Month: July 2017

Suspects 24-06

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“We’ll go in first,” Mateo announced a moment later. “My pack and our friends. We can get a lot closer than any of you can.” He gestured not just at us, but toward the other Alters as well. “Weres know each other. We can get right into the camp. There’s so many people down there, they won’t know that we don’t belong there. We’ll get as close as we can, then start trouble.

“Once we’ve got the attention on us, the rest of the Alters can come in. Try to close over them like a net. They’ll be focused on us, which should give you a chance to hit them from behind.”

His eyes moved back over to us then. “Roxa can stay back with the Heretics. Heretics, the second any of them see you, they’ll know what you are. Stay back until the fight’s in full swing. Wait for your chance. Once everyone’s engaged, pick off targets of opportunity. Try not to let the word spread about Heretics being involved until it’s too late for them to regroup. Wait for the moment, then hit fast and hard as soon as they’re involved. The Heretic-Were is the priority.”

Looking to me then, he paused before asking, “You look a little confused. Is everything alright?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I just sort of thought there’d be a more specific plan than just ‘go here and fight at this time.’”

The werewolf smiled then. “Specific plans lead to specific failures. It’s a poor leader who tries to micromanage every aspect of a battle. Everyone here knows how to fight, they know how to react to circumstances. So everyone goes where they need to go, and we’ll get through this. You all understand?”

He waited for nods from those of us who were standing there before gesturing. “Alright, then get back to the rest of your groups and tell them what’s going on. Remember, Weres first, then Alters, then Heretics. It’s like the classic one-two punch, but then you kick ‘em in the balls too.”

“I guess in this scenario, we’re the ball-kickers,” I put in then with a raised eyebrow.

Mateo winked at me. “Seems appropriate, all things considered.” Pursing his lips then, he whistled. “Let’s move!” Briefly, he looked back to us. “Be careful, kids. Seriously. I know you already know it’s not a game, but… watch each other’s backs. You may not be a literal pack, but… act like one. Stay together. Take care of each other. You got it?” Waiting until he was given an assortment of nods, the man started off.

I turned to say something to the others, only to pretty much get a faceful of squealing teenage pixie. Which sounded so much like a euphemism even in my head that I blushed just thinking it.

“Flicker!” the pixie in question blurted while hugging tightly onto my face for a moment. “Did you hear?” She fluttered back, hovering there while yanking the tiny sword from her hip to wave it around a little, a tiny, winged swashbuckler. As she finished speaking, the little pixie dove forward to put herself in the pocket of my jacket of my uniform, popping her head back up after a second to grin. “We’re gonna go kick were-whatever ass!”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Hey, Namythiet. Yup, we really are. Be careful though, okay?”

Her head bobbed up and down as she flew back up out of my jacket pocket. “O’course! I’ve gotta back up my mentor, you know.” Her mouth opened to say something else before she hesitated, blinking at me as her head tilted “Heeeeey,” she drawled, “why doncha look like a—how come you’re not a Heretic?” A gasp escaped her then. “Oh no, did you lose your powers?!”

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, I just–it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic, I promise.” We’d already explained the situation to Mateo. There had been some discussion about using the fact that I didn’t trigger an Alter’s warning sense to let me get close to the camp. But that had been dismissed as too dangerous, since it would leave me alone and my face was probably well-known to the werewolves that Pace spent enough time with anyway.

Namythiet fluttered back then, giving a salute with her sword before flying off to join Seth. The vampire himself was looking our way. As Namythiet joined him, he gave us a nod, pointing toward Shiori before tapping a finger against his head and saying something that I didn’t pick up.

“Use my head,” Shiori provided. “He wants me to be careful.”

“I’m gonna take that as advice for all of us,” I replied while absently buttoning the pocket of my jacket once more. Then I looked back to the others as the people around us started moving out. “I guess we wait for this whole thing to get started then, huh? Anyone see Pace down there yet?”

“Blue tent to the left of the white pick-up,” a new voice announced. Turning, I saw Duncan approaching along with his sister, Misty. The two of them were the brother and sister natural Heretics (Duncan taking his power from a metal-manipulating Ullus while Misty gained hers from an Ogre) that I’d met back at the Atherby camp, the ones who had grown up in the clan after Mom had surrendered herself.

“The one called Pace,” Duncan clarified as he and Misty stopped by us. “That’s where she is.”

Roxa nodded. “He’s right. She was hanging around Lemuel for awhile, but then it looked like she got bored and went back into the tent. She’s come out a few times since then, mostly just grabbing food or messing with one of the other Weres. She’s back in the tent right now.”

“Hi Duncan, hey Misty.” Briefly, I introduced them to the others. “I guess you’re staying with us?”

“Yup,” the brown-haired girl with blonde strands scattered through it nodded. “We’re sort-of your bodyguards through this fight. Well, us and the big guy.” She nodded over her shoulder as the other natural Heretic I’d met that night, Enguerrand (the old, chainmail-armored Heretic who looked like he had time-traveled straight from the middle ages), approached. The teleporting Abeonas, Berlin, was with him.

“I’m  your lift,” Berlin announced as the two of them got close enough. “Soon as you’re ready, I’ll jump you right over there. Just say the word.”

Duncan added, “We’re also supposed to tell you that your father says if you get yourself hurt, he’s going to ground you for a month.”

Enguerrand, meanwhile, simply greeted us politely, giving me a slight smile before taking up a place almost directly behind me. At the moment, he was all business. And his business, apparently, was watching our backs, literally. Then… well, then we watched the field below and waited.

Mateo’s pack (aside from Roxa) and the other werewolves that they’d recruited were already making their way across the field. There were other weres from Lemuel’s gathered army meandering in and out, so it didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, behind us, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters were getting organized with their own teleporters, waiting for the moment to jump in. Everything was tense, all eyes on the camp in the distance.

“I wish I was there,” Roxa muttered beside me. She sounded surprised by her own voice, her own words. Lifting her chin, she stared down at the dots that were Mateo and the others. “… I wish I was there. Not here. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“You’d give away their cover,” Tristan reminded the girl. “Every single Were down there would see you as a Heretic. And they know there’s only one were-Heretic on their side. Pace.”

“I know,” she mumbled, arms folded. “But I don’t have to like it.” The girl rested a hand on Gidget’s head, who was busy glowering down at the figures in the distance.

It was Enguerrand who spoke up, his voice quiet, yet measured. “You are devoted to your allies, Miss Pittman. It is an admirable quality, and one that many should learn to emulate.”   

Before anyone else could respond to that, Quing spat a series of words that I didn’t know, but sounded an awful lot like curses. My head snapped that way to ask what was wrong, but then I saw it. In the field below, Mateo and his people had been surrounded by a ring of other weres. At the front of them was a figure I couldn’t make out the details of, but something told me it was…

“Lemuel,” Roxa snarled, binoculars held to her eyes. “It’s him and his pack. Mateo and the others are in trouble.” She dropped the binoculars, taking a step that way.

“Wait,” I caught her arm. “The other Alters are gonna make their move now. The plan can still–”

“Screw the plan,” the other girl snapped. “Screw everything. I’m not gonna stand here and let that psycho hurt Mateo or any of the others. I’m not gonna stand here and watch them die! Gidget!” At the sound of her name, the cyberform abruptly shape-shifted and folded in on herself, going from cougar to armored hoverboard as Roxa stepped up on her back.

My hand stayed on her arm, and I started to say something else to convince her to wait. Before I could, however, the sound of a cry from far below caught our attention.

Fighting. Mateo’s pack and the other weres were fighting. It had devolved into an all-out brawl. Exactly like it was supposed to. Not as far in as they’d planned, but still. Lemuel was there and the focus was on Mateo’s people.

As outnumbered as they were, they couldn’t last long like that, with everyone’s focus on them. Luckily, however, they didn’t need to. The moment the fight was underway, I heard calls from the Alters around us. They had already organized themselves into groups. Seeing the brawl underway, the cry went up to move in.

In groups of mostly three or four, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters vanished, only to reappear at spots on either side of the were-encampment in the desert valley below. Lemuel’s recruits barely had time to tear their attention away from the brawl at the edge of the camp to realize that they were being attacked by more Alters. In seconds, what had begun as a relatively easy curbstomp of Mateo’s people was suddenly an all-out war as dozens of beings from both sides fell in on each other.

Roxa tugged her arm away from my grip then. “I’m going to be with my pack,” she informed me. “I won’t abandon them.” As the blonde girl gave a sharp whistle, Gidget flew off the ground, diving down to join Mateo and the others.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Okay. Pace. We focus on Pace. Get the choker from her while helping everyone else, like Mateo said. Where is she?”

Quing pointed a feathered hand down into the chaotic battlefield. “There. She is… enjoying herself.” He grimaced a little before speaking again. “Tulmin, to your left. Buddy, take three steps forward, the bear behind the tent is trying to ambush our friends. Scolpa, weresnake burrowing under you, move now.”

He was acting as a sort-of overwatch, I realized. The bird-man was keeping an eye on everything that was going on, and communicating with the Wonderland Alters somehow to give them directions and advice.

Swallowing, I looked back to the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan from Crossroads. Duncan, Misty, and Enguerrand from the Atherby camp. And myself. “Right in the middle of things. Great. Okay, guys… um…” I didn’t know what to say. I froze up.

“We’re doing this,” Avalon interrupted. Her gaze was steady as her hand moved to very briefly touch mine before falling back. Straightening, she nodded toward Berlin. “Take us in.”

“I think she means,” Shiori started, “Beam us–”

And just like that, we weren’t watching the battle anymore.

We were in the middle of it.

******

I was standing a few yards away from a canvas tent, staff in one hand. To my right, there was a scream of panic, accompanied by the savage roar of a wolf and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone. The scream turned to gurgles before stopping entirely. The sound of the wolf’s victorious snarl turned to a squeal as a larger figure slammed into it hard enough to shatter half the bones in the wolf’s body.

I didn’t even know which of them was on my side. I should have, but in the heat of the moment, in the dust and furious sounds around me, my brain froze up for a second. I stood there, surrounded by blood, by violence, by death.

Ahead of me, a dark-blue, twelve-foot-tall giant with no shirt was locked in a pitched battle with a nine-foot tall werebear. Despite the height advantage, they both seemed to be equally matched, neither giving an inch. A little to the right of them, a were in full wolf-form bounded forward and started to leap, only to tumble backward with a yelp as an arrow whistled through the air and straight into the wolf’s eye. Fennicus, the centaur, galloped past while already lining up another shot with his bow that took the still tumbling wolf in the side. To the left and a hundred yards away, Seth was busy dealing with a pair of werewolves in their half-wolf forms, as well as a fully-formed jaguar. Meanwhile, there was a giant vulture swooping around above him that kept trying to dive in, only to be thwarted repeatedly by the tiny, darting figure that was Namythiet.

Hell, right nearby, I could see the natural Heretics from the Atherby camp going to work. Misty had her enormous sword, the thing that was big as she was, spinning over her head like it was made out of foam. A massive, armored werecrocodile was lunging for her, jaws snapping down. Just before it would have bitten her in half, however, she shoved that sword into its mouth, catching the descending jaws. As the crocodile made a noise of surprise, the tiny waif of a girl grinned before triggering something on the handle of her giant sword. An instant later, the croc was literally hurtled away as a deafening boom filled the air. Smoke was coming out of the end of the sword, which had opened up a bit to reveal a gun barrel equally huge. Even as the crocodile flailed its way back to the ground with a hole in its back (injured, but not dead), Misty was shouting something about loving cannons.

“Chambers!” Avalon’s shout penetrated my briefly frozen mind, and my eyes focused on her. She and the others were all standing behind me, spaced out a little bit. “Don’t tunnel vision,” the other girl snapped while pivoting, eyes scanning. “You’re not a spectator! You know better than that!”

“Got it, sorry.” Focusing, I hoisted my staff into position, ordering Jaq and Gus into position to convert the thing into its bladed-form right from the start. The others already had their weapons drawn, and had spaced themselves out enough not to get in each other’s way. Which was good, because it was at that moment that the weres surrounding us realized that they had even more company. Heretic company. And they weren’t too happy about it.

As the shout went up and around them, Avalon spoke flatly. “Clear a hole, get to Pace. That’s what matters. She doesn’t get away.”

And that was all she had time to say before the surrounding weres fell in on us.

The werelion that ran straight at me in his half-human form was clearly young. Maybe even my age. He was eager, too eager to have fought many Heretics and probably still too awed by his own power to consider that someone else might be able to match or beat it. He wore ragged jean shorts that had mostly snapped under the force and pressure of his body growing into the larger battle-form, and no shirt. His chest was crisscrossed with some kind of barbed-wire tattoo with a skull in the top center, just under his throat. In this battle-form, he was much heavier and more muscled than a normal human, with a fine down-like layer of fur over his skin, a face that looked rough and bumpy like a neanderthal, incredibly pronounced teeth, and visible claws protruding from his slightly elongated fingers. Oh, and he had a mane of hair surrounding his head. 

He lunged, one long, muscled arm lashing out to bring those nasty-looking claws swiping at me. In response, I took a quick step forward, pivoting to put my back to the lion-man while bringing my staff up vertically in my right hand. His swinging arm was caught against the staff, blocking him from cutting me. At the same time, I continued my pivot, driving the elbow of my left arm back hard into his face. With the strength of a normal seventeen-year-old girl, he would have shrugged it off. But I had the absorbed strength from Valentine, delivering a blow to his jaw that knocked the werelion stumbling back a step.

Following that up without an instant of hesitation, I continued turning until I was facing the figure, who was just then catching himself. He recovered quickly, launching himself forward once more while lashing out with a series of wild swings. But I was already set, spinning my staff up to catch the first swing from his left arm before snapping the other end up to smack his right arm out of the way, then back again for the left. One, two, three, all in the span of about a second. Before he could attack again, my staff was snapping up, spinning in my hands so that one of the flat sides of of the grapple smacked off the bottom of his chin, snapping his head back to expose his throat. An instant later, the staff continued spinning in my hands so that the other end with its attached blade sliced a hole right through his exposed jugular.

Once more, he stumbled back, grabbing for his throat with widened eyes as it spurted blood. Without waiting for him to even realize just how bad the injury was, I took two quick steps forward and leapt up, kicking out to put my foot into his shoulder. The blow knocked him backwards and down, so that he landed on his back with me standing on top of him, one foot still on his shoulder, while the other rested on his stomach. He stared up at me, gurgling for a second just before I brought the bladed-end of the staff down with a decisive slash that separated his head from his neck.

Doubling over a bit as the pleasure rushed through me, I had the sense of mind to mutter, “Did I forget to mention that Nevada added enough silver to Jaq and Gus to let them hurt a were? Oops.”

Because yeah, knowing how soon I was going to be fighting werewolves again (especially given how they’d basically named me as one of their enemies), I would’ve been an idiot not to ask Nevada to include silver in my weapon upgrades. And as for not telling anyone else about it, well, that let it be my little secret.

The others were just as busy. To my left, I caught a glimpse of the Moon twins working together against a fully-transformed werejaguar. As the supernatural wildcat leapt at them, Vanessa’s whip cracked the air directly in front of it. As it did so, a glowing red circle about the size of a manhole cover appeared. When the jaguar passed through it, the thing burst into flame. With a squeal, the transformed Alter dropped to the ground, its fur on fire as it rolled and flailed to put it out.

Yeah, at the beginning of the year, the whip that Vanessa used had just been capable of exchanging any inanimate material it struck with any other inanimate material. But apparently, I wasn’t the only one who upgraded my weapon as time went on. Now the whip could produce those ‘mines’ of different elemental effects. Not just fire, but lightning, ice, and even a poison gas.

While the burning jaguar was recovering, Tristan took aim. Bobbi-Bobbi, his cyberform snake, was in her weapon-mode. The lower half of the long mechanical serpent was wrapped around his upper body to form a sort-of protective armor, while her upper-half and head had attached itself to Tristan’s arm. It made him look like a bit like MegaMan with his armcannon. You know, if MegaMan’s armcannon looked like the head of a snake at the end.

It looked even more like the video game robot when the blast of powerful red light shot out of his cannon to collide with the fallen jaguar, knocking the thing back down long enough for Vanessa to wrap her whip around its hind legs. A hard yank pulled the figure across the ground close enough for Tristan to jump on it with his silver knife.

