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Investigations 25-01 – Gordon Kuhn (Interlude Arc)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude 24B – Nevada

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Spring, 1985

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Suspects 24-07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini-Interlude 35 – Sands and Scout

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“We were supposed to be superheroes.”

The voice of Sandoval Mason was quiet in the evening air, barely reaching the ears of her twin sister as the two of them stood at the edge of the school grounds opposite the beach, overlooking the vast jungle far below. Darkness had settled over the island, leaving the two figures illuminated only by the abundant moon and starlight. In the distance, other groups of students milled and moved around. But here, at the edge of the grounds, the twins were alone.

At that announcement, Scout said nothing in return, simply glancing at the other girl in silence. Yet it was a silence that Sands could read. After years of near-constant contact and interaction, she knew her sister.

“Yeah, I know,” she replied to the silence. “We’re still helping people, people that really deserve it. And… and if there’s…” Taking a moment to make sure that the privacy spell was still active, she lowered her voice even more anyway. “If there’s really Alters out there that aren’t evil, but are being killed anyway–” She glanced over, seeing Scout subtly lift her chin at the word ‘if’. “Yeah,” Sands muttered, bowing her head. “You’re right. Asenath. She’s totally a good vampire. Plus, those Meregan were nice. And Roxa, and–” She coughed. “I get it, okay? I get it.”

As she spoke, Sands held both hands out about a foot apart. From her palms, a thin strand of incredibly sticky web shot out, meeting in the middle. It was strong enough, she knew from practicing, to hold her weight no matter what she attached it to. A result of one of the spider-like spinnevurrs she had killed back during their team’s third hunt, the one on the other world that had ended with Flick and Avalon fighting Doxer and Trice. Sands didn’t have a lot of practice with the stuff yet, not enough to really rely on it anyway. But she was getting there. It was something that she had been practicing in private, or just with Scout. She wanted to actually be able to use it properly before doing much with it, since her first attempt at using the web had been… embarrassing and had resulted in Nevada having to extract her.

A moment later, that web abruptly caught fire, a result of the other spinnevurr she had killed. Not only did it allow her to instantly ignite any of the webs she had created at any time, but she was also immune to fire and heat. Or at least resistant enough that she didn’t feel anything from normal fire or any created by her own webs igniting. It was only after Nevada had rescued Sands from trapping herself the first time that she had figured out how to ignite the webs to get rid of them. Which was another reason she didn’t do much with it around the others, until she was ready. The last thing Sands wanted was another event like that one, this time in public.

Another sigh escaped her as she created another strand of web, only to burn it away again. “It’s just so complicated now. We were supposed to be these awesome hunters, these badass Heretics, you know? But now…” Trailing off, she shook her head. “Now it’s just… all these people that are supposed to be the good guys are–they’re not. The Committee, they’re supposed to be our great examples, our shining beacons. They’re our legends, Scout. They’re supposed to be the best of us, the best of everything. They always were, and now if they’re not–if they’re not, then… then what are we? If the monsters aren’t monsters, what is our entire–our entire society? What is our entire life? What are we?”

Scout’s response was a single word, spoken in a barely audible whisper. “Police.”

Police. Right. The Bystander police. Sands knew about them, of course. They’d seen movies and TV shows all about them. They took care of people by stopping criminals, by arresting or shooting them. But they didn’t arrest or shoot everyone. They only took down the bad people, the people who actually hurt people. And they didn’t have a super-sense screaming in their head to tell them exactly who the bad guy was just by looking at them. They had to figure it out.

Swallowing hard, Sands bit her lip. “Police. Be like police. Find the bad guys and stop them. Not because the Heretic-sense pointed at them, but because… they did something wrong.” It sounded so simple, put like that. So utterly and completely obvious. Yet the idea of ignoring the Heretic-sense, that staple of their entire society, felt abhorrent. It felt like the idea of closing her eyes and trying to find bad guys that way, that thought of not relying out an entire sense.

A hand touched her shoulder then, and she looked to see Scout watching. Her sister could read her without words as well. The other girl’s head shook, and she whispered, “Not ignore. Add.”

“Add?” Sands echoed, staring for a moment before straightening a little. “You mean use the Heretic-sense, but… don’t let it dictate everything. It can still identify Strangers out of a group of humans, but just because they are Strangers doesn’t mean they’re evil, so… so identify them and then prove they did something wrong?” When Scout nodded, she gave a low whistle. “That’d change everything, Scout. They’re not gonna listen to–I mean, you know–we’re not… we can’t make everyone… We can’t just change our entire society like that.”

Scout simply raised both shoulders to shrug before replying in her soft voice, “From the beginning of time until right now, everything that has ever happened was impossible until someone did it.” She reached out then, taking her sister’s hand before squeezing it firmly.

For a moment, Sands just stared at her, then let out a low breath and chuckled softly. “I was wrong with what I said before about how we were supposed to be superheroes.

“You already are one.”

******

It wasn’t long before the twins had to report to the front of the Pathmaker building, just outside of the protective circle that kept unauthorized people away. It was Monday evening, which meant it was time for another Track meeting with Professor Dare and the other Investigative students.

“Girls!” Jazz Rhodes, the tall black girl with long hair that had been dyed purple on one side and pink on the other, announced while moving up behind the twins to drop an arm around each of their shoulders. “I mean, you are girls, right? Girls besides me still exist? For real? Sometimes it’s like I can’t even tell what other girls are anymore, with my team of total sausage hogs, you know? I feel like I should change my name to Token, like we’re all in a movie and the producers just realized they didn’t have a girl in the script yet, so they just threw me in at the last second.”

“Hey, Jazz,” Sands replied, smiling a little at the girl’s oft-repeated complaints about being ‘abandoned’ in her team with no other girls ever since Roxa disappeared and Rudolph was switched over to fill her slot. “Come on, it’s not that bad. You’re around other girls all the time.”

“It’s not the same,” the tall girl lamented, heaving a sigh before straightening. “You’re lucky. Two boys on your team. Perfect.” Pausing then, she added with an admirable attempt at making it sound spontaneous, “Course, I guess you two are sisters and the other two girls on your team are sort of dating.” Slowly, she glanced toward Sands. “That ever get weird or anything?”

As far as fishing for information attempts went, that one was pretty good. It was relatively subtle, coming from a completely different angle without actually passing any real judgments about their teammates that might have made the twins withdraw. Sands gave it a solid seven out of ten.

It also wasn’t the first time that Jazz had tried something like it. Ever since she had switched into the Investigation track at the beginning of the new semester, the other girl had been working at different ways to get close to Sands and her sister. Obviously, she was fishing for information about Roxa’s disappearance. Flick had already mentioned that the other girl’s old team was obviously suspicious about the whole thing. And for some reason, they had fixated on Flick, and by extension, the rest of her team. Hell, it was probably the main reason that Jazz had switched into the Investigation Track, to get close to Flick. But since she had switched over to the Hunter track, that left Sands and Scout for Jazz to try to surreptitiously get information out of.

Rudolph was part of it too, but he seemed a lot less… intense about the whole thing. He definitely helped, since Sands had seen him involved in their team huddles and whatnot when they whispered to each other in between staring at Flick and Avalon. But whatever theory the other team had worked up about what was going on, Sands could tell Rudolph didn’t really believe it. He was clearly just going along with them, trying to fit in and help where he could.

