Month: June 2017

Interlude 22B – Asenath and Lincoln

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“Now that,” Lincoln Chambers announced while sitting back in his seat at the kitchen table, “was a good gyro.” Tapping his cleared plate, he winked at Asenath, who was sitting across from him. “What do you think? They just opened last week, think they’ll stay in business?”

Senny nodded with a slight chuckle. “If they keep making food like that, for sure.” She winked at him then. “Now we just need some ice cream. Or are we supposed to go with Greek yogurt just to keep up the theme?”

“Actually, before we get to dessert, there was something else I wanted to try,” the man replied. He reached under the kitchen table, lifting up a metal box with a padlock on it to set on the table between them. After putting in the combination, he carefully opened the box to reveal several guns inside. The man silently ran his hand over the weapons with an almost reverent look before withdrawing a nine-millimeter pistol, turning it over in his hands.

Shifting slightly in her seat, Asenath raised an eyebrow curiously. “Sorry, Mr. Chambers. I don’t think there’s a gun range that’s still open this late.” She smiled faintly. “At least, not in this town.”

He chuckled, head shaking. “I told you, it’s Lincoln, not Mr. Chambers. And it’s okay. I don’t need the gun range. What I want…” He paused, looking up to meet her gaze. “… is to test a theory.”

With those words, the man abruptly raised the pistol to point the thing at his own head. His finger tightened on the trigger as Asenath’s reactions kicked her up and out of the seat. She didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t know if he had been enchanted, possessed, or if Ammon had gotten to him somehow, impossible as that seemed considering how much she and Twister were watching. But she couldn’t let this happen. She couldn’t let Flick lose her father, whatever it was.

With a blur of motion, she went up and over the table. Her hand snatched the pistol out of the man’s hand an instant before he would have finished pulling the trigger. The girl went from sitting in her seat to standing on the opposite side of the table with the gun in her hand in a split-second.

It wasn’t until then that Asenath felt the weight of the weapon that she was holding. The weight was wrong. It was light–too light. There was… Pausing as the realization came to her, she held the gun off to the side before pulling the trigger, once, twice, then a third time. Every pull resulted in a simple, definitive click. It was empty. There were no bullets in the magazine or the chamber.  

“Yeah,” Lincoln announced calmly as her eyes moved up to him. He hadn’t moved from his seat except to turn his head so he could watch her. “I kinda figured something like that would happen.”

“You… you were testing me,” Senny realized as she carefully laid the empty pistol on the table. Her stare never left the man. “Why? How did you–what?” For once, the vampire-girl was in uncharted waters. She’d never seen anything like this, not from an ordinary human, a Bystander.

In answer, Lincoln first reached into his jacket pocket before producing a small notebook. He tossed it onto the table and flipped the thing open, revealing that it was completely full of scribbled notes. As the man flipped through the pages, Asenath could see where parts had been scratched out, erased, amended, and more. She saw words and phrases like, ‘Immortal’, ‘Time-Traveler’, and where ‘Hostage’ had several lines drawn through it, with ‘Protected’ scrawled in beside it.

There were more, clearly the result of the man hurriedly scribbling notes here and there, every time a thought came to him. It was stream-of-consciousness writing, from a man who was clearly aware that he could lose his train of thought any moment. Or have the thoughts taken from him.

“I kept forgetting,” he announced quietly, patting the notebook. “Things I saw, stuff I noticed here and there. Conclusions, guesses, whatever you want to call it. It kept  going out of my head. But I’ve been a reporter for a long time. And when you’re a reporter, you know what you learn to do real quick if you’re gonna be any good at the job? Write stuff down. Oh, and–” Again, he reached into his pocket, withdrawing a silver voice recorder. Hitting the play button, he held it up as his voice emerged from the thing to say, “Flick sent Asenath to protect you. She is on your side.”   

Pressing the stop button, Lincoln quietly added with a glance at the gun. “Guess I was right.”

Asenath was still reeling as he continued. “But I guess the thing that really made me wake up was probably this.” Picking up his nearby cell phone, the man carefully cued something on it before holding the phone up for her to see. On the screen, a video began to play. It was clearly an ancient video, at least as far as human technology was concerned. There were dark lines running through the screen and there was no sound in it. Even then, however, the view it was showing was clear enough. There was a hospital waiting room full of people watching a news report of the Kennedy assassination. And there on screen was a woman holding two infant children. Joselyn Chambers. Or, to be more accurate at that point, Joselyn Atherby. She was there, clearly shown in a video that had to have been taken at least ten years before she had supposedly been born.

“So like I said,” Lincoln went on once Asenath had seen enough of the video. “This is the one that really got me thinking. I started recording things, thoughts, ideas, everything. Then I kept forgetting them, but I’d find my notes later and remember. I started using this thing,” his hand indicated the voice recorder, “just to keep track of every thought I had. Started leaving notes for myself on my pillow, in my car, everywhere that I’d run into them. Thought I was going crazy for awhile. I mean, how could Jos be… how could she be that old a decade before she was born? It didn’t make sense. It was obviously fake. Obviously. Had to be fake. But I couldn’t figure out why. What was the point? So I sent it to a friend of mine in LA, a computer guy. I figured he’d tell me how it was fake, maybe pull some actual information off the video that might lead to answers about Jos. Like maybe she sent it, maybe she was trying to tell me something. There could be a message in it.”

He paused, raising his gaze to her again.  “But you know what he told me after he looked at it?”

After a moment of silence, Senny answered, “He said it was real, that it wasn’t tampered with.”

Lincoln gave a faint nod. “Yeah. He said he went over the whole thing backwards and forwards. And trust me, if there was anything fake in it, he would’ve found it. He’s good. Really good. So if he said it was real, it was real. Which is just…” his head shook quickly, “insane. It couldn’t be. Couldn’t be real. Joselyn could not have been there in 1963. It just–it was wrong. Impossible. So how could the video be real? How? It couldn’t be real, because she wasn’t alive then, let alone that old. Back and forth, I just kept going back and forth. It couldn’t be real. But it was. It was. It was real, so I had to accept it. And to accept it, I had to figure out why. I had to figure out how.

“Then I started thinking that’s why she disappeared, you see? I figured that’s why Jos vanished, because she went back in time. She time traveled.  Yeah, I know, insane. That’s what I thought. But…” He waved the phone with the video on it. “It’s real. The video’s real, so there has to be an explanation. Time travel. It explains why she disappeared, why no one’s been able to find her.”

“You think your wife… went back in time?” Asenath asked slowly, her brow furrowing a bit.

“No.” Lincoln shook his head. “Not anymore. See, even then there was just too much that didn’t make sense. I mean, not that time travel itself made sense, but even within the context of that, there were too many questions. Too many things it didn’t answer. Especially when it came to you.”

“When it came to me?” Asenath echoed, head turning slightly as her curiosity rose even more.

He nodded. “You see, I know when Flick is keeping things from me. I know when she’s upset and won’t talk about it. I know when she’s… lying. She’s been getting better about it, but I can tell. I know my daughter.  And every time she talks about that school she’s going to, she’s lying. She doesn’t want to. I can tell that too. But she is. She’s lying about a lot of it. So if she’s lying, why?”

The man pushed himself back from the table then, finally standing as he let out a breath. “And the thing is, what are the odds that some mysterious school on the other side of the country suddenly recruits my daughter, full scholarship, she starts lying about it, and it’s not related to this video? I’ve seen her teacher, talked to her. I’ve seen all the pamphlets about this Crossroads, seen the website all about their campus. So if my kid is lying about it, then they’re all lying about it. And that kind of conspiracy, convincing Flick to lie, faking all of that, it’s too big not to be connected to this video. You see? Two things that big, an entire fake school and my wife being in this video, they had to be connected. Had to be. Because two things that big, that insane, couldn’t be separate.”

