Month: August 2017

Investigations 25-05 – Rudolph Parsons (Interlude Arc)

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted yesterday focusing on Sariel/Larissa and the history of the Seosten. If you haven’t seen it yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

Sunday Evening, January 28th, 2018 (One day before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Rudolph Parsons never got emotional about anything. That wasn’t exactly true, since he had plenty of emotions. He just didn’t see the point of showing them. Not that he was some emotionless robot or anything. He could be happy, sad, or anything in between. But most of the time, he didn’t really express much of that emotion. He couldn’t even really explain why. It just felt… well, in some ways it felt embarrassing to get overly emotional, either in a negative way or a positive way. It wasn’t just expressing sorrow or anger he had issues with. Overly expressive displays of happiness and amusement were hard too. He hated the idea of clapping and laughing in public, and going as far as cheering was completely out of the question. Let alone anything negative like yelling or… crying. The very thought made him shudder.

A good part of that had to do with his upbringing. After all, Warren Boyd Parsons, Rudolph’s father, treated emotions as if they were some kind of plague unleashed upon the world by maniacal Strangers and easily turned lethal through the sharing of them. Raised in Victorian London, Warren still dressed and behaved as though those days had never ended, wearing a flawless burgundy velvet vest over his full high collar, crisply pressed and buttoned white shirt, black ascot, dark pants, and of course, his perfectly-shined black leather boots. It wasn’t always the exact same outfit, but it was always along the same lines, and he wore them whenever he went any further than his own bedroom, which tended to attract attention in public. Attention which the man studiously and emphatically ignored. Because to not ignore it would be to show an emotion, and Warren Boyd Parsons would sooner cut open his own chest and hand an onlooker his heart than expose its existence in any other way.

Not that he was a bad father. He never raised his voice, he never struck any of his children, he provided everything they needed materially and he ensured that they were always cared for. Rudolph knew his father loved him, in his way. It simply wasn’t in the man to be demonstrative about it. And yet, growing up that way had its toll. While Rudolph wasn’t quite as repressed as his father when it came to emotions, it still wasn’t his first instinct to show them. Showing emotions in private was one thing, while the idea of public displays still made the boy cringe. Inwardly, of course. Must keep up appearances and all that.

Maybe that was why his great-great grandfather had taken such an interest in him. Far different from Rudolph’s father/his own great-grandson, Donald Therasis was never hesitant to show any emotion the second he felt it. And the emotions he felt most of the time was cheerfulness and joy, particularly when it came to the ideas of teaching and sharing information. The man considered everyone his students, and was genuinely tickled every time he was able to help them in some way, never making any attempt to hide his delight. And in Rudolph’s case, his great-great-grandfather consistently went above and beyond in an attempt to include him and pull the boy out of his shell.

Which was kind of why lying to and manipulating the man felt so unbelievably shitty.

“So,” Grandpa Donald started casually while leading Rudolph and Doug (who had accompanied him for this while the rest of the team stayed back) through the hospital on Sunday evening, “remind me what this report was that made you kids want to see Josiah?”

“Extra credit project,” Rudolph explained after a moment, biting his lip before continuing the way that they had rehearsed while trying to make it not sound rehearsed. “It’s for Professor Ross’s class, Heretical History. We wanted to do a project on someone who used to teach at Crossroads, but doesn’t anymore. You know, see how their lives have changed with different careers, and see what Crossroads was like a long time ago. Just that kind of thing.”

Grandpa Donald looked back toward them, and for just a second, Rudolph was afraid that the man was going to push the issue. In the end, however, he just nodded. “Well, okay then! Here we go.” Gesturing to a door, he cautioned, “Now remember, Josiah only has about a couple hours to talk before his next class. So make sure you don’t keep him too long, alright?”

The boys emphatically promised, and Grandpa Donald quickly excused himself to take care of a patient. With a quick glance to one another, Rudolph and Douglas stepped to the open door, the latter giving a soft rap against the doorjamb while they poked their heads inside.

Whatever the place normally was, it had been set up as some kind of miniature classroom, with four tables arranged in front of a larger desk. Each table had three chairs behind it, allowing twelve students to sit in and listen to the lecture. Behind the main desk itself, Josiah Carfried (a man who looked like he was in his late thirties with stringy blonde hair, a good build, and a repeatedly broken nose) glanced up at the sound of the knock before rising quickly. “Oh, hey there,” he greeted them while stepping around the desk to approach. “You must be the boys. Ah, lemme guess…” To Rudolph, he lifted his chin, “You’re Warren’s kid, right?”

After confirming that and introducing Douglas, Rudolph asked, “Did you really teach at Crossroads two-hundred years ago?” Even if this was a cover for their true intentions (and as laid-back and unemotional as the boy tended to be), actually talking to someone who had been a part of the school that long ago and then left was still actually pretty interesting.

Giving a slightly crooked smile (to match his crooked nose), Josiah nodded. “Sure did. That’s why you guys came in, right? Come on, have a seat. We can talk about what the place was like under old man Ruthers.” Pausing, he added, “Let’s just say you’ve got it easier now.”

They did just that. It would’ve been obvious if they didn’t listen to the stories that they had supposedly made the trip for in the first place, so Rudolph and Doug took the offered seats and started to ask the man questions about what the school had been like back then. And Rudolph had to agree, they were lucky to be going there under Gaia Sinclaire instead.

For an hour and a half, they listened to and questioned the man. Doug did most of the talking on their side after the initial part. Rudolph was content (as he was with most things) to simply sit back and listen while letting the other two guide the discussion.

Eventually, Doug managed to find the right opening. Raising a hand, he asked, “But you’re coming back, right? I mean, coming back to visit the school for Professor Dare’s Track class thing.” Gesturing toward Rudolph, the boy added, “That’s what he heard, anyway.”

Blinking once, Josiah nodded. “Oh, well, yeah. You heard right.” Smiling slyly at Rudolph, he asked, “You’re part of that group, aren’t you? Gonna be there for the thing tomorrow?”

Rudolph gave a slow nod at that, carefully choosing his words. This part was incredibly important. “I sort-of overheard that you’re gonna have a contest, with like… a prize.”  

The man hesitated, looking briefly uncertain before finally shrugging it off. “Sure, yeah. I guess it’s not really unfair if you know about the prize and all that. You can’t exactly practice for what we’re doing, so it’s not that much of an advantage. So yeah, we will be doing… something with your group, and the pair that pulls it off is gonna win a trip into New York.”

Beside Rudolph, Doug asked, “Pairs, how does that work? I mean, how do you set them up? Jazz and Rudolph are from the same team, but what about students that are there solo?”

“Oh, that?” Josiah explained easily, “I’ll just divide the groups up into pairs beforehand. You ah, might not get on a pairing with your teammate, Rudolph. You okay with that?”

Rudolph shrugged. “It’s okay, I can work with someone else.” Hesitating a bit, he asked, “How’re you dividing us, anyway? Choosing names out of a hat, or what?” This was the important part. They had to make this work, or risk leaving what pairing he and Jazz ended up with completely to chance. And with something this important, they couldn’t do that.

Hell, up to this point in this whole investigation, Rudolph hadn’t invested too much into it. Not that he didn’t care about Roxa (even if he didn’t know her as well as the others). He was just less invested in the theory that Flick had something to do with it, even if Doug’s power had kept pointing him at her.  After the interactions that he’d had with her, he just didn’t believe she was the kind of monster that the others thought she was. There had to be something else to it.

Besides, Doug’s power was pointing them at Flick, which everyone else was taking as her being somehow responsible for Roxa’s disappearance. But what if it was pointing them at her because she was a witness? Or because she knew something she didn’t know that she knew. Or… there were a dozen different options that they could be pointed at Flick for beyond her being a cackling villain. But arguing with the team he’d just met and who barely trusted him as it was wouldn’t have accomplished anything. And he hadn’t yet figured out the best way to go about fixing this whole thing.

So a part of him had been dragging his feet even more than usual. But this, this was a chance to actually have a face-to-face discussion with the other girl about everything that was going on, a way of confronting her away from everything at Crossroads. And that, that he could get behind.

“Well,” Josiah replied, “I thought I’d use a sock, actually. But basically, yeah. I know it’s not really… what’s the word you kids use these days, sexy? I know it’s not some sexy power or anything, but sometimes simple is best. Write the names on some paper, tear ‘em all off, then pull ‘em out of a sock.” He winked then. “Easy enough, right? I ah, just gotta give Virginia a quick call and get that list of names.”

And there it was. Doug paused slightly before speaking up, his tone as casual as possible considering the importance of the moment. “Oh, uh, Rudolph could probably help with that, right?” He glanced toward the boy. “You know who everyone on the Investigation track is?”

Rudolph coughed, doing his best to look uninterested. That, at least, was one thing that he had a lot of practice in. “Um, yeah,” he drawled slowly. “I guess I know who’s on the Track.”

“Rudolph could write down the names,” Doug suggested, nodding that way. “I mean, that’d be fair, right? He’s not picking them or anything, so there’s not, you know, some advantage.”  

“Eh.” Josiah shrugged, and Rudolph had the distinct impression that for all their effort to make this sound as casual as possible, the man wouldn’t actually care that much if they were trying to fix the teams. “Yeah, sounds about right. You wanna write down those names before the next class gets in here then? You can help me pick ‘em out.”

Flipping open the same notebook that he’d been scribbling notes in the whole time that they’d been asking Josiah questions about his time at Crossroads, Doug carefully tore out one page, one very specifically prepared page. “Here man,” he offered while extending it to Rudolph. “Write ‘em on this.”

Taking the offered paper, Rudolph had to focus to make sure his hand didn’t shake too much. This was the whole reason they were here. Josiah might not really care if they wanted to work with specific people, but it was better if he didn’t know that for sure. If he started to think that they intentionally put one of their own team with someone from Flick’s team, he might say something to the wrong person and then… well, it was just best if the man didn’t suspect that they had any interest in Flick’s team at all. Which was why they weren’t going to put Rudolph with one of the twins. No. They’d be using Jazz instead. That way, if Josiah did start thinking they’d done anything, he’d look at whoever Rudolph ended up with.

Setting the paper out on the table, he started writing down names, listing them out loud as he did so. Each name, he put directly next to a tiny, almost imperceptible black dot that had been added to the paper. One dot for each possible name. All but two were black, while that pair were red. On each of the red dots, he wrote and announced Jazz’s and Sands’ names, in turn.

It continued. Writing down the names of every student in the Freshman Investigation Track for the second semester, Rudolph held it up so that Josiah could see before starting to tear the names off into little individual slips. One at a time, he tore the page up and then jumbled all the pieces a bit, using the moment to cover as he focused. It wasn’t a hard spell, but it did require a second of focus to trigger. So he used the time while straightening up to do it.

“Yeah, I bet you wanna see who you’re gonna end up partnered with, huh?” the man guessed with a wink.

The two boys looked at each other, before Rudolph nodded. “I guess so, sir. But um, could you maybe not…”

“Not tell anyone you helped out with this so you don’t get blamed if people don’t like their partner? You got it,” Josiah assured him. “Time comes, we don’t know each other.” He seemed amused by the idea of having a secret like that, and chuckled to himself while tugging a pair of clean wool socks out of his jacket pocket (why he had them on him Rudolph wasn’t going to ask). Then the man pulled the socks apart before holding one open. “Alright, dump the scraps in here.”

Rudolph did so, pushing the bits of paper deep down in before stepping back. He and Doug watched as the man reached down in, taking out one scrap first before looking at the name. “Travis Colby and…” Reaching into the bag again, he felt around before coming out with another bit of paper. “Alan Sailers.” He passed it to Rudolph to check. “Uh, okay, yeah, you guys tell me if there’s gonna be any problem with any of these pairings, alright? Sure, random, but if I’m putting mortal enemies together or anything, lemme know.”

After the boys assured him that they would, the drawing continued. Josiah would pull a name out, announce it, and then hand the scrap to one of the boys to check that he had the name right and there wasn’t a problem. Rudolph was eventually placed with one of the girls that he hadn’t had much interaction with, while Scout Mason was assigned to be partners with Kurt Lewell. More names were drawn, and then the one they had been waiting for. Jazz’s scrap was pulled out, before the man reached back in to take the next one.

Time to trigger the spell. Focusing on the last bit of paper he’d been handed, the one with Jazz’s name, Rudolph set off the spell that they had prepared the paper with, the one that Doug had remembered seeing back in the library. From the moment that the spell was triggered, the next scrap of the page (assuming it was one of the bits with black dots) that was touched would switch the writing that was on it with the writing from the nearest scrap with a red dot. Essentially, no matter what piece Josiah grabbed, it would immediately switch its writing with the only remaining red dotted scrap that was still in the sock, the one with Sands’ name on it.

Clearly having no idea that the boys had just accomplished the very thing they’d come for, Josiah continued on, listing out all the names one by one and pairing them up. Dutifully, Rudolph and Doug kept helping. But the hard part was over now. Jazz and Sands were going to be on a team. And whatever the contest ended up being, Jazz would send a text to Doug, he would ask his power his one question, and then give her the answer.

Jazz and Sands would end up winning, and then they could talk to Flick in New York, away from Crossroads and anything that might’ve been set-up to either help the blonde girl or keep her in line, depending on how willingly involved with this she actually was. Either way, they’d get answers. And if Rudolph had anything to do with it, they’d do so gently.


“I’ll run you guys back to Crossroads just as soon as my shift’s over,” Grandpa Donald assured the boys a short time later as he led them toward the cafeteria. “You sure you’ll be okay until then?”

The two of them nodded absently. Rudolph didn’t know about Douglas, but he was ready to fall over and just relax until it was time to leave. They’d done their part, as stressful as the whole thing had been to make sure it went off right.

Chuckling a little, Grandpa Donald gave the boys a quick wink. “Yeah, this place throws a lot of people off. Just like your classmates when they came in for their project. That um, Avalon and her team.”

Avalon and her… wait. Wait. Barely stopping himself from skidding abruptly to a very obvious halt in reaction to that, Rudolph blinked over at his teammate, who was staring back at him. “Oh,” he managed after a second. “Right, Flick said they talked to you.”

Wait… wait… hold it… don’t say it too soon… don’t be too obvious… Forcing himself to count to five as slowly as he could, Rudolph finally squeezed the next words out as faux-casually as he could. “So what were they working on here anyway?”

Grandpa Donald told them about the tour, about how they’d come to see how one of Crossroads’ largest medical facilities worked. Through it all, Rudolph didn’t buy it. There was something else. Flick, and maybe the others, had come for something else. He wasn’t ready to throw her entirely under the bus. A big part of him still thought she wasn’t exactly a bad guy in this. But she did know something. Probably a lot of somethings. That much he was sure of, especially when he remembered her reaction to the name Fossor once Jasmine had mentioned hearing that vampire girl mention it while on the phone with Headmistress Sinclaire.

No, there was definitely something else, another reason they’d come here. So after Grandpa Donald directed them to where they could get some food with the orange card that he gave them, and excused himself for the time being, Rudolph turned quickly toward his teammate. “Can you–”

“Already on it,” the other boy replied. Closing his eyes, he asked in that distinct voice that came when he used his once-a-day power. “What were Flick and the others on her team really doing when they visited this place, besides what Donald Therasis thinks they came for?”

After a few seconds, the boy straightened up from his seat, glancing around briefly before gesturing. “This way.” He turned, making his way out of the cafeteria while the rest of the staff around them ignored the boys.

The two of them cautiously walked through the hospital. No one stopped them, but they also didn’t want to run into Grandpa Donald and have to explain what they were doing.

Eventually, they reached the long-term care wing. The place was almost deserted with just a single nurse behind the desk at the entrance. When she saw the boys, the young-looking woman straightened up. “Oh, boys, you can’t…” She paused, stepping around to join them as her expression softened. “You came to see your teacher, didn’t you?”

Without missing a beat, Doug was nodding. “Yes, ma’am. Is she okay?”

The nurse looked indecisive for a moment before answering. “I’m sorry, there’s been no change. But… here.” Stepping past them, the woman led the boys to one of the rooms, where a woman lay.

Professor Tangle. Right, she was still here. Was this why Flick had come here? But… why? One of the others might’ve said that she came for something nefarious, but Rudolph was just confused. What did Tangle have to do with any of this?

Feeling a nudge at his side, he glanced that way in time to see Douglas mouth silently to him, ‘Distract her.’ Then the boy nodded back out of the room, toward the nurse’s station. Obviously, there was something else, his power was leading him that way.

So, Rudolph did his best to keep the woman distracted for a couple minutes. He asked how Tangle was doing, if there’d been any improvement at all or noticeable reaction to their treatments. Anything to keep her talking.

Before long, the nurse had to excuse herself. As Rudolph turned with her, he saw Doug. The other boy was standing right in the doorway, looking like he had just seen a ghost.

“Oh…” the nurse saw Doug’s expression and winced. “I’m sorry. You must really care about her.”

Making the appropriate noises until the woman admonished them to leave the area before someone else caught them there, the boys quickly walked away.

“What?” Rudolph asked. “What did you find?”

Douglas didn’t answer right away. He was clearly bracing himself. “Liesje Aken.”

Blinking at that, Rudolph frowned. “You mean Bosch’s daughter? What about her?”

Again, Douglas paused before answering. “The part of the file that Flick was looking at, the reason they snuck in there. It was all about these blood tests. Three of them. One for Tangle that was taken about nineteen years ago. Then another one taken almost a year later, and the third a little bit after that.”

He looked over toward Rudolph then. “The first test showed a partial match, distant relation. But the other two were a lot closer. Direct descendant-type close.”

It took Rudolph a second, then his eyes widened. “Wait, you mean–”

Douglas nodded. “Yeah. Direct descendants of Liesje Aken.”

“Three descendants, three relations… and Tangle’s one of them…” Rudolph mused slowly as he came to terms with the news.

“And now she’s in the hospital, in a coma,” Doug reminded him. “That’s not a coincidence, dude.”

Rudolph shook his head. “But what about the other two? Descendants of Bosch, direct descendants. I–wait. wait a second. Do you… Roxa…” 

“Doesn’t have any parents,” Doug finished for him. “And they keep saying she had to disappear for–”

“–for family reasons,” Rudolph returned the favor of finishing the other boy’s sentence. “Okay. Wait. So Roxa disappeared. Flick and her team were searching these records and found out about this relation. Now your power keeps telling us that Flick knows something about why Roxa disappeared. And everyone keeps saying that Roxa had to leave for family reasons, a family she wasn’t supposed to have because she was an orphan. But… but if she–if she was–Doug, you don’t think…”

“I dunno, man,” Doug slowly intoned.

“But it sure looks like Roxa is related to the founder of Crossroads.”

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Mini-Interlude 37 – Larissa and Sariel Continued

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Sariel and Larissa’s continued interaction. 

Eight Years Ago

“And what do we do after we add the butter, the sugar, and the eggs, girls?” Larissa asked her daughters with a raised eyebrow, looking back and forth between the two nine-year old girls as they all stood in the kitchen. “What’s the next step in our glorious culinary confection?”

“Confection?” Sarah and Sandoval both echoed together, the confusion and disappointment obvious in their joined voices.

“I thought we were making cookies,” Sarah continued, eyes darting from the bowl to her mother.   

