Author: Cerulean

Most Dangerous Game 22-02

Previous Chapter

There was no question about what happened next. Even as Trice abandoned his own partner with a scream of the kind of bottomless rage I would’ve felt if anything happened to any of the people that I loved, Avalon left my side to meet him with a clash of an energy-blade summoned from her gauntlet against his pike.

And as much as I wanted to, I didn’t move to help her. That was part of our deal. Avalon wanted Trice. That much hadn’t been up for debate while we had been planning this. If all three of them had shown up, we’d had a slightly different plan that we would’ve gone with. But in this case, with two of them, the plan was clear. I was supposed to keep Doxer busy while she and Trice… had it out. That was my job. If things went wrong, there were contingencies. But the truth was, our plan really depended on me being able to pull this off. Fight Doxer, keep him busy. Keep him off-balance so he couldn’t work on the shield. And so that he didn’t notice… anything else.

Two things quickly let me know that Doxer wasn’t playing around this time, that he wasn’t going to let the fight go on as long as he had back during our first encounter when he’d mostly been playing with his food. First, there was the look in his eyes. It was a look that said he was going to finish this as soon as possible. Probably because he figured we’d have back-up coming. Plus, he probably remembered the last fight. So he knew he couldn’t outlast my stamina. The longer the fight went on, the better off I’d be, because I wouldn’t be getting tired like he would.

Meanwhile, the second reason I knew he was actually taking it seriously came as he stalked toward me. After the third step, he reached into the pockets of his jacket and withdrew two small, silver-white… mice. They sat in the palms of his hands long enough for me to see that both were made of metal. They were robots, like Sean’s Vulcan, Aylen’s Sovereign, or Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi.  

“What do you say, boys?” Doxer announced with a smirk, “should we show our cute little blonde friend here that she should’ve just made us a sandwich while she had the chance?”

As he spoke, the robot mice transformed, growing into his actual weapons. One became a short-sword with a wicked blade that was jagged on both edges. Meanwhile, the other mouse turned into some kind of gauntlet that covered his left hand. There was a small blade sticking out of the end of the thing with three slightly curved pointed ends, like a grappling hook.

The purpose of that latter weapon became clear an instant later, as the boy extended his left hand. The hook, connected by some kind of energy wire, shot out at me so fast that it would have gone right through me if it hadn’t been for the enhanced reflexes from that second werewolf kill. As it was, I just narrowly managed to jerk myself aside, letting the hook shoot past. Not that it completely saved me. The hook seemed to ‘catch’ on nothing but air, and an instant later, that energy-wire retracted. Doxer was yanked forward off the ground and came hurtling toward me like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He closed the distance between us almost instantly. Even as I realized that he was suddenly there, that jagged shortsword of his was already lashing out at my head with the speed and decisiveness of a snake lunging for the living version of one of those mice.

And yet, I was ready. Not that I’d known about the grapple, but I’d seen the teleportation trick that he’d used in the last fight enough that I’d been prepared for him to abruptly erase the distance. Which meant that even as his sword went for my head, my staff was already snapping up to intercept. Our weapons met with a terrible crash, and the force actually sent me backward.

That was why he hadn’t bothered with the teleportation, because he wanted the additional force that being yanked toward me that fast would create. And it very nearly worked. Between the boy’s own strength and the momentum that he’d built up with the grapple-lunge, I was almost knocked off my feet. As it was, I stumbled a bit, barely stopping myself from falling into the dirt.

Even as I recovered, Doxer pressed his advantage, sweeping my staff down and to the side with a swift motion before driving the hilt of his sword up against my chin in a blow that snapped my head backwards. At the same time, the sense that let me know where every object in my immediate area was gave me a short warning that the grapple was coming back my way from behind. Which probably meant that he was trying to wrap that energy-cord around me.

Before that could happen, I triggered a quick blast from my staff. The end of it was pointed down and to the right from Doxer smacking it out of the way, so the blast knocked me to the left.

Sure enough, I just managed to avoid the energy-cord from the grapple as it tried to snake its way around my blast-propelled body. Doxer had meant to stun me with a quick blow to the chin before wrapping me up in the solid-light cord from his grappling hook. Which would have ended the fight. And probably would’ve ended me as well.

Even as I landed, catching myself on one foot, Doxer’s body was replaced by what looked like a statue made of dirt and rocks. Which could only mean one thing: he teleported. I remembered that shit. Whenever the bastard teleported, he left behind a brief earth, fire, air, or water copy of himself for a second or two. And if he teleported, that meant he was– The thought came to me in time to twist, catching the incoming blade on my staff just before it would have run me through.

Unfortunately, just as I caught the teleporting dick-head’s sword and tried to follow-up, something interrupted by slamming hard into my shoulder with enough force to knock me forward a step.

It was his earth-duplicate, the one that had been left behind when he teleported. Even as I swept my staff back that way, it fell apart. Yet the thing had lasted several seconds longer than the things had when we had fought before. Which either meant he had killed more of whatever gave him that power to begin with, enough to actually hold onto them longer. Or he was just better at using it. Either way, now I had to worry about the son of a bitch making copies that could actually get off an attack or two. Which was just… perfect. Because this whole fight wasn’t hard enough already.

Luckily, it took the earth-duplicate long enough to reach me that the only thing it had been able to do was hit me with a glancing blow before falling apart. And now, at least, I knew about the threat.

And yet, brief as the distraction was, Doxer took advantage of it. He’d already retracted the line on his grapple, and as my staff whiffed through the air where his earth-clone had been, he shoved his gauntlet-covered fist at me. I twisted desperately aside, but grapple blades still drew blood as they sliced along my stomach. An inch closer or a second slower and I would’ve been skewered.

Smiling at my hiss of pain, Doxer taunted, “So, you ready to fall down and beg for a little mercy?”

“Depends,” I retorted. “You ready to fight, or would you like to play some more cheap tricks?”

His response was a swift stab of his short-sword at my already-bleeding stomach. But I managed (barely) to bring my staff vertically into its path, smacking the blade out of the way. Before he could recover, I gave the high end of the staff a quick thrust up toward his chin. His head snapped back out of the way, however, leaving the staff to whiff up an inch from his face. A face which abruptly disappeared.

No, I realized a nanosecond later. He didn’t disappear. He just teleported again, leaving behind an air copy of himself that time. Reacting instantly, I hit the button to trigger the blast from the end of my staff that I had been trying to hit him with, while releasing my hold on the weapon itself. The force of the blast threw the staff backward over my shoulder, and I twisted around even as I was rewarded with the sound of a grunt. The flying staff had smacked into Doxer’s face as he had appeared behind me. It rebounded, and I quickly caught hold of it before hitting the button that would fill the air with sand. I wanted him blind, and preferably choking.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Even as the sand filled the air, the dark-skinned older boy gave a quick wave of his hand. As he did so, all of that sand that I’d propelled at him abruptly flew sideways. I felt my control of it yanked away as the boy exerted his own, apparently stronger power.

“You really think we wouldn’t know what your powers are and be ready for ‘em?” he taunted me before whipping that grapple-line at my face from the side. I narrowly managed to duck as his foot went right up into the spot where I had moved, nailing me in the stomach.

He tried to follow up with a forward stab from that short-sword, but at the last second I yanked my staff into the way. It was a bit awkward, and I felt pain from the strength of his blow reverberate back through my arm while nearly tearing the weapon from my hand. But I managed to hang onto it, and the blade itself was narrowly deflected.

Right. He was clearly stronger than I was, even if it wasn’t by as much of a margin as it had been before. He could control sand as well, taking away from my own control. So I couldn’t use that for an advantage. Which meant I was going to have to try something else.

With that in mind, I gave a quick feint with my right foot toward his side, drawing his attention that way. Then I spun in the opposite direction to build up a little momentum.  Gripping the staff in both hands, I brought it around into a swing at his side while the boy was still catching himself from going for the feint. As it got close, I triggered all the power that it had left, sending a massive blast of kinetic force right into the bastard.

At the last second, he saw it coming. Rather than teleport away, however, he took the blast of energy right into his… wait. The kinetic blast had nearly hit him. It should have hit him. But just before it would’ve, the energy had simply… disappeared, vanishing into nothing.

I’d just had time for the W part of the WTF to appear in my head before the boy made a sharp gesture. Suddenly, I was the one hit by a wave of kinetic force. It smacked into me like a runaway train, driving the air out of me as I was thrown backward and into the air like a ragdoll, coming down hard on the ground. That time I couldn’t quite catch myself, rolling in the dirt with a pained grunt. Oww. Okay, that hurt. That hurt a lot.

On the other side of the domed arena that we had set up, I caught a glimpse of Avalon and Trice. Like their fight before, it was obvious that Avalon had to work hard to keep up. There was a deep cut in her left arm from the boy’s pike, and her face was smeared with blood from another cut along her forehead. It obviously wasn’t that deep, but cuts along the head bled so much that seeing her face smeared that way immediately made my heart reflexively drop into my stomach.

This time, however, Avalon was giving about as good as she took. While she had those two cuts, Trice was bleeding from a blow to the nose that had already darkened the area under his left eye. Plus, I could see more blood dripping down one of the boy’s legs through a cut in his pants.

As I hit the ground, Avalon pulled free of Trice, driving the boy back with a quick kick at his face that made him fall back a pace. She followed up not by attacking, but by backing up two or three quick steps herself before sparing a quick glance toward me. She’d heard me fall and took the time to buy herself a little distance before checking on me. Even as her eyes met mine, I gave her a quick shake of my head. No, I thought. Focus on Trice. I’ve got this. I didn’t want her to try to intercede on my behalf. That would just get her caught between both of them. I could do this. If this was going to work, if she was going to have a chance against Trice, I had to do it.

“Oh,” Doxer’s voice was mocking. “Sorry, did I forget to mention that new trick? C’mon, I did say ‘ready for every power you’ve got’. You’d think even a silly little blonde like you could work that much out.”

His amusement was positively grating. “You wanna see it again? Throw some more of that staff energy at me. I’ll give you a better look.” As he spoke, the boy lazily came toward me, clearly stepping more heavily than he normally would just to taunt me with the sound of his approach. “Or you could just lay there and let me have a–”

Once again, I sent a cloud of sand from my staff up and toward his face. Again I was treated to his mocking laughter as he easily tossed the sand out of the way. But that wasn’t the point, the point was to distract him for a second. While he was distracted, my hand moved. With a grunt, I slapped it down on the ground, where a small, almost invisible circle of wood poked very slightly out of the dirt. As soon as my hand touched the wood, I used the Relukun’s power to throw myself into it.

Because we hadn’t just prepared this place with the spell to keep these guys trapped here. Gaia had also created an intricate network of wooden pipe-like structures underground that were connected via various small bits that stuck out, bits that were almost impossible to see unless you knew what you were looking for. They blended very well into the ground. But as a result, I could touch any of the exposed parts and zip through the underground wooden pipes in order to pop out anywhere else.

I used that right then, sending myself into the wood just as Doxer finished throwing the sand out of his face. His eyes had time to see that I wasn’t where he expected me to be, just as I popped up out of one of the exposed wooden bits a couple steps behind him. Before he could do more than curse, my staff slammed into his back as hard as I could swing it.

Yeah, it was still like hitting a brick wall. But that time, the wall gave a little bit. With a grunt, he stumbled forward, before his body was suddenly replaced by a figure made of water. The figure threw its hands up, spraying me in the face with a torrent like a firehose.

It blinded me momentarily, but I didn’t need to see to know what to do. This was an old trick by that point, and he really needed to learn some new ones. Spinning, I barely managed to knock Doxer’s incoming sword out of the way with one end of the staff before snapping the other end up toward his face. His head jerked out of the way, and I quickly followed up by triggering another kinetic-blast from the end of my weapon. That time, however, I didn’t direct it at the boy himself. Instead, I used the blast to launch myself up and forward, providing momentum and force as my feet lashed out to slam into his chest.

The essentially rocket-propelled kick staggered the bastard, making him stumble back. Before I could press the advantage, however, the energy coil from his grapple shot out to wrap around my legs. A second later, my back screamed out in pain as I was slammed into the ground so hard I swore I could feel bones crack. Far worse than that pain, however, was what I felt as the energy-coil crushed one of my legs. The femur  in my right leg snapped, sending a wave of blinding agony through me.

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move, especially my leg. But move I did. Rolling to the side, I narrowly avoided the sword that Doxer drove into the ground where I had just been. He was mad now, not playing anymore. Standing over me, he retracted the grapple before launching it down. It shot out, straight down at my stomach. But I managed to ignore the pain long enough to jerk my staff up and into the way, catching the grapple against the end of it just before the thing could skewer me.

“Okay, bitch,” Doxer panted a little bit. His foot came down on my stomach hard enough to drive the air out of me, and he raised his sword. “No more tricks. No more games. You’re done.”

“You,” I retorted despite the pain spread throughout… pretty much my entire body, “should really learn…” I coughed, spitting blood. “… to put your toys away.”

He blinked once, sword held high above me even as I brought my staff back up. The end was pointed at his face. And yet… it wasn’t alone. When I had smacked the grapple out of the way, it had gotten tangled up with my staff, until the grapple sat haphazardly on the end of it, almost like a three-pronged blade that had been lazily and poorly fastened to it.

“Wh–” the boy managed to get out before I triggered the last of the charge the staff had. The kinetic blast burst out of the end, shooting the grapple up and forward… straight through the bastard’s throat.

Doxer had time to look surprised, staggering back as his own weapon nearly took his head off. Blood poured from his throat as he clutched at the grapple, trying to tear it free even as he made a  terrible sound that would haunt me forever.

But I was on my feet. Well, on one foot. Ignoring the pain in my other leg, I brought my staff up and around as hard as I could. It slammed into the back of the grapple just as the boy was trying to yank it free of his throat. The force of that blow sent the thing forward, knocking it from his already-limp hands as the blades tore the rest of the way through his already horrifically injured throat.

He fell. Hands dropping to his sides, the boy collapsed, his head barely still attached. He was on the ground, blood pooling all around him as the light left his eyes.