“Weird?” Sands echoed the girl, raising an eyebrow. “You mean because two of my teammates are dating, and another one is also dating the sister of my other teammate? The worst ‘weird’ thing about that is how many people in this school keep asking if Scout and me can get them pictures.” She made a face then. “And I thought the monsters we have to hunt were creepy.”

Because sure, Jazz was obviously fishing for secrets to use against whatever paranoid thoughts they had about Flick. But to an extent… she wasn’t actually wrong. There was more to Roxa’s disappearance than they were being told. And Flick did know more than she was telling. It was just… complicated. Complicated in a way that Sands could never actually explain. But she still liked the other girl. She wanted to tell her the truth, wanted to–fuck. Fuck. This was hard. Standing there, knowing that she could take thirty seconds, if that, and answer most of the questions that were obviously driving the other girl insane about what had happened to her former roommate. Knowing she could answer them… but equally knowing that if she did, Jazz would never understand. She’d see her old teammate as an enemy… and Sands as one too. She, or someone on her team, would expose everything, would ruin everything. They’d probably go straight to the Committee, or to a teacher that wasn’t one of Gaia’s trusted people.

There had to be a better way to handle this. There had to be. But Sands hadn’t thought of it yet.

“Girls!” Professor Dare’s voice interrupted as the blonde woman approached the group of milling students, the elaborate sword at her hip swinging with each motion. “Is everything okay over there?”

Deciding it would be a bad idea to snicker over how both their teacher and Jazz’s first word that evening had been the same (for very different reasons), Sands made herself nod. “Yup. Just waiting to see what we’re doing next, right, Scout?” As her sister matched her nod, Sands added, “C’mon, Teach, what’re we gonna work on tonight? Why’d you wanna meet here?”

Before Dare could respond, a male voice spoke up from the direction of the nearby building. “Offhand, I’d say it was  because the rest of the buildings around here don’t teleport.” The man who was approaching wore tan khakis and a black longsleeved shirt that was open to reveal the matching tee-shirt underneath. With his somewhat stringy blond hair and clearly repeatedly broken nose, he looked like that Owen Wilson guy who was in some of those Bystander movies.

Once the rest of the group’s attention was on him, he paused, brow furrowing. “At least, I don’t think they do. But it’s been a couple hundred years since I went here, so who knows anymore?”

Clearing her throat, Dare gestured to the man. “Boys and girls, this is Professor Carfried.”

That brought on noises of confusion for a moment, punctuated by Travis Colby speaking up from nearby. “Uh, no offense, Professor, but no it’s not. That is definitely not Professor Carfried.”

Smiling just a little bit at that, Dare nodded once to the boy in acknowledgment. “Not the one you know, no. You know Professor Benji Carfried. This is Professor Josiah Carfried.”

The man himself added, “Benji’s my great-great-grandson, actually.” He paused then, frowning thoughtfully. “Might’ve missed a great in there somewhere…” Another thoughtful pause came then that went on for a moment before he shrugged. “Ah well, the point is, he’s pretty great.”

“Josiah,” Dare explained, “taught classes here at Crossroads about two hundred years ago. Since then, he moved on to his current position, which involves posing as a cultural anthropology professor at a prestigious Bystander university. He uses that position to keep an eye on what the Bystanders are digging up and to help make sure that we don’t have too many innocent people tripping over magically cursed objects or accidentally releasing entombed monsters. In his spare time, he sometimes comes in to advise some of our students. His time is valuable, so I expect you all to pay attention. You can learn a lot from Professor Carfried.”

The man waved that off. “Let’s just stick with Josiah, huh? Seems like it’d be a lot less confusing for everybody in the long run.” He smiled at the group. “Besides, I consider my time here to be a vacation from my normal job, and if everyone keeps calling me Professor, it ruins the effect.”

“As for why I asked you to meet here,” Dare continued then, “it’s because we’re going on a bit of a field trip as part of tonight’s activity. You’ll be assisting Josiah in his most recent… endeavor.”

Sands wasn’t sure what that meant, and a glance toward Scout received a silent shrug in response. By that point, Dare had already asked them to follow, as she and Josiah Carfried led them up to the Pathmaker building and through toward one of the transport rooms.

Stepping near the twins, Jazz whispered quietly, “So where do you think we’re going?”

Glancing that way, Sands shrugged, whispering back, “Something that has to do with anthropology, I guess.” She paused, adding, “Or maybe something to do with cursed objects.”

Eventually, the transport room finished shifting, opening up to let the class and their two adult escorts step out into what turned out to be one of the largest warehouses that Sands had ever seen. They were standing at the entrance in the front right of the room. Stretched out ahead them was what looked like a mile worth of enormous, ten-foot wide shelves laden down with crates and random objects. There were lamps, books, old-style VCR’s, statuettes, typewriters, jewelry, clothes, and more. The shelves themselves were stacked about thirty feet high, with various wheeled ladders spread down the aisle. And even more impressively, there wasn’t just a single row of shelves that stretched back that far. Another row ran alongside it, and then another, and another, all the way down as far as Sands could see. Row after row of shelves, all thirty feet high and laden down with thousands of random objects and crates.

Eyes widen, she blurted, “Wait, is this–”

“We call it Trajan,” Josah announced. “Or Trajan’s Forum. A couple thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Trajan built a massive complex for the time. They had temples, markets, and plenty more in the forum, including two of the most important libraries in history. One for Latin works, the other for Greek. They stood for over three hundred years. This place was named after that one, after one of the people who maintained the old libraries for so long helped gather the first objects that were to be housed in it.”

Trajan’s Forum. Sands had heard of it, of course. The place was where most of the unclaimed magical artifacts that didn’t belong to one of the powerful Heretic families (or the ones that multiple families couldn’t agree on the ownership of) were kept. No one she’d ever talked to knew where the place actually was. Some said it was under the very bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, some said it was on another world, others said it was somewhere in New Jersey. The point was, the place was hidden.

In the background as she considered all of that, Josiah and Professor Dare were explaining most of it to the others. Finally, the man finished with, “And now, there is something within these shelves that is causing… problems.

“A few months ago, a box of cursed objects was… appropriated from a pawn shop in the Bystander world. Each object was catalogued and placed in its appropriate location.. Except, apparently, for one of them. A child’s doll, about this size.” He held his hands up to illustrate something about a foot and a half tall. “Somehow, the doll was misfiled. We know that it’s still somewhere in this warehouse, but other than that…” His head shook.

“Wait,” Rudolph put in. “So we’re just supposed to find one doll in all of this stuff?”

“Help find it,” Dare corrected. “Part of the warehouse has already been searched. You’ll each pair up, take one of the remaining shelves, and carefully look through the contents. Just check for the doll and make sure that everything that’s supposed to be there, according to the list you’ll see at the front and back of each shelf, is actually there. Pay attention to those lists, they’ll tell you what each of the objects does and how to avoid triggering it.”

“On each object,” Josiah added, “you’ll see a red tag attached. These tags have protective spells cast on them that keep the object itself as docile as possible. Do not take the tags off.”

“Mess with anything you shouldn’t, remove a tag, try to sneak one of the objects out of this room, or anything else you shouldn’t do,” Dare informed them, “and you will be expelled from Crossroads, as well as any further measures that should be done. This may seem like a boring job, but it is the necessary work of someone in the Investigation Track. We search, we research, we check everything. Half of your jobs, if you stick with this, will be reading old books, going over hundreds of objects in a house until you find the one responsible for cursing a family, or even checking a dozen years worth of newspaper articles until you find one with a clue about the vampire that you’re looking for. It’s all research, and it’s all important. It’s best you learn about handling these cursed objects in a safe, contained environment like this one.”