Sandoval nodded in agreement, adding, “Yeah, not um, conviction. Wait, isn’t that when you hafeta go to jail? Or when you believe something really hard? Wait, are we believing cookies?”  

“This better not be a ‘the cookie is in your mind’ situation, Mommy,” Sarah informed her mother. “Because I want the cookie in my mouth.” To demonstrate, she pointed first at her temple, then into her open mouth a couple of times. “Not here, here. I don’t gotta be extrasentyell yet.”

Covering her mouth, Larissa contained her snicker. “Existential, baby. And no, this isn’t about imagining cookies. I said confection. What do we do when there’s a word we don’t understand?”

Together, the two girls chorused, “Ask you how to spell it and get the dictionary.” They did so while retrieving the heavy book from its place in the living room. Sarah held the book open while Sandoval flipped the pages and ran her finger along them. “Con… con…. Fe… fe… fection. Confection, there it is! Um, lesse, it says…  A dish or delicacy made with sweet ingredients. Oh.”

“Like cookies!” Sarah announced then. “Or cake, or brownies, or candy bars, or doughnuts, or–”

Chuckling, Larissa held a hand up. “Or a lot. But cookies are the ones that we’re working on today.” Gesturing to the mixing bowl, she repeated, “So what’s after butter, sugar, and eggs?”

“Vanilla!” both girls chorused, eyes shining as they each grabbed for the bottle in question. After fumbling with it a little bit, they settled. Sarah was the one who held it up for their mother to take.

So they continued to make the cookies that way, one step at a time. Larissa let the girls do as much as possible, entertaining their questions whether they had to do with the baking or anything else. She adored listening to her twins chatter, seeing the way they interacted with each other as well as the world, and how curious they both were about everything. They were amazing, and whenever she heard their voices or even caught a glimpse of the two, Larissa knew how lucky she was. Her children. Her babies. She would do anything for them. Anything.

It was that thought that was on Larissa’s mind, as she watched her girls happily munching away at the cookies that they had helped make, when a soft, now-familiar voice spoke up in her mind.


It had been a little over a month since the first time that voice had spoken to her, when the… Stranger had telepathically contacted Larissa before the woman behind it had saved her from the gargoyles. A month of wondering if she would ever hear from the strange woman again. A month of repeatedly debating whether she should tell anyone, and always deciding against it.

“You okay, Mommy?” Sandoval asked curiously, still holding her mostly-eaten cookie in one hand while watching her mother from her place at the kitchen table next to her sister.

Finding a smile, Larissa nodded. “Yup, Mommy just remembered she has a little work to do over at her office. Think you girls can be good here by yourself for a little bit and stay out of trouble?”  

The twins nodded vigorously. After making the two promise to eat only two more cookies each (and making it clear that she knew exactly how many would be left if they followed that rule), Larissa made her way out of the building. Instead of going to her office in the main school building, however, she glanced around the Crossroads grounds before slipping a hand into the pocket of the light sweatshirt that she’d grabbed on the way out. Her fingers found what they were questing for, and she came out with a simple plastic toothbrush. Or, it had been simple, before she had spent the time to etch a series of runes into the handle. The brush, after being finished, had been hidden in a safe spot in their apartment until just a minute earlier.

Now, Larissa triggered the spell that she had enchanted into the brush for just this occasion. As she did so, the view of world spun around her like one of those little merry-go-rounds at some playgrounds. She felt her stomach twist a little bit, nausea heaving itself up before settling once more along with her view  of the world. A view that had changed dramatically. Now, instead of seeing the school grounds and island around her, she saw the interior of a dingy apartment somewhere in Philadelphia. An apartment that she had paid for a few days after the incident in New York, realizing that she needed a safe, private, quiet place away from any prying eyes.

After taking a moment to ensure the apartment was still clear and that the privacy enchantments she had set up over the past few weeks were active, Larissa took a breath before letting it out. “Sariel,” she spoke out loud, finding herself whispering for some reason. “Are you still there?”

A minute or two of silence passed then before the other woman’s voice spoke up faintly. “Almost have it… Hold on.” Again, silence reigned for another minute, though there was some faint feeling of almost electrical energy in the air, nearly to the point of making Larissa’s hair stand up.

Then… the woman was there. She appeared a few feet away, facing the opposite direction before turning back. She looked… tired, but gratified. “Larissa,” she murmured under her breath. “You–” Pausing, the woman slowly looked around for a moment, taking in the sight of the dingy, completely furniture-less one-room apartment. “It looks like you need a new interior decorator.”

Mouth opening and shutting a couple times, Larissa flushed slightly. “I just wanted a private place to–I didn’t want anyone around to see–I thought it’d be better if we–who are you?!”

Meeting her gaze, the woman nodded slowly. “You’re right. You deserve the truth. All of it.”

“You–” Larissa started, biting her lip. “You said your name was Sariel. But you also called yourself… you told that gargoyle that you were…” She trailed off, hesitant to actually say it.

Smiling faintly at that, the other woman nodded. “Artemis. That was… a long time ago. But it’s a name that still holds some sway in certain beings. I needed to convince the other gargoyle to leave before I lost the connection to you, and that was the easiest, quickest way to do it.”

“Artemis, the real–I mean.” Larissa stopped, catching her thoughts for a moment before starting again. “I should be telling someone about what happened, about hearing you, about you–about what you said about how… how you possessed me. This is insane. I should be telling them.”

The expression on Sariel’s face was sad as she replied, “You wouldn’t get very far if you tried.”

Taking a reflexive step back, Larissa frowned at the woman. “Is that supposed to be a threat?”

“No.” Sariel’s head shook. “Larissa, I’d never hurt you. I meant that you wouldn’t get very far because one of them would stop you if you tried to expose them. My people wouldn’t let you.”

“Your… people?” Larissa bit her lip. “That gargoyle, he called you a… a, umm, a Seosten?”

The other woman gave a slight nod. “That’s what we are, what I am. Seosten. We’re…” She hesitated, considering her words briefly. “A few hundred thousand years ago, we were like you. Humans, I mean, not Heretics. We lived on a world not that different from this one, now. A little more advanced than what you call Bystanders, but they’ll reach where we were before too much longer. We were advancing quickly, starting to really explore our solar system, the depths of our oceans, we wanted to know everything there was to know. We pushed the boundaries. And then… then we pushed just a little too far. Our scientists, they created… him.”

“Him?” Larissa echoed, confused as her brow furrowed. “Him who?”

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She had to take a few seconds to collect herself before speaking quietly, her voice making it clear that she didn’t really want to say the name at all. “Cronus.”

Staring at the other woman, Larissa shook her head. “Cronus, as in the Titan? Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed in that soft voice. “The scientists, they… it was their attempt to clone a living being, to create a fully-functional living clone of one of us. The son of the project lead, he was… sick. His father was desperate to find a way of saving him. His solution was two-fold. First he had to create a body for his son, to replace the one that was dying. That was Cronus. His son’s name was Cron, and think of the -us addition as meaning… two or junior, another one.”

Larissa took that in. Aliens. She knew that some Strangers were simply beings from another world, but this was the first time that she’d really thought about them having a civilization like Earth. “What–” She started before giving a soft cough. “What about the other part of it? You said two.”

With a slight, sad little smile, Sariel nodded once more. “I did. The second part came because Caelus, the boy’s father, had to have a way of transplanting his son into the new body.”

Thinking about that briefly, Larissa straightened. “Possession. You mentioned possession.”    

The other woman raised an eyebrow slightly. “Yes, good. Exactly. We weren’t–back then, we didn’t have the ability to possess people, or anything. Besides the clone Caelus created for Cron, he also engineered a genetic modification. Injecting his son with it created a connection between Cron and his clone. A connection that allowed the two of them to merge. That was the first, very, very early stages of what we use now. The start of our ability to possess people.

“At first,” she continued. “It was just that, a connection between Cron and Cronus, his clone. That’s all it was meant to be. But… but something happened. The genetic alteration that allowed Cron’s body to… to absorb into his clone mutated. It didn’t just take him. When Caelus saw that it was successful, that his dying son had been absorbed by the body of his clone, he hugged the boy. But touching him… when his father touched him, Cronus absorbed him too. He took his father’s body, his mind, his… soul if you want to call it that. He absorbed it just like he had Cron. Cron, Cronus, Caelus, they were all there. They were all the same, stuck in a body.”

Larissa was staring. “You mean, he made the possession thing, it was supposed to link the two of them by their DNA. But his DNA was similar enough that it took him too, when they touched.”

With another nod of confirmation, Sariel continued. “And Cronus’s mind, what there was of it, wasn’t entirely stable to begin with. Mostly because it was never meant to be stable, or even present. Cron was supposed to take over, so Cronus was supposed to be a blank slate. Except it didn’t work that way. There was three minds in there. Three minds all going a little bit nuts.”

Swallowing a little, Larissa offered a weak, “This, um, this doesn’t really sound like a story that’s going to get better before it gets worse.”

“A lot worse,” the other woman agreed. “The doctors that Caelus was working with, they saw what happened. They tried to intervene, but… no one knows which of the three minds inside Cronus was responsible. Maybe all of them, maybe none of them. The point is, they defended themselves. Or they defended himself, or–however you want to put it. The doctors, security, they all tried to step in. He–Cronus killed all of them. Call it self-defense or murder, the result’s the same. Cronus killed them. Then he tried—or they tried–whatever. Cronus tried to absorb the bodies. He wanted more. More minds inside him to work together to figure out how to fix it. That’s how it was at first. He wanted more mental power, more brains working together to separate the three of them. Or at least the two of them. He wanted to undo it. So he tried to take more minds into his body. Except, like I said, the possession thing was only for Cron, until…”

“Until?” Larissa prompted after a moment of silence. She was surprisingly invested in this story.

“Like I said, it was a genetic alteration that allowed Cron to merge his body with his clone in the first place,” Sariel explained. “One alteration to Cron, one to Cronus. With Caelus’s genius mind and Cronus’s… damaged one, they created a virus that would change the host’s DNA, rewriting it so that Cronus could absorb them, just like Cron and Caelus. They were still intent on undoing everything, on fixing it. So they made the virus and exposed another group of scientists to it.

“Of course, it worked. Cronus could absorb the scientists after they were infected. But instead of fixing his brain, it made him even worse. He was smarter, but he was also… crazier. Every mind he absorbed made it harder for him to think straight. So he absorbed more, trying to fix the problem. It was like that song that you liked so much when you were a kid, the one with the fly.”

“The old lady who swallowed the fly,” Larissa realized, head bobbing. “He was–they were like that. Cronus. He kept swallowing–err, absorbing more people trying to solve his problem.”

“Yeah.” Sariel glanced away briefly before going on. “Worse than that, he stopped paying enough attention to his virus. It got out, infected the regular population. Before long, all Seosten could possess other creatures. Which meant that all Seosten could also…” She trailed off.

“Could also be absorbed by this Cronus,” Larissa realized. “Your entire race was vulnerable.”

Again, Sariel agreed. “Yes. There was a war, big one. Since he could absorb anyone of us that he touched, Cronus could also turn into anyone he touched, shifting his body to match theirs whenever he needed to. He absorbed their knowledge, their skills, their power, all of it. But in the end, he had to flee. As powerful as he was, he was only one person. Well, one body anyway. So he took our experimental spacecraft and left the planet. And, for awhile, that was it. Except for the changes… the changes to our DNA. It didn’t just give us the ability to possess other beings. It also–” She paused, swallowing. “It changed how we were able to reproduce.”

Seeing Larissa’s uncertain expression, the Seosten woman took a breath, then continued. “We used to reproduce much like humans do. A slightly longer gestation time of eleven months, but other than that… but after the virus, it… most of our children are… absorbed by the mother before they reach any kind of viable age. They’re absorbed in the womb, accidentally. Eighty, maybe ninety percent of pregnancies don’t result in a birth. Once they’re out, it’s safe. But the fetuses that are in the mother, there’s too much of a connection between them. They’re too similar. So, the mother and child are just… merged. When it happens, the baby’s too young to have much of a mind at all, so it just… disappears. It got to the point where so few of us were being born that we had to find another way to keep our race going. So we genetically engineered ourselves to live for thousands of years. That saved us, somewhat. Even a ten percent birth rate can keep a race going if each individual manages to live long enough.”

While the horror of that thought settled in Larissa’s mind, Sariel went on. “In any case, the virus had successfully rewritten our DNA so that, by that point, we were born with the ability to possess people. But without Cronus around, our civilization expanded, grew out into the stars. We met other civilizations, other peoples like us. And then… a few thousand years later, we heard about the Fomorians.”

The word made Larissa’s heart drop. “You know the Fomorians,” she managed after a moment.

“Know them?” Sariel gave a slight nod. “Yeah, you could say that. The Fomorians weren’t nearly the threat they became at first, not until they were found by Cronus. Yeah, that experimental ship he took? He stumbled into their space. And then he taught them. He molded them. They were his children, his answer to the one weakness that had allowed the earlier Seosten to drive him off our home planet: numbers. After a certain point, no one knows what actually happened to Cronus. He disappeared. But the Fomorians were still there. They were expanding everywhere, using what Cronus taught them and then adding their own sick twists.

“Our ancestors knew that Cronus would return. Between that threat and the one presented by his new friends, they did what they thought was the right thing: sought power. Power that was necessary to defend ourselves. But Cronus could absorb any of them at any point. So we needed other beings to fight that war for us. We needed help, and we needed power. We got both… by enslaving other races. It–they were desperate at the time. I’m not saying it was right. But they were desperate. They thought it was the only way to save our species. And yet… at some point, it went beyond that. I don’t know how many of our people even remember the actual reason behind why we started taking people over, why we started using our possession ability to disrupt their governments, take over their key officials and turn their militaries to our own purpose. For most of us, the specifics don’t matter. It’s just what we’ve always done.”

Biting her lip then, the woman looked down. “It’s what I believed in. Protecting our species no matter what, against the threat of the Fomorians and Cronus, a creature who could turn into any of us, who could instantly kill any of us with a single touch whenever he inevitably appeared again. So, when we heard about the weapons that the Fomorians had created and then lost, the biological weapons whose power allowed them to merge their own genetics with other species in order to take on the best traits of those other species… we had to come. We expected a war with the Fomorians. What we found was… you. Earth.”

“What–what?” Eyes wide, Larissa blurted, “What do you mean, biological weapons? Wait–wait, the Fomorians… they always–apparently they always said they were here on Earth for their property. Are you–are you trying to–”

Quietly, softly, Sariel told her the truth. She told her about where the human race had originated from, why they had the ability to become Natural Heretics. And then she told Larissa the rest of it. She told her about how the traitor Fomorian had stolen the prototype humans from the rest of his people and brought them to Earth, where they had mixed with one of the humanoid species already on the planet to form what were now humans. She told her about the Seosten plan to turn the human race from a weapon that the Fomorians would have used against them into a tool to work for them. She told her about the various attempts to make that work, which had culminated in the creation of the Bystander Effect in order to keep the majority of humanity in line, and the creation of Crossroads Academy to continue building their armies of Heretic boogeymen to keep any other race from becoming a threat. And most of all, the gradual strengthening of the human army to be put against their original creators, the Fomorians.

Once the woman finished, Larissa took a few seconds to find her voice. When she finally did, it was weak, and cracked. “I… I really wish I’d brought some chairs into this place. Because I really need to sit down right now.”

“Believe me, I know what you mean.” Watching her for a moment, Sariel hesitantly added, “Do you want me to give you some time? I can come back later. It’ll be a little easier now that the connection is firm. We can… discuss more of it then.”

For a moment, Larissa almost said yes. She needed a lot of time to cope with all of this. But she knew that if she sent the woman away now, she’d spend the entire time obsessing over how all of it was connected to her.

“What about me?” she asked, the question blurting its way out. “What do I have to do with all this?”

“You?” Sariel smiled a little at that. “Well, for me, you’re the center of it. I believed in our purpose, in everything we were doing. Until you.”

“Until me?” Larissa echoed with a blink.

So Sariel told her all of it, the personal parts of her history. She told her what happened, how she had been set to use Larissa herself to infiltrate Crossroads and get close to Gaia. And how all of that had changed. She told her about meeting her future husband… even if she couldn’t remember his name, and about having twin children… whose names had also been stripped from her memory. She told Larissa about everything she could remember, right up to the point that the orb that Puriel had intended to use had been smashed, sucking Sariel away. Most of the Seosten woman’s memories of that time were jumbled and broken, barely present in some cases. But she was absolutely certain that she had a husband and two beautiful twin children, a boy and a girl. Their names, what they looked like, where they had lived, all of that was missing.

Once she finally finished, the two women stood without speaking or moving for a minute. There was no sound anywhere in the apartment. The entire place was as quiet as a tomb.

“I’ll help you,” Larissa’s voice finally broke the seemingly endless silence.

“I’ll help you find your children.”

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Investigations 25-04 – Douglas Frey (Interlude Arc)

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Late Saturday Evening, January 27th, 2018 (Two days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Douglas Frey wore his New York Rangers cap so much because he was a big baseball fan. That wasn’t exactly true, since in reality, he’d never watched a single one of their games and knew nothing about the team itself. Hell, he barely understood how the game was played, to be honest. No, the hat was far more important than as a symbol of sports team loyalty. It was the thing that kept the voices out of his head.

That… may have sounded slightly paranoid to people who hadn’t been through what Doug had. People who hadn’t experienced the Whispers, who didn’t know what they were capable of, wouldn’t understand why the hat was important, why he never went anywhere without it.

It had begun almost five years earlier, on the Crossroads-colonized world known as Vanaheimr, named after the world from Norse mythology. That was where Doug had grown up, he and his entire family, which consisted of his parents, three older brothers, two uncles, an aunt, and three sets of progressively older grandparents (grand, great, and great-great) had lived. His brothers ranged in age from ten years older than Doug, to sixty-three years older, while his oldest relative, Great-Great-Grandfather Sulan, was almost three hundred years old.

Not that he’d looked it. Sulan may have been around for close to three centuries, but he’d looked like a young, fit man in his mid-thirties at most. He had also pretty much been twelve-year-old Doug’s best friend in the world, at the time. The two of them did everything together. Sulan took his great-great-grandson on as many adventures as he could, the two of them exploring the wild jungles of Vanaheimr and the many creatures that dwelled upon it.

It had been during one of those excursions that things had… gone wrong. Doug and Sulan had been exploring what they first thought was a simple cave deep in one of the jungles. Partway through, they had run into actual architecture, evidence of man-made structures. Or at least sapient-being-made structures. It seemed like there was an entire building that had been buried beneath the cave. Neither of them could read any of the writing on the damaged walls, nor did Sulan recognize the images that were carved and painted into the walls as any Stranger that he’d had experience with. It was an entire race of creatures that had never been seen before, as far as Sulan was aware. And given that he was so old, he was aware of a lot.

Naturally, the two of them had been beyond ecstatic to find something like that. Sulan himself had almost been like a little kid as well. They’d explored deeper, only belatedly realizing that one of the symbols repeatedly displayed on the wall had been a warning, a warning to turn back and to never, ever open the doors that they were blundering through.

