Month: June 2017

Sharkhunt 23-05

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln, Asenath, and Twister posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above. 

My dad knew the truth. My dad knew the truth. Somehow, he had broken the Bystander Effect. He remembered. He knew what Asenath was, what I had been dealing with through the  year. He knew about Mom. He knew all of it. Or enough of it at least. He… he knew. He actually  knew.

I still wasn’t exactly sure which was more shocking to me, that, or the fact that our home had been attacked by werewolves. Lemuel’s pack had actually been pissed enough about Doxer (more likely motivated by Pace) to go after my dad. It shouldn’t have surprised me, honestly. Yet somehow, it did. I’d expected Fossor or Ammon to try something at some point, but the wolves?

Apparently, I’d been zoning out for a few seconds while trying to cope with that particular surprise, because Shiori touched my shoulder as her voice prompted, “Flick? Are you okay?” The girl was standing beside me while Avalon was a bit behind her. Both of their expressions were worried.

Shaking off the feelings as much as I could, I nodded. “I’m fine. I mean, not really fine, but… good enough. I’ll be okay, I promise. It’s just… my dad. My dad knows. He’s still a normal human, but he knows anyway.  How many people have broken the Bystander Effect like that before?”

“A normal human without help?” Avalon shrugged, head shaking. “None, that I know of.”

Behind me, Gabriel cleared his throat a bit pointedly. When I looked that way, the man casually admitted, “Ah, well, your father may not have done it entirely without help.” Before I could do more than open my mouth as my eyes widened, he held up a hand. “It’s not my story to tell, or my secret to give away. What I can say is that someone important wanted your father to learn the truth, so they made it possible. They don’t mean him or you any harm. That much I can promise you. They aren’t a threat to you. They… owe your mother a debt. But, like I said, anything more than that is a secret that I can’t tell you. I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait until they’re ready to talk.”  

Owed my mother? Someone out there was powerful enough to make sure Dad actually broke the Bystander Effect and they owed my mother a favor? What–was it a Seosten? They’d created the Bystander Effect, so they should be able to remove it, right? There could be other good (or at least tolerable) Seosten out there like Tristan and Vanessa’s mother, couldn’t there?

I shook that off. Randomly speculating wasn’t going to accomplish anything. And I knew from looking at Gabriel that he wasn’t going to tell me anything else. He was absolutely serious about not spoiling other people’s secrets. Which, I supposed, should just make me feel better about all of my secrets that he was keeping. And he was clear about the fact that whoever was behind Dad finding out the truth wasn’t trying to hurt us. I believed that he would’ve told me otherwise.

Still, I was working my way up to argue with him anyway when Avalon simply said, “Fahsteth.”

Fuck. Right, we didn’t have time. Sighing, I looked at the man once more. “I still have questions.”

His head bowed in a slight nod. “And I’ll be glad to answer everything that I can. I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more right now. But I owed you at least that much.  Your father is safe with Asenath and Esevene for now, but I’ll send people to pick them up and get them here before you’re done.”

I started to nod at that, then blinked in confusion. “Esevene? Who’s Esevene?”  .

Gabriel tilted his head before giving a nod of realization. “Right, you only know her as Twister.”

Twister’s real name was Esevene. I didn’t see that coming. Esevene sounded like some kind of Tolkien elf or high-brow noble woman. The girl I knew… Twister fit much more than Esevene.

Again, that was something I had to shake off while looking to Avalon. “Did you get ahold of Gaia?”

“Yes,” she replied. “But she can’t help directly right now. The… a couple representatives of the Committee showed up. She couldn’t really talk, but I’m pretty sure they were there to ask about what happened at your father’s house. They wanted to find you,” she added, “but she’s stalling them.”

“Wh–” My eyes widened. “The Committee is there looking for me?”

Avalon shook her head. “Breathe, Chambers. Not members of the Committee. Representatives from them. Their… assistants, basically. And Gaia’s taking care of it. She told them that you’re out on a training mission with Professor Dare, that since you’re up all night anyway, she wanted you kept busy. So they’re waiting until we get back. We just have to make it quick. Unfortunately, since the Committee’s personal representatives are there, they’re monitoring all transit on and off the island. Which means–”

Blowing out a long breath, I muttered, “Which means we can’t get any help from anyone else there. No calling for Wyatt or anything. And now we have to do all of it and get back before those guys get tired of waiting. Because what this whole thing really needed was more pressure.”

“We already had a time limit,” Avalon pointed out. “Fahsteth won’t be there for long. This doesn’t change anything. We get in, find out what we need, and then get back to the school. You just have to act surprised when they tell you about your dad.”

“Oh, trust me,” I assured her, “I’ve got plenty of surprise left in me. So let’s get this done. Gabriel?”

“Of course,” he replied. “If you’re all ready?” He waited until we nodded before raising his shovel. As he brought it down once more into the dirt, our surroundings abruptly changed. The transport was as sudden as it was completely unobtrusive. One second we were by the lake, and in the next, the scenery had changed. It was like blinking during a scene change on TV.

The place that Seth had told us Fahsteth was holed up in was a broken-down three-story motel on the edge of Seattle. Apparently, the place had been closed for renovations (and pest extermination) for several months, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near ready to open again for quite awhile. Which apparently had made it an ideal place for the shark-man to lay low, until now.

We appeared in a field behind the motel, far enough away to avoid prematurely setting off any surprises that Fahsteth had waiting. And somehow, through either coincidence or intent (considering the source, I was leaning heavily toward the latter), Gabriel had deposited us a few feet away from a figure that I recognized through the glow from the distant streetlights as Seth.

The vampire sensed us immediately, spinning around on one foot while his hand moved to the inside of his jacket. I caught a glimpse of some kind of knife before he stopped himself. “Ah, you,” he announced. “Give a guy a warning next time you decide to drop–” He stopped in mid-sentence as his gaze found Gabriel, and I actually saw him swallow just a bit. Cool and collected as he was, even Seth reacted noticeably to the sight of the former slave. “You brought some company.”

“Good to see you again, Seth.” Gabriel’s voice was casual, giving no indication that he had even noticed. “Hope you don’t mind, I didn’t want to send the girls off on their own. Not with Fahsteth.”

Any reaction that Seth had had to the man was fully suppressed by that point, and he shrugged. “Can’t blame you. He’s a nasty ratbag and those girls seem to like to get into trouble a lot.”

“More like we were born with one of those ‘take-a-number’ machines by our cribs for all the people that wanted to screw with us,” I muttered under my breath, then gestured. “He’s in there?”

“For now,” Seth replied, glancing to the motel in the distance. “He’s waiting for his ride off-world.”

“How’s he planning on getting off-world anyway?” I wondered. “Some kind of Alter or a spell?”

“Alter,” came the response. “He’s got a guy on the way that specializes in transporting people off this rock, and he’s really motivated to leave. So if you wanna talk to him, better make it fast.”

Beside me, Shiori piped up. “Do you know which room he’s in?”

“Oh, hey, sis.” Seth gave her an easy smile. One that, despite the misgivings that Asenath had about him, I thought was genuine. “Almost didn’t see you there. Not exactly. He’s up on the third floor there, but for the exact room… well, you’re gonna have to get up there yourselves.”

“He’s warded the place,” Gabriel announced after squinting at the building for a moment. “Probably to keep the Seosten from finding him. Either way, I can’t see through them.”

He started to say something else before stopping short. Turning, the man held a hand up. “Wait.” He frowned slightly before looking across the field, away from the road. “They’re here.”

I started to ask who ‘they’ were, only to fall silent as it became apparent. Five, no, six massive figures were suddenly tearing across the field toward us. Amaroks. Six god damn Amaroks, each bigger than a city bus, were coming straight at us. Their paws tore up the ground as they charged.

“This,” I remarked, my throat dry, “is not the act of people who give a shit about subtlety anymore.”

Yeah, we should’ve known that whoever was behind this had access to those things. After all, they had managed to sic one of them on the team during our first hunt in an attempt to kill Avalon. But still, throwing an entire pack at Fahsteth? They wanted that guy dead with a capital d.

In the midst of me trying to think about how we were going to have to work together to deal with the damn things, however, Gabriel spoke a simple word. “Go.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Seth, take them inside. Get to Fahsteth and find out what he knows. I’ll deal with these guys.”

I started to ask if he was sure, but stopped myself as the man plucked up his shovel and walked calmly out to meet the incoming giant wolves. He moved not like a man who was about to be in a fight, but like someone who was walking through the store deciding what kind of milk to pick up.

Seth was already moving toward the motel. I started to follow along with Shiori, only to stop and glance back at Avalon, who hadn’t moved. “Valley,” I prompted. “We need to go, he’ll be fine.”

“I know he will,” the other girl replied, her voice almost plaintive. “But I really want to see this.”

Oh. Right, she wasn’t worried that Gabriel needed help. She wanted to watch him kill the Amaroks. That I could… yeah, I could totally understand it. But still, “It’s Fahsteth,” I prompted.

That was enough. As much as she (and I, really) wanted to see what the man did to those poor wolves, the chance to actually find out something about the people who had been trying to kill her (and had killed her mother) was even more important. She pivoted and gave me a slight nod before the two of us bolted toward the motel once more, hurrying to catch up with Shiori and Seth.

At the doorway into the building, the vampire held a hand up to stop us. “Fire-ward,” he explained while giving a nod toward the door. Looking that way, I could barely make out a rune carefully etched into the wood there. It seemed to glow slightly, as if it was reflecting firelight somehow.

“Step past it,” Seth remarked, as casually as ever, “and you’ll spontaneously combust. It’s like the protection line your nursemaids up at that school of yours have around their super-special building. Only instead of making you a bit sick, it turns you into a toasted marshmallow.”

“This guy really doesn’t want visitors, does he?” Shiori put in. “How do we get past it?”

“The twins taught me how to short-circuit stuff like that,” I started. “If we have some electri–”

Before I could finish the sentence, Seth reached back under his jacket, coming back out with the knife that I had caught a glimpse of earlier. Now I had a chance to get a better look at it. The handle appeared to be made out of bone of some kind. Meanwhile, rather than any kind of metal, the blade itself looked like it was dark blue glass. As the rest of us watched, the vampire casually drew the knife across the rune. As that azure blade touched the spell rune, I saw some kind of weird, ghost-like energy sucked up out of the wood before the rune itself turned dark and seemed to fade back into the wood until it was even less noticeable than it had already been.

“There,” Seth announced before reaching out to push the door open. He strode right through, glancing back after sniffing the air. “You coming or what?”

“What… what is–what did you…” I was staring at the strange knife in his hand.

His knowing smirk returned. “This? Just a little toy I picked up off a guy that… wasn’t gonna need it anymore.” From the way he said it, I had a feeling I knew why the guy didn’t need it. “Blade absorbs all the energy from any spell it touches, cuts them off completely. It’s got its uses.”

“That–that kind of thing isn’t common, is it?” I had to ask. The idea of there being a knife out there somewhere, or anything like that, that could just cut away the magic that was used to protect Avalon (or any of the other spells that we relied on) that easily was kind of terrifying.  

Winking, Seth shook his head. “Far as I know, it’s the only one of its kind. Took a pretty big chunk out of me to get it too, and I mean that literally. Had to spend a month recovering. So don’t go blabbing about it to all your little schoolmates, got it?” Waggling the blade at me, he slipped it away back under his jacket before turning away. After giving a slight sniff, he started to walk.

Giving the other two a look, I tugged my staff out of its place at my hip and hit the button to charge it while starting to follow. We moved together through the fairly dark motel corridor, illuminated only by a few emergency lights that were positioned here and there. Enough to see if anything was there, but still leave the place eerily dark. Doors leading into various motel rooms lined both sides of the corridor, while I could see what looked like a front office at the far end. It wasn’t just dark, it was also silent. Well, except for the sound of wolves alternately howling and yipping outside.

For a moment, I wondered what the ordinary people out there were hearing when it came to the Amaroks. But before I could dwell too much on that, there was the sound of a loudspeaker crackling to life. A voice spoke up through it. “Now I don’t recall ordering any food for my trip, but if you wanna deliver yourself all gift-wrapped and shit, I ain’t gonna complain too much.”

Turning in a circle, I found the source of the voice in a speaker box that was up in the corner. There was a security camera next to it. My mouth opened to say something, but Avalon beat me to it.

“Fahsteth!” she called, staring up at the camera. “We need to talk to you.”

There was a chuckle in the shark-man’s voice as he replied, “That you, kid? You’ve grown up, huh? Lucky you, I ain’t interested in finishing the job anymore. So take a walk and count your blessings.”

It was my turn to talk then, as I put in, “We’re not leaving until we talk to you, Fahsteth. You don’t owe these people anything. They’re trying to kill you just to shut you up. So why not tell us what you know? What could it hurt at this point?”

“Maybe I just don’t like you very much,” came the retort. “But you know, if you won’t leave, you can play with some of my toothy little friends.”

“Sharks?” I asked, turning to look down the hall. “I don’t see any water. They might have trouble.”  

Another chuckle came then. “Sharks… yeah, me and your sharks have a bit of a connection. Heard you’ve got something of the same. But you’re a bit behind, Barbie. See, you’re limited to sharks. Weak power and all. But me? Well…” As he trailed off for a moment, I heard multiple growls coming from every direction. Up and down the hall, animals came into view through the dim light. Wolves (the normal size kind), a couple leopards, some snakes, spiders the size of small dogs, and more all crowded into both ends of the corridor.

“See,” Fahsteth explained over the PA. “I don’t control sharks, little girl. I control predators. Period. So uh, you all have fun with that. I’ll be–oh look, here comes my ride.”

The animals were coming, and the shark-man was about to leave. We didn’t have time for this, we didn’t have time to deal with them. He was going to be gone, and we’d never find him again. If we didn’t stop the son of a bitch now, we’d lose our chance to find out what he knew.

So fuck it. Holding the staff out, I hit the button to call Jaq and Gus out. “Guys,” I announced. “Time to fight.”

Even as the robot mice ran to either end of the staff to convert themselves into the blade and grapple, Seth was already meeting the leap of one of the wolves. He caught it by the throat, shoved the thing back against the wall before driving his blade into its chest, then sliced straight down to literally gut the thing before hurling it into the body of the next one to leap. “Go!” He ordered. “I got this. Just don’t fucking die before I catch up, understand?”  

Shiori, meanwhile, gave a beagle-sized arachnid a hard kick before throwing one of her electrified discs into the face of an approaching cat that was coming from the other side of the hall. “I’ll stay with Seth,” she said, giving me a quick look. “I’ll watch his back, you guys get to Fahsteth.”

“We can’t cut through,” Avalon muttered with obvious frustration, conjuring a couple blades from her gauntlets. “It’ll take too long.”

“Then we don’t go through them,” I replied simply. “We go over them.”

With that, I pointed my staff toward the ceiling and hit the button to trigger the charge that I had been building up in it ever since entering the motel. The kinetic energy erupted from the staff, blowing a hole not just through the ceiling, but through the ceiling above that one too, leaving a clear shot to the third floor.

As dust and debris fell, and Shiori and Seth fought with the animals that Fahsteth had summoned, I held a hand out to Avalon. “Come on!”

She dismissed her blades and stepped close. As the girl wrapped her arms around me tightly, I pointed the staff up once more. The grapple was sent flying upward through the holes before latching into the ceiling of the third floor. Then the two of us were yanked up along the energy-line, hauled away from the horde of animals below as we flew to reach the top floor in a couple seconds.

