Month: October 2017

Field Trip 28-03

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I was under absolutely no delusions. We didn’t stand a chance against Radueriel. If he was one of the Seosten who apparently posed as the original Olympian gods, that made him something like over three thousand years old. We didn’t have a prayer. We’d gotten our asses kicked by Charmeine. She would have basically taken us apart completely and for good if she hadn’t purposefully dragged it out so that she could show off. If it hadn’t been for Columbus nailing her with that hit because she’d completely dismissed him and her dragging things out, she would have easily won. And I sincerely doubted that Radueriel was going to make the same mistake.

No, there was no question. He could put us down in seconds. It might have sounded arrogant or unfair, but the simple fact was that if Avalon and Rudolph weren’t enough to help Roxa and me deal with Charmeine, then Jazz, Gordon, Sands, and Isaac weren’t going to be enough to deal with Radueriel. And that was if he’d been by himself, let alone with the rest of his soldiers.

The Seosten spoke, but I didn’t understand the words. It sounded kind of like some of the spells that we’d learned that year, but I didn’t think he was casting anything. When none of us responded, Radueriel paused, then spoke again. That time, he tried English. “Ah, correct, humans don’t speak Old Seosten anymore, do they? This language then? You understand the trade language?” His voice held far more curiosity than anger as his gaze passed over all of us.

Some part of me wondered what the man was thinking as he looked at us. We had to look like a strange group, even to him. We had two human girls; Jazz and Sands; a couple human boys, Gordon and Isaac; a mechanical cougar, Gidget; a werewolf, Roxa; and a werelion; me. I had no idea what exactly this guy had been expecting Charmeine to send to him (besides me in a far more captured state), but this definitely wasn’t it. I wondered how much he knew about what had happened. The Seosten were supposed to be connected to each other ‘if they were on the same mission’, but was Radueriel considered to be on the same mission as Charmeine? Did it even work over that much distance? Or was he completely clueless as to why and how things had gone wrong?

When it became obvious that the man was waiting for an answer (and lacking much in the way of other options), Sands was the one who took a step forward since neither Roxa or I could actually talk in these forms. She had her mace in one hand. “We understand you just fine.”

The man’s eyes lit up, and he smiled. “Ausgezeichnet. Oh, no, that’s still wrong, isn’t it? Fremragende? Excellent? That one then. Excellent. We can have a proper conversation then.”

Did you catch any of that? I asked my ride-along partner.

There was no response. I paused, then thought, Tabbris? Hey, you okay? I know it’s scary, but… Tabbris? Tabby? Still, there was no response. She wasn’t responding. Tabbris wasn’t responding. She wasn’t–where was she? What–that was stupid, she was still in me, right? She was– she had to be. She couldn’t just disappear, she wouldn’t just leave me like this. She–

While I was busy panicking inwardly, the Seosten man continued. “Right. Let’s try these introductions again, shall we? My name is Radueriel, of the Faustian Choir. You are all here because you were selected to be subjects of a series of tests that I am… currently engaged in.

“Of course you’ve caused a bit of a, what was your word for it… ruckus since your arrival, but I suppose you can hardly be blamed for such attempts. What was your goal here?” He gestured to the park area behind him with the stream just in sight. “Were you going to sneak through our water portal to escape the station? Clever. And ambitious. Yes, I don’t fault you for that. But you should put those thoughts far from your mind, because it will absolutely not be happening.”

Tabbris! I was all but ignoring Radueriel then, focused totally on the silence within my own head. Still, I got no response, no indication that there was anyone in my thoughts other than myself.

Clearing his throat, the Seosten stepped forward. His mechanical leg whirred audibly with the motion. “No, I don’t blame you for trying to escape. You wouldn’t be very good test subjects if you simply laid down and accepted that fate. But I assure you, your options now are limited. You can either surrender, in which case you will be taken to your assigned quarters to wait until I happen to be ready to work on you. Or you can attempt some kind of resistance. In that case, I’m afraid you’ll be damaged enough that you’ll need to be put back together in our medical facility. It will be an entirely unpleasant experience, I can promise you that. And afterward, once you are pieced together, you will still be taken to your quarters to await your turn in my lab.”

His gaze fell on me then. Even in my lion form, I had the feeling that he knew exactly who I was. Not that it would’ve been hard. Even with no other information, he had a fifty/fifty shot between Roxa and me. His smile grew. “And you, yes, you must be the one who killed the charming Charmeine. Or did you know her as Nemesis? Did you know her at all?” He shook his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. You stole her possession ability, didn’t you? Yes. But you won’t be using that again. Not here, not now.” As he spoke, Radueriel held his clockwork mechanical arm up. At a touch from his other hand, part of the metal forearm flipped around, revealing a small keyboard. He tapped a few of the buttons, and there was a brief, high-pitched whistle. As it faded, I saw every guard in this enclosed wilderness area abruptly snap to attention, straightening noticeably.

“Every being within this facility has been… upgraded,” the Seosten announced. “You will find them to be much stronger, faster, and more resistant than those outside my control. In addition, they have also been upgraded in other ways, such as their implanted teleportation devices, which allow me to either transport any of them to any of the others, or even transport myself to any of them. Instant transportation to anywhere that any of my people are located. You may start by facing one man, only for that one to become dozens within seconds. That,” he boasted, “is how you find yourself facing this many now, instead of the few that I posted at this entrance upon your initial disappearance. You could have emerged anywhere, and met this same force, including myself. Anywhere you run to, if one of my men finds you, I will be there.”

He was still smiling at his own genius before shaking his head. “But that is not the upgrade that need concern you now. No, you see, when needed, such as now, my people also obey my thoughts. I direct them. And you’ll find that your possession ability is very useless when the mind of your subject has nothing to do with the actions their body performs. After all,” he remarked while tapping the side of his head a couple times, “you never know when you might need to defend against the very gift that defines your entire race. It pays to be prepared. You’ve fought my people once. You did well. I congratulate you on that. But now, you will fight me. All of me.” At his words, the man lifted one arm. Simultaneously, every single one of the guards did the same.

The announcement horrified me. Somehow, Radueriel had implanted devices in all of his people that allowed him to take direct command of them at any point. Not by possessing them, but with a thought. Now he could, what, direct them just by sitting back and watching the fight? That meant… that meant that they’d all fight with his skill, his knowledge. The brief thought passed through my mind that he couldn’t divide his attention that much, but really, he probably could. I sincerely doubted that someone like him would forget something that basic. Honestly, even after all the different things I had seen this year, multitasking like that still seemed like cheating. But yeah, he’d probably managed to upgrade himself that much.

And… and where was Tabbris? Despite only being aware of her presence for… what… how long had it been? Maybe an hour? Less than two. Despite that, I already felt like a huge part of me was missing when she didn’t respond. Her silence was one of the most terrifying things I had ever experienced, and it was all I could do not to physically freak out right in front of everyone.

Tabbris! Tabbris, wake up! What’s wrong with–Tabbris? I was still trying to get her attention. What was going on?

Radueriel paused then, letting that sink in briefly before finishing with a simple, “Any of you who wish to surrender now may do so. You will be allowed to go to your quarters and await your turn in my lab. It will not be a fun time. But I promise, you will enjoy our medical facilities far less.”

“Um. Flick?” Sands’ voice was quiet, her eyes darting to me. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t fight this many guys, not if they’re all like… like…” She stared at the assembled army.

“I’ll tell you one thing.” That was Jazz, the dark-skinned girl standing there between her two teammates with her falchion raised. “We don’t surrender to this assface. He wants us to walk in there willingly, without even a fight? Fuck that. I don’t care if we take out one of his guys or fifty. I don’t care if we cost him an inch or a mile. But we’re gonna cost this son of a bitch something.”

Beside her, Isaac’s mouth opened. “Now, hold on. I think if we–”

Whatever the boy had been about to say, he was interrupted by Radueriel. The Seosten had been patiently waiting there, watching us for a moment. But now, he shook his head (the assembled guards did not do the same. Apparently that was an order he didn’t send them) and lamented, “Well, I did try. Remember that, children, as your limbs are being reattached later.”

Oh! Oh, Flick?

The sudden voice in my head made me jerk. The timing probably made it look like I was recoiling from Radueriel’s words. But I didn’t care. Tabbris?! Are you okay? What happened?! I felt kind of like a mother whose kid had wandered off in the grocery store or something.

U-um, Mama, the reply came quickly. It was another memory, a-and I kind of… got lost. There was a pause, and I could sense her embarrassment at the admission. B-but it’s okay, we’re okay. We can get out of here!

The soldiers were already coming for us, while Sands and the others set themselves to meet them. They were saying something to me, but I didn’t hear it. All I could focus on was the voice in my head. What? Uh, maybe you tuned out for too long, but we’re kind of screwed right now.

No! She blurted. We’re not screwed, I p-promise. We can get out. We really can. You just have to say, ‘Sevesensiel’. Out–umm, outloud, I mean. And then make everyone run. I’ll explain later, I promise. You’ve just gotta say it!

The fight was already happening. Though it wasn’t much of a fight. With every one of the guards following Radueriel’s mental direction, it was basically turning into a slaughter. The ‘fight’, such as it was, would be over in a few more seconds, if it even lasted that long.  

Sands shouted something at me, clearly wondering why I wasn’t helping, why I was just standing there completely frozen. Still, I hesitated. I can’t change right now. You know how fast those guys would be on top of me? Even as I spoke, my point was proven as three of the soldiers bypassed the others to come right for me. I bounded forward, lunging up and over them to land near the others.

I couldn’t take the time to shift, and I couldn’t talk in this form. One word (at least I assumed it was one word) and I couldn’t say it. I was a fucking lion. What was I supposed to do, roar?

F-Flick! Tabbris’s voice was panicked, and I felt her take control for a moment, making me lunge sideways away from the guard who had been coming after me during my brief moment of distraction. If you can’t talk, possess someone who c-can! You can possess one of the others!

Oh. Right. Maybe I should have hesitated. Maybe I should’ve found a way to ask permission. But there wasn’t time. At this point, as the unified, Radueriel-controlled soldiers easily swatted aside any defense that the others tried to put up as if we were all children, seconds counted. Milliseconds counted. There was no time for anything except the only action that I had left.

Spinning on my paws, I lunged directly toward Sands. While leaping, I blurted, Do the thing!

The brunette barely had time to glance my way, seeing my positively massive lion-form coming at her, before I was there. And to my immense relief, Tabbris interpreted what ‘do the thing’ meant. It probably helped that she was in my head. Either way, as we leapt that way, rather than colliding with Sands, I was suddenly seeing through the other girl’s eyes. I felt her panic as she jerked backward from what had been a gigantic lion leaping straight at her, stumbling and barely stopping herself from landing on her backside.

Sands! I sent as ‘loudly’ as I could, basically screaming in my own head while trying to direct it at the other girl. I didn’t want to take her over. I refused to take her over, even right now. I wouldn’t do that, unless I had to. Sands, say Sevesensiel! Say Sevesensiel right now! Say it!

“Sevesensiel!” Sands abruptly blurted, clearly having no idea what she was saying or why.

On the heels of that word, there was a flash of light that seemed to come from the Seosten in the back. And just like that… the wilderness around us was empty. All of the soldiers were gone. Radueriel was gone. We were all alone.

What the fuck was that?!” The demand came from Sands, Isaac, and myself all at once.

“Flick, Flick, are you in my head?!” Sands demanded out loud. “What are–”

Run! Tabbris interrupted her, though it was obvious that only I could hear her. Make them run, he’ll be back! Go, go, now, now, you only have about ninety seconds! Hurry, go!

Jazz and Isaac were both demanding to know what the hell was going on. Roxa was growling from where she stood in her wolf-form, clearly not sure if she should change back. And Sands was still asking me if I was in her, if I could read her mind, and so on.

Run! That time, it was me shouting it. Ninety seconds, they’ll be back in ninety seconds! Go! Get to the portal, we’ll figure it out from there. Just go, damn it, go! Run, run, run!

I was about to ask Tabbris to get us out of her, but she was already one step ahead of me. I was suddenly back in my own (well, my lion) body, stumbling a little. My gaze snapped across the room, and I focused on the stream ahead. Then I ran toward it, making a noise that was something like a half-roar to get everyone’s attention.

To her credit, Sands didn’t wait around questioning what I’d said. “Go!” she shouted to the others. “They’ll be back in a minute, just go! Questions later, running now!” Even as she spoke, the other girl was already running after me. And the others, thankfully, were right behind her as we hit the stream and turned to follow it to the portal.

Sixty seconds. Tabbris’s voice was nervous. I couldn’t blame her. Hurry, Flick. Hurry.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. Err, three times. I saw the portal up ahead and kept running, pushing myself hard while the others scrambled to keep up. The portal glimmered a little as we approached, and I splashed my way through the water before going right through. There was a sudden tingling, disorienting sensation as the world went weird around me (they apparently didn’t build safeties into portals that were just meant to carry water).

Then I was through, emerging into some kind of metal building with the river running through the middle of it. There were consoles and several technicians standing around, along with a few more armed guards. This place was clearly some kind of filtration plant or something. And from the look of things, there were several more separated streams of water running through it to different portals. Probably all running to more space stations.

Leaping out of the ditch, I crashed into the nearest armed guard. He was shouting something, but I didn’t care. His hand was grabbing for the pistol on his belt as my frying pan-sized paw slammed into his head so hard it left pretty much nothing but mush behind.

A brief rush of pleasure rushed through me, my aura flaring up even as the others spread out through the rest of the room. The technicians were making a break for it, and there were only a few guards for Sands, Roxa, Jazz, Isaac, Gordon, and Gidget to make short work of.

Tabbris, I managed, using the moment of kill-pleasure as cover to stay still for a second. What was that? What the hell was that word?

The console, over there to the right! She urged me that way. Destroy it, so the portal shuts down before Radueriel recovers!

As I moved that way, bounding up a short flight of stairs that led to an overlook area where the console in question was, she hurriedly explained. Mama’s old partner, Apollo. He quit the Seosten a long time ago and um, he disappeared. Like, a really long time ago. But he and Mama were friends. He told her a… about something he set up the last time he had, um, the last time he had to deal with Radueriel. It was supposed to be a get-out-of-jail free card in case he ever got caught, and he told Mama so she could escape if she needed to, if she ever changed her mind about leaving. Because he trusted her. She didn’t report it back then because it would’ve… umm, given them a big excuse to come after Apollo a lot more than they were. He quit, and that was bad enough. But if they knew he had ways to stop or, um, or stall them, they would’ve sent a lot more people after him.

That word thing? I guessed, using my lion paws to utterly demolish the console. As I did, the portals shut down, winking out of existence so that the water in the little metal gutters throughout the room just started quickly filling it up. It was time to leave. And wait, that makes Apollo almost like your uncle if they were… partners, wait a second, does that mean your mother was–

Uh huh, she confirmed. Mama was Artemis. And it was a, um, a magic hack thing that Apollo installed into R-Radueriel’s equipment. When it was triggered, it took over all his stuff and transported him and everyone he was controlling to a random location, then shut down all his upgrades and other stuff he installed in himself for ninety seconds.

I absorbed that for a second while the others shouted at me to hurry up. They were already by the nearest doors. So I’m guessing that won’t work again. One shot thing, teleports him and everything he’s controlling somewhere else and EMP’s his stuff, then it’s gone?

Um. Y-yes, just that one time. Which… I guess we’re lucky no one else ever used it, huh?

Really lucky, I agreed. But wouldn’t he have upgraded his equipment at some point in all this time and noticed it?

It wasn’t just scribbled on his mechanical arm or anything, Tabbris explained. Apollo put it on one of the bits of equipment that was going inside Radueriel, part of his reinforced metal skeleton. It makes him a lot tougher than normal Seosten, and there’s no reason for him to take it out. Weapons and stuff, yeah. But the reinforced skeleton, that’s kind of permanent, you know? Like… like putting a spell on the foundation of a house instead of on the furniture. Furniture gets moved around and changed. Foundation stays the same. That’s why Apollo chose that one, cuz he knew it’d be a long time before someone used it. Then Radueriel got transferred out here instead of spending his time on Earth, so… I guess Apollo never ran into him again.  

I nodded a little at that, thinking about how much I really wanted to hug this Apollo guy while leaping off the raised platform to land by the others. They’d gotten the door open by that point, revealing a forest beyond that didn’t look too different from the artificial one we had just left. But this one was at least on a planet instead of an enclosed station.

There was a lot more I wanted to ask Tabbris. There was even more that the others probably wanted to ask me. There was a lot to talk about in general. But right now, only one thing mattered. Only one thing was going to keep us away from Radueriel and the other Seosten long enough to figure out what the hell we were supposed to do now.

And only one thing was going to spare me from thinking about what everyone back on Earth was doing right now.

We had to keep running.

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Field Trip 28-02

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Two of the soldiers with the blank faceplates stood guard in front of a door. Ahead of them and opposite the door was a blank wall, while the corridor continued on in both directions to the left and right. Both held their weapons at loose readiness, clearly on alert and ready for anything.

Anything, that was, except for a small, shimmering liquid-like spot to appear on that wall directly across from them. For a second, both of the guards simply leaning forward slightly as though squinting at it. Then they turned to look at each other, each about to say something.

Whatever they had been about to say was interrupted as an energy-arrow shot through that small liquid-like spot on the wall that they had been staring at. It hit the floor between the guards before exploding into a burst of concussive force that knocked them both to the floor.

“They’re down, let’s go!” I called while lowering my staff in its bow form. Turning away from where I had been looking between Gordon’s raised hands in order to see through the wall, I looked toward Jazz. The other girl was already moving up to the wall to run her hands along it. Like with the floor in the room where we had arrived, everywhere she touched, the wall turned that liquidy-shape. In this case, whatever material the wall was made out of must’ve been less dense than the room where we had first shown up, because it turned a lot faster than that floor had.

Within a few seconds, she’d made it just large enough to dive through. I did so, throwing myself through the almost-hole before rolling to my feet on the other side. The first of the two guards was starting to pick himself up, until my weapon, collapsed back into its staff form, collided solidly with the back of his helmet. He dropped once more, hitting the floor with a dazed grunt.

By that point, the second guard was up to my right. Before he could do anything, Roxa was suddenly there. She caught hold of the man’s arm with one hand and his neck with the other, before bodily heaving him hard into the opposite wall. He slammed into it like Wile E. Coyote running smack into a painted-on tunnel, rebounding off it before collapsing to the floor.

Gidget, who had come through with Roxa, padded over and leaned down to sniff at the second guard. When he stayed unmoving on the floor, she made a happy purring sound before plopping down right there with one big metal paw resting on his back, just waiting like that. The guy was gonna have a pretty bad day if he woke up and tried to move at all.

The others joined us a moment later, moving through the opening that Jazz had created. Finally, all six of us were standing there in front of the door. We had been running for the past fifteen minutes. Most of the others were winded. Roxa and I were the only ones that weren’t panting. Hence why we had been elected to go through and deal with the soldiers that were in our way.

Looking up and down the corridor for a moment, Sands asked, “Okay, so now what? We have no idea where we are, where we’re going, which way is safe, if safe even exists anymore, and everyone around here wants to kill or capture us. Oh and, by the way, apparently ‘capture’ is the worst of the two options, considering the reason they want to catch us is so that they can let one of those wannabe angel fuck take over our bodies and turn us into their personal meat-suits.”

“Um, I’m sorry, wannabe angel?” Isaac raised a hand. “As in big glowy wings and halos?”

Sands shook her head at him. “It’s an unbelievably long story. Seriously, you have no idea. Just wait until we can actually talk.” She gestured to me then, repeating, “What do we do?”

“We keep going,” I replied. “We’ll find an exit, get out of this building, and regroup from there. And–” I added while looking to Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon. “I know you guys have questions. We’ll answer them. But first, we have to get the hell out of this place. Then you’ll get your answers.”

The three of them looked between Roxa and me, and it was clear that they still at least kind of wanted to push the issue. But they stopped themselves. Gordon was the one who spoke up, taking the pragmatic approach. “How do we find the exit when we have no idea where we are?”