Shiori and Avalon were equally busy, also working together. In their case, there was a gigantic fucking wererhino galloping around them. It had shrugged off all their attempts to do damage to its heavily armored hide. Even the silver knives couldn’t actually penetrate, despite all their efforts. They could avoid his charges, but not really do any damage. And if they left him alone, sooner or later, he’d find his target.

Finally, the two of them looked at each other. There was a brief exchange of about three words between them before they nodded. Then the pair ran straight for the rhino, even as he ran at them.

Avalon’s inherited speed allowed her to run at about thirty miles per hour. She used that to her advantage, quickly moving ahead of Shiori. At the last second, she jumped, the leap carrying her up and over the thing. As she flew above it, both of hands lashed out. From her gauntlets, a pair of energy coils extended and flew down to wrap around the rhino’s horn. Avalon landed on its back while heaving on the energy coils as hard as she could.

Shiori, meanwhile, stood her ground as the wererhino ran straight for her. I wanted to cry out, but stopped myself. Distracting the girls right then would be… bad.

They were ready anyway. As Avalon yanked back on the coils that she’d wrapped around the rhino’s horn, it involuntarily opened its mouth. And as it did so, Shiori opened her own mouth. A deafening scream erupted from the girl. It was like she was speaking in literal thunder.

And that thunder was accompanied by lightning. The girl had combined the sonic scream that she had inherited from the Cù-Sith she had fought back when we were dealing with Fahsteth, with the lightning breath she had inherited from the Jekern. As a result, she could literally scream lightning with associated thunder.

The combined sonic and electrical attack tore straight into the charging rhino’s open mouth, avoiding all of its armor entirely in the process. The force of it stopped the thing in its tracks, while the lightning knocked it to the ground, twitching along with the burning smell of flesh.

Before it could recover, Avalon hopped off, spun around, and lashed out with her gauntlet. A blade of energy appeared in mid-swing, cutting through the rhino’s open mouth and up into its brain. Avalon’s pale green aura quickly rose around her.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Shiori shouted a warning, just as a second werecrocodile, different from the one that Misty had been dealing with, appeared almost out of nowhere. This one was in half-human form. He looked like a massive green-scaled figure with a long, bladed tail and an elongated mouth. Actually, he almost looked more like a half-dinosaur than a half-crocodile. He grabbed for Avalon, who managed to slip free just in time to spin around and kick out. Shiori was already there, going up on his opposite side.

Then I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of one of the pickup trucks that had been parked along the edge of the camp. It was heading out, swerving around the worst of the fighting. And behind the wheel was–

“Pace!” I blurted, raising a hand to point at the truck.

Avalon, still grappling with the half-crocodile, grimaced. “Stop her, Chambers!”

Stop her. Right. I could do that. Taking a breath, I looked at my staff, at the transformed Jaq and Gus. “All right, guys. Let’s do this.”

With that, I started to move. Cutting a diagonal path across the battlefield not toward where the truck was, but the way it was heading, I sprinted..Ten feet in, and a tiger was coming straight at me, gathering itself for a leap. At the last second, however, a sedan came flying in out of nowhere to smack into the tiger. And that was literally flying. That Duncan guy was nearby. With a flick of his hand, he sent the empty car flying up before bringing it down hard on top of the still dazed weretiger.

I kept going, truck in sight as it rounded the corner of the camp. A short burst from my staff carried me on top of the sedan that Duncan was using, and he gave it a hard shove upward, a move that, combined with another burst from my staff, carried me a good half of the distance I needed to cover.

Running, running. Others were faster than I was, but I could go all-out for hours. I sprinted across the camp, even as not just one, but two positively massive bears reared up to block my path. The things were huge, twelve feet tall if they were an inch. Even as the one on the left hauled itself up, however, something much smaller knocked it back down again. Misty came flying in out of nowhere, her tiny figure looking more like a toothpick that the bear would use. But her fist slammed into the bear’s face with enough force to knock the damn thing onto its back, even as Misty gave an excited whoop.  

The bear on the right, meanwhile, had just turned that way when someone else approached. Enguerrand. He jumped at the thing too, but rather than slamming into it, he… well, errr… slammed into it. Literally. The man disappeared. For a second I thought he’d gone through the thing. But he never came out the other side. The bear, meanwhile, staggered for a second, then pivoted and leapt onto one of the nearby barechested half-wolves.

Possessed him. Enguerrand literally possessed the bear, like a–

Truck! Focus on the truck, it was getting away. And these guys had just cleared enough of a path to catch up. Grimacing, I took off again. This time, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that truck, from getting to Pace.

Arms, claws, and tails lashed out at me, most haphazardly as I moved in and then out of their range I ducked, dove, rolled, then popped up and kept running. I hopped over a fallen tent, dropped into a slide to take myself under a swinging sword, and narrowly spun away from a burst of fire. Through it all, I kept my eyes on that truck as it hurtled its way across the desert, heading for a bumpy dirt road that would lead it out of the battlefield. And through it all, I kept charging my staff.

Time it right, had to time it just right. If I didn’t, I was gonna lose the truck entirely. Three seconds, two seconds, one second–now, now, now! Flipping my staff around and down, I pointed it at the ground before triggering a burst that sent me flying up and forward. Again, not to where the truck was, but to where it was going to be. Right at the spot where the actual road started, the road that would take the truck, with Pace inside it, away from the fight.

By the time I reached the apex of my flight, I had already converted my staff into its bow form. Flipping over in the air to point my feet up so that I could look straight down, I took aim, using the last of the staff’s kinetic charge to set a powerful energy arrow just as the truck approached. As it passed directly beneath me, I loosed the shot with a grunt.

The arrow careened down, colliding with the back of the pickup before releasing all of its charged-up kinetic force. The explosion of energy from the impact literally launched the speeding truck up and over, sending it flipping end over end a few times before it came down on its hood and roof.

Landing in a kneeling position a second later, I kept my eyes focused on the truck. There was no way that would even slow Pace down very much, let alone actually hurt her.

Sure enough, the crazy (probably possessed) werewolf-Heretic crawled out of the truck, picking herself up with a squeal that I belatedly realized was a laugh. “Whooo! That was fun! Let’s do it again, do it again, do it again!”

“Later,” another voice grunted. The door of the truck was kicked free, flying a good fifteen feet before a second figure shoved himself out and stood.

Lemuel. It was Pace and Lemuel. Both of them focused on me, almost identical smiles coming to their faces.

“Aww,” Pace announced with a giggle of joy. “Present came back! Let’s play with the present. Huh, huh, can we?”

“Oh,” Lemuel replied, the pack-leader already shifting into his much larger half-wolf form. “I think we can spare enough time to unwrap your treat.”

“Yay!” Pace bounced up and down like an excited little girl, even as she produced two silver knives, one in each hand. “How fun! And she’s all by herself too!”

There was a sudden sound in the air above me, before a figure landed at my side.

“Wanna bet?” Roxa asked Pace, even as Gidget dropped to transform into her cougar shape beside her. To me, she added, “Sorry. I… I had to help them.”

“No problem,” I replied, raising my staff. “You’re here when it counts.”

Lemuel lifted his chin then, his smile growing. “My little pup? How… glorious. This’ll be fun.”

“I’m not helpless this time, you piece of shit,” Roxa snarled at him.

Lemuel’s response was a low chuckle. “Good,” he retorted. “I prefer it when my toys have a little spirit to them. Makes it a lot more fun when they break.”

He and Pace glanced to each other for a half-second.

And with that, they lunged.

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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Suspects 24-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Fahsteth and Fossor posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Somehow, three hours had passed between the time that I’d passed out and when Roxa’s call had awakened me. That was an almost absurdly long amount of sleep for me ever since I’d gained the Amarok’s power. But after the night I’d had, apparently I’d really needed the rest.

And if the first five seconds of the new day that I’d experienced so far was any indication, it wasn’t going to be any slower or less active than the last one. But hey, at least I’d had three hours of sleep. For me, that was practically like crashing for twelve straight. I’d even slept through both the usual morning workout that I had with Avalon and the school-mandated one. Apparently Gaia had let me take a break from that after the night we’d had.

I was also on my feet before consciously realizing what I was doing. “What?” I blurted, glancing toward Avalon’s side of the room. Her bed was empty, unsurprisingly. It was Tuesday, and almost halfway through breakfast. Which meant she’d probably been up for at least an hour.

Roxa repeated, “Werewolves, we’re looking at them. And I don’t just mean ourselves. It’s Lemuel’s pack, and the other packs he’s called in for whatever meeting they’re having. They’re all over the place. It’s basically a furry convention, Flick. Only with psycho-murdering fucksticks.”

“But I–” Taking a breath, I let it out before making sure once again that my privacy-spell was up. “I thought that big meeting wasn’t supposed to happen yet. We had time, didn’t we? You knew where they were going, so you were supposed to be able to get ahead of them and set up.”

Roxa’s voice was dry. “Yeah, well, I guess their plans changed. Something about losing their Heretic tech specialist and their attempt to abduct the father of the person responsible for that going up in flames. So everything just got thrown into warp drive or something, because their whole camp is up and hopping. There’s dozens of them, Flick, and they’re already getting their marching orders. If we don’t do something about this today, we’re gonna lose them again.”

“Shit,” I muttered out loud, staring up at the ceiling of the dorm room for a second to gather my thoughts before asking, “Okay, how long do you think we have before they take off?”

“The one good thing about having so many werewolves around down there is that some of us can get close enough to overhear things without being sniffed out,” the other girl replied. “Not me, because, well, Heretic. But the others. Apparently Lemuel’s main group is heading out at ten after four, once they give everyone their big recruitment speeches and marching orders.”

“Okay, okay, that’s…” I shook my head, groaning. “It’s better than it could be. Twenty-five minutes after the last class ends. That gives us just that long to find a way to get over there.”

“You sure Headmistress Sinclaire wouldn’t just find a way to excuse you from class?” Roxa asked, a bit incredulously. “I mean, this seems like something she’d be pretty okay with.”

Sighing, I explained, “It doesn’t really matter what she’s okay with right now.” Then I went on to tell her that the real problem was that we had two representatives from the Committee sniffing around. “And I’m pretty sure they’d notice if we just up and missed a whole day of classes.”

“Well, that’s inconvenient,” Roxa muttered. “Hold on a sec.” She went off the phone for a minute, and I could make out the muffled sound of her talking to someone else before coming back on. “Okay, we’ll scout everything out and get the Wonderland people set up. If you’re not here by four oh five, we’re hitting them and making the best of it. That’s as late as we can push it.”  

Twenty minutes. That meant that, once classes ended, we had twenty minutes to get there before the fight started, one way or another, whether we were there or not. Twenty minutes to get out of class, meet up, and get off the island. Not to mention getting briefed on what was going on before the actual fight, and before Lemuel’s group took off. That was pushing it, a lot.

But we didn’t have any other choice. “We’ll be there,” I promised her. “Somehow, I’m not sure of the specifics yet. But we’ll be there. We won’t leave you guys on your own for this, Roxa.”

There was a pause from the other end for a second before the girl asked, “Your dad, he’s okay?”

I coughed at that. “Yeah, actually. He’s–” Pausing briefly, I finally shook my head absently. “Uh, it’s a long story. Trust me, I’ll tell you about it later. But he’s okay. He’s safe, for the moment.”

After promising again that we’d find a way to be there, I disconnected and sent a quick text to Asenath to make sure they’d made it to the camp okay and to let her know what was going on. Then I sent another text to Avalon, asking where she was before heading for the shower. At the very least, I could soak with the hot water a little bit and let my brain wake up before classes started (not to mention letting it work on the little problem of how to get off the island secretly).

By the time I got out of the shower, there was a response from Avalon letting me know that she was in the cafeteria with the rest of the team, including Deveron. Which made me pause, wincing a little bit. Right, they were gonna want to know what happened the night before. Which… we couldn’t exactly tell them the truth. If one of them was possessed and found out everything we’d learned from Fahsteth, it might push them to do something bad. But if we held back too much and they figured out we were lying, that might also push them over the edge.

Not to mention, we still had the cure for Tangle. Somehow, we needed to get it to her before the Seosten found out and killed her. Maybe that one would be best just to hand to Gaia, as much as I wanted to be in the room when the woman woke up. Then again, what if they had some kind of failsafe for if Gaia showed up there and looked like she might accomplish something? In that case, wouldn’t it be better to go with something more subtle? The Seosten were less likely to think that someone like me could break Tangle out of her coma than someone like Gaia.

Thinking about that, I dressed quickly and started out after paying a quick visit back to the room to grab my books and visit with Jaq and Gus in their box. I gave the two a bag of nuts and bolts for a treat, along with a broken Gameboy that Avalon had scrounged up. The little cyberform mice seemed to like putting things like that back together and making gadgets work again.

I still hadn’t thought of how we were going to get past the Committee guys to leave the island, aside from just asking Gaia if she had any ideas. And somehow, I was pretty sure that they were watching any interaction with the headmistress especially closely. It might come down to that, but I wanted to at least try to come up with another idea first. I knew there was something. A thought, half-formed, kept tickling its way at my brain, but it just wouldn’t come all the way out.

As I left the dorm building, brow furrowed thoughtfully and the books for my first few classes under one arm, a voice abruptly spoke up from nearby. “Good morning, Miss Chambers.”

It was Patrick. The dark-skinned Heretic was still wearing a stiffly-pressed suit. The only reason I knew it wasn’t the same set of clothes was the slightly different color shirt and tie. He was standing on the grass, a few yards away from the doors to the girl’s dorm. Not creepy at all.

Spinning on one heel, I blinked at the man. “Oh, uh… hey. Can I help you with something?”

His head shook faintly. “No. Just thought I’d make sure you feel up to class today. After all, you had a long night.” Lifting his chin a bit, he added, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from your dad?”

Before I could say anything to that, Professor Dare seemed to materialize behind me. “I’m sure that Miss Chambers will let us know if her father makes contact,” she informed the man before looking at me. “He does have a point though, are you sure you’re ready for class today?”

Oh, how tempting would it be to get out of classes by saying no. But I was pretty sure that if I did that, I’d have Patrick and his partner all over me for the rest of the day. If I was actually going to get out of here at all, I had to make it look like things were as normal as they could possibly be.

So, I just nodded. “I’m good, Professor Dare. My…” I swallowed then, letting my nerves show a little bit, since not being scared would’ve been a pretty big tip-off. “My dad, he’s… if they wanted him dead, whoever they are, they wouldn’t have bothered to save him from the wolves, right?”

Giving me a slight smile of encouragement, Dare nodded. “The investigators will find him, Miss Chambers, I promise you that. We just have to give them time to do their job. The Committee already dispatched a couple of hand-selected Runners to go over your house with a fine-toothed comb, just in case there’s any indication of who took him or what they want.”  

The wink that she added onto the end of that announcement was obviously meant to reassure me. I just hoped it meant that the house had already been sanitized of anything possibly incriminating that Asenath hadn’t had a chance to get rid of before they’d fled the night before.

“Thanks, Professor,” I murmured before gesturing. “I better grab some breakfast before class though. Can’t learn how to be a real monster-slaying badass on an empty stomach, you know.”

With a nod from both Dare and Patrick, I waved and started off. It took effort not to look over my shoulder as I jogged all the way to the other building, but I managed it. A few seconds later, I made my way into the cafeteria and looked around for a second. The first thing I saw was Paul Calburn and Isaac Acosta. The two members of Roxa’s former team were staring at me, neither of them doing much to hide it until I met their gazes. Then they turned away after a couple of seconds. 

That was… going to have to be dealt with sooner or later. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be an issue once we got Roxa that choker.

It wasn’t long after that before my eyes found my team. Sure enough, Sean, the twins (the ones who were part of my team), Columbus, and Deveron were all sitting around Avalon. The girl looked like she was about to stab someone with a fork.

Before I could take another step that way, my hand was abruptly closed around something. Blinking, I looked down to find myself holding a simple-looking ring. Before I could wonder too much about what it was, a familiar voice spoke in my head. Felicity, look up here for a moment.  

It was Gaia’s voice. Turning, I looked to the front of the room. Sure enough, the headmistress was up there. She gave me a slight nod before speaking in my head again. Wear the ring on your right hand. It will block most of the abilities that can be used to detect if you’re lying, and certainly any that our guests from the Committee would have. Anything you say will sound like the truth. If you wish for their abilities to be able to detect your lies for whatever reason, touch the stone on the ring for a few seconds. Until you touch it again, the ring will stop working.