Even to the present day, Doug still wasn’t sure exactly when the Whispers had started. They began as his own thoughts, barely different from anything he would normally think. Over time, however, the twelve-year-old boy had begun to realize that the thoughts within his mind weren’t thoughts at all, but a distinct conversation. Something was in his head, whispering to him, talking to him, learning about him. Something… was testing him.

Sulan had come to the same conclusion by that point, and the two of them left the buried ruins. Closing everything up behind them once more, they had returned to the colony, letting the town authorities know what they’d found so that it could be explored properly and safely. Particularly, by people with experience dealing with whatever telepathic creature was inside.

Except there were a couple of problems with that. First, it wasn’t one creature at all, it was many of them. And second, they weren’t in the ruins anymore. Because Doug and Sulan had let them out when they blundered through all those doors.

As far as Doug and the people he’d talked to after the event had been able to work out, the creatures that they now called the Whispers were some kind of extradimensional species that was only partially present within the reality that humans inhabited. They were almost like ghosts, in that they had little to no physical presence. Their true power lay in their ability to gain control of a person’s mind through their whispering. The sound of their voices gradually infected the person, draining their will to resist until they were little more than playthings for the Whispers. A person who had been whispered to enough would follow their instructions.

And now, thanks to Doug and his grandfather, the Whispers had been released from their prison and set upon the colony world once more.

The result had been… more than Doug ever liked to think about. The Whispers had spread out to infect as many people as possible. Brother turned against brother, father against daughter, and friends attacked each other. It was a massacre, a civil war within the colony as some were taken over completely, while others were simply made paranoid and delusional.

In a desperate attempt to stop the Whispers from having everyone kill each other, Sulan and Doug had returned to the ruins. They tried to find the answer to sealing the creatures away again, and in doing so, they’d discovered that some of the symbols on the walls were useful in combatting or identifying them. Two were particularly potent. One allowed anyone touching it to actually see the Whispers as a vague outline that would, at the very least, allow them to be identified and hit by certain attacks. Meanwhile, the other important symbol rendered anyone touching it temporarily deaf to their incessant whispering.

That was why Doug’s hat was so important. Sulan had etched the symbols into the inside of the baseball cap, a simple souvenir from his last visit back to Earth. He’d placed the hat on Douglas’s head, and finally the young boy had been free of those neverending whispers.

Sulan had etched the symbols onto a piece of his own clothing as well, and the two of them had returned to the town. Doug’s great-great-grandfather forced him to wait outside while he went in to… deal with the situation.

Whatever ended up happening in there, Sulan never told Doug the whole story. When all was said and done, over half of the extensive colony had been killed, including a good portion of their family. Of them all, only Doug’s eldest brother and mother had survived.

From that point on, the symbols used to identify the Whispers and render someone immune to them were a part of everyday life at the shattered and devastated colony. Sulan took the brunt of the blame for what had happened, accepting exile from the colony. He still sent Doug letters and other messages, but the two of them didn’t get to interact as much as they had.

Five years later, Doug still rarely ever took off the hat with its magic symbols that had been drawn on the inside of it. Despite the fact that there was no indication that the Whispers had ever been to Earth, or ever would be there, he just… didn’t feel comfortable without it. Plus, if the Whispers ever did show up, he wanted to know about it immediately. After what they had done to his home, to so much of his family… he couldn’t risk something like that again.

And now, the idea that Flick Chambers or anyone might be trying to use some kind of choker to take over Roxa’s mind, after what he had seen the Whispers do… he wouldn’t let that happen. Ever. To anyone. Not if there was anything that he could possibly do about it.

That was why he was here, sitting in a cheap motel in the middle of Wyoming, sharing a room with the rest of his team while they took turns spying on Flick’s house. Well, they had been spying on the house, until Jazz came back from a short patrol to insist that they go back to the motel and gather everyone so that she could tell them what she’d overheard.

“Um, really?” Rudolph spoke up, his usual lax tone turned tense. “You really think that Gaia is part of this? Does that make sense? I mean, I know we thought she might be compromised somehow or something, but just chatting with vampires or whatever?”

“I know what I saw, Rudy,” Jazz retorted. “I know what I heard. It was her voice. They went inside right after that, but it was definitely her. The headmistress was checking on the vampire that’s staying with Flick’s dad, ‘keeping him out of trouble’, she said.”

“What does that mean?” Doug finally spoke up. “Keeping her dad out of what trouble?”

Standing by the desk with his arms folded, Paul announced, “It means we can’t trust her.” Seeing the looks that the others gave him, he shook his head. “Just think about it. Whether she’s been controlled, replaced, compromised, whatever, we don’t know. Which means we don’t know who we can trust right now. If we can’t trust the headmistress, then… well, anyone could be a threat, you know? Anyone we look at could be one of them.”

“One of who?” That was Gordon, his voice a little tense. “We don’t even know who they are. Is this still just an Eden’s Garden thing? Because it seems a little more involved than that.”  

Isaac, lounging back on one of the two beds in the room, spoke up then. “So what do we do about it, bossman?” He flicked a pencil into the air, catching it on the way back down before passing and rolling the thing between his fingers absently. “Can’t trust the headmistress, don’t know who else to go to without going through the headmistress or without her hearing about it. Maybe we should just find some evidence and go straight to the top.”

“Straight to the top?” Jazz demanded, squinting at the boy. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Isaac shrugged, looking hesitant before giving a little sigh, like he didn’t really want to be the one that brought it up. “You know, those… what are they called again? The Royal Court.”

“Committee,” Rudolph supplied quietly before looking down. “You mean the Committee.”

Pointing the pencil at him, Isaac nodded. “Right, right, those guys. They’re above Gaia, right? So they’re the ones we should go to if we think she’s, ya know… not all on our side.”

Paul grimaced at that, head shaking a little. “Go to the Committee? I dunno, it doesn’t…” Pausing, he gave a long, low sigh. “I mean, I guess I don’t have any better ideas. We can’t just talk to Gaia about it. Which means we can’t trust any of the teachers. Anyone else could be corrupted too. Or they just plain wouldn’t listen to us. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to stop Gaia if she’s been… compromised. The only people I can think of who could stop her, bring her back to her senses, rescue the real Gaia or… whatever’s going on, are the Committee. Do you guys–do any of you have any better ideas?” the boy asked, sounding helpless as he glanced around the room at the team, letting the question hang in the air.

No one responded, at least at first. The silence grew between them for a few seconds before Paul nodded. “Okay then. I guess we need to start talking about the best way to contact the–”

“Flick,” Doug abruptly interrupted before their leader could finish, drawing everyone’s attention. “Whatever’s going on, she knows all about it, right? So we talk to Flick.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Isaac blurted, sitting up in the bed. “Haven’t we been over this? We can’t talk to Flick, she’s too dangerous. Especially now that we know the headmistress is working with her.  Anyone in Crossroads might be part of it. We just don’t know, right?”

“Look,” Jazz put in then. “This is just way over our heads, okay? Maybe Isaac’s right and we should take it to the Committee. I mean, they’re at her house talking about ancient necromancers and–”

“Ancient necromancers?” Gordon interrupted. “What was that again?”

The girl glanced that way. “Oh, right. Yeah, with the whole headmistress thing, I guess I forgot that detail. They mentioned Fossor too. You know, as in the big bad nasty? It was umm…” She paused, thinking about it. “They were steering Flick’s dad away from him.”

“Steering Flick’s dad away from Fossor?” Doug echoed, feeling confused by that. “What–how–what does that nasty fuck have to do with Flick’s dad?”

“For all we know, they’re drinking buddies,” Isaac muttered, folding his arms. “Guys, this doesn’t change anything. We still–”

Before the boy could continue, Rudolph spoke up. “She knew the name.” As everyone looked that way, he continued. “We were doing a group project a couple months ago. Vanessa found this journal by this Lyell Atherby guy, and it mentioned Fossor. Flick, she acted like she recognized the name. When Koren read it out, Flick got all… jumpy and grabbed the book.”

He told them more, about how the journal had explained that Fossor had approached the ancient Heretics, only to be rebuffed by all of them except for Gabriel Ruthers, who actually trusted the necromancer, an act which led to the Black Death.

“Okay, what the hell?” the words blurted their way from Doug’s mouth before he knew what he was saying. Still, he stuck with it, shaking his head. “Now I’m just confused. What does Fossor have to do with this whole thing, and what does that have to do with Eden’s Garden or any of this? And why are a vampire and Headmistress Sinclaire working together to keep Flick’s dad away from him? I–I… we’re missing something. Probably a lot of somethings.”

“Yeah,” Paul replied. “And they’re ‘somethings’ that the Committee can sort out, right? It’s above our level, we know that for sure. So we take it to the Committee. That’s the best we can do. We don’t know what’s going on, but they can figure it out. We just take what we’ve got to the actual adults and let them figure out how to pro–”

Frowning to himself throughout all of that, Doug finally spoke up, interrupting their leader. “Why didn’t you tell us about that before?”

Rudolph, realizing that he was the one being addressed, blinked that way. “What?”

“About Flick’s reaction to hearing about Fossor,” Doug clarified. “It seems kind of relevant, so why didn’t you bring it up before?”

“Well, I just… I…” Rudolph paused, frowning. “I um. I’m not sure. I probably should’ve.”

“Yeah.” There was something tickling at the back of Doug’s mind, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something… important. Finally, he shook his head to clear it. “Maybe it’s time to do what we should’ve done from the beginning.”

“Right,” Paul agreed. “Thanks, Doug. We do what we should’ve done from the start. We take what we know to the Committee, and–”

“No, not the Committee,” Douglas disagreed. “I still think we should talk to Flick. She hasn’t–I mean. Okay, look. I play a lot of video games, right? Video games, movies, books, all of it. And you know what? I don’t feel like being the character that comes in and fucks everything up because he thinks he knows what’s going on, but he’s wrong. I don’t wanna be that guy. If Gaia’s working with Flick and a vampire and all that, maybe they’ve got a reason. How about we don’t just automatically assume that Gaia’s evil because we heard one side of a phone conversation? Can we just step back from that cliff, please?”

Jazz slowly spoke up, sounding thoughtful. “So what do you suggest?”

“Like I said,” he replied pointedly, “we talk to Flick. Alone. Say I’m wrong and this whole thing really is sketchy. Well, if we ask Gaia about it and I’m wrong, we’re fucked. But if we ask Flick about it, confront just Flick, then maybe even if I’m wrong, we still get some answers. One way or the other. You wanna find out what happened to Roxa? That’s how we do it. But if we bring in the Committee, there’s no going back from that. That’s a switch we can’t unflick. Pun intended and I am so sad that Shiori isn’t here for this conversation because she would be so jealous.” 

“You’re insane,” Isaac informed him. “How’re we gonna talk to ‘just Flick’? How are we supposed to get her alone? We have no idea how wired up with spells and spies and whatever else Crossroads is. You don’t know who we can trust over there. If Gaia’s in on it, anyone could be.”

Douglas nodded at him. “Yup, you’re right. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads.”

Isaac gave a satisfied nod then. “Right, thank you. So let’s just take it to the big guys and–”

“No.” Doug shook his head. “That’s not what I was saying. We don’t know who we can trust in Crossroads, so let’s take the whole thing out of Crossroads. Let’s confront Flick about it somewhere that Gaia isn’t around. Somewhere she couldn’t possibly have anything set up.”

Isaac squinted at him then, and Doug thought there was something… different and strange in the boy’s gaze before it passed. “Okay…” he announced slowly, glancing toward Paul briefly before asking, “and how exactly would you suggest we do that, man? We can’t exactly just snap our fingers and magic up an excuse to take Flick off school grounds and away from everyone else. I mean, unless you’ve got some serious pull that you haven’t been sharing with the rest of the class.” The latter was added in a teasing tone as Isaac winked at him.

“Maybe we can.” The words came not from Doug, but from Rudolph. The boy looked thoughtful.

“Excuse me?” Paul was looking at Rudolph, frowning a little while cracking his knuckles a little methodically. “You seriously have an idea to take Flick off school grounds so we can confront her without Gaia or anyone around?”

“Dude,” Jazz interrupted while the other boy flinched. “Could you sound any more critical? Give him a chance, huh?” To Rudolph, she asked, “Seriously though, what’s up?”

Again, the boy looked hesitant before breathing out and straightening. “I visit my great-great-great grandfather at night sometimes. He’s one of the doctors at the EJC, err, the Eduard Jenner Center.” To Isaac, he added, “It’s basically one of the main Heretic Hospitals.”

Isaac, who had stood from the bed and was watching Paul for a moment, turned his attention back to Rudolph. “Gotcha. So what does that have to do with our little problem? You wanna make Flick get the flu or something?”

As Doug watched, curious about where the other boy was going with this, Rudolph’s head shook. “No, no, nothing like that. But I was there the other night, and one of Grandpa Donald’s old friends was there for some kind of night class that he’s been teaching for the people that are laid up in there. He’s this guy that works in the Bystander world, Josiah Carfried.”

“Wait,” Jazz interrupted. “As in–”

“I think they’re related, yeah,” Rudolph confirmed. “Not sure how. But the point is, he works at some museum or something, and he was talking to Grandpa Donald about how Professor Dare asked him to have the Investigative Track show up and help out.” He flushed a little. “I wasn’t supposed to hear about it, I don’t think. But I kinda did. And then Gramps was saying that he should spice it up a little, so the Josiah guy got this idea about having a prize for whoever helps him the most with whatever he has them do.”

“Okay, this sounds really great and all,” Isaac informed the other boy doubtfully. “But I really think–”

Gordon spoke up then. “What kind of prize, exactly?”

Looking up at them, Rudolph hesitated before answering quietly. “A trip to New York City. Four days out there, away from the island.”

“Flick’s not in Investigation anymore,” Paul pointed out mildly.

Rudolph’s head bobbed. “Yeah, the prize is for the whole team of whoever finds it. Or teams, you know. They’re supposed to break into pairs, from what Josiah was saying.”

“So… what?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “You want us to find a way to make sure, what, Flick’s team and our team both win this trip?”

Straightening, Doug gave a quick nod. “Sure, we can do that. We just need to make sure one of you ends up in a pair with either Sands or Scout. And then make sure that pair wins.” This could work, and it sounded a lot easier than taking stuff to the Committee. And less… final. Doug wasn’t sure how he felt about Flick, but if she was just being manipulated into doing all this herself, if there was a way to do this without turning the girl in… that was the best way, it had to be. Sulan wouldn’t have just thrown the girl under the bus without a second thought. He would have given Flick a chance.

Paul and Isaac were looking at each other. Neither seemed convinced. Their team leader slowly shook his head. “I dunno, guys. How do we make sure they’re on the same team? How do we make sure that team wins?”

Shrugging, Jazz replied, “The team part we can figure out as we go. As for the winning thing… “

“I can help,” Doug quickly spoke up as his eyes widened with realization. “My power. Whoever gets on a team with one of the twins, just send me a text or something. Tell me what you’re trying to do, I’ll ask my power how to win, and then send it back.”

Together, they all looked at each other for a few long seconds. Isaac made a face. “Did we all just forget something? Remember how much ass that Chambers chick can kick? That’s why we didn’t confront her to begin with.”

“This is different,” Doug insisted. “Six of us and one of her. We get her alone, make it look like we’re all separating, and then we confront her all together. Between the six of us, we can at least get answers.”

Give her a chance to explain her side, it’s what Sulan would have done.

Paul lifted his chin. “Not a bad idea, really. I mean, maybe a bit of a longshot, but still. Nice job thinking outside the box, guys. But… yeah, I think our best shot is still just letting the adults handle it. So we’ll just try to get hold of–”

“Let’s take a vote.” Jazz’s voice was challenging, her eyes staring at their team leader.

“I’m sorry?” Paul blinked at her.

The girl shrugged. “You always said that if we disagreed, we’d take a vote, right? You’re not a dictator. That’s what you said. So let’s take a vote. Everyone who wants to to go with Rudolph’s plan, raise your hand. If you want to go with the ‘inform the Committee’ plan, keep your hand down.”

She raised her hand, followed by a slightly hesitant-looking Rudolph. A moment later, Gordon’s hand joined theirs. And Doug’s raised hand made four. The only ones who kept their hands down were Isaac and Paul.

Isaac made a disgruntled noise, shoving a hand into his pocket. “Right, I guess we just–”

Doug interrupted the other boy then, calling up the power that allowed him to ask one question per day and get an answer. “How is Josiah Carfried dividing up the people from Professor Dare’s Investigations class to do this contest of his?”

The answer came almost immediately, and he smiled before looking at Rudolph. “Right, got it. Wait, let me think….” He focused for a moment before smiling. “You know what? I think I know what to do. But if we’re gonna pull this off, you’ve gotta go back to that hospital tomorrow night. And we’ll need a spell from the school. I saw it the other day, but I don’t remember it exactly.”

Hand still in his pocket, Isaac squinted at him, his voice strange. “Wait, you just used your power? The one you can only use once per day? You used it on this, right now?”

Nodding absently, Doug replied, “Yeah, felt like the right time for it.” To Rudolph, he added, “You said Josiah’s has been there teaching night classes? You think he’ll be there tomorrow night? And do you think you can get into that hospital again?”

Slowly, Rudolph nodded. “I… yeah, he should be there. And I can visit. No… uh, no problem.”

“Great.” Jazz was grinning, raising both fists into the air. “We’re going to New York, baby!

“Even if we’ve gotta cheat to do it.”

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Investigations 25-03 – Jasmine Rhodes (Interlude Arc)

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Late Saturday Evening, January 27th, 2018 (Two days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Jasmine Rhodes was a student from a normal Heretic family (inasmuch as Heretic families were ever normal). That wasn’t exactly true, since her true family was… well, as far from a ‘normal’ family of Crossroads Heretics as there could possibly be.

Actually, they weren’t even Crossroads Heretics at all. Not really. The family that Jazz had been born into was more of a clan of several interconnected families whose blood connections were so intertwined they were practically incestuous by that point, and were thoroughly impossible to untangle without involving higher-level math. As far as Jazz knew, they had started as about six separate Heretic families around the time of the American Revolution (and the same time as the whole war between Eden’s Garden and Crossroads). Those six Heretics and their families had chosen to walk away from both sides entirely, essentially telling Crossroads and Eden’s Garden to collectively go to hell while they focused on the important thing: protecting humanity. Collectively, the six families referred to themselves as Torchbearers. It was supposed to be a play off of taking the light from Crossroads grand lighthouse (at that point a more primitive structure) and bringing it down into the real world as a torch. Because that was their point: to stay connected to humanity.

Over the years in the meantime, there had been certain concessions made, and traditions born. Most of their people would become natural Heretics by being taken out onto hunts with those who were already Heretics. Once an appropriate Stranger was taken, the initiate would be exposed to their blood and other parts, essentially being buried with the body in order to provoke the change. It didn’t always work, of course, and those who didn’t make the change that time had the choice of either trying again later or choosing to live a more ordinary life.

That was what would happen with most of their people, a choice between an ordinary life (and even then, they could choose to support the Torchbearers without actually fighting) and becoming a Natural Heretic, purposefully connected to some monster that they had killed.

But there was also another option. Over the years following the six families initial separation from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, a deal had eventually been made in order to avoid allowing the families to grow too weak. Once every five or six years, the Torchbearers would send one student each to Crossroads and to Eden’s Garden. One student for each organization. That student would go through the education and training, becoming a full-fledged Heretic, of the kind that could absorb powers from what they killed.