Standing there, he folded his arms across his chest while watching Asenath. “But if they were connected, then you had to be connected. You were here because of Flick.” He raised his chin to her. “But see, that’s what didn’t fit for a long time. I thought you were here to keep me in line, make me a hostage while… whoever’s behind that school convinced Flick to keep lying. But that didn’t make sense. Because she likes you. She really does, I can tell. And Shiori, Columbus, all of them. Even that professor of hers, the one that visited. She likes all of you, but she’s still lying.

“None of it made sense. She likes the school, at least, some of the people in it anyway. She’s obviously learning how to take care of herself. She’s stronger than she was. But she’s lying to me. Doesn’t want to, but she is. And then I figured it out. I realized why she’s been lying. It’s because she can’t tell me the truth.” His finger moved to touch his own head. “Because I’ll forget. Hell, for all I know, she has tried to tell me the truth. Me forgetting and her lying, they’re connected.”

The man let that sink in for a moment before he went on. “So the school, her teachers, her friends, all of that couldn’t be connected to time travel. But you know what it could be connected to?” He paused briefly, meeting Asenath’s gaze before answering his own question. “Immortals.”

That made Senny’s mouth open and shut a few times. “… immortals?” she managed weakly.

“Virginia Dare,” the man replied. “She’s not named for the girl at all. She is the girl, the woman. And the reason Jos can look like she’s the same age ten years before she was supposedly born as she was when I knew her, is because she is the same age. Dare, Jos, probably everyone at that school, they’re all immortals. Or, if not immortal, they live a long time. My guess is so that they can fight people like you.” He paused, his eyes taking in her reaction. “… vampires, that is.”

Before she could even start to form a coherent thought, let alone reaction to that, Lincoln continued. “Super speed, you’re really strong, and an allergy to sunlight? Yeah, even with the doctor’s note, that one wasn’t hard to pick up on. So the way I see it, there’s these people that Jos comes from. Immortal or just live a long time, I don’t know. Whatever it is, she was part of them. And they fight, well, people like you. Vampires, maybe other things, I don’t know. Only bad ones. Jos was part of it, but she ran away. I don’t know why, but she left. She took off. Maybe the kids she had back then, the ones in the video… maybe something happened to them and she couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t know. Either way, my guess is that she came here and made a new life, the life she had with us. But one of those people she used to fight found her. They took her away.

“Fast forward a few years, and those people, Jos’s people, they come and recruit Flick. They take her into their school, start teaching her how to take care of herself. And they tell her about her mom. They tell her that this bad guy has her. That’s why she’s there. That’s why she’s so much stronger now, because they’re teaching her, they’re training her. And that’s why she’s suddenly… that’s why she’s not mad at her mom anymore. Because she knows that Jos was abducted, that she didn’t choose to leave. So Flick’s there because she wants to save her mom. And she’s not telling me about it because she thinks I’d just forget all of it. That’s why she’s been lying about it.”

Slowly, the man reached up to the nearby fridge to take down a newspaper article that had been clipped there. “And you’re here… because of this.” He showed her the article. It was about the supposed ‘terrorist attack’ in the city several months earlier. “Flick’s birthday. It’s her birthday, she’s back from that school, and something like this happens? It had to be connected. Had to be. So the way I see it, it’s this guy.” From his pocket, he drew out another picture. It was the picture that Senny and Flick had seen pinned up on the board in Lincoln’s office, the one that had been taken from the bad surveillance footage that showed Fossor himself.

“That’s the guy who took my wife,” the man announced flatly, confidently. “And he came here on Flick’s birthday to threaten her. All those attacks, those were warnings. Telling her to back off. And that’s why you’re here now. You’re part of the school, whatever it really is. You’re part of it, and Flick asked you to come and stay with me. You’re not keeping me hostage. You’re protecting me.”

It wasn’t perfect. There were holes in his assumptions, yet other conclusions that he had reached relatively correctly with very little to go on. And yet, none of it made sense. He shouldn’t have been able to remember any of what he was doing. It shouldn’t have been that easy. The shock of it, the utter confusion of a Bystander being able to both retain enough information to know that something was off and to put it together as close to accurately as he had, was enough to stun the two-hundred year old vampire into silence. For a moment, Senny just opened and shut her mouth. “What–how did… how…”

“I told you,” the man replied simply, “I’m a damn good reporter.”

Again, her mouth opened. But before she could actually say anything, something else caught her attention. Footsteps. They were coming from outside, yet from more than one direction. The house was being approached from both sides. A moment later, her nose caught the scent.

Werewolves. At least four of them, maybe more. They were approaching the back door and the one at the front. And from their pace, they weren’t exactly planning on stopping to knock.

She moved. Even as the terrible crash came as the two sets of werewolves kicked either door in, Senny was already in the front hall. Her foot caught the door there, slamming it back the other way just as the massive figure there tried to stomp his way inside. The door took him in the face, making him snap backward. It only gained a couple of seconds, but seconds mattered right then.

“Twist!” she shouted while blurring her way back through the kitchen to the back door. “Code fur!”

Two werewolves were there, already pushing their way in through the shattered door. One of them saw her and snarled, “Vampire bi–”

That was as far as he got before Senny reached the kitchen knives. Her hands snatched two from the wooden container, and she gave them a quick toss that left one embedded in the scraggly-haired man’s shoulder and the other in the arm that he was reaching for her with.

He screamed, jerking backward with a look of disbelief at the knives embedded in him. Knives that were actual silver, since Asenath had spent her time in the house gradually replacing the old stainless steel knives with new ones that would actually get the job done if they needed to. Just in case.

“You got real bullets for that thing?” she snapped over her shoulder at Lincoln. “Load it!”

Even as she finished talking, one of the other wolves behind the one she had put the knives in shoved his companion out of the way. He gave her a brief smile that showed a mouthful of fangs before lunging forward. At the same time, fur began to sprout up over the man’s exposed skin, and he grew taller, shifting into his half-man, half-wolf form.

By that point, Senny had two more knives in her hands. She met the werewolf’s charge by leaping up and backward onto the far side of the table. An instant later, she kicked it forward, sending the table into the werewolf’s stomach with enough force that the table itself was broken. But it also doubled the man over enough that she was able to drive one of the knives up through his throat and into his brain.

Four deafening gunshots, all fired in rapid succession, filled the air then. From the corner of her eye as the wolf she had killed collapsed, Senny saw the one from the front door standing there in the kitchen entrance with four bullet holes in his chest. Unfortunately, the bullets themselves weren’t silver or magic (she really wished they had some Heretic bullets right then), so the wounds were barely enough to make the big werewolf pause. Then, with a snarl, he started forward.

That was when the bear showed up. Taking up most of the front entranceway, the enormous shaggy creature lashed out a furry paw that caught the wolf across the face and sent him flying sideways.

Twister. She was up, which made this whole thing a little easier. Survivable, at least.

Another werewolf from the front, this one in actual wolf form, joined in the attack, rushing in to save his partner even as the Twister-bear turned to face them both. At the same time, two more wolf-men shoved their way in. They saw their dead partner while the one with knives in his arm and shoulder bellowed, and came for Senny.

One werewolf dead, one injured. Two more there at the back. At least two at the front. Six werewolves. This was a full scale assault. They were there to either kill Lincoln, or take him.

Senny wouldn’t let that happen. Even as the first wolf reached her, she jerked sideways to avoid his claw-filled hand as it lashed out. A quick swipe of the knife drew a line of blood from the arm, as well as a snarl of pain from the wolf himself.

The second wolf went for her from the other side, forcing the vampire to keep an eye on both of them. They were fast, impossibly so. But so was she. And she had far more experience than either. Probably more experience than both combined.