In the background, I heard a scream from Trice. But I was already collapsing. Pain filled my body, and I couldn’t stand any longer. My staff fell from limp fingers to roll away along the ground.

But it was pain that was abruptly replaced by the greatest, most unbelievable pleasure I had ever felt, as the glow of my golden aura flooded the surrounding area, brighter than I had ever seen it. And in the end, the glow and the pleasure only reinforced one thing, one thought that rose above all others. 

Doxer… was… dead.  

Most Dangerous Game 22-01

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“I’m sorry,” I announced later, “Our new hunt is gonna take place where, exactly?”

Yeah, it was time for the hunt. Which meant that the whole team was here. Not just the team, but Deveron as well, and Professor Dare. Which meant that, since finding out that Seosten couldn’t possess hybrids had cleared Vanessa and Tristan, there was about a ninety percent certainty that whoever that Seosten had possessed was actually in this room right now. Someone I trusted. It had to be someone I trusted, and there weren’t many candidates other than these people.

I just had to keep it together, knowing that one of the people around me was most likely plotting the murder of Avalon and enslavement of me and everyone I cared about. Right, no problem.

“Suarilia,” Professor Dare repeated, standing there with her hands behind her back in the portal room of the Pathmaker building. “It’s a small outpost world that was set–”

Columbus interrupted. “Okay, wait. Outpost world? As in, ‘not Earth’? You’re sending us to a different world for this hunt? I mean…” He gestured slightly. “Yeah, sure, living up to my namesake and all. But still.”

“Please,” I urged him, “don’t live up to your namesake. We’ve got enough evil people to deal with.”

Clearing her throat while giving us both a look, Sands asked, “Suarilia, I know that name. Wasn’t that the place where that outpost got wiped out by the Hangman a couple years ago?”

Professor Dare gave a slight nod. “Yes. The outpost was manned by roughly twenty heretics and their assorted families, until they were attacked by a single Hangman. There were no survivors.”  

If he had been surprised before, now Columbus’s eyes widened even more. “Wait, what? You mean one Hangman killed… killed twenty Heretics? As in full Heretics, not just students?”

“Correct, Mr. Porter,” Dare confirmed. “It killed twenty full Heretics and their families, who were no slouches of their own. Hangmen,” she added flatly while frowning, “are no laughing matter.”

“But…”  Beside me, Sean swallowed hard, continuing. “You’re not sending us out to find the Hangman, right? I mean, yeah, we’re a pretty badass team, and I know Gaia wants to challenge us and all, but…” He trailed off, looking pale even as Vulcan nudged against him reassuringly.

It was Deveron who spoke up. “The Hangman’s dead already, don’t worry.” His face was serious as he added, “They sent enough Heretics to put the thing in the ground four or five times over. Hunted it right to the edge of the world and finished the damn thing off. Pericles was part of it.”

Scout leaned over to whisper in her sister’s ear then, and Sands spoke up for her after nodding. “Uh, yeah, that’s a good point. Scout wants to know what we’re doing if there’s no more outpost and the thing that wiped it out is already dead. Did they bring the outpost back or something?”

Sands, Scout, Columbus, Sean, Deveron, and Professor Dare. Any of them could have been possessed by the Seosten. Any of them could actually be a threat. The thought was… well, it was really, really depressing. We had to get that damn choker away from Pace so that we could identify who was possessed and be done with this whole stupid paranoia bullshit.

Yeah, the choker. Unfortunately, Sands had heard the exact same thing I had from Namid. Which meant that there was no way for me to say that we should keep it secret from the others without, at the very least, drastically raising her suspicions if she was the one who was possessed. I’d had no way to suggest keeping quiet about it, so now the whole team knew what the choker could supposedly do. They’d all acted excited about the possibility, of course. And yet, there were good odds that, even if we did get to Pace, one of them was going to try to get rid of the thing before we could actually use it.

Oh well, we were just going to have to deal with that when the time came. I’d keep my eyes open and watch for any of them trying to make a move for it.

It did raise another question though. Why? We knew that Pace, Doxer, and Trice were working with the people who were trying to kill Avalon. And now we knew that at least a couple of those people were actually Seosten. So why would the Seosten allow Pace to walk around with some kind of magical artifact that allowed her to identify when they were possessing someone? How had that come about and why were they letting it continue in the first place?

It was just one of a few dozen questions I wanted to ask the crazy girl when the time came.

Meanwhile, Dare was explaining. “No, the outpost has not been resettled yet. But, we have been looking into it. And in the time the place was…” She paused, wincing a little before settling on, “abandoned, a few smaller threats have settled into the remains. They aren’t anywhere near the level of danger that the Hangman was, but they are still a potential problem. A problem that needs to be dealt with. Originally, the Committee was going to send a couple of regular hoplites in, but, well, they were convinced to allow this to be one of our normal training exercises instead.”

Normal, right. Because any of this ever turned out to be normal. Still, something else made me blink and raise a hand. “Uh, hoplites? You mean like the old Greek soldier guys with the spears?”

It was Deveron who explained. “You know how Runners are basically detectives or investigators? Hoplites are… uh, basically foot soldier-level Heretics. Usually, their recent graduates who haven’t really made a big name for themselves yet. They tend to get deployed onto new worlds that need a heavy Heretic presence to maintain our foothold in, but aren’t quite dangerous enough to warrant one of the more powerful people. Numbers, they’re basically about numbers. Plus,” he added thoughtfully, “It’s a way of letting younger, newer Heretics gain more power faster.”

I didn’t miss the fact that it also put the more easily expendable people out on the front lines. But he wasn’t wrong either. It was a good way of letting them gain power. Plus, he had said that they were used on worlds that didn’t actually need the more experienced Heretics. So I supposed there were both good and bad things about the system. Maybe I should wait on the whole judging thing.  

“Yes,” Dare was saying, “as I said, the Committee was convinced to allow students to investigate and handle the situation. Which means that you’ll have the opportunity to see an Outpost world.”

“Plus,” Sands put in, “going to a whole new world should make it harder for those assholes to come after Avalon again. Or at least make it easier to track them down if they do.”

Yeah, I thought to myself without speaking, but are you happy about that because it means your teammate is safer, or upset because it makes your job of trying to kill her that much harder?

Yup, I was gonna go ahead and make a firm declaration. Paranoia sucked. It really, really sucked.

******

As it turned out, Suarilia, or at least the part that the former Crossroads outpost had been located at, was dull and drab. The sky was gray, with wispy, sickly yellow clouds, and the single sun was a slightly blueish color that cast a tint over everything. Meanwhile, the soil was brownish-green, and the local equivalent of grass (which basically had a thin stalk similar to grass, only with a wider, circular top about a half inch across that made it more like clover) was rather bright orange. Which stood out pretty well against the otherwise gray landscape, but there wasn’t more than a few patches of the stuff here and there. Mostly it was the dull, off-green dirt.

The outpost itself, which Dare had informed us had been called Chantli, after the Aztec word for house, was almost like one of those old forts from the classic American West. Basically, the whole place was surrounded by ten foot tall metal walls that were about a foot thick. The walls were arranged in an octagon formation, with a guard tower at each of the eight corners that rose another ten feet higher. Meanwhile, there were about a dozen more buildings within the enclosure of the walls. One was placed directly in the center of the area and was obviously some kind of command post, while the one next to it looked like an infirmary of some kind. A third building closer to the entrance looked like an armory and supply center. And at the opposite side of the fort, furthest from the entrance, there was a place that had obviously been a combination cafeteria and entertainment lounge for people to relax and try not to go crazy out here.

Finally, the remaining eight buildings were set up with four near the western side of the fort and four near the eastern side. They were taller than the other structures, and were apparently living quarters for the twenty Heretics and their families that had been here. Apartments, basically.

Twenty Heretics, all of them wiped out by a single Hangman. That would have been basically one fifth of my entire class. Almost four entire teams. Basically everyone I even semi-regularly interacted with, all murdered by a single Hangman. That was… that… yeah, maybe that explained why we could have a graduating class of a hundred or so Heretics each year without completely overrunning everything. These outposts were dangerous places, and considering how many worlds were probably out there… yeah, I could see now why, even with a much longer general lifespan, they still needed to recruit and train as many students as they did.

Especially since Crossroads considered everything not-human to be a threat. Exactly how many worlds had we invaded? How many worlds were out there where the Alters who lived on it saw us the same way that we saw those alien monsters in all those sci-fi invasion movies? Or worse, how many worlds saw us as more like demons, who came from another dimension to destroy and kill everyone they loved? How many families, cities, entire civilizations had we destroyed?

“Uh, Flick?” Sean interrupted my musing as the six of us stood in the middle of the outpost grounds. “You alright over there? You look kind of… annoyed, I guess?”

“What’s wrong?” Deveron’s voice came through the communication button from where he and Dare had set up, close enough to intervene if anything happened. “Did you see something, or–”

“Down, boy,” I tried teasing to make him calm down. “I was just thinking about something else. Never mind, it’s okay.” Shaking it off, I focused. “So what are we looking for here?”

Before anyone could answer, Vulcan whined and trotted away from us. He was heading for the cafeteria. With a collective shrug, the rest of us followed after while keeping a wary eye out for the Strangers that had apparently taken up residence around this place. Or any other… interruptions.

In the cafeteria, which basically looked like a small cafe with an attached entertainment room, I immediately caught the scent of what smelled like burnt meat. A closer inspection of the corner revealed a pile of dark blue, circular excrement that had what I swore was tiny sparks dancing through it. The sparks came and went, almost like the poop itself was an almost-dead sparkler.

Sands groaned at the sight of the stuff, putting a hand to her head. “Oh, great, these things.”

“Hey, it could be worse,” Sean pointed out. “At least the assholes can’t fly.”

Avalon’s head shook as she sighed. “No, but they jump pretty well.”

Raising a hand to wave around, I gestured. “Anyone wanna help those of us who are still lost?”

Sands explained. “The uh, crap’s from something called a spinnevurr. Basically, think of a furry spider about as big as a Great Dane that can spin or spit webs that it can spontaneously ignite into flames any time it wants to. Oh, and they’re immune to any kind of fire or heat damage. Plus, they always know when one of their own kind is in trouble, even from far away. And… what else?” She looked curiously toward her sister, Avalon, and Sean to see if they added anything.

“Like Avalon said, they jump really far, really fast,” Sean put in. “Like, from one end of a basketball court to the other in one leap. And they like to throw out a lot of webs when they do. Webs that pretty much immediately catch fire and stick to whatever they’re attacking.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Right, so all the fun in the world, then. Marvelous.” Looking toward Columbus, I added, “Sounds like we’re dealing with Spider-Man and the Human Torch’s mutant love-child. Or children, whatever.”  

He nodded, making a face. “Sounds like a bad fanfic. So let’s find the things and wipe them out.”

We kept looking, finding more signs of the fire-spiders (mostly in the form of literal flaming poop), but none of the actual creatures themselves. However, our search eventually led to a hole in the south-eastern wall, near the tower there. The hole itself had obviously been burned through the metal, and there were several pieces of dark green, sticky webbing that smelled like kerosene.

“Guess this is where they came in and out,” Avalon murmured thoughtfully. She crouched near one of the bits of flammable webbing, careful not to touch it. “And they went that way.” Raising a hand, she pointed off through the drab gray landscape, where we could see a trail of the stuff.  

“Not just that way,” Sands put in, nodding toward Scout, who was pointing off in a different direction. “There’s stuff over there too.”

“And there,” Sean added with a grimace as he gestured yet a third way. “So we’ve got three different groups.”

“Attack one at a time?” Columbus asked, his hand moving to gently pat Vulcan on the head.

Avalon spoke up then. “No. We need to find these things and get rid of them, as efficiently as possible.” Her eyes glanced to me then as she explained, “It’s like Mason said, all spinnevurrs in a given… hive, tribe, group, whatever, are in constant contact with each other. Some kind of telepathic link. Or maybe it’s just empathic. The point is, they know when one of their own kind is in trouble, and they come running. Which means if we hit one group of them, the rest’ll come crawling out of the woodwork. And they’ll know exactly how to ambush us.”

“So we split up,” I murmured. “Two people for each group. Watch them, see what’s going on and make sure it’s safe to attack. Then we all jump them at the same time.”

There was a bit of discussion (and some argument) over the issue of splitting up. But in the end, it was the best way to handle the situation. We had to hit all the fire-spiders at the same time.

To that end, we split into partners. The twins went together, as did the boys. Which left Avalon and me to work our way along the first path that we had found. Together, the two of us followed the signs of the spinnevurrs over the dull brownish-green ground with patches of bright orange clover-grass.  Out here, I could also see what looked like the local equivalent of trees. They were really tall (for Earth standards, still tiny as far as Eden’s Garden was concerned), standing about forty feet high. Instead of a single solid trunk, they had what looked like dozens of thin vines all wrapped around each other tightly, forming a sort-of rope-like trunk. More vine-structures emerged at various heights like branches, with bright purple bits sticking out of them that were shaped like triangles. They looked like the ‘tree’s’ version of leaves, except several times thicker. Maybe a combination of leaves and fruit. I wasn’t sure.

Either way, we followed the path while keeping in contact with the rest of the team as well as Dare and Deveron. Gradually, the two of us worked our way to the top of a slight hill. As soon as we were up there, Avalon yanked me down while ducking herself.

“There,” she announced, pointing to a spot in a small field below. I could see four of the things there. Sure enough, they looked like fuzzy tarantulas that happened to be as big as Vulcan. They were an eclectic assortment of color combinations. One was bright orange with violet stripes along its back. Another one, the largest, was neon blue with red polka dots. Meanwhile, the third and forth were basically mirror images of each other. One was lime green and had black diagonal stripes going down both sides, while the other was black with lime green stripes.

Using the communication badge, I contacted the others. “We’ve got ours,” I murmured. “Four right below us.”

It didn’t take long for the rest of the team to report that they’d found their own targets. Together, we waited until everyone had announced that they were ready. Finally, Avalon counted down so that we could all hit them simultaneously.