Dropping off the line and onto the floor, I retracted the grapple before releasing Avalon. My finger found the button to start charging the staff again, just in case. Below, I could hear the fight continue. Outside was much the same. Gabriel, Seth, and Shiori were all buying us time to get to Fahsteth and find out what he knew.

Without even glancing to one another, Avalon and I started to run. There wasn’t time to joke, there wasn’t time to say or do anything other than sprint. We had to stop Fahsteth from leaving. We had to get there in time.

The good news was, it wasn’t hard to figure out which room the shark-mercenary was in. The bad news was, it was a room that was completely covered by steel plates. Fahsteth had welded thick metal sheets over the whole place, clearly prepared for one last stand.

“Fuck, fuck!” I hit the metal, and it dented in a little bit. But not enough. I wouldn’t be able to get through it before it was too late. It would take minutes to break down. Minutes that we didn’t have.

Then I turned. “Wood! Valley, wood!”

She blinked once before thankfully realizing what I was babbling about. “No, no,” she blurted. “You can’t–”

“I’ve got this,” I promised her. “He’s gonna be gone, Valley. He’s gonna leave. We don’t have time! Do it. I’ll stall him until you get through. I’ll be okay. I’ve got this, Valley, I swear. Trust me.”

She still looked horrified by the suggestion, but after a brief second, her hand slapped against the metal, and Avalon used her own power to convert any object into wood. It worked slowly enough that it would take at least a minute to actually turn the entire wall. But within a few seconds, there was a small, palm-sized spot of wood right there in the middle of the hard steel.

It was enough. Reaching out, I put my hand against the wood and then threw myself through it and into the room on the other side.

Popping out, I was just in time to see Fahsteth. The shark-man was on the other side of the room, near the window that had been similarly covered with metal. In front of him, there was a much smaller figure, a man with dark-purple skin and bright red, wild hair. Somewhere in the back of my head, the Heretic-Sense was helpfully letting me know that these two were both Alters, which was clearly the most shocking news of the day. Their hands were touching, and there was a sort-of electric current in the air. Power. The man was summoning power to teleport.

“No!” I shouted, my staff whipping up. I released the power that I’d been charging it up with, and the kinetic blast slammed into the purple figure. He was torn away from Fahsteth at the last possible instant, hitting the far wall hard before collapsing into a heap.

“Like… Avalon said…” I started while the shark-man slowly turned to face me, murder in his eyes.

“We need to talk.”

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Mini-Interlude 29 – Lincoln, Asenath, And Twister

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Asenath and Twister explaining the truth to Lincoln. I hope you enjoy it. 

“You were a bear.”

The words came in a flat, stunned voice as Lincoln Chambers stared at the young, dark-skinned girl in the backseat of the car beside him. Asenath had ordered them both back there before taking her place behind the wheel (somehow, he hadn’t managed to bring himself to question being ordered into the backseat of his own vehicle) and hightailing it away from the house. Now she was following the speed limit (barely), making seemingly random turns along the dark streets.

The girl, in turn, gave him a thumbs up. “And then I was a squirrel. Kinda see why the bear stands out though. Going from bear to squirrel, it’s like following up Sammy Hagar with Gary Cherone. I mean, it worked when they went from David Lee Roth to Hagar. But Cherone is no Hagar.”

“Twister, is anyone following us?” Asenath asked from the driver’s seat as she took another turn.

Turning to look behind them for a few seconds, the other girl scanned the dark street. She watched a couple passing cars before shaking her head and turning back to face the front. “Looks clear, for now. But they’ll pick up the scent. Just a matter of time. The furballs are persistent.”

“Okay… okay.” Lincoln was struggling to keep up with what was happening. It wasn’t working that well. He was light-headed. “You’re a… you’re a shapeshifter, and those w-were werewolves. Real, actual werewolves. And they were really… oh.” He sat back a bit heavily. Now that the immediate adrenaline from the attack at his home was over, he was starting to feel dizzy.

“Hey, hey, stay with us.” The girl, Twister, turned in her seat to wave a hand in his face. “You went through all the trouble of kicking the Bystander Effect’s ass. You really wanna ruin it by fainting?”

Before Lincoln could find his voice, Asenath pulled into the driveway of a house. “Let’s go,” she instructed, already opening her door before hopping out. She turned, opening Lincoln’s door before holding a hand out to him. “I promised you an explanation, Mr. Chambers. And you’ll get it, but we’ve got to make sure we’re safe first.”

He hesitated only briefly before taking the offered hand. As the girl helped him out of the car, Lincoln looked around. “I know this place. It used to be Pat Mulhaney’s place before he moved.”

Asenath nodded distractedly while moving to the garage. “Yeah, I bought it. Needed a place to bounce to if anything happened. Like a pack of werewolves crashing the party.” She flipped up the cover of the keypad at the garage and hit several buttons before the garage door began to rise.

“But we’re not staying here,” Lincoln guessed. “Werewolves, if they’re anything like real wolves, they could find this place pretty quick. With their…” He paused, gesturing toward his own nose.

Twister was looking at him with admiration, head nodding. “Hey, you’re not too bad at this for a total Bystander. You’d be surprised how many guys out there forget that wolves can track their scent. I mean, it’s cool when it works in my favor, but seriously people.”

Asenath nodded, standing in front of the now-open garage as she gestured toward a nondescript sedan that sat there. “Right, we’re not staying here. Just switching cars. We’ll put some distance between us and the fidos before hitting the next step. Here.” Walking past the car to a tall fire-safe that took up one corner of the garage, she hit a few buttons on the keypad there before opening it. Within, Lincoln could see several boxes and duffle bags. “Get the trunk, would you?” she instructed, tossing the car keys to him.

He did, unlocking the trunk with the keys before opening it. “What’s all thi–” As he turned back while starting to ask his question, his eyes barely caught a glimpse of a blur of motion. It was like watching something on extreme fast-forward. Within a few seconds, the trunk was full and the fire-safe was empty. Asenath had one hand on the trunk, the other on one of the stored boxes.

“There’s clothes, food, money, stuff we need to be on the road,” she informed him. Then her voice softened a little bit. “And…” Pausing, the girl opened the box, gesturing for Lincoln to take a look.

Frowning thoughtfully, the man reached out to tug the side of the box so he could look in. What he saw made him blink. His expression softened, and he reached in to take out a framed photograph. It was a picture of Joselyn and him on their wedding day, a picture that had been hanging on the wall in the living room. “I don’t understand,” he started. “This was back at the house. What did-” He stopped as his other hand came out of the box with a piece of paper with a crayon drawing over it. Flick’s, from when she was in the first grade. It had been put away in a box in his office ever since she had decided it was too embarrassing to have the thing up on the fridge anymore.

Asenath’s voice was quiet. “I made copies of everything that I thought was important, things that you wouldn’t want to lose. Pictures, your wedding license, birth certificates, anything special.”

Something caught in Lincoln’s throat then. “Y-you brought copies of everything and kept them–”

“No,” she interrupted. “The copies are back at the house. Just so you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. These are the originals. I’ve been smuggling them out a bit at a time for weeks. I just–” She paused, biting her lip. “I know what this kind of stuff can mean. I didn’t want you to lose it.”

There was absolutely nothing that Lincoln could say that would adequately portray his feelings in that moment. A simple ‘thank you’ was woefully, pathetically inadequate. And by the time he had found enough of his voice to say anything at all, Asenath had already moved to the front of the car. “Everyone in, we need miles between us and the wolves. Preferably hundreds of them.”

Forcing himself to focus, Lincoln put the pictures back into the box and closed the trunk before making his way around to the front passenger side. He slipped in, his voice curious as he asked, “They’ll still be able to track our scents, won’t they?”

“We’ll deal with that as soon as we get some distance,” Asenath replied while turning the car on. She waited while the other girl hopped into the back before reversing out of the garage, narrowly avoiding his car in the process. As she expertly whipped the car out onto the street, the girl added, “Miles first, then we’ll take the time to get rid of the smell. Trust me, we’ve done this before.”  

“Ran from werewolves before, she means,” Twister put in. “Taking a Bystander with us who’s somehow managed to break the Bystander Effect without being an Alter, that’s pretty new.”

“Bystander, Alter, Bystander Effect, what is all this?” Lincoln asked, his head shaking. “And why are those werewolves after us? And what–sorry.” He coughed. “Start wherever you need to.”

“Right, starting…” Asenath paused before gesturing over her shoulder with one hand as she took a sharp turn, heading for the exit from town to get onto the freeway. “First, that’s Twister. Say hi.”

“Hi.” Twister gave him a little wave. “We’ve met a few times. You gave me part of your sub a week ago.”

“That was y–of course it was you.” Lincoln coughed. “You’ve been watching me during the day.”

“While I slept,” Asenath confirmed. “Next, you’re a Bystander. It means a normal human. Well, normally it means a human that can’t see or remember supernatural things, but you can now, so I’m not sure what you are. Point is, Bystanders are ordinary humans. It’s a Heretic term, but a lot of Alters started using it too. You know, the ones that don’t just call you slaves or dinner instead.”

She let that sit for a second before continuing. “Next, Twister, me, those werewolves, and a bunch of other things are called Alters. Well, we all have different names for each other and ourselves, but collectively Alter is the most common word. It means ‘Alternative-from-human.’ Some of the older things, the ones that were never human and don’t have any ties to humanity, hate it. They don’t think we should define ourselves by what we are in relation to humans. But still, it stuck.”

“Bystanders, Alters, got it.” Sitting back, Lincoln glanced out the car window. “And the Immortals-”

“They’re not actually immortal, lots of them just tend to live for a long time,” Asenath corrected. “And they’re the ones we keep calling Heretics. That’s what they call themselves. Heretic, because they believe in all the supernatural stuff that would’ve made normal humans call them–you know.” She gave a slight smirk then before adding, “They used to be normal humans.”

“Used to be?” Lincoln frowned. “I thought it was a… uh, genetic thing. Joselyn was an Imm–Heretic, so Flick became one. Figured it was just a part of her, so they recruited her.”

Asenath shook her head then. “It’s kind of inherited, just not really genetically. I mean, as far as we know. Maybe being a Heretic-child makes you more likely to get good powers or something…”

“Get good powers?” He turned away from the window then to look at her, eyes widening just a little. “Powers, as in… actual powers. Like that woman back at the house was using.”

“Yeah, that’s–” Asenath paused, looking thoughtful as if she was trying to decide the best way to explain it. “Okay, first, let’s back up. Bystander Effect. It’s a bit of powerful magic that makes it so that every normal human that sees something supernatural either forgets what they saw, or never actually recognizes it for what it is. Say a bunch of harpies fly right over your head, you’ll think you saw a flock of birds. Get jumped by a chupacabra, you’ll see it as a wild dog. Anything obviously supernatural happens, you’ll see it, but as soon as it stops, you’ll forget what you saw. Or it’ll just rewrite your memory with something else. Same thing if you actually start putting things like this together. As soon as you actually believe anything supernatural happened, your memory’s gone.”

“Magic,” Lincoln echoed flatly. “Like, magic-magic. I–right. Yeah, that thing is a pain in the ass.”

“Tell me about it.” The girl’s words were hard, making Lincoln think that she’d had her own bad experiences dealing with that particular problem. “That’s what it is, a giant pain in the ass.”

Shaking her head then, she continued. “Anyway, Bystander Effect, Bystanders. Then we have Heretics. Basically, any time a human mixes their blood with an Alter, they’ve got a decent chance of turning into what they call a Natural Heretic. That’s sort-of a human-Alter hybrid. Human being with the strengths and powers from whatever Alter they were mixed with. Say you’ve got a banshee that attacks a human. Their blood mixes. The human’ll start getting the abilities of a banshee. Loud scream, sense impending death, some kind of ghost-form, the lot. Sometimes they get every power at low strength and gradually improve, sometimes they get one at a higher strength and gradually gain others over time. Point is, Natural Heretic. They get the powers of the Alter they were mixed with, they can use magic, and the Bystander Effect doesn’t work anymore ”

Lincoln digested that for a few seconds. Humans mixing their blood with supernatural creatures to gain their powers, he could see how stuff like that could happen. So many rituals in ancient civilizations had to do with blood. And yet… “That’s not what happened with Felicity, is it?”

From the backseat, Twister piped up. “Nope, she’s a member of what we call the extra-judgey Heretics.” After a pause, she added, “Not that she’s that judgey. You know, since we’re here.”

Asenath snorted at that. “Right, there’re these Alters called Reapers. As in–”

“As in the Grim Reaper?” Lincoln swallowed hard at that. “Take your soul to the afterlife Reaper?”

“Not quite that metaphysical,” she replied while shaking her head. “But still, pretty damn dangerous. They’re some of the most powerful Alters you’ll ever see. They feed off death. They can sense it. So they show up where there’s a lot of death and sort of… feast off it. Plus, every time they feed off something’s death, they gain their powers, memories, skills, all of it.”

“Wait.” Lincoln frowned. “Something like that has to be rare, right? Something that can get all that power, there’s no way that there’s a lot of them. So what does that have to do with this Crossroads place? What, do they have one of those things chained up in the basement to bleed it whenever they-oh my God, they have one of those things chained up in the basement to bleed it.”

“Not… exactly,” Asenath put in slowly. She hesitated a bit before starting to explain. She told him about Hieronymous Bosch, the Hangman-Reaper he had killed, and how the man had founded Crossroads by creating what they now called the Heretical Edge, the instrument that created a hundred Reaper-Heretics every year. The Crossroads student body. She explained all of that, as well as how some parts of the school had broken off to form another group, Eden’s Garden.

“Right, so that’s bullshit,” Lincoln announced simply as soon as she was done. “The story, I mean, not just you saying it. I’m sure they tell the students that, but seriously? A man from hundreds of years ago created something that could make super-Heretics at the drop of a hat all by himself? It’s a lovely, inspiring story, sure. It gives the kids their very own founding father that beat impossible odds, created the thing that’s gonna give them all their fancy new power, and founded the school they’re about to join. Perfect little tale to get them to feel good about the place.”

“Now see,” Twister remarked happily from her place in the backseat, “I knew there was a reason I liked you. Your bullshit detector is phenomenal. You sure there isn’t any Luduan in your blood?”

Before Lincoln could ask what that was, Asenath explained, “Truth-detecting Alter. Anyway, you’re right. A lot of it’s bullshit. Not that we knew for sure until Flick went to the Meregan planet and–”

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Lincoln demanded, “I’m sorry, Flick did what?”

So they told him. Together, Asenath and Twister informed Lincoln of just what Felicity had done on the Meregan world, why she had been pulled there, and how she had helped the race of giants save their children. During the course of it, Asenath also told him about her sister and how Flick had been the one to pull the girl out of her misery over the revelation of her vampiric origin.

“That… explains a lot.” The man was quiet, thinking about that for a moment before letting out a sigh. “But wait, you said the Meregan pulled her there because they thought she was her mother. Joselyn knew the Meregan? And why was she… why was Joselyn pretending to be a normal person, and where…” They’d reached that most important question, possibly of his life. “Where did she go? Why did my wife disappear? Who was that man that came to threaten Flick?”

“Right, now we’re in the thick of it.” Asenath went quiet, hands tight on the wheel before she started. “Crossroads, they teach their kids that we’re all evil. Every Alter–well, they call us Strangers. Everything not-human is evil. They teach them to hunt us, kill us, gain our power, and hunt more of us down. They use magic, weapons, powers, everything to kill anything not-human.”  

“Of course they do,” Lincoln muttered under his breath. “It’s part of that whole ‘us versus them’ mentality, times a million. I’m sure they ran into plenty of bad Alters out there, decided you were all bad, and now they convince generation after generation to hunt you. So your only choice is to defend yourselves as soon as you see them, which just convinced them you’re evil all over again.”

