it’s supposed to make anyone who wears it immune to the Stranger sense. Heretics don’t show up as Heretics to Strangers, and Strangers who wear it don’t show up as Strangers to Heretics. Makes you look like a normal person.”

Kinda like I did now, as long as I didn’t use my powers. I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you said first of all? You mean there’s more? That–uh, that sounds pretty powerful as it is.”

“I know, right?” She snorted. “Bad enough without adding in the angel myth.”

That caught my attention. My eyes whipped around. “Wh-what? Angel myth?”

Namid laughed. “What’re you, some kind of religious chick? It’s not real. There’s no such thing as angels, okay? Demons, sure, but not angels.”

“What’d the myth say?” Sands cut in while I was still trying to find my voice. “What does some ring that hides Strangers have to do with angels?”

“It’s the legend of Anuk-Ité,” the older girl replied. “Two-Face. So it works both ways. According to the myth, it doesn’t just hide the wearer’s true nature, you know, as a Heretic or a Stranger or whatever. The myth says that it doesn’t just do that. It also,” she paused then before clearly reciting, “‘reveals the true nature of the hidden ones.’”

“True nature of the hidden ones,” I muttered under my breath, my brain spinning.

Namid went on, still sounding dismissive of the whole concept. “Yeah, the legend says the angels would hide among us–I mean, they didn’t call them angels. They called them gods. But I guess someone else decided they meant angels at some point. Whatever. Gods, angels, fucking aliens. Whatever they’re supposed to be, the story says that they hide among us. But if you wear the ring, it’s supposed to reveal them to you.”

“Reveal the… angels… that are hiding among humanity,” I managed in a voice that sounded weak even to me.

She nodded. “Yeah. I dunno, like… it’s supposed to highlight them or make you suddenly know if the person you’re looking at is really a hidden god or an angel or… whatever.

“Like I said, pretty stupid, right?”

******

“Hey, you worried about the hunt tonight?” Deveron asked a few days later. He was standing there, watching me drink from a bottle of water after another intense training session where he’d been putting me through my paces. Ever since he’d decided to take the whole mentor thing seriously, Deveron had insisted on daily extra training on top of everything else I was doing. Mostly it consisted of him kicking my ass down into the grass over and over again, then carefully going over every last move with me to make sure I understood what I did wrong.

Then he’d just kick my ass again anyway. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t taking it easy.

Slowly lowering the bottle, I looked at the ground for a second before glancing up. “Sure seems like things always go wrong on these hunts, you know?” I replied carefully. “Gaia says they’ve got… plans to deal with any kind of interruption this time, but still…” I trailed off, wincing inwardly. It was so tempting to tell him the whole reason I was nervous about the hunt tonight, the fact that at least one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust was actually a Seosten. But I couldn’t, because, well, he was still on that particular list.

Or was he? If he had been taken over by one of the angels, wouldn’t they have already known about Wyatt being the one who put the protection spells on Avalon? They’d definitely know that Professor Pericles hadn’t been the only Zedekiah at the school, and the person on the recording that Miranda had shown me had seemed pretty damn adamant that Pericles was the only one.

Except things might’ve changed since then. I didn’t know how often Seosten changed bodies or what the protocol was there. Maybe they did know about Wyatt by this point.

That was why I’d told him the truth. Because if he was compromised, Avalon was already in deep trouble. Deeper trouble than she had been before. And given the man’s normal paranoia and security measures, I had to believe that he was about as safe as he could possibly be.

And let’s face it, him acting paranoid toward anyone he thought might have been possessed wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary from how he acted the rest of the time anyway.

Besides, I still didn’t know why I appeared to be immune to Seosten-possession. I was kind of hoping it was some kind of blood thing, meaning at least Koren and Wyatt would be safe. But again, I didn’t know for sure. There was just no way to know. Not yet, anyway. We were working on it, but for the time being, we had to play everything really close to our vests.

Of course, if we could track down Pace and get our hands on that damn choker, we might be able to be done with this whole thing. It wasn’t just about getting the thing for Roxa anymore, though she still needed it. Now it was about getting the thing so that we could figure out exactly how it identified Seosten. Gaia had said that if she could get a look at it, she could probably duplicate the effect. But she had to examine the thing first. Which meant that finding Pace had just been given a great big shove up the list of priorities.

For his part, Deveron winced before nodding. “Yeah, well, you’re right. These hunts don’t have the best track record as far as you’re concerned. But I talked to Gaia myself, and trust me, she’s definitely taking it seriously. If anyone tries anything this time, and she’s going to be right on top of them.” He paused then, falling silent for a few seconds before adding with a curious look in my direction, “She told me that she asked if you guys wanted to sit this one out.”