Then, it was time. Avalon announced, “Go,” and we were moving. She simply leapt off the hill, while I used a burst from my staff to throw myself into the air in order to come down on the spider-things from above.

And yet… in the end, it didn’t matter. As we both landed, ready to deal with the spiders, there was a sudden gunshot. No, four gunshots. Instantly, all four of the spinnevurrs simply… disintegrated

Avalon and I both spun toward the source of the gunshots, and found ourselves staring at two figures.

“Well,” Trice announced, flipping the rifle he was holding around until it transformed back into the pike that I had already seen. “That was a fun appetizer. How about the main course?” His chin lifted. “Of course, I’ll feel worse about putting down the spiders than you, you murdering cunt.”

Doxer, beside him, added, “Oh, and don’t worry about calling in or anything.” He tossed a small silver orb up and down once. “You won’t get through the jamming. But don’t worry, we already set up some pre-recorded messages to go off so they’ll think everything’s fine. As far as everyone else is concerned, you guys are just fighting the spinnevurrs, just like them.”

“Honestly,” he added, clearly far more amused by this whole situation than Trice was. Torv’s brother was just pissed off and lashing out with that hate and anger. Doxer was actually having fun. “You guys made this whole thing too easy. You think it’s hard for us to get to another world with you? With our contact? Pfft.”

“You’re here,” I spoke dully, feeling Avalon tense beside me. “You actually came all the way out here.”     

“Aww, don’t tell us you’re surprised,” the dark-skinned boy mocked us with a smirk. “We RSVP’d and everything.”

“Surprised?” I echoed, slowly turning my gaze to look at the girl beside me. “Were you surprised?”

Without glancing my way, Avalon kept her eyes leveled evenly at Trice. Her words were flat. “No.”

Shrugging, I looked back to the older boys. “See, she wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t surprised. But there was…” Slowly, I tapped my finger against my head while speaking thoughtfully. “… someone, there was someone who was about to be surprised. Now who was–” Abruptly, I stopped. “Oh, right. You. You were the ones who were about to be surprised. Cantaloupe.”

“Cantaloupe?” Doxer started to snort. “What the fuck kind of last word is that supposed to–”   

And yet, as I said the word, a pale-blue, semi-translucent wall of energy rose up all around us, closing into a dome about a hundred feet across, with a ceiling that was twenty feet up. The result of a spell, a spell that had been prepared by Wyatt several hours earlier, long before any of us had come here.

“The hell?” Doxer muttered aloud while reaching out. As his hand touched the shield, there was a zap of energy and he stumbled back with a curse. His gaze snapped to his partner before he cursed again, adding, “Those two didn’t make this shit. It’s gonna take some time to get through.”

Tilting my head thoughtfully, I cut in. “You guys were right about one thing. This is a trap. Just not exactly the kind you thought it was.”

Because the truth was, acting surprised about where we were going earlier had been just that: an act. I knew. Gaia, Wyatt, Avalon, and I had planned it, had planned for all of this. Gaia sent us to this separate world to ensure that there was no easy way for any innocent civilians to get caught in the middle, no hostages for them to take. Nothing to distract from what was about to happen.  Wyatt had set up the shield spell ahead of time to make sure we wouldn’t be interrupted. And we made sure to separate from the rest of the team to draw in our would-be ambushers, as well as making sure that whoever the Seosten spy was, they wouldn’t see what was going on. Not only would the magical shield trap them here so they couldn’t run away, but it would also ensure that any listening devices or other ways of keeping in touch with their contact wouldn’t be able to give any kind of warning. They were cut off entirely from outside assistance.

“No one leaves,” Avalon drew their attention back to her. “No one comes in. It’s just you and us.”

“You and us, huh?” Trice snorted. He cracked his neck by turning his head from one side and then to the other. “Sounds like you’re finally gonna get what’s coming to you, bitch.”

Doxer’s head shook. “Nah, you know what it sounds like to me?” He winked. “Two helpless little girls. Sounds like a party.”  

“You think we’re helpless?” My staff slid down in my grip a bit, and I snapped it out to the side.

“Come find out.”

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Interlude 21 – Roxa

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For as long as she could remember, Roxanne ‘Roxa’ Pittman had been accustomed to eyes following her whenever she entered a room. As a child, she had been judged by the other orphans. With her pretty blonde hair and bright blue eyes, there had been plenty of others in the foster system who saw her as a threat to their own ability to be adopted. And of course, there were the parents themselves, people who were basically auditioning kids to be part of their family. Everything she said, everything she did, everything she was had constantly been judged.

Once she’d run away from her last foster family at the age of nine (after stabbing the abusive father with a knife when he tried to touch her), people had started watching Roxa for a variety of other reasons. She was a blonde girl out on the street. Some people watched her for… less than savory reasons, while others simply wanted to help. But their way of ‘helping’ was usually to call the cops. And the police would just take her back to the system that she’d already given up on.

Then there were the people who watched her not for either of those reasons, but because they saw a thief, a ratty, dirty girl out on the streets who stole from them. They saw her as something less than human because she had no roof over her head, no family to live with, no school to go to. They saw her as something to kick out of their stores, away from their paying customers and out from under their roofs. They watched her, judged her, and wanted to make her disappear.

The point was that throughout every ‘phase’ of her life, Roxa had been watched and judged by people who didn’t actually know her. Whether they thought she was a criminal, a potential daughter, a little thug who belonged in prison, or a clueless Silverstone in the case of her recent Heretic classmates, everyone had their opinion based on little more than looking at her.

And now… well, now she was still being watched and judged for several reasons. Some of them just as familiar as they had always been, while others were… somewhat new.

The door of the bar that Roxa stepped into had barely closed behind her when a massive form stepped into her path. Her head tilted up to find a big black guy, a few inches over six feet tall and built like a truck, standing there. He eyed her before rumbling, “Little young, aren’t ya?”  

“It’s my birthday,” she replied, hand smoothly tugging the driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. She held it up for the man to see the date, which proudly proclaimed her to be twenty-one as of that morning. It was a lie, of course. Well, mostly. Her birthday was that day, but she definitely hadn’t turned twenty-one. The fake ID was a few years off. She was actually eighteen.

“Well, happy birthday to you,” the bouncer announced, handing the ID back with a shrug. “But the dog can’t come in.” He jabbed a finger past Roxa, to the animal that entered alongside her.  

Roxa’s gaze followed his, and she glanced down to what looked, for the moment, like a rather large doberman. “Gidget,” she spoke easily, waiting for her hologram-covered robotic cougar to look up at her. “Wait outside, girl.” Gesturing back to the door, she repeated, “Outside.”

Gidget made a noise of disagreement, but turned and plodded back out the door before parking herself next to the entrance.

The bouncer looked like he was going to say something else about it, but in the end, he just grunted and stepped aside to let the girl walk past.

In the background, Roxa’s werewolf hearing picked up the mutter of a man describing what he’d like to do for her birthday. She ignored it, along with the chortles of his companions at the table.

Her attention, instead, was focused on the other end of the bar, where two pool tables were set up. Specifically, on the handful of men whose eyes had been on her since she entered. Like the others in the bar, they were judging her. But their judgment was very… very different.

The bar was busy, yet only those three were at the pool tables. Two-thirds of the bar was taken up by a couple dozen steadily-drinking customers, while the other third was taken up by these three men and the two pool tables. They used one, while their jackets lay over the other. None of the other patrons challenged that fact, or even approached. They knew better.

The pool-playing men’s eyes stayed on her as she approached, gazes never wavering. Three of them, all standing there with pool cues in hand as their lips tightened. Their senses were obviously yelling at them as much as Roxa’s had been shouting its warning in her ear from the moment she’d seen them.

One of the werewolves, a dark-skinned man with the tattoo of a bison on his exposed bicep half-muttered and half-snarled as she drew near enough, “You come in here to start shit, little baby Heretic, you might bite off more than you can chew. Maybe a hell of a lot more.”

“Give it another sniff, Vince,” one of the other men cut in. “She ain’t just a Heretic. Not unless they’ve been getting damn sight more accommodating than they used to be.” He gave her a long look then, eyebrows raised. “Close my eyes and use my nose, I smell a wolf. Open my eyes and ignore my nose, I see a Heretic. So which are ya really, kid? Heretic or wolf?”

For a moment, Roxa just looked at the man. He had red hair that had been fashioned into a simple crew cut, and was very slightly balding in the front. If he was human, she would have put his age at around forty-five. But for a werewolf, she had no idea. They aged slower than humans, that much she knew. But she wasn’t good enough to even make a wild guess.

Finally, as the man’s two companion (the black guy named Vince and another man with long dirty blond hair) pushed away from the pool table with hard looks, she responded. “Last time I checked, ignoring either your nose or your eyes was a bad idea. Why not listen to both of them?”

“A werewolf-Heretic,” the red-haired man muttered, head shaking slowly. “Now I’ve seen everything. Most times one of your kind get turned, his ‘friends’ make it a special a point to get rid of him. Or her. So why’re you special? And the point was, you here as what I can see, or here as what I can smell? Werewolf or Heretic, which one just walked into my favorite bar?”

“I’m not here to start a fight,” Roxa replied simply. “Does it really matter what I am beyond that? I’m just here to ask for information. Information that I can pay for.” From her pocket, she produced a roll of fifty dollar bills, counting off four of them before putting them on the pool table. “For taking the time to talk to me. The rest of it if you answer my questions.”

The blond man, the only one who hadn’t spoken yet, snatched the money off the table and passed three of the four bills over to his obvious leader. “What do ya wanna know? Maybe then we decide if we wanna talk, or just take the population of Heretic-Wolves back down to zero.”

“A man named Lemuel.” Roxa watched each of their reactions closely. “I’m looking for him.”

The red-haired leader gave an obvious snarl. “You looking to join up with that bastard, pup, and we’ll have more problems than that wad o’bills you’ve got there can get your ass out of. His kind’s less welcome here than yours is. So if he’s the one you’re looking for, go on and piss off.”

Raising a single shoulder in a shrug, Roxa continued to meet the man’s gaze while casually replying, “I’m not looking to join him. I’m looking to kill him.”

That drew a laugh from the blond man, who ran a hand back through his long hair and gave her a mocking smirk. “Got news for you, pup, Lemuel’s pack’ll tear you down to the bones before you get within twenty feet of the old prick. You might think you’re hot shit cuz you’ve got werewolf mixed in with Heretic, but you ain’t nothing but a bug on a windshield to someone like Lemuel.”

“That’s enough, Silas,” the red-haired leader informed his subordinate before looking back to Roxa. “But he ain’t wrong. You go after Lemuel, his pack’ll take you apart. And if you’re looking for him, you came to the wrong bar. Wrong neighborhood. Wrong zip code. His kind ain’t welcome here. This is my territory, and I don’t like people like that fucking up the peace and quiet. Wolves like Lemuel and his kind, they draw attention. Attention we’d rather avoid.”    

Roxa’s head turned slightly, and she sniffed twice. Two more–no, three more werewolves had entered the room. She could smell one standing by the entrance that she had come in, while two others stood by the hall that led to the restroom and the emergency exit. Clearly, all three had been summoned as backup in case she started something. Six werewolves, all watching her every move, several of them itching for any excuse to put her down.

“I dunno, Tomas,” the black guy, Vince, remarked. “She might make a good recruit, if you talk her out of this suicide plan. Heretic-wolf on our side? Could add a lot of muscle to the pack.”

Before the leader, Tomas, could respond to that, Roxa shook her head. “Not interested. Like I said, I’m here for information. I just have one question. And that question is…” Holding up the wad of bills so that every wolf in the crowded room could see it, she finished, “Which one of you is working with Lemuel to kill Tomas and take over so that he can absorb your pack into his?”

Well, if she wanted to get their attention, Roxa sure succeeded then. Silas took a quick step forward. His hand caught her arm, while his other hand took her opposite shoulder. In an instant, Roxa was shoved hard up against the nearby wall with enough force to rattle it. “The fuck did you just say?” he snarled, showing teeth that went from human to sharp canine for a moment.

In the background, she saw a few of the patrons looking over at the disturbance. One stood up and made as though to approach, but the bouncer stopped him. Leaning closer to her would-be rescuer, he whispered something that was too quiet even for her hearing to pick up from across the bar.

The man who had stood up gave Roxa one more look, then made for the door. Around him, most of the other customers did the same. None looked at her, or so much as glanced in that direction. They all left, followed eventually by the bouncer himself. In the end, even the bartender made himself scarce through a door labeled as being for the staff.

Another wolf had entered in the interim. Seven of them. Seven wolves all standing at various parts of the room, and each of them staring at Roxa. One of whom still held her pressed against the wall, the sharp claws of his fingers digging painfully into her skin.
“I think,” Tomas started while moving behind Silas to lay a hand on the man’s shoulder, “that you should leave. Questioning my pack’s loyalty, not your best move, pup. But you walk out now without looking back, and I’ll let you go.” He paused, amending, “We will all let you go.”

Instead, Roxa watched the eyes of the man holding her. The words she spoke, however, were for Tomas. “I wasn’t questioning the loyalty of your pack. Only one of them. The one that’s been talking to Lemuel for the past week, making plans to kill you. Like I said, he kills you, takes over the pack, and Lemuel absorbs them into his own. He gets your territory, your people, and all it costs him are whatever it took to buy off whichever one of these guys is your personal Judas.”

Over the sound of the chorus of growls that came from every werewolf in the room, Tomas carefully, yet dangerously spoke. “Is that what I get for giving you a chance to leave? You’re still trying to make my people doubt each other? You the one working with Lemuel? That the plan? You come in, try to make us all start snapping at each other and then he picks up the pieces?”

Shifting as she was held against that wall, Roxa quietly asked, “Can I say one more thing?”

“Kid,” Tomas replied, “deep as the hole that you keep digging yourself into is, my suggestion is that you stop talking. But if you insist on going on with that shovel, I ain’t gonna stop you. Yet.”

Her head bowed in a nod. “Like I said. I just need to say one more thing. Namy, you done?”

