Month: November 2017

Uprising 29-03

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“What do you mean, what are we gonna do about it?” Isaac demanded fifteen minutes later, once he and the others had caught up and we’d had a chance to explain the situation. Looking around at all of us, the boy added, “I mean, hey, don’t get me wrong. Sucks for them. But there aren’t enough words in the English language to describe how much this isn’t our problem.”

Sands gave him a thoroughly disgusted look at that. “Oh, right, real empathetic there, Isaac.”

“It’s not about being empathetic,” the boy shot back. “It’s about being realistic. Look, the only reason those Seosten freaks haven’t dropped an entire army on top of us already is that they don’t know we’re here, right? We’re alive and free because they have no idea where we are. We try to get involved in this and how do you think it’ll go? Cuz I can tell you. The skies will open up and they will drop a veritable shit-ton of troops down on our heads. And they won’t stop coming after us until we’re either dead, or their obedient little puppet-slaves. I told you, I feel for the guy. But if we get involved, we won’t be helping anyone. We’ll just be a bunch of meatsuit puppets.”

Sighing under my breath, I looked over to where the chameleon-guy was. He’d pushed his back up against the nearby tree, and his eyes were darting around fearfully as he watched our every move. So far, he hadn’t reacted to anything we said, so I was pretty sure he didn’t understand English. Which was just going to end up making this even more complicated than it already was.

Roxa spoke up, having moved away to transform back into her human self. “So we just, what, ignore the guy? Walk away from him and pretend we never saw him? Is that what you suggest?”  

“Well, we can’t exactly do that either, can we?” Isaac pointed out then. “He runs out of here, and you really think he won’t sell us out to the first Seosten guard he sees to save his own skin?”

Roxa’s retort was sharp as her eyes blazed at that. “So what, you wanna take him prisoner? Or did you want to do something else, Isaac, something a little more permanent than that, maybe?”

“Look, you can take him prisoner if you want,” the boy quickly replied while shaking his head. “I’m not some bloodthirsty monster, I’m being pragmatic. If we get involved, we are all going to die or be enslaved. If we let him go and he tells them where we’re hiding, we are all going to die or be enslaved. Do you want that to happen? Because I don’t. I like myself in charge of myself.”

Roxa gave him a dirty look. “But you’re fine with just leaving a bunch of innocent people out there to be enslaved and experimented on, as long as it’s not you? That’s just fucking swell?”

“I never said it was swell!” he retorted. “I said we couldn’t do anything about it. I told you, if we get involved, we’ll save maybe a few of them, and then the Seosten will drop down on us with the fury of a thousand suns. Everyone we saved will be dead or enslaved again, and so will we. You really wanna risk your life just to get these people a few fucking minutes of freedom?”

Taking a step that way, Roxa spoke in a low, yet powerful voice as she met the boy’s gaze. “Let me make one thing perfectly clear to you. I would risk my life to give one person one minute of freedom. And then I’d do it again for another minute. And again for another minute. I would put my life on the line every second, every minute, every hour of every single goddamn day if it gave one of these innocent people the freedom that they deserve for as long as I managed to survive. So, you wanna know if I’d really risk my life to save them right now? Fuck yes.”

Isaac started to say something then, but was interrupted as Jazz moved past him. She was stepping over by the terrified Alter. Seeing her moving that way, I almost moved to intercept her.

Wait, don’t. Tabbris’s voice in my head cut in. She sounded hesitant. I don’t think she’s um… y-you know, I don’t think she’s gonna do anything bad. We should give her a chance.

I wasn’t sure about that, but I listened to my partner. Still, I kept a close, wary eye on the girl. From the corner of my eye, I saw Roxa doing the same. She looked tense, squinting that way.

By that point, Jazz had taken a knee in front of the man. He was busy trying to push himself back even further into the tree. I was pretty sure he would’ve phased through it if he could have. As it was, he stared at the girl in front of him as if she was a snake that had coiled up and started hissing. The poor guy wasn’t just afraid of us, he was pretty much completely petrified.

“He could be lying.” Jazz’s voice was soft, hesitant. She sounded like she knew this wasn’t going to go over well at all, but still had to say it. “It could be a trap, you know? What if they sent a bunch of these… people out to all these different areas with some sob story to trick us into going where they can grab us, just because they know that you guys think they’re innocent?”

I could see Roxa gearing up again, but before she could launch into another tirade, I stepped that way to put a hand on her arm. “Wait,” I muttered before looking to Jazz. “Just go with me on this. For right now, pretend he’s telling the truth. Just pretend you believe him, hypothetically. If he was telling the truth, and this isn’t some kind of trap, then what do you think we should do?”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut. I saw the conflict in her eyes before her head shook. “If it wasn’t a trap? I mean, if it’s not a trap? That’s not–I mean… I mean there isn’t any way to know if it’s–”

“Hypothetically, Jazz,” I cut in. “You can do that much, can’t you? If there was a way to be absolutely certain that this isn’t a trap, then what would you choose? Isaac says it’s too dangerous. Roxa says she wants to go in and try anyway. But I wanna know what you say.”

Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, and she made a noise in the back of her throat. Her eyes darted to the man, back to me, then to the man again while she swallowed. “I… I don’t… I don’t know,” she finally managed while shaking her head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I just–I just don’t know, okay? I…He’s not, he’s not what I…” Turning back to him, she stared openly while he cringed and whimpered, clearly having absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Hell, he probably thought we were discussing which one of us would get to kill him. Or worse.

After staring at that whimpering, terrified figure for a few long seconds, Jazz finally spoke again.  Her soft, weak voice was barely audible, even as close as I was. “He’s not what I expected.”

Sands spoke before Roxa or I could. “You expected a monster.” Stepping over, she gave the Alter a brief look before focusing on the girl herself. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? We’re supposed to slay monsters and demons. That’s what we grew up learning about. That’s what they told us, that we were the last line of defense against some unrelenting horde of evil creatures, that we were going to save the innocents. We were supposed to be heroes.”

She took a step back, giving a slightly bitter smile as her head shook slowly. “Well, you know what? I’m pretty sure that being a hero is about doing the right thing.” Her eyes flicked toward Isaac. “No matter how dangerous it is.” Then she looked to Jazz. “No matter how hard it is.”

I nodded, biting my lip before the words came, almost of their own volition. “Maybe fuck Crossroads,” I announced, drawing everyone’s attention. “Maybe fuck our teachers. Maybe fuck everyone who ever said how this was supposed to go. Maybe right now, right here is where we decide what we’re going to do. Maybe right now is when we decide who we are. Maybe right now is when we decide what the right thing is for us. No teachers. No rules. No training wheels or safety lines. Nobody’s looking over our shoulders and nobody’s going to tell you what to do. I’m certainly not. It’s your choice. You decide. There’s a bunch of people out there who are being tortured, enslaved, worked to death or experimented on until they just wish they were dead.

“But Isaac’s right,” I continued slowly, purposefully. “If we let them know that we’re still around, things are gonna get bad. They will come after us and it will not be fun. We might lose. We might die. We might end up in just as bad a situation as the people that we’re trying to help are in. Maybe even worse. So you guys tell me, what is the right thing to do in that situation? We can keep hiding, and let these people suffer. Or we can step out and do something about it.”    

Roxa was the first one to speak after I had finished, her voice firm. “Do something about it.”

Sands was already nodding, fists clenched tightly as she agreed, “Do something about it.”

Jazz let out a long, low sigh then. She was still looking at the ground, fists pressed against the dirt as she hung her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know how I feel about… about any of this. I want to–I…” Her head shook, and she repeated, “I don’t know. But I…” Finally, she lifted her head to look at at Roxa. “I do know that I’m not going to let you go into something dangerous like that without me. I don’t know how I feel about it, but if you’re going, I’m going.”

“Well shit.” Isaac mumbled under his breath. He lifted his gaze to the sky while muttering something inaudible, then heaved a long, heavy sigh. “What the hell. You all wanna be suicidal, I guess I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? I’m screwed if I just stay out here on my own, and there’s no way dear old roomie’s gonna leave you all flapping in the breeze.” He was obviously trying to sound light, but I could see that the boy wasn’t happy about this whole thing.

Smiling faintly then, Roxa looked over at me. “I guess, aside from Gordon, that just leaves you, technically.” Her chin lifted a little as she gave me a significant look before slowly asking, “What do you say?”  

Except she wasn’t just talking to me, I realized. Roxa knew that there were technically two votes right here. That’s why she was making a point of the question. How about it, partner? I asked inwardly. This puts you in danger too. Maybe more than us. If they figure out that you’re here…

In Tabbris’s case, there was no hesitation at all. They’re all in trouble. We can help them.

“I guess that settles it then,” I announced out loud, trying to smile encouragingly even as my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest at the very idea of what we were about to attempt.

“Unless Gordon has some really convincing argument, we’re doing this.”

“Yeah, you know what?” Isaac announced then. “Call me crazy, but something tells me that Captain Logical isn’t gonna be so logical when it comes to this. It’s just a feeling.”

I didn’t know if he was right or not. Gordon did tend to be logical about everything. But then again, he’d been acting a little differently now and then, whenever the subject of the Seosten conspiracy about Alters came up. Maybe he was like Sands, pissed off that he’d been lied to for so long. Or maybe it was something more than that. I just didn’t know.

But something told me, whatever his deal was, it would come up before this field trip was over.

******

It took some convincing to get our new chameleon-like friend to come with us. We had to convince him that we weren’t just marching him back to Radueriel. Or rather, Tabbris did. She used my voice, carefully telling the man that we weren’t possessed, and we weren’t part of Seosten military. She/I told him we were going to help, but he had to get back to our camp.

So we stopped by to grab the two pantlers that we’d managed to kill, and Roxa and I each dragged one while the others kept their eyes open for anything bad.

Gordon was already standing at the base of the tree when we arrived. Clearly he’d seen us coming and climbed down to meet us. As we approached, the dark-skinned boy stepped out, keeping his voice low and even as he looked straight at our companion. “Who’s this?”

“It’s–” I paused, squinting before looking toward the man. His eyes were darting around constantly, watching for any kind of attack. Any time one of us spoke, he flinched noticeably like he expected to be hit. Or worse. The poor guy was still completely pants-wettingly terrified of us.  

Could you ask him what his name is? I sent inwardly. Anything we’re supposed to call him.

My mouth moved then, as Tabbris spoke through me. Just like when we had been speaking in front of the others aside from Roxa, she spoke slowly and hesitantly, taking a few seconds now and then as if thinking about the right word. She didn’t have to, obviously. But it would be more convincing that it was actually me talking if I wasn’t rattling it off like it was my first language.

Still, after only about a sentence or so into it, Isaac interrupted. “Hey, how do you even know how to speak this gibberish anyway? That something you learned from that Prosser guy too?”

Before I could reply, Gordon actually spoke up. “It’s just Latin,” he announced flatly. “She’s better at it than me, but I can follow some of it, enough words here and there to get the basic gist.”

“Why do they speak La–” Jazz started, then stopped herself. “Never mind, I don’t wanna know.”

Biting my lip, I turned my attention back to the Alter, urging Tabbris to go on. She did, apparently asking the man what his name was as gently as possible, trying not to scare him even more.

His eyes darted back and forth between us. I could tell that he was trying to decide whether giving us that much information was a good idea or not. Finally, he either realized that we weren’t going to do anything bad with it, or figured that we’d hurt him more if he didn’t talk. He started to hesitantly speak, his voice so quiet that I had to lean in closer to hear him better. Which, of course, made him stutter more, head ducking as if I was about to literally eat him.

Jokai, Tabbris announced. He says his name is Jokai. But I think he’s afraid that we’re gonna… um, take his name and use it to find everyone he cares about and… you know, make an example out of them. I tried to tell him that it’s safe, but he’s–um. They’ve been tricked before. That’s kind of the whole Seosten thing. I could hear the disgust in her voice. That’s how they um, how they stop rebellions before they get off the ground. They possess people and infiltrate the slave camps, find out who’s talking about rebelling and… and make examples out of them.

Okay, I was wrong. Apparently I could feel worse about this whole situation. Biting my lip and trying not to sigh too much, I looked back to the others. “His name is Jokai.” For Gordon, I went on to tell him the rest of it, that Jokai came from a slave labor camp, that he had run away and we’d… found him. Then I told him about the conversation we’d had before coming back here.

“So uh, that’s what we’re up to,” I finally finished with a little shrug. “That leaves it up to you. I mean, I’m sure Isaac would stay with you if you guys wanna sit this out. He didn’t want to be by himself, but if you…” Biting my lip, I trailed off and just looked to him. “It’s up to you. In or out?”

Gordon wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were on the trembling Alter, something utterly unreadable on his face. He stayed like that for a few seconds before lifting his chin and exhaling. When he finally spoke, it was obviously through a thick lump in his throat. “In.”

“That’s all of us.” Taking a breath, I turned to look at the Alter, Jokai. Tell him we’re gonna help get his people out of the prison camp. Or try to, at least.

Once more, my lips moved as the Seosten girl took over briefly. There was a short back and forth between ‘me’ and Jokai, and the more ‘I’ said, the more confused he looked. He kept repeating a phrase that I took to essentially mean, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’

Finally, however, he reached out to clutch my arm, all four of his eyes widening as he blurted a single word: sacramentum. His voice was a shaky, desperate plea, as if he was both afraid and ashamed that he was actually starting to believe any of this, but couldn’t help himself.

He’s asking if you promise, Tabbris informed me quietly. Actually, it’s more like he’s asking if you swear that you’re telling the truth, that you’re going to try. It’s an oath.

I relayed that to the others. While Isaac rolled his eyes and Jazz looked uncertain, Gordon was already nodding. “Vero,” he announced after considering his words briefly. “Sacramentum.”

After watching the others briefly, I nodded to our new friend. “Sacramentum. We’ll help your people, Jokai.

“I swear.”  

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Uprising 29-02

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

“Isaac, left, left, go left!” Jazz blurted loudly while throwing herself straight at Roxa. With a snarling cry, she swung that falchion of hers. The blade carried a wide, roaring wave of fire with it as it cut through the air. Metal and flame alike swept toward the blonde werewolf girl.

Meanwhile, Isaac was going for Roxa’s left side, swinging his three-headed flail at the space that the girl would have to dodge into in order to avoid the flames that were headed for her.

At the exact same time, Gordon was standing about half a dozen yards away. He had his weapon up in tommy gun form, taking aim carefully before he let loose with a barrage of shots.

Roxa was… not in even the slightest bit of trouble. She stepped forward, letting the flames engulf her to seemingly no effect. While Jazz was still realizing that, the other girl ripped the sword out of her hands by the blade before pivoting to kick her ex-roommate’s legs out from under her. As Jazz was dumped onto her backside, Roxa flipped the sword up and around. She used the blade to catch one of the chains of Isaac’s flail, and a quick yank tore it from his hands.

In the same motion, she kept turning on one foot, releasing the tangled sword and flail into a throw. They flew through the air, separating in time for the chains of the flail to wrap around Gordon’s legs, just before the hilt of the sword smacked him in the center of his forehead.

“And if you had really been attacking me,” Roxa announced, standing with one foot on Jazz’s chest and her hand against Isaac’s throat, “you would’ve been hit by the blade, not the hilt.”

Stepping forward then, I bobbed my head up and down quickly. “There, see, guys? You’re totally getting better. You lasted four whole seconds that time.” Moving to where Gordon had fallen, I held a hand out to help him up. “That’s twice as long as you lasted the first time we did this.”

It had been almost a week since we ended up on this planet. And yeah, we were training. I figured that even if we were stuck out here literally in the middle of nowhere on this alien world until someone rescued us, we could at least keep training. Partly because we all desperately needed it if we were going to survive anything the Seosten managed to throw at us. And partly because if Avalon found out that I’d been shirking training, I was pretty sure she’d kill me.

At least with Roxa around I had a really good opponent to spar with. After killing Lemuel and whatever else she’d done while with her pack, the werewolf girl probably could’ve given Valley herself a run for her money. It meant that both of us could help each other actually get better.

Gordon lay there, watching my hand for a moment like I was trying to offer him a snake. Just as I was about to step away so that he wouldn’t feel forced into anything, the boy reached up to take my hand. It was tentative, and he released me as soon as I’d pulled him to his feet. For good measure, he took a couple steps away. If it was anyone else, I might’ve felt insulted. But I knew by that point that that was just how Gordon was. He really did not like to be touched.

Jazz was shaking her head as Roxa helped her up as well. “Four seconds? That means she could still murder us fifteen times inside of a minute if she wanted to.” Pausing, she glanced to the other girl, hesitating just a little before adding, “Are werewolves really that badass?”  

Roxa lifted her chin, squinting briefly. “Werewolves can rip you apart, yes. But it’s not just that. Like I said before, I killed the leader of that evil pack. That… that gave me a big boost. Plus there’s everything else. I’m a werewolf, but I’m also a Heretic. So everything I kill keeps making me stronger. Hell, when I was still at Crossroads and we killed those Jekern, I ended up with the redundant organ powers. So between werewolf regeneration, the regen we all got from those peridles at the start of the year, and the redundant organs, I’m a gigantic pain in the ass to kill.”  