It was a good question. Our initial flight from the room we had arrived in had just been a result of ‘let’s get as far away from this particular location as we can, as fast as possible’. But now, we’d been running for this long and there was still no sign of an exit. The whole place was a maze, a maze that we would have been lost in for good, and probably even trapped and captured, a lot earlier if it hadn’t been for Gordon’s x-ray vision and Jazz’s ability to let us go through walls.

Pausing for a second, I thought inwardly, I don’t suppose you have any ideas, Tabbris?

There was a slight hesitation before the response came. I… I’m sorry, I don’t know. This wasn’t part of the memories that Mama left me, I don’t think. Um. Maybe it was built after she left, or she was never here, or… I had the feeling of a shrug. I’m r-really sorry, I wish I knew more.

It’s okay, I thought back to her. You don’t have to have all the answers. Just speak up if you think of something. Or if one of those extra memories your mom left happens to kick in.

Focusing on the others once more, I shook my head. “Sorry, guys. I wish I had a better answer than just ‘keep looking’. Eventually, we’re either gonna find our way out, or those guys are gonna find us. Let’s hope for the former. Because seriously, you don’t wanna let them take you.”

Roxa squinted at me for a second before turning back to look at the guards on the floor. “Too bad we can’t just ask these guys,” she started before her head tilted. “Unless we can.” Slowly, she looked to me. “You killed Charmeine. And back there, in that room, I swear I saw you…”

I nodded. “Right. I possessed the guy. But these ones are unconscious. As we saw back in the hotel with Charmeine, there’s not much an unconscious body can do, even if it is possessed.”

Jazz’s mouth opened at that, but I saw her hesitate before stopping herself. It was obvious that she had a ton of questions. Which I didn’t blame her for. But she kept quiet. Clearly, the other girl was smart enough to realize that every second we took dealing with their questions was another second that we weren’t escaping. And another second for the bad guys to find us.

Roxa just raised an eyebrow at me, asking dryly, “Does he have to be conscious to read his mind?” After a brief pause, she amended, “That sounded really snarky, but I’m seriously asking.”

“Oh…” I felt like slapping my own forehead, but now that there were two of us in here, it felt wrong. “Right, I guess I could give that a shot.” I took a step that way, while thinking, Little more help? I’m still not sure I understand exactly what you did before. Could you show me again?

Oh, oh, um, yes. I felt Tabbris’s own embarrassment, like she was ashamed that she hadn’t thought of this solution herself. She hesitated again before asking, Can I, um, does that mean–

Go ahead, I replied while moving to kneel next to one of the fallen guards. Do what you need to.

Once again, I didn’t actually feel control of my own body slip away. My hand simply moved by its own, reaching out to touch the fallen guard on the arm. Just as before, it felt disorienting.

The next thing I knew, there was… darkness. Right, he was unconscious, so his eyes were closed. And, as far as I could tell, he wasn’t really thinking about anything in particular. Or dreaming, if his race dreamed. I assumed they did. But in this case, there was just… nothing.

How do I, uh, get what I need? I was trying hard not to think about how weird it was to possess anyone, let alone someone that was unconscious. There was a part of me that thought I should have been cheering about the fact that I could now use the Seosten’s own trick against them. But mostly I just felt really awkward about invading someone’s privacy like this. Taking over his body, even if he was an enemy, felt really… icky. There was no other way for me to describe it.

Still, I forced myself past that. I was going to have to use every trick there was to make sure we all got out of this alive and unpossessed. Or, at least, unpossessed by bad guys. And now, I wasn’t just fighting to keep myself and my classmates safe. I had to worry about Tabbris too. She’d been hiding inside me this whole time, obviously secretly helping where she could. I owed her as much as I’d ever owed anyone. She saved me from enslavement. I wouldn’t forget that.

Shaking off those thoughts (which I was pretty sure she could hear), I focused on what was going on. Okay, so how do I–uh, you know, read the thoughts of someone who’s asleep?

The um, the same way you did b-before, the answer came. Just um, you know, uh, focus on what you wanna know. Think about it really hard, and it’ll move his thoughts that way.

So I did. Sitting there in the darkness and relative quiet (I could kind of hear the others whispering in the background, but it sounded like it was coming from a long way off for some reason), I focused on thinking about the layout of this base, or building, or whatever it was.

It was that thought that dragged up the single word answer to that particular question from the man’s mind. An answer that almost made me bail out reflexively as I blurted that single word.

Space station?! We’re on a fucking space station?!

That was the first thought that I’d pulled out of the man’s mind. As soon as I’d wondered about where we actually were, his slumbering brain had offered up the image of a massive complex floating somewhere in the middle of space. According to his memory, the place was fucking huge. The place looked like an enormous, roughly pill-shaped oval with two giant pyramids attached to it at their bases. The pyramids each constantly revolved around the main pill shape of the structure, moving very slowly so that, over the span of what I was guessing was their equivalent of a day, each pyramid would face the nearby star for their daytime, then rotate away from it and behind the main structure for their night, then back again for the next day.

The top half of the pyramids themselves were clear, with parks and trees and farms and stuff inside, and places where they were raising animals. There were even a couple streams and waterfalls in there. Water itself was brought through a couple portals at the head each stream from some other planet, which then terminated at the end of the stream in a few hidden reservoir-like tanks to store more water. When those tanks happened to be full, extra portals sent the water back where it came from. In the meantime, the water that flowed through the streams could be used by the animals that they had wandering through their artificial wilderness.

They weren’t just small wildernesses either. At its base, each of the pyramids’ upper halves, which contained the farms, ranches, forests, streams, and more (even some low hills), were about eighty miles across from one side to the other, and about half that tall to get to the top.

The lower half of the pyramids, meanwhile, were where all the housing and other more private things were. And the big oval-shaped base in the middle that each pyramid revolved around, that’s where we were. And it was where all the military stuff happened, where the science labs (like the room we appeared in), the docking bay, and the bridge were.

Okay, uh, hey, partner, I thought toward my companion, I’m gonna need your help again. You’ve got that perfect memory. Can you, like, pull up every memory about this whole place that we can manage and just remember all of it? I don’t know how it works, but if we can just grab every bit of information possible out of this guy’s head before we go, I’m pretty sure we’ll need it eventually.

I had the impression of the girl nodding. O-oh, yes! Just… umm, just a second. It’s like… um, flipping through a book. Speed reading. It’s like speed reading.

Over the next brief minute, dozens of images zipped through my mind. It was like watching a movie on extreme fast forward, all I could focus on were the occasional high points. The man had the equivalent of what we would call a husband, his mother had passed away a few years earlier, he really wanted to be a pilot but didn’t have the test scores necessary for it… and more and more facts just careened through my thoughts too quickly to keep track of.

Finally, just as I was starting to get a headache, Tabbris was done. She had everything she could get in the brief window that we had. Neither of us dared take any longer.

That time, the moment I had the urge to escape the man’s body, I could suddenly see again. I was back in my own body, blinking at the bright lights. To my right, I caught a glimpse of Sands jumping a bit as I abruptly appeared out of nowhere.

“Well?” Isaac prompted, standing beside his two teammates. “Did you, uh, get what we need?”

“Jesus, Isaac,” Jazz chastised, “give the girl a second, would you?” She seemed to remember only belatedly that they weren’t sure they could even trust me, and flushed a little bit before muttering under her breath, “It’s a new power and she just possessed someone. Ease up.”

“Hey, sure, no problem,” the boy retorted sarcastically. “Not like we’re in a hurry or anything. Should I get the picnic basket and a few lawn chairs so we can spread out right here and have a nice, relaxing meal while we wait for all the bad guys to dogpile us?”

“Enough.” That was Gordon, the somber boy speaking that single word without taking his eyes off of me. He watched silently after that, clearly waiting for me to explain what I’d found out.

Still, I hesitated briefly before turning. “I’ll explain on the way, we need to keep moving. Isaac’s right, if we stay here much longer, they’ll be right on top of us. Trust me, we don’t want that.”

So we kept running. And as we ran, I quickly explained what I had found out from the guard.

“Wait, wait.” Jazz slowed, looking over at me with wide eyes. “We’re on a space station?! As in, there’s nowhere to escape to? It’s either stay here until they find us, or go die in the vacuum?”

Before I could answer, Sands spoke up. “No, there is a way off, remember? She said there was a docking bay. That means there’s spaceships, right?”

“Do you know how to fly a spaceship?” Isaac demanded. “Cuz I can’t even drive a stick shift. Plus, I seem to have left my ‘Piloting A Sowstin Spaceship For Dummies’ book in my other pants.” The boy was lagging back a little, running behind us. He sounded a bit out of breath.

“First of all,”  I interrupted before the two could argue any more,  “it’s Seosten.” I carefully sounded it out a second time. “Say-oh-stun. And secondly, we’re not going to the hangar bay. We might be able to work out the whole ship thing, but honestly, there’s a better way. The portals in the pyramids, the ones that bring in the water from that planet. They’re guarded, but we can deal with that. We go through the portals, deal with anything on the other side, and get out onto the planet. Then we’ll go from there.”

Roxa, jogging by her cougar, asked, “So we just break into their little park thing and head straight for the river?”

While I nodded, Gordon spoke up, his voice as calm as ever. “How far do we need to go? You said the station was almost a hundred miles across. So how far are we from getting into this park area? And how do we know that we’re not about to run straight into a guard barracks or something like that?”

“Yeah,” Isaac chipped in. “Can we take an elevator or something to get there? They’ve gotta have quicker ways to get around than just walking everywhere, don’t they? In all those space shows, they’ve always got elevators or teleportation systems or something like that.”

“Yes,” I replied to the second boy first, “they’ve got elevators. But we can’t use them. These back tunnels aren’t under constant observation, but the elevators are. So are the transport portals and every other thing they use to move quickly. Our only chance of getting there without being spotted are these tunnels. They’re basically maintenance shafts. Those guys are gonna be looking for us in them, but there’s hundreds of miles of these corridors wrapping all the way around the station on every level, and they’ve only got so many guards to send. Plus, they don’t want to split up too much, because they know we’ll plow right through any group that’s too small. They’ll stick together in big enough groups to slow us down long enough for the rest to jump in.”

Isaac heaved a long, heavy sigh. “So basically you’re saying we have to walk there.”

“No, idiot,” Jazz retorted, “she’s saying we have to run there. So save your breath and keep moving.”

Roxa shook her head. “Too bad you guys don’t all have werewolf powers, that’d help a lot.”

From where she was jogging, Jazz gave the other girl a thumbs. “Oh, right, saw you go all part wolfy back there in the big room. How many of the furry guys did you have to kill to get the full werewolf shifting?”

Somehow containing most of her reaction, Roxa replied flatly, “You’d be surprised.”

“And is that where you’ve been, hunting werewolves?” Jazz pressed. “And what does that have to do with Chambers over there? What–”

“Later,” Roxa managed to interject with a slightly pained expression. I knew she wanted to tell them more, but she simply shook her head. “No time now. I…” For a moment, I thought she was going to say something else about it. In the end, however, the girl just changed the subject. “I wish you could all ride Gidget, but the board’s only so big.”

“Hold on.” I stumbled a bit to a stop. “Roxa, can Gidget carry two people in her board form that aren’t you if you ask her to?”

“Uh.” The girl looked at the cougar, then back to me and shrugged. “Sure, if I ask her to. Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “If you go full wolf, you can run a lot longer and a lot faster. Then two of these guys can ride Gidget.”

“That still leaves three of us,” Gordon pointed out. “You and two more. What are you planning to do about that?”

Slowly, my smile widened.

*******

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Sands cried out.

“Oh my God, we’re gonna die, we are going to die, we are going to diiiiiiieee!” Jazz chimed in.

Big babies. You’d think they’d never ridden bareback on a five foot tall (at the head) lioness that was running about forty miles an hour down an alien corridor before.

It must have made a rather eclectic sight. One massive lioness carrying two teenage girls, one armed with a mace and the other a falchion, a wolf, and a hoverboard with two teenage boys riding it, one of them holding a flail while the other had what looked like a black powder tommy gun. All of which were careening through the corridors, basically running over and through anything that got in the way.

I knew the route from the man’s mind, and going the way that we were, it wasn’t too long before one of the entrances to the ‘park’ (or whatever they called it) loomed ahead of us. From the memories that I had taken from the guard back there, I knew that it was actually a hidden maintenance entrance built behind a large tree, with a boulder blocking the other side from view.

Then we were there. A security panel sat beside the heavy metal door, but it clicked green as we approached, and there was a hiss of escaping air as the hatch began to slide open. That had to be my security-breaking power kicking in. Super useful, that was.

Slowing down as the door opened, I let Jazz and Sands slip off my back. I wanted to take the time to change back, but… we didn’t have it. We had to get the hell out of here. As the boys stepped down off of the hoverboard to let Gidget shift back into her cougar form, we slowly crept forward. I went first, stepping through the doorway.

It was like going outside into an actual park. There was even a slight breeze as we moved out of the maintenance corridor and into the wilderness area. Dirt, grass, trees, rocks, and more surrounded us. We could hear birds chirping. It was a freaking park right in the middle of a space station.

“Okay,” Sands whispered once we were all through the door. “Flick said we just have to follow this treeline about a hundred yards, then take a right to hit the stream. Then we can find the portal and get the hell out of here.”

I was about to make a growl of affirmation, when the door behind us suddenly whooshed shut and gave a definitive click. My head jerked that way, before snapping back to the front at the sound of a lot of energy weapons powering up.

Guards. Soldiers. A lot of them. Too many. Thirty, at least, and that was just at first count. All of them with their weapons raised and pointed at us. And right in the middle of them stood the one figure I really didn’t want to see: Radueriel.

They’d known where we were going. They’d beaten us there. He was ready for us. He had been waiting for us to show up.

We were so fucking dead.

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Field Trip 28-01

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Jazz’s voice was high-pitched, almost shrill. “I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Where are we? What happened to Paul?! What was that thing that took his place?! And who the fuck was that woman that popped out of Columbus?!” By the end, she was waving her arms wildly while practically hyperventilating.

“And most importantly,” the dark-skinned girl demanded finally while spinning toward Roxa, “are you okay?!” Punctuating the question with a lunge that way, Jazz embraced her old roommate.

While Roxa grunted in surprise at the sudden hug and staggered back a step, Sands suddenly spoke up, interrupting as she raised her hand to point. “Uh, guys? I really hate to interrupt the happy reunion and all the really, really good questions, but we’ve kinda got company.”

She was right, I realized. The enormous, brightly lit room that we were standing in suddenly wasn’t nearly as empty as it had been just a few seconds earlier. There were a dozen figures in there with us. Most of them wore some kind of black body armor with a face-obscuring helmet. They also carried weapons, half of them some kind of electrified pike thing, while the other half carried futuristic rifles that hummed with energy as much as the pikes did.  

The soldiers, or whatever they happened to be, were accompanied by two other figures in what looked a lot like scientist lab coats. They stood a bit behind the others, one of them holding some kind of flat screen computer pad in one hand. All of them stopped short almost as soon as they appeared. Clearly, whatever they had been expecting to see in here, we weren’t it. Most likely because they weren’t expecting us to be upright, conscious, armed, and ready for a fight.

Tabbris, I thought inwardly, we are where I think we are, aren’t we? If there was the slightest chance that I was wrong and we weren’t as completely screwed as I thought we were, I wanted to know about it.  

I th-think so, came the response. I d-don’t know, I’ve never been here before. Or I was too little. Th-those are Seosten people though. I mean, the scientists are. The troops are probably something else. They use, um, other races for their grunt troops. She sounded about as nervous as I felt, probably because she knew that we were both in deep trouble if these guys caught us.

The guns had already snapped up up to point in our direction, while one of the scientist-figures (the one without the computer), called out, “Human-children, put your weapons on the ground and you will not be harmed! Do so immediately, or face the consequences of your disobedience.”

Gordon, who had been silent up until that point, lifted his chin. “I assume,” he started, clearly addressing me even if his attention was on those guys, “that surrendering is a bad idea.”

“Very bad,” I confirmed flatly. “You know that bitch that came out of Columbus? She was possessing him. She’s been puppeting him for months, enslaving him, making him work against us. And that’s what these guys want to do to us. They want to turn us all into their puppets.”

“This is your last warning,” the scientist announced, while the guards that were armed with the pikes raised them threateningly. All ten of the soldiers looked like they were about half a second away from opening up on us right then and there. Clearly, coming in expecting to pick up a bunch of helpless bodies and running into us instead had thrown them off. I had no doubt that they were already calling in for help. It might be just ten now, but it would be a lot more soon.

“Well, I for one,” Isaac put in then, “don’t feel like letting a bunch of weird freaks jam their hands up my ass and wiggle their fingers. Especially when they haven’t even bought me a drink yet.”

“Shut up, Isaac.” Jazz’s retort seemed automatic, like she wasn’t even thinking about it. Then she looked over to me pointedly. “When we get out of this, you owe us answers. A lot of them.”

Before I could do more than give the briefest nod, the soldiers made their move. From each of the five rifles, a wide blue beam emerged, shooting across the room toward us. All five of the beams collided with the stone wall that Sands created with her mace, though they didn’t seem to do any actual damage to it. Probably something meant to knock us out, a stun beam.

The brown-haired girl reinforced the wall quickly, adding an angled roof overhead before her head shook. “It’ll hold against those stun beams, but not against everything they throw at it.”

Holding both of his hands up in front of his eyes like he was looking through invisible binoculars, Gordon took a second before grimacing. “There’s more of them already. They’re coming.”

“And they’re going to keep coming,” I replied. “This is their home turf, we need to go. If we stand here and fight, they’ll take us down eventually. And trust me, we do not want to be taken down.”

The black boy gave a single nod at that before looking down, still keeping his hands cupped around his eyes to use his x-ray vision power. “Jasmine,” he started simply, “it’s clear below us. Can you–”

“Yeah, I can get us out of here!” Jazz snapped while ducking under a shot that was angled up over the wall, “But it’ll take a bit, and I can’t do it if they’re shooting at me! It’s–” She swallowed. “It’s harder under stress. And I don’t know what this floor is made out of, but…” Pointedly, she waved her hand over it, and I saw a little bit start to shimmer before it faded. That continued, the bit of floor going back and forth from normal to shimmery and back again before Jazz muttered with obvious annoyance, “It’s resisting my power. I need a minute.”

“Sands, can you cover Jazz while the rest of us keep these guys busy for as long as it takes?” I asked, even as a wince escaped me at the sound of a lot more feet pounding into the room.

She gave a quick nod. “Yeah, I got it.” Pausing, she looked to me seriously. “Be careful, Flick.”  

“Why would I start now?” I asked with a shrug before turning to the others. “Okay, let them make the exit. The rest of us… these guys are playing for keeps, okay? It’s not a game, and we don’t have Gaia, Professor Dare, or anyone else watching our backs to make sure it’s not too dangerous. This is real. Absolutely, completely real. I know asking if you’re ready is stupid at this point, but…”

Roxa straightened, lifting her chin. “We can do this. Right, Gidget?” As the mechanical cougar gave a growl of agreement, she winked at me. “Just another fun day around Felicity Chambers.”

“You sure?” I pressed, gesturing to her injured arm. “Your…”

“I’m fine,” the other girl insisted, touching the spot where she had torn a bit of her shirt to create a makeshift bandage to tie around the wound. “Heretic regeneration.”

Right, the werewolf healing might not do much to the silver, but that wasn’t the only healing ability that Roxa had. Plus, she had those redundant organs from the Jekern. When it came down to it, Roxa Pittman was now incredibly difficult to kill.

“Little help?” Gordon, who was still using his tommy gun to spray down covering fire over the top of the wall while using his other hand to watch through it, prompted in his simple, unexcited voice. He sprayed again, grimacing. “Too close.”

Roxa gave a quick nod at that. “Right, let’s do this. Remember, what doesn’t kill us… we kill first so we can Highlander its soul.”  