Josiah winked then. “Yeah, all that and you guys being here means my guys don’t have to work so much overtime.”

A small smile touched Professor Dare’s face before she nodded. “Now then, let’s divide up into partners and get busy, shall we? Oh, and whatever pair happens to find the doll, you’ll both be rewarded.”

“What kind of reward?” one of the other girls asked.

“What reward?” Professor Dare echoed. “Well, that part is up to Josiah.”

For his part, the man gave them a wide smile. “Oh, trust me, it’s a good one. Whatever pair happen to find our missing doll, you and the rest of your team, or teams if you happen to be on different ones, will be taken on a sort-of… mini-vacation. Over the course of a long weekend sometime next month, we’ll visit New York City. Four days, with all the events, concerts, plays, and shopping you can cram in.”

“You will also be excused from classes for those two extra days,” Professor Dare confirmed. “And I believe that Josiah has already divided you into pairs?”

Josiah nodded. “I don’t know you guys, so I just drew names out of a hat. Well, it was a sock, but hat sounds better. Anyway, first up, we have Mason, Scout and Lewell, Kurt.”

Not so long ago, Sands and Scout would’ve objected to being separated. Even now, they were usually together. But Sands had come to find that letting go of Scout a little bit, letting her go with others, was sometimes for the best. Now, she looked to her sister just long enough for Scout to give her a faint nod of reassurance.

“Then,” the man continued, “we’ve got Mason, Sands–interesting name there, and Rhodes, Jasmine.”

Jazz. She’d be working with Jazz. Sands turned slightly, to find the tall girl giving her a little salute. Right, this was going to be… interesting. It was also the first time in her life, as far as she could remember, that Sands fervently hoped that she would not win a contest. Finding that doll, winning that weekend in New York where it would be her team and Roxa’s old team… yeah, the awkwardness of Jazz and her winning that reward would be visible from orbit.

Which, of course, was probably why an hour and a half later, they did just that.

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Suspects 24-06

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“We’ll go in first,” Mateo announced a moment later. “My pack and our friends. We can get a lot closer than any of you can.” He gestured not just at us, but toward the other Alters as well. “Weres know each other. We can get right into the camp. There’s so many people down there, they won’t know that we don’t belong there. We’ll get as close as we can, then start trouble.

“Once we’ve got the attention on us, the rest of the Alters can come in. Try to close over them like a net. They’ll be focused on us, which should give you a chance to hit them from behind.”

His eyes moved back over to us then. “Roxa can stay back with the Heretics. Heretics, the second any of them see you, they’ll know what you are. Stay back until the fight’s in full swing. Wait for your chance. Once everyone’s engaged, pick off targets of opportunity. Try not to let the word spread about Heretics being involved until it’s too late for them to regroup. Wait for the moment, then hit fast and hard as soon as they’re involved. The Heretic-Were is the priority.”

Looking to me then, he paused before asking, “You look a little confused. Is everything alright?”

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, of course. I just sort of thought there’d be a more specific plan than just ‘go here and fight at this time.’”

The werewolf smiled then. “Specific plans lead to specific failures. It’s a poor leader who tries to micromanage every aspect of a battle. Everyone here knows how to fight, they know how to react to circumstances. So everyone goes where they need to go, and we’ll get through this. You all understand?”

He waited for nods from those of us who were standing there before gesturing. “Alright, then get back to the rest of your groups and tell them what’s going on. Remember, Weres first, then Alters, then Heretics. It’s like the classic one-two punch, but then you kick ‘em in the balls too.”

“I guess in this scenario, we’re the ball-kickers,” I put in then with a raised eyebrow.

Mateo winked at me. “Seems appropriate, all things considered.” Pursing his lips then, he whistled. “Let’s move!” Briefly, he looked back to us. “Be careful, kids. Seriously. I know you already know it’s not a game, but… watch each other’s backs. You may not be a literal pack, but… act like one. Stay together. Take care of each other. You got it?” Waiting until he was given an assortment of nods, the man started off.

I turned to say something to the others, only to pretty much get a faceful of squealing teenage pixie. Which sounded so much like a euphemism even in my head that I blushed just thinking it.

“Flicker!” the pixie in question blurted while hugging tightly onto my face for a moment. “Did you hear?” She fluttered back, hovering there while yanking the tiny sword from her hip to wave it around a little, a tiny, winged swashbuckler. As she finished speaking, the little pixie dove forward to put herself in the pocket of my jacket of my uniform, popping her head back up after a second to grin. “We’re gonna go kick were-whatever ass!”

Smiling despite myself, I nodded. “Hey, Namythiet. Yup, we really are. Be careful though, okay?”

Her head bobbed up and down as she flew back up out of my jacket pocket. “O’course! I’ve gotta back up my mentor, you know.” Her mouth opened to say something else before she hesitated, blinking at me as her head tilted “Heeeeey,” she drawled, “why doncha look like a—how come you’re not a Heretic?” A gasp escaped her then. “Oh no, did you lose your powers?!”

Coughing, I shook my head. “No, I just–it’s a long story. I’m still a Heretic, I promise.” We’d already explained the situation to Mateo. There had been some discussion about using the fact that I didn’t trigger an Alter’s warning sense to let me get close to the camp. But that had been dismissed as too dangerous, since it would leave me alone and my face was probably well-known to the werewolves that Pace spent enough time with anyway.

Namythiet fluttered back then, giving a salute with her sword before flying off to join Seth. The vampire himself was looking our way. As Namythiet joined him, he gave us a nod, pointing toward Shiori before tapping a finger against his head and saying something that I didn’t pick up.

“Use my head,” Shiori provided. “He wants me to be careful.”

“I’m gonna take that as advice for all of us,” I replied while absently buttoning the pocket of my jacket once more. Then I looked back to the others as the people around us started moving out. “I guess we wait for this whole thing to get started then, huh? Anyone see Pace down there yet?”

“Blue tent to the left of the white pick-up,” a new voice announced. Turning, I saw Duncan approaching along with his sister, Misty. The two of them were the brother and sister natural Heretics (Duncan taking his power from a metal-manipulating Ullus while Misty gained hers from an Ogre) that I’d met back at the Atherby camp, the ones who had grown up in the clan after Mom had surrendered herself.

“The one called Pace,” Duncan clarified as he and Misty stopped by us. “That’s where she is.”

Roxa nodded. “He’s right. She was hanging around Lemuel for awhile, but then it looked like she got bored and went back into the tent. She’s come out a few times since then, mostly just grabbing food or messing with one of the other Weres. She’s back in the tent right now.”

“Hi Duncan, hey Misty.” Briefly, I introduced them to the others. “I guess you’re staying with us?”

“Yup,” the brown-haired girl with blonde strands scattered through it nodded. “We’re sort-of your bodyguards through this fight. Well, us and the big guy.” She nodded over her shoulder as the other natural Heretic I’d met that night, Enguerrand (the old, chainmail-armored Heretic who looked like he had time-traveled straight from the middle ages), approached. The teleporting Abeonas, Berlin, was with him.

“I’m  your lift,” Berlin announced as the two of them got close enough. “Soon as you’re ready, I’ll jump you right over there. Just say the word.”

Duncan added, “We’re also supposed to tell you that your father says if you get yourself hurt, he’s going to ground you for a month.”