“Pretty much,” Asenath confirmed quietly before sighing. “But Joselyn, apparently she was different. She went to Crossroads back around early nineteen hundreds, and she ended up starting this whole… rebellion against that stuff. She believed that there were good Alters and bad ones. So she, some other Heretics, and those good Alters all joined up to rebel and try to change things, try to make things better. They wanted good people on both sides, Alters and Heretics, to work together to protect Bystanders from the bad ones. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden… let’s just say they didn’t like that idea. So, they had a war. Your wife was the leader of the rebellion.”

“You were a part of that, weren’t you?” Lincoln realized, watching the girl’s expression as she spoke.

Her response was a single word. “Apparently.” Then, before he could ask what Asenath meant by that, she continued. “The rebellion went on for a few decades like that. We were… apparently doing pretty well. Good enough that they were losing people on their side faster than they could replace them with hardliners. Kinda hard to make all your students believe that Alters are all mindlessly evil monsters when they see their friends, family, and former classmates working alongside them. So they were gradually losing their hold. Every year that passed, more and more of their students were joining the rebellion. At least, I think that’s how it was going. The memories are…” She paused before shaking her head. “Never mind, we’ll get there.

“Anyway, it was going that way for awhile. Then… well, Gabriel Ruthers happened. He used to be the Headmaster of up at the Crossroads school. Then they made him part of the Committee. That’s the… their leadership, the leaders of the whole Crossroads society. They made him one of them partway into the war. And eventually, he decided that the best way to end the whole thing was to take Joselyn off the board. But he couldn’t beat her straight up, so… he… took her children.”

That brought Lincoln’s head snapping around. “That motherfucker did what?!”

“She had… twin babies,” Asenath’s voice was soft. “Ruthers, he had them kidnapped and then held them over her head. He ordered her to turn herself in, in exchange for her babies’…. In exchange for their lives.”

Lincoln had, quite honestly, never been so angry in his life. The things he had seen through his time in LA, some of it had been pretty bad. Even ‘abducted babies’ bad. But hearing that it had happened to the woman he loved, the woman he still loved even after all the time that had passed, it made him want to find the man who had taken her children away to use against her and rip that motherfucker apart with his bare hands.

Asenath was already continuing. She told him about the memory spell, about how the whole rebellion was erased from most of the people’s memories when the memory of Joselyn was taken away, and how the woman had been put into normal human society to live her life after that.

“But not everyone forgot her,” Lincoln realized. “That man that was here–”

“Fossor,” Twister supplied. “He’s a necromancer, and one scary dude.”

Asenath nodded. “That’s for sure. We don’t know exactly how he kept his memory of Joselyn, or how he found her later. But he did. From… from what we know, he showed up and threatened to take Flick away, to raise her as his… weapon, servant, whatever. But Joselyn made a deal with him, so he’d take her instead of her child. That’s… that’s why she disappeared.”

And there it was. After all this time. After all his wondering, agonizing over what he’d done wrong, or who had taken her, or what had happened, the answer was there. Lincoln finally knew, finally understood, why Joselyn had walked out of his life.

For Felicity. She had left to save Felicity from the terror, pain, and misery of a life in service to that monster. And in turn, she had taken on all it for herself. She had… she was… for ten years, Jos had been–

“Stop the car,” he managed through a strained voice. As the girl quickly pulled over to the side, Lincoln shoved his door open and half-fell out. Landing on his knees, he threw up.

It kept coming for a few seconds, before he simply knelt there with his eyes closed. His body felt like heaving again. He wished his soul could throw up. He wished he hadn’t seen as many things as he had as a reporter, so that his mind wouldn’t immediately jump to everything that that piece of shit had been doing to his wife, what he obviously wanted to do to Flick.

“That’s why he was here,” he managed once he’d picked himself up and gotten back in the car. “Because Flick found out about her mom, so she’s been looking for her. So he showed up to threaten her into leaving him alone.”

“Actually,” Twister corrected, “it was his son that came first. Daddy Necromancer was just there to grab his brat, and put in a little psychological trauma just for the hell of it.”

“His son?” Lincoln started before jerking in his seat as the realization came. “Ammon!” he blurted, eyes wide. “That’s why that kid was so obsessed with Felicity, why he was over all the time, why–what–what the hell did–”

“As far as we can tell,” Asenath informed him, “Ammon came by himself, of his own volition. That’s what got me involved. He… he killed a girl at a gas station on his way to town, Denise. Her mother called me–”

“Wait,” Lincoln interjected. “Her mother just called you? How did she get your number?”

Shrugging, Asenath replied, “I help people out. It’s what I do. Then I give them my number and tell them to have people call me if they know anyone who needs my kind of help. They think I’m just a really effective, really young-looking private detective.”

“That’s pretty… convenient, isn’t it?” Lincoln mused aloud. “I mean, I’m sure you’re effective. But this… Ammon kills one girl at a gas station somewhere… not even in town, and her mother just happens to get your phone number from someone, which just happens to lead you directly to our house? And that’s all just… coincidence? Who gave her mother your number?”

The question made Asenath blink, then frown. “… you know, I’m not… sure. Like I said, my number gets passed around, so I’m used to getting weird calls. But now that you say it like that…I think I need to call Denise’s mother the next time we get a chance.”

Shaking that off, she continued. “Either way, Ammon was here to see his sister. But he broke his Daddy’s rule about staying away from Flick, so Fossor came to get him. All those attacks that night, the ones all over the country, they were distractions. He wanted to make sure all of the Heretics that were supposed to be watching over Flick were too busy to interrupt.”

Slumping back in his seat, Lincoln forced back the urge to vomit once more. “Ammon is Joselyn’s… he…” Shuddering, he blinked a little. “But what does that have to do with the werewolves that attacked us? Do they work for this… Fossor?”

Coughing, Asenath shook her head. “Actually, the wolves have nothing to do with Fossor, as far as we know. No, that’s… something else.”

“Something else,” he echoed, staring at the vampire. “Just how busy has my daughter been this year? Does she even go to class?”

The girl chuckled slightly. “You’d be surprised. But we’re here.” She had pulled the car off the freeway by that point, stopping in the lot of an apartment building next to a blue SUV.

“Here?” Lincoln looked around. “What is this place?”

“Just a pitstop,” she answered. “Like the house back there in town, but further away. I’ve been renting an apartment here too. We should have time to get in there and let everyone take a shower to get your scent off. Then I’ve got fresh clothes for everyone. We toss the old ones and transfer all the stuff from the trunk into the new car.” She nodded to the SUV beside them. “Then we get the hell out of here. I wanna be back on the road in twenty minutes, max. So let’s move.

“And then,” she added while stepping out to start across the lot to the building, “I’ll tell you all about your daughter’s crippling inability to focus on one goddamn problem at a time.”

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Sharkhunt 23-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers’s efforts to bypass the Bystander Effect that was posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

It was time to head back to Crossroads. There was still a lot I wanted to ask these people who had grown up not just with my mother, but with more members of my family on that side. I had more questions than I could even keep straight in my head. Still, after waking Shiori and Avalon and as we walked back out of the cabin with Gabriel, one in particular stuck in my head.

So, looking toward the man who was guiding us, I started, “You said that they had this system for determining who would be the leader of the clan here, picking from the available heirs. But from what I can tell, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. That journal of his at the school was started in 1362, and from I’ve seen of it, he seemed to be the leader then. Not that it actually mentions the clan or anything, which is kind of… okay, it’s really weird that he doesn’t mention it.”

Gabriel gave a slight snort, head shaking as he glanced over toward me. “I wouldn’t put too much stock in anything you read from any of your ancestors that shows up in that school. It’s most likely been, let’s say ‘edited’ by their people. You think Ruthers would allow any mention of an alternative to their society in that school where impressionable young minds could pick it up?”

“Yeah, there didn’t seem to be too much interesting stuff in it.” Pausing, I amended, “Okay, there was a lot of interesting stuff. I mean it’s from hundreds of years ago. But it seemed… sterilized.”

Beside me, Avalon gave a slight nod. Even being woken up after a nap, she looked gorgeous. Her hair was heavily tousled, but in a way that was like in television shows or movies where they muss up someone’s hair to show that they were sleeping, yet it still ends up being pretty perfect.

“I read some of it,” she announced. “It was obviously doctored. I’m sure some of it is in his own words, but anything that disagreed with or contradicted the party line would’ve been removed.”

I coughed at that. “No wonder he goes on about never trusting Strangers and how evil they are.”

Shiori, who somehow looked more cuddly than ever, spoke up then, her attention on Gabriel. “Flick said you told her that he wrote that part right after everything that happened with Fossor.”

Gabriel nodded. “As I said, Lyell was angry. He wrote things in his anger that he came to change his mind about later. Of course, Crossroads would have removed those parts of the journal.”

“Figures,” I muttered, shaking my head. “Is there any way to get the unedited version? I mean, there must be one around here somewhere, right?” I added a hopeful look toward Gabriel.

“Unfortunately, the best way to see Lyell’s journal unedited,” he replied, “would be to bring it here and have someone take the time to fix it. I doubt even Ruthers would risk losing information permanently that could come in handy later. So he probably used magic to edit the book rather than physically tearing stuff out. Theoretically, it could be undone, if you can get the book here.”

“Gaia could probably do it,” I started, before realizing, “but she would have already if there wasn’t something stopping her. Maybe there’s some kind of alert on the book or something if it’s messed with. So maybe bringing it here is a bad idea, in case it sends up a signal or something.”

Shaking my head at the distraction, I brought the subject back around to why I’d started asking about this stuff in the first place. “But my point was, Lyell was the leader for a really long time. Hundreds of years. So how long ago was this clan… founded, I guess? If it was established at least as far back as the thirteen hundreds, and it’d been around long enough before that they already had a whole system to determine who the clan leader would be, how old is it?”

Smiling a bit at the question, the man remarked, “I wondered how long it’d take you to ask about that. The rest of the clan had something of a wager going on.” He paused then, clearly taking a moment to decide the best way to answer. “What do you think of your mother’s maiden name?”

“Maiden name?” I echoed. “You mean Atherby? I, uhh, dunno. I guess I never really thought about it that much. I tried looking it up to see if Mom had any other family back in middle school, but never really got anywhere. It’s not very common. But other than that…” I shrugged helplessly.

He chuckled. “It’s okay. It’s not really anything you could be expected to just know that easily. But you know you pronounce the name wrong.” He added the last bit with a pointedly raised eyebrow.  

I blinked. “Wrong?” Frowning, I spoke it aloud again, sounding it out uncertainly while giving a look to the other two girls. “Ath-ur-bee. Atherby. Ath-ur-bee. What’s wrong with that?”

“The last part,” he replied patiently. “It wasn’t supposed to be Athur-bee. Look at how it’s spelled.”

“By.” I tilted my head thoughtfully then. “Ather-by? So it’s pronounced the same way it’s spelled.”

“The name of the clan has been deliberately altered over the years,” he explained. “No pun intended. “Mostly to draw less attention. But it was only altered a little bit. Specifically, a single additional R sound was removed from its original place directly following the A.”

“Arther-by?” Shiori immediately put in before her eyes widened and she made an adorable squeaking noise. “You mean Arthur, as in ‘founded by Arthur?’ Like, like, Arthur-Arthur?”

Chuckling both at Shiori’s voice and the double-takes that Avalon and I did, Gabriel gestured. “More like, ‘founded by those who were by Arthur. By, in this case, meaning beside. As in–”

“Knights of the Round Table.” Avalon was openly staring at the man (not that she’d ever stopped staring at him). “You’re saying this clan is the descendants of the Knights of the Round Table.”

I was still choking on that particular realization while Gabriel calmly corrected, “Some of them, not all. A few of the knights, after Arthur’s… death, created what you now know as this clan.”  

“Who–what–ah–” I was still openly floundering, trying to dredge the right words up out of my completely locked-up mind. “What knights? I mean who was–I mean who am I–I mean…”

“Who are you related to?” Gabriel smiled faintly. “We don’t know. When the knights created this clan, they cast aside their old names. It was their way of honoring their liege, by letting their old identities be buried along with him. Their leader took the name Arthur-by. Over time, that became Artherby with the e, and eventually Atherby. Finally, it turned to the way you pronounce it.”  

“Knights of the Round Table.” I spoke the words, still unable to believe that they were coming out of my mouth. “My family–my mother’s family–is related to–is… they’re descended from one of… oh.” Swallowing, I swayed a little bit in spite of myself. “I think I need to sit down for a minute.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Gabriel agreed, his voice as calm as ever. “That’s why I waited until you asked. I didn’t want to overwhelm you with your family’s history.” He paused then before amending, “More of your family’s history, rather. It’s also why Crossroads was so eager to take your mother in, and why they forgave a lot of her earlier, less obvious transgressions. They were obviously hoping that the rest of the remaining Atherby clan would fold into their organization.”

I’d taken in a lot of revelations over the past few months. Enough to the point that I’d thought I was immunized to any more surprises. But somehow, finding out that my family on my mother’s side was related to at least one of the literal Knights of the Round Table was still enough to leave me speechless. My mouth continued to open and shut a few times as I fought to find any words.

In the end, it was Avalon who spoke up before I managed to get my brain working again. “Wait,” she started with a frown. “One of Arthur’s knights is already a member of the Committee.”

“There is?” I blurted, looking that way while wracking my brain for a second. “Who–wait. You mean that Percival guy?” I thought back to what I remembered of the man. He’d been the one with the blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, and the Nirvana tee-shirt. Not exactly the kind of appearance I would’ve expected from one of the legendary Knights of The Round Table.

On the other hand, I also never would’ve expected to find Virginia Dare teaching at my school, or Blackbeard working as one of the society’s leaders. So maybe my expectation of what historical figures would be like should just be quiet and stop making assumptions before I ended up finding out that George Washington was actually a shrunken Meregan or something even more absurd.

Gabriel was already nodding. “Yes,” he replied, “the Percival on the Crossroads Committee is the same man who was known as one of King Arthur’s knights. Obviously, he wasn’t one of the few who split off to create this clan. As for how he actually feels about it… you’d have to ask him.”   

It was a good question. What did Percival think about the fact that my mom and I (not to mention Wyatt, Abigail, and Koren) were descended from at least one of his old comrades in arms?

“I don’t…” My mouth shut as I tried to think. Eventually, the only thing I could say was, “You’re telling me that Arthur was a Heretic?” The words sounded weak even to me.

“All of them were,” he confirmed. “Arthur the most powerful of all. One of the most powerful natural Heretics who ever lived, if the myths are true. Until he was betrayed and murdered.”

“Myths… most powerful Heretic who–” I blinked, looking back over at him. “You said he was a natural Heretic. But what was he a natural Heretic of that made him so powerful?”

Gabriel smiled at the question, clearly expecting it. “According to the clan legend? A dragon.”

For a moment, I just stared, my mouth opening and shutting before dumbly repeating, “A dragon.”

His head bowed in a nod. “That’s what they say. You know the old ‘pulling the sword from the stone’ routine? Actually, it was pulling a tooth from a dragon. According to the Atherby clan legends, Arthur’s village was attacked by a dragon. Arthur tried to fight it, and was… well, almost killed. He was speared in the dragon’s mouth and almost swallowed. But Arthur managed to catch hold of the tooth and rip it out. The dragon spat him out in a rage, and he hit the ground. The blood from when he tore the tooth free mixed with his blood and… well, the rest of history. Or myth.” He shrugged. “The tooth was forged into the blade of Arthur’s weapon, Excalibur.”