That might as well have been our battle cry, because it was the last thing that any of us said before we were suddenly in the thick of things. I spun around the left side of the wall that Sands had created just in time to practically come face to face with one of the pike-wielding soldiers. His helmet had a flat black visor covering his face that made his expression impossible to read, though from his body language, he seemed surprised to see me. Abruptly, that pike of his snapped up, and I barely had the chance to spin out of the way, letting it jab past me. My arm dropped to hook around the shaft of the weapon, catching it as I continued to pivot. I felt him try to keep his grip on the thing, but I was stronger. The pike was torn from his grip, and I released the thing to let it clatter to the floor. At the same time, I turned my spin into a leap, kicking the man across his helmet in a blow that knocked him stumbling sideways, now weaponless.

There was another guy right behind that one. He had his gun raised, but I took a quick hop step forward while kicking out. My toes barely caught the shaft of the fallen pike, launching the thing up into the man’s helmet just hard enough that he reflexively jerked backward. His stun shot went wide. Then I was there. Pivoting, I caught the rebounding pike with my left hand while turning in a full circle. My own staff, held tight in my right hand, collided with the gunman’s chest before I triggered the kinetic blast that I’d been charging up. He was sent flying across the room.

At the same time, as I pivoted, my other hand reared back and released the pike that I’d caught. The electrified blade part took the first man in the back before he could finish recovering from that kick. There was a sudden crack of energy, and the man screamed before collapsing to the floor like a sack of bricks. Clearly, the pikes could knock us out as easily as those stun lasers, or whatever they were. Either way, we definitely didn’t want to get hit by them. It would be… bad.

Across the way, I could see Gordon. The boy had split his gun apart into its sword and shield mode, catching an incoming pike-swing from one of the soldiers with the blade while simultaneously using the shield to deflect a couple of stun-blasts. A second later, he spun and dropped to one knee while swinging his shield-arm to the left and back, driving the edge of the shield into the stomach of the man whose blade he had deflected. The blow made the soldier double over, and Gordon pirouetted back to his feet while giving a quick slice with his sword that took the man’s head off, sending it bouncing along the floor as the boy’s green aura flared up.

Meanwhile, a little bit past him, Isaac had somehow gotten hold of one of the enemy’s stun rifles and was using it to take potshots at them while the three spiked balls from his flail all hovered around him in their separate, floating drone forms. The drones were taking shots here and there as well, but mostly they acted as shields. Any time a shot came near the boy, one of his drones darted into its path to intercept, creating a shimmering blue forcefield around itself for an instant.

Hey, partner, I thought inwardly while using a short burst from my staff to knock myself away from a couple of stun shots. They were still trying to knock us out, even now. These guys were trying really hard not to kill us. I could only imagine what their Seosten masters would do to them if they ruined a set of perfectly good Heretic bodies that could have been possessed.

As I landed, Tabbris responded, clearly waiting until I had my feet under me and wasn’t under immediate attack. Yes, she answered without wasting the time to make me voice what she already knew I was going to ask by reading my thoughts, I can, um, tell you what you got from killing that stu–um, Charmeine. You can, um possess people. Like Seosten do. Like I do.

Now see? I sent back, even as I darted forward to catch the pike from one of the soldiers and knocked it aside. I knew you’d be really useful to have around, now that you’re talking to me. But– I went silent briefly, focusing on spinning my staff around to parry the next thrust from the man. As his pike was knocked aside once more, I finished, think you can take over for a second and make it happen? I’m not sure what I’m doing.

My eyes were on the quite frankly alarmingly number of soldiers coming through what I could now see was a door at the other end of the room. These guys may not have been expecting us to be ready to fight, but they were adjusting quickly. We’d had a bit of early success at fending them off, but sooner or later, they’d overwhelm us. Unless, of course, we could get out of here before they brought in too many guys for us to deal with. Time was decidedly not on our side.

The surprise in Tabbris’s voice was obvious. Y-you want me to… to control you? But I–I mean, you trust…

I grimaced, taking a quick step back as the man swung that pike at me again. You could have taken over any time you wanted to, I pointed out simply. The fact that you haven’t, and after everything you’ve done… yeah, I’d say I can trust you. C’mon, partner, take this guy over.

By that point, the soldier had gotten tired of me evading all of his attacks. I heard a dark growl of frustration escape him, and he swung the pike up and around violently. I was pretty sure that he didn’t care if he hurt me more than he was supposed to. He wanted me on the ground already.

My instinct was to dodge away from the swing. But abruptly, my body didn’t respond to my thoughts. It was incredibly disorienting. The closest thing I could compare it to was when you’re climbing stairs and you expect there to be one more step than there actually is, so you raise your foot really high and then come awkwardly. It was kind of a mental version of that.

My body wasn’t responding to me, but it was moving. My arm lashed out and down, parrying the pike out of the way with my staff. Then my other hand snapped up while my feet moved to carry me forward. I caught hold of the soldier’s armored faceplate, pressing my fingers against it.

And then… well, then my view suddenly snapped around so that I was looking at the spot where I had just been standing. It was a disorienting vision switch that kind of felt like going around a sharp curve in a roller coaster. My stomach was doing flip flops. Or maybe his stomach was, and I was just feeling it. Or maybe–never mind, it was entirely too complicated by that point.

Not only was I seeing through the man’s eyes, I could also feel his muscles. I could feel his… wow, I could feel his exhaustion and his fear. Not of us, I realized belatedly, but of failing. The man was thinking about what would happen if he failed to contain us, of what the Seosten would do. And–okay, the images that filled his mind would not make it easier for me to sleep at night.

The man’s name, he was… he was called Riolu Ylet. He had been alive for what his planet called fourteen ossils, which I was pretty sure translated to years. And since he’d never been to Earth, there was no way of knowing how long that actually was. My best guess was that he would’ve been considered roughly twenty-eight. A young guy, as far as all that went. And he–

Flick, Tabbris’s voice prompted in my head, you can move him, just like moving yourself.

Oh. Oh. Right, stop reading into the man’s entire life story, Flick. His thoughts, memories, and feelings had just started flooding into my mind as soon as I had the slightest inkling of curiosity. In the background of my mind, I felt him shouting at me, demanding that I leave his body.

Sorry, I thought at him, I just need to borrow this for a second. To be fair, you were gonna help your masters enslave all my friends and play Operation on me. So I think we’re pretty even.

Moving felt awkward. My body was all wrong. Or rather, his was, in relation to what I was accustomed to. He was taller than I was, he moved a little slower than I did, his arms were longer, it was all different. I turned, and as I took in the sight of the rest of the room, something else happened. Wherever the other soldiers and the scientists were, there was a faint green outline. And wherever Roxa and the others were, there was a faint red outline. The helmets had Identify Friend/Foe capability. Probably among other things that I didn’t have time to focus on in that moment.

Instead, I focused on the one thing that I actually did need to know right then, dragging the memory up out of Riolu’s thoughts while he tried to keep it hidden from me. Then I had it.

“Desedene!” I made the man’s lips shout, screaming it as loud as he could while running away from the group. His arms flailed, and I made him shout again, “Desedene!”

Hearing that word, all of the soldiers and the scientists dove to the floor. They covered their heads and hugged the ground.

Bomb. I had taken the word for the most dangerous (yet still believable) bomb that Riolu could think of, the worst bomb that we could possibly have smuggled in on our little trip. It was enough to make them dive for the floor, buying us a little time.

Eject! I blurted inwardly. Tabbris, hit the eject!

My body was back. Or I was back in my body. Whichever, the point was, I was back behind the man that I had taken possession of. And as a bonus, he was already collapsing to the floor. Tabbris had knocked him out rather than give him a chance to say that everything was safe.

Spinning on my heel then, I shouted for the others. “Go, go, go!” All the while, I was already running back toward the wall that Sands had created.

Sliding my way around it, I blurted, “Tell me you’re ready, cuz there are way too many guys out there for us to deal with anymore.” Around me, the others came stumbling into view, most of them looking pretty ragged. It was time to go.

Jazz, kneeling on the floor with Sands standing over her (and a couple downed soldiers littering the floor around them), gave a short nod. “Got it, got it! I don’t know how long it’ll hold, but got it! Go, go, get through right now!” The floor in front of the girl was shimmering like water.

Looking back around the wall, I saw the soldiers just starting to pick themselves up. Since the bomb had never materialized, they were rising once more. Luckily, the fact that we had so much firepower on our side seemed to have given them pause. And I was sure they were confused about the guy who had yelled about the bomb. But still, there was no more time to waste. They were going to get over their hesitation really quick.

“Roxa, go!” I gestured, and the blonde girl hopped through the shimmering part of the floor. She was followed immediately by Isaac. Then Gordon went through. I nodded toward Sands, and she followed after him.

A quick glance around the wall revealed that all of the remaining soldiers were back on their feet by that point. Worse, there was another figure standing in the doorway of the room, just beyond them. He was a short man, standing only slightly taller than I was, with tousled, curly brown hair. He wore a dark green cloak over one shoulder that covered the right half of his body, leaving his right arm hidden. One of his legs was clearly mechanical, a bronze and red metallic limb with what looked like clockwork parts whirring and spinning as he lifted it to take a step.

Radueriel, Tabbris’s voice whispered in my head. When the Seosten were all playing gods on Earth, he was Hephaestus. M-Mama said his experiments are almost as b-brutal as the Fomorians. He’s the one who really made the Heretical Edge.

Okay, there was a lot of information to digest there, especially the part about all the Seosten playing gods and the fact that this guy had made the Heretical Edge, not Bosch. Which probably meant that he had been the one possessing Bosch, though I wasn’t positive on that.

The man stopped when he saw me peeking out at him, and I saw a small smile play over his face. When he lifted the arm that had been hidden beneath the cloak, I saw that it had the same clockwork cybernetics as well. He pointed the arm at us, and I saw the mechanical fingers retract before the hand reshaped itself into a cannon. He smiled again, and I jerked backward behind the wall just in time for a spinning ball of what looked like purple plasma or something go flying past where my head had just been.

Okay, okay, time to go. Past time to go. “Jazz,” I started, but the girl shook her head.

“I go through and it closes. Get through. But hey!” Her hand grabbed my arm, squeezing tight as the girl stared intently at me. “Don’t screw us over, Chambers. Got it?”

There was a lot that I could’ve said to that. But none of it would have been productive. Especially not with the sound of running footsteps approaching. Instead, I just replied, “We’re on the same side.”

Then I dropped through the shimmering part of the floor. It didn’t just look like water, it felt like it for that moment. Well, very thick water. It was like moving through somewhat thin jello.

Once my body was through the floor, I dropped the rest of the way. A couple hands caught me as I fell, steadying me for a moment. Isaac and Sands. The two of them released me once I had my balance.

I stepped quickly out of the way then, just before Jazz dropped through. The floor above returned to the way it had been, and we had a second to look around. We were in what looked like a utility tunnel beneath that room. It was fairly narrow, just wide enough for two of us two walk abreast, with dull gray walls and a single glowing white line along one of the walls that seemed to function as a light. And possibly a guide of some kind, I wasn’t sure.

“We have to move.” That was Gordon. The boy was looking up, cupping his hands to see through the ceiling above us. “They’re right there. They’ll figure out what we did in a minute. They’ll know where we are.”

“Who was that guy?” Jazz demanded. “The one with the steampunk robot limbs. What–”

My head shook. “We don’t have time. We have to get the hell out of here.”

“What do we do now?” Sands blurted. Her head was shaking. “We’re in Seosten space, aren’t we? We’re–they–those banishment things, like–”

“There isn’t time,” I repeated. “We can’t think about that now, we can’t talk about it. We have to get the hell out of here. There’s an entire army above us, and we’re stuck halfway across the universe, behind enemy lines, surrounded by monsters that want to turn us into their personal marionettes. There is no one else that’s gonna help us at the moment. We are on our own. So you wanna know what we do right now?

“We run.”

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Interlude 27B – Shiori and Columbus

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Please note that there was a full bonus chapter focusing on Dare posted yesterday. If you missed it (congratulations, you get to read the actual edited version without a million typos), you may wish to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

The room should have been cozy. Small, with a nice leather couch, plush carpeting, and pleasant pictures on the wall along with a wide screen television on the wall (the remote sat on the arm of the couch, waiting to be used), it should have been a perfectly place to sit and wait.

For Shiori Porter, it felt like a prison. The walls felt like they were closing in on her, getting closer with each slowly passing minute. The slightly cool air was somehow stifling, and she could have sworn that there were cameras in the room watching absolutely every move that she made.

She had been sitting there for the past… what felt like forever, but according to her phone, was more like six hours. Not constantly, no. Every once in awhile, those Committee guys, October and Patrick, would pull her into another room to run through the same line of questioning for the fifth, sixth, or seventh time. Did she notice anything off about Columbus, when did she think he’d been possessed by the Stranger who had somehow bypassed all the school’s defenses, did she think there were more of them, and so on and so on and so on. It would end, they would put her back in this room to wait, and then twenty, thirty, or fifty minutes later they’d pull her out again to go through the exact same thing. No matter what she told them, they just wanted to hear more.

Not that she was telling the exact truth. Before they’d pulled her into this interrogation, the headmistress had given her a neat little watch that let her bypass their lie-detecting powers. But Shiori was pretty sure that the Committee goons still didn’t believe what she was telling them.

It was as close to the truth as she could possibly get without ruining… everything. She told them that she didn’t know what the species that had possessed her brother was, only that he had been acting ‘off’ recently and she’d gotten his team to help her investigate. Somehow, the Stranger that was possessing Columbus had found out that they knew, and had launched an ambush that eventually resulted in Columbus being freed of the Stranger’s influence, even as several other students, including a couple of his teammates, were abducted.

That was pretty close. All they really left out was the specific stuff about the Seosten. As far as October and Patrick were concerned, this was some random, unknown Stranger with a possession power. The fact that it had gotten that far, taking over a student and posing as him for months, had obviously sent up a lot of alarm bells.

The trouble was, Shiori wasn’t sure how many of those alarms were because of free Heretics being horrified that one of their own students had been taken over, and how many were Seosten being annoyed that one of them had actually been discovered and exposed. And, well, killed.  

Six hours. She had been sitting here, in and out of interrogations, for six hours. No one would tell her anything except that Flick and several of the others had been… had been… taken. Flick.

Sitting forward suddenly, Shiori caught her hands against her mouth as bile rose in her throat. She couldn’t cry anymore. The fear, the terror of what was happening to Flick, Sands, and the others right then had left her a quivering ball in the corner of the room for the first hour of her time there. She hadn’t even been able to move or answer any questions until Professor Dare stopped in to talk to her for a minute. She’d told her that Flick hadn’t been knocked out or anything. She’d just killed that Charmeine bitch when she and Roxa were taken by one of those orbs. So there was a good chance that they and the others had been ready for a fight when they had arrived. Flick especially, considering she had just taken the power from one of the Seosten.

Which kind of helped, but… not really. It staved off the worst of the panic for a little while. But the thought of even a combat-ready Flick being stuck out there in Seosten space, it… it…

No. She wasn’t going to think about that. She wasn’t going to be a baby about it. Flick and the others, they’d… they’d be okay. They had to be okay. It wasn’t the first time that Flick had been off on an alien planet with a bunch of things that wanted to kill her. And this time, she had a lot more help. Sands was there, and so was Roxa. Roxa, the werewolf who had killed Lemuel.

Plus, there were several members of Roxa’s old team there. Shiori wasn’t sure how much they could be trusted, but surely they would all stick by Flick at least until everyone got back home.

And they would be coming home. Banishment be damned, Shiori believed that between Gaia, Wyatt, Professor Dare, and even that Gabriel Prosser guy, they would find a way to bring Flick and the others back. It was just a matter of time, just a matter of trusting them to get it done.

Or so she kept telling herself. It was the only way she could resist the urge to scream about Seosten in October and Patrick’s faces. And that… well, that would’ve made things even worse.

As worried as she was about Flick and the others, Shiori was even more worried about Columbus. All Dare had been able to tell her in the short time they’d had was that he wasn’t possessed anymore. But she didn’t know what condition he was in, if they were going to let him go, or anything. She’d been here the whole time, desperately hoping that her brother was okay.

Finally, the door opened yet again. But this time, instead of seeing either of the Committee’s stooges, or anyone else that would’ve made her want to scream, it was Gaia who stepped inside. The woman looked worn and ragged, dark circles having formed under her eyes. Honestly, it was that sight that terrified Shiori the most, out of everything she’d heard that day.

“H-headmistress?” she blurted while hurriedly jumping off the couch to her feet, eyes widening.

“I’m sorry, Shiori,” the woman spoke quietly. Her voice was a little strained. “I owe you every apology. I was… occupied with trying to help Avalon and handling several other situations, and I allowed you to sit here, being interrogated over and over again. I am truly sorry. But you’ve been through enough now. Come, that’s enough of all this. It’s time to meet with your brother.”

“It’s… it’s okay,” Shiori mumbled, feeling awkward as she took a quick step that way. Her gaze snapped up at the mention of Columbus. “He.. he’s okay then? Columbus is alright?”

The question actually made Gaia give a slight, soft smile. “Yes,” she answered quietly. “The short answer is that Columbus is no longer possessed and seems to be well, at least physically. Mentally… that may take some time. He will need help, and… you. He will need his sister and friends to help him understand and accept that what happened was not his fault. Be patient.”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down rapidly at that. “Y-yeah, of course. And… and umm…” Biting her lip, she hesitated before asking in a worried, soft voice, “What about the others? What about Flick, and Sands, and… and the rest? What–do you know anything else? Please. Please?”

The woman paused, seeming to take a moment to collect herself before shaking her head slowly. “I will be honest with you, Shiori, we don’t know much more. Wyatt has assured us that some of the spells he cast on Felicity are working, even across the vast distance they must cover. He can’t tell us exactly where they are, or communicate with them in any way. But he does know that she is in relatively healthy condition. That is basically all he knows for certain. She is alive, and she is healthy. Beyond that…” she trailed off for a moment, looking away before finishing with a simple, “we are looking for options right now. But I promise you,” the woman spoke more firmly while returning her gaze to Shiori’s, “we will bring them back here.”

Gaia led her out of the room then, walking with Shiori through the hallway of the main school building. As they walked, the girl hesitated before asking, “Um. Did Flick really… did she kill–”

Now the headmistress really did smile. There was obvious pride there. “Yes,” she answered with a slight nod. “The Seosten who possessed Columbus is dead, Shiori. From everything that I have managed to hear, your brother managed the initial blow, before Felicity… finished her.”

“Good.” Shiori looked at the floor for a moment, digesting that before repeating, “Good. It doesn’t make everything better, but… it’s something. I’m glad she’s dead. She–” Anything else that the girl might have said was choked off by the lump in her throat. Finally, she just shook her head, unable to find the words for how much she hated that creature for what she had done.

And yet, even in death, Charmeine still hadn’t fully lost. She’d managed to send Flick and the others off to Seosten space. Even if they were actually upright and ready for a fight, it was still… bad. Bad enough that the queasy, terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach wouldn’t go away.

“What about the… body?” she asked then, as the thought occurred to her. “The Seosten body, I mean. It would be… you know, proof. Proof of everything we know about them. Proof they exist. Proof of all of it. They–” She winced, realizing. “They took it, didn’t they? They took the body.”

Yet, Gaia simply smiled once more. “Well,” she replied casually, “sadly, it seems that whatever creature happened to possess Columbus had the foresight to include some sort of defensive measure to prevent their bodies from being recovered. It disintegrated shortly after Virginia reached it. There was nothing she could do to stop it in time. More’s the loss.”

For a moment, Shiori just stared, confused by the way Gaia’s smile conflicted with her words. Then she understood, her eyes widening at the realization. The body hadn’t actually disintegrated. Dare had made it disappear specifically so that the Seosten infiltrators couldn’t claim it. Now, they had the body and could examine it at their leisure. It might come in handy. It could be proof of everything they were saying later, at a better, more convenient time. Dare spiriting the body away first meant that the Seosten couldn’t make it disappear themselves. And they couldn’t exactly accuse Dare of lying about that, at least not openly. It would mean exposing themselves. Hell, that might have been another reason that the woman had done it, to try and coax any other Seosten infiltrators into giving themselves away by objecting too much.

