Month: September 2017

Interlude 26B – Katarin, Haiden, and Larissa

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

A little over a month ago.

“I believe–” Those two words, spoken in a simple, quiet voice that was at odds with the sheer size and football linebacker-like build of their speaker, were punctuated by a dull thud as the head of the green-skinned man that he was holding two feet off the ground smacked into the wall. “–that a bit of context is needed here.”

Ulysses Katarin continued, his hand literally covering the face of the smaller, alien man as he held him against that wall, muffling the figure’s protests and threats. “You see, I was born in a place called Desoto. It’s a territory on Earth that no longer exists. My coming-of-age was spent witnessing my home being devastated and ruined by the creatures known as Fomorians. I saw my parents and sister tortured, torn asunder, used as experiments in their breeding programs. The destruction and loss of Desoto was so complete that the only option was to erase it from both maps and from history, to wipe it completely out of the minds of all humanity. I became a Heretic after seeing just what these creatures were capable of, just how far they would go. I became a Heretic to stop any other living being from witnessing the loss that I witnessed.”

His second hand moved up to close around the figure’s throat, just tight enough to hold him in place while he removed his first hand from the man’s face. “So,” he went on, “when you think of how to respond to my question this time, it is very, very important that you bear that context in mind when I tell you that this has been an incredibly long day. I am, as they say, not in the mood. Now, for what will be the last time you will ever hear me speak these words in this order while you are still capable of coherent thought: where am I?”

Before showing up here, Katarin’s last memory was of stumbling across… the Seosten. That’s all he could think of them as now, the person he was supposed to be able to trust. Obviously, they were possessed. Realizing what was going on, he’d tried to do something about it. Through the resulting struggle, his opponent had produced a small orb, and Katarin had found himself transported to this place. There had been soldiers here, soldiers who were obviously waiting.

Keechun, the green-skinned roughly amphibian-like humanoid who had, up to about two minutes earlier, been boasting of those soldiers’ prowess and power as they stared down the newly arrived Heretic, made a rough gurgling sound. The armed figures he had used to threaten Katarin with lay broken and shattered around the floor of the research facility. When the grip on his throat loosened just a little more, he managed a strained, “Not supposed to be you.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Katarin replied. His eyes narrowed then. “But that doesn’t answer the question. Where am I? And now that you bring it up, who was I supposed to be?”

Even as he asked the question, the man focused on the man’s emotions. He’d killed a Stranger a long time ago that had given him the ability to read the emotions of anyone he was looking at. It gave him a distinct advantage in a lot of cases, particularly when kids in class were trying to get one over on him. And in this case, it meant he could probably tell if this one was lying.

“S-Seosten research facility Caleikas,” Keechun answered quickly. “You’re about as far from your–ehh, Earth as it’s possible to be. Without dimensional shifts, at top speed it would take the fastest ship in the Seosten fleet about two hundred and fifty years to get back to your planet.”

“Research facility…” Katarin murmured before straightening. “That–the Seosten who sent me here. The orb they used, it was meant for someone else. Someone you were waiting for. Who?”

The alien man looked like he wasn’t sure he should answer that, until a hard look from Katarin made him gulp before quickly explaining, “Th-the one called Chambers, the female that was–”

“Felicity Chambers.” Katarin frowned, straightening a little, which had the added effect of pulling his prisoner further up the wall. “Why were they trying to send Chambers to a research facility out in the middle of Seosten space?” he demanded in a tone that was even harder than before.

“Immune–she’s immune to their possession power,” Keechun managed to get out. “They want to us to take her apart, to find out why, how she’s immune. And it gets her out of the way. If she’s gone, they can focus on the other one, the founder’s descendant.”  

Obviously. Obviously the orb had been for Chambers. No wonder they were possessing… The very thought made Katarin grimace, head shaking. Obviously, they wanted Chambers gone to get her away from Avalon. Couldn’t possess her, so they wanted her out of the picture. Plus, it would distract everyone. Wyatt, Gaia, Dare, Avalon herself, they’d all be distracted, focusing on finding Chambers instead of protecting Avalon. If it had worked, it would’ve been devastating.

“How long will it take them to set up another one of those orb things?” he demanded, glancing around the facility. If they were planning on sending Chambers here, he’d have to find a way to-

“Menses,” Keechun answered quickly. “Several menses. It takes time to build them, to charge them. Sending someone this far, banishing them from that world? It’s not an easy process.”

Katarin frowned at that. “Menses. What is that? Hours, days–wait.” He turned his head a little, shaking it. “How can I understand you? Why are you speaking English right now?”

“He’s not.” The voice came from behind Katarin, and he turned sharply to find a dark-haired man standing in the doorway. A man who didn’t set off Katarin’s Stranger-sense, which meant that he was either one of the species who didn’t happen do so, or he was actually a–

“Human,” Katarin announced, staring at the newly arrived man for a moment until the memory clicked into place. “You’re human-wait, I know you. You’re the guy from Eden’s Garden, the one who took off and disappeared a little while back. Holt. Haiden Holt.”

“Right,” the other man replied casually while strolling into the room. “But actually, it’s Moon now. Has been since I got married. Haiden Moon. Sounds better than Haiden Holt, don’t you think?

“And,” he added easily, “like I said, the answer to your question is that they’re not speaking English. They’re speaking one of several languages that the Seosten use, that we call English. Latin is Old-Seosten, from their homeworld, and as they spread out through the universe, that ended up mixing with a lot of other species languages. So when they came to Earth, we got Old-Seosten, what we call Latin in Rome, then more of their languages spread out from there. Mostly English, since that’s their biggest trading language nowadays. But hey, guess you didn’t really ask for a lecture, huh? ” He took a look around then, whistling at the bodies. “Nice work.”  

Squinting, Katarin dropped Keechun, letting the green figure fall to the floor before putting a foot on him so he couldn’t slither away. “That’s far enough,” he announced while reaching to the small container at his belt. Flipping it open, he grasped the handle within and withdrew a long staff with a three-pronged blade at the end: a trident, his chosen weapon. “See, I know about the Seosten’s possession power. And you? You’ve been gone an awfully long time.” Hand gripping his weapon, he focused on what he could feel from the other Heretic. From what he could tell, there was no deception. But then again, could he really trust that in this case? Especially since he hadn’t been able to sense deception… before.

“Hey, great, you’re one step ahead of the curve.” Haiden smiled, holding both arms out. “But I’m not possessed. Not sure exactly how I can prove that in the time we’ve got, but we do need to get out of here. The Seosten are sending a fleet this way. And fun as it is to take apart their outposts, they do kind of have an advantage when it comes to numbers and technology.”

“Haiden’s right,” another voice announced then, as a female figure stepped around the man in question and into view. “We need to get out of here while we can still avoid the… Ulysses?”

All thought of suspicion and anger vanished in that moment. Katarin’s eyes widened, and he lost his grip on his weapon while staring at the figure who had appeared. “Larissa,” he breathed out before taking several steps that way. The next thing he knew, he’d lifted the woman off the floor, crushing her against his chest while making a noise that was decidedly not man-like. But he didn’t care. Only one thing mattered now, one thought that drowned out all others. “You’re alive.”

He could sense it. The empathic power he’d inherited meant that Katarin could sense the woman’s relief and joy. She was doing nothing to hide those feelings as she clung onto him. “Ulysses,” she repeated tenderly. “Oh my God, you have no idea how glad I am to see you.”

“Larissa.” It was all he could do to find his voice enough to say the name of his long-time friend. “Larissa, how are you–what are you–how?” Something caught in Katarin’s throat, and he leaned back, holding the woman in front of him to get a better look at her. It had been so long, years since he’d seen Larissa. She’d been a student of his, and then a colleague. But most of all, she was a friend. Losing her had been a terrible blow. One that he had experienced many times before, of course. And yet, somehow, that one had hurt even more than most.

“It’ll take a long time to explain all of it,” she quietly, yet quickly informed him. “And Haiden’s right, we need to get out of here before the Seosten reinforcements show up. They’re still too dangerous for even three of us to take on in a straight fight. We’ve got a ship nearby.”

“Ship,” Katarin raised an eyebrow. “As in a spaceship… yeah, you’ve got a lot to explain.”  

She grinned at that, hugging onto him even more tightly than before. “I will. And you can tell me how my girls are doing. It’s… it’s their first year at the school. They are… they are at the school?” When he nodded, Larissa looked like she was going to say something else, but stopped herself. Head shaking, she pulled him by the arm. “But we’ve gotta get out of here first.”  

So, with a last look back toward the bodies scattered around the floor and the green-skinned figure huddled in the corner pretending to be invisible, Katarin followed the other two Heretics. He didn’t know exactly what was going on, why Larissa had ended up out here, or how they were all going to get back home. But he did know one thing with absolute, crystal-clear certainty.

Whenever they found a way back to Earth, he was going to bring Larissa back to her family.

******

Present Day

The gray-skinned orc-creature let out a bellow of rage, which was cut off into pathetic gurgling as Katarin’s hurled trident took him in the throat. The weapon lifted the creature from the ground, sent him flying backward a dozen feet, and impaled itself (with the orc dangling by the throat) in the side of a great, stone tower that lay in the middle of this otherwise barren field.

“So what you’re saying is,” Katarin started while teleporting himself next to his weapon in order to yank it out so that the orc could fall back to the ground, “the Seosten brought their own languages to Earth just to make themselves a bit more comfortable while they were busy enslaving or mind wiping humanity.” As he spoke, the large dark-skinned man flicked a switch on his trident. The left prong began to glow green, even as he made a swift upward motion with it, followed by a sharp, outward thrust that moved straight out before sweeping down once more.

In response to the motion, a solid four foot wide pillar of earth (or ground, at least if they couldn’t call it earth) tore itself up. It followed Katarin’s gesture, dirt and rock moving like snake, weaving through the air before slamming into one of the winged demon-like Strangers who had been diving in toward them. The pillar of earth caught the flying creature, slamming into it hard before the downward gesture sent it down to piledrive the thing straight into the ground.

In the same motion, the man kept swinging the trident around and backward without bothering to look. The gray-orc, who had been struggling to pick itself up even with the traumatic damage to its throat, was impaled once more. That time, one of the prongs of the trident went through its left eye. It made a weak, gurgling noise of pain before collapsing lifelessly to the ground.

Katarin had been doing this for so long, over a hundred years by that point, that he barely noticed the pleasurable sensation of both Strangers’ deaths giving him their power.

Nearby, Haiden rose from the body of the Stranger whose chest he had driven his sword through. As his glowing bronze aura faded along with Katarin’s own silver glow, the man replied, “Pretty much. We’ve still got some of our own languages, but the Seosten influenced them so much it’s hard to tell where theirs end and ours start. Like I said,” he added while flipping the sword up and around to transform it into its shotgun form so he could take a shot at one of the nearby creatures, “Latin is mostly Old Seosten, from their homeworld. And English, hell, most of those Germanic languages, comes from the universal trading language most species speak.”

The past month (or Mensis in both Latin and Old Seosten, apparently) had been… incredibly busy. Katarin had learned enough to know he could trust Haiden Moon, as well as a lot of other things about all that was going on. But this was the first time they’d returned to this particular conversation about the language similarities. It had come up again since the three of them had eavesdropped on the orders being given to this same group minutes before ambushing them.

The last of that patrol that had stood in their way fell into two bisected halves, revealing Larissa in her water-form. Her arm was raised, a water-whip extending from her hand. It was that whip, a whip made of water, that had cut the Stranger in half lengthwise with a single lash.

She paused there like that, obviously taking in the rush of pleasure as her pink aura flared up before speaking. “When I first got here, I thought they were speaking some indecipherable alien language. Turns out, it was just Latin.” Pausing, the woman added with a briefly thoughtful frown, “I guess I really should’ve paid more attention to that class back when I was in school.”

“English has got a lot of other languages influences in it though,” Katarin mused as his eyes scanned the field for any more potential threats. “How does that work?”

“Well, sure,” Haiden agreed while stepping that way, “they’re not one hundred percent the same. Languages grow apart. But a lot of those other languages that influenced English are actually alien languages that influenced the Galactic Trading Language. The Germanic and Romance languages, mostly. Basically, Alters have been all over the planet for so long that their established languages had a lot better chance of sticking than anything new us humans came up with. Combine that with the Seosten using the Bystander Effect to erase everything humans used to know about non-human species and… well, you end up with us thinking we made up the language. Pretty convenient though, not needing a translator out here.”

Finally satisfied that the field was clear, the three of them walked around the stone tower where Katarin had impaled the earlier orc, toward the entrance that the patrol had been protecting. There was a metal door there, but Haiden simply made a sharp grasping gesture and the thousand pound, two foot thick thing crumpled itself into a ball and fell aside with a loud clang.

“So what do you think this place is?” Larissa asked while they moved in through the opening. Her voice echoed slightly through what turned out to be a large, empty space. Across the chamber, there was a set of stairs leading up further into the tower, and more leading down.

“All I know,” Haiden replied, “is that one of the shards from that banishment orb is here. Which means as soon as we grab it, we’ll be one step closer to being able to undo the spell, so I can get my memory back, get my wife back, and get home for our kids.”

It was… frustrating. Katarin had figured out very quickly that Haiden was the father of Vanessa and Tristan. But every time he told the man any of the details about that, he had forgotten. The same went for whenever Larissa tried to tell him what she knew about his wife. Just like a memory spell. The Seosten sure loved those.

Descending down into the depths of the tower basement, it soon became obvious that the place had been a prison of some kind, though it hadn’t been used for that in a very long time. What it was being used for, as well as who that patrol had been working for, was anyone’s guess. Not to mention the question of why it still looked like some kind of Earth medieval tower.

The basement was almost as empty as that first floor had been, save for one thing: a five foot wide, six foot high cage in the middle of the otherwise barren space. And in that cage sat a figure, faced away from them.

“I knew you’d come.” The voice was male, and it cracked a little as if from a long period of disuse. “I knew you’d make it here. It’s why I held onto this.” Without looking back to them, the figure held up a dirt-encrusted hand, revealing what looked like a small shard of black glass.

“The orb piece,” Haiden breathed, moving that way before stopping himself. “Who are you? How do you know what it does or that we want it? Why are you in that cage in the middle of nowhere? Why was there a small army guarding this place?”

“The tower is from Earth,” the man in the cage replied, his voice hoarse and dry. “They wanted to ensure that I had no way of leaving it, and did such a good job that they had to transport the entire thing here when they took me off the planet. Then they… mostly forgot about me. It’s been too long. I don’t matter that much to them anymore.”

“Who are you?” Larissa spoke quietly, moving forward a step. “Why did they imprison you and then forget about you?”

Slowly, the man reached out a pale hand to catch hold of the cage bars. He pulled himself up, bones creaking as he did so before turning to face them.

“You,” Haiden blurted, taking a reflexive step back in surprise. Beside him, Katarin said the same thing, while stepping forward.

“Him?” Larissa blinked in confusion, looking back and forth between the men. “Him who?”

“Yes,” the man in the cage confirmed quietly. “It’s me.”

“Dries Aken,” Haiden explained, without looking away from the caged man. “Hieronymus Bosch’s son-in-law, his daughter’s husband.

“And the man who killed Bosch himself.”  

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Mini-Interlude 41 – Percival

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The following is a mini-interlude focused on Percival, from the Crossroads Committee, and his reasoning for not joining the Atherby Clan with several of his fellow Knights of the Round Table. 

The knife swept to the left, dipped down, then went back to swipe out twice. For a man who had lived for fifteen hundred years by that point, it was all a mechanical motion. The wars he had experienced, the battles he had fought, the men and women he had killed with that same simple motion, were incalculable. Between each swipe of the blade, there was a brief pause before it repeated. The knife slid to the left, dipped down, then went back with two quick, practiced swipes.  

In this case, however, the substance glistening upon the gleaming silvery blade was not blood. It was mayonnaise. And the pause between each swipe of the blade across two pieces of fluffy white bread was not to allow a body to fall so that another threat could take its place. Instead, it was a pause while the man’s right hand plucked a single slice of lunch meat from the tray, dropped it neatly on the just-mayo’d bread, then took a cheese slice, added it over the meat, and then flipped the second piece of bread on top, closing the paltry, yet edible sandwich.

Each sandwich, once completed, was added quickly onto an orange, brown, or green tray that already had a few chips, an apple or orange, and a small pint of milk or juice. The completed tray was then pushed down the line so that another could take its place, waiting for its sandwich.

“Yo, Percy!” The woman at the front of the line, loading empty trays into position, raised her hand for attention. “How’re we doing on meat down there? We need to switch to peanut butter yet?”

Shaken from his inner musings, the man who had, many centuries before, stood alongside Arthur Pendragon as a Knight of the Round Table cast his gaze briefly around the room as he turned to look over to the woman. The soup kitchen (still called that despite the fact that they were serving sandwiches that day rather than actual soup) was packed. There were over a hundred people already sitting at the tables, hurriedly eating the food they had been given. And the line of more picking up trays or waiting to do so stretched back out of the building and down the block. It would take an hour just to make sure everyone in line was given a tray and at least a couple minutes to sit and eat their food before being shoved back out into the streets that many of them literally lived in.

“Nope,” Percival answered simply, swiping mayonnaise across another two slices of bread that his other hand had automatically yanked from the bag. “There’s still another couple packages of the stuff down here.” With his foot, he lightly kicked the cardboard box behind the counter. “Should be good for now.”

With a nod, the woman turned back to address a question from the next person in line to be fed. The man himself wore a clean suit that might have made some people question his place in a line for those who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. But looking just a little bit closer would reveal that the suit was threadbare and stained in a couple of spots, taken from the rack at one of the local thrift and charity stores. The man’s hair was longer than was strictly professional, and not quite as clean and healthy as most who would have been in the sort of work that required wearing a suit. And rather than dress shoes, he wore dark, yet beaten up sneakers.

He had obviously been out looking for a job, trying to dress up as best as he could. Yet judging from the dejected look on the man’s face as he lay his tray on the counter and asked the woman if there were any oranges left, the job search hadn’t gone very well.

As the woman noted the look on the man’s face and, clearly realizing that he needed something to go right, reached under the counter to take one of the oranges from the box there, Percival took the moment to watch her.

Sonia Lesley was thirty-two years old, a blonde woman who was maybe just a little overweight, but was working hard to keep it under control. She owned a bookstore two blocks away as well as a small pizza parlor several streets over, but spent most of her time here, at the soup kitchen that she and a couple of the other business owners in the neighborhood had set up a couple years earlier. She cared deeply for the homeless and less fortunate, putting not only most of her time, but a large portion of the profits from her businesses into getting them what they needed.

And she was his descendant. His twenty-two greats-granddaughter, in fact. Twenty-four generations of descendants, and Percival had made it a point to watch over each and every one of them. He got to know them, first as himself, and later as a distant relative, then a friend, and eventually… as little more than a stranger. He got to know them as best as he could, spending time around his family while keeping them out of the line of fire from those who would try to use them against him.