“That’s good, right?” Isaac put in while dusting himself off. He gave Roxa an easy smile. “I mean, good because you’re on our side. We wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

In the days since we had upended these guys’ entire belief system, they had gradually started to come to terms with it. Gordon had never really seemed that against it, and Isaac just kind of went with the flow. Part of that was his personality and part was obviously because he had grown up as a Bystander. Jazz had been the hardest hit by the whole thing, but she was coming around. Hell, sometimes she could even get through a whole conversation with Roxa without looking like someone had just kicked her puppy. She was adapting. And the more that Jazz interacted with the other girl without anything bad happening, the better she was becoming.

Even then, however, Jazz had made it clear that she wasn’t sure what she believed. Even if Roxa wasn’t evil, she wasn’t quite willing to believe that that extended to all Alters. The day before, the girl had extended the thought that because Roxa had been a Heretic first, it ‘saved’ her, that somehow being a Heretic had stopped the evil of the werewolf from taking over.

Yeah, Jazz still didn’t understand why the other girl had stormed off after that and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day. The point was, tensions were not quite all the way calm. We’d gotten it through their heads that Roxa wasn’t a threat. Now we just had to make them believe the rest of it. I just wasn’t sure how we were supposed to go about doing that.

“Hey, it’s someone else’s turn to come up here!” That was Sands, calling from her position up in the top of the nearby tree where she was playing lookout. “I wanna get some training in.”

The Seosten had basically stopped sending out ships out to scan for us after those first couple days (probably because they had no way of knowing where we were, or even if we were still on this planet), but we were still keeping an eye out for them just in case they were trying to lull us into some kind of  false sense of security. So we each took turns watching the sky for any ships whenever we were out of the cave. So far, everything had been pretty quiet. But I knew that couldn’t last forever. Radueriel wouldn’t have given up on finding us that easily after everything the Seosten went through to get us out here in the first place. It was just a matter of time.

The real question was, would Gaia manage to find a way to pull us back to Earth before the Seosten tracked us down? We were stuck here, waiting to see who won that particular race.

“I’ll go,” Gordon announced as he looked up to the tree. Which wasn’t really much of a surprise. The dark-skinned boy spent about half the time that he wasn’t training up there. He obviously liked the solitude, the chance to be by himself away from everyone else, just watching the sky.

Do you think he’s okay? I thought inwardly, biting my lip as I briefly wondered what could’ve happened in Gordon’s past to make him so withdrawn and against the idea of being touched.  

The answer from Tabbris was tentative. I… I dunno. Jazz, I know why she acts the way she does. But Gordon and Isaac are weird. Especially Isaac. Sometimes it seems like he’s trying really hard to seem sensitive and open, but um, other times, it’s like he says something just to… you know, just to get a reaction. It’s like he forgets to be nice, and has to remind himself.

Speaking of which, the boy himself was busy waving at Gordon. “Knock yourself out, dude. It’s so goddamn boring up there. Are you sure you weren’t a bird in a previous life or something?”

Sands had dropped down by that point, using the wooden stakes that we had fashioned and driven into the tree as a ladder. Hopping to the ground, she interrupted before Gordon had to respond to his roommate. “We need to get some food, guys. And I don’t mean fish or those berries. If I have another fish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I swear I’m gonna throw up.”

“What else are we supposed to do?” Isaac asked, shrugging his shoulders. “I mean, I’m with you, babe. But unless you know a pizza place with an incredible delivery range, we’re screwed.” Pausing then, he grumbled, “Shouldn’t’ve said that. Now I really want some pizza.”

While I shook my head and sighed, Roxa spoke up. “It’s not pizza, but I’ve seen some animals out on my runs. They look like a cross between deer and pigs.” She shrugged then. “Might taste pretty good, if we could take one down and get it back here. Mateo taught me how to get meat off an animal like that. And yes,” she added, “before any of you say anything, we did cook it.”

I hesitated a little. But honestly, I was sick of fish too. And it had been days since the last ship flew overhead. “Okay,” I finally agreed, asking, “do you think you can track them in wolf form?”

She gave me a sly smirk in response. “I’m seriously sick of fish too. Trust me, I can track them.”

Nodding, I reached into my pocket to take out Gus and Jaq. “Okay, let’s do this. Gordon, can you take one of my buddies here and hold onto him? If you see anything, he’ll send a warning to his brother.” I shrugged then. “It’s kinda the best we can do without any radios or anything.”

“Yeah,” Sands agreed. “Not like our phones are getting any signal out here. And I don’t know about you guys, but mine ran out of power days ago anyway.”

“I turned mine off as soon as we got here,” Gordon replied. “Conserving power. Just in case.”

I shrugged. “Charmeine kinda destroyed mine. Good idea about saving phone battery though.”

“So if we’re going hunting,” Isaac started, “does that mean we have to be vewwy vewwy quiet?”

Jazz gave an emphatic nod. “Yes, that’s exactly what it means. We all have to be vewwy quiet.

“Especially you.”

******

It wasn’t actually that hard to track down the pig-deer (they really needed a better name). About twenty minutes later, the five of us were crouched by some trees, watching a small herd of them nosing around in the clearing ahead of us. Just like Roxa had described, they looked like fuzzy warthogs that were about as tall as a small deer, with both long tusks as well as full antlers, and even long, bushy tails like a really big squirrel.

“Oh man,” Isaac whispered under his breath, just loud enough for us to hear, “I see bacon and a nice venison burger from the same damn animal. Maybe this planet isn’t so bad after all.”

Roxa, who was still in her wolf form, put a paw on his arm before shaking her head for him to be quiet. Then she looked over to me and nodded her head one way, toward the bushes on the other side of the clearing before pantomiming barking and howling. Finally, she nodded in the opposite direction, reaching up with a paw to bump against the staff in my hand.

I thought for a second, looking that way before realizing. Keeping my voice so low it was barely audible at all, I whispered, “You go that way, scare them into taking off in that direction, right where I’ll have planted some mines for them to run into. Then we pick off whatever we need to?”

When the wolf-girl gave a short nod, I smiled a little. “Sounds good to me. Hold on. I’ll be back.”

Carefully and slowly, I crawled back the way we’d come, looping around a ways until I came to the spot that Roxa had indicated. Then I paused to make sure the hog-deer… deer-pigs…

Digs? Tabbris offered helpfully. You know, like deer-pigs. Or sweer, for swine-deer. Or doar, for deer-boar.  Or pantlers, for pigs with antlers. There’s hantlers too, for hogs, but I like pantlers.  

Pantlers is kind of cute, I agreed while charging my staff. Carefully, I started to lay out concussive mines along the path that the animals would most likely run through once Roxa startled them. Maybe we can let everyone take a vote on which one they like best.

I’m pretty sure, she replied confidently, that what they really wanna call them is dinner.

Smiling at that, I started to crawl back to where the others were. You’re probably right.

When I got back there, only Sands and Jazz were waiting. Through gestures and whispers, they let me know that Roxa and gone around to the back of the clearing and was waiting to scare the pantlers (that was definitely my favorite one). Isaac, meanwhile, had gone down and around to the opposite side from where we were so that he could block them if they ended up retreating that way. Basically, between all of us we would herd them into the mines that I had laid down.

Biting my lip, I looked back out at where the animals were calmly eating. A few of them had started to look around cautiously, but mostly they were content to munch their food.

Then I had an even better idea. Whispering for the others to hang on, I reached out a hand to touch the tree in front of me. With a thought, I used the Relekun’s power to shove myself into the wood, ‘swimming’ up the tree to the nearest large branch. Emerging, I crouched there, basically directly over the antlered warthogs below. Still, the herd hadn’t really moved much.

Sands was looking up at me, and I gave her a thumbs up while transforming my staff into its bow form and charging up an arrow. Once she saw that I was ready, Sands turned to mouth something at Jazz. In turn, the other girl put a hand to her lips before pretty accurately imitating one of the birds that we had seen all around this place over the past week. I had no idea if that was some kind of mimicry power, or just a completely natural skill. Either way, it was really good.

The pantlers below were warily looking around at the sound of the bird call. That wariness exploded into full out panic, however, as Roxa abruptly leapt into the clearing with a loud snarl. She gave a violent series of barks while lunging toward the quite thoroughly startled animals.

And that was the point where the pantlers decided they’d had quite enough of this shit. The entire herd panicked, spinning around to scatter in various directions. Unfortunately for them, we were ready for that. The few that ran toward where Sands and Jazz waited were met with both girls lunging out to shout at them, weapons swinging. Jazz even brought up a brief wave of fire.

Meanwhile, the ones that went toward Isaac were sent back the way we wanted them to go by his three drones, which flew out of the bushes and sent several shots toward the poor animals.

All of that together meant that the creatures that were about to be our dinner were herded right where we wanted them to go. As I watched from my perch in the tree, the first couple reached the mines, and were instantly blown off their feet by the concussive explosion. One flew backwards into a full somersault (which looked weird coming from an animal like that), smacking against a tree. Another was caught just a little less, and went tumbling sideways into a bush.

The rest of the herd kept running, hit less by the mines. But that was more than alright. Two of the things would definitely be enough for awhile. We just had to make sure they didn’t get away.

To that end, I took aim at the furthest pantler, the one that had just been tossed into the bush. My energy-arrow shot that way, catching the thing just as it was getting up. That time, the thing stayed down. And I was just about to take aim at the second one when a wave of pleasure washed over me. It wasn’t anything close to the bigger rushes I’d gotten from deaths like Charmeine or the Amarok. In contrast, this was more like a brief pleasurable feeling. But it did take me a little by surprise, to the point that I had to quickly reach out and catch myself against the tree. I’d kind of forgotten that these things would actually trigger the whole Heretic-kill thing.

As I caught myself against the tree, however, something else caught my eye. Off on the other side of the clearing, half-hidden in bushes… was a humanoid figure. I couldn’t tell much about it from where I was, except that it looked pretty close to human save for yellow-red skin that made it blend into the surrounding bushes pretty well. It was watching the others, but a second later it looked up, clearly catching sight of me looking at it. Instantly, the thing pivoted to run.

“Roxa!” I shouted. As the wolf spun to look my way, I pointed off the way the thing was going. “Company!”

Then I leapt, transitioning my weapon back into its staff form before using a blast of energy to send myself flying that way. The brief flight before I came down cut into the spy’s lead, and I hit the ground running. I was fast, but Roxa was faster. She tore past me, all four legs turning her into a furry rocket that vanished into the bushes ahead.

A second later, my staff was charged enough to launch myself upward once more. I flew up and forward, landing on an outstretched branch to run along it for a few steps. Ahead, I caught the briefest glimpse of the figure running, with Roxa right behind him.

It was cutting to the right, so I did too, launching myself from the end of the branch with another burst from my staff. The propulsion sent me over the figure’s head, and I came down almost directly in front of it, spinning with my weapon up.

It was a male figure. I recognized that now. He pivoted at the sight of me, trying to escape back the way he’d come. But an instant later, Roxa came leaping out of the bushes. She collided with the man, knocking him to the ground with a loud, violent growl.

Now I had a better look at the guy. The most immediate feature I noticed was that he had four eyes. Two were in the normal locations, while the other two were set just a little above them. So two on each side of his face. He also wasn’t wearing much, just a sort of brown loincloth. And his skin wasn’t really reddish-orange anymore. In the few seconds since he had hit the ground, it had turned brownish to match the dirt. Whatever this guy was, he had some kind of chameleon power. He was still visible, but his skin changed colors to match his surroundings.

He was also crying. Sobbing, really. Rolling on his side, he babbled something in some language I didn’t understand.

Old Seosten, Tabbris quickly put in. Basically Latin. I understand him. He… he’s begging you to kill him.

Kill him? I blinked. Why would he ask us to kill him?

He keeps saying, please kill me, please don’t send me to the butcher… doctor… something like that.

I frowned for a second. Then I got it. Radueriel. He’s afraid we’re working for Radueriel. Ask him where he came from. I mean, use me to ask him.

There was a momentary hesitation, then my mouth moved, and my voice spat out some words quickly. The sobbing figure stopped, blinking tear-filled eyes up at me before stammering a hesitant, fearful response.

Um, it’s um, he came from a labor camp. He says he escaped and ran for two days before he got here. He was just hungry. He saw the pantlers too. But when he saw you–I mean us, he thought you were part of the search team sent to bring him back. Now he’s afraid you’re gonna send him to Radueriel.

Well, that was one thing we definitely wouldn’t be doing. But this did mean one very important thing. We weren’t exactly alone on this planet after all. No, apparently there was a slave labor camp a couple days run away from here, a place full of terrified, broken, hopeless people like this guy, working themselves to the bone until they either died or were sent to be experiments for that fucking psycho Seosten cyborg.

The question was, what were we going to do about it?

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Mini-Interlude 46 – Harper Hayes

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the the bubbly and cheerful student Harper Hayes, whom Flick interacted with when she was partnered with Doug during the hunt for the Aswang known as Hyde. 

“Wheee!” Harper Hayes, the bubbly young woman whose pigtailed hair would have been blonde if she hadn’t dyed it bubblegum pink, held both hands out to the side like she was an airplane as the motorcycle she was on all-but flew along the road and down the hill.

“Damn it, Harper!” the boy in front of her, who was actually driving the motorcycle, cursed. “I told you before, hold onto me!” He brought the motorcycle to a stop at the base of the hill. “You wanna fall off and break every bone in your body or something?”

“Sorry, Eiji,” Harper recited in a sing-song voice, still smiling at her teammate. “But I just had to do that one more time, we were almost here. Come on, we have regeneration, you know? And all kinds of powers. I’m not gonna break just by falling off a motorcycle. I got punched in the face by that ogre the other day and I was okay!”

The boy grunted, then stepped off the motorcycle and gave her a long look, which she returned with a bright smile. Eiji Ueda was a Heretic-Born boy who was Japanese by way of Canada. Not that he spent much time there. Harper still wasn’t clear on the whole situation, but there was something about some powerful Stranger basically ruling most of Canada, who didn’t take kindly to Heretics being around. They were very much a minority up there.

Standing slightly under six and a half feet tall and built pretty much like a linebacker, Eiji was also one of the smartest people that Harper had ever met. The only person their general age she had seen who was better at the regular school stuff was Vanessa Moon. Sometimes, she thought that at least half their grade had a crush on the boy, male and female alike.

Stepping off the motorcycle as well, the girl turned to pat it. “Thanks for the ride, Raphael.” In turn, the lights on the front of the motorcycle blinked on and off twice, while the engine made a noise that sounded like a purr.

The motorcycle wasn’t just Eiji’s personal transport. It was also his weapon, a cyberform with the ability to transition between four separate modes. He could be the motorcycle he was now, a large hiking backpack that let the boy carry him around, a suit of power armor that he could wear into battle, or a massive rhinoceros that fought alongside him.  

Harper had been the one to suggest naming him Raphael, after finding out that the Japanese word for a rhino was sai. She thought it was cute.

“And thank you!” she chirped then while bouncing over to hug the boy himself. “You know, for the ride.”

He nodded easily. “Of course, I wasn’t gonna leave you stuck taking the bus to get home for your birthday. Eighteen, huh?”

Her head bobbed eagerly. “Uh huh! But not til tomorrow, technically.” That was one of the rules that Crossroads had. As a Bystander-kin student, you were allowed to go home for a day or two on your birthday. It was easier than trying to have Bystander parents visit the school. Which would… yeah, that would be pretty hard to explain.

Eiji was already turning to look around. He paused, squinting at the nearby wrought iron gates and the sign above them. “You live next to a cemetery?”

She laughed, giggling merrily as her head shook. “Don’t be a silly goose. I live in the cemetery.”

The boy had been starting to nod, before making a slight choking sound. “You what in the who now?”

“Come on!” Pivoting, Harper started to skip to the gate. “I’ll introduce you to my mom.”

“Uh.” Eijin’s feet stayed firmly planted where he was. “This, this mom of yours, is she of the breathing type?”

If anything, Harper laughed even more. “You’re goofy, Eijin,” she informed him while pushing the gate open. “C’mon!”

Behind her, she heard the boy mutter, “Didn’t actually answer the question…” But he followed after her anyway, slipping through the gate before pulling it closed after himself. Then she led him along the path next to the perfectly trimmed grass, leading her friend and teammate to a simple brick building off to the side. It looked like a small church there at the front of the cemetery.

The two them had barely reached the entrance before the door opened and an older woman in her late forties with styled blonde hair and a pair of very jangly earrings that made noise with each motion of her head rushed through to scoop Harper into a hug. “My baby’s home!”

Giggling, Harper hugged onto the woman tightly. “Hi, Mom!”

Somewhere in the background, Eiji muttered what sounded like an excessive amount of gratitude to whatever deity was listening.

Finally letting her daughter down, Harper’s mother beamed at the boy. “And is this your boyfriend?”

“Mom!” Harper blushed, still giggling as she shook her head. “Eiji’s just my friend. He gave me a ride.”

“Well,” the woman gestured. “Thank you for that, Eiji. Would you like to come in for some lunch? I made fried chicken.” She winked then. “It’s super fresh. And I promise, there’s nothing strange or creepy inside. Our family may own the cemetery, but we try not to fall into those kinds of cliches.”

“Ah, no thank you, Mrs. Hayes.” Eiji shook his head. “It sounds great, but I’ve really gotta get back on the road. I’ll be back in a couple days to pick up Harper though.”

