Study And Scrutiny 20-08

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Croc from Eden’s Garden posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

“Have I mentioned,” Doug asked while the two of us jogged down the mostly empty street toward the school, “how weird it is that they’re sending first-year students to check out an active threat? I mean, isn’t it? This guy, if it’s him, he’s killing people. He’s killed people. And they’re trusting a couple first year nobodies to try and deal with it? What—why? Is it just how this Hisao guy does things or what?”

Well, I supposed that actually asking if this was Hisao’s ‘thing’ or a regular Crossroads plan was progress toward the Eden’s Garden substitute’s being accepted. At least Doug didn’t immediately jump to the whole thing being some psychotic plan on the man’s part to kill off some Crossroads students.

“I guess it could be either,” I admitted while shaking my head. “Maybe they think this thing isn’t that much of a threat if we can identify him? And Hisao is right nearby when shit does go down, so it’s not like we’re completely on our own. I guess either way, we’re gonna have to deal with these things eventually, so it’s better if it’s in a semi-controlled environment like this? You know, small town, one clear threat, badass teacher waiting to jump in if we need it. Honestly it could be a lot worse than this.”

I left out the part where I was so used to being randomly jumped by threats that actually weren’t controlled by this point that the thought of how dangerous this would look in the sense of a normal school hadn’t even crossed my mind. But of course, that kind of thing wouldn’t be normal for Douglas.

We reached the parking lot of the combination junior and high school a few minutes later, crossing a small park to approach the back where the football field and track were. There were still a few cars in the parking lot, and we could see a couple guys on the snow-covered field throwing a ball back and forth to each other. Overall, the place looked fairly quiet considering it wasn’t quite five o’clock yet.

“So how do we find the guy’s office?” Doug asked while the two of us stood there staring at the school.

Shrugging, I replied, “I was thinking about that, and I doubt he has an actual office. It’s a small public school, so he’s probably just got a classroom to work in. As for how we find it, if this town wasn’t so small I’d say we ask someone. But, you know, the way it is, they’ll know we don’t belong in there. So they’d probably just call him.”

“And that’d be bad.” Doug frowned. “Wait, Strangers recognize Heretics, right? Shit, does that mean-”

“That if he’s this Aswang guy, our senses won’t ping him until later tonight, but he’ll recognize us immediately?” I finished for him before grimacing. “Yeah, I think so. Safer to work under that assumption, at least. Figure if he sees us, he’ll know what we are immediately. Which means that–”

“We can’t let him see us.” Doug took his turn to finish my sentence, sighing out loud. “That’s just great. I don’t suppose that article had a picture of the damn guy so we don’t go stumbling right into him?”

My head shook. “Nope, sorry. But hang on.” Producing my phone from my pocket, I quickly looked up the school’s website. Even a little place like this had a school website in this day and age, even if it did look like something out of the late nineties. Still, after figuring out the positively archaic website navigation, I managed to get to the teacher directory. And thankfully, that was actually kept up to date.

“Here he is,” I announced, holding the phone out for Doug to see the picture of the slightly balding guy who appeared to be in his late forties. Really, he looked pretty much like the exact image that came into my mind the second I thought of ‘middle-aged junior high science teacher in a small town.’ Which might have been the point, come to think of it. What better way for him to blend in than just like that?

“Right,” Doug nodded slowly, giving me a brief look before continuing. “So now we know what he looks like. Still doesn’t answer the question of how we’re gonna get into his classroom to check it out.”

Considering that for a moment, I smiled slowly. “I’ve got an idea. Hold on a second.” My eyes scanned the area around the school, searching slowly before I spotted the right person. “There she is.” I pointed at a girl that was walking out of the school, heading for a small, beat-up sedan in the corner of the lot.

Blinking blankly at the girl, Doug shook his head after a second of appraisal. “Okay, so who is she?”

Still smiling, I shrugged. “No idea. But she’s about to give me a chance to get inside and find the right office.” As I spoke, I focused on changing my face and hair using the Rakshasa’s face-shifting power. Gradually, I went from looking like myself to looking like the girl who just left. She was about my same size and build, as far as I could tell. Close enough, at least, that a quick in-and-out should be safe.

“Okay,” I announced while zipping my coat closed to hide as much of myself other than my face as possible. “I’ll go find the right room, then tell you what side to come to so I can let you in the window. Just give me your number.” I waved the phone at him to make the point.

Doug looked like he wanted to argue with that, but couldn’t figure out how. In the end, he just gave me the number and added, “Fine, but watch out for that guy. Even with that face change, he’ll probably still figure it out if he sees you.”

Nodding, I plugged the number into my phone before starting to make my way across the lot. It would’ve been better if I could’ve matched my clothes (or at least the coat) to the other girl’s, but this was the best I could do. With any luck whatsoever, considering how few people were around the place, no one would pay any attention to me.

“Erin!” A boy raised a hand and called from one of the hallway lockers the second I stepped inside.

Oh, right. I forgot. My luck seemed to run in the complete opposite direction with this sort of thing.

Coughing, I realized belatedly that my voice wouldn’t match this Erin girl’s either. So I just mumbled a faint greeting while giving him a return wave as I walked past the boy. Please don’t be good friends, I thought to myself. Please, please don’t be good friends. Just let her walk by. Just let her keep going.

Again, my luck meant that he pushed away from his locker and fell into step beside me. “Hey, I thought you were heading home. You know what’ll happen if your mom finds out Jack was there alone again.”

My mouth opened, and then I realized the easiest response. Coughing again, I gestured down before giving the perfect awkward shrug. “Bathroom,” I grunted the word before picking up the pace, speed-walking straight for the labeled restroom up ahead. Girl’s room. He was a boy. Easiest way to lose him.

“Oh, right.” The boy slowed down, giving me a curious look. “Didn’t you just go a few minutes ago?”

Because of course Erin had. Resisting the urge to sigh, I gave a helpless gesture toward my stomach as if to say ‘what can you do?’ before waving. Then I ducked inside the restroom. On my way in, the boy called, “And where’d that coat come from? Erin? Uh, okay then. See you tonight, I gotta go.”

I waited a minute inside the restroom, just to be sure to give the guy enough time to actually leave. Finally, I cracked the door and peeked out. After scanning the hallway and finding it empty, I sighed softly before stepping out. Then I walked down the hall, following the signs to the main office. Not that I wanted anything to do with the office itself, but there was probably something there that I could use.

Sure enough, just outside the main office I saw what I was looking for: a framed map of the school behind a glass cover. It was the sort of thing that most students wouldn’t even notice once they knew the place, but was probably there for guests to figure out where they were going. A quick glance at the map showed where I was, and it didn’t take much more to spot the junior high science classrooms. They weren’t too far away, actually. Just ahead through the cafeteria and then down a hallway to the right.

Moving quicker, I made my way there, passing the cafeteria where only a couple people were sitting with books spread out, apparently studying. Turning down the side hall, I watched the classroom doors, hoping for some other kind of sign of which one was the right one. There were three rooms, but none of them had the guy’s name written outside or anything. And peeking through the windows on the doors just revealed normal science classroom stuff. I saw tables for labs, microscopes, formulas on the white boards, homework assignments, even a partially erased hangman game. But there was no neatly-written note that said, ‘Truman Hyde’s classroom is right here, and by the way, for any Heretics that come looking, check my desk.’

So, without that added hint, I had to make do. Thankfully, it wasn’t hard. More time-consuming than I would’ve liked, but not hard. Looking up and down the hall, I tried the first door. It was locked, so I focused on the Relukun’s power and stepped right through, merging with the wood briefly before separating from it inside the classroom. Granted, it would’ve been easy enough to shove the door open, but this way was quieter and didn’t leave any sign that we’d even been there. Yeah, subtle was better.

It didn’t take long to quickly search the desk at the front of the room. A quick glance at the grade book showed some woman’s name in the margin. Definitely not the guy were looking for, so I moved on.

The second room was a bust as well. Which figured. Finally, after a brief search of the third room, I found what I was looking for. The man’s name was written on a few papers spread out on his desk.

This was it. Moving to the window, I glanced outside and then opened it while hitting the button on my phone to call Doug. It took a minute to direct him around to the right side, but I eventually got him in.

“Guess we spread out,” I announced after he finished clambering into the room. “Look for anything important? We’ve still got a few hours before he turns, if he’s actually the guy we’re looking for.”

Shrugging after giving me a brief, appraising look, Doug muttered, “I’ll check the closet. You can take the desk.” Waving vaguely that way, the boy moved to the back of the room without another word.

Okay then. Still wondering what Douglas’s deal was, I shrugged and walked back to the desk. Tugging the chair out, I sat down and started to work my way through the drawers. Not that I looked that closely other than a quick perusal. This guy, if he was what we were looking for, wasn’t going to leave a signed confession or a map to his secret lair sitting in a drawer where anyone could dig through and find it.

On the other hand, however, there could be a secret compartment or something. And I had the perfect way to figure out if there was. First, I pulled both desk drawers all the way out and set them on one of the tables nearby. Then I quickly pulled everything off the top of the desk, the papers, a framed photograph of some kind of volcano, and a plastic apple, setting all of it out of the way as well.

That done, I moved back to the desk and focused on the skeleblineist’s power. If there were any items still in the desk after I’d removed the drawers and moved everything off the top of it, that would prove there was a secret compartment. Then all I had to do was find it, and I had a plan for that too.

Sure enough, as soon as I focused, the power told me that there were three things still in the desk somewhere. I sensed a pad of paper, a silver coin, and a photograph. I didn’t know what was written on the paper or what the picture was of, but I did know they were there. Which meant they were hidden.

But again, I had an answer for that. And it didn’t involve blindly groping around the desk looking for the right spot. Instead, I put my hands on it while focusing on the wood-merging power again. A moment later, I hopped right into the desk. From there, I just worked my way through it, feeling for open spots that shouldn’t have been there. Which, I supposed, was still sort-of blindly searching in some ways, but it was faster than groping around with my hands for a button or a loose panel, at least.

It only took a few seconds for me to find the hidden compartment in the desk. As I popped out the other side, I traced my path back to the right spot. It was just above the top drawer and a little to the right left, inside the area where the man’s legs would have gone if he was sitting behind the desk. Feeling around there, I knocked against it lightly with my knuckles. Yup, definitely a hollow sound. So that was where the hidden compartment was, but how did I open it? I could just break the damn thing, but there was–

Oh. Right, I was being stupid. Taking a breath, I focused on the wood-merging power one more time. Then I shoved my hand through that spot of the desk and into the open space on the other side. It took effort not to fully merge myself with it, as I felt the pressure building. It was like the wood was trying to suck me in. Blindly, I groped around until my fingers found the pad of paper. Whispering a silent plea to no one in particular, I yanked my hand back out again.

It worked. Just like when I held my weapon while merging with wood (or the clothes on my back), the pad came out with my hand. Without taking the time to look at it, I quickly did the same thing for the coin and the photograph. “Hey, I’ve got something,” I stage-whispered over toward Doug before finally looking at what exactly I had. Focusing on the photograph first, I saw the man in question standing with three others. There was another man, a woman, and a young girl. All four were in front of that same volcano that I’d seen in the other picture, the one that had been on top of the desk. His family, maybe? Except no, the paper had listed him as a single man, a bachelor. So who were these other three? Maybe they were a family and he was a friend? Or a brother. One of the adults could be his sibling.

I didn’t know, and there wasn’t enough information on the photograph to be sure. Turning it over, I saw was a date. The picture had been taken three years earlier. Under that, there was a single word: Remember.

Remember. Remember what, exactly? Confused, I quickly looked at the coin. Sure enough, it was a real silver dollar. On one side, I could see a seated woman holding a stick with something on the end of it in one hand, and a shield in the other. On the shield, the word ‘Liberty’ was written. Under the woman was printed the date of 1836. On the opposite side of the coin, there was an eagle in flight, surrounded by a bunch of stars, with United States Of America – One Dollar written around the outside of it.

A silver coin from the eighteen hundreds. Okay then. But what was it doing hidden away? What was the significance?

Shaking that off, I looked at the pad of paper, hoping to find answers there at least. It was actually a full-sized notebook. As I flipped through it, I found… letters. Deeply personal, emotional letters to… his wife and daughter. They were full of vows about how much he loved them, what he’d do for them, how they were everything to him. It kind of made me feel bad to read, because they were incredibly touching. But why hadn’t he given the letters to them? Why were they all just in the notebook without–

Oh. Oh god. Looking back to the photograph, I realized. The woman and the girl were his after all. They were just… dead. That’s why he didn’t send the letters.

Sure enough, scanning through a bit more of the writing made that clear. He was writing to his dead daughter and wife. But who was the other guy in the picture?

“Okay,” Doug announced while coming out of the closet. “This is really freaking me out.”

When I looked that way in confusion, he held up a leather-bound journal. “There’s all kinds of stuff in here about… us.”

“Us?” I echoed, my eyes widening.

“No, no, not us specifically,” he amended. “I mean us as in Heretics. He’s got the names of both schools, details about that tattoo the Eden’s Garden people have, some stuff about what age we start school at Crossroads, more about how our weapons and stuff work. Even some stuff about the Committee and some group called the Victors, which… I assume has something to do with the Eden people.”