Perhaps he should have left them alone entirely. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. So he compromised, allowing himself the occasional visit like this. Sonia knew his name (though not who he really was, of course), but as far as she was aware, he was just a man who liked to volunteer at her soup kitchen.

It was safer that way. The kind of enemies that he had, the beings who would love nothing more than to get at him through his family…

That was one of the reasons that Percival had declined the invitation from his brothers to join their clan that was meant to uphold the traditions and intentions of Arthur. The last thing that he wanted was for the people he cared about, his family, to be caught up in a literally endless war.

He’d seen what that did to the families of others that he cared about, what it had done to Arthur’s family. Especially at the end, when Arthur had been forced to… make the decision that he had made.

Percy didn’t want that for his family. He wanted them to live their lives without worrying about monsters. So he hadn’t taken them into the clan that Sir Bedivere–then calling himself Arthur-By–had set up.

Sir Bedivere. The Knights of the Round Table, or just knights in general, tended to confuse people who investigated the legend of King Arthur. The… disconnect between their apparent existence as early as 500 AD conflicted with the fact that true knights themselves didn’t exist until hundreds of years later. As did the fact that the tales of their actions seemed to place their existence anywhere within that time frame.

It was almost as if they had truly lived that long, for hundreds of years, before Arthur’s… departure had put an end to such things.

And as for the existence of their knighthood before such a thing existed, it was true that they had been knights hundreds of years before they should have been. Or, more accurately, hundreds of years before the practice had been adopted on Earth. One of Arthur’s dearest friends, the one he called Nimue, had been from a place far from this planet. It was she who had introduced the concept of knighthood to the growing king, and had helped him select the first of those who would become the Knights of the Round Table.

Percy could, of course, have joined the Arthur-By clan on his own, despite having no family to bring with him (or at least none that he was willing to drag into it). He would have been welcomed there. Yet he had declined that as well, for more than one reason. First, after seeing what he had seen, Percival had wanted to be on his own for awhile. The dissolution of their group, the loss of Arthur, all of it had made him need to… journey, find himself, discover his purpose.

And when Hieronymus Bosch had approached him along with the group he was gathering, when he had presented his own power and shown Percival what he could do… well, there was no more question. The last words that Arthur had spoken to him, before… the end, were that Percival would know what to do with himself once he found ‘the light’, and that he should stay with it when he did. The light. Percy had believed that the man was speaking metaphorically. But then Bosch had shown his machine… the light that it created when doing its work.

Arthur had known. Somehow, someway, he had known. And from that point, Percy knew that he belonged there. At some point in the future, his presence was going to be needed. So he placed himself in the then-fledgling group, gradually working his way up to his current position. And he waited… for what, he didn’t know. But it would come. Arthur had a purpose in mind when he had told Percival to stay with the light.

Eventually, he would find out what that purpose was.

And, of course, going from being a Natural Manticore-Heretic to the kind that Bosch’s machine had created had been… quite an experience in and of itself.

Passing his sandwich-making duties to the next person then, Percy stepped over to where Sonia was. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “The guy in the suit, how’s he doing?”

The woman glanced his way, then looked toward the distant table where the lone figure sat despondently picking at his food. “Lawrence? Poor guy. I really thought he had this job sewn up. Turns out, one of the higher assholes put the kibosh on it. Didn’t want to lower company value by taking in someone off the street, or some bullshit. Asshole.”

Pausing, Percy glanced that way before asking, “What does he do? What job was he going for?”

Sonia shook her head with a sigh. “Accountant. He’s been trying to get into one of these places for a year now, ever since his old place went under. No one’s biting.” She glanced to him then, squinting. “Why?”

“Might have someone he can call,” Percy replied. “We’ll see.” He stepped away then, wanting to downplay his own involvement as much as possible. With a brief glance around then, he focused for a moment, until all the sounds in the soup kitchen went silent. No one spoke, no one moved, even the fly that had been buzzing past his face was frozen in mid-air.

He had stopped time in a bubble within the building.

Walking across the room, Percival approached the suited man. Carefully, he reached into the pockets, searching until he found a folded up bit of paper. Resume. Unfolding it, he scanned the contents briefly, then stepped back before releasing his power.

Time resumed. For a half-second, people noticed his sudden transportation from one end of the room to the other. Then the Bystander Effect kicked in, and they forgot what they had seen, going back to their work and food.

“Excuse me, uh, sir?” Percy started, getting the man’s attention. When the guy turned, he held up the resume. “I think you dropped this.”

“Huh?” Lawrence blinked, then quickly took the paper. “Oh, thanks,” he mumbled, looking like he was just about ready to toss the thing in the trash himself.

“Sorry,” Percy started. “This might be overstepping, but I saw that you’ve got experience as an accountant. I’ve got a friend who’s looking for a new payroll clerk. Any chance he might steal you away from whatever you’ve got lined up already?”

The man’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, something clearly catching in his throat. “Y-you don’t have to–that’s not…”

“Don’t have to?” Percy echoed before chuckling. “Please, you’ll be doing me a favor just for giving him a call. He will not shut up about needing to find somebody.” From his pocket, he withdrew a pen, gesturing to the resume. “You mind if I give you his number?”

When Lawrence nodded, he scribbled down a phone number. It was one of twenty that led to his own phones. When Lawrence called, Percy would appear in a different guise, using shapeshifting powers to be someone else. He would get the man set up in one of several dozen businesses that he owned in the Bystander world under various identities. He would make sure the man had a job.

It wasn’t a lot. And maybe it wasn’t the same thing as slaying monsters or saving the planet from invading aliens. It was simply ensuring that one man, one solitary person, was given a job. In the grand scheme of things, most would consider it utterly inconsequential.

But it mattered. Arthur had taught him that. Every seemingly little thing they did mattered. Making one person’s life just a little bit better mattered. It was a lesson that Percival had taken to heart. That was why he kept himself involved in the Bystander world a lot more than his colleagues generally did. He didn’t want to forget where they came from, or what they were actually fighting for.

And when the time came, he would be ready for whatever Arthur had seen when he told Percival to stay with the light.

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Interlude 26A – Sands and Scout

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No, no, it was impossible. Flick was wrong. She had to be wrong. After all the years that–after everything they’d–after.. They couldn’t believe her. She had to be mistaken. Her and Vanessa both. They had to have gotten mixed up somehow, or they were being manipulated, or… or…

Sandoval Mason came to a stop. She had been running as far and as fast as she could, out of the library, across the grounds, and clear to the beach, where she continued running away from the school. She’d started as soon as Flick and Vanessa had finished explaining why they thought… why they thought… that. Now, she doubled over, panting hard as she planted both hands on her knees while catching her breath, her mind still reeling violently.

The sound of jogging footsteps came a moment later as Scout came to a stop beside her. Sands’ twin looked toward her sister, panting just as much as the other girl was. For a minute, the two of them did nothing besides stand there, breathing hard and looking at each other.

Sands was the first to find her voice. “They-they’re wrong,” she started. “They’re wrong, right?”

Scout’s mouth worked a few times at that before she slowly shook her head. Her voice was soft, barely a whisper. “I don’t know,” she admitted, visibly trembling. “What–what if–” She stopped then, clearly just as afraid to continue with that hypothetical as Sands was to consider it herself.

Sands shook her head as well, almost violently. “But she–she’s dead, Scout. She was killed by that–that monster, r-right? You-we-she can’t be alive. How would she-how would that… how?”

Scout was silent for a moment, biting her lip as she stared at her sister. Both of them knew why they were resisting this so much, why it felt easier to simply say that Flick was wrong than to even try to entertain the thought that she might be right. Because if they thought she was right, if they even allowed themselves to hope, and that hope was taken away… it would shatter them, possibly beyond any repair. To let that tiny trickle of hope in, only to have it turn out that Flick and Vanessa were both mistaken? There would be no coming back from that. It would destroy them in ways that losing their mother the first time had only almost done. It was unthinkable.

And yet, despite all of that, Scout finally straightened. Meeting her twin sister’s gaze, the girl spoke two words that Sands had been too terrified to vocalize, two words that would open the door to the possible tearing of their very souls… yet also opened a door to the mending of them.

“What if?”

There it was. Scout had said it, she had been the first to open the possibility, to open the two of them to the potential of either restoring hope or destroying it. One of them had to say it, one of them had to be brave enough to raise that chance. And once again, Scout had proven that although the loss of their mother may have made her retreat into a much quieter and less outgoing person than she had been before that tragic event, it had not made her weak.

“I–” Sands started before the lump in her throat choked her off. She shook her head, slumping down to sit in the slightly damp sand. It made her pants a little wet, but she neither noticed nor cared. Her attention was focused solely inward, as she stared off into the distance without actually seeing anything. Her mouth worked a little, then shut as a weak whimper escaped her.

For a moment, they sat there like that, unmoving until Sands finally spoke in a voice that trembled as much as a dry leaf tumbling on the wind. “If they’re w-wrong, and she’s… she’s really…” She couldn’t finish the hateful words, eyes closing while flooding with hot, wet tears.

A hand touched hers softly, and Sands moved her eyes over as Scout interlaced her fingers with her sister’s, squeezing firmly. Her gentle, quiet voice repeated the same words she had spoken before, the only words that truly mattered between the two of them in that particular moment.

“What if?”

“What if?” Sands echoed, voice choking a little before she opened her eyes to look at her sister. “What if they’re wrong? What if Mom’s de–” She flinched, giving a weak, pathetic shudder before forcing the words out. “What if we believe this, and it turns out that Mom’s really dead? I can’t–I can’t d-do that, Scout. I can’t do that. If we believe them, and she’s really gone forever, I…” Again, her voice choked itself off, as the stinging tears in her eyes blinded her once more.

Scout squeezed her hand a little more then, raising her voice just a little bit. “Then she’ll be gone,” she announced, reaching out to gently brush the tears from under her sister’s eyes. “And we’ll be okay. Because… you… and me.” They would be together, no matter what. Whether their mother was truly alive or had been killed on that awful day on the boat, they would survive either revelation. Because they were sisters, and they would always be there for each other. As painful as opening themselves up to the possibility, only to have it torn away would be, they would survive it. They would go on being there for one another, come what may.

“But,” Scout continued in that soft yet sure voice, “if she’s alive… if Mom… if Mom is there…”

Straightening her shoulders once more, Sands opened her eyes and met her gaze. No more. No more running from it. Scout was right, whatever happened, they would face it together. Joy or anguish, relief or dejection, hope or despair, they would survive and be there for one another.

“If Mom’s alive,” she started, lifting their clasped hands to finally return her sister’s tight squeeze, “we’ll find her. We’ll find her and we’ll bring her back here, where she belongs. No matter what.”

And they would also make sure that she knew the truth about what their father had done.

******

“I’m sorry, guys, I probably shouldn’t have just blurted that out,” Flick started a bit later once the twins had made their way to where she and Vanessa were waiting further up the beach. The two girls had been joined by Tristan, who had apparently been brought up to speed with what happened.

“No.” Sands shook her head. “You–I probably would have–I mean…” She paused, biting her lip. “How? How’d you even jump to that? I mean… what made you think to ask for the picture?”

There was a moment of hesitation from the blonde girl, who looked uncertain before slowly responding, “I’m not sure. It was mostly just a… gut feeling. I can’t explain it. I’m sorry, but, uh, intuition? I dunno…”

Nodding slowly to that strange explanation, Sands took a breath, trying to find the right words. “If you’re right, then… then it’s… amazing. If our m–” Choking a little, she forced herself to continue. “If our mom is alive, then… But if she’s not…”

Of all people, it was Tristan who stepped up then. His voice was a far cry from the cocky, fearless tone she’d grown to expect from the boy. “It sucks,” he started slowly, “trying to hold onto that kind of hope. When I was a kid, and the Meregan kept trying to send me back to my family, only for me to always pop right back there… I thought I’d never see them again. I thought I’d never know who my family was, or get back to them. I thought I was gonna be trapped with the Meregan forever, and that wasn’t that bad because I like them. They were nice to me.”

Taking a breath, the boy continued. “Then Flick and Shiori came.” He gestured to the blonde girl. “And I knew I wasn’t crazy or anything. Everything happened. You guys showed up, and we found out that Nicholas was my great-great… whatever. After you left, he kept me with him. He taught me pretty much everything I know. And he started trying to find a way to undo the banishment and send me home. He was trying to help me. And… I almost told him not to.”

That made Vanessa blink over at him, eyes widening. Tristan took his sister’s hand before continuing. “Not because I didn’t want to come back. But because… if I got my hopes up about being able to find my family again, and it didn’t happen… it felt like that would be worse than never hoping for it in the first place. It was like, if I just accepted that I’d never see them again, that they were gone, it might hurt a little less than trying to find them over and over again and always failing. Because when you get your hopes up about that kind of thing and they get taken away, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world.” Trailing off at the end, Tristan swallowed hard before meeting first Scout’s gaze, then Sands’. “But if I’d told him not to try, if I’d never opened the possibility of being hurt again, I wouldn’t have Nessa right now. I wouldn’t have any of this.”

“But,” Sands hesitantly spoke up, her voice cracking a little, “what if it didn’t work? What if you did all that and still never found your family, and never found a way to bypass the banishment? What if you opened yourself up like that, and it didn’t work? What if you hoped for it and failed?”

“Then I’d still be trying,” Tristan answered simply, giving them a slightly crooked smile. “I’d be back out there looking for another way to make it work. Because when you don’t even try, it’s like…” He paused, considering. “It’s like there’s two rooms. One is failure, one is success. When you don’t try, you’re not closing the door on the failure room. You’re standing in the failure room and closing the door to the success room so you can never go into it. You’re living in failure.”

Sands absorbed that for a quiet moment before giving a slight nod. “Okay,” she started quietly. “You’re right. If our mom is alive, if she’s out there… then we’re gonna find her. Even if she’s trapped all the way out in Seosuck territory. So… I think–” She looked to her sister for a brief moment, just to make sure and got a nod in response. “I think we’re ready to talk about it now.”

So they did. Vanessa and Flick went through the explanation of everything that the genius girl had experienced during her not-dream. By the time they had finished, now that she was calm enough to actually listen properly, Sands had to admit that it was pretty compelling. Vanessa wasn’t the type to just make something like that up, and if it was true…

“But why is she in Seosten space?” she asked a bit plaintively. “Why would she be all the way out there, and why is she with Vanessa and Tristan’s dad? This doesn’t make any sense. Even if Mom did survive, why would she be there?”

“Fomorian,” Scout spoke softly, drawing everyone’s attention to her. The brown-haired girl ducked her head, staring at the sand. It was obvious that the last thing she wanted to do was relive that day. “The monster that attacked, it was a Fomorian. I remember… her saying… the name. Not at first, but… I remember.”

For a moment, everyone stared. Flick’s mouth opened, and Sands knew that the other girl was about to ask why Scout hadn’t brought that up before, the first time she’d remembered it. Instead, she stopped herself, biting her lip.

Sands knew why Scout hadn’t brought it up. The trauma of that day had driven her twin sister so far inward that she still barely spoke at all.  It had been the day that their mother died, or had supposedly died, the day that had destroyed Scout so thoroughly. Thinking about how a Fomorian had been the one to kill their mother must’ve… yeah. And she had no reason to think that it was actually relevant to anything that was going on, rather than just another surviving Fomorian attacking a Heretic. 

She shook that off, straightening. “Okay, but still. She was attacked by a Fomorian, not a Seosten. They might all be gigantic pieces of shit, with certain exceptions,” she added with a gesture toward Vanessa and Tristan, “but they’re still, like, super mortal enemies, right? Mom was killed by–I mean, maybe taken prisoner by the Fomorians, not the Seosten. If she’s alive she should be with them.  So what gives?”

Flick straightened up suddenly at that, her eyes widening. “Wait a minute,” she exclaimed. “Wait just a minute, if it was a Fomorian who attacked…”  Her eyes widened as she trailed off, gaze snapping toward Scout. “The woman on the boat, your mom’s friend that saved you when the Fomorian showed up, can you describe her?”

Scout’s mouth opened, but she hesitated and glanced around for a moment. That was too much talking, around more people than just Sands. She had been getting better all year about talking in front of people, but this was too much. So, she leaned over and whispered to her sister, passing the description of the woman from that fateful day through her.

“It’s her,” Vanessa confirmed, the awe in her voice audible as she stared at Sands and Scout. “That’s our mom. Our mom is the Alter who was friends with your mom.”

“That is some kind of giant freaking coincidence,” Flick murmured with a thoughtful frown. “Scout said they were friends, right? So maybe she was anchored to their mom like Tristan was anchored to me, and now to you. Maybe she was anchored to their mom, and the two of them were trying to find her family. And then when the Fomorian showed up, she flipped that anchor so that when she was yanked back to space, Sands’ and Scout’s mom was yanked with her.”

After she finished, Sands raised a hand. “But why isn’t she with her right now then, instead of with their dad looking for their mom? And how did Professor Katarin end up with them out of all of Seosten space? I mean, the place is huge, right? How did he just happen to wind up with the only other two Heretics out there, that we know of?”

“That last part I have no idea about,” Flick admitted. “But for the rest of it, maybe the anchor thing was severed somehow by yanking her back, and they got separated? I dunno, but she’s there. It makes sense. If the Fomorian was going to kill her, and their mom saw no other way of saving her except to pull on that anchor…” The girl shrugged helplessly then. “Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best explanation we’ve got right now. Unless you guys have a better one?”

Sands added her shrug to the collection from the other three. “You’re right,” she admitted, “it’s the best explanation. Still, it’s just…” She slumped back, putting her hands down in the sand while staring out over the water. “Mom. Mom might not be dead. She might be alive, and… and if she is…” The thought still hadn’t sunk in fully. Every time she thought she had a handle on it, the realization snuck up on her again. Her mom. Her mom might be–no, was alive. If Vanessa and Flick were right, if that dream was more than a dream, then her mom was still out there. After all the time and pain that she and Scout had both gone through to cope with the death of their mother, the sudden news that she wasn’t actually dead was… it was more than she could take. She should have felt happy. And she did. There was definitely happiness there, as well as excitement. But there were also an entire laundry basket worth of other feelings. She felt scared, elated, angry, joyful, even sick. Mostly that last one. Sands actually felt physically sick deep in her stomach, and she couldn’t understand why. She should be jumping up and down, screaming with joy until her voice gave out. Instead, it felt like any attempt to move like that would result in her stomach heaving over completely and making her lose her lunch right there in the sand.    

What was wrong with her?

Feeling a hand on her arm, Sands glanced up to find Flick meeting her gaze. “It’s okay to feel weird about it,” she assured the other girl. “And it’s okay to not know how you feel about it. But whatever’s going on, we’ll get her back. All this means is that you guys,” she nodded from the first set of twins to the other, “are on the same page. You all want to get your families back.”