“Ms. Hayes, actually,” the woman corrected gently. “I’m afraid it’s just Harper and me.”

“Oh, uh, right. Sorry, Ms. Hayes.” Eiji blanched a little, clearly curious about what had happened, but too polite to ask.

After another minute of brief small talk, the boy apologized again for not being able to stay and made his way down the walk and back out of the gate. As he disappeared,  Harper watched him go. Her smile remained. “I like Eiji,” she announced. “He’s a good friend.” For a few seconds, that smile held. Then she turned to the woman beside her. “And so are you, Karlee.” Her voice, once bright and chipper, had softened, taking on a maturity it had lacked before.

The woman who had been posing as her mother gave a little curtsey. “You know I’d do anything to help. We all would. Have you… have you had any luck?” Her voice was tentative.

“No.” Harper’s head shook. “They’ve hidden the pieces rather… thoroughly.”

“You’ll find them.” Karlee gave a confident nod. “We know you will. But I was serious about the chicken. It’s waiting inside, my–”

“Thank you, Karlee.” Harper touched the woman’s arm briefly, smiling faintly. “I’ll be right in. I just… I need to visit him.”

Nodding in understanding, Karlee moved back inside the house, leaving the girl alone there.

Harper stood there, taking a deep breath before she started across the cemetery grounds, picking her way around the headstones. Eventually, she reached a large stone crypt with a heavy steel door. In the center of the door was a simple engraved circle. She put her hand out, laying it flat in the middle of that circle. After a couple of seconds, the circle began to glow. Then, with a low, grinding rumble, the door slid open. Not outward or inward. Instead, it slid sideways into the stone doorframe, revealing the tomb inside, where a single heavy sarcophagus lay on a stone altar.

She stepped inside the crypt, waiting until the door had rumbled shut behind her. Yet, the room remained brightly lit, through an unseen source. The sarcophagus lay in the exact center of that light, and the girl approached it reverently.

“I’m very close, my love,” she whispered, reaching out a hand to place tenderly against the elaborate coffin. “So very, very close. The Seosten have no idea that I’m there, or that I’m looking for the pieces they stole. I’ll find them. And when I do… when I do, I’ll bring you back.”

It was strange, talking like this after spending so much time adopting the personality she had chosen to convey while pretending to be a simple Heretic student. But then, that was the point. If she was going to remain under cover, no one could suspect she was anything special. She purposefully kept herself around the middle of the pack as far as both grades and their combat training went. She had chosen weapons that would give absolutely no hint as to her true identity. Every move she made was carefully calculated not to give the Seosten any reason to suspect that she was more than she seemed to be.

Thankfully, she had more than enough experience when it came to adopting different personalities. Throughout her long, long life, the girl who now called herself Harper Hayes had worn many identities. Even from the very beginning, from the start of everything, she had been two people: the person others expected her to be, and the person she chose to become. And though there were many differences between the two, one thing had been constant. She was, and would always be, loyal to the man she adored and loved with every ounce of her soul.

After all, whether she was Guinevere or Lancelot, both served their king.

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Uprising 29-01

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“A rebellion.” Isaac was staring at me as if I’d grown two additional heads and started yodeling as I finished telling them the truth about all that. “Like, an actual rebellion, and your mother was Princess Leia. Or Luke Skywalker. Wait, are either of those sexist? I can never keep track.”

There was a brief pause, where I was pretty sure that he was waiting for Jazz to tell him to shut up. But she didn’t. The other girl was too busy staring at me open-mouthed. She didn’t actually say anything at all. She just kept staring. Every once in awhile, her lips moved as if she was trying to find something to say, but she always stopped herself and just went back to staring.

While telling the story about the rebellion and my mother’s role in it, I’d finished up the spell that Tabbris had been walking me through. Now the cave was safe from any scans from the ships that occasionally passed by overhead. I didn’t really understand much of what I’d done for the spell, but I figured that Tabbris could talk me through the specifics later. In this case, I’d just been essentially letting her move my hands to draw everything. So it was safe enough, for the moment, for the others to focus solely on what I had told them. And focus they did.   

Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You… you know, that makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense. Your mom was the leader of some anti-establishment rebellion, it…” She shook her head slowly, clearly in awe. “That’s… awesome. I mean, not the rest of it, not what ended up happening or what they did to her. But your mom’s a hero. She’s like… a legend. Or she would be, if they hadn’t used magic to erase everyone’s memory. Your mom sounds fucking amazing.”

Despite myself, I smiled a little at that thought. “She is. Even after they erased her memory and made her a ‘normal’ human. She was the town sheriff. I… I guess even Seosten magic couldn’t completely erase everything that made mom want to protect people and stop bad guys.”

Roxa was grinning, showing her teeth a little bit. “Like I said, a lot of stuff makes a lot more sense now. Gotta admit, I was pretty confused before. Now I get it. No wonder you’re always getting in trouble. I mean, you’re the daughter of the woman who almost destroyed Crossroads, and your roommate slash one of your girlfriends is the descendant of the man who created it.”

The words made me flush, shaking my head while muttering, “When you put it that way…” I swallowed hard. “Seriously though, Mom is amazing. That’s why Fossor took her. It’s…” Biting my lip, I trailed off, looking away for a moment. I really didn’t want to dwell on that at the moment. We had enough problems to deal with, without me getting distracted by all that.

Gordon took a step forward then. As my eyes moved to him, the boy stood there, staring at me. There was something in his expression. I almost had the really weird feeling that he wanted to hug me. Which would have been odd coming from anyone. But coming from Gordon, it was utterly absurd to the point that I figured I absolutely had to be misreading his expression.

Nope, Tabbris quickly put in, he really looks like he wants to hug you. Sorta. For him.

By that point, the moment had passed, and Gordon turned to look at Jazz. His voice was as even and flat as it ever was. “It makes sense that they would do that.”

“Makes sense?” That was Sands, her voice raised almost to the point of hysteria as she demanded pointedly, “How exactly does erasing everyone’s memory of literally decades worth of time and a whole war, rewriting their entire history, actually make sense? You can’t possibly-”

“I don’t agree with it,” Gordon interrupted. “I never said I did. And I didn’t say it was the right thing to do. I said that it makes sense that they would do it. They were facing the end of their control. From what you guys said, the rebellion wasn’t ending. More and more Heretics were changing sides. And the establishment was in a race against time to begin with. The more that Heretics who were on the fence saw Alters working alongside rebel Heretics, the easier it would be to convince them that it was possible for Alters to not be evil. They had to do something very drastic to not just end the war, but also to stop people who witnessed all of that from starting it up again. So yes, their actions are evil and wrong. But they also make logical sense.”

I saw Jazz watching Roxa. It looked like the girl wanted to step closer. She had a longing look on her face, as if she… well, as if she wanted to talk to her old roommate, as if she wanted things to go back to the way they were. But her own doubts and fears were stopping her from taking that leap. In the end, she just swallowed hard before turning a bit to reply to Gordon, her tone more curious than accusatory. “You really think that kind of rebellion would’ve succeeded?”

“Without the kind of memory magic they used,” he replied easily, “and in the long run? Yes. That kind of truth would be an avalanche. Like I said, the more people who were on the fence witnessed Heretics and Alters fighting side by side, the more likely they were to slide off that fence to the right side. And the more of them that went, the more of their friends and family they would pull with them. Again, it’s an avalanche. Even if the Establishment succeeded at stamping out the current rebellion, it would stick in people’s memories. Brushfires would come up now and then, and before they knew it, there would be a whole rebellion all over again. In other words, erasing the entire event from everyone’s memory, while utterly repugnant, is logically sound.

“Before we keep arguing about this,” Roxa announced from near the cave entrance, “we should really check to make sure the coast is clear and then go get some food and water. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving.” She paused briefly then before pointedly adding, “And no, before you say anything, I’m not about to eat any of you. I’m a werewolf, not a cannibal.”

“Werewolves do eat people though,” Jazz pointed out before flushing. “I mean–” She sighed. “I’m not saying you are, just that werewolves have eaten people. You know they have.”

“Yeah,” Roxa replied flatly, “and so have people. There are bad werewolves, yes. No one’s saying there’s not. But there’s also good-you know what? Food. We all need to get food.”

Quickly, before anyone else could start in, I nodded. “Right, food and water. Hang on.” Pausing, I focused on Marian once more, sending her cautiously out into the ditch. Slowly, I made the little fox look around, clambering up the incline once more before eventually searching the sky from the tree. It took about ten minutes to assure myself that the coast was clear. Finally, however, I was fairly confident that it was as safe as it was going to be. There were no ships in immediate sight, and I was pretty sure we could get back to cover before any got near enough to find us. “Okay,” I announced, “Let’s get out there. But uh, be careful. We don’t know what kind of things might be dangerous here besides the Seosten. So let’s go slow and stay together.”

We did just that. Slowly, carefully, the six of us (plus Gidget) crept out of the cave. I looked to the sky, seeing it with my own eyes since I had closed my fox’s to make things less distracting and confusing. By mutual, silent agreement, no one said anything as we moved to half-climb and half-crawl up the embankment until we reached the top. Then I led the others to the river that I had seen. We remained quiet right up until we reached the river itself. Then, once we had cupped our hands in the water and slaked our thirst enough, the talking finally started again.

“I hate to be that guy,” Isaac started, “but what are we gonna do about food? Water’s great and all, but we’ve gotta eat too if we’re gonna survive. And I don’t think there’s a BK anywhere nearby.”

“Fish,” I replied while pointing into the water where several were swimming around. “I mean, it’s a whole different world, but fish is fish, I… think?” Frowning then, I muttered, “Unless they’re poisonous somehow. Hey, does anyone have a poison detecting power?”

“Gidget can handle it,” Roxa assured me. “Anything we want to eat, we stick it in her mouth and she can tell us if there’s anything in it that we shouldn’t have. Actually, Vulcan should be able to do the same thing, so I’m surprised Sean hasn’t mentioned that. It’s kind of one of their main features for Heretics that are… not at home.”

“Man, Gidget,” I remarked with a glance to the metal cougar, “you’re getting more useful by the second. Pretty soon, you’re gonna be more important to this whole situation than I am.”

While Gidget preened, Gordon looked at the water while pointing out, “Now we just need to actually catch the fish.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I replied while moving down the river a little ways from the wide area where most of the visible fish were swimming. “You guys stay here. And be ready, okay?”

While they asked what they were supposed to be ready for, I moved down to find a narrow spot with some rocks that I could easily hop across without getting too wet. Then I made my way back, while tugging my staff from the container on my hip.

“Ready?” I asked, hitting the charge button. “You might wanna move out of the way.”

Realizing what I was about to do, the others all scattered to either side, then watched as I stuck the end of my staff down into the water. Waiting for a moment until the largest group of fish had gathered nearby, I finally hit the trigger. The kinetic blast sent water spraying up like a geyser. And it also sent a handful of decent sized fish rocketing up onto the other side of the river.

The others moved quickly, grabbing the fish before they could flip themselves back into the water. Two more times like that, and we had plenty, much faster than regular fishing would have taken (if we’d even had a fishing pole).

“Right, fish.” Jazz was nodding at the pile of dead fish that we had a couple minutes later. “Fish and water. Too bad we can’t carry the water down with us. But I didn’t bring any bottles or anything.”

Roxa was shaking her head, kneeling next to Gidget as she muttered, “You see, guys? This is why you need a wildlife survival course at Crossroads or something. Open up, girl.” As Gidget obligingly opened her mouth, the girl reached deep inside, feeling around a little bit. It looked kinda funny, seeing Roxa shoulder-deep in her cougar’s mouth. Finally, she came out with a canteen, holding it up. “We can share it, and take turns coming back out to fill it up again.”

She started to turn, only to stop and look over at Jazz, who was staring at her. As I watched, Roxa paused before asking flatly, “What?”

Noticeably flinching, Jazz took a step back before stopping herself. “I–” she started before shaking her head. “Nothing. I just–I was just going to–” She stopped again, and I saw tears flood her eyes for a brief moment before the girl blinked rapidly. “I was just gonna make a joke, and–and then I thought about what you might’ve said if you weren’t a–I mean–”

Roxa sighed, looking at the girl intently. “Jazz, I told you, I’m still me. Same personality. Same sense of humor. It’s me.”

“I wanna believe you,” Jazz all-but whimpered, staring at her old roommate and friend before slumping a little bit. “I do. I just…” She sighed, turning to pick up the fish that she had gathered. Without another word, the girl started back toward the cave.

In the silence that followed, I announced, “We need wood too, guys. We have no idea how cold it gets down here. Plus, we’ve gotta cook our dinner, unless you’re super-into strange sushi or something. So let’s get the stuff we need to make a fire.

“And start hoping that we don’t run into a Fish and Game Warden out here, because I don’t think any of us have a license for this stuff.”

******

“Are you sure it’s safe to be out of the cave right now?” Jazz whispered cautiously. She was crouching just inside entrance, peering through the bush at me as I knelt a few feet outside.

It was late, and the night sky was full of stars. The others were asleep, or at least lying down. We’d had a short discussion about posting people to keep watch. Isaac had suggested that we each take a turn and have one person up in case anything happened. Which was a decent idea, but I vetoed the whole ‘one person’ thing. It was too easy for one person to fall asleep, or get taken by surprise somehow. So we’d ended up agreeing to work in pairs. To make it all fair, we had drawn names for our partners. I had gotten Jazz as mine. In about four hours (which Jaq and Gus were helpfully timing for me), we would wake up Roxa and Isaac so that we could sleep. Four hours after that, they would wake up Gordon and Sands for the final shift.

I nodded to Jazz’s question. “There’s no ships overhead, and they just went by for a scan about ten minutes ago. We should be good for now. It’s enough time to head down to get some more water.” I held up the canteen that Roxa had pulled out of Gidget and gave it a little wave. “Getting kinda low.”  Pausing then, I added with a little gesture, “You wanna come with?”

What do you think, partner? I asked inwardly. Is she the one most freaked by what I told them?

There was no answer for a moment, before Tabbris gave a sudden start of realization. Oh, me! Oh, um, sorry. I guess I’m still not used to you talking to me. Or anyone talking to me. She paused, then agreed. Uh huh. I don’t think Gordon was surprised at all. And Isaac is weird.

In the meantime, Jazz had said something that I missed. Uh, oops. I really needed to get better at dividing my attention. Or just stop trying to talk to Tabbris when I was already talking to someone else. Uh, I don’t suppose you caught what she said? And they’re both pretty weird.

Thankfully, Tabbris answered immediately. She asked if you really wanted her to come.

It must have looked like I had to stop and think about it, because Jazz was already starting to say that she’d just stay in the cave, and was pulling back out of the little entrance area.

Hurriedly, I shook my head, whispering, “No, come on, it’s okay. I should probably have someone watching my back. Here.” Reaching into my pocket, I carefully took out Jaq. The little metal mouse blinked at me as I set him near the bush. “Hey, little guy. I know you and your brother are connected. So if you see anything up here, let him know so he can get my attention.”

Both mice gave little squeaks of acknowledgment. Jaq straightened up and started to move from one side of the cave entrance to the other, occasionally making a soft squeak sound. After a moment, I realized that he was marching. The sound he was making was the military ‘hup’.

“Okay,” Jazz announced with a raised eyebrow, “I’m just gonna say it, that’s pretty adorable.”

I smiled just a little, watching the mouse for a moment. “Yeah, I can’t figure out how these guys ended up with Doxer of all people. He wasn’t…” I paused, considering for a moment. “… He wasn’t the first guy you’d think of who would have cute little things like them, let’s just say.”

Glancing back over her shoulder at the others deeper in the cave briefly, Jazz finally crawled out into the ravine with me. Her voice was low. “Doxer, that’s the Eden’s Garden guy that you, uh-”

“Killed,” I finished for her. “Yeah, it was him or me. They were trying to kill Avalon again, and um, well, I couldn’t let that happen.” As I spoke, I was already moving to the spot where we had all climbed up earlier.

After a momentary hesitation, Jazz trailed after me. Her voice was quiet. “So, um… you’ve had a busy year.”

Pausing, I lowered my head, chuckling a little bit despite myself. “Yeah,” I replied, “I guess you could say that. And it hasn’t even been a year yet. I’m kinda terrified to think of where I’ll be when it has been a year.”

“Hopefully not still out here in the middle of this… Seosten space,” the other girl put in.

Wincing at the thought, I nodded. “Yeah, hopefully.” Shaking my head then, I reached back for her while tugging my staff out. “Come on, it’s faster this way.”

She did so, and I held onto her while using the staff to boost us out of the ravine. From there, it was a short jog to reach the river so we could drink and fill up the canteen.

Afterward, Jazz straightened from the water and wiped her mouth off with her arm before looking to me. The moon and starlight cast shadows over her face. “This rebellion you were talking about, if there was a war like that, I… I wonder where the Torchbearers would have landed on the whole thing.”

“Torchbearers?” I asked, tilting my head.

So she told me about the group that she had come from, about how six Heretic families during the American revolution (and the big war between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden) had told both sides to go fuck themselves while they set up their own little group. Over the years, they generally bolstered their ranks by turning people into Natural Heretics. But once every roughly half a decade, they also sent representatives to Crossroads and Eden’s Garden to become students.