In other words, the Seosten who were possessing those Crossroads Heretics knew that Gaia and Dare were lying. But they couldn’t exactly call them out on it without revealing themselves. Hell, the Seosten were probably ready and waiting for Gaia to try to call out their existence specifically so that they could discredit her. But the headmistress was too smart to take the bait.

Before they reached the room where Columbus was, Shiori bit her lip and looked toward the woman, starting hesitantly, “I… I’m sorry about what happened to Mr. Carfried. Is… is Professor Carfried okay? I mean, they were related and I don’t know how how close they were, but…”  

Flinching just a little bit (but the fact that it was noticeable at all spoke volumes), Gaia gave a slight head shake before answering. “It will take Benjii some time to cope with all of this. He and his great-great-grandfather were close enough that it was Josiah who recommended Benji to fill the position of first-year magic instructor this year.” She sighed then, lamenting, “I am afraid that the man somehow blames himself for not being there to help when Josiah needed him.”  

Shiori’s head shook quickly at that. “What? Why would he–” She frowned. “He couldn’t have stopped them, even if he was there. I mean, if Professor Dare was there and couldn’t stop it, then… then there’s no way that he could have. I mean, they were ready for almost everything. They took everyone by surprise. Professor Carfried couldn’t have stopped them.”

Gaia smiled faintly, giving a slight nod at that. “No,” she agreed, “he could not have.”

Shiori was just starting to get the suspicion that this wasn’t entirely about Professor Carfried when the headmistress stopped in front of a door. She gestured to it. “Take your time, Shiori. When you are both ready to come and face the world again, there will be time to sort everything else out. For now… go and see your brother. We will take care of the rest in time, I promise.”

Shiori didn’t need another invitation. She immediately moved to push the door open, stepping into what turned out to be a small, private library of some kind. There were several rows of bookshelves, a fireplace, and a leather chair next to a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the grounds. It looked like a place for a teacher, maybe Gaia herself, to relax and read in peace.

And standing with his back to her right there in the middle of the room, staring through that window with his goggles held loosely in one hand, was Columbus. He clearly heard the door open, but didn’t move. He was focused solely on that window, his gaze slightly bowed.

“Columbus!” Shiori blurted from where she stood. For a moment, her feet felt like they were caught in cement. She couldn’t move. Seeing the boy there, knowing that it was really him and not some stupid Seosten bitch looking out through his eyes, it was completely overwhelming.

Slowly, the boy turned around. He was looking at the floor before his gaze slowly raised to take her in. She saw him gulp, hand briefly tightening on the strap to his goggles before he dropped them entirely. “Shy-guy,” he breathed out, starting to take a step before stopping himself. He looked awkward, uncertain, even afraid of her response. He looked completely and totally lost.

He was frozen, so she forced her own feet to move. Crossing the short distance between them, Shiori immediately grabbed onto her brother, hugging him tightly. Her arms slipped around the boy and she clung to him with a weak little sob that blurted its way out of the girl. “Columbus.”

She felt the boy stiffen under her embrace before he relaxed just a bit. An unfamiliar noise escaped him, and he breathed out. Making no move to actually return the hug, he spoke in a hoarse, quiet voice. “Shiori,  you’re…” He trailed off, clearly unable to say what he wanted to.

Swallowing hard, the girl slowly raised her own gaze while leaning back to see his face. “Columbus, I–” Shiori flinched as the thought came. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I’m so, so sorry.”

The surprise on the boy’s face could not have been any more complete. His mouth literally fell open. “I–what?” he managed to croak out a bit weakly. “What are you–why are you… huh?”

She met his gaze earnestly, staring up at the boy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it wasn’t you until… until Flick told me. I had no idea. I should’ve. I should’ve known. I’m sorry, Columbus. I’m so, so sorry. You must’ve felt like–you must feel like I betrayed you, or… or like I didn’t know you.”

He stared down at her in flat astonishment at that. “Shy–you… you’re not…” His head shook then, and Columbus immediately caught onto her hands. “Shiori, I’m not mad at–you should be mad at me!” he blurted the words loudly. “I’m the one who couldn’t fight her, couldn’t stop her! She could have–she–she threatened to–and I couldn’t… I never… I could never–” His voice cut off, and the boy shook his head even more, snapping it back and forth violently. “I’m sorry.”

“You were possessed, you big idiot!” Shiori blurted, before snapping her hand against her own mouth with a horrified look. Blanching, she stammered muffledly through her own hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I–” Lowering her hand, she managed a weak, “you were possessed. It’s not your fault. It’s not even close to your fault. It was… it was her.” The last word came as a growl.

“She’s… she’s dead.” Columbus’s voice made it sound as though he was still trying to convince himself of the truth of that. “Charmeine. She’s dead now. Dead for good. Gone.” He kept repeating it, like he needed to hear the words over and over in order to make them real.

Shiori gave a single, firm nod. “She’s dead, Columbus. She’s gone. You and Flick, you made–” Her voice caught a bit, and she had to swallow hard before forcing out the words, “You made sure of that.”

For a moment, both siblings simply stood there, staring at each other. Both felt awkward, uncertain, and confused about what they were supposed to say, what they could say.

Finally, Shiori shook off her own confusion and uncertainty about the situation. She didn’t matter right then. Columbus mattered. He needed her. He needed reassurance. After everything he’d been through… everything that bitch had made him do…

“Columbus.” That time, her voice was firm. When he looked back to her eyes, Shiori spoke simply. “I love you. You’re my brother. You’re always gonna be my brother. None of what happened, none of it’s your fault, okay? None of it. You… you’re the best brother in the world. You accepted me when you found out the truth about my… about my mom. You accepted me immediately, you big dork. You’re…” She choked up a little then. Flick would’ve known what to say. Flick could’ve made him feel better. All Shiori could do was stammer and babble a little.

But at least she could say the most important thing. And she’d keep saying it for as long as it took.

“I love you, Columbus. I love you. You’re my brother. You’re my family.”

For a moment, the boy said nothing. He just stared down at her, a series of tumultuous emotions playing across his face. Finally, he lowered his head, tears springing to his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to do any of that. I didn’t–I couldn’t–I… they’re dead. She made me kill them, kill him… she made me–she would have… I couldn’t–” Anything else that he might have said was cut off then as his throat closed up.

Shiori took him by the hands, squeezing tightly before guiding the boy over to sit on the oversized stuffed armchair. It was big enough for the two of them to squeeze in next to each other, which reminded her of all the Saturday mornings spent in the recliner at home when they were kids, first watching cartoons and then playing video games. Simpler times.

“We know,” she finally replied in a soft voice, still squeezing the boy’s hands. “We know, Columbus. It wasn’t you. It wasn’t your fault.” She reached up then, tugging him down. And, despite their difference in size, Columbus fairly collapsed against her. His head fell against her shoulder, and Shiori hugged onto him. She held the boy against her, swallowing a little roughly. What did she say? What could she say that would magically make it better after everything that had happened? What words even existed that could help? Maybe… maybe two words.

“I’m here. I’m here, Columbus.”

It was almost ten minutes before either of them spoke again. Sitting there in that chair, thinking about easier times, younger times, it left them both silent until Columbus finally spoke. “… I did try. I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to–I didn’t want to do any of it.”

“I know.” Shiori’s voice was soft. She leaned back, watching her brother for a moment. “Columbus, you were–how… how long?”

He flinched at the question, hesitating before giving a soft, weak answer. “Since the airport at Thanksgiving, while I was waiting for you guys.”

Shiori’s eyes widened, and she made a horrified sound in the back of her throat. “Th-that long? You–you–oh. Oh my God. Columbus, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

Biting his lip, Columbus rubbed the back of his head. “Can… we just put a moratorium on apologies for now? Otherwise, I’m pretty sure we’ll be in here all week.”

Flushing a little, Shiori gave a tiny nod before pausing. The thought of all that Columbus had ‘missed’, or rather, what Charmeine had been puppeting him through, it was… staggering.

“I… umm… I don’t suppose you know who the other Seosten are?”  she asked, trying to change the subject.

His head shook. “No. Trust me, that was the first thing Gaia and Dare asked me. Charmeine always either knocked me out or wiped my memory when she had to meet with anyone else. Her boss, that Manakel guy, he insisted on it, just in case.”

“Stupid competent evil jerk,” Shiori muttered darkly. Then she looked up to him again. “What about… Mr. Carfried? If Gaia and Professor Dare made the Seosten body disappear, are… are the Heretics gonna try to… to come after you for what happened to him?”

Columbus shook his head once more. “The headmistress said that they have eyewitness testimony from Scout, Rudolph, Douglas, Avalon, and Sean that I was possessed and that they saw the Stranger who was possessing me leave my body. They can’t prove ‘giant Seosten conspiracy from the very beginning of Crossroads’, but they can prove that there was one Stranger possessing me to make me… to make me do that….” He swallowed hard. “.. that stuff.”

Putting her hand on top of his, Shiori asked hesitantly, “Do… do you know anything about where they sent Flick and the others? Or… or…”

He finished for her. “How to get them back? I’m sorry, Shee. I don’t know. I wish I did. I…. Charmeine wasn’t much for technical explanations. She didn’t share that kind of stuff. She bragged a lot, threatened even more. But telling me details like that? She didn’t really go for that.”

Inwardly, the girl flinched. But she tried to hide it. Columbus already felt bad enough about everything. And he had been there for her, so damn it, she would be there for him.

“I know you’re probably tired of talking about… about all of that,” she noted quietly, “but would you mind answering one more question for me? Then, I promise, we can just sit here and not talk about it for as long as you want.”

“One question?” The boy blinked at that before nodding. “Sure… what is it?”

Shifting in the seat to be closer to her brother, Shiori straightened and looked straight at him before asking her question.

“How good did it feel to blast that fucking bitch straight out the window?”

The question made Columbus blink again. Then he gave a brief, almost choking laugh. It wasn’t a lot. But it was something. His arms wrapped around her, hugging his sister to him.

“I love you, Shiori.”

“I love you too, Columbus.”

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Interlude 27A – Virginia Dare

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She should have seen it coming. She should’ve been ready for it. Ready for the monster that was puppeting Columbus Porter to make her move.

But she had gotten complacent. In the weeks since they had discovered the truth about the Seosten that was possessing the boy, Virginia Dare had been almost constantly on edge. The thought of letting that creature continue to control any one of her students, let alone one of…

It was almost impossible. She wanted pretty much nothing more than to imprison ‘Columbus’  and use that spell to force that thing out of him.

Over time, however, she had forced herself to settle down somewhat. The fact was, Charmeine had no reason to make any overt moves that would reveal herself. They needed to keep an eye out for other things, but the Seosten woman should have been relatively docile, particularly with Dare sitting practically right on top of her, and another Heretic directly in front of her. She had been very subtle so far, and since she didn’t know that her cover was blown, there should have been no reason for her to expose herself with an open attack.

Except they were wrong. Something had changed. Either the Seosten knew that she had been exposed, or she didn’t care. Either way, she wasn’t being subtle at all anymore. A fact that was driven home with the brutal, sudden murder of Josiah Carfried and ejection of Dare from the car.

Even though she had not been expecting any overt action like that, a direct attack still should have set off at least one of the danger sense powers that Dare had collected over the years.

Which was clearly why the Seosten hadn’t directly attacked her. She had simply turned the car insubstantial around her so that Dare fell out. And with her powers, that wouldn’t have been enough to really hurt her, even if she had been completely asleep.

That was sometimes the danger of mixing certain danger senses with other powers. They worked off of what would actually hurt the person. So if an action wouldn’t hurt them, it didn’t register to the danger sense.

It all happened too quickly, and took the woman too much by surprise for her to activate the power that allowed her to create the time-stop bubble before the cab had disappeared. Not simply ahead into traffic, but disappeared entirely.

“No!” the blonde woman gasped while staring at the spot where the cab had just been. It was only for a brief second before her mind started working again. But that brief second was enough time for her danger sense to actually go off.

She felt it then, the rush of air, the sudden presence of more mass than had been there before, the sound of a fast heartbeat, and more all exposed the presence and exact location of her attacker. She could also hear the whistle of his blade as it cut through the air, and sensed its metal content nearing her neck.

Spinning, Dare caught the hilt of her sword with one hand and gave it a quick toss straight up out of the sheath without holding onto it. At the same time she raised her other hand into position, so that when the enemy’s blade slammed into hers, as it floated in the air from the toss, her sword was knocked backwards into her waiting hand before stopping, her own strength halting the enemy’s sword.

And it was a massive sword indeed, the blade stretching over six feet in length, and as wide as Dare herself was. Her own slight blade and slender form stopping it in mid-swing appeared almost comical, a result only of her enhanced strength and the quality of her weapon.

The figure before her, holding the weapon, was a match for its size. He stood over nine feet tall, with a body that was covered in short, dark, coarse fur. Yet, beneath that fur, she knew that the skin was as hard as solid rock. His face was twisted and leathery, some mixture between a human and a gorilla.

“Kariwase,” Dare announced the figure’s name while their blades remained locked. Her voice was dark. “I don’t have time for you right now.”

Kariwase had been an Iroquois warrior centuries earlier, before his own arrogance had resulted in the death of his entire hunting party, including his young son.

Torn apart by grief, yet still unable to accept his own responsibility and grow from it, the man had sought the help of a witch in order to gain the power to not only kill the man behind the slaughter, but to entirely wipe out their whole tribe, his goal to make it as though they had never existed.

He’d gained the power he needed, becoming a creature known as a Genoskwa, often seen as the larger, much more aggressive cousin of the Sasquatch. And with that power, Kariwase had killed hundreds before a young Dare and her then-mentor, Tiras, had stopped his rampage long enough for a few of the tribe to escape, scattering to the wilds. And from that point on, he had seen the two as his mortal enemies, repeatedly appearing at the most inopportune times.

“Still no papa figure, huh?” he taunted while pulling his sword away from hers. “That’s too bad, I would’ve liked to make the old man swim in your blood and see if he could resist taking a little sip.”

“I dunno,” a new voice spoke as Dare felt, heard, and smelled another arrival. “ I don’t think she’s going to have much blood left when this is over.”

The newcomer stood only slightly taller than Dare herself, and looked fairly normal, all things considered. Except, of course, for his four arms, each of them holding a different weapon. Two held swords, one a hammer, and the fourth held a whip. From experience, Dare knew that the man was scarily proficient with each of them, particularly when using them all together.

“Roscoe,” she almost snarled the name. Another vicious man from her past, this one she had met after arriving in England and being taken by Gaia as an apprentice.

“You two don’t normally work together,” she announced while letting her eyes flickered back-and-forth between them, “which means this isn’t a coincidence.”

She didn’t have time for this. Felicity and Rudolph were in trouble. And Columbus too, if the Seosten was so willing to expose her infiltration of him. And yet, Dare could not simply ignore them. The two were deadly enough separately, let alone together, that the moment she let her guard down to summon a portal or make a call, they would have been all over her.

“Coincidence?” Roscoe echoed, showing her a thin smile beneath his mop of shaggy blonde hair. “No, see… when we heard that you were gonna be out here, all lonely and stuff… well, we had to come keep you company. Just the kind of nice gentleman we are. Ain’t that right, Chewie?”

“Not my name,” the fur covered rock man grunted in his gravelly voice.

Roscoe sighed. “I know it’s not your name. I was… you know, the big furry alien, plus you kind of eat people, so…” he sighed, shaking his head while gesturing toward Dare with one of his weapons. “Never mind, she gets it.”

Using her thumb to flick one of her spell cylinders into place with the switch on the hilt of her sword, Dare spoke flatly. “You need to leave. You have no idea how little time I have for this right now.”

Roscoe mocked her words. “Oh, you don’t have time? Well, I guess we’ll make this quick then, won’t we?”

He suited action to words by jerking his lower right hand up to make the whip lash out. Fortunately, his whip wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as Gaia’s, which Dare had seen extend to the length of a football stadium with a single snap. It was still dangerous, of course, but she had been ready for the move. As the whip lashed out toward her wrist, she triggered the spell that she had readied in her sword’s hilt. A nova cloud of frost expanded out from the sword, catching the incoming whip and freezing it in place.

Spinning simultaneously on one foot, she kicked out with the other, catching Kariwase’s wrist as the big man grabbed for her. She also used it as a boost to push herself into the air, twisting around so that her other foot could kick out and hit the furry rock man in the face. Strong as she was, it was still like kicking a brick wall would have been if she didn’t have any powers. The big guy barely noticed it. Yet it was still enough to knock him back a step and buy her a little space.

Still in the air, she glanced back and pointed one finger at the ground between herself and Roscoe even as he swung that big warhammer of his. A two-foot thick pillar of concrete six feet tall erupted from the ground directly in the weapon’s path.

The concrete itself was no match for the strike. The warhammer pulverized it in that single blow, crashing right through the raised concrete and sending dust and chunks of it flying in every direction.

Good. Dare let the dust and bits fly, as the four-armed man moved through it. Then she used another power to reassemble the pillar, repairing the damage that had been done. Only in doing so, she reassembled it directly around the man himself. Roscoe was effectively trapped in a pillar of concrete that had assembled itself around him.  Which had been the point. She couldn’t trap the man in the pillar like that just by pulling it out of the ground, but she could make him destroy it, and then reassemble it as he moved through the space it was in.

Finally landing on her feet, the blonde woman snapped her small sword up in three quick, successive moves, each catching a powerful swing from Kariwase’s massive blade.

Clang, clang, clang. The sound of the weapons clashing together filled the air, even as Bystander vehicles continue to pull around them. Dare had long since stopped thinking very much about what they might be seeing when things like this happened.

With his free hand, the Genoskwa threw an unbelievably fast punch for someone his size. Dare barely managed to twist her head aside far enough to let the punch sail past her. It struck a nearby parked car, and sent the thing flying sideways a good twenty feet to slam into a building.

Before the man could pull his arm back, she flicked the cylinder in her sword over to a new spell, and triggered it. As she did so, her blade turned red hot. She snapped it up, slicing clean through the rock man’s arm at the elbow.

Kariwase gave a loud, terrible bellow at that, reeling backward as the stump of his arm bled profusely.

Blinded by outrage, the big guy took a wild swing with his sword, cleaving through the air like a small airplane wing. but Dare was ready for that. Giving a little hop, she landed on the flat of the wildly swinging sword, and let the motion carry her up into the air, where she did a quick little flip over the man’s head, turning as she landed behind him to put her still heat-enchanted blade through his back. His terrible scream proved that she had hit something important.

But not quite important enough to put him down. The furry rock man spun around, his quick motion snapping the sword out of Dare’s hand, leaving it embedded in his back. In mid-spin, he lashed out with a backhand from his remaining arm that nearly took her in the face. It did, in fact, go right through her head. Fortunately, she had already used her power to turn her body into an insubstantial smoke-like form, making his massive fist pass right through her harmlessly. A single word activated one of the spells on her glove, summoning the sword from its place in the rock man’s back to her hand once more.

By that point, Roscoe had extricated himself from his concrete prison, and was coming up on her from behind as she reformed. As one of his swords drove for her back, Dare pivoted on one foot, parrying the blade aside with her own with a diagonal upward snap of her wrist. In the same motion, she continued her spin, adding a little hop to plant her foot against the man’s upper right arm as he swung at her with his other sword, knocking it out of the way. A slight lessening of gravity allowed her to stay up just long enough to invert herself, planting her other foot into the man’s face with enough force to break his nose, and send him stumbling backward.

Using the force from her kick to the man’s face, Dare pushed off to propel herself the other way, even as Kariwase came charging right in. He had already regenerated the arm that she had cut off, aptly demonstrating just why it was so hard to fully kill the monster.

Still, Dare didn’t mind giving it the old college try. Or she wouldn’t have, if she wasn’t in such a hurry.  As it was, she didn’t have time to waste. All she could do was make sure that the two were down long enough that they could not follow her easily.

To that end, she allowed her brief flight to take her within a hair’s breadth of the rock man’s furry fist. Catching his extended arm at the elbow before she would have passed by him, Dare used her momentum to flip herself up and around, wrapping one leg around the furry monster’s neck, and twisted to take him all the way to the ground. As he collided with the ground in a mighty, thunder-like crash, she caught the back of his furry head and slammed it even harder down into the concrete with enough force to break through, leaving a hole there.