Vanessa tentatively spoke up then. “And we know that our dad’s okay. He’s not a prisoner or anything. He even remembers Mom. They’re out there causing trouble for the Seosten.” She looked to Sands and Scout. “It sounded like your mom and our dad were tearing them apart.”

There was that feeling like she needed to puke again. Sands straightened, taking a breath as a tiny smile played at her face. “I…” Glancing to Scout briefly, she felt the smile come on a little stronger. “Good,” she replied firmly, as a strange feeling that she belatedly recognized as pride swelled up in her. Regardless of everything else she felt about this whole impossible and confusing situation, she could be proud of that much. “I hope they make those wannabe angel cocksuckers regret the day they decided that coming to Earth to fuck with us was a good idea.

“Except your mom,” she added then, looking at the other twins. “She’s pretty…” Trailing off, she sank back once more on her hands with the realization. “Wow. A Seosten saved our mom.”

“It’s a lot to take in,” Flick agreed while shaking her head. “Especially after everything we’ve been dealing with. I mean,” she added belatedly with a look to Tristan and Vanessa. “We knew your mom was good and all, but it’s… somehow it’s different when you think about it like this.”

“It’s more real,” Tristan confirmed flatly. “Trust me, I get it. We spent a long time fighting Seosten and their armies when I was with Nicholas. It’s weird thinking that one of them is my mother, and that she’s… different from the rest of them.”

“Is she?” Flick asked with a little frown before quickly correcting herself. “I don’t mean is she good. I mean is being good that different from the rest of them? We haven’t exactly met a lot of them, and the ones we’ve heard anything about are here on these missions. Come on, my entire point this year, my mom’s entire point through her rebellion was that Alters aren’t evil just because they’re not human. Her entire point was that being evil is a choice, that there are good Alters and bad ones just like there’s good humans and bad ones. So that has to extend to Seosten. We don’t know how many object to what they’re doing, or would if they knew more. An entire race can’t be evil. Tristan and Vanessa’s mom proves that.”

The five of them sat there, thinking about that for a few long moments. Finally, Sands spoke up. “I don’t know how many good Seosten or bad ones there are. But I do know one thing.

“The ones that try to stop us from getting to our parents are gonna have a bad fucking day.”

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Spy Hunt 26-06

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Roxa and the rest of the werewolf pack in Las Vegas. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. Thank you!

“Flick? Flick, th-that is you, right? You’re… you’re…” Poor Koren was still backing away from me slowly with her hands raised placatingly. “Tell me you’re in control, please?”

By that point, I’d come back to my senses enough to realize that I couldn’t speak. Instead, I gave a quick nod up and down. Right, I was me. I was Flick. The werelion that I’d killed. This was because of that. Somehow, I’d just gotten so angry while thinking about what the Seosten had been doing that I’d triggered this little… change.

Before Koren could say anything else, a figure abruptly appeared directly beside Koren. I barely had a chance to recognize Wyatt before he threw a handful of what looked like tiny ball bearings at me. The little metal balls spread out as they flew, expanding and connecting into one another to create a cage of metal bars that completely enclosed itself around me.

The action startled me, and before I could catch myself, a thunder-like rumbling came that I only belatedly realized was my own snarl. The lion didn’t like being trapped, and I jerked backward against the metal bars, unable to make them budge.

“Wyatt, Wyatt!” Koren blurted while moving to catch onto his arm. “It’s Flick. It’s just Flick!”

Blinking once, Wyatt turned his head to look at her. His voice was, of all things, utterly calm. “Of course it is,” he replied simply.

“Wait.” Koren frowned, looking from him to me and back again. “You knew it was her?”

“I know where all of you are at all times,” he pointed out then, like it was the simplest explanation in the world. “I knew you two were together and that something was wrong. I show up, you’re there, the lion’s over there, Felicity’s clothes are there. It’s hardly rocket science, you know.”

“Then…” Koren started slowly, “then why did you… the cage…?”

Again, Wyatt’s explanation was simple. “It was her first change, and sometimes the animal mind can take over. It’s confusing and disorienting. There was no way to know how in-control of herself she was in that first moment. And with something like that,” he gestured to me, “you only have a second to act.”

This, I realized then, was me experiencing ‘security guard’ Wyatt. He wasn’t playing around, or distracted by all of his phobias and paranoias. He had known that, somehow, Koren and I were experiencing a lot of fear, confusion, anger, and other heightened emotions. He’d known we were in some kind of trouble. So he showed up, took in the entire scene in that split second, and reacted by containing me before I could hurt them or anyone else.

Yeah, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t just his affinity for magic that made my brother an amazing security guard despite all his other issues.

While Koren stared, Wyatt moved over and took a knee near the cage. “Felicity,” he intoned softly, his voice gentle, “are you in control?”

The lion was still annoyed, and kept trying to panic at the thought of being caged. But I made my head nod, and Wyatt tapped the cage a few times rhythmically. Once he finished, the bars fell away, returning to the shape of tiny metal balls that lay there on the ground, their spell expended.

I straightened up then, looking down at my paws while stretching out as far as I could. Huge. I was still huge. Maybe not quite as big as I’d thought at first. My head wasn’t even with Koren’s while I was on all fours, but I also didn’t really have to look up much to see her face. At most, I’d say my head was right around the five foot level.

A lion. I could change… change into a freaking lion. Of all the powers that I’d gotten, that had to be one of the most… insane. Turning into an absurdly enormous lioness like that? As shocking as it had been, it was also pretty freaking cool. And one thing was for sure.

I was going to have a very different answer for my dad the next time he asked what kind of powers I could show him.

******

Columbus was possessed. How long had it been that way? How long had it been that evil, psychotic wannabe angel bitch puppeting his body and making him betray his friends and sister? Was Shiori’s fear right? Had it been as far back as Columbus finding out what she was? I didn’t think so. I didn’t want to think so. But there was no way to be completely sure, no way to definitely know for a fact exactly when Columbus had been taken over by Charmiene.

No way until we kicked the bitch out of his body for good and asked him, that was.

It was Friday, February 2nd, the day after we’d found out the truth about Columbus and I’d had my little lion escapade. We were in English Lit at the moment, and I was supposed to be listening. But all I could focus on was the feel of the items that Columbus had on him. The boy was sitting directly behind me, making it impossible for me to stare. So, instead, I was facing the front of the room while focusing almost entirely on using my item-sense to keep track of exactly where he was and whether he ever moved. Not that I actually expected Charmiene to try something right here in the middle of class after keeping herself secret successfully for so long. But paranoia was a hell of a drug. Plus, I couldn’t help but worry that she might find out that we knew something any minute now.

Would she figure it out? What would she do if she did? Where was Manakel? Was Lies still possessing Pace, or had they killed the girl to let the crippled Seosten move on to a host that wasn’t compromised? Wait, could Lies be possessing someone else now? Shit, oh God, what if-

“Ahem. I said, Miss Chambers…” The voice by my desk made me jump, and I blinked up to find Professor Mason standing there, raising an eyebrow at me as he continued. “I assume that you’ve read some of the books from last semester’s reading list beyond what you’ve actually reported on?” He nodded toward the paper that had been taped up next to the white board for the past several months with about a hundred classic books listed on it. We were supposed to have chosen at least five to read and report on at various points throughout the past semester.

“Err,” I nodded. “Yes, sir. I’ve read most of them, but it’s been awhile.” As I spoke, I saw Sands at the front of the class. She was turned in her chair slightly to stare at the back of her father’s head. To her credit, she wasn’t openly glaring. But… well, she didn’t look happy either. It lasted until Scout, sitting beside her, put a hand on the other girl’s arm to make Sands look away.

I had no idea what Sands and Scout were thinking after everything I’d told them. All I did know was that they weren’t exactly leaping to spend time with their dad. Having to keep it secret probably wasn’t helping things that much either. I could tell that Sands wanted to have it out with the man, wanted to blow up and scream at him for awhile about everything, especially the part where they wouldn’t even exist if he hadn’t helped wipe their mother’s memory. Which… yeah. Skeevy beyond belief, depending on exactly when the memory spell happened, how far along in their relationship he and Larissa were, and how much he knew about her opinions… Eesh.

“Good,” Professor Mason replied to my confirmation. “I think we’ll have you and Miss Moon work together for this next project.” Looking toward Vanessa, he asked, “I assume you’ve read all of them?” When she gave a quick nod, he chuckled softly. “Of course. All right, Miss Chambers and Miss Moon together then. I’ll be interested in seeing what the two of you come up with.”  

“Uh… “ I paused for a moment, glancing at the other blonde girl briefly until she gave me a little shrug before looking back to the man. “What project are you talking about, Professor Mason?”

He smiled faintly then before walking to the front of the room. “Simple. Everyone in class is going to divide into pairs. Your partner must be someone who is not a member of your regular team. Once you find your partner, the two of you will choose two books on this list.” He tapped a finger against the paper. “Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher In The Rye, Lord of the Rings, any of them. Choose two books. In the case of series, you can choose as many of the individual books as you want to. The point is, choose two separate works.

“With those books, you will choose the setting and general story or plot from one, and the characters from another. Then, the two of you will write a two thousand word summary of how the new plot would go with the characters from one story dropped into the setting and plot from the other. You’ll have one month to finish this, which should be more than enough time.”

That… actually sounded like a pretty neat assignment, actually. Taking characters from one story and dropping them into another? It was a good way of showing an understanding of both books, and it even allowed us to be creative. Hell, if we’d been in a normal school, I probably would’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with the best possible story combination. As it was, despite everything else that was going on, I was still at least a little bit intrigued by the idea.

The rest of the class divided into pairs, splitting up to mill around the room while people found each other. Most of them did, anyway. Sands stepped over by me while she mouthed, ‘Well?’ At the same time, she rubbed her neck a little, scratching it while looking at me a bit pointedly.

The choker. She wanted to know if I had checked her father yet. Sands had been asking me to do that since that morning. She and Scout were both intent on knowing whether their father was the one that Manakel was possessing. Not that I could blame them for it. I’d want to know too.

Slowly, after glancing toward Professor Mason to make sure the man wasn’t looking (his attention was on answering a question from Rudolph), I shook my head and mouthed, ‘Not yet.’

She gave me a brief pleading look, and I hesitated before nodding. I couldn’t hold back anymore. Surrounded by students like this, distracted and all, was probably one of the best times to test the man. And I couldn’t very well ask the twins to wait any longer when I wouldn’t have.

Turning, I looked over to where Sean was with Columbus. To his infinite credit, the Hispanic boy was doing an incredible job of pretending everything was okay. Which was pretty impressive, considering he had to sleep in the same room as Columbus. I had no idea what I would’ve done in that situation, but I doubt I’d’ve gotten any rest lying just a few feet from the Seosten bitch.

Okay, Sean was keeping Columbus busy. From the sound of things, they were deciding who to work with, since they couldn’t partner with each other. Which I was sure Sean was just so sad about. With Charmiene occupied, I moved past Vanessa, gesturing for her to wait just a second before reaching Professor Mason. “Sir?” I asked, reaching out to gently tap his shoulder.

It was simple, yet efficient. As the man turned to face me with a raised eyebrow, I watched him carefully. Nothing. There was no result, no overlay of another figure. He wasn’t possessed.

“Yes, Miss Chambers?” The man asked. “I’m sorry, if you don’t want to work with Miss Moon, I can let you two go with different people. I just thought it would be nice to see what you two-”

“No, no,” I replied while shaking my head quickly. “That’s fine, sir. I don’t mind working with Vanessa. I was just going to ask if we could be excused to go up to the library so we can pick out the books we need for the project. You know, since we’re already partners and all that.”  

Besides, it would give me an excuse to talk to the other girl about how her were-changes had been going, since she had both the raven and the giant fuck-off bear forms. 

At least I’d found out from Wyatt why the change into the lion form that first time hadn’t hurt the way that Roxa’s wolf change had hurt her. Apparently it had to do with the fact that a full werewolf was changing into an Alter that first time. Their bodies were going through a lot, while in my case, my Heretical Edge-granted powers were simply copying the werelion’s ability to shapeshift.

Long story short, it didn’t hurt me to change into a lion for the same reason that it didn’t hurt Shiori to turn into sand. My Heretic ability was simply copying the shape of lion while using its own power to change my form, a power which included not being hurt by that transformation. I wasn’t a werelion, I was a Heretic borrowing the werelion’s power.

I hadn’t actually told anyone other than the people I trusted about the lion form, since… well, anything that Charmiene and Manakel didn’t know about would be an advantage. So I was keeping that bit secret from the school at large for the moment.

Besides, it would’ve been yet another thing not only for Roxa’s old team to be paranoid about, but I’d also have to explain it to October and Patrick and, well, I just didn’t feel like doing that. So I’d been telling the people I could trust in private, and this would be a good chance to talk with Vanessa about it, and maybe get some tips about how she controlled the animal instincts.  

“Ah, yes.” Raising his voice to be heard over the din of conversation, Professor Mason announced, “Once you have your partner, proceed to the library to pick out the right books. And I mean go straight to the library, nowhere else. I’ll be along as soon as everyone has their partner. If there are any stragglers, I’ll feed you to the dragon that lives under the school.”

That got a lot of the Bystander-kin whispering demands to the other students about just how serious the man was about the existence of a dragon. As I turned away, Sands and Scout were both standing there, watching me intently. I gave them a simple headshake. No code this time, no silly phrase. I just shook my head, confirming that their dad wasn’t possessed after all.

They saw it, and I saw at least some relief on their faces. It was, however, relief that was immediately tempered by the memory that he had still done awful things, all by himself. Sands’ look hardened briefly before she got it under control just in time for Zeke to approach her.

In the background, I saw Aylen and Avalon talking quietly, just before Vanessa stepped up to me. Her voice was lowered to a hushed whisper. “Flick, I really need to tell you something.”

Blinking at the girl, I nodded. “Alright, well, let’s head for the library. You can tell me on the way.”

We headed out, slowing our pace so that a couple other pairs who had already decided to work together could get ahead. Vanessa showed me a privacy coin and dropped it back into her pocket before whispering under her breath, “Something… important happened this morning.”

“Important?” I echoed, frowning a little before asking a bit hesitantly, “Are you okay?” I was already a bit afraid of the answer. The last thing we needed right now was some other problem.

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “I’m fine, I mean—I think I am. I mean… um, maybe I’ll just tell you what happened.” Taking a breath to steady herself, she continued. “I had a dream.”

“You… had a dream?” I shook my head slowly at that. “What do you mean, you had a dream?”

“Not a dream,” she corrected, flushing. “I mean, I don’t think it was a dream.” She sighed. “I was asleep, but I wasn’t dreaming. I was seeing through someone else’s eyes. My dad’s eyes.”

It was a really good thing that the privacy coin was active, being I did an immediate double-take at those words, stumbling to a stop while almost comically blurting, “Your dad’s eyes?”

Still, even with the spell, Vanessa hissed at me to shush, looking around briefly before continuing. “Yes, my dad. I swear, it was him. And it wasn’t a dream. It was like I was seeing through his eyes, like… right now, not in the past. Right at that moment, I mean. I was seeing everything he was doing. He’s in Seosten space, Flick. And he was was with Professor Katarin and um, a woman. I don’t know who she was, they didn’t say her name. But it was definitely my dad. I recognized his voice and he looked in a mirror. It was him. It was my dad. They’re working together to try to find my mom. They said that’s what they were doing, trying to save her.”

“You had a drea-sorry, a not-dream about seeing through your dad’s eyes and–” I stopped. “Is that a Seosten power or something? They can possess people, right? What if part of that is sort of projecting themselves to people? What if you were projecting yourself to your father because you’re like… so close to him? I mean you were close to him.”

“I couldn’t control him or anything,” Vanessa murmured thoughtfully. “I mean, I don’t think I could. It just felt like I was riding along in his head. But, maybe it’s weaker because I’m not a full Seosten? Or because I’m younger and it hasn’t–nothing like this ever happened before.”

I nodded slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “Maybe… you said he was with Katarin and a woman out in Seosten space? What were they doing? Specifically at that moment, I mean.”

We’d known from Fahsteth that Katarin had been sent into Seosten space, but finding out that he was actually with Vanessa’s dad and some other woman was kind of surprising. From everything I knew, Seosten space was supposed to be huge. What were the odds that they would’ve run into each other like that so soon?

“They were eating dinner,” the other girl replied, “on some kind of spaceship. I think they stole it. They were eating and talking about where to go next to look for my mother. There was something about some kind of blockade that they were going to have to get through. Oh, and Katarin said that he’s been trying to contact Gaia, but there’s something blocking him. Then my dad and the woman told him that the Seosten have a barrier up blocking Earth away from their space so that almost nothing can get through. Teleportation, telepathy, magic, none of it can get from where they are to here. That’s why they haven’t been able to get back to Earth.”

I started to say something else, but before I could, Professor Mason came along with the last few members of the class. It looked like Sands had gotten partnered with Zeke somehow (I had no idea how that had happened), while Scout was with the constantly cheerful Harper Hayes. Sean, on the other hand, had partnered with Rebecca. And Columbus… or rather, Charmiene, was with Isaac. Which kind of made me feel sorry for Isaac, but I kept that off my face.

“Girls,” Professor Mason raised an eyebrow as he saw us standing there. “Everything alright?”

I nodded quickly while Vanessa disabled the privacy spell, reminding myself not to stare at Columbus. “Sorry, Professor. We were just talking about what books we wanted to use. I guess we sorta forgot about that whole ‘walking’ thing.”

So we headed for the library with everyone else, and started to look through the books while trying to focus on the actual assignment. It was hard though. I was supposed to be thinking about how to put classic book characters into another story’s setting and plot. Instead, all I could think about was the fact that Professor Katarin and Vanessa and Tristan’s dad were together. And apparently they were still tearing their way through Seosten space, trying to find Sariel.

Sitting by ourselves at one of the tables in the back of the room, I looked around briefly before leaning close to whisper, “Have you talked to Tristan about it?” We couldn’t talk openly, but I figured if I kept my voice down and kept it as vague as possible, that much was safe to ask.

She nodded. “Yes, of course. He’s the one who said I should tell you about it. I don’t… I don’t know if it’ll happen again.” Leaning even closer, she added almost silently, “If it does, I’m gonna try to talk. Maybe it’ll work this time. If I can talk through him, talk to them…” Trailing off, the girl looked as excited and eager as I’d ever seen her, aside from when Tristan had first appeared.  

“You should tell Gaia too,” I pointed out quietly. “She’ll definitely want to hear about that stuff.”

Again, Vanessa nodded vigorously. “I will,” she promised, “as soon as I get a chance to talk to her. I just thought that if there’s another… if there’s more of them in the school, they might notice if I run right to Gaia and figure out that something happened, you know? You could probably talk to her without attracting any attention, since you’ve got those extra classes all the time.”

“Oh, right.” I’d forgotten that most students didn’t have private lessons with the headmistress a couple times every week. Yeah, the Seosten were probably keeping an eye on what Vanessa and Tristan were doing. I was sure they knew who the two were by that point.