“Stuff about Heretics…” I spoke slowly, looking at the notebook. “And a bunch of letters to his dead wife and daughter. I—oh… oh shit, Doug, I think he’s trying to kill Heretics. I’m pretty sure Heretics killed his wife and daughter and now he’s—I don’t know, out for revenge.”

“Revenge?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Can Strangers even have wives and daughters, let alone want revenge when they die?”

Rather than say the first thing that came to mind at that, I snapped, “Even wild animals care about their own kind, Doug. Yes, I’m pretty sure he can be pissed off that his-that his mate and offspring were killed.”

“No wonder his name was so obvious,” the boy muttered then. “Truman Hyde? It was on purpose.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, looking at the photograph again. “I just wish I knew who this other guy was.”

Moving up beside me, Doug took a look. Then he did a quick double-take. “Wait, I know him. Hold on.” Quickly taking out his phone, he searched for the town’s informational website before bringing it up. “Okay, okay, look. Law enforcement. There it is, Deputy Karl Ulsun. He moved here a year ago. I was looking him up in the library, but he got here too long ago for the murders, so I dismissed him.”

“Moved here a year ago,” I muttered under my breath. “Long enough to make it into the police department and blend in before Heretics showed up looking for the Stranger that was killing people. Because most Heretics that came into town probably wouldn’t go to the library to look up information about murders, they’d–”

“Go to the police station,” Doug finished. “Which is–”

I was already spinning toward the door, digging the alert stone for Hisao out of my pocket. “Right where Russell and Harper went.

“They’re walking into a trap.”

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Mini-Interlude 22 – Croc

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“Uh, here’s your order, sir. Will there be anything else?” The scraggly-haired teenager who held the tray full of three cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, two large drinks, and an order of chicken nuggets stared at his customer with wide eyes. He had to tilt his head back to look the man in the eyes.

“No thanks,” the man named Croc replied easily while taking the tray. “This’ll be just fine.” He gave the boy a nod before turning to walk across the mall food court. The boy’s stare was obvious, as were those of several of the people he passed.

It was nothing new. Born a member of the now-extinct Calusa Native American tribe that lived around what was now Florida, Croc had always stood out. He was an enormous man to begin with, which would have drawn people’s attention anyway. But adding in his Native ancestry drew their eyes even more. And of course, he had more than one reason for standing out from his peers.

He’d come to expect the stares, towering over everyone as he did. Such things had long since stopped bothering him, and he’d learned to differentiate the dangerous ones from those who were just curious. After all, correctly identifying danger was a fairly important skill for someone in his line of work.

Walking to a table on the far end of the food court, one that overlooked the ice skating rink below, he set the tray down and took a seat. Taking a handful of fries, he tossed them in his mouth while giving a slow, casual glance around (people tended to stop staring when he looked at them).

Ugh. The fries were cold. Frowning slightly, he gave a long look toward the counter where he’d bought his food. He could go back, but… Shrugging, the big man simply poured the fries out onto the tray and laid his hand over them. A moment of thought made his palm heat up. After that, it only took a few seconds before he took his hand away and tried another fry. There, warm again. That was better.

He’d worked his way through half the fries and one of his burgers by the time he sensed the approach of the man that he’d been waiting for. Which probably meant that the guy had been watching him the entire time and only just then chose to make his presence known.

“They’re watching you,” Wyatt Rendell announced while pulling the opposite chair out so that he could sit down.

“Chicken nuggets,” Croc replied, “As requested.” He slid the box over to the other man along with the second drink. “And an iced tea. Who’s watching? I suppose you already made sure it’s safe to talk.”

“Of course I did.” Wyatt pointed to the railing that the table was near. About six feet away, Croc could see a rune scribbled on it. Turning the other way, he saw a second rune about six feet in the other direction.

“There are six privacy spells protecting us right now,” Wyatt explained. “Those are two that I’m willing to show you. The others are mine.”

“That’s why you were so specific about where to sit.” Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “How long did you spend setting this spot up before you felt safe enough to meet here?”

Wyatt’s head shook. “Not long. Three hours. I was in a hurry.”

While Croc shook his head in wonder at that, the smaller man opened the box of nuggets. Instead of eating any of them immediately, however, he set a smaller box of toothpicks next to them. One by one, he pushed a toothpick into each of the nuggets and left it there. Gradually, each tiny sliver of wood turned a light blue color. Wyatt watched until each of them changed, then collected the picks before putting one of the nuggets into his mouth.

Poison, Croc realized with amazement. The man was testing to make sure the nuggets hadn’t been poisoned. He did the same with the drink before taking a sip.

“Eleven people watched you walk from the counter to this seat,” Wyatt finally answered after eating another nugget. “Starting from the nearest,” he added while reaching into his pocket to take out a driver’s license. “Jessica Wallace, age twenty-four. Local. Organ donor. The one that–”

Croc coughed. “Wyatt, did you steal that woman’s ID just to check up on her because she was looking at me?”

Scoffing, Wyatt shook his head. “Of course not. These,” he produced a pack of blank driver’s license cards, “are enchanted. All I have to do is get close enough to touch someone, and any license they have will copy itself onto one of these. I copied one from everyone who was watching you and ran them through my usual search protocols. They haven’t tripped anything yet, but you never know.”

Unable to help himself, Croc whistled low. “That’s pretty impressive. But trust me, I’m used to people staring. Kinda hard to blend in when you look like I do. You, on the other hand, no one sees you as a threat. They dismiss you. But they really shouldn’t. Because you… like I said, you’re pretty damn impressive. Which, I suppose, is why I wanted to talk to you again.”

“You’re still trying to convince me to betray my people,” Wyatt retorted, his tone affronted. “I told you when we were at Eden’s Garden, I will not betra–”

Wincing, Croc shook his head. It was true that he’d made the pitch to the other man more than once while he’d been at the Garden. And in the intervening time, he’d only become more impressed from the details he’d been able to pick out about the scrawny, unimpressive-seeming security guard. If Crossroads didn’t understand what they had with this guy, he was damned sure going to pick up their slack. Especially since he—well, Wyatt’s skill with security spells wasn’t the only thing that Croc was interested in.

“No, man, not betray. It’s just… you’d be good with the Unset. We treat our people right, and… and you’re the best security enchanter I’ve ever seen. I don’t want you to betray anyone, Wyatt. I’m not asking you to hurt anyone you work with. I just think you’d fit really well with us. You’re brilliant at this stuff, man. Absolutely brilliant. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve never seen anyone that can do the stuff you do, as easily as you do it.

“And, you know… it’d let you be near your sister.”

Wyatt paused at that. His mouth opened and shut before he shook his head. “But I’d have to leave my other sister and my niece. They need me. I can’t just abandon them. And I won’t abandon Gaia. She stood up for me. She got me this job, I… I owe her.”

Smiling faintly, Croc nodded. “Yeah, from what I hear, Gaia Sinclaire’s pretty good. But what about that Committee? What about Ruthers and his group?”

Meeting his gaze Wyatt announced flatly, “Gabriel Ruthers will pay for his crimes. But I won’t abandon my family to do it.”

“That’s fair.” Croc wanted to push harder. He really thought that Wyatt would be good with the Unset. But the man was right, he had two younger family members at that school. And from what he’d heard, at least one of those family members was really good at finding herself in trouble.

“That’s fair?” Wyatt echoed, frowning with suspicion. “But?”

Croc’s head shook. “But nothing, man. You’re right, the kids need you. The whole reason I want you to join us is because you’re so good at protecting people. If you abandon your niece and sister just like that, what’s the point?” He paused then before adding, “But let me make you this offer.”

“I knew it,” Wyatt retorted, stiffening in his seat. “An offer I can’t refuse, you–”

“Easy,” Croc quietly reassured the man. “I know. I know how easy it is to ruin your trust. I get it. But, that’s not what this is. It’s not a threat. Like I said, an offer.” He pushed on before Wyatt could respond. “If the time comes that you can’t stay there anymore, for whatever reason, you have a place to come. Okay? That’s it. It’s an open offer. We could really use you. Whether it’s after your family graduates and moves on or… anything else. If you can leave or you just… have to. You come to Eden’s Garden and the Unset will take care of you. ”

“An open offer…” Wyatt was clearly chewing that over, searching for the problem with it before he squinted. “I’m not making a promise. I’m not signing anything. I’m not–”

“You don’t have to,” Croc assured him, finishing his last burger. “No promises, no contracts. Just this.” From his pocket, he produced a simple, almost blank card with nothing on it other than the barely visible indent of a robin in flight against a circle with a rose at the bottom.

Taking the card, Wyatt frowned. “What is it? What does it mean? Where is it from? What does it–”

Smiling, Croc shook his head. “It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing. The symbol is completely meaningless. The bird, the circle, the rose, they don’t lead anywhere. But anyone who saw that card would think it did, and they’d waste time trying to work it out. The design is nothing. But if you ever want to reconsider, or you need the Unset, or… anything. You write on that card and I’ll get what you write. And if it’s an emergency, you rip it in half. I’ll come right in.”

“Why?” Wyatt squinted at him, still suspicious. “Why would you give me something like this after I told you I wouldn’t join your side?”

“We’re on the same side,” Croc pointed out lightly. “Protecting people. And—well… Like I said, you’re one of the best security people I’ve ever seen. You’re worth the wait, man. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

It took the man a moment to move again. He was just squinting off into the distance as though trying to work out how to respond to that. In the end, he shoved the card in a pocket and stood up. “I might throw it away.”

Croc nodded then. “That’s your right. You can throw it away, burn it, do whatever you want. Actually, don’t burn it. That’ll probably set off the emergency alert and I’ll come find you. Point is, do whatever you want with it. I’d like you to keep it, just in case. But that’s just me.”

Pausing then, he cleared his throat before nodding to the seat that the man had just stood up from. “You don’t have to leave so fast.”

Wyatt just blinked at him blankly. “Why would I stay any longer? I told you no, you gave me a way to change my mind, and I already ate the nuggets.”

Because I kind of like your company, and I’m still trying to figure out if there’s any chance of you reciprocating that. The thought flashed through the big man’s mind, but he stopped himself from saying it. Skittish as Wyatt was about a simple job offer, expressing any kind of interest in that way would obviously push him too far. “I just thought you might want to sit down for awhile.”

“No.” The other man shook his head, still looking suspicious. “I don’t wait around for them to find me.”

“Them?” Croc echoed, wishing he knew more about this man, and what had happened to make him so suspicious of everyone.

“Anyone who’s looking,” Wyatt explained flatly, his gaze already dubiously studying the people around them. “There’s always someone. I don’t give them that kind of advantage.”

“Fair enough, man.” Croc couldn’t argue with that, as much as he wanted to. He really did enjoy Wyatt’s company, as odd as the man was. And as they’d told the Chambers girl, the Unset weren’t eunuchs. Though in his case, considering the amount of anything even approaching a date he’d been on in the past decade or so meant anything, they might as well be.

“Like I said, you change your mind, you let me know.” He offered his hand for Wyatt to shake. After a brief (for him) pause to skeptically examine the hand, the other man did so. They shook, and the scrawny little Crossroads security guard slipped away.

As Croc watched, the man walked through the crowded food court and moved to the restroom. Rather than going into either of them, however, he stepped into the janitor’s supply closet. The door closed after him. Less than ten seconds later, one of the janitors went to the same door, tugging it open to reveal nothing but mops and cleaning chemicals. Wyatt was gone.

Croc sighed a little, but he hadn’t really expected anything better than that. Hoped, maybe. But honestly, he really would have been incredibly surprised (and probably disappointed) if Wyatt had so easily abandoned his niece and sister. This was just… nice. And the closest thing to a date that he’d had for longer than he cared to admit.

Maybe he’d wait awhile and then see if the other man wanted to get together again. It’d take some doing to make him understand that he didn’t want anything in return, and that it wasn’t a trick or a trap. But… well, if letting Wyatt pick the spot and prepare it for several hours ahead of time just for a fifteen minute meeting was what it took to spend time with the man, then… well, he’d do that.

For a guy like Wyatt Rendell, it was worth the extra effort.

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Study And Scrutiny 20-07

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As it turned out, we couldn’t go visit the town that the Aswang (if we were right) had targeted right away. Not because we weren’t allowed to, of course. Hisao assured us that getting out in the field was kind of the whole point of being a Hunter. Rather, we couldn’t go immediately because the other two, Russell and Harper, also asked to go see the town themselves. Hisao thought we should be on the same footing by all going at the same time, so he set it up for the next evening (Monday) to take the place of our normal Hunter track meeting. That way, no one got an unfair advantage by checking the town first.

That would happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, I had another appointment scheduled with Gaia tonight so that she could work a bit more on getting the anchor spell transferred from me to Vanessa. But that wasn’t for another couple hours, once curfew started up so she could work without being interrupted.