Well, that was pretty helpful. Glancing down, I slipped the ring on my finger before nodding to the headmistress. She gave me a brief smile before turning her attention back to Professor Carfried and one of the third year teachers, who were both talking animatedly about something.

Then I noticed Koren. The brunette was sitting with her team, but her attention was on me. Noticing me looking, she mouthed, ‘Okay?’ Her expression was concerned. Obviously, she’d heard at least some of what happened. I gave her a nod and gestured to try and indicate that I’d talk to her later while adjusting the ring’s placement.

Just then, Sands caught sight of me. “Flick!” she called over the noise of the other students, waving me over. “Come on, you’re gonna miss breakfast.”

Smirking just a little, I stepped over that way and slid into a seat before replying easily, “And miss telling you guys about our zombie adventure, I assume?” The words almost caught in my throat. The last thing I wanted to do was lie to these guys. I wanted to tell them the truth about what had happened. But any of them, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Deveron, or Sean could be the one who was possessed by Charmiene. Any of them could be an unwitting spy for the Seosten.

So, I carried on the charade, gesturing at Avalon. “Hasn’t Valley told you everything interesting?”

“No!” Poor Sands sounded like she was about a hot second away from exploding. “She hasn’t told us anything! She just said, ‘We fought zombies. We won. We didn’t die.’ That’s it!”

Snickering despite myself, I shrugged. “Well, she’s not wrong. We fought zombies, we won, we didn’t die. Oh, and neither did Professor Dare.” Picking up the menu page then, I perused it briefly before selecting what I wanted and setting it back down. It disappeared, and a moment later, the tray appeared with my food on it. Which, for the record, was still pretty damn amazing.

Somehow, Sands didn’t seem as impressed. Giving me a dirty look, the girl cajoled, “Oh come on, why’d Dare take you guys and nobody else for a zombie run. Is that really all it was?”

The worst part of this whole situation was that I couldn’t tell if Sands was just being her usual enthusiastic self as far as the whole hunting monsters thing went, or if it was a Seosten inside her fishing for extra details. Looking at her now, there was absolutely no way to tell. I felt like I should be able to notice the difference, but there was just… I couldn’t. I couldn’t take the risk. And that was killing me, because not trusting most of the people on my team in a situation like this was pretty much one of the worst feelings in the world. We needed to sort this out and identify the Seosten, and quick. Which was why we had to get that choker away from Pace.  

“Well,” I shrugged a little bit even as my stomach turned over. “We were kind of… out anyway.” I coughed, making myself blush a little bit until Sands got what I was implying. As her face registered her realization, I nodded. “Yeah. So Professor Dare was talking to us when she got the call from her friend and… well, I guess she thought it’d be a good learning experience.”

Before I could say anything else about the fake zombie fight, Deveron spoke up while laying one of the privacy coins in the middle of the table. “Your dad,” he started, eyes on me. “Is he okay?”

“Wait,  what?” Sands blinked back and forth, clearly confused. “What happened to Flick’s dad?”

This, at least, I could tell the truth about. The Seosten knowing that Dad was with Gabriel wouldn’t reveal where they were exactly. And we already knew that none of the people in Gabriel’s camp were possessed, because they used that expulsion spell that he had taught us just to make sure. Which meant that they, at least, were off the list of potential suspects. And I couldn’t start holding every bit of sensitive information back. Whoever was possessed was bound to figure it out before long if I tried that, and then they’d know that I knew more than I should. Right now, the best advantage we had was that Charmiene didn’t know that I knew she was possessing one of my friends. And I couldn’t wait to rub that particular mistake in her face.

So, for the moment, I quietly explained what happened. Though I left out the bit about the Committee member stepping in. That I wanted to keep to myself. I just said that they were rescued by ‘some Heretic’ before going on to talk about Gabriel showing up to take them in.

By the end, they were all staring at me. Sean’s mouth was hanging open, his hand resting on Vulcan’s head, whose mouth was also open, like his partner’s. It looked kind of funny, actually. “Dude,” he announced quietly, almost reverently. “Your dad is staying with Gabriel Prosser?”

“I hope you realize,” Sands cut in with a slight hiss, “how much effort it’s taking not to squeal and jump up and down with you right now. I can’t believe your dad’s living with–wait what about the Bystander Effect? Did you ever find out how he got around that? Did it have something to do with that Heretic that showed up? Wait, who was the Heretic that saved them? I thought it was gonna be one of Prosser’s people, or even Prosser himself, but you never explained that part.”

Ignoring the pang in my stomach while inwardly telling myself that as soon as we identified the stupid spy, I was gonna tell the rest of the team everything. For now, I made myself shrug. “Gabriel said it wasn’t one of his people. Other than that, we’re not sure. I mean, really grateful, but still… I dunno.” Slowly shaking my head, I added, “Asenath didn’t recognize her either, so who knows.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t your mom?” Columbus spoke up then, head tilted a little curiously. “What if–I dunno, she convinced Fossor to let her save him in exchange for something. Or maybe he just didn’t want the Seosten getting hold of that kind of leverage over you. But–” Belatedly, he shook his head. “I guess Asenath would probably recognize her. Unless… she disguised herself?” His eyes widened then. “Hey, yeah. What if she disguised herself? I mean, that would make sense, wouldn’t it? She wouldn’t want your dad to recognize her, or any of the people that might’ve shown up. It’s gotta be your mom, right?”

If I hadn’t already known who the woman was, that might’ve convinced me. Slowly, I nodded. “Maybe, I–I don’t know. I’m not sure she could convince Fossor to let her, but… I…” Sighing, I rolled my eyes. “We’ve got too many mysteries going on.”

Taking another bite of food, I waited a moment before adding in a low voice, “Besides, if the guys the Committee sent to sniff around are right, Mom might’ve been busy killing a bunch of other Heretics last night.”

Everyone choked on their own food, blurting muffled questions at me until I explained what had happened. Which… didn’t really help. They had a lot more questions after that, most of which I couldn’t answer.

Before long, however, it was time to head for class. Which I did, even though most of my attention was devoted toward trying to work out the bigger problem of how I was supposed to get myself and the people I could trust off the island to help the others with Lemuel’s pack.

It wasn’t until midway through lunch, while telling Koren as much as I could about what had happened, that I figured it out.

******

“Flick?” Shiori asked while stepping into one of the empty classrooms at the end of the day, a minute after classes had ended. “Is everyone else –oh.” She blinked at the sight of the people with me. Specifically, Avalon, Tristan, and Vanessa. “Heya.”

“Thanks for coming, guys,” I started quickly. “We don’t have much time. But hey, at least Prosser’s spell did most of the explaining?”

Once I’d figured out what I was going to have to do, the next step had been making sure that everyone who could help was in on it. Since the only other students I knew for a fact weren’t possessed besides myself were Shiori, Avalon, and the Moon twins (for virtue of being hybrids and therefore immune to possession), they were who I had. To that end, I had used the spell that Prosser taught me, the one about writing information on a piece of paper and then sending it straight into the mind of the person who touched it, to let the four of them know as much as possible. I’d told them that Roxa’s pack had found Lemuel’s, that they were going to disappear if we didn’t get there as soon as possible, and in the twins’ case, that they were the only ones we knew for a fact weren’t possessed.

Vanessa and Tristan had had a lot more questions, and I’d been trying to answer them in the minute that we’d had before Shiori made it. But now, we had to move on.

“Listen,” I started. “None of you guys have to come with. Especially you two,” I added the last bit with a nod toward Tristan and Vanessa. “This isn’t about y–”

“Yes it is,” the boy interrupted. “Roxa wouldn’t even be a werewolf right now if it wasn’t for me. I’m gonna help.”

“And I’m not letting Tristan go without me,” Vanessa put in.

“Right.” Breathing out, I looked to Avalon. “Did you get the stuff from Gaia?”

She nodded once, pulling a bag from behind her back, which she opened before passing several silver knives to everyone. “If they get knocked out of your hand,” she instructed, “say ‘Retrieve’, and they’ll pop back to you. It’s the best thing to put the weres down for good.”

“And these,” Vanessa piped up. From her own bag, she produced a handful of small metal cylinders, about the size and shape of–

“Grenades?” Tristan blinked. “Nessa, when were you messing with explosives?”

“They’re not that kind of grenade,” the blonde informed her brother with a sniff. “You hit the button there and throw them, and they spray a chemical all over the place. These ones have aconite-laced oil in them.”

“Aconite,” I echoed. “That’s… wolfsbane?”

She nodded quickly. “The books said that it slows their regeneration, and irritates them. They’re allergic. It dulls their senses, makes them feel sick.”

“Right, let’s try to keep the stuff away from our wolves,” I pointed out before smiling. “Still, nice job pulling those together. I thought you weren’t in the Development track.”

She shrugged, nodding to the red trim in her uniform for the Explorers. “I’m not,” the girl replied. “But I like to learn things, and they won’t let me any deeper into the library yet, so…”

“So she’s been looking into other tracks,” Tristan finished for her, his voice clearly as proud as it was teasing. “Because God forbid she get a normal, non-school-related hobby.”

“We’re wasting time,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “You said we had to get there… now, pretty much.”

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “But how are we supposed to get off the island without those guys stopping us or following? They’re definitely watching everything Gaia or any of her people does, and there’s no way we can get anywhere near the Pathmaker without–”

“We’re not using the Pathmaker, or Gaia,” I interrupted. “We already have a way off the island, a way that’s completely undetectable. In fact, it’s so undetectable that they spent most of the twentieth century trying to figure out how it was done.”

“Wait.” Avalon’s voice was flat, as she and Shiori’s eyes both widened. “You mean–”

“Yeah,” I replied while moving to the nearby window. It had come to me while I was talking to Koren earlier, when I remembered what had happened the night that Ammon had shown up. “You wanna know how we’re gonna get off this island without the Committee lapdogs knowing about it?”

Opening the window, I pointed to the lighthouse in the distance and to the imprisoned Hangman’s skull inside.

“We’re gonna ask one of my mom’s friend’s to give us a lift.”

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Mini-Interlude 34 – Fahsteth and Fossor

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The metal cup, stained from decades-worth of liquid sloshing down its sides, came down on the the wooden bar with enough force to have added more of those stains if it hadn’t, only a second earlier, been emptied into the mouth of the man holding it.

“I liked that bartender, graverobber,” the creature who had been known for so many centuries as Fahsteth spoke flatly, without looking over his shoulder or looking up. His gaze remained centered almost mournfully on his metal cup. “He really knew how to mix a good Pasca. You know how hard that is to find?”

The being in question, a gray-skinned humanoid with squid-like tentacles at his mouth and three eyes, had been standing ramrod straight for the past few minutes. At those words, he collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut, hitting the floor like so much (literally) dead weight.

“How did you notice?” the man standing behind Fahsteth asked while crossing the room of this alien bar on a world far from Earth. Rather than walking directly to where the mercenary sat, however, he crossed behind the bar and bent slightly to take out a bottle of dark green liquid.

Fahsteth regarded the necromancer briefly. If he squinted a little bit, he could almost see the skinny, terrified little kid that he’d known back in the prison they had shared for so long. Himself assigned the number of Fah-Steth, or thirty-seven, while the boy then known as Merakeul had been Fah-Seur, or thirty-four. Fah-Seur, a title that he had eventually taken as his new name. Thirty-Four, Fah-Seur. That had later been misheard by the ancient humans as Fossor, which had literally become their word for a gravedigger as the ghost-wrangler made a name for himself on their world.

Honestly, he couldn’t understand the necromancer’s obsession with the humans. The Seosten, sure. He could understand why they stuck around for so long. They wanted to keep molding the weapons that they had essentially stolen from Fomorians who had created them. But Fossor’s insistence on spending so much time on Earth was just… strange. There was an entire galaxy out there, but he remained focused primarily on that one world seemingly simply because the humans had tried so hard to kick him off of it.

He was dangerous, to be sure. But Fossor had too much of a one-track mind sometimes, for someone as old as he was. The humans and the Seosten had tried to kick him off of Earth, and he still hadn’t moved on even hundreds of years later. He could’ve conquered several other planets in that time, brought entire species to heel the way he had the Meregan and his own race. Yet he chose to focus his attention almost exclusively on Earth.

At the heart of it all, the necromancer was still that little kid that had been thrown into one of the worst prisons in the galaxy. In some ways, despite all his power and strength, he was still that boy who had vowed that no one would ever stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.

“How’d I know he was dead?” the shark-man eventually answered his uninvited guest’s question. “I told you, he made the best Pasca in this part of the galaxy. You’re a good necromancer, but you can’t mix Pasca for shit. Not even while you’re puppeting someone that can.”

Pausing then, he glanced over his shoulder, taking in the sight of the rest of the bar, where bodies lay slumped over their tables or collapsed in the middle of the floor. “And did you really have to kill everyone in here?” he complained. “I actually liked some of those guys.”

“Come now, Steth,” Fossor replied while carefully pouring himself a glass of the green liquid. “I asked them a simple question earlier: whether you had been here lately. They lied. I can’t have people out there thinking that it’s okay to lie to me. What kind of example would that set?”

Fahsteth grunted. So he’d been right. Fossor had killed everyone in the bar and then puppeted them for the past few minutes while he had come in and ordered his drink. “I didn’t touch your precious Heretic-kid, even when she really had it coming, so what’re you bothering me for?”

Taking a long pull from his glass, Fossor set it down before answering. “Call it curiosity. You’ve come face-to-face with my next project, and I want to know what you think of her. I can’t exactly speak to our angel-friends about the subject, after all.”

Snorting, Fahsteth shook his head. “Pah. Angels. Seosten. Between them and the Fomorians, the whole universe is one big fucking toilet, just waiting for someone to flush it and start over.”

“They are an annoying obstacle at best, yes,” Fossor confirmed. “And yet, you were working for them.”

“Nothing wrong with their money,” the shark-man retorted. “At least there wasn’t while they were still handing it out. Second I’m a little inconvenient, do they pay me off and ship me off world like any decent employer? Nope, straight to cutting me out, literally.”

“You never should’ve trusted them,” Fossor informed him while pouring another glass. He slid it across the bar toward Fahsteth, and then poured one for himself. Together, they downed the contents.

For a moment, it was like the two of them were back at that prison once more. Not quite allies or friends, but neighbors through happenstance. Interacting amicably solely because there was little else to do, and with a shared adversary. Then, it was the guards who held them prisoner. Now, it was the Seosten who had so effectively manipulated one of the galaxy’s most adaptable and potentially powerful species into becoming their lapdogs.

“Can’t really argue with you there,” he admitted in a slight grunt. “Can’t see you being all that torn up about that little falling-out, though. After all, it means they don’t have me to ask about my old prison-mate once you make your play to go from nuisance to threat.”

Fossor gave a small, humorless smile at that. “My friend,” he replied simply, “If you were still working with them when the time came for me to take the next step, the angels wouldn’t have a chance to ask you anything before you were dead.” He ran a finger along the rim of the glass absently while adding, “Just business, I’m sure you understand.”

Fahsteth shrugged then. “What’s a little threatened-murder between old prison-mates?”

Rather than respond to that directly, Fossor simply gestured toward the bar that separated them. “Your encounter with my next project didn’t go so well for you, I hear.”

Ah, he wasn’t pointing at the bar. He was gesturing through it and toward the stool that Fahsteth sat on. Or rather, that his mechanical lower-half was seated on. His replacement parts had fashioned themselves into fairly rudimentary hips and legs by that point, since it would take awhile for even his regeneration to repair the damage biologically.

“Your sources are pretty quick,” he replied in an even tone. “That just happened yesterday.”

Smiling faintly, the necromancer lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “What can I say? Angels or humans, they still haven’t figured out how to tell when one of their own people is already dead.”

The words made Fahsteth snort. “You’ve got a dead meatpuppet walking around that island of theirs and they don’t even know it? How’d you pull that off?”

“Uh uh.” Fossor wagged a finger. “My secrets. Let’s just say that magic can accomplish many things. The Seosten have their spies and I have mine. It just so happens that mine happen to die before they become useful. And don’t change the subject. What do you think of my girl?”

“She has shit taste in girlfriends,” Fahsteth replied shortly. “At least as far as life-expectancy goes.” He gave the necromancer a long look. “Unless you think you’re gonna stake a claim on that one too.”

Fossor gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I don’t care what happens to the Bosch heir. As long as my girl stays out of the crosshairs. And, well, I would suggest that you ensure that your revenge keeps the Merlin Key out of danger too. Let sleeping dragons lie and all that. But that’s just a little friendly advice.”