The Torchbearers celebrated those full Heretics. They were leaders, the most powerful of the six families. They were known as Lightwalkers (they definitely couldn’t be accused of abandoning their theme, that was for sure), and each Lightwalker essentially helped to lead the rest of the families as generals, with the Natural Heretics as their soldiers in the ongoing war against all of the monsters who hunted and killed humanity.

Suffice to say, the people who were chosen to represent the Torchbearers at Crossroads or Eden’s Garden were the best of the best. They were chosen only after a lengthy and exhaustive testing process, from groups of potentials who trained literally their entire lives up to the point of admission (roughly twelve for those joining Eden’s Garden and seventeen for those joining Crossroads) before finally being selected. Even those who weren’t selected to join one of the schools and eventually become Lightwalkers remained important, as they were the ones who became Natural Heretics and thus the Lightwalkers’ soldiers and hunters.

All of them, chosen or not, were the best that the six families had to offer. Those who were actually selected to become Lightwalkers were the top of everything. They were the smartest, the most powerful, the absolute strongest of the six families. They were literal champions.

And Jasmine was… not one of them.

She had never been intended to be one of them. While Jasmine did grow up within the six families, and was ostensibly a Torchbearer herself, she was never intended to become part of their war. She was not one of the potentials, not to become a Natural Heretic and definitely not to become one of the fabled Lightwalkers.

No, from a young age, Jasmine and her parents had both decided together that she would live a more normal life. She could help out where needed, but her true passion lay in the idea of making movies, of living within the Bystander world. And that had been okay with her parents. She wanted to be as normal as possible, and they accepted that. She wasn’t born to be a legend in their society, she wasn’t meant to be some grand hero who led their people. All she wanted to do was go into Hollywood so she could write and direct movies. That was her grand dream: to be a woman who made epic action movies.

Then the attack had happened. A group of Strangers, monsters, had somehow found a way to ambush the training facility of the potential Lightwalkers. Over a dozen children and teenagers ranging from eleven to the cusp of seventeen had been killed, slaughtered by the beasts they were supposed to train to fight. It had been a total and complete massacre. And when it was over, there were no potentials left, none of the youth who had trained throughout their lives for the honor of being sent either to Crossroads or to Eden’s Garden had survived. Of the children who were left, none were anywhere near the proper age to join Crossroads for at least another five years. None, that was… except for Jasmine.

She wasn’t the first choice. Or the second, or even a distant third. She was literally the only choice they had left, the only teenager who was the proper age, yet hadn’t been in that training facility because she had never intended to become a proper Heretic in the first place.

And yet, after everything that had happened, she couldn’t just turn her back on her people. Hollywood, movies, her dreams… she had to set them aside. There was no other choice. Coming here, coming to Crossroads to maintain that tradition, it was the only thing she could do. Even if most of the leadership of the six families did see her as mostly a write-off, a placeholder of sorts until the next generation. They knew she hadn’t trained the way the others had. They knew that her heart hadn’t been in monster fighting. They knew she didn’t have some soul of a hero or anything like that. She was just doing what she had to do because there was no one else left who could. She hadn’t been selected by some grand and revered process, she wasn’t chosen for any strength of her own. She was just the only one left.

And now, well, now the only real female friend that she’d made in this school was missing. Just like the way all her friends back in the Torchbearers had either gone away or been… been killed by those monsters. She had been left all alone in the room that she had shared with Roxa, the same way that she’d been left alone back home.

This time, however, she didn’t have to put up with it. This time, Roxa could still be found, could still be saved. Jazz would find out the truth of what had really happened to her roommate. And, if possible, bring her back to where she belonged. She couldn’t do anything for everyone who had died in the massacre. But this? This she could do something about.

Maybe that was why she hadn’t slept much over the past couple of days. Because it felt like they were finally doing something about what had happened. There was some kind of energy in the air that made Jazz believe that they were about to find answers, maybe even rescue Roxa herself. One way or another, they would know what was really going on with Felicity Chambers. And they would know just who the bad guys in this whole situation were.

“Let me guess, you’re thinking about me again, aren’t you?”

Turning away from the railing of the second floor walkway that surrounded the motel parking lot, Jazz blinked at Isaac Acosta before rolling her eyes. “Yes, Isaac, I can’t possibly keep you off my mind. You know I’ve always had a thing for clowns who don’t know how to take anything seriously. Please, ravish me now.”

The Hispanic boy gave her a lopsided grin, winking. “Careful what you ask for, babe.”

Snorting, Jasmine folded her arms, leaning against the railing just outside of the motel room. “What’re you doing anyway? I thought you were supposed to be sleeping while Rudolph and Gordon are on watch.”

Shrugging, Isaac replied easily, “You know how it is, couldn’t sleep.” A sly smile touched his face then as he gestured toward her. “And uh, at the moment I’m just enjoying the view.”

Again, Jazz rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “I’d say to stop trying such a pathetic line, but don’t. Because someday, somehow, that line will work on someone. And the person it finally works on will be just the right person for you. But that person is not, and will never be me.  

The boy gave her a wide smile. “Oh, you never know. Maybe I’ll wear you down someday.”

“Just as soon as whales fly,” she retorted before amending, “And by that, I mean completely ordinary whales, not Strangers. Normal, average whales that live in the ocean, flying under their own power without any magic or outside assistance and god the world is weird.”

Before Isaac could give any response to that, the door of the motel room behind him quietly opened, and Douglas slipped out, clearly trying to be as silent and quick as possible so that he didn’t wake up Paul, who was still fast asleep inside.

“Time to go?” Jazz asked, raising an eyebrow toward the boy once he had closed the door.

He nodded, waving his cell phone briefly to show her the clock on it before whispering quietly, “Five minutes to midnight, we gotta go relieve Rudolph and Gordon.”

“Right.” Jazz gestured to Isaac. “Guess we’ve got actual work to do now. But you keep working on those pick-up lines of yours.” Pausing, she added with a little smile. “I saw one of those big clown statues in the playground area you might stand a chance with.”

The boy’s response was a wink. “Oh, don’t you worry about me, Jazzy. Someday I’ll get you. I don’t give up that easily.”

Snorting, Jasmine turned to start for the stairs at the end of the walkway. “C’mon, Doug. Let’s go before he starts practicing more lines. I don’t think I could stand all the lame.”  

Together, she and Doug went down the stairs and headed out of the lot on their way to relieve the other two, leaving Isaac to… whatever he was going to end up doing. Hopefully getting some actual sleep before it would eventually be time for him and Paul to relieve them.  

On the way, Doug glanced to her curiously. “You think we’ll ever tell Marina about this?”

Jazz blanched at the reminder of their team mentor. The sophomore girl seemed to have bought completely into the line about where Roxa was, and she’d shut the rest of them down whenever they brought it up. Eventually it had gotten to the point that they just stopped talking about it with her. Not that she was a bad mentor, she just thought that talking about Roxa all the time was getting in the way of their training. Marina believed the official word, and thought that they should too. So, obviously, they hadn’t told her anything about this plan. She, like Professor Carfried and all the rest of the teachers, believed that the team was spending the weekend at Paul’s father’s place in Montana. For the moment, anyway.

Shaking off those thoughts, Jazz gave a short nod. “I hope so. Because if we tell her about it, it’s because we’re rubbing how right we were about everything in her face. And that’ll probably mean that Roxa’s back with us and everything can go back to the way it…”

As she trailed off into silence, Doug looked at her, frowning a little bit. “What’s wrong?”  

She bit her lip, hesitating before giving a soft sigh. “I was just thinking about how I kinda like having Rudolph around. The guy’s been growing on me, even if he does keep believing the best when it comes to Chambers. But if Roxa comes back, what’s gonna happen to him? Will he stay or go back to his other team? I mean, it’ll be uneven numbers either way.”

Doug shrugged at that. “I dunno,” he admitted. “Maybe they’ll give him a choice. You any good at baking? Maybe we can give him some bribery cookies to stick around.”

Grimacing at the thought, Jasmine shook her head. “Let’s uhh, outsource for our bakery bribes.”

Before long, they reached the van. Rudolph and Gordon had already been watching for them, stepping out as they approached.

“You guys see anything?” Jazz asked the boys in a whisper before glancing that way. She could barely see the house from where the van was parked. They wanted to be far enough away that if there was a vampire in there, she wouldn’t sense them.

Rudolph shook his head. “Nothing specific. There’s people in there, but we haven’t been able to get a close enough look to… you know, pick anything out.”

“In other words,” Gordon added for him, “whoever’s in there with Flick’s father, we haven’t seen if she’s a Stranger or not.”

“Pretty sure she’s been out though,” Rudolph put in while gesturing that way. “Seen someone moving around the backyard. Just glimpses, and by the time we find a way to get over there, they’re gone. We’d get closer, but… you know.”

Jazz nodded. “Yeah. The second you’re close enough to tell if she’s a Stranger, she’ll be able to tell that you’re Heretics. And then we’re all in trouble.”

“Right.” Gordon folded his arms over his chest. “Better to take the time and watch for the best opening. She’ll make a mistake at some point. She’ll come out into plain sight. Or Chambers’s dad’ll leave during the day so we can get into the house.”

That was the main break they were waiting for. It was either get a good look at the supposed vampire when she came out at night, or wait for the man himself to give them an opening to get into the house while he was gone during the day. But if that opening came, they’d all agreed that whoever was on watch duty would call the others. If they were going to get into a house that a vampire might be sleeping in, it would have to be together.  

Jazz gestured back the way they’d come. “You guys go ahead, we’ll take over. You did leave enough soda and junk, right?”

Rudolph nodded. “Still most of a twelve pack in there, and all those chips. I think we’ve still got a couple sandwiches in the cooler too.”

“If not, we’ll make a run to the store,” Jazz replied before waving them off. “Now scoot. Gonna do a quick walk through, since I can get closer than you boys.”

The other two took off, leaving Jazz and Doug. She gestured to the other boy. “You wanna walk with me, or wait here?”

He seemed to consider it for a moment, weighing the options. “If something happens, probably better to have someone hanging back to watch,” the boy pointed out eventually. “Don’t go anywhere that I wouldn’t be able to see if you turn visible again, okay?”

Jazz nodded before focusing on her power. After a second, she faded from sight. And from that point, it was simply a matter of… walking very slowly.

Yeah, that was the downside of this power. To use it effectively, she either had to stand still, or move incredibly slowly to the point of barely moving at all. It took a simple ten minute walk and turned it into about about half an hour instead. But she didn’t dare move any faster, just in case the vampire happened to be watching.

At least it also dampened things like sound and smell, so the vamp’s other enhanced senses shouldn’t pick her up.

Like the other times that she’d made her way past the house like this in the past day or so, the place was mostly dark, except for one light on upstairs and the flicker of what looked like a television. Once in awhile, they would see a light go on downstairs, likely in the kitchen. But mostly it was just like this, quiet and mostly dark.

This time, however, she had just passed the edge of the front yard when the sound of the backdoor opening caught Jasmine’s attention. There was movement in the shadows, and then she heard a female voice say, “Sorry, didn’t want to wake up Lincoln.”

Lincoln. Right, Lincoln Chambers. Flick’s dad. Frowning, Jazz listened while straining to see through the darkness that engulfed the backyard. Whoever was back there didn’t need to use any kind of light to see, that was for sure.

“Yeah,” the girl’s voice continued after a few seconds where she was apparently listening to someone, likely on a phone, “believe me, I know. Flick’s worried about it too. But as far as I can tell, we’re steering him away from Fossor.”

Fossor? Jasmine knew that name. But what did that monster have to do with Flick or her father? Maybe the others would know, or at least have ideas.

Before she could think anymore about that, the backdoor opened once more. “That the big lady?” another voice asked. Wait, how many girls were in Flick’s house, anyway?

“Yeah,” the first voice replied before adding, “Didn’t wake you up, did I?”

“Nah, I’m up anyway. I’ll lay down in a bit. She got anything interesting to say? And where’s the light switch out here?”

“Hold on.” A pause, then, “I’m putting you on speaker. Say hi to Twister.”

“Hello, Twister,” a third voice spoke, clearly coming from the phone as it was set into speaker mode. “I trust you’re keeping Felicity’s father out of trouble?”

A light went on then, illuminating a side porch where two girls were standing. As Jazz stared that way, one thing became perfectly clear: the older of the two girls, the one who had been talking first, was definitely a vampire. The second she saw her, Jazz’s Stranger-sense started going nuts.

But even having that confirmed was almost nothing. It barely registered in the back of her mind. Because far more important was the voice on that phone, the one talking so casually to the vampire.

Headmistress Sinclaire.

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Mini-Interlude 36 – Larissa and Sariel

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the first meeting of Sariel (Vanessa and Tristan’s mother) and Larissa (Sands’ and Scout’s mother) after they were both adults (after Sariel was banished from Earth and had to connect to the last person she possessed, which was Larissa as a child)

Eight Years Ago


The voice was faint, a barely audible sound somewhere in the back of Larissa Mason’s mind. It was so soft and muted that the woman was almost confident that she had imagined it as she stepped out of the shower. The whisper was closer to an errant thought within her own mind than it was an audible voice, as if she had personally thought her own name for no reason.

Pausing, she let her head tilt to the side while focusing. It wouldn’t have been the first time that someone had contacted her telepathically, obviously. As the Head of Student Affairs for Crossroads, she dealt with angry complaints from parents and students alike, some of whom had the power to send their annoyances directly to her mind.

Ah, being a Heretic was full of interesting situations, that much was for sure.

After a few seconds of listening, she didn’t ‘hear’ anything. Shrugging to herself, Larissa quickly dried off and dressed before heading out of the bathroom. She was immediately ambushed.  

“Mommy!” Nine-year-old Sarah barrelled directly into her, almost knocking Larissa over with her exuberance. “Can we have pizza for dinner? Please, please? It’ll be easy to clean up and pizza’s like all the food groups at once. It’s got vegetables and meat and dairy and bread and–”

Smiling a little, Larissa reached down to hoist her daughter up from the floor. “Pizza?” she exclaimed with mock surprise while holding the girl close. “Do you even like pizza?”

The response was a shocked yelp of, “Uh huh! I love pizza, everyone likes pizza! It’s pizza!”

Pursing her lips thoughtfully as she held the girl away as though studying her, Larissa slowly shook her head. “Mmm… noooo, no, I’m pretty sure you hate pizza. We should have your favorite foods. Like brussel sprouts, eggplant, and nummy nummy creamed spinach!”

“Mommy, no, no!” Eyes wide with terror at that particular thought, Sarah’s head shook back and forth. “No, pizza! Pizza, Mommy, pleeeease?” She stretched the last word out pleadingly.

Smiling a bit despite her attempt to look serious, Larissa pretended to hem and haw for a few seconds before capitulating. “Oh, all right, I imagine Risa can pick up some pizza on the way. I’ll let her know.” Of course, it would be more convenient to have pizza delivered, an act that Larissa remembered well from her years as a normal Bystander. But, advanced as Crossroads society was, they had yet to find a way to have a regular pizza chain deliver to the island.

The resulting delighted squeal from her nine-year-old daughter made Larissa simultaneously smile and wince slightly. It was right next to her ear. “Yay! Thanks mommy! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Sarah babbled before squirming her way free to drop to the floor. “Sandy!” she called, pivoting to run off and find her sister. “Sandy, we’re gonna have pizza, real pizza pizza!”

Watching the girl run off, Larissa shook her head while tugging a single hair from her own head. Using her Stranger-gained power, she converted the hair into a small bird. Whispering the message for Risa Kohaku about bringing pizza with her when she came to babysit the girls for the evening, she sent the bird off. That done, she started for the bedroom. There were still a few things to put away, and she had about an hour before it would be time to leave.


Again, the voice-that-wasn’t-a-voice. Hearing it, or at least believing that she’d heard it, Larissa paused and turned to look around. Her brow knitted slightly as she whispered a quiet, “Yes?”

Nothing. There was no response either in her mind or aloud. The voice didn’t return, and Larissa once more became convinced that she’d imagined it. Shrugging, she went back to her work. There was a lot to get done if she was going to meet Nolan in time. And not meeting her old friend would be a disaster.

After all, she couldn’t expect the man to clear out a nest of gargoyles without help.


“Sorry for dragging you out here away from your kids tonight,” Nolan murmured a while later as the two of them stood in the doorway of a closed antique store somewhere in New York. They were using it as cover from the deluge of rain that hadn’t let up at all for the past twenty minutes. “I didn’t know Liam was off-world when I called.” He glanced to her, raising an eyebrow. “You should’ve told me, I would have called someone else.”

Larissa kept her eyes on the building across the street, shaking her head slightly. “The twins are nine, Nolan, not two. They’ll be okay with their Aunt Risa for the evening. Besides,” she added with a tiny smile while turning her gaze to him briefly. “It’s good to get out and stretch my legs a little bit. I’ve been training, but it’s been awhile since I was in the field. Don’t wanna get sloppy.”

The man who had been one of her teammates while the two of them were going through Crossroads chuckled. “In that case, glad I could give you an excuse to get out.” He gave her a curious look while using one hand to brush his damp, shaggy brown hair away from his eyes. “What about the girls. How’re they doing? Miss their Uncle Nolan enough to give me hugs?”

A smile touched her face. “You could leave for five minutes and they’d miss you enough for hugs, Nolan.” Sobering a little, she looked back to him. “You really do need to visit more often.”

The man nodded then. “You’re right, especially if it means more twin-hugs. I’ll make it happen.”

Biting her lip, Larissa looked to him. “Speaking of which, how’s the adoption thing going?”

He didn’t answer at first, taking a deep breath that seemed to steady himself as though he had bad news. Then Nolan looked to her, winking. “The Committee approved it two days ago.”

Eyes widening at that announcement, Larissa demanded, “They did? Wait, are you screwing with me right now? Do not screw with me on this, Nolan. Don’t you dare screw with me on this.”

He was chuckling, bobbing his head up and down. “That might’ve been another reason I wanted you to come out tonight, yeah. You are looking at one totally approved single parent.” Eyes shining with a mixture of pride and happiness that proved just how hard it had been for him to hold it in for this long, he added, “Her name’s Erin. She’s about the same age as the twins.” Sobering noticeably, the man continued. “Her parents were um, her dad split when she was three, took off with some Colony-girl and decided he didn’t want to be a father anymore. Then her mom was killed last year. She’s been bouncing between a bunch of relatives since then, but nobody wanted full responsibility for a little girl so she ended up in the system.”

Larissa hesitated. “That’s… that poor kid.” Her hand caught his arm. “But Nolan, you’ve wanted a little girl since we were in school!” Since he’d been with Julie, really. But Julie had broken his heart and moved on, and Nolan had never really gotten with anyone else. Yet his desire to have kids had never gone away, even if he didn’t have a partner to share with. And now, now he would have someone, a girl who sounded like she needed someone as much as he did.

Larissa’s mouth opened to say something else, only to stop as movement in the windows of the other building caught her eye. “Looks like our friends are up and moving around.” Lifting her hand, she formed a circle with her index finger and thumb before using her stolen Stranger powers to magnify the view in the space between her fingers as if she was looking through binoculars. A moment later, another power allowed her to change the view to see through the wall of the building. “Yeah,” she murmured then. “Looks like three of them, just like you said.”