Which meant that, for the moment at least, I had nothing pressing to focus on. Sure, there was figuring out a way to get information out of Namid, continuing to figure out who the traitor at Crossroads could be, dreading what was happening to my mother, worrying about what kind of trouble Dad was getting into with his investigation into Fossor, training to not be completely helpless when that necromancer piece of shit came for me, hoping Roxa and Mateo’s pack (not to mention Namythiet) were all okay and that they’d track down Pace, and probably even more things I wasn’t thinking about at the moment.

Okay, so I had a lot of things to focus on. But in that particular second, my schedule was fairly clear. So I made my way to my dorm room and stepped inside, taking advantage of the moment of downtime.

As I moved into the room, Avalon looked up from her desk. She had homework from Trigonometry spread out over the surface, and The Bee Gees were playing quietly through the computer speakers.

“Oh,” I paused, then reached back to close the door. “Hi.” Blushing. Why was I blushing so much already? Nothing happened. I’d been in the room with Avalon before throughout the entire last semester. So why did it suddenly feel somewhat… awkward to be alone with her? Was it just because–

“It feels awkward because of what we talked about before,” the other girl interrupted my line of thought while also simultaneously confirming it. “We brought it into the open, so now it feels strange.”

“It felt strange already,” I pointed out before coughing as my head bobbed up and down. “But yeah.”

Avalon considered that for a moment before dropping her pencil on the desk. With a squeak of the chair, she slid back and rose to her feet. “I guess that means we need a way to make it not awkward th-”

She hadn’t finished the sentence before I crossed the distance between us. I had the briefest glimpse of her eyes widening with surprise before my hands caught her shoulders pulled her down while I leaned up to find her lips with my own. It was my turn to kiss her, damn it. And I wasn’t gonna waste it feeling awkward or strange about the change in our dynamic. I liked Avalon. She liked me. Good enough.

Finally, one of us pulled back. I wasn’t even sure which. All I knew was that I wasn’t kissing her anymore. I was breathing hard, trembling a little while clinging to the taller girl. “Oh,” I managed in a weak voice after a few seconds of panting. “That’s… that’s really nice. That’s—oh, wow. Holy crap.”

For a moment, it seemed like Avalon was too taken aback to respond. Finally, she shifted while pointing out, “You started it.” Despite her attempt to sound as dry as usual, her voice cracked a little.

My blush deepened, but I managed a shrug. “I’m pretty sure you started it. Back when you–” Stopping, I swallowed at the memory while meeting her gaze. “When you kissed me before Christmas break.”

“You were going away,” the other girl replied, her voice plaintive as she stared down at me. “I… I didn’t want you to go away for three weeks before you knew how—I had to let you know. But I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t…” She looked away, eyes downcast for a moment as she fought to find the right words.

“I’m not good at this,” she admitted. “I’m not good at needing people. I’m not good at relying on them. It’s not—it’s not who I am. You know why. I’m sorry, but it’s just—opening up like that, it’s… hard.

“But I need you.” Looking up once more, she stared at me with an expression that was partly intense and partly confused over her own feelings. “I’ve only known you for a few months, Chambers. But when I think about anything happening to you, when I think about what could–” Her voice turned hard, expression darkening as her hands tightened on my shoulders. “I’ll kill them. Anyone that hurts you.”

“Valley,” I murmured, shivering a little at her declaration. “You’re so…” Pausing, I swallowed while glancing down. Face flushing, I quickly looked back up (okay, maybe not that quickly). “You’re beautiful. Fuck it, you’re hot. You’re so hot. Why would you be… why would you be interested in me?”

Blinking at me, Avalon opened her mouth and then shut it. “You—you’re…” She shook her head. “You must be kidding.” Staring at me for another moment, she slowly frowned. “You’re not kidding. Chamber—Felicity, you’re…” Pausing, she breathed out long and slow. “Felicity, believe me, you are… look, you’re not exactly hideous yourself. You look… God, how do I put it? Yeah, I’m hot. I know. I work for it. I want to be… unapproachable. I’d rather people dream about me than talk to me. It’s easier. But you—Felicity, you’re intense. You’re smart, you’re funny, you know how to talk to people, and you look… trust me, you’re attractive. You’re more casual. I hate the term, but you’re the girl next door. I look like I just stepped out of a perverted magazine. But you—you’re the cute, smart detective or reporter that they can actually talk to. You’re… you’re real. Just a jeans and a hoody and you are…”

Avalon trailed off, head shaking again while she fought to find the right words. Finally, she reached out to put both hands on my face gently, her touch almost electric. “I like you. Shiori likes you. Okay?”

Swallowing, I slowly nodded. My voice wouldn’t work through the lump in my throat. It was all I could do not to latch onto her. I wanted to hold her, wanted to touch her, wanted to kiss her again, more, forever. I wanted to say the right thing, but I had no idea what that was. “Valley, I–” The words choked their way out through my throat while my eyes suddenly filled with tears. “Everyone always leaves.”

A noise of denial escaped the other girl before her arms wrapped around me tightly. I was pressed against her, smelling her incredible, peach-scented hair. “No,” she managed. “I won’t. I won’t leave.”

For a few long seconds, we just stood there like that. I closed my eyes, taking in the sensation before quietly whispering, “Do you have any idea how many people in this school would literally kill to be where I am?” To emphasize my point, I hugged the girl a little tighter while giving her a sly wink.

There it was. I was rewarded by seeing Avalon actually blush noticeably. “You are such a dork.”

Biting my lip then, I shifted my weight a little. I meant my next words to come out teasingly, but there was a seriousness to them instead, a need that surpassed that single moment. “Can I be your dork?”

If she actually said anything in response to that plea, I didn’t hear the words. All I knew was that her lips were on mine. She was kissing me again, and I felt my legs literally give out from under me. I would’ve fallen, but the other girl held me up. Her arms, wrapped tightly around my back, kept me up close against her as she drove every coherent thought and worry completely out of my mind.

Somehow, I wasn’t even sure on the specifics, we ended up lying on Avalon’s bed together. We were both facing the wall. My head was nestled against her shoulder, and she was petting my stomach softly with one hand while her other hand was clasped tightly with one of mine. Meanwhile, my free hand was reaching up and back to gently stroke that beautiful, dark, wonderfully luxurious hair. I felt… safe.

Lazily, contentedly, I glanced over my shoulder at the other girl. “Mmm… Valley, you really need to get some sleep. And I need to go see Gaia. She’ll wonder where I am if I make her wait much longer.”

Smiling faintly at that, Avalon squeezed my hand. “I really don’t think she’ll wonder,” she pointed out dryly before giving me a light, yet tender kiss that lasted only for a second. “She’s pretty perceptive.”

Face reddening, I squirmed a bit. “So I get to be the one to face her? She’s gonna see right through me.”

It was her turn to wink at me. “And you did just say that you should hurry up and get there. I mean–” She adopted a scandalized expression for a moment. “Imagine if she comes in here looking for you.”

“Oh my God.” Flushing even more, I started to sit up. Before I could right myself fully, however, Avalon pulled me down into another kiss. It lingered both for too long and not nearly long enough. Finally, I managed to extricate myself. Standing up, I stared down at the other girl for a few seconds. “Valley,” I spoke quietly, “you know that thing you said about being there for me, about not leaving?”

She nodded silently, and I went on. “That goes for me too. Whatever you need, I’ll be there.”

“Felicity–” When she said my name, Avalon’s voice cracked a little. She shivered, sitting up in bed. “Go,” she pleaded. “You should go now. Because if you don’t, Gaia really will have to come find you.”

Smiling to myself, I went.

******

“And if anything happens, what do you do?” As laid back as he normally was, Hisao’s voice was serious as he walked alongside Douglas, Russell, Harper, and me the next afternoon right after classes had ended. The five of us were off the island, strolling through a field just outside of Belsen, Kansas, the town where (at least Doug and I thought) the Aswang had been. We were going to be left to look into the situation and try to confirm what happened (and how to kill the thing that did it), but not without a reminder of the rules.

“We call you,” I answered along with the other three, our words an identical chorus that filled the air.

“I’ll be nearby,” the man confirmed. “So if anything, I mean anything pops up, you let me know. I–” He paused then before stepping out in front of us. Dressed in gray jeans and a black turtleneck, he gave all of us a long, silent look. “No games, okay, you four? I know some of you don’t trust me. You don’t know why I agreed to teach you. You think there’s some kind of angle. But this isn’t a game. Not out here. If something happens, you touch those alert stones I gave you. Crossroads or Eden’s Garden, when you’re facing something bad out there, it doesn’t matter. We work together. You all got that?”

That time, our confirmations were a little more staggered. I nodded my own head quickly, not bothering to mention that if anything did happen, Wyatt would probably beat him to wherever I was.

I’d asked Gaia the night before how she felt about me going out in the field again when things tended to… well, go wrong, to put it nicely. She’d told me that as much as she wanted to lock me up in a box until I turned at least thirty, that wasn’t possible. If I was going to get through what Fossor had in mind, I had to get out there. I had to fight, and I had to kill monsters. It was the only way I’d be able to get enough experience, enough power to be able to survive, let alone win. I had to keep going out.

On the other hand, she also made me promise not to leap into any danger that I didn’t have to, and to let Hisao know everything that happened. She said I could trust him as much as I trusted Professor Dare.

After extracting a few more promises about being careful and calling in when and if we found anything, the man let us go.

“Oh, my God, you guys,” Harper perkily announced as we walked. Well, we walked. She skipped. “Isn’t this great?!” She turned, somehow managing to skip backwards (don’t ask me). “I mean, not the evil monster killing people thing. That sucks. But we get to be out here! How cool is this?” Her bubblegum pink pigtails bounced with her movement as the girl’s bright smile spread over her face and seemed to light up the area around her. “Tracking down evil monsters, helping people, it’s awesome!

Before any of us could answer, she reached into her coat pockets (it was Kansas in January, after all) with both hands. “Here, take one, you guys!” As she spoke, the sunny girl produced a chocolate muffin in each hand, holding them out to Doug and me while beaming proudly. “I made them myself! I mean, I had to use the oven in Professor Nimbles’s apartment because Chef Escalan would probably stab me if I got anywhere near his kitchen, but still! They’re yummy, I promise.”

I’d already known the muffins were in her coat pockets, thanks to the power from the skeleblineists. And they weren’t the only treat in there. My power picked up two more muffins, a half-eaten bag of Skittles, and a package of Jolly Ranchers. She had some deep pockets in that coat. Still, I was kind of surprised that she was sharing so readily.

Holding them out to us, the girl paused before her face gave a slightly unnatural (for her) frown. “Oh. Wait. You probably think I put like— some kind of sleep drug or something in them or something just so Russell and me could win while you’re conked out and snoring. And even if you weren’t, you’re thinking that now. But I didn’t. I swear. I’ll sign something if you want. ‘Russell and I automatically lose if I did anything weird to the muffins. Signed, Harper Hayes.’ I wouldn’t do that. I pinkie promise times a thousand. Times a million and sealed with twinkle stars. I don’t wanna win that. I don’t care who wins, cuz we’re on the same side. Helping people. And they’re the real winners. I mean, the ones that aren’t dead. Should I stop talking?”

My mouth opened and shut as I slowly processed all that. Meanwhile, Douglas asked, “Do you ever?”

If she was offended by the question, Harper didn’t show it. Instead, she beamed brighter. “Not usually!”

Snorting despite myself, I took one of the muffins and made a show of taking a big bite of it. “Thanks, Harper. Mmm, wow, you really do know how to bake. But what about Russell?” I nodded to the boy.

“Ta-da!” With that, the other girl produced the other two muffins that I’d sensed. She held one out to her partner before taking a big bite out of her own. Mouth full of chocolate treat, she messily announced, “You’re right, I’m a great baker!” She then proceeded to nom her way through the entire thing in short order.

We walked further, finally entering the town itself while finishing the (legitimately delicious) muffins. It wasn’t a big place, to say the least. There was only one high school, and it served seventh through twelfth grades, with the younger students on one side of the building and the older students on the other. Even then, there was only a reported school population of about six hundred or so.

Beyond that, the main street held almost everything of interest. As we made our way in, I nodded to the two story building just across the road. “Library,” I announced. “That’s our stop. For now anyway.”

“Oh,” Russell coughed, glancing to his partner before gesturing further down. “Well, we’re headed for the police station. So uhh, good luck, I guess. Help figure out what those monsters are, huh?”

Giving the other two a thumbs up, I split off from them along with Douglas. The two of us continued across the street and up to the library. On the way in, we passed a curious but helpful old woman who pointed us to where they stored the town newspapers going back a year. If we ended up needing anything older than that, she politely informed us, she’d show us how to work the microfiche machine.

Thankfully, unless we were way off, recent newspapers would be fine. After all, the murders had only recently started happening. Which implied that the thing responsible had just moved into town.

Taking a stack of newspapers from the same week that the first murder happened, I handed them to Douglas. Then I took a stack from the week before that. “Remember, look for any reports of children dying from being sick, and any articles about someone who just moved to town. This place is pretty small, so new people would probably generate at least a small mention.”

Giving me a long look, the boy took the papers before nodding. “Right.” Stepping back, he sank into one of the heavily worn armchairs and started to read.