Jazz was the latest Torchbearer representative for Crossroads. Not that she’d meant to be one. She’d only become the default choice once the other ones, the ones who had actually trained for the job, had all been wiped out by a group of evil Alters who managed to ambush their training facility.

“Oh God, Jazz,” I managed, choking a little bit as I stared at her. “No wonder you don’t want to believe what–I… I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what happened.”

“Yeah.” She was clearly speaking through a lump in her throat, turning away for a moment to look at the nearby river before muttering, “Like I said, I wonder where they fell in the whole rebellion thing. I wonder what my parents thought about it. If they… did anything.”

If they had fought, I knew was what she was wondering. And what side they had been on. Or if they had even both been on the same side.

For a moment, we just looked at each other, both knowing what we were thinking. Finally, Jazz muttered, “When this gets out, it’s gonna tear Crossroads apart.”

“When?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. That was interesting. She hadn’t said ‘if’, she said when.

She nodded. “Well yeah. I mean, sure it sucks. But they erased people’s memory. They erased people’s choices. I don’t know how I feel about everything else yet, but that was wrong. That was fucking evil. And if you take people’s choices away, if you just erase their memories until they’re the people you want them to be, then they’re just… slaves.”

As I nodded in agreement, she went on. “What I really wanna know is, when did those things take Paul? When did they–” Choking on her words a little bit, Jazz blanched and looked away with a grimace. “When did they… replace him?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I wish I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about… about how all of this went down.”

Her head shook violently at that. “It’s not your fault. I mean, this whole crisis of faith thing that’s going around, yeah that part kind of is. But–no, just…” She sighed. “Never mind. It’s not your fault. I just…” Trailing off, Jazz looked down to the ground, mumbling, “This was so much easier when we thought you were an Eden’s Garden spy.”

We each took another drink from the river, made sure the canteen was full, and then decided to get back to the cave. As we turned that way, I muttered, “I still can’t believe you people thought I was the bad guy.”

Beside me, Jazz blanched a little before considering. “Err, in our defense, as far as Crossroads is concerned…

“You kind of are.”

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Interlude 28 – Scout

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There was a mini-interlude focusing on Joselyn posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might wish to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks! 

“I knew this would happen. I knew it, but you told me they’d be safe. You told me she’d be safe!”

The voice of Liam Mason was audible even through the closed door that led into the room that Headmistress Sinclaire had pulled the man into as soon as he’d started up when she’d arrived. That was how Scout knew that her father was completely beside himself and had lost all control. He didn’t even bother to put up a privacy screen to keep her from hearing his ranting. Why Gaia hadn’t either, she wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe the woman was distracted by Avalon’s reaction.

It had been hours since… since… that had happened, since Sands and the others had disappeared. Since they had been taken to Seosten space. Scout had sat through several interrogations, some with Gaia present, some with her father present, and some with neither. The whole time, she gave them almost nothing, limiting herself to head motions and one word answers. The others, mainly Shiori, Sean, and Columbus, had told their interrogators the most about what had happened. Or at least, the most about what they were all willing to say.

As far as the officials were concerned, a powerful Stranger had secretly possessed Columbus as a way of infiltrating Crossroads. Scout and the other members of their team had found out about it and moved to confront him themselves. Unfortunately, what they didn’t know was that the other team, Jazz’s team, had been infiltrated as well. During the course of Scout’s teams attempt to get answers out of the false Columbus, the false Paul had intervened. That had prompted a massive brawl. And at the end of it, the fake Paul was dead (killed by Avalon in a blind rage after Flick and the others had disappeared), the thing that had been possessing Columbus was dead (killed by Flick), and half of the people who had been there had disappeared with absolutely no answers whatsoever about what had happened to them.

Or at least, that was the collective story that the Heretic interrogators were being given.

Now, Scout was sitting in this room, half-listening to her father rant at the headmistress. Mostly, she was simply sitting there, watching the opposite wall while barely blinking. The girl might as well have been a statue for all the movement that she made. She simply sat, silent and motionless, staring almost unblinkingly at that wall. Her mind was a million light years away.

That was the position that her father found her in when he finally opened the door and stepped out. Blinking at the sight of his daughter sitting like that, the man cringed before moving to kneel by her. “Scout? Honey, are you alr–” Stopping himself in mid-sentence, her father put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing briefly before using his other hand to gently turn her chin so that she would look at him. “Scout, we’ll get her back, okay? I promise. I promise, we’ll find Sands.”

“I know.” The words were quiet, barely audible. But they came easily. She said them before standing up. She stood in front of her father, waiting for him to rise before she put her arms around him. She hugged him, because he needed it. Because he needed her to be there.

“I’m so sorry, baby.” He lifted her off the floor, clutching the girl to his chest while murmuring, “I’m so, so sorry. You shouldn’t have been there. You should’ve been safe. I’ll fix it. I will fix it.”

Scout let him talk, let him murmur to himself. She let her father make himself feel better with his words, allowing them to wash over her. Words didn’t matter. They never did.  Actions mattered. But in that moment, her dad needed to say the words. He needed to make the promises, the apologies, swear the oaths. And she let him. Because it didn’t affect her. It didn’t really matter.

He took her home then. Not to her dorm, but to their family’s apartment in the faculty building. Scout ate dinner at her own spot at their dining room table. Her father barely touched his food, but she ate everything that was put in front of her. She barely tasted it, but she did eat it. Food. Fuel. Sustenance. Her body needed it so that she could go on. So she could continue.

Once dinner was over, her father picked up the dishes, setting them aside before turning back to her. “Okay, kiddo,” he started in a dull voice, “I’ll get some blankets for your room, and then we-”

Scout stood from the table and interrupted before he could continue. “I’m going to my room.” Belatedly, she amended, “My room in the school. My dorm.” Her voice was quiet, yet firm. She usually said more to her father than she said to others. Not as much as she said to Sands, but he at least tended to get more than the one or two-word answers that she gave most people.

“What?” Her father blinked before shaking his head. “Oh, baby, it’s okay. Scout, you can stay here. Trust me, the headmistress will understand. No one’s going to fault you for needing to stay here for now, while your sister… until we get her back. You don’t have to go back there tonight.”

Smiling faintly, Scout left the table. She walked over to where her father was standing and embraced the man tightly, simply hugging him for a few seconds before speaking. Her voice was even softer than usual, so quiet that he had to lean closer to hear her. “You’ll find Sands?”

When her father gave an emphatic nod, she stepped back. “Then I’m going where I belong.”  

As she turned to walk to the door, her father spoke weakly. “I just need to know that you’re safe.”

Scout paused there, turning to look back at him. Her response was simple. “So do I.”

She walked out the door. Closing it behind her, Scout hurried out of the faculty building. As she stepped out onto the grounds, the girl caught sight of something out of the corner of her eye. She turned, finding a familiar woman standing near the corner of the building, staring at the sky.

Biting her lip, she stepped closer, her voice even more tentative than usual. “Professor Dare?”

“Hello, Scout,” Dare answered without looking away from the expansive starfield that filled the night sky. She seemed almost entranced by it. “Does your father know that you’re out here?”

Nodding, Scout moved closer to the woman. She watched her for a moment, then turned her head to look at the sky, taking in the same sight. The girl stood like beside her professor for a couple of minutes. Neither spoke. They simply stood there, watching the stars in utter silence.

Eventually, Dare spoke, voice contemplative. “Do you remember the start of the year, when I tried to call you by your given name instead of Scout?” When the girl nodded, she continued. “Did you ever wonder why I would do that, when I’ve known you since the day you were born?”

Scout paused, thinking about that for a moment before giving the woman another slow nod.

“I wasn’t your pseudo-aunt then,” Dare explained. “I was trying to create a boundary between us, a… professional separation. Maybe I was overcompensating. I told myself it was because I didn’t want you two to think that you could walk all over me just because of how close we’ve been. But now… now I think there was more to it. Before, I didn’t mind being close to you that way, because you were just children. You were kids. But at that point, at that point you became students. You were Heretics. And Heretics get into trouble.” Her voice was flat. “Heretics die.”

The silence returned for almost a full minute then before Professor Dare spoke again. “I’ve lost people, Scout. I’ve lost more people in my life than…” She trailed off, swallowing hard. “My parents, my entire colony was wiped out. Everyone I ever knew, it was…” Again, she went silent as her voice cracked on the last few words. Scout saw the shudder run through the woman before she found her voice once more. “I thought that maintaining a separation once you became Heretics, once you were in actual danger… I thought it would help if anything ever…”

Swallowing hard, Dare looked to her. “I’m sorry, Scout. If I had been a little bit faster, just a little bit, I could have stopped it. I could have paused time and taken those transport orbs away from your sister and–and the others. I could have stopped them from disappearing.”

Scout met the woman’s gaze as she whispered the one thing that she had told herself when her mind had been filled with all that speculation. “Live in what can happen, not what could have.”

Repeating that under her breath, Professor Dare chuckled softly, seemingly surprising herself with it. Her head shook, and she reached out to gently brush a hand through Scout’s hair. “You’re so much stronger than your father thinks you are,” she murmured quietly. “You all are.”

Something about what she had said just then made Scout remember something else very important. Blinking up at the woman, she asked tentatively, “Flick’s dad?”

Wincing, Dare nodded with a long sigh. “I spoke to him for a little bit. Gaia was going to, but she had a… situation to attend to with Avalon.” The woman frowned to herself, making it clear to Scout that there was a lot more to that particular story than she was going to tell her.

“So yes, I went to visit Lincoln. It… didn’t go that well. But he knows what’s going on. I promised that we’d let him know as soon as we find out anything else. And Gabriel is working on something. Between him and Gaia, they’ll work something out.” Again, she brushed her hand through Scout’s hair tenderly. “We just have to trust that your sister and… and the others can take care of themselves until we find a way to bring them back. Right?” She smiled down at her.

Scout nodded, returning the woman’s smile despite herself. She remembered growing up on these grounds. She remembered Aunt Ginny being there for her after her mother was… after that day. She remembered being rocked back and forth by the blonde woman when her father had passed out from sheer exhaustion. Without her mother around, Aunt Ginny had been the closest thing she and Sands had to that kind of figure, since the headmistress was so busy.  

Eventually, Professor Dare walked her across the grounds, back to the dorm. On the way, Scout thought for a moment before looking over at her teacher. “Waiting,” she spoke simply, with a significant look back the way they had come, back to where the woman had been standing.

Dare gave a soft smile, nodding her understanding. “Yes,” she replied, “I was waiting for you to come out. I didn’t know whether you’d tell your father or not, but I knew you wouldn’t stay there.”

They reached the dorm, and Dare gave her a brief hug. “She’ll be okay. We’ll bring them back.”   

Scout returned the hug tightly, giving her professor a soft smile before nodding. Then she stepped into her room,  the room she shared with Sands, and closed the door behind herself.

For a moment, the girl just stood there, motionless and silent. Her eyes slid across the room, landing first on her own bed, then on the one that belonged to Sands. A hard lump formed in her throat as she stared for several long seconds before slowly taking a few steps that way.

She ran her hand over the bed, letting a shudder run through herself before sitting down on the edge of it. Closing her eyes, Scout laid down there, in the exact spot where her sister always slept. Her head found the pillow, the same pillow that Sands’ head always rested on. She inhaled slowly and deliberately, taking in the lingering scent of her sister.

The dam broke, shattering apart. And by morning, the pillow was soaked through with her tears.

******

“I know you all want to find your missing teammates and friends,” Gaia announced the next morning. “And we’re working on that, I promise you. For the time being, however, this is the most obvious solution to the fact that both of your teams are at half strength.”

Both of their teams. Scout, Sean, Columbus, and Avalon stood there on one side of the room. On the other side stood Douglas and Rudolph. The two boys were openly staring at Scout and the others for a few seconds before Douglas spoke up. “Half strength? Headmistress, three of our friends completely disappeared, and the other one… the other one was dead for God only knows how long while an imposter waltzed around in his skin. I think you’re understating it.”

Gaia gave a slight nod. “You are correct, Mr. Frey. This situation is…” She paused then, seeming to consider her words for a moment. “This situation is difficult. Mr. Calburn was…” For a moment, Gaia’s eyes closed before opening again. “Mr. Calburn was a wonderful boy. What happened to him was…. At a certain point, you would think that I would have found the perfect words to say in a situation like this. But those words don’t exist. I am very sorry about Paul. The others… we will find them, but Paul…” She took in a long breath, letting it out before continuing. “His family will be holding a memorial service for him tomorrow evening. Any of you, or any student, who would like to attend are welcome. Come to me and I will ensure that you make it there. And you will not be expected to attend regular classes until you are ready to do so.

“But this,” the woman continued, lifting a hand to indicate them all, “this is your team. For as long as it takes to find the others and bring them back here where they belong, this will be your team. What you do with that is up to all of you. Personally, I strongly suggest you talk to one another. The rest of the members of both of your teams are out there. They will be learning to work with one another, learning to trust each other. I believe that you can do the same.”

Scout saw the woman’s gaze move briefly toward Avalon then. Gaia looked like she wanted to say something else, something directly to her adopted daughter. But she visibly stopped herself.

As for Avalon, the girl looked tired. Her usually perfect hair was done in a simple ponytail, and it was obvious that she had barely bothered to shower. She was still beautiful, there was no question about it. Even Scout recognized that fact. But there was no effort there, not today. She just stood near the wall behind the others, shoulders hunched as she stared at the floor in silence while Gaia finished explaining their situation and what they were supposed to be doing.

Finished, the woman looked toward Columbus. “For now, Mr. Porter, I believe you have an appointment with Mr. Roe?”

If anything, Columbus looked even worse than Avalon did. If he’d gotten any sleep at all the night before, Scout would be surprised. The boy said nothing at first. He just stood there, listlessly staring. Then he gave a sudden start, as if he’d briefly forgotten that he was the one in charge of his own body again. “I–” He swallowed visibly, giving a slight nod. “Right. Appointment, I can–” Stopping, Columbus looked toward Avalon. His mouth opened like he was going to say something, but no words came out. He just stood there like that for several long seconds before closing his mouth. Then he turned and started toward the door, head down.

“Wait.” The words came from Avalon. She straightened, and Scout saw the girl mouth something inaudible to herself before moving over to where Columbus was. Slowly, Avalon reached up to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, squeezing it. “Porter,” she started slowly, her voice cracking once before she got it under control. “Porter, everyone here besides Gaia is only alive and safe because of you. You can be as hard as you want on yourself if it makes you better. But remember that. As much as that bitch took from you, don’t forget it. You could have surrendered. You could have given up, curled into a ball, and let everything happen. But you didn’t. You fought. She let her guard down because she thought you were broken. She ignored you because she thought she had already beaten you. But she didn’t win. You did. No matter what happens, no matter what that cunt said to you, remember that.

“You won.”

Columbus looked choked up for a second. He met the girl’s gaze, and Scout saw him swallow hard before managing a weak, “Thanks… thanks, Avalon.”

“No.” The girl shook her head pointedly. “Thank you. Thank you for saving our lives.”

******

“Scout?” Vanessa Moon’s voice came in a stage-whisper as the blonde girl pulled herself up onto the roof of the girl’s dorm much later, after the sun had gone down. “Are you–” She visibly stopped herself from asking if Scout was okay. “How are you doing?”

Tristan, pulling himself up behind his sister, nodded. “Yeah, what–what’s going on?” 

Scout had left notes asking both of them to meet her up here once they were done with everything else that they needed to do. Then she had come up to wait, throwing her baseball around while she waited.

Now, she stood up, holding the ball in one hand while turning to face the twins. With her other hand, she activated a privacy coin before speaking. “We have to help the others.”

Both Tristan and Vanessa looked surprised, probably because they weren’t accustomed to her saying more than a couple words at a time. But this wasn’t time for that. Scout needed to communicate. Her sister wasn’t here to translate for her. As hard as it was, as uncomfortable as it made her, she had to talk.

“Um, we want to help them, sure. I mean, stuck on the other side of space because of a banishment orb… Trust me, we’re there.” Vanessa was nodding. “But how do we–”

“They need help,” Scout interrupted. And boy did that feel strange. “We… we can’t help them. But your father can. And my mother. We… we have to tell them.”

“Tell them?” Tristan shook his head. “Scout, how can we–”

It was Vanessa’s turn to interrupt. “She’s talking about the–the visions I’ve been having, right? When I saw through Dad’s eyes. But, Scout, I can’t communicate that way. I can’t even do it on purpose. I don’t know what I’m doing, or how to do it.”

Scout nodded at that. “You need training.”

“Training?” Vanessa echoed, clearly confused. “How am I supposed to get training? It’s not like there’s any Seosten around who can tell me what I’m doing or how to get better at it.”

Smiling slowly, Scout replied, “Next best thing. Seosten-Heretic.”

“Seosten-Heretic?” Vanessa abruptly started a bit. “You mean Enguerrand, the guy at Gabriel Prosser’s camp?”

Once again, Scout nodded. “Gaia said he could teach you. If you want. We can visit the camp.”

Vanessa’s head jerked into an immediate nod. “Wh–yes, yes, of course. I want to help.”

“She’s right,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, I can’t even do what Nessa can yet, but still. Anything we can do. We’re there. After everything Flick–” He coughed. “We’ll help, whatever it takes.”

The answer made Scout smile. “Good.