Before the Genoskwa could recover, Dare inverted her grip on her sword, driving the blade straight down into the cement beside him. It would take far more than a single blade to the head to actually kill the monster, but she could make sure that he was too occupied to follow her.

A flick of her finger activated another one of the spell canisters in her sword. This one created a light blue, semi-translucent bubble around the area that the sword had struck. In this case, it enveloped the fallen man.  As Dare threw herself up and off of him, his head rose up, then slammed it down into the concrete once more, seemingly of its own devotion. This repeated again, and then again. Thanks to the bubble that she had trapped him in, his body would continue to repeat its last action until the spell wore off in about ten minutes, or until someone pushed him out of it.

With Kariwase out of the way, Dare could turn her full attention to Roscoe. The four-armed man was already coming at her, while starting to bring that mighty warhammer of his up for a swing. Even as he started to swing it up into position to however, Dare made a quick gesture toward it, lessening the gravity right where the man was swinging. The strength of Roscoe’s swing, once just enough to haul the heavy hammer up into position, was abruptly far too much. The weapon weighed barely a tenth what it once had, making his swing turn wild, as the weapon actually flew out of his hand and arced away.

The blonde woman took advantage of his brief disorientation, launching herself off the ground while snatching her sword up. Even as he snapped his gaze back to her, her foot collided with his stomach, doubling the man over. Pivoting and ducking under the wild, blind swing of his sword, Dare put herself behind him before spinning up into a roundhouse kick that took him in the center of his back. The blow knocked the man forward and down.

Before he could rise, Dare extended her free hand and made a pulling gesture. As she did so, a nearby parked car was yanked over, sliding into place directly over the man. Another quick, simple gesture collapsed the car against the ground with the screaming noise of protesting metal as it was bent and broken, pinning Roscoe there.

Before the man could push the hunk of collapsed metal off of himself, Dare was already there. She slapped her blade against both the concrete and the remains of the car while expending one more spell canister. As she did so, the modified repair spell fused the metal and the pavement together, trapping Roscoe between them for the time being.

Turning, Dare closed her eyes briefly to focus on her own telepathy. Gaia, she sent, Felicity and Rudolph are in trouble. The Seosten made their move. She paused briefly before adding in a slightly subdued tone, Josiah is dead.

I know, the tense reply came. I did not wish to distract you while you were occupied. But the Seosten have done a lot more than take Felicity and Rudolph.

Dare’s head snapped up at that. What? What happened? What’s going on?

It seems, Gaia answered, that a sizable force has descended upon the city. They’ve attacked half a dozen Minutemen outposts and have killed several Heretics already. She paused then before adding, Deveron and Marina were attacked as well. they are dealing with the situation, but it will take time.

Distraction, Dare knew. It’s all a distraction, they’re trying to keep us away from what’s really going on. What about Wyatt, his security measures?

The answer came shortly, and did not make her feel any better.  The spells that he has placed on Felicity have somehow been blocked. Wyatt believes that he can break through it, but it will take time.

We don’t have time, Dare retorted. What about Avalon’s? Are you with her now?

If possible, Gaia’s response was even more tense. No, I find myself also distracted. A spell has been triggered here at the school. If left unchecked, it will engulf the entire island within a soul blaze.

A soul blaze, Dare knew, was magical ghost-like fire that could not be put out by any conventional means. A single touch from one of the flames could incinerate even the strongest metal to ashes.

Distractions upon distractions. The Seosten were making absolutely certain that they had time to complete their objective.

Where is Avalon? She asked finally. I’ll get to her.

At the hotel, the tense answer came. Virginia, if they have poured this much effort into their attack this time, and are willing to go this far…

I’ll get to her, Dare promised before cutting off their connection.

She had just taken a step when an alert from her danger sense made the woman quickly dodge to the side, just as a bullet went whizzing past the space where her head had been. Snapping her head up, she saw what looked like a grown humanoid lizard in a old-fashioned cowboy outfit. He was holding a glowing revolver. Spedis, another old enemy. And he wasn’t alone, the road ahead of Dare was populated by another half dozen enemies. Enemies that she had made over the centuries, all of whom have been pulled together to stop her, or at least slow her down.

The words escaped Dare in a snarl, even as her form began to grow and shift. “I do not have time for this.”

She grew quickly. Whereas centuries before, the woman’s mastery of her original gift had only permitted her to become a regular sized wolf, things were different now. Within moments, the slender blond woman had been replaced by an enormous, bus-sized wolf, the full power of her Amarok blood.

As the group that had been assembled to stop her took a collective step back, Dare lunged.

*******

She arrived at the base of the hotel just in time to see two figures in the air above the street. Felicity and another. From the girl’s description, Dare knew that it had to be Charmeine.

And Felicity’s staff was currently embedded through the woman’s chest. As Dare watched, shifting back into her normal form, the blonde girl jerked the weapon up through the Seosten’s head.  And a second later, Roxanne appeared on her flying board, catching Felicity while she was caught up in the pleasure from the kill.

Unfortunately, just as relief and joy flooded Dare at the death of the Seosten, a very different glow interrupted the one from Felicity’s aura.

A shout formed itself on the woman’s lips, whether it was a warning, a promise, or anything else, she didn’t know. But it didn’t matter, because before a sound could leave her lips, the light exploded outward, and the girls were gone.

A terrible, soul crushing scream filled the air. For a half second, Dare thought that it was her own. But as she raised her gaze, she saw Avalon standing in the remains of the window on the fourth floor.

Her scream continued.

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New York Minutemen 27-05

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“Stop her!” a voice shouted from behind me, and I twisted that way in time to see Sands, Scout, Avalon, and Sean put themselves between me and the rest of Roxa’s old team. Doug, one of the few who definitely wasn’t the one working for the Seosten, was the one who had spoken. On one side of him was Paul, with Jasmine on the other side. Isaac was slightly behind Jazz, while Gordon was to Paul’s left. Everyone had their weapons out, on both sides. And I had no idea who on Roxa’s team could actually be trusted, even if they weren’t actually possessed.

It was just them. I had no idea where Deveron and Marina were, or anyone else. Though considering how much planning the Seosten had put into this, I was willing to bet that they had enacted some kind of distraction on that end too. I just hoped that both of them were okay.

“Back off!” Avalon snapped at Douglas and the rest of them. She had ignited one of her gauntlets in a blade, and seemed to be almost daring one of them to try to get past her. Beside her, Sands had erected a half-sized stone wall between them, while Sean had Vulcan in his gun-form. Things were about to go sideways any second, even without Charmeine’s help.

“What are you doing?!” That was Jazz. She had her falchion out, with white-hot flames licking around the blade. “Are you just gonna let her attack your own teammate? What the hell?!”

“It’s not our teammate!” Sands shouted back at her. “You all need to back off. Let her explain.”

“Explain?” Paul snapped. “How about she explains what she did to Rudolph, or Professor Carfried, or Professor Dare? And why she just attacked Columbus. Explain all of that.”

Sean started to say something, but I spoke over him. “Sands is right! That,” I pointed at figure in front of me, “is not Columbus. I mean, it is, but he’s…” My head shook. “Look, you guys, I know this is a lot to take in. But listen to me. Columbus has been possessed.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” Isaac demanded, clearly tightening the grip on his three-headed flail. Like the rest of them, he didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to reason. But was that because he was the bad guy here, or because it really sounded crazy?

“Yeah, Flick, what the hell?” Charmeine had Columbus back on his feet. But I’d actually achieved my goal. His goggles were sitting across the room, out of easy reach. I didn’t feel like being paralyzed in a single shot again. ‘He’ was rubbing his head. “What happened to you?”

“No,” I snapped despite myself. “We’re not playing that game.” Glancing back to the others in their tense stand-off, I informed them, “We don’t have time to go through all of it. Just–Listen, there are bad things coming. I don’t know what, but it’s bad. You want proof that he’s possessed, that the thing talking right now isn’t Columbus? Avalon, the spell.” I nodded for her to use the one that Gabriel had taught us that would expel Charmeine. “If you were really Columbus, this spell wouldn’t do a thing to you.”

Yet, as Avalon took a step that way, Jazz blurted, “Hey, get away from him! Don’t you go near him. Just… we have to call and–”

“Damn it, listen!” I stepped over, shaking my head. “You want proof that I’m not crazy? We know a spell to expel the bitch that’s possessing him. Just let her use it. Then you’ll know for sure.”

From where he was standing with his weapon (at the moment, it was in its tommy-gun mode rather than sword and shield mode), Gordon spoke in a flat voice. “You really want us to let you use a spell that none of us have ever heard of, that could do anything at all to him. Not likely.”  

“Uhh,” Charmeine made Columbus’s voice sound shaky and nervous. “Thanks, guys. I… I don’t know what’s going on. I was trying to figure out why they’ve been acting so… so weird, and–”

“Oh, put a fucking sock in it, Meryl Streep,” Sean blurted with an almost violent eyeroll. “The Academy isn’t handing out any awards tonight. Flick,” he announced while keeping Vulcan pointed at the others, “do what you need to do to get that bitch out of my friend.” His voice was tense, and it made me realize just how hard it had been for him to act like nothing was wrong for so long around his possessed roommate.  

Paul, however, clearly wasn’t going to let that happen. “You take another step that way,” he replied while holding his two hand-axes up, “and we’ll stop you. Don’t… move. We’ll call for help, then wait for the other Heretics to show up and deal with all this, whatever it is.”

“Are you even listening to me?” I squinted, unable to figure out if he was part of Seosten plan, or just being thick-headed. “There are bad things coming. If we don’t deal with this right now, then-”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted as something went flying over my shoulder. My item-sense barely had time to register it as an arrow before the thing flew into Paul’s shoulder. A second later, it exploded into a burst similar to my own concussion mines, sending the boy crashing to the floor with a surprised, pained cry as his weapons clattered to the floor.

“She’s telling the truth,” Rudolph announced from his place at the same window that I had just crashed through. He still had his bow raised, another arrow notched in it as he aimed at Paul.

“Rudolph!” Jazz blurted, already starting to move to help Paul. “What the hell are you doing?!” she demanded, voice actually shaking from her confusion. “What the fuck is going on?!”  

“Jazz, don’t!” Rudolph sent an arrow between them, putting it right past Jasmine’s nose to make her stop short. “Don’t go near him,” the blonde boy called to her, “that’s not Paul!”

That’s not Paul, that’s not Columbus,” Isaac’s voice was almost shrill. “Is anyone who they say they are? Did we all switch bodies? Is this a Freaky Friday situation? Can I pick my new one? Cuz I’ve got some ideas.”

Douglas looked torn between ignoring Rudolph’s words to run and help Paul anyway, and running to Rudolph himself instead. “Rudy, buddy, what are you talking about?” he asked, voice catching a little. “Come on, what’s going on? Flick just came in and attacked her own teammate, and now you’re attacking your teammate? Come on, talk. Because this is starting to sound a lot like that thing where two groups of good guys all fight each other because of a miscommunication, and I don’t know about you guys, but I’d rather not be that cliche.”

“That’s not Paul,” Rudolph repeated, even as ‘Paul’ himself tried to sit up. “He’s an imposter.”

Jasmine’s voice was tense, as she demanded, “How do you know that? Are you even sure?”

“He’s sure,” another new voice announced from the broken window. Roxa. It was Roxa. She appeared on the back of Gidget in her hoverboard form, landing in the room beside Rudolph. Since my Stranger-sense didn’t go off, I had to assume she was wearing the choker. She was also dragging a body behind herself, balanced on the back of the board.

“Roxa!” Jazz sounded equally shocked and happy. “You’re okay! You’re–you’re… what… who…?” she trailed off as her eyes caught sight of the body that the blonde was holding.

Roxa continued, her voice somber and flat. “He knows it’s not Paul because…” she stepped off the board, gaze downcast as she lay the body down on the floor. “Because this is Paul.”

It was. Paul. The boy was… oh God, he was dead. Gone. The sight made me choke, bile springing to my mouth. Behind me, the others were having pretty much the same reaction.

“Paul!” Jasmine’s voice was a half-scream, half-sob. She took several steps that way, toward the body, before stopping short as she glanced back toward the Paul that was there. “I–I don’t… I don’t understand. What–”

“I was tracking you,” Roxa informed me. “Saw the guy taking Rudolph in the cab. So I stopped them. The… Paul was in the trunk.”

Roxa had rescued Rudolph. She’d rescued Rudolph, then found the body that proved Paul was the mole on their team. Thanks to her, we might pull this off without everything going wrong. And thanks to the choker, she could actually do that without having everyone immediately attack her.

“Okay,” ‘Columbus’ sighed, shaking his head. “I guess we’re doing this the easy way then. Shame. I tried.” Looking up, ‘he’ focused on me. “Just remember, You wanted it this way.”

“Guys,” I started quickly, “we need to–”

It wasn’t quick enough. A flick of Columbus’s hand drove an invisible sledgehammer of force into my chest that sent me flying backward into the far wall before I could even think about moving. As I rebounded off it, dazed for a moment, the sound of shouting filled my ears that was quickly dwarfed by gunfire.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Sean opening up on the… whatever it was that had taken Paul’s place. He was already on his feet, clearly either much less affected by Rudolph’s shot than he’d pretended to be, or he’d simply had time to heal. And he was moving fast, darting away from the hail of minigun fire to the point of running up along the wall. Then it leapt off into a dive that took Jasmine’s legs out from under her, hand-springing over her sprawled form to plant both feet into Doug’s chest in a kick that knocked the boy into Sean’s line of fire, forcing the other boy to stop shooting for a moment.

Meanwhile, Columbus was glowing with a strange reddish-orange aura that surrounded his body. As Avalon went in with one of her energy blades, he simply caught it. He literally caught the blade in his hand. Or, as I noticed a second later, he actually caught it against that thin aura. It was some kind of shield or forcefield or whatever that was surrounding his skin. It let him simply catch even the solid-energy blade, using it to yank Avalon closer before Charmiene sidestepped and put Columbus’s foot into the back of the girl’s leg.

As Avalon dropped to one knee, I was still pushing off the wall. Columbus’s hand reared back, forming a fist before lashing downward at the briefly prone girl. Before the blow could strike home, however, an arrow ricocheted off that forcefield-sheathed arm. Rudolph. The arrow didn’t seem to do any damage, but it did knock the boy’s arm off-course. And it was followed up by Roxa leaping to put her foot in the boy’s face. That knocked Columbus away from Avalon, but Charmiene instantly recovered by making him avoid all five of the girl’s flurry of follow-up punches as if they were nothing. She simply twisted Columbus’s body this way and that, like she knew where each punch was going long before it was ever even thrown.

By that point, Avalon and I had both recovered. I pushed off the wall, darting for Columbus’s left side while spinning to build momentum as my staff whipped out and around toward his head. We needed him down, at least damaged enough that the Seosten bitch couldn’t use him to attack us anymore. I just wasn’t sure how we were actually going to accomplish that.

At the same time that I made my move, Avalon dropped to sweep Columbus’s legs out from under him, clearly timing her spin for just as my staff would hit the boy.

It still didn’t matter. At the last second, Charmiene gave a quick little hop over Avalon’s extended leg while simultaneously catching hold of the end of my staff. She yanked me forward and off-balance, forcing my staff to smack into Roxa’s face instead of Columbus’s with a blow that knocked the other girl onto her back. Releasing my staff, the boy’s leg snapped up, catching my stomach to drive the wind out of me. Then he was somehow behind me, taking hold of my arm before throwing me to the ground. An instant later, his foot collided with my stomach again and I was sent rolling along the floor as the contents of my stomach fought to come up.

Columbus was just so damn fast. That upgrade that he’d gotten from… from killing Josiah, coupled with the boost that Charmiene could give him–wait a second.

Hey, partner, how you doing in there? I sent to Tabbris, trying to sound more confident than I felt right then. You okay to help me out?

The response was tentative. A-almost. She sounded exhausted. I’m trying, but–but she’s a lot older, and–

It’s okay, I assured her. Just hold it for the right time. Let me know when you can give me a few seconds of boost. That’s all I need. We’ll hold on until then. Let me know and wait for my mark, got it?

There was a sense of agreement, and I flipped myself back to my feet. In the background, I could see the others trying to deal with the Paul-Doppleganger. But it clearly wasn’t making things easy.

And we had our own problems. Avalon was giving Roxa a breather, pulling Charmeine’s attention to her even as Gidget came running in to grab hold of Columbus’s wrist in her mouth.  Unfortunately, a flick of his hand sent the mechanical cougar tumbling end over end, and Roxa’s brief distraction as she blurted her cyberform partner’s name gave Charmeine the opening she needed. A silver knife suddenly appeared out of nowhere in Columbus’s hand, and a flick of it cut into the blonde girl’s arm. She gave a strangled cry of pain, stumbling back as her arm hung useless at her side. Whatever Charmeine had hit, it left Roxa unable to use that arm.

It was like I was moving in slow motion. It was like all of us were moving in slow motion. Avalon, Roxa, and me, let alone with help from both Rudolph and Gidget, should have been able to do something here. And yet, we couldn’t even land much of a hit. Not with things the way they were.

But giving up wasn’t an option. Not now, not ever. With a grunt, I went for it, back into the fray. Something had to take. Between the five of us (more if any of the others could pull free of their problem), something would stick.

Unfortunately, it still didn’t seem as though anything actually would. As Avalon, Roxa (still favoring one arm), and I converged on the spot where Columbus was, the boy simply disappeared. I caught sight of him an instant later, stepping out of one of the nearby shadows along the wall as if it was a doorway. It put him directly behind Avalon before a wave of his hand literally set the girl aflame. Fire erupted over her, though the cry that came then wasn’t from Avalon, but from me. I screamed. Avalon? Avalon spun around to put her fist into Columbus’s face… while she was literally on fire.

Was it too soon to say that I was in love?

Of all the things that Charmeine could have expected Avalon’s reaction to being set on fire would be, apparently ‘ignore it and punch her in the face anyway’ wasn’t in the top ten. She was taken completely by surprise for what had to be the first time since I’d come through the window and nailed her. Nor did she expect Roxa to tackle her to the ground. I heard the howl of pain from the blonde girl as her bleeding arm was jostled. Still, she dove full-force into Columbus, taking him down to the floor just as one of Rudolph’s arrows shot just over their heads. Instead of hitting Columbus/Charmeine, it hit Avalon.

But that wasn’t a mistake, I realized. The arrow that struck her exploded. Not with energy, but with water. It burst on impact with Avalon, creating a brief geyser of water that drenched the other girl to put out the flames. Rudolph had been aiming for her.

O-okay, okay, my ride-along partner cut into my thoughts, I… I think I can give you a… umm, a short boost. Just a few seconds.

Thanks, Tabbris, I replied silently while taking a step that way. Wait for my mark. With only a few seconds of boost before my own Seosten-ally would wear herself out again, I had to time it just right. It had to be perfect.

Heavily burned, yet clearly not caring, Avalon was already going for the prone Columbus as Roxa practically knelt on top of him. Unfortunately, within the span of an eyeblink, the two had switched places. Roxa was lying prone on the floor while Columbus knelt on her. Shit, shit, another power. If this went on for too much longer, Charmeine was going to figure out too many of the powers she had available for us to be able to beat her.

Avalon barely registered that fact in time to collapse her energy blade before it would have cut through the other girl’s arm. Even then, she was extended enough that Charmeine was able to drive an elbow back into her face, knocking her onto her backside before Columbus abruptly stood and spun, catching my incoming swing and pointing my staff downward so that the blast of concussive energy that I had been releasing caught Gidget, sending the cyberform tumbling end over end.

She was playing, I realized. Even now, in this situation, Charmeine was showing off. She could have taken all of us much more efficiently, focusing on one at a time. She’d shown that with the single cut that had taken out one of Roxa’s arms. She could have killed or at least disabled us with ease. But she was working out her frustrations from the past half year (and probably even longer) by toying with us.