I did the same, and for a few minutes, we were lost in our silent scanning. Everything was quiet, save for the rustling of the newspapers as we turned the pages.

Eventually, Douglas sat up. “Here–” he started before giving a little shudder. “Think I’ve got it. Four days before the first murder, a five-year-old boy named William Oscars died. The doctor said it was some kind of sudden onset pneumonia, but his parents said he felt fine the day before.”

Nodding slowly, I replied, “Sounds like the Aswang sending back one of those fake kids to replace its lunch to me. And I think I’ve got a candidate for that.” Turning the newspaper around, I showed him. “Truman Hyde. Which is… probably the absolute worst pseudonym for a monster ever. Or possibly the best. True Man… Hyde? It works on a couple different levels, but talk about lack of subtlety.”

“Truman Hyde,” Doug echoed while leaning forward to scan the article. “New eighth-grade science teacher?”

I nodded. “And Belsen’s newest eligible bachelor. Students are too old for him, and he probably wouldn’t pick from his own classes anyway considering the Aswang… preference for keeping a distance between their lives and their victims. But it gets him access to their families.”

Picking himself up, Doug folded up his newspaper. “Okay, so what next?”

Pausing, I thought about it for a minute. “It’s almost four-thirty. He’s probably already home by now. But according to the books back at school, the Aswang don’t change form until about eight or nine. So even if we go find him, he won’t set off the Al–” I coughed. “The alarm of our Stranger Sense.”

“And we can’t just go stabbing him,” Douglas agreed. “He might be innocent.”

“Right.” Standing up, I folded my own newspaper and put it back on the stack. “So we should see if we can search his office at the school. That might tell us more. At least until it gets late enough to see if we’re right.”

“What if we are?” the boy asked quietly. “And he attacks someone while we’re checking him out?”

“Then we’ll stop him,” I answered, turning to head back the way we came.
“That’s our job.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-06

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“I understand that you had a rather important conversation this earlier today with Avalon and Shiori.”

Jumping a bit at the sound of the voice, I blinked up guiltily to see Gaia standing there. I’d been sitting on the bench beside her office door, waiting for her to get back. And apparently, I had been so absorbed with writing in my notebook that I hadn’t even noticed the woman’s approach. Though, to be fair, if she actually wanted to sneak up on me, it really wouldn’t have mattered how much attention I was paying.

“Errr.” Belatedly getting over my surprise at her appearance to notice what she had actually said, I found myself blushing even more. Coughing, I decided the safe response was to ask, “She told you?”

Smiling faintly, the woman gave a slight nod. “Yes, she was surprisingly open about it. Normally I’d have to coax her into opening up, but this time she came straight to me, and talked about how she felt. I suppose she really needed to talk to someone about it. And as you have no doubt noticed, there aren’t really that many people whom Avalon trusts enough to have that sort of emotional conversation with.”

Biting my lip, I nodded slowly. “I guess not. I think she opens up a bit to Scout, but that might be because Scout doesn’t say much.” Hesitating after that, I peeked back at the woman as my own nerves made me ask, “What do you think? A-about what we said and—and all that. Is it weird or… or dumb?”

The look on the red-haired woman’s face softened. “No, Felicity,” she murmured. “It is most certainly not dumb. Being open and honest with the people you care about is a good thing. You didn’t string either of them along, you didn’t make any promises you couldn’t keep. You told them how you felt and you did it before there were any misunderstandings or hurt feelings. That is never dumb, I assure you.”

Her hand reached out to find my shoulder then before she continued. “As for weird… well, you have to look at the lives that we lead. Weird is very much in the eyes of the beholder. What is strange and unsettling for others is what works for you. As you’ve obviously already heard, relationships among Heretics tend to be slightly different from what you are accustomed to among Bystanders. When one’s lifespan varies so significantly and when one is almost always in danger from one direction or another, having multiple romantic liaisons is encouraged more than not. Can you guess why else it would be?”

I paused, thinking about it for a second before straightening. “Because if you’re romantically involved with more than one person, there’s less chance of you completely shutting down forever if you—if you lose one of them. Because there’s others to help prop you up and get you through it. And since there’s so much fighting and killing, losing someone you care about like that is… probably not exactly rare.”

Gaia gave a silent nod, pursing her lips slightly with a thoughtful look before speaking. “No, it is not rare. You…” She paused again, eyes clearly looking at something far in the past. “You learn to live with losing things that you care about and moving on, once you have had an opportunity to grieve. And there are those within the Heretic community who believe that having other companionship helps to move beyond that loss more easily. Others disagree. I don’t believe that Professor Mason has ever been with another person that way since the loss of the twins’ mother.” Pausing, she looked to me. “Of course, there are other reasons beyond potential death for multiple relationships to be encouraged that way.”

Again, I thought about it quietly for a few seconds before making a guess, “I know that Heretics, umm, explore and colonize other worlds. And that probably means there’s a lot more deaths to get a foothold on a new hostile world. So if there’s more than one relationship, there’s… um, more chance of babies?”

“That is one way to look at it, yes,” Gaia confirmed with a slight wince. “Of course, that reasoning is never outright stated. But it is simple enough to see the supposed logic of. More romantic partners, in many ways, equals a higher chance of more children. And beyond that, having multiple romantic partners means that if one dies, the person is more likely to have someone else to continue their line.”

“Wow,” I muttered under my breath while shaking my head, “That’s kinda creepy if you think about it.”

The headmistress started to say something, but stopped abruptly and turned to look down the corridor. A few seconds later, the sound of approaching footsteps finally reached me, just as two figures came into view. Vanessa and Tristan. The two of them were each carrying a glowing blue orb about the size of a baseball. The temporary passes that Gaia had given them so they could come here after curfew.

“Okay, guess I owe you ten bucks,” Tristan remarked casually to his sister. “The office was this way.”

“Uh.” Raising a hand as the two neared us, I asked, “Why would you bet about where something was against someone with a perfect memory that’s been here long enough to already know that much?”

“Particularly,” Gaia added a bit pointedly, “when you have both already been to this office before.”

Grinning cheekily, the blonde boy shrugged. “I had a really good feeling about that other hallway.”

Chuckling, Gaia gestured to her office door then, and like before, it dissolved like a gradually slowing waterfall until the room beyond was revealed. As the wood magically faded away, Tristan leaned closer to me and whispered under his breath, “I swear, that just looks more awesome every time I see it.”

I knew how he felt. Nodding quickly, I followed the twins and Gaia into the office. “So, do you really think you can transfer the anchor spell from me to Vanessa?” I asked tentatively while looking around.

“I have no doubt that such a thing is possible,” Gaia answered simply. “The question that remains is how difficult and time-consuming it will be. Which is what we are here to find out right now.”

She led us into the middle of the enormous room, and I glanced up to see the holographic globe of the world set into the domed ceiling with all the green, yellow, and red flares that popped up randomly. As I watched briefly, a couple of the flares (one red and one green) turned gold and then disappeared.

Inevitably, my attention moved from the holographic ceiling globe to the ‘windows’ at the back of the room. Specifically, to the one window in particular that showed my own neighborhood with our house in plain sight. It was just as late there as it was here, but I could see two figures standing in the backyard. Asenath and her mother. The two of them were watching the sky while apparently chatting.

Right, I’d actually forgotten that Gaia had a view over my house in her office. Maybe I should’ve mentioned that to Asenath at some point, though I wasn’t sure what it would have changed. Maybe if there was a problem, it’d be good if she knew there was a way to get Gaia’s attention? On the other hand, if there was a problem, and Gaia happened to be watching at the time, she’d probably notice.

“What are the lights for?” I found myself asking, mostly to distract myself. When Gaia looked at me, I raised a hand to point up at the colored flares in the globe. “Those. What do the colored flares mean?”

Vanessa nodded quickly, looking relieved that I’d been the one to ask. “I’ve been wondering that too.”

Glancing to the ceiling, Gaia watched the random lights for a moment before answering. “Each of the lights that you see there show a reported or suspected Stranger sighting or event. Green is a non-violent situation, yellow is potentially dangerous, and red is quite threatening. Black would be for someone such as Fossor, a potential world-ending threat. When they fade out on their own, it means that the situation was resolved in some other way, most likely because the threat disappeared. When they turn gold, it means a Heretic killed the Stranger or Strangers involved and resolved the situation that way.”

My mouth opened, but Vanessa beat me to the next question. “There’s lights all over the globe. I thought Crossroads only operated in North and some of South America and most of Western Europe.”

Gaia nodded once. “Yes, for the most part, Crossroads officially claims all of the United States, most countries in Western Europe, and Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela in South America. Those are the areas that we consider ‘ours’, though Eden’s Garden also lays claim to several of the same areas, so it can become rather… tricky diplomatically. For the most part, we often try to work around each other.”

Raising my hand before realizing the absurdity of that, I coughed and just spoke. “Professor Vandel said there’s a different Heretic group that covers Mexico. One that isn’t Crossroads or Eden’s Garden.”

“The Hunahpu and the Xbalanque,” Vanessa put in then, looking to me. “They’re actually one group, named after their founders. Um, it gets kind of involved, but the short version is that in Mayan mythology, these twins named Hun and Vocub Hunahpu were really good ballplayers. They went to the Underworld and ended up being sacrificed by the Lords there. But Hun’s head was put up in a tree and spoke to a woman that came by. Then he—I mean it—the head spat in her hand, which made her pregnant. Honestly, I think the Mayans were kind of confused on the logistics of what makes a baby.”

She shook that off before continuing. “But the point is, she got pregnant and had a new set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Those two grew up to be the big hero twins. Like the Greek’s Heracles. They defeated the Lords of Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld and a lot of other stuff before being turned into the sun and the moon. Their whole story was supposed to show how Mayan people could kill demons themselves, even if only in the afterlife that they didn’t have to be helpless forever. There’s more, but yeah. That’s the myth. The real Hunahpu and Xbalanque were Heretics who fought ancient Strangers and created a group meant to fight them. They’re two sides of the same group. The ones who call themselves Hunahpu focus more on physical fighting and hunting, and the ones that call themselves Xbalanque focus more on magic.”

Chuckling, Gaia nodded. “Very good, Vanessa. Yes, the Hunahpu and Xbalanque claim all of Central America and a sizable portion of Mexico. We do have some relations with them, allowing us to create what are essentially embassies within some of their territory. The same goes for places like Australia, France, and most of the Middle East. We have embassies in those places, even if we don’t claim them.

“In other places, we have no such luxury,” she continued. “Places such as the jungles of Africa are too much of a Stranger stronghold for any Heretic organization to establish more than the slightest foothold in. We lose far too many people simply trying to ensure that the worst threats within those areas stay contained there rather than spreading over the world. Penetrating deep enough to eliminate those threats permanently has proven impossible. They are simply too entrenched and dangerous to risk it.”

Remembering another thing that Vandel had said, I pointed up at the globe. “Like Canada? It’s supposed to be really dangerous to send Heretics in there too. Which is kind of weird, honestly.”

Gaia smiled faintly. “Canada has been claimed by a very powerful Alter. He is not actually malevolent, though you’ll be taught otherwise in your classes. He is proud and reacts to violence in kind. He rules his dominion fairly but decisively, and does not respond well to invasion. He and his people have killed many Heretics who attempt to impose a Crossroads or Eden’s Garden authority in his domain, enough that the Committee and the Victors have elected to leave Canada alone, for the most part.”

Remembering what the entire point of this little sidetrack had been, I asked, “So there’s Crossroads Heretics all over the world, not just in the areas that we say belong to us. Either through embassies, or these little… umm, I guess the best word would be expeditionary forces. That sounds better than invasion, right?”

“Both would be correct,” Gaia confirmed. “Though you should refer to them as expeditions in public.

“I believe, however,” she went on then, “that we have gotten off-track. I’m sure that Vanessa and Tristan would like to sleep at some point tonight. So let’s see what we can do about that anchor spell.”

Tearing my attention away from the hologram, I nodded and let the woman go to work. I still had a lot more questions. Those, at least, were never in short supply. But they could wait. For the moment, the important part was letting Gaia move the anchor spell over to Vanessa instead of me.

Hopefully, that way what had happened to Roxa wouldn’t happen again. Because considering everything that had happened so far, it wasn’t a matter of if I would be unexpectedly teleported to another world again, but when.

******

As it turned out, it was going to take a couple more sessions for Gaia to transfer the anchor spell. Petan and his people had done their best to make sure the spell wouldn’t be erased or negated by the Seosten curse that had left Tristan trapped on the other world. Which meant that, while she could still adjust it, even Gaia was going to have to put more effort into it than she’d expected. Which kinda showed just how powerful Nicholas Petan and his people were, honestly.

Now it was the next day, Sunday. Gaia had asked me to go back in the next night for another round with Tristan and Vanessa, since she didn’t want all of our next couple actual tutoring sessions to be taken up with that. Instead, she wanted to get it all done in a few days and move on. Which I couldn’t blame her for. And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of plans to do during the middle of the night anyway.

At the moment, I was sitting in the library, scribbling in my notebook again while waiting for Doug to show up. The two of us were supposed to work on our little project for Hunter track, so he’d asked me to meet him that afternoon. I just happened to be early enough that I was fully engrossed in my notebook when my item-sense poked me with the realization that someone had just come close enough for it to pick up.