“Then let’s go.”

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Mini-Interlude 45 – Joselyn

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the specific event during Joselyn’s first year as a student at Crossroads that turned her from loyal Heretic to budding rebellion instigator and leader. I hope you enjoy. 

Sunday, March 2nd, 1919

“We’re clear on the north end. How’s it look where you are, Jos?”

The voice of Joselyn Atherby’s teammate came through the badge that had been pinned to the front of her school uniform. It was loud and clear to her, yet somehow no one else could possibly hear it, no matter how close they were standing.

Not that anyone else was close to the blonde, short-haired teenager at that point. The girl crouched on the roof of the drugstore, hidden in shadows while she watched people and automobiles alike trundling by. After scanning the alley below her for a moment, she spoke up. “We’re jake over here, Tribald. Alley’s clear. No one’s getting out this way. Dev, you still got the bear in sight?”

There was a brief pause before Deveron responded. “Well, she’s not a bear right now. But yeah, she’s inside the left-most apartment. Lillian, you finished with your bit yet?”

Again, silence reigned for a few seconds before the voice of Joselyn’s roommate came back. “All set. Magical boundary should keep anyone from walking by this way or hearing anything.”

“Can we do this already?” Roger Dornan, another teammate, demanded with obvious annoyance. “It’s one werebear and there’s six of us. We can handle her.”

“Take it easy, Rog,” the other boy’s roommate and cousin, Seamus, scolded him. “Remember, we don’t want to screw this up. Unless you want a failing grade for this hunt.”

Roger retorted immediately, “We could get a failing grade for taking too long too. The alley’s clear, no one’s coming to investigate, and Deveron’s got the Stranger in sight. Let’s do it.”

“Jos?” That was Deveron again. “What do you think? Time to move?”

Leaning over the edge of the roof to look down one more time, making absolutely certain everything was clear, Joselyn finally nodded to herself while replying, “Rog is right, we can’t sit around second-guessing ourselves all night. Time to stop that bear before she attacks anyone else. You guys know the plan. Deveron first, make all the noise, draw her attention. Roger and Seamus hit her when she comes out. Tribald and Lillian hit her once she’s engaged with those two. I’ll cover things here if she tries to retreat.”

The acknowledgments came quickly. And almost as quickly came the sounds of the attack. Deveron, being loud and obvious as he broke down the door of the apartment building behind the drugstore that Joselyn was perched atop. A second later, there was a loud roar that made Joselyn shiver, despite the fact that she had been ready for it.

“Be careful, Dev,” she whispered to herself without engaging the badge radio.

Thankfully, Seamus and Roger joined in right away. For once, Joselyn was grateful for the latter’s impulsiveness. It meant that Deveron wasn’t left alone with the monster for that long.

Thirty seconds passed. Thirty horribly long seconds. Joselyn was regretting putting herself on back-up duty. But it had been the best choice, the best use of everyone. She knelt there, listening to the sounds of Tribald and Lillian finally getting involved. Five Heretic students versus one werebear. They could handle it, right?

She wished she was there.

The sound of a door squeaking nearby interrupted her inner lamentations, and Joselyn turned quickly to see the back entrance of the apartment building opening. As she watched with confusion, a woman stepped out, looking both ways. As soon as she saw her, Joselyn’s Heretic-sense began to scream its warnings. Apparently there were more Strangers inside the apartment building than they’d thought.

Just as Joselyn started to gather herself to stop the Stranger from escaping, pulling her Hunga Munga from their spot on her belt, the woman turned and began gesturing frantically for someone else to come out.

And come they did. Eight figures hurried through the doorway and into the small courtyard between the apartment building and the alley. Eight children, some of them tiny little things, ranging from what looked like four years old to around ten. All of them were Strangers, not human. And all had tears in their eyes. A couple were outright sobbing.

“Kaya, Kaya, is it the Moffy guys?” One of the youngest, a tiny, blue-skinned girl with white hair tugged at the older woman’s leg. “Is it the Moffy guys?”

“Mafia, Limny,” one of the older boys corrected her. He was sniffling, clearly trying to be brave. “You mean Mafia. And nuh uh, it’s the Heretics.”

That caused a loud gasp to go up among the children, and the crying intensified. The older woman turned back, obviously fighting back her own fear. “Don’t scare them, Puck. Limnoreia, it’s going to be okay.” She put a hand on the tiny blue-skinned girl’s shoulder, squeezing it briefly before another loud roar from inside made her jump. “Come on, let’s go. Hurry, children.”

“Will Aunt Callisto be okay?” one of the other little ones asked, even as a terrifyingly loud bang came that shook the entire apartment building.

For a moment, the woman, Kaya apparently, looked like she was going to answer. In the end, with a worried look over her shoulder, she just urged them on with her hands. “Come, she’ll meet us later. Hurry, hurry.”

It was time to stop them. Time to drop down and get in their way so this could all be mopped up. So that the… the monsters… could be… so that the monsters could be… so that the monsters…

Joselyn stayed where she was, watching as the woman and eight very different children rushed by below her. None looked up. None noticed her there. They ran, they fled for their lives.

They weren’t putting on a show. They had no idea she was there. They weren’t faking.  They had no reason to, no way of knowing that they should pretend. They weren’t pretending. They were… they had been… terrified. Terrified… of… of Heretics.

She was still there, staring at the spot where the children had been as three more figures came into view. They were moving from the street, through the alley and to the apartment building. As they emerged, Joselyn’s Heretic-sense went off once more, for two of the figures. It was silent for the third.

“Ya morons!” the shorter, fatter man, the only one who didn’t set off Joselyn’s warning sense, smacked one of the others. “I told you we was gonna be late! Now look.” He waved a hand to the open doorway ahead of them. “They’re already gone!”

“Don’t you worry none, boss,” one of the other men announced. “Those kids smell something fierce. Olly and me, we can track ‘em down.”

The boss turned, jabbing a finger into the man’s chest. “You better. I paid good money, good money, to get that ursine bitch’s location into Heretic hands. She wants to stand in my way, in Leo Torrio’s way and stop me from getting my hands on what’s mine? Those kids are worth a fortune, a fucking fortune. Now those Heretics are getting rid of my problem, but the kids ain’t fucking here, cuz you stupid dewdroppers couldn’t get a fucking move-on! Now get those kids! Go!”

The Mafia, Joselyn realized, the ones that the little blue girl… Limnoreia had mentioned. The ones that they had been afraid of… the ones that the werebear had been… had been… protecting… them… from…

Before she knew what she was doing, Joselyn was already moving. Leaping from the roof of the drug store, she threw one of her Hunga Munga. A thought stopped it in the air just above the ground at the entrance into the alley, and she teleported herself straight to it.

There. The Mafia men were just leaving the alley. But she could pull them back in. It wouldn’t be hard. She’d distract them, make them think the children were here after all, and then–

A hand caught her shoulder. As she spun, weapons up, Deveron took a step back, holding his hands out. “Whoa, whoa, hey. You okay?” The boy was panting heavily, but grinning. “Annoyed you didn’t get in on the action?”

“Action?” Even to herself, Joselyn sounded out of it, distracted, confused.

“We’re all good, Jos. It’s over.” Still panting from exertion, Deveron continued to her that broad smile. “Bear’s down. We saved the day. Huge heroes.”

“Bear… the bear… you… you killed the werebear?” The words sounded and felt like they were coming from someone else, some other person far away.

“Uh, yeah? You know, our job? Woohoo?” Deveron squinted at her. “Are you okay? You’re not seriously sore that you didn’t get to fight, are you? She just went down sooner than we expected. Took most of that apartment with her too, you should see it. Lillian got the last hit, lucky girl. Don’t worry though, I’m sure you’ll get the next one. I mean, if that’s what you’re upset about. Jos?”

“I… I have to…” Joselyn took a step back, half-turning to look over her shoulder at the alley, back the way the Mafia had gone on their way to follow those children, the… the Stranger children… the… innocent… Stranger children.

A glowing blue portal appeared directly beside them, and a woman stepped out. Freidra Konstant, one of their professors.

“Excellent work, children,” she announced with clear pride. “The target has been eliminated and none of you were seriously harmed. Good show. Come, let us collect the others and then prepare to receive your score.”

Deveron moved that way, almost stepping through the portal before looking back to where Joselyn was still standing. “Jos? Hey, what’s–”

He said something else, but she didn’t hear him. Her attention was on the alley once more, even as her eyes slid closed. Deveron’s voice faded to background noise, as the memory of the children crying, that innocent little girl asking if the Moffy had come for them, and the Mafia man himself saying that he had deliberately leaked the werebear’s location so that the Heretics would kill her to get her out of the way so that he could take those children all flooded into her mind at once. Their voices in her memory were overpowering, so loud as they competed with one another for prominence. Deafening. Their voices were completely deafening. Almost as loud as the sound of her own heartbeat. Her own heart, pounding, thudding, thundering there in the alley. Couldn’t they hear it? Couldn’t they all hear it?

Miss Atherby!” Professor Konstant bodily turned her around, holding onto her shoulders. “Open your eyes. Look at me. Are you quite all right? What–did something happen to you?”

Slowly, Joselyn Atherby’s eyes opened.

And in a way… they would never close again.

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Field Trip 28-07

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

“So, let me get this straight,” Isaac spoke about an hour later. “You’re seeing us through your eyes and through that thing’s eyes?” With one hand, he was pointing at me. And with the other, he was pointing at my newly-created fox as she perched on a rock in the corner of the cave.

From where she was standing, Jazz shook her head and muttered, “I can’t believe you know how to cast the theriangelos spell. Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to use that? I never really wanted to be a Heretic, but one thing I did want was magic. Especially that spell.”

Sands was nodding (which, considering she was a little bit behind me, I could see through the eyes of my fox, but not my own eyes). “Tell me about it. Scout and me, we used to talk about what kind of animal we thought we could get once we learned the spell. She um.” Sands swallowed hard. “When we were little, Scout really wanted to get a penguin.” A slightly choked laugh escaped the girl then, and my fox could see the dampness in her eyes. “I tried to tell her that wouldn’t be a cool animal for spying or fighting, but she didn’t care. She just likes penguins.”

“I’ll teach it to you guys,” I promised. “It’ll just take a few days. But yeah, you should learn it.” Biting my lip then, I turned to look over my shoulder at the other girl. “And you’ll see her again, Sands. We’re going to survive this long enough for Gaia and the others to find a way to pull us back.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Instead, the girl just looked back at me in silence that dragged on almost uncomfortably before glancing away with a muttered, “Yeah. So let’s survive.”

I don’t think she believes you, Tabbris whispered in my head, confirming what I already knew.

Yeah, I thought back to her, so we’ll just have to prove her wrong. Aloud, I cleared my throat while looking to Isaac. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a little weird, seeing through two different sets of eyes at once. It, uh, takes some getting used to. And it can give you a nasty headache if you do it for too long. I made myself throw up once. So, mostly I like to close my eyes and just see through hers when I’m using her.” To demonstrate, I did just that, letting my eyes close and focusing on the fox. At a thought, she hopped down from the rock and moved to sniff a bit at Isaac’s shoes.

The boy looked a little uncomfortable for some reason as he took a step back while clearing his throat. “Uh, so you use that fox to scout out the area around here, huh? What are we supposed to do in the meantime? You know, besides become world champion thumb twiddlers?”

“There’s a lot more we need to know,” Jazz pointed out, looking at the fox. “You want us to believe all the stuff you’re talking about with these Seosten and all that, we need more details.”

I nodded once without opening my eyes. The fox’s head did the same, and I saw the others give a brief double-take between both of us. “You’ll get them. Trust me. But right now, we need to know what’s around us. We’re gonna need water and food. And we need to know if this area’s safe enough, because Radueriel and his people are definitely going to be searching for us.”

“Come on,” Sands gestured for the others to go with her to the other side of the cave. “Roxa and me can tell you about most of it while Flick scouts things out. Then she can fill in the blanks.”

Gordon straightened a little, giving my fox a brief glance. I saw the boy open his mouth before hesitating. It looked like he was about to say something, but stopped himself. It was one of the first times I could ever remember him actually looking hesitant or unsure. Whatever he had been about to say, it seemed like it was something important. In the end, however, he just followed the others to the other side of the cave while giving me a brief glance on his way.

Um. Do you think he’s okay? Tabbris sounded worried, and I wondered how much of my noticing Gordon’s look was myself and how much was the Seosten girl. He, um, he looked like-

Like he wanted to say something, I agreed. I dunno. He’s been taking in a lot. They all have, but the others seem more… shaken by it? Isaac’s just making jokes like he usually does, but I can tell there’s something off about him too. And Jazz is really freaking out. But Gordon… it’s almost like this isn’t that much of a surprise to him. But I can’t tell how much of that is just Gordon being Gordon, and how much of it is him knowing more than we thought he knew. He’s hard to read.

Either way, I was gonna have to worry about it later. For the moment, everything I’d already said was true. We really did need to have food and water, and we did need to find if there were any Seosten search teams anywhere nearby. Everything else was going to have to wait for, for now.

So I focused on my fox. Seeing through her eyes, I sent the little magically conjured animal out of the cave. She easily slipped through the bush covering the opening, back out into the narrow, foliage-covered canyon. There, I made her sit and simply listen for a few long seconds. Animals. I could hear what I thought were animals, and smell them. But other than that, there was silence. If there was a Seosten search team nearby, they weren’t making a lot of noise.

I had to get out of the canyon, to where I could actually see better and get the lay of the land. To that end, I made the fox start looking around, hunting for a quick way to climb up. Meanwhile, I silently asked, I’ve gotta ask you something, Tabbris. You said you’ve been getting rid of any spells that Fossor has been trying to put on me. You did the same thing with the Seosten, right? They weren’t just trying to figure out why I was immune to possession, they also wanted to know why none of their spells were working. That was you. It was all you, the whole time.

I felt her embarrassment, and uncertainty. Um. Uh… uh huh. I was trying to be subtle about it at first, like… make it look like they just messed up the spell or something. But they kept trying, so I thought if I just undid all the spells, they might think someone like Gaia or Mr. Prosser was doing it. Except, uh, I guess Charmiene figured out that there weren’t any Heretics going near you before the spells were broken. So she must’ve decided you were doing it somehow.

Or that it was happening automatically, I agreed, smiling a little to myself. That must’ve confused the hell out of them. But, I added pointedly, how did you do it? You’re… well, you’re awesome. That’s for sure. But how could you possibly just erase the spells that a three thousand year old Seosten and an ancient necromancer put on me like that? It seems really impressive.

Now I really felt her embarrassment. Oh. Um. It’s.. uh, easier to break things than to make them. It’s like how… how it can take a long time and a lot of skill to make a vase, but you can break it really easily? It’s a little tricky to do it to a spell without setting it off, but um, it’s easier to break them than to make them. Mama showed me some tricks, cuz she knew they’d come after you.

Still smiling, I replied, Downplay it all you want, I still get the feeling that you and Wyatt would be an amazing team. You’ve been working with magic and spell-countering since you were tiny. If you two worked together, you could probably figure out a spell to do anything.

There was silence from the other girl for a few long seconds before she tentatively asked, You really think we’ll get back to Earth? The banishment orbs are really powerful. Remember the problems the Meregan had with Tristan? And they’re not even behind the same magic wall that S-Seosten space is. Remember, Uncle Haiden and Aunt Larissa have been out here for years.

We’ll make it back, I promised her. Just like we’re gonna find your mom, and the others. The biggest advantage the Seosten have is people not knowing about them, Tabbris. That’s something else you have in common with your people. Secrecy, that’s their biggest thing. It’s how they’ve gotten away with so much. We’ve got Gaia, Wyatt, Gabriel, and probably a lot more working to get us out of here. Trust them. All we have to do is stay alive and free long enough.

By that point, my fox had found a narrow path against the wall of the canyon to climb up and out. As she clambered onto solid ground, I made her look around slowly, taking everything in.

The forest didn’t look that different than one that we could’ve found back on Earth. The trees were a bit bigger (but not as big as the ones at Eden’s Garden), and the leaves were more of a blueish-purple color while the bark itself was closer to red. And I saw a bunch of roughly waist-high bushes with a mixture of orange, yellow, and red leaves. But overall, it looked like a normal forest. In the distance, I saw an animal standing between two trees, munching on a few of those leaves. It looked kind of like a zebra, except it had a really long neck like a giraffe and it was red and a dull orange instead of black and white, to better blend into the trees and bushes.

There were also a couple birds flying overhead. As I turned the fox’s head to look up, I saw them passing by. They looked like oversized parrots. Seriously, the brightly colored birds were as big as vultures. As I watched, one dove to grab something out of a tree. I couldn’t see what it was, but the thing struggled for a few seconds before going still in the giant parrot’s talons as it was crushed to death. Apparently these things ate a lot more than just nuts, fruit, and insects.

Right, focus, Flick. Pausing then, I thought, Hey, was that me thinking that, or you telling me?

You, Tabbris quickly answered. It was you. Um, and maybe just a little me. I mean, you thought it too. I was mostly thinking about how I hope Marian doesn’t have to fight one of those things.

Marian? I echoed before realizing what she was talking about. Oh, the fox. Why Marian?

Again, I felt her embarrassment. You know, like Maid Marian. In the Disney cartoon Robin Hood.

