Two days after finding out a bit more about just how far the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden rivalry went, I was sitting out on the beach a decent distance away from the school with my feet in the water. The sun was setting over the horizon, sending a beautiful array of colors across the ocean’s surface that took my breath away and left me staring in awe for a few seconds whenever I looked up. Even after living on the island for several months, I still couldn’t get over just how gorgeous the scenery could be sometimes.
For a moment, I wondered what my mom had thought of the place when she’d stayed here. Had it been this beautiful to her? When she… left, when she started her rebellion, did she miss these sights? How many times had she sat out here on this same beach–maybe even this same spot, and watched the ocean? The buildings might change, be upgraded, have the furniture moved around, and whatever, but the beach didn’t. Okay, yeah, technically the sand would be all different from being washed in and out. But the point was that this was the same beach she would have stood on. The ocean was the same ocean she would have looked at and swum in. The… this was my mother’s school. Sometimes it just hit me that way, out of nowhere and for no well-explained reason: this was my mother’s school. This had been her home for… for so long. This was a connection to her that I had never known about.
In the present, we were separated by distance, but not time. In the past, we were separated by time, but not distance. Sitting here, looking at the water, I could almost feel my mother sitting in the same place. I could close my eyes and imagine her beside me. Younger than I knew her, but there. I could almost feel her presence, my hand curling through the sand with the half-expectation of finding hers. Just a little more, my fingers slid out slowly. I could feel her. Almost. Almost.
I found empty sand. And as my eyes opened, I had to blink a few times to clear away the wetness.
I wasn’t stupid or crazy. Well, okay, sometimes I could be both. But in this case, I’d known she wasn’t there, obviously. It was just… a nice daydream sometimes. Honestly, what were daydreams other than hope? And if I gave up on hope, well… then I might as well give up on life.
Some might have said that imagining myself sitting next to my mother-as-a-student while the two of us were separated by around a hundred years was childish. But if it was, I didn’t care. I’d rather be childish than ever really give up on those kind of dreams, that kind of hope.
Shaking those feelings off for the moment, however, I returned my attention to the thing that I was actually working on. The block of wood in my lap was covered in runes. I had spent about half an hour carefully drawing the runes while repeatedly checking each against the book beside me. After that, I’d spent at least another twenty minutes gradually investing power in the thing.
So almost an hour to get this far. Obviously, the theriangelos spell, the one that my mother had used to send that monkey to me and that Gaia had been teaching me, wasn’t meant to be done quickly. The headmistress said I’d get faster with it over time. But even then, like most spells that Heretics used, it was never going to be very fast. The best thing to do would be to do several ahead of time, get them almost done, then carry them around and add the last bit when I actually wanted to use the spell. Which was apparently what most Heretics did with spells they liked.
And hey, at least I’d figured out the best way to gradually invest power in the spell over an extended period so that when I actually cast the spell for real, it only took a little bit to finish.
After checking over the finished product fully for the fifth time, just to make absolutely sure that I hadn’t messed anything up, I was finally satisfied. Turning the page in my notebook to the actual spell, I took a breath before beginning to recite it. I’d gotten better at the pronunciation and speaking quickly without stumbling over the words (mostly from repeated practice without actually using it on a completed block), but it still took a good forty seconds to say the whole thing even with everything else done. I couldn’t even imagine how many attempts it would take to do that in the middle of an actual stressful situation instead of on a calm beach without any distractions.
Eventually, I finished without messing anything up. As the last word left my mouth, I felt the spell take the last bit of power that I needed from me. Even with as much as I had primed the spell throughout the past half-hour, I still felt little bit dizzy for just a second before my head cleared.
The wood was already floating off my lap, creating a bright red and gold glow that filled the air. As the glow faded, I could see my newly-created fox sitting there in the sand, looking at me.
And just like the other times that I’d cast the spell (always in Gaia’s presence), I also saw myself through the fox’s eyes. And smelled myself through its nose, along with the nearby ocean. Not to mention how much I could hear. Wow. Doing this outside was a lot different from being inside Gaia’s office. The fox could hear, smell, and see so much that I couldn’t even come close to noticing. The sound of the ocean waves, the smell of the plants and animals in the jungle behind me, even the noise that some of the other students who were so far down the beach that they were barely visible were making. Through the fox’s senses, I could pick up all of it and a lot more.
Closing my eyes, I focused on shutting out the input from my own body and on experiencing things through the fox. For a few long seconds, I didn’t make her move or do anything but sit there. I was still just letting myself grow accustomed to everything I could sense out here.