Shaking that off, I looked back to the stack of possible books that we’d picked up and tried to focus. But my mind kept drifting. There was something it was trying to tell me, something about what Vanessa had said that kept niggling at my brain. But I couldn’t figure out what it was.

We were halfway through a discussion about either putting Sherlock Holmes in another setting, or putting other characters in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories when it practically physically struck me right in the face. I reeled backward, eyes widening as I blurted, “Wait a minute.”

Glancing up from the book she had been flipping through, Vanessa started to ask, “What are–”

“Okay, guys,” Professor Mason interrupted. “That’s it for now. Try to meet with your partner and nail down what you’re gonna be doing before the next class, alright? I’ll see you later.”

Everyone started to head for the exit, while I sat where I was, watching until I saw the two I was looking for. Finally spotting Sands and Scout, who had separated from their partners, I stepped that way and quickly pulled the two back over to the table where Vanessa was waiting.

“Err, hey Nessa.” Sands gave a brief wave. “What’s going on?”

While Vanessa hesitantly shrugged, I took a privacy coin of my own from my pocket and activated it. This was one conversation I really didn’t want to be overheard. “Guys,” I spoke quickly. “You keep a picture of your mother with you, right?”

The two of them looked at each other before Scout nodded. “Duh,” Sands replied. “Why?”

“Just… show Vanessa,” I instructed before looking to the blonde girl. “Vanessa, just say yes or no.”

The twins looked confused, but Scout obliged, reaching into her pocket to take out her phone. Thumbing through it briefly, she finally settled on a picture of a pretty brunette woman in her twenties, holding it up for us to see.

“Oh.” Vanessa’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yes.”

I’d known. Some part of me had known from the very beginning, as soon as Vanessa mentioned the woman that was with her father and Professor Katarin, the woman whose name they didn’t say.

Still, having it confirmed made me choke a little bit. The words wouldn’t come.

“Guys?” Sands was looking back and forth at us, frowning in confusion. “What the hell is going on?”

“Your mom,” I finally managed, forcing the words out. “She’s… she’s not dead, guys.

“Your mom is alive, and she’s with Vanessa’s dad in Seosten space.”

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Mini-Interlude 40 – Roxa and the Pack

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“You know, when most people think of werewolves, I’m pretty sure five-star hotels and casinos in Las Vegas are not the kind of thing that immediately pops into their heads,”  Roxa informed Mateo as the two of them (accompanied by Gidget) walked through the noisy, gaudy, incredibly lavish subject of her observation.

The man himself chuckled. “What can I say? Wonderland insisted on compensating us for the work, and I didn’t want to insult them. Besides,” he added, “our people deserve the vacation.”

Apparently that Gabriel Prosser guy had promised to send them anywhere they wanted to go when they left the camp, and the answer from most of the pack had been to rest and recuperate in Vegas. So that’s where they had gone, while she and Mateo finished up with what they needed to do with Prosser’s people and Flick.

The rest of the pack still didn’t know that Roxa had decided to stay with them, rather than returning to Crossroads with the choker. She’d asked Mateo to wait until she could be there, and the man had agreed.

“Plus,” she added slyly then with a look toward the older man, “I bet it wasn’t exactly hard to convince your boyfriend to come stay in a place like this for awhile.” She’d heard that Sean’s uncle would be joining them before long, though he was taking an actual plane to so.  

That time, Mateo outright laughed at her words, attracting the brief attention of a couple dead-eyed slots players. Their eyes lingered on Gidget, but Roxa wasn’t worried. The cyberform cougar was projecting her usual massive dog holographic disguise at the moment, and they had added a vest that would make her look like one of those service animals.

Getting his laughter under control, Mateo replied, “The day that Sebastian Gerardo actually lets people pamper him like they’re supposed to in a place like this is the day I check him for being possessed by those Seosten malparidos.”

They continued on then, reaching the elevator. While they were waiting for it to descend, Roxa reached down to rub Gidget’s head before looking to the man beside her. “I’m confused about something though,” she started slowly.

“By all means,” Mateo replied, gesturing for her to continue.

After trying to think of how to phrase it properly, she finally settled on a simple, “How are we here? I mean… how are we here without being attacked? It’s the middle of Vegas in a big casino, shouldn’t the Heretics be watching everything around here like hawks? I’m–how can we walk more than three feet without a dozen of them jumping us?”

The ornate, glass elevator had arrived by that point, and the two of them stepped onto it, turning to watch the casino floor below while it rose after Mateo hit the button. The man smiled a little once they were underway. “Well, there’s several reasons, actually. First of all, it’s almost as dangerous for Heretics to stake out a specific location and stay out in the open as it would be for people like us.” He glanced toward her while continuing. “After all, we can recognize them too. Heretics are powerful, sure. But if they set up camp and start being too predictable, Alters can hit them with massive numbers. We all know they’re not unkillable. Hell, while there are some unbelievably powerful ones, the majority, the rank and file, are still vulnerable. Especially if they get ambushed.”

Roxa nodded slowly, absorbing that. “Right, plus, Crossroads and Eden’s Garden can only make so many Heretics per year. They’ve got a limited supply.”

“Yup.” Mateo looked out over the by-then far distant casino floor while continuing. “But werewolves? We can turn as many as we want, technically. No telling how many survive the process, but you get the point. Most Alter species drastically outnumber Heretics. They’ve got to be careful about where they position themselves. If we couldn’t recognize what they were, then it might be different. But as it is, we know as soon as we see them, just like they know when they see us.

“But that’s just in general,” he went on while stepping off the elevator as it came to a stop on their floor. “In Vegas, the three families rule, and they don’t allow Heretics to set up shop.”

Roxa blinked over at the man as she followed him. “What three families?” Looking back into the elevator, she called, “C’mon, Gidget!”

The cougar reluctantly turned away from the stunning view, trotting over to catch up with them before nuzzling against Roxa’s leg briefly.

Mateo explained, “One family of vampires, one family of sorcerers and witches, and a third family of Oni.”

“Oni like the Japanese demons?” Roxa asked, eyes widening a little.

“It’s more complicated than that, but yes,” the man confirmed. “The way the story goes, the vampires and the sorcerers were mortal enemies. I think the mages were called Vestage or… Vestil, that’s it. The vampires and the Vestil were mortal enemies until the Oni showed up. Then they established a truce to fight the Oni. That lasted long enough that one of the vampire leaders’ sons fell in love with a Vestil princess. Now it’s all complicated, but there’s basically a really tense ceasefire between all of them. They break it a lot for individual spats, but mostly they’re all in their own corners of the city, with the strip being neutral ground.”

“What does this have to do with the Heretics?” Roxa asked, amazed by everything Crossroads either didn’t know about or didn’t teach.

Mateo smirked a little bit. “The three families may not really like each other all that much. But they hate Heretics even more. If they find out there’s Heretics trying to push in on their territory, they’ll join together to get rid of them.  Vampires, Vestil, and Oni all working together? The Heretics don’t wanna commit that kind of manpower to the situation.”

By that point, the two of them had reached the doors leading into the suite that had been rented. Mateo swiped the keycard for the room, pushing the door open before gesturing for Roxa to precede him. She did so, with Gidget at her side.

The room that they walked into was enormous. It was more like a living room than something in a hotel. The ceiling was two floors up, while straight ahead there were two couches surrounding a giant television. In the back left of the room was a kitchenette next to a door that led into the bathroom. Two more doors across the room, opposite the entrance led into full sized bedrooms. A set of stairs led to the second floor of the suite where there was a wraparound balcony overlooking the living area, and more bedrooms. Finally, to the right from the entrance there was a sliding door leading to an outside patio.

The rest of the pack was in that living room. The massive Fezzik was in the kitchenette, filling several cups of coffee. Lesedi was standing just in the open sliding door that led out to the patio. Meanwhile, Corson and Hasty, who had both been heavily injured, were each lying on one of the couches, watching the television.

When Roxa, Mateo, and Gidget entered, all eyes turned to them. Lesedi stepped back fully into the room, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the matter?” she demanded. “I thought that choker thing worked.”

“It better fucking work,” Hasty put in from her place on the couch. “I took three goddamn silver knives into my fucking stomach. If it doesn’t work, I swear to God–”

“It works,” Roxa quickly put in. “But I don’t care. I’m not using it. Call me crazy, but I don’t really want to spend the rest of my life only surviving because I’m wearing some magic piece of jewelry that makes it so that the people who are supposed to be my friends don’t murder me.”

Beside her, Gidget got up and trotted over to Fezzik. She loved the giant, since he was always feeding her scraps of metal that he collected. Sure enough, as the cougar approached, the big guy dug into his pocket and came out with what looked like an iron plate that had been torn off of something. Gidget took the treat eagerly, crouching down to gnaw at it with the somewhat muffled sound of tearing metal.

“You sure you’re not just gonna change your mind again?” Lesedi asked, a challenge in her voice. “Spend another couple weeks and then decide you like the Heretics better after all?”

“Lesedi,” Mateo reprimanded, “take it easy.”

“It’s alright,” Roxa insisted, shaking her head. “I get it. You guys just–” She stopped, taking a breath. “No. I’m not going back there. Not to stay, anyway. You guys knew what I was and you took me in anyway. You went out of your way to help me, and they would’ve just killed me. You…” She paused, biting her lip. “If you guys don’t want me to stay, I won’t. But I won’t go back there. I’ve been on my own before, I can do that again.”

Hasty tried to push herself up before groaning in pain and slumped back down again. “You, by yourself? You’d be dead in a week, puppy.”

Fezzik nodded in agreement. “You don’t know where to go, who to trust, who could kill you for being Heretic and who could kill you for being werewolf.”

“They’re right,” Lesedi confirmed. The black woman had stepped over in front of Roxa by that point, raising an eyebrow. “You out there by yourself, you wouldn’t last. You need a pack.”

Lifting her chin, Roxa asked quietly. “Do I have one?”

Lesedi smirked a little at that. “Sure thing. But only cuz we don’t wanna give up Gidget over there.” She nodded toward the robotic cougar. “Seems like you two come as a package deal.”

Despite herself, Roxa smiled at the teasing. “Guess I’m lucky she’s so useful.”

Mateo cleared his throat. “Alright, if that’s settled, then let’s enjoy this vacation. Because we’ve got work to do when it’s over.”

“Work?” Roxa echoed, blinking over her shoulder at the man.

He nodded. “I’ve already told the others. But there’s a group of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.”

She stared, clueless. “What and what?”

The man chuckled at that, repeating himself. “Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They’re a bunch of Heretics with Mayan origins. Not like Crossroads or Eden’s Garden. They’re… different. One of their tribes is making trouble back down in Colombia, and one of the other packs down there asked for some help. So we’ll spend a week here, resting up and recuperating. Then we’ll get busy.”

Corson spoke up from his couch. “Sure you’ll be okay with doing that, Roxa?” The pain in his voice faded a little as he shifted himself. “After all, it doesn’t really concern you like this last trip did.”

“You guys are never gonna let me live that down, are you?” Roxa asked, getting a collective head shake from all of them. Snorting, she shrugged. “Besides, you’re wrong. It does concern me. Because it concerns you guys, and you’re my pack. What concerns you, concerns me, right?”

“Right,” Mateo agreed. “Now let’s have an actual vacation. Everyone who can still stand, let’s go have some fun.”

“Heeeey, what about us?” Hasty demanded. “Don’t we deserve some fun? We were injured in the line of duty. And I say, if we can’t all enjoy Vegas, then none of us should. We should all stay here, one and all. We’re a pack, right? When one or two of us are out and suffering, we’re all suffering. Right, guys?”

At least the injured wolf-girl’s reflexes were still working, because she easily dodged the TV guide that was thrown at her just before the door closed behind Roxa and the rest of the still-standing pack on their way out.

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Spy Hunt 26-05

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“I’m gonna kill her! I’m going to rip that damn Seosten bitch out of him, tear her apart with my bare hands, and burn whatever’s left until it’s nothing but ashes!”

That was… well, it was rather obviously Shiori. The Asian girl was pretty much snarling the words as our little group stood up on the roof of the building a short time later, as soon as I had been able to get away from Colu– away from Charmeine and join the others up there.

Shiori was being held back by Avalon, who was holding the girl’s arms in a firm grip to stop her from… I wasn’t sure what. There was no telling what Shiori would do if she was released, considering the reaction she was having. She wasn’t outright fighting Avalon’s grip, though she was straining against it at least a bit. Her eyes were wide as she blurted, “Let me go!”  

Deveron was there, moving in front of the two girls as his hand moved up to touch her face gently, just enough to make her look at and focus on him. “Shiori,” he announced quietly, “we’ll get her out of him. But not like this. You can’t just go running in there like that, demanding that she pop out of him and making threats. It won’t work, and then they’ll know what we know.”

Sands, who was standing back with Scout, looks of shock on both their faces, gave a quick nod. “He’s right, Shiori. If you let that angel-bitch know that you know she’s got Columbus, she’ll–”  

“What would you do?!” Shiori demanded, head snapping that way. She stopped jerking at Avalon’s grip for a moment, staring beseechingly at them. “If it was one of you that she took, what would you do? Scout, what would you do if it was Sands? Or Sands, what if it was Scout?”

Both of them looked stricken by the suggestion, while I quickly moved over there. Deveron saw me coming and moved, even as Avalon released her. As Shiori moved forward a step, I caught her in a hug. “I’m sorry,” I murmured, eyes closing tightly as I felt the other girl immediately cling onto me. “I’m so sorry, Shy. I’m sorry. I was hoping it wasn’t him. I can’t–I–” Stopping myself from saying anything else, I hugged her even tighter instead, feeling her tremble under my grip.

For a minute or two, we just stood there. I didn’t know what the others were doing. My attention was focused solely on the girl I was holding onto. Shiori’s body shook a little before she dropped her head. I felt her shudder then before the sound of her tears falling made the anger that had already been rolling around inside me practically boil over. They made Shiori cry. That bitch took Columbus, had been puppeting him for God only knew how long. Damn it, damn it! What was I supposed to do? How could I fix it? How could I make it any better right now? How?

There was no easy answer. And maybe no answer at all. Finally, I leaned back to stare at the girl. “Deveron’s right. They’re all right, Shiori. We’ll get Columbus back. We will kick that bitch out of him, I swear. I promise, we’ll save him. We’ll get your brother back. But we can’t do it right now. You know we can’t do it right now, not until we know where the other ones are. Or at least,” I amended, “where the one that’s here in the school is. We have to identify the one that Manakel is possessing. As soon as we do that, as soon as we know, we can kick them out. We know the spell to do that, remember? And Gaia will help hold them so we can free Columbus.”

“I–but… but…” Shiori stammered, something obviously catching in her throat as she choked a little while shaking her head. “What am I supposed to do now? How am I supposed to… to talk to him? How am I supposed to–I–if I see him, I’ll know. I’ll know, Flick. I’ll know she’s in there. I’ll know it’s really… it’s really her. I can’t–I can’t just… “ She closed her eyes again and shivered.

I didn’t know what to say, what to tell her. It was Deveron who spoke, his voice low. “Shiori.” When she looked that way, he continued. “I know. When I went here before, my first time at this school… when Jos and I were, when we were trying to save all the Alters that we could while pretending to be loyal students…” He swallowed hard, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to Shiori’s. “I had to lie to people I was supposed to be able to trust. I had to… had to pretend that I was a good little soldier. All those people I fought alongside, the other students, the ones who weren’t in on it… they would’ve killed me if they knew. They did try to kill me after they found out. My friends, people I cared about, I couldn’t tell them the truth. So I know. I know what you’re feeling. But it’s gonna be okay. Because Columbus knows, Shiori. And as soon as we find out who Manakel is possessing, we’re going to kick that cunt out of your brother. So you can hold on that long, all right? You can pretend. Because you’re not pretending for you. You’re pretending for Columbus. You have to protect Columbus, and that means pretending. All right?”

“Pretending,” Shiori echoed, her voice shaky, “for Columbus. Lying to… to protect Columbus.”

I nodded. “Yeah. You can do it, Shy. You have all of us. And Columbus is in there. He’s… he’s safe, as long as they think we don’t know anything. Hell, he’s probably one of the safest people in the school right now, because Charmeine won’t let anything happen to him while she’s there.”

“But when I look at him,” she whispered, “what if I can’t stop seeing her? What if I… what if…” Trailing off, Shiori shook her head rapidly. “No. No, if I mess up, she’ll… Columbus will–” She stopped short, taking in a long, deep breath before exhaling. “Y-you’re right. I have to pretend. I have to… to fake the–” Abruptly, she cut herself off, eyes widening in abruptly dawning horror.

“Shiori?” I glanced to Avalon and then back to the other girl again, confused. “What’s wrong?”

“Wh–” Shiori choked on her own words, cringing a little bit. “What if it wasn’t him?” She stared at me, utterly horrified. “W-we don’t know how long he’s been possessed. What if… what if Columbus wasn’t the one that–that accepted me? What if he’s been possessed since before I told him the truth about–about what I am? What if he really does hate me? What if he’s never–”

“Shiori, stop.” Reaching up, I put both hands on her cheeks, making her look at me. “Shy, even if that wasn’t your brother… I think it was, but if it wasn’t, his reaction wouldn’t be different. You know him, Shy. You know Columbus. And now, even if he wasn’t in control at that point, he’s seen enough to know that you’re not evil, okay? He knew you before, and he knows you now.”

“You can’t what-if yourself to death, Porter,” Avalon added pointedly. “There’s enough real problems without obsessing over potential ones. If he wasn’t the one in control when he accepted you, we’ll deal with that when the time comes. Now, let’s focus on identifying the other Seosten so we can kick them out and free your brother. Everything else can come after that.”

There was no response at first. Shiori seemed to be processing our words for a moment before her head dropped in a nod. “I can do it,” she whispered. “For Columbus, I can keep it together.”

Brushing my thumb gently along the girl’s cheek, I whispered back, “I promise, we’ll help him as soon as possible, okay? We will get that bitch out of him, the second we can do it right.”

“I know.” Shiori’s words were weak, strained, and the sound of the sadness in her voice made me want to strangle someone right then and there. Slowly, she looked up. “But… what now?”

“Now?” I echoed, biting my lip. “… Now we keep clearing everyone we can. Fahsteth said that Manakel was possessing an adult, but we don’t know that it’s stayed that way for sure. So we don’t skip anything. We check everyone we can, and we start using the anti-possession runes and anything else we can do whenever possible. We just have do all of it without Charmeine finding out.

“So, uh, good luck to us, I guess.”

******

“Miss Chambers, you have been a busy little beaver, haven’t you?”

It was later that day, as I walked through the hall on my way to the library. Blinking back at the sound of the voice, I found myself facing three figures. Two of them were the Committee’s errand boys, October and Patrick, while the third was Professor Kohaku. “Uh, I have?” For the twenty-millionth time recently, I thanked my facial-shifting power for keeping my expression flat.