“No one’s stupid enough to touch the Key of Merlin,” the shark-man retorted. “Even the Seosten aren’t gonna hurt that kid. Too much chance of… well, you know.”

The two of them nodded slightly. No need to say it out loud. They were both well-aware of what could happen if the one they called the Merlin Key was put in enough danger.

After another moment of that, Fahsteth pushed himself up. His metal legs found the floor. “Anyway, nothing for me here, since you had to go and kill my bartender.”

“My girl,” Fossor insisted, his eyes shining with what looked like a strange, demented pride. “She’s something, isn’t she?”

Staring at the man for a moment, Fahsteth finally gave a grunt of acknowledgment. “She’s only been there a few months, hasn’t she? Normal human before that?” When the necromancer nodded, he coughed. “The Seosten already noticed her. She’s progressing faster than they thought. And they can’t figure out why they can’t possess her.”

Fossor raised an eyebrow at that. “They can’t, hmm? I suppose that means they tried.”

“More than once,” Fahsteth confirmed. “Figured you had something to do with blocking them.”

The man chuckled at that, head shaking. “I confess, I’m as baffled by that revelation as they must have been. Pity, I was almost looking forward to ripping out any of them that tried to claim my prize.”

“Yeah,” Fahsteth shrugged before starting to walk out. “Well, it’s got nothing to do with me. As long as you don’t mind me teaching the bitch that did this a lesson.” He gestured toward his lower half as he walked.

Behind him, Fossor reply reached the shark-man just as he stepped out of the bar. “No problems here, old friend.

“In fact, I look forward to comforting my girl and offering my condolences for her loss.”

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Suspects 24-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to click the Previous Chapter button above. 

One thing that I obviously had to ask before we went anywhere else with this particular conversation was a simple, “How? How’d you guys get out of the house? How did you get away from the werewolves? They said–they said it looked like the wolves were killed by a bunch of Heretics, but I know it wasn’t–I mean, if it was some of Gabriel’s people, he would’ve said so.”

“Not a bunch of Heretics,” Dad corrected. “Just one, actually. A powerful one, I think. Not that I have a lot to compare it to, but from what I saw, she’s pretty damn powerful. Scary powerful. She’s the one who weakened that memory suppression thing so I’d have a chance to break through it. Pretty sure if it wasn’t for her, I’d still be clueless. Not to mention dead right now.”

“One Heretic?” My eyes widened as I echoed those words. “You mean a Heretic broke the Bystander Effect for you? Or helped you break it. But who–what–how? What do you-”

“She was part of the Committee,” my father interrupted with a statement that made me give a choked gasp. “The uh, Crossroads Committee? That’s the group that–the leaders, right?”

“Th-the Committee?” I managed through a strangled voice. “The Committee as in that Committee? But–but who–what? You said she. As in a woman. Who was–I mean which one-”

“She said her name was Calafia,” he answered quietly. “Does that… mean anything to you?”

Calafia. Wait. Calafia? As in the dark-skinned woman who had never really said that much? I tried to think back to the single interaction I’d had with the woman while meeting the Committee.

She hadn’t said that much, I remembered. She’d spoken up to say that Litonya hadn’t been accusing me of anything, and to tell me that anytime I needed to take a break, I could. Other than that I couldn’t really remember anything she’d done. Mostly, she stayed in the background.

“She said that she owed your mother,” Dad interrupted my tornado of rebounding thoughts and confusion. “She said she owed Joselyn more than she could ever repay, but that one thing she could do was make sure her husband learned the truth. I don’t know what that meant.”

It made sense. Gabriel had said that the person who helped break the Bystander Effect for my dad had wanted to help, and that they did so because they owed my mother. And if anyone was going to be powerful enough to make it so that a normal human could break through the Bystander Effect, it would be someone who was part of the Committee. Still, I was stunned.

I was going to have to talk to her. Somehow, someway, I had to find out more about Calafia and what she owed my mother. I had to talk to her about my mother, about everything. If she could help… I shook that off, along with all the accompanying paranoia. Or tried to, at the very least.

Finally, I took a breath. “I guess you kinda want to know how my year’s been going so far, huh?”

“That’d be nice,” Dad replied dryly. “Why don’t you start from the beginning and we’ll go from there?”

“From the beginning?” I echoed before nodding. “Alright, here goes…” So I started to tell him what had happened, from the beginning. Starting with right after I left our house that first day.

“So let me get this straight,” my father asked in a tone that betrayed some combination of curiosity and indignance. “You just woke up on that bus, alone and in the middle of nowhere?”

Coughing, I nodded to myself. It felt like so long ago. It had only been a few months, but somehow, it seemed like that had happened at least a couple years back. “Yeah, I guess they still hadn’t quite decided what to do with me right up until the very last second. The Committee ended up with an unbreakable tie, so they had to have Gaia–Headmistress Sinclaire come in and break it. That’s why I didn’t get the normal orientation that all the other Bystander-kin got.”  

Pausing briefly, Dad started slowly. “Bystander–oh, that’s what they call… what, like Mug–”

“Ordinary humans, yeah,” I interrupted while shaking my head. “Bystanders. People like me, the ones that were raised in ordinary families are called Bystander-kin. Or Silverstones. As in–”

“Alicia, Clueless,” Dad cut in before grunting. “Not exactly a ringing endorsement or praise.”

“You got that faster than I did,” I muttered before taking a breath. “But yeah, that’s the term they use. And you should see the school here, Dad. It’s on this tropical island, with this ocean and a jungle everywhere. A real jungle, with all these wild animals and everything. It’s really pretty, gorgeous I mean, which is totally purposeful  and–and you’ve gotta meet my sharks, and–”

“I’m sorry, what?” Dad interrupted while sounding completely incredulous. “Did you just say I have to meet your sharks? Wait a second, kid. I know I’ve been pretty cool about this whole secret society of monster hunters thing, but did you go and join a finger-snapping gang that spontaneously breaks out into song too? Because I honestly don’t know if I could handle that.”

Covering my mouth with one hand to hide the snicker, I took a moment before replying as flatly as I could, “You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are, you know. No, they’re real sharks. They’re like, umm, my friends. It’s sort of a um, a power that I inherited, taming these sharks.”

“A power you inherited by…” Dad started before trailing off. His voice was quieter. “By killing.”

Flinching a little bit, I sat up in bed to put my back against the headboard. “Would it help if I said the shark guy was attacking at the time, and that it was self-defense? And defense of others.”

“Kid,” Dad replied low, his voice quiet, yet firm. “I know you. You may have all this training, may have fought monsters and seen more crazy shit in a few months than I’ve seen in my entire life. But l know you. Of course it was self-defense. I’d never question that. You’ve done what you had to do. I’m not gonna run in and try to take over, try to pretend that I know better than you. Yeah, I’m your dad. But right now I feel about as clueless as…” He sighed, voice going a bit darker. “I’m your dad, I’m supposed to protect you from this stuff. But I’m not gonna pretend I can now. I’m not gonna act like a stubborn ass and start screwing everything up. So just… tell me what happened, all right? Tell me all of it, because if I’m gonna help at all, I need to know.”

Biting my lip, I backed up a bit. I told my father about seeing the light from the Heretical Edge. I told him about my vision, about recognizing Gaia. I told him about meeting my team, playing with Herbie, how much of an ass Deveron acted like at first, and more. I told him about how the food was delivered, how the room keys automatically unlocked our rooms when we got close to them, about choosing my weapon, my first classes, everything I could think of that had been my initial impression of the school over that first day or two. I told him all of it, trying to set the stage.

Then I told him about Professor Pericles. I told him about the man’s death, about how he had been murdered. And I told him about the Peridles attacking Avalon and me in the locked room.

“Wait, wait,” Dad interrupted. “How do you spell that name? The Peridles.” After I told him, he asked how to spell Pericles, then coughed. “Isn’t that weird? They’re only off by one letter. Pericles and Peridles. It might sound different, but spelling-wise, it’s just one letter.”

He was right. There was a difference in sound, with Pericles sounding like ‘Pair-Uh-Klees’ while Peridles was ‘Pair-uh-dulls’. But the spelling was almost identical. “Uhh, yeah.” I blinked a couple times. “I dunno if that means anything or is just a coincidence, but… yeah, they are.”

I continued from there, telling my dad everything I could remember. Or at least summarizing it. Over the next hour, I kept talking until my throat felt hoarse. Through it all, my father interjected a few times, making his own observations and questioning where he needed to for clarification. But mostly, he listened. And there was a lot of listening to do. Hell, up until I’d actually had to explain as much of it as possible, I hadn’t really comprehended just how much was going on.

“Damn, kid,” Dad finally muttered by the end. “When do you ever eat and sleep? Let alone study. Wait, you do have normal classes up there, right? Not just the monster hunting ones.”

Yup, still my dad. Chuckling despite myself, I replied, “Yes, Dad. All sorts of normal classes. Geography, Trig, Chemistry, the lot. I promise, I’m still getting all that stuff. Maybe a little slower than I would’ve because, let’s face it, there’s only so many hours in the day. But I’m getting it.”

“Good, good. I…” Trailing off, Dad took a moment to search for what to say next, grasping for the right words. “You know, I just… I just want to tell you… I want to tell you to stop all this, Flick. I want to tell you to stop all of it and just come here, to run away from it and hide. I want to tell you to leave it alone. But I get the feeling that,” he swallowed audibly, “that wouldn’t work.”

Swallowing hard, I bit my lip before answering. “No, Dad. It wouldn’t. Fossor, he’s gonna come for me regardless, as soon as I’m eighteen. At least here I can get training. And I have friends, friends that I can’t just abandon. Not with everything that’s going on. I need them, and they need me. It’s scary, yeah. But it’s really important too. It’s important and I can’t just walk away from it.”  

“I know, kid.” Dad’s voice was soft and quiet, and I could almost feel his frustration and helplessness. “I know you can’t. And–and I wouldn’t want you to. Not really. You’re just–you’re my girl. You’re my kid, kid. The more I hear about all this stuff, all these people, the power they’ve got, I just… I can’t do anything about it. I can’t fucking do anything to help you, not now.”

“You’re wrong, Dad,” I objected. “Just talking to you about this stuff, it helps. I can… I can think about it a lot more clearly. It’s less… jumbled in my head just from talking about it. That helps.”

There was a brief pause then before he started slowly, “Your mom, when you… when she talked to you through the… the monkey-thing, are you sure she–I mean are you positive it was–”

“It was her,” I promised him. “It was Mom, I swear. She’s… she’s with that fucking psychopath, that piece of shit. But it was her. She was Mom. Dad, she.. She didn’t–I mean it wasn’t her…” My eyes were filling up despite myself, despite the fact that I’d thought I’d already cried myself out earlier while explaining all of this the first time. “She didn’t abandon us, Daddy.” My voice was weak, even to my own ears. It sounded cracked and frail. “She didn’t really abandon us.”

The emotion in Dad’s voice matched what I felt. I could hear the cracks in it, could practically feel his desire to grab onto me. “I know, kid. She didn’t. She was saving you. She–” There was a brief pause as he fought to get himself under control, at least enough to speak. “She did everything for you. She never stopped being her. She didn’t…” He paused again, and I could almost hear his shudder before he continued quietly, yet firmly. “She never stopped loving you.”

“And she didn’t stop loving you either, Dad,” I added, just as firmly. “She’s Mom. She’s… she’s amazing. She always was. Even when they tried to take that away. She became a sheriff, Dad. She never, never stopped trying to help people. And now she’s–that fucking son of a bitch. That–” I stopped talking, my eyes squeezed as tightly shut as I could manage. Yet even that wasn’t tight enough to stop the few tears from leaking out, sliding down my face. “That monster.”

There was a little more then between the two of us, not all of it very coherent. We talked both to and at each other. Some of what we said was just… noise, emotional noise that was somewhat comforting. A lot would’ve meant very little to any outside audience. We were telling stories about Mom, about what we remembered. Only they weren’t the entire story. They didn’t need to be. One of us would start to say a couple words, and the other would know what we meant. Three words of an entire story, and none of the rest needed to actually be said. And this time, for once in the past decade, the stories weren’t tainted by the idea that she had abandoned us.

From there, I shifted back into talking more about the school. Dad asked questions, some of which I’d already thought of and some I hadn’t. His questions even helped lead me to my own.

It was just like when things were still more normal, when life wasn’t so crazy and he’d help me talk through some story I was writing for the school paper. It helped clear my head, helped me notice little things that I hadn’t before. Maybe none of it would actually pay off, but it still helped.

Mostly I just… enjoyed talking to my dad. Clearing things up, telling stories about my friends, my teammates, about everything that had happened, both the funny things and the scary ones. Bringing up to date on everything would take awhile, longer than this phone call. But I made the very best attempt that I could. We kept switching between my stories and Dad’s reactions, his thoughts, his jokes, his… everything. He had his opinions, his ideas, his thoughts to share.

He also wanted to punch Ruthers in the face. Actually, Dad went on at length about just how much he wanted to knock the guy’s teeth out. In detail and with vivid descriptions. It was nice to listen to, even if it was pretty much a pipe dream. Still, the thought of my dad laying Ruthers out on his ass was a really nice one. I had to smile while holding that special image in my head.

And he asked about Deveron. Not only him, but also Abigail, Wyatt, and Koren. He wanted to know all about Mom’s family. He wanted to meet them. I could hear the slight hesitance in his voice about meeting Deveron. Honestly, I would’ve been hesitant too, in his situation. The thought of meeting his wife’s first husband, the man he had never known about, had to be intimidating. But he still wanted to. He wanted to talk to them, all of them. He wanted to be a part of things. And now that he could remember what was going on, now that the Bystander Effect no longer worked on him, I wanted that too. But it was going to wait. For a few days at least, those reps from the Committee were going to pay entirely too much attention for me to take off. They’d be watching for me to try to disappear, probably thinking I’d sneak off to meet Mom.

“But Dad,” I eventually put in, “you guys can’t just stay wherever you are. The Heretics are gonna be looking for you. The Heretics, the Seosten, the werewolves, they’ll all be looking for you. I mean, Twister and Asenath are good, but you guys need help. You need…” I paused, lifting my chin thoughtfully. “You need to go to the lake, the place where Gabriel’s camp is. The Atherby camp. They’ll take you in, I know they will. There’s no way anyone’ll find you there.”

“You think they’ll go for that?” Dad asked slowly. “I mean, I’d like to meet them, your mom’s… people, I guess. That… Gabriel guy, he’s really the same guy from the history books?”

I laughed a little. “Yeah, and like I said, Professor Virginia Dare really is that Virginia Dare.”

“And I met her.” Dad’s voice trailed off, the awe apparent before he shook it off. “I’ve got so many questions the next time she shows up. The–the colony, do you know what happened to-”  

Snickering despite myself, I nodded. “Yup. But I’ll let her tell you about it. I think she liked meeting you too, Dad. And she’ll like it more now that you know what’s really going on. Soon, the next time you meet. But right now, speaking of that other historical figure, yeah, I know Gabriel’ll take you guys in. The Atherby clan’ll love having you, Dad. Just give me a sec. I’ll call him up and make plans for it. Wait, where are you guys? I mean, where can you get to easily?”

He told me where they were, just a little bit outside of the absurdly small town of Dixon, Wyoming. But it didn’t matter how big the town was. Gabriel would be able to find them there.

Telling my dad I’d call him back in just a minute, I disconnected before quickly dialing one of the numbers that had been magically sealed into my memory with that spell. It rang three times before being picked up.

“Felicity,” Gabriel’s voice wasn’t at all surprised by my call, even this late. “I take it you’ve had a chance to speak with your father.”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, nodding quickly. “And I was wondering if you’d… um, pick them up? They’ve got a lot of people after them right now. I trust Senny, but…”

“But there’s no need to push things,” he confirmed. “Of course. The rest of the clan has been asking why we haven’t gone after them already. But we… it was better to wait for the invitation.”

Quickly, I told him where they were, and he promised to go collect them before anyone else caught up. Then he assured me that Dad and the others would be safe at the lake, and that I could come see them as soon as I could get away

“Um, one more question,” I put in then. “Did you–I mean…” Biting my lip, I explained about what had happened to those other Heretics, about the woman with the golden aura that killed them to save the Alters.