I’d done it. Oh god, I’d actually done it. I’d pulled it off. Yes, it’d taken what was probably over an hour by that point, but I’d actually managed to cast the theriangelos spell without messing up, and without Gaia standing right behind me, supplying her power and watching over the whole thing.
Once I was relatively sure that I’d gotten accustomed enough to experiencing the fox’s senses, I focused on starting to move. First, I made her move from a sitting position to standing on all four feet. Telling myself it was just like when I’d made the fox run around Gaia’s office, I got her to walk around me. The feel of the sand against her paws with each step was just as distracting as all of her other senses, and I found myself lifting one paw, letting the sand run through it, then lifting the other. God, it was just… it was amazing. Ridiculously amazing. I’d used magic to create a fox that I was now controlling. How–just–how could I ever get used to that kind of thing? Honestly, I hoped I didn’t. The wonder that I felt in that moment, as I looked through my fox’s eyes to see the sand running through her raised paw to fall back to the ground, I wanted to feel forever.
Eventually, I managed to focus and started walking the fox around my body. Gradually moving it up into a trot, I got her to run in circles around me, kicking up a small cloud of sand in the process. The wet sand under her paws, the water itself as the waves rose, the wind on her snout as she ran faster, they were all more sensations to get accustomed to while being outside like this.
After letting myself get accustomed to that, I sent the fox away from me a short distance off the beach and into the jungle. Not far, just enough that we weren’t right next to each other, and so that I could practice depending on her senses in an area that I wasn’t actually in. I wanted to get used to experiencing things purely through the fox without my own body’s normal input.
It took a bit, since it was a lot like trying to pay attention to one television show while a different one was playing in the same room. But keeping my body’s eyes closed helped. Then it was more like watching one television show while a radio played in the background. Still distracting, but better. And from what Gaia had said, there were some Heretics who actually gained the right powers to be able to control their own animal while simultaneously engaging in actions of their own. Sitting there like that, with my eyes closed tight so that I could focus on what the fox was seeing, I couldn’t even imagine being able to do that. But then, it hadn’t been that long ago that I wouldn’t have been able to imagine using magic to create a fox out of wood to begin with.
I probably would have kept playing around with the fox in the jungle for a lot longer, but I was interrupted by the sound of a phone ringing. I was so disoriented in that moment that I can’t understand why a phone was ringing in the middle of the jungle. It took me a few seconds, and a couple more rings, to realize that I was hearing the phone in my own pocket, back with my body
Shaking off the disorienting feeling, I opened my own eyes while shutting the fox’s so that I could focus. Digging for the phone, I found that it was actually the other one. It was the private phone, the one that didn’t show up on the Crossroads security logs or in their recordings.
After checking the number, I tapped the button to answer the call. “Seth?”
“Well hey there, my second-favorite Heretic,” his voice drawled casually. “Sorry, you’re right up there, but I kinda gotta give first favorite to the little half-sis. You know how it is with family.”
“It’s fine,” I assured him, not wanting to get into all that. “Did you get the meeting set up?”
There was a brief pause before he asked, “You sure we can talk about it just like that? From what I hear, that school of yours isn’t exactly super-trusting. I might not be the only Big Brother around.”
“Like I said,” I assured the older vampire, “they can’t hear anything that goes through this phone. It bypasses Crossroads security. We’re good. So like I said, did you get the meeting set up?”
“Hey, it’s me.” His voice was a mixture of smug and teasing. He worked the very edge of the line between confident and arrogant, like he knew just how far to push. “I said I’d get the meeting set up, and now it’s done. You got a piece of paper to write down the nitty-gritty details?”
“Yeah, hang on.” Picking up my notebook with the spell written in it, I flipped to a blank page and set it back on the sand before taking the pencil. “Okay, go ahead.”
“Meeting’s set for three weeks from now,” Seth began. “Yeah, yeah, I know. You wanted it to be sooner, but he’s a busy man. Well, not a man, but you know what I mean. He’s busy. That was the earliest time I could make him agree to, without raising his suspicions. And I doubt you want his suspicions raised. So three weeks. That’s Friday, February ninth at six p.m. He was trying to push for the morning, but I figured that’d interfere with your schooling. And we do want you to grow up to be a great little Heretic, now don’t we? Gotta get that learning in. So six p.m. it is.”
“February ninth, six p.m., I got it.” Writing that down, I asked, “Where’re we meeting this guy?”
“Sudsy’s,” the response came. “It’s an old motel in Ashland, Oregon. Little town right off I-5 about fifteen miles north of the California border. It’s a great little place to visit. They’ve got this Shakespeare Festival you should check out. It should be starting about the time you get over there. First time I went was in 1947. That was the first year they had it since the second world war. And let me tell you, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly. And that’s saying a lot.”
Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Are you moonlighting as a tourism director now, Mr. Tiebreaker?”
There was amusement in his voice. “Hey, gotta pay the bills somehow, don’t I? Don’t always have super-special Heretics-in-training offering thirty thousand dollars to set up meetings with nasty shark-mercs. Anyway, Ashland, Oregon. Sudsy’s. Six p.m. February Ninth. Got all that?”
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I got it. Thanks, Seth. You’re a lifesaver. There was no way someone like Fahsteth was gonna agree to a meeting with a Heretic, and Senny says she and Twister have the kind of reputation that he stays away from. So like I said, thanks. We’ll get the money to you. ”
Pausing then, I bit my lip before asking, “Have you heard anything from Namythiet or Roxa yet?” I was pretty sure that we would’ve heard from the latter long before he did, but still. I was nervous about how long it was taking, and wanted to know what was going on out there. And I really, really wanted to be sure that they weren’t underestimating Pace and her pack. If anything happened to Mateo, Roxa, or…well, any of them, I didn’t know if I’d be able to forgive myself for sending them.
“Sorry, kid,” Seth replied. “Nothing to report. I mean, the plucky pixie’s checked in, sure. But I’m pretty sure I don’t have any news that they didn’t already tell you. They’re still out there looking.”
Sighing in spite of myself, I nodded. “Thanks anyway. And like I said, thanks for setting that up.”
His voice was smooth. “No problem. I mean, just enough of a problem to warrant that cash you promised, but no more than that. Unless you’ve got some kind of bonus in mind if it was just a–”
“Bye, Seth.” Shaking my head, I disconnected the call before picking myself up. Staring down at the notebook with the date and place of the meeting with Fahsteth, I started to wander back up the beach toward the school.
Before I reached the school however, I remembered the whole reason that I’d been out there. The reason that I could still sort-of half feel the dirt and leaves beneath my feet even though I was walking on sand. Right, the fox. I’d left her sitting there with her eyes closed and had been working to tune out everything from her throughout that call to the point that I had briefly forgotten about her.
Focusing briefly, I opened the fox’s eyes and looked around. It was almost tempting to just dismiss the spell. But honestly, I had worked on it for too long. I kind of wanted to bring her back so I could at least keep the wood, even if I had to redo the whole spell all over again. I… felt connected to it.
Not as connected as I was to the trusty rock in my pocket, of course. No piece of wood could replace Herbie. But still, leaving the fox out there in the jungle to just disappear when the spell faded felt wrong. So I kept control of it, guiding the fox back through the trees to the beach. Then I’d just run her up the beach straight to where I was waiting.
Or at least, that was the plan. But when the fox was just passing the last tree before hitting sand, she… I, rather, saw a figure straight ahead. A figure right where I had just been sitting.
Making the fox freeze and crouch down a bit, I stared at the figure. It was dark enough by that point that I wouldn’t even have been able to see them at all from that distance with my own eyes, or hear them with my own ears. But I wasn’t using my eyes or ears. The fox could see and hear much better than I could.
It was a woman. I couldn’t make out any real details, but I could tell that much. She had dark skin and short hair that was pale enough to be white. She definitely wasn’t a teacher. I may not have known all the upper-grade instructors that well, but I did know enough that I would’ve recognized her. I’d never seen her before in my life.
“Fahsteth,” the unfamiliar woman muttered. Her voice was distorted, like I was hearing things while my head was underwater. Either I wasn’t used to using the fox’s hearing yet and that was throwing me off, or she was distorting her voice somehow, magically muffling it in a way that the fox could mostly hear through. Whatever it was, I could barely make out what she was saying.
“She has a meeting with Fahsteth. Find him. No, I don’t care how upset he is. I know he said he wouldn’t take any more calls. I’m not asking you to hire him. I’m telling you to track him down. Make sure he can’t tell them anything. Shut his mouth. Permanently if you need to. Just do it. He’s a lead they can’t be allowed to have.”
She was moving, walking away from where I had been sitting and back toward the school, the same way I had gone. “Find him and kill him, before I have to do something drastic to slow this human bitch down. No more excuses, just get it done. Or you can explain your failure to Manakel.
“That’s what I thought. Deal with him. I have to get back to the body before anyone finds it. No, this doesn’t mean she suspects anything. She didn’t tell anyone about it. Probably to stop them from talking her out of it. I promise you, the Chambers child trusts me. And so do her little girlfriends. Well, not me.
“But they certainly trust my host.”