Glancing that way while closing my notebook, I found Doug doing his best to ‘casually’ move close enough to see what was written in it. As I glanced up, he froze before gesturing. “You already start?”

“What?” I blinked, then glanced to the closed notebook before shaking my head. “Oh, no. This isn’t—this is something else.” Shoving the book away in my bag, I turned back to him. “Sorry, I figured I should wait for you. Ready to figure out what this thing is and how to kill it?”

Doug paused then, squinting at me for a second. It looked like he was about to say something else, the suspicion on his face rather obvious. In the end, however, he just gave a faint nod and pulled out a chair across the table from me. “Yeah, let’s get it done before Harper and Virus be—I mean Harper and Russell beat us.”

Taking out the file that Hisao had given us, I set it on the table. “Okay, so here’s what we know. The deaths happened in a small town in Kansas. Barely six thousand people. So far, there’s been four deaths. Three were children, ages nine, seven, and four. The other was an adult woman. But she was pregnant and the… the attack focused on her stomach, killing the fetus. Which means it was still probably focused on the child, not the mother.”

Even as I was speaking, a queasy feeling rose in my stomach that I had to push down. Looking over at Douglas, I added, “The report says it looks like the attacks were done by wild animals. Except for the pregnant mother. They said… they said that one looks like she was stabbed in the stomach by something and then everything inside was…” I blanched, looking away.

“Sucked out,” Doug finished for me, sounding queasy as well. “Like punching a straw into a juice box and—oh fuck.”

It took both of us a few seconds to collect ourselves then. Gross, awful, evil. It was a good reminder that not all Alters were pleasant. There were plenty out there that did need to be stopped. But that would be easier if the Heretics would just work with the Alters who weren’t psychotic evil monsters.

“Hey,” Douglas broke into my drifting thoughts. “You okay with this?”

Shaking a little, I nodded and straightened up. “Yeah, let’s just figure out what this thing is. Okay, so some people reported a noise like a card in bicycle wheels, that uhh, tok tok tok tok sound.”

“Is it a monster masquerading as a little kid with a bike like that?” Doug asked. “Could be how they get close to these kids and the pregnant mother.”

I thought about it, flipping through the file before shaking my head. “I don’t think so. No one reported any strange kid or anything, and the people who said there was the card in the bike wheel sound said they looked and never saw anything.”

Sitting back in his seat, Doug slowly looked out over the rows of books all around us. “I guess we should start looking up things that eat human children, huh?”

Groaning, I picked myself up and tried not to be sick. “Yeah, remind me to tell Hisao just how much I love this assignment.”

So we looked. The two of us hunted through the shelves, taking one book after another with the oh-so pleasant prospect of looking up creatures that ate children. There were a frankly depressing number of options.

“Could it be a Lamia?” Doug asked at one point, looking up from the book he was looking through. “They’re supposed to have a snake body below the waist and they do eat children.”

Biting my lip, I asked, “But what about the sound? What could they do that would make that sound?”

He shrugged and looked through the book some more. “It says they can remove their own eyes and use them to spy on people. That’s… really fucked up.”

“Tell me about it,” I muttered before looking down at my own book again. “Hey, wait, hold on. Listen to this. It’s called an Aswang. They’re a shapeshifter. During the day, they look and act just like normal people. They’re so normal, in fact, that the Stranger-sense can’t pick them up while the sun is out. So during the day, they’re just normal people. They have friends, they interact with their neighbors, they even have jobs.

“But at night, they turn into monsters. They shapeshift into things like bats, dogs, even wild boars. And they eat children and unborn fetuses. They use a long proboscis like a mosquito to shove into the womb of the expectant mother and… and take what they want.”

“Sounds close to me,” Doug agreed. “But what about the sound?”

Picking up the book, I read from a particular part. “The Aswang often make a noise that has been described as ‘tik-tik-tik’, which is louder the further away the Aswang is, and quieter the closer it is. This is done to confuse the intended victims.”

“Tik-tik could be mistaken for tok-tok, I guess,” Douglas murmured, sitting back in his seat. “So if it is an Aswang, it’s probably still there, pretending to live a normal life during the day.”

Nodding slowly, I added, “But the Stranger-sense can’t identify it while the sun’s up. It’s like they’re literally two different beings. At night, the normal figure is replaced with the monster. So how do we identify the right one? Maybe it’s someone connected to the deaths?”

Doug, who had taken the book by that point, shook his head. “Nope, look.” He turned it around and pointed to another part. “The Aswang never hunt their own friends or neighbors. It also says that sometimes when they kill children, they make a magic facsimile that goes back home, appears to get sick, and dies. So we should look and see if there’s other child deaths that weren’t reported because it looked like they just got sick.”

“Right, right,” I agreed, frowning thoughtfully. “So we’ll look that up, and then… how do we figure out who the Aswang is?” Even as I finished talking, I snapped my fingers. “Wait, I know. The deaths just started happening, so we look up who recently moved to the city. There’s only six thousand people, there can’t be that many who recently moved there before the deaths started.”

Doug closed the book then, straightening up. “Okay, well, how do we look all that stuff up? It’s not gonna be in the library here.”

I was already standing, grabbing my bag. “We’ll have to ask Professor Hisao to let us go to the town and look up that stuff in their records.”

“Go… to the town?” Doug echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure,” I confirmed, already walking out of the library. “You didn’t think we were gonna solve this whole thing by sitting in the library, did you?

“We totally have to go sit in a different library to solve it.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-05

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“I wonder if anyone in my life was actually normal.”

It was Saturday afternoon, the day after the first track classes. I was in one of the protective spell practice chambers with Sean and the twins (err, the ones on my team), each of us taking turns practicing a freeze-bomb spell that Carfried had given everyone for homework. Or dormwork. Whatever you called it when you actually lived in the same place as the school. So far, Scout had been the only one of us who actually managed to get the balls from the spell to freeze the target correctly.

As I finished speaking, Sands looked over at me with a frown from where she was carefully inscribing the spellform on her next metal ball, intent on getting it right that time. “What do you mean, normal?”

Shrugging, I worked on my own ball. “I mean Scott and Calvin both turned out to be Alters. Miranda was recruited by Eden’s Garden. My mom was—well, you know. I wonder who else was around while I was growing up that was actually spying on me for Crossroads, or for Prosser, or for anyone else.”

Vulcan made a noise that was half-whine, straightening up to move over so he could bump his nose against my leg. Smiling despite myself, I took a knee and rubbed his snout. “I know, buddy. Some of them were trying to help, or at least trying to make sure things didn’t get worse than they already were.”

Rearing back, Sean activated his ball and threw it to the other end of the small room. As it hit the wall, the ball exploded with a blue mist that seemed to get everything a bit chilly, but didn’t quite freeze.

“Well, shit then,” the boy muttered before reaching into the nearby box to take out another ball so he could start working on the spell again. “Really thought I had it that time.” Looking to me, he added, “I’m pretty sure there’s plenty of people you know that weren’t involved at all, Flick. It’s just that the only reason you have to interact with them anymore are when they get pulled into this stuff, or were connected to it from the start. The ones that aren’t connected at all, you just… won’t hear from.”

“That and I didn’t really get very close to anyone after my mom left,” I admitted. “There was Miranda, and she was my best friend. But I was pretty much focused on her. And when she had to move, it was just… I didn’t go out of my way to make friends. Mostly I just… stayed in the background, I guess.”

Taking my turn, I triggered the spell and threw the ball. It was my third try, and I was pretty confident. Then again, Sean had been pretty confident too and all he’d actually managed was a brief cold mist. So when the ball hit the wall and promptly created a thick sheet of ice about two feet across, I was surprised enough to let out a gleeful squeal. “Hey, I got it that time! High five for the winners, Scout.”

“Hey, hey, no fives until I can five too.” Sands caught her sister’s wrist, sticking her tongue out at me. “Hold your horses, Flick. I’ve got it this time. Then we can all high five together. And laugh at Sean.”

Snickering in spite of myself, I gestured to the nearby wall. “Go for it. The more fives the merrier.”

Sean, for his part, said something obviously pointed in Spanish before addressing Vulcan. “You see what I put up with?” He then watched as the mechanical dog walked to Scout and sat down. “Traitor.”

Sure enough, Sands’ next throw covered more of the wall with ice. Jumping up with her arms raised, she cheered before doing a front handstand. Holding it for a moment, she winked at me from her upside down position before falling back to her feet. “See?” the girl crowed, “Told you I had it that time.”

Giving both girls high fives, I nodded easily. “When you’re right, you’re right. Now it’s Sean’s turn.”

While he was working on the ball (clearly taking extra time because he didn’t want to fail to get it that time), Sands shifted on her feet. “Any luck looking into Avalon’s mother? You know…” She trailed off, obviously trying not to look too giddy or fangirly about the situation. “Heironymus Bosch’s granddaughter or… great granddaughter or… whatever.”

My head shook. “I still think we’re gonna have to go see the place they used to live. I mean, it’s been a long time, but maybe somebody there remembers her mom. Plus there could be records, a paper trail. She was living with Bystanders long enough for Avalon’s dad to meet her and all that, so there should be something to track her. Hopefully it’ll lead somewhere. We just need to find a good time to go.”

After biting my lip thoughtfully for a second, I teased, “You’re still kinda freaking out about that, huh?”

“That my teammate is related to the guy who founded our entire society?” Sands gave me a wide-eyed look before nodding almost frantically. “Uh, yeah, I’m kinda freaking out about that. Just a little bit.”

Scout giggled a little, but she was nodding too. Clearly, both of them thought it was a pretty big deal.

“Maybe you should come too,” I offered. “When we go look into her past, I mean. After all, you guys are the ones who stayed in the Investigation track. You could see something we end up missing.”

Grinning, Sands quickly replied, “You don’t have to ask us twice. Just let us know when you’re going.”

I shrugged at that. “Of course, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious when we head out. Gotta get Gaia’s permission and all that so she can come up with an excuse about why we’re leaving the island.”

Scout leaned up then and whispered something quietly in her sister’s ear. Sands then promptly looked at me before giggling. “Yeah,” she replied with a nod. “If she ever actually talks to them about it.”

Doing a quick double-take, I blurted out loud, “Wait, huh? If who ever talks to who about what?”

Sands just scoffed at me while rolling her eyes. “Oh, I think you know,” she retorted pointedly.

“I think you know exactly what we’re talking about.”

******

“You’ve got another meeting with Gaia tonight, right?” Shiori asked a few hours later as the two of us walked along the beach together. “For your special extra tutoring stuff, I mean.”

“Yeah.” I nodded, looking back out to the water for a moment while feeling myself blush. Which was weird. We weren’t even talking about anything that sensitive, so why was I blushing like that? “But it’s different tonight. Vanessa and Tristan are supposed to be there so Gaia can try to transfer the anchor spell to her. You know, so he can be linked to his actual twin instead of some girl he barely knows.”

“He knows you better than most other students here,” Shiori pointed out before pausing. “He knows me better than most of them too. Which is fair, I guess, since we’re all pretty much in the same boat.”

Somehow, my hand found hers before I knew what it was doing. “It’ll be okay,” I murmured. “For all of you. Trust me. Trust Gaia. She knows how to keep this stuff secret. She’s been doing it for awhile.”

Shiori’s hand squeezed mine before she looked over to the water with a thoughtful murmur. “Speaking of boats, you went out to see your shark buddies, right? Cuz, you know, they probably missed you.”

“Oh, yeah.” I nodded quickly. “Trust me, that’s one of the first things I did when we got back. I used the breathing spell and went as deep as I could with them. They had all kinds of stuff to show me.”

Giggling a little under her breath, Shiori looked up and down the beach, staring back the way we’d come. “Okay,” she announced after a second. “I think we’re far enough away now. You see anybody?”

Looking back that way as well, I shook my head after scanning the whole beach for a minute. “Nope. Looks clear to me. No sign of anyone, including my shadow. Which is a real treat, let me tell you.”

Shiori snickered audibly at that. “You know, you could just ask Doug why he’s so interested in you.”

“I know,” I replied easily. “I could just ask him, but I want to see what he does first. I mean, if he’s…” Pausing, I lowered my voice reflexively despite the fact that we already would’ve been pretty thoroughly screwed if anything we said was overheard. “If he’s possessed or something, I don’t want to tip my hand just like that. And if it’s something like he thinks I’m connected to Roxa’s disappearance-”

“He wouldn’t be wrong about that,” Shiori pointed out with a raised eyebrow. As she spoke, the girl was already taking the container from her hip. Popping the lid off, she set it down and let Choo crawl out. The little lightning-pig sniffed the sand curiously until she dropped a fun-size snickers bar for him.

As the jekern pounced on the candy, I nodded. “Right, he wouldn’t be wrong. But I also can’t answer his questions. It’s not like I can say, ‘hey, your teammate’s okay, but she got turned into a werewolf by a psychopath. Oh, and on a related note, werewolves and every other Stranger aren’t automatically evil.’”