October, who wore another one of his Hawaiian-print shirts (this one was dark green and white), nodded easily. “Sure have. Every time we ask the headmistress if we can talk to you again, she says you’re off doing some project or another. So much work, when do you ever just relax?”

Professor Kohaku lifted her chin. “Miss Chambers understands the value of what we’re doing here,” she announced with a brief glance toward me. “She’s been engaged in extra training.”

Patrick, who looked just as stiff as ever in his pitch-black suit and red shirt (which seemed to be the only thing he ever wore), met my gaze evenly. “I imagine keeping yourself so thoroughly occupied also distracts you from worrying about what may have happened to your father, yes?” His words were flat, and I couldn’t decide if there was any actual accusation behind them.

Staring right back at the man, I paused before shaking my head firmly. “There’s nothing I could do that would stop me from worrying about my dad. Maybe it helps a little bit, but… but mostly it just stops me from going completely insane and doing something stupid. So you tell me,” I added then, letting a little challenge slip into my voice, “have you found out anything yet?”

“No.” Patrick’s answer was simple, as his head shook. “Honestly, we’ve been hoping that he’d contact you so we could go from there. But so far, he doesn’t seem to have done that.”

I stared right back at him, somehow managing to keep my gaze from reflexively flicking toward the ring that I wore on my right hand, the gift from Gaia that made it so that neither of them could detect when I was lying. “You’re right, I haven’t heard from my father since he disappeared.” Again, I didn’t bother keeping the challenge out of my voice as I went on. “But I thought Heretics were supposed to be good at finding people. So why haven’t you found him?”

“Miss Chambers,” Professor Kohaku reprimanded slightly. “I understand that you are worried about your father. No one blames you for that. But please, watch your tone of voice a bit more.”

October spoke up then, raising a hand. “It’s okay. I think we all know why she’s a little testy.” To me, he added, “And you’re right, we really should have found your dad by now. Wherever he is, somehow he’s hidden from anything our people have been able to try to track him with.”

“Which,” Patrick added, “means he’s with another Heretic. Or a Stranger that’s hiding him for some reason.” He paused, scanning me before asking, “Do you still think it’s your mother?”

“I don’t know,” I answered flatly. “But if I did know for sure that she was with him, believe me, I wouldn’t just be sitting around here doing homework and training.” I hardened my voice, focusing on the anger I felt about the whole situation in order to sell my next words. “My mom already broke my dad’s heart and ripped his soul out once. I won’t let her fuck him over again.”

Kohaku looked like she was about to say something about my language, but stopped and let it go. She gave a slight nod. “I’m sure if the gentlemen here find out anything, they’ll let you know.”

“Yes.” That was Patrick, his tone as even as ever. “Just as you will tell us if you hear anything.”

I nodded at that, raising my hand to offer it while replying, “Deal. You tell me, and I’ll tell you.”

Patrick stiffened a little, squinting at me. “It is not a ‘deal’, Miss Chambers. It is your duty to inform us if you have any information related to our investigation. We are not making some–”

October interrupted, taking my offered hand. “I think we can agree with that,” he announced, giving his partner a brief glance. “After all, we’re all on the same side here, aren’t we?”

I paused, watching the man for a second after he shook my hand. Nothing. He was clear. Raising an eyebrow, I pointedly offered my hand back to Patrick once more. “Yeah, we are.”

He sighed before accepting the hand that time, giving one single, half-hearted shake. Again, I watched carefully. But despite my half-expectation, he was clear too. They might’ve been Committee stooges, but there was no sign that either of the men were actually possessed. Which wasn’t surprising, since Fahsteth had said that Manakel was possessing an adult at the school before these guys had actually shown up. But still, it meant that was two more possibilities down. Which was good, because there were only so many people that Manakel could be.

And speaking of people that could be possessed, I turned to where Professor Kohaku had been. “Professor, I–errr…” She wasn’t there. The Asian woman had disappeared.

Then I saw her come around the corner, pulling the sleeve of a boy, Paul. “You are not some creature of the night, Mr. Calburn,” the woman intoned flatly. “By no respect do you need to resort to lurking in the shadows and around corners. It’s unbecoming. Now do you have anything you’d like to say to Miss Chambers?”

Paul blinked at that, flushing a little as his head shook. “No, ma’am, I mean, I was looking for the–”

“My time is entirely too valuable for whatever excuse you’ve thought up in the past three seconds, Mr. Calburn,” Professor Kohaku interrupted. “Just remember, lurking and spying make you look suspicious. And when I am suspicious of people, I tend to put them in detention where I can keep an eye on them. Do you understand?” When the boy nodded quickly, she gestured. “Then be off, and find better hobbies.”

Turning back to me then as Paul hurried off, she asked, “Does that happen to you often?”

“Um.” I coughed. “More than you might think. But it’s okay.” Waving that off, I hesitated before looking back to her. “Thanks, Professor.”

“Of course.” Kohaku reached out, settling her  hand on my shoulder briefly. It felt warm. “If he bothers you again, let me know. We don’t put up with stalking here.”

“It’s alright,” I murmured, staring at her briefly. No. She wasn’t possessed. There was no overlay of any figure when she touched me. Which was another person cleared. Three in this one corridor. And soon I’d check Paul and the rest of Roxa’s old team, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t any of them. Manakel was supposed to have taken over an adult. Some adult… somewhere in the school.

And we were going to find out who that adult was, even if we had to do it one person at a time.

******

“Okay,” Koren started slowly about forty minutes later. “So, I understand why you couldn’t tell me any of this stuff before. But…” She looked over to me, frowning a little. “Why are you immune to being possessed, exactly? Is it a family thing because of your mom? Should I be immune too?”

Yeah, I had already checked her and then explained the truth. I was pretty damn sure by that point that she wasn’t possessed, since we knew that Columbus was and Manakel was supposed to be possessing an adult. But still, I’d made sure before telling her what was going on. For the past half hour, I had been explaining everything that we’d kept from her lately.

Sighing, I glanced around before answering. The two of us were sitting out on the beach, where I’d dragged her after finding the girl in the library once I’d gotten in there. “I don’t know, exactly. No one seems to have any idea why I’d be immune. I’m not a hybrid or part of Avalon’s family, so… I don’t know. Maybe mom found out whatever Liesje did to make her bloodline immune and copied it. Or maybe Fossor did something to me to protect his investment. Or… I don’t know.”

The brown-haired girl fiddled with her braid self-consciously for a moment before offering, “Maybe it’d help if you found out if it was just you, or your family. This um, Enguerrand guy, he can possess people, right? If I went to him, he could test me and find out if I’m immune or not.”

I paused slightly, biting my lip as I looked over to her. “Yeah,” I murmured. “That’s a good idea. Plus,” I added then, “you could meet my dad. He really wants to meet you. I mean, he really wants to meet all of you. Wyatt, you, your mom… He’s um, he’s really looking forward to that.”

As soon as I’d finished saying that, I blanched, “I mean–” Wincing, I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to… your dad…” I was flailing inwardly, lost on what I could possibly say.

“I know,” Koren replied flatly, glancing away from me. “I’m not going to hold your dad being alive against you, Flick. That’d be stupid. I just…” She trailed off, looking away as her voice fell a little bit. “I wish my dad got that lucky. I wish… I wish I knew him. That Tribald guy told me about him, but it’s not the same.” She looked back to me then, meeting my gaze. “I wish I wasn’t jealous of you. I wish I was that good of a person. But I kind of am. I want my dad back. I want my dad to have the same chance yours does. But he doesn’t. And that’s not your fault. Or your dad’s.

“Besides,” Koren added a bit pointedly, “if I blamed you for saying something without thinking about how I might take it, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

Smiling despite myself, I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure the role of biggest hypocrite has a lot stronger contenders than you. Besides, you’re working on it. And,” I added with a raised eyebrow, “it sounds like that’s not the only thing you’ve been working on. Miranda said you two had an adventure after you texted me about Pace. Sorry I couldn’t tell you much at the time.”

Koren shrugged at that. “Operational security, I get it. And yeah, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you about it.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “Miranda said it was something I really needed to see. But she said you chased Pace to some hideout she had, and there was a hooded guy–”

“Or girl,” Koren interrupted. “We couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl. But yeah, they were definitely Pace’s–I mean, Lies’ boss. And whoever they were, they weren’t happy with her. We managed to get this chest thing out when they started burning down the place she was hiding out in, and–”

Raising a hand, I poked her in the shoulder. “According to Miranda, by ‘we’, you mean you ran right into a fire and nearly choked to death.”

She flushed a little bit at that. “Yeah, well, I’m fireproof, but I forgot about smoke. And in any case, it was worth it. We got a bunch of her money and passports and stuff, but we also got this camera, with a video on it.”

“That must’ve been what Randi wanted me to see…” I murmured thoughtfully.

Koren nodded. “I copied it onto my phone. So um, I guess just look at it.” With that, she passed her phone to me and sat back, looking apprehensive.

So, I took the phone and watched the video through. Once it was over, I slumped back, staring at the blank screen. My mouth worked a couple times. “She… she’s not just innocent, she was… rebelling. She was trying to fix things. She believed in… she believed that Strangers weren’t always the bad guys. She was trying to show people–oh…”

“Yeah,” Koren replied, “that was pretty much our reaction.”

For a minute or two, we just sat there until I found my voice. “If she’s still alive, if there’s a way to get Lies out of her without–we… we have to try.”

There was a brief murmur of agreement from the other girl before she looked at me. “But if there’s not a way to get her out, we have to free her either way. That girl, the one on that tape? She wouldn’t want to be stuck doing what Lies is making her do. If… if killing her is the only way to stop it…”

I didn’t say anything to that. She wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t want to respond. How could I respond?

So we sat there in silence, thinking about what we might have to do at some point, before I finally cleared my throat and tried to change the subject. “Um. Wyatt says you’ve been spending a lot of time with him, learning everything he’ll teach you.”

Koren blushed a little, shrugging self-consciously. “Yeah, well he’s really good at that spy and security stuff. And it turns out, I like learning it.”

It was more than that, I knew. She wanted to learn it so that she could protect people she cared about, so that nothing like what had happened to her dad would happen again. Still, I just nodded. “We get someone else who can do what Wyatt does and I’m pretty sure we’ll…” I paused then, frowning thoughtfully.

“Flick?” Koren blinked at me. “What’s wrong?”

“Why haven’t they figured out that it’s Wyatt?” I asked slowly, before looking over at her. “I mean, why haven’t the Seosten figured out that Wyatt is the one who put the spell on Avalon? Sure, most of the school thinks he’s just some loony nutjob, but you’d think the Seosten would be able to figure it out. Even that Rucker guy, Kohaku’s second-in-command, said that Wyatt’s a genius with security spells. How have they not put two and two together yet?”

Koren’s head tilted. “You mean he hasn’t told you about it yet?”

“Uh, told me about what?” I stared at the girl.

She lowered her voice conspiratorially then. “The blame-shifting spell.”

“I can honestly say,” I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The other girl smiled broadly. “That’s why they haven’t figured out that he’s the one who put that protection spell on Avalon. Basically, you set the blame-shifting spell on some item, like a rock or a coin or whatever, okay? You set it on an item and set it for some action that you did. From that point on, until the item with the blame-shifting spell on it is destroyed, or they actually see you do it, people won’t be able to connect the action it’s connected to with you. Like, say you want to uh, borrow Chef Escalan’s favorite spatula without getting in trouble for it. You create the blame-shifting spell and attach it to that action. As long as the item you put the spell on stayed intact, Escalan wouldn’t even think about blaming you for it.”

I sat back a bit, processing that. “So, Wyatt’s got some magic doohickey out there that’s shifting ‘blame’ for the protection spell away from himself? So even if they know that he’s good with magic, as long as the blame-shifting spell is intact, they physically can’t even think of him as a candidate.”

“Unless someone who does know about it points it out to them,” she confirmed. “It’s not perfect. It can be broken if they see it themselves or someone like you or me outright tells them.”

I whistled low at that. “I’ve said it before, but I’m really glad Wyatt’s on our side.”

“Right?” Koren snorted, smiling a little bit before looking over at me. “So you think it’s a good idea, getting out to meet that Enguerrand guy so he can test me?”  After I nodded, she opened her mouth before freezing up a little, worry etching its way into her expression. “I… Flick, we have to go to Eden’s Garden too. You said there was a Seosten out there too, right? What if–What if it’s Seller? Flick, my mom, she–”

“I know, trust me, I know.” My head was bobbing up and down quickly. “We will, Koren. As soon as we can, we’ll test Seller and make sure he’s safe, I promise. I just had to make sure you were okay first. First chance we get, we’ll get out there and make sure your mom’s safe with Seller and Miranda.”

She sat back then, clearly trying to relax even though I could tell she was worried. Not that I could blame her. Seller would be a prime target for possession, though I hoped he was good enough to avoid it, like Gaia.

In any case, at least we know who Charmeine was possessing. As I’d promised Shiori, we would get her out of Columbus as soon as it was safe to do so, as soon as we knew who Manakel was possessing.

And as soon as we did, we were going to introduce those wannabe angels to the concept of hell. Because at this point, they clearly deserved nothing less. They had taken over Pace, turning the girl I’d seen in that video into the one that I’d seen in action. They’d taken over Columbus, making Shiori cry in the process. They had separated Vanessa and Tristan from their family. They had created this entire society specifically to maintain their superiority. They were responsible for the deaths of… of God knew how many innocent Alters. They were using Heretics as their bogeymen. They were… they had… they…

With each thought, I was getting even angrier. The rage boiling up inside me at the thought of everything the Seosten had done, of everyone they had hurt, it made me want to hurt them… tear them apart, put them down… it made me want to–

“Uh, Fli-Flick?!” Koren’s voice was raised, high-pitched with surprise and what sounded a little like fear.

“What?” I blurted, turning that way. Or at least, I meant to say that. What came out wasn’t words, but a snarl that made me almost wet myself.

Koren was standing up, backing away from me with wide eyes as she raised her hands. “Flick, it’s me. It’s me, Koren. You know that, right?”

Of course I knew that. What was she talking about? What–

I could smell her fear. Hell, I could smell a lot more than that. I could smell the last food she’d eaten on her breath, dirt on her shoes, the soap and shampoo she used. I could smell students down the beach. I could smell all of it and more. And hear them. I could smell them, hear them… and I was hungry. 

I stood up. Except I wasn’t standing. I was… crawling? No, because my head was easily at the same height as Koren’s. But my hands and legs were down, so… Wait, what was–

My head looked down. The first thing I saw was ripped clothes. My ripped clothes. And instead of my hands, I saw two enormous, frying-pan sized tan paws, with equally massive, deadly-looking claws extended out from them. And I wasn’t crawling. I was on all fours. Four legs. Four paws. And instead of skin, I had golden-tan fur… and… and…

Oh.

That’s what I got from killing that werelion.

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Spy Hunt 26-04

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude posted a couple days ago, focusing on Shiori and Avalon telling Choo a story. If you haven’t read that yet, you may wish to use the previous chapter button above. 

“Wow, those little guys are warming up to you pretty fast, huh?”

It was late in the evening, the same day that I’d had the little… discussion with the twins earlier. Sean and I were in one of the magic-practice rooms with its sturdy walls and cement floor, ostensibly working on one of the spells that Professor Carfried had assigned for homework.

Turning my head, I looked at the object (or rather, objects) of Sean’s attention. Jaq and Gus, my two little mice cyberforms, were perched on my arm as it was stretched out to my side. The pair were eating a couple of metal bolts that I had painted yellow. Did their metal have to be painted to look like cheese? Of course not. Did I do it anyway just because I felt like it? Of course I did.  

“We’re getting there,” I replied easily, feeling a smile tug at my face as I watched the two of them happily munch at the metal. Apparently while they didn’t need as much of it as Vulcan did in order to make all those bullets he used, the mice did transform some of the metal they ate into various materials that were used to maintain their bodies. Especially since they were slightly larger when they transformed into weapons than they were in their regular forms, a fact that always confused me about where the extra mass was coming from. But then again, it’s not like ‘larger on the inside than the outside’ was exactly unusual when it came to Heretic creations.  

“I dunno how much of it is the whole ‘cyberform bonding with the owner’ thing and how much is my natural charm,” I teased with a roll of my eyes, “but they’ve sure been warming up to me.”

Winking, Sean chuckled. “With your charm, I’d say it’s at least half and half there, Flickster.”

Moving my other hand over to scratch under Jaq’s chin, I nodded to the corner of the room where Vulcan sat happily playing with a heavy metal ball in his teeth. “Then you must be pretty charming yourself, considering how well you and your partner there get along.”

“Actually,” the Hispanic boy replied with a straight face, “in that case, it’s mostly his charm.”

Despite myself and the actual seriousness of the situation, I snickered. Then I took a little breath before turning a bit to extend the arm with the mice on it toward him. “You wanna give the little guys a scratch? Actually, did you ever figure out why metal animals could possibly enjoy that?”

Sean shook his head while reaching out to scratch Gus on the back of the little guy’s head. “Nope,” he replied easily. “I’m guessing it’s programming or something. You know, to help bond them and make ‘em seem more real. You know, like how we’re more likely to take care of them and treat the little guys like real animals if they act like real animals instead of like machines.”

Nodding slowly, I bit my lip before straightening a little, forcing my voice to remain as casual as possible. “Hey, at least I finally got to join the ‘animal companion’ club, huh?” Raising my other hand, I gestured for him to high-five it. “Is there a secret handshake or a password or anything?”

Sean grinned, head shaking. “Nope, but there should be. We should get with Aylen and Tristan and see what we can do about that.” As he spoke, the boy slapped his hand against mine.

I waited for a moment, while Sean returned his attention to the mice. He said something else then, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to hear it. I was too busy focusing on whether I could see anyone possessing him after that contact. Nothing. It was just Sean. He was clear. With a long, exhaled breath, I interrupted his words to abruptly announce, “Jelly beans on toast.”

“Uh.” The boy blinked at me. “Flick, you’ve got really weird taste in snacks, if you think tha-”

That was as far as he got before Gus and Jaq jumped off my arm. As they landed on the floor, two figures literally popped out of the mice to appear standing beside me and in front of Sean.

It was Sands and Avalon. Both of them had gained the ability to possess small objects back when we fought the skeleblineists on the cruise ship. It was the same fight where I’d gained my item-sense power, which also happened to be a power that Sean had gotten. Yeah, he had the ability to sense items within a certain distance of himself. That had made it a little more difficult to plan out an ambush in case things had gone wrong when I checked him. But in the end, having Avalon and Sands use their own powers to simply possess Gus and Jaq had worked out.

Sean, for his part, yelped, stumbling back at their sudden appearance, his eyes widening before he managed to get himself under control. “What th–uh, okay, if you guys were trying to throw me a surprise birthday party, you’re off by about a month. Also, I don’t see a cake. Or presents.”