While the wolves were trying to work out what that meant, the pixie in question flew straight down from the overhead light where she had been perched. “Yup! Nice distraction, Roxa.” She hovered down beside the blonde girl’s head, announcing, “We’re a badass, bitchin’ team.”

The other nearest wolf, Vince, grabbed for the pixie. But Roxa quickly slipped free of Silas’s grip. Twisting and ducking under his arm, she put herself between the black wolf and her diminutive partner, raising a hand to stop him. “Wait,” she snapped.

Her attention turned to Tomas. “My friend here did one thing while I was making sure that you called all these guys in to deal with me. She hacked their phones with this.” Holding her hand out, she waited for Namythiet to produce what looked like a simple red orb about the size of a tennis ball. The pixie simply pulled it out of the vastly smaller pouch at her waist, a simple feat for the race that had invented the extradimensional storage spaces that so many Heretics used to store things like their weapons.

Under the watchful, distrustful stares of seven werewolves, Roxa turned the orb over. There was a single button on the side. “See, Namythiet’s a Hephaestetical pixie. In other words, she really likes technology. And she’s really, really good with it. So like I said, she hacked their phones. And this thing,” she continued while tossing the orb up and then catching it. “Is gonna play back a very… special conversation that one of your people had on their phone a few minutes before I walked in here. You hear that conversation, then we’ll see whether I’m still your biggest problem.”

Tomas gave her a long, silent look for a moment before flatly insisting, “I trust my people.”

In response, Roxa’s thumb pressed the button on the orb. As she did, there was an audible click. Silas’s hand lashed out to smack the ball out of her hand, sending it across the room while the blond man himself backhanded her across the face with his other hand.

Yet even as Roxa hit the wall once more, with the other wolves lunging to get their piece of her, a voice filled the room from the orb, which had rolled under the nearby pool table.

“Tonight,” Lemuel’s voice insisted with obvious annoyance. “We’re not waiting around anymore. Get it done, or the deal’s off. You really think you can hold that pack together without my help? No more excuses. No more delays. Kill Tomas tonight, or he won’t be the one you have to worry about. Got it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” a now-familiar voice replied. “I got it. He’ll be dead by morning, you have my word. Just stick to your side of the deal. I don’t wanna be fucked over when this is done.”

The recording stopped, and every eye in the room turned toward the source of that familiar voice.

“Vince,” Tomas spoke in a voice that was far more dangerous than any tone he had used with Roxa. “You wanna explain that one?”

The black werewolf’s head shook rapidly. “It’s a trick. It’s a trap. It’s a–” Abruptly, he spun. His hand lashed out, and Roxa barely had time to see a knife with a silver blade pop into his hand before it tore into Silas’s throat. He gave the suddenly bleeding man a hard kick straight into Tomas before spinning back to sprint straight for the door that the bartender had gone through.

The rest of the wolves were caught flat-footed, shocked by their packmate’s sudden betrayal. They were so surprised, that Vince was able to make it through the staff door before anyone else moved.

Anyone, that was, except for Roxa. She was already on the fleeing werewolf’s tail, calling back, “Help him, Namy!”

Lunging up and over the bar, she went through the still-swinging door in time to see Vince crashing through another one at the far end that led out into the alley behind the bar.

In the alley, Vince was already yanking a motorcycle around that had been resting against the wall there. He glanced over his shoulder, gave her a dark glare, and then took off with a squeal of tires and the loud roar of the bike’s engine.

For most werewolves, that would have been the end of it. They were fast in human form, but not as fast as a motorcycle. And changing into wolf-form would’ve taken far too long, even for those who were very good at it.

But Roxa wasn’t most werewolves. She was a werewolf-Heretic. And the very first power, aside from the peridle’s healing ability, that she had absorbed during her time at Crossroads had been enhanced speed. It didn’t let her break the sound barrier, or even move as fast as a good car could get up to. But she could reach speeds approaching seventy miles per hour. And she put that speed to work catching up with the man on the motorcycle.

Whistling sharply, she sprinted after the fleeing figure. Vince hit the end of the street and took a sharp left, tires screaming in protest.  

Roxa, meanwhile, pivoted and ran straight for the nearest building. Summoning all the strength that she could, the girl leapt high enough to barely catch hold of the bottom of the fire escape. With a grunt, she hauled herself up and onto the metal railing there. Instead of continuing to climb that way, however, the blonde girl threw herself off the fire escape. Her feet landed on the edge of a windowsill further up, and she jumped from there back to the metal railing on the next landing up.

She continued that way, jumping from window to fire escape to climb much faster than simply using the stairs. With the shortcut combined with her own enhanced speed, the girl was on the roof of the building within a handful of seconds.

Hitting the roof, she took off to the other side, arriving just in time to see Vince far below as the man completed his turn around the corner and began racing away, perpendicular to the way he had been going before.

Roxa didn’t hesitate. Still sprinting, feet kicking up small pebbles from the roof, she leapt out into the open air. Her feet windmilled a few times as she soared across the width of the entire street, before landing on the roof of the building on the opposite side. She stumbled slightly, but caught herself, glanced down at the motorcycle on the street below, and kept running.

Still, despite her enhanced speed and elevated position, Vince was already pulling away. The motorcycle wasn’t stopped by traffic, able to weave in and out as needed, and could even leap onto the sidewalk where it needed to. Other cars, or even pedestrians, weren’t an issue. He was slowly, but steadily, pulling away.

But Roxa wouldn’t let that happen. Taking three more steps to the edge of the last building, she leapt off while giving another sharp whistle. Rather than jumping toward the next roof, she leapt down toward the fleeing motorcycle.

As she plummeted, Roxa saw a small metal figure racing along the road far below. An instant later, Gidget threw herself up, transforming in mid-air. The robot cougar shifted into her hoverboard form, flying straight up at an angle that let her intercept the blonde girl in mid-fall.

Catching herself on the board, Roxa angled to continue the chase. The board streaked down, pulling up a bare foot from the pavement before leveling out.

Now the motorcycle wasn’t nearly as much of an advantage. And despite the time that it had taken for her to join up with Gidget, Roxa had managed to stop Vince from gaining an insurmountable lead. He was only at the other end of the block when she got her board under control. And that distance was about to shrink rapidly.

A car was coming straight for her, horn blaring. Roxa simply angled her board up, flying slightly higher to go up and over. On the far side of the car, which was already screeching to a stop, she kept going without even glancing back.

Another car, weave to the right. Doing so put her right up against a moving truck, so she angled the board to ride along the side of it, even as Gidget put out straps to hold Roxa’s feet to the board so that she could fly along basically sideways without falling off.  

More cars, coming and going. None presented much of an obstacle for the combination of Gidget’s maneuverability and Roxa’s own reflexes. She flew around, over, and in the case of one particular semi-truck, under the vehicles without taking her eyes off of her quarry.

Through it all, she had no idea what the normal humans were seeing while this was going on. A particularly skilled skateboarder? What the hell was the Bystander Effect showing them?

She had no idea, and no time to worry about it. Angling  around another truck and onto a side street, Roxa barely managed to see the massive, gray-furred figure before it lunged at her. The thing was bigger than a normal human, It looked like what a normal human would call a sasquatch, an enormous furry form with long arms, thick fur, and a combination of nasty claws and teeth. It was clearly a werewolf in his half-wolf, half-man form.

Just as clearly, he had been waiting for Roxa. It wasn’t Vince. Even the fastest-changing werewolf wouldn’t have been able to switch that quickly from the time that she had lost sight of him. This was a different wolf.

Kicking off the board as the furry, overly-muscled figure lunged at her, Roxa threw herself into the air. She sailed over her attacker’s head, while Gidget flew under his outstretched arms.

Both landed on the other side of him. Roxa caught herself on her feet, while Gidget shifted into her cougar form.

The motorcycle had stopped, idling just down the street while Vince himself stepped off and shoved it aside. The man turned, glaring back at Roxa.

Meanwhile, the wolf-man was already facing her. Towering over the blonde, he showed his teeth and gave a chuckle. “Good dodge, girl,” he informed her, his voice thick with mockery.

“Not that it matters,” another voice cut in as a third werewolf stepped into view from the opposite side of the small, narrow side street, cutting off that avenue of escape as well.

“Yeah, what do you think of that, huh, cunt!?” That was Vince. The man stalked back over, his glare hateful and vindictive. “You really think Lemuel would just leave me by myself back there without having a couple watchers? Now you just–”

One of the other two werewolves, the one in human form, just looked at him. Vince immediately fell silent. Then the newcomer spoke. “You can fight if you want. But we outnumber you three to one. In the end, you’ll tell us everything we want to know about what the hell you’re doing here and what you want with Lemuel.” He smiled faintly. “I hope you try fighting. It’s more fun that way.”

“Your math’s a little wrong,” Roxa informed him, standing there with her guard up. “It’s not three on one.”

The man’s eyes flicked down toward Gidget, and he shrugged a bit dismissively. “If you want to count your little metal friend, be my guest. Three on one or three on two, it won’t help.”  

Slowly, Roxa shook her head. “I wasn’t talking about her. And it’s not three on two.”

From both sides of the street, more figures appeared. Wolves. Five of them.

“Actually,” the blonde girl continued almost conversationally as the rest of her pack stalked into view, surrounding the men who had thought that they were surrounding her.

“It’s more like six on three.”

******

“Sorry for giving your little pup there a hard time.”

About an hour after that little fight, Roxa and the rest of her pack were back in the bar. This time, the others were all in human form. The man speaking was Tomas. Beside him sat Silas. The blond man was still injured, since the silver from Vince’s blade wouldn’t regenerate the way most injuries did. But it had been bandaged up, and Namythiet had helped to make sure that the man didn’t bleed out before the man’s packmates could get to him.

“It’s all right,” Mateo replied, speaking up for his own pack. “The whole reason she came in here by herself was to draw attention. We had to give Namythiet over there a chance to get into their phones, and do it publicly so you knew what was going on. After that, we figured your traitor would run right to wherever his handlers from Lemuel’s pack were. Just had to make them believe that she was on her own so they’d show themselves.”

“You get what you needed from them?” Tomas asked before slowly turning to look at the far corner, where the unconscious, heavily injured form of Vince himself was trussed up. “Because I don’t mind asking my old friend a few more questions.”

“We got enough before his men died,” Mateo assured him. “We know where Lemuel’s pack is heading next. Which means we can get ahead of them.”

Tomas shook his head. “Still think you’re crazy, going after that psycho. I’ve got a hard enough time just keeping his bastards out of my territory.” His eyes glanced toward Vince again. “… though maybe I ain’t doing as good of a job on that as I thought.”

“Lemuel and his super-pack are a problem that’s not gonna go away,” Mateo intoned flatly. “They keep getting bigger. He’s snatching Alter and human kids, turning them, building his forces. He’s gonna keep expanding until someone stops him, until that pack gets broken up.”

For a moment, Tomas didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, hand Silas’s shoulder. Finally, he asked, “You asking for help, Mateo? Cuz I don’t have the freedom you’ve got. I can’t go traipsing all over the country hunting these guys down. My pack leaves here, and another one is gonna move into our territory. We live here. This is our home.”

Mateo shook his head. “Not asking you to wander around with us. Just asking you to be ready. If we can get Lemuel’s pack in open ground, find them in a good spot, we’re gonna need help. We’ve got Wonderland backing us up, but having another pack like yours, that’d be good too.”

Tomas was silent again. He seemed to be considering things for several long seconds before eventually letting out a long sigh. “Yeah,” he muttered. “If something ain’t done, that son-of-a-bitch is gonna ruin everything. And he already came after us once. Turned one of my own people, one of my friends.” Grimacing then, he nodded. “You find a good way of hitting them, get to a point where all you need is numbers, you let us know.”

The two pack leaders shook on it, before Tomas glanced to Roxa. “You ever get tired of running around with this guy, you let me know, pup. You’ve earned a place here. Heard you even killed one of those fucks yourself.”

It was true. Roxa had killed the one who had threatened her. And after doing so, she had absorbed some of his power. She was still a Heretic. A Heretic and a werewolf. What did that mean? Absorbing some of a werewolf’s power while she herself already was a werewolf? What would it do? 

Swallowing, she slowly shook her head. “Thanks, but I think I’m okay.”

Her eyes turned, taking in the sight of Fezzik gleefully poring over the jukebox with Namythiet’s help, a still-bloody Lesedi steadily drinking two of Tomas’s pack under the table, Hasty teaching three other wolves to dance while loudly bitching at Fezzik to pick a song and stick to it, and Corson playing cards with another wolf while trying to pretend that he didn’t know what he was doing.

“It’s like Mateo always says,” Roxa murmured mostly under her breath. “Pack isn’t just friends.

“It’s family.”

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The Third Degree 21-06

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When I’d first met Namid, that time back when she and that one guy, Hue, had found Shiori and me talking (and just talking) in the storage room, I’d thought that she looked like the stereotypical thug. Now? Well, now I had pretty much the exact same impression.  

As she opened the door to let us in, I gave the older girl a quick once-over. She wore a white button-up shirt identical to any of the school uniforms, except hers had the sleeves cut off all the way to the shoulders. On her bare arms, I could see what looked like tribal tattoos running all the way down to her wrists. And instead of the normal uniform jacket, Namid wore a sleeveless denim vest with a bunch of patches of various bands that I didn’t recognize all over it.

“Oh,” she announced succinctly upon seeing us, “it’s you guys.” Gesturing as she pivoted to walk back into the room, the girl added, “Come on then, you might as well get in here.”

Sands and I looked at each other briefly before stepping inside. I leaned back to close the door before glancing around the room. It was pretty similar to the first year dorms, except a little big bigger. And in the middle of the room, between the two beds, there was a terrarium (or was it an aquarium? It was sort half-land and half-water) with two turtles in it. One was swimming around in the water portion while the other seemed to be sunning itself on the pebbles under the lamp.