“Wait a second,” Shiori blurted quickly. Her eyes were wide as she looked back and forth between all of us. “You mean we have Avalon, the island that Arthur was taken to… and a descendant of one of Arthur’s knights, and they’re… you’re, you know…”  She waggled her eyebrows pointedly.

Flushing at her words, I opened my mouth, but Avalon beat me to the punch. “She knew.” When I looked that way, her face was just as pink as mine felt. “Gaia,” she muttered. “She knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as we settled on my–on the name, she said she had the perfect roommate in mind. She was even smiling at the time. She knew exactly what she was doing.”

Well, that was enough to make my face grow even redder. Before I could say anything about it, however, the phone in my pocket buzzed. It was the secure phone, the one that was protected from any kind of surveillance measures by Crossroads. Digging it out, I glanced at the number before answering with a glance to the others. “Seth? Sorry, can I call you back a bit later?”

“You could,” the vampire drawled lazily, “if you’d like to miss your last chance to talk to Fahsteth.”

Shiori’s head was already whipping around, the girl obviously having heard that as I blurted, “Wait what?” Glancing to the others, I added, “What do you mean, last chance to talk to Fahsteth?”

“Just what I said,” Seth replied. “Turns out, your favorite shark merc’s leaving the planet after tonight. And he doesn’t plan on coming back anytime soon. Something about a bunch of powerful people that want him dead. You wanna talk to him at all, it’s gotta be in the next hour or two. And by hour or two,” he added, “I mean every minute that passes makes it more likely that he’ll just decide to cut and run anyway. I threw out a lot of favors to even find out this much. Believe me, you wait too long and he’ll be gone. And like I said, once he leaves, he ain’t coming back.”

“I–hold on.” Hitting the button to mute the phone, I looked to the others. “He says that Fahsteth’s leaving after tonight, in an hour or two at the latest. If we don’t go talk to him now, we won’t be able to before he’s gone for good.” Yeah, considering Gabriel obviously had at least as good of hearing as Shiori did, the only person I was actually giving this news to was Avalon. But still.  

“It’s not… terrible timing,” Shiori pointed out. “I mean, there’s no chance that whoever the Seosten spy is would know about it. We’re not at Crossroads, and everyone else is asleep right now.”

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed with a slight nod. “It was an accident, but this is a good time for it. We still have at least two hours before anyone would actually miss us. Longer if Gaia covers.”

“If you want to go see this Fahsteth,” Gabriel put in then, “I can arrange for transport. And you won’t be going in alone either. Not with that mercenary. He’s too dangerous.”

“We’ll have Seth with us, and anyone he brought,” I pointed out. “But any help you want to add would be good too. As long as we get Fahsteth to talk about what he knows. That’s what matters.”

Avalon nodded. “He’s the closest thing to a real lead we’ve ever had. Whoever the Seosten and their allies are, Fahsteth was working with them at least since I was a little girl. Probably longer. And now that they’re trying to kill him, he might be willing to talk about it.”

“Right.” I bit my lip. “So we get to Fahsteth, we convince him to talk to us… one way or another, and then–”

As I was talking, my phone buzzed again. Thinking it was Seth trying to get my attention, I glanced down, only to see that I had a second call incoming. This one was from Asenath. “Hold on.” Answering it, I started, “Senny, hey. Did you hear about–”

“Hi, Felicity.”

The voice made my heart practically stop. Not because the voice itself was all that surprising. I’d heard it my entire life, after all. No, what was surprising was hearing the voice coming through a phone that the owner of the voice shouldn’t have had the number to, using a phone belonging to someone that he shouldn’t have been able to get it from.

“… Dad?” I managed, once I’d managed to get far enough past my shock to actually speak.

I definitely had everyone else’s attention by that point, as my father replied, “Yeah. Asenath said that it’d be safer to call that phone, that we wouldn’t be… overheard. Is it safe on your end?”

“Is it safe on my–” I started to echo before shaking my head almost violently. “What are you talking about? What–I mean–how did–I–what?”

“I know, baby.” My father’s voice went silent for a moment before he continued. “I know all of it. Well, no, not all of it. But enough.”

“What do you mean you–”

“She’s a vampire,” my father cut me off. “Asenath. She’s a vampire. And you–your mother, Fossor, the Heretics, I know enough. I know what’s been going on. I worked out some of it, and your friends here have been filling me in on the rest. It’s… really… something.”

After what was probably a long moment of silence, he proved he really did know me by prompting, “Flick, sweetie, you have to breathe.” A pause, then, “Actually, do you still have to breathe? For all I know, you’ve gotten some kind of–”

“How?” I blurted then. “How do you–the Bystander Effect, you can’t be–you can’t remember, you can’t–” Then my eyes widened. “Did Asenath–”  

“I’m not a vampire, no.” There was a chuckle, weak as it was, in my father’s voice. “As for how, I guess we both have a lot to tell each other. But the most important thing is that we’re not home. Those… werewolves–” He paused, as though he couldn’t believe he was actually calling them that. “–the ones that are… upset with you, they came to the house.”

“What?! The werewolves were, but–”

“It’s all right,” he assured me. “We’re fine. One of those–well, we should talk about it in person. That and everything else. Asenath told me you’d be awake, because you… listen, I’m told that if you talk to that headmistress of yours, she can arrange for you to come to where we are. I… we need to talk, Felicity. We need to talk about everything.”

My head was already nodding. “Y-yeah, yeah, I…” I was reeling, trying to cope with the sudden revelation. My father had broken the Bystander Effect? How!? How was he remembering all this? Did it have to do with the werewolves? Did they–did– I had to talk to him. I had to find out what the hell was–

“I can’t.” The words came as an abrupt realization. “I can’t come right now.”

There was a brief pause before my father asked, “What… what do you mean?”

Oh god. The sound of his voice, the idea of actually talking to my dad about everything that had happened, the thought of opening up about Mom, about all of it… and yet…

“I can’t–listen, Dad. God. I wanna talk to you. I swear. I swear I will, as soon as I can. But there’s this… this guy, this guy we have to talk to. It’s important. It’s really, really important, and if we don’t talk to him right now, we won’t get the chance again. It’s life and death, Dad.”

Silence came through the phone for a few seconds. Seconds that seemed to last forever. Finally, my father spoke quietly. “Felicity, I want to tell you something… important, okay?”

Swallowing, I held the phone tightly. “Y-yes.”

“I love you.” His voice was soft. “I know why you lied. I know why you didn’t tell me. I don’t blame you. You are the most important person in the world to me. Always. Forever. I trust you. If you say that you have to do this, I believe you. But promise me that you’re going to be careful. Promise me that you have help. Promise me that you’re… safe.”

My eyes closed. “If you know almost everything,” I replied, “then you know that I haven’t been completely safe in a really long time.” I swallowed then. “But yeah. I’m being careful. This isn’t about… about us. It’s a long story, but one of my teachers was killed. He was murdered. And we have to talk to someone who can tell us what happened. It’s our only chance.”

“I’d ask if you have to be the one who does it,” my father spoke quietly, “but I already know the answer.”

Giving a little involuntary shudder, I managed, “Wh-what about you? You’re safe?”

“Safe enough, with my two bodyguards,” he replied. “Don’t worry about me. We’ll talk, as soon as you’re done with… with what you’re doing, okay?”

“I love you, Dad.” I had to say it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t… I’m sorry.”

“I know.” His voice was as tender as ever. “Sweetie, I know. I understand. Trust me, after what I went through to get past that stupid–I get it. We do have to talk, about everything. But I’m not mad at you, okay? I am not angry with you.”

There were tears in my eyes, and I blinked them away. “I… I’ve gotta go, Dad. I’ve gotta focus. But I’ll talk to you soon. As soon as I can, once it’s done. I promise. I swear.”

“I know you will. I’ll hold you to it.” Dad’s voice was quiet then. “Be careful, Felicity. Please, please be careful.”

“I will. I..” Swallowing, I added one more, “I love you. B-bye.”

Clicking the disconnect for that call, I gave the others one more look before shoring myself up. Taking a deep breath, I hit the button to switch over to the other call. Somehow, when I spoke, I managed to stop my voice from cracking almost entirely.

“S-Seth? Yeah. We’ll be there. Just make sure Fahsteth doesn’t leave.

“Because he’s got a lot to answer for.”

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Mini-Interlude 28 – Lincoln Chambers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Lincoln Chambers gradually working his way through the Bystander Effect. I hope you enjoy. 

Several Weeks Ago

Flick was lying. Lincoln Chambers was sure of it. He knew she was lying. Every time she spoke to him, she gave the same tells that he’d been able to pick up on without her realizing since she was a little girl. A father just knew when his daughter was leaving things out. Especially when it was something she was uncomfortable with.

But what was she lying about, exactly? He’d tried to pin her down without making it obvious, asking her questions about her school, her friends, her teachers. Nothing specific pinged as being the lie. Which clearly meant that it wasn’t just a single untruth. There was something… big there.

It was the school. Every time she talked about it, every ounce of fatherly instinct he had said that she was lying. She was leaving out great swaths of information. Important information. But why?

He couldn’t let that go on. He was going to have to call the school, find out what exactly was going on over there, as soon as possible.

Flick lying… the video of Joselyn that existed long before it should have… the two couldn’t be related, could they? It seemed impossible, and yet–

******

One Day Later

“So you’re absolutely sure about that? No question in your mind? Not even the slightest doubt?”

It was getting late, and Lincoln was still at work. The man was sitting at his desk, every light in the large, open bullpen off except for the one beside his computer. He held the phone to his ear, listening for another few seconds while tapping a pen rhythmically against the desk.

“Right, thanks, man. Yeah, I owe you. Next time you get out here.” He paused then before laughing. “Well yeah, I suppose it’s easier to make the trip out there. We’ll see. Maybe over the summer. Flick’d like that, it’s been a long time since she saw you and Carla. Yeah, soon.”

Dropping the phone receiver back into its cradle, Lincoln plucked a notebook off his desk and stared at the writing there. Scrawled across the middle of the page were the words: Fake video. Definitely fake. But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?

Slowly, he used the pen to scratch out the first four words. The video that had shown up on his desk, the one that showed Joselyn standing in that emergency room as an adult a full decade before she should have been born, wasn’t fake. If J.T. said the thing hadn’t been tampered with, then it hadn’t been tampered with. He was an old friend who had never actually met Joselyn before she… disappeared. Lincoln hadn’t wanted to try to explain her presence in the video to anyone who would have recognized her. He couldn’t even explain it to himself, let alone others.

The video couldn’t be real. But it was. Which meant… his gaze slowly moved to the other words on the page, the options he had written mainly as a jest. Time-traveler, clone, identical older sister.

An identical mother could work as well, of course. But of course, outside of television shows using the same actors for budget purposes, people’s ancestors didn’t really tend to look identical to them. Not to the degree that he could see in that video. The woman there was Joselyn. He just… knew it. He knew his wife, and the woman in the video was his wife.

So clone or time-traveler. But that was impossible. Impossible. Utterly impossible.  

But still, there was–

*******

Lincoln was walking out of the newspaper office, head shaking. If J.T. didn’t call him back soon…

Screw it. Reaching into his pocket, Lincoln withdrew his cell phone. A folded up piece of paper came with it. It was probably a receipt or something, and he idly unfolded the thing while hitting the number on the phone for his old friend. The phone rang twice before J.T. picked up.

“Hey, man, we–” He paused, listening. “This summer? Right, but when did we–” Again, he stopped talking. This time wasn’t because of his old friend, however. It was because he had finished unfolding the paper, only to find a page that had been torn from his notebook. Fake video. Definitely fake had been crossed out several times. After that, the rest of the note (But if not: Time-traveler? Clone? Identical older sister?) had been circled several times. And beneath it, he had written, ‘check voicemail’.

“Hey, sorry, let me call you back.” After apologizing, Lincoln disconnected and switched over to check his voicemail, as he had clearly written in his own handwriting despite not actually remembering doing so.

“Video’s real,” his own voice spoke up as soon as the message started. “Not only is it real, but you had it checked twice. Once by J.T. and once by Packer up in Michigan. You just called Packer to see if he could double-check, and he talked about the video like he already knew it. You already talked to him about it two days ago. Recording this message in case I forget again.”

And he had forgotten again. Forgotten an entire conversation? Two entire conversations if the way J.T. had been talking was any indication.

Forgetting two entire conversations, and probably more than that. How? What the hell was going on? How could he just forget entire conversa–

******

Two days later

Groaning in relief as he practically fell into his bed after a long day, Lincoln slid his hand across the empty spot where Joselyn should have been. It was a familiar practice, one that he had taken every night since she had disappeared. Yet now, ever since he received that video, it was one that somehow seemed to mean even more than it had before.

He should really find out if J.T. had ever finished going over the thing.

With that in mind, he stretched out, hand slipping up under his pillow. To his surprise, his hand found a notebook that had been stuffed there.

Taking out the notebook, Lincoln reached out to switch the light on, squinting at the thing. In his own handwriting, the words, ‘You’re forgetting things’ had been hastily scribbled. Forgetting things? Well obviously he’d forgotten writing the note and putting it under his pillow. So…

He kept reading. J.T. had finished going over the video. Not only that, Packer had done it too. He didn’t even remember giving the video to Packer. And he’d already had two different conversations with J.T.

Forgetting things. He was forgetting things. How? Was he… was there something wrong with his mind? Oh God. No. If something happened to him, Flick would–

No. No, he had to remember. He had to make himself remember. Obviously, he’d already realized that, or he wouldn’t have started leaving these notes for himself.

Hurriedly, the man reached for the pen on his bedside table and began to scribble on the next page of the notebook.

*****

Three Days Later

Something was wrong in his case file. Lincoln knew that much. Something within the extensive notes that he had taken about the terrorist attack that had taken place a couple months earlier was wrong. The case wasn’t leading anywhere. It seemed to be looping around in circles.

Did this have to do with his missing memories? He kept finding notes from himself, notes that he had written but didn’t actually remember writing. On top of that, he had begun finding tally marks on those notes. Tally marks that he had quickly realized indicated how many times he had found that particular note. The notes that had to do with the video that he’d found on his desk, a video that he’d had independently verified by more than one person.

Conversations he didn’t actually remember having. Notes he didn’t remember taking. Extensive letters that he had apparently written to himself, detailing his thoughts in ways that couldn’t have been faked by anyone else.

Strangely, he had started to sort-of remember things. That was, he could remember finding these notes multiple times, even if the contents of them and his own specific actions or thoughts were blurry. It was something in between deja vu and a specific recollection.

It was all a mess. None of it, his missing memories, the video being real, none of it made any sense. So, to clear his head, he had come back into his home office to look over the case files for the supposed terrorist attack one more time. Hopefully occupying his mind with something else would jog something loose.

And yet, looking over everything up on his bulletin board now, all he could think was that something was wrong. Something had changed. The still picture taken from that traffic cam that showed the limousine, another picture of the same limo in a fast food drive-through. His own note about the car being stolen. The bank accounts that had been used to pay for the food, as well as other services. Bank accounts that led nowhere but through four or five shell companies. Phone numbers he had taken from those company’s public information that had ended up rerouting him through dozens of automated messaging systems.

And worst of all, the fairly terrible picture that he had managed to scrounge up, the only one of its kind that he had been able to locate. It showed an utterly unremarkable-looking man. A man whom Lincoln was convinced had been behind those very attacks. But who was he? And why was he completely invisible to the system? No one Lincoln had sent the picture to from his extensive contacts in Los Angeles had any information at all about the figure. He was a ghost.