I barely resisted a chuckle at that. I knew I loved that movie a little too much for just one person. Dad used to say I was almost obsessed with watching it. That was you too, wasn’t it?

That time, her embarrassment turned to what felt more like… almost shame. I’m sorry, she hurriedly apologized. I’m sorry, I was little and I was scared. I was… I w-was still new to everything after I woke up, and when you watched that movie, I felt… a little better. But I–

Tabbris, I interrupted, It’s okay. I get it, trust me. You were a kid, you’re still a kid. But back then, you were barely more than a toddler. You were scared and alone, and the movie made you feel better. You wanted to see it so much that it rubbed off and made me want to see it too.

There was silence for a few seconds then before she replied, Mostly it was after… after Aunt Larissa didn’t show up. Mama’s message said that she’d… she’d visit me once I woke up, that she’d help teach me some things so I wouldn’t… so I wouldn’t be alone all of the time. But…

I winced. But she never showed up. She never showed, and you didn’t know why until we found Scout and Sands. Did you know who they were, who their mother was, when we first met them?

Uh huh, Tabbris answered quickly. Some of the messages Mama left were about Aunt Larissa and her family. I… I didn’t know what happened to her until they told us. Until they told you.

Oh God. So she had been left for years without anyone to talk to, without anyone who even knew that she existed. With Larissa gone and no way to contact, or be contacted by, her mother, Tabbris had had absolutely no one. And she spent years like that, hiding inside me, trying not to control me to the point that she felt guilty because her desire to watch a kid’s movie might’ve influenced me to watch it. Where did we even start with making her feel better about any of it?

Well, first thing’s first. You didn’t do anything wrong, I insisted. It’s okay if you wanted to watch a silly movie. I’m pretty sure little sisters have done a lot more than you did when it comes to forcing people to watch the movie they want to watch, okay? I’m not mad, Tabbris. It’s okay.

I had to keep exploring. We still needed food and water, and everything else. Sending the fox–Marian to the nearest tree, I tilted her head to look up. As far as I knew, foxes didn’t generally climb trees. But this was a special case, and I was particularly motivated.

After judging where the branches were, I turned Marian around and had her run back a few yards before crouching like a runner at a starting gate. Hearing the imaginary pistol, I made her dart forward. I ran straight at the tree, leaping from a few feet out. Crashing against the tree partway up, I dug in with the fox’s hindlegs, scrambling to push off while using the claws in her forepaws to hold on and pull up toward the lowest branch that looked like it could hold her.

It probably looked really awkward for more than one reason, not the least of which was the fact that it was my brain directing the fox. But she made it up, then I had her jump from branch to branch in order to get higher. The whole time, I tried not to think about those big parrot things. If one of them came screeching down out of the sky to grab my fox-self, I might need new pants. And I was pretty sure there wasn’t a mall anywhere nearby to take care of that little problem.

Actually, I realized then, that reminds me of another question. When you popped out of me, you were wearing a blue… what was that, a bodysuit? Where’d that come from? I mean, I kinda doubt you just had it on when you, um, arrived back when you were that little.

To my surprise, Tabbris corrected, Actually, I did. It’s Seosten clothing. It um, it grows with you. It was really little when I was, and when I got bigger… it did too. It’s self-cleaning, and I think it’s supposed to be bulletproof, fireproof, and… some other things. At least, that’s what Mama said.

Oh. I paused then, considering that for a second. That’s really cool. I could use something like that. But I do think we need to get you some other clothes when we get a chance.

I felt the Seosten girl’s curiosity then. She hesitated before slowly asking, Other clothes?

Sure, I confirmed slyly before adding, After all, I’m pretty sure it’d be easy to find a couple of those Robin Hood shirts in the Disney store. And you’d look really snazzy in them.

I felt the girl’s delight at the thought, even as I made myself focus on what Marian was seeing now that the little fox had reached the top of the tree. Peering out, I took in the sight.

The forest stretched on for miles in every direction. I saw a river not too far away, with what looked like fish jumping in it. That solved our water and food problem, for the moment at least.  It was like this whole area, or maybe the planet itself, was some kind of nature preserve. Which might make sense. If it was meant to provide water, even air and other resources for space stations, they might deliberately keep it as undeveloped and natural as possible.

One thing that definitely wasn’t natural, however, was the thing flying over the top of the forest way off in the distance. It was far enough away that I could barely make it out, but it looked like a spaceship of some kind. The thing looked like it was about the size of a C-130 jet, and it was flying very slowly a few hundred feet above the treetops. As I watched through Marian’s eyes, it flew steadily along a straight path for awhile before moving out of sight. A minute or two later, it came back from the other direction and just a little bit closer.

They’re scanning, I realized. That’s why they didn’t send search teams to scour the woods. They’re using that ship to slowly scan the whole area for us. Actually, they’re probably using more than one of the things. They’ll find us that way.

No, they won’t, Tabbris corrected. I know a spell you can put on the cave to hide from their scanners. I can um, I can teach you, and you can just say that Gaia taught it to you?

I found myself nodding a little bit, both my own head and the fox’s. Good idea. Let me bring her in and we’ll get started before that thing gets any closer.

Bringing Marian back into the cave, I opened my eyes to find the others watching. Sands spoke up. “Did you find anything?”

“Food and water,” I replied. “And the ship that’s flying over the forest scanning for us.”

That definitely got everyone’s attention. Eyes widening, Jazz demanded, “A ship that’s scanning for us? What are we supposed to do, keep running? There’s probably more than one.”

I nodded. “That’s what–” I stopped myself from saying we at the last second. “–I thought. But don’t worry, Gaia taught me some other spells, like how to hide from scans like that. I need to put a spell on the cave, so we’ll have to stay inside while they’re going overhead. Once they move on, we’ll deal with the food situation.”

“It’s pretty lucky that Gaia taught you all this,” Gordon observed. “Is she the one who taught you the spell you used to get rid of that cyborg and all his troops?”

“Or was it Gabriel?” Roxa quickly put in with a brief glance toward me. Clearly, she was giving me an out so I didn’t have to reveal Tabbris.  

Her former teammates all looked at her then, Jazz blurted, “Gabriel?”

I nodded. “Gabriel Prosser. And let’s just say that thing we used against Radueriel won’t work a second time. It was a one-shot deal, for emergencies.”

There. I didn’t actually say that Gabriel had been the one to teach me the word. I just confirmed his name and then told the truth about the thing being one-time use. So it wasn’t… technically lying. But I also wasn’t going to tell them about Tabbris. There was way too much that could go wrong if they knew about her.

“Prosser.” Jazz’s voice was awed. “You’ve met Gabriel Prosser? How? Why?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before moving over to the nearby cave wall while reaching for the field-engraver in my pocket. “Let me get this spell started so we’re safe,” I replied. “Then… we’re on another planet.”

“Uh, yeah? What’s your point?” Isaac asked.

“My point,” I replied easily, “is that we’re not within range of the Seosten’s memory spell. Which means I can tell you about my mother. And about the rebellion.”

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Mini-Interlude 44 – Davis

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the character of Davis, the Committee member who is commonly referred to as ‘the lumberjack’ for his habit of wearing flannel shirts and his impressive beard.

July 17th, 1838

“Pa! Hey, Pa!”

Sixteen-year-old Davis Neal, a tall yet scrawny youth with gangly arms and ears that he had yet to grow into hopped the fence at the edge of his family’s property. They lived in the heart of Arkansas, the twenty-sixth and most recent territory to be granted statehood in the United States (Desoto had beaten them by only a few months), several miles outside of the tiny (and just recently incorporated) capital city of Little Rock.

With his fishing rod in one hand, and the day’s catch (three good-sized trout!) in the other, Davis called for his father once more while jogging up the path, past the paddock where Goodheart, the family’s lazy mare, was munching her food. He wanted to show off the fish.

Moving around the corner of the house toward the front porch, the boy stopped at the sight of three strange horses tied to the railing there. They were big, strong beasts, flanks sweaty from a long ride and laden down with a lot of supplies.

Blinking at the animals for a moment, Davis turned to look at the house, listening for a moment. He didn’t hear any voices coming from the window of the nearby parlor, where his father always entertained any company that came by. Maybe they were in the kitchen.

Knowing that he’d be due a whuppin if he went tearing in like a banshee in front of guests, Davis carefully opened the door, mindful of the squeaky hinge as he slipped through the gap. Now he could hear voices. But they weren’t coming from the kitchen as he’d assumed. Instead, they were coming from the room that he and his brother shared.

Davis’s heart sank a bit at that realization. The only times that his parents took guests into the boys’ bedroom was when they would be staying for awhile. Did this mean that he and Peterson were going to have to share a room with strangers?

With a sigh, he set the fish and rods down before carefully creeping that way. He was hoping to overhear something that would tell them how long the guests would be sticking around and praying it would only be for one night. As he reached the short hallway that led to his room, Davis leaned around the corner and listened intently.

The only voice that Davis could hear at that moment was that of his younger brother. Peterson seemed to be in the midst of a prayer. But why was he praying in the middle of the day with their parents and guests in the room? Squinting, the boy put his hand on the edge of the doorframe for balance and leaned in a bit more.

Unfortunately, the bit of wall where he put his hand felt sticky and wet. Blinking back that way to see what he’d put his hand into, the boy saw something horrific. The entire wall, from the doorjamb leading into the hallway, clear past the doorway into his bedroom, was smeared with fresh blood. Blood which led all the way into the dim corner that he hadn’t bothered looking toward when his focus had been solely on hearing what was going on in the other room. And as the boy’s eyes moved that way, he saw the body of his father, lying in a pool of what remained of his blood. His chest had been ripped open, leaving bits of bone and organs strewn about.

Before he could catch himself, Davis’s hand reflexively jerked away from the blood on the wall, and a strangled cry escaped him as he fell to the floor on his side. He landed hard, head just within sight of the open doorway into his room.

His mother’s body was there, lying next to his bed. It was torn open, identical to his father’s. A little further in, twelve-year-old Peterson knelt with three men crowding around him, mocking the boy as he continued to desperately pray for divine intervention.

Men. They didn’t look human. Two seemed part-wolf, with beastial features, extended claws, and visible fur. The third, meanwhile, had rough, scaled green skin like a lizard, and his solid red eyes were twice the size of a normal person’s.

All of their eyes, both Peterson’s and the three murderous monsters, turned toward Davis as he landed on the floor while crying out. At the sight of him, all three ‘men’ started to chuckle. Their predatory smiles grew, and the boy could only lie there, staring in horror as the lizard-man began to walk toward him. In the background, he could distantly hear his younger brother screaming his name, but it seemed to be coming from far away. All of Davis’s attention and focus was centered on the creature stalking his way.

He was going to die. He was going to die like his father and mother, torn open by these… these…

Thunder like none that Davis had ever heard filled the air. The lizard-man was blown backward, a good chunk of his upper body missing. A figure stepped over the prone boy, that of a man holding what looked something like a rifle with two wide barrels and an attached blade in between them that stuck out several inches beyond the barrels.

The two wolf-men were reacting by then. Abandoning their torment of Peterson at the sound of the gun, they spun that way. Seeing their companion’s body, the pair made unearthly howling sounds, lunging toward the attacker. One blurted a single word: Heretic.

A second deafening blast from that gun took one of the beast-men in the stomach. He staggered backward, while the other continued on. The man with the gun pivoted, snapping his rifle down and out. As he did so, the barrels flipped backward while the blade extended, turning the weapon into a sword with two gun barrels pointed back as if to act as handguards.

Continuing his pivot, the man allowed the charging figure to rush past him. It nearly reached the spot where Davis was lying, before that blade suddenly appeared as it was thrust into the creature’s back and all the way through his chest.

By that point, as that wolf-man stumbled to his knees, the other had risen once more despite the shot it had taken to the stomach. Instead of charging, it twisted to run for the window. The man, the Heretic, was ready for that, however. He twisted, yanking his gun-sword from the back of the first wolf before hurling it that way.

The wolf-man leapt out the window, disappearing from sight. But the sword didn’t simply fall to the ground or embed itself in the wall as Davis had expected. Instead, those gun barrels pointed themselves down, and some strange purple flame-like energy shot out of them. Rather than burn the floor, the energy lifted the sword over the edge of the windowsill. Once it was at the correct height, the barrels adjusted themselves to point fully backward, and then propelled the sword through the window. Then they adjusted themselves yet again to turn the sword, sending it out of sight.

A few seconds passed before a terrible squelching sound reached them, cutting off what had sounded like a scream. The Heretic made a noise that sounded a bit like enjoyment. Then the sword returned, covered in more blood. He caught it, pivoting back just as the wolf-man that he had gutted struggled back to his feet. A quick slice of the man’s blade took the creature’s head from its shoulders.

Almost before the body had finished falling, Davis was up and lunging for Peterson. He caught his little brother around the waist, pulling the sobbing boy against himself tightly. Both boys knelt there, practically lying in the blood of their dead mother, while the Heretic pushed the headless body of the wolf-man to the floor contemptuously.

“Evil beasts,” the man snarled, lowering his gun-sword as he turned to face the boys. His expression softened slightly, though he had the kind of face that made it impossible for him to ever actually look inviting or friendly.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured quietly then. “I am so very, very sorry, boys. I should have gotten here sooner. But I promise you, these things will not harm you or anyone else again.”

Peterson was too busy sobbing and clinging to Davis to actually say anything. The older boy stared up at their savior, stammering, “Ma…. Pa… those… those th-th-things. They were… they were…” He trailed off, frowning. The men… the men who had killed his parents. There was something off about them, wasn’t there? Why… ? Were they Mexican or Negroes? What was… what had they looked like? Why was it so hard to…

“Monsters,” the Heretic finished for him with a sigh. “Yes. Yes, they were. Come, let’s get you cleaned up. I won’t leave you alone here, you have my word.

“My name is Gabriel Ruthers. And I swear on my life, I will not let anything hurt you.”

******

December 5th, 1918

“This is impossible,” Davis, now a fully-grown man (yet still appearing to be in the prime of his life despite being nearly a hundred years old) announced. “They’re making a mistake.”

“No, my boy,” Gabriel Ruthers assured him, “it’s no mistake.” He beamed with pride, rubbing a hand over his own chin. “You’ve earned your reputation.”

Davis shook his head. “But I’ve only been a Heretic for about eighty years. How could the Committee possibly want to recruit me? They should want you. You’ve been around since before there was a Crossroads.”

Ruthers smiled, shaking his head. “My place is here, making sure the school runs smoothly and protecting the students. You’re the one who’s been making such a name for yourself, hunting down every target they give you. What was it at last count, an eighty-nine percent success rate? That’s extraordinary. And it’s why they want you. The Committee will put you in charge of tracking Strangers that have been eluding everyone else, and they’ll want you to teach others how to do what you do.”

Davis flushed at that. “I just do what you taught us, that’s all.”

“You do far more than that,” the other man insisted. “Don’t you be selling yourself short.” Tapping Davis against the head, he added, “So you go right back in there and tell them you accept the invitation. Do you understand? You’ve earned it.”

Swallowing hard, Davis lifted his chin. Despite being old enough to be a great-grandfather in human terms, he still saw Ruthers as a father-figure. Though not nearly as much as Peterson, who basically worshipped the ground the man walked on, did. Peterson would do anything for Ruthers after the man had saved their lives and killed the monsters who murdered their parents.

“Do you think I’m ready?” he asked, a little hesitantly.  

Ruthers gave a short nod, grunting, “Yes. You are. Now let’s go, they’ll be wondering what’s going on out here.”

The two turned, only to almost run into a first-year student. She was a pretty blonde with short hair, who came up short with a gasp as the two men nearly ran right into her. “Oh! Sorry, um, Headmaster. I was looking for Professor Pericles.”

Giving the girl a short look, Ruthers replied, “I believe he was down by the beach, the last time I saw him, Miss Atherby.”

“Oh!” the girl perked up, giving a little wave. “Thank you, sir!”

As she pivoted and darted off, Davis kept watching for a moment. “Did you say Atherby? That would make her–”

Ruthers gave a slight nod. “Yes, it would. With her onboard, we may be able to coax more of the clan to join us. Maybe even Prosser himself, given some luck. It would be… encouraging.”

Davis glanced back that way once more, watching the girl disappear in the distance. “I know it’s only been a few months, but do you think she’ll be a good student?”

“Oh yes,” Ruthers confirmed.

“Our most promising one in decades.”

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Field Trip 28-06

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For a few long, agonizingly slow seconds, no one said or did anything. Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon were all utterly motionless. They stood there, staring open-mouthed at Roxa while the other girl held the choker in one hand and stared right back at them. It wasn’t quite a threatening expression, but it was one that basically seemed to say, ‘yeah, this is me, you got a problem?’

Clearly, the months that Roxa had spent with her pack had basically erased any and all guilt she felt about what she had become. The other wolves had really done wonders for her confidence.

“Oh… oh my God.” That was Jazz, the black girl was the first to find her voice, strangled as it sounded. “You–you’re… you’re…” Standing there, she lifted a hand to point, shaky as it was. “How… what… you’re–Does that mean that you’re–you’re really a–” She stopped, cringing.

“Werewolf?” Roxa finished for her. “Yeah, turns out some of them get a kick out of turning Heretics. That’s what really happened over Thanksgiving, when I disappeared.” Spreading her arms out, she gestured before turning in a circle. “This is me. Roxa the Heretic Werewolf.”