Noticing me looking at the tank, Namid gestured to the turtle in the water, then the one on the rocks. “That’s Laird and that’s Eastman. Say hi, boys.” She made a finger motion, and a plate by the tank flew up and over to me until I caught it out of the air. On the plate there were some green beans and cabbage. “Feed the boys if you want,” the girl added while sitting on her bed. “They’ve been good. Oh, and there’s some worms in the cupboard under the tank. Mix it up.”   

Glancing toward Sands again, I shrugged before stepping over to feed the turtles. “Now, don’t get jealous, Herbie,” I instructed the rock while taking him out of my pocket so he could sit on the edge of the tank. “You know you’ll get fed tonight. Can’t have you going off your diet.”

In the background, I heard Namid ask conversationally, “So uh, your teammate, was she always this fucking crazy, or did the constant ambushes and attacks just finally make her snap.”

The casual shrug in Sands’ voice was obvious even without looking. “She brought the rock with her before the first day even started, so I’m gonna go with ‘she was always like this.’”

“Hey,” I retorted after letting Laird eat a green bean out of my hand, “I might’ve already been a crazy person, but now I’m a superpowered crazy person, with special Kung Fu action.” To demonstrate, I made a few chopping and punching motions vaguely in the air with my free hand.

“Eh,” the older girl shrugged. “At least your crazy is directed toward anthropomorphizing rocks and shit. I’ve seen much worse outlets for the kind of shit you’ve been going through this year.”   

She didn’t know the half of it. Shaking my head, I reached down to get under the tank and found the bucket she had been talking about. It was full of dirt, and I could see the worms squirming around inside. With Namid’s eyes on me, watching curiously, I reached into the dirt and dug through it to find a long one. Taking it out, I looked at the writhing, wiggling thing for a second before feeding it to one of the turtles. “Lots of people go through shit around here,” I muttered.

Before the other girl could say anything to that, Sands cut in. “That’s kinda why we want to get this extra credit thing done. You know, before anything else happens to fuck up our work again.”

“Sure, sure, right.” Raising an eyebrow pointedly, Namid held her hand out and waited expectantly until Sands put what looked like two twenty dollar bills in her palm. Then the older girl glanced at them, rubbed both with her fingers, and slid them away into a pocket with a smile. “Perfect,” she announced with a grin. “If nothing else, you freshmen are always good to make a little pocket change off of. What was it you needed for Project Kiss-The-Teacher’s-Ass again?”

Remembering what Sands had said our excuse was, I replied, “Our project’s on ancient Native American Heretics. Specifically, Native American Heretics and the magic artifacts they used.”  

Gesturing, Namid instructed, “Hey, make sure Laird gets a worm too. Don’t let Eastman hog everything.” Watching for another second to make sure I was feeding both turtles properly, she finally focused on our issue. “Anyway, so you’re going all Indiana Jones, huh? I mean, admit it, Old Indy going after some kind of big Native artifact and getting chased by a Skinwalker or something would’ve been a hell of a lot better than whatever the fuck that alien shit was.”  

I couldn’t really argue with that, so I coughed and nodded. “Sure, but does that mean you know a lot about it? We figured talking to someone like you would be better than digging into a book.”

“Or at least a little less boring,” Sands added while rolling her eyes. “Not all of us are Vanessa.”

“Hey, you paid for it,” Namid replied, clearly defensively. “I might like taking cash out of you adorable little freshmens’ hands, but I earn every fucking penny. I don’t cheat. You paid for good stuff, I’ll give you enough shit to make Dare wanna make you a guest lecturer or something. ”

“You really know that much about that stuff?” I asked hesitantly, making myself sound unsure about all of it. “ We were gonna ask Aylen, but she’s a uh, Bystander-kin, so she doesn’t know.”

Sands nodded. “Yeah, Silverstones aren’t exactly that useful to get extra information out-”

“Hey,” the older girl snapped surprisingly, squinting at her. “Don’t use that word. I don’t like it.”

Blinking, Sands glanced to me before hesitantly asking, “What word? Silverstone? It’s just a–”

“I know what it is,” Namid informed her. “And I also don’t care what anyone dresses it up as. It’s a word they use to separate people who grew up with Heretics from those who didn’t. And we’ve already got one of those. Bystander-Kin. Silverstone started as an insult. Clueless. Doesn’t matter if they don’t mean it that way now. It’s still an insult. So, you use the word again, and we’ve got problems. Problems that forty bucks ain’t gonna get your little twin ass out of, got it?”

Still looking a little surprised by the other girl’s hot retort, Sands quickly nodded. “Uh, sure. Okay. I just uhh–” She coughed, looking toward me for help after failing to find more words.

“She didn’t mean it like that,” I hurriedly put in before gesturing. “All she was saying was that Aylen doesn’t know much about the Heretic side of things because she wasn’t born into it.”

“True,” Namid agreed before adding, “so let’s get into it. You wanna know about artifacts, you came to the right person. You might say that my family has a… certain history with them.”

Biting my lip, I hesitated before offering, “You’ve got relatives that collect them?”

The older girl raised an eyebrow at that. “You could say that. My great… great… something great aunt Litonya collects them. Or she used to, before…”

“Litonya?” Sands jumped on the opportunity. “You mean Litonya from the Committee? She’s your relative?”

“And what do you mean, ‘she used to’?” I added.

Snorting at that, Namid shrugged. “Not that she’s very proud of that fact, but sure, yeah. We’re related. Great-Aunt Litty, she fucking hates it when I call her that, by the way. Like I said, she used to collect all those artifacts. I guess she still does, but she lost most of her collection about a year or so ago.”

“Lost it?” I repeated, trying my best to make it sound like this was just an interesting extra bit, rather than the exact thing we’d come to find out. “How’d that happen?”

“Yeah,” Sands put in then, “Didn’t she keep the important things in a blood-vault?”

Namid shrugged again. “Usually, yeah. But a couple times a year, she had them taken out to be cleaned, examined, and processed. You know, in case any of the artifacts she had could be used to handle any outstanding cases. They’d go through the worst problems the adult Heretics have been dealing with, then look through all those old artifacts and see if any of them could help.”

“That’s… useful,” I murmured before looking at the older girl. “But it didn’t go so well that time?”

Her eyes rolled. “You could say that. Should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty bitch about it. Apparently some pack of werewolves jumped the examiners while they were cleaning everything. Got away with about three quarters of her collection before she showed up. Of course, they also killed four Heretics in the process, but what Litty actually cared about was her precious fucking treasure.”

Right, so all those items, probably including the Ring of Anuk-Ité, had been stolen by a pack of werewolves. Obviously, it was the same pack that Pace was part of. Lemuel’s pack. But that didn’t explain why the ring was now a choker. And I couldn’t exactly be that open about it.

Instead, I tried to get there from another angle. “Why couldn’t Litonya track the artifacts down again? I mean, you’d think she’d have some kind of magic tracking spell stuck onto them or something if they were that valuable.”

“Sure, of course they did.” Namid nodded. “But apparently the wolves either knew magic or knew someone else who could use it, because they blocked the tracking spells. Erased them somehow. I dunno, but trust me, if Litty had a way of tracking them down, she would’ve by now. Especially that fucking ring.”

Struggling not to verbally leap on that too much, I coughed, looking at Sands and back again before trying to sound casual. “Ring?”

“Ring of Anuk-Ité,” she replied. “Fuck, you should’ve heard Great-Aunt Litty go on and on and on about that thing. It’s why she put the extra protection on it. Not that it helped, which just pissed her off more.”

“What–umm, what extra protection?” Sands asked before I could.

Namid sat up on her bed then while answering, “The ring’s one-of-a-kind. I mean literally one-of-a-kind. Nothing else even remotely like it. So Litty put some kind of… fuck, I dunno what it’s called. Some spell that’s supposed to lock onto that identical thing and bring it back to the case that you enchanted it for, no matter how far away it is.”

“So why didn’t it work, if the spell’s so good?” I put in, trying once more to sound like I was only interested academically and not as if it was life-or-death.

“Best guess?” she replied with another shrug, “they changed the ring. The spell focuses on it being identical, right? Unique. The only one of its kind. So the only way the spell wouldn’t work is if–”

“Is if they changed it,” I finished, realizing then. That was why the ring wasn’t a ring anymore. That’s why it was a necklace, a choker. They had changed it to avoid that spell.

While I was still focused on that, Sands asked, “What’s so special about that one ring? What makes it more important than everything else she lost?”

Standing up, Namid moved over to where I was. She reached down into the tank to rub one of her turtles. “What’s so special about it? Well first of all, it’s supposed to make anyone who wears it immune to the Stranger sense. Heretics don’t show up as Heretics to Strangers, and Strangers who wear it don’t show up as Strangers to Heretics. Makes you look like a normal person.”

Kinda like I did now, as long as I didn’t use my powers. I started to nod, then blinked. “Wait, you said first of all? You mean there’s more? That–uh, that sounds pretty powerful as it is.”

“I know, right?” She snorted. “Bad enough without adding in the angel myth.”

That caught my attention. My eyes whipped around. “Wh-what? Angel myth?”

Namid laughed. “What’re you, some kind of religious chick? It’s not real. There’s no such thing as angels, okay? Demons, sure, but not angels.”

“What’d the myth say?” Sands cut in while I was still trying to find my voice. “What does some ring that hides Strangers have to do with angels?”

“It’s the legend of Anuk-Ité,” the older girl replied. “Two-Face. So it works both ways. According to the myth, it doesn’t just hide the wearer’s true nature, you know, as a Heretic or a Stranger or whatever. The myth says that it doesn’t just do that. It also,” she paused then before clearly reciting, “‘reveals the true nature of the hidden ones.’”

“True nature of the hidden ones,” I muttered under my breath, my brain spinning.

Namid went on, still sounding dismissive of the whole concept. “Yeah, the legend says the angels would hide among us–I mean, they didn’t call them angels. They called them gods. But I guess someone else decided they meant angels at some point. Whatever. Gods, angels, fucking aliens. Whatever they’re supposed to be, the story says that they hide among us. But if you wear the ring, it’s supposed to reveal them to you.”

“Reveal the… angels… that are hiding among humanity,” I managed in a voice that sounded weak even to me.

She nodded. “Yeah. I dunno, like… it’s supposed to highlight them or make you suddenly know if the person you’re looking at is really a hidden god or an angel or… whatever.

“Like I said, pretty stupid, right?”

******

“Hey, you worried about the hunt tonight?” Deveron asked a few days later. He was standing there, watching me drink from a bottle of water after another intense training session where he’d been putting me through my paces. Ever since he’d decided to take the whole mentor thing seriously, Deveron had insisted on daily extra training on top of everything else I was doing. Mostly it consisted of him kicking my ass down into the grass over and over again, then carefully going over every last move with me to make sure I understood what I did wrong.

Then he’d just kick my ass again anyway. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t taking it easy.

Slowly lowering the bottle, I looked at the ground for a second before glancing up. “Sure seems like things always go wrong on these hunts, you know?” I replied carefully. “Gaia says they’ve got… plans to deal with any kind of interruption this time, but still…” I trailed off, wincing inwardly. It was so tempting to tell him the whole reason I was nervous about the hunt tonight, the fact that at least one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust was actually a Seosten. But I couldn’t, because, well, he was still on that particular list.

Or was he? If he had been taken over by one of the angels, wouldn’t they have already known about Wyatt being the one who put the protection spells on Avalon? They’d definitely know that Professor Pericles hadn’t been the only Zedekiah at the school, and the person on the recording that Miranda had shown me had seemed pretty damn adamant that Pericles was the only one.

Except things might’ve changed since then. I didn’t know how often Seosten changed bodies or what the protocol was there. Maybe they did know about Wyatt by this point.

That was why I’d told him the truth. Because if he was compromised, Avalon was already in deep trouble. Deeper trouble than she had been before. And given the man’s normal paranoia and security measures, I had to believe that he was about as safe as he could possibly be.

And let’s face it, him acting paranoid toward anyone he thought might have been possessed wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary from how he acted the rest of the time anyway.

Besides, I still didn’t know why I appeared to be immune to Seosten-possession. I was kind of hoping it was some kind of blood thing, meaning at least Koren and Wyatt would be safe. But again, I didn’t know for sure. There was just no way to know. Not yet, anyway. We were working on it, but for the time being, we had to play everything really close to our vests.

Of course, if we could track down Pace and get our hands on that damn choker, we might be able to be done with this whole thing. It wasn’t just about getting the thing for Roxa anymore, though she still needed it. Now it was about getting the thing so that we could figure out exactly how it identified Seosten. Gaia had said that if she could get a look at it, she could probably duplicate the effect. But she had to examine the thing first. Which meant that finding Pace had just been given a great big shove up the list of priorities.

For his part, Deveron winced before nodding. “Yeah, well, you’re right. These hunts don’t have the best track record as far as you’re concerned. But I talked to Gaia myself, and trust me, she’s definitely taking it seriously. If anyone tries anything this time, and she’s going to be right on top of them.” He paused then, falling silent for a few seconds before adding with a curious look in my direction, “She told me that she asked if you guys wanted to sit this one out.”

“Yeah,” I nodded quickly. “We talked about it, but we decided it was better this way. If we sit out any of these hunts, we’re going to get less safe, not more. Because if we’re gonna survive, we need power. We need training. We need skill. We need to hunt, we need to get… we have to get more powerful. If I’m gonna survive when Fossor decides to come after me, I can’t sit things out now. I can’t. I just…” Sighing long and low, I muttered, “These things aren’t gonna stop trying to kill us just because we sit out something that could actually let us get stronger. They won’t stop at all. Not until we stop them. And the only way to do that is to get stronger, get more powers, get better at… everything. So no, we’re not gonna sit out any hunts. We’ll just… be ready.”  

Deveron watched me for a second, clearly considering it before nodding. “Probably smart. And just so you know,” he added with a serious look, “you won’t be alone when it comes to Fossor.”

Oh God, I wished I could trust him right then. I wished that I could know for sure that he wasn’t possessed. He was one of the few people who really understood what I was feeling about my mother, and how much I missed her. I wanted to confide in him everything that was going on. But I couldn’t. There was just no way to be sure that he was really himself. Not yet.