Enguerrand, meanwhile, simply greeted us politely, giving me a slight smile before taking up a place almost directly behind me. At the moment, he was all business. And his business, apparently, was watching our backs, literally. Then… well, then we watched the field below and waited.

Mateo’s pack (aside from Roxa) and the other werewolves that they’d recruited were already making their way across the field. There were other weres from Lemuel’s gathered army meandering in and out, so it didn’t look all that out of the ordinary. Meanwhile, behind us, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters were getting organized with their own teleporters, waiting for the moment to jump in. Everything was tense, all eyes on the camp in the distance.

“I wish I was there,” Roxa muttered beside me. She sounded surprised by her own voice, her own words. Lifting her chin, she stared down at the dots that were Mateo and the others. “… I wish I was there. Not here. I want to be with them. I should be with them.”

“You’d give away their cover,” Tristan reminded the girl. “Every single Were down there would see you as a Heretic. And they know there’s only one were-Heretic on their side. Pace.”

“I know,” she mumbled, arms folded. “But I don’t have to like it.” The girl rested a hand on Gidget’s head, who was busy glowering down at the figures in the distance.

It was Enguerrand who spoke up, his voice quiet, yet measured. “You are devoted to your allies, Miss Pittman. It is an admirable quality, and one that many should learn to emulate.”   

Before anyone else could respond to that, Quing spat a series of words that I didn’t know, but sounded an awful lot like curses. My head snapped that way to ask what was wrong, but then I saw it. In the field below, Mateo and his people had been surrounded by a ring of other weres. At the front of them was a figure I couldn’t make out the details of, but something told me it was…

“Lemuel,” Roxa snarled, binoculars held to her eyes. “It’s him and his pack. Mateo and the others are in trouble.” She dropped the binoculars, taking a step that way.

“Wait,” I caught her arm. “The other Alters are gonna make their move now. The plan can still–”

“Screw the plan,” the other girl snapped. “Screw everything. I’m not gonna stand here and let that psycho hurt Mateo or any of the others. I’m not gonna stand here and watch them die! Gidget!” At the sound of her name, the cyberform abruptly shape-shifted and folded in on herself, going from cougar to armored hoverboard as Roxa stepped up on her back.

My hand stayed on her arm, and I started to say something else to convince her to wait. Before I could, however, the sound of a cry from far below caught our attention.

Fighting. Mateo’s pack and the other weres were fighting. It had devolved into an all-out brawl. Exactly like it was supposed to. Not as far in as they’d planned, but still. Lemuel was there and the focus was on Mateo’s people.

As outnumbered as they were, they couldn’t last long like that, with everyone’s focus on them. Luckily, however, they didn’t need to. The moment the fight was underway, I heard calls from the Alters around us. They had already organized themselves into groups. Seeing the brawl underway, the cry went up to move in.

In groups of mostly three or four, the Wonderland and Atherby Alters vanished, only to reappear at spots on either side of the were-encampment in the desert valley below. Lemuel’s recruits barely had time to tear their attention away from the brawl at the edge of the camp to realize that they were being attacked by more Alters. In seconds, what had begun as a relatively easy curbstomp of Mateo’s people was suddenly an all-out war as dozens of beings from both sides fell in on each other.

Roxa tugged her arm away from my grip then. “I’m going to be with my pack,” she informed me. “I won’t abandon them.” As the blonde girl gave a sharp whistle, Gidget flew off the ground, diving down to join Mateo and the others.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Okay. Pace. We focus on Pace. Get the choker from her while helping everyone else, like Mateo said. Where is she?”

Quing pointed a feathered hand down into the chaotic battlefield. “There. She is… enjoying herself.” He grimaced a little before speaking again. “Tulmin, to your left. Buddy, take three steps forward, the bear behind the tent is trying to ambush our friends. Scolpa, weresnake burrowing under you, move now.”

He was acting as a sort-of overwatch, I realized. The bird-man was keeping an eye on everything that was going on, and communicating with the Wonderland Alters somehow to give them directions and advice.

Swallowing, I looked back to the others. Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan from Crossroads. Duncan, Misty, and Enguerrand from the Atherby camp. And myself. “Right in the middle of things. Great. Okay, guys… um…” I didn’t know what to say. I froze up.

“We’re doing this,” Avalon interrupted. Her gaze was steady as her hand moved to very briefly touch mine before falling back. Straightening, she nodded toward Berlin. “Take us in.”

“I think she means,” Shiori started, “Beam us–”

And just like that, we weren’t watching the battle anymore.

We were in the middle of it.

******

I was standing a few yards away from a canvas tent, staff in one hand. To my right, there was a scream of panic, accompanied by the savage roar of a wolf and the sound of tearing meat and crunching bone. The scream turned to gurgles before stopping entirely. The sound of the wolf’s victorious snarl turned to a squeal as a larger figure slammed into it hard enough to shatter half the bones in the wolf’s body.

I didn’t even know which of them was on my side. I should have, but in the heat of the moment, in the dust and furious sounds around me, my brain froze up for a second. I stood there, surrounded by blood, by violence, by death.

Ahead of me, a dark-blue, twelve-foot-tall giant with no shirt was locked in a pitched battle with a nine-foot tall werebear. Despite the height advantage, they both seemed to be equally matched, neither giving an inch. A little to the right of them, a were in full wolf-form bounded forward and started to leap, only to tumble backward with a yelp as an arrow whistled through the air and straight into the wolf’s eye. Fennicus, the centaur, galloped past while already lining up another shot with his bow that took the still tumbling wolf in the side. To the left and a hundred yards away, Seth was busy dealing with a pair of werewolves in their half-wolf forms, as well as a fully-formed jaguar. Meanwhile, there was a giant vulture swooping around above him that kept trying to dive in, only to be thwarted repeatedly by the tiny, darting figure that was Namythiet.

Hell, right nearby, I could see the natural Heretics from the Atherby camp going to work. Misty had her enormous sword, the thing that was big as she was, spinning over her head like it was made out of foam. A massive, armored werecrocodile was lunging for her, jaws snapping down. Just before it would have bitten her in half, however, she shoved that sword into its mouth, catching the descending jaws. As the crocodile made a noise of surprise, the tiny waif of a girl grinned before triggering something on the handle of her giant sword. An instant later, the croc was literally hurtled away as a deafening boom filled the air. Smoke was coming out of the end of the sword, which had opened up a bit to reveal a gun barrel equally huge. Even as the crocodile flailed its way back to the ground with a hole in its back (injured, but not dead), Misty was shouting something about loving cannons.

“Chambers!” Avalon’s shout penetrated my briefly frozen mind, and my eyes focused on her. She and the others were all standing behind me, spaced out a little bit. “Don’t tunnel vision,” the other girl snapped while pivoting, eyes scanning. “You’re not a spectator! You know better than that!”

“Got it, sorry.” Focusing, I hoisted my staff into position, ordering Jaq and Gus into position to convert the thing into its bladed-form right from the start. The others already had their weapons drawn, and had spaced themselves out enough not to get in each other’s way. Which was good, because it was at that moment that the weres surrounding us realized that they had even more company. Heretic company. And they weren’t too happy about it.

As the shout went up and around them, Avalon spoke flatly. “Clear a hole, get to Pace. That’s what matters. She doesn’t get away.”

And that was all she had time to say before the surrounding weres fell in on us.