But they were still werewolves. And she had to keep half an eye on Lincoln, making sure he was behind her. One of the wolves, after a flurry of blindingly quick swipes, managed to smack the girl upside the head. It was a glancing blow, but from the wolf, it still knocked her back a step. And that was enough for the second wolf to nail her in the stomach with a kick that knocked her right into Lincoln. Both stumbled, falling against the counter.

“Werewolves?” he blurted, staring at the girl while catching her arm. “And is that a fucking bear?!

“Oh sure,” Senny retorted. “You’ve figured out I’m a vampire and you think your wife and daughter are some kind of immortal hunters, but the bear startles you.” Pausing, she added, “Anyway, the bear’s on our side.”

“Look, vampire bitch.” The wolf that she had injured had entered the room then, making it three werewolves facing her. “We’re taking the Bystander. You can let us do it and keep breathing–or whatever you cunts do, or you can–”

“I think that’s enough.” The voice came from the open doorway at the back. As everyone’s eyes turned that way, a lone figure stepped through. A figure that sent all of Senny’s danger senses about Heretics into a screaming fit.

She was an almost achingly beautiful black woman, who radiated power as she stood there. “You may run,” she informed the gathered werewolves, “or–”

They lunged for her. With a collective howl, all three of the werewolves there in the kitchen went for the woman as one pack, rushing her together.

Unfortunately for them, all that meant was that they failed together.

The woman pursed her lips and blew out a white cloud that enveloped the wolf directly in front of her. In an instant, he was frozen solid, a statue of ice.

At the same time, she moved, her form flowing as smoothly as if it was water flowing through a river. Gracefully sidestepping the second wolf, she brushed a hand over his side. At her touch, he turned to stone.

By that point, the third wolf was leaping up and into the air with his claws raised. The Heretic gave a quick nod of her head, and the figure was caught by an invisible force that sent him flying backwards. Just before he would have hit the wall, a half dozen sharp, clearly silver spikes emerged from it. The wolf-man gave a pathetic yowl as he was impaled through on all of them.

Impossible as it seemed, through all of that, the first werewolf hadn’t yet hit the ground. Frozen solid, he was still in mid-fall at the moment that the third wolf was impaled on the wall.

The Heretic turned, catching the falling, frozen wolf by the back of the neck before using her considerable strength to slam him into the counter. He hit with enough force that his frozen head exploded.

It was at that moment that the wolf who had been turned into stone at her touch landed on the floor. In the same motion that she had used to turn while shoving the frozen wolf-man’s head against the counter, the Heretic brought her foot down hard on the stone-wolf. The blow shattered the figure into dozens of pieces.

“Or die,” she finished her earlier statement, the entire ‘fight’, if it could even be called that, having taken roughly two and a half seconds.

“Wolves at the front are done!” Twister announced, having shifted back into her human form as she came into the kitchen. “How are we–” She paused, taking in the sight around them before her eyes found the woman. “What… the he–oh shit!” Jumping back, she shapeshifted into a squirrel before landing on Asenath’s shoulder.

“Uhhh…” Lincoln was shakily holding the gun up, pointed at the woman. “Okay. Okay, those were werewolves. Werewolves. And you–you’re…”

“Heretic,” Asenath finished for him, her eyes on the woman. “And not just a Heretic. You’re…  you’re a…”

“Part of the Committee,” the woman confirmed. “My name is Calafia. And you are Asenath. And Twister, I presume.”

“Flick,” Lincoln quickly put in. “You–you’re part of Flick’s school, part of Jos’s people, the immortals.”

“So close, Mr. Chambers,” the woman spoke easily. “You are so very close right now. I’m impressed. I thought it would take you longer to reach these conclusions, even with the weakened Bystander Effect.”

“Weakened Bystander Effect?” Asenath’s gaze snapped that way. “How do–wait… you. You did it. It’s you–you’re the reason he’s remembering. You weakened it, you let him… you let him remember, but why? What the hell are you doing?”

The profoundly dangerous woman simply inclined her head. “Let’s just say I owe Joselyn Atherby a great deal, and leave it at that for now. But yes. I was the one who informed Gabriel Prosser of where he could locate Joselyn to begin with. I also sent him the video of Joselyn in the hospital from our secure archives and asked him to make sure that Mr. Chambers received it.”

“But… but…” Asenath was floundering. “You’re–you’re part of the… you’re one of… you’re…”

“As I said,” Calafia spoke calmly, “I owe Joselyn more than I can ever repay. But to start, allowing her husband to learn the truth, that was something that was within my capability. Yet, to ensure that none of my… colleagues recognized what was happening, I could not break the Bystander Effect. I could only weaken it. He had to work through the rest of it himself, on his own. As I said, I expected it to take longer.” She turned slightly to look at the man. “You are a very surprising man, Lincoln Chambers. Joselyn chose well, even under… her circumstances.”

“My wife.” Lincoln took a step that way, the pistol falling to his side. “You know what happened to my wife. You know the man–you have Flick, you have–tell me what–tell me–” He seemed choked up, frozen and incapable of deciding what he wanted full answers to first.

“I’m afraid I cannot stay here,” Calafia informed them. “My presence will be noticed before long. You need to leave. The wolves will return, in greater numbers. I’m afraid Felicity has… angered them. They were retaliating, and it’s not a retaliation that will stop any time soon. You need to leave this place, stay on the run until the pack and those behind it are dealt with.”

“But I need to know!” Lincoln snapped. The poor man’s face was red as he fought to cope with everything he was seeing, everything that was being revealed to him. “I need to know about my wife, about my daughter, about what’s really going on! I want to talk to Felicity.”

“Go,” Calafia repeated, before her eyes fell on Asenath. “And tell him the truth. He’s close, but he hasn’t quite gotten there yet. You can tell him the rest of it. He’s broken through the Bystander Effect enough to retain it by this point.

“Tell him everything.”  

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Interlude 22A – Miranda

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March 17th, 2012 (Just Under Six Years Ago)

“Flick, are you sure they’re gonna come?” twelve-year-old Miranda Wallbern asked her best friend while glancing across the food court table that the two of them were sharing. Right beside them was a railing that overlooked the first floor of the mall below, where they could see people walking.

The blonde girl bobbed her head up and down quickly, eyes centered on that lower area while she absently sipped her soda. “Uh huh,” she murmured under her breath. “They’ll be here, trust me.”  

“Duh, always,” Miranda retorted. “It’s just, we’ve been waiting here for two hours already and we haven’t seen ‘em. We’ve gotta get on the four o’clock bus if we’re gonna make it home before six.”

Saturday or not, six o’clock was dinner, and Miranda had to make it home in time. Unfortunately, the mall they were in wasn’t actually in Laramie Falls, the girls’ hometown. Instead, it was in a larger town about an hour and a half away. If they missed the bus getting back, they’d have to call one of their parents for a ride. And if that happened, they were going to have to explain not just why they weren’t where they were supposed to be, but why they were in a whole different city.

“We’ll make it,” Flick insisted, still not turning her gaze away from the lower level. “Kendall’s gonna be here. That’s her favorite store.” She nodded toward the front of the shop that could barely be seen down there from where they were sitting. “And that sale ends after today. She’ll be here.”

Giving her little blue flip phone a nervous look to check the time once more, Miranda nodded. “Okay, but we’ve gotta leave in an hour if we’re gonna make it to the bus, Kendall or no Kendall.”

Flick opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, a smile formed and she gave a little nod. “See?”

Sure enough, looking that way, Miranda saw the girl in question. Kendall Harver was walking right below them, accompanied by two of her friends/cronies. The trio were pretty much the most popular girls in the eighth grade, two years above where Miranda and Flick were. In their middle school, Kendall didn’t even know that the two of them existed. They were invisible sixth graders.