Whoever the Seosten had taken over, whoever they had possessed and enslaved, I was going to make sure they suffered. I’d already promised myself that several times. Pretty much whenever I looked at anyone who might have been the one that was taken, I repeated that promise to myself. They would suffer, and I would make damn sure that their victim was freed.

Instead of saying any of that out loud, I twisted the cap back onto the water bottle and nodded. “Still, under your protection or not, I need training. And that means–”

“Hunting,” the man finished with a grimace. “Right. But be careful, you got it? If you get even the slightest whisper that something’s wrong, you call it in. Even if it’s nothing, you won’t be the girl who cried wolf. You’ll be the girl who thought she saw a wolf because the entire field was surrounded by them.”

Coughing, I nodded. “Don’t worry, I get it. We all get it. We’ll be ready for it. And you’ll be right there anyway. I’m pretty sure Gaia’s gonna send you in with us, wherever we’re going.”

“Good,” Deveron gave a satisfied nod. “But first, it’s dinner time. Think you can eat?”

I snorted at that, gesturing to the trampled grass from our sparring session. “After what you just put me through, Escalan better have made enough to feed a school twice this size.”

He chuckled at that before turning. “Just putting you through your paces. Can’t have you getting lazy, you know.”

My elbow nudged him. “Maybe I’ll just pretend to be lazy for a few months. You know, see where that gets me.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” Smirking, Deveron gave me a little push. “Let’s go get you refueled, little Flick-star.

“And then it’ll be time to hunt.”

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The Third Degree 21-05

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“Oh, sure, the angel fuckwads. Those fuckknobs are sticking their noses into this thing?”

For a moment after Seth finished speaking, I simply sat there on Quint’s back, holding the phone to my ear while staring across the water at Shiori. From the look on her face, she’d heard.

It was a bit after the whole conversation with the other two girls. Avalon had gone inside to tell Gaia what was going on, while I stayed out with Shiori to call Seth. And yeah, I told the vampire about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. Which might have been a bad idea, but honestly, he was one of the very, very few people that I could be absolutely sure wasn’t possessed. After all, if he had been, the Seosten would’ve already known about the Fahsteth thing from the start. And I wanted him to know what he was dealing with if he ran into them. It was only fair.

Besides, I didn’t tell him the truth about how I knew about the Seosten being after Fahsteth. I wasn’t quite that naive. Instead, I’d told Seth that Gaia had informed me that the Seosten had ‘somehow found out about the meeting, likely from spying on us when we met him and the others in that park in Nebraska’. I left things vague enough to make it sound like Gaia had found out that the Seosten were involved through some kind of magic or inherited power, but that she didn’t know everything. Hopefully, if any Seosten heard about this particular conversation, they’d assume that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion about when they’d found out about the meeting, and that would throw them off.

And I definitely left out any mention of the fact that someone in my circle was compromised. I wanted the Seosten to think that one of my friends being possessed was completely out of my mind. The only way we were going to identify them was if they were more complacent, not less.

Finally, I found my voice and managed a somewhat weak, “Uhhh, you’ve heard of them?”

“Sure,” the reply came. “Had a run-in with couple of the bastards awhile back. Let me tell ya, they were a couple of the most pretentious sons-of-bitches I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of pretentious sons-of-bitches. So I did a little more looking into it, found out they’re all dicks. Now you’re saying there’s more of those assholes trying to shut up that merc you wanted to talk to?”

“That’s what Gaia said,” I confirmed. “So be careful, okay? And change the meeting, please?”  

“Yeah, kid, I’ll see what I can do.” Seth paused then before giving a soft sigh that I could barely hear. “And listen, you take care of yourself too. These fucks are dangerous, and if anything bad happens to you, I’ll never hear the end of it from Senny. She will make my life a total hell, and I ain’t in the mood for that. So don’t go getting yourself killed or possessed like an idiot, got it? And while you’re at it, keep my other sister out of trouble. Senny’d have a cow about that too.”

“I’ll do my best.” Shrugging, I glanced toward Shiori before hesitating for a moment. Finally, I added, “Don’t worry, Shiori and I will both do our best not to get possessed by an angel.”

The reply surprised me. “Well since you’re the only one that really needs to worry about that, I’d focus on keeping yourself free of infestation.”

Blinking, I looked at Shiori again. The other girl was staring back at me with a look that was just as confused as I felt. “Wait, what do you mean, I’m the only one that has to worry about it?”

There was a brief pause before Seth’s voice came back slowly. “Wait, you mean I know something you don’t? Well, isn’t that just a little interesting? Sounds like something else we can bargain for, huh? How much cash can you squeeze outta that headmistress of yours for it?”

Grimacing, I gripped the phone tighter. “Seth,” I half-snapped while trying to keep my voice as even as possible. “Please. We can deal with all that later. But it’s Shiori. It’s Shiori, Seth. I don’t know if you really give a shit about her and Senny, or if you’re just fucking around. But please.”

“Oh, all right, don’t get your panties in a twist,” the vampire retorted with an almost audible roll of his eyes. “We’ll deal with compensation later. But I promise, I’ll expect something good for this.”

“If it’s something good about the angels, you’ll get it,” I assured him while crossing my fingers on my free hand. It was probably nothing good. But on the off-chance that it was actually useful…

“All righty then.” I could hear the smirk in the vampire’s voice. It was pretty obvious that he enjoyed having information that others needed, even if he happened to like them. Or at least tolerated them. “Miss Shiori over there isn’t gonna get possessed because she’s a hybrid.”

“A hybrid?” I echoed his words, eyes locked onto where Shiori herself was staring back at me.

“Sure,” he started, “half-human and half-Alter?” There was amusement in his voice as he continued. “Need me to start at the beginning? When a human and an Alter love each other ver–”

“I know what a hybrid is,” I cut in. “What does it have to do with the angels not possessing her?”

“Well…” he drawled slowly, his enjoyment at dragging it out almost palpable. “They can’t do it.”

Almost falling off of my shark while jerking upright, I blurted, “They can’t possess hybrids?!”

I could hear the laugh in his voice at my reaction. “Well, now I’ve got your attention, huh?” After chuckling, he added, “I guess to put it right, they can possess them, but it’s not the best idea.”  

“Not the best idea,” I murmured, eyes wide. “Why? Why is it a bad idea to possess a hybrid?”

“Cuz it kills ‘em,” his flat response came. “In a pretty agonizing way, from what I saw with the one that tried it with one of my ahhh, acquaintances, Jae. He and I were about to kill the body the angel-fuck was possessing, so he jumped ship. Tried to possess Jae. Next thing we knew, the shit-head was on the ground, pretty much turned inside out. Screamed his head off until we put ‘im out of his misery. Put a little research into it, turns out something about humans mixed with Alters fucks with the angel possession. Gets them all torn up inside just like that.”

“Research?” I echoed, barely able to keep myself calm enough to sit on the shark, let alone talk. “What kind of research? And why didn’t anyone else I talked to know anything about this?”

“My guess,” Seth replied easily, “these fucks don’t advertise their weaknesses. Only found out about it myself cuz Jae goes out of his way to make it look like he’s a full-blooded Alter, not half. Something about how he was treated as a kid or whatever. Dunno. Point is, he keeps quiet about it, so this angel fucknugget didn’t know. He tried to possess him, poof. Angel-roadkill. So I found another one and uhh… let’s just say I persuaded him to tell me just why that happened.”

“So they won’t possess Shiori because they’ll die if they do,” I murmured slowly, blinking up at the other girl. “That’s umm, that really helps, Seth. That really, really helps. Just don’t let any–”

“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted. “Like I said, I know these dicks. Don’t go bragging about all that great info I just passed to you, I get it. But like I said, you still owe me for this stuff. I think you’re an all right kid, and Senny’s pretty fond of ya, but I’m not running a charity over here.”

“I promise, we’ll take care of it. Somehow. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” After repeating that, I disconnected and stared at the phone in my hand for a few seconds. “You’re… you’re immune.”

“I’m immune,” the other girl echoed, voice sounding as awed as I felt. “They can’t possess me?”

Slowly, I nodded. “That’s what it sounds like. They can’t possess you. Or they’re too scared to.”

Her face brightened a little before falling again. “I’m immune. Columbus isn’t. It could be him.”

“Maybe,” I reluctantly agreed. “But it might not be. It could be any of the others. We don’t know.”

Shiori looked to me then. “If it’s Columbus, if they took Columbus… I’m gonna make that angel wish she possessed me instead, so that it’d be over fast.”

“Hey.” Reaching across the water from my shark, I trailed a hand over her arm briefly. “Whoever it is, we’ll deal with it, okay? They’re all our friends, all… important. We’ll make the bitch pay. For now, let’s focus on what we know. Which is that you’re immune. And that… makes sense.”

She blinked over at me then, staring in confusion while absently patting Brody’s back. “It does?”

“Sure.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “I guess that’s sort of why I thought it was safe enough to tell you and Avalon about it. I mean, I didn’t know you were immune, but I figured there was something stopping them from possessing both of you. After all, that Seosten said that we trust her host. That’s how they’re getting information out of us, by possessing someone we trust. Not by possessing us. If they could just possess us any time they wanted to, why would us trusting their host even be an issue? If it was as easy as just jumping into us to find out what we knew, she wouldn’t even have mentioned us trusting her host, she’d just say she’d jump into one of us and find out for herself. The only reason she wouldn’t even mention it as an option is–”

“Is if it wasn’t one,” Shiori finished for me, her own eyes wide. “But that explains me, what about you and Avalon? Uh, you guys aren’t–I mean as far as I know, you’re not really a–”

My head shook. “Not an Alter. Unless Mom’s one, but I think that would be one secret too many for my sanity. Oh wait, she couldn’t be anyway. They didn’t change the Edge to accept hybrids until relatively recently. So it wouldn’t have worked on her. Which means I’m not a hybrid.”

“And Avalon probably isn’t either,” the other girl pointed out. “Cuz she became a Heretic at Eden’s Garden, not here, and they didn’t change the tree to accept hybrids, did they?”

My head shook. “Not that I know of. And–” My fingers snapped. “That explains why they didn’t want the Edge to accept hybrids in the first place. They don’t want half-human Heretics because if they possess them, they go splat. That’s why the Edge wasn’t meant to accept them.”

“Whoa.” Shiori slumped, hand trailing through the water as she thought about that. “That’s… big.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered. “So yeah, it explains why you’re immune, but not me or Avalon. Assuming we are, and…well I think it’s pretty safe to say that Avalon is. Because if they could possess her, they definitely would’ve by now. Think about it, their plan this entire time has been to kill her, even when she was a baby. Why would they do that if they could just possess her and get into the vault that way? Maybe being related to Bosch makes her immune or… or something? Maybe his family set up some protection against possession for themselves.”

“If they did,” Shiori murmured under her breath, “I’d sure like to know what it is.”

“Yeah, no kidding.” Shaking my head, I looked out over the water while thinking for a minute. “And why I’m not possessed. I mean, I’m Avalon’s roommate, and uhh…” I blushed a little bit. “And more than that. Which we haven’t exactly hidden. So why didn’t they just possess me?”

Shiori made a face at that. “So we know why I’m immune, but not you guys. As usual, it’s several questions for every answer. That’s getting really obnoxious at this point, you know?”

“Oh, I know.” My head bobbed up and down rapidly. “Trust me, I know just how obnoxious it is.

“In a sea of endless questions, we’re barely treading water.”

******

“Flick. Ohhh Flick. Flickster. Hey.” A finger poked me in the side. “Yo, Flick.”

Jumping a bit, I blinked and looked around. The rec room. I was in the rec room. Once I remembered that much and got myself together, I turned to find Sands staring at me. “You okay over there? You zoned out for a bit. Thought you were in some kind of trance or something.”

It was all I could do not to openly stare at the other girl’s eyes. The urge to hold her by the shoulders and keep staring as if looking long enough would show me if she was possessed or not was almost overwhelming. Like it was that easy. At best, I’d make Sands think that I had some kind of thing for her, and at worst, she’d actually be possessed and realize what I was doing. The former would just be embarrassing for us both, the latter potentially devastating.

It had been a few days since I’d overheard that Seosten bombshell, and the time since then had been… well, not-fun. Walking around thinking that almost any one of the people that I trusted might actually be enslaved within their own head, puppeted against their will by a would-be angel was… let’s just say that even for me, I wasn’t getting a lot of rest. I had no idea how Shiori was holding it together, considering the fear that Columbus was the one who had been taken over.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that we could do about it for the moment. Not until we had our meeting with Gabriel Prosser and started learning how to make that spell, anyway. In the meantime, the best we could do was keep our eyes open and try to come up with a plan to expose not just the Seosten I had overheard, but her companions as well. It was… slow-going.

Which meant that we all just had to act as normal as possible. And considering there was another scheduled hunt coming up soon… well, I really hoped we found out who was possessed by then, because those things were already stressful enough (especially considering how they’d been going so far) without worrying that someone who was supposed to have my back was actually a Seosten spy.  

Shaking that all off, I forced myself to smile faintly. “Hey, Sands. Sorry, I guess I was daydreaming for a minute. What’s up?”

Raising an eyebrow at that, the other girl remarked, “Daydreamed, huh? Thinking about someone in particular?” Her fingers poked me teasingly before she added, “Or someones, I guess.”

Oh God, I hated this. I hated it. Even something as innocent as that little bit of teasing made me paranoid. Was she really just teasing, or was she fishing for information? That was what it was like now, any time she or any of the others said pretty much anything. I was always picking it apart in my head, trying to figure out if the Seosten had just given herself away.

But of course, it wasn’t that easy. It wouldn’t be. They were too good at what they did. It wasn’t like one of my friends was suddenly going to start cackling maniacally, or acting like a stereotypical villain just because I happened to know they were possessed.

So, I just shook my head. “Actually,” I claimed, “I was thinking about what the next hunt might be.”

“You too, huh?” Sands gave me a weak smile. “Mostly I’m just hoping it turns out better than the last one. Or… any of them.” Rising, she gestured. “But come on, I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Oh, great. As if I hadn’t already been paranoid enough as it was. “A surprise? What surprise?”