Nolan grunted. “They’ve been feeding off that no-tell motel down the street. You know, focusing on prostitutes and runaways, people that aren’t gonna be noticed very fast.” There was an undercurrent of anger in the man’s voice. Which wasn’t surprising. Nolan Redcliffe had always seemed to feel particularly defensive of people whom most tended to not care that much about. He spent a good part of his time in the field helping out at Bystander homeless shelters and soup kitchens, watching out for the types of Strangers that liked to prey on those people.

“Well then,” she announced with a nod. “I guess we should go take care of these assholes.”

They split up then, Nolan waiting for Larissa to make her way around the back. Then he would head straight in as soon as she gave him the signal, driving the gargoyles back toward her so that the two of them could catch the monsters between a rock and a hard place.

She took the long route around, to avoid setting off any warning signal. Working her way back around the far end of the street and then in from the rear, Larissa was passing by a dress shop when, from the corner of her eye, she saw one of the mannequins abruptly turn to face her, its long blonde hair seeming to blow dramatically in a non-existent wind from inside the store.


Jolting and stumbling a little, the woman snapped her gaze that way while her hand moved to the weapon holster on her belt. She focused on the window display… only to find nothing out of place. The mannequin that she could have sworn had turned to face her was back in its normal position and… wasn’t blonde. It had short brown hair, and wore an entirely different outfit than what she had thought that she’d seen in that brief couple of seconds from the corner of her eye.

“Okay,” she muttered to herself slowly. “This is not normal.” Stepping back from the window, she looked around once more. Maybe… maybe she should send a message to Nolan to pull back until she could figure out what was wrong with her, why she kept hearing that voice in her head.

Larissa. The voice came back faster that time than it had before, and was somehow ‘louder’ in her head. Or at least a bit more clear. It sounded… familiar somehow, as if she’d heard the feminine voice before, even if she couldn’t actually place where she remembered it from.

Eyes glancing up and down the street, Larissa frowned. There were a few people in sight, bustling through the rain without paying attention to anything around them. Rain that didn’t actually touch her, as another of her powers ensured that the water fell to either side of her body. Normally, she wouldn’t have cared. But in this case, even though fighting while soaked with rain might’ve looked cool, it was also a lot harder than the movies made it seem.

So she was completely dry, standing there in the middle of the downpour while the very few people who were still on the street hurried on their way. None were paying any particular attention to her. And certainly none were actually talking to her, either out loud or in her mind.

“Okay,” she spoke outloud in a quiet voice. “Whoever you are, you’ve got my attention now.”

There was another pause, just long enough that Larissa was starting to once again get the paranoid thought that she’d imagined the voice. And in the kind of work that Heretics did, imagining voices was both distinctive from and a lot worse than actually hearing voices in their heads. One meant that they were dealing with someone with telepathy, while the other meant… well, it meant that they’d been dealing with monsters for entirely too long.

Finally, however, just as she opened her mouth to speak again, the voice returned. Like the last time, it was stronger, to the point that it almost seemed audible, like it wasn’t just in her mind.


“I’m here,” she whispered out loud, tensely. She needed to hurry and get into position before Nolan wondered what was taking her so long and started to think something had gone wrong. But this was… what was this? She couldn’t understand it. The voice in her head, its familiarity… it was as undeniable as it was unexplainable. And this time, it said more than just her name. Yet for every word that she heard, more seemed to have been lost somewhere in the ether.

Larissa. — sorry. —- can only — even — tried to —- trying — years — can — to explain.

“Who are you?” Larissa’s voice was a quiet, yet firm demand. She had to know who was speaking to her, why the voice was so familiar even though she couldn’t place it. She had to know what they were saying, what they wanted, and why it was coming through so weakly.

Pivoting in a circle to take in the whole rain-soaked street once more, distracted from her original goal, Larissa jumped as the voice returned.

Trying to — taking a lot to — the connection — was harder than — would be — hold on.

A slightly longer pause then, silence aside from the drone from the ever-present rain. Then…

Is that better? It feels better. I can feel you a little more clearly.

Again, that… familiarity that she could almost place, like a name that was right on the tip of her tongue. “Who are you? Do you need help? Did we work together? Did we go to school together? How do I know you? Why do you sound so familiar?” In her confusion, the words kept coming.

Larissa, I… A pause then. My name is Sariel Moon. And I… I’m sorry, but I need your help.

“Sariel… I know that name.” How? How did she know the name? “But I don’t know any Moon.”

We weren’t classmates. We were… slightly closer than that. Another slight pause. I need you to listen. You’re not going to want to, but you’re the only hope I have right now, the only chance.

I told you my name. It’s Sariel Moon. But… Again, the voice paused. No. No, I have to tell you everything. It’s not fair. It’s not fair for me to ask for your help if you don’t know the truth.

“Listen to me,” Larissa interrupted. “I don’t know how I know you, but whatever help you need, if you can reach out telepathically to me, you can reach out to others. Gaia, Gaia Sinclaire, she might be able to help you better than I can. She can probably make contact if you just tell–”

I can’t talk to anyone but you, Larissa. One more pause, then… You were the last person I possessed.

In the few seconds that followed that bombshell, even the rain itself seemed to quiet. It was a thoroughly deafening silence that stretched on until Larissa finally blurted, “You what?”

Somehow, she sensed the wince from the other end. Sorry, that’s not how I wanted–I… the truth. The truth is that my name is Sariel Moon, and I’m what you call a Stranger. Capital S.

“No.” The word came reflexively before Larissa cursed out loud. “Damn it, fuck. No, I am not having a conversation with a Stranger. I am not–what–what do you mean, you poss–no. No.”

Larissa, listen, it’s complicated but there’s a reason that I had to–

“Shut up,” she interrupted, pressing both hands to either side of her head. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do or how you got into my head, but If this is some kind of threat, if you think you can come after me or my–”


The voice, so filled with hate and promised violence, was far different from the one she had been listening to. Aside from the obvious difference in tone, it was spoken aloud, from behind her.

She turned, pivoting just in time to see what looked like a massive stone foot slam into her chest. Larissa was picked up and hurled backward a good ten feet. If she’d been any weaker or had fewer defensive powers, it would have collapsed her ribcage and probably killed her right then. As it was, the air was knocked out of her and she found herself on the ground.

It was one of–no, two of the gargoyles that she and Nolan had come to hunt down. They’d come, either fleeing from Nolan or heading out for their next hunt. Either way, they’d seen Larissa and recognized her as a Heretic. And they’d taken her by surprise.

Gargoyles. They were a little different from what most people thought. Oh, sure, they had massive, demonic stone-like bodies. But those were just a facade, a shell. The actual creature known as a gargoyle was only about a foot tall. They were tiny, pointy-eared creatures that looked closer to gremlins from that old eighties movie than the mighty beasts that they were known as.

It was the gargoyles’ power that had led to their reputation. They were able to manifest and control a stone-like (but often much stronger than ordinary stone) material to such an incredible degree that the creatures actually fashioned what amounted to armored suits for themselves. Armored suits that looked like what people thought of gargoyles. They used the suits in combat, and when they weren’t in use, the gargoyles parked their stone-like armored combat suits rather than spend the time to make more later on. In the past, they had often left their armored suits on the ledges of churches and temples, which had helped lead to the modern Bystander belief that such a thing was normal. As well as, obviously, the architectural choice of fake gargoyles. Which had apparently just complicated life for every Heretic who had been hunting the gargoyles before people decided to give them cover by making it impossible to differentiate between parked gargoyle combat suits and simple statues.

And now… now two of them were bearing down on her, while she was lying on the ground still trying to get her breath back from that first blow. One launched himself forward, great stone-like wings flapping down hard to propel himself literally on top of her. His taloned foot came down hard enough on her wrist as she reached for the weapon case at her belt to snap the bone, before his fist backhanded her across the face so hard her ears rang.

Switch. Water-form. Switch into her water-form. She could do that. Just… had to… focus…

Except the gargoyle’s hand was around her throat, its claws cutting easily through her skin as he cut off her air. Strong as she was, the gargoyle’s combat suit was even stronger. She couldn’t breathe, and if she couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t focus… and without focus… she… couldn’t…

“Let her go.”

The voice, it was the one that she’d heard in her head… only spoken out loud. It came from the side, in the middle of the otherwise empty street.

Together, both Larissa and the gargoyle that was holding her throat turned slightly to look that way. They saw… a blonde woman, who stood there in the rain, watching them with narrowed eyes. In one hand, she held a small stone, a chunk of broken concrete.

“I’ll say it again, but not a third time,” the woman announced. “Let… her… go.”

“Seosten!” the gargoyle’s loud, gravelly voice snarled. “But alone. Not the master here, not the master in this place.”

As the first one spoke, the other gargoyle that had appeared stepped down into the street, its combat-suit gleaming in the glow from the streetlights reflected in the puddles. “Kill Heretic, then kill you.”

The woman, Sariel Moon, let her eyes drift from the closer gargoyle back to the one over Larissa. “You know what I am. But you don’t know who I am.

“Allow me to introduce myself.”

With that, the woman’s hand snapped up. The small bit of concrete that she had been holding flew out, crossing the distance between her and the gargoyle that was standing over Larissa like a bullet that had been shot from a gun.

There was a sharp, sudden clanging noise, followed by a much… squishier sound. Then the grip on Larissa’s throat abruptly slackened. She was released, the gargoyle’s suit slumping over a little while blood seeped out of the thing’s mouth and eyeholes.

It took the Heretic woman a moment to realize what had just happened. This… Sariel had just thrown a chunk of rock so accurately, and with just the right amount of force, that it had actually entered the gargoyle’s combat suit through the eyeholes, hit the back of the inside of the head, then somehow ricocheted directly into and through the much softer, flesh-covered head of the actual creature further down within the suit, killing it instantly. And she had done so by chucking a broken bit of sidewalk… from at least thirty feet away… in the middle of a rainstorm… at night.

“Your much more intelligent forefathers knew me as Artemis,” the woman informed the remaining gargoyle. “I am not a lackey, or a soldier, or anything else you might believe you have a chance against. I am the goddess of the hunt and of the moon, the protector of young girls, bringer of death for those who stood against Olympus.

“And you are standing in my way.”

Not for long, he wasn’t. The gargoyle took a hasty step back, then sprang upward, his mighty wings carrying him a good fifty feet up in one leap. At the same time, the nearby suit, the one with the dead creature inside, flew up as well. Apparently he’d exerted his own stone control to bring the thing (and his dead partner) along.

The moment he was gone, the woman staggered a little. A grunt of effort escaped her, and she quickly took a few steps toward the still-prone Larissa. As she approached, her body became visibly transparent.

“No… no, I can’t hold it. I can’t hold onto it.”

“Wh-what? What, you’re a… you’re a…a…” Larissa stammered, staring at the rapidly fading figure in front of her while her mind reeled. Saved. Saved by a… by a Stranger. A Stranger who didn’t set off her senses, but a Stranger nonetheless.

“We don’t have time,” Sariel… Artemis, whoever she was announced. Already, she was almost invisible. “Listen to me, listen, Larissa. I will explain. I swear that I will explain. But you have to keep this secret. Please. You will be in danger if you don’t. You can’t tell anyone about this. I–I won’t hurt you. I would never hurt you. But my… my children. You have children, I know you do. So do I. And they’re in danger. My children and my husband. Please. I swear to you, I will explain everything. All of it. But you can’t talk about it. And… I need your help. You’re my only hope, Larissa, the only chance I have to find my children and husband again. Please, you–”

Then she was gone. The figure, and the voice, had both vanished.

“Larissa!” That was Nolan, appearing beside her with his axe in one hand. “What–are you alright?” he demanded, reaching a hand down to her. “You never signaled. Then the gargoyles started moving. I tried to get to you, but there were… complications. What happened?”

For a moment, Larissa didn’t say anything. She accepted the hand up, still staring at the spot where Sariel had been.

“Larissa?” Nolan repeated before grimacing. “That’s it, I’m calling in for help. They can–”

“I’m okay.” Turning back to him, Larissa gave the man a smile. “Sorry, I just got my bell rung a little bit there. But I’m fine. See? Just dandy.”

Sariel, Artemis, whoever… or whatever she was, the woman had saved her life. And then begged for her help. Help with her children. It might have been manipulation, or a trick. But… but she had saved her life. So Larissa would wait and hear her out the next time she… made contact.

She owed her that much.

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Investigations 25-02 – Paul Calburn (Interlude Arc)

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Late Friday Evening, January 26th, 2018 (Three days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Paul Calburn embodied the very concept of the cliche gentleman cowboy. That wasn’t exactly true, since the one and only time he’d actually ridden a horse, the thing had bucked him. That was back when Paul had been eight years old. He’d ended up with a broken arm and a deep-seated fear of horses that he still hadn’t shaken. He knew how irrational it was, especially now. He was training to fight much, much worse threats. But logic didn’t matter. Anytime the idea of actually sitting on a horse came up again, he had a flashback to his own small body flying through the air, followed by the terrible pain as he’d landed on his arm. Logic be damned, he just didn’t like horses.

But what he liked even less than horses were bullies and manipulators, people who took advantage of others to get what they wanted. People who abused their power like that were the worst scum. And as far as he could tell, that included the girl who called herself Flick Chambers, if that was even her real name. From what he’d seen, everything else about her was a lie.

She had supposedly been a completely normal Bystander with no combat training and no connection to the Heretic world. Yet, within a few months of starting, she was already one of the most advanced combatants in their school. Hell, if the rumors were right (and they seemed to be), she’d killed an Amarok on her team’s first hunt. An Amarok, and Chambers managed to kill it after she’d been a part of the school for… what, barely a month? That was completely absurd.

Then there was everything else. On the third day of school, Professor Pericles had been killed. And who were two of the first people on the scene first thing in the morning according to others who had been there? Flick and Avalon. The next day, who were the two students locked in a room with a bunch of Peridles that came out of it without a scratch despite one of those students supposedly never being in a fight before in her life? Flick and Avalon.

It went on and on like that. Flick kept disappearing and showing up with powers that no one saw her get. She didn’t get them on any kind of official hunt, that was for sure. She just… had them.

Then there was Thanksgiving. It was next to impossible to put together any kind of coherent timeline or description of what had happened. But somehow, Flick had ended up at Koren Fellows’ house and… surprise, surprise, there was an attack by some kind of nasty Stranger. An attack that ended with Koren’s mom needing help. But did they bring her to Crossroads? No. Flick was there and she just happened to have a contact in Eden’s Garden, a contact that took Koren’s mom there instead of to Crossroads. And guess who, completely coincidentally, stopped being so antagonistic toward Flick and her friends right around that same time? Koren.

Koren acted like a…  word that he wasn’t going to even let himself think, because he didn’t want to be that kind of person. She acted awful toward Flick and Flick’s friends. Flick ended up at her house, Koren’s mother was horrifically injured, and then was taken to Eden’s Garden… and suddenly Koren’s attitude changed? What better leverage was there than someone’s mother?

And it was around that same time that Roxa had disappeared, with the utterly ridiculous explanation that she had gone for a family emergency. A family that she didn’t have, since she’d made it quite clear to them all that she was an orphan.

That, in itself, obviously didn’t tie her to Flick. But then there was Doug’s power. The power that told them that the answer to finding out where Roxa was lay in Flick. Flick was the answer. She knew where Roxa was, what had happened to her.

What, exactly was more likely, that Roxa had somehow gained an entire family just before having an emergency that required she visit them for months on end…  and that somehow Flick knew about it…. or that Roxa had found out the truth about Flick being from Eden’s Garden and she or someone connected to her had done something to the girl?

Maybe they hurt her. Maybe they abducted her. Maybe they brainwashed her, or just convinced her to go to Eden’s Garden somehow. Threats, payments, promises, Paul wasn’t going to pretend to know Roxa well enough to say for certain. But the point remained that Doug’s power said that Flick knew what happened to Roxa. And, in the time since that whole thing had happened, Flick had begun to act more and more paranoid and suspicious of everyone.

She had the people on her team using those magic coins that Paul and the others had found in her dorm room, the coins that masked their conversations. How had she learned that spell?

Flick knew magic she shouldn’t know, she was a better fighter than she should be, she kept disappearing and gaining abilities with no explanation, she had contacts in Eden’s Garden that were strong enough to let her tell them to make someone into a Heretic (and purposefully had that person sent there instead of to Crossroads where her own daughter attended)… and on and on. How much more obvious did it need to be that she wasn’t a normal student?

And that wasn’t even getting into the whole visit from the boy who had somehow mind-controlled their head of security before visiting Flick and Avalon’s room. Sure, he’d then proceeded to use that mind-whammy power of his to convince most of the students in the immediate area to attack them, but as far as Paul could tell, that had only happened after Gaia showed up. At the time, he’d assumed it was just what it looked like. But now… ever since Doug’s power kept repeatedly pointing at Flick as being the source of Roxa’s disappearance, he doubted it. Again, the whole ‘attack Flick’ thing hadn’t happened until Gaia was there. Who knew what else they talked about before then? And it would’ve been a quick way of making Flick look innocent after they were caught in her room by the headmistress.

Sigh. None of that sounded exactly right. Paul couldn’t entirely shake the thought that they were missing something important. He kept doubting things. Yet Doug’s power was insistent. Every time they asked it who was responsible for Roxa’s disappearance, how to find her, who knew where she was, and so on and so forth, it pointed at Flick Chambers.

Sometimes, Paul thought he should just walk up and demand answers from the girl. Other times he thought he should just ask her. Either way, the direct method was tempting. Yet there was also no way to come back from it. If they confronted Flick openly and she was a threat, there would be no do-overs. That was the only thing that stopped him. So many times, he had looked at the blonde girl and thought that just asking her about it would be the best way to do things.

But if she was bad, if she was some kind of Garden secret agent or something and thought her cover was blown… she would be more than a threat to him, she might just have Roxa killed to cover their tracks. And after what had happened to Rex, the little brother who had drowned while nine-year-old Paul was supposed to be watching him… he couldn’t face something like that. He was their team leader. He was responsible for Roxa. He couldn’t make a mistake and trust Flick when it might mean that Roxa would pay the consequences if he was wrong.

Maybe that was why he was so obsessed with finding Roxa. Roxa. Rex. His little brother died because Paul was too busy playing his game instead of watching him. He knew his mother had never forgiven him for it, and likely never would. She’d never looked at him the same way again, even after his parents separated and Paul went to live with his father.   

He’d failed Rex. He wouldn’t fail Roxa.

“Now, see dude, when you said you had a plan, I thought you meant something involving teleportation or whatever,” Isaac announced from the backseat of the old red van.

“We did teleport,” Paul reminded the boy from his spot in the driver’s seat. “From Crossroads all the way to my dad’s new place in Montana.”

“Sure,” Isaac replied. “And then we proceeded to sit in a normal old van and drive down the freeway for the past five freaking hours. My cramps are getting cramps.”

Beside him in the front passenger seat, Jazz pointed out, “What were we supposed to do, say, ‘hey, Professor Carfried, could you teleport us to Wyoming? Yeah, we know none of us live there, but we really want to visit all the absolutely nothing that’s there’. We’re just lucky the place Paul’s dad moved to is as close as it is. Five hours isn’t that bad, and I’m the one who has to put up with the boy smell.”