Summoning my little mice friends, I sent them to their places, converting my staff into its bladed form. Then I focused, watching as Avalon and Roxa struggled to keep pace with Columbus. I wanted to rush in, wanted to throw myself back into that fight. Especially as I saw Avalon take three rapid, vicious blows to the face. But I stopped myself. I made myself stand still, watching for my moment. Throwing myself in there was accomplishing nothing.

Then I saw it. Charmeine had Columbus half-turned away from Avalon, a gesture sending Gidget away while she put his fist into the blonde girl’s face.

In that instant, I blurted, “Valley, Kappa!” Mark, I added silently toward my companion. Mark, mark, mark!  

Avalon reacted to my words without even an instant of hesitation. Both of her hands snapped up, as a new energy construct emerged from her gauntlets: a cage. It was just big enough to catch Columbus between the glowing solid-energy bars, trapping him in place between them. It was one of the new constructs that the other girl had been working on over the past few weeks.

It wouldn’t last, of course. He’d already demonstrated more than one teleportation ability. In a second, he’d get out of that cage. But the point hadn’t been to contain him, it had been to know exactly where he would be in the next instant. That’s what I had needed Avalon to do.

I was already moving. Not toward the cage, but toward Roxa. As the boost from Tabbris filled my body, I felt invincible. I was moving faster than I ever had, even during the trip across the city. The Seosten girl had thrown everything she had to me. And while it wouldn’t last more than a few seconds, that’s all I needed.

Roxa was there. I dove forward, lashing out at her leg with my staff. And then, at the last second, it wasn’t Roxa there anymore. It was Columbus. Charmeine had switched places, just as I’d known she would. Trapping her in that energy cage with the code phrase Avalon and I had come up with (we had about a dozen different ones like that, it was kappa for cage) made her react by doing the same thing she had done before. She’d switched places with Roxa, thinking that whatever was about to happen would happen to that girl instead.

But I’d planned on her doing just that. So as Columbus’s body appeared in Roxa’s place, my staff was already lashing out and down, boosted by the speed and strength that Tabbris had given me. The blade on the end of my staff sliced through the back of his leg, and he immediately dropped with a strangled cry. His leg couldn’t support his weight anymore, not the way I’d cut him.

Before Charmeine could recover (and before I lost the boost), I was already spinning. My staff went up and around, colliding with the boy’s head. That time, as the blow struck home, he collapsed and stayed collapsed.

Everything, in that moment, went completely silent. The fighting on the other side of the room was still, as everyone looked over to see the unconscious, injured, downed Columbus. He was down, but did that mean that Charmeine was?   

“Okay.” It was another voice, a female voice that came as if in response to my own thought. The voice that I had heard that night on the beach. Charmeine. So no, no she was not down. She was very much not down. In that moment, the bitch was standing over Columbus’s limp, bleeding, unconscious form, staring daggers at me. “Now, now I’m a little bit annoyed.”

Gordon snapped his gun that way, as did Scout and Sean with theirs. “Who are you?” he demanded. For once, there was actual emotion in his voice. Seeing Paul’s body there and then fighting his doppleganger, it had clearly affected him. It wasn’t just in his voice. I could also see it in his face, the way his aim shook a little as he stood there, clearly about to lose it.

“Oh, that hardly matters,” Charmeine retorted. “You won’t survive long enough to understand it anyway. Fetch!” It took me a second to realize she was saying a name rather than giving an order with that word.

Fetch. The Paul-clone, I realized. He was still up and around, even with everyone else focusing on him. And from the look of things, he wasn’t all that hurt. Whatever that thing was, it was tough.

“Finish dealing with the other children. I have these ones,” Charmeine continued. “We just have to work out a few ground rules before their little journey, isn’t that right, kids?”

Even as she spoke, the white-haired, dark-skinned Seosten woman’s hand was snapping out. I saw something leave her fingers, a small object that snapped itself against the nearby wall, just past Avalon. An instant later, a glowing red forcefield popped up into existence, cutting Avalon, Rudolph, Roxa, and me off from the others. We, along with Charmeine, were on one side of the glowing wall. Meanwhile, Sean, Sands, Scout, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Isaac were on the other side with the fake Paul. Fetch, apparently. Clearly, as confident as Charmeine was in her own skills, she didn’t want to deal with all of us at once. Or maybe she just wanted to focus on those of us that she hated the most.

Either way, we were going to have to hope that the others could handle that ‘Fetch’ thing. Because the forcefield turned opaque, and I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side.

Charmeine, for her part, cracked her knuckles. “Now,” she announced. “It’s time to be a little more straightforward. No more games or misdirection. No more possession. I’ll deal with you myself.”

There was no talking, no discussion. One second, the four of us (five if you counted Gidget, which I did) were arrayed around the Seosten. Then we were moving, attacking… fighting.

Avalon reached her first, energy blade going straight for her chest. At almost the exact same time, one of Rudolph’s arrows was shooting through the air toward the woman’s other side, while Roxa and I went for her front, Gidget going in low, toward her legs.

It didn’t matter. Charmeine was as ready for all of us as if we had each sent postcards a month ahead of time, detailing everything we were going to do and exactly when we were going to do it. Ducking backward a bit, just enough to let Avalon’s blade swish past her harmlessly, she twisted to catch the incoming arrow even as her foot lashed out, kicking Avalon in the stomach hard enough to send the girl flying backward into the energy wall. By that point, Roxa and I were right there. But the Seosten gave the arrow she had caught a quick toss right down into Roxa’s leg an instant before it exploded. The blonde girl was sent to the floor with a cry that was half-howl. Her leg was injured. Not nearly as badly as her arm, and it would heal much faster. But still, it slowed her down.

I was there, staff swinging for her face before she simply caught it an inch from her nose. Giving me a small smirk, the Seosten ripped the staff from my hands as easily as if I was a child. Then her foot abruptly slammed into my chest. I felt ribs crack as I was hurled backward to the floor just in time to hear a yowl from Gidget as Charmeine did something that made the cyberform cougar stumble while sparks of electricity shot off of its back and face.

I’d thought that getting the cunt out of Columbus would help. If it did, there wasn’t that much of a difference. The Seosten assassin could still take us apart, even without Columbus’s boosted powers. She was just so damn fast. Even with the werewolf enhancements that I had, along with all my training and everything else, it felt like I was standing still. And there was no way that Tabbris could boost me again. Not so soon after she’d given me everything she could just to help get the bitch out of Columbus to begin with. I had to let her rest, had to let her recover. I was going to have to do this without the boost.

Charmeine took three quick steps back from Avalon as the other girl went after her with all the anger and frustration that had clearly been building up over all the time that the Seosten had been screwing with her life.

But Charmeine easily avoided everything, so easily that she was actually laughing. “Is that all?” she taunted Avalon while twisting her head sideways to avoid the massive solid-energy hammer that was swinging past. “I thought you were supposed to be good at this, Hannah.” With those words, she side-stepped while catching Avalon’s arm with both of her hands, one on each side of her elbow. A sudden, vicious jerk was followed by the snap of the bone breaking as Avalon actually gave a gasp of pain before she was unceremoniously tossed aside.

She didn’t stay down. None of us did. All three of us girls, with Rudolph providing support fire whenever he had something resembling a clear shot, and Gidget, kept going after Charmeine. But it meant nothing. She picked us apart, again and again, as if we were helpless children.

And she was laughing the entire time. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones working out a lot of built-up frustration and anger. Charmeine had been forced to play nice for a long time, and now she was taking it out on us, taking her time without actually going for any fully disabling moves. Still playing. Even after what I had done to drive her out of her host, she was still playing with her food. She wasn’t trying to end it. She wanted the fight to continue on so that she could keep taking us apart bit by bit. It was incredibly arrogant. I just wished she wasn’t backing it up so effectively. One after another, everything we tried just broke like we were water and she was an immovable mountain. We couldn’t do anything to her. Nothing worked. Nothing stuck. She was just too god damn fast, too strong, too… everything.

“Alright then, children,” she announced after knocking us to the floor for what had to be the fifth time, “I think it’s time to put an end to this.” A snap of her fingers summoned two of those orbs to her hands, while she smirked. “Who wants to be banished from Earth first, hmm? If you ask very nicely, maybe I’ll even send some of you together. Would anyone like to beg to stay with their friends? Begging is always fun to watch.”

We couldn’t put her down. We could barely even touch her. The very few actual hits we’d all managed to land, even working together, had barely amounted to a scratch. Fighting a full Seosten like this just… wasn’t working. She was pretty much destroying us whenever we tried.

But I had one advantage over her. One power that she didn’t have that might just be what ended this. All I had to do was keep her talking, keep her focused solely on me and nothing else.

“Charmeine!” I blurted, jerking myself to my feet despite the pain that spread through my entire body every time I moved. She may have been toying with us, but she wasn’t taking it easy.

“Oh good,” the bitch announced, lifting her chin as she smirked at me, “a volunteer.”

That was all it took to get Avalon back to her feet, blurting, “Felicity!”

The terror in her voice made my heart skip and catch, but I had to focus. Keeping my eyes locked on Charmeine, I spoke again. “You know, you may think you’re hot shit now, but did you ever stop to think about how we even found out about you to begin with, how we knew to start looking for you? Did you ever stop to think about what gave you away?”

The Seosten paused like that, squinting at me for a moment with the orbs in her hands. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “You learned about our presence from the mercenary.”

“Fahsteth?” I shook my head, giving a glance toward the probably totally perplexed Rudolph. “Nope. We already knew you were around by that point.” I narrowed my eyes then. “It was you.”

As she stared at me, I took advantage of her hesitation by continuing. “Yeah, that’s right. Remember that night on the beach, when you watched me on the phone and found out about the meeting with him? You came out after I left and made your call. But I saw you. I heard you, through my little fox friend. See, I never let it go, I never dismissed her. So she was still there. I heard everything you said. That’s how we found out about you. That’s how we knew to look for you. Not Fahsteth, not Prosser’s people, nobody else. You. You stood there and blabbed all about it without even checking to make sure I was really gone. So congratulations, Master Spy. Gaia knows about you. All her people know about you. They’ll be ready.

“And it’s all your fault.”

If Charmeine had been annoyed before, now she was completely pissed off. “Oh,” she snarled while taking a step my way, “I am going to enjoy watching them take you apart, piece by piece.”

“Yeah?” I lifted my chin. “Maybe you should wait until you get back from your trip.”

“Trip?” she shook her head. “I’m not going anywhe–” At the last second, she spun around.

But it was too late. Because I’d kept her talking, kept her focused on me long enough. The power that I had, the one she didn’t have… was the item-sense. It meant that I could feel things moving. I could feel the slow, ever-so gradual shift of the one person that Charmeine had forgotten about, the one person she had dismissed through all of this, probably because she had spent the past who-knew-how-many months enslaving him.

Columbus was awake. He had spent the past few moments slowly, gradually positioning himself to reach his goggles where they had fallen at the very beginning of all this. And as Charmeine spun that way, he unleashed a concussive blast from his goggles that caught the bitch right in the chest, tore her off her feet, and sent her flying through the broken window.

An instant later, I was right on her heels. Pointing my staff back as I leapt that way, I triggered the concussive blast, expending all of its energy. I didn’t care. She couldn’t get away. We had to be sure. We had to be positive. And a four story fall just wasn’t enough.

Flying out off the explosion of my staff’s charge, I found myself in the air over the street about seventy feet below.  Charmeine was twisting in the air, grabbing something that would obviously let her escape.

I never gave her the chance. The blade on the end of my staff drove its way clear through her chest and out the other side.

Her eyes went wide. I saw the shock there. The disbelief. The denial. She had been winning. She had been taking us apart. She could beat us effortlessly.

Yet, here we were. She had let up for one moment, given one single opening. And now the two of us were falling through the air, with my staff embedded through her body. Hell, she was actually falling slower now, because my own momentum from the staff’s expended charge was propelling us forward in an arc instead of straight down.

“You,” she snarled, “stupid–”

I interrupted. “You’re all connected, right? Good. I want all of you Seosten to know…” As we began to arc down toward the ground, I gave her a dark smile, showing my teeth. “I’m going to use this power to fucking destroy you.”

Her mouth opened, but before another word could escape the woman, I jerked the staff back and up, the blade tearing through her chest before literally cutting her head in half as the blade came up through her neck and out the top.

A blinding, unbelievable rush of pleasure shot through me, flooding my entire body with a feeling beyond anything I’d felt before. Beyond the Amarok, beyond Doxer, beyond anything that I could describe.

She was dead. Dead. Charmeine was fucking dead. The bitch who had puppeted one of my teammates, one of my friends, my girlfriend’s brother for what was probably months by that point was dead!

Dead.

Dead.

DEAD.

But I was in midair, still falling…

And then a hand caught mine. My eyes opened to find Roxa there, riding her hoverboard as she held my wrist with her good arm. “I’ve got you!” she called. “I’ve got–”

Something abruptly grew hot in my jacket pocket. Looking down, I saw it. The orb. One of the orbs that Charmeine had been using. She’d gotten one last trick in. Somehow, while we were falling, even as my staff was embedded in her chest, she had slipped the thing into my pocket. Now it was active. It was about to–

There was a flash of light, and sound. And when it was over, Roxa and I were both laying on our faces in the middle of a brightly lit room. Around us, I saw more bodies picking themselves up. The orbs. They hadn’t just caught us. They had captured others as well.

“The… hell…?” Jazz. She was lifting her head, groaning. “Where…”

“Where the hell are we?” Sands finished for her. It was Sands to my left. She was there, with Gordon beside her. Isaac was a little bit to the right.

That was it. Roxa, Sands, Jasmine, Gordon, Isaac, and me. We had been caught by the orbs.

“Where?” I echoed, slowly looking around the room in the place far, far from Earth. “I could tell you,”

“But you’re not gonna like it.”

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New York Minutemen 27-04

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Even with no power causing it, time seemed to stand still as the realization of just why the Seosten couldn’t possess me struck home. I couldn’t speak. Hell, I couldn’t even think. I just stood there, mouth open as a million thoughts rebounded within my head as if they had all been thrown into a pinball machine at the same time. Why, when, how, who, I didn’t know any of it.

Possessed. All this time, I had been possessed. There had been someone living inside of me, watching through my eyes, hearing through my ears. Everything I did, every moment that I had thought was private, it wasn’t. This girl was there. And while she seemed friendly, it still felt like a massive violation. Logically, I knew that having her there had helped more than I would probably ever really know. Without the girl possessing me, the Seosten would’ve taken me the first chance they had. I knew that. I knew that. But it didn’t make the sense of violation disappear.

“Um. Flick?” The little girl… Tabby–no, Tabbris, bit her lip while looking up at me from her crouched position. I saw that she had done something to the symbols there. “I-I’m so-sorry,” she repeated her apology, looking so nervous that I thought she might faint. “I’ll explain, I promise. I will. My momma sent me to help you. But–but your friends are in trouble. You have to–”

My eyes widened then, as I finished for her, “–stop them! I have to stop them!” Reflexively, I moved forward, the back of my mind expecting to hit the wall. Yet… I didn’t. My foot came down a bit awkwardly on the other side of it, and I snapped my eyes down to the girl. The symbols she had scribbled on. Whatever Tabbris had done, it broke the invisible shield. She had let me out.

I was across the room before any other thought had a chance of entering my head. My hands grabbed my weapons and everything else, except for my broken phones. They were shattered into too many pieces, and I didn’t have time to scrape up all the pieces. I had no time at all.

A glance to the monitor showed that the motel room was still empty, but who knew how long that would last. Shoving my weapon container onto my belt, I bolted for the door, only to stop short and turn back. For a second, I looked at the little girl sitting there, watching me fearfully.

I hesitated, just for a moment. Then I lifted my chin. “Well? Are you coming, or staying here?”

Tabbris leapt to her feet, then stopped short. “I–I can’t keep up with you,” she admitted quietly.

There was no time to waste. Every doubt I had needed to be shoved away. Everything that the girl had done up to that point screamed that she was on our side, that she was there to help us.

“You can if you possess me again,” I replied without hesitating for an instant. As her eyes widened and met mine, I added, “I couldn’t have gotten this far without you, right? Why break things up now, just when they’re getting good?” After that slightly flippant remark, I added, a bit more somberly, “I need your help. If they figure out they can possess me, it’s all over. Please.”

Without wasting any more time, the little blonde girl took two steps forward before leaping at me. I reflexively recoiled, but she faded from sight, disappearing inside of my body. It tingled a bit.

Despite what I’d said before, I still felt a momentary rush of fear that sprang up in me as I tried to move my hand. Then my other hand. They worked just fine. Just like they had the whole time that the girl had possessed me. She wasn’t suddenly going to take over and control me.

My eyes dropped toward the unconscious figure of the man, and I hesitated briefly. “You’re still there, right? You can hear me?”

The voice came in my head. I can hear you. You don’t have to speak out loud. Just, umm, just think it.

Right. She could hear my thoughts, which meant– I shoved that thought away. What about the guy there? Won’t he remember you possessing him?

Nuh uh, she answered. I made a few seconds of his memory go away.

Oh, Seosten could erase at least part of their host’s short term memory. Right. Well, that solved that problem.

Then I was running through the doorway. It felt like too much time had already passed, even though it had only been a few seconds. It was too long. Too fucking long. I had to run. I had to get to the motel before it was too late, before… I just had to get there. That’s all there was to it.

Passing through the office doorway, I sprinted out into the narrow aisle that led back through the warehouse toward the loading dock. Instead of taking that long path, however, I immediately twisted to the left, toward the heavy stacks of furniture. A quick lunge and a thought sent me into the wooden table, which I zipped straight through and out the other side, popping into a chair there, then another table. One by one, I ‘swam’ my way through the furniture before finally reaching the far end of the stacks, where I popped out next to the doorway leading into the front.

In the time that it would’ve taken me to cross maybe half the distance of that narrow aisle to the back loading dock, I was already slamming my way through the front of the warehouse. The door there was locked, but a single kick sent it slamming open to reveal the parking lot beyond.

One of the men that I had seen earlier was there. He spun around at the sudden sound, his eyes widening at the sight of me. But before he could do more than open his mouth, my staff was already snapping up and around to slam hard into his throat. A wheezing, terrible gasp escaped the man even as I pivoted, catching him across the face with a backswing from the staff that sent him crashing to the ground.

The second man came into view, probably hearing the thud of the staff or the man hitting the ground. Either way, he snapped some kind of futuristic-looking pistol up, aiming at me for a split-second before my hand snapped out to throw my staff. It rebounded off the man’s temple, snapping his head backward and up. His shot went wide, and by the time he recovered, I’d already taken the quick step that way to catch my staff. Dropping down, I used the long shaft to knock the man’s legs out from under him before spinning back to my feet. As he landed on his back and looked up, he was met with the sight of my foot slamming into his face.

Both of the men were down. Not a threat. Except… I didn’t want them reporting to Charmeine that I was out. She had about a dozen advantages right now, and the only one that I had was surprise. Even that was a maybe. But I wouldn’t have it if these guys called in to report that I had escaped. That and, well, the guys were part of a plot to kill and enslave my friends. They weren’t exactly innocent. Still, the thought that there was a little girl looking through my eyes made me hesitate to actually kill them when they weren’t an immediate threat.

“Tab–” I managed to get only that far before the ghostly figure of the girl slipped out of me, dropped down into the first man, and popped out again a moment later to slip over to the second. Then she emerged and looked up at me.

“D-done,” she announced, squirming on her feet like she was embarrassed. “Th-they won’t wake up for umm, I’m not sure, but maybe an hour? And they won’t remember.”

“Good enough,” I replied, hesitating before gesturing. “Let’s go, partner.”

The girl’s eyes widened, and I saw her fighting some torrent of emotions for a moment. She looked like she wanted to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she just turned ghost-like once more while moving to step into me.  

Spinning on my heel, I hit the button to charge my staff while running along the side of the warehouse, my shoes pounding rhythmically against the pavement with each step. My heart, mind, and feet were competing for which of them could race faster.

Three more steps, and it was enough. I released the charge in my staff, letting it launch me up to the roof of the warehouse. Coming down there, I was already running, letting the staff charge again while sprinting all out toward the far end of the warehouse roof. Step, step, step, I focused on the building across the street, pouring everything I had into running. At the last second, just before I would’ve stepped off the edge of the roof, I leapt, pushing off as hard as my enhanced strength allowed. At the apex of my leap, I triggered the charge in my staff. It propelled me the rest of the way, clearing the street entirely before coming down on the roof of the next building.