But after this… well, they wouldn’t be invisible to the girl anymore. That was for sure.

From their seats up on that second floor, Miranda and Flick watched. They caught glimpses of the girls moving back and forth through the store, picking up various clothes here and there. But mostly, they just waited. Eventually, Kendall and her sidekicks brought a stack of their selections to the checkout counter, which was perfectly framed in view from where the girls were sitting.

“Here we go,” Flick announced while holding her hand out. “How long do we have left?”

Digging into the bag at her side, Miranda came out with a camera, handing it to her friend before checking her phone again. “Fifteen minutes,” she announced. “If we run all the way to the bus.”

Flick smiled. “See? Plenty of time.” She took the camera, focusing it on the scene through the store window below. There was a rapid clicking sound as she took several pictures in quick succession, then paused before taking a few more. “Wait… wait…” the blonde murmured, clearly talking to herself as she held off from taking any more for a moment. “Wait for the money shot.”

She didn’t have to wait long. As the clerk in the store totaled up the older girls’ purchases, Kendall reached into her purse and came out with a white envelope full of cash. The second the envelope was opened, Flick started taking pictures again. She took pictures of the cash in the envelope, being taken out of it, being handed to the clerk, and of the clerk carefully counting all of it.

Finally, it was over. Kendall and her friends were handed their purchases, and Flick took a couple more quick photos of the three walking out of the store. Then she straightened and nodded to Miranda. “Time to run?” she asked, smiling brightly from the exhilaration of success.

Returning the other girl’s grin, Miranda’s head bobbed. “Yup,” she replied before adding, “All those pictures, that means we’ve got ‘em, right? And we’re not gonna get in trouble this time?”

“Randi,” Flick replied, standing up from the table. “I promise, we are not gonna get in trouble.”

*******

“You two girls are in so much trouble.

Two days later, Miranda and Flick sat in the principal’s office at their school. Principal Augustine Bonnelly was an older, severe-faced woman who had been the head of the middle school pretty much forever, according to anyone Miranda had asked. She had dark gray hair with flecks of white in it, almost like paint splotches. Her glasses were thick, and she always wore a dark red turtleneck that looked like it was so tight that it should’ve been choking her. Her expression at the best of times was optimistically put as ‘unhappy.’ And right now definitely wasn’t the best of times.

But if she expected Flick to be cowed by her words, the woman clearly didn’t know her at all. Beside Miranda, the blonde lifted her chin stubbornly. “I think you mean Kendall’s in trouble.”

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t correct me, Miss Chambers,” Principal Bonnelly retorted. “We’re dealing with your issue right now. Would either of you care to explain what this is?” Reaching down to her desk, she picked up a piece of paper. Both the front and back were covered with text and a couple pictures, while the title across the top of the front read: ‘FESTIVAL OF FRAUD’.

“It’s a newspaper,” Miranda informed the woman while shifting a little in her seat with a quick glance toward the other girl. “Well, um, sort of. It’s more of a flier, I guess. Cuz we couldn’t make a real newspaper, so we just printed out a bunch of those from the computer in the lab.”      

“A newspaper,” Principal Bonnelly echoed, her voice incredulous. “This is the very same… newspaper, as you call it, that the two of you distributed into every classroom of this school?”

“And every locker,” Flick reminded her. “Every classroom and every locker. Oh, and we put some up on the bulletin board by the trophy case and in the teacher’s lounge too. And there was one left over, so we put that one in that room the janitors hide in so they can smoke. Just in case.”

The woman took a visible breath at that before letting it out. “The two of you plastered these accusations across the entire school, without a single thought about the potential consequences.”

Flick’s head shook. “Nuh uh,” the twelve-year-old insisted with an even more stubborn look. “We thought about the consequences a lot. Mostly consequences for Kendall. You know, for stealing.”  

“Be careful, Miss Chambers.” Principal Bonnelly’s eyes narrowed. “You may be able to write whatever unproven accusations you want to in that ‘newspaper’, but when you’re talking to–”

To Miranda’s horror, Flick interrupted. “It’s not unproven. We have evidence and witnesses. Kendall and her friends took a bunch of money from the carnival and spent it on clothes.”

Sounding like she was really lamenting the fact that corporal punishment had been outlawed, Bonnelly retorted, “Are you referring to the carnival that was meant to raise money for our end-of-year field trip? The one that succeeded? We have the money, Miss Chambers.”

To Miranda’s own surprise, she was the one who spoke then. “Of course it did. They didn’t take all the money. That’d be stupid. As long as they left just enough for the trip, people wouldn’t look too close. If they didn’t, there’d be questions and stuff. People might talk about how much they spent.”

Flick added, “Kendall was the one with the cash box. All she did was walk around once an hour to get the money from all the games and refreshments, and they put the cash in the box.”

“A box,” the principal cut in to add with a note of obvious impatience, “which was padlocked. And Miss Harver didn’t have the key. Are you suggesting that all of the people, many of them adults, who were running those games were in on this scheme, Miss Chambers?”

“Didn’t you read the–” The sound of Flick’s incredulousness that the woman hadn’t even bothered to read through their entire article made Miranda flinch, and she quickly elbowed the other girl.

“Um,” she hurriedly put in, “in case you missed it, we answered that in the story. Kendall was the only one carrying the lock box around, so she knew exactly how much was in there all the time.”

Flick’s head bobbed, and she added on the heels of Miranda’s words. “So when she knew that there was enough in there for the trip, she switched boxes. She had another box, just like that one. She hid the real one and walked around with the fake one so that people would put money in it. At the end of the day, she switched back and gave you guys the first one, the real one. You opened it up, counted the money, and saw it was enough. Then she took the fake box and everything in it. And bought clothes, and other stuff.”

“And your evidence of this is…” Principal Bonnelly prompted, waving a hand impatiently.

Miranda answered first. “We talked to Mr. Jenkins at the store. He said that Kendall bought a box just like the one that was used at the carnival, and a padlock too. Except Mr. Thomas,” she named the eighth grade chemistry teacher, “already bought the box himself. So she bought an extra.”

Flick nodded. “And we talked to everybody that was running booths that day. Jackie Townsend’s dad said that he thought the box was lighter in the afternoon, but Kendall told him that you guys emptied it after lunch. And Tricia Comess said that the padlock was on backwards the first time she saw the box, with the key part facing in. But when she saw it later, the lock was facing out. Oh, and we added up the amounts that people could remember putting in the box, and it’s almost enough to make the field trip by itself, even though a lot of them couldn’t remember. So it should be way over the goal, not just a little bit over.”

“Plus,” Miranda finished while tapping the paper, “We’ve got pictures of them paying for all that stuff at the mall in cash.”

“There’s more pictures,” Flick helpfully added while reaching out to point at the bottom of the page. “See? You just have to go to this website right there and you’ll find them all.”

Heaving a long, annoyed sigh, Bonnelly started, “If you had come to me or a teacher first-”

“You would’ve tried to deal with it quietly,” Flick interrupted. “Just because Kendall’s the star of the soccer team. The one that’s supposed to be going to state. They’ll lose without Kendall, and she definitely can’t play with something like this. Whoever we talked to might try to keep it quiet.” She shrugged then. “So we made sure they couldn’t. You know, by making sure everyone saw it.”

Steepling her fingers, the principal rested her forehead against her thumbs briefly before straightening. “I will be calling the police. Unfortunately, there’s no choice now. But no, Miss Chambers. My thought was that if you had come to me first, I could have ensured that your identities were kept secret. As it is, several students saw you putting up these papers, which means that now everyone is aware of where and who they came from. In your eagerness to spread the truth, you have made targets of yourselves.” Pausing then, she added, “I’ll also be calling your parents to help handle this. Miss Chambers, please wait outside for a moment. I’d like to talk to Miss Wallbern alone.”