The two of us started walking again, with Choo jogging to keep up. The little pig kept looking both ways, up and down the beach while happily trotting between us with sparks playing around his snout.

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed after a few seconds of walking. “You’re right, you can’t exactly tell him the truth. He probably wouldn’t—umm, you know, take it very well. You think it’s just him, or his whole team?”

Biting my lip, I thought about it for a second. “I dunno. I mean, he’s the really obvious one. But maybe they’re all involved. I can’t see him keeping it a secret if he thinks I know something. I wouldn’t, in his position. But he’s the one that’s always staring at me. And he obviously switched tracks to follow me.”

“He could just think you’re cute and be really weird and shy about actually talking about it,” she pointed out. Immediate after she finished speaking, the girl’s face turned pink and she coughed. “I mean, did he say anything while you guys were working on your—what was that thing again?”

“Identifying a mystery Stranger and working out how to kill it.” I shook my head then. “And no, I mean nothing that wasn’t about that. He said we should work on more of it Sunday–tomorrow. So maybe he’ll bring up Roxa then. Maybe he just wanted to wait until he can get his whole team there.”

“If he asks about Roxa,” Shiori started while looking sidelong at me. “What are you gonna tell him?”

Wincing, I made a confused flailing motion. “I dunno. That’s why I’m waiting to see what he does.”

By that point, we had reached the spot of the beach that led up into Choo’s little hidey-place. As the two of us approached, Avalon straightened up off the log she had been sitting on and turned to face us. She was silent, but Choo went running right up to nuzzle against her foot while making excited noises.

“See?” I announced with a little smile at that sight. “He likes you almost as much as Herbie does.”

Her eyes rolled, but Avalon still reached down to let the jekern clamber into her hands. Picking him up, she failed to totally contain her little smile at his soft cooing. “You asked me to meet you guys out here, Chambers,” the girl reminded me. “So what’s going on? Tell me something bad didn’t happen again.

“Nothing bad happened,” I quickly assured her. “I mean, that I know of. Sure, bad stuff happened somewhere. Bad stuff happens all the time. Especially now that we know about Strangers and all th–”

“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted, eyebrow raised at me curiously. “You’re babbling. More than usual.”

Flushing, I closed my mouth for a second and took a breath to collect myself. I’d thought that this was a good idea. I knew it was something that needed to be done before someone ended up getting hurt. And yet, standing there like that with both of them watching me, I suddenly felt nervous and self-conscious.

“Um. Okay, yeah.” My head bobbed up and down, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I wanted to get both of you out here so we could–” In mid-sentence, I stopped talking and looked up at the sky.

Shiori poked my arm lightly after a moment of that, her expression pensive. “Flick? What’s wrong?”

My head shook quickly as my blush deepened. “Oh, um, nothing. I guess I just sort of expected something dramatic to drop out of the sky right then and interrupt me before I could finish talking.”

They both looked at each other, and I coughed before pushing on. “Okay. No more interruptions, no more excuses, no more… anything but dealing with this.” Biting my lip, I looked between them. Even then, despite what I’d said, there was the temptation to make an excuse and run away. I was… afraid. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being abandoned again, of being left alone after putting myself out there.

Well screw that. I wasn’t going to let that fear define me. I knew why my mother was gone, and it had nothing to do with wanting to abandon me, or not caring. She had been taken away because she cared.

“I like you.” The words blurted their way out of my mouth almost of their own volition, but I kept going. “B-both of you, I mean. Shiori, Avalon, I like you. As friends, but… but more. I like you as more than friends. I like both of you. I know it’s stupid and weird and selfish, but I do. And I… I don’t want to hurt either of you. I think you’re both… hot and smart and funny in your own ways. I think you’re—I know you’re brilliant, you’re both… amazing. You’re the best, and I couldn’t get through any of this stuff without you. And I know it’s stupid. I know. You date one person. That’s the way it works. But every time I think about… about how happy I’d be dating one of you, I think about… hurting the other person. And I can’t—I can’t just… I’m selfish. I’m stupid and selfish and I can’t do it. I can’t hurt either of you. Which is even more stupid because I don’t even know for sure that you both even think about me like that. I mean I’m pretty sure since all that stuff happened, but maybe you don’t and I’m just babbling for no reason and making myself look even more stupid than I already did, which is saying something.”

Shivering a little, I cleared my throat. “I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m not even—I couldn’t even swear that the words are coming out in the right order. The-umm, the point is, I just didn’t want—don’t want to hurt you guys. I don’t want—I don’t want to hug Shiori and make Valley sad if she sees it. I don’t want to kiss Valley and make Shiori… think that I don’t care about her like that. Because I do. I do. I care about both of you, and the last thing I want to do… the last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

Shrugging weakly then, I managed to finish with, “But you guys really don’t feel that way. I just—I figured it should be out in the open before one of us—one of you got hurt. Now we can—we can just deal with it. So, you know, am I being stupid or…”

“You’re not being stupid,” Shiori said quietly. She gave a long sigh before looking at Avalon. “See? I told you she’d bring it up on her own.”

Blinking at that, I looked from Shiori to Avalon. “Wait—wait, you guys talked about this already?”

“Believe it or not,” Avalon started dryly, “we are capable of having a conversation without you, Chambers.”

I was still stammering at that, trying to find the right thing to say, when Shiori spoke up instead. “Avalon came to talk to me after… after you guys kissed.”

My head snapped that way, and I felt my cheeks turn pink. “She—she did?”

Nodding, Shiori spoke quietly. “At first I thought she was… umm… bragging. But she made me listen. She wasn’t bragging, she just… she didn’t want me to be hurt either. Like you. She wanted me to know what happened, and that she cared about you.”

Looking to Avalon then, I swallowed hard. “You… didn’t want Shiori to be hurt. You knew…”

“Of course I knew,” the other girl retorted before giving a little shrug with one shoulder. “And I knew how I’d feel. So I told her.”

“We talked about it,” Shiori put in then. “And we figured we’d wait and see what you wanted to do.”

“Up to a point,” Avalon cut in. “If you waited much longer, I was going to force the issue.”

Coughing, I ran my hands all the way back and down through my hair. “Oh. Um. Right. So… what do we do about it?”

The two of them looked at each other again. After a few seconds of silence, Shiori spoke up. “Well, um, maybe we should get it all out in the open.” She looked to me then. “I like you, Flick. I mean—I knew I liked girls for a long time. And I kinda had a crush on Roxa for awhile. But you—I like you. I think you’re—umm, great. I–” Her head bobbed up and down quickly as she blushed. “Really great.”

Clearing her throat, she looked to the other girl. “Um, your turn.”

Silence reigned for a few long seconds. Silence, that was, save for the sound of Choo cheerfully snuffling against the girl’s hands.

Finally, Avalon breathed out and straightened up to meet my gaze. “Okay, fine. Chambers—Felicity… I… I like you, okay? There, I said it out loud.”

Unable to help myself, I teased, “Are you about to spontaneously combust?”

“You know what?” she half-snapped. “You can–” Stopping herself, she sighed and slumped down a bit. “I’m sorry. I just—this is supposed to be easy, but it’s not.”

I shook my head at that. “I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. Not even in the most normal of circumstances, and… well, let’s be honest, this isn’t.”

The three of us nodded silently to each other for a thoughtful moment before I continued. “So, I like you, and I like you.” I nodded to each of them in turn. “And—well, I guess you like me. And you like me. But you guys don’t…”

Shiori shook her head quickly. “No—I mean sure, she’s hot.” She glanced sidelong to Avalon. “Really hot. But I don’t think about her like that. I don’t mind being friends, and she’s really good with Choo, but… no, I don’t want to like—date her or anything.”

“And I don’t want to date her,” Avalon confirmed. “I’m barely okay with the idea of liking you, Chambers. I’m not adding something else on top of that.”

“Right, right.” I bit my lip. “So… what do we do now? I don’t think it’s—I know it’s not fair that I can’t decide—God, could I be any more selfish? I just—I don’t want to hurt you guys.”

“You’re not asking us to marry you, Chambers,” Avalon pointed out flatly. “Look, I—it’s like I told Porter over there. Heretics aren’t exactly known for being strictly monogamous. They live such… varied and different life spans. Someone could live sixty years and their wife could live five hundred. The point is, they—they have more than one romantic relationship at the same time, all right? Not everyone, but enough that it’s nothing new.”

My mouth opened and shut. “I—you mean date both of you at the same time? How… how does that work?”

“That’s what I said,” Shiori put in, blushing just as much as I was pretty sure I was. “And I’m still not sure exactly how I feel about it.”

Avalon sighed. “Chambers, I don’t know—I don’t know how good of a… of a date I’d be. I really don’t. I… freak out, I pull away, I… I do stupid things. You deserve to be with someone who can—who can be comfortable with all that stuff. But I’m selfish too. You say you’re selfish? So am I. So I don’t want to just let you go. I want to try. I want to… to try. But I want you to be able to do all that stuff that makes me uncomfortable too. So yeah, sometimes you and I can do stuff. And other times you and Porter can do stuff. Other than that… maybe it won’t work out. But at least we gave it a shot.”

“At least we gave it a shot,” I echoed, smiling just a little bit. “Have there ever been more romantic words?”

Her free hand snapped out, punching me in the shoulder, and I yelped in the midst of snickering. “Oww—sorry not sorry.”

Rubbing my shoulder, I smiled a little while looking back and forth at them. “I… guess we could see what happens. And if anyone gets too uncomfortable with it, we just… reevaluate. That’s all I want, is for everyone to… to talk to each other. So what do we call this whole… dating both of you thing?”

“Call it whatever you want,” Avalon answered. “I just—I just want you to be happy, Cha—Felicity. I want to… try. So if you want to, we can… try.”

“Trying sounds good,” I agreed, biting my lip. “I guess this whole thing makes me really lucky, no matter how it turns out. Just—both of you being interested in me, even if it doesn’t work out, it really… it really could do a number on my ego, you know?”

“Oooh, oooh!” Shiori perked up suddenly. “I–”

“Oh God, don’t say it,” Avalon interrupted, hanging her head. “Please don’t say it.”

She said it. Face bright, Shiori cheerfully announced, “I guess some people have amorous feelings, but you get a-more-us feelings.”

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Study and Scrutiny 20-04

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“Where the hell is Katarin?” The question, voiced more like a demand, came from a boy with a long, dour-looking face and light brown hair in a shaggy cut. His nose was a little too big, but other than that, he was the type of average-looking who would actually be quite good if he took better care of himself.

Preston, that was his name. Preston Scofield. I’d never interacted with him directly, but I did remember that he and his roommate were the first two students to be called by their mentor at the start of the year.

Shiori and I had joined the rest of the Hunter track students out on the beach a few moments earlier.

I could see a couple of the Hunter students practicing the Kevlar spell that we’d been working on earlier with Carfried. He’d made sure that everyone in the class could actually cast it before letting us go, and now they were testing it. Not with actual bullets, of course. Even Crossroads wasn’t crazy enough to let their first year students start shooting at each other just to test magic spells, healing or no healing.

Instead, they were chucking small stones at each other as hard as they could. The protective spell would slow the rocks down until it was basically like they were being lightly tossed, doing no real damage.

From what Carfried had said, the spell would only affect projectiles up to a certain size. It wouldn’t slow down any kind of melee weapon like a sword or a bat. Those were too heavy for the spell to affect. And projectiles that were big enough wouldn’t be affected either. Cannonballs, rockets, thrown axes, things like Shiori’s discs, none of that would be stopped by the Kevlar spell. It only worked on little things like bullets. Or, in this case, the rocks that the other students were throwing at each other.

There was no sign of Hisao yet, and even the people who weren’t practicing the spell seemed restless. There was a lot of pacing back and forth and muttering, and pretty much everyone looked agitated. Preston had just happened to be the first one to actually speak louder over the private conversations.

“I got a better question,” a girl announced while folding her arms over her chest. “Why do we get stuck with some psycho hack from that Garden place? Shouldn’t he be, like… locked up or something?”

My mouth opened to say something, but one of the other boys interrupted first. “I heard,” he started in a conspiratorial whisper (because that kind of phrase always preceded something easily verifiable), “that he had to leave Eden’s Garden because he was too psycho even for them. He was like… cutting the skin off Strangers and displaying it and shit. They made him go away because he even creeped them out.”

My mouth was still hanging open while my brain tried to wrap itself around that absurdity when Paul Calburn, the big Kentucky boy from Roxa’s old team, spoke. “Now if that was anywhere close to true, why would Headmistress Sinclaire let him join this place? Y’all think she’d hire someone like that?”

That kicked off a whole new round of arguments as some people insisted that the ridiculous rumors they’d heard (and helped pass around) had to have some kind of merit to them, while others continued to point out that anyone that over-the-top cartoonishly violent wouldn’t have been allowed within a hundred miles of teaching us. And, of course, there were the ones who thought that this was some kind of test that had been dreamed up by Gaia and the Committee. According to that theory, we were supposed to prove our loyalty to Crossroads by refusing to listen to the ‘intruder’ from Eden’s Garden.