Rolling before coming back to my feet, I thought at my little hitchhiker. I need your help. First, you’re a Seosten, right? Which means… do you have a perfect memory, like Vanessa?

Um, y-yes, the response came hesitantly. I’m sorry, I didn’t me–oh. Oh! Yes! I can help you find the nearest Minuteman portal from what we saw in the clock faces yesterday!

You read my mind, I thought dryly, unable to help myself. Where am I going?

Um, um… turn… turn left? I need to see. When I followed her instructions and turned that way, she continued, sounding excited. Yeah! Yeah, go this way! There’s a park. I remember the sign on the side of that motel down the street. It’s in a park across from that.

I could barely make out the sign she was talking about. It was so far away that it was almost out of sight. Somehow, Tabbris could see well enough with my vision to pick out the sign and the scenery surrounding it, invert that in her own mind so that it was the way she would have seen it through the portal clock faces back at Minuteman headquarters, and figure out where the portal was from that. It was, objectively speaking, pretty damn awesome.

But I couldn’t focus on that. There wasn’t time. There wasn’t time for any of this. I had, if what Charmeine had said meant anything, fifteen minutes to get to that hotel room. I wasn’t sure how they were going to get both of our teams away from the zoo and back there, but I believed they could do it. I just had to get back there before it happened. Which meant I had to run. Now.

I heard that Seosten can give their hosts a boost. Can you do that?

Again, I sensed her hesitation and embarrassment. She was still scared that she was going to do or say something wrong. A… a little bit, um, n-not as much as the… the adults. Or as long. I’m s–

I interrupted her pointedly, Every little bit helps. I just need to get back to the hotel. Think you can help out a little?

Y-yes, she started before repeating a little more firmly. Yes.

Then I felt it. I felt a little stronger, a little faster. I felt the boost give me an edge, like a shot of adrenaline (like I needed more of that by then).

“Hope you’re holding on tight,” I informed my passenger out loud, “Because I’m about to break the gas pedal.”

With that, I leapt from the roof of the building. A quick blast from my staff sent me out to the middle of the busy street, where I came down not in the middle of the packed sidewalk (seriously, the people looked like sardines crammed in among each other), but on the roof of a box truck. As I landed with a thud, I heard a confused curse from inside the cab. It swerved a bit, yet through a combination of my training and the werewolf agility enhancements, I kept my feet. The same curse from the driver inside the truck repeated as I ran along the roof to the front of it and leapt off just before my feet would have hit the windshield.

Who? Who was the traitor on Roxa’s old team? Which one of them was working for the Seosten without actually being a Seosten? Which one of them was it?

The second leap carried me forward to the roof of a taxi, and I ran along that for a couple steps. Ran along the roof of a moving car. This was insane. This whole fucking thing was insane. Yet all I could think was that I had to move faster. Had to go, had to get there before it was too late. There wasn’t time for this, there wasn’t time! If I wasn’t faster, if I didn’t move, my friends were going to die, or end up enslaved to a bunch of wannabe angels. Move, Flick. Go!

It wasn’t Rudolph. That was obvious. There was no way that they would have gone as far as knocking him out if he was their spy. There was no reason to hide his identity at that point.

Horns were blaring, and I heard a few people shout. I didn’t care. From the hood of the taxi, I leapt sideways, toward a passing sedan. The leap was almost too short, and I had to catch myself, taking a quick, stumbling step forward while the driver of the sedan slammed on his brakes. The tires squealed, and it came to a screeching halt with the smell of burning rubber.

I would have been pitched forward off the car, but I was already leaping once more, throwing myself forward in a leap that carried me to the back of a delivery truck, where I barely caught hold of the roof. For a second, I hung there while the truck sped on its way, before my feet found purchase against the back doors and I managed to scramble up and onto its roof.

The spy wasn’t Douglas either. The way Charmeine had mentioned him, it was separate from whoever was working with them. So the spy wasn’t Rudolph or Douglas. I had to narrow it down further than that.

Rolling to a standing position, I ran along the truck, keeping my eyes on the motel sign in the distance. Two more steps, and then I leapt once more while hitting the trigger on my staff, which had been charging that entire time. The boost, coupled with my own leap, carried me off the truck, and over the sidewalk. Below, I heard even more people shouting, and saw them pointing.

I wasn’t exactly being subtle about this, that was for damn sure. And I had no idea what the Bystander Effect would do about all this, if anything.  But fuck it. There wasn’t time for subtle.

In mid-leap, I planted my foot against the side of a lamppost and pushed off of it to adjust my direction. The new lunge sent me to the nearby building, where I caught hold of a flagpole that was extending out from one of the windows, using it to swing myself over to a balcony a bit further over. My feet came down on the railing there, and I ran along it to the other end. There was nothing but a blank brick wall there. Still, I kept going. Leaping out and turning slightly, I ran along the side of the wall for a few steps. Not far, of course. I didn’t have the wall-clinging power that Shiori did. But my momentum meant that I could go a few steps that way before pushing off, and another quick boost from my staff carried me the rest of the way to the next balcony.

Boy. It was probably a boy. I’d been thinking earlier that Professor Pericles had been facing the boy’s dorm when he died. If one of the boys had been distracting him… okay, it was a little bit of a stretch, but I didn’t have anything better.

My foot barely touched that balcony before I leapt sideways off of it, flipping over in the air as I came down on the end of the sidewalk. Straight ahead of me was a busy street, and across that was the motel sign that Tabbris had pointed out. Which meant… I turned slightly, looking across the street from the motel. There. A small park, barely big enough to be called such. Mostly it looked like a spot where a couple shops had been torn down and a little bit of grass mixed with weeds had been allowed to grow up in their place. There was a single bench in the middle of it.

Okay, so assuming the spy was a boy, but wasn’t Rudolph or Douglas, that left three possibilities: Paul, Gordon, and Isaac. And I couldn’t figure out how to narrow it down further than that. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Darting across the street at an angle, ignoring all the screams, honking, and squealing tires (aside from paying enough attention to the latter to avoid any oncoming cars), I booked for that tiny, dingy park. As I ran, I let a single thought run through my mind, over the others.

You said your mom sent you to help me. Who is she? Who is your mom, and why would she help a human? Why did she pick me? What’s going on? How long have you been… with me?

There was a brief hesitation to that before she responded slowly. Um. My mom… my mother is… Vanessa and Tristan’s mother. Sariel. My mother is Sariel.

“What?!” I actually blurted out loud, very nearly stopping right there in the middle of the street. “Your mom is–” I stopped, making myself think it instead. Your mom is Sariel?! But-but-how…

Y-you were right, she quickly responded then. Momma and um, Miss Larissa were working together. They w-were friends. A-and umm… umm… my momma found out that someone took your mom, and she knew th-the other Seosten would, umm, she knew they’d come for you.

Running up over the sidewalk and into the so-called ‘park’, I went for the bench. It was the only thing that stood out, so the portal had to be around there somewhere. As I moved, I thought at my passenger, I don’t understand. She knew the Seosten would come for me, so she sent her daughter to me… somehow? What–how–I don’t get it. I mean–wait, you mean Larissa–

I sensed something like a nod, an affirmation. Uh huh, the girl replied. Miss Larissa brought me to you while you were asleep. She and Mama said I had to be really quiet and hide.

Shaking my head, I looked at the bench, staring for a moment while trying to think. Focus, Flick. First things first. “Felicity Chambers,” I announced out loud. “Um, Crossroads student? If it mat-”

That was as far as I got before a glowing blue portal opened up right in front of the bench. Through it, I could see the interior of the clocktower, the room that Josiah had shown us.

He was dead now. Murdered by Charmeine in Columbus’s body. Even if–when we got the bitch out of him, how was he going to deal w–no. I shut the thought aside and took a quick step forward, through the portal. There would be time to think, and to grieve, later. As soon as I made sure that Josiah was the only one we would be grieving for. No one else, damn it. No one else.

But that was almost eight years ago, I thought to distract myself while jumping through the portal. Are you saying, I mean, have you been… have we… were you always

That time, I felt the equivalent of a head-shake, a denial. I wa-wasn’t always spying on you, I promise. Wh-when you were umm, when it was… um, p-private, I went to sleep. Mama taught me how t-to do that when she put some of her m-memories in my head. She p-put memories in my head, only th-they come out slow. Like, um, delayed? She’s still, um, teaching me stuff.

Moving through the Clocktower room to the door that led downstairs, I called. “Hey! Hey, I need help! Help! Damn it, is anyone here?! Hello?! Well,” I added then when there was no response, “what fucking good are you?!” Yeah, the tension and fear might’ve been getting to me a little bit.

Right. They were all gone. There was no one here. I was still–well, not alone. But there were no Heretics who could help. I had to keep going. I couldn’t waste time trying to find anyone else. I couldn’t look for a phone, I couldn’t do anything. I had to keep going, or… or…

Spinning, I ran back to the nearest clock face while thinking, right, so your mom basically uploaded a bunch of lessons and stuff into your head and they come to you slowly over time?

I felt her confirmation, sort of like a nod that I couldn’t see. But my focus wasn’t there. It was on the clock faces around the room. All of them showed a different part of the city, yet all of the views were similar. They all showed people fighting. Heretics and Alters, locked in combat. And from the look of things, the Heretics had been taken by surprise. I saw several dead, unmoving on the ground.

“Oh my God,” I muttered, my eyes widening. “It’s the Seosten. They’re going all-out. This is why the Minutemen can’t help. They’re being taken apart. Charmeine and her people probably gave the Nocen all the info they needed to ambush them. I…” Swallowing hard, I told myself to focus. Keep moving.

Stopping in front of the nearest clock face, I quickly recited the address and name of the hotel where we had been staying, whispering a quick thank you to Dare for making us all memorize it.

Then a thought occurred to me. “You–” I blinked. “You’re my magic intuition. Back when I thought–the thing about Larissa and Sariel being together. That wasn’t a blind guess on my part. You were–you were whispering to me, or whatever.”

Um. Y-yes? I’m sorry, I was trying to help. Mama said I had to keep hiding, th-that it wouldn’t be safe until l-later. I’m sorry, I… I j-just wanted to help.

As the clock face finished changing, I assured her, “You have helped. You’ve helped a lot, Tabbris. I wanna hear more. I’ve got… so many questions. Seriously. And I want you to meet your brother and sister. But right now, what do you say we go save our friends?”  

There was another feeling of agreement, and a lot of embarrassment when I said ‘our friends’.

Stepping up to the portal, I saw the hotel in question. Wherever this thing was generated from, it was pretty much perfectly aligned to see the rooms where we were staying. Hell, maybe that was why Josiah had chosen it. Or maybe they shifted one of the portals to keep an eye on it. It was a chicken and egg situation.

Through the portal, my eyes found the room that I shared with Avalon. Figures were moving around inside. They were there. They were there!

No more time to waste. No more questions, no hesitation. Taking a few steps back, I ran at the portal and leapt through. There was some kind of ledge below me that the portal opened out onto, but I ignored it, leaping out over the street before using my staff to propel myself that way. I expended the whole charge, blasting myself across the street and straight at same window that I had been looking out of earlier.

I hit feet-first, shattering the glass as I crashed straight through and into the room. They were all there. All of them, everyone was there. Even Charmeine.

“Hey, bitch!” I snarled even as she spun Columbus’s body toward me on one heel.

My staff slammed into his face, knocking Columbus–Charmeine backwards across the nearby table and into the wall. As Columbus’s body slumped to the floor, I informed her,

“We weren’t done talking.”

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Mini-Interlude 42 – Elisabet

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Of all the places that one might have expected to find the Crossroads Committee Counselor known as Elisabet spending her very valuable free time, one would have to know her quite well to guess that it would be a simple, quaint children’s play at a junior high school. Most people, even many of her co-counselors, would have run through quite an extensive list of other possibilities before ever getting close to that possibility.

The Spanish woman sat in the rear-most row of seats, despite the fact that the auditorium was barely half full. Half a dozen rows sat between her and the nearest other observers, all of whom were either proud parents or bored siblings, raptly watching or studiously ignoring the events on stage as the pint sized performers carried on with their own rendition of Beauty and the Beast.

Most would also have completely missed the arrival of the new figure who stepped into the darkened auditorium. For one thing, the figure simply stepped through the closed doors rather than opening them to admit any of the light from the outside hall. That coupled with the figure’s almost eerily silent movement within the near pitch-black room meant that they were all-but impossible to notice.

Elisabet, however, noticed. There were a wide assortment of powers that made that possible, from the three-hundred and sixty degree vision that gave her a full view of the entire auditorium and everyone within it at all times, coupled with more than a dozen different powers raising her ability to see in the dark or other vision enhancements, to her senses of smell and hearing being so refined that she could have noticed the arrival even if they had been invisible. Then there were the powers that allowed her to sense air being disturbed, the contents of the figure’s pockets, the calcium in their bones,  even the electrical impulses within their brain. It was all-but impossible to sneak up on a member of the Crossroads Committee, no matter what methods one used. Even teleportation was out, considering not only their multiple danger-warning powers, but also the ones that were able to detect most forms of energy teleportation created.

The point was, ambushing a member of the Crossroads Committee would only be possible by someone of equivalent or greater power. And those were exceedingly few and far between. There were the Eden’s Garden Victors, of course. Unlike the Committee, who all shared all of their powers with one another, each Victor (every tribe had two of them) gained a little bit of the power that each member of their tribe gained when killing a Stranger. That made them roughly equivalent to the power of a Committee member.

But the new arrival was not one of the Victors, or anyone anywhere near powerful enough to take Elisabet by surprise. She’d known that they were coming since even before the figure had come through the closed doors.

Still, she didn’t move. Remaining in her seat, the woman waited as the figure crossed the darkened auditorium to join her. Only once the new arrival had taken the next seat over did Elisabet speak. “You’re going to make your move against the Chambers girl.”

Charmeine, temporarily removed from her host, spoke flatly. “They know who I am. She has the choker, and I didn’t figure it out before…” A look of annoyance crossed her face before she spoke again. “I need authorization to use the spell sealers, Jophiel.”

Elisabet… or rather, the Seosten Jophiel, finally turned slightly to look at the woman. “Spell sealers won’t help you against the protection that was put on Liesje Aken’s heir. We already told you, if the girl dies before you remove that spell, all of us will be exposed. We have all ordered her death. We are responsible for your actions. If she dies by your order or hand, the spell will snake its way up through all of us. We will be revealed to the caster, permanently. That, as you have been reminded of repeatedly, cannot be allowed to happen.”

It obviously took Charmeine a moment to collect herself. Jophiel could tell that much even without the assortment of emotion-sensing powers that she had access to. Finally, the dark-skinned Seosten straightened before speaking. “I don’t need them for her. I need the spell sealers for the Chambers girl. She has the same protection spell, along with about half a dozen others. And that’s just the ones that we’ve been able to find without a thorough search.”

She continued before Jophiel could point out the obvious. “And yes, I know that if the Chambers girl dies, we’ll have the same problem. The energy from her death will trigger the spell that points them straight toward all of us. Even if we leave our bodies and get new hosts, it’ll keep leading them right to us. That’s why we’re not going to kill her. I need the spell sealers to block all the other spells on her long enough to take her in and do what we need to do. Before they wear off, I will send her to our space. The humans have no way of getting anywhere near her out there. After that, all we have to do is wait for the spell to wear off while our people work out why we can’t possess her at their leisure.”

She continued, telling the other Seosten the rest of her plan. At the end, Jophiel lifted her chin, considering for a moment. “You come to me rather than to Manakel because…”

“Manakel referred me to you,” Charmeine replied flatly. “You are the one who controls access to the spell sealers. And if this fails, he wants me to be blamed instead of himself. So he made me come to ask you. That way, if it goes wrong, he wasn’t the one who asked you. I was.”

A slight smile crossed the other woman’s face briefly, before she gave a slight nod. “We need this situation to be attended to. You have permission to use one spell sealer. It should be enough for your purposes. Just remember, they do not, as the humans say, grow on trees.” That was putting it lightly. One spell sealer, of the kind that the woman was asking for, required almost a hundred years to gather enough energy to be useful. They were also exceedingly hard to make, which was why their use had to be approved. Turning slightly, she faced Charmeine. “It should also go without saying–”

“Last chance,” Charmeine finished for her, already standing up. “Yes, I am aware. It won’t be a problem this time.”

Turning, she started to leave before pausing to look back. “… why come here?”

Jophiel nodded to the children on stage. “The girl there, she is my host’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter.” Her chin rose. “One must, of course, maintain illusions. It also allows me time to think, and plan.” Slowly, she looked that way, her voice turning pointed, “In privacy.”  

The black woman squinted at her for a moment, but clearly didn’t want to risk challenging her superior on that. Turning on a heel, she strode away without another word.

For almost three full minutes, the woman sat there in relative silence, aside from the voices on stage. She watched the play, just as she had been doing with half her attention while the other Seosten had been there.

Finally, she was certain that Charmeine wasn’t coming back any time soon. Letting out a breath, she straightened up, standing from the seat while announcing softly, “She seems confident.”

From the seat that she had just vacated, a voice replied, “Of course she does. Between her arrogance and the fact that her failure will lead to her… punishment, it would be far more surprising if she didn’t project confidence.”

Jophiel turned, looking down at the woman who had spoken. Elisabet. The real Elisabet, now that she had vacated her body while standing up, leaving her host sitting there.

While Elisabet was a Spanish woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, Jophiel looked like a very… buxom brunette Caucasian who was barely in her twenties. She appeared to have more in common with Avalon Sinclaire than she did with her host. She was, in every sense of the word, utterly gorgeous, even for a Seosten.

There was a reason that she had been chosen to take the role of Aphrodite while the Seosten had been playing gods amongst the humans, after all.

For a moment, Jophiel and Elisabet stared at one another, both women remaining utterly motionless and silent. Then the Seosten took a step to the side before taking the seat next to the Spanish woman. “I’m sorry she had to interrupt,” she announced, “I promised that we’d watch Daniela’s play without distractions.”

Elisabet shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault,” she replied. “You could hardly send her away without addressing her. That might make her suspicious. And we don’t want that, do we?” She turned away from the play for a moment, looking toward her.

Jophiel continued to meet her gaze briefly before a very slight smile touched her beautiful face. “No,” she replied quietly while taking the other woman’s hand, “we certainly don’t… my love.”

Yes, Elisabet was far more than Jophiel’s host. She wasn’t enslaved, nor was her mind wiped. She wasn’t actually being controlled against her will in any way. No, the truth was that the two were partners, in every sense of the word. Partners in business, partners in combat, partners in all of their endeavors. And partners in love. As they had been for many, many years, since before Elisabet had actually been a part of the so-called Crossroads Committee.

It hadn’t started out that way. Jophiel’s assigned duty at the time of their meeting had been to assess the then-young Heretic for possible infiltration and recruitment into the just-formed Crossroads Academy. Jophiel had originally appeared to her as a young girl who had to be saved from monsters. Over the course of the next several months, she was supposed to determine whether the Spanish girl was worth recruitment.

Instead, the two gradually fell in love with one another, to the point that Jophiel revealed the truth of herself, and her people. And, to her surprise and joy, Elisabet had accepted her.

From that time on, they were partners in every way. Elisabet knew what the Seosten were truly doing, but she also knew about the war that they were fighting against the Fomorians. She knew what the Fomorians intended for humanity, and believed that fighting alongside the Seosten was their best chance for survival.

She did feel some guilt, at times, about the fate of the non-humans who were killed. But the truth was that, guilty as she might feel, her first loyalty was to humanity. And Elisabet believed that if humans didn’t grow stronger, if Heretics weren’t strong enough, that the Fomorians would enslave and destroy all of them. Human, Seosten, or any other race. The creatures that they called Fomorians (even the Seosten didn’t understand what they really called themselves, so Fomorian was a good enough term) would annihilate entire civilizations, just as they had for millennia. Very few were powerful enough to stand in their way. The Seosten stood the best chance of putting an end to the Fomorians. But they couldn’t do it without help.