The werelion that ran straight at me in his half-human form was clearly young. Maybe even my age. He was eager, too eager to have fought many Heretics and probably still too awed by his own power to consider that someone else might be able to match or beat it. He wore ragged jean shorts that had mostly snapped under the force and pressure of his body growing into the larger battle-form, and no shirt. His chest was crisscrossed with some kind of barbed-wire tattoo with a skull in the top center, just under his throat. In this battle-form, he was much heavier and more muscled than a normal human, with a fine down-like layer of fur over his skin, a face that looked rough and bumpy like a neanderthal, incredibly pronounced teeth, and visible claws protruding from his slightly elongated fingers. Oh, and he had a mane of hair surrounding his head. 

He lunged, one long, muscled arm lashing out to bring those nasty-looking claws swiping at me. In response, I took a quick step forward, pivoting to put my back to the lion-man while bringing my staff up vertically in my right hand. His swinging arm was caught against the staff, blocking him from cutting me. At the same time, I continued my pivot, driving the elbow of my left arm back hard into his face. With the strength of a normal seventeen-year-old girl, he would have shrugged it off. But I had the absorbed strength from Valentine, delivering a blow to his jaw that knocked the werelion stumbling back a step.

Following that up without an instant of hesitation, I continued turning until I was facing the figure, who was just then catching himself. He recovered quickly, launching himself forward once more while lashing out with a series of wild swings. But I was already set, spinning my staff up to catch the first swing from his left arm before snapping the other end up to smack his right arm out of the way, then back again for the left. One, two, three, all in the span of about a second. Before he could attack again, my staff was snapping up, spinning in my hands so that one of the flat sides of of the grapple smacked off the bottom of his chin, snapping his head back to expose his throat. An instant later, the staff continued spinning in my hands so that the other end with its attached blade sliced a hole right through his exposed jugular.

Once more, he stumbled back, grabbing for his throat with widened eyes as it spurted blood. Without waiting for him to even realize just how bad the injury was, I took two quick steps forward and leapt up, kicking out to put my foot into his shoulder. The blow knocked him backwards and down, so that he landed on his back with me standing on top of him, one foot still on his shoulder, while the other rested on his stomach. He stared up at me, gurgling for a second just before I brought the bladed-end of the staff down with a decisive slash that separated his head from his neck.

Doubling over a bit as the pleasure rushed through me, I had the sense of mind to mutter, “Did I forget to mention that Nevada added enough silver to Jaq and Gus to let them hurt a were? Oops.”

Because yeah, knowing how soon I was going to be fighting werewolves again (especially given how they’d basically named me as one of their enemies), I would’ve been an idiot not to ask Nevada to include silver in my weapon upgrades. And as for not telling anyone else about it, well, that let it be my little secret.

The others were just as busy. To my left, I caught a glimpse of the Moon twins working together against a fully-transformed werejaguar. As the supernatural wildcat leapt at them, Vanessa’s whip cracked the air directly in front of it. As it did so, a glowing red circle about the size of a manhole cover appeared. When the jaguar passed through it, the thing burst into flame. With a squeal, the transformed Alter dropped to the ground, its fur on fire as it rolled and flailed to put it out.

Yeah, at the beginning of the year, the whip that Vanessa used had just been capable of exchanging any inanimate material it struck with any other inanimate material. But apparently, I wasn’t the only one who upgraded my weapon as time went on. Now the whip could produce those ‘mines’ of different elemental effects. Not just fire, but lightning, ice, and even a poison gas.

While the burning jaguar was recovering, Tristan took aim. Bobbi-Bobbi, his cyberform snake, was in her weapon-mode. The lower half of the long mechanical serpent was wrapped around his upper body to form a sort-of protective armor, while her upper-half and head had attached itself to Tristan’s arm. It made him look like a bit like MegaMan with his armcannon. You know, if MegaMan’s armcannon looked like the head of a snake at the end.

It looked even more like the video game robot when the blast of powerful red light shot out of his cannon to collide with the fallen jaguar, knocking the thing back down long enough for Vanessa to wrap her whip around its hind legs. A hard yank pulled the figure across the ground close enough for Tristan to jump on it with his silver knife.

Shiori and Avalon were equally busy, also working together. In their case, there was a gigantic fucking wererhino galloping around them. It had shrugged off all their attempts to do damage to its heavily armored hide. Even the silver knives couldn’t actually penetrate, despite all their efforts. They could avoid his charges, but not really do any damage. And if they left him alone, sooner or later, he’d find his target.

Finally, the two of them looked at each other. There was a brief exchange of about three words between them before they nodded. Then the pair ran straight for the rhino, even as he ran at them.

Avalon’s inherited speed allowed her to run at about thirty miles per hour. She used that to her advantage, quickly moving ahead of Shiori. At the last second, she jumped, the leap carrying her up and over the thing. As she flew above it, both of hands lashed out. From her gauntlets, a pair of energy coils extended and flew down to wrap around the rhino’s horn. Avalon landed on its back while heaving on the energy coils as hard as she could.

Shiori, meanwhile, stood her ground as the wererhino ran straight for her. I wanted to cry out, but stopped myself. Distracting the girls right then would be… bad.

They were ready anyway. As Avalon yanked back on the coils that she’d wrapped around the rhino’s horn, it involuntarily opened its mouth. And as it did so, Shiori opened her own mouth. A deafening scream erupted from the girl. It was like she was speaking in literal thunder.

And that thunder was accompanied by lightning. The girl had combined the sonic scream that she had inherited from the Cù-Sith she had fought back when we were dealing with Fahsteth, with the lightning breath she had inherited from the Jekern. As a result, she could literally scream lightning with associated thunder.

The combined sonic and electrical attack tore straight into the charging rhino’s open mouth, avoiding all of its armor entirely in the process. The force of it stopped the thing in its tracks, while the lightning knocked it to the ground, twitching along with the burning smell of flesh.

Before it could recover, Avalon hopped off, spun around, and lashed out with her gauntlet. A blade of energy appeared in mid-swing, cutting through the rhino’s open mouth and up into its brain. Avalon’s pale green aura quickly rose around her.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Shiori shouted a warning, just as a second werecrocodile, different from the one that Misty had been dealing with, appeared almost out of nowhere. This one was in half-human form. He looked like a massive green-scaled figure with a long, bladed tail and an elongated mouth. Actually, he almost looked more like a half-dinosaur than a half-crocodile. He grabbed for Avalon, who managed to slip free just in time to spin around and kick out. Shiori was already there, going up on his opposite side.

Then I saw it. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of one of the pickup trucks that had been parked along the edge of the camp. It was heading out, swerving around the worst of the fighting. And behind the wheel was–

“Pace!” I blurted, raising a hand to point at the truck.

Avalon, still grappling with the half-crocodile, grimaced. “Stop her, Chambers!”

Stop her. Right. I could do that. Taking a breath, I looked at my staff, at the transformed Jaq and Gus. “All right, guys. Let’s do this.”

With that, I started to move. Cutting a diagonal path across the battlefield not toward where the truck was, but the way it was heading, I sprinted..Ten feet in, and a tiger was coming straight at me, gathering itself for a leap. At the last second, however, a sedan came flying in out of nowhere to smack into the tiger. And that was literally flying. That Duncan guy was nearby. With a flick of his hand, he sent the empty car flying up before bringing it down hard on top of the still dazed weretiger.

I kept going, truck in sight as it rounded the corner of the camp. A short burst from my staff carried me on top of the sedan that Duncan was using, and he gave it a hard shove upward, a move that, combined with another burst from my staff, carried me a good half of the distance I needed to cover.