Vulcan gave a ruff of agreement with that, having popped up out of the corner to come sniffing Avalon and Sands curiously. He happily accepted a vigorous scratch under the chin as soon as he’d contented himself that their arrival didn’t herald any kind of immediate threat.

“It’s not a party,” I informed them before looking to the other two. “It’s clear. Scout on her way?”

Before they could answer, I felt the arrival of the girl in question on the other side of the door. She was still holding her gun in one hand. Even as my item-sense picked her up, I saw Sean turn that way. He’d sensed her too. Without another word, I stepped over and opened the door.

Scout stepped in, moving over to hug Sean quickly. She embraced him tightly, and he returned it despite having no idea what was going on. “Uhh,” the boy drawled, “anyone wanna clue me in?”

Raising my shoulder in a little shrug, I answered, “Well, Sands and Avalon were possessing my little friends here, and Scout was using the portal-scope on her gun to watch every move you made. No offense, it was just in case you were possessed and figured out that I was testing you to find out if you were. I mean, if you were possessed and didn’t figure out what I was doing, they wouldn’t have revealed themselves. It was just in case things went totally tits-up wrong.”

Sean’s eyes had widened with each word I spoke, his mouth working noticeably. “… In case I was possessed? Testing me? What–okay, why do I get the sudden feeling that this whole Seosten thing got some kind of violent kick into serious while I wasn’t paying attention?”  

Sands, standing on the other side of the room, folded her arms over her stomach while muttering, “Hopefully your dad is still a good guy by the time this whole thing is over.”

Wincing at the other girl’s words, I took a breath before looking back to Sean. “I’ll explain.

“But by the time I’m done, you’re probably gonna wish we’d brought some chairs in here so you could sit down.”

******

“I’m glad you’re taking your extra training seriously, Felicity,” Professor Dare announced later that evening after stepping into Gaia’s office with me. “But I hope you’re enjoying yourself too. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

“Sure,” I replied, “But my name isn’t Jack, so we’re cool.”

Gaia, who had been standing over by her assortment of windows that each showed a different view of various parts of the world, turned toward us with a slight smile. “I believe that Felicity sees some of the training that she does with Avalon as recreation.” Pausing then, she added with a raised eyebrow, “Or at least, flirting?”

My face burned a little as I shrugged and muttered something about having plenty of fun with everyone on my team. It didn’t make any sense, but hey, at least I was saying something.

Thankfully, Dare saved me after chuckling a little bit. “She tells me that you’d like a little extra assistance with her lessons tonight.”

“Yes.” Gaia nodded, stepping away from the windows to approach. “I was hoping that you would help me demonstrate the Fascination spell.”

“The Fascination spell?” Dare echoed before nodding. “Yes, I can see her finding that useful.” Seeing my blank look when she glanced to me, she explained, “When the Fascination spell is performed properly, anyone who sees the item enchanted with it will believe that they are seeing an object that they truly, desperately desire. They’ll become obsessed with getting it, foregoing any other action they may have been taking. Its effects only last a short time, particularly with the strong-willed. But even buying a few seconds can be extremely beneficial.”

Gaia nodded once, stopping by us. “Indeed. I believe it would be a useful tool for Felicity to possess. And the more tools she possesses…”

“The better off I am,” I finished.

“And you need me to help Felicity with the spell,” Dare murmured, “Because if the other person knows exactly when it’s coming, it doesn’t work very well.”

“Precisely,” Gaia agreed. “I’m sorry to bring you in simply to be a guinea pig, but–”

Dare interrupted. “It’s alright. Felicity needs all the help she can get.” She raised a hand before settling it on my arm. “I’ll be the guinea pig.”

Slowly, I looked over at her, praying silently. Please, please don’t be…

It wasn’t. Looking at Professor Dare, all I could see was Professor Dare. She wasn’t possessed. She wasn’t possessed.

“It’s okay,” I spoke aloud. No secret codes this time, not with Gaia right there. “She’s clear.”

“Clear?” Professor Dare raised an eyebrow, slowly lifting her hand. “Why do I think this is about more than a spell lesson?”

“You are correct,” Gaia confirmed. “It is about more than a lesson.

“Much more.”

 ******

The next morning, bright and early, I was down on the beach once more, trading blows back and forth with Deveron. I was using my staff while he used an extra one borrowed from one of the school weapons lockers. Back and forth we went, sparring in the early morning light as it came up over the ocean. I was sweating profusely from the effort, and my arms were sore from the repetitive impacts even with my enhanced strength. But hey, at least I wasn’t getting tired.

Deveron, who was obviously still taking it easy on me despite the effort I was putting into it just to keep up with him in ‘easy mode’, casually flicked my staff out of the way before giving me a sharp poke in the shoulder that knocked me back a step. “You sure you’re focusing on this?” he asked while smoothly stepping back to easily avoid my counter-swing. “You seem distracted.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated. This part wasn’t hard to fake. The hesitation, emotion behind it, and all of that was real. “I…” Sighing, I shook my head and looked away. “I’m sorry. I just… my dad, I don’t know what–” Swallowing hard, I lowered the staff. “I don’t know what he’s gonna do.”

For a moment, Deveron stood there. Then he lowered his own staff and stepped that way. “Hey, he’ll be okay. Trust me, Heretic or not, Jos picked tough guys. Your dad’s gonna be just fine, alright?” As he spoke, Deveron reached out to lay a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

I turned my head at that, looking straight at him for a moment as he stood there with his hand on my shoulder. For a couple seconds, I looked at him like that, taking in the sight until I was sure.

“Chocolate corn on the cob,” I abruptly announced, giving him a smile. “I’m glad it wasn’t you.”

He blinked at that. “A passcode? But what were yo–” In mid-sentence, Deveron spun, pivoting on one heel to face the figure that had just appeared out of thin air directly behind him.

“Yes,” Professor Dare agreed, sheathing her sword. “I am glad that it wasn’t you as well, Mr. Adams.”

Of course I’d needed slightly stronger back-up while checking Deveron for possession. The rest of my team was great and all, but he was still technically a grown Heretic, with all that training and power. Hence Professor Dare’s presence. We figured that she could counter anything Deveron could do, at least long enough for Gaia to involve herself in the situation.  

To his credit, Deveron looked at Dare, then back to me. He took about two seconds to think about it before his eyebrow raised. “How’d you find a way to test for Seosten possession? Even Prosser can’t do that without drawing that rune thing first. And you didn’t draw anything on me.”

Chuckling despite myself, I admitted, “It’s a long story. I’ve kind of been leaving out some stuff that’s been going on for… awhile. But I can tell you about it now that we um, now that we know.”

“Now that you know I’m not possessed?” Deveron glanced back to Dare briefly before nodding. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I really want to hear this story now. But is it safe to talk right here?”

“It’s safe,” Dare confirmed. “Trust me, we weren’t going to let anyone see what happened here if you’d been possessed and noticed what Felicity was doing. No one’s going to overhear.”

I still wasn’t sure what the woman had actually done to assure that, considering we were standing out on the open beach. But I was willing to take her word for it. So, with a sigh, I plopped myself down and looked out at the ocean before starting to tell the story once again.

I really was glad that Deveron wasn’t possessed, even if at the beginning of the year, I would’ve prayed that it was him. But on the other hand, that cleared Sands, Scout, Sean, and Deveron.

We were quickly running out of possibilities for the Seosten to be possessing…

******

“I should be the one to do this,” Shiori announced later that afternoon. “I should check him.”

Wincing a little, I looked over at the other girl as the two of us sat in the rec room near one of the televisions. Deveron and Avalon were waiting by the door, speaking quietly while some other students played at the pool table on the other side of the room, and a couple more remained intent on their chess match in the corner. There was a low buzz of conversation, most of which coming from the group playing or watching pool. But still, we were using the privacy coins.

Even then, I kept my voice down, murmuring, “Sorry, Shy. You know why you can’t be the one.”

A long, low sigh escaped the other girl while her head gave a short nod. “I know, I know. I’ll react to it too much, you have the face-shifting power, so on and so on. But he’s my brother, Flick.”

“He is,” I agreed, putting a hand on her arm. “That’s why you can’t be the one to check him.” We were running out of options for who Charmeine might be possessing, which meant that Shiori was getting nervous about Columbus. Hopefully, this would clear him so she could calm down.

We really needed to identify the Seosten as soon as possible. Every time we tested someone and they came up clean, it was both a relief and even more stress. Because while it meant that the person we’d tested wasn’t possessed, it also narrowed the possibilities, which somehow made things even worse.

Not to mention the fact that I still had no idea why I was immune to being possessed. All I knew for sure was that I was immune. Enguerrand had confirmed that much. He couldn’t tell me why I was immune, however, just that I was. He’d tried to possess me and couldn’t do it.

“Porter.” That was Avalon, she had moved over behind the couch, her voice low. “He’s on his way. We need to go. It can’t look like any kind of set-up.” As she spoke, the other girl nodded over her shoulder toward the door where Deveron was already watching the corridor.

Sighing once more, Shiori straightened up while looking at me. “You’ve still got the pin, right?”

I nodded, patting my uniform jacket where one of the communication pins was hidden. “Yup. As soon as you hear me say ‘Caramel Camelot’, that means it’s all good. But you’ve gotta go now.”

“We’ll be right up on the roof,” Avalon assured me. “If anything goes wrong… we’ll come in.”

She and Shiori joined Deveron to head up that way, where Sean, Sands, and Scout were already waiting. Which left me sitting in front of the television when Columbus made his way in.

“There you are,” I announced, squinting pointedly at the boy as I stood and turned to face him. “I was starting to think I was gonna have to try to figure this whole thing out without any help.”

In my ear, (which, thanks to the communication pin would be completely silent for Columbus), I heard Avalon’s voice. “We have eyes on you through Scout’s scope-portal, Chambers.”

“Sorry,” Columbus himself was saying. “Had some stuff to finish up. But seriously, you really think a list of what Shiori likes is gonna help you when Valentine’s Day comes around? You already know what she likes. Hell, one of the things she likes is you. You could just put a big bow on your head and–” He stopped, coughing. “Never mind. Just–never mind. I was trying to go somewhere cute with that and it took a weird turn into some… yeah, let’s move on, huh?”

“Yes, please.” I gave a quick, vigorous nod. “We’re moving on. And you’ve been her brother for years. So you know her even better than I do. I just figured if you made up a list of everything Shiori likes that you could possibly think of, I might see something that’d give me a good idea.”

Raising an eyebrow, Columbus shrugged. “Right, well, I dunno how much good it’ll do, but I got the list.” He reached into his pocket then, digging it out. “Put down everything I could think of.”

He extended his hand with the list. Which meant it was time. Turning slightly to glance at the pool table while reaching out as though to grab the list, I started, “You know, at some point we’re gonna have to get some practice in over there. Cyclops is supposed to be really good at pool.”

Using that bit of looking the other way as an excuse, I made sure my hand overshot the offered scrap of paper by just a little bit. Just enough that my fingers brushed the boy’s wrist as I turned back to finish taking it from him.

I had gained several incredibly useful powers over the past few months, most of which had saved my life in one way or another. But I was pretty sure that none of them had done as much to keep me alive as my face-shifting power did in that moment. I was already using it, just as I’d used it every other time we checked people for possession. Which meant that my face gave absolutely no reaction when I touched Columbus. There was no twitch, I didn’t suddenly turn pale, my eyes didn’t widen or betray any kind of fear or surprise. It stayed completely the same.

Which was good, because when I turned back to look at Columbus while taking the paper… I saw her. The dark-skinned woman with the pale hair. She was there, super-imposed over his body as my view flicked back and forth between them a few times.

There. She was there.

Columbus.

Charmeine.

The Seosten was possessing Columbus. It was him. It was her. It was her. Oh god. Oh god, no. No, why? Why did it have to–why did they–how long did–no, no, no…

“Chambers, you touched him,” Avalon’s voice came then. “Are we good?”

Columbus… Charmeine was gesturing with Columbus’s arm. “Yeah, we could get on that sometime. So, you need anything else?”

“Flick.” It was Shiori’s voice. Shiori… Shiori talking through the pin. “Flick, say it. Caramel Camelot. Say it, Flick. Say Caramel Camelot. Flick, say it. Please. Please, Flick. Please, say it. Flick, please. Please. Say Caramel Camelot….”

“Flick?” Columbus-Charmeine prompted. “I said, do you need anything else?”

“Say it, Flick, please,” Shiori’s voice prompted desperately, clearly barely hanging on to her last hope.

“…. No.”

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Mini-Interlude 39 – Avalon, Shiori, and Choo

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“You think it’s going okay out there?” Shiori asked Avalon as the two of them sat by the spot that had been set aside for Choo to live in. The little Jekern (who had grown enough over the past weeks to be about the size of a small puppy) was sniffing eagerly at the bowl that Shiori was holding. The bowl was a treat that the girl had retrieved it from its spot on the beach after she and Avalon left Flick to finish talking to Sands and Scout.

“I think it’s going about as well as it can,” Avalon answered. “Now what did you say you needed me for?”

“Oh, right.” Shiori’s head bobbed. “I need you to voice the big bad wolf.”

“… you need me to what?” Avalon’s voice was flat.

Setting the bowl down in front of the eager warthog-like creature, Shiori explained. “I promised Choo I’d tell him the story of the Three Little Pigs today. I need you to voice the wolf. Please?” She batted her eyelashes rapidly.

“You realize that only works on Chambers,” Avalon informed her. “And I have training to do, I’ve got too much to focus on to worry about–”

She was interrupted by a squeak. Looking down, Avalon found Choo nudging her foot, wide eyes blinking up at her imploringly before he made another pitiful, pleading noise.

“… fine,” she sighed, slumping a little. “One story. I’ll sit here for one story.”

“Yay!” Shiori cheered. “Great, now get comfortable, Choo. It’s time for your story.” She pushed the bowl closer to him, revealing the contents: fluffy popcorn, straight from the bag. Seeing the object of what he had been smelling, the little pig-Alter gave a loud squeak of joy before practically diving into it.

“Now,” Shiori started, “the story of the Three Little Pigs. Ahem. Once upon a time, there was a big bad, nasty, evil, terrible, smelly, violent old wolf.”

Avalon sat back against the side of the tree, remarking, “I feel like you’re adlibbing a little there, Porter.”

Shiori remained focused on Choo, whose snout was shoved fully into the bowl of popcorn while he happily munched, his eyes riveted on her. “The wolf was looking for a book called the Necroinkmikon.”

“Wait, what?” Avalon blinked over that way, taken aback. “Porter,” she demanded, “did you just say Necroinkm–”

Shiori nodded quickly at her. “Uh huh, but hang on, it’s not time for the wolf yet.” To Choo, she continued. “The Necroinkmikon was a book of magic spells that could make the Big Bad Wolf unstoppable!”

At her words, Choo shrank back a bit, ears flattening as he made a slightly fearful noise. But he didn’t stop chewing, leaning forward after a second to sneak another mouthful of kernels.

“Now, the Big Bad Wolf was the biggest, baddest, most dangerous wolf in the whole group of Devils. And he found out that the Necroinkmikon was being protected by three pig brothers: The Pigs Of Destiny. The Big Bad Wolf knew that the pig brothers were living in this forest. So he went in to find them, kill them, and take the book for himself!”

As Choo made a noise of fear and shrank back even more, she reached out to give him a reassuring scratch. “Little did the Big Bad Wolf know, but these were no ordinary pigs. No, these pigs had been training their entire lives to protect the Necroinkmikon. The wolf was about to be very, very surprised.”

The reassurance convinced the little Jekern to go back to enjoying his popcorn, and Shiori smiled a little bit. “The wolf crept through the forest, searching and searching for the pigs. Eventually, he found one of their homes, a house… made of straw. The straw meant that the little house was hidden from surveillance satellites and passing drones. But the wolf found it. So he crept slowly up to the straw house. And when he saw the little pig cooking his breakfast inside, he said…” She nodded toward Avalon.

For a moment, the other girl remained silent and stiff. But as Choo turned an expectant gaze to her and made an eager noise, she relented. “Little pig…” Avalon started reluctantly, “… little pig, little pig, let me in.”

By contrast, when Shiori voiced the pig, her voice was high and a bit squeaky, her best approximation of a small but confident swine. “Hah! Vile wolf! Here to get the Necroinkmikon, huh?! You’ll find nothing but pain and misery here, you contemptible, cowardly canine crook. Come and take it!”

Blinking twice, Avalon paused before realizing that both Choo and Shiori were waiting for her. “Um, okay then. Uh, if you don’t let me in, I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”

“Filthy wolf, you’ll get nothing from me,” Shiori called in her pig-voice, “but pain and total misery!”

Again, attention returned to Avalon, who finally shrugged. “Okay then, I guess I’ll blow your house in.”

“And he did,” Shiori continued. “The wolf took out his AK-47–”

“He did what?!” Avalon blurted.

“Oh, don’t worry. I know it’s old, but the 47 is totally still one of the best guns in the world,” Shiori informed her. “It’s super reliable. He knows what he’s doing. So the wolf took out his AK-47 and opened fire on the straw house, blowing it to smithereens!”

Choo had flattened himself against the ground by that point, and was watching with rapt attention as Shiori went on. “But when the smoke cleared and the wolf stepped into the remains of the straw house… he found… nothing! The little pig had disappeared, and there was no sign of the book of spells!”

Both sets of eyes turned to Avalon then, who worked her mouth a little bit awkwardly before coughing. “Err, uh, little… pig? Where are you, little pig? Show yourself!”

“And the pig did,” Shiori narrated, “but the wolf wasn’t going to be very happy about it… because the first little pig was a master survivalist. That’s why his house was made of straw, see? And he announced himself by nailing the wolf right in the back with an arrow! Of course, the Big Bad Wolf was too tough to go down to a single arrow, but it sure got his attention. He turned around, howling with pain, only to find the first little pig high up in a nearby tree! The little pig had his commando paint on, and the red bandana that he was given to commemorate his service in the military during the war.”

Military?!” Avalon blurted then. “Since when did the three little pigs serve in the military?”

Choosing to take that as the wolf speaking, Shiori countered in her little pig voice. “If you persist in this search, Mr. Big Bad, you’ll find only trouble, a myriad!” She adjusted her voice to be the narrator again. “And the little pig let loose with another arrow, and another! The wolf was under attack, and the survivalist pig had the high ground! So he had no choice but to flee deeper into the forest.”

“Ahem,” Avalon interrupted, lifting her chin. “A tactical withdrawal. Besides, if the pig had the book, the wolf would’ve seen it by then. Obviously, it wasn’t there. So there was no reason to waste time with Rambo Pig.”

Smiling broadly, Shiori continued. “The wolf looked deeper in the woods. He spent hours searching for any more pigs. Finally, he found a little log cabin, with smoke coming out of the chimney. When he peered through the window, he found the second little pig, cooking his lunch on the stove. Seeing the little pig, the wolf took a breath, and called…”

“Little pig, little pig,” Avalon almost immediately started, “Let me in!”