And that help would be the humans, the Heretics. Once they were strong enough. But to get there… certain eggs had to be broken. Sacrifices had to be made. If that meant allowing certain innocents to die now so that everyone didn’t die later, then… that was something she could live with.

It was something they both lived with. Jophiel lied to her people, and Elisabet lied to hers. They were both lying to everyone except each other. They would never lie to one another. They were each all the other truly had. And if it came down to it, each would choose the other over everyone else in the known universe.

They were, after all…

Partners.

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New York Minutemen 27-02

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“Welcome, boys and girls, to the Clocktower.”

Josiah Carfried (not our magic teacher, the other guy) stood in front of both of our assembled teams about half an hour later. We had gone through the portal room in the Pathmaker building, only to come out in the middle of… well, exactly what he said: a clocktower. We were in the top part of the tower, a room where all four walls were actually the reverse sides of clock faces, and we could see through them to the city beyond. The walls there were apparently one-way, allowing us to see out past the partially obstructing clock hands, but the world couldn’t see in.

Except… my mouth opened to say something about what we were looking at, but Gordon beat me to it. “Where the clocks are,” the boy started in his ever-serious and flat (and frankly, a little suspicious) voice, “they’re not showing the same parts of the city.” Raising a hand, he pointed at the north clock face, which showed a view from above a park, then used his other hand to point to the east clock face, which showed a view above a busy intersection that would have, if they were connected, run through the park. “There’s no way those two views could be that close.”

“Excellent catch!” Josiah blurted, pointing at him then with a wide smile. “Yes, very good, uhh…”

“Gordon,” Jazz supplied for him, giving the boy a short side-eye. “His name is Gordon Kuhn.”

Josiah nodded, his smile widening. “Right, right, Gordon Kuhn. Very good, Gordon.” He turned to gesture at the walls. “Each clock face is actually a portal connecting to one of several dozen possible locations within the city. At any point, our people here can use the portals to get nearly anywhere they need to be almost instantly. With the amount of Strangers we’ve got running around this city, being able to respond that fast is… well, it’s not just important, it’s essential.

“The Minutemen use these portals all over the city. If you know where they are, all you have to do is walk up to one, announce your name, and the portal will recognize you as a Heretic. Then it will open and allow you to come through to here. And from there, you can get anywhere else within the city just by walking up to one of the clock faces and announcing where you want to go. It’ll open the nearest portal. Pretty cool, huh?.”  

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Isaac had raised his hand, looking amused. “Did you just say Minutemen? What, can this thing go back in time too? Cuz if it can, I’m gonna go invest in some stocks or something. And maybe get a state named after me. What do you think, no one cares if Wisconsin gets a new name, right?”

“Isaac,” Paul drawled, “shut up.”  

“Hey now, Paul.” That was Marina Dupont, the tall, pale girl with brunette hair that was cut short, almost above her ears. She was shaking her head at their team leader. “Remember, we solve things constructively. You can’t just tell Isaac to shut up and expect him to learn. You have to tell him what he’s doing wrong and phrase it in a way that allows him to grow as a person.”

I was pretty sure that every single thing with a face, including the clocks, rolled their eyes.

“Mr. Acosta,” Professor Dare addressed Isaac with a narrowed-eye look. “Please, be silent.”

Josiah continued then. “The answer, ah, Isaac, is yes. I did say Minutemen. That’s what the Heretics assigned to this New York branch call themselves. You know, because they live in and deploy through this clocktower. And their goal is to respond to any crisis within minutes. Which, sorta makes the whole ‘Minutemen’ thing make sense. Plus, it’s a reference to Heretics being a part of those militias back when the whole war of independence thing was going on.”

War of independence, I noticed he referred to it as. Not the Revolution or the American Revolution. I was pretty sure that was a British thing. Interesting.

Yeah, a silent voice spoke in my head that I belatedly recognized as Deveron’s, about a quarter of the guys assigned here switched to our side in the war and sabotaged this place so they couldn’t ambush Alters so much. Took them years to put it back together from all the damage we did to it. Wonder if they just stuck the same guys back here after wiping their memories…

He sounded odd, like he’d started out trying to just share a bit of history with me, but turned bitter toward the end of it. I turned slightly to glance at him, and he gave me a slight head shake.

Scout turned to whisper something to her sister, and Sands spoke up for her. “If there’s a bunch of Heretics assigned to this place,” she asked, “where are they? This place looks pretty empty.”

Professor Dare, standing behind us, spoke up. “Their offices and other rooms are downstairs. This is just the transportation room. Though,” she amended then, “I don’t imagine many of them are here…”

Josiah was nodding quickly. “Yeah, they’re pretty busy people. Don’t spend much time around here. Mostly they’re in and out. But we can go down and check things out for a minute. Then we’ll take a little drive to the hotel we’ll be staying in, and we can talk about what you guys wanna do first today. Remember, this is a reward, so you’re not just here to learn. You’re also here to have fun. Four days of fun.”

******

The man wasn’t wrong, at least about the first day. It was more than fun, it was probably one of the best days I’d had since becoming a Heretic. Well, aside from the private time I got to spend with Shiori and Avalon, but in a group setting? Yeah, this was pretty much one of the best. Josiah was clearly intent on showing us a good time while we had the chance to be there.

We went to two different museums, one of which had this awesome light show. We also visited this thing called the High Line, which had been an elevated railroad track back in the thirties, but was now a narrow, raised park that gave some amazing views of places like the Manhattan skyline and the Hudson river. Plus, there were all kinds of food vendors and art pieces scattered throughout. With the pretty grass and bushes and everything along both sides of the walkway above the concrete and pavement of the bustling city below, it was really neat.

That night, we ate at an amazing diner place that served hamburgers practically as big as my head, and long, shoestring fries that made me seriously think about going back and hugging whoever had cooked them. Topping it all off with a big chocolate milkshake was just the best.

Even having Charmiene around, puppeting Columbus, couldn’t totally ruin things. She would get what was coming to her. Every second that she held him against his will, I was going to make her pay tenfold for it. Whenever I saw ‘him’ joking around with Sean, or asking Professor Dare and Josiah questions, and especially whenever ‘he’ got anywhere near Avalon, I barely restrained myself from lashing out. I still had no idea how Shiori had been keeping it together.

At least she wasn’t on this trip. Maybe not having to see Columbus would give her a little break. Though I suspected she’d just spend the entire time worrying. Which was why I texted her pretty much constantly, and sent pictures back. I wanted her to know that everything was going fine.

Hell, even catching the occasional stare from one of Roxa’s old teammates wasn’t enough to put that much of a damper on the day. I already knew that they were suspicious of me, and we were going to take care of that the very next day. I could deal with being stared at awhile longer.

The hotel we were staying at was pretty good too. It was a six story place, and Josiah had rented out about half of the fourth floor. We split into pretty much the same room assignments that we had back at the school, meaning that Avalon and I shared one. Boys were given rooms on one side of the hall, while girls were on the other. Jazz and Marina shared a room, as did Rudolph and Deveron, in order to make everything even. Though I suppose there was a little bit of co-ed habitation going on, since poor Sean was still stuck playing roommate to Charmiene.

Yeah, making snarky thoughts like that in my head did actually help me cope with this situation.

“So what do you think, Herbs?” I asked my pet rock while balancing him on my hand in front of the window of the room that I was sharing with Avalon. “It’s a pretty gorgeous view, huh?”

“It really is,” Avalon remarked from where she was standing over in the bathroom doorway.

Glancing over my shoulder, I raised an eyebrow. “You can’t even see the city from over there.”

She graced me with a tiny smile then, one that few were lucky enough to ever see. Her voice was so soft that I could barely hear, yet the words themselves still sent a shiver through me.

“I wasn’t talking about the city.”

My eyes widened briefly, and I made a noise that sounded like a cross between a hiccup and a giggle as my face turned pink. “I, I, um…” Squirming a little, I gave the other girl an admittedly goofy smile. “You’re, umm, I mean… you’re pretty… pretty. Pretty.”

“Chambers,” Avalon drawled slowly, stepping away from the bathroom before walking toward me with a raised eyebrow. “Did you just say ‘pretty’ three times in a row?”

“I, um, it… bore repea–” I started before being interrupted as Avalon reached me. Her lips found mine, and it was all I could do to avoid dropping Herbie as my hand quickly closed. Hell, it was all I could do to avoid dropping myself, as weak as my knees felt.

After a bit of that, Avalon pulled back and gave me a wry, knowing look. “Well, you ready to go?”

“Ready to…” I echoed blankly, mumbling the words cluelessly while staring at her. Which, gorgeous as she was, didn’t really help with that whole focusing thing.  I had to blink a few times, shaking my head to clear it before remembering. “Oh. Oh, right. Um. Um. Yeah, meeting Roxa, got it.” Squinting at the girl, I managed a weak, “That was mean.”

From her smile and wink, I don’t think she felt bad about it at all.

Eventually, we did make our way out of the room. But we didn’t go out the door where one of the others could’ve seen us. Instead, the two of us slipped out onto the balcony. Making sure no one was watching (or at least none of our classmates), I took hold of Avalon before producing my staff in the other hand. Then we leapt from the balcony, dropping fast toward the street before I used a blast of kinetic force from the staff to shove us across the street. Before we splatted against the roof of the lower building there, I let off a couple more bursts from the staff to slow us down until the two of us landed fairly lightly, each dropping into a roll to take the rest of our momentum.

As we picked ourselves up, the sound of slow clapping drew my attention to the other side of the roof, where Roxa stepped into view. “Good job,” she started. “I’ll give the flight over here about an eight, but I’ve gotta drop the landing to a six point five. Sorry, I’ve seen better.”

“Well shit,” I retorted, “guess we’ve gotta go back up there and try it again. Shooting for a nine.”

Stepping over beside me, Avalon lifted her chin to the other girl. “Did you have any trouble getting here?”

Roxa shook her head. “Nope. The others are back in a motel a few blocks away. Except for Lesedi. She’s up in one of these buildings with a rifle. You know, just in case anything went wrong.”

Restraining the urge to look around, I nodded. “Well, I think we’re okay. We shouldn’t be gone for long though, so here.” Reaching up, I fumbled with the invisible clasp of the choker briefly before pulling it off and offering the thing to her.

We weren’t going to have the meeting between Roxa and her old team until tomorrow, when we could get everyone away from Josiah for long enough. But I wanted the girl to have the choker ahead of time so that I didn’t have to disappear to get it to her before the reunion actually happened. Thus, the quick meeting tonight.

“Thanks,” Roxa replied, feeling out the choker briefly before looking at me. “So all I have to do is put it on?”

I nodded. “Yep. As long as you’re wearing it, their Stranger Senses won’t go off.” Pausing then, I asked, “Nervous about seeing them again?”

She gave a quick, emphatic nod at that. “Hell yeah. I… I think I made the right choice. I know I did. But it’s… it’s still gonna be hard. It feels like I abandoned them. I know, I know they wouldn’t understand. It’s just…” Roxa sighed.

“I get it,” I assured her, glancing toward Avalon. “We both get it. But you should be where you’re happiest, not wherever makes other people happy.”

Smiling slightly, the other girl nodded once more. “Thanks… now you should go, before something happens.”

“Alright,” I agreed, “but be ready for tomorrow. We’ll text as soon as we get away from Carfried and meet you… where did we say?”

“Bowling alley,” Avalon replied. “Four blocks east. Dare vetted it.”

“Right.” Roxa raised her fist. “Bowling alley, tomorrow. I’ll wait for the text. I just hope we–”

She was cut off then as my hand snapped up, covering the girl’s mouth. “Don’t,” I chastised flatly.

“Just don’t.”

******

“Exactly how many pancakes can you eat, anyway?”

Blinking up from my plate to look at Deveron as he finished asking that, I shrugged. “Um. As many as I’ve already eaten, plus… three? I think three.” Blushing a little then, I mumbled, “I like pancakes.”

The two of us were the only members of the group that were up at the moment. Deveron had met Avalon and me when we got back to the hotel, and offered to go out with me after the other girl crashed. So, after spending a little time upstairs, I’d eventually joined him in the lobby. That time, I didn’t mind going right through the hallway. We weren’t going anywhere that would’ve mattered if Roxa’s team saw.

We’d walked around for a little bit, looking through the city. Deveron talked some about other times that he’d been here. I kind of had to coax him into it, but he’d slowly opened up as we strolled. We had moved through the busy city, talking about… well, a little bit of everything, from his time in school and how the teachers had been back then, to what was going on right now, to… hell, his favorite books when he had been growing up. I even asked him about Bystander things, like what it had been like to go to Crossroads while the first World War was happening.

It was honestly the closest I’d felt to the man who was my mother’s first husband that I could ever remember. And now, we were sitting in a diner, eating food while he chose to give me shit about how many pancakes I’d eaten.

He was chuckling, while taking a bite of his own omelet. “Nothing wrong with liking pancakes, Flick.” Tapping his fork against the plate a couple times thoughtfully, he added, “Your mom likes them. Especially–”

“Blueberry ones,” I finished, finding myself smiling. “I remember. Everything was an excuse for blueberry pancakes. On my fifth birthday, she made this…” I trailed off, blanching suddenly as my stomach dropped.

“Flick?” Deveron frowned, his voice rising. “What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly. “No, no, it’s not… it’s just…” I sighed. “For my fifth birthday, Mom made these blueberry pancakes that were shaped like a raccoon. You know, oval for a body, then a circle for the head, an oblong shape for the tail and two little bits for ears. It was…” I swallowed hard, slumping in my seat in the far corner of the diner. “It was supposed to be Taddy.”  

I told him about Taddy, my old stuffed raccoon that I’d had since I was a baby. I told him how close I’d been to my little toy, and how I’d destroyed it with scissors after coming home from school to find my father crying over my missing mother’s shirt.

“It’s stupid,” I mumbled, staring down at the half-finished plate of pancake while blinking stubborn tears out of my eyes that just wouldn’t go away. “Just a dumb toy. But I wish I could take it back.” My eyes closed tightly and my shoulders shook. “I wish I could take it back.”

There was the squeak of Deveron rising from his side of the booth. Then I felt him take a seat at my side. His arm moved around me, pulling me into a sort-of sideways hug that I only resisted for a moment before letting myself slump against him. My head rested against his shoulder, and I gave another shudder.

“I miss her,” I managed after a few seconds of that.

“I know.” There was pain in Deveron’s voice. Pain that I completely understood. “I miss her too, kid.

“I miss her too.”

******

The next morning, after breakfast, it was time for what was promising to to be another long, but fun day. Our first stop, according to Josiah, was the Bronx Zoo. Apparently the rest of the day was supposed to be a surprise, but he promised it would be interesting.

Unfortunately, we had too many people to fit everyone into one vehicle. But Josiah and Dare were on top of that, and already had two vans and a car waiting when we got out of breakfast.

So we split up. The others split up and went into both of the vans, while Professor Dare, the elder Carfried, Rudolph, ‘Columbus’, and I took a car right behind them. Carfried stayed in the front with Rudolph squeezed in next to him beside the driver, while the rest of us sat in the back. Dare was in the middle, putting herself between me behind the driver’s seat and ‘Columbus’ behind Carfried in the passenger’s seat. The reason she gave for putting the two of us on opposite sides of the car was so that we could both look out the window to watch the city. Which sounded like a decent enough explanation.  

I knew why Dare wanted to keep Charmiene in the same car that she was in. It would allow her to keep an eye on the Seosten bitch. Between her and Profess–err, Josiah Carfried, Charmiene wasn’t likely to try anything too obvious. Still, something felt off as the car pulled into traffic.

The driver, a short, squat guy wearing way too much cologne, was chattering away about the city as he wove the car in and out of lanes. Somehow, he always managed to find a spot to swerve into that was barely large enough for the cab. Half the time, he wasn’t even paying attention to where he was going. He’d look over his shoulder to say something about some bridge or building or whatever while jerking the wheel violently to the left to zip into a tiny opening that had just appeared between a dump truck and a van full of Japanese tourists.

Honestly, I wasn’t really paying attention to the poor driver. My gaze was focused out the window, watching passing buildings. But my mind was too busy trying to figure out how Roxa’s team was going to take it when she showed up. Would they calm down, or just double down on their paranoia? Was there anything else I could do, or actually tell them to make things better? I didn’t dare go with the whole truth. I’d gotten really lucky when it came to my own team. I couldn’t expect an entire other team to react that well to the whole ‘Alters aren’t all evil’ story.

“Hey, Flick.” That was Colu–Charmiene. ‘He’ was leaning forward to see around Dare, eyebrow raised as he fumbled a little with the goggles in his hands that he’d pulled off to tinker with. I could almost believe that he was nervous. “You okay? You seem a little, you know, distracted.”

Yeah, I wanted to say, I’m a little distracted thinking about how I’m going to find a way to rip you out of my friend, my girlfriend’s brother, and burn you alive, you gigantic puppeteering cunt.

Instead, I just managed as much of a smile as I could. “Grew up in Wyoming, remember? Never been to a place like this,” I nodded over my shoulder at the window. “City is freaking huge, man.”

‘Columbus’ smiled. “Yeah,” he replied, “it is freaking huge… man. Oh, and uh, immutatio.”

I was still registering the fact that he’d said some completely random word that didn’t make sense, even as Professor Dare was already twisting. I heard the start of a shout, before she was gone. Gone, as in she literally fell backwards through the car. The spot where she had been sitting was partially translucent, like a ghost. And Dare herself was tumbling along the road, end over end. We’d been going at a pretty decent clip by that point, up to about fifty-five, and that spell that Charmiene had spoken had literally turned Professor Dare’s seat and that part of the car insubstantial, dumping her out onto the road in the middle of traffic.

A cry had just escaped me, as I reflexively jerked my head around. Yeah. Dumb. Idiot. I should’ve stayed focused on Charmiene. But it was Professor Dare. I had to turn, staring through the back window at the sight of the blonde woman getting her feet under herself just in time to dive out of the way of a honking semi that came barreling through the spot she’d been in a second earlier.  

It was only for an instant. I only looked back for the span of a heartbeat before my werewolf-enhanced reflexes made me twist back to face the bitch wearing Columbus. But it was still a heartbeat too long. I saw ‘him’ flip up those goggles of his, thumb hitting a button on the side. Then there was a flash, and I was slumping sideways. My body was locked up, paralyzed.

And it was worse than that. Charmiene had used only one hand to hit the button on the goggles that paralyzed me. Because her other hand was occupied, holding the red-bladed knife that she had just stuck through the back of Josiah Carfried’s neck. The white glow of Columbus’s kill-aura filled the cab, while Rudolph actually let out a strangled scream of shock that only stopped as the driver of the cab drove an elbow back into his face so hard that the boy immediately slumped, unconscious.

“Just one more thing,” Charmiene announced while tugging the red-bladed knife out of the dead Heretic’s neck, her eyes focused on my totally unmoving body as I lay slumped in the corner of the cab. As I was forced to do nothing but watch, she made Columbus’s hand reach up to the roof of the cab. Her fingers scratched away at the fabric there, revealing a spell that had already been drawn in there. Just like the spell that she had prepared to turn Dare’s part of the cab ghost-like. This one, however, did something very different. As she touched it, the view outside the cab windows went fuzzy white for a couple of seconds, and my stomach twisted. Then the view changed. We were in a completely different part of the city.  The spell had teleported the car.

Dare had been left behind. Josiah Carfried was dead. Rudolph was unconscious. The driver was… somehow working with them, and Charmeine… Charmiene wasn’t pretending anymore. I was alone. I was completely on my own, and still paralyzed from whatever those goggles had done to me.  

It felt like my heart was beating so loud that it almost drowned out Columbus’s voice as Charmiene made him speak. “I do hope you didn’t honestly think we were stupid enough to not figure out that you still had the choker. But thank you for being subtle enough about it to give us time to set up enough spells to block all those wonderful little tracking enchantments you’re carrying around. It means that we’ll have plenty of time to have a little conversation.

“A conversation that, I can promise you, you are not going to enjoy.”

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