Rudolph, sitting next to Isaac, spoke without opening his eyes. The boy had been dozing in his seat since the moment the drive had started. “And lucky that his dad doesn’t mind him going on roadtrips when he’s supposed to be visiting for the weekend with his team.”

Coughing a little despite himself, Paul tightened his grip on the wheel before nodding. “Dad pretty much lets me do what I want, long as I don’t make no trouble. Not the first road trip I’ve taken. Kinda like the solitude.” Pausing briefly, he asked, “Everyone else okay back there?”

Doug, in the middle seat in front of Rudolph and Isaac, spoke without looking up from his game. “Dandy.” His fingers were flying over the buttons, and his brow was knit with concentration, eyes mostly hidden by the ever-present New York Rangers cap that was pulled down low.

Beside the other boy, Gordon gave a slight nod. His own eyes were focused out the window, watching the Wyoming scenery as they drove by. He spoke quietly. “How far is it now?”

Before Paul could answer, Jazz lifted a hand to point at a sign they were passing. “There it is. Laramie Falls, Wyoming, exit in five miles. You got that question ready, Doug?”

The boy in question nodded before muttering, “I’ll wait until we’re actually in town.”

It didn’t take long from that point. Within a few minutes, they had exited the freeway and were slowly driving through the town itself. Doug finally shut off his game, straightening up. Aloud, he asked, “How do we get from here to the house in this town that is listed as being Flick Chambers’ home?”

No one in the van answered. But then, Doug wasn’t asking them, he was using his power. Once a day, he could ask a question and either receive an answer or directions toward an answer.

A moment later, he opened his eyes. “Got it. Turn right up here, then left at the next corner.”

Over the next couple of minutes, the boy directed them through the town. Just before they reached Flick’s street, Paul pulled into a corner gas station and parked in the back. The six of them stepped out, the boys stretching their legs a bit while Jazz went inside to get some drinks. Then, once they were sufficiently refreshed, the team started out of the lot on foot. They walked down the street, keeping their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary. Now would be one of the worst possible times to somehow run into someone who knew who they were. Explaining what they were doing in Flick’s (supposed) hometown would take an awful lot of doing.

Before stepping onto Flick’s street itself, Paul made everyone stop. It was late enough that almost no one was out anyway. But still. They all clustered together, touching Jazz before the girl summoned her invisibility power. It wasn’t perfect, showing a shimmering shape in the air whenever they moved. But as long as the group moved slowly, it was better than nothing. Plus, according to Jazz, the power also somewhat dampened other senses like hearing and smell.

The house in question was mostly dark, with only a single light on in one of the upstairs rooms. As they slowly (and almost invisibly) approached, there was no sign of movement aside from some flickering that looked like it was coming from a television. Aside from that, all was still.

“You know,” Isaac whispered barely loud enough to be heard, “I kinda expected something to happen right now. Like a bunch of Garden thugs to jump out or… or… I dunno, something.”

He was being quiet, but Paul still shushed him without taking his eyes off the house. They stood there, across the street while staring at the place for another ten minutes before he ushered the group to move on. Together, they continued down and around the corner, gathering in a gravel-filled alley before Jazz finally relaxed the invisibility so they could see each other again.

Rudolph was the first to speak, his voice quiet and steady. “Looks pretty normal, doesn’t it?”

Paul nodded slowly. “Yeah, not that that means anything.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Right, just like we figured. That motel we found online is just a couple blocks away. Since I’m the only one that’s eighteen, I’ll check in. Most of us get some sleep, and we watch the house in pairs over the next couple days until something happens. Everyone good with that?”

There were an assortment of nods, and Paul gestured. “Right, let’s go. I wanna get back so we can keep an eye on the place before we end up missing something. I’ll take the first shift, with…”


A little over an hour later, Paul started awake abruptly. He was in the driver’s seat of the van once more, which was parked just around the corner from Flick’s home, pulled forward just enough to see the house in the distance.

“Bleh,” Paul muttered, smacking his lips a few times to get rid of the sleep taste. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.” Glancing to his partner for the moment, he asked, “Everything still quiet over there?”

The response came not from the person seated beside him in the passenger seat, but from the back. And it spoke in his own voice.

“Everything still quiet over there?”

Jerking around in his seat, Paul stared at the figure who sat behind them. The figure was… him. It could’ve been his twin brother. Seeing his stare, the doppelganger smiled before speaking, again mimicking his previous words. “Sorry, guess I dozed off.”

Paul’s mouth opened, and then he felt a sharp prick in the side of his neck. His head turned, snapping that way in time to see his partner withdraw a syringe even as all of the strength left Paul’s body. He slumped over, collapsing halfway out of the seat.  

“Here we go,” his teammate announced quietly while reaching out to yank Paul up by the arm. They steadied him in the seat, patting his cheek. “If it makes you feel any better, you didn’t miss anything in the house. Though, you know, I did wonder if that drink was ever gonna knock you out.”

He was paralyzed. Paul couldn’t move anything aside from his eyes and his mouth, both sluggishly. “Th…wh…what… what…”

“Oh, right,” his teammate… his supposed friend snapped their fingers. “You’ve probably got questions about the guy in the back.” Glancing that way, they smiled slightly. “That’s Fetch. Wait–” They looked to the figure in question. “Was Fetch your name or your species, because I was never quite clear on that.”

“Yes,” the answer came from the back in Paul’s voice.

After pausing briefly, the person beside him nodded. “Right then. Anyway, Fetch. I think it’s some kind of Irish Stranger or something. Anyway, you don’t want a history lesson right now. You just wanna know why it looks like you, right? Well, long story short, he’s a doppelganger.  Cuz here’s the thing, Paul… turns out, my uh, let’s call them my benefactors, they think they need some more help. Some backup, you know. So, they sent in Fetch here. He’s one of those Strangers that doesn’t set off the Heretic-sense. Pretty useful. And he’s kind of a mercenary.” There was a pause then before Paul’s teammate chuckled. “Hell, I guess I’m a mercenary too, huh? I mean, they are paying me a shiiiiiitload for all this. Which, I mean, I almost would’ve done it for free cuz how often do you get to do shit like this? But you know, the money helps.”

Paul was struggling, fighting a losing battle to make himself move, to shout for help, to warn… someone. He was trying to interrupt, but it was hard to talk, hard to do anything but sit there. Even his emotions seemed dulled and slow, because the sense of betrayal that he felt didn’t seem to be the kind of raging fire that it should. Everything was dampened.

“Anyway,” the person beside him continued. “Point is, Fetch here needs someone to take over. You got elected because you’re on my team so I could set it up, and because–well, quite frankly it has been a pain in the ass to keep this team focused. You have no idea how many times you people decided to just go and talk to Flick to straighten this whole thing out. I mean, memory-erasure spells or not, having the same conversation over and over and over again until you get the result you want just gets dull, you know? Now, maybe with my pal Fetch here calling the shots in your place, we can actually stay focused on getting the rest of this team to gather all the evidence we need about Flick being a baaaaaad little girl. Then we’ll take that to the Committee and, well, that’ll be that. Oh, and because Gaia’s so tied into this whole thing, she’ll probably go down too. Won’t that be fun?”

It was so hard to talk, it was so hard to think. Paul forced his mouth open, struggling to say even a couple words. “Flick… not… bad…”

“Flick’s not bad?” the figure echoed. “Yeah, I guess if you like snoopy blondes with firm little–oh, you meant evil. Well, no, she–oh, just for the record, were you talking about the real Flick, or the one we overheard the other day? Cuz uh, the one that came in her room and just conveniently spilled all that information just when we happened to be there? Yeah, that was my friend over here too. Just making sure they spoofed the security system correctly and all that. You know, while dropping just enough info to keep the rest of you guys interested and right on Flick’s tail. I mean, not as literally on her tail as I’d like to be, but…well,  you can’t have everything.” A pause then, before there was a thoughtful, “Actually, do you think they might let me have her when this is over?”

That was enough for Paul to almost push himself up a bit. His fists actually clenched. “Piece… of… shit…”

His teammate pushed him back down. “Oh, look at me, rambling forever. It’s just–it’s been a long time since I got to be myself, you know? I was just… faking it for so goddamn long, ever since they found me and told me all about this plan and… yeah. Seriously, it’s just nice to talk to someone. And see the look on your face. That’s–that’s gotta be one of the best parts of this whole thing. It’s almost as good as the look on Pericles’s face when he realized I was just distracting him before, well…” He drew a finger over his throat.

“Y… you… you…” Paul’s eyes were wide as he desperately fought against whatever he had been injected with. “… killed…”

“Me? Dude!” the figure beside him blurted. “You know how cool that would’ve been? Imagine how many powers I would’ve gotten from that.” A sigh then. “But no, they wouldn’t let me do it myself. I was just the distraction. But believe me, the person who did do it…. Well, let’s just say you’d be really surprised.”

“Wh… why…?” Paul’s voice was a weak croak, the words barely audible.

“Why do this? All of it?” His teammate paused before shrugging. “Well, I already told you about the money. Believe me, it is a lot of money. You have no idea. But beyond that, I’d say because it’s fun. I mean, check this out. You know those um, what were those little freaks called, the umm…” Their fingers snapped a few times as they fought to remember. “The Jekern, right, the big warthog things that’re like those Russian nesting dolls. You get one of those and you cut off its legs and you put these metal caps on the stumps so it can’t go anywhere, right? Then, all you gotta do is wait for it to get big enough that there’s a bunch of them inside. And once it is, there’s this technique you gotta do with the blade, you gotta angle it just right and when you shove it in, you can kill three, four of them all at once. Shrick, straight through all the brains, just like that. So all that’s left is the smallest one. Then you take that little baby, you cut off its legs, lock it up in the cage and feed it until it gets big enough to have more inside it. I mean seriously, dude, why don’t we just do that in the school? I must’ve killed eight or nine of the piggy freaks by now.

“And there’s other ones you can do that shit with too, you know? You just figure out how to cripple ‘em, lock the bastards up and let them spit out little ones. But you know, in that case you gotta kill the little ones, not the big ones. Don’t wanna get rid of your breeder, that’s just dumb and wasteful. And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s wasteful. Learned that lesson with my sister. I mean, one little slice and it was over, you know? I didn’t get to enjoy it or anything. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret not showing just a little more restraint. But you know, first times and all that. I think I can be forgiven for shooting off a little quick in that case. I’m much better at keeping my cool now.”

“I’m done.” Paul’s voice spoke up once more from the backseat, his doppleganger, Fetch.

“Done?” the traitor echoed before grinning. “Great.” To Paul, they added, “See, Fetch can just copy your physical appearance and all that if need be. But his real trick is a lot better than that. See, if he spends a few minutes close to the person he’s copying, he can sort of… lock onto their spirit. Or whatever you wanna call it. The point is, it means when you die, he gets to copy all your memories, your skills, your powers, everything useful. He can only hold onto that stuff for a short time before it fades. Someone like you is probably weak enough that he can copy it all for a couple months. But you know, that outta be long enough for our purposes.”

When he died. When he died. Summoning all of his anger, his rage, his desperation, Paul jerked forward in his seat… only to receive a knife in the middle of his chest.

It was a literal one, to match the metaphorical one that his supposed friend had stabbed him with already.

Dropping their hand from the handle, the figure beside him watched as Paul collapsed back into the seat. It was… it was cold… colder than Paul thought it would be. He was struggling, hand grasping for the door handle, mouth struggling to move, fighting to flee, to fight, to escape, to scream.

Fighting to live.

“Man,” the traitor announced calmly. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that, you sanctimonious prick.”  

Paul’s hand fell from the doorknob. Rex, he thought desperately. Roxa. Roxa, I was trying–I was trying–

The last thing that he heard, the last thing he would ever hear, was the derisive snort of his supposed friend.

“Man, would you just die already?”

Isaac Acosta gave a wide smile. “I wanna see how many of your powers I’ll get.”

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Investigations 25-01 – Gordon Kuhn (Interlude Arc)

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Please note, the following is the beginning of a 6-chapter Interlude Arc focusing on Roxa’s old team as they investigate Flick and that whole situation. We will be taking a brief break from our main character to see what’s going on over here. Flick will be back after this arc. 

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018 (Five days before Flick and company confronted Fahsteth and Flick’s house was attacked by werewolves)

Most of the people at the Crossroads Academy believed that Gordon Kuhn had no sense of humor. That wasn’t exactly true, since there were things that he found amusing. But he had goals, goals that could only be accomplished if he took his training seriously, and didn’t squander the opportunity.

That, and he also didn’t particularly relish the idea of spending a bunch of time laughing alongside the very same people who would cheerfully murder him if they knew what he really was.

Because while Gordon’s mother was a Heretic just as everyone thought, his father was something altogether different. His father wasn’t human.

Most of the people at Cossroads, if they knew what Gordon really was, what his father was, would want him dead. There were only a couple of people that he could trust with his secret. And one of those people, the person who had recruited Gordon into the school to begin with while knowing what he was, had been murdered a couple of days into the school year. Professor Pericles, one of the very few people that Gordon knew without a doubt he could trust, had been murdered.

So was it really any wonder that he didn’t tend to have much of a sense of humor?

“Gordo!” That was Isaac, his roommate. The two were so dissimilar, with Isaac’s refusal to take anything seriously at all, that Gordon was at least half convinced that their entire life as roommates together was being a broadcast as some kind of Odd Couple reality show for the easily amused.

“You ready, man?” Isaac asked from his place at the door into their room. “The others are already waiting for us, but if you need a minute to make yourself pretty…” he trailed off, grinning widely.

Yeah, Gordon thought, and just how fast would you try to kill me the second you found out what my father is, Mr. Comedian? Out loud, he simply announced, “Ready,” while heading for the door.

The rest of the team was waiting for them on the roof of the boy’s dorm when they climbed the ladder to get up there. Douglas, Jasmine, Paul, and Rudolph all looked up as the two boys came over the edge of the roof to join them.

“It’s about time you guys made it,” Jasmine announced. “You know we couldn’t wait much longer. Doug’s power was pretty damn specific.”

Douglas had used his power to get an answer or at least directions toward an answer once per day in order to find the right time for them to do this.

Isaac was bobbing his head. “Sure man, but you know how Professor Kuhn over here is. We had to get every last bit of that project for Nimbles done before he’d even consider coming out.”

“We’re still five minutes early,” Gordon pointed out flatly. “There was no sense in abandoning our work to come up here before it was time. Now the project’s done, and we don’t have to worry about it later.”

Plus, it had given him a little more time to think about what he was going to do if their theory about Felicity Chambers paid off today. And more specifically, how he was going to get her away from the rest of his team in order to ask her the things that he really needed to ask her.

Paul, ever the peacemaker, raised a hand. “All right, well we’re all here now, so let’s get busy.” He looked toward Rudolph, who stood at the edge of the roof. “You seen where Flick and Avalon went?”

The other boy gestured idly, his voice making it clear that he was trying not to yawn.  He had never been very invested in this, and had made his own doubts clear. Yet he didn’t go against what any of them said, and never refused to help. “They went down to the beach about ten minutes ago. Shiori was with them.”

Jasmine smirked knowingly at that, “Well, at least someone around here is getting some action today.” Seeing the others looking at her, she shrugged.”What? She may or may not be an evil bitch, but you gotta admit, she’s got game.”

“Okay, dude,” Isaac muttered. “Really trying to focus right now, and that’s not helping.”  Visibly shaking it off, he focused on Jasmine. “You first, since it’s safest for you. Make sure it’s clear?”

She nodded, holding both arms out cockily as she stood in front of him. “Well, beam me over, Scotty.”

Obligingly, Isaac reached out to put a hand on her arm, before looking over toward the roof of the girl’s dorm, across the way. A moment later, Jasmine disappeared from where she was standing, and reappeared almost immediately on the other roof.

That was one of the powers that Isaac had inherited during one of their fights over the past few months. At any point, he could transport himself, and/or anyone he was physically touching to any place within his line of sight. Unfortunately, he couldn’t transport through solid objects, even if he could see through them, like glass or bars. Plus, he could only do a maximum of one person other than himself at the same time. Which meant they had to do this slowly.

After taking a moment to look around and make sure the roof of the dorm was clear, Jasmine raised a hand to wave over at the rest of them.

“Right then,” Paul announced while looking to Douglas. “You’re next. Remember, keep your head down. We don’t need this to go to shit this early.”

Clearly unable to help himself, or unwilling to try, Isaac blurted, “So it’s okay if it goes to shit later?”

To his credit, while Gordon would have given the boy an annoyed look, Paul didn’t miss a beat. “Sure, as long as you’re the only one who gets screwed by it.”

Douglas took his place and was transported over to the roof with Jasmine. He was followed by Rudolph, then Gordon took his turn, with Isaac transporting himself and Paul over last.

Finally, they were all on the roof of the girls dorm, with the boys crouched down to avoid being seen as much as possible. Jasmine was keeping an eye out over the edge of the roof to make sure they weren’t interrupted by anyone climbing up.

“Okay then,” Paul whispered. “We’re kind of exposed here, so do your thing, Gordon.”

Without a word, Gordon stepped over and took a knee around the middle of the roof. Holding his hand out with his index finger and thumb apart in the shape of an almost-closed circle, he peered down through the space between the fingers at the roof. After a moment of focus, the image of the roof itself, as seen between his thumb and index finger, changed to show the inside of the room directly below. It was the kitchenette of an apartment for one of the older students.

It was a power that he had gained from the same creature that Isaac had taken his teleportation from. In the Stranger itself, both powers worked together, allowing it to see through solid objects and then teleport itself beyond. But in Gordon’s case, the x-ray vision only worked between his fingers like that (making it obvious when he was using it), and only within a short distance.

Moving his hand around to scan the entire apartment below, Gordon finally nodded. “It’s clear.”

“Great,” Paul announced before looking to Jasmine. “Guess that means you’re up, Jazz.”

The girl took her place next to Gordon then. Kneeling down, she touched her hand against the roof and slowly ran it along the surface. Everywhere her hand touched, the roof turned squiggly and almost see-through, like a very thick liquid. The room below was almost visible.

Jasmine had inherited the third and final portion of the power of the Stranger that Gordon and Isaac had also gotten part of. In her case, she could turn things intangible with a touch. The full power of the Strangers that the three of them had killed allowed it to see through solid objects, render those solid objects intangible (at a distance in its case), and then teleport through.

Once she’d altered enough of the roof, Jasmine gestured. “So who’s first, you big burly men?”

As it turned out, Paul was first that time. Stepping to the shimmering, liquid-like portion of roof, their team leader took a breath before dropping in. Through the space between his fingers, Gordon watched as the other boy cautiously looked around before gesturing for them to follow.

“Next,” Gordon passed the message along, watching as Isaac, Douglas, and then Rudolph went through. He went just before Jasmine, the altered roof material feeling a bit like moving through gelatin before he dropped the rest of the way to land on the floor of the apartment’s kitchenette.

Once they’d all made it into the room, Gordon checked the apartment below the one they were in. An instant later, he dropped his hand, head shaking. His voice was flat. “It’s occupied.”

Wincing, Paul looked around for a moment before pointing to the wall connecting the apartment they were in to the one next door. “Okay, try that one. Maybe we’ll get a little more lucky.”