Rolling her eyes, the other girl stepped back and gave another wave. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. So c’mon already. It’s important.”

Important because she’d found something I needed to see, or important because she was the one who had been possessed, and the Seosten was ready to ambush me for whatever reason? That, along with a few other paranoid thoughts, bounced around in my head a little as I looked around. “Should we grab the others?”

Sands just shook her head. “No big, we can tell them later. This part’s really only for the two of us. I mean, I was gonna make it me and Scout, but I figured you’d want to be involved.” Clearing her throat then, she stepped back while gesturing impatiently. “Hurry, she’s not gonna wait forever.”


She? Okay, that raised even more questions. But I couldn’t make Sands wait anymore. Taking a breath, I stood up and nodded while slipping a hand into my pocket. Finding the phone there, I pressed the button that would alert Wyatt to start paying attention. If anything happened, he’d be ready to jump in.

“Alright, let’s see this surprise then.”

She let me out of the rec room, past the cafeteria, and out the door onto the grounds. The whole time, I kept my eyes open, scanning for anything that might be wrong while trying to make myself look relaxed.

Thankfully, Sands didn’t head for the beach or anywhere off the grounds. Instead, she led me across the grass to the girls dorm. Wait, the girls dorm?

Sure enough, we headed inside. Instead of going for any of our rooms, however, Sands started for the stairs. Before I could ask what we were doing, the two of us were on the second floor, and I saw one of the older girls giving us a strange look.

“It’s okay,” Sands informed her. “We’re here to talk to Namid. Which room was it again?”

The girl continued to stare for a second before gesturing over her shoulder. “Third one down.”

After she walked away, I blinked over at Sands. “Namid?”

She nodded, glancing around before producing a privacy coin, which she activated. “Sure. I mean, you wanted to talk to her about that… thing, right? The thing to help Roxa.”

“The Ring of Anuk-Ité,” I confirmed. “Yeah, you-know-who said that the last he knew, the ring was in the hands of Namid’s ancestor on the Committee, Litonya.”

“Exactly,” the other girl replied. “So you need to talk to her about it. Which is why I’ve been spending the past week working on her. First I let her see me getting a bunch of Native American books out of the library. Then I made sure she was around when I asked Professor Dare about our extra-credit project.”

“What extra-credit project?” I asked blankly.

She winked at me. “The one you and I are doing on Native American Heretics and their artifacts. Professor Dare was a great actress by the way. Seriously, she’s really good at faking things like that. I thought I was gonna have to carry the whole conversation, but she pulled her weight.”  

While I was still staring at her, she shrugged. “Anyway, the point is, I did all that so that it didn’t come out of nowhere when I finally asked Namid for help. And paid her for it. So now she’s gonna talk to us for a few minutes. If she knows anything about that ring thinger, maybe she’ll talk about it.”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times. “I–oh. Wow. You did all that?”

“Of course,” Sands replied easily. “We’re a team, right? You wanna help Roxa, this is the best way to do it. We find out what the deal is with that ring, or necklace, or whatever it is now. So come on, let’s go talk to her. And this time, you won’t be in the closet.

“… in more than one way.”

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The Third Degree 21-04

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Please note, there was a commissioned Mini-Interlude focusing on Flick sparring with a couple other classmates posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

For five seconds that felt like at least that many eternities, I did nothing. Nothing. I didn’t move, I didn’t speak, I didn’t even breathe. I just stood there, the words heard through my fox rebounding around inside my head. They certainly trust my host. They certainly trust my host. My host. My host. The Chambers child trusts me. And so do her little girlfriends. My host.

The words pounded their way through my head like a sledgehammer repeatedly hitting me, again and again. Even as the bile rose in my throat, the sense of betrayal making me physically ill, the words kept hitting me again and again. Host. Host. The woman was a Seosten. She was a Seosten, and she had been spying on me through… through one of the others. Not Shiori. Not Avalon. But any of the others. Any of them. Anyone I trusted. It could be anyone I trusted except for Shiori and Avalon. Any of them. The people I trusted. The people I’d confided in. The people I liked. One of them had been taken, puppeted by this Seosten in order to spy on me, manipulate me. She had taken over one of my friends, had stripped their freedom away and forced them to betray the rest of us. One of my friends had been enslaved by this… this… bitch.

And she… was coming this way.

Slowly, my own body turned to face back down the beach. Sand rose up around me in a thick cloud, the grains rubbing and grinding against each other as they spun to make a slight buzzing sound like an angry swarm of insects.

That was my first instinct. Attack. Fight. The Seosten was right there. She was right there. Who knew when I’d get this chance again. She didn’t know that I knew about her. She didn’t know that I’d overheard what she said. I could hit her right then and end this whole thing for good.

Except, was it even possible for me to take her down? She was a Seosten. I had no idea what they were capable of. I knew that one half-Seosten had a perfect memory and the other had been an Olympic-level gymnast since he was a child with barely any training. Were those ingrained abilities every normal Seosten had? Or was it a benefit of the half-human physiology mixing? I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. But what I did know was that they were incredibly dangerous. Dangerous enough to rule over a good portion of the universe for longer than human history. They were dangerous enough that the Fomorians, one of whom had taken several powerful Heretics to take down, couldn’t steamroll over them. So what chance did I have at taking down this Seosten before she either escaped or slapped me down and either killed me or took over my body?

Plus, even if I happened to win, I wouldn’t be ending it, would I? I’d heard what she said. There were two others involved in this besides her. At least two. There was whoever she was talking to, as well as that Manakel she’d mentioned. Even if I killed her by some miracle, there were still two others. Others whose identities would be a complete mystery to me. If I killed this Seosten, that was it. I’d have no other lead, no way of finding the others or getting any more information. The absolute best-case scenario of my starting a fight right now was throwing away any chance I had at getting more information out of her, of using this Seosten to find the others.

And there was another factor to consider: Vanessa and Tristan. What if this Seosten knew where their parents were? How… how incredibly selfish would it be for me to kill her just because I was angry, robbing those two of a potential chance to find their parents? How would I feel if I found out that someone who knew where Fossor was keeping my mother showed up and someone killed that person without even trying to get that information out of them?

So no. Attacking was a bad idea. Blinded by rage and indignation as I was, that was obvious. There was a good chance I wouldn’t kill her, and even if I did, I’d be throwing away both my chance to find out who the other Seosten were, as well as Vanessa and Tristan’s chance to find their lost parents. And considering how I felt about my mother… I couldn’t do that. I refused to.

But that left another problem. The Seosten was still coming. She wasn’t moving very fast, considering my fox could still see her from where it was sitting. Obviously, she was giving me plenty of time to get back to the school. But she was coming. And if she found me standing there, if she saw me like this… I had to assume that she’d realize what I knew. And then it wouldn’t matter if I wanted to start the fight with her. There would be one anyway.  

I had to go. I had to get out of sight. My first instinct at that point was to hide and try to follow her, try to see what person she’d possessed, which of my friends she had enslaved for this. Either me or my fox, one of us should follow after her to see what she did and where she went.

Except no. If I tried to follow her, she’d sense me. I had no doubt of that. And if I sent my fox after her, she’d probably sense the attention then too. Or, if she had even the briefest glimpse of the thing, she’d know exactly whose fox it was, and what had happened. She’d know.  

Worse, once she went onto the school grounds, the fox might just set off the Stranger alarms, which would force me to explain… well, a lot more than I wanted to right then. And the alert would obviously draw her attention. Which, again, would show her exactly what had happened.

No, I couldn’t follow her. I couldn’t do anything to let the Seosten know that I knew about her. The time would come. I’d get my chance. But throwing away the only advantage I had, the fact that she didn’t know that I knew about her, would be wrong. As understandable and therapeutic as it might have been to try doing something right then, it would be the wrong move. I needed to lay low and find a way to identify who she had possessed. Then I could lay a real trap for her.

But first, I had to get out of there before she got close enough to see that I had stopped for so long. Partly so that she wouldn’t realize that I had overheard, and partly because, despite every thought I’d had about what a bad idea it would be, I couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t attack her if she got close enough for me to do so. My logic told me one thing, but I knew that my emotions might just take over if they had a chance. So I had to get the hell out of there.

Turning on my heel, I ran not toward the school, but into the water. Splashing through the cold waves, I dove in as soon as it was deep enough before starting to swim out. I wanted to be far enough out of the way to avoid being noticed.

At the same time, I made the fox watch the Seosten gradually make her way up the beach. Cautiously, I got it to follow along through the jungle, all while trying to weave around a bit so that if she did have some way of sensing what was around her, the Seosten wouldn’t realize that the figure in the jungle was following her.  

It wasn’t exactly easy, working my fox through the jungle like that while simultaneously swimming in the ocean with my clothes on. I kept flipping my attention back and forth, like trying to watch two television shows at once. Fortunately, however, I didn’t have to actually swim by myself for very long. I’d barely made it the length of a couple swimming pools from the beach before a familiar presence rose up from the depths to bump against my legs.

Quint, the ten-foot long Mako shark, rose right up to the surface before giving me what was obviously a curious look. Immediately, I reached out and grabbed onto the shark’s side, pulling myself over onto it. “Hey buddy,” I whispered despite how far out we were. “Where’s your brother, huh? Are the others okay?”

Quint swam in lazy, slow circles while the rest of his shiver gradually arrived. I let them crowd around, carefully patting each of them in turn while mostly focusing my attention on my summoned fox. Because while I had been getting myself out into the ocean with my many-toothed friends, the Seosten had kept going right toward the school grounds. I had to figure that my thought about her having a way of sensing what was around her was true, because she only slowed down when she was near the spot where a few students were playing some kind of game in the sand. Staying just out of their sight, the Seosten stood still for a moment. Then, she vanished from sight. She was gone, invisible and undetectable.

And that was that. She was gone now. Obviously, she had a way of getting onto the school grounds without being detected. Which made sense. If the Seosten themselves had been so involved with the creation of Heretic society, they would have left ways for themselves to get around the security spells undetected, backdoors into the places we thought were safe.

Would I regret letting her disappear? Would I regret not taking the opportunity I had to jump the Seosten while I’d known exactly where she was? Maybe. I couldn’t completely dismiss the possibility. Maybe I’d never get that chance again. But given every thought I’d had about why doing so would have been a bad idea, I had to go with my gut. I had to trust myself. There would be another chance, a better one. Now that I knew that she existed, that she had taken over one of the people I was supposed to be able to trust, I could work with that. We could work with it.

With that in mind, I reached into the pocket of my soaked pants while sitting on Quint’s back. Carefully, I dug out the secure phone. Thanks to Crossroads ingenuity, the phone wasn’t hurt at all by being wet. Shaking it off a little, I quickly punched in the phone number that had been magically seared into my memory. Because honestly, if this didn’t count as a big enough emergency to warrant using it, then nothing ever would. I needed help.

It rang three times before the familiar, steady voice spoke up. Even through the phone, I could hear the power and authority behind it. “Felicity, are you in immediate danger?” Despite the calm reassurance behind his voice, I could also hear the promise of imminent violence if I had been hurt. He was ready to charge straight in if I told him that I needed help.

And honestly, knowing that a man like Gabriel Prosser had my back like that helped calm me down a little bit.

“No.” Shaking my head, I answered quickly. “I mean, I’m not in immediate danger. It’s okay. I’m okay–sort of. But something happened.

“Something you should probably know about…”

******

An hour later, I was back out in the water with the sharks. This time, however, I wasn’t alone.

“Oh my God.” Shiori’s voice was quiet, hoarse and horrified. She looked about as sick as I still felt, sitting there on Sherman’s back as the bull shark lazily swam in circles. “You mean it could be–it could be anyone. Sh-she could be possessing… she could be po-possessing–” Her voice choked off then as the girl flinched, unable to finish what she had been saying.

“Porter,” Avalon finished. My roommate sat on Brody, her face knitted into a frown. “It could be Porter. Or it could be any of the others. Scout, Mason, Gerardo, either of the Moons, Fellows…” She looked to me. “All we know is that it’s someone that Chambers thinks she can trust.”

“Which doesn’t narrow it down to students,” I pointed out. “Sure, we can rule out Gaia because… uh, if she was taken over, we’d all know it. But other than that… it could be Professor Dare, Nevada, any of them. Even Klassin Roe. Who better to make me think I could trust him than the school therapist? It could even be Hisao. Maybe they got him after he showed up. We just–we don’t know. We don’t know… almost anything. Any of them could have been… taken.”

“We have to help them,” Shiori declared, looking up from the back of the shark. Her voice was still shaky and disgusted, but also resolved. “Whoever it is, whoever she enslaved, we have to free them. We have to, Flick. We have to find out who it is and… and get her the hell out.”

I nodded slowly at that, swallowing hard. “Yeah,” I murmured. “Don’t worry, Shiori. Whoever it is, we’ll save them. We’ll get that Seosten bitch out of them. We just have to do it the right way.”

There was quiet for a few seconds before Avalon spoke. “You said you talked to Prosser.” Even as she said his name, I could hear the undercurrent of admiration and awe for the man in her voice. It was like listening to any other person mention their personal hero. “What did he say?”

“Yeah,” Shiori quickly chimed in. “He’s this big, super-powerful Heretic, right? Please tell us  he has a way to figure out who the Seosten’s possessing and get her the hell out of them. Please.”

Flinching a little inwardly, I shook my head. “Yes and no. Well, actually no and yes, in that order. Sort of.” Frowning at how that was coming out, I waved a hand before the others could say anything. “They have one spell, a rune that can drive a Seosten out of their host and stop them from possessing anyone else for a short time.”

Shiori brightened at that. “Perfect. That’s perfect, right? It sounds like just what we need.”

“Like I said,” I replied, “yes and no. See, the spell has to be applied directly to the host. And it… um, it’s not subtle at all. It hurts the host the entire time it’s being applied and the Seosten will know exactly what it’s for. She’ll know what we’re trying to do from the moment we start it.”

Wincing, Avalon murmured, “So there’s no way to apply it while they’re sleeping. Wonderful.”