Standing there, looking at the information up on his bulletin board, all the pictures, all of his hand-written notes, all the photocopied articles, faxes, and the maps of where the limo could have gone in the time that it’d had, there was something… off. He couldn’t place it, couldn’t figure out what it was, but something was different from the way it had been. Something was just… wrong.

Slowly, the man let his gaze pass over the arranged notes, trying to sense what felt so off when he looked at it all together. Words, numbers, images, it all formed a single coherent symphony within his head. And yet, seeing it now, letting it fill his head, part of the song was wrong. It was small, a single incorrect note that most people would have missed against the rest of the noise. He had missed it himself for so long. Months by that point. Yet now, now it stuck out for reasons he couldn’t explain any more easily than he could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with it.

Ever since he’d seen that video, Lincoln had been watching for other things that didn’t make sense. Things that seemed off or wrong around him. This… seemed to count somehow.

He stepped forward, humming a tune lightly under his breath as his hand lifted. Gradually, Lincoln traced his finger over the board. The image of the man, the bank account connected to the credit card that had paid for the meal at the restaurant, the phone number for the car service that the limo had been stolen from, the name of the company (a fake one that did no actual business in their advertised field) connected to the credit card that had paid for gas in that limo fifteen miles outside of town. The limo itself, its license plate circled in red. The… wait…

Lincoln paused. His finger halted in the air before slowly moving back along the board. The limo’s license plate. It ended in thirty-seven. Thirty-seven. His eyes scanned back over the board, searching… searching. There. The phone number for the car service. The last two digits there were a two and a four. Thirty-seven and then twenty-four.

No. That was wrong. It was wrong. The first phone number he’d had when he was just starting out as a cub reporter in California ended with three-seven-four-two. Three-seven-four-two. He remembered now. When he’d started setting up this board, he’d noticed that the last two digits of the car service and the last two digits on the license plate could go together to make the last four digits of his old phone number. It had been something completely offhand, utterly inconsequential.

And yet, he knew that was right. As little as it had actually mattered, it still stuck in his head.

Now it was wrong. Now the number for the car company didn’t end in four-two. It ended in two-four. Two-four, not four-two. But it had been four-two before. Three-seven-four-two.

It was something so minor, so inconsequential, that most people wouldn’t have noticed. But with the silly little nothing association he had made, linking the last two digits of that license plate and last two of that phone number together to make his old number, it had stuck in his head. Not perfectly. He hadn’t noticed when he went back to use the car service’s number in order to get more information from them. Hadn’t noticed for some time, actually. But it had stuck in his head, the wrongness of it. That was the source of the ‘bad note’ in the symphony of his investigation.

But why was it wrong? It hadn’t been wrong before, he knew that much. Somehow, the number he had written down had changed sometime between when he had first recorded it and now.

Had he changed it? Was this another one of his missing memories? But that didn’t make sense. Well, it made even less sense than any of this did.

Had it been different when he called the place to check up on their stolen vehicle? He paused, trying to remember. Not that he could trust his memory.

But he could trust his notes. Digging through them, he found the right paper and scanned through it. The information there matched what he remembered. Calling the car service had led him to the phone number that had been used to call for the car. According to the girl he had spoken to, the car had gone to the assigned location, only for the driver to wake up hours later with no idea what had happened. He’d taken the phone number that had called in the first place and tracked it through several names which, come to think of it, was where the whole ‘running in circles’ bit seemed to have started.

Considering that for a moment, Lincoln reached into his pocket and took out his cell before dialing the number that was written on the note, the one ending in two-four. It rang a couple times before being picked up by a familiar voice mail, announcing the name of the car service and asking him to leave his name and number and they would get back to him. It was the same message he’d heard before, when he’d left his information. They’d called him back an hour or so later and given him the information that eventually led him in circles.

Rather than leave a message, he clicked the disconnect and thought for a moment. Tapping the phone against his hand, Lincoln eventually dialed the number again. This time, he swapped the last two numbers to the way he remembered them being, the way that matched his old number.

Holding the phone to his ear then, the man listened as it rang three times before someone actually picked up. A male voice announced the name of the car service and then asked if they could help.

Pausing, Lincoln took a breath to collect himself before asking if they had any other phone number, such as one with the last two digits reversed. It was daytime, so he spoke quietly to avoid waking Asenath. The man on the phone was puzzled, but eventually replied that the service had a couple other phone numbers, neither of which were anywhere near similar to this one.

Thanking the man, Lincoln hung up. Then he stood there, staring at his phone for a few long seconds. The thought that he should have questioned the man further about the limo that had been stolen popped into his head, yet he was too distracted by the realization that his notes had absolutely been tampered with. And tampered with in a way that he hadn’t noticed except by chance. But who had that kind of access to his notes, to his home? Who could possibly have–

Slowly, the man turned his head in the direction of his daughter’s room, where his houseguest slept.

******

The next morning, Lincoln was sitting in his car on the way to work. Turning the car on, he flipped the visor down to avoid the glare from the rising sun. As he did so, something written on the mirror that was attached to the back of the visor caught his eye. In red marker, the words ‘cases of xeroderma pigmentosum’ were scrawled. Beside it was a hastily written phone number.

Xeroderma pigmentosum. That was the genetic disorder that Asenath suffered from, the one that made her unable to go out into the sunlight. He’d looked up the condition out of curiosity after reading the note that her doctor had sent him. But why was it written on his mirror, and what was the phone number next to it.

It was another note. Another note that he had apparently left for himself, in a big enough hurry that he couldn’t even wait for a notebook. That or he’d wanted to make absolutely certain that he saw it that morning.

Pulling out of the driveway, he hit the button for the phone on his steering wheel, then read out the number for the computer to dial for him.

It rang a few times before a female voice answered. “Syracuse University, admissions department. This is Anne, how may I direct your call?”

Taking his cue from the words on the mirror, Lincoln asked, “Yes, hi. I’m with–” He paused. They probably wouldn’t talk to some nothing newspaper in Wyoming. “I’m with the Times, doing a story on students who have to work through unique genetic conditions. Who would I talk to to find out your school’s history of dealing with people who have xeroderma pigmentosum?”

He expected her to ask what it was. Instead, the woman paused before remarking, “Boy, that’s weird. Fifty-two years old, never heard that term in my life. Now you’re the second guy to ask about it in the past couple days.”

So he had called before… Lincoln frowned. “Must be someone trying to scoop me,” he joked weakly before adding, “Does that mean you haven’t dealt with someone with that condition?”

“I haven’t, but the university has,” the woman replied. “Hold on, I’ve got it here. Yeah, one student over in Newhouse, about thirty years ago.”

She was obviously referring to S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University’s communications school. It was one of the best journalism schools in the country. Lincoln hadn’t gone to it, but he had toyed with the idea of trying to get Flick in. Especially after she was accepted into Crossroads.

The woman continued talking. “I can’t tell you much about her. Student confidentiality and all that. No names, no phone numbers. I’m not sure how much help I can be, honestly.”

Pausing, Lincoln drummed his fingers over the steering wheel for a moment before asking, “For demographic reasons, could you tell me what kind of ethnicity she was?”

“Oh, I don’t know… that sounds like a bad idea.” The woman hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before finally relenting. “Asian. The girl was Asian. Now that’s really all I can tell you.”

“It’s all right,” Lincoln managed. “That’s all I need.”

He disconnected the call, then sat back heavily while pulling the car to a stop at the red light.

Asian. An Asian girl at the journalism school who had the same condition that Asenath suffered from.

Sitting there, the man thought for a moment before looking through his phone. He flipped over to outgoing calls, the paused to stare. Several different numbers that he didn’t recognize filled up the screen.  

Thoughtfully, he tapped one, listening as a different university picked up. He gave the same spiel, only to get an angry retort from the man on the other end that nothing had changed since yesterday. There still had never been any students with that problem, so stop calling.

One by one, Lincoln went through every number. Pulling away as the light turned green, he talked to people. They all remembered someone else calling about the same thing the day before (though only a couple recognized his voice) and most told him the same thing. There had never been anyone at the school who suffered from that condition. Two others, however, confirmed that they did indeed have a student who matched Asenath’s description (at least as much as they would confirm it). Different names, but clearly the same person.

And all three ‘different’ Asian students with the same allergy to sunlight attended the schools dozens of years apart. The earliest was all the way back in 1957, then Syracuse University in the late eighties, and finally another university in the early 2000’s.

This was starting to get really–

******

Three Days Later

He had begun to remember when he left notes to himself. Not always. It seemed random, when and what he would remember and when and what he wouldn’t. Over the past several days, Lincoln had taken to writing down every single thought he had when it related to either Joselyn, Flick’s school, or the girl currently living in her room. He’d either write it down, or record it in one of his voice recorders (which he’d dug out after getting tired of using his own cell phone’s voicemail). About half of what he recorded, he actually remembered doing so. The other half he forgot, but repeatedly reminded himself of with notes that he had taken to leaving for himself everywhere.

He was remembering enough to keep the broad strokes clear in his head. For specifics, he often had to go back to his notes and recordings. In some cases he had to do it multiple times within the same train of thought to jog a memory that stubbornly kept trying to disappear.

The idea that he couldn’t trust his memory was bad enough. But the thought that he couldn’t trust the girl who slept in the same house he did, the girl who slept in his daughter’s bedroom, that was… indescribable. So many times, so many, he had been tempted to have it out with her.

Something always stopped him. A nagging thought in the back of his head that he hadn’t yet put together yet. A lost memory? A realization that hadn’t fully formed? He didn’t know. He could barely trust himself by that point.

What kind of person was he? Was his mind even his own? Were his decisions his own, his choices? How many times had his memory been erased before he started noticing, before he started taking notes to remind himself?

And would he start forgetting… other things? Would he forget Felicity? Would he–

Stopping that line of thought, Lincoln forced himself to focus. He was back in his home office, staring at the board in front of him. It was late enough that Asenath was up. He could hear the girl down in the kitchen, clinking away with something.

From his pocket, he withdrew the familiar notebook. Tapping his pen against it, he glanced down. Time-Traveler was written there, along with the word Hostage.

Was he a hostage? A hostage of the… immortal girl who had attended at least three different colleges over the past sixty years, always the same age? An immortal girl with an allergy to sunlight, a girl who never aged, who never went out in the sun, who–

*****

A few seconds later.

What? What had just happened? No. No, he knew this part. He had forgotten something. Forgotten–

Looking down, he found a word written not on the notebook, but on his own hand. Vampire.

Vampire. Immortal… avoided sunlight… it made–okay it didn’t make any sense, but that made as much sense as anything else considering he had unaltered video of his own wife walking around as an adult a decade before she was supposed to have been born. So sure, vampire.

God, he was going insane. He already was insane. Flick was just…

He stopped. Flick. Did Flick know? She had to have known something about–wait, no. What if—

*****

A few seconds later.

Again. Again he had forgotten something. Looking down, Lincoln saw more marks on his hand. This time, he had written, Flick knew.

Flick knew? Flick knew what? He thought back, looking at the notebook again. What did Flick have to do with Asenath, or the video of Joselyn, or the man in the grainy picture? What did Asenath have to do with the man, and why had she switched the number so that he called the wrong place?

Not just the wrong place. Somehow she had set it up so that he would call a place that sounded like the right one, a number posing as the car service, and had actually had someone else call him back to give false information, information that had led him in circles.

So Asenath was a… an immortal… a vampire, who was working with the man who was behind the attacks right at Flick’s birthday… and… and…

Was she a guard? Had the man… had he done something to Flick, and Asenath was here to keep him in line? He looked again at the word hostage on the notebook, frowning for a moment.

No. No, that didn’t make sense. Flick liked Asenath. He could tell. And that Shiori girl. Flick… really liked her. There was more there, and he just couldn’t believe that it was fake. The affection, the jokes they told, the… it wasn’t fake.

So did Flick not know that Asenath was his jailer, for lack of a better word?

Okay, no. That didn’t make sense either.

Wait. Hold on. Flick had called him. She’d called him not long after that school started, and asked him…

She’d asked him if Joselyn had ever attended a private school. He couldn’t remember her exact words, but he knew that much. She’d asked if her mother had ever gone to a private school.

Okay. Wait. Wait a second. What if she called because she already knew the answer. Something-she’d seen something that made her think of her mother, something similar to the video that he’d received.

Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. That was what Flick had been calling about. She found something that had to do with her mother.

But if Joselyn had gone to Crossroads, that would mean–

*****

A few seconds later.

Not this time. Realizing he’d lost time, Lincoln looked down at the notebook. He’d been writing the entire time. Notes taken in his own shorthand, almost unreadable by anyone else, but perfectly clear to him.

Reading through them, it only took him a minute to catch up. Which brought him to the fact that Joselyn going to Crossroads had to mean–

*****

A few seconds later.

Again. He read his notes, saw where he had circled particular points. Crossroads. Crossroads was the key. Joselyn had gone to Crossroads. Flick was going to Crossroads. Asenath was here with him. His jailer? No. Flick liked her. Flick trusted her. That was–

******

A few seconds later.

Flick. Asenath. Crossroads. Joselyn. The man in the picture. The video.

Grimacing, Lincoln quickly scratched out where he had written hostage. Beside it, he wrote protected. Flick trusted Asenath. She wasn’t here to threaten him, she was there to protect him.

And Joselyn. Joselyn wasn’t a vampire. He’d seen her out in the sunlight plenty of times. Plus, she had his baby. Could a vampire even do tha–he couldn’t believe this was a real line of thought.

Putting his pen beside Time-Traveler, Lincoln shook his head before writing Immortal.

Was Joselyn just that old? Had something happened… wait. Wait, Flick’s birthday. The man in the picture had come–

That was it. Oh God, that was it. The man in the picture had come on Flick’s birthday. He’d come to threaten her because… because of Crossroads. No, because Flick had gone to Crossroads.

There. He had it. It was right there. Right within his grasp of understanding.

Crossroads was where Joselyn had gone. It was her school, her… they were all part of it. Shiori, she went to Crossroads and she was Asenath’s sister–

But she wasn’t a vampire? Was she really her sister or–Figure that part out later. The point was, Joselyn went to Crossroads, and Shiori went there now. They were connected to the… to the immortal thing, his immortal wife, and the vampire.

So Crossroads was a school for these people, and now they had shown up out of nowhere. They took in Flick. She found out about her mother going there, and now she had been doing her Flick thing and investigating.

Somehow, this man, who had some connection to Joselyn’s disappearance, had found out about Flick’s investigation, and came to town to threaten her, using the attacks to prove how dangerous he was.

And in reaction, Flick had asked her classmate’s vampire relative to stay with him, to protect him. That was–

******

A few seconds later.

Vampire relative. Vampire relative. Sister. He’d written that across the bottom of the page, underlining it. Shiori. Shiori was Asenath’s sister. Flick liked them both. She trusted them. She was–

Taking out his recorder, Lincoln hit play and spoke in a quiet voice, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”

He didn’t know how exact he was. But this felt like the right track. Asenath hadn’t changed the number on the board to hurt him. She’d been trying to keep him away from the man in the photograph.

He understood her reasoning. But he couldn’t just let it go. He had to know the truth. But to do that, he had to understand why he kept forgetting things, why… why everything was always so fuzzy. And most importantly, he had to let Asenath know that he knew, that he understood.

But to do that, he’d have to go about it in just the right way…

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Sharkhunt 23-03

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“So I’ve got a question,” I started a little bit later as Gabriel and I walked along the edge of the lake toward one of the other cabins. Avalon and Shiori were both catching a nap back in his place, since neither would agree to leaving here without me. It was all I could do to convince them to sleep, even though they’d both been so exhausted they could barely keep their eyes open.

“Well, actually I have a lot of questions,” I amended. “But one in particular, about the heir thing.”