Running, running. Others were faster than I was, but I could go all-out for hours. I sprinted across the camp, even as not just one, but two positively massive bears reared up to block my path. The things were huge, twelve feet tall if they were an inch. Even as the one on the left hauled itself up, however, something much smaller knocked it back down again. Misty came flying in out of nowhere, her tiny figure looking more like a toothpick that the bear would use. But her fist slammed into the bear’s face with enough force to knock the damn thing onto its back, even as Misty gave an excited whoop.  

The bear on the right, meanwhile, had just turned that way when someone else approached. Enguerrand. He jumped at the thing too, but rather than slamming into it, he… well, errr… slammed into it. Literally. The man disappeared. For a second I thought he’d gone through the thing. But he never came out the other side. The bear, meanwhile, staggered for a second, then pivoted and leapt onto one of the nearby barechested half-wolves.

Possessed him. Enguerrand literally possessed the bear, like a–

Truck! Focus on the truck, it was getting away. And these guys had just cleared enough of a path to catch up. Grimacing, I took off again. This time, nothing was going to stop me from getting to that truck, from getting to Pace.

Arms, claws, and tails lashed out at me, most haphazardly as I moved in and then out of their range I ducked, dove, rolled, then popped up and kept running. I hopped over a fallen tent, dropped into a slide to take myself under a swinging sword, and narrowly spun away from a burst of fire. Through it all, I kept my eyes on that truck as it hurtled its way across the desert, heading for a bumpy dirt road that would lead it out of the battlefield. And through it all, I kept charging my staff.

Time it right, had to time it just right. If I didn’t, I was gonna lose the truck entirely. Three seconds, two seconds, one second–now, now, now! Flipping my staff around and down, I pointed it at the ground before triggering a burst that sent me flying up and forward. Again, not to where the truck was, but to where it was going to be. Right at the spot where the actual road started, the road that would take the truck, with Pace inside it, away from the fight.

By the time I reached the apex of my flight, I had already converted my staff into its bow form. Flipping over in the air to point my feet up so that I could look straight down, I took aim, using the last of the staff’s kinetic charge to set a powerful energy arrow just as the truck approached. As it passed directly beneath me, I loosed the shot with a grunt.

The arrow careened down, colliding with the back of the pickup before releasing all of its charged-up kinetic force. The explosion of energy from the impact literally launched the speeding truck up and over, sending it flipping end over end a few times before it came down on its hood and roof.

Landing in a kneeling position a second later, I kept my eyes focused on the truck. There was no way that would even slow Pace down very much, let alone actually hurt her.

Sure enough, the crazy (probably possessed) werewolf-Heretic crawled out of the truck, picking herself up with a squeal that I belatedly realized was a laugh. “Whooo! That was fun! Let’s do it again, do it again, do it again!”

“Later,” another voice grunted. The door of the truck was kicked free, flying a good fifteen feet before a second figure shoved himself out and stood.

Lemuel. It was Pace and Lemuel. Both of them focused on me, almost identical smiles coming to their faces.

“Aww,” Pace announced with a giggle of joy. “Present came back! Let’s play with the present. Huh, huh, can we?”

“Oh,” Lemuel replied, the pack-leader already shifting into his much larger half-wolf form. “I think we can spare enough time to unwrap your treat.”

“Yay!” Pace bounced up and down like an excited little girl, even as she produced two silver knives, one in each hand. “How fun! And she’s all by herself too!”

There was a sudden sound in the air above me, before a figure landed at my side.

“Wanna bet?” Roxa asked Pace, even as Gidget dropped to transform into her cougar shape beside her. To me, she added, “Sorry. I… I had to help them.”

“No problem,” I replied, raising my staff. “You’re here when it counts.”

Lemuel lifted his chin then, his smile growing. “My little pup? How… glorious. This’ll be fun.”

“I’m not helpless this time, you piece of shit,” Roxa snarled at him.

Lemuel’s response was a low chuckle. “Good,” he retorted. “I prefer it when my toys have a little spirit to them. Makes it a lot more fun when they break.”

He and Pace glanced to each other for a half-second.

And with that, they lunged.

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Suspects 24-05

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“I have more questions than there are words in the English language, Chambers.” Avalon had pressed both hands together in a praying position, both index fingers lightly touching her bottom lip. “But I think three of those words work to sum it up adequately. What. The. Fuck.”

Tristan pointed. “Uh, yeah, I’m with her. What do you mean, you’re gonna talk to the Hangman skull? First, isn’t the thing being guarded by, like, full Heretics ever since that little brat went through it? Second, aren’t they supposed to be evil? Third, and again because I cannot stress this enough, already being guarded. Not that we’re not super-awesome, but seriously?”

“Okay.” Holding up both hands, I shook my head. “There isn’t really time to explain it. Not yet. We’re kind of in a rush right now, if we’re gonna get there before the wolves take off. And I’m pretty sure it’s gonna take a bit to actually talk the skull into doing us a solid. So I just need you guys to trust me for a minute, alright?” When they nodded, I reached into my pocket and took out five polished, rounded stones, each about an inches across with several identical engraved symbols on them. Tugging them out, I passed the stones around. There was one for each of us.  

“An audio transmission spell?” Vanessa asked while examining the rock closely. “And a transportation spell. But I can’t tell what the other ones are. Something about silence?”

“Oh, audio transmission,” I replied. “Great, he must’ve added it so we can hear what’s going on. We didn’t have a chance to talk for long, so I wasn’t sure if he’d get to it.”

Before they could ask what I meant by ‘he’, there was a shout. It seemed to come directly from the rocks that we were holding, echoing through the room as it came from five different sources.

“Traitor!” Wyatt’s voice shouted from the rocks once more, making the others jump. With a smile, I waved them to take a look through the window that I had already opened. In the distance, we could make out the sight of two figures in front of the lighthouse. One was a third-year student that I had seen around the school before. His arm was being held by the other figure, Wyatt himself. There was a tray on the ground with food spilled out around it, littered over the grass. The poor guy had almost a foot and a good fifty pounds (at least) on my brother, yet Wyatt was easily holding him in place despite his obvious struggles to the contrary.

Yeah, I’d gone to Wyatt with the problem of how to get up to the Heretical Edge. Like I’d told the others, we hadn’t been able to talk for long. But he’d promised that he had a way of causing a distraction, and before school had ended, he’d slipped the rocks to me for the next step.

“Traitor!” Wyatt shouted again, drowning out the boy’s protests that were also being transmitted. “Who got to you? Who paid you to assassinate our people, hmm? Which of our enemies filled your pockets with gold and fouled your soul with the stench of hired murder?! Who was it, boy?”

There was the sound of another, more distant voice that the rocks didn’t quite pick up. Then the door of the lighthouse opened and a figure stepped out into view. The guard who was helping to make sure that nothing like Ammon popping through happened again. As he came through the door, the man got close enough for the stones to pick up his words. “–is going on out here?”

“This… conspirator,” Wyatt started, still holding the student by the arm, “was attempting to deliver poisoned food to you. No doubt his intention was to wait for it to take effect and then allow his master’s army to slip through while you were choking on your own vomit. Within minutes, they would have overrun the school and killed each and every one of us!”

“Dude!” the older student blurted, “I was delivering the food cuz that chef guy asked me to, chill!”

While Wyatt went on another rather impressive rant, I looked back to the others. “Okay, it’s clear. Wyatt checked it out earlier, there’s just the one guy and multiplying isn’t one of his powers. Rub your thumbs over that rune there and repeat after me. Oh, and the other spells on the rocks are gonna stop all the security alarms that they’ve got up there from going off. So whatever you do, don’t let go of them.” Taking a breath then, I moved my thumb over the stone a few times while speaking clearly so that the others could understand and copy me. “Kusafiri.”