“But when the wolf finished making his demand,” Shiori intoned with a little smile, “he found that the little pig, who had just been standing in plain sight… had disappeared! One blink, and the little pig was gone. The only sign that he had ever been there was the still simmering pot.”

Pawing at the dirt, Choo snorted, sending sparks of electricity in the air as he charged around the bowl in circles, making it clear that if he had been there, he’d give that wolf what it deserved.

“Well,” Avalon shrugged. “If you won’t let me in, I’ll…” She paused then, lifting her gaze to the sky to shake her head slowly before continuing, “… I’ll blow your little wood house away with my AK-47.”

“And he did!” Shiori informed their enraptured audience-of-one. “The wolf put so many bullets into that cute little wooden cabin, that there was almost nothing left. Because not only was the wolf a terrible person in general, he also had no appreciation for classic architecture.”

“The wolf,” Avalon sniffed, “was a little too busy looking for the book of ultimate power to worry about a few logs.”

“But he didn’t find his prize there either,” Shiori announced. “And when he stepped among the rubble, he found no sign of the pig… until a tiny little fist punched him square in the back, hitting the wolf in just the right spot to make his muscles seize up. When the wolf turned, he found himself facing the second little pig… in his black ninja uniform!”

“Ninja?!” Avalon demanded, “I thought the pigs were soldiers… with bows and arrows.”

Again, Shiori interpreted her words as coming from the wolf. “My brother served his country, foul fiend,” she squeaked the words, “but Asia is where my studies convened.”  Switching back to her narrator voice, she continued, “And the wolf soon found that his gun would be of no use here, as the black-clad pig ignited his laser-sword–”

“Oh, now that’s not even–” Avalon started.

“–and cut the rifle into pieces with a single slash of his glowing energy-blade!” Shiori finished.

Coughing, Avalon gestured. “Well, uh, you said the book wasn’t here, so I think the wolf is leaving.”

“Of course, finding that the book wasn’t in the second pig’s house, he fle–err, tactically withdrew even deeper into the woods.” Shiori lowered her voice a bit then. “The wolf searched the forest for the rest of the day, trying to stay one step ahead of the two pig brothers while he searched desperately for the third house, where the book had to be.

“Eventually, he found it. As the moon rose up into the night sky, the wolf finally discovered the solid brick house, built right up against the base of the mountain, where it was protected on all but one side. The wolf had only one approach. And as he crept silently up to the house, he found that all the windows were closed and barred. There was no way to see inside.”

“Well,” Avalon sniffed. “In that case, I’ll just–err…” She paused. “The wolf doesn’t have a gun anymore.”

“That’s okay!” Shiori crowed, “he can just use his grenades!”

“The wolf has gren–” Avalon started before shaking it off. “Never mind, yes, the wolf uses his grenades.”

“And the house was blown to smithereens!” Shiori called, throwing her arms out to demonstrate while Choo made a squeaking noise of alarm. “But once again, as the smoke and debris cleared, the wolf found… nothing. In fact, the house seemed oddly empty. Because of course, it was a diversion, a trap!”

“A trap?” Avalon echoed. “A trap for what? Another ninja or a soldier?”

“Neither!” Shiori’s head shook. “The third little pig wasn’t a ninja or a soldier… he was a super-genius! The same super-genius who built his brother’s laser-sword–” Lowering her voice, she stage-whispered, “See, foreshadowing? Wasn’t that pretty–errr, I mean, he was a super-genius! And as the smoke cleared and the wolf found the empty house, the ground rumbled and shook beneath him.”

“If you say he made an earthquake machine, I swear…” Avalon started slowly.

“As the wolf turned around, grumbling about his terrible luck,” Shiori narrated, “he found himself facing not an earthquake machine, but the third pig’s newest invention: a twenty-foot tall mecha!

“You know,” Avalon intoned thoughtfully, “at this point, I really should’ve seen that coming.”

Shiori excitedly continued then, her voice rising into her pig-squeak. “Mr. Wolf, if you truly wish to find the book, face my steel chariot and take a look!” She narrated, “And as the pig finished speaking, a metal panel slid aside to show the wolf’s target: the Necroinkmikon was held in a bulletproof glass cage right in the mech’s chest, surrounded by a dozen guns, cannons, lasers, and flamethrowers!”

“Yeah, you know what?” Avalon muttered, “I don’t think the wolf needs the book that badly.”

“The wolf turned to flee,” Shiori announced. “Only to realize that he’d forgotten… the house was at the base of a mountain! He was trapped, facing the giant mecha ahead and the mountain behind. But even then, the wolf found that his luck had sunk even lower. To one side of the mech, a camo-suited pig, head adorned with his red bandana, appeared with his bow pulled taut. And to the other side, with a flash of smoke, the black-clad ninja pig appeared, his steadily humming laser sword held aloft!”

Switching back and forth between her squeaky pig-voice and her normal narrator voice, the Asian girl continued. “‘You think you’re still a threat–’ the first little pig called to the wolf, before his ninja brother finished, ‘we’ll put you down, no sweat!’ And as the wolf whimpered and backed up against the mountain, their genius brother announced, ‘Let’s go boys, and after we teach him an intricate lesson…’

“All three pigs finished together, their weapons bearing down on the wolf, ‘We’ll visit our delicatessen!’”  

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Spy Hunt 26-03

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“No… no, no way.” Sands was shaking her head as the five of us floated there in the ocean, each supported by one of my sharks. Which was a good thing, since neither of the twins seemed to be in any kind of position to be keeping themselves above the water.

“You mean one of us–one of us is…” Lowering her voice, Sands whispered hoarsely, “possessed?! And you’ve been–you’ve been lying about all this stuff you’ve been doing?”

“Only the stuff that we couldn’t let the Seosten know,” I reiterated. “The stuff about learning how to expel them, finding Fahsteth when we said we were fighting zombies with Dare, lying about the choker being destroyed. Okay, yeah, it was a lot of lying. But Sands, we’re really sor-”

“Really sorry,” the other girl interrupted while squinting darkly at me. “Seriously, dude? You’re really sorry? I’m pretty sure Scout and me should be insulted right now.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–like I said, we were trying to… there wasn’t any–”

Sands rolled her eyes. “Not insulted for that, dummy. We’re not insulted because you had to lie and keep secrets, we’re insulted that you’d think we’d be mad about it after you explained it. Seriously? You think we’re that selfish? Maybe I’d be a little miffed if it was anything less than this, but it was Seosten, Flick. Of course we’re not mad that you had to make sure it was safe before you told us. That’s just common sense. How freaking self-centered do you think we are?”

My mouth opened and shut a few times at that. “I–I–um. Oh. Well, um. Sorry? I mean, thanks.”

Avalon snorted, head shaking. “Now you know what’s been happening. And why we couldn’t tell you the truth until we knew you weren’t possessed. And why you can’t tell anyone else yet.”

Sands nodded slowly, sinking back a bit against Sherman as the bull shark held her up. “I–you… you really think that it’s someone close to you? One of the team, or Deveron, or…”

“It has to be,” I confirmed. “Everything they know about, everything I overheard, what Fahsteth said, whoever this Charmeine is possessing, it’s someone that’s close to us, someone we trust.”

“So you have to clear us, one at a time,” Sands murmured, her eyes wide as she took all that in. “Holy shit. I mean, I… we knew they could possess people, sure. But I never–I mean I didn’t think they were actually–I didn’t know that–holy shit.” Repeating herself, she looked almost sick.

It was an expression that got even worse as Scout leaned over to whisper something to her. I saw Shiori flinch beside me, her own enhanced hearing obviously allowing her to pick up whatever Scout had said. Sands, for her part, looked pale as she turned to me. “Oh. Scout, um–” She grimaced, working her mouth a little. “Scout wants to know if you’ll check our dad.”

The question made me flinch, for more than one reason. After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Of course. I–maybe…” Pausing, I thought about offering to let them take the choker to check their father themselves. But honestly, I couldn’t be sure that they’d be able to disguise their reaction if he was possessed. And if they did give anything away, it wouldn’t be hard for whatever theoretical Seosten was possessing the man to figure out that they knew too much. And from there, well, he’d probably get the choker back in about two seconds if he knew about it.

“Yes,” I finally settled on. “We’ll test him, as soon as we can. I mean, I don’t wanna just walk right up to everyone who might be possessed and put my hands all over them. Even if the Seosten didn’t start getting suspicious about it, I’m pretty sure I’d end up on some kind of list.”

Sands started to nod then, before blinking. “Hey, that reminds me… how did you guys get back to the island?” She was squinting. “You said you had to talk to the head in the lighthouse to get it to send you away in the first place–which, for the record, I am also completely freaking out about and you are totally going to take us up there to talk to the thing at some point.”

“Um, it’d probably help if you started out not calling him a ‘thing’,” I pointed out mildly.

Her head bobbed up and down. “Right, right, of course. I just–the point is, that’s how you got off the island. But you had to go through all that in the first place because of those bozos from the Committee. So how’d you get back onto the grounds?”

“Oh,” I replied, “that part was simple. I just called Gaia. She got Dare to distract the guard in the lighthouse. Then she went up there and left her phone on speaker so that I could talk to the Reaper and ask him to bring us back over.”

For a couple minutes after that, the five of us just floated there in the water. I didn’t want to do anything to interrupt the twins as they clearly came to terms with everything we’d just told them, and from the look on Avalon and Shiori’s faces, they felt pretty much the same way. So we just sat like that, letting Sands and Scout work through it for as long as they needed. Once in awhile, they’d ask a question about something that had happened, and I’d answer. Other than that, however, there was relative silence (beyond, of course, the sound of the ocean around us).

Eventually, Sands looked to her sister. The two exchanged silent stares for a few seconds, seeming to come to some kind of silent agreement before both of them looked to me. “Okay,” the talkative twin announced, “we get why you had to lie before. But now we’re in, all right? We want to be included. Whatever happens, we get to help. We’re your team, Flick. Let us help.”

I stared at them both. After everything that happened, all the stuff I’d had to lie about… they accepted it and moved on, just because they realized that I had to? Just like… that? There was a thick lump in my throat, which wasn’t entirely because of what they said. It was also because of what I knew I had to say. I couldn’t put it off anymore. Not after what they’d just done.

“Shy, Valley….” I murmured before coughing as I raised my voice. “Could you guys give us a few minutes? I–I need to talk to them alone.” Glancing to the two, I added a soft, “Please.”

They both seemed to realize quickly what was going on. Avalon nodded, shooting a brief glance toward the probably even-more confused twins before she and Shiori started off back to shore.

“Uh, Flick?” Sands offered, her tone puzzled, “are you sure you didn’t get this whole thing backwards? You already told us the bad news, remember? Why are they leaving now?”

Biting my lip, I took a moment. I’d been thinking about this for awhile by this point, ever since I learned the truth from Klassin Roe. That had been… jeez, before Christmas. You’d think that, by this point, I’d already know exactly what to say to them about it. But I didn’t. I had no idea.

So, I just decided to wing it. Thinking about it any more was just giving myself more excuses to avoid actually saying what I had to say, more reasons to delay. “Um. So, I have something to tell you guys about the umm, the war. You know, the one with my mom and the… yeah.”

I wasn’t helping matters like that. Sands was even more confused. “Uh, now you’re going even further back. I swear, if you’re about to confess that your mom was part of a group that was trying to protect Strangers that they thought weren’t evil, I’m gonna have you checked for a concussion. Or possible possession, I’m not sure which. What the hell, dude?”

“No, no, I–” Sighing, I started over. “Okay. Listen, I found this out awhile ago, back before Christmas. But first I didn’t know how to bring it up, and then there was all that stuff about not knowing who to trust or what to–it was hard. But um, the thing is… your dad was… sort of the person who… kinda… got the war started in the first place.”

Seeing the obvious confusion on their faces, I pushed on, rushing by that point to just get it all out. “What I mean is–ugh. Okay, I’m just gonna say it. My mom was working with people to secretly protect Alters. Sort of like what we’ve been doing, but more proactive. You know, a secret group of people she trusted. Like I trust you guys. One of–um, one of those people was your dad. She trusted him with the secret about what they were doing. And he… um, he sort of went to the Committee and turned them in. That’s how they found out what Mom and her people were doing and brought the whole thing out into the open. That’s what started the civil war.”

Silence. Nothing. Absolutely no sound whatsoever came from either of the twins. Sands and Scout both just floated there, staring at me in complete silence for… I had no idea how long. It felt like hours. But then, it could have been only a few seconds. I heard a slight ringing somewhere in the back of my head that I had to convince myself wasn’t real. I was afraid. I was more afraid of their reaction to this news than I had been about everything else. They’d understood why I had lied to them and kept secrets about the Seosten thing. This was their dad. It was their dad, after they’d already lost their mother. How could they possibly react to this?

As it turned out, the answer was: not well. Scout looked stricken, of course. Her mouth had fallen open, and she was staring at me as if I’d… well, as if I’d told her that her own father had been responsible for a war that nearly ripped their society apart, all because he betrayed someone who should have been one of his closest friends, someone who had trusted him.

But it was Sands, Sands who kicked off and started to swim to the beach. She moved so abruptly and so quickly that it took me a second to react. Scout looked just as taken aback, making a noise of confusion before starting after her sister, who was already halfway to shore.

Catching hold of Scout’s arm, I gave a short whistle. Brody and Quint both swam right up, giving us a lift to the shallows that cut off some of the other girl’s lead. We scrambled up out of the water just as Sands started out onto the sand, and I blurted, “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”

“Where?” Sands demanded, pivoting back toward me. “Where am I going? You just told me that my dad–” She lowered her voice slightly, into a hiss that was quieter, though not that much further away from hysterical. “You just told me that my dad was responsible for the entire civil war and everything that happened in it, and you want to know where I’m going?”

I winced, my mouth opening and shutting a couple of times as I fought for the right words. But before I could actually say anything, she went on.

“We lost our mom.” Her eyes were so wet that I didn’t think she could see anything out of them, and it had nothing to do with the ocean. “We lost our mom, and now… now you’re saying that…”

Pivoting, she punched a tree so hard that her fist made a hole in the thing, while letting out a noise that sounded like a mix between a grunt and a somewhat muffled scream.

Scout quickly moved to her sister, while Sands stood there with her fist embedded in the tree. Her voice was lower.

“Do you have any idea how much I wanted things to go back to the way they were supposed to be before all this happened? Do you have the slightest clue how hard I wished for all the monsters to be the monsters they were supposed to be, for all of the Heretics to be the great, upstanding, perfect heroes that I always thought we were? Do you understand?

“My whole life, we were told the stories about the noble Heretics saving humanity. And I wanted it, I wanted all of it. When you told me about the Alters thing, how they’re not all monsters, you have no idea how hard it was not to go straight to Gaia, or one of the other teachers. I was scared, I was scared and I was mad and I wanted… I wanted everything to be the way it was supposed to be…

“I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make things be the way they were supposed to be. I wanted you to be wrong. I wanted all of us to be the heroes we were supposed to be. I wanted to tell them, I wanted them to make it better. I wanted you to be wrong. It’s selfish, I know, I know. But I still wanted it. I wanted it so bad.”

Pulling her fist out of the tree, Sands turned to face me, while her sister put a hand on her shoulder. “But I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t do that, because it was wrong. Because you trusted me, and because me wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. A hero doesn’t stick with things exactly as they are just because it’s easier. But it’s hard, because every time I look around and see everything that we are, I have to question all of it now. I have to question everything now, my entire life. All of it.

“Mom, she decided that Strangers weren’t all evil. She did it, and Scout is still alive because she trusted the Stranger that saved her.”

Glancing to the girl beside her before looking back to me, Sands lowered her voice a bit more. It was trembling. “But now you’re telling me that if the positions had been reversed, if Dad had been there instead of Mom for whatever reason, Scout would have died. Scout would’ve died because Dad wouldn’t trust them, he wouldn’t trust a Stranger.

“I wanted things to go back to the way they were, I wanted things to be the way they were supposed to be the whole time I was growing up. But they’re not. They’re not, and no matter how much I want them to be, they won’t. I moved on. I’ve been trying to move on, and the one thing that has helped me with that, the one thing that is helped the most is the fact that I knew I knew that if push came to shove and I had to tell my dad the truth, he would believe me. He would be there for me, for us, because he’s my dad. He’s our dad. And no matter what kind of wrong things he did, my dad always did the right thing if he could. If we told him the truth, if we showed him the truth, he’d listen.

“But now… now you’re telling me that he wouldn’t. Because he already betrayed his friends. He took the easy way out. He turned them in. This whole war that happened, all of it is his fault. He would have turned in my mom, his wife. He would’ve turned us in. He’s our dad, he’s the only parent we have left, and you’re saying that he would have turned us in.”

There was an anger in the other girl’s eyes that I’d never seen there before, a hardness as she continued. “And you know what? Mom would’ve been on the side of the rebellion. She would have been on that side, if they hadn’t erased it. Which Dad obviously helped them do. If they hadn’t done that, if the rebellion wasn’t erased, our parents never would’ve gotten together in the first place. Which means Scout and me, we would never have been born.

“So you want to know where I’m going? I have no idea. But where I want to go is to my dad, so I can…” Sands trailed off for a moment before her head shook, tears for flowing freely as they had been throughout all of this. “So I can punch him. So I can punch him and keep punching until… until…”

Words had completely failed the other girl by that point, and she felt both knees, shoulders shaking heavily as she cried.

And I… I had no idea what to say. Honestly, I’d kind of expected Scout to be the one that was more upset by everything, not Sands. I thought Scout would be upset and Sands would know what to say. If anything, I’d thought that Sands would almost be on her father’s side of the whole thing. This was… this wasn’t going the way I’d thought it would, at all.

While I stood there, clueless for a few seconds, Scout had already knelt by her sister and was embracing her. Neither of them said anything, content for the moment to just hold onto each other while they tried to cope with what I’d just told them.

And what could I say? I’m sorry? It was pathetically inadequate. I remembered how I’d felt as a kid when people told me they were sorry that my mother had abandoned my father and me. Apologies, sympathy, anything I could’ve said felt… wrong.

So I didn’t say anything. Instead, I took a few steps forward and then sank to my knees beside the twins. With a heavy lump in my throat, I embraced Sands and Scout, putting one arm around each of them.

I wasn’t sure how long we stayed there like that. But I did know one thing with crystal clear certainty by the time we moved again.

Liam Mason deserved every single punch his daughters wanted to give him.

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Spy Hunt 26-02

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“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” my father started a short time later as he sat with Avalon, Shiori, and me in one of the cabins around the lake. His eyes focused on Avalon. “Your father was supposed to be dead, but someone turned him into a vampire instead. And now he’s spent the past few years repeatedly trying to kill you. Just this year, that effort was stepped up, getting you kicked out of this other school after they drugged one of your friends into attacking you until you had to kill him in self-defense, and trying to separate you from any protection you have. Now it’s not just your father, but others, these… angels who can possess people. They’re all trying to kill you, and manipulating people like your father into helping, because you’re the closest living relation to that… Hieronymus Bosch guy, whose daughter created some kind of magical vault that will only open for her closest living relative. In this case, you. In that vault, there’s something these angels want badly enough that they’re going to all this trouble to get rid of you so that the woman they’ve been taking control of, this… Professor Tangle, will become the closest living relative and then they can use her to get into the vault. That about sum it up?”