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly. “We talked about it, but we decided it was better this way. If we sit out any of these hunts, we’re going to get less safe, not more. Because if we’re gonna survive, we need power. We need training. We need skill. We need to hunt, we need to get… we have to get more powerful. If I’m gonna survive when Fossor decides to come after me, I can’t sit things out now. I can’t. I just…” Sighing long and low, I muttered, “These things aren’t gonna stop trying to kill us just because we sit out something that could actually let us get stronger. They won’t stop at all. Not until we stop them. And the only way to do that is to get stronger, get more powers, get better at… everything. So no, we’re not gonna sit out any hunts. We’ll just… be ready.”  

Deveron watched me for a second, clearly considering it before nodding. “Probably smart. And just so you know,” he added with a serious look, “you won’t be alone when it comes to Fossor.”

Oh God, I wished I could trust him right then. I wished that I could know for sure that he wasn’t possessed. He was one of the few people who really understood what I was feeling about my mother, and how much I missed her. I wanted to confide in him everything that was going on. But I couldn’t. There was just no way to be sure that he was really himself. Not yet.

Whoever the Seosten had taken over, whoever they had possessed and enslaved, I was going to make sure they suffered. I’d already promised myself that several times. Pretty much whenever I looked at anyone who might have been the one that was taken, I repeated that promise to myself. They would suffer, and I would make damn sure that their victim was freed.

Instead of saying any of that out loud, I twisted the cap back onto the water bottle and nodded. “Still, under your protection or not, I need training. And that means–”

“Hunting,” the man finished with a grimace. “Right. But be careful, you got it? If you get even the slightest whisper that something’s wrong, you call it in. Even if it’s nothing, you won’t be the girl who cried wolf. You’ll be the girl who thought she saw a wolf because the entire field was surrounded by them.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I get it. We all get it. We’ll be ready for it. And you’ll be right there anyway. I’m pretty sure Gaia’s gonna send you in with us, wherever we’re going.”

“Good,” Deveron gave a satisfied nod. “But first, it’s dinner time. Think you can eat?”

I snorted at that, gesturing to the trampled grass from our sparring session. “After what you just put me through, Escalan better have made enough to feed a school twice this size.”

He chuckled at that before turning. “Just putting you through your paces. Can’t have you getting lazy, you know.”

My elbow nudged him. “Maybe I’ll just pretend to be lazy for a few months. You know, see where that gets me.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” Smirking, Deveron gave me a little push. “Let’s go get you refueled, little Flick-star.

“And then it’ll be time to hunt.”

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The Third Degree 21-05

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“Oh, sure, the angel fuckwads. Those fuckknobs are sticking their noses into this thing?”

For a moment after Seth finished speaking, I simply sat there on Quint’s back, holding the phone to my ear while staring across the water at Shiori. From the look on her face, she’d heard.

It was a bit after the whole conversation with the other two girls. Avalon had gone inside to tell Gaia what was going on, while I stayed out with Shiori to call Seth. And yeah, I told the vampire about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. Which might have been a bad idea, but honestly, he was one of the very, very few people that I could be absolutely sure wasn’t possessed. After all, if he had been, the Seosten would’ve already known about the Fahsteth thing from the start. And I wanted him to know what he was dealing with if he ran into them. It was only fair.

Besides, I didn’t tell him the truth about how I knew about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. I wasn’t quite that naive. Instead, I’d told Seth that Gaia had informed me that the Seosten had ‘somehow found out about the meeting, likely from spying on us when we met him and the others in that park in Nebraska’. I left things vague enough to make it sound like Gaia had found out that the Seosten were involved through some kind of magic or inherited power, but that she didn’t know everything. Hopefully, if any Seosten heard about this particular conversation, they’d assume that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion about when they’d found out about the meeting, and that would throw them off.

And I definitely left out any mention of the fact that someone in my circle was compromised. I wanted the Seosten to think that one of my friends being possessed was completely out of my mind. The only way we were going to identify them was if they were more complacent, not less.

Finally, I found my voice and managed a somewhat weak, “Uhhh, you’ve heard of them?”

“Sure,” the reply came. “Had a run-in with couple of the bastards awhile back. Let me tell ya, they were a couple of the most pretentious sons-of-bitches I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of pretentious sons-of-bitches. So I did a little more looking into it, found out they’re all dicks. Now you’re saying there’s more of those assholes trying to shut up that merc you wanted to talk to?”

“That’s what Gaia said,” I confirmed. “So be careful, okay? And change the meeting, please?”  

