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 particular 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.”