“I didn’t hear about that,” he murmured softly. “Do you think it was–”

“I don’t know, but they think so.” I sighed. “So I can’t get away, not as long as those guys are paying so much attention. Just… take care of my dad, please.”

“You have my word,” Gabriel assured me. “I’ll go and bring them in right now. Tell your father to meet at the post office in town.”

I confirmed that before hanging up, then dialed my father back. Telling him where to go and what to look for, I promised him that we’d talk again soon. He made me swear that the second I could get away from the island, I’d come talk to him in person. Actually, he made me swear it three different times. So I did. And I made him promise to be careful and to stay at the camp.

Finally finished, at least for the moment, I disconnected the phone and set it beside me on the bed.

I meant to run through things in my head some more. I meant to write in my notebook, think everything through again, maybe even get a little studying in. I meant to do all of that. But in the end, after everything that I’d been through that day, after everything that had happened, my brain was just on its last legs.

I blinked, and the next thing I knew, it was morning, and the phone was ringing next to my head. Groggily, I fumbled for it, blinking a few times before managing to hit the button. “Yeah?”

“Hey, Chambers, you busy?” Roxa’s voice spoke.

“Because you’ve got that big stick, and we’re looking at a whole lotta werewolves that probably wanna do worse than play fetch right now.”

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Mini-Interlude 33 – Columbus

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Columbus. It takes place a few nights before the current situation. 

Completely alone, yet without any privacy. Helplessly trapped, as he stood in the open sunlight, surrounded by friends and family. Cut off, broken and caged… while casually chatting with some of the people who meant the most in the world to him. Columbus Porter’s body held no visible chains or locks. Yet he was as much of prisoner now as any person in history had ever been.

Standing in the hallway just outside his own room in the middle of the night, Columbus’s eyes looked first one way, then the other down the corridor. As he took in the sight of the dark, empty hall, the boy strained to shout, tried to say something, anything. Making a noise, twitching a finger, blinking just once by his own volition. Just blink, that was it. That would convince him that there was at least the slightest chance, if he worked hard enough, that he could eventually communicate. Just blink. One single, solitary blink. Do it. Blink. Blink. Blink, damn it!

I’m getting the distinct impression that you don’t like me very much, boy.

The voice in his head was distinctly amused, before his eye blinked once, twice, three times. Yet Columbus wasn’t naive enough to think that he had finally succeeded. No, this was his jailer, the creature who had taken over his body, taunting him by showing how much she could make him blink, how much she could make him do anything she wanted. She was making a point, again.

You’re supposed to be an angel, right? He thought the words at her, at that inescapable presence in his mind that sorted through his every thought, his every memory and impulse. So why don’t you do me a favor and go to hell?

Another slight chuckle from his jailer, the one called Charmeine. You already know the ones that you call demons, boy. And this hell you speak of is their world, their home, their space.

Fomorians. The word came from Columbus without prompting. He knew. They’d had the conversation before. At least as much as the Seosten woman bothered having conversations with him. He had the distinct impression that she saw him more as a horse than a person. Except even that wasn’t right, because most people cared what happened to their horses.

Aww, don’t be like that. I care about what happens to you. The tone didn’t inspire confidence in that claim. It was too… dark, too amused by his feelings. After all, if you die, I have to find a new body. Maybe your roommate would work. Or… hmm, there’s always that team mentor. What do you think, roommate or mentor? Little Felicity’s step-daddy’s not immune to possession.

You know, Columbus thought, unable to help himself, if you put half as much effort into trying to figure out why Flick’s immune to you as you put into making snide remarks, you might’ve gotten somewhere by now.

Because it wasn’t just the Seosten possession that Flick had somehow been made immune to. Several attempts at using Seosten magic to influence or change her had failed as well. Charmeine had secretly entered the girls’ room and put some kind of spell on her pillow to put her into a coma in order to get her out of the way. Yet, somehow, it hadn’t worked. That, along with a couple other failed attempts to place an enchantment of some kind on the blonde girl had convinced Charmeine’s superiors to add Flick herself to the watch list. Charmeine wanted to just kill her and be done with it, like they had with Pericles, but the one called Manakel had vetoed that. Apparently it was too dangerous with the kind of attention Flick had on her, and their superiors wanted to know more about why the girl was apparently immune not only to their possession, but also much of their magic.

After all, the only option aside from her being immune to the spells that had been left for her was that she had somehow disabled them. But that would require more knowledge of magic than Flick had, and it would mean that she’d never actually brought it up with anyone as far as Columbus knew.

I think… All of the amusement had vanished from Charmeine’s tone. … that you need a reminder of your exact position in this relationship. As she finished speaking… thinking, whatever, Columbus found his body turning to walk down the hall and to the exit of the building.

It had been the wrong thing to say, wrong to say anything at all. Columbus had known that. Yet after everything that had happened, as helpless as he was, the chance to get even a little back at the creature who had imprisoned and enslaved him for so long was too hard to resist.

It had happened at the airport in Jackson, back during the Thanksgiving trip. While he had been waiting for Shiori, Flick, and her father to show up, Columbus had gone into the bathroom. While he was washing his hands, a dark-skinned woman with short white hair had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Before he could react, she had reached out to touch him. The next thing he knew, his body was no longer his own. He couldn’t speak, move, or control any part of himself. All of it was done by the creature who had so easily taken him prisoner through a simple touch.

From that moment on, throughout the holiday trip, throughout finding out about the Fomorian attacking Koren’s family, what had happened to Roxa, and all the rest of it, Columbus had been puppeted by this creature. It had been months by that point. Months since he could even twitch an eyebrow by his own volition. At this point, Columbus wasn’t sure he remembered what controlling his own body was even like.

And yet somehow, as his body walked out the door of the dorm building, he still felt like he’d made a mistake by provoking the creature that was infesting him. As bad as things were, there were always ways that it could get worse.

Even as Charmeine took him outside, she was moving his hand to his pocket. Tugging out a small medallion, she made his mouth speak a single word, the activation trigger for the spell that had been placed on it. A moment later, his hand (along with the rest of his body) turned translucent to his own gaze. From previous experience, the boy knew that he was now completely invisible to everyone else. Not even Gaia had been aware of his presence the last time his puppeteer had used the spell to spy on her.

Granted, even Charmeine wasn’t confident enough in the spell to risk actually doing anything or getting close to the headmistress. But still, the fact that she could put his body in the same room as the powerful Heretic without being noticed was terrifying.

It also meant that neither of the security guards who chose that moment to walk past on their patrol had a chance of knowing that Columbus was standing within a few feet of them. They chatted with one another about some baseball game they had been watching, pausing to look over the door that Columbus had just come out of before moving on.

Once they were gone, Charmeine directed his body across the grass and up toward the entrance of the girl’s dorm. The stealth spell affected even the golden statue of the woman with the bow and arrow who was meant to keep underage boys out of the dorm. It stood still and motionless even as his body opened the door and stepped through into the hallway.

To his surprise, rather than heading for the room that Flick and Avalon shared, Charmeine directed his body further down the hall. Eventually, he stopped in front of a different door, the one that led into the room that Shiori shared with Rebecca Jameson.

Again, his hand dipped into a pocket and came out, this time with a small hand-held mirror. Holding the mirror up to the door, with the glass facing him, Columbus’s lips murmured another spell. The surface of the mirror changed from showing his reflection to reveal the interior of the room that it was pointed at. It was even lit up despite the fact that the room on the other side of the door was pitch dark.

Charmeine kept the mirror up long enough to confirm that both of the room’s inhabitants were accounted for and asleep before making his hand reach out to quietly open the door. It came easily, since she had long-since acquired a master key that unlocked every door in the school whenever needed.

Hey, wait. What are you doing? Columbus cut in even as his body inexorably stepped into the room and closed the door after himself. You can’t possess Shiori and Rebecca doesn’t know anything about what’s going on.

One thing you need to learn, the voice in his head informed him, is that I don’t need to possess people to make them useful.

With that, Columbus found himself flicking on the magical privacy screen that instantly surrounded his sister’s bed before walking over to the girl herself. She was laying there on her stomach, one leg sticking out of the covers and off the bed while snoring faintly. The same as she had when they were little and a bad dream had driven her into Columbus’s room.

His hand reached out, gently brushing a little bit of hair off of Shiori’s face even as he quickly thought, Hey, hey. Wait a minute, leave her alone. You said yourself if you possess her, it’ll kill you. She’s no use to you, right? So stop, just stop.

As I told you, she replied flatly, there is more than one way to make the girl useful. Perhaps she’ll serve as an adequate reminder of your place.

Reminder of my place? He was incredulous. I can’t do anything, remember? I can’t stop you, I can’t even make myself blink! What do you have to prove? You can’t possess her and she can’t do anything for you. So what–what are you…

He trailed off as his hand carefully removed a necklace from one of his pockets. Within a couple of seconds, he had hooked it around Shiori’s neck before giving her face a pat.

Now, the voice in his head announced, there’s no chance of her waking up until the necklace is removed. See?

In demonstration, his hand lashed out to smack Shiori hard against the face. Her head snapped a bit to the side, yet her snoring never wavered. And with the privacy field up, Rebecca didn’t hear anything either.

Stop it! Yet again, Columbus struggled to yank his hand away from his sister. Yet for all his effort, he accomplished nothing. Once more, he found himself smacking Shiori hard enough to bruise her cheek. A bruise that would disappear by the time she woke up, thanks to the girl’s regeneration.

You understand now? Charmeine taunted, moving his hand over his sister’s cheek and down to her shoulder to squeeze it. As long as the necklace stays on, she’s Sleeping Beauty. Nothing will wake her up. Maybe… maybe she won’t wake up at all.

At that thought, Columbus found his hand move slowly, yet inevitably to the other girl’s throat. His fingers closed around it, tightening enough that her snoring was cut off.

I’m sure you remember, his puppeteer announced conversationally, just how strong you are while I’m possessing you. You know how strong I can make you. Shall we see if it’s… His hand tightened even further, to the point that he could feel Shiori’s throat on the brink of collapsing. …. Strong enough?

No! No, no, no, no! Please, please! Leave her alone! Leave Shiori alone, please! She can’t help you, she can’t hurt you, she can’t do anything! She’s nothing to you, please!

Ah, but you see… it doesn’t matter what she is to me, Charmeine reminded him. What matters is what she is to you. And to you, she is… an adequate punishment for mouthing off.

I’m sorry! I’m sorry, please, please, I just–I’m sorry! Just leave her alone, please. You don’t need to do this! You don’t have to–

Her tone was as devoid of empathy as any he had ever heard. It’s not about what I have to do. It’s about what I want to do. You think I embodied the concept of revenge during our godly days by mistake? No one crosses me without paying for it a hundred-fold.

His hand left Shiori’s throat, allowing the girl to breathe. Rather than simply leaving, however, Columbus found himself stepping across the room to where Rebecca slept.

Still, perhaps a better punishment is in order, Charmeine mused. If this girl were to… die and all evidence pointed to the silly child there… that could draw in enough of an investigation to reveal her true nature.

The horror in Columbus’s own thoughts was almost palpable. Wh-what? What do you–

If this girl dies in a way that makes it appear as though your lovely sister is responsible, and during the course of that investigation, they find that she is a dhampyr… Now the amusement in Charmeine’s thought-voice was even more obvious. Well, that would be just perfect, wouldn’t it? She’ll be blamed for the death of an innocent girl and be put down as a monster, the very monster she’s been so terrified of being for so long.

She gets put out of the way so that there’s one less problem to deal with, the Heretics here find out that hybrids can become students and thus a new inquisition is launched to root them out so that all of Gaia’s machinations in that regard are brought out. She might even be stripped of her position in the process.

And, she finished darkly, you learn not to cross me. Win, win, win.

No, no, no! Please, please, please, I swear, I won’t say anything. God, god, no, please! Leave them alone. Please, you don’t–you can–please!

All of this, all of it, just because he’d made a single taunting remark, a single thought in rebellion against everything that was happening. One time, one single time he’d managed to insult her, managed to hit back. And this was how she reacted.

The worst part of this entire situation was that, as terrified, helpless and broken as Columbus felt in that moment, his mouth still smiled. He couldn’t cry, he couldn’t even make his own eyes close. He couldn’t look away from Rebecca’s sleeping form as his own hand moved out to touch her throat.

His helpless, pathetic pleading grew more desperate. Charmeine toyed with the small girl’s throat, not going far enough to actually do any damage. Not yet, anyway. Unlike Shiori, she wasn’t wearing a necklace that would have kept her asleep through it. Still, the Seosten made it clear that at any second, she could close her hand and cut off the girl’s air completely.

Of course, Charmeine eventually mused while taking his hand away from Rebecca, doing all that right now… well, it doesn’t leave you any time to stew on things, does it? And where’s the fun in that?

So I’ll tell you what. You think about it for awhile. Maybe I’ll take care of this tomorrow night. Or the next night. Or next week. Or even next month. Maybe I’ll just find other ways to hurt her, ways that can make this drag on for awhile instead of letting it all go out in one night. You can worry about it. Because, in some ways, that’s the most delicious part. Your fear, your worry, your begging. And please, do come up with more interesting ways to beg. The old ways just… they’re played out. They’re boring.

Making Columbus’s body step over to retrieve the necklace from Shiori, she then directed him to start out of the room, leaving both girls unharmed… for the moment.

And the last thing you want, boy, is for me to be bored.

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Suspects 24-02

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The way things had been explained to me, the ‘time-stop’ ability that people like Professor Dare used didn’t actually freeze time throughout the entire universe. That would be a little absurd. Instead, it created a bubble of stopped time around the user, the size of which varied depending on how powerful they were. Anything that was in or later entered that bubble who wasn’t somehow immune to the effect would be completely frozen and have no idea that any time had passed once the bubble went down. Watches and other methods of keeping time would be wrong, of course. But most people who used that ability also had ways of surreptitiously correcting them if they were actually trying to hide the fact that a time-stop had been used.

Unfortunately, that also meant that anyone outside of the effect could point out the ‘lost time’ afterward if it went on for too long. It wasn’t a perfect system, by any stretch of the imagination.

All of that flashed through my mind as everything around me except for Professor Dare went completely still. The blonde woman herself took a few steps over to where I was. “Felicity,” she spoke quickly. “We can’t take long. Gaia’s making sure that we aren’t detected, but we only have a short window. Listen. You cannot react the way they want you to here, do you understand?”

“I… I…” My mouth opened and shut a few times before I managed a weak, “Mom. If Mom-”  

“We don’t know if it was her or not, we don’t know anything right now.” Professor Dare’s hand moved to my cheek, while her other one squeezed my shoulder. “You’re right, it might be her. If Fossor threatened her, or… or any number of things. We don’t know. But you can’t let them see how scared you are about that, okay? That’s what he’s looking for. He’s watching your reaction.”

I was still breathing hard, my thoughts spinning out of control. Mom would never kill a bunch of Heretics for no reason. Even when she was running the rebellion, she would’ve tried to recruit them. Unless she did try to recruit them and Patrick or whoever had been on the phone (obviously at least one of the Committee members) was lying about it. I… I didn’t know what–

My head shook firmly to clear it, at least as much as I could. Then I focused on Professor Dare, giving a little nod. “I–I understand. I–” Closing my eyes, I took a long, deep breath before letting it out, then I opened them again. “I’m ready. I’m okay. I… I’ve got it under control, I promise.”

Part of me wanted to take more time, maybe even scream a little bit. But I knew that the longer the time-stop went on, the bigger chance of someone outside noticing what was happening. Even if Gaia was powerful enough to stop them from noticing for a brief time, this had to be a strain for her. I had to keep myself under control at least long enough to make it through this without losing it. I could freak out later, after these Committee representatives were gone.

Gently brushing her hand over my face, Professor Dare paused. There was something in her expression, something that made it clear that she had something to say. In the end, however, she just straightened while nodding as her hands fell away from me. “We’ll be right here,” she assured me before moving back to the spot she had been in. “You’re not alone, Felicity.”

That was the last thing the woman said before things went back to normal and time started up once more. My view changed subtly as my body was repositioned, either by Gaia or Professor Dare. Obviously they wanted to put me back exactly as I’d been when the time-stop started so that the two men in front of me (hopefully) wouldn’t notice that anything had happened.    

Even after the brief pause I’d had to collect myself, if it hadn’t been for the facial-shifting power that I had inherited, my reaction might still have been obvious. As it was, I managed to keep it under control, staring at Patrick for a second even as his own partner turned that way.