They did. Between Gordon and Jasmine’s powers, they continued on their semi-roundabout path. First they had to go to the apartment next door, then down one, then over three more apartments before finding one below that was unoccupied. After that, the team had to work their way over until they were directly above their actual target: Flick and Avalon’s dorm room.

From there, once they had made sure that the coast was clear (which they spent at least twice as long on as they had for any other room), Gordon and the others eventually dropped down inside the belly of the beast.

“You know,” Douglas whispered once they were all in the room and his gaze had moved over to where Jasmine was. “You could’ve just like, waited outside the room for us to let you in. I mean, you’re allowed inside the girl’s dorm. You didn’t have to go through all that.”

“And let you boys have all the fun?” Jasmine scoffed with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be selfish.”

Isaac opened his mouth to say something, but before he could get anything out, Paul interrupted with a stage-whisper. “Okay, guys, let’s get busy. Doug’s power might’ve said that now is the best time to search this place, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got all day before they come back.” He looked toward Gordon then, gesturing to the door. “Keep a lookout, just in case?”

Gordon nodded once and stepped that way. Setting his fingers up, he put himself in a position where he could see through into the hallway and toward the main entrance. Hopefully, it would give them enough of a warning if Flick and Avalon returned before they were done searching.

He stood there, listening to his teammates carefully and thoroughly search the entire room behind him while he kept watch. Before they got too involved, however, Gordon spoke up. “Remember to put everything back exactly the way it was,” he pointed out. “You never know what they might notice being out of place. And don’t touch that box.” Without looking, he pointed toward the object in question in the corner of the room. “That’s where Flick keeps the mice.” He knew that much from his thorough examination of the room before they’d dropped inside.

“Dude.” Isaac’s hand was on his arm. “Seriously, don’t be such a worrywart, Gordo. We’ve got this. We’ll find proof that Avalon and Flick are some kind of Eden’s Garden spies, take it to the Headmistress, and she’ll make them tell us what really happened to Roxa. Easy peasy.”

Closing his eyes, Gordon took a deep breath before grunting through gritted teeth. “Stop cursing everything, stop distracting me, stop calling me Gordo, stop touching me, and keep looking.”

He’d made his aversion to being touched quite clear from the beginning. It was already hard enough to make sure he didn’t lose control and accidentally use the power that he’d inherited from his father without being able to explain where it came from. Part of Gordon felt like he should make an excuse about having killed something while he was on a family trip to explain it away. But he was afraid that would just lead to having to answer more than he wanted to. Better to keep his hybrid abilities secret, for now.

Still, it meant that every time one of his teammates touched him unexpectedly, it just reminded Gordon again that as much as he might (usually) like them (well enough), he couldn’t actually trust any of them. Not if they ever found out what he was. If they ever touched him while he wasn’t paying attention and keeping his skin the right temperature, their fingers would instantly freeze, likely to the point of shattering. And that… well, that would probably raise a few questions that he couldn’t answer very easily.

Fifteen minutes later, Isaac cursed while turning in a circle in the middle of the room. “Okay, there’s nothing here. No letters from her handlers back at Eden’s Garden, no vials of poison, no extra cell phones, no maps of secret entrances, nothing.”

“First of all, she does have more than one cell phone,” Jasmine informed him. “Believe me, I’ve seen her using two different ones. And we did find something. These.” Extending her hand, she showed a cloth bag that was meant to hold marbles. This one was full of quarters.  

Douglas raised an eyebrow at that from where he was sitting at Flick’s desk, in front of her computer. “Money for the laundromat?” he guessed with a shrug.

“Money for the–” Jasmine echoed incredulously before shaking her head. “Boys. I’m surrounded by boys.” Gordon had a feeling that she was substituting ‘morons’ in her head. “They’re enchanted coins. I’ve seen them use this stuff before, right before they have a completely boring and inconsequential conversation. Which means…” she trailed off, looking around hopefully.

“The coins must be hiding what they’re really saying,” Gordon calmly finished for her.

“Put ‘em back where they were,” Paul instructed. “If they’re that important, she’ll notice if they’re out of place. Wait, take one of them. It’s a bagful, she probably won’t notice one missing. We’ll see if we can find a way to counter the spell on it so we can hear what they’re really talking about.” To Douglas, he added, “You find a way into that thing yet?”

The other boy nodded then, fingers moving on the keyboard. “Got it. I’ve been looking at her e-mail. Nothing too exciting. Normal, boring messages. It’s so boring and ordinary, in fact, that there’s gotta be code here. No one really talks about stuff this boring over e-mail.”

A figure entered Gordon’s vision through his x-ray power then, just coming through the main door. He turned, interrupting in a flat, calm voice. “Chambers is coming.”

“Crap,” Paul announced succinctly before gesturing. “Come on, come on, contingency plan. That side, go, go go. Put the computer back the way it was. Move, move.” His stage whisper was almost frantic as he waved his hands, ushering everyone into one of the room’s corners.

Once they were there, Jasmine whispered, “Being the only girl on the team, I hate to give you boys this kind of ammunition, but… everyone touch me.”

They did, the whole team crowding in to put their hands on the dark-skinned girl’s offered arms and shoulders. As they did so, the doorknob on the other side of the room started to turn. Jasmine quickly knit her brow in concentration, before she and the rest of the team instantly faded from sight.

That was the other major power that Jasmine had gained. As long as she was either standing still or moving incredibly slowly, she could make herself and anyone (or anything) directly touching her completely invisible. If they stayed very still and didn’t make any noise, Flick wouldn’t know they were there.

When Flick came through the open door, she was on the phone, already speaking. “Yeah, one second.” She crossed over to her desk, reaching under it to flip on the privacy screen. The black shield that popped up around the girl’s side of the room should have left her with complete secrecy. Except for the fact that Gordon, Jasmine, and the rest of the team were inside the effect of the screen. So they could still hear Flick just fine as the girl flopped onto her bed while talking.

“We just have to get that choker on Roxa. If we do that, she can come back here and no one’ll know anything’s different. … Yeah, we can figure out the rest later, after we deal with the Roxa problem.  … I dunno, do werewolves and vampires really have that whole rivalry thing? … Oh gee, Miss Asenath, you tell me. Why would I think you know anything about that? … Right, I’ll alert the media.”

There was a little more conversation after that, enough to let them know that this ‘Asenath’ was staying with Flick’s father. It sounded like some kind of bodyguard position. Eventually, however, Flick checked the time and informed the person on the phone that she had to go.

Gordon didn’t know about anyone else, but he barely breathed until several moments after the blonde girl had left the room and it was clear that she wasn’t coming right back.

Finally, however, he exhaled and stepped away from the others as Jasmine released her invisibility. They came back into view, everyone looking at each other.

“Choker?” Douglas demanded. “They have to get a choker onto Roxa before they can bring her back here? What, for some kind of mind control shit?”

“Obviously,” Jasmine confirmed, folding her arms “What else could it be? You–”

“She said Asenath.” That was Isaac, who uncharacteristically looked incredibly serious, even dour as he repeated himself. “She said Asenath.”

Blinking, Paul nodded slowly, looking at Gordon and then back to Isaac. “Uh, yeah. Why, you know the name?”

“My Edge vision,” Isaac replied. “Back when we went through the lighthouse, it was… it was the first real thing I saw with all this Heretic stuff. The first real fight, I mean. One of my ancestors, I think he was my great, great granduncle or something, he was on this hunt, and they were ambushed by a vampire that killed him and his entire group. Her name was Asenath.”

The rest of the team looked at each other. Paul shook his head. “Asenath’s a pretty rare name. I mean, it’s not proof or anything, but…” he trailed off, frowning. “Close enough. Wait–wait, that’s it.”

“What?” Jasmine prompted. “What’s it?”

Holding up his hand to forestall more questions for a moment, Paul was silent while obviously thinking. Then he straightened. “Do we have an address in here somewhere?”

“Sure.” Isaac held up a box. “From her dad, supposedly. I think it was more clothes or something. Anyway, there’s a return address.”

“But it’s gotta be fake, right?” Douglas put in. “I mean, if she’s really from Eden’s Garden, why would she have a house somewhere in–what was it?”

“Wyoming,” Isaac supplied. “Laramie Falls, Wyoming.”

“Wyoming,” Douglas finished. “Right, why would she have a house somewhere in Wyoming?”

It was Gordon’s turn to speak up. “As a cover. If they check her backstory, she needs a house and at least one parent. Too suspicious otherwise.”

Paul was nodding. “Yeah. But this is our chance. It sounds like this Asenath is living there, probably some kind of servant bodyguard for the guy posing as her dad. Or maybe he is her dad. I dunno. The point is, all we have to do is get there and get a look at this Asenath. If she’s a vampire, we’ll know. And if Flick has a vampire living in her house, that’s proof that she’s actually working with Eden’s Garden, right? We prove there’s a vampire living there.”

“Before they use that choker to brainwash Roxa, or whatever they’re doing?” Douglas demanded.

Nodding firmly, Paul replied, “Yeah, before they go that far. We have to prove she’s a threat first. Otherwise… they won’t believe us. We get the proof that she’s got a vampire living in her house and we take that to Headmistress Sinclaire.”

“If we can trust her,” Jasmine muttered disbelievingly before adding, “And how do we get to Wyoming?”

Paul smiled slightly. “You leave that part to me. I’ve got an idea. But uh, that’s gonna take a couple days. So first, let’s get out of here.” He looked to Douglas. “You got that part?”

The boy nodded, tugging his pen out. A moment later, he’d used it to summon a simple ladder, leading back up to the room they had come down from.

After Gordon took a moment to check that the space above them was still clear, the others set about leaving the room. They’d retrace their steps, back to the roof and then to the other dorm.

From there, they’d continue finding a way to prove their theory about Flick and Eden’s Garden. And meanwhile, Gordon would continue to try to think of a way to get Flick alone, away from anyone else. Because if she was from Eden’s Garden, there was a very important question he had to ask her.

Where does Eden’s Garden keep their enslaved Hrimthurs? Because one of them is my father, and I will burn both of these goddamn schools to the ground if that’s what it takes to free him.

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Interlude 24B – Nevada

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Spring, 1985

In all of her life, the being who now chose to refer to herself as Nevada had never known true freedom. Whether it was at the hands of her malevolent creator, Denuvus, or the myriad of other masters who had come and gone over the years before she was reclaimed, someone was almost always in control of her. She may have escaped for brief periods now and then, but there was always someone right around the corner waiting to use her.

That was the nature of being a Djinn. Even when she wasn’t actively under the control of an owner, there were many Alters out there who could see or sense her for what she was. More specifically, they saw her for what she could do for them. They saw the power that she represented. The power of a Djinn to grant wishes was almost unparalleled.

Then there were the Heretics. They didn’t care about the power she had to offer, they just wanted her dead, along with every other non-human being on the planet.

All of which meant that, between being sensed for the power she had as a Djinn, and being sensed as what the Heretics called a Stranger, Nevada had been hunted by both sides for all of her existence. She had never known what it was like to be truly free, to not have to constantly look over her shoulder for the next person who wanted to enslave or kill her.

But now, well, now she wasn’t a Djinn anymore. She was a normal human. Okay, not really normal. She was a Heretic. After using her power one last time to change the Heretical Edge so that it could turn human-Alter hybrids into Heretics as well, she had changed her appearance just enough that she wouldn’t be recognized, and then wished herself into being a normal human. And because turning herself human had been at the request of her final ‘master’, Gaia, it was permanent. She was human, she was free and clear. No one would ever be able to enslave her for her magic again. No more wishes. No more being bound to one master or another. It was a feeling that was as intoxicating as she could imagine.

Of course, she couldn’t actually explain any of that to the people that were now her classmates. Which meant that they thought she was… maybe a little, tiny bit eccentric.

“Nevada, has anyone ever told you that you are completely, certifiably fucking insane?”

Looking toward the boy who had spoken, Nevada gave him a wide, bright smile. “Sorry, Reid, do you mean like, today, or in the past ten minutes? Because the answer is yes for both, but if you want exact numbers, I’ll need you to be more specific. Besides,” she gave him a little push with a wink, “what’s so crazy about this?”

Reid Rucker, her teammate, and one of the first friends that she had made in the school, gave her a look before gesturing in front of them pointedly. Specifically, his hand was indicating the edge of the cliff that lay directly in front of them, and the ocean water about eighty feet below.  

“Oh, I dunno,” the boy drawled slowly, “maybe it’s got something to do with your plan, and in this case I mean ‘plan’ in the loosest definition of the word, to jump off this here cliff when, unless you’ve been killing one of those bird Strangers without me knowing anything about it, you can’t actually fly.”

“Dude!” Nevada grinned, choosing to ignore the implication of killing another creature who might not necessarily deserve it. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?! Flying? That would be way better than just falling with a little bit of pizzazz. Trust me, if I could fly, you’d know. Because I would be using that shit everywhere.”

“Seriously, Nevada.” Reid touched her arm, concern in his eyes. “I don’t know what kind of stuff you learned in that Hunter group, but this is completely nuts.”

Part of the backstory that Headmistress Sinclair had helped Nevada come up with was that she had been raised by an independent group of Heretics after her parents had been killed. It explained how she knew so much about what Strangers were, and any slips that popped up in what she was supposed to know about would be explained by being raised by Heretics that weren’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden connected. And the lack of any living blood relatives would head off any number of potential awkward conversations later.

“Reid,” the blonde former Djinn intoned gently and patiently while gently moving the boy’s hand from her arm. Then she moved back a few steps. “You’re right, stepping off this cliff would be a dumb idea.”

The boy exhaled a little, slumping over. “Thank God. For a second there, I thought you were really going to–wait, stepping off?” Catching her exact words a little too late, he quickly looked up again.

Nevada was already dashing forward. “But flipping off of the cliff is the best idea ever!”

True to her word, she leapt forward into open air and twisted, flipping over several times as she plummeted toward the water below. Behind and above her, she heard Reid shout something about needing a new teammate when his current crazy one  got herself killed. An instant later, she pointed her feet down and dropped straight into the cold water, her momentum carrying her deep below the surface.  

It was so cold, and so sudden, that it instantly took her breath away. But Nevada didn’t care. She would’ve done the same thing a thousand times over, from much higher, into much colder water. Because it was her choice, because she chose to jump. It was all her, all her choice. Her decision.

Nevada would never be anyone’s slave again. She was free.


“Miss ah, Nevada,” Professor Zedekiah Pericles spoke gently the next afternoon. “Do you know why I asked you to stay after class?” The old-looking man stood at the front of the room, leaning slightly against his own desk while watching Nevada sitting at hers.

“Is it about the Şüräle report I turned in?” Nevada asked. “It’s totally not my fault Lennis bet me fifty bucks there was no such thing as a tickle monster. He really should’ve known better than to bet against me on that kind of thing by this point.”

The man coughed at that, working to hide his tiny smirk. “Yes,” he agreed flatly. “He should have. But no, this isn’t about that.” Straightening up, he watched her for a moment before continuing. “I wanted to ask how you were feeling about… next week.”

Biting her lip, Nevada hesitated. “You mean family day.” That was the day where everyone whose family knew the truth about Strangers and Heretics could come look around at the school and visit. It was apparently a pretty big deal, and all of the other students who weren’t Bystander-kin had been talking about it for several days now. Most of them couldn’t wait to see their families and show them what they have been learning. And, of course, the powers that they had gained throughout the year so far.

Nodding, Professor Pericles watched her carefully. “I know that with your… particularly unique situation, it can’t be that fun to hear so many of your peers planning out everything they’re going to do when their families visit.” After pausing briefly, he shook his head lamentingly. “No, not fun at all.”

Nevada’s eyes widened at that. “Oh,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, Professor. I know I’m supposed to be doing better about keeping all that stuff secret. I’m trying, I swear. They asked me if I had anyone coming to visit, and I didn’t know what to say. So I just said I don’t know. I think they knew something was up, even though I tried to change the subject. I won’t mess up again, I swear. I’ll be more subtle. I’ll come up with a better story. I’ll-.”

The man raised a hand to stop her. “Nevada,” he spoke gently, “It’s alright, this isn’t a reprimand. I just want to know how you’re feeling about everything.”

“Feeling?” Nevada hesitated before giving a little shrug, her eyes on the floor. “It’s not like me not having any family is new or anything. I mean, I guess I sort of have a creator who is kind of almost family, but…” Trailing off, she shrugged again. “Believe me, he made it clear that he doesn’t see us as family. I don’t have a family.”

She couldn’t actually say Denuvus’s name, or give that many details. The woman herself had ingrained her creation with very strict magical laws that, even now, she couldn’t break. Hell, she had to use the male pronoun instead of the female one, just as another layer of protection against revealing too many details. But she had been able to say enough that Gaia, and her allies, such as Professor Pericles, understood the gist of it. They knew that her creator was not someone she thought of fondly, even if the specifics were rather murky.

Before the man could say anything to that, the door at the back of the room opened and a particularly harried-looking Asian woman stepped in, already speaking while her eyes remained locked on the walkie-talkie in her hand. “Zedekiah, you have got to help me with this dumb thing. Please, please, please, I’m so screwed. You won’t believe what-”

Finally looking up, the woman stopped short at the site of Nevada. “Oh my gosh,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were busy. I was just, um, well, panicking. I’ll come back later, after you’re done.”

“It’s alright, Risa,” Pericles assured her. “We were simply discussing Miss Nevada’s rather unique situation.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, Professor Kohaku,” Nevada put in. “It’s no big–err, is that radio smoking?”

“Crapsticks!” Professor Kohaku blurted as her eyes snapped back to the smoldering radio in her hands. “I thought I got it to stop doing that! Hey!” She shook the walkie-talkie. “Are you listening to me? Stop it. Stop it right now!” She looked up then, despair in her eyes. “See? The damn thing’s entire purpose is to take your voice somewhere else, and it still can’t listen to me. Technology is all completely evil. It’s already taking over the world.  Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned carrier pigeon? Pigeons are cute, and they can do tricks. All this thing does is-” As she spoke, the smoke that was coming out of the radio turned blue. “Oh come on! Now you’re doing it on purpose! What is even in you that could make blue smoke?!”

The woman raised her hand as though to throw the radio against to the nearby wall as hard as she could, but Pericles stopped her with a soft cough . and shake of his head. “I assume that your recent promotion to head of security is proceeding well then.” He smiled faintly while gesturing with one hand. “Why don’t you let Miss Nevada take a look at it? She’s already proven herself quite adept at our little devices. I’m sure she can sort out the issue in no time.”

Clearly eager to get the device out of her hand, Professor Kohaku quickly offered it toward Nevada. “You want to take a crack at it?”

“Oh, um, sure!” Nevada smiled while bobbing her head up-and-down as she took the radio. “I think I can figure it out.”

After thanking her profusely, Professor Kohaku looked back toward Pericles. “And as for how it’s going, well, I guess it could be worse. it’s just a lot to take care of. I know, I know, Gaia can’t trust anyone else in the security position after what happened to Ignatius, but… it’s just a lot. I’m afraid that I’m going to mess something up.”