Thankfully, there were enough people who insisted that Gaia knew what she was doing and that she wouldn’t have put Hisao in as a teacher if she didn’t trust him. Paul was one of those. I assumed his roommate was too, not that he said anything. Douglas Frey was too focused on the hand-held game he was playing to say much of anything. Actually, I wasn’t even sure he was in the right place at all, since his uniform had the purple trim for Investigation (previously, he’d been in the Development track).

I’d also caught him glancing up at me a couple times, though he wasn’t staring quite as openly as he had been before. Either he was losing interest, or learning to be a bit more subtle. I was guessing the latter.

“He’s gotta be a spy,” another voice announced, sparking off a whole new round of arguments.

“He’s not a spy,” Vanessa’s roommate Erin insisted, shaking her head with disgust. “Come on, be real.”

The voice persisted. “He could be a spy. A handsome, charismatic spy. Like James Bond, only cooler.”

That got everyone to turn that way, only to find Hisao himself leaning casually against a nearby fallen tree with his arms folded lightly. The Asian man was dressed in khaki shorts and a dark green tee shirt that showed his distractingly toned arms. At his feet there was a gray duffel bag lying in the sand.

“Cooler than Bond,” he repeated in a thoughtful tone while everyone stared at him, “and with a more stable girlfriend. I mean, say what you will about variety being the spice of life, but give me someone who actually knows what I like, you know? Or maybe I’m just more into cuddling than that guy is.”

Half the students who had been going on about how bad he had to be started babbling apologies (though whether it was more motivated by genuine embarrassment or fear that he’d punish them somehow was up for debate) while the other half of them simply stared as if convinced that any second he was going to start spouting anti-Crossroads rhetoric and trying to recruit them to Eden’s Garden.

The people who had been defending him (or at least Gaia’s decision to hire him), meanwhile, seemed just as surprised as the rest about his sudden appearance. Save for scattered whispers, there was silence for a few seconds. Finally, Paul stepped forward. “Ah, sir, I’m sure nobody really meant any kinda–”

“It’s okay,” Hisao interrupted. Pushing off the fallen tree to stand up, he continued. “You’d be a bunch of mindless lemmings if you didn’t have questions. And lemmings are terrible Heretics.” Pausing, he amended thoughtfully, “Pretty good games. Especially the first one. Classic. But terrible Heretics.”

Before anyone could figure out what to say to that, he continued. “The point is, questioning things is good. So let’s start with–” In mid-sentence, the man paused, head turning a little to look at Douglas. “I’m still getting used to your system around here, but are you in the right place, uhh… Doug, was it?”

The boy blinked that way, hand reaching up to self-consciously adjust his Rangers cap. “Wha—oh, the uniform. Yeah, I uhh—I was gonna go with Investigation, but I changed my mind. The headmistress said it was okay if I switched since this is the first track class, and I’ll get the right uniform tomorrow.”

Right. I wasn’t stupid or blind. He’d been staring at me for weeks off and on, and now he’d chosen to jump into the same track that I had been in before switching unannounced to my new track. Coincidences obviously happened, but that was just a few too many. What the hell did the guy want? Why was he paying so much attention to me? Was there a… relatively innocent reason like a crush or something (that was enough to make me blush, but at least I could deal with it), or something more sinister? Or had he somehow found out about my connection to Roxa and wanted to know what happened to his old teammate? I couldn’t rule that out. After all, if something happened to someone on my team and I tracked it to him, I’d probably be acting pretty similar to how he was acting now. But if he did suspect something, why? Roxa and I hadn’t even been seen interacting like that. And I was sure no one who actually knew what happened had said anything to him, or he’d probably be more direct.

“Good enough for me,” Hisao replied, stooping to pick up his bag from the sand. “So, questions?”

Erin raised her hand before speaking when the man looked to her. “Why did you agree to come here? I mean, this place and Eden’s Garden aren’t exactly on each other’s Christmas Card lists, you know?”

“You mean that whole bitter rivalry thing where your side is pissed off that they split off from you and stole some of your relics to make their own society, and their side thinks you’re a bunch of stuck-in-the-past fundamentalists who aren’t going to get anywhere until you adapt to the way things have changed?” Hisao asked conversationally, smiling at the flurry of indignant protests that it prompted.

I didn’t miss the fact that he said ‘your side’ and ‘their side’ without actually including himself on either.

“Take away all the bullshit,” the man interrupted once there was enough of a pause in the indignant retorts. “And what is your main purpose? Why does Crossroads exist? What are you trying to do?”

“Kill monsters,” one of the students answered flatly, arms folded over his chest as he stared at the Garden Heretic. “That’s why we’re here. To kill monsters and protect humans. Protect Bystanders.”

Hisao nodded. “Yup. Kill monsters. Take away everything else and that’s why you’re here. That’s why Crossroads is here, and it’s why Eden’s Garden is there. You can disagree on all the specifics that you want. But in the end, both sides want to protect humanity from the things that go bump in the night.”

There was some muttering, and then Preston spoke up. “Fine, but those differences are still there, ya know? Garden and Crossroads don’t get along. Never have. So why would you come here to teach?”

Hisao studied him for a moment, head tilting as he considered the question before replying casually, “Why? Well, to adapt the words of one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, ‘when nine hundred years old you reach, give a shit, you will not.’”

Beside me, Shiori giggled audibly, drawing the attention of several others. There were a few muted chuckles, though most people seemed too worried about appearances to actually laugh at his words.

Finally rolling my eyes, I raised my hand before asking, “You’re really nine hundred years old?”

His response was a wink. “It’d be accurate to say that I’ve been alive for nine hundred years, yeah.”

The man’s exact phrasing with that reply made me wonder just how old he actually was. And how and why he’d gotten involved with Eden’s Garden if he didn’t actually care about any of the political stuff. From everything that I had seen, he seemed alternately amused or annoyed by the whole rivalry between the two schools. So how had a man who clearly didn’t care about group loyalty ended up as one of the oh-so vaunted Vigiles, one of the most important and powerful ranks in Eden’s Garden?

Or had I just answered my own question? After all, Vigiles were independent. They hunted on their own and judged on their own. Their word was law unless their tribal chief or the council of Victors overruled them. So in about ninety percent of Hisao’s actions, he wouldn’t have to listen to anybody else. Anything he did was solely at his own discretion without anyone to report to or ask permission from. That probably explained why he could be the way that he was, and why he’d do so at Eden’s Garden. Because as far as I knew, Crossroads didn’t have an equivalent rank. The Runners were the closest, but they were a lot more structured than that. Tribald didn’t have that kind of blanket autonomy.

“I guess what it comes down to,” Hisao finally announced, “is that I’m here because your headmistress asked me to be. For those of you who disagree with that, take it as a learning experience. You don’t always get to agree with your leader’s decisions. But you do have to obey them. So let’s make this as simple as we can. If you don’t want to work with me, you are free to switch tracks. After all, she let Doug here switch from purple to green, and I’m sure she’ll let you change to something else if you’re so sure it won’t work. But uh,” he paused before shrugging. “I should point out that I’m also teaching your self-defense courses, and that I’m pretty sure she won’t let you transfer out of. Just food for thought.”

“But for now, we’re all here. So to start,” he continued, “How about one of you tell me what the Hunters are supposed to be, in your own words.”

Paul was the first to speak up. “Well, sir, if Investigators are the detectives, Hunters are the SWAT team. The big guns that get called in to deal with Stranger infestations that are worse than just a single creature pulling people into alleys to have a little lunch here and there.”

“Good analogy,” Hisao confirmed with a slight smile. “Someone with a big Hunter background is probably gonna be the type of Heretic who ends up playing cavalry a lot. You spend enough time in this track and people are gonna expect you to be able to pull their butts out of the fire.”

Raising an eyebrow curiously then, he swept his gaze over the four of us before asking, “So, what do you think the most important thing for a Hunter to have? Take away everything else, what do you need?”

“Power,” one of the other students piped up. “You can’t kill things without power. And if they’re strong enough for Hunters to be called in, you need be strong enough to kill the bastards.”

“Well, you do need power,” Hisao agreed before shaking his head. “But it’s not the most important thing. And before you ask, it’s not your weapon either. And it’s not a magic spell. All of that stuff, that’s gonna help. But it’s still not the most important thing.

Thinking for a moment, I raised my hand. “Knowledge? Of their weaknesses.”

Pointing at me, Hisao nodded. “Close. Very close. Yes, knowledge is important. But the most important thing is patience. If you’re going to be a Hunter, you have to be patient. You see these monsters doing bad things, you’ve gotta be patient enough to watch. You wait, and you identify what the monster is. Because if you just run in there without a plan, you’ll get yourself and the people you’re trying to protect killed. It’s all well and good to want to save people. Like we already said, that’s why we’re here. But you get killed because you Leeroy Jenkins’d your way into the situation, and you won’t help anybody. So have your weapon, have your power, have your magic, have all of it. But also make sure you have the patience to examine the situation, figure out how to deal the thing you’re fighting, then involve yourself. Be ready, be smart, and be calm. That’s how you save people.”

After letting that sit in people’s minds for a couple seconds, he straightened up and cleared his throat. “So, to that end, let’s split up for a bit. Those of you who were in this little club last semester, stand over there.” He pointed closer to the water before pointing closer to the jungle. “And those of you who are new this semester, stand over there. We’ll let the old hats do their own thing for a bit.”

Shiori squeezed my hands, whispering ‘good luck’ before heading over to join the rest of the older Hunters, like Paul and Erin. Meanwhile, I made my way close to the trees along with Doug and a couple other people. There weren’t that many of us in the ‘new Hunter’ category. Possibly because people had found out about Hisao taking over the track before signing up for it. Either way, it was me, Doug, and two others, a boy and a girl. Both of them, I remembered from orientation, were Bystander-kin.

Hisao spent a couple minutes talking with the other, larger group. When he finally stepped away from them, they all started jogging off down the beach away from the school, following the water line.

“Just four of you, huh?” the man spoke easily. “All right. I know Flick Chambers there and Doug Frey there. What about you two?” He nodded to the other couple that were standing between Doug and me.

“Uh.” The boy shrugged a little, looking self-conscious. He looked like someone who had gone through an intense punk phase but had grown out of it mentally faster than he had physically, and was now almost embarrassed by his nose ring, dyed bright red hair, and visible tattoos. Actually, I remembered seeing him around the last semester, and from what I could tell, his change in attitude was new since Christmas. “I’m Viru—I mean–” Coughing, he amended with a flush, “Russell. My name’s Russell.”

“I’m Harper,” the girl chirped then. “Harper Hayes.” She couldn’t have looked more different from Russell. Honestly, she looked like a cheerleader who had gotten lost and wandered over to the beach. She wore her hair in pigtails and colored it a bright, bubblegum pink. I had never really interacted with her before, but every time I’d seen her, she had been smiling. As far as I could tell, she was always cheerful. And always trying to help. Plus, she covered her uniform with loud, brightly colored stickers.

“Russell, Harper, Douglas, and Flick,” Hisao announced, going down the line. “Got it. Well, look around. I hope you can all get along, cuz the four of you are probably going to be stuck with each other a lot until you get caught up enough with the others to put you all together.

“And the best way to get started with that,” he continued, “is to play a game.”

“A game?” I echoed.

He nodded. “First, split into pairs. Let’s say, Russell and Harper on one side, Doug and Flick on the other. I’m going to give each pair one of these.” With a flourish, he produced two manila envelopes. “In each of them is an identical report about a Stranger that’s out killing people. Each of your pairs will take your envelope, read the report, and try to write up the best way to deal with that monster. Use your books to figure out what it is. Try to identify it, how to track it, how to kill it. Next time we meet, the pair that has identified the Stranger correctly and come up with the best way of dealing with it will win a little prize.”

“… Roleplaying,” Doug blurted. “You want us to roleplay being Hunters and work out how to fight some kind of monster.”

“Exactly.” Hisao touched two fingers against his head. “Because if you can get the right mindset up here, then you’ll be ready for what happens in the real world.

“So go ahead and take your envelopes, and we’ll see just how smart you guys can be.”

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Study And Scrutiny 20-03

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Please note that there was a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Haiden and Sariel posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you may wish to click the previous chapter button above. 

“Two months!” Professor Carfried’s excitable voice filled the Introduction to Heretical Magic classroom two days later. Friday. Like most schools, Crossroads came back from break with only a couple days of classes to go before the weekend so that students could ease back into the workload.

“For two months,” the man continued while standing in the center of our circle of tables, “you’ve been able to practice the spell that we started back in November. I gave you that extra time because the spell itself is hard to pull off. But by this point, you all should have been able to manage it. So.” Clapping his hands together, he smiled broadly. “How many of you think you’ve got the hang of the Kevlar spell?”

About half the class raised their hands, including me. I’d had plenty of other things to do, of course. But a spell to turn clothes bulletproof was too useful to ignore. Knowing that Carfried was going to bring it up, I spent some of the day before working on it before class today. The first two times, it pretty much fizzled, but after the third, I managed to pull it off. Repeating the success twice more convinced me.