Miranda gave her friend a nod of encouragement when the girl looked at her, then waited as Flick left the room to wait in the receptionist’s office.

Once they were alone, Principal Bonnelly took a breath. “Miss Wallbern, I understand that you and Miss Chambers are close friends. But you may wish to… reconsider just how much time you spend with her. She is a… troubled girl, lashing out at authority. It’s understandable, after what her mother did. Yet… it’s also something that she will find a way out of much easier than you will.”

“You mean cuz I’m black,” Miranda finished for her while folding her arms over her chest. “You think Flick’s gonna get us both in trouble, only she’ll get out of it and I won’t because she’s white and I’m black.”

It wasn’t anything all that new for her to hear. Miranda had been the only black girl in their grade ever since her family moved to Wyoming several years earlier. And the rest of the town wasn’t exactly swimming in them. She was used to people staring a bit, was accustomed to those that tried to ‘help’ when the best thing they could’ve done was leave well enough alone.

“The facts are the facts, Miss Wallbern,” the woman informed her. “Unfair though they may be. Miss Chambers’ mother was the sheriff before she… left. She still has friends on the force. Her father is a respected reporter. If things go wrong, you are the one who will bear the brunt of any punishment should someone need to be made an example of.”

“Principal Bonnelly,” Miranda started, “How come you’re acting like Flick and me did something wrong, just cuz we told the truth and found out about someone stealing?”

The woman sighed at that. “Sometimes things are more complicated than we want them to be,” she replied flatly. “I’m not saying that you didn’t… have the right intentions or accomplish something positive. I’m saying that the effects of those actions may come back to haunt you in ways that you didn’t foresee. And that it is you who will most likely bear those effects, Miss Wallbern. Fair or not, that is what will happen. So, for your own sake, you may wish to think about just how much trouble you’re willing to let Miss Chambers drag you into.”

“Drag me into?” Miranda echoed. “Principal Bonnelly, Flick doesn’t drag me anywhere.

“We run into it together.”

******

Present Day

 

The stares weren’t subtle. As Miranda made her way through her assigned chores for the day, she felt the eyes on her, heard the whispers, felt the people who made a point of bumping into her as they passed, despite having plenty of room. Over the course of the day, the stares stopped looking away when she glanced in that direction, the whispers grew louder, and the bumps were more forceful. There were a lot of words, but traitor was the one she heard most often.

She knew why. Flick had already let her know what happened, just in case someone from Doxer and Trice’s tribe tried to go for a little revenge. Unfortunately, she had the feeling that Flick had been picturing a lone, fringe element, a single person or small group that would take offense. This was more than that. Most of the worst of it was from Lost Scar people, but not all, by any means.

Everywhere she went, there were people muttering thinly veiled insults and threats. Not everyone by any means, but enough. And most of the ones who didn’t actually say or do anything still simply walked away without intervening. Even some from her own tribe made a point of disappearing.

Things has just been pushed too far. First Hannah (Now Avalon) had killed Torv before escaping from any kind of trial by being taken under the protection of the Crossroads headmistress. Then Abigail Fellows had been brought on and given one of the precious few Eden Apples despite a lot of people saying that she was too old to learn how to fight or do anything productive. And to make things even more tense, Hisao had taken what he called a ‘leave-of-absence’ to teach at Crossroads. Her own mentor had left Garden to teach at the school of their rivals, a school that happened to be attended by her friend. More than a few people had made that connection, and Miranda had found herself pointed at more than once as the reason that Hisao had left.

So not only was she left temporarily mentorless, but all the people at Garden who were pissed off that the man was gone to teach their rivals were pointing at her as the reason behind it. That had been going on for weeks, though she didn’t tell Flick or Hisao anything about it when they talked. There were enough problems going on for them to deal with, serious problems. She could take care of herself.

And now it seemed like this was the tipping point. Doxer was dead. Trice was missing, ostensibly hiding out somewhere to avoid answering for what happened. Two more promising and powerful Garden students were gone, at least one permanently. In less than a year, Torv, Trice, and Doxer had all been lost, with the blame for it falling onto Avalon and Flick, both of whom were under Gaia Sinclaire’s protection. And Hisao, one of Gardens’ best Vigiles, was off teaching for her.

Hisao was gone. Avalon/Hannah was gone. Flick was out of their reach. All of them were protected by Gaia and the rest of Crossroads. The people who were upset couldn’t get near them.

But they could get near Miranda. They could whisper threats and insults, bump into her, and glare. Which would have been fine. She understood their anger, their frustration. She could deal with it if it stayed like that. But it wouldn’t. She knew that. They knew that. The only real question was how long it would take. And the answer was… not very long.

They waited until Miranda wasn’t on her tribe’s branch. She was down on the ground, feeding some of the animals that had to be penned up there, when she heard people approaching. Turning, the girl found herself facing half a dozen figures. Adult Heretics, most of whom had only graduated within the past few years.

All of them were from the Lost Scar tribe.

They had already formed a semicircle, one lifting his chin. “Hey, Wallbern, got a name for you when your birthday comes around. How about Traitor?”

Another boy shook his head. “Crossroads’ Bitch is better. Isn’t that what you are now? Just a little bitch for those other bitches they’ve got. Your mentor went over there, plus you’re like… super-duper-best friends with one of them. A friend who–uhh, what’d she do again?” he prompted, clearly already knowing the answer.

“Killed Doxer,” one of the other boys answered. “Bitch killed Doxer. Probably killed Trice too, they just won’t say so.”

The first boy shook his head. “Nah, I bet Tits McGee killed Trice. That’s why they’re trying to say he got away, cuz killing two guys in the same family… that’s bad news.”

Miranda took a breath, letting it out as she replied, “If Doxer didn’t wanna die, he shouldn’t have picked a fight he couldn’t win.” Pausing, she added, “again. And Trice ran away like a coward.”

“You fucking watch your mouth,” one of the boys snapped, taking a step that way. “Doxer and Trice were out there to get justice from the cunt that killed Torv. Now Doxer’s dead, and Trice is missing. So maybe we’ve just gotta get justice some other way.”

“Maybe,” another guy put in, “we let ‘em know that we’ve got the bitch’s friend right here. See if they’ll pop over for a visit then.”

“Nah,” another one replied, “I’ve got a better idea. We’ll invoke the Right of Reparation.”

Miranda knew what that was. Essentially, it was a way for various individual Garden Heretics to take payment either in monetary goods or blood from another Garden Heretic without getting in trouble for any damages done. When one Heretic invoked the Right of Reparation, they named a price. Sometimes it would be a flat amount, while other times it would be an amount of time that the person they were invoking it against would have to serve as essentially their slave for all intents and purposes. As long as the Right was upheld by one of the Vigiles, the Heretic that they challenged had to either pay that cost/serve them for the allotted time, or choose to face them in a one-on-one arena fight. If they lost the fight, the assigned penalty of either serving time or cost was doubled.

“Yeah,” one of the boys announced, his eyes on her. “We’ll invoke Right of Reparation. All of us, one at a time. Think your friend’ll show up if she finds out you’re getting your ass kicked up and down the arena?”

“Last time I checked,” Miranda retorted, “Right of Reparation means you’ve gotta get a Vigile to sign off on it.”

To that, the assembled Lost Scar boys chuckled. The one who had spoken first reached into his pocket and produced a small golden pin that looked like a spear piercing an apple. “Promoted last week,” he announced. “Looks like I can accept all the Reparation trials I want to.”

“You think anyone else is gonna step in and stop it?” another boy asked. “Look around. Your own tribe ain’t even here. They left you alone on purpose, bitch. After everything that happened, they ain’t gonna step in for you. Not now. Someone’s gotta pay, and you’re the only one here. No one else is gonna throw themselves in the crosshairs just to help you out.”