“Yeah, kid, I’ll see what I can do.” Seth paused then before giving a soft sigh that I could barely hear. “And listen, you take care of yourself too. These fucks are dangerous, and if anything bad happens to you, I’ll never hear the end of it from Senny. She will make my life a total hell, and I ain’t in the mood for that. So don’t go getting yourself killed or possessed like an idiot, got it? And while you’re at it, keep my other sister out of trouble. Senny’d have a cow about that too.”

“I’ll do my best.” Shrugging, I glanced toward Shiori before hesitating for a moment. Finally, I added, “Don’t worry, Shiori and I will both do our best not to get possessed by an angel.”

The reply surprised me. “Well since you’re the only one that really needs to worry about that, I’d focus on keeping yourself free of infestation.”

Blinking, I looked at Shiori again. The other girl was staring back at me with a look that was just as confused as I felt. “Wait, what do you mean, I’m the only one that has to worry about it?”

There was a brief pause before Seth’s voice came back slowly. “Wait, you mean I know something you don’t? Well, isn’t that just a little interesting? Sounds like something else we can bargain for, huh? How much cash can you squeeze outta that headmistress of yours for it?”

Grimacing, I gripped the phone tighter. “Seth,” I half-snapped while trying to keep my voice as even as possible. “Please. We can deal with all that later. But it’s Shiori. It’s Shiori, Seth. I don’t know if you really give a shit about her and Senny, or if you’re just fucking around. But please.”

“Oh, all right, don’t get your panties in a twist,” the vampire retorted with an almost audible roll of his eyes. “We’ll deal with compensation later. But I promise, I’ll expect something good for this.”

“If it’s something good about the angels, you’ll get it,” I assured him while crossing my fingers on my free hand. It was probably nothing good. But on the off-chance that it was actually useful…

“All righty then.” I could hear the smirk in the vampire’s voice. It was pretty obvious that he enjoyed having information that others needed, even if he happened to like them. Or at least tolerated them. “Miss Shiori over there isn’t gonna get possessed because she’s a hybrid.”

“A hybrid?” I echoed his words, eyes locked onto where Shiori herself was staring back at me.

“Sure,” he started, “half-human and half-Alter?” There was amusement in his voice as he continued. “Need me to start at the beginning? When a human and an Alter love each other ver–”

“I know what a hybrid is,” I cut in. “What does it have to do with the angels not possessing her?”

“Well…” he drawled slowly, his enjoyment at dragging it out almost palpable. “They can’t do it.”

Almost falling off of my shark while jerking upright, I blurted, “They can’t possess hybrids?!”

I could hear the laugh in his voice at my reaction. “Well, now I’ve got your attention, huh?” After chuckling, he added, “I guess to put it right, they can possess them, but it’s not the best idea.”  

“Not the best idea,” I murmured, eyes wide. “Why? Why is it a bad idea to possess a hybrid?”

“Cuz it kills ‘em,” his flat response came. “In a pretty agonizing way, from what I saw with the one that tried it with one of my ahhh, acquaintances, Jae. He and I were about to kill the body the angel-fuck was possessing, so he jumped ship. Tried to possess Jae. Next thing we knew, the shit-head was on the ground, pretty much turned inside out. Screamed his head off until we put ‘im out of his misery. Put a little research into it, turns out something about humans mixed with Alters fucks with the angel possession. Gets them all torn up inside just like that.”

“Research?” I echoed, barely able to keep myself calm enough to sit on the shark, let alone talk. “What kind of research? And why didn’t anyone else I talked to know anything about this?”

“My guess,” Seth replied easily, “these fucks don’t advertise their weaknesses. Only found out about it myself cuz Jae goes out of his way to make it look like he’s a full-blooded Alter, not half. Something about how he was treated as a kid or whatever. Dunno. Point is, he keeps quiet about it, so this angel fucknugget didn’t know. He tried to possess him, poof. Angel-roadkill. So I found another one and uhh… let’s just say I persuaded him to tell me just why that happened.”

“So they won’t possess Shiori because they’ll die if they do,” I murmured slowly, blinking up at the other girl. “That’s umm, that really helps, Seth. That really, really helps. Just don’t let any–”

“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted. “Like I said, I know these dicks. Don’t go bragging about all that great info I just passed to you, I get it. But like I said, you still owe me for this stuff. I think you’re an all right kid, and Senny’s pretty fond of ya, but I’m not running a charity over here.”

“I promise, we’ll take care of it. Somehow. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” After repeating that, I disconnected and stared at the phone in my hand for a few seconds. “You’re… you’re immune.”

“I’m immune,” the other girl echoed, voice sounding as awed as I felt. “They can’t possess me?”