As soon as I said the word, the room around me vanished. I felt a slight twisting sensation in my stomach and stumbled a little bit. When it stopped, I was standing in the top of the lighthouse.

The others appeared a moment later, and I looked around quickly. The light fixture was where it had always been, right in the middle of the platform. I had just taken a step that way when the others appeared all around me as they finished repeating the spell-trigger that Wyatt had set up.

“Okay,” I whispered, “the rocks should also make sure the guy downstairs doesn’t hear us, but let’s not push our luck too much.” As the others nodded, I moved over to the light fixture, the Heretical Edge itself, or at least the part of it that we could actually see.

Once there, I wasn’t sure how to start. I’d wanted to talk to the Hangman ever since I’d figured out that it was the reason that Mom had been able to get into the school grounds undetected, except it was always guarded. But right now, desperate times called for desperate measures. The clock was counting down to us losing our best chance to get that choker from Pace.

“Um.” I started and then stopped, squeezing the stone in my hand. Come on, Flick. Get over it, I thought to myself. Wyatt can only distract that guy for so long. Do this. Talk to the skull.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to talk to the imprisoned Hangman about. I didn’t know if it would care at all about our mission or why we needed to get out there, or about me.

So in the end, I just… talked.

“Hey… I-I’m sorry.” Lifting my hand, I rested it against the edge of the giant bulb that clearly encased the skull. “I… I don’t know how much of what we learned about you was true and how much was lies. Probably most of it was lies. And even if it wasn’t, you don’t deserve to be treated like… this.” Swallowing hard, I continued. “Trapped… broken… used for centuries. What happened to you, what they did, what they’re still doing, it’s wrong. And I wish I could do something about it. I wish I was here to tell you that we had a way to help, that we could… could do… anything. I wish I wasn’t here to ask for a favor. Because now, that just seems… selfish.

“But somehow… somehow I think it’s a little bit okay. I don’t know… almost anything about you, at all. Like I said, I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know what really happened or what you’re really like. I don’t know any of that. But I do know that you helped my mom. My mom wanted to help Alters, people that the Heretics were killing. She wanted to save them, and you helped her. You helped her get where she needed to be, you shielded her, and you made her powerful. That’s the only thing I know about you for sure, that you helped my mother when you didn’t have to. You helped her so that she could protect others. And that’s not a monster.

“I can’t help you right now. I can’t… do anything to make it better. All I can do is promise that I won’t forget you. I see you. I remember you. You matter. I don’t know what that’s worth, but you do. You matter. And you’re the only one who can help us right now. The Seosten, the ones who really did this to you, they’re in the school. They’re hurting my friends. And the only way we can identify them, the only way we can stop them, is by getting to this location.” I held my phone up to the glass with the GPS coordinates that Roxa had sent me. “If we don’t get there in the next few minutes, we’re gonna miss our chance. We can’t leave the grounds or go to Gaia for help without the Committee’s lackeys noticing. You’re the only chance we have. Believe me, if you don’t want to do anything, I won’t blame you. But I have to ask. Please, please, help us. I’m not-”

My last word was abruptly cut off as the glass of the giant light fixture vanished, making me stumble forward a couple steps before I caught my balance.

Wait, no, it wasn’t just that the light fixture had disappeared. It was that the entire lighthouse was gone. Or rather, I was. The floor beneath my feet had turned into grass and dirt, the air smelled completely different, the weather was significantly cooler, and I could hear cows in the distance.

The others were already recovering. They had appeared right alongside me, transported at the same time. Transported. It had worked. It actually worked. The Hangman had listened to me.

I was still standing there, a little stunned as Shiori lunged over. Her arms wrapped around me, hugging tight enough to make me yelp in surprise. “Flick!” she blurted, “You did it!”

“Not me,” I corrected after catching myself sniffing her hair. “The Hangman did it. Which is just-”

“Hey!” a voice abruptly hissed, making us whirl that way to find a black woman standing there. She looked like she was a few years older than we were, and her short hair was dyed purple. A red-haired guy stood on one side of her while Roxa stood on the other with her mechanical cougar at her hip. The woman was speaking. “I dunno what they teach you about weres up at that school, but they have good hearing. So let’s try not to attract all of them over here by screaming our heads off, mmkay?”

Werewolves, clearly. I didn’t even need my Heretic-sense to tell me that. With Roxa there, it was obvious. They were part of Sean’s uncle’s pack. The Hangman had dropped us right by them.  

“It’s alright, Lesedi,” Mateo himself announced as he came into view, though he kept his voice down. “We’re far enough away that even were-hearing shouldn’t pick us up. And our Wonderland friends have set some stealth enchantments. Though being careful is a good idea.”

He turned his attention to us then. And again, I was surprised by how unimposing the Hispanic man appeared. He looked like he belonged behind a computer, meticulously examining spreadsheets and tax forms, not leading a pack of werewolves. It was still a bit disconcerting.

“You made it,” he announced, extending a hand. “Good to see a bit more help, as much as I hate the idea of letting kids get into this kind of fight.” Pausing, he added, “Though I suppose with the kind of stuff that’s coming for you guys, shielding you from it’s probably a pipe dream.”  

“I think that’s why Gaia isn’t stopping us from getting involved,” I murmured while accepting the man’s hand. “She plays umbrella for the worst of it, but some of it, she’s just gotta let us get hit.”

“So you learn to take it and hit back,” Mateo confirmed, releasing my hand after a moment to shake the others. “Most of you guys I know, but you…” He trailed off, squinting at Shiori and Vanessa for a second until they introduced themselves. “Great, we’re uh, we’re set up over here.” Gesturing over his shoulder, the man paused before adding, “You should get a look at what we’ve got and what we’re dealing with. Make sure you still want to be involved with it.”

I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but, with a shrug back at the others, I started to follow after the man as he led us across what looked like a rocky, sagebrush-filled desert in the middle of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. We were actually in southern Utah at the moment, so there was a lot of red rocks, short canyons, and big rock formations. But yeah, pretty far removed from anything resembling civilization. Which made sense, considering I was pretty sure the werewolves wouldn’t be holding their big pow-wow in the convention hall of a Ritz-Carlton. They’d want to be somewhere private, somewhere they could cut loose without being careful.

Stopping by Roxa, I paused before looking to the blonde girl. “I guess we’re doing this, huh?”

Before she could respond, the woman beside her, Lesedi, made a scoffing noise. “Yeah, might as well all throw ourselves at this army just so sunshine can go back to a nice, normal life.”

Lesedi headed off in another direction then, leaving Roxa to sigh. Biting her lip, she watched the woman before her eyes moved back to me, voice low. “She’s upset because she thinks I don’t want to be a part of the pack. She thinks I’m desperate to leave and go back to the Heretics instead of staying with Mateo and the rest. I’m pretty sure they all think that, at least a bit.”

As she said that, Gidget, the cyberform cougar, nudged up against the girl and gave a little whine.

“Do you?” That was Vanessa piping up from behind me. “Do you want to go back, I mean.”

That drew a prolonged hesitation from Roxa before the girl settled on, “I don’t know what I want. It used to be really obvious, you know? Get the choker, go back to being a Heretic as soon as it was safe. I was just gonna go right back to the school, with you guys. But now, after a couple months with the pack…” She hesitated before sighing. “It’s a lot harder than I thought it’d be.”  