“So which is it gonna be?” one of them asked. “You gonna call your little friend and get her over here so she can pay for Doxer, or are we just gonna have to start kicking your ass over the arena over and over again until you change your mind?”

“Actually,” a voice started from nearby, “there’s a few problems with that.”

Miranda and the boys assembled around her all looked that way, only to see Abigail Fellows. The thin, older woman stood there with her arms folded across her chest as she stared them down.

The freshly minted Vigile pointed at the woman. “This doesn’t concern you. Just be glad you get to walk around our tree pretending to be a real Heretic, and keep your ugly nose out of other people’s business.”

If she was cowed, the woman didn’t show it. Instead, she walked right up to put herself beside Miranda. “You can’t challenge her like that.”

Rolling his eyes, one of the boys snapped, “It’s called Right of Reparation. Just cuz you’re a clueless little Bystander bitch who doesn’t know what she’s–”

“Section Seventeen, paragraph forty-two of the Garden Rules and Standards,” Abigail interrupted. “Unless the accused party can be conclusively demonstrated to have harmed Eden’s Garden in some way themselves, they cannot be held accountable for the actions of those outside of the Garden. Also, section three, paragraph twelve: any connection, familial or otherwise, with members of Crossroads cannot be solely used to hold judgement against any Garden Heretic unless there is some other evidence of wrongdoing. In other words, if Miranda is found guilty of some kind of crime, then you can use her connection to Crossroads against her. But until then, she can’t be judged just because she has a friend who lives there.”

For a moment, the boys just stared. Then one of them sputtered, “That one was–that was written back when we first split from Crossroads. It was just supposed to stop all the infighting about who still had friends there, whose family didn’t come with them, and that kinda shit.”

“Funny, it’s still on the books,” Abigail informed them. “Which means it’s still the law. And Vigiles don’t get to change it. You need the Victors to do that.

“Oh, and speaking of which,” she added pointedly, “page forty-four of the Vigile Regulation Handbook says that they cannot preside over any Reparation trial that they have a personal stake in. And page forty-six says that a single Heretic can’t be challenged more than once for the same thing.”

Still not quite done, the woman pressed on. “Also, on October 29th, 1974, a trial that was brought before the Victors ended with them concluding that any Garden Heretic who is under the age of twenty may pass any challenge made against them to their mentor.”

“Yeah?” one of the boys snapped, “Well her mentor’s not exactly here, is h–”

Abigail cut him off. “Page eighty-two of the Vigile Regulation Handbook states that whenever a Vigile’s duties take him away from Garden for an extended time, he may pass all responsibility for his charge to another adult Heretic.”

“And that,” another voice put in as Seller revealed himself, stepping into view on the other side of Miranda, “would be me. Hi, mentee.” He laid a hand on her shoulder.

“You can’t do that,” a boy blurted. “You’re not even in the same tribe!”

Seller shrugged at that. “Funny, it doesn’t actually say anything about that. I mean, maybe they assumed that tribes would just stick to their own without it being written down, but the fact remains that it’s not specifically said.”

“So basically,” Abigail summed up for them, “you can’t challenge her because of something that someone outside of Garden did. She can’t be taken to trial just because she has a friend who lives at Crossroads, until she’s tried for some actual crime. You can’t invoke Right of Reparation more than once for the same thing. The Vigile who accepts and presides over the Reparation can’t have a personal stake in it, which you do. And even if you do get past all of that, you can’t challenge her directly, because she’s a minor. You’ll face her surrogate mentor instead.”

“Me,” Seller added. “And I’ll tell you what, I’d be willing to dismiss all those other things if you boys want. We’ll find another Vigile, grease his palms a little so he’ll accept the trial, then see what happens. Which one of you wants to be the first one to give it a shot?”

The answer, apparently, was none of them. They made a few noises about it not being over, and about how they’d make her pay for being a traitor before slinking away.

“You okay?” Abigail asked. “Felicity called. She said you might need a little help dealing with some of the fallout from what happened, so we’ve been trying to keep an eye on you.”

Miranda bit her lip, head nodding. “I’m fine. You didn’t have to do that. Now you’re a target too. They don’t care that much about the rules. If they can’t come at us straight on, they’ll find a quieter way to do it.”

“We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” Seller informed her. “For now, they’ll back off. Keep your eyes open and don’t let yourself be alone again. Because you’re right: next time, I doubt they’ll announce themselves like that.”

Hesitantly, Miranda glanced to the woman beside her. “How’d you know all that stuff? You only got here a couple months ago and even I’ve never read most of the stuff you were talking about. And I’ve never heard of someone from another tribe being able to step in and be a temporary mentor for someone from another tribe. I don’t think anyone’s ever done it.”

“Oh sweetie,” Abigail replied with a little smile. “I may be a terrible Heretic as far as all the fighting and killing goes. But this wasn’t about that. This was about rules and laws. It wasn’t about being a Heretic, it was about being a lawyer.

“And when it comes to that, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the Bystanders.”

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Most Dangerous Game 22-07

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Please note that there was a bonus chapter posted Wednesday. If you missed it, you may wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

Those last words had barely left my mouth before I abruptly found myself standing in a different position without any warning whatsoever. I had been by the door with my hand on it. Now, I was suddenly standing next to Avalon with my hand on her back instead of the door. Professor Dare, meanwhile, was standing where I had just been, with the door open in her hand.  

An instant after that, and the small lobby area was suddenly filled with several more people. I saw a handful of adult Heretics, accompanied by that Spanish woman from the Committee, Elisabet. All of them had their weapons drawn. In the counselor’s case, she held a what looked like a combination of a pistol crossbow and a sawed-off shotgun, with the dual barrels for the gun mounted below the crossbow part. Neither she, nor the other Heretics with her, looked happy.  

“Your response time is admirable.” That was Gaia, her voice cool as she regarded them, not even so much as twitching at the Heretic’s abrupt arrival. “But your locking spells could use some work.”

Dare gave a single, faux-casual nod while drumming her fingers lightly along the door that she was holding. “It didn’t take much effort to break the door security. Barely even knew it was there.”

“You?” Elisabet’s eyebrow raised as she looked at Dare with an expression that I couldn’t read. “You broke the security seal instead of simply using the passcode? Why would you do that?”

My brain caught up with what was going on then. Professor Dare and Gaia were covering for me. If the Committee found out that I had this security-breaking power, they’d be even more suspicious than they already were. Hell, they’d probably haul me back in for a much more intense round of questions, Gaia or no Gaia. And I was pretty sure they wouldn’t listen to ‘but I just got it and didn’t even know about it.’ So Dare had thought quickly enough to swap places with me. Or Gaia swapped us, I wasn’t sure which. Either way, they made sure she was the one at the door.

“Why?” Dare echoed, raising one shoulder in a shrug. “It was a teaching moment. We wanted the girls to see how fast your response time is. As the headmistress said, pretty good. But we were expecting it to be harder to break the seal. Whoever cast it might want to work on that a bit.”

From the look on Elisabet’s face, she wasn’t very happy about their security being questioned. Her voice was tight. “As you well-know, the locking magic used for those inside the building is relatively minor. It’s only meant to keep people from accidentally wandering where they shouldn’t be. And I wouldn’t call breaking a Committee-ordered security enchantment a ‘learning experience.’”

“I don’t know,” Dare replied easily before nodding toward Avalon and me. “Would you say you learned something here, girls?” When we both nodded, she smiled faintly. “There you go.”