Slowly, I nodded. “That’s what it sounds like. They can’t possess you. Or they’re too scared to.”

Her face brightened a little before falling again. “I’m immune. Columbus isn’t. It could be him.”

“Maybe,” I reluctantly agreed. “But it might not be. It could be any of the others. We don’t know.”

Shiori looked to me then. “If it’s Columbus, if they took Columbus… I’m gonna make that angel wish she possessed me instead, so that it’d be over fast.”

“Hey.” Reaching across the water from my shark, I trailed a hand over her arm briefly. “Whoever it is, we’ll deal with it, okay? They’re all our friends, all… important. We’ll make the bitch pay. For now, let’s focus on what we know. Which is that you’re immune. And that… makes sense.”

She blinked over at me then, staring in confusion while absently patting Brody’s back. “It does?”

“Sure.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “I guess that’s sort of why I thought it was safe enough to tell you and Avalon about it. I mean, I didn’t know you were immune, but I figured there was something stopping them from possessing both of you. After all, that Seosten said that we trust her host. That’s how they’re getting information out of us, by possessing someone we trust. Not by possessing us. If they could just possess us any time they wanted to, why would us trusting their host even be an issue? If it was as easy as just jumping into us to find out what we knew, she wouldn’t even have mentioned us trusting her host, she’d just say she’d jump into one of us and find out for herself. The only reason she wouldn’t even mention it as an option is–”

“Is if it wasn’t one,” Shiori finished for me, her own eyes wide. “But that explains me, what about you and Avalon? Uh, you guys aren’t–I mean as far as I know, you’re not really a–”

My head shook. “Not an Alter. Unless Mom’s one, but I think that would be one secret too many for my sanity. Oh wait, she couldn’t be anyway. They didn’t change the Edge to accept hybrids until relatively recently. So it wouldn’t have worked on her. Which means I’m not a hybrid.”

“And Avalon probably isn’t either,” the other girl pointed out. “Cuz she became a Heretic at Eden’s Garden, not here, and they didn’t change the tree to accept hybrids, did they?”

My head shook. “Not that I know of. And–” My fingers snapped. “That explains why they didn’t want the Edge to accept hybrids in the first place. They don’t want half-human Heretics because if they possess them, they go splat. That’s why the Edge wasn’t meant to accept them.”

“Whoa.” Shiori slumped, hand trailing through the water as she thought about that. “That’s… big.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered. “So yeah, it explains why you’re immune, but not me or Avalon. Assuming we are, and…well I think it’s pretty safe to say that Avalon is. Because if they could possess her, they definitely would’ve by now. Think about it, their plan this entire time has been to kill her, even when she was a baby. Why would they do that if they could just possess her and get into the vault that way? Maybe being related to Bosch makes her immune or… or something? Maybe his family set up some protection against possession for themselves.”

“If they did,” Shiori murmured under her breath, “I’d sure like to know what it is.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Shaking my head, I looked out over the water while thinking for a minute. “And why I’m not possessed. I mean, I’m Avalon’s roommate, and uhh…” I blushed a little bit. “And more than that. Which we haven’t exactly hidden. So why didn’t they just possess me?”

Shiori made a face at that. “So we know why I’m immune, but not you guys. As usual, it’s several questions for every answer. That’s getting really obnoxious at this point, you know?”

“Oh, I know.” My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Trust me, I know just how obnoxious it is.

“In a sea of endless questions, we’re barely treading water.”

******

“Flick. Ohhh Flick. Flickster. Hey.” A finger poked me in the side. “Yo, Flick.”

Jumping a bit, I blinked and looked around. The rec room. I was in the rec room. Once I remembered that much and got myself together, I turned to find Sands staring at me. “You okay over there? You zoned out for a bit. Thought you were in some kind of trance or something.”

It was all I could do not to openly stare at the other girl’s eyes. The urge to hold her by the shoulders and keep staring as if looking long enough would show me if she was possessed or not was almost overwhelming. Like it was that easy. At best, I’d make Sands think that I had some kind of thing for her, and at worst, she’d actually be possessed and realize what I was doing. The former would just be embarrassing for us both, the latter potentially devastating.

It had been a few days since I’d overheard that Seosten bombshell, and the time since then had been… well, not-fun. Walking around thinking that almost any one of the people that I trusted might actually be enslaved within their own head, puppeted against their will by a would-be angel was… let’s just say that even for me, I wasn’t getting a lot of rest. I had no idea how Shiori was holding it together, considering the fear that Columbus was the one who had been taken over.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that we could do about it for the moment. Not until we had our meeting with Gabriel Prosser and started learning how to make that spell, anyway. In the meantime, the best we could do was keep our eyes open and try to come up with a plan to expose not just the Seosten I had overheard, but her companions as well. It was… slow-going.