The man glanced at me before giving a slight smile. “You mean why are you considered the heir?”

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh. I mean, Mom’s still alive. And Wyatt and Abigail are both older than I am. So why would you call me the ‘Atherby clan heir’?” Pausing, I added, “And when do they get to come out here? I’m sure they both wanna hear stories about the family.”

“I’d like to get them both out here,” Gabriel confirmed. “And we will, as soon as possible. Especially if they can come together. To see the twins again after so much time…” He paused, swallowing noticeably. “It would make some of the people around here very happy.” The way he said it made it clear that there were plenty who’d never gotten over losing them in the first place.

After letting that hang for a few seconds, the man continued. “And as far as the heir stuff goes, that’s all four of you, counting Koren. As direct Atherby descendants, you’re either the leader, or the heir. When the leadership position opens up for whatever reason, anyone with the title of heir can throw their hat in the ring to be chosen as the next leader. Then every adult member of the clan votes for it. If there’s more than one, I mean. Or if there’s no eligible heirs at all, someone else is voted on.” He coughed, eyes rolling a little bit. “That’s what happened with me.” Pausing, the man looked away while lowering his voice. “Apparently the whole ‘voting on multiple heirs’ thing used to be more important when there were more Atherbys. Lyell outlived most of his family and only had one son.”

“Joshua,” I finished for him, nodding before looking up as we reached the cabin. There were a eleven people around a bonfire that had been built up in the back. All of them seemed to be watching us, and my Heretic-sense went off like mad for a few seconds as I took in the sight.

“There’s an awful lot of people who know about my mom,” I pointed out. “Does that mean they were all protected from the spell that Ruthers and his people cast? But that doesn’t make sense, because I know that Asenath and Twister weren’t, and they were both helping the rebellion.”

“A few were protected,” the man explained. “Others were brought on since then and… restored.” He made a face that was barely visible in the light from the nearby lantern. “It took years to get this many back, and it’s nowhere near the numbers that the rebellion had under your mother.”

“Right, and speaking of getting people back,” I added, “is this the place where Scott ended up?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. He’s at another place, a house in one of the cities. As soon as he starts remembering enough of what happened, I will let you know. Assuming you’d like to visit.”

I nodded, but before I could say anything, one of the figures moved from the fire to come closer. As he approached, I saw what looked like a dark-skinned man with a pointed fox-like ears on top of his head, similar to Twister’s. Unlike Twister, however, he didn’t have a tail. He had nine of them. All were long, dark, and fluffy, spread out behind him like some kind of dark, furry peacock.

“Oh,” I blurted as the man came into view. “You’re a Kitsu–” Cutting myself off, I flushed a little bit. “Sorry, that’s probably pretty rude, huh? Um, hi.” I extended a hand. “What I mean is, hi, I’m Flick.”

The man, who was shorter and far more wiry than Gabriel, gave me a quick smile that showed a mouthful of perfectly white, canine teeth. “No, nah, not a problem, not a thing at all,” he blurted in a voice that was clearly accustomed to speaking a million miles a minute. “My name’s Biseon, but they call me Busy. Not sure why. Hah, I’m kidding, I know why. It’s cuz I’m always busy. Always working, always going, gotta keep going if we’re gonna survive a world like this, you know. Lotsa things wanna kill us. Heretics, Nocen, actually some people think we oughtta just call you all Nocen too since you’re always trying to kill us. Well, not you personally, but the other Heretics, other ones that are bad, scary, terrible. Glad you’re not like them. That would’ve been really–”

“Busy,” Gabriel interjected, “is our technology expert. You think he talks fast now, you should see him when he’s actually trying to explain something about those computers he likes so much.”

While the Hangman-Heretic was talking, Busy’s nine tails spread out before starting to wag up and down with obvious excitement. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he quickly interjected. “See Heretic stuff, gotta take it apart, put it back together, see how it tick tick ticks, not like a bomb, well some of them are bombs. Usually catch those, not always, lost a few eyebrows. Lost a couple fingers, but made replacements. Heretics like to trap their stuff, make weapons burn Alters, not fair, not fun. Had to figure out how to undo it. Heretics here help, let me use weapons to figure out trick.”

Holding up a hand, I tried to latch onto at least one part of what he was saying before he could ramble on. “So Heretic weapons burn you guys if you try to touch them, but you worked out a way to get around it after the Heretics that are on your side let you examine their weapons?”

“Yes, yes, exactly, that’s it.” Busy’s head bobbed up and down even faster than his collection of tails. “Smart girl, very smart. Sharp, bright, shrewd,  what a whiz. Muldoon called it in the movie.”

Lost again, I worked my mouth for a second before starting to ask, “What mov–”

“Jurassic Park,” he interrupted. “Good movie. Terrible science, good movie. Fun. Eat popcorn, don’t complain. Totally inaccurate in every way. Wrong way to bring dinosaurs back. Wrong, but fun. Muldoon, clever girl. But don’t eat me. Don’t wanna be that movie-accurate, nope.”

Oh, right. Muldoon, the Jurassic Park guy that was eaten by the raptors. Now I was caught up.  “I promise not to eat you,” I assured him, adding, “And you made replacements for your fingers?”

In response, the fox-man lifted up both hands in front of me. The index and middle fingers of his left hand, and the pinkie, index, and thumb on his right all extended various tiny tools like screwdriver heads, drill-bits, scissors, and more. It made him look a bit like Inspector Gadget.

Gabriel ushered me over to the fire, where I saw more of the people up close. Of the eleven people there, my Heretic-sense picked out about half of them as being Alters. The others were either Heretics, or a kind of Alter that didn’t set off the sense. All of them were staring at me.

One of them cleared his throat. He was an Orc, one of the big, eight-foot tall guys with warthog face. This one had a long, scraggly gray beard, and was wearing ratty blue jeans and a black shirt that advertised some kind of automotive repair shop. “Yer da spittin’ image o’yer mudder.”

There was a chorus of agreement behind him, as the Orc’s face broke into a wide smile. He extended one of his large hands my way. “Name’s Oscar. Well, t’ain’t really muh name, but ya prob’ly couldna pronounce the righ’ one anyway.  Oscar’s close ‘nuff, an’ the kiddies been usin’ it ever-since tha’ Says-Me Street made tha’ one puppet in the trash can. Dunno why, Ah ain’t furry.”

“Oh, um, hi, Oscar.” I accepted his hand, and he grinned when I didn’t wince from the squeeze.

“Got a bit o’ a grip on ya there, yah?” he drawled, still giving me an easy smile before letting go.

I shrugged. “Um, yeah, there was this werewolf and…” Trailing off, I coughed. “Never mind.”

More of the people that had been by the fire introduced themselves then. Besides Oscar the Orc and Busy the Kitsune, there was a female Relukun (one of the wood-people) named Calice, a tiny male Kobold (a small, goblin-like creature) wearing a miniature suit, tie, and tophat that introduced himself as Fancy (he was even using a neat little cane), and a Prevenkuat (the two-headed hyena-people) who had one male head and one female head. I decided against asking how their plumbing was arranged.

That was it for the obvious Alters. Of the rest, three turned out to be Heretics, all of them naturals. There was Duncan, a natural Ullus-Heretic (it turned out the Ullus were the Alters that Columbus and Shiori had killed back on the Meregan planet to get their metal-manipulation powers. They looked like yellow-skinned humans with three eyes instead of two) who looked like he was about thirty-something, with brownish-blonde hair and a rugged build like a man who had lived outside for much of his life.

Beside Duncan was his younger sister, Misty. She was a natural Ogre Heretic who appeared to be in her late teens or very early twenties, with hair that was brown with little bits of blonde running through it here and there. She was also a waifish figure who looked like a stiff breeze would blow her apart. But thanks to the inherited Ogre-strength, she could easily shot put a pickup truck.

Then there was a man who looked like that ancient knight guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was even dressed like a knight in chainmail, and carried an old-looking sword in a scabbard at his hip. The guy actually kissed my hand while introducing himself as Enguerrand. Unlike the others, he didn’t volunteer what kind of Alter he had gained his Heretic-state from.

Beyond the trio of natural Heretics, there were three others who were apparently non-obvious Alters that my sense didn’t pick up. The two females seemed to be related to one another, and introduced themselves as Rain and Kaste. Both looked like they were in their mid-thirties. The guy, meanwhile, looked young. Barely out of his teens, if that. He called himself Berlin, and the only thing out-of-the-ordinary that I saw with him was that his eyes were a deep orange color.

He was also the one who started talking about my mother first, as we gathered around their fire. “Oscar’s right, you do look a lot like Joselyn. Not completely, but you are definitely her daughter.”

“Y–you actually knew my mom?” I asked, reminding myself again not to be fooled by how young he looked. Appearances meant nothing, as my 430-ish-year-old history teacher could attest.

“Course I did,” the red-haired, orange-eyed guy replied. “She’s the one that–” He paused before clearing his throat. “Ah, start from the beginning. I was working transport for these smugglers. I’m an Abeonas, see. We sorta specialize in what you call foldjumps, spots where we connect two different places and let anyone go straight from one to the other if they know the password.”

Right, I’d heard about them from the people in Wonderland, and from Mateo. That was how his pack had made the trip from Colombia all the way up there as quickly as they had.

Berlin continued. “So I was working for this smuggling group when your mom shows up and slaughters like… everyone. Everyone except me. Must’ve been ten guys. Tough ones too, couple of trolls in there for muscle. But Joselyn just went right through ‘em like they didn’t even matter. Killed them, then dragged me away from my own portal before I could get the hell out of there. Asked me if I knew what we were transporting in the truck. I told her it was weapons, magic stuff. She uh, she showed me it was more than that. Opened up the truck and there were these kids in there. Kids that were being taken out to be… sold.” He stopped, clearing his throat. “That was the tenth trip I made with those motherfuckers. Joselyn, she helped me set things as right as we could. We went back for the rest of the slavers, freed the ones that were there, killed all the bastards, then used their records to track down all the slaves that I helped deliver. Freed ‘em, killed their so-called owners, and that was that. Or it would’ve been. I probably would’ve found some other job working for one low life or another. Except Joselyn said I could do something more important. She talked up this rebellion of hers, told me I could make a difference. So, here I am.”

The old knight nodded. “Joshua would have been quite proud of his little girl.” He smiled faintly at me. “And his granddaughter. It’s too bad that he never got the chance to know any of you.”

Biting my lip, I asked him, “I take it that means you weren’t recruited by my mom then? It sounds like you were part of this whole clan thing already, if you knew my grandfather.”

He chuckled slightly. “I knew Joshua, yes. I changed his diapers.” Winking, the old man added, “His father, Lyell, was one of my best friends for a long time. He’s the one that saved me back when I first ran into the Alter that killed my family. I killed it, but the others would’ve killed me in turn if it wasn’t for Lyell Atherby. After that, we were friends until he passed. I watched over Joshua as a baby, I watched over little Joselyn, and I watched over the twins.” He paused then before flinching, looking away from me as his whole body sagged. “Never forgive myself for that.”

Wincing at his words, I hesitated for a second before reaching out to touch his arm. “Enguerrand,” I started, stumbling over his name just a little bit, “what happened wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t the fault of any of you guys. Gaia says that Ruthers didn’t even tell his own people what he was planning to do. Going after kids like that? It was…” I squeezed my hand tightly. “It was too far.”

The others had stories that were similar to Berlin’s. Most had been recruited by my mother at some point or another, and all had some kind of personal experience with her. All except Duncan and Misty, that was. Both were too young to have had anything to do with Mom, though their parents had been part of the rebellion, Heretics from Eden’s Garden who joined up with my mother back in the early days. Duncan and Misty had been born after Mom surrendered herself. They had grown up seeing the clan slowly rebuild itself after being taken down to the bare bones by the effect of the Mnemosyne spell. And they may not have had personal interaction with my mother, but they had plenty of passed-down stories from their (sadly now deceased) parents to share with me.

“So then Mom says,” Misty continued the story she had been telling while leaning on the handle of her weapon (a sword as big around as she was and just as tall) while the blade was partially buried in the ground, “that Dad can’t have, you know, gland-to-gland combat with the vampire girl unless he brings her some absurd quest item. I don’t remember, it was like the holy grail or something. Not that, but pretty much. Anyway, she was obviously just teasing him, you know. But she played it all straight, so Dad thought she was serious. So he goes off and looks for help to find this thing, and it’s your mom that agrees to help him. I’m pretty sure she knew Mom was teasing too, but she went with it. They went off and actually found the damn thing and brought it back.”

“Wait, so my mother seriously went on some epic quest just to help your dad get laid?” I worked my mouth a little at that before weakly asking, “Well, uh, I guess ummm… did it work?”

Duncan shook his head. “Our mother always stopped Dad from finishing the story at that point.”

“But,” Misty put in, “Dad used to give us that wink. So I’d say he probably got with vampire girl.”

I started to nod before my eyes widened. “Wait a second. Vampire girl? It wasn’t Asenath was it?”

“Hey, yeah,” the girl replied. “That was her name. Wait, that’s the one you’ve got watching your dad, right?” Her head tilted a little, obviously thinking briefly. “You think she’s still got a thing for–”

Thankfully, Duncan stopped her by clearing his throat pointedly. He gave me a sympathetic look. “I think the best takeaway here is that your mother was always there for the people she cared about. Sometimes it was something life-changing and really important. Other times it was for… that.”

Fancy, the snappily-dressed Kobold, gave a quick nod of his head. The top hat tried to slip off, but he raised his cane in a practice maneuver that caught the brim of it just in time. “Hear hear,” he announced in a voice that sounded like he had taken on a faux-British accent after hearing almost insultingly bad versions in cartoons. “T’was Joselyn Atherby what rescued my clan from the old caves, innit? Tweren’t for her, those wankers would’ve had a right straight shot at wiping us out.”

“Wankers?” I echoed. “You mean, um, other Heretics?”

Adjusting the monocle on his face (the Kobold had a freaking monocle, how great was that?), Fancy nodded once more. “Quite, quite! Our clan was in our little hovels when some sodding students from that old island of yours showed up. Apparently slaughtering our people was some bloody test or somefin. So they comes running in without so much as a howdo, but before they can commence the pig-sticking, the pretty blonde human shows up. She says a bunch of fine words, gives most of the clan time to escape. But I stayed behind, so I saw when she smacked around the ones what thought they could still fight anyway. She took a few of them on, ones what believed what she said. Then she asked if I wanted her to drop me anywhere. Well, I couldna think of any better place to be than right alongside the woman what just saved all our lives. So I stayed. Decided I wanted to be a better specimen, so’s I went and made meself from the dirt-scrabbling, poor little wretch I was before into the fine example you see before you.”

There were more stories like that, and I sat and listened to as many as I could until Gabriel finally interrupted to say that we should be getting back before it got to be any later. I agreed, but only reluctantly, and with the promise that I could come back later to hear more of their stories. And maybe even hear from other people, since this wasn’t nearly all of the ones at the camp. Apparently they didn’t want to overwhelm me, so they’d drawn lots to see who would talk to me first. Which… honestly, the idea that so many people wanted to talk to me about my mother that they had to draw lots for it was pretty intimidating.

One thing was even more apparent than it had already been. My mother had changed an awful lot of lives through her rebellion. She had inspired people, saved them, brought them on to do great things for decades even after she was out of the fight. They looked up to her, adored her, loved her. They missed her as much as I did.

Getting her back, saving her from Fossor, wasn’t just about me. It was about them. It was about all the people she had helped, all the people she had recruited, inspired, and led. It was about the people who had known her as a baby, who had known my grandfather, and his father.