I actually saw tears in Jazz’s eyes. She was acting like Roxa had suddenly revealed a terminal disease or something. Which, I supposed actually made sense considering what the other girl had been raised to believe. Her hand rose as if she was trying to reach out toward Roxa before catching herself. “Roxa,” she lamented. “Roxa, but that means, but that means… that you’re–”

“Evil?” Roxa finished for her, folding her arms with a raised eyebrow. “You mean when I ‘evilly’ helped you guys deal with that Seosten bitch who took over Columbus, or when I ‘evilly’ helped get you out of that space station? Or do you mean when I ‘evilly’ revealed that I’m really a werewolf when I had absolutely no reason to do that other than to back up what Flick said?”

Biting my lip, I hesitated, glancing to the others before speaking up. “Roxa, you didn’t have to–”

“Yeah,” she interrupted without looking away from her former teammates, “I did. I’m not gonna spend this entire trip, or the rest of my damn life, hiding what I am from the people who should trust me. So yeah, I’m a werewolf. If that bothers you people, you’re welcome to go find a non-werewolf person to survive on this alien world with. Or,” she added while narrowing her eyes, “you could try to do something about it. But I’m telling you now, that won’t go well for you.”

I saw the way Jazz flinched. She looked torn up inside, with eyes that were still openly wet. “But… but R-Roxa,” she stammered, clearly grasping for anything, “I don’t… don’t understand.”

Finally, Sands had clearly had enough. “You wanna understand?” she blurted abruptly. “Here’s what you need to understand. Our entire civilization is a fucking lie, alright? Everything they teach us about how everything that isn’t human is evil, that’s straight up bullshit. Those Seosten like the bitch in the hotel and cyborg man, yeah, that whole race of evil cocksuckers created Crossroads and now they teach us to kill everything that’s not human so they can use us as their soldiers, or guard dogs, or whatever. That’s what you need to understand.” To finish, Sands spoke slowly and deliberately. “A lot of those Strangers we kill, they’re not the monsters.

“We are.”  

It was the most emotion I’d seen Sands express about finding out that Strangers weren’t all evil since she’d accepted it. Clearly, she wasn’t happy about the ‘Crossroads entire reason for existing was to act as boogeymen for anyone the Seosten didn’t like’ thing. Hell, from the look on the other girl’s face, there was a lot more that she wanted to say about it. But she cut herself off and settled on simply scowling at the floor with her arms folded tightly, trembling with anger.

Gordon was the one who spoke next, his tone almost as calm as ever, though I could detect a little bit of emotion underlying it. “You… the choker.” His eyes had centered on the thing, which had turned visible once Roxa took it off. “That’s the choker that we heard Flick talking about.”

Jazz gave a start then, as if she’d completely forgotten it until that moment. “The choker,” she echoed, looking at the thing, then looking to me. “You knew–you’ve been helping her… but…”

“It’s like they said,” I confirmed, moving my gaze from her to Isaac and then to Gordon, “Strangers aren’t all evil. No more than all humans are evil. And if we’re gonna have a chance at surviving out here, that’s something you’re all going to have to try to accept. Because we need Roxa. I’m sticking with her. I trust her more than I trust any of you. Sorry, that’s just the way it is.”

Sands gave a little nod at that. “She’s right. I’m sticking with Roxa and Flick. You guys have a problem with that…” She shrugged. “Like the girl said, just go find another cave to hide out in.”

Isaac was the next to speak, raising his hands placatingly. “Hey now, let’s not all get drastic or anything. Let’s just talk about this. You’re right, Roxa, you’ve been doing a lot of not-evil stuff, stuff you didn’t have to do. But some of it could’ve been self-preservation. I mean, getting out of the space station would’ve been harder if you were alone. And you could’ve shown up to fight that, uh, Seosten back there at the hotel even if we weren’t there. It could’ve been personal.”

“Yeah,” Jazz agreed, her voice shaking as she spoke. “He… he’s right, you’ve helped a lot, but… but it still could’ve been just for show. I mean–except… except showing yourself now, unless you were trying to trick us, or…” Her head shook, and the girl closed her eyes tightly like she just wanted the whole thing to go away. “Damn it,” she muttered before repeating it several times, each one a little louder as she tightened her fists. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Turning, Jazz put her fist against the wall of the cave, then repeated the action twice before whirling back to us. “You guys are crazy! You’re talking complete nonsense! Crossroads was made by evil Strangers so that we’d go kill all the people they didn’t like? What the fuck?! You’re just–just-”

“Lying?” Roxa finished for her. “Trying to trick you? Crazy? Are we crazy? Or is killing every intelligent species on the planet just because they’re not completely human the crazy thing? I’m still me, Jazz. Still Roxa. Same girl, just with new abilities. It’s not that different from becoming a Heretic, is it? You start out as completely human, then something happens to change what-”

“Stop!” Jazz blurted then, head shaking violently. “Just stop, stop it! Stop trying to compare it. It’s not the same, okay? It’s not the same! Strangers are evil! We’re not the monsters, we help people, we have to save humanity. If we weren’t there, the Strangers would, they’d kill everyone. We’ve seen them! We’ve seen Strangers killing humans, torturing humans, eating humans!”

“You’re right,” I agreed, nodding as Jazz’s attention whipped over to me. “There are evil Alt–Strangers, just like there are evil humans. But not all of them. Look at all the monsters in human history. You think having a Hitler or a Jeffrey Dahmer means all other humans are irredeemably evil? I, for one, wouldn’t wanna be judged by the worst examples of humanity.”

“But… but…” Jazz looked like she wanted to flail. Her eyes kept darting back and forth as her fists repeatedly tightened and loosened. She looked even more lost and confused at the idea than the fact that we were all stranded on the far end of space on an alien planet surrounded by monsters. The mere suggestion that being a werewolf didn’t automatically make Roxa evil was pretty much making the other girl lose her mind. “But that can’t… I mean, it’s not the same.”

Gordon, raising his chin curiously, announced, “Maybe we should take this one step at a time. We’re all stuck here together, whether we like it or not. None of us wants to be taken by those.. Seosten. If nothing else, Roxa’s proved that much. So for now, we’re on the same side.”

“It’s not that simple,” Jazz insisted. “You know it’s not that simple. You–” She took a breath, glancing toward Sands for a second as if desperate for someone to back her up. “You should understand. Maybe not Flick, but you know what…” Shuddering, she continued, speaking quickly. “Everything they tell us, everything they teach us, it’s that that,” her hand gestured to the girl in question, “isn’t Roxa anymore! It’s a monster that’s wearing her face, a monster that took her over and is… is… wearing her just like those Seosten you keep talking about. When a human being turns into a Stranger, the human part dies and the monster completely takes over.

“So you’re saying, ‘let’s just work with them for now’? What if you’re wrong. What if you’re all wrong, and that isn’t Roxa anymore?” Jazz was staring at the girl, hands tightened into fists once more. “What if Roxa’s dead and gone and we’re just working with the monster that killed her? What if, instead of getting justice for Roxa like we should be doing, we’re working with the thing that slithered into her body and destroyed her? What if it’s laughing at us because we’re falling for its lies?!” Her voice was rising with each word, until she sounded almost hysterical.

Slowly, Jazz took a step toward the other girl with her hands held low and out, apparently so that we wouldn’t think that she was attacking or something. Her voice cracked as she continued. “You… you think I don’t want you to be Roxa? You think I don’t want our entire society to be wrong so that you can still be Roxa? You were my friend, my–we were supposed to be partners. I’ve been trying to find you for months, months! I want you to be Roxa so, so fucking bad. I want these guys to be right. I never wanted this, I never wanted to even be a Heretic! I didn’t want it! I want you to be you. But… but what if you’re not? What if you’re really a monster, squatting in Roxa’s body and laughing at how naive and stupid we are? What if we’re letting this thing get away with killing Roxa, just because we want her to still be herself? What if it’s using us?”

By that point, Jazz was directly in front of Roxa, the two of them mere inches apart. For her part, the werewolf girl simply stood still, meeting Jazz’s gaze evenly as she listened to her words until the girl was finally finished. Then she slowly lifted her chin, considering for a couple long seconds before speaking as plainly as possible. “If you don’t use what someone does to determine if they’re good or evil…” Her shoulders rose in a shrug. “Then what do you use?”

While Jazz’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, Roxa continued flatly. “I’m not evil. I’m not a monster. I can’t say it any more plainly than that. And I’m not going to apologize for what– who I am. I’m done feeling embarrassed or ashamed of myself. I’m a werewolf, and I’m a Heretic. You can either judge me by what I do, or by what some evil, manipulative bastards tell you to judge me by. That’s your business. Either way, I’m not changing a goddamn thing about myself. You got a problem, deal with it.”

W-wow, Tabbris ‘whispered’ in my head, sounding like she was in awe. She’s really brave.

I think she’s also sick of being afraid of how people will react to her, I pointed out while watching to see what the others would do. I guess after spending a few months with other wolves, she’s done worrying about it. She’s sort of… ripping off the bandaid and then telling it to piss off.

Jazz, meanwhile, had closed her eyes. Her fists were held tightly against her side, and the black girl was openly shuddering. Her mouth moved a little, but I couldn’t tell what she was whispering at first. Then I got it, she was repeatedly muttering, “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” while tears feel freely down her face. Opening her eyes, she stared at Roxa. “I want it,” she blurted. “I want you to be you. I do. I swear I do, but… but… if we’re wrong, if they’re wrong, and you’re really a monster, then I’m letting you get away with killing my friend! Everyone who teaches us, all the adults, they all say you’re evil! How can we just ignore that? They all say you’re a monster.”

Roxa’s mouth opened, but it was Gordon who actually spoke. “Do they?” he asked simply, drawing everyone’s attention that way. The dark-skinned boy gave a little shrug. “I mean, I know what they say, but… what about what you overheard at Flick’s house, with the headmistress?”

Okay, that got my attention. I’d been trying to stay out of the conversation, but that one I had to jump in on. “I’m sorry, what?” I blurted, staring at the boy. “Who overheard what at my house?” Pausing, I added, “Actually, come to think of it, what the hell were you talking about when you said you heard me talking about the choker? I never talked about it without… safety measures.”

Gordon took a step my way, explaining simply, “We knew that you had something to do with Roxa disappearing, that you knew more about it than anyone else was saying. Douglas’s power, it… allows him to ask a question and get an answer, or directions to an answer, once per day. And every time he asked it anything about why Roxa disappeared, it always directed us to you.”

Well, that explained why they had been so obsessed with me. As I nodded slowly in realization, the boy continued. “We went looking for answers in your dorm room awhile back. You came in while we were there, but Jasmine used her power to turn us all invisible. While you were there, you mentioned the choker. You said that all you had to do was ‘get that choker on Roxa’ and then she could come back to the school. You were on the phone with someone named Asenath, and you said–” Pausing then, he looked like something suddenly made sense, nodding thoughtfully. “Oh. You asked her if werewolves and vampires really have some kind of rivalry.”

That… didn’t sound familiar at all. Especially the part about the choker. Why would I have phrased it like that? ‘Get the choker on Roxa?’ What the hell? But still, maybe–oh. Tabbris? I prompted, realizing that I didn’t have to rely on my own memory. Did that ever happen?

The answer came immediately and emphatically. No! No, you never had that conversation, and you never did… any of that. Not like that. I swear, they’re wrong. It never, ever happened.  

I nodded slowly before meeting Gordon’s gaze. “I hate to tell you guys this, but that never happened.” As all three of their mouths opened, I held a hand up. “Okay, let me rephrase. I didn’t say that. I wasn’t there, and I never had that conversation that you overheard. I’m not saying you didn’t overhear it, I’m saying it wasn’t me. Whoever you saw, it was someone else posing as me.”

And wasn’t that a massive punch in the gut? Someone, the Seosten obviously, had been posing as me just to manipulate these guys. It was probably an attempt to get them to report us to the Committee in a way that Gaia couldn’t cover up.

“Posing as you?” Jazz echoed, her eyes wide as she shook her head quickly at my words. “What the hell does that mean? Why would someone pose as you?”

“We do know that they have a way of posing as other people,” Gordon pointed out mildly. “The shapeshifter that took Paul’s place.”

Biting her lip, Jazz looked sick at the reminder before swallowing hard. “Y-yeah, but… but she did have someone named Asenath living at her house. I saw her. I saw her, and she’s a… a Stranger too.”

“You’re right,” I confirmed, seeing no need to try to lie about that much. “Asenath is a vampire. She’s also my friend. She saved my life, she saved my father’s life, and she’s done nothing but help me since I met her. So yes, she was living at my house. She’s been protecting my father. But we never had that conversation, and I never would’ve phrased it like that. We were trying to get the choker so that Roxa could come back. The choker hides Alters from the Heretic-Sense.”

“Alter,” Jazz repeated, squinting. “You said Alter again. What does that even mean?”

Sands answered for me. “It’s their word for what they are. Non-Humans, I mean. We call them Strangers. They call themselves Alters. As in ‘Alternative to human’.”

“But that’s not–” Jazz started to object before stopping herself. Taking a long, visible breath, the girl considered her words for a moment. Her eyes glanced briefly toward Roxa before she started once more. “They call themselves… Alters?”

As I nodded, Gordon spoke up again. “The point is, Jasmine said that all our teachers say that Strangers… Alters are evil. But she heard Headmistress Sinclaire talking to the vampire when we went to spy on your house.”

Spying on my house. They had been spying on my house. I felt indignant, even if part of me understood. Would I really have done anything different in their situation?

Isaac gave a quick nod. “Hey, yeah. So why would the headmistress be all for teaching about how evil Strangers are if she’s into this hippy ‘everyone just love one another’ shit?”

“It’s complicated,” I replied. “If she started changing what the school taught, the Committee would get rid of her.”

Making a noise that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger, Jazz put both hands over her face. “Just–just stop. Everyone just stop for a minute. Stop it.” She stood there like that, hands covering her face for a long moment. “Isaac,” she started finally, “You said your Edge vision was all about this Asenath chick killing your ancestor and all his people.”

“Uh, yeah.” The other boy gave a little shrug, looking self-conscious. “That’s what I saw.”

When Jazz looked back to me, I replied, “He’s probably missing context. That’s not the point. The point is, we’re all here. So you’ve got a choice, just like Roxa said. You can stay here and work with us so that we can keep everyone alive until we find a way home. Or you can go off on your own. But get this straight. If you can’t work with Roxa, then you might as well leave right now.”

“I didn’t say I–” Jazz stopped herself, biting her lip as she looked over to the girl in question. Her voice was timid. “I don’t want you to be evil. But I can’t just–I… you want us to believe that the headmistress of the school is letting them teach us all about evil Strangers, when it’s not true? You want us to believe that our entire society, that it’s all wrong? How do I–how do we–I…” She sighed. “Can you just give us some time? Let me… think about all this. I can’t just–I can’t just….”  She gave up on trying to explain it, lowering her head and heaving a long sigh.

It wasn’t surprising. Even in this situation, it was going to take time for Jazz, for any of them, to accept what we were saying. We were actually pretty lucky that the three of them had stood there and listened to us for as long as they had. Sure, this was kind of a… unique situation. But still. The fact that they were even entertaining the idea said a lot. I couldn’t help but wonder how much spending the past who knew how long wondering why Gaia had been talking to Asenath had actually helped. It had to have chipped away at their beliefs, at least enough for them to listen now.

I nodded. “Sure. We need to figure out where we are, how safe this place is, and everything else.”

“How are we gonna do that?” Isaac asked, gesturing back out of the cave. “I’m pretty sure we can’t just go blundering around out there without half the Seosten within a thousand miles figuring out where we are. We don’t know where anything is, and–oh yeah, we’re stuck on another fucking planet.”

“Can you tell us more about these Seosten?” Gordon asked. “How did we get here? How did they… as you said, ‘create Crossroads’? What do they want? Let’s say you’re right, just for now. What else can you tell us about everything, because we’re lost.”

Jazz abruptly lifted her head, nodding. “And Paul. Tell us what happened to Paul, what that thing was that took him over. What happened? How could he just–”

I held up my hands to hold off more questions. “We’ll get to all that, I promise. Right now, Isaac’s right. We need to figure out where we are, what’s around us, how far civilization is,  and all the rest of that stuff without blundering around. So I need a piece of wood. Shouldn’t be too hard to find one out there.”

“A piece of wood?” Gordon echoed, head tilting. “Why?”

I smiled a little bit. “It’s a spell. I… guess I could teach it to you. If you guys think you can work with me for long enough.”

Isaac spoke up then, his own smile wide and open. “Learning a spell sounds cool. And I guess we might as well try to get along, for now anyway.

“After all, we’re all friends here.”

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Field Trip 28-05

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F-Flick? What should I do? 

For a second, I froze. I didn’t know. Roxa seemed… under control at least. She hadn’t instantly outed Tabbris. Instead, she’d waited until we had some privacy. She’d noticed the help that the littlest angel had given, yet she still wanted answers. And she was making sure that those answers came from me by ordering my stowaway to get out. I had no doubt that, even though the help that Tabbris had been thus far was stopping Roxa from outright exposing her in front of the others, she wouldn’t hesitate to change her mind if the Seosten didn’t show herself and let me explain things.