Stepping over to put a hand on her shoulder, Pericles smiled. “You’re doing fine, Risa, I promise. You’ll get the hang of balancing your new duties. And anytime you have any more trouble with the equipment, I’m sure that either I, or Nevada here can help. You’ll get there, just remember to take a breath whenever you need to. And if breathing doesn’t work, try finding a private spot and screaming. I find that tends to help.”

Breathing out, Kohaku nodded. “Thanks, I’ll try the screaming thing later. At least being head of security means I know where all the private spots are.” Smiling a little bit then, she looked toward Nevada. “And thank you. You know, for um, looking at that monstrosity.”

“No problem Professor,” Nevada chirped. “I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out what’s wrong with it.”

“What’s wrong with it,” Kohaku grumbled under her breath while giving the thing a dirty look, “is probably that no one’s made the appropriate virgin goat sacrifices to its lord and master recently.”

She made a face at the thing before straightening. “Oh, but while I have you here, Nevada, I have your art project.” Reaching into her suit jacket for a moment, the woman felt around a little before withdrawing a large poster that looked too big to have fit in there. “I just have a couple questions before I hand it back to you.” She paused, glancing toward Pericles. “Unless you prefer this to be private?”

“Oh, no,” Nevada shook her head. “That’s okay, you both already know the truth about me. Did I do something wrong with the project?”

Kohaku’s head shook rapidly. “No, no, nothing like that. I just wanted to ask you about it.”

She held up the poster then so that they could all see it. The image itself was of a pair of eyes that seem to be watching the observer, and an extended hand.

“The assignment,” Kohaku noted. “was to draw a picture of something that makes you feel safe. You wouldn’t believe how many students drew a picture of their weapon, or one of their teachers. But you drew this. Is it someone in particular? And why just the eyes and hand?”

Nevada found herself blushing as she shifted back-and-forth on her feet a little bit. “Uh, yeah. It’s um, you know. It’s Deveron, from back when he saved me. That was sort of the first time anyone ever saved me. I didn’t want to do his whole face, because that would probably be really bad if the wrong people saw it and happened to recognize him. But I thought just his eyes and hand would be okay. That’s mostly what I think about when I remember what happened anyway.” Those eyes, the soft, kind eyes that had met hers right when she had been so certain that her life was about to come to an end. The eyes that had saved her life, and then offered her a new one.

“It’s a wonderful picture,” Kohaku assured her. “I just saw it and, well, I kind of wanted to know more. Which is really good for art, believe me.” She paused then, studying Nevada for a moment. “Deveron really did a lot for you, didn’t he?”

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Nevada replied. “Both literally and figuratively. I wouldn’t be here in the school if he didn’t ask for my help, and help me change. And I wouldn’t be alive if he hadn’t saved me.”

Kohaku smiled at that, and offered the poster back to her. “I think it’s safe to say that you got an A on this project. And I’m sure you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see Mr. Adams again, even if he is persona non grata around here.”

Blushing, Nevada thanked her and the woman excused herself before stepping out of the room with a promise to give her ten million hugs if she could figure out what the hell was wrong with her radio.

Once they were alone, Pericles gestured to the device in her hand. “I do believe that if you can help Risa with her technology issues, you will have found an ally for life, come what may.”

He paused then, before looking to her a little quizzically. “It must be very interesting to be in your position.”

“Interesting,” Nevada echoed curiously, “why?”

The man explained, “You are going through the motions now as if you are a student, and in some ways you are. Being human, having choices, making a life of your own, in that regard, you are a child. But you have been alive for much, much longer than that.”

Again, Nevada blushed. “I prefer to think of this as Version 2.0 of me. And in that regard, I’m only a few months old. I’m still figuring out who I am, and who I want to be.”

The elderly man put a hand on her shoulder, his eyes soft and understanding. “In that regard, my dear, you are already very human. But,” he added after giving a quick glance toward the watch on his wrist, “you should probably go now while there’s still time left in the lunch hour. I wouldn’t want to starve you while you’re still figuring out what kind of person you are. That wouldn’t do at all.

Picking up her bag and tucking the broken radio and her poster away inside of it, Nevada’s head bobbed up and down. “Yeah, I guess I’m still not used to that either. Humans get hungry a lot.

The man chuckled, quipping, “Practically every day, it seems.”

He watched her start to leave, before holding up a hand. “One more thing before you go, Nevada.”

“Yes, Professor?” She turned back to look at him.

His voice was soft, yet firm. “You are very, very wrong when you say that you have no family. You may have no living relatives, true. But here, in this place, as far as I am concerned, you will always have family.”

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Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed too narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Suspects 24-07

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Note: Please make sure to read my first comment after this chapter for an important announcement regarding donations for the past month and rewards. 

As the two crazed werewolves came for us, Roxa and I did the best thing we could in the moment: we went straight to meet them. With barely a glance exchanged between us, we both moved. Roxa took three steps forward before dropping a bit, bending so that my subsequent hop let me put a foot on her back to push off of into a leap. Spinning in the air, I came down between the two, behind Lemuel and facing his back but ahead of Pace with my back to her.

Bending backwards slightly, I brought my staff up in both hands, held horizontally behind my head at the last second before one of the knives that Pace had produced smacked off of it with a loud clang, narrowly stopping her from cutting straight into my neck. At the same time, I lashed out to kick Lemuel in the back in order to shove him off-balance and toward Roxa.

Unfortunately, the kick missed as the big wolf smoothly pivoted to avoid it. Roxa, who had produced a silver knife of her own, just missed cutting into the big black man’s arm. Just as quickly, he caught her wrist and I heard a snapping sound from the bone there as she yelped.

I couldn’t focus on that though. Roxa’s werewolf and Peridle healing would take care of it. Spinning toward Pace, I snapped the staff around my back and to the front just in time to catch the knife in her left hand against the bladed end of my own weapon. Her foot lashed out at me, but I snapped my own leg up to catch it, both of our shins rebounding off each other.

Pace dropped into a low, spinning leg-sweep at the same time that I leapt and spun in a kick of my own. My leg passed over her head, while hers passed directly beneath me. At the same time, I caught the end of my staff and gave a hard swing back and down with my arm at full extension in order to reach. The blow caught Lemuel against the shoulder. It barely did any damage to the big guy, though it did slow him for half a step, giving Roxa a chance to launch herself up and forward. Her right foot hit the man in the stomach, her left foot hit his chest, and then she did a backwards flip that smacked her left foot against his chin before landing on Gidget’s back as the cyberform cougar leapt into her hoverboard form right below Roxa.

Meanwhile, as I came back down, I used the recoil from my staff bouncing off of Lemuel’s shoulder to spin the weapon back around and down into a vertical blow at the spot where Pace had dropped in her attempt to sweep my legs. It was too late, the girl was already gone. Her enhanced speed brought her back to her feet and out of the way of the staff, lashing out with a swipe from the knife in her right hand that my werewolf-enhanced reflexes barely let me jerk away from in time to avoid the worst of the damage. The blade still cut across my cheek, stinging a bit. But at least it wasn’t my throat.

Not that I had time to be glad about that fact, since Pace followed up her first swipe with half a dozen more, all of them coming so fast that I didn’t have time to block or dodge them all. I took three more cuts across my arms and shoulder while frantically spinning my staff up to take the worst of the damage. Distantly, I felt the pain, but it barely mattered. There was nothing debilitating about the damage she’d done, nothing to make me stop fighting. Not yet, anyway.

To give myself a little room, I snapped the staff up and triggered a blast of kinetic force that knocked Pace up and back about ten feet. Using the same momentum from the blast, I spun around, pivoting on one foot while swinging at Lemuel’s head with the bladed end of the staff.

His hand snapped backward, catching the staff just under the blade before yanking me off my feet. As he hauled me up, I hit the button that sent sand shooting out of the staff, directing it in a cloud to his eyes and mouth before triggering the last of the charge in my weapon. The force shot out the bottom of the staff, propelling it (with me attached) up and out of the man’s grip, flying into the air. He gave a violent snarl, lashing out at me on the way, but with the sand blinding him, he missed.

Flipping over in the air, I aimed the staff down, giving a sharp whistle toward Roxa, who was still on her board. With her attention, I shot the grapple out of my staff, launching it at Lemuel.

The big, dark-skinned half-wolf easily jerked aside, avoiding the grapple. But that was okay, I’d been expecting him to. And so had Roxa. Even as the grapple had shot downward, she already had Gidget flying forward. At the last second, she leapt off the hoverboard, catching the line from my grapple to spin herself around it, planting both feet into Lemuel’s side with all that force.

The big guy went down on his side, the blow knocking him over.

Unfortunately,  we couldn’t follow up the moment of vulnerability, because Pace had recovered by that point. She was a sudden blur, appearing out of nowhere to kick Roxa in the side, a blow that knocked the blonde girl onto her back. As Roxa hit the ground hard, Pace brought both hands up. A literal ball of flame appeared between them, which she launched at the briefly prone girl while cackling wildly.

Luckily, I had already been reacting. As I fell toward the ground, my finger found the button to make the energy-cord of the grapple retract. I was yanked forward and down, arriving just as Pace let loose with that fireball. Seeing the orb of fire coming as I landed between both other girls, I focused on the energy-absorption power that I had gained from killing Doxer. The spinning ball of heat and flame crashed into me… and disappeared. I felt warm, but not burned. And there was that familiar tingle as my body was charged up with the energy, mostly heat but also a little kinetic, that I had absorbed. For the moment, however, I held it in. Just like during training, it felt a bit like needing to use the restroom. From experience, I knew that feeling would rapidly worsen. I could only hold the energy that I had absorbed for a very brief time.

“Naughty Present!” Pace snapped out with a crazed giggle. “Using Doxer’s power, how rude.”

The good news then was that Roxa was back up. The bad news was that so was Lemuel. The big werewolf lunged at me with a roar, even as Pace’s arm lashed out, covered in that bone armor of hers. A short, sharp, eight-inch shard of the bone was already shooting toward me.

When I had faced Pace back in Wonderland, the bone-dart had been too fast for me to even see coming. But that wasn’t true anymore, not with the super-reflexes that I had absorbed from the wolves in that very same encounter. As the sharpened bone flew at my stomach, I snapped my staff up and around with my left hand to slap it out of the way. At the same time, my right hand pointed, releasing the fire that I had absorbed in a spray of flame that took the incoming Lemuel in the face. His reflexes saved him from charging straight into it, letting him recoil while barely getting singed. But it did at least stall his attack, forcing the evil pack leader onto the defensive.

It also meant that he didn’t see Gidget bounding forward until the mechanical cougar had already latched onto his arm. She yanked him down with a snarl (from both her and the wolf-man himself), just before Roxa jumped on his back. The blonde girl drove that silver knife of hers at his throat, but Lemuel snapped his head back, driving it into Roxa’s face hard enough to knock her off of him before her knife could do more than lightly scrape his shoulder.

Pace had already followed up her first thrown bone-dart by launching several more before rearing back to spit a glob of metal-eating acid right at me. Quickly, I snapped my staff around, slapping the incoming bone-darts out of the way while simultaneously releasing another burst of sand. This one was much larger than the other bit I had summoned before, as I sent most of what I had out into a large ball that collided with the acid. The caustic liquid ate through the sand almost immediately, but it was still able to block it enough that I could side-step the last of the stuff.

It did not, however, save me from Lemuel. The big werewolf had freed himself from Roxa, lunging forward to catch hold of my shoulders. Before I knew what was happening, he hauled me off my feet and slammed me into the ground hard enough to knock the breath out of me. His foot came down toward my face, and I barely had the presence of mind to jerk my head out of the way an instant before that foot slammed into the dirt, putting a foot-deep hole in the ground where I had been a half-second earlier.

Before he could lift the foot to try again, I snapped my fingers twice before opening my hand to catch the silver knife as it popped out of the watch on my wrist. Driving the blade down into the man’s foot, I couldn’t help the snarl of satisfaction at the sound of his cry of both pain and fury.

As he was reacting to that, Gidget dropped out of the sky, shifting from hoverboard to cougar just in time to land hard enough on the wolf-man’s shoulders and back to knock him into a hunched position. The cyberform leapt off him immediately, colliding with the incoming Pace while snarling. The two rolled away, tumbling end over end.

With a grimace, I lashed out at the man’s face as he was doubled over. He jerked backward, easily avoiding the blow… and put himself in the perfect position for Roxa as the other girl leapt to put her fist right in his face with enough force to snap his head to the side.

Doing a quick kip-up to bring myself back to my feet, I spun, the bladed-end of my staff lashing out at the other side of the man’s face.

Again, he caught it, snarling angrily. Before he could do anything though, Roxa was there. She drove a quick kick into his side, drawing a grunt from the man even as I triggered enough of a burst from my staff to yank it from his grasp. Using that momentum, I spun around, driving the shaft of the weapon against his stomach. It was like hitting a brick wall with my own normal human strength. The guy was tough.

And he was fast too. His fist collided with the side of my head, knocking me stumbling as white-pain flashed through me briefly. At the same time, the man back-handed Roxa across the face. As she stumbled a step, his foot kicked up. I saw the silver blade that I had driven into his foot fly up before he caught it, driving the blade backward into the girl’s chest. Making a noise of triumph, he stabbed twice more into the same spot, into her heart before kicking her away from him.

He faced me then, tossing the bloody knife away before snarling, his voice amused. “One down,” he drawled slowly, as if he had all the time in the world to play with his food, “two to–”

A blade appeared… in the man’s throat, driven through it from the back. As blood spurted forth freely, he made a strangled noise of disbelief, choking and gurgling while half turning, already stumbling a little.

Roxa stood there, still bleeding, but standing despite being stabbed in the heart with a silver blade. Her own knife was the one in the big man’s throat, where she had leapt to shove it. Meanwhile, her other hand held the one that had stabbed her before he threw it away.

“Redundant organs,” she snarled at the bewildered and drastically injured man. “Extra heart. Jekern power, bitch.”

Her own dagger had nearly killed the man. And with mine, she finished the job, driving the blade up through his throat and into his brain as he choked on his own blood.

Pace, who had extricated herself from Gidget long enough to give the cyberform a kick that sent it tumbling away, spun back around in time to see her pack leader collapse to the ground. As he dropped, Roxa’s glowing bronze aura appeared, and the injured girl dropped as well, giving a moan of pleasure.

The big wolf was down. But we still had the other one to deal with. And from the look of things, Roxa wasn’t going to be able to help.

So I’d do it myself. Taking advantage of Pace’s extremely brief stunned silence, I released the charge in my staff while letting go of the weapon itself. It flew forward, slamming into the crazed (probably possessed) girl’s stomach, the force of the blow doubling her over for a second. Even as the staff started to fall away from her then, I was there, catching the other end of it. Spinning while shifting my grip on the weapon, I did a full three-sixty to put myself behind her. In the same motion, my staff hooked against the girl’s throat, hauling her up and backward while I continued my pivot. She landed hard on her back against the ground even as my staff ended up pointed down at her. An instant later, before she could recover, the silver-coated grapple shot from the end of it, tearing through the wolf-girl’s leg to pin her to the ground as she gave a howl of pain.

I was on her then, diving on top of the girl even as she gave another scream, this one mostly in rage. We fumbled a bit, she produced a wave of fire that I absorbed before she covered herself in bone-armor and launched a dozen darts. About half of them hit me, three in the arms (two in the left and one in the right), one in the leg, and two in the right side of my chest, narrowly missing anything important. Still, it hurt like a bitch. But I kept at it. My hand snapped up and closed around the choker that was on the girl’s neck before I triggered my staff. It had only charged a little bit, but it was enough to launch me up and backward away from her, while the clasp holding the choker in place snapped.

It was a close thing, but I kept hold of my prize. The choker. The thing we needed. Coming down from being launched by my staff, I hit the ground in a roll, ending on my stomach briefly, clutching the precious item against my chest.

For a second, I lay there, breathing out before rolling over. I came to my feet, choker in hand and smile on my face. “Sorry,” I announced to Pace, who was still pinned by the grapple through her leg (the energy-line attached to it had extended as I was launched away from her). “Finders-keepers?” I held the choker while stepping that way, dangling it practically in her face.

Her snarl turned to a smile. “Well,” she half-purred while staring at me intently, “you know what they say. If I can’t have it…” Abruptly, the girl spat a glob of that incredibly potent acid. My hand jerked away, but it was too late. The acid caught the choker, and I had to let it go. Stumbling back as my eyes widened, I stared at the acid-coated choker on the ground as a cry of disbelief and denial burst from my lips. The green liquid had already melted through half of it by the time it landed. A moment later, and most of it was gone. The choker had been destroyed.

Pace took advantage of my horrified distraction, reaching down to yank the grapple out of her leg before heaving herself up. She landed on her good foot, cackling like someone had just told her the most hilarious joke in the world. “I guess, I guess–” she managed between fits of laughter, “you don’t get your prize after all, huh? Uhhh oh, too bad, so sad for the little blonde wolfy-cub. Too bad for everything, all your little things. So sad. Maybe you’ll feel bad for killing my friend, huh? Maybe feel bad for Doxer.” She cackled madly once more, though I saw a brief glimpse of genuine anger and… maybe even sadness there when she mentioned her old teammate.  

Running footsteps approached, and our eyes snapped that way. Roxa had recovered from both her injury (at least enough to move, even if her regeneration wouldn’t work that well against the silver), and from the brief moment of pleasure from killing Lemuel. And she had been joined by the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan were all on their way as well, the five converging.

“Oooh,” Pace all-but purred. “Friends. They can make you feel better for failing, Present. We’ll finish later.” She was still favoring her leg, the silver in the grapple stopping the werewolf regeneration from healing her so easily. Still, her amusement was obvious as she waved at me, and I saw the piece of bark from the Eden’s Garden tree in her hand. “Toodles!”

An instant later, just as the others arrived, she slammed the wood down and disappeared.

I stood there, staring at the spot where she had been before my gaze dropped to the ground where the mangled, melted remains of the choker lay. There was almost nothing left of the thing.

“Flick?” Shiori’s voice was hesitant. “The fight’s mostly over. They’re retreating and scattering.”

Quietly, my voice cracking just a little, I asked, “What about the kids they took?”

Tristan spoke up then. “One of the wolves spilled. They’re being held at a cabin about a quarter mile away. They’ve already got people on the way. So um…” He paused before asking, “Are you okay?”

For a moment, I didn’t answer. I just stared at the ruined choker. Then I looked up, seeing the others gathered around to stare at me. My flat, stunned expression slowly melted away as I reached into the pocket of my uniform jacket… and I smiled while producing the choker. The real choker, which I had switched with the fake one while I’d laid on the ground. The fake one that Namythiet had built at my request and secretly snuck into my jacket earlier when she dove in there back before the fight had begun, while we had been chatting at the top of the ridge.

If I was right about Pace being possessed, the other Seosten were connected to her. Even if she hadn’t escaped, they’d know the instant that we had the choker, and they never would’ve let us get away with it. They would’ve brought hell itself down on us to get the damn thing back. But now, well, I’d given the girl as big of an opening to let her destroy the fake as I could without being too obvious, and she had taken the bait. Then I’d let her escape, because it was more important that they think they’d won than it was for us to catch Pace, or Lies, or whoever she was, right then. That could wait. The important part was, now they thought the choker that could identify them was destroyed. They thought it was gone forever. They thought they were safe. Good. Let them believe that they’d won the battle.

Because with the choker, we had the means to win the war.

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