Elisabet turned to say something quietly to the men who had teleported in with her. They gave us a searching look for a moment before turning to leave while holstering their weapons once more. Then the woman stepped over and said something to Gaia. I heard the word ‘false alarm’ before she gave the rest of us a look that promised a lot more problems if we set off another security alert before spinning on her heel. She took two steps before vanishing from sight in mid-motion.

I wanted to say something, but after seeing that I waited until we were all the way out of the building and a decent distance away from it (past the security line) before speaking up. “Is it safe?”

Rather than using a coin or even Dare’s music box, Gaia just made a simple hand gesture, and I felt a popping in my ears before she nodded. “We may speak freely now. No one will overhear.”

“I’m sorry,”  I started weakly. “I didn’t know that was gonna happen. If…” I paused, swallowing a bit, “If they figured out that I was the one who broke that seal, it wouldn’t be good, would it?”

It was Gaia who spoke. “No,” she answered calmly. “They would probably not react very well.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dare added while giving me a brief, reassuring look. “Sometimes it takes awhile for powers to show themselves. Especially if they’re not very obvious. And, of course, when you get several that…” she paused, grimacing before finishing with a soft, “… quickly.”  

Flinching despite myself, I nodded slowly before looking back at the bag that held Doxer’s mice. “And sometimes we inherit things other than powers,” I murmured under my breath. Hearing a slight squeak inside, I opened it up once more. The mice were still huddled there, practically clutching each other as they stared at me with what looked like genuine terror on their little faces.

Wincing at the sight, I glanced up. “Oh. Um… I think I need to spend a little time with these guys.”

“It might have to wait,” Avalon muttered. “We have company, and I don’t think they’ll leave again.”

Looking the way she was, I saw the rest of the team coming from across the field.. And from the look of things, I was pretty sure Avalon was right about them not waiting around anymore. They were going to want to talk about what happened, both during the hunt and with the Committee.

“Okay, guys,” I murmured, looking back down at the bag briefly. “We’re gonna go meet some friends, all right? I’ll introduce you to Vulcan, and you can all talk about how I’m not a monster.”

“Just spend time with them,” Gaia encouraged quietly. “It takes some time for cyberforms to bond to their Heretics. Particularly after the old bond is severed so abruptly. But it will happen.”   

By that point, the others had arrived. Sands moved right up to me, looked simultaneously abashed and nervous as she kicked the ground. “Hey, uh, Flick. About earlier, I didn’t–” She flinched noticeably. “I didn’t think about what happened, what you had to do. I was just–I guess I didn’t–”

“It’s okay,” I interrupted, giving the other girl a slight smile. “I get it. Trust me, I get it. You don’t have to apologize. You were just… excited.” My hand went up to grab hers, even as I told myself that I could be touching a Seosten-spy right then. “Besides, at least he won’t hurt anyone else.”

Her head bobbed up and down, sending her brown braid bouncing. “Yeah, sure. No more victims for that asshole.” Shrugging then, she added thoughtfully, “Too bad Trice got away. But hey, Garden can’t ignore what he did anymore, right? Maybe they’ll do something about it.”

It was a far cry from the girl at the beginning of the year who had insisted that Eden’s Garden were all psychopaths. At least she thought it was possible that they’d step in on the Trice issue.  

Gaia, however, shook her head. “Unfortunately, it seems that Trice has fled even his own people. Possibly to escape judgment or other fallout from the results of this attack. Or,” she added while sounding thoughtful, “perhaps he feared retaliation from his accomplices for the failure.”

I was pretty sure that she’d said it that way just to see if there was even the slightest reaction from Sands, Scout, Sean, Columbus, or even Professor Dare. But if there was, I didn’t see any. Which made sense. A probably-millennia-old Seosten infiltrator wasn’t going to be tripped up by showing any reaction to that. Or maybe they weren’t even here. Maybe they were in Deveron, or Koren, or… yeah, whatever happened, we had to get that choker from Pace. This paranoia thing sucked.

“Figures,” Sean muttered with obvious annoyance. “The hijueputa runs away like a coward.”

Columbus shook his head. “He can’t hide forever. Someone’ll find him, right? I mean, even Eden’s Garden’s gotta want to talk to him about all this. And there’s gonna be Crossroads Heretics looking for him.” He glanced toward Gaia then. “Right? They can’t just let him walk away from it.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed simply. “He will be found. And when he is, I’m sure that there will be many questions he will be made to answer. But for now, I suggest you all try to get some rest.”

“Some rest?” Sands sounded absolutely incredulous at that. “Are you kidding me? We’ve still gotta hear about what happened. You guys need to tell us everything, everything.” Pausing then, she added with a gesture toward the bag in my hand. “Starting with, what’s in there?”

“In here?” I echoed, lifting the bag thoughtfully. “… I guess they’re a couple new friends.

“And I’m gonna have to talk to Nevada, because I’m pretty sure I know just what to do with them.”

******

“I hate this, Flick,” Shiori announced a few days later as the two of us walked along the beach on our way back from feeding Choo. He actually spent a decent amount of time in the container that the other girl had had made for him, but we still had to take him off the school grounds to be fed, since opening the container on the grounds would’ve meant setting off the security alerts. And call me crazy, but I really didn’t want to risk doing something like that again after that bit with Elisabet.

Besides, he still spent plenty of time out there in the special area we’d set aside for him. Shiori didn’t want the little guy to be trapped in what was essentially a cage constantly, even if it was a lot bigger on the inside than it should’ve been. Though from what I’d heard her talking with Avalon about, the two had a plan to make the whole thing better that would be interesting if it worked.

The other girl continued, head shaking. “I hate not talking to Columbus about all this stuff. He’s … he’s my brother. But I can’t even–I can’t trust him. What if he’s–” She stopped, making a face while putting an arm against her stomach. “What if he’s one of them? What if he’s possessed?” Even though we were both out on the beach and using a privacy coin (as was pretty much usual by that point), she still kept her voice quiet.

Wincing, I reached out to catch her hand, turning the girl around to face me. “Hey, I know. I know it sucks. Trust me, it…” Trailing off, I gave a soft sigh before interlacing our fingers. “It won’t be long, okay? We already heard from Roxa and the others. They’ve got an idea of where Pace’s pack is gonna be in about a month. Between them, Wonderland, and the rest of us, we’ve gotta be able to get that necklace away from her. After that, we just have to use it to find the Seosten.”

“A month.” Shiori’s voice was weak. “I…” She hesitated before straightening, giving me a nod that was a little more firm. “I know. I know. It’s the only way. I just… I just wish we didn’t have to wait that long. I wish there was some way to find out for sure right now, just to know. I hate looking at Columbus and not… and not knowing if it’s him looking back, Flick. I hate it so much.”   

God. Just standing there like that, I wanted to make it better. I wanted so badly to just wave a magic wand and solve the problem for her. I wanted to tell Shiori that she could trust her brother, that he really was her brother. I wanted to fix everything for her. And I never, ever wanted to see her look at me with that pleading, puppy-dog expression and not be able to do anything about it.

Instead, all I could do was embrace the girl. “I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I swear, we’ll fix it as soon as we can. We’ll find out who the spy is and get rid of them. Whether it’s Columbus or anyone else, we’ll get them back, okay?” I leaned back, staring at her. “I promise, we’ll find out the truth.”

Shiori watched me for a moment like that as we stood on the edge of the water, with the sun just starting to set across the horizon. The way the light made her face glow a little bit was mesmerizing, and I found myself lost in her gaze, unwilling and unable to break the comfortable silence. Because in that moment, we were communicating plenty without saying a single word.

Eventually, Shiori lifted her hand to gently touch my face. “Flick,” she whispered, her voice barely audible against the sound of the waves lapping against the sand. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times, as if she wanted to say something else, but couldn’t find the right words. In the end, she found another way of expressing what she felt. Leaning over, the other girl gently touched her lips to mine, giving me a soft, exquisite kiss. It felt different than kissing Avalon, yet somehow just as powerful. And just like those times, it took my breath away.