“What?” October’s voice was surprised. Either he’d had no idea what happened (which made sense, considering from all appearances, Patrick himself had only just heard about it), or he was a phenomenal actor. “What just happened?” he demanded of his partner. “Who was on the–”

Holding up a hand to stop the other man, Patrick kept his gaze on me. “What about it?” he asked flatly, clearly still reading my reaction. “Woman with a golden aura, powerful enough to kill a bunch of Heretics, steps in to stop them from killing a pack of monsters. Sound familiar?”

For a second, I wondered if he knew why he was asking. Was he part of the people who had retained their memory of what happened? It made sense, considering his connection to the Committee. Yeah, I was sure this Patrick guy, whoever he was, remembered my mother.

Shaking my head slowly, I worked my mouth a few times. “Golden aura–I… Gaia? Gaia has a golden aura like mine,” I pointed out. “And she probably could kill eleven Heretics if she really wanted to. But I don’t think you’d be accusing her right in front of her like that, so I’m not–”

Stopping, I made myself frown, trying to show uncertainty. “Wait, don’t family members tend to have the same color aura? Not always, I guess, but… I mean, maybe it’s…” I hesitated, making it look like I didn’t want to bring it up, which wasn’t hard. “My… umm, my mother, maybe?”

Yeah, I was bringing up Mom on my own. Ruthers would never believe it if she never occurred to me, not after the conversation that I’d had with the man. Better to bring it up myself than try to pretend that the thought of her never came to mind. That would obviously be denying too much.

“Your mother?” Patrick echoed simply, eyebrow raised with curiosity as he watched me closely.

My head nodded a little once more. “I–yeah, maybe? I mean, if she’s…” Pausing like I didn’t know if it was worth continuing, I bit my lip. “Um, I sort of had a conversation about her with Counselor Ruthers. I don’t know if he said anything or if it’s stupid or… I dunno. But when I talked to him, I said that I thought maybe my mom’s a Heretic. I mean,” I started talking faster, babbling a little bit purposefully. “She left when I was a kid, so I already knew she was a bitch.”

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia admonished from where she stood. “Please watch your language.”

“Sorry, Headmistress,” I quietly apologized before continuing. “What I mean is, she left me and my dad, abandoned us. So when that… um, when that kid, Ammon showed up and said he was my brother, I told Counselor Ruthers that maybe the kid’s right. Maybe he is my brother, and after Mom abandoned us, she hooked up with some other Heretic group. Or they recruited her. I dunno. The point is, she took off, so screw her. Sorry, Headmistress. She’s gone. But she’s my mother, and if she’s a Heretic now, she might have a golden aura. Plus, if she’d abandon me and my dad, then sure, yeah, maybe she’d kill some other Heretics. Dunno if she’s powerful enough, but…” Trailing off, I shrugged, meeting the dark-skinned man’s unwavering gaze while earnestly asking, “Is that why Counselor Ruthers told you to ask me about what happened?”

I wasn’t sure if they bought what I was selling, but Patrick did pause before giving a little shrug. “Maybe,” he said simply before continuing. “You really think your mom could kill them like that?”

Making myself shrug, I replied, “I dunno. But like I said, she abandoned us, so maybe. If she’d stuck around, maybe I could tell you what kind of person she is, but I can’t.” It wasn’t hard to inject the emotion in my voice at those words. I had a decade of experience at feeling resentment toward my mother. Even if I knew better now, I could still summon those emotions.

The man paused then, watching me for another moment as though he wasn’t sure how to continue after what I’d said. Finally, he exhaled and straightened up a bit. “It’s possible.”

Figuring how I would have acted if I was really clueless about the truth, I jumped on that. “I mean, that’s why you asked me about it, right? You guys think–what, she’s the one who showed up and rescued my dad, her and whoever she disappeared with? Why would she show up after ten years to save him when she’s the one who abandoned us to begin with? And why kill a bunch of Heretics like that? Unless you think she’s, I dunno, sending a message or something? Wait, is she your enemy?” As I spoke, I extended the handkerchief back to Patrick.

The two of them glanced to one another before October spoke up. “We don’t know, exactly.”

Patrick, for his part, waved off my attempt to return the cloth to him. “Keep it,” he muttered before adding, “And if your mother happens to try to contact you–”

“Pretty sure she won’t,” I replied flatly. “If she gave a shit about me, she wouldn’t’ve taken off. But yeah, no problem. If she tries to call or whatever, I’ll let you guys know. Believe me, if she’s the one who took my dad, I want you guys to find her before she convinces him to forgive her or something stupid like that.” As hard as it was for me to actually say something that awful, I forced the words out while silently and fervently apologizing to my mother in my head for all of it.

Pushing right on, the way I thought I would if I’d been serious about not caring about my mother, I asked, “So umm, are you guys planning on talking to Koren Fellows about this stuff too?”   

Well, that got their attention. Both men gave me a look, Patrick being the first to catch himself. Probably because he’d been the one playing bad cop to begin with. “Why would we talk to her?”

I shrugged a little. “I mean, you were talking to me because the woman had a golden aura, and that goes through families. I don’t remember what color Koren’s is, but she and I sort of… figured that we might be related somehow. You know, like… second cousins or whatever.”

Patrick’s voice was flat. “And why would you think that you’re related to Koren Fellows?”

Biting my lip, I made my voice as clueless as possible. “I umm, well, you know. When I was choosing my weapon back at the start of the year, I thought the Hunga Munga were… you know, really close. I almost took them because they felt kinda… familiar? Then Koren took them instead. And that wouldn’t mean anything, except there was that vision thing when we saw the Edge, so I think Heretics like… pass memories on or something? Plus, when we were working on this one project for Professor Dare a couple months ago, Vanessa–I mean Vanessa Moon– found a journal with the name Atherby on it. Lyell Atherby. That’s my mom’s maiden name, and it seemed like Koren had heard the name before. So I talked to her and she said her Edge vision had to do with some guy back in like… medieval times that called himself part of the Atherby clan. So we figured we’re probably related somehow. Like I said, cousins or something.”

Shrugging, I finished with an offhand, “That’s why I went to visit her house for Thanksgiving. We were gonna try to figure out how far back we’re related, but I guess you know how that went.”

Yeah, this was a risk. But the way I figured it, they had to have been wondering why the whole Thanksgiving thing had happened when Koren and I weren’t on the same team and, as far as they knew, we had no other reason to interact enough to be on ‘holiday visits’ terms. This way, I was giving them some information rather than pretending I didn’t know anything at all. And I was giving it in a way that made it look like I didn’t know how important the information actually was.

Basically, instead of acting like I didn’t know anything, I was acting like I knew the wrong things. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, but by that point, I figured that the Committee would be more suspicious if I hadn’t figured out anything than if I’d worked out a couple things such as being related to Koren, but then went the wrong direction with it. Hopefully, it would throw them off.

“It would not be the first time that Bystander students found that they were related somewhere back along their Heretic ancestors,” Gaia pointed out mildly from where she was standing.

Giving her a brief look, Patrick finally shrugged. “Maybe. But right now, we don’t even know if there’s a connection. It was just… you were here so we thought we’d ask. Someone who could do all that to twelve Heretics…” He trailed off, frowning before looking back at me. “If your mother, or anyone else connected to her contacts you, let us know immediately. Understand?”

“Of course,” I replied while bobbing my head. “And–and my dad…” I trailed off, hesitating a bit.

“We won’t stop looking for him,” October promised. “Whether or not your mother, or any old relatives have anything to do with his disappearance. We can’t let people get away with kidnapping the relatives of our students. It makes us look bad.” That was said with a little smile before he added, “The fact that they killed the shaggies before taking him with them is a good sign, Miss Chambers. He’s probably okay. Why they haven’t had him contact you… we don’t know. But we’ll find him, all right? And if he does reach out to you at any point, tell us, okay?”

Again, I nodded. “Uh huh. Believe me, if he’s been taken by some crazy old Heretic or something, I want you guys to find him. He’s gotta be… I mean, he can’t remember anything that they tell him, or he’ll just think they’re crazy or… I dunno how it works exactly. But he’s gotta be–” I stopped, swallowing hard. “Just–just please find my dad.” It wasn’t hard to make myself sound terrified about the possibilities of what might be happening to him. “Please find him.”

There was a little more discussion after that, more questions about what I’d heard from my dad before he disappeared, if he’d mentioned any new acquaintances or contacts, if he was working on any kind of story that might’ve been connected to Stranger things, and so on. Finally, they said they’d gotten all they needed from me ‘for the moment’, and promised again to let me know if and when they found out anything about what had happened. With, of course, the repeated and emphasized caveat that I had to keep them informed about anything I found out too.

“So,” I started once they were done, “I guess I should get your number or something, huh? Unless you just want me to go through Headmistress Sinclaire with anything that happens?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Patrick replied. “We’ll be around, any time you want to talk.”

I was confused by that for a second, until Gaia spoke up. “The Committee has elected to assign Misters Dinast and Atrean,” she nodded to Patrick and October respectively, “to the school on a temporarily full-time basis. They’ll be here in case anything else untoward happens, an added layer of security and protection for our students.” To her credit, the headmistress managed to keep any annoyance she felt at that fact completely out of her voice with the announcement.

Oh. They weren’t leaving. Well, that could maybe possibly end up complicating things. It was a good thing I had that facial shifting power, because I was pretty sure I would’ve been scowling by that point if I hadn’t set the power to make my face as impassive as possible. “Oh, well, uh,” I coughed, looking back to the two men. “I guess that’ll make it easier to come to you then, yeah.”

“If you’re finished for the moment,” Professor Dare abruptly put in, “Miss Chambers may have inherited the Amarok’s stamina, but she still requires some sleep. And it’s been a long night.”

Patrick gave a little nod, the well-dressed man giving me a brief look before answering, “Of course. It’s just too bad that the things you killed tonight were zombies and not anything that would’ve given you an upgrade. It would have been nice to see you demonstrate any new ability.”

Yeah, that was exactly why we’d chosen to say that it was zombies we had killed. And I was pretty sure the men at least suspected that much, especially with those words. But at least all they had were suspicions, at that point. “Yeah,” I replied flatly, “Trust me, killing a bunch of gross zombies and not getting anything out of it isn’t my idea of fun either.”

Professor Dare led me out of the room then, with October promising once more that they would let me know the moment they found out anything about my dad. As we left the room and got about halfway down the hall, I held up a hand for Dare to stop. Without speaking, I plucked the fancy handkerchief that Patrick had given me out of my pocket and turned to drop it in the nearby trash can.

Yeah, I didn’t know that it was somehow magically bugged or something, but I wasn’t stupid enough to take the chance either.   

Nodding in satisfaction at the sight of that, Dare led me down the hall a bit more before speaking. “Are you alright, Flick?”

I swallowed a little. “If that… if that was my mom, it means… it means that Fossor’s threatened her somehow. Either with me, or with one of the others. I dunno. But she wouldn’t just kill all those people like that without trying to recruit them, right?”

Dare nodded, leading me down the stairs and out of the building. “Of course. We don’t know anything about it other than what they said. I’m going to look into it, Flick. I’ll see what I can find out about what happened. And if it’s anything connected to your mother, I’ll let you know. I won’t hide it from you, okay?”

I nodded before biting my lip. “If they’re staying here, I guess that means… we can’t…”

“I’m sorry,” she confirmed. “At this point, they’re paying too much attention to what goes on and off the island. There’s no way to take you to your dad right now. We’ll try later, I promise.”

Sighing, I dropped my head for a moment. It made sense. Plus, I was honestly exhausted by that point. After everything that had happened, I needed at least an hour of sleep to recharge.

Seeming to realize that (which made sense, considering she had originally been an Amarok-Heretic and knew just how far I could go), Dare remained silent while leading me to my room. She gestured once we were at the door. “I assume you’re going to call him. But try to rest as well.”

I promised to do so before stepping into the room and closing the door after myself. Avalon was already asleep, laying on her side with the blanket tangled up by her feet.

Watching the other girl for a second, I stepped over and carefully tugged the blanket out so that I could gently drape it over her. She murmured a little bit as the blanket covered her, but settled after I stroked her hair for a moment.

Once she was settled, I moved over and flicked the switch to cover my side of the room with the privacy screen that would stop any sound or light from escaping. Just in case, I also activated one of my privacy coins. Then I flopped onto my bed, took out the secret phone, and dialed Asenath’s number. There was no answer at first, so I left a message for them to call me back and set the phone beside me.

To pass the time while waiting, I took my notebook out and began to scribble in it once more. Reading over what I had already written, I scratched a little bit out and wrote better words above them and in the margins before adding more to the bottom. I wrote for about ten minutes before the phone beside me rang.

Answering quickly, I found myself talking to Dad, and apologized for not being able to get to him yet. Then I took a breath, and told him why they were paying so much attention all of a sudden. And from there, I went into explaining more of it.

Laying there on my bed, phone clasped tightly in one hand, I finally… finally, after all these months… really, truly talked with my father.

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Mini-Interlude 32 – Miranda

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Miranda as a character outside of and apart from Flick. 

About Six Months Ago

“Duck, duck, throw your duck! Come on, Randi, just try it. Right over here. I got you. I got you. I’m right on you. Just try it.”

Pacing sideways quickly, following the circular line that had been drawn over the grass a short distance from the base of the giant tree that she had called home for several years, Miranda eyed the boy who was taunting her. His name was Duane, and he was standing in the middle of the sixty-foot wide circle, right next to a wooden stump that was about two feet tall. In the middle of the stump, a softball-sized stone had been set.

Miranda held a similarly-sized rock in her left hand, as did the nine other people who were all pacing around the outside of the circle as well. The ten of them had spread out along the circle, watching for an opening even as the boy in the middle continually turned, pivoting to keep an eye on as many of them as possible. Every once in awhile, he’d call out a taunt, trying to goad one of them into making the first move.

From what Miranda had heard over the years since she’d come to this place, the game they were playing, ‘Duck On A Rock’, had been the initial inspiration for what had eventually become the game of basketball. Not that there were that many similarities when it came down to it. The rocks she and the others were carrying were called ducks, as was the rock that was sitting on the stump in the middle of the circle. That one was the titular ‘duck on a rock’, though in this case, the duck part was a rock and the rock part was a tree stump. Sports were weird sometimes.

It was originally a medieval children’s game, though here they played with enough variations to make it interesting even for the older teens, such as making it a full circle surrounding the stump instead of the single throwing line from the original game, as well as some other changes.

One of the other boys, seeing Duane’s distraction, took three quick steps sideways to put himself more into the boy’s blindspot before rearing back to hurl his own stone. The rock arced in toward the rock that was sitting on the stump, coming oh-so-close to colliding with its target before Duane spun around to catch the incoming rock out of the air with one hand.

Along the sidelines, several of the people who were just watching the game rather than playing began to count out loud, “One! Two! Three!” They continued that way, each number growing louder as more people joined in the count.

Meanwhile, the boy whose stone had been caught ran straight at Duane. If he didn’t manage to get his own stone (or duck) away from the guard before the audience’s count reached thirty, he would be considered ‘turned’, and would become another guard alongside Duane.

Essentially, the goal of the people outside the circle was to throw their own rock/duck in order to knock the one that was sitting on the stump off and to the ground. If you missed and your stone hit the ground, you had to retrieve it. But any time that you were inside the circle, the guard (or guards) could try to take you to the ground (originally it was simply tagging, but they played with rougher rules). If they took you down, the guard who managed it earned two points, while every other guard earned one point. If you made it to your rock, you could put your foot on it as a safety zone. As long as your foot was on your stone, you couldn’t be attacked by a guard. But neither could you do anything else. You had to wait for the right opportunity, while the guards were distracted by those outside of the circle, and use that time to pick up your rock and run back outside the circle. If you managed to retrieve your rock and make it out, that was worth two points. If you got taken to the ground, the guards got a point and you were expelled from the circle without earning any.

If the rock on the stump was knocked off its perch, the person who threw it earned an immediate three points. The guards couldn’t chase or tag anyone until one of them returned to the stump to put their rock back where it belonged. Additionally, for every non-guard in the circle when the guard’s duck was knocked off the stump that managed to escape because of that period of safety, the thrower earned another point. So, assuming the person who knocked the guard’s duck off the stump managed to retrieve their own rock and escape, that was five points for them and an additional point for every other person who managed to escape the circle because of it.