“You don’t have to make a decision right this second,” I pointed out. “Let’s just get the option. We need to get the choker away from Pace anyway. And besides, I’m pretty sure that whatever Lemuel’s up to gathering all these werewolves together in one group like this, it’s nothing good.”

Pausing at that, Roxa looked back to us. “It’s not just wolves.” She started to say something else before gesturing for us to follow. “Come on, it’s probably better if you just see it for yourselves.”

So, the five of us followed as she led us the same way that Mateo had been going. We went up a semi-steep hill, following a narrow path until we came out on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide desert valley. There were a handful of trucks and other vehicles parked there, with a couple dozen people that kept pinging my Heretic-sense as Alters scattered around. Some of them were obviously the Wonderland assistance that had shown up. I could even see Seth and one of the other Septs (the centaur Fennicus) in the distance, having an intense-looking conversation with one of the werewolves. The non-Wonderland Alters meanwhile…

“Hi! Hello, hola, greetings, salutations,” the nine-tailed Kistune known as Busy came trotting up, grinning at us. “Good to see you again, the ones I’ve seen before, yes. Very good, except for the bad things out there. Nasty things, not so good. So many bad people. But you, you aren’t. You’re good, quite good. Coming to help, yes. So hello and greetings again, like I said before.”

Snickering a little despite myself, I gestured. “Guys, this is Busy. Busy, I guess you already saw Avalon and Shiori back at the camp. But this is Vanessa and Tristan. They’re here to help. And I guess you are too, which means that Gabriel got the message I sent?” I’d used the phone to send a text message about what was going on, hoping that the Atherby clan would be able to spare some help. And from the look of things, they had done just that. Though aside from a couple, I couldn’t tell which people were from Wonderland and which ones were from the clan.

The dark-skinned Kitsune bobbed his head up and down quickly. “Yes, yes, indubitably and affirmative. He’d never abandon you to such creatures, never leave you alone if given the chance. Sadly, unfortunately, and lamentably, other events prioritize his presence and assistance. Gabriel himself cannot be here in person. But he sent us to help, sent us to intercede, sent us to lend aid. I hope and wish that our aid and assistance will be sufficient.”

“Dude,” Tristan piped up then while giving a thumbs up. “I knew a Kitsune back with Nicholas, and if you’re anywhere near as useful as she was to have around, those wolves are in trouble.”

“Oh yes, indeed and of course. Wolves and others, all in trouble,” the other man agreed.

Before I could say anything to that, Mateo beckoned for us to join him at the edge of the ridge. I could see some others up there, including Duncan and Misty from the clan, as well as both Buddy the troll from Wonderland and his boss in the security division, the blue-feathered, bird-like Lavinso named Quing. All of them were staring off of the ridge, most using binoculars.

We made our way up there, passing more Alters who took deliberately wide berths around us, most of them staring and whispering behind our backs. Clearly, Crossroads Heretics weren’t the most popular allies among the Wonderland Alters. Not that I could blame them, after what I’d seen.

“Privet, druz’ya moy!” Buddy greeted us while thumping a massive hand against his even more massive chest. He was giving a wide, toothy smile. “Hello, my friends! Ve are here to be smacking und smashing dze bad guys, yes?”

Smiling, I nodded. “Hey, Buddy. Yup, they are gonna be one smashed clump of bad guys when we’re through.”

Beside the troll, Quing made a noncommittal noise. The bird-man pointedly wasn’t looking at us, though his body language was definitely tense.

“Hey,” Tristan started to blurt. “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like the bird-guy from Star Fo–”

“Don’t,” I quickly stopped the boy, shaking my head. It probably wasn’t a good subject to bring up.

To my surprise, however, Quing glanced over. His eyes were as hard as ever, but he replied, “You think I look like him, or does he look like me? Where do you think they got the idea for the character, kid?”

Leaving Tristan to work out if the guy was kidding or not, I looked back to the rest of the people gathered up here on the ridge. Roxa was there too. As I turned that way, she handed over another pair of binoculars and pointed off in the distance. “Look way out there, at the base of the mountain.”

Before I could even lift them, Vanessa was gasping from beside me. The half-Seosten girl was standing there, staring off without any visible aid. When I blinked at her, she flushed a little bit and muttered under her breath, “Telescopic vision, from an Ispec. It’s a long story.”

“But an awesome one,” Tristan put in. “They’re these wicked little–they kinda look like Sovereign. You know, Aylen’s metal bird? Only about three and a half feet tall and the metal stuff that’s over them is actually this hardened liquid that they pump out of their–never mind. Long story. You should’ve seen Nessa out there though.”

Lifting my chin, I asked, “Does that mean you don’t need the binoculars either?”

“Me?” Tristan’s head shook. “Nah, I didn’t get the same power she did. Me, I can do…” Lifting a hand, his eyes narrowed with focus. I saw what started out looking like a single dot of metallic liquid, almost like a raindrop or a bit of sweat appear on the back of his hand. Over a second or two, it spread out into a feather-shaped bit of metal sticking up a little bit. Tristan waited until we’d all seen it, then exhaled. As he did so, the feather shot out of his hand like a dart, cutting halfway into a nearby heavy boulder before it stopped.

Shiori whistled low at that. “Wow, dude. That’s pretty cool.”

“No kidding,” I agreed. “But let’s see what really not-cool thing we’re looking at out there.” Lifting the binoculars to my eyes at that, I looked the way they had directed.

It took a few seconds to focus in on the base of the distant mountain, but once it did, I choked a little bit.

They were right. There were weres out there. A lot of them. And not just werewolves. I could see them in animal and half-animal forms of all different kinds. Wolves, but also bears, snakes, coyotes, crows, and even a few more exotic animals like tigers, a couple apes, and a crocodile. They were all scattered across the desert field, around trucks and tents, as well as plenty of tables laden down with food.

“You’re right,” I murmured, “this isn’t just a werewolf convention. He’s got all kinds of weres out there. Dozens of them.”

Mateo’s voice was low. “Yup. He’s recruiting an army. Not sure what the point is yet, but… let’s just say it can’t be for anything good.” His words were punctuated by a low growl from Gidget.

“Right.” I nodded slowly while lowering the binoculars to stare off that way unaided. They were barely a speck in the distance. “Which means that this isn’t just about getting that choker. It’s about stopping Lemuel. Whatever that takes.”

Quing spoke up from nearby. “Then we better hurry up, because those trucks that just pulled in are about to pick up his pack. If we don’t get down there right now, they’ll be gone.”

“Stopping Lemuel before he leaves, grabbing the choker,” Shiori intoned with a straight face that twitched just a little as she fought to hold it, “either way, you might say we have to… pick up the pace.”

I didn’t bother fighting the slight snicker that came at that. It was good to smile, at least for a second. Because whatever happened over the next few minutes was bound to be nasty. But it had to be done. Whatever Lemuel was up to, he couldn’t be allowed to send this army of were-creatures out into the world.

At least he wasn’t the only one with an army. On our side, we had Mateo’s pack, a few more werewolves they had pulled into the fight with them, the Wonderland people, the ones from the Atherby clan, and the five of us from Crossroads. It wasn’t nearly as big as the force that Lemuel had pulled together, but it was going to have to do the job. Because right now, right here, there wasn’t anyone else.

This wasn’t going to be a fight like I’d seen before, a skirmish between a few people.

It was going to be a war.  

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