After what was entirely too brief of a time like that, the girl pulled back to blush, shifting on her feet. “Sorry,” she mumbled adorably without looking at me. “I just–I really wanted to–It felt like-”

“Well see,” I interrupted before she could continue, “now I’m really in a predicament.”

Shiori blinked at me a couple times as she brought herself under control. “In a predicament?”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, see… now I can’t figure out if I want to kiss you again, or just listen to you babble some more. Gotta tell ya, I’m leaning toward the babbling. It’s really sweet.”

She flushed even more at that, but before she could actually say anything, I leaned in to touch my lips to hers, giving a little smile at the sound of her gasp. “Then again, kissing’s really good too.”

A tiny whimper escaped the other girl before her arms snaked their way around me once more. I felt her nod almost imperceptibly, our lips still close to one another. “Uh huh,” she whispered. “Really good.”

We stayed like that for a minute, leaning against each other while collecting ourselves. It felt good, just standing there with Shiori. Eventually, however, she pulled back and cleared her throat.

“I guess we need that month anyway, since we still have to learn that spell from Prosser.”

My head bobbed quickly. “Right, yeah, he promised to set up some sessions for that. Knowing which of our friends is possessed isn’t helpful unless we know how to kick the bitch out of their body. We learn the anti-possession spell, then find out who she’s possessing, and kick her ass out of them.”

“And then kick her ass in general,” Shiori added firmly.

I nodded, smiling slightly. “And then kick her ass in general.”

Squeezing my hand, the other girl asked, “Um, what about Trice? Has he…”

My head shook. “He hasn’t said much of anything, really. Gaia says we just have to give him time to stew on everything. She keeps talking about having patience. Which I guess at this point means leaving him in the cell and not talking to him for a few days. She’s making sure he gets fed and whatever else, but other than that, he’s pretty much left on his own. Solitary confinement and all that.”

Biting her lip, Shiori hesitated before asking, “And Fahsteth? What about that other meeting, the one that the Seosten heard about?”

“They’re rescheduling,” I answered with a grimace. “I’m not sure when, exactly. But sooner than before, hopefully. We’ve gotta get to him before the Seosten do. But when we do, we’ll keep quiet about it. Like the Trice thing. We’ll keep it quiet until the meeting was supposed to happen. Then see if any of our new friends show up. You know, counter-ambush style.”  

Shiori nodded, smiling at me in that familiar way. “I guess, if nothing else, the guy makes good shark-bait.”

Before I could respond to that with more than a snicker, the approach of someone else drew my attention. Seeing Nevada walking down the beach, I quickly disabled the coin and cleared my throat. “Oh, hey, Nevada.” Jeez, it still felt weird to call someone who was supposed to be our teacher by her first name. Then again, having a teacher who looked like a cheerleader was weird to begin with.

“Hey guys!” she chirped, giving us a dazzling smile. “Everything okay?”

I shrugged. “Neither of us have been attacked or teleported away to an alien planet today, so that’s a tick in the plus column.”

Laughing, the other woman reached behind her back to pull out a familiar object. “Well, here you go.” Flipping my staff around, she held it out toward me.

“You finished already?” I took the staff, looking it over. The only visible change was an additional half-hidden button as well as two white teardrop shaped marks about six inches from either end of the staff. “I know, I know, quick turnaround and all that. But I thought you’d need at least a little more time.”

She grinned at me. “It’s like I told you before, we figure out how to do these things quick. Gotta get the Heretics their weapons back. Besides,” she added with a wink, “The staff’s already got the portals at the ends for your sand. It wasn’t hard to add the new ones.”

Shiori blinked at that, squinting at the weapon in my hands. “New portals? For more sand?”

“Nope.” I shook my head. “Not for more sand. For something else. Are they…” I looked to Nevada.

She indicated the new button. “Give it a shot, they were making themselves at home last time I checked on them.”

My thumb pressed it, and immediately two small portals were generated right where the teardrop marks were. They were just large enough for a pair of tiny mechanical mice to poke their heads out, sniffing curiously before emerging onto the staff. Despite the fact that I was holding it vertically, both seemed completely at home crawling along it.

“Hey guys,” I spoke up, drawing their attention. The two mice quickly scrambled to the middle of the staff to meet each other, staring at me. They weren’t quite as skittish as they had been, but it was obviously going to take awhile for us to get to the level of trust that we needed. I liked them a lot, actually. But I didn’t want to rush things. They were just starting to open up to me and stop looking at me like I was about to feed them into some kind of industrial grinder. Time, it would just take time.

Rotating the staff carefully to hold it horizontally, I reached into my pocket for a handful nuts. Metal nuts that was, as in the kind that went with bolts. Coming out with them, I held the handful of metal up to the little cyber-mice. They hesitated, but quickly took the offered treat.

“Did you ever find out what their names were?” Shiori asked, glancing to me.

My head shook. “No,” I replied. “I don’t know what their names were. I dunno if he even had names for them. But I do.” Lifting my hand slowly, I pointed to the slightly smaller one, then the other. “This is Jaq, and that’s Gus.”

Nevada and Shiori both grinned at that, the latter reaching out a finger to them. “Jaq and Gus. That’s great. Hiya, Jaq. Hey, Gus.” She held her finger there, letting the little guys sniff it for a moment.

“Give the staff a spin,” Nevada encouraged, nodding. “Trust me, they’re fine.”

I hesitated, but she seemed confident. So I stepped back for room and spun my weapon, slowly at first to watch the mice before slowly picking up speed. No matter how fast I spun it, however, they stayed attached to the thing. “How?”

“Trade secret,” she replied with a wink. “But basically magic magnets. They’ll stay attached as long as you want them to.”

As I stopped and let the mice go back to exploring the staff, Shiori asked, “So you had Nevada make… portals in your weapon to summon your mice? That’s kinda cool.”

“Oh, it’s very cool,” I replied. “First, they’ve got a little home in there. I mean, they can come out too. But they’ve got a whole little house in there. Technically the portals link to a box that’s in my room. That’s where they are when they’re in there. But they come out through there.”

Nodding, the other girl hesitated. “Okay, but… what do they do once they’re here? Like, explore and spy on people or whatever? They look like they’d be pretty good at that.”

“Sure, sure,” I confirmed slyly, giving Nevada a quick look. “But they do a lot more than that. Is it…?”

“Go for it,” she replied, looking just as eager as I was. “Just tell the little guys it’s time to fight.”

“Hey, Jaq, Gus,” I spoke quickly. The mice stopped what they were doing and turned their tiny heads to peek up at me. “It’s time to fight.”

Immediately, they both took off in opposite directions. As I held the staff up, the mice ran to either end, clinging onto it before abruptly changing shape. In the process, they seemed to physically bond themselves with the weapon itself, latching on in several spots so that it was impossible to tell that they weren’t part of the thing to begin with.

Barely a handful of seconds after I’d said the words, and the transformation was complete. At one end of the staff, Jaq had turned into a slightly smaller version of the short-sword that he had been under Doxer.  Only the blade though, without the hilt. Meanwhile, at the other end, Gus became a smaller version of the grapple-hook.

Carefully, I spun the staff once more, checking the weight. It would take a bit to get used to, but it wasn’t too bad. And this way, my weapon had a couple more tricks to it. The blade on one end that could cut things, and a grapple-hook with an attached energy line that would both be wickedly dangerous in combat once I learned how to use it properly. Plus, the grapple would drastically improve my maneuverability when used in conjunction with the staff’s kinetic boosts.

“Oh yeah,” I muttered, spinning the now-bladed staff around once more. “This I could get used to.

“I could really… really get used to it.”

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