However, if, as in this case, your rock was caught by one of the guards before it touched the ground, you had that thirty second countdown before you became one of the guards yourself. There was strategy involved there. Some people did better as guards than as attackers, and so they would deliberately let themselves be turned.

They had turned what began as a very simple children’s game into an intense, often-brutal affair as rocks were thrown from all sides, the ratio of attackers to guards gradually changed, and some encounters in the middle of the circle turned into small-scale fistfights. After all, the rules were ‘taken to the ground’; it didn’t say how, exactly.

It was a fun game, and one that Miranda had gotten very good at over the years. Her accuracy with the thrown rocks was almost legendary among the group that they played with, so most guards tended to focus at least part of their attention on her so that she couldn’t get a good shot at the stump.

In this case, however, Miranda saw an opening while Duane was dealing with the other boy trying to get his rock back. Taking aim at the one on the stump, she was about to let fly when something else caught her attention. Far beyond the circle, deeper in the forest, there were several more boys. Not that that was anything newsworthy. She wouldn’t have noticed them at all, except that a few of the boys were clearly throwing something back and forth between them to keep it away from the other one, who kept trying to get it back. Whatever it was, the boys were playing keepaway with it rather effectively while heading deeper into the forest. And from the look of things, it wasn’t exactly a game.

Bullies. For as long as Miranda could remember, she had hated bullies. People who used their own strength or power to push others around. Be they adult or child, she had always loathed them. Her very first memory, the earliest that she could remember, was of being in preschool and dumping a cup that was full of water that had been dirtied and stained by watercolors over the head of a girl who had stolen an Oreo from one of the other students.

It was a proclivity that had followed the girl throughout her life, right up to (and definitely including) the present day. So instead of throwing her rock, she paused before dropping it at her feet. Muttering something to the others about being right back, Miranda jogged around the circle to follow the other group further into the woods. If it turned out to be nothing, she’d come right back. No harm, no foul. But if it was what it had looked like… well, she didn’t put up with bullies.

About ten minutes later, the girl found herself crouched behind a tree. She was there, hidden just out of sight, as the group of what turned out to be five other students gathered around a moss-covered boulder about twenty feet away. Four of the students were standing a bit apart from the fifth, a boy whose dark hair was tied back with a green bandana. He was the one who had been trying to get something back from the others as they had led him deeper into the forest.  

He was also actually somewhat bigger than any of the people who were tormenting him. Which might have looked strange among Bystanders, but Miranda had long since found that size didn’t exactly always equal power among people who could gain superpowers and who were trained to fight and kill their entire lives. In a world with enhanced supernatural strength, a five foot nothing girl could easily be strong enough to pin a six foot six overly-muscled bodybuilder to the floor with a pinkie.

“Come on, guys, give it back,” the boy was pleading. “It’s my grandma’s ring, okay? Seriously, just give it back. It’s not funny anymore.” At those words, he gave a little lunge toward the nearest other boy, who was holding something tiny between two fingers. Obviously the ring.

Unfortunately, the boy’s lunge carried him straight through his target, who had turned intangible. Laughing, the second boy gestured while stepping back. “Hey, hey, hey, no need to get all handsy. You really want the ring back, Ankh?” He rolled the thing between his fingers. “You know what you’ve gotta do. We all did it, you really wanna be left out?”

“This is stupid,” the boy (Ankh, apparently) blurted. “It’s a dumb ritual, someone’s gonna get hurt.”

One of the other boys started snickering while calling Ankh a chickenshit, while another sneeringly told him to grow a pair. Meanwhile, the first boy reached down to touch something on the boulder, and a glowing, light green, circular portal appeared beside it.

Miranda had seen things like that before. Over the years since Eden’s Garden had been founded, students and grown-Heretics alike had hidden portal accesses all over the place, ways to the regular world and back again without going through the tree. They were especially popular among older students.

“Javier,” Ankh started, “come on man. I told you, I don’t wanna do it. It’s stupid.”

“Yeah?” Javier retorted. “Well I guess you better start acting a little dumb if you want Grandma’s ring back, huh?” Turning, he made as though to throw the ring through the portal.

“Stop!” Miranda couldn’t take it anymore. Moving from behind the tree, she put herself in plain sight. “Give him the ring back, idiot. Come on, how stupid do you have to be? Where does that portal even go?”

“Aww,” Javier snickered, running the ring between a couple fingers. “Look Ankh, looks like you’ve got a little girlfriend.”

That, of course, led to more teasing and taunting from the other boys about Ankh having a girlfriend that was at least a year younger than he was. Which was quite possibly the most idiotic thing to taunt someone about that Miranda had ever heard.

Smirking at the rise that had gotten out of his friends, Javier eyed the two. “So, you gonna propose to your little princess, Ankh? If you are, I guess you’ll need to… get this back.” With that, he turned slightly before chucking the thing through the portal.

“No!” Ankh shouted. Clearly not thinking, he dove for the portal as well, going after the ring,.

Javier was in the middle of laughing when Miranda hit him hard from the side. Her hands slammed into the boy’s chest, knocking him onto his back as she snarled, “Jackass.”

Rather than follow that up, however, she went after Ankh. Thinking just as little as he had been, the headstrong girl dove through the portal.

She landed on the other side in what looked like an old, rundown library. Most of the books were gone, shelves were broken and falling apart, and there was a distinct smell of mildew and worse in the air.

“Where are we?” she asked Ankh, who was a few feet away.

He spun around, jerking in surprise. “The fuck–what’re you doing here?!”

“Helping you,” she replied easily. “So where are we?”

Staring at her, the boy worked his mouth. “You… stupid… Damn it, fine, we’re at a place in South Carolina. It’s a–” He sighed. “It’s a stupid game the guys play. You know the enchantments the adults use to lure Stranger pests? The little mindless ones.” When Miranda nodded, he continued. “There’s one of those in here. It lures some dumb little Stranger in, one of the minor ones. Then it shuts off and traps the thing in here. Every once in awhile, the guys send someone in to kill whatever showed up. Like I said, it’s a stupid game.”

“Stupid–that’s the dumbest–that’s… that’s…” Miranda started to rant, too stunned to even think straight. “What if it attracts something worse than–what if–that’s–that’s–”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Ankh demanded. “Why do you think I didn’t wanna do this? But I’ve gotta find Grandma’s ring. So help m– wait. Did you hear something?”

The two of them looked up, scanning the room before Miranda pointed. “There.”

It sat in the middle of the corridor, directly ahead of them. At first glance, the thing looked like a particularly mangy German Shepherd. But there were particularly differences. First, it had four eyes instead of two. Its tongue was forked like a snake, and it had two tails.

Most disturbingly, there were two human-like arms with attached hands sticking out of the thing’s chest, partially-hidden by its front dog legs.

“What–” Miranda started, before the boy cursed.

“Damn it! Get the fuck back. Go, go back to the portal.” He waved her away while pulling a heavy-looking machette-like blade from his belt.

“What is–” Miranda was already turning to move back, taking his advice. Unfortunately, the path back to the portal was blocked by another of the creatures. “Uhhh….” A particular shake of her arm made her own weapon appear: a round metal shield that was black with bright green emeralds decorating it.

“Fuck!” Seeing the one there, Ankh snarled. “It’s already started duplicating.

“Duplicating?” Miranda echoed. “What’re you–” Then the single dog-thing in front of the portal was abruptly joined by three others. At the same time, the one on the other side of them became four as well, resulting in eight dog-things.

A second later, the eight became thirty, spread out over both sides of them.

“Only attracts pests, huh?” Miranda had to say.

“Like I said,” the boy retorted, “it’s a stupid, stupid game. They’re gonna keep duplicating until we find the source, the leader.”  

By that point, the man-armed dog-things were already growling. They had duplicated again, leaving dogs spread back as far as Miranda could see through the room.

“Uhhh, you take that side, I’ll cover this side?” she asked a bit weakly.

The boy nodded once. “Right. Good luck. And for the record, those guys are idiots. I totally wouldn’t mind dating someone like you.”

Miranda would have responded, but the first dog-thing was already lunging.

*******

“And somehow,” Vigile Hisao announced some time later as he stood in front of the chair that Miranda was planted in somewhere in one of the Garden interrogation rooms. “You didn’t just survive that attack. You also managed to protect Ankh after he was knocked unconscious. And you killed the leader of the Ksani in the process.”

“The dog-things?” Miranda shifted nervously in her seat. “I guess so, Vigile Hisao. I… um, I just got lucky.”

“Sure you did,” the man replied. “But it was a combination of luck and skill, and I’ll take that any day.”

“Sir?” Miranda blinked up at that. “What–I thought you were supposed to tell me how I was being punished. You know, for going through that portal.”

Vigile Hisao gave a short nod. “You’re right. And your punishment is… three years.”

“I’m sorry?” Miranda looked at him, confused. “Three… three years of what?”

“Of being my apprentice,” he replied. “I need a new one, and the school year’s about to start. You’re seventeen now, which means you need a fresh mentor. Unless you’ve got one in mind?”

“But I–I didn’t… I was… I thought…” Miranda stammered.

Hisao’s eyes softened. “I don’t throw away potential, kid. And you’ve got a lot of it. So unless you want to submit a complaint to the Victors and ask to be taken away from my custody…”

“No, no, no.” Miranda quickly blurted, straightening. “I mean, I just, I didn’t expect…”

The man smiled just a little, gesturing. “I do want one thing in exchange. Lemme see it, what you got.”

Knowing what he meant, the girl paused to focus on the power that she had inherited from the original Ksani. A moment later, another her stood beside the chair, blinking as she came into existence.

“That,” Vigile Hisao announced with a broad smile, “is going to be incredibly useful for you. And, well, it’ll make punishing you with extra chores a little tricky. But I guess we’ll figure that out as we go.

“For now, let’s go for a walk… apprentice.”  

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Suspects 24-01

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a few days ago, focusing on Gabriel Ruthers and Calafia. If you haven’t read that yet, you might wish to hit the Previous Chapter button above. 

“I would kill for Miranda’s duplication powers right now.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I paused, head tilting a little bit. “Eeesh. You know, I guess when Heretics say something like that, it comes off as a lot more sinister than it should.”

We were back on the island. Well, to be specific, we were on the opposite side of the island from the school. The beach over here was a lot rockier (and smaller) than the one by the school itself. Probably because it hadn’t been specifically maintained or designed for a bunch of students. The jungle was also much closer, not to mention darker. We were so far away from any big cities that the moon and stars were a lot brighter than they would’ve been. But even then, the light seemed to fail at the edge of the jungle, leaving a dark maw right at the treeline.

Beside me, Shiori’s face was half-illuminated by the moon. It was distractingly pretty, even in this situation. “I know what you mean. I overheard a couple sophomores a few days ago. They were talking about how they hoped a Stranger with a fast-metabolism would show up soon so they could kill it and eat as much chocolate as they wanted. They were laughing about it.”

Wincing then, I looked over toward Avalon. The girl was standing on the edge of the small, rocky beach, watching the ocean in the distance. She hadn’t said much since Gabriel had dropped us off here, clearly still lost in obsessing over how she could’ve killed Fahsteth before he got away.

I wanted to say something to her, but I wasn’t sure what. So I just sighed and nodded. “I just wish I could duplicate myself. My dad… I need to talk to my dad, not wait around to be interrogated by a bunch of Committee puppets who are gonna pick over everything I say or do.”

Shiori’s hand found mine, squeezing it. “Gaia’ll get you through it as fast as she can,” she promised. “And until you can get there, Senny and Twist are gonna keep him safe. It’ll be okay.”

Returning the squeeze, I swallowed. “I just don’t get it. He broke the Bystander Effect? That’s not–I mean it’s not supposed to be–I mean… “ I groaned out loud then. “I need to talk to him!”

“You will, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare abruptly spoke from a few feet away, making all of us whip around that way. She was standing there, calmly watching us. Yet behind that calm, there was something else. A certain… tension, a worry that she was doing a good, yet not perfect job at hiding. It was some kind of mixture of hidden fear and relief when she looked at us. Which could have been just her being glad that we had made it back to the island, or… was she actually possessed and afraid that we had found out? At this point, I honestly had no idea.

“Good… morning, would be the appropriate term at this point, I believe,” she started flatly. Her eyes danced over us briefly before the blonde woman continued. “I’ve been told that where you were and what you were doing needs to remain a secret for the time being. Operational security.” She paused, clearly not happy about that before pushing on. “But you do need to know what you were supposed to have been doing. So as far as the Committee’s representatives and anyone else who asks are concerned, you two–” she nodded to Avalon and Shiori, “–were asleep in your beds, where you belong. So we’ll send you right back there.”

As they nodded, I asked, “What about me? We were supposed to be out on a training session?”

Professor Dare nodded. “You were with me. We were investigating a zombie nest in Detroit, where an old friend of mine has been staying. I took you with me because you have experience with killing zombies and for exercise and more training. We killed the zombies, then you watched for more outside while I destroyed the source. Do you have any questions?”

After I shook my head, she held up a water bottle that was full of… uh, really gross stuff. It looked like a mixture of blood and mushed up… bits. “All right, squirt this over yourself. It’ll help sell that you were in a fight with zombies. And if you’re messy, they’re more likely to let you leave quickly, as soon as you tell them that you don’t know what happened to your father.”

Pausing then, she looked at me, her face softening as she held the bottle out. “Is he all right?”

Biting my lip, I gave a hesitant nod. “As far as I know. He’s still with Asenath and all that, they just… had to leave. Those werewolves attacked and–” I cut myself off, swallowing. “He’s okay.”

As I finished talking, my hand took the bottle from Professor Dare. Reluctantly, I popped the top open and started to spill it over the front of my shirt, down one of my arms, over my legs, and then some down my back. The whole time, I had to suppress the urge to gag, or worse. The stuff smelled awful. Which was probably intentional, as part of Dare’s whole ‘make them let me go quickly’ plan. Still, I wished that I’d inherited the ability to turn off my own sense of smell.

Speaking of sense of smell, Shiori wrinkled her nose with distaste while taking a couple steps back. “Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll just wish you luck from over here. So, uh, good luck.”  

Avalon did pretty much the same, and I stuck my tongue out at both of them. “Chickens.”

Dare was smiling faintly, head shaking as she gestured to the other two. “All right, if you’re ready, I’ll send the message to lower the defenses so that you can get back into your dorm.” She waited until they nodded before turning away slightly. Going still, her eyes closed and she was clearly focusing for a moment before opening her eyes. “Okay, I’m sending you in. Make sure you go right to bed. There’s not much of the night left. Get as much sleep as you can.”

With that, Dare gestured, teleporting Avalon and Shiori across the island and into the school. Which left her alone with me. If she was one of the people who was possessed, either Manakel or Charmeine, now probably would’ve been a great time for her to do something about me.

Except maybe not. Since Gaia was probably at least somewhat paying attention to what was going on in between keeping the Committee reps busy, maybe now would be a bad time for a possibly-possessed Dare to try anything. Either way, what it came down to was that this paranoia sucked. I hated looking at Professor Dare and wondering if she was actually being puppeted by some psychopathic alien fuck. We needed to get that choker from Pace, soon.

“Flick?” Dare interrupted my thoughts, raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Snapping out of it, I made myself nod quickly. “I’m just worried about my dad,” I claimed, since it wasn’t that much of a lie. “I don’t wanna be here right now. I need to get to him, not… do this.”

The woman’s face was sympathetic. “Of course. We’ll get you through this as soon as possible. If there was a way to fake it… I’d take your place, but it’s likely that they have the ability to detect illusions or shapeshifters. So we need you to be there in person. But Gaia and I will both be there with you, and we’ll make sure they can’t detect any lies that you tell. Are you ready?”

Taking a breath, I let it out again before making myself nod. “Yeah, I guess so. Let’s do this.”

With a wave of Dare’s hand, we were suddenly on the grounds of the school, right in front of the main building. She gestured for me to go ahead, then followed as I walked up to the doors. Together, we walked down the hall and then to a set of stairs that led up to the second floor, where she indicated a door for me to head for. As I moved that way, it opened to reveal Gaia standing there, with a couple men that I’d never seen before a bit further in. They were all waiting.

“Miss Chambers,” Gaia greeted me while gesturing for me to enter the room. “I trust you’re alright and everything went well?” She waited until Dare was in, then shut the door after her.

My head bobbed. “Yup. Just call me Jill Valentine, because those are some dead zombies.”