Ruthers and Fossor probably thought that they didn’t have anything in common beyond being alive for a long time. But they did. They were alike in one very important, crucial way.

We were going to put both of them in the fucking ground for hurting my mom.

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Sharkhunt 23-02

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The only thing more surprising than seeing Avalon with that look on her face was the fact that she gave no reaction to me teasing her for having that look on her face. She just stood there with that goofy smile, staring at Prosser while her mouth opened and shut a few times as if she was trying to say something, but couldn’t get the words out. It was both strange (for her), and adorable.

Not that I was surprised that the other girl was kind of goofy when it came to Prosser. After all, I had seen her reaction before, when she found out that I had met the man. But still, it was always surprising to see Avalon act… well, not-Avalony. And this moment was almost on another level.

I was about to clear my throat and try to get my roommate’s attention when she finally spoke up. Her voice was a little shaky, but still understandable enough. “You–” She stopped, blinking rapidly before starting again in a voice that was somehow even weaker than before. “Mr. Prosser–”

The man winced a little at that. “Please,” he spoke simply, “call me Gabriel. I… much prefer that.”

“I… I… can’t.” Avalon’s face twisted a little bit, as if disagreeing with the man caused her actual physical pain. “You…” She trailed off again, visibly bracing herself before starting to speak again. “When I was young, I was weak… and scared. I didn’t think that I could ever protect myself. But Seller, he told me stories about Gabriel Prosser, about what you did, what you overcame. He told me some of the stories, and I looked up others. I took one of the books out of their library and I…” Her mouth worked a little, and I saw a hint of dampness in the girl’s eyes before she blinked it away. When she continued, her voice cracked a little bit from emotion. “I kept the book with me in… in class, in training, at meals, even in bed. I kept it everywhere b-because even though it was just a book, it was a book about you. So I thought that it–you could protect me. It was stupid, but–but I needed it. I needed you, and you were there. You just didn’t know about it.

“So, if you prefer Mr. Gabriel, I’ll call you that. But you’ll always be Mister to me.”

Oh… oh. Suddenly this wasn’t nearly as amusing as it had been a few seconds earlier. The fact that Avalon felt that strongly enough to say it not just in front of me, but in front of Shiori as well said a lot. The two of them had gotten a little closer, of course. But they would never be anything more than friends, at the most. And yet, she had exposed that vulnerable part of herself like that.

As for the man himself, his voice was quiet. “Mr. Gabriel’ll do just fine, Miss Sinclaire. Thank you.”

His eyes moved to Shiori then, and the other girl gave a little wave before speaking up. “Uh, hi, Mr. Gabriel. Thanks for, you know, teaching us how to exorcise these stupid wannabe-angels.”

Coughing, I raised an eyebrow. “You really had to try not to make a joke about exercise, huh?”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly, voice plaintive. “It was really hard! I had a good one!”

Despite myself, I smiled and patted her shoulder. “Later.” Meanwhile, I squeezed Avalon’s arm with my other hand before turning to the man in front of us. “They’re both right though. We owe you a lot. With your help, maybe we can identify the Seosten that’s possessing one of our friends, then use your spell to drive them out and make it so they can’t possess anyone else for awhile.”

Gabriel shook his head at that. “It’s not my spell, Felicity. It was created by your family, the Atherbys. My teaching it to you now is just… passing the spell back to where it belongs.”

Swallowing, I gave a little nod despite myself. “You said that you agreed with Professor Pericles about sending my–my mom away from the clan because she was the last surviving Atherby and you didn’t want her to get drawn into all that stuff after both of her parents sacrificed themselves to get rid of the Fomorians. Well, her dad sacrificed himself. Her mom sacrificed… you know, everyone’s memory of her. Anyway, you said that the whole reason you agreed to send her away, to have Pericles’s Bystander friends raise her was to keep her safe. You must’ve–um, you must’ve been kind of annoyed when you found out that Crossroads recruited her after all that.”

“That’s putting it a bit mildly,” he replied. “As far as I recall, that was the only time that I raised my voice to Zedekiah Pericles. Thinking about them teaching Joselyn that hogwash was just… it was too much.  Losing Joshua, losing my memory of his wife, that was bad enough. But Joselyn, sweet little Bossy Jossy being brainwashed into the kind of mindless, kill-everything-in-sight automaton Crossroads and that other place like to churn out? I wanted to go get her out of there.”

Curiously, I asked, “Why didn’t you? I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the people that could’ve stopped you from taking her would’ve been too busy asking for your autograph or something.”  

He sighed. “Because your mother needed training. She was–is an Atherby. And it wasn’t my right to keep her away from being the best she could be. I could keep her safe from this, sure. Shove her in a glass bowl, clip her wings, throw up walls. But if I did that, if I took away her potential, if I limited what she could become, how would I be any different from the people that wanted to hurt her? How would I be any different from the people who thought they could control my destiny?”  

Shrugging, he added, “Training her here wasn’t an option. There were still too many threats that wanted to take a shot at the leader of the Atherby clan. If she came, she would’ve stepped right into those crosshairs. I thought letting her train there would at least give her a chance to stay somewhat anonymous. But then…” He smiled, clearly proud. “Well, she didn’t stay anonymous.”

“That’s one thing Mom doesn’t seem very good at,” I agreed. “She kinda sucks at anonymous.”

Avalon gave me a look then, her voice as dry as old leaves as she retorted, “You’re one to talk.”

While I blushed, Gabriel picked his shovel up off the ground before turning to walk toward the cabin. “If you girls don’t mind,” he spoke easily, “I’d like to get started while we have the chance.”

Quickly nodding, I started after the man. “Yeah, I might not need more than an hour of sleep before class, but these guys could probably use at least four or five if we can swing it.”

He led us past the cabin and around the side. I could see a vegetable garden there in the back, surrounded by a wire fence to keep any animals out. On the porch, a Bernese mountain dog lay slumbering in the dim light cast by the lantern there. He opened one eye as we passed, gave a sleepy rumble approximating a half-hearted bark, then closed it again and turned his head away.

Without looking back, Gabriel spoke up. “That’s Cashew. Best dog I ever saw for chasing pests off the property, and I’ve seen more than my share of them. Fast and loud. Pretty sure he’s given a couple rabbits heart attacks when they come sniffing around the garden, trying to find a way past the fence. Popular guy too, he’s got a few puppies around the rest of the cabins.”

“Rest of the cabins?” I echoed, tilting my head at that. “I only saw this one.” Even as it was coming out of my mouth, I knew that it was a dumb thing to say. When would I get used to Heretic stuff?

The man glanced back, smiling faintly as he nodded. “That’s what you were meant to see.” He gestured toward a wooden archway ahead that stuck out of the side of the cabin. There were a few piles of logs set up there, as if it was just a place to stack firewood so that it would stay out of the rain. “One at a time, take a little walk through there,” he instructed, leaning on his shovel.

Shrugging, I went first. As I walked through the the archway, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my head and in my eyes. Coming out the other side, I blinked a few times and then looked around.

Oh. Wow. Now I could see dozens of cabins around at the lake, with more boats by their docks,  and even people walking around. Not just humans either, I could see Alters of various shapes and colors around the nearest cabins, illuminated by the lights from their homes. Some of them were standing at the edge of their property, staring in my direction. When they saw me looking at them, a couple raised their hands to wave. It took a second, but I belatedly remembered to wave back.

Eventually, the other two girls joined me in standing at the edge of the cabin to watch the people. Gabriel, stepping up beside us, gave a little nod that way. “Most of our people would be asleep right now, but when they heard you were coming to visit, a lot of them found reasons to stay up.” He smiled just a little bit. “Seeing the clan heir come around for the first time is kind of a big deal.”  

My eyes pulled away from the lantern-lit figures in the distance to blink that way. “Clan heir?”

“Of course,” he confirmed. “The clan was begun by the Atherbys. Most remember Joselyn. And a lot of them remember Joshua and Lyell too. But it’s been a long time since they had an Atherby around, a direct descendant of their founder… our founder.” He looked to me, his expression soft. “And a lot of them are ashamed. Losing Joselyn’s children, letting Ruthers’ thugs take them, it tore them up. They felt like they failed her, like anything that happened to those kids was their fault.”

He sighed a little before continuing. “And others, they weren’t a part of the clan before. They joined because of Joselyn. There’s some Heretics out there who left Crossroads and the other place just to follow her, just to be around her. Seeing her daughter, it’s… important to them.”

Flinching at that, I opened and shut my mouth before swallowing hard. “I should talk to them.”

Gabriel nodded. “If you’re up for it, I thought you might stay a bit longer after we’re done. Since you don’t need as much sleep as Avalon and Shiori here, the others would love to meet you.”

I glanced to the other two girls before nodding. “Yeah.” My head bobbed up and down. “I’d love to meet the people that knew my family. I… I still don’t know very much about them. So… so if it’s okay, I’d kinda like to hear their–um, their stories. If you don’t think that’d be… bothering them.”

“Bothering them?” The man gave me a soft, somehow sad smile. “No, Felicity,” he replied, “telling you stories about your family wouldn’t be a bother. In fact, it would make a lot of us very happy.” 

******

A couple hours later, we were all sitting out on the dock near the water, using chairs that we had brought from the cabin. Gabriel was nodding with satisfaction as he examined the wooden boards that Avalon, Shiori, and I had used to carefully copy the anti-possession rune onto. “Good,” he announced. “Very good. You’re still a little shaky on the loop here, Felicity, and Shiori could use a little more work on these points at the end here. But for your first night, you’re all doing really well.”

Smiling at that announcement, the man continued. “Now I think you should each practice using the spell on each other, one at a time. I’ll provide the power and guide you through it until you can do it by yourselves. And I’ll dampen the pain a little, but you should all know what it feels like.” He paused before adding, “Unless you’d rather wait until next time to give it a shot.”

Avalon shook her head. “We don’t have a lot of time to waste, Mr. Gabriel.” She still blushed every time she spoke to or  looked at him, but at least she’d found her voice. “We’ll stay and practice.”

Nodding, I agreed. “Right, we do need to know what it feels like. So who’s going first?”

“Me.” Shiori turned slightly on the seat while pulling her sleeve up. “Go ahead, Flick.”

So, with Gabriel’s help and guidance, I used the field-engraver to start drawing the rune. It wasn’t the same one that Dare had provided. This one was from Gabriel himself, taken out of a box of them that he had carried out from the cabin.

Even as the rune started, Shiori gave a slight hiss, until the man laid his hand on her back. He did something, and she eased a little bit. But I could still tell that it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It might not have been the burning pain that it had been, but even with Gabriel’s help there was obviously no way that the rune could’ve been drawn without the subject waking up if they were asleep. So we couldn’t just go around to our friends and start drawing it on them. They’d notice. And besides, if they were possessed, every Seosten who was part of their mission would know what was happening at the same time that they did. Which pretty much meant that we had one shot at it.

Eventually, I finished drawing the rune. Gabriel took my hand and pressed it against the symbol. I felt him extend a sliver of his power through me and into what I had drawn, triggering the spell.

Obviously, nothing happened aside from the rune turning into a sweet-smelling smoke as it vanished from Shiori’s arm. She rubbed the spot a little, looked at us, and shrugged. “Boo. Guess I’m not possessed after all.”

Gabriel chuckled. “Woe be to the Seosten who tried to possess a dhampyr, or any hybrid. I’d almost like to see them try it.” Leaning back, he added, “All right, let’s go with you next, Felicity.”

I started to nod before blinking. “Oh, uh, I need to use the restroom first, actually. Do you mind?”

The man shook his head, gesturing to the cabin. “Go ahead. Head inside, turn right, second door on the left.”

On the way, I passed a few kids, Alter and human alike. They ranged in age from six up to twelve or so, all of them half-hidden behind the garden fence. When they saw me looking that way, there was a collective squeal from the group as they took off running, scattering into the darkness.  

“Hey, it’s okay!” I called. “It’s not like I’m gonna eat you guys or something. If you wanna…” I trailed off then, shaking my head before going inside. Maybe I’d see them again later.

Sure enough, a few of the kids were back again when I came out after finishing up inside. I saw a small, blue-skinned boy with dark red eyes, a pretty human girl with light blonde hair who looked like she was about eight or nine, and an amphibious figure whose gender I couldn’t make out. They were watching me just like the others had been. When I glanced that way, the two obvious Alters stammered excuses before taking off, disappearing into darkness once more.

The human girl, however, stayed behind. She raised a hand to wave while giving me a tiny smile.

Realizing that she wasn’t going to run away like the others, I stepped that way. “Hi,” I greeted her. “I’m Flick. What’s your name?”

“Me?” the little girl replied with a cute, incredibly endearing little blush. “I–I’m Tabby.”

“Hi, Tabby.” I paused before glancing off in the distance, the way the others had gone. “You didn’t leave with your friends?”

She glanced over her shoulder then before shaking her head. Her voice was soft. “I wanted to meet you.” Turning back, she added, even more quietly. “And I’m sorry about your mommy.”

I flinched. “Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a big story around here, isn’t it?”

Nodding, Tabby hesitated before adding, “My mommy’s not here either.”

The thought of this adorable, innocent-looking little girl being left without a mother made me cringe. If her mom was killed by a Heretic, I’d just… Shaking that off, I asked, “She’s not… here? Is she alive? Do you know where she is?”

“I think she’s alive,” Tabby answered, looking away for a moment. “She’s a long ways away.”

“Then you can find her, right?” I asked, my voice quiet as I hesitantly put a hand out to touch her arm. “We’ll both find our moms. We’ll get them back, okay? Your mom and my mom. They’re alive, so we’ll get them back. You can’t give up on her, right?”

Her head bobbed up and down at that. “Uh huh. Mommy said I had to be brave. She said I could help people. But… but I miss her.” She squirmed a little then, looking ashamed of the admission.

“Hey.” I squeezed her arm, trying to be reassuring. “It’s okay to miss your mom. It doesn’t make you any less brave. You’re learning how to help people, right?”

Again, the girl nodded. “I’m trying to,” she answered quietly. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”

“I know what you mean.” Shaking my head, I gave her a little smile. “But we just keep trying, right? We get better, and eventually, we’ll find our moms.”

“Uh huh.” Tabby looked past me then, back to the lake. “You should go. They’re waiting.”

“Right, yeah. But I’ll see you later, okay?” Waiting until she nodded, I headed back down to the dock once more.

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked as I resumed my seat.

“Yup.” I smiled a little. “Just saw some of the kids up there.” Glancing that way, I laughed. “See?” Several of the children, including Tabby, were standing just at the edge of the bushes near the beach, watching us.

Gabriel looked that way before shaking his head with a chuckle as the kids scattered once more. “They’re supposed to be in bed. I guess they couldn’t sleep either.”

“I hope they don’t get in trouble…” Biting my lip at the thought, I shook it off. “So, are we doing this?” I pulled my sleeve up, turning my arm that way. “Who gets to draw on me?”

Avalon did, taking her turn to carefully sketch out the rune with Gabriel’s help. It stung a little, enough to make me wince even after the man softened the feeling. When it was done, the smoke sizzled off just like it had with Shiori.

“Whelp,” I remarked while rubbing my arm. “I’m not possessed either. Valley’s turn?”

“Yes,” Gabriel confirmed. “We’ll do one more. After that, we’ll see about letting Avalon and Shiori get some sleep while you meet some of your family’s friends. Just don’t be surprised if they get a little overly-excited.”

“After all, they’ve been waiting a long time to see you.”

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Sharkhunt 23-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday that was focused on Wyatt and Abigail. If you missed it,  you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“So, wait, you’re seriously telling me that all these guys were built by one Heretic?”