Sitting there with my hand up, I snuck a look toward Avalon. We still hadn’t talked that much over the past couple days. Not about—well, what had happened before the winter break, anyway. I had the feeling that she wanted to talk about it a couple times, but always brought up something else instead.

Yeah, we needed to talk about it. And I needed to talk to Shiori, to both of them. Preferably together, because that was the only fair way to do it. I wanted all of us to be on the same page. Tonight was the first Hunter track meeting. But tomorrow was Saturday. Tomorrow, I’d get them together and talk then.

“Only half of you?” Carfried shook his head with obvious disappointment, looking around at the class. “Are you sure? You can pull it off, right? Just a little spell, not that hard.” He watched with open eagerness and encouragement, gesturing for more people to raise their hands.

However, once a few people gave in to the encouragement and lifted their hands, the man slammed his hand down hard on the nearest table. The resulting bang made everyone jump, as he bellowed, “No!”

Straightening, he strode around the circle, eyes watching all of us as we jolted in our seats and stared at him. “No,” he repeated, a bit quieter but with just as much force. “Do not do that. Never do that. If you don’t think you’re ready for something, don’t let me or anyone else guilt or pressure you into it. This is magic class, not Crocheting 101. Magic. It is dangerous. If you’re not ready, speak up and say so.”

Stopping with his back to where my table was, the man slowly turned in a circle to take all of us in once more before continuing. “That goes for many other things, not just magic. If you’re not ready, speak up. I don’t care if it’s a classmate, an older student, an adult Heretic, or another teacher. If they ask you to do something dangerous and you’re not ready, say something. Your lives are valuable. You are valuable. And there is no shame in saying you’re not ready. There is shame in endangering your lives and the lives of people around you just because you let yourself be pressured into something.”

After letting that sit for a few moments, Carfried spoke again in a much calmer and more gentle voice. “Now, one more time. Which of you are sure that you are ready to try this spell?” He watched as some of our hands returned to the air, smiling faintly that time. “Good. Okay, let’s start with… Rebecca?”

The tiny, dark-haired girl (who at full height still stood a couple inches less than five feet tall) straightened up in her seat while lowering her hand along with the rest of us. “Yes, sir?”

Carfried stepped back to his own table in the very middle of the circle, gesturing. “Come on down here. Don’t worry, I’ll walk through it with you and we’ll see how it goes. Everyone else pay close attention.”

Rebecca hopped out of her seat and squeezed through one of the openings between tables, joining Carfried as the man began to lay out an old army jacket. From a pocket, he produced a black marker identical to the one that Dare had given me before the winter break. “Do you know what this is?”

Her head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir. It’s a field-engraver. It lets you write on things that are hard to write on, or if you don’t want it to be permanent. Once the spell activates, the writing disappears.”

“Correct!” the young teacher grinned, holding it up. “Or, if you turn the part at the top, it will turn the engraver into erase mode, so that you can take off the spell. Or to fix a mistake.” To demonstrate, he put his fingers at the top of the marker. “Twist to the left and it’s in writing mode. Draw any spell you’d like. Twist just a little to the right and it’s in erase mode. It will erase any mark it’s made on anything.

“Now,” he added while holding the field-engraver out to to the small girl. “Would you be so kind, Rebecca, as to draw the Kevlar spell onto this jacket? Do you remember the exact way it goes?”

Taking the engraver, Rebecca hesitated. For a moment, it looked like she was about to go for it, but then she shook her head. “Can I… get the book from my bag and look at it again, sir? Just to be sure.”

Carfried’s smile broadened, and he gestured for her to go ahead. “Yes. Remember, spells are complicated. If you need to look them up just to be sure, don’t hesitate. Most Heretics who use spells carry around cheat sheets of their most-used spells. There’s no shame in being careful with magic.”

Using her notebook, Rebecca etched the design of the spell onto the back of the jacket that Carfried had provided. It took about ten minutes for her to get the whole thing just right and to put enough energy into it. In the end, she put her hands against the spellform and murmured the trigger for the spell. As she finished speaking, the runes that she had drawn briefly glowed bright red before fading entirely.

Carfried thanked her profusely before plucking the jacket off the table. Walking it across the room, he waved for us to get up from our seats and follow as he led the class to the other end of the room.

Glancing toward Sean as we got up, I whispered, “Speaking of this spell, if we run into too many bulletproof things out there, your little buddy’s gonna need some more tricks up his sleeves. Err, paws.”

“Ehh,” Sean replied with a grin while rubbing the top of Vulcan’s head. “Don’t you worry about that. He’s already got special bullets to get around stuff like that. Plus, we’ve got plans. Don’t we, boy?”

Vulcan gave a little woof of agreement before trotting along beside his master as we joined the others.

“Now,” Carfried announced while hanging the jacket on a mannequin that stood there. “Let’s see how well she did, shall we?” As he spoke, the man reached into his own jacket, producing what looked like a simple nine millimeter pistol. “This is a Bystander weapon. I’m sure you’re all familiar with it.” He held it up, turning so that we could all see, before turning back to face the mannequin while taking up a shooting stance. “The only difference with this weapon from anything a Bystander would use,” Carfried explained, “is that I’ve used a spell on the barrel to make it much quieter. Other than that, it will fire with just as much force and destructive capability as an ordinary gun. But, before we go any further, can anyone tell me how this spell is supposed to work? Will the bullets just ricochet off and go shooting into one of you, or any other innocent bystander? Capital b or lower case.”

He nodded toward Vanessa, who shook her head before reciting, “If performed correctly, the so-called Kevlar spell will drain the kinetic energy from the bullets or any other fast moving object that reaches the enchanted item. Essentially, they’ll lose all their momentum and bounce off as if they were just tossed gently. The previous version of the spell did what you said, make the bullets ricochet like, um–”

“Like Superman!” Tristan cut in. “Or Colossus when he’s got his metal skin, or the Thing, or–”

“Yes, thank you, Tristan,” Carfried interrupted with a chuckle. “And thank you, Vanessa. Correct. The old version of the spell simply made things bulletproof by repelling the incoming objects. Unfortunately, that proved to be too dangerous to civilians and other Heretics. So it was updated.”

He asked a couple more questions about the way the spell worked, focusing not just on Vanessa, but on everyone else as well. As young and new at this as he may have been, Carfried was a decent teacher.

Finally, he cleared his throat. “Well, that’s enough talk, don’t you think? Let’s see how this works.”

Taking careful aim, the man fired six shots, one after another. Thanks to the muting spell he’d used, each one sounded more like a handclap than the terrifying bang that would have left us all deafened.

Once he was finished, the man holstered the gun before walking over to the jacket. Once he reached it, Carfried turned to face us while gesturing to the floor. “Would everyone take a close look down here?”

We didn’t have to look that close. All six bullets were lying scattered around the floor at the feet of the mannequin. And as the man tugged the jacket off the dummy, he turned it around to show that there was no damage either to the jacket itself, or to the mannequin. “As you can see, Rebecca performed the spell just right. Anyone shot in the jacket with the spell active would be just fine. Well done, Rebecca. Very well done.” Setting the jacket back in place, he grinned and clapped a couple times encouragingly.

Once that was done, however, the man paused. “Now, of course, this spell won’t last forever. Rebecca here put enough power into it to make it last… oh, probably about ten minutes. Naturally, the longer you work and the more power you put into it, the longer the spell will remain active. But ten minutes should be enough for most normal encounters, so there’s no need to kill yourself by preparing a version that’ll last an entire hour. Just use the trigger spell when when you’re about to get into trouble. Then, of course,” he added, “there are other ways to extend the time of the spell. But we’ll get into those later. For now, let’s split up into groups. If you think you can cast this spell, group up with one or two people who don’t. We’ll have you work together until everyone can pull it off. Then we’ll shoot some more rounds and see just how much metal we can cover the floor with, all right? All right, let’s do it.”

******

Several hours later, as I was walking across the lawn, Shiori caught up with me. “Hey, Flick!” she called happily before lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Did you get to talk to you-know-who yet?”

With a set-up like that, I couldn’t help it. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, Voldemort’s still obsessed with that other magic school. He hasn’t even bothered to return my letters. Can you believe that?”

Rewarding me with a giggle that made me shiver (and reminded me of my promise to myself that I would talk to her and Avalon the next day), Shiori shook her head. “Yeah, he’s a jerk. But the other you-know-who. You know, a certain older student that might know something about a certain ring?”

Chuckling softly, I snapped my fingers. In my pocket, I carefully touched one of the privacy coins. We were alone, but it never hurt to be extra-careful. “Ohhh, you mean Namid. No, I haven’t. Believe it or not, it’s hard to find an excuse to walk up to a third-year and say, ‘oh hey, can I talk to you about an ancient magical artifact that your ancestor might’ve had before your other ancestor, who happens to be on the Committee, betrayed him and got him killed? Oh, but don’t tell her about any of this, kay?’”

“Well, when you put it like that…” Shiori coughed. “How are you gonna talk to her about it?”

Shrugging helplessly, I admitted, “I’m not sure yet. But something’ll come to me. It has to.” Glancing around carefully, I lowered my voice. Yeah, we had the coin, but still. “Roxa needs that necklace, or the ring, or whatever it is now. And Namid’s the only actual lead we have about it besides Pace herself.”

“Yeah…” Shiori murmured, looking down briefly before glancing to me. “If you wanna talk to her together, we can. I mean, at least there’s a slightly better chance of getting her to stand still and listen?”

“I can’t just tell her everything,” I pointed out. “I’ve gotten really lucky so far. I’d rather not push that by expecting a third-year student to suddenly believe everything I say that happens to completely destroy their world-view. Especially when she’s got a great-great-grandmother or whatever on the Committee. I need an excuse to ask her about it. Maybe… an assignment? Hey, maybe we can get Professor Dare to give a project for ancient magic items and I can make up a trail leading to that thing.”

“Do you think Professor Dare would do that?” Shiori asked, head tilting. “And can you make up a believable trail that could lead you to Namid and that ring when there’s nothing in the library about it?”

I thought about it for another moment before nodding. “I’m pretty sure Dare’ll do it if I ask her, as long as I tell her why. She wants to help Roxa too. And it’s not like making an excuse to talk to Namid is that dangerous. You know, compared to other things I could be doing. As for the rest of it… yeah, I’ve got a few ideas. It’ll take time to set up, and I’ll probably need help, but I can make a trail leading to her.”

Shiori’s head bobbed. “If you need help talking to her, I’m there. I could be the muscle to your brains.”

“I think I’ll need your brain too,” I pointed out. “Maybe we can take turns being muscle and brains.”

She gave me a thumbs up, then grinned that familiar Shiori-grin. “Whatever happens, we should take her to the bank when we talk to her. That way, she won’t ignore us and go running off.”

“The bank?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. “How would taking her to a bank make her pay attention?”

“Because it’ll be sure to keep her interest!” Shiori blurted before doubling over on herself, snickering.

It was terrible. And yet somehow, I still giggled. Just hearing the other girl laugh at her own corny joke, as bad as it was, made me want to laugh too.

Finally, I shook my head. “Okay, okay. We’ll see. But now, uhh–” I paused, looking down at my new uniform with its green trim before looking back up to Shiori’s own matching one. “Think you could show me where we’re supposed to meet up for the track class?”

“Oh!” Shiori straightened, glancing to my uniform as if just noticing the color and what it meant. “Right, we’re in the same track now. We–” She paused, glancing to me briefly as if trying to figure out if I’d done that on purpose.

I hadn’t. I’d forgotten that Shiori was in the Hunter track, honestly. But I also wasn’t going to complain.

She shook that off without comment, though her smile did brighten a little. “Yeah, c’mon. I’ll show you.”

As she started to walk, the girl added, “I wonder what Professor Hisao is like.”

“I only met him once,” I admitted, “But from what I saw, he jokes around a lot and doesn’t take much seriously. But, you know, he’s one of their big investigators, so he’s gotta be really good at his job. Oh,” I paused before adding, “And I’m pretty sure he and Professor Dare are… you know.”

Her eyes went wide as she looked at me. “Are you sure?” When I nodded, she smiled broadly. “Oh my god, that is so… so… Dare and Hisao—wow.”

“Yeah, just… don’t say anything,” I coached her. “Dare really doesn’t want it getting out there. You know, because of the whole Crossroads-Garden rivalry thing.”

Shiori mimed locking her lips with a key before tossing it away. Then she giggled. “Still, it is pretty romantic.”

For a few seconds, the two of us stood there and looked at each other. The word ‘romantic’ lay between us, and I felt myself blush before clearing my throat. “We—um, we’re gonna be late for the track if we…”

Visibly shaking herself, Shiori quickly nodded. “Right, yeah. C’mon, we usually meet down on the beach.”

She set off, and after a moment, I followed.

Yeah, I needed to talk to both her and Avalon. We needed to sort this whole thing out before someone ended up getting hurt. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I would deal with it head-on. No more excuses. No more delaying. I was going to talk to Shiori and Avalon.

But tonight, well, tonight it was time to see just how this Hunter track was going to work with Hisao in charge. And how some of the more… loyal Crossroads students would take being taught by a substitute from Eden’s Garden.

I had a feeling it was going to be interesting.

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