“As long as you don’t make us call you Alice,” one of the men in the room spoke up, drawing my attention that way as he gave me a slight smile. “Never could stand the movies because of her.”

The guy wasn’t what I expected a representative from the Committee to look like. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with dirty blonde hair that reached his shoulders, but tied back in a ponytail. He had a dark blue flower print Hawaiian shirt on, along with a loose pair of white pants, and simple white slip-on shoes without any socks. His eyes were covered by mirrored sunglasses, and I saw a cell phone case clipped to his brown belt that was probably a weapon.  

“Sorry,” he announced, extending a hand. “Name’s October. And you’re Felicity Chambers.”

Accepting the handshake, I gestured at myself. “That’s, uh, that’s me. Sorry about the gross. Professor Dare said that we were supposed to come in immediately, that it was important.”

“It is.” The reply came from the other man, who could not have looked more unlike October if he tried. He was black, and wore a stiff-looking dark suit and tie with a red shirt. While October looked like he would’ve been home sipping a Mai Tai out on the beach, this guy looked as though he had just walked straight off the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Patrick,” he announced when I looked at him. “And we need–” He paused, reaching into the inside pocket of his suit jacket before pulling out a fancy embroidered white handkerchief. Holding it up, he murmured the trigger of a spell before handing it to me. “Here, try this.”

I did so, pressing the cloth against the worst of the blood and goop on the front of my shirt. Sure enough, at the slightest touch, the stuff rubbed right off. Even better, it didn’t stick to the handkerchief at all. It was like it just disappeared. Quickly, I wiped the rest of the stuff off me before sniffing. Even the smell was gone. “Wow, okay, why haven’t we learned that spell yet?”

“Soon,” Gaia promised, smiling faintly before sobering. “But I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Miss Chambers. How long has it been since you heard from your father?”

“Hey, whoa, let’s be a little easier, huh?” That was October, his eyes softening as he looked from Gaia back to me. “Listen, kid, there’s-” He paused, clearly taking a moment to figure out how to say it. “It looks like your father was… it looks like your home was attacked by werewolves.”

Thankfully, all this lying I’d been doing over the past several months had given me experience. Making my eyes widen sharply, I took a step back while loudly babbling. “W-wait, what? What do you mean werewolves? I thought–what–where’s my dad? Is he okay? What happened?”

“We don’t know,” Patrick replied simply. “That’s why we’re here right now. Why don’t you answer your headmistress’s question? When exactly was the last time you spoke to your father?”

“I–I don’t…” Biting my lip, I hesitated as though trying to think of it. Some people thought that answering questions quickly when you were lying was a good idea, because it looked like you didn’t have to think up the answer. But in real life, people did have to think about stuff like that. Answering too quick just made it look like the response was rehearsed. So I stammered a little like the question had caught me off-guard. “The other day, I think? Why, what–what does that have to do with werewolves? And why don’t you know where he is? Is he in the hospital? Is he-”

October took over then, holding a hand up. “As far as we can tell, your father is safe. There’s evidence that he left the house, took a car, and drove to… another house elsewhere in the town. After that, we think he took a car that was parked there and left town. From there, we have no idea. But all the evidence we have indicates that all the werewolves who showed up there were killed in the attempt. Then your dad left, probably with whoever was responsible for killing them.”

“Oh my God. Oh–” Fumbling a bit, I grabbed my regular phone, the non-secret one, from my pocket before hurriedly hitting the button to speed dial my father’s phone. It rang several times with no response. Which wasn’t surprising, since I was sure they’d already ditched the phone so that it couldn’t be traced to them. Still, I made a show of looking increasingly agitated. As it went through to voicemail, I left a quick message asking my dad to call me back, then immediately called back again. I did that twice more, getting the voicemail each time before giving a weak sob that was actually pretty damn convincing, even if I did have to say so myself.

“Hey, hey.” October stepped in then. “It’s okay. Look, we’re sorry. I’m sorry we had to tell you like this. But like I said, someone saved him. There were people there and they killed the werewolves. Even if we don’t know who they are, that’s a good sign, right? They saved him.”

“I–I don’t…” My mouth opened and shut a few times as I stared at the men. “Who–that would have to be a Heretic, wouldn’t it? I mean, no one else would… or could. So why—how–who?”

Patrick started to answer that before pausing as a phone in his suit pocket buzzed. Holding up a finger, he asked us to excuse him while he stepped to the other side of the room to answer it. His voice was a quiet murmur for a moment before he did something that cut off the sound entirely, leaving us unable to hear what either he or whoever was on the phone was saying.

After giving his partner a brief look, October continued. “You’re right, whoever killed the werewolves was probably a Heretic. But they weren’t one of ours. That’s really all we know for sure. It’s possible that they were from Eden’s Garden, or from a… an independent faction.”

Making my eyes widen, I shook my head rapidly. “But–what–what do you mean Eden’s Garden or an independent faction? Why would they–what would they… Why would they be watching our house? Why would they just happen to be there when werewolves attacked my house?”

Looking uncomfortable, the man glanced toward Gaia before answering. “You see, there are… some times when we recruit someone from a Bystander family that has a high potential, like you do, when either independents or Eden’s Garden will decide to poach people from the same family. It’s that potential thing. They think that you had potential, so someone else in the family might. It happens a lot when there’s conflict or disagreement about which of our schools gets to make the initial recruitment. They don’t like losing out, so they try to recruit a family member.”

Well that part was news to me, at least. I stared at him for a second. “You mean you think that they were watching my dad to see if he had potential to be a Heretic, and when the werewolves attacked, they jumped in. And… and then what, they just took him with them and left?”

“It would fit the fact that they went to a house on the other side of town before leaving,” October replied. “That was probably their homebase. From what we can tell, it was sold a couple months ago to a buyer that we can’t track down. Looks like a dead end, which also fits the Heretic theory. Though whether it’s one of Eden’s Gardens or independents, we just don’t know yet.”

“What about Hisao?” I asked then. “If Eden’s Garden had anything to do with it, he’d know, wouldn’t he?”

Gaia spoke up. “We’ve asked him. He says he’ll talk to his contacts, but all the tribes don’t always communicate with each other. If it’s one of the more secretive ones, or one that doesn’t get along with his tribe, there’s no way to know for sure if they’d actually tell him.”

“So–so people from Eden’s Garden will just take other family members when they don’t get the student that they want?” I was still having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around that.

He shrugged a little. “Yeah, though to be fair, we’ve done it to them before too. It’s a whole thing.” Waving that off, he focused on me. “The point is, we think your dad is… okay. He wasn’t killed by the wolves or anything, and it seems like what took them out were definitely Heretics. Several, from the look of things. He might’ve been hurt, which might be why they took him with them. Or maybe, like I said, they were going for recruitment. We don’t know yet. We’re trying to track them down, but it’s only been a few hours. And you were gone for most of it. Just… give it a little time. If your dad calls you, let us know, okay? It could be Eden’s Garden that saved him, or it could be an independent.”

“Or maybe,” Patrick abruptly announced while hanging up his phone, “it was someone else.”

Gaia raised an eyebrow at that, speaking up for me. “Did you have someone in mind?”

The well-dressed man nodded once before looking straight at me. “Maybe it was the same woman who just killed eleven of our people.”

As I stared at him in confusion, he went on. “A woman who could take on twelve fully-trained Heretics who were in the middle of a mission to clear out a nest of Strangers, killed eleven of them all by herself, and let one go. A female Heretic with a golden kill-aura, like yours. 

“You know anyone who fits that description, Miss Chambers?”

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Mini-Interlude 31 – Calafia and Ruthers

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on a conversation between Calafia and Ruthers shortly after Joselyn’s disappearance. Please enjoy. 

About Ten Years Ago

“Do you ever stop and look at what they’ve built?”

As she spoke, the woman known as Calafia dipped her hand into the cone-shaped paper bag, coming out with several kernels of popcorn. She popped the buttery, salted treat into her mouth without ever looking behind her toward the man who had just walked across the grassy park to meet her. She kept her gaze on the ducks steadily swimming across the pond.

Gabriel Ruthers, the bulldog masquerading as a man, stepped beside her. He had no popcorn. Instead, he held a newspaper under one arm. His voice was a grunt. “I assume you’re not talking about the ducks.”

Taking another small handful of the popcorn that she had purchased from the vendor at the edge of the park, Calafia nodded slightly. “Humanity, Gabriel. They’ve advanced so far, so quickly. Look at their buildings, their cities compared to just a few hundred years ago.”

“Compared to when we began nudging them, you mean?” the man replied simply. “I wasn’t in on your conversations then. But I heard enough. And I recall hearing that you objected to it.”

Her head bowed slightly. “I did,” she confirmed. “I thought that we should allow humans to develop naturally, rather than providing our little… hints to guide them.”

Ruthers watched the pond for a moment, his brow knitted in a frown before he replied, “We owed it to ‘em. After what happened with the necromancer…” He squinted, fist tightening at his side before continuing. “They deserved a little help. If we hadn’t… if I hadn’t… if…” Pausing, the man shook his head, setting on a flat, “Things could’ve been different. We owed them a little help. Taking a little bit of the technology we scavenged from some of those Strangers and using it to help give humanity a little push is the least we could’ve done. It helped give them a fighting chance.”

For a few seconds, neither of the two said anything. They continued to watch the simple, swimming ducks in silence. Eventually, however, it was Ruthers who spoke. “It’s official,” he declared, passing the newspaper to her without looking away from the water.

Calafia didn’t need to look at the paper to know what it said. After all, she’d already read the article herself. But there was no sense in telling him that. No sense in giving the man any idea that she paid any more attention to the situation than was absolutely necessary. If the time came that he ever had cause to think back over their interactions, looking for hints that she knew too much or was too involved, she wanted to give the man as little as possible.

To that end, the woman carefully took the paper in one hand and glanced at the headline. “Local Sheriff Still Missing,” she read aloud. “I take it they haven’t found a body then.”

Because of course, the subject was Joselyn Atherby. The subject was almost always Joselyn Atherby when it came to Ruthers. The woman hadn’t even been a Heretic for over a decade, and yet she was still the first thing on his mind. He was as obsessed as… well, usually when she gave examples of someone being obsessed with something, ‘Ruthers and Atherby’ was her go-to. It was more difficult from the other end of it.

And now that Joselyn had disappeared, he had begun talking to every Committee member separately. She’d already heard about what he wanted to ask. But again, Calafia remained silent about it, letting him bring it up.  

“Of course not,” Ruthers snapped. “You know they won’t. Not unless she decides to manufacture one to give the husband some kind of closure.”

Counting silently to five in her head, Calafia used the time to eat another handful of popcorn before responding. “The husband, you say,” she observed. “Not the daughter as well?”

He was quiet for a moment then before clearing his throat. “Yes, well, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”

There was no sense in appearing to be completely obtuse. Even if she hadn’t already been aware of what the man wanted, Calafia would have been able to put it together. “You want to take the girl.”

“Take her?” Ruthers echoed, glancing away from the pond and to her. She felt his eyes study her for a moment before he spoke again. “What I want–” He stopped, taking a breath before letting it out. Then he started again, softer that time. “What I want is for that girl to have a chance.”

Pausing at that, Calafia quietly asked, “What do you mean by that?”

His response was soft. “What I mean is… we can argue all day about whether Atherby regained her memories and took off, or if someone else found her. You know what I think. But this isn’t about that argument. We can save it for another day. This is about the girl, the child. And here’s the thing, whatever happened to Atherby, her daughter is going to have a rough time.”

She thought about that briefly before looking back to the ducks. “Because if Atherby went back to her old ways, she’ll come back for her daughter.”

“And pull her into… that,” Ruthers confirmed. “She’ll have that girl mixing up with Strangers and–” He cut himself off, clearly avoiding going down that line of thought. “She’ll get her daughter involved in her war. And if she was taken by someone else, that person must be strong enough to avoid the mnemosyne spell, which means–”

“They’re powerful, and dangerous.” Calafia sighed then. “And you think they’ll come back for the girl.”

“One way or another,” he replied, “she’s in danger. That girl is either going to be recruited by her mother, or abducted by the same being who was powerful enough to ignore our memory spells and take Atherby. Right now, at this moment, it doesn’t matter who’s right. I’ll set that aside. What matters is the girl. If we don’t take her in, she’ll be in danger.”

That was… he had a point. Not that she thought for a moment that the woman would actually have abandoned her family in the first place, but that second option, that whoever had taken her would come back for the child… Calafia frowned a little bit to herself, watching the pond for a moment as she collected her thoughts. “It would involve taking her away from her father.” She glanced that way. “One would think that you would be against that sort of thing. After all, the man already lost his wife.”

His response was a sigh. “You’re right, most of the time, taking a Bystander child away from her Bystander father would make me sick. But this? Either Atherby is going to drag her daughter into this and the man will lose his kid anyway, or this mystery force that took her is going to take her and kill him in the process.

“That’s what it comes down to. No matter who’s right, the kid and the dad are both in danger if she stays. I mean–” Ruthers sighed once more. “I know that I’m the bad guy here when it comes to this sort of thing, all right? I understand that. It’s okay. Most of the time, I don’t give a shit, as long as we can all do our jobs and keep this fucking world spinning. But this time, it’s not about that. It’s about that girl and her dad. And yeah, separating them’s gonna hurt in the short term. But if it’s between hurting them now so they both survive, or leaving them alone and letting them die just so we don’t have to feel like the bad guys… shit, I’ll go ahead and be the asshole. I’ll be the monster. Yeah, I think we should take her in. I think it’s the best way to keep the kid and her dad safe.”

Decades ago (a drop in the bucket of her life), Calafia had made the choice to allow Joselyn Atherby to take her son away from her, to hide him so that neither she, nor any of her fellow Counselors, would know where he was. Not that Ruthers knew that. As far as he and all of the others were concerned, Calafia’s son had been killed. That was the way it had to be. Since he had been turned by that weretiger, everyone would have known the truth. And they would have killed him, would have killed her son if she didn’t send him away and cut herself off from him.

So she did have some experience when it came to deciding that it was better to separate the parent from the child. When it came down to it, what mattered more, Felicity Chambers’s immediate happiness and that of her father… or their lives? Ruthers did have a point. Sometimes what appeared to be the callous, unfeeling solution was best in the long run.

And yet… losing contact with her own child, that had been her choice. She knew that wherever he was, Joselyn had ensured that he had a chance. She had given Calafia her word that they would keep him safe.

What was the right answer here? Was she betraying Joselyn by entertaining the idea of taking her child away from her husband? Or would it be more of a betrayal to leave the girl where she was, as a target for whatever had taken her to begin with?

Damn it, why couldn’t Gabriel Prosser have given the woman her memory back so that she could find a way to actually disappear, with her husband and child?

Thinking about it for a few more long seconds, Calafia finally came to a decision, shaking her head. “The best I can offer you is a compromise as part of the vote. We maintain the surveillance, maybe even establish a stricter set. If we see anything that indicates that the girl’s either in danger, or being contacted by her mother or any of her people… then we take her in.

“I’m sorry, Gabriel, I can’t agree to taking a girl away from her only remaining parent. Not like this. Not… yet. When–if there’s any sign of any of that, then yes. You’ll have my vote. But until then… higher security, continued surveillance, monitoring the girl… it’s the best I can do.”

For a moment, the man said nothing. She thought he was gearing himself up for an argument. But in the end, he put a hand on her shoulder. His voice was gruff.  “I’m sorry about your son. Losing him, it was… That–this must…” For once, the man seemed to realize that he shouldn’t say anything else. And he also chose not to argue any further, saying only, “I won’t give up trying to change your mind.”

“You wouldn’t be you if you did, Gabriel,” she replied quietly.

For a few minutes, they stood on the edge of the pond like that, watching the ducks. Eventually, his hand slipped from her shoulder, and the man stepped back. “I have more people to talk to, but if you need–”

“I’m quite all right, Gabriel,” Calafia informed him. “I’m going to stay here and watch the ducks for a while though.” A pause then, before she added, “Thank you.”

He grunted in response, watching her for a moment before turning on his heel to walk away. The man was clearly disappointed by her answer, but tactful enough at least to avoid pushing the issue.

Many different thoughts swam through Calafia’s mind then, much like the ducks in the pond ahead of her. Like them, there was far more going on beneath the surface than her still and stoic demeanor betrayed. But one thing above all else, above the thought of what Ruthers would do next, or who had taken Joselyn, or what would happen to her daughter, one thought was louder than all of that.

She missed her son.

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