Eject, I finally answered, while watching Roxa’s expression harden slightly at my hesitation. It’s okay. She’s seen what you’ve done so far. Or some of it anyway. She kept quiet this long. Go ahead. Just stay out of sight of that opening so no one else sees you. 

I could feel the young Seosten’s hesitation and trepidation. Which meant that she was feeling a lot of it. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her for that. As far as I knew, she’d only shown herself to one person in the past seven years: me. She didn’t know how Roxa was going to react. But the fact was, we didn’t have any other choices. If she didn’t see the figure that was possessing me get out within the next couple of seconds, Roxa was going to do something a lot more rash.

Tabbris, I thought to the other girl gently. It’s okay. Trust me. I won’t let her hurt you. I promise. 

After another half second of hesitation, I felt her brief agreement. Then she was pulling herself out of me, a white, translucent figure that quickly solidified into the now-familiar little girl.

Roxa was pulling back from me, her attention flicking up toward the girl reflexively. Gidget did the same, turning to focus that way. As they both started to move, I quickly sat up to put myself between them and Tabbris. Moving to one knee, I held both hands up. “Roxa, Roxa, it’s okay!” I hissed the words reflexively, despite the other girl’s words about her cone of silence. “It’s alright, I promise. I’m fine.” Even as I spoke, I felt Tabbris put herself directly behind me. She was half-cowering, hiding there while peeking out.

“Flick?” Roxa hissed, eyes darting from the Seosten girl to me and back again. “You wanna tell me what the hell is going on?” After a pause, she added, “And you should probably do it fast.”

Right, if this took too long, the others would wonder what was going on. They didn’t know how long it would take us to change back, but still. They might get curious. And I really didn’t want to have to go through this with Jazz, Isaac, and Gordon. Time to give her the short version.

“Roxa,” I started quickly, “This is Tabbris. We don’t have time to get into it, but I swear she’s on our side. She was–her mom is Vanessa and Tristan’s mom. She sent Tabbris to me so that I’d be immune to other Seosten possessing me, because of who my mother is. I didn’t know she existed until Charmeine captured me. She had to reveal herself to get me out of there. She’s been protecting and helping me this whole time, I just didn’t know about it until a few hours ago.”

A few hours. Had it really only been that long? It felt like a lifetime. How had so much happened in such a short time? Honestly, even I was getting tired at this point, after all the fighting and running that we had been going through. The others must be almost dead on their feet.

“Tabbris?” Roxa echoed the name, squinting briefly. “I know she was helping. That’s why I didn’t say anything until now. I just didn’t know if she was being helpful to get close to us or something. But…” She looked back to me, frowning before reaching out to put her hand on my shoulder. Obviously, she was checking to see if I was still possessed. “And you’re sure you’re okay?”

I nodded quickly. “Like I said, she saved me. She saved all of us. Without her, we’d all be captured. She was the one who came up with that trick to get rid of Radueriel. Right, Tabbris?”

Behind me, pressed close up against my back, the Seosten girl gave a quick nod. Her voice was quiet. “I w-was trying to help. I just… I just wanted to help. Mama said I should be quiet, hide. But I had to help. I promise, I wasn’t trying to hurt anything. I just… I had to help.” She repeated her words softly, and I could feel her trembling a bit. Tabbris was even more afraid of explaining things to Roxa than she had been of explaining them to me. Which made sense. She knew me and how I would react a hell of a lot better than either of us knew about Roxa and her reaction.

For a couple of seconds, Roxa was silent. She bit her lip, clearly feeling indecisive before she finally reached out an open hand. “Hey,” the girl murmured. “Tabbris, was it?” When the other girl hesitantly nodded while staring fearfully at the hand, Roxa managed a slight smile. “Hi, Tabbris. I guess you saved us back there. You saved Flick, and then you saved us… a couple times, I think.” She paused, then extended her hand a little further. “C’mere a sec, would you?”

The younger girl looked to me first, and I gave her an encouraging nod, whispering, “It’s okay.”

Still, she hesitated before very slowly stepping out from behind me. Her small hand hesitantly reached up, stalling in the air as she looked at Roxa for a few seconds. Then she reached the rest of the way to tentatively put her hand against the other girl’s. I could see her trepidation.

Once the little girl’s hand was gently, nervously brushing against her own, Roxa reached out a little bit further. She took Tabbris’s hand and gave her a slight tug before going down on one knee. I heard the Seosten girl give a soft gasp of surprise then, just as Roxa embraced her.

“Thanks, kid,” Roxa murmured as she hugged Tabbris. “I’m sorry I scared you. I had to make sure Flick was really okay. You seemed like you were helping, but I couldn’t take the chance.”

Tabbris seemed completely taken aback by the gesture. She made a noise of confusion, remaining stiff as she was embraced. It was obvious that the girl had absolutely no idea of how to react, either to the hug or what Roxa was actually saying. She just stood there, motionless.

“Hey!” A voice calling from the other cave made all three of us jump. It was Jazz. Thankfully, she wasn’t actually looking in, but was just shouting from where they were. “You guys changed yet?”

Coughing, I called back, “Working on it! We’ll be right out, just… hold on, we’re not decent.”

Right. Not decent. The reminder that neither Roxa or I had any clothes on made me blush deeply. We’d been thoroughly distracted, but still… I averted my eyes, moving to grab my clothes from where Gidget had helpfully dropped them. In the middle of the pile, Jaq and Gus were huddled next to my weapon canister. Yeah, as it turned out, I couldn’t send the two back into my staff. The portals on my staff, the ones that connected to the box back in my room that my little mice lived in, weren’t working. Which made sense, considering everything we knew. Still, it had been a bit of a disappointment when I’d thought of the portal and tried to activate it, only for nothing to happen. So, Jaq and Gus were stuck out here with us. They’d spent the whole time that I’d been a lion riding inside of Gidget with all our clothes and equipment.

“Hey guys,” I murmured, putting my hands down for them to climb in. “You good?” They nuzzled me a little bit, and I smiled before setting them on my shoulder so I could grab my clothes.

I started to pull them on, then paused as I remembered what my tiny, helpful Seosten bodyguard had said. Curious, I touched my underwear and bra and sort of… thought about them being on me. It took a couple seconds of holding my hand in place, but then they were both… wrapped around my arms.

Clearly, I needed to be more specific. Rolling my eyes, I focused once more, picturing myself actually wearing them the right way.

It worked, and a few seconds later, my pants and shirt joined them. Well, this was going to make getting dressed in the mornings a hell of a lot easier, that was for sure.

While checking to make sure my clothes were on the right way, I glanced over to where Tabbris was finally returning Roxa’s hug. The little girl was still clearly hesitant about the whole thing, but had latched onto Roxa as if she was a life preserver in the middle of a dark ocean. It made me think about how lost, scared, and alone she must’ve been through the years. Hell, she’d gone as far as going to my father in the middle of the night while he was delirious from sleep, just to get a tiny bit of affection, even if it wasn’t meant for her. This, a hug coming from someone she barely knew, who was fully aware of what she was? It had to be completely overwhelming. And I really, really hated to interrupt it, no matter how necessary it was. Given the choice, I would’ve let them keep hugging for hours. Hell, given the choice, I would’ve made sure everyone else in our little group knew who she was and just how much she had done to make sure that we got out of there with our lives intact. But I didn’t have that luxury. There was already too much to explain, and I still didn’t know how much we could trust the other three. Not to mention how dangerous it would be in general if any of the Seosten found out about her. No, for the time being, we had to keep Tabbris a secret from everyone else.

Stepping that way, I put a hand on the Seosten girl’s shoulder. “Hey,” I whispered. As she turned from Roxa, I took my own chance for a hug, embracing my little stowaway tightly. “Thank you, for everything. Seriously, without you, we’d all be dead, or enslaved. You saved us, partner.”

I knew there wasn’t time to waste. I knew that. But I also knew that Tabbris really needed to hear it. After everything she’d done, after the years she had spent hiding and secretly trying to help… hell, over the past year, she’d spent a good portion of it hearing about how evil and terrible pretty much her entire species was. All the thoughts that I’d had about how much I hated the Seosten and everything else… yeah, the least I could do was give her an actual hug right then.

Roxa quickly got herself dressed while I was embracing Tabbris. Sliding her shirt on, the girl gave me a brief look before murmuring, “We’ve gotta talk more about this later, you know.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Later. But the others need to get the Cliff’s Notes about everything else first.” Turning my attention down to the younger girl, I gave her a little smile. “Ready to jump back in?”

She nodded, putting her hand on mine. A second later, she was back inside me. I felt her presence once more, settling in like a… like a favorite blanket. I couldn’t really describe it better than that. It felt right when she was there. Even though I’d only been consciously aware of her for such a short time, having her out of me was still almost like a part of me was missing. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, I didn’t know. What I did know was that I felt more me with her.

Roxa was watching that happen as she buttoned up her pants. “That still looks freaky,” she pointed out before pausing. “Wait a second…” she murmured with a frown as she stared at me.

Feeling self-conscious (which was probably partly me and partly Tabbris), I shook my head. “What? What’s wrong?” Was she changing her mind about this? Was she about to call for help?

Instead, the other girl just blurted, “Why didn’t Pace say anything? Lies, I mean.” As I stared at her in confusion, she explained, “She touched you. She touched you, right? With this on.” Gesturing to the invisible choker around her neck, Roxa shook her head. “So she should’ve known you were possessed. Why didn’t she say anything about it? Because she obviously hasn’t, since Charmeine apparently had no idea. Why? Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

For a couple seconds after that question landed, all I could do was stare back at Roxa, open-mouthed. “Uhh…” I made a dull, confused sound while my mind raced wildly.

Why didn’t she say anything? I quickly asked Tabbris. She definitely touched me. And her eyes were open. Is it possible that she just didn’t notice you or something? I mean, we were fighting at the time and all that, so… Even as I asked, my head was already shaking. I didn’t believe it.

I don’t think so, the other girl confirmed my own doubts, sounding as confused as I felt. I think she noticed, but I… don’t know why she didn’t say anything. Unless she’s saving it, maybe? 

“Saving it?” I muttered out loud, looking back to Roxa. “Tabbris thinks maybe she’s saving it.”

The blonde girl squinted at me. “Oh, fantastic. You mean she’s saving it to pull out later. So we basically have no idea how long it’ll be before all the Seosten know about your little friend in there. Lies could blurt it out at any time. Hell, come to think of it, she’ll probably use it to try to get something out of you later. And what are you gonna do when she does? What are you going to do when she says, ‘do X for me, or everyone finds out that you’ve got a hitchhiker in there’?”

I shook my head at that, answering honestly, “I dunno. Right now, I’m more worried about how we’re going to explain everything else that’s been going on to your old teammates in there.”

Roxa gave a slow nod, sighing as she looked over her shoulder to the opening into the cave where the others were waiting for us. “Yeah, I guess they’re kind of getting dropped into the deep end, huh? But then again,” she added thoughtfully while shrugging, “So was I, kind of.”

“Good point,” I agreed. “But this is still gonna be a bit much for them to actually take in.” Taking a breath, I looked to her. “Thanks, for keeping quiet about Tabbris until you had a chance to find out exactly what was going on. Seriously, I don’t know if very many people would’ve had that kind of control. Most probably would’ve blurted it out as soon as they saw her. Or pretty soon.”

“Hey,” Roxa replied with a little shrug, “I’ve had to keep secrets. I know what it’s like. And you had kind of just killed Charmeine when I saw her. I figured if nothing else, that much meant I owed the kid the benefit of the doubt for as long as it took to get you alone. But like I said, we-”

“–Still need to have a conversation about it,” I interrupted, nodding. “We will. Soon. But now, we’ve got another audience to deal with.” Clearing my throat, I nodded to the opening while reaching up to take Jaq and Gus, slipping them into one of my pockets. “Ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied, putting her hand down to rest on Gidget’s head. “Let’s go.”

Together, the two of us… three counting Gidget and four counting my passenger, moved into the other cave. Sands, Isaac, Jazz, and Gordon were all standing on the other side, talking in hushed voices. When we emerged, every eye moved to us, and they abruptly stopped talking.

Jazz was the first to clamber to her feet. “Okay, Sands said we had to wait for you. Now you’re here, you’re changed, and no one is currently, actively trying to kill us. We’ve waited long enough. What the hell is going on?! Who was that woman back there, who was the guy that was impersonating P-Paul–” Her voice caught briefly there before she pressed on, “who are all these people, where are we, how did we get here, why–just… just… all of it. Every question possible. All of them. Every question in the world, pretend I said them, okay? What the fuck?”

I coughed at that, giving a little nod. “Right, you guys deserve a pretty big explanation. And trust me, it’s a doozy. So, just… go with me a little bit.” Glancing toward Sands briefly, I continued. “First of all, like I said before, that woman back there and the guy with the cyborg limbs, they’re both called Seosten. Seosten. That’s where we are, in their space. They’re sort of a… an intergalactic empire of super-advanced aliens who look pretty much exactly like us.” Now really wasn’t the time to get into exactly why humans and Seosten looked alike. These guys already had enough to take in as it was without me talking about the Fomorians and everything else.

“They don’t set off the Heretic-sight,” Gordon observed quietly from where he was standing.

“Right,” I nodded. “There’s kind of a long story behind that. But right now, I…” Biting my lip, I tried to figure out how to explain as much as I needed to get them to understand. “Okay, so, long story short, the Seosten are the bad guys. Their big thing is that they can possess people. You saw what she did with Columbus. And what I could do after I killed her. They possess you, which means they control everything you say and do, all of that. It’s…” I sighed. “It’s slavery. They enslave you and control you. They use it to infiltrate places. And… we’ve been trying to figure out who they are, because they’ve been trying to kill Avalon all year long. Hell, even longer than that. That whole thing back at the hotel was them trying to kill or capture the rest of us so that they could blame Avalon for what happened and isolate her from everyone else. They want to kill her because her ancestor was Hieronymus Bosch. Well, specifically his daughter. And-”

“Wait, wait,” Jazz interrupted. “Hold on a second. What? Are you serious?” Her eyes were wide. “Avalon, that Avalon, is Bosch’s descendant? Really?”

I squinted at her, trying not to be offended on Avalon’s behalf. “Yeah, really. Why?”

She flushed a little. “I didn’t mean it like that. I just… it’s surprising, that’s all. I would’ve said the same thing if you said anyone was Bosch’s descendant. It’s like saying, ‘hey, that guy’s great-uncle is Santa Claus’ or something. I dunno. Just… wait, why do they want to kill her?”

“Because she can open the blood vault that leads to something they really want to get for themselves,” I replied, “the one that belonged to Liesje Aken.”

Isaac spoke up then. “What’s… what’s in there that’s so important?”

Glancing to the boy briefly, I echoed, “What’s so important? Apparently Liesje came up with a way to make people immune to Seosten possession. That’s why Avalon’s immune. Liesje used it on her bloodline. Then it got locked away in that vault. The Seosten want to get in there and get rid of it before it spreads and ruins their whole plot.”

“Ruins what, exactly?” Gordon’s voice was quiet, his tone making me think that he already had some idea.

Right. This was the big one. This was the one that was going to go too far for them. “… Heretics,” I replied, “Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, all of it.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jazz demanded, staring openly at me. “What do the Seosten have to do with Crossroads?”

“Everything,” I replied flatly. “They have everything to do with it. They created it.”

The denials came so fast and furious that for a moment I thought Vin Diesel was behind me. Mostly they came from Jazz and Isaac, both of whom demanded to know what the hell I was talking about, just how insane I was, if I’d hit my head too hard, and so on and so forth.

“Guys–guys!” Roxa stepped in. “Just listen to her, okay?”

“Seriously?” Jazz demanded, “you’re totally serious right now? What the fuck? These Seosten created Crossroads? Do you know how fucking insane you sound?”

“I’ve got some idea,” I confirmed dryly. “Just listen. The Seosten created Crossroads and the Bystander Effect to–”

“Oh, now they created the Bystander Effect too?” Isaac retorted sarcastically. “These are some pretty powerful magic boogeymen.”

I sighed. “Listen, I know how it sounds. I do. But like I said, just go with me a little bit, okay? Yes, it sounds fucking insane. Trust me, I get that. The Seosten created the Bystander Effect in order to control humanity, in order to control Heretics. They wanted us to think that all Alters are evil, beca–”

That was as far as I got before Jazz abruptly cut in once more. “What?” Her voice was even more incredulous. “What did you say? They want us to think that all what are evil?”

“Alters,” I replied, sighing. “I mean Strangers, sorry. They want us to think that–”

“They are,” the other girl stated flatly. “What the hell do you mean, they want us to think that Strangers are evil? The hell–”

“Would you just shut the fuck up?” That was Sands, who finally couldn’t contain herself. “You keep interrupting every two seconds. Shut up and let her talk for the love of gods.”

“But she’s talking about Strangers like they’re… like they’re n-not evil,” Jazz pointed out, stammering a little bit. “How can you–”

That time, it was her turn to be interrupted as Roxa spoke up. “Flick’s right. Strangers, Alters, whatever, they’re not all evil. And you wanna know how I know?”

As everyone’s eyes turned that way, mine included, the blonde girl reached up to her neck. She unfastened the invisible choker there, pulling it away.

“Because I am one.”

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