Blinking a couple times, I looked at Shiori to my left, then to Avalon to my right. “Uh, I think so.”

“Yes,” Avalon answered flatly. She was sitting there at the table, one hand on the bottle of flavored water that Gabriel had provided when she’d asked. “That is… essentially the size of it.” Her hand was tight on the bottle, and she was sitting stiffly for some reason. The whole time we’d been talking to my father, she had seemed uncomfortable and on the edge of bolting.

Whistling low, Dad looked down at the table, taking that in for a few seconds before he looked back up at her, raising an eyebrow. “You’re a pretty impressive girl, you know that?”

Judging from the way Avalon blinked at him and took a moment to respond, I was pretty sure he couldn’t possibly have said anything that would have surprised her more than that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she squinted, her suspicion obviously taking over. “What? You–” She paused, eyes shifting to me for half a second before she looked back to my father. “You’re not going to tell me to keep myself and my problems away from your daughter?”

For a moment, Dad didn’t say anything. Slowly, he turned his head to look at me. “Do you remember what I said that first morning before you left for school? The thing I told you to do?”

I thought about it briefly, head tilting before I remembered. “Stay away from drug dealers?”

He nodded. “That’s the one. And what happened to make me feel the need to tell you that?”

“Um.” I coughed. “Because I took it upon myself to taunt a drug dealer into confessing to his crimes?”

“And was I at all surprised that you would do something like that?” Dad prompted with a raised eyebrow.

My head shook quickly. “Surprised? No, not really. Exasperated maybe, but not surprised.”

Dad nodded once before turning his attention back toward Avalon. “She’s never been shy about getting into trouble, especially if she thought it was the right thing to do. It didn’t take a bunch of monster hunters to turn my daughter into a hero. I always knew she would be. Whether it would be throwing herself into war zones to report on atrocities, or going up against politicians that could throw her in prison and ruin her life, she was always going to do the right thing, no matter what powerful person tried to stop her. This Edge thing didn’t make her into anything she’s not, and you didn’t create this danger, or drag her into it.”

“Dad…” My voice was a tiny little mouse squeak as I felt my ears turn bright red. I wondered if I could actually manage to hit him if I kicked out.

He held up a hand to forestall me. “Believe it or not, I have a point beyond embarrassing you.” He paused then before conceding with a grin, “Embarrassing you is just a delightful bonus.”

I groaned, but Dad was already moving on. Raising his finger he gestured toward first Avalon, and then Shiori. “I may not understand this whole combined relationship thing. It’s not really my cup of tea. But this isn’t about me, it’s about Felicity.”

Yeah, we had sort-of explained the whole… relationship thing. At least as much as any of us actually understood it. Dad–well, he was taking it in stride, as far as that went. I guess when you get to the point of accepting that your daughter was a monster-hunter who gained superpowers by killing things, and that your missing wife had been the leader of a revolutionary faction of those monster hunters, it wasn’t too hard to get from that to ‘your daughter also has two girlfriends.’ Still, I was pretty sure he found it strange, even more strange than he was admitting right now.

Shiori blinked, holding up several fingers and counting them before she brightened. “Tea, me, Felicity, you did that on purpose!”

Dad winked at her before continuing, “The point is, there are three things that are actually important when it comes to anyone who wants to have a relationship with my daughter. First, they have to make her happy. Second, they need to help her rise into the kind of person that I know she is, not hold her down. And third, they have to be able and willing to stand with her, protect her when she needs protecting, challenge her, and defend her when her sense of justice exceeds her means to defend herself. Make her happy, inspire her, and protect her.”

Pausing then, Dad took a breath as he looked at the other two girls for a moment. “As far as I can tell, you girls do all of that. And probably far more than I will ever understand. So now, I’m not going to tell either of you to stay away from her. Just… let her protect you as much as you protect her.”

Focusing solely on Avalon then, Dad’s gaze softened a little bit. “And for the record, if I had your dad in front of me, I’d teach him exactly what I think about pathetic, drunk, child abusing pieces of shit. Vampire or not, a coward is a coward is a coward.”

After letting that sit for a few seconds, he brightened. “And now, I think I’ve been patient long enough. I’ve been the good, concerned dad. Now I want to see them.”

“See them?” I echoed, blinking over at the others blankly.

“The superpowers!” Dad blurted out loud. He sounded as eager as a little kid, and I realized just how hard it had been for him to hold back and remain serious for as long as he had.

“Come on, you’ve gotta show me the superpowers.”

********

“Congratulations are in order, I believe,” Gaia announced about an hour later. It was as long as I had been able to stretch spending time with my dad and the others before we had to get back to the school. After all, the last thing we needed was for Patrick and October, the Committee’s summoned minions, to get too suspicious about where we were. To say nothing of our Seosten ‘friends’. They’d know by now that we had been there, but they had to keep thinking that the choker had been destroyed. Which meant we should have come back here before too long.

There had been a lot more to do back at the camp. Each of the three groups (the Wonderland people, Mateo’s pack and the wolves they had managed to pull together, and Gabriel’s people) had lost people. Luckily, none of Roxa’s actual pack had died, though two of them (Corson and Hasty) had been injured enough that they’d be down for awhile. But still, there was a lot for them to sort out. Everything from deciding who was responsible for the prisoners that they’d taken, to where they were going to go to rest up, to how they would divide up the supplies that had been left behind. And more, a lot more.

Yeah, they’d won a lot. But they’d also lost. They were obviously trying not to show too much of it, but I knew that people had died. People had gone into that fight against that pack of weres at least partially because I asked them to, and now they were dead. Yet, if we hadn’t gone in, a lot more people would be dead. Hell, we’d managed to rescue all those Alter kids, so… that had to be worth it, right? Would I think the same thing if it was Avalon or Shiori who had died? Or even Vanessa or Tristan?

I’m a seventeen-year-old kid. How the fuck was I supposed to cope with those kind of questions, exactly?

But we didn’t even have time to stick around for all of that to really sink in. We’d had to leave far too soon, as far as I was concerned. It was just the safest way to avoid problems with the Committee, or the Seosten. Though these days, I wasn’t sure how much actually separated the two groups.

That wasn’t fair. One of the Committee members had saved my dad, had actually helped him break the Bystander Effect. And I still wasn’t sure what the hell that was all about.  

In any case, now we were in Gaia’s office. ‘We’ meant Avalon, Shiori, the Moon twins, and myself. Roxa had stayed behind, as she’d chosen to. We were going to plan for the best time for her to talk to her old team in person. Obviously, it couldn’t be on the school grounds or anywhere that the Seosten would know about it. And I (or someone else wearing the choker)  was going to have to touch each of them to make sure they weren’t possessed. After all, it’d be pretty stupid to go through all the trouble of hiding that the choker was intact only to have Roxa waltz right onto the island wearing it in a way that every Seosten would know should have been impossible without the choker.

In fact, it was getting to the point that I was thinking it might be better for Roxa not to reveal herself to her team at all until we had identified all the Seosten. Just in case. If her old team stopped being so obsessed about finding her, even if none of them were possessed, it might still tip the wannabe angels off. And nothing said they couldn’t be possessed later.

“Congratulations?” Tristan raised both hands, showing off the retractable claws that he had inherited from the werejaguar that he’d killed. The boy was also considerably stronger, courtesy of the other kill he’d gotten, a wereape.  “We just beat a giant pack of were-whatevers and Flick over there stole the one thing that can identify Seosten that are possessing people. We deserve a freaking parade, and a–” He yelped as Vanessa pecked him on the side of the head. Yeah, pecked. While Tristan had inherited some extra strength and retractable claws, Vanessa had gotten incredibly lucky. Not only did she inherit the ability to turn into a full raven, which she was using right then to perch on her brother’s shoulder, but she had also gained the ability to turn into a full-sized bear. Which was… more than a little intimidating. Especially seeing innocent little bookworm Vanessa transform into a gigantic fuck-off grizzly.

Coughing at his sister’s silent reprimand, Tristan gestured. “Uh, I mean, or congratulations from you, Headmistress. That’s just as good.”

Chuckling softly, Gaia inclined her head. “I am quite certain that there will be more of a reward for your efforts in the future, Mr. Moon.” There was amusement in her gaze as she glanced back toward me. “In the meantime, would you like me to have him come in now, Felicity?”

My eyes turned to the door briefly before I gave a quick nod. “Yes, please.”

So, the headmistress made a gesture with one finger. The door on the other side of the room opened smoothly, and a short, lanky figure stepped through. Wyatt. He smiled broadly (and a bit goofily, showing his buck teeth) at the sight of me and held his arms open. “You’re all right!”

Blinking at that, I shrugged and took a step that way to return the offered hug. Clearly, he’d been even more worried about me going through with that fight than I’d thought he would b–

He punched me in the shoulder, harder than someone of his tiny frame should have been able to. As I took a reflexive step back and yelped, Wyatt put a finger in my face. “No!” he chastised me. “What if I was possessed? What if I came to take the choker away from you? Never, ever, ever put yourself in that kind of compromised position with someone you’re not sure you can trust. I could’ve cut your throat before you knew what was happening. I could’ve taken you hostage and either stolen the choker from you or ordered whoever has it to give it over. Are you crazy? Do you want to be a victim? Never, ever, ever be that naive. Anyone could be your enemy. Until you use the choker on them, you don’t know. So assume the worst, and be ready!”

Somewhere behind me, I heard Avalon actually chuckle, voice soft. “He has a point, Chambers.”

Wincing, I rubbed my shoulder while looking back toward Gaia. The headmistress was just smiling a little bit. When I looked to her, she offered a slight shrug, as if to say that he wasn’t wrong. “Right,” I murmured before looking back to him. “Um, Headmistress, would you mind…”

She nodded once before making another slight gesture with one finger. As she did so, a collection of dark green vines literally rose out of the floor, wrapping around Wyatt’s arms and legs to hold him firmly in place. Her voice was calm. “You may test him safely now, Felicity.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket and took out the choker. Carefully affixing it to my own neck, I extended my hand to press gingerly against Wyatt’s arm. Not because I was worried that he was actually possessed or anything, but because I was half-afraid he might have some kind of electrified trap to zap my fingers or something just to teach me about touching people like that.

Nothing happened. There was no zap or other trap from my (justifiably) paranoid older brother, and obviously no reveal that he was actually possessed. Just as I’d known there wouldn’t be. We never would have gotten as far as we had if Wyatt had been possessed. Hell, Avalon would’ve been dead a dozen times over by now if he was. No, Wyatt being possessed would’ve ended everything a long time ago. I’d known he was safe before ever using the choker on him.

Still, I nodded for everyone else. “Clear,” I announced while stepping back. “You can let him go.”

The vines disappeared, and Wyatt shook himself off a bit. “Still,” he announced almost as though he was disappointed that we’d cleared him so easily, “you can never be too careful. Eyes wide, eyes open. Remember, they can switch bodies, so check everyone as much as you can.”

“We could do that more easily,” Avalon pointed out while stepping beside me, “with your help.”

I nodded quickly, taking the choker off before offering it to him. “Yeah. Right now, the Seosten think it’s been destroyed. But I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t just think this was some other fashion accessory if we started walking around wearing it. So we were hoping you could do something to it first. You know, make it invisible or something, so it’s not so obvious that we have it.”

Taking the offered choker, Wyatt frowned thoughtfully down at it for a few seconds. “Invisible…” he murmured under his breath before nodding. “Yes.” Giving another goofy smile, he looked up to me. “Yes, I think I can do exactly what you want. But it’ll take a little while to do it properly.”

“Are you sure?” That was Vanessa. The blonde girl had turned into her human form (using her own discarded shirt as cover while shifting back and dressing) before stepping over to join us, her expression pensive as she worried aloud, “They said that the thing was already damaged from the spell that was used to turn it into a choker instead of a ring. That’s what lowered it to touch-range to begin with. What if putting any more spells on it damages the identification effect even more?”

Wyatt’s head bobbed up-and-down. “Yes yes, of course, changing shape would be harder. Too dangerous to risk losing the spell. But making it invisible, that I can do. Just need a day or two.”

“A day or two?” Echoing his words, I gave a little nod before looking back at the others. “I guess that means we need to get to dinner, and face the music.”

“Lies,” Shiori murmured. “More lying.”

“One more time,” I assured her while putting a handout to touch the other girl’s shoulder. “We just lie one more time. Once we know who we can trust, then we can tell them the truth.”

“Except for whoever is possessed,” Vanessa pointed out quietly. “They’re all connected, they all know what happens to each other. So, until you know who every possessed person is, you’re going to have to keep lying to the one that you know about. It’s the only way to get them all at once.”

Sometimes… I really hated how smart that girl was.

********

“Okay, you guys have got some serious explaining to do,” Sands informed Avalon and me as we sat with the rest of the team at the table in the corner of the cafeteria as far away from any other group as possible. Her voice was low, but intense.

“She’s right,” Sean agreed. The Hispanic boy with drumming his fingers on the table as he watched us. “We looked all over the place for you guys. What happened?”

We had already prepared for this, from the moment that we knew we were going to have to explain where we had gone. We couldn’t lie about where we went, because if whoever Seosten was possessing happen to be within this group, they might get a little suspicious about what we knew if we were lying to people we were supposed to trust.

So, glancing at the privacy coin that was sitting on the table, I winced before starting to explain. “Sorry guys, there wasn’t anything we could do about it. We were with Vanessa and Tristan when Gabriel called. They tracked down that werewolf pack, and they needed us to go right then. There wasn’t time to say anything else or find you. We had to go.”

“Besides,” Avalon added. “Gabriel said that there was only a very brief window where he could open the portal that would get us off the island without alerting the security. If we waited any longer, he might not have been able to do it.”

Even now, when the other girl said the name of the man who had been her idol for so long, her voice faltered a little bit and she looked a bit flushed.

“Oh man,” Sands complained. “You got to fight a bunch of werewolves? Come on you gotta tell us everything that happened. Did you kick their…” She trailed off, looking around at Avalon and me with a slight frown. “What happened, is everyone okay? Everyone made it back right?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly. “We all made it back, but…” Trailing off, I gave a soft, slow sigh. “The choker that we were trying to get for Roxa, the one that would let her be here without setting off everyone’s Stranger-sense? Yeah, it…” Biting my lip, I looked down. “It was destroyed. Pace–we couldn’t…”

Sitting beside his roommate, Columbus winced before cursing quietly. “They couldn’t fix it? I mean, how destroyed are we talking here?”

“Melted,” Avalon replied flatly. “Pace’s acid spit, it was… bad.”

“Which just means we’ll have to find something else,” I announced. “We promised Roxa we’d find a way to help her. I’m not going back on that. If you guys–”

“Don’t even say it,” Sands warned me. “We said we’d help Roxa, so we’re gonna help Roxa.” She paused, frowning. “… somehow.” Belatedly, she added, “Maybe we can find something in New York.”

I started to nod, then blinked. “Yeah, maybe we–wait, what?”

“New York,” Sands explained. “We’re going there. Like, all of us. The team.”

She continued, telling us about the whole contest thing with the Investigation Track and how she and Jasmine had won, meaning that we’d be going on a trip to New York with Roxa’s old team.

This… could get complicated. But at least we knew a good time for Roxa to show up and tell her team that she was okay. A month should be enough time to use the choker to check each of them and make sure they weren’t possessed.  

Beside her sister, Scout leaned over and whispered into the girl’s ear. Sands listened for a moment before giving a sharp nod. “Right, Scout’s got a point. We still need to know how the fight went. What happened? We won, right?”

“We?” I echoed before snickering despite myself. “Yes, we won. Roxa even killed Lemuel.”

Eyes widening, Sands blurted, “She did? Oh come on, you can’t spoil the ending like that. That’s not fair. Tell us everything.”

So… as much as we could without spoiling things they couldn’t know yet… we did.

******

“How much do you think they eat?”

It was the next afternoon, and four of us (Sands, Scout, Shiori, and me) were out on the ocean, treading water as we watched my shiver of sharks swimming below and around us. They’d been like eager puppies, showing off new tricks that they’d learned for the past ten minutes or so.

“How much?” I echoed, glancing to the Asian girl beside me before shrugging. “I’m pretty sure Princess Cuddles could polish off half of what the entire student body puts away in a day all by herself. Or, you know, half the entire student body, period.” I gestured at the enormous shark in question, who was swimming further away than all the others.

“At least they’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the waters around here clean and safe,” Shiori pointed out, giggling a little bit as Simpson, the yellow-tinted Lemon shark, came up to bump against her, clearly looking for head pats.

“He likes those,” I pointed out. “Here, Scout, check it out.” Reaching out, I waited for the other girl to give a little nod before gently taking her wrist to press against the shark’s snout. “Rub carefully just like that. See? Careful, it’s kind of rough.”

Feeling something bump up against my back, I glanced that way before laughing. “Jealous, Sherman?” The bull shark gave another heavy bump against me, and I snickered. “Okay, okay. Sands, here.” Carefully, I did the same with her, letting the girl give Sherman the attention that he wanted.

After watching the two of them pat the sharks for a moment, I gave a single nod. “Peanut brittle.”

Blinking up at me from Sherman, Sands asked, “Uh, what’d you say?”

“She said peanut brittle.”

That was Avalon, who rose from the water, dismissing the air-bubble spell that she’d been using in order to stay under water and out of sight behind Princess Cuddles until I gave the signal.

If it was possible to literally jump out of the water like a cartoon, Sands would’ve managed it right then. “Fuck!” she blurted, twisting that way. “Where’d you–what did-huh?”

Scout, for her part, was just watching me with a curious – yet understanding – tilt to her head. It was like she’d already worked out most of what was going on, and just needed me to fill in the details.

“We’re clear, then?” Avalon asked.

Looking toward Shiori, I echoed the question. “Clear?”

The other girl paused before nodding. Apparently one of the powers that she had inherited during that whole battle royal back there had been some kind of warning tingle that alerted her any time anyone was observing her that she didn’t know about.

Apparently it was rather less than useful any time we were anywhere near most of our fellow teenage classmates.

But out here, it had helped a lot. Now, she’d be able to tell us if anyone was paying attention or eavesdropping that we didn’t know about.

“Guys?” Sands interrupted my brief musing. “What the hell is going on? What–”

“You’re clear,” I announced. “We had to be sure, before we could tell you.” As I spoke, Brody, one of my two Mako sharks, drifted up under me so that I could hang off of him with one hand. With my other, I reached up to undo the choker around my neck. It came off, turning visible in the process as I showed it to the twins. “But now we know you’re not possessed.

“So we can tell you the truth about what’s really going on. All of it.”

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