There was no easy way to put this, so I continued. “It gets better. Apparently any Seosten would know as soon as we start using that spell. Even if we’re not using it on the right person, they’ll sense the spell being used. It’s like a big, bright beacon going off.”

Shiori actually cursed at that. “You mean even if we do find the right person and use the spell on them, the other Seosten will know what’s happening if it happens anywhere on the island?”

“That pretty much sums it up,” I confirmed with a little nod. “Oh, and because that wasn’t bad enough, apparently Seosten that are on the same mission are usually connected. Which means they can also tell when one of their own has been… uh, exorcised like that.” 

Both of the other girls stared at me, Avalon grimacing. “Which means we can’t just take every person one by one and use the spell until we find the right one, even if we go away from the island to do it. Because as soon as we do find the right one, her partners will know what happened.”

“Yup,” I replied. “So we can’t identify them before using the spell, they’ll know what we’re doing as soon as we start doing it, and even if they’re not the one we’re using it on. And even if we get the right one, the other Seosten, who could be anybody, will know. And then who the hell knows what they’ll do.” 

Avalon nodded slowly, frowning as she obviously thought for a moment before speaking up. “So we have to find out who this Seosten is possessing, then use her to find the others. Then use the spell on all of them at once before they hurt anyone else.”

“That’s the best plan I thought of too,” I confirmed while shrugging. “Prosser said he’d teach us how to use the spell, and–”

“Teach us?” Avalon interrupted. Her eyes were… okay, wow, her eyes were wide as she she stared at me. “Us. As in meet us. As in meet him. He wants us to meet him. And talk. And–”

“Wow,” Shiori snickered despite herself, leaning closer to me. “She’s really into this Prosser guy. Are you sure she likes gi–”

That was as far as she got before Avalon’s hand caught her arm and yanked the other girl off the shark. Shiori fell into the ocean with a yelp that was punctuated by a heavy splash.

Simpson quickly swam up from below to pick her out of the water, and the Asian girl stuck her tongue out at Avalon. “We both saw you blush.”

Coughing, I gestured. “I think the point is that we know for sure it’s the Seosten that are after Avalon now. I mean, why else would they be trying to stop us from talking to Fahsteth? Plus, that definitely explains how someone was able to kill Professor Pericles without setting off the security alert. The Seosten were possessing someone.”

Avalon nodded. “Which means they’re the ones who want to get into Bosch’s vault.”

Shaking her head, Shiori pushed her hands back through her soaked hair (as I told myself not to be distracted by the sight) to clear it away from her eyes. “But why? What’s in there that’s so important?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted quietly. “But whatever it is, it’s important enough for them to go this far trying to get to it. So it’s probably something that can fuck their whole race over. Maybe even expose the truth about how they’ve manipulated the Heretics for so long.

“And honestly, that sounds just perfect to me.”

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Mini-Interlude 24 – Flick

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Please note that the following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Flick sparring with a couple other students. It takes place between the events of 21-02 and 21-03 (the past two chapters).

“All right, for the next little match, let’s see… Flick.”

Blinking up at that from where I had been whispering something to Sands, I looked to Hisao. “Me?”

He nodded, gesturing to the spot in the middle of the school grounds where he had created a stone-floored arena about twice the size of a normal boxing ring. Because today’s defense class was all about sparring with each other. He wanted to see what we could do, and wanted us to see what we could do. So he’d set this up.

“There we go,” the man announced as I hesitantly stepped up onto the conjured stone floor. “Now, how about… Erin. That was your name, right?”

As Vanessa’s roommate nodded, he smiled. “Good, you and Mr. Paul Calburn over there. You two fight Flick.”

Paul gave a confused look toward me, then back to the Eden’s Garden substitute. “Both of us, sir? That’s ahh, not really fair.”

“I know, son,” Hisao replied. “But if I add any more of you to fight her, there won’t be room in the arena to maneuver. So you’re just gonna have to make do.”  

That got people talking, and I flushed hotly while moving over to my place. Erin waved, calling, “Hope you don’t think I’m gonna go easy on you just cuz you’re friends with my roomy.”

“I’d be disappointed if you did,” I called back. “Last thing I want is a boring fight.”

“Oh I promise you one thing,” Paul put in then. “It ain’t gonna be boring.” Giving me a nod, he added, “Good luck though.”

I nodded. “Same to you guys.”

Thanks to the arena that Hisao had set up, any blades were magically dulled. They wanted us to fight as hard as we could, but of course they didn’t want us to actually kill each other. Similarly, my staff wouldn’t trigger a lethal-level kinetic burst as long as that burst would actually hit someone. I wasn’t sure exactly how Hisao had set the whole thing up, but that along with other protective measures to stop us from engaging in lethal attacks (knowingly or otherwise) did seem useful. 

So we couldn’t kill each other. But that was about it. Full contact meant we would fight until one of us (or, in this case, either me or both of them) gave up or was too injured to continue. Or, of course, until Hisao decided that he’d seen enough. Since we all had at least the peridle’s healing ability, they weren’t too worried about things like cuts, bruises, and a few broken bones. After all, the Alters we fought would be playing for much bigger stakes.

Those were the only thoughts that had time to run through my head before Hisao announced the fight should begin. And then Erin and Paul were both coming at me.

Time to do this.

They came from opposite sides, Paul from the front and Erin from the back. I wasn’t sure how much of that was Paul’s inherent chivalry and how much was them hoping that focusing on the big guy coming straight at me would distract me from the girl coming at my back.

Whatever the reason, I had no intention of just standing there and letting it happen. Instead, I went straight for Paul. As the Kentucky boy came in hard with each of his two hand-axes swinging, I took two quick steps forward while snapping my staff up to the left. The tip of the staff barely caught the axe in his right hand just under the blade, at the end of the handle.

As the staff caught the axe, I dropped to one knee and gave a tug. Paul’s other axe whiffed through the air where I had just been. Meanwhile, the one that my staff had caught was tugged over my head, neatly intercepting Erin’s descending sword.

Before they could take advantage of my kneeling state, I snapped the staff around, catching Erin across the face with one end while Paul jerked backward to avoid the other. Unfortunately for him, the staff was still pointed at him. Holding tightly to it, I triggered the kinetic energy I’d been saving up.

The force yanked me up off the ground, and I released the staff as soon as I was in the air. It flew forward, rebounding off of Paul’s forehead. Meanwhile, I used the momentum of being yanked into the air to spin around. My foot took Erin in the shoulder, and my right hand snagged hold of my staff just in time to bring it around and catch her sword as I landed on my feet.

Unfortunately, catching her sword wasn’t enough to stop the other girl from using it to summon a blast of wind that knocked me stumbling sideways. She followed it up with a stab forward, which I barely managed to redirect away from me by snapping my staff into a vertical position to catch the blade near my side.

Then Paul was there. Pivoting to the right to avoid his first blow, I snapped my staff up to knock Erin’s incoming sword away from me that time, sending her blast of wind harmlessly away. At the same time, I drove an elbow back into Paul’s face.

Apparently he’d gotten some kind of enhanced strength or something at some point as well, because even the werewolf-enhanced strength wasn’t enough to do more than make him stumble back a step.

Meanwhile, Erin made a sharp gesture with one hand. As she did so, I felt something grab onto my feet. A quick glance down showed a pair of rock-like hands (or was that hand-like rocks?) that had pushed their way out of the ground to hold me in place.

Satisfied that I was held, Erin gave a swift flick of her sword behind herself, summoning a focused wind that shoved her forward in a fast lunge. A very fast lunge. If it wasn’t for the werewolf reflexes, I never would’ve been able to do anything about it.

As it was, I barely managed to bring my staff up and around to smack the incoming blade out of the way. Erin looked surprised for a moment that I’d managed to catch her in mid-lunge, but I didn’t have time to smile. From the corner of my eye with my head turned, I could see that Paul had recovered and was coming at me with both axes swinging down for my shoulders. And I was still trapped by the rock-hands holding my feet.  

Twisting at the waist, I caught one of the axes across the flat of the blade. Thanks to the werewolf’s strength, I was able to shove it into the path of its partner, knocking both off-course.

At the same time, I hit the button on the staff that triggered the tiny portals that allowed me to summon the sand from its container. About half of it I sent into Paul’s face, making him reel backwards. The other half I sent down at my own feet.

The rock-hands weren’t exactly airtight. I was able to send my cloud of sand into the cracks between it and my shoes. The individual grains easily found their way in.

Meanwhile, Erin kept coming at me with a rapid series of strikes from her sword that were made even more rapid by her ability to make the wind speed up each swing and jab. Fortunately, I was able to counter each one, my staff spinning and snapping into place every time the blade got near me. After the fifth one, I let the sword come as close as it ever had, then retaliated with a blow to the side of it that was strong enough to knock the weapon out of her hand.    

A gust of wind caught the sword and carried it back around into her other hand, of course. But by then, I’d done what I needed to do. I had enough sand between my feet and the rocks holding them. With that done, and the second reprieve I had, I brought the staff down between both of my trapped feet while triggering the kinetic charge it had built up.

The resulting blast put enough cracks in the stone constructs that I was able to send all that sand that I’d pushed under them right back out. Between the two assaults on them, the rock-hands crumbled, and I jerked my way free.

Paul, by that point, had figured out how to take care of the sand that I was using to spray into his face. Namely, he split himself in two, right down the middle. One of his new selves was half-flesh and half-water, while the other one was half-flesh and half-fire. Both the fire and the water did a lot to deal with the sand.

And, as a bonus, I now had three foes to deal with instead of two. Fortunately, as far as I knew, he could only hold his two separate forms for a very limited time. All I had to do was last that long.

The water-half and fire-half were each holding one of the axes. They came at me from the right and left side, while the newly-recovered Erin went for my back. Three different attacks coming straight for where I was.

So I decided to not be where I was. Pointing the staff at the ground, I triggered the blast to send myself up into the air. After sailing up a good fifteen feet, I flipped over in the air. In the process, I brought my staff back around while shifting it into its bow-form. Drawing the energy string back, I fired an arrow straight at where I had just been.

The energy-arrow hit the ground, exploding into a blast of kinetic force that threw all three figures backwards away from each other. A second later, I landed easily, already switching my bow back into its staff form while lashing out with a swing that caught Fire-Paul in the non-burning shoulder.

With the staff jammed hard into the boy’s shoulder, I used it to shove myself up so that both feet hit Erin in the chest. As soon as the double-kick connected, I triggered the last of the kinetic energy in the staff while loosening my grip on it so that it could shoot off of Fire-Paul’s shoulder to smack Water-Paul in the face. In the process, I closed my hand to catch the opposite end of it before the staff could completely leave my grip.

The whistle of wind from Erin’s sword served as a quick reminder that she wasn’t out of the fight yet, and I felt the staff nearly blown out of my outstretched hand. If it wasn’t for my enhanced strength, I would’ve lost my weapon. As it was, I had to grab it tightly, just as the other girl followed up the wind-blast with a kick that took me in the stomach.

Doubling over from the kick, I used it to duck under Fire-Paul’s swinging axe, putting myself behind him just as both of his selves had to fuse back into one. Before he could turn around then, I went forward. My right foot planted itself against his lower back, my left foot on his upper back, and then my right foot kicked off of his shoulder as I threw myself into a flip over his head. In the process, my staff swung backwards to smack into the boy’s face. As it did so, I sent another cloud of sand up into his nose and mouth, as well as his eyes.

Landing, I saw Erin making another gesture to summon more of her rock-hands from the ground. That time, however, I was ready. I’d come down with my staff pointing down, and triggered the charge that it’d managed to build up. The blast took me off the ground just as those hand-constructs came out to grab me, missing by inches.

Meanwhile, I let the blast carry me right into Erin with my right foot extended to catch her in the stomach. The blow was enough to double her over. As she did so, I rolled straight over her back to land on her opposite side.

By that point, the sand in Paul’s mouth and nose had gotten bad enough that he waved a hand with two fingers raised in the peace sign. That was the motion for surrender that had been agreed on, so I immediately yanked all the sand away from him. I’d been keeping a close eye on how he reacted. After all, I didn’t really want to hurt either of them.

But I did want to finish this fight. So before Erin could finish recovering, I snapped the end of the staff backwards and up into the girl’s face. Then I spun around, using the momentum to build up force before bringing length of the staff against her back as she recoiled. The blow knocked her to the ground, and the sword dropped from her hand.

A sharp whistle filled the air, and Hisao hopped up into the arena. After checking Paul quickly to make sure he was breathing all right, he moved to Erin.

I had already dropped to one knee by that point, my eyes on the other girl. “Hey, you okay?”

Wincing, she reached to rub her lower back. “Oww… oww, that’s gonna leave a mark. For a few minutes, at least.” Winking at me in a clear attempt to make me feel better even though she was obviously not feeling that great, she started to pick herself up. I extended a hand, and she accepted the help to her feet.

“Paul?” I called. “You all right over there?”

“I’ll be just fine,” he replied in his usual drawl. There was something else to it, just below the surface. He was obviously trying to sound normal, but I could tell his pride was hurt. Which didn’t make him a bad guy or anything, obviously. Everyone had an ego, and I had stung his. But he was smothering that reaction and putting a good face on it.

Releasing Erin after making sure she could stand on her own (however much she winced in the process), I moved to extend a hand to Paul then. After the most momentary of pauses, he took it. Then he met my gaze while shaking it. “We’ll get you next time.”

Casual as the words were, there was, again, something else beneath them. It was something in his eyes, the way he stared at me. It wasn’t loathing or anything. It wasn’t even really threatening. He was studying me. He was curious. And there was more to it. Somehow, it made me think of the look that must be in my eyes whenever I said that I’d help my friends with something.

Paul wasn’t looking at me like someone he needed to threaten. This wasn’t about being macho or anything like that. I’d seen that kind of look in plenty of eyes, and that wasn’t what this was.

He wasn’t threatening me. He saw me… as the threat. A threat he needed to be ready to protect the people he cared about from. And in the process of this sparring match, I had showed him that I could beat him.

This… could get complicated.  

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