It was Monday, January 29th, a couple of days since my staff had been upgraded and almost a week since the meeting with the Committee, and… and when I had killed Doxer. Not that it had gotten any easier to think about. It was a good thing I didn’t need much sleep, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw the older boy’s grapple tearing through his throat, and his look of surprise.

Luckily, I had plenty of distractions to keep my mind off it. Two of which were sitting on the arm of the couch in the rec room with me. Jaq and Gus, my new little cyberform mice, had spent the past week gradually warming up to me. They were still pretty skittish, but they listened to what I said and didn’t seem to act like I was about to rip them apart every time I picked the little guys up.

I’d asked about the fact that they seemed to be accepting me pretty quickly for someone who had killed their last master, and Professor Dare had explained that it was purposeful. The cyberforms were designed to latch onto and obey whoever their owner was, similar to the way that a baby animal imprinted on its mother. When the old owner died, the imprint programming would wipe and set up to latch onto a new one. They didn’t forget their old owner, they were just conditioned to accept a new one relatively easily after the old one died.  

Yeah, apparently unlike most of our Heretic weapons, cyberforms weren’t buried with their owner when the Heretic died. Instead, a sort-of fake stand-in was used while the real thing was passed to someone else. That… somehow made me feel a little better. The idea of burying these guys while they were still ‘alive’ just because their owner had died had made me kind of queasy.

Vanessa, Tristan, and Sean were in there with me, waiting for it to be time to go to class. The latter gave Vulcan a little scratch behind the ears (I still wasn’t sure how the metal creatures felt things like that, but they sure seemed to like it) while shrugging. “Sort of. I mean, at first it was just one guy that made the cyberforms. But a few other Heretics managed to work out enough of his blueprints and reverse-engineer them to make their own. That’s how they ended up in both Eden’s Garden and Crossroads. But yeah, I’d say about seventy percent of them were made by one guy.”

“But…” I paused, watching as Vulcan stepped closer to the couch. He lowered his head while making an inviting noise for the two mice to climb on. Jaq and Gus both looked at each other, then up at me as though waiting for permission. I gestured. “Go on, but don’t forget your brother.”

Immediately, the two of them hopped over behind where Herbie was sitting, carrying the little guy between them as they scampered onto the mechanical dog’s back. They had really taken to their new ‘big brother’, carrying him around all the time. Hell, the first time one of the others had reached for my favorite rock without permission had been the first time that I heard Jaq and Gus hiss as they put themselves in front of him. They were already fiercely protective of Herbie.

As the three cyberforms (and one rockform) bounded around the room together, I shook my head before continuing. “But why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the guys, but…” Gesturing to the mechanical snake that lay stretched across the back of the couch, her head on Tristan’s shoulder, I finished, “Why did he make ‘robot animals that turn into weapons’? And how are they so life-like? I mean, Heretic technology is impressive, but these guys seem like they’re actually alive.

Vanessa spoke up then, her hand slowly stroking gently along Bobbi-Bobbi’s side as she explained. “The man who invented them is named Harrison Fredericks. He’s pretty much a recluse now, but about twenty-five years ago, he was part of an expedition to another dimension. See, there was this really powerful witch named Telsima–”

“Wait,” I quickly interrupted. “Witch. Those aren’t normal Strangers, right? I mean–” I coughed, shaking my head. “I mean they aren’t the kind that set off the Heretic Sense, because they’re…”

“Humans that were bonded with some other Stranger to become natural Heretics,” Vanessa finished for me. “Basically, yes. Usually it’s a human that’s bonded with a Stranger who gives no benefit beyond unlocking the ability to use magic. But that’s not quite right. Sometimes they set off the Heretic Sense, and sometimes they don’t. It depends on the Stranger they’re bonded with.”  

That made sense. After all, vampires set off the Heretic sense, and they were basically natural Heretics. Actually, was there any difference between natural Heretics and vampires beyond the fact that they apparently couldn’t do magic? I made a mental note to ask Senny about that.

“Okay,” I replied, “so there was a witch named Telsima, and some kind of dimensional portal?”

“A dimensional portal that she created,” Vanessa confirmed. “They killed the witch, but the portal was still there. So…. Crossroads sort-of set up an expedition to go through and see what they could find. Harrison Fredericks was one of the only two who actually made it back here. He said they had to fight some people over there that had… you know, powers, like Heretics do. Only they seemed to be human. The point is, there was one that had all these mechanical animals helping him. Fredericks killed him, and suddenly he could make the things. It was as if the guy he killed had a superpower specifically geared toward ‘building super-advanced cybernetic animals’. Then when Fredericks killed him, he inherited the same power with the same focus.”

“A human being who had the superpower of ‘build things’?” I stared at her for a moment after that. “So this Fredericks guy kills the alternate-reality human, gains his super-inventor power, and starts making all these guys until some of his plans get out and other Heretics manage to copy them?”

“Then he went into reclusion,” she finished with a little nod. “Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes he still comes out with new ones, but he sells them to the highest bidder, whichever side they’re on.”

Sitting back against the couch at that, I stared at Vulcan as he continued to take Jaq, Gus, and Herbie for a ride around the room. “Wow. And here I thought Heretic-society was just weird.”

“Oh, it’s definitely weird,” Tristan informed me with a quick smile. “Just weird with a purpose.”

Pushing himself up, Sean nodded. “That’s pretty much our motto, yup. Weird with a purpose. Anyway, you guys ready to go?”

Checking my watch, I saw that he was right. Stranger Truths was about to start in a few minutes. “Yup, let’s go from Professor Moon’s class to Nevada’s.” Winking at the other girl as she blushed, I reached down to pick up my three little buddies from Vulcan’s back, tucking them into the pocket of my uniform jacket before walking out with the others to head for class.

******

“So,” Nevada announced about twenty minutes later. “Who can tell me what one of the most important effects for a Heretic to protect themselves against is?” True to form, the bubbly young teacher was dressed in white shorts, a bright pink top with a white smiley face on it, and sandals. She looked more like she was ready for a day on the beach than to teach a class about monsters.

Across the room, Travis Colby raised a hand. “Uh, death?” he asked with a quirked eyebrow.

Nevada gave a laugh at that, along with the rest of the class. “Okay, yes, that too. But this is almost as important. Anyone?” Glancing around, she shook her head before finishing, “Mind control. See? Mind control is one of the most dangerous problems that a Heretic can face, because it turns all their power not just against themselves, but against everyone they care about. And in its basic form, mind control or something similar to it isn’t exactly a rare power for a Stranger to have. You’ve all heard the stories about monsters who can control people.”

“So what do we do about it?” That was Sands, her hand raised as she spoke. “Isn’t there a way to protect against being controlled, if it’s such a common thing?”  

Nevada nodded. “Yes, there is. By the time you graduate, most Heretics are given the chance to absorb several different powers that block most kinds of mind control. I believe it’s your junior or senior year when they focus on that kind of thing, mostly because you’ll be strong enough by that point to actually kill the Strangers who can give you that sort of protection.”

Jasmine’s hand shot into the air then, her voice pointed. “So someone like, say, the head of security for a place like this school should have every protection there is against mind control?”

I knew I wasn’t imagining the fact that almost everyone in the class not-so-subtly turned slightly to look at me, including Jasmine herself. They were all looking my way, their thoughts obvious.

“Okay, yeah.” Nevada gave a knowing nod at that. “Obviously, we all know what you’re talking about. The boy who invaded the school not-so-long ago with a vendetta against Flick here.”

“He controlled Professor Kohaku,” Gordon announced flatly. “How did he do that? She’s head of security, shouldn’t she be immune to being controlled? If not, that’s a pretty big security hole.”

Beside me, Avalon spoke up. “She is immune, just like all the teachers are. He’s just… different.”

“Different how?” Gavin Rish asked, his hand in the air. “How does some little kid control our head of security? That just seems, y’know, weak.” He gave a shrug then, his eyes never leaving me.

“Never judge a book by its cover,” Nevada reminded them. “Just because the boy looks young and helpless doesn’t mean he can’t have one of the most powerful mind control abilities in the world. Appearances can be deceiving.” She let that hang for a moment before continuing. “But to reiterate, yes, graduating Heretics tend to take on protections from many forms of mind control. By the time they reach Professor Kohaku’s level, they’re immune to pretty much all of it. At least, all of it that can be protected against. Obviously, there are always exceptions. It’s like the Bystanders say about computer viruses:  every time there’s an uncrackable defense, someone will come up with a way to break it. It just so happens that the boy who came that night was… special, somehow.” She trailed off for a moment, obviously thinking about it before shaking her head. “Anyway, there you go. High-level Heretics are immune to almost every form of mind control, but no defense is always going to be one hundred percent effective. Remember that, the next time you start getting big heads. There’s always gonna be someone whose power can counter yours.”

Not content to let it go just like that, Douglas spoke up. “But who was he? What kind of little kid, even if he just looked like a little kid, could break in here and mind-whammy the head of security? And why would he do all that just to make everyone go after Flick? What was the point? And–”

“I heard he was Denuvus.” That was Shiori’s roommate, Rebecca. The tiny girl was one of the only people who wasn’t looking at me. Her attention was on Nevada. “You know, in disguise.”

“Don’t be stupid,” the always-charming Zeke blurted then, his eyes rolling dramatically at Rebecca. “Denuvus doesn’t exist. Or if he ever did, he’s been dead and gone for a long time. He’s just a bogeyman that Strangers use to threaten each other, and us. He’s not real.”

“Well, then you explain it,” Rebecca shot back at him. “Some little kid has enough oomph behind his mind control power to puppet the head of security? Either our security sucks, or he’s someone with an unbeatable mind control power. Oh, and guess what? When he took control, he said his name. He said his name, Zeke. Who the hell does that sound like to you?”

The boy shrugged. “It sounds like someone with a massive mind control power who heard the same rumors you did and decided to use them to give himself a scary reputation right away.”

That just made a bunch of people in the class start talking over each other. The Heretic-born were arguing about whether Denuvus could actually exist, while the Bystander-kin were trying to butt in to ask who the hell he was. Meanwhile, all I could do was sit there and try not to look like I already knew the answer to all that. Because of course Denuvus was real. Twister had already told me about how she had been killed by Fossor because one of the other Pooka had done a job for him by stealing some of Denuvus’s blood, and then tried to stiff the necromancer by selling it to someone else. Fossor had gotten it after all and used it to give Ammon his powers.

So Denuvus was real. They were right about that much. But now some of them thought that Ammon was Denuvus. And I had to pretend that I didn’t know what any of this was about.

Sometimes I didn’t know which was worse, all the questions I didn’t have any answers to, or the ones that I did have answers to but had to pretend that I didn’t. Growing up, I had been all about getting news out there, about exposing the secrets that people tried to hide. Now I was burying most of the secrets that I knew, and sometimes I didn’t really like how that felt. I didn’t like it at all.

Finally, Erin Redcliffe managed to speak over everyone else. “What do you think, Nevada?” She gestured toward our teacher while the rest of the class quieted down. “Does Denuvus exist?”

Something a little strange happened then. I swore that Nevada’s head started to nod before her expression twisted a little bit, like she was fighting against something. It only lasted for a brief second, before her smile returned. “Well, some people say he does, others say he doesn’t,” she answered noncommittally. “But we do know from what happened in the dorms that the level of mind control that Denuvus is rumored to have does exist. So we can–” She stopped then, head tilting a little. Again, it looked like she was about to say something, or trying to say something. But that moment passed as well, and she walked to the board. “Anyway, let’s start talking about the different kinds of protection there are against being controlled like that, shall we?”

There were still more questions about Denuvus, but Nevada mostly side-stepped them. She only answered what she had to, repeatedly pulling the class back to the main subject. Which was weird, since she never objected to us going off on tangents, particularly when they were at least semi-related to the subject. She never avoided questions like that, and I had absolutely never seen her act like she did when it had looked like she wanted to say something but then changed the subject. It worried me, because it felt like another problem when we really couldn’t afford one.

What was going on with Nevada, and why did she act so weird when Denuvus was mentioned?

******  

“You sure you’re ready for this?” I asked Avalon hours later. It was just past curfew, as the two of us sat on her bed. My head was nuzzled against her shoulder as I held her hand.

Squeezing my fingers, the other girl snorted before giving the top of my head a gentle kiss. “Of course I’m ready, Chambers. You have no idea how long I’ve been looking forward to this.”

“That long, huh?” I teased, straightening up to look at her with a little smile while giving the girl a gentle poke in the shoulder. “Did you ever think you’d actually get the chance?”  

“I knew I would,” she answered flatly, though a tiny smile tugged at her trying-to-be-stoic lips. Despite herself, she couldn’t quite hold back her emotions. “I don’t give up that easily.”

“Oh,” I replied, giggling despite myself. “I guess we should go for it then.” She nodded once more, and I heaved myself to my feet, offering a hand to the other girl. As she took it, I helped her up and we went to the door. Peeking out, I looked both ways, then headed out while beckoning for her to follow.

Sneaking out of the dorm was easy enough. After all, I had a pass to be up and around all night long, past curfew. Which meant that between it and my item-sense, I could let Avalon know when it was safe to move around. Together, the two of us quickly headed across the grounds and to the edge of the shield where the path down to the beach was. With a quick look to each other, we stepped across and then waited for a moment.

Nothing. Gaia had promised that we would be added to the exceptions for the night, but I still let out a breath when we didn’t have a bunch of security jump down our throats. Nodding to Avalon, I walked ahead as we moved toward the predetermined meeting spot

“Hi, guys!” Shiori stage-whispered, practically giving me a heart attack while popping up out of the bushes just barely outside the range of my item-sense. She waved. “You made it.”

“Did you have a hard time getting past Rebecca?” Avalon asked, not having jumped at all.

In answer, Shiori glanced toward me before blushing as her head shook. “She–umm, she doesn’t know.”

I blushed as well. In preparation for this, the other girl and I had made it a point to sneak out now and then over the past couple of nights, always letting Rebecca ‘catch us’ sneaking back in while acting… well, embarrassing, to put it simply. If Shiori’s roommate did notice that she was out of bed tonight, we wanted her to think that we had just snuck out for another… date.

“Is it here?” I asked, looking around. “They said they’d leave it right out under that tree, but I don’t–”

Shiori held up what looked like a wooden pencil box with a combination lock on it. “Right where they said it’d be.”

She held it out, and I took the thing. Carefully inserting the combination that I had been given, I looked back to the others. “You guys ready for this?”

They both nodded, and I opened the box before quickly dropping it. As I did so, a brilliant blue burst of energy shot out, shaping itself into a portal that hovered there in the air. Together, the three of us moved through the portal.

Stepping out the other side, we found ourselves standing on the edge of a crystal clear lake, illuminated by the moonlight. There was a simple wooden cabin in the distance, with a dock that led out to a sailboat. But most importantly, standing directly in front of us was a man. A tall, handsome, dark-skinned man who stood with one hand resting lightly on the shovel beside him.

“Hey there. Good to see you again, Felicity,” Gabriel Prosser announced. “And these must be your girlfriends. Shiori and Avalon, right?”

Beside me, Avalon made a noise that sounded an awful lot like a high-pitched squeak. It was the single most surprising, strangest sound that I had ever heard come directly from my roommate.

“Uh,” I looked that way. “Avalon, are you…” I trailed off, staring. Not because there was a problem, not because we had suddenly been attacked or something had gone horribly wrong. No, I stared because Avalon had the single goofiest, absurd smile on her face. She looked utterly enraptured, like a little preteen meeting her idol.

“Oh my god,” I managed to get out.

“Avalon’s a fangirl.”

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