Which meant that we all just had to act as normal as possible. And considering there was another scheduled hunt coming up soon… well, I really hoped we found out who was possessed by then, because those things were already stressful enough (especially considering how they’d been going so far) without worrying that someone who was supposed to have my back was actually a Seosten spy.  

Shaking that all off, I forced myself to smile faintly. “Hey, Sands. Sorry, I guess I was daydreaming for a minute. What’s up?”

Raising an eyebrow at that, the other girl remarked, “Daydreamed, huh? Thinking about someone in particular?” Her fingers poked me teasingly before she added, “Or someones, I guess.”

Oh God, I hated this. I hated it. Even something as innocent as that little bit of teasing made me paranoid. Was she really just teasing, or was she fishing for information? That was what it was like now, any time she or any of the others said pretty much anything. I was always picking it apart in my head, trying to figure out if the Seosten had just given herself away.

But of course, it wasn’t that easy. It wouldn’t be. They were too good at what they did. It wasn’t like one of my friends was suddenly going to start cackling maniacally, or acting like a stereotypical villain just because I happened to know they were possessed.

So, I just shook my head. “Actually,” I claimed, “I was thinking about what the next hunt might be.”

“You too, huh?” Sands gave me a weak smile. “Mostly I’m just hoping it turns out better than the last one. Or… any of them.” Rising, she gestured. “But come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Oh, great. As if I hadn’t already been paranoid enough as it was. “A surprise? What surprise?”

Rolling her eyes, the other girl stepped back and gave another wave. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So c’mon already. It’s important.”

Important because she’d found something I needed to see, or important because she was the one who had been possessed, and the Seosten was ready to ambush me for whatever reason? That, along with a few other paranoid thoughts, bounced around in my head a little as I looked around. “Should we grab the others?”

Sands just shook her head. “No big, we can tell them later. This part’s really only for the two of us. I mean, I was gonna make it me and Scout, but I figured you’d want to be involved.” Clearing her throat then, she stepped back while gesturing impatiently. “Hurry, she’s not gonna wait forever.”


She? Okay, that raised even more questions. But I couldn’t make Sands wait anymore. Taking a breath, I stood up and nodded while slipping a hand into my pocket. Finding the phone there, I pressed the button that would alert Wyatt to start paying attention. If anything happened, he’d be ready to jump in.

“Alright, let’s see this surprise then.”

She let me out of the rec room, past the cafeteria, and out the door onto the grounds. The whole time, I kept my eyes open, scanning for anything that might be wrong while trying to make myself look relaxed.

Thankfully, Sands didn’t head for the beach or anywhere off the grounds. Instead, she led me across the grass to the girls dorm. Wait, the girls dorm?

Sure enough, we headed inside. Instead of going for any of our rooms, however, Sands started for the stairs. Before I could ask what we were doing, the two of us were on the second floor, and I saw one of the older girls giving us a strange look.

“It’s okay,” Sands informed her. “We’re here to talk to Namid. Which room was it again?”

The girl continued to stare for a second before gesturing over her shoulder. “Third one down.”

After she walked away, I blinked over at Sands. “Namid?”

She nodded, glancing around before producing a privacy coin, which she activated. “Sure. I mean, you wanted to talk to her about that… thing, right? The thing to help Roxa.”

“The Ring of Anuk-Ité,” I confirmed. “Yeah, you-know-who said that the last he knew, the ring was in the hands of Namid’s ancestor on the Committee, Litonya.”

“Exactly,” the other girl replied. “So you need to talk to her about it. Which is why I’ve been spending the past week working on her. First I let her see me getting a bunch of Native American books out of the library. Then I made sure she was around when I asked Professor Dare about our extra-credit project.”

“What extra-credit project?” I asked blankly.

She winked at me. “The one you and I are doing on Native American Heretics and their artifacts. Professor Dare was a great actress by the way. Seriously, she’s really good at faking things like that. I thought I was gonna have to carry the whole conversation, but she pulled her weight.”  

While I was still staring at her, she shrugged. “Anyway, the point is, I did all that so that it didn’t come out of nowhere when I finally asked Namid for help. And paid her for it. So now she’s gonna talk to us for a few minutes. If she knows anything about that ring thinger, maybe she’ll talk about it.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–oh. Wow. You did all that?”

“Of course,” Sands replied easily. “We’re a team, right? You wanna help Roxa, this is the best way to do it. We find out what the deal is with that ring, or necklace, or whatever it is now. So come on, let’s go talk to her. And this time, you won’t be in the closet.